Fiction

All Our Secrets

Jennifer Lane

A girl called Gracie.

A small town called Coongahoola with the dark Bagooli River running through it.

The Bleeders — hundreds of ‘Believers’ who set up on the banks of the river, who start to buy up the town and win souls.

The River Children — born in the aftermath of the infamous River Picnic. They begin to go missing, one after another.

Gracie Barrett is the naively savvy spokesperson for her chaotic family (promiscuous dad, angry mum, twins Lucky and Grub, Elijah the River Child and fervent, prayerful Grandma Bett), for the kids who are taken, for the lurking fear that locks down the town and puts everyone under suspicion.

Gracie is funny and kind, bullied and anguished, and her life spirals out of control when she discovers she knows what no one else does: who is responsible for the missing children.

Coongahoola is where hope and fear collide, where tender adolescence is confronted by death, where kindness is a glimmer of light in the dark.

Read the first chapter under ‘Excerpt 2’ below.

All Our Secrets is jaunty, quirky and heart-achingly real.

A compelling read… — Radio NZ National

pulls off two ambitious feats: creating a child narrator who is authentically pre-teen but who can hold adult reader interest, and integrating a well-plotted mystery that keeps tension high and readers guessing. Highly recommended. — NZ Listener

All Our Secrets is available in hard copy at all good bookshops, and here.

 

Done

From every telegraph pole on Main Road, Nigel’s face looked down at us. His brown hair was bleached by the November sun and the sticky-taped ‘Missing’ posters were crinkled and curling. Sometimes, when I was on my own, I’d whisper hello to him. I’d stare into the little grey dots that made up his eyes, as if the harder I looked, the better I’d understand what was behind them. I thought it was sad that he was much more popular now that he was missing, but I knew why. Up there on the telegraph pole, Nigel was elevated to a new status. He was no longer part of our ordinary world.

Done

Done

Chapter 1

The first bad thing happened back when Elijah was five. Some people reckoned it triggered all the terrible things that happened later. But despite what they said, it wasn’t Elijah’s fault. He’s my brother and I know everything about him, even that he was circumcised at nine months (though that’s not much of a secret – the fight Mum and Dad had afterwards was loud enough for the whole of Australia to hear). I know better than anyone that he didn’t mean to kill Sebastian.

It was a hot windy afternoon at the end of the Christmas holidays. Toby from next door was at our house minding the Lothums’ new kitten, Sebastian, while they were at work, and Mum was supposed to be minding Toby and us. One minute Sebastian was sleeping in his shoebox bed, the next he was exploring our rug, and Elijah – oblivious to Sebastian’s escape – was riding along the hall on his tricycle.

Elijah never took things slowly, and tricycle riding was no exception. He’d been born in a Coongahoola hospital record of thirteen minutes – beating Johnny Hall by two minutes – and has been in a hurry ever since. He spoke his first words (‘Mama Bett’ and ‘God’) before he was eight months old and took his first steps at tremendous speed two weeks before his first birthday. Not even skidding off our back veranda and breaking his right leg at the age of three slowed him down. I can still remember the sound of plaster scraping on floorboards as he chased me up and along the hall. It’s only now that I realise he was born fast for a reason: if not for his speed, he’d never have lived to go into Year Five.

But, sadly for everyone (especially Sebastian), on this fateful afternoon Elijah’s speediness worked against him.

‘Here I come!’ He turned his tricycle to face us. ‘The fastest racing driver …’

I sat up. Toby was constructing a Lego tower, frowning in concentration.

‘… in the whole wide world!’ Elijah’s feet were whirring on the pedals. ‘Brrrrrm.’

‘Slow down!’ I said, uneasy about Elijah riding his trike inside. ‘Smash Grandma Bett’s vase, and she— ’

My plea was flattened by the roar of wheels on wood.

Elijah wasn’t the fastest racing car driver in the world, but he was far from slow on his little blue tricycle. I rescued as much of our Lego town as I could, sweeping my arm across the carpet as I dived off the rug and onto a beanbag. Toby grabbed Sebastian’s shoebox bed and leapt into Dad’s chair. That was when he realised the shoebox was empty.

Three cries sounded at once. Elijah’s breathless ‘Champion of the world!’, Toby’s high-pitched ‘Sebastian!’, and the eerily baby-like scream of Sebastian himself as the wheels of Elijah’s bike crushed his tiny body. It was more spine-tingling than a possum’s cry, and it was the first and last sound I ever heard Sebastian make.

Then all I could hear was the dull whirr of the dusty old fan that sat on our TV.

None of us could bear to take a closer look at the corner of Grandma Bett’s rug where Sebastian’s black and white fur blended into the black and grey wool. His scream had been evidence enough of his fate.

‘He’s dead,’ Toby said finally, staring at the wall. Tears slid down his cheeks, his chin quivered and his ears glowed red. This was before any of the murders. Sebastian’s death was our first.

Not even three simultaneous screams had been enough to wake Mum. I found her flat on her back on top of the worn-out green bedspread, one arm flopped over the edge of the bed, an almost-empty glass bottle poking out from under the blankets. She was snoring louder than Grandma Bett snored when she had the flu, and her breath stank like one of the sprays she cleaned the bathroom with. I shook her until her red eyes blinked open and stared at me. Her hair was a tangle of knots and blue eyeliner snaked down her cheek. She didn’t seem shocked when we told her what’d happened. She just mumbled something about Toby going home, and me and Elijah taking Sebastian back to the Lothums’. She wasn’t even worried about how the Lothums would take the news. I wondered, for probably the millionth time, why I couldn’t have a normal mum like my best friend Shelley and everyone else in the world did.

Mrs Lothum was the same age as Mum and Dad and had been made my godmother for accompanying Mum in the ambulance after she nearly gave birth to me in Woolworths. That didn’t mean I liked her though. She worked at the Post Office and had a reputation for being the town’s biggest gossip. She was always talking, telling me things I didn’t really want to hear, and her constant questions – How’s your father? What does your father make of it? Is your father going to be at the blah blah blah – left me feeling like a deflated balloon.

Mr Lothum was watching an old episode of Astro Boy on a tiny black and white TV. I didn’t recognise him at first, with his bare head shining in the lamplight. I’d only ever seen him in his brown cowboy hat. He had a droopy moustache and little dents in his cheeks like cartoon cheese.

Elijah must’ve been nervous because after I gave him a hurry-up elbow in the ribs he spoke even faster than usual: ‘IwasbeingthefastestdriverintheworldandIwasgoingbrrrrrrrrm andhewasontherugnotinhisbedIdidn’tseehimjustheardhis … cry.’

Mrs Lothum got the message, though, because she sat down heavily on the couch and blew her nose so hard it sounded like a cow mooing. Elijah held out the shoebox that’d once been home to a pair of Mr Lothum’s size twelve Blundstone boots, but had since been lined with a flowery tea towel to make the kitten’s bed. Inside it, wrapped in the tea towel, was the tiny squashed body of Sebastian. Mrs Lothum’s arms stayed tightly crossed in front of her, so Elijah carefully placed the box down next to the TV Guide on the coffee table. I happened to glance over at Mr Lothum and saw tears sliding down his bumpy cheeks. Mr Lothum was crying! I didn’t even know that men could cry.   Neither of them walked us to the door and we could still hear Mrs Lothum blowing her nose until after we’d got past the Wilsons’ fence. I was so relieved to be out of their house I agreed to race Elijah home, even though we both knew he’d win.

The whole thing would’ve been forgotten sooner – by us, Toby, the Lothums and the rest of Coongahoola – had it not happened the same week as the screening of a horror movie at the Coongahoola Picture House. In The Omen, a little kid called Damien is riding his tricycle in circles around his nanny when she suddenly falls several stories to her death. Comparisons were made and even people who hadn’t met Elijah started calling him Damien. People also commented on Elijah’s eyes, saying that they were ‘intense’ or ‘piercing’, and, until they grew bored of it, bigger kids would tackle and hold him down, searching for the ‘666’ birthmark under his hair.

Then there were the Baptist church people. They were always looking for something to kick up a fuss about, and that summer, apart from the screening of The Omen, there wasn’t much.

What made things a hundred times worse was that Elijah was one of the ‘River Children’. This was the name given to the group of kids born after the famous celebration of 1974 – the celebration known by those who could say the words as ‘the River Picnic’ (and by those who couldn’t as ‘that night’ or ‘the you know what’).

The River Picnic was one of the biggest events that ever took place in Coongahoola, and even wilder than the street party the night Malcolm Fraser became Prime Minister and old Mr Buckley’s Staffordshire terrier was put down. It was years before I’d hear more than snippets of what went on and I still don’t know all the details. The adults spoke about it in whispers and only when they thought us kids were out of earshot. All I knew for sure, apart from the fact that Stu Bailey’s wife drowned, was that four times more babies than usual were born the following October and not all of them looked like their dads.

Though some kids tried to convince me otherwise, Elijah definitely belonged to our dad. He looked up at me with the same brown eyes, big and round like the eyes of the Andersons’ Jersey cows. Elijah sulked with Dad’s pouty lips, had a suntan even in winter and his brown hair stuck up like the Sydney Opera House no matter how many times Grandma Bett dragged a comb through it. The fact that the Muller twins, Abigail and Sammy, also shared Dad’s Jersey cow eyes was something kids at school teased me about.

Anyway, some people acted like the River Children were cursed or something, and Sebastian’s death didn’t help. When another of the River Children, Tristan Kelly, filled his next-door neighbour’s car muffler with apples, claiming ‘Lucifer made me do it’, Ken Knowles from the Baptist church decided to take action. He said that Elijah and Tristan’s behaviour was attributable to their being River Children and he organised a meeting to decide what to do about this ‘abominable’ group. For all the town knew, Ken warned, all the River Children might have evil tendencies – and where would it stop? ‘A kitten-killer at five – a killer of who-knows-what at ten?’ he said of Elijah. But Grandma Bett helped prevent the meeting, after appealing to the parents of the River Children, who didn’t want their children victimised. That Father Scott’s sermon the Sunday after Sebastian’s death was on the innocence of children was no coincidence, Father Scott being one of Grandma Bett’s closest friends.

As it turned out, it was the River Children who had something to fear, not stupid Ken Knowles and his church. Things got scary for everyone, but the River Children copped the worst of it by far.

Copyright Jenifer Lane 2017                                   

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Twistera mystery set in Dunedin

Jane Woodham

Dunedin, in the grip of an unseasonal flu, is a city under siege. Then, after five damaging days of rain, a twister rips through, exposing the body of a missing schoolgirl in Ross Creek.

Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd is the only one who can lead the investigation despite unresolved sorrow over the disappearance of his own daughter nine years earlier.

Sultry weather broods over the beleaguered city as suspects are sifted and pressure mounts for Leo to solve the crime. Meanwhile, his wife Kate tries to summon the courage to tell him the secrets she’s nursed for too long — including one about the disappearance of their beloved Beth.

 …  (a) most impressive first novel … I was captivated … I guess you could call it a cross between crime fiction and family drama. No matter how you define it, it is a superb piece of writing. Bookman (Graham) Beattie

Hard copy available in good bookshops or from Mākaro Press.

Sample the story below.

Done

Judd walked carefully along one edge of the raised concrete channel towards where a tarpaulin screen had been erected. At one section he had to jump down a couple of feet. Water flowed along the channel and the concrete was slippery with moss. He took his time. He found Cole crouching over the body. Detective Phil Priest, towering over her, looked as if he could keel over at any moment. She shot a sideways look at Judd.
‘You know, Judd, there are times when you could never be mistaken for anything but English.’
Judd raised his umbrella in acknowledgement.
‘But, now that you’ve finally graced us with your presence …’
Judd jammed his umbrella under his left armpit, and reached instinctively into his jacket pocket for the small jar of Vicks. He twisted off the lid and smeared a generous dollop under his nose. ‘I was in Invercargill.’
‘I’ve done you a favour, then.’
He smiled. ‘Something like that.’
Judd concentrated on the girl’s clothes. Priest, not so savvy, looked grey under his summer tan. The girl lay on her back in a beige and orange blouse and light-coloured shorts. Cole was pulling lengths of weed from her face, a face that had once been pretty but was now bloated beyond recognition.
Judd gestured at Priest. ‘Getting everything down?’ Or should he have said ‘keeping’?

Done

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The rain was easing. A breeze cooled her sweaty neck. In the near silence she turned, looking back the way they’d come. A shard of light from behind the hills lit the clouds from beneath, reducing the sea to a strip of turquoise fringed with dazzling white foam. Stars wavered overhead. The air smelled of rusting metal, small creatures scurried along the tideline, and the water inside her socks felt strangely warm.
They would spend the coming night in the hut, sheltered under a steel roof, but this would remain. All night the sea would heave and suck and break, the sand dry to a crumbling crust, crabs scuttle into deep holes, and stars shimmer and sparkle like paparazzi on Oscar night. Only her footprints would fade.
Each entity had a timeline. The stars under which she walked were over a billion years old, the carpet of quartz, feldspar and mica beneath her shoes, a million. She stooped to pick up a shell and ran her fingernail along its ridges. A dozen years old, at the most. Everything was relative. Three score years and ten for an adult, seventeen for a child. Tonight her smallness was reassuring. There had to be a limit, didn’t there, to the damage someone so insignificant could do to the world?

Done

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He was ignoring her. She knew the signs. ‘Leo, what were you doing at McDowell’s house?’
‘What? Oh, the missing girl. Tracey Wenlock. We found her body.’ He glanced over at her.
‘I saw that in the paper. Murder?’
A low flying wood pigeon whooshed by, causing him to duck. They followed its path as it swooped up, bared its breast to the setting sun and plummeted towards the harbour.
‘We’re not sure. The autopsy was inconclusive. We’re just treating it as a homicide. You know the drill: start high, whittle it down.’
She studied him. He was tanned from all his gardening and with the usual high colour on his cheeks looked healthy enough, but the way he was picking at the wine label with his thumb, avoiding her eye, worried her. ‘We? I thought Thompson was heading the enquiry.’
‘He was. But he’s come down with the flu. They’ve passed the case to me.’ He reached for the bottle, went to pour another glass, held the bottle up to the light and shook it.
‘How do you feel about that?’
He raised his eyebrows. For a moment he didn’t answer. ‘I had to inform her parents. Nice couple.’
‘Like us’ hung in the air between them.

Done

Daughters of Messene

Maggie Rainey-Smith

A Mākaro Press publication

Artemis has the name of a goddess, but she has trouble living up to it. Instead she usually just runs away. She’s running now … away from the married man she’s been seeing, and the Greek community in New Zealand who think they know what’s best, and into the arms of family in the Peloponnese that she’s never met. It’s 2007. She carries her mother’s ashes and an iPod with recordings, which bit by bit tell the shocking story of what happened to Artemis’ grandmother during the Greek Civil War, over half a century earlier.

Daughters of Messene is a story of a family of women — those who stayed in that broken but beautiful country, one who went to the ends of the earth to escape what she’d seen, and another who returned not knowing what it was she was looking for. A powerful third novel by Maggie Rainey-Smith.

A strong, fresh novel, dense with closely observed and convincing detail of life in Greece and aspects of its history. Owen Marshall

… in many ways a tender love poem dedicated to a place and its people  … a tale both touching and vivid, the unfolding masterful, and the novel’s heroines, spirited, huge-hearted and tough (in the very best sense).  Vana Manasiadis

It is a long time since I have read a New Zealand novel that has so entranced me … I was captivated, moved, saddened, thrilled and totally enchantedGraham Beattie

… a powerful tale of migration, friendship, ancestry and war. Siobhan Harvey

The Year of Falling

Janis Freegard

A Mākaro Press publication

When the porcelain dolls start turning up on Selina’s doorstep, she knows it’s a bad sign. Shortly afterwards she embarks on an ill-judged affair with a celebrity TV chef. Both events, and the lies and untold truths at their heart, precipitate a spectacular fall from grace for high-flying graphic artist, Selina.

Enter Smith: the sister who saved Selina once before. But this time Smith’s life is complicated by a small boy called Ragnar, and she’s almost too late.

Janis Freegard’s novel is a beguiling urban tale that moves from the hills of Brooklyn, Wellington, to the streets of Iceland via Tākaka. Packed with characters who hold the reader to the page, The year of falling has the strut and gleam of a fairytale while not being afraid of the stuff of flesh and blood that makes people act the way they do. A novel to fall into … but beware, you might find it hard to climb out again.

Richly peopled and companioned by an absorbing plot … a consummate realisation of its author’s prizewinning literary heritage. Siobhan Harvey

The crisp, crackly prose kicks things along. There are nice little leavenings of irony. Freegard controls a substantial cast adroitly, and makes you care about each one … David Hill

Will be enjoyed by followers of:

  • Contemporary NZ fiction
  • Fiction set in Wellington
  • Janis’ poetry

Available in hard copy from Mākaro Press

Done

Then he’s at my side, the man from the bar. ‘I know a place that does excellent cocktails,’ he says. ‘Birthday treat.’
‘Aren’t the bars all closed?’ I’m doing my best to enunciate clearly.
He taps the side of his nose. ‘I know people.’ I think about Tim for a second or two. Then I follow the beautiful stranger into the night.
Outside he puts his arm around me and I lean into his shoulder. I ask his name.
‘Guess.’ I try to focus on his face. ‘Thor,’ I decide. He really is breathtakingly good-looking. Even more so when
he smiles. ‘God of Thunder. Why not?’ ‘And for tonight I’m Freya,’ I tell him. ‘I get to choose half the
slain warriors from the battlefields.’ Why shouldn’t I be the Norse Goddess of Love?
Perhaps he’s a birthday gift. Someone the Fates have sent me, to celebrate with. One more year before I’m thirty. I’m still young. I still have – possibilities.
Thor takes Freya to a small, emptied bar at the end of a corridor where the bartender greets him enthusiastically and proceeds to make them a teapot cocktail that he pours into delicate china cups. It tastes of summer. Thor leans across the table to move a strand of Freya’s hair out of her eyes. Something starts to build inside her, some sort of need. When Thor’s friend finally tells them it’s time to go, god and goddess spill into the alleyway outside the bar. The first rays of dawn are pushing into the night. Freya invites Thor home, but he says something about cooking in the morning. ‘Besides,’ he tells her, ‘I can’t wait that long.’

Done

Albatrossthree stories

Carolyn McCurdie

Albatross: An elderly woman with spiked-up hair and a suicidal bent heads out to sea in her tiny boat; Evan Brody supposes he’d better go and save her.

Collision: Chrissie finds a noisy city apartment the unlikely venue for tender realisations about her partner and his contrary father.

Wings of Stone: Dell Donovan buys a house on the edge of town, trying to make peace with her past, her children, and the uneasy present in which a ghostly figure is nightly tearing up the garden.

Carolyn McCurdie writes with a poet’s lightness, a novelist’s grit and realism, and psychological astuteness that comes across as real life speaking, in tones fresh and subtle and true.

In three small human collisions that serve to challenge assumptions, Carolyn compassionately examines discomfort and how people grope their way through it, looking for what makes sense and finding (if they’re lucky) the something true about the other person, and so about themselves.

Three stories: three explorations of love.

Done

The weather office had issued storm warnings, and if you didn’t hear them, the bush telegraph passed them on. All the talk in the hairdresser’s and at the grocery checkout was about the weather, and the butcher and the hardware shop owners closed their doors early. No customers. And that was a blessing, because at home there was a sheet of loose iron that needed a nail, and the sweet peas had to be tied to the trellis. Afternoon bustle trickled away, leaving streets empty. The air grew heavy with waiting.

Evan Brody was down on his boat, giving his mooring a last-minute check. His hands lingered on rope, on wood, as he enjoyed that sense of being ready, of readiness about to be tested. His cell phone interrupted.

‘Is that the constable? I think you should know that Miss Flockton’s about to commit suicide. She’s alone in a tiny boat and heading into the Pacific Ocean.’

Evan sighed. Why is it always me?

Then another call. ‘Evan? Evan, it’s that Flockton woman. She’s putting out to sea. I’ve got the binoculars on her now. Just out from you. Can you head her off? She’ll never come back alive.’

‘Right, mate,’ he said. ‘I’m onto it.’

Again, the phone. ‘Mate, I know it’s your week off, but Ina Flockton’s just lost her marbles.’

So his motor roared like a walrus with toothache. He enjoyed the bad temper of it. As he headed out of the bay, he thought of the Friday night crowd at the boat club and the stool at the bar that should be his. Everyone’d be there for the rugby on the big screen; there’d be so much noise, so much beer, jostling, jokes and argument. Where would he be? Somewhere cold and wet was a good bet. Sylvie and the kids were right: he should have retired years ago. Except then they’d have to shift, or the phone calls would just keep coming. She’d hate it. Either way. So you had to laugh, thought Evan.

Done

The Desert Roada novella

Lynn Davidson

Returning home for the first time in eight years, Tess hears the house nibbling and ticking around her as it used to; she takes in the familiar iron and dirt smell of the cold here in Turangi where she grew up, her Italian father a tunneller with the Tongariro Power Development.

Familiar, too, is the wariness between her parents and sisters concerning the event that has lain undiscussed between them for decades.

Kindled memory peels back time, to the days of crackling pumice roads and a makeshift kitchen at the mouth of the Tokaanu tunnel — and to the pivotal moment — before Tess left to pursue her musical career in London, before Maria lost the love of her life, before Jeanie, still a child, fled to be with Finn.

With its penetrating narrative eye and finely honed prose, Lynn Davidson’s story gathers to a shocking — then a tender — denouement.

…written with a poet’s eye for detail and image [and] attentive to the power of silence. Charles Dawson, co-founder, Association for the study of literature, environment & culture, Australia and New Zealand

Praise for The Desert Road:

Davidson’s novella is written with a poet’s eye for detail and  image; it is also attentive to the power of silence. As its title suggests, The Desert Road evokes New Zealand’s Central North Island, its lingering purplish dusks, and the ways the area, and the protagonist’s life, was altered forever through the construction of a massive hydroelectricity scheme in the 1960s and ’70s. Alive to the life of the hydro-workforce (including its temporary Italian community), the novella  revisits an area familiar to many New Zealanders. Lyrical, haunting and evocative, The Desert Road attends to a place and a time in a way that will resonate with many readers. Charles Dawson, co-founder, Association for the study of literature, environment & culture, Australia and New Zealand

Done

We park by the house and climb out of the car to see Jeanie, on horseback, trotting up the drive to meet us. It seems orchestrated. She dismounts and we glance at each other and kind of laugh, for want of anything sensible to say. Jeanie points due northeast and says, ‘We’re in direct line of Rangipo prison. On a quiet night we can hear them making pencil cases out of matchsticks.’ Again we laugh, and weirdly enough the ice has been broken. Jeanie dismounts and starts to unsaddle the horse. She looks thinner, lean and hard. We don’t hug, but if we did I think she would feel hard. The soft lines, the way she looked like Mum, that’s gone.

It’s so exposing, this climate, and this view. I remember that cracked-open feeling when the sharp-edged mountains cut another day out of a soft, black night. My heart thumps and thumps and I think my sisters must be able to hear it. I feel Maria’s hand on my arm. I stand in the middle of Jeanie’s driveway trying not to breathe this thing that absorbs colour; the sky and rivers leeched and grey as a piece of old towel.

Inside it is dim, but dry and cosy. There’s little decoration, but comfort has been considered and attended to. And somehow, as Jeanie makes coffee and we start to talk, we seem like ourselves again. What was empty fills up: my arms, my legs, my hands, my shoulders.

Done

The Sirena novella

Aaron Blaker

Summer. A relentless rain falls — on the houses, on the cemetery, on the rotting boards of the pier.

Hector arrives in a small East Coast town along with the millennial rains. He is captivated by the elemental beauty of the swimmer Marama, the community’s own Pania of the reef. Alongside his obsession grows disgust at the squalid violence of daily life around him.

Ten years later, Eric and his daughter wash up in the township. Eric needs to know what happened to his brother, but the community, unnerved by his resemblance to that other stranger, wants to leave the past submerged.

A finely calibrated story — deeply humane, and darkly uneasy.

Aaron Blaker’s tale… introduces an individual voice… an emerging talent. Owen Marshal, in his introduction to Best NZ Fiction.

Aaron talks about The Siren.

Aaron’s website

The Happiest Music on Earththree stories

Sue Wootton

Earle wants ‘more than anything in the whole entire universe to ride a roller coaster’ at the A&P show. At the same time he wants not to do the compulsive thing that takes him close, though never quite close enough, to bliss. Casting shadows over Earle’s hopes and fears are his father, Lloyd, and the man in the car that pulls up alongside, offering tickets for the show.

Margaretha dreads the ‘sweet zephyrs’ of spring that lure maids from the house where her husband labours over his ‘vats of stinking hell’ — seeking gold in urine. The new maid Hilda — ‘hot Hilda!’ — besides being a boon in a wintry bed harbours alchemical secrets of her own.

Lily’s mother sees shapeliness waiting to emerge from raggedy rosebushes, and from a gangly half-grown daughter. But a Saturday morning death and its awkward, bruising aftermath threaten the lovely forms.

Three stories that demonstrate the author’s verve and versatility, her keen eye and attentive ear.

Sue talks about The Happiest Music on Earth.

Amigasa novel written in Spanish and English in Argentina and New Zealand

Elena Bossi & Penelope Todd

When Elena Bossi and Penelope Todd met in Iowa 2007, their default language was laughter. Penelope’s Spanish was paltry; Elena’s English was picturesque. Nevertheless, on parting, to sustain their friendship, they agreed to write a novel together in alternate chapters (and letters), each in her own country and language. In 2009, they met in Argentina to polish the translations of their story. Amigas presents both English and Spanish versions in one edition.

2009: in Argentina, a woman prepares to travel to Italy for a funeral. In New Zealand, two friends discuss art, loss, and how to accept life as it plays out.

1969: a girl from New Zealand and another from Argentina are stranded in the airport in Rome. A friendship is forged and they exchange letters for a decade, until events take a sinister turn during Argentina’s ‘dirty war’.

2009: again in the airport in Rome, cancelled flights throw together two women whose lives have intersected in unexpected ways.
The hidden threads of these friendships are drawn deftly together.

Amigas is a story of female friendships, how they are forged, how they endure across time and geography, how they stimulate and sustain.

The prose is cogent, clear and often shot through with silken lyricism. There is resonant, evocative work here that leaves a long emotional contrail in the reader. Emma Neale

Done

Amigas can be read in various ways, by starting with Jude and Claudia meeting in Rome in 1969, or beginning in current time, as we have done, with ‘Albatross’ in the English version, or ‘Out there talking to no one’ in the Spanish. Below is an excerpt from the start of each chapter.

Albatross

‘Mum, what are these?’

She startled me; I’d forgotten Kimber had stayed the night, and for a moment my pen halted over the list as my mind raced — but she was twenty-four now. She’d not be clutching tampons, or framing a diaphragm box between small hands as if it might contain chocolates. I pushed my chair away from the desk.

‘Letters,’ she said. ‘Are they love letters?’ Kimber, still in her pyjamas, held out an open green shoebox containing three bundles, each tied with the regulation navy ribbon of my high school.

‘I suppose they are, in a way. In fact, I think these…’ I lifted out the slimmest package, ‘Ha, yes, look, I even labelled them: Letters from Boys. I don’t know if they’re fit for your eyes. And these are from various friends.’

I took the third package and held it to my heart, which thudded beneath it. I told Kimber she could look at the Letters from Boys. I needed her to be absorbed while I took Claudia’s letters out to the sunny front porch and dropped with them onto the step. For a while I simply sat there, cradling the bundle, acknowledging the amalgam of sweet and bitter, of humour, courage and pain, that was written into them, and that they evoked in me. I worked the ribbon loose.

After a decent interval (whatever she had found in Letters from Boys, I knew they bore only a fragment of the emotional stuff contained within the scoop of my skirt) Kimber brought coffee out and sat with her long thigh pressed to my shorter one. Seeing my state, she went back inside.

‘Tissues.’ She put the box at my feet. ‘It’s strange. I won’t have letters to look back on. Unless I save emails, or print them off. Who are these ones from?’
She slid a postcard from the pile, with a photo of a colossal waterfall. ‘Your birthday … ‘A hug, Clamdie?’’

‘Claudia.’ I looked at Kimber’s clear forehead, the immaculate line of eyebrow over lucent eye. ‘Did I never tell you about her?’

Hey Jude

Crossing Rome, our uncle drove us from sunlight into a fog that thickened as we approached the airport.

‘It’ll be gone by lunchtime — always is,’ he told us. He was a man of few words.
He let Tim and me out at the drop-off zone in front. We’d said our goodbyes and thanks in the car; he’d pressed on us each a hundred-American-dollar note: ‘For your savings account,’ and now he said through the open window, ‘See you down under next Christmas. Look after each other.’

Tim had dragged the packs from the boot onto the footpath. He hoisted his and without preamble told me to go ahead without him. ‘Go straight to Air Italia and check in.’

‘What? Where are you going?’

‘Don’t wait for me. I might be late.’

‘Why? Did you forget something?’

‘Jude, please?’ He was staring at me the way he did when he wanted me to know something without him saying it. (How much of childhood and youth is spent pleading? Please please please let me have it my way.) ‘Tell Mum I’ll ring as soon as you’re home.’ He wore the taut and grim face of someone making a principle ride over common sense.

‘Is it that girl?’

‘Look, I just can’t fly this week.’

Uncle Philip’s car was pulling away into the departing traffic and the fog. I grabbed Tim’s arm because he was moving away, too. ‘I can’t go without you.’

‘You can, Jude. You’re okay, it’s just me.’

‘What, Jupiter up Uranus? You can’t be serious.’

He grimaced as if in pain. ‘After check-in, find the gate you need and start queuing. If you get stuck, ask.’ He yanked his sleeve from my grip. ‘Tell Mum I’ll phone.’

‘Wait, wait,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a logic check. If I’m okay to fly, then you’ll be okay in my plane, won’t you?’

For a moment he looked as if he might relent. He stepped into the zone of the automatic doors and I leaped after him, dragging my pack, then he nipped back out, leaving me inside. The doors hissed shut between us. I can still see his palm held up, tense and pale, saying no as he strode away.

Unbelievable. I smacked the door, which was slow to reopen. I shouted, ‘I’m only fourteen, you moron!’ but he was gone, claimed already by the fog. There was a kind of white rushing noise in my head. I thought I might faint. Then I thought of my mother waiting for me in Singapore. Like a swimmer making for the far end of the pool, I must simply push out and work my way towards her. I would cut Tim off and leave him in my wake.

There had been similar incidents in the past: slighter, but bracing enough in their way. I was entering the airport in Rome, to catch a flight. Full stop.

Dear Claudia

Postcard from Auckland, New Zealand

Mon amiga Claudia, I can’t wait till I’m home to write and say I miss you already and how unfair that we can’t set off round the world together NOW. Very soon Mum and I catch our last flight home to Christchurch. Things went like clockwork after Rome. Mum met me in Singapore and we visited the zoo (two sweet monkeys up a tree, clinging together – Claudia and Jude stuck in an airport) and ate strange food (chicken livers floating in red sauce, red beans floating in pink sauce, pink sugar clinging to a red apple). Oh, and Tim sent a telegram so Mum was okay. Running out of space, love you, girl, write soon, xxx Jude. P.S. Will you teach me to tango?

Catamarca, April 3 1969

Dear Jude,

When I arrived in Ezeiza (airport in Buenos Aires), Mom, Dad, my grandmother and Guillermo were waiting for me: they made me feel – at least for an instant – like a movie star or famous singer with her fans screaming and clutching for the air, trying to catch her attention. My family is scandalous.

Guillermo hugged me very tightly to give no doubt that he missed me. He looked at me with sheep eyes, full of love, hoping for a sign that I still love him.

My parents had been worried to hear about the fog in Rome. They didn’t know whether the airline would keep us in a hotel or if we would stay at the airport overnight, as we actually ended up doing. My old man, because he’s a lawyer and he can’t stay quiet, wants to sue them. He doesn’t care that I had a good time and that you and I became friends thanks to those 24 hours.

That first night back we stayed at my aunt and uncle’s in Ramos Mejía and left for the north next day. My aunt had cooked all my favourite things (nothing floating in pink sauce) and for dessert, dulce de leche crepes (you must try them sometime). It was like being eight years old again.

What happened in Rome was brilliant! I haven’t stopped talking about it. It’s as if those hours we spent together were more valuable than the whole two months – but I didn’t tell them about that creep in the phone booth; I was embarrassed, and besides, it just gives my father another thing to sue about. I can’t believe that we have struck a friendship, and we’ll be united from now on even living so far apart. I can’t wait until we’ll both be famous writers and meet at international fairs! When you are talking at some conference I’ll wink and remind you of being locked in the restroom. You’ll have a laughing attack so you can’t go on.
I told all my friends at school about you so of course they want to meet you. We should talk to our parents soon so that you can visit with us. We can meet you in Buenos Aires and then come to the north together. That way you can see some of our capital city before we come home. Guys will go crazy about you here; they will all fall in love the minute they see you.

I still can’t believe what your brother did. I talked to a friend of my mom’s who does astrology and birth charts. I gave her the dates and hour of birth that you told me. She says that Tim was wrong and it wasn’t dangerous for him to take an airplane that week. Jupiter and Uranus were not in a bad position for him.

I had forgotten the colours of Catamarca. From midday the light is blinding and all the siesta hour so strong that the sun seizes everything, even though it’s autumn, and the air smells dusty and close until the evening. For the first few days my clothes and suitcase seemed to have that Italy smell. My dog sniffed everything in my room. But now I think I smell like from here again, more like summer and grassland.
It’s so good to have maté again and drink café con leche at home! I also missed our asado. You hardly notice what you miss about home until you come back. Spaces seem bigger or smaller than you remember. It’s like waking from a deep dream when you have to slowly adjust to the shapes of reality.

I just saw a new TV series called The Man Who Came Back from Death. Very scary. I’ll tell you about it the next time.
Ok, Jude, it’s late already, and I must get up early for school (blech) tomorrow. I’ll send this letter on my way. Answer me soon, please.

A strong hug,

Claudia

PS: No, I could not teach you how to dance tango. I have no idea; tango is for old people.

PPS: Is my English ok? My father bought me a new English-Spanish dictionary and grammar when he heard I will be writing to you so much.

Out there talking to no one

With a tightening throat, I circle my room, checking the closet, opening drawers, folding and unfolding clothes, unable to focus on the suitcase I’m trying to pack. I’m simply travelling, I tell myself again, to a funeral, and the word ‘funeral’ dries my mouth. It numbs my hands and makes me clumsy. ‘Pull yourself together, Adriana,’ I tell myself.’ I’ll be home again soon enough.

My father’s younger brother has died in Italy and my father would have wanted me to attend. I discussed it with my husband and he understood, but he can’t come with me. Neither can my daughters who are studying for their exams. I must travel alone. It’s the first time, and I’m scared, but I’ll do it. It’ll also be a way of saying goodbye to my father. Once I’m there, in Italy, my cousins and aunt will pick me up at the Milan airport so I’ll be well looked after.

I’m anxious about changing planes in Rome on the way there and back. Raúl or the girls always take care of the tickets when we’re in transit. My husband was uneasy about my going away, but he didn’t argue and he made my booking. These are exceptional circumstances. My dad always loved Raúl very much. My mom, I’m not sure. She never says much about him.
Raúl will come with me to Buenos Aires tomorrow, and will take me to Ezeiza Airport the following day.

I remember that when Mom called me from Córdoba to tell me that Dad had to be operated on — ‘a hernia’ — we were already living here, in Catamarca. I never found out if she invented the lie so that Dad wouldn’t realise how serious his condition was, so that I wouldn’t get scared, or because she herself couldn’t believe what was happening. Ernesto, Dad’s physician, who is a friend of Raúl’s, told my husband the truth, and Raúl told me. My dad had to have an operation but, regardless, he had only two years left. I knew that was another lie: when doctors tell you two years, you must read months, possibly less. I was at the hospital during the whole post-surgery, and I went home from Córdoba to Catamarca the day before he was released. He died the night I left, and my family buried him the following day.

We’re never present when somebody we love dies. I don’t know why. I have heard a hundred similar stories. Our parents die alone… we die alone. Our lives should inure us to loneliness, but we still have the fantasy that we’re not alone, and we want to be there when someone else dies, at least at the moment of death.

The day before he died, when I was saying goodbye to my father, believing he would soon be released, he beckoned me over to the bedside. He didn’t want anyone else to hear what he whispered in my ear. Those words are imprinted on me like a tattoo — the last words he spoke to me.

Adriana cannot imagine what she should do now. In the seethe of stranded passengers she finds a lone plastic chair adrift. She falls upon it, drawing her suitcase near, one hand in the handle, with the other arm hugging her leather handbag on her lap. She looks down at the bag’s gold clasp. She conjures the solid shape of Raúl lying beside her in the dark, and the story she recently told him.

Refuge

Adriana cannot imagine what she should do now. In the seethe of stranded passengers she finds a lone plastic chair adrift. She falls upon it, drawing her suitcase near, one hand in the handle, with the other arm hugging her leather handbag on her lap. She looks down at the bag’s gold clasp. She conjures the solid shape of Raúl lying beside her in the dark, and the story she recently told him.

A woman drives along the road, alone, at night. Possibly she is listening to music while thoughts pass at random through her mind with the same speed as the passing countryside. A knock on the windscreen startles her: a drop of rain; another and another: slow, enormous drops announcing what is to come. For a few moments there are none and the woman holds her breath, begging that the respite last a little longer; but she can sense that the enveloping darkness is dense with water. Then there is nothing but the torrent released onto her car. Only a pair of tail lights is visible up ahead. She considers quickly what to do. She daren’t brake or pull over. In her blindness, direction and space are lost; the only thing to do is to keep following the red lights until the rain stops and she can see the road again, or some other point of reference. Her teeth are clenched, and her hands on the wheel.

Another woman climbs from the cab outside the airport and rolls her small suitcase along the path to the glass doors where her brother abandoned her alone forty years earlier. The suitcase is lighter than when she arrived in the country, but only by a little.

Judith enters the airport lobby and can’t help casting about in order to reconstruct the old scene. She wonders wryly how Jupiter and Uranus are aligned for this last part of her journey. She looks around for the Qantas check-in, but there is something in the air of obstruction. On the departure screen directly ahead, names are blinking and altering in their yellow column:

CANCELLATO

CANCELLATO

CANCELLATO

The déjà vu shakes her.

CANCELLATO

CANCELLATO

CANCELLATO

Passengers gather to stare at the replicated word, bumping into one another like balls released across the sordid billiard table of the lobby, stupid under the pitiless airport lighting. Judith seeks out an approachable face. She’s been away from home for two months, on her own since the conference with Luke, trying at intervals to recapture the memory and pertinence of Claudia. She hasn’t had much success but now, on the day of her departure, things are conspiring to create this air of verisimilitude and melodrama.

Done

Slightly Peculiar Love Stories

A superb cast of New Zealand and international authors

Whimsical, intense, pensive or amorous — we bring you a love story for every mood, each a little unorthodox, mysterious, or slightly peculiar.

Slightly Peculiar Love Stories paint a grand mandala of experience and circumstance: love appears and disappears; it aches and it dares; amuses and amazes; hurts, heals and begins again.

Love preoccupies writers from New Zealand, Israel, Hong Kong, Argentina and Athens, the UK and the US. Their 26 stories have been selected and edited by Penelope Todd.

Learn more about our slightly peculiar writers here and on the Rosa Mira Books blog.