North of Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand, March 2021
When the easing of lockdown allowed them to move beyond their neighbourhood, Grace and Ned had resumed Sunday drives – Ned called them that, even when it wasn’t a Sunday – just like when their children were small. They would drive to a beach or a nature reserve on the fringes of the city where they could stretch their legs and have a coffee, preferring places they hadn’t been before. Once they took the ferry to Waiheke, ending up at a new winery. That would have been a more celebratory option for today but somehow the suggestion to drive north to the Kauri Museum had turned from a half-joke into a serious plan.
Grace and Ned had spent previous wedding anniversaries in distant places, like Granada for their thirtieth, where it had been so hot that Grace had craved ice-cream by ten in the morning, taking refuge in a cave-like helateria near their hotel each day. A far cry from their honeymoon in Taupo, all they could afford then.
This year they had talked about a short break in Sydney, assuming they would be free to fly at least as far as Australia by the end of June. Like everyone else in the team of five million, though, they would be staying put this winter. In the bleak mid-WINNN-ter, Ned had begun to sing around the house, sometimes humming the hymn all the way through over the washing up. Grace smiled whenever she heard him. No snow on snow here. Showers and the odd windy day hardly counted as bleak.
Today wasn’t even their anniversary. That had been yesterday but Grace’s plan for a day off had hit a snag. A dispute about a new author’s contract had meant a trip to the office to check the correspondence file, followed by a protracted Zoom call across the Tasman, and after that she had become entangled in submission discussions that dragged on through the afternoon.
So this morning, under a cloudless blue sky after days of rain, Ned and Grace had taken the turn-off at Brynderwyn, leaving State Highway 1 to wind west between impossibly green paddocks and crisply-outlined hills. Small towns with halls advertising badminton, line dancing and quilting classes. A row of leafless poplars, knocked over by a storm, their exposed root balls stuck with clods of thick, chocolate-coloured earth. Signs for the Kauri Museum became more frequent and enthusiastic as they drew closer to Matakohe but the carpark was almost empty when they pulled in. The elderly man behind the gift-shop counter handed a museum guide to Ned. ‘Make sure you don’t miss the Gum Room, downstairs, and enjoy your visit,’ he said.
Grace – distracted by a wall of clocks made from rough cross-cuts of kauri, startling in their ugliness – misheard the man, thinking he had said Gun Room. She imagined the kind of room she always avoided on visits to stately homes overseas: lined with muskets and rifles, broadswords fanned on one wall. Luckily, her husband had just as little interest in historic firearms’ displays as she did, although you could never be entirely sure what might take his attention in a museum. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Ned approached things aslant, not in the expected way. That was one of the things she had loved about him from the beginning.
Words, especially: Ned liked to turn words over, repeating them to discover their strangeness or tease out their absurdity. He should have been a poet or at least a professor of English rather than Law. But it had been Grace who had gone into publishing, perhaps more clear-eyed than Ned about words that might hook a reader in ways that could be quantified, monetized. A word Ned would hate, of course. Who wouldn’t? An ugly word.
She followed Ned into the Museum’s first room, filled with Victorian wardrobes, sideboards and desks, all decorated with intricate inlay and fretwork, their polished surfaces shining from strategically-placed spotlights. On the walls were sepia photographs of dour-faced men – standing, sawing, digging, driving waggons – dwarfed by felled logs and soaring trunks. After the warmth of the car, the space was chill and, in a stillness broken only by the sluggish tick of an antique clock, the massed furniture began to feel oppressive. While Ned studied the photographs, Grace walked on ahead and realised her mistake about what the man at the counter had said. Above a sideboard extravagantly festooned with carved bunches of grapes a sign pointed to the Gum Room.
A staircase brought Grace into a low-ceilinged space, warmer than the room above she had just left, where honey-coloured, translucent lumps of gum were piled high in glass cases. Along one wall, altar crosses, model ships, and lighthouses looked like they had been shaped from glistening toffee.
Kauri gum has a special warmth. To touch, it is never cold like stone. It gives a variety of optical effects in different lights. It is found in a wide range of colours – from black to clear. Kauri gum is fascinating.
But some of the exhibits told another story. Exploitation and industrialisation. Dispossession and depletion.
Grace turned to a cabinet containing gum jewellery and more sculpted models, where she noticed a plait of golden hair behind a string of amber beads. Just another jumbled display, like you find in regional museums all over the world. A saint’s finger nail next to a finely-laced christening cap in Limerick, for instance. But then she saw another coiled length of butter-yellow hair, tied at each end with a faded, grosgrain ribbon.
Hair could be made from kauri gum by heating it and then drawing out fine strands, like threads of spun sugar. While still warm, the ‘hair’ could be plaited, but once cooled it became very brittle and could not be handled.
What were you supposed to make of that? Lumps, dug up from the earth and turned into varnish and linoleum, could also become something as fragile, as useless, as kauri gum hair. She wanted to show Ned, so that she could put her confused feelings into words, like they always did when they saw bizarre or wonderful things in their travels, sharing a joke or puzzling out the whys and wherefores of what they encountered.
Footsteps on the stairs. Finally.
‘Just as well we didn’t miss it,’ Ned said, his voice booming in the confined space they had to themselves.
Grace laughed. ‘You have to see this,’ she said, pointing at the ribboned hair.
Ned brought his face close to the glass. ‘Don’t you have a length of your own hair at home somewhere?’
Grace had not thought about that for years. It had been her first hair cut after Rebecca’s birth, a brief foray back into a world that was not subject to the feeding and sleeping patterns of a newborn, a world where adults made appointments and even had extended conversations. Rebecca had been a fussy baby – Blake, a few years later, would be more placid, thank God – so Grace had been almost dizzy with sleep deprivation when she asked the hairdresser to cut it all off.
‘Are you sure?’ he had asked, a hand resting lightly on each of her plastic-draped shoulders as he faced her haggard reflection in the mirror. (Haggard at twenty six? Grace had thought so then, under the harsh lighting of the salon, and racked by a hollowness that didn’t go away no matter how much she ate in those first months with Rebecca.) Her poor stylist, who had probably learned the hard way to be wary of clients making dramatic decisions, desperate to be free of whatever was weighing them down, had looked uncertain.
‘Yes,’ Grace had said, intending to convey thoughtful purpose even though the idea had only just occurred to her. One less thing to worry about. ‘I’m sure.’
But her heart had sunk when he had pulled her hair back into a smooth ponytail and tied it with an elastic before removing the entire length in a single cut, the scissors making a sound like shears through a width of thick fabric. He had presented the length of hair to her saying, ‘You might want to keep this. Many of my clients do,’ and she had sat with it in her lap for the remainder of the appointment, not knowing what else to do, as he meticulously shaped her hair into a smooth wedge cut with a sweep of fringe.
Years later, a startled-looking Rebecca, who had never known her mother with long hair, brought a large unsealed envelope to Grace in the kitchen.
‘What is this, Mum? It was at the back of your make-up drawer. I was looking for a nail file.’
In the envelope was the length of brown hair still held together by the elastic, the neatly-cut edge like the fine bristles of a paintbrush. Grace had smiled at her daughter’s discomfiture but she had not wanted to touch the hair either. Rebecca was right; there was something unnerving about keeping something that had once been connected to her body, now hidden away. She had taken the envelope from her horrified daughter and dropped it in the kitchen bin.
Grace did not recall telling Ned about the envelope of hair. Had she even shown it to him when she came home from the salon? That first year of motherhood was mostly a blur now.
‘Not anymore,’ Grace said, turning away from the glass case. Rebecca would have been about thirteen that day the hair went into the bin. Twenty years ago. She placed a hand briefly on Ned’s arm. ‘Come on, let’s keep going.’
Back upstairs, they turned into a large gallery devoted to the cutting and milling of timber and Ned was soon absorbed by the old machinery. Grace walked through into the next wing where a section of kauri trunk ran the full length of the space. Beyond was a replica of a boarding house, its rooms peopled with glass-eyed, pasty-faced settlers – unsettlers, Ned would probably say – in Scenes of Pioneer Life. They made Grace uncomfortable, like stumbling on an amateur-dramatic performance of a play that had not aged well but feeling you couldn’t leave. She moved quickly on to the display cases at the end of the corridor, her attention caught by a pair of Edwardian silk shoes with French heels and ornate silver buckles, faded to a pale eau de nil but otherwise pristine.
Made in Norwich. Found in a truck on a farm in Matakohe.
Had they been desired and treasured, these shoes that had somehow made their way from a Norfolk cathedral town to a Northland farm? Maybe they had belonged to a woman who only wore them once or twice, kept them wrapped in tissue paper, out of sight. A discarded, even shameful, extravagance. Or too precious to risk exposing? From behind the glass, the shoes called out to be held in the hand. The silk would be smooth to the touch; the curve of the heel pleasing to trace with your finger.
Grace had turned to examine a case of beaded evening bags when she heard Ned call her name. He was looking into one of the boarding-house rooms and tapped the glass of the window as she approached.
‘Reminds me of Alison, back in the day,’ he said, indicating a mannequin of an adolescent boy dressed in tweed trousers and a striped shirt. The boy’s wig of extravagant black curls did indeed look a bit like Alison’s mushroom perm, back in the day. When had they started to talk like their parents? How long before they started to say Never did us any harm about anything from long drops to smacking children?
‘Yes, it does. The eighties have a lot to answer for.’
‘I don’t know,’ Ned said. ‘You always looked great.’ He rubbed a thumb lightly over the nape of her neck, where her hair still formed a tapered V-shape above her collar.
Grace had thought of Alison only yesterday, as she often did on her wedding anniversary, and not just because she had been her sole bridesmaid. In the first flush of radicalisation as a PhD sociology student, Alison had leaned over to Grace at the reception and said, ‘This is the one day – today and for the rest of your life – that you will be expected to have sex. It’s the foundation of patriarchal marriage, after all, conjugal rights.’
She had laughed at her friend’s bad-fairy prophecy but after Alison had dashed off in a swish of apricot chiffon, Grace had felt suddenly chill, standing alone amidst the hubbub of the celebration. Was that possible? A bride, left on her own at her reception, even for a moment? But that’s what Grace remembered: staring out through French doors at a courtyard with a single magnolia tree, gashes of pink petals just emerging from split, furry-lipped buds, and thinking about a future in which sex would become a scheduled event, or something that she and Ned owed to history, like a wreath-laying ceremony.
Odd that Ned would mention Alison. They never spoke of her. After a pregnant Grace had learned of Alison’s frequent visits to Ned on campus, seeking advice on property law for a collective that she was involved in at the time – even though Alison knew that property wasn’t Ned’s field of expertise – the two friends had never resumed their old footing, the easy intimacy of their undergraduate days. Alison had gone to Manchester on a postdoctoral scholarship just before Rebecca’s second birthday and had not returned to New Zealand, as far as Grace knew.
It was all hazy now, those years before Grace had gone back to work, years when she had grown apart from friends who didn’t understand what it was like to have a baby permanently glued to your nipple. She and Ned had squabbled regularly then, too, in a way they had never done before or since.
In fact, though, just as Alison had predicted, Grace and Ned had had sex last night, the thirty-seventh anniversary of their wedding night. She had gone straight to the restaurant from the office, meeting Ned there. A man of leisure since he had taken early retirement last year, he had offered to collect her from work but she had wanted the walk to shake off the day’s annoyances and the rain seemed to have cleared. Almost as soon as she sat down, though, she had begun to complain about the Senior Editor in the Melbourne head office and his role in the contract confusion.
‘That man is the bane of my life,’ Grace had said.
‘I thought the bane of your life was the precocious prize winner who takes herself too seriously?’
‘Her as well. Can’t I have more than one? Banes? Why does that sound odd?’
‘Banes is actually an obsolete synonym for banns, as in wedding banns,’ Ned had said, picking up his spoon and tracing a light furrow across his soup.
‘So we are only allowed one bane, then?’
Ned laughed and shook his head but Grace found she couldn’t leave it alone.
‘Are you trying to tell me something?’ she persisted.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Banes and banns. A bane is a cause of ruin or trouble. It seems an odd thing to say on our anniversary.’
‘Grace, where is this coming from?’ Ned looked bemused. ‘You know me. It’s just an odd word, as you say.’
She had said nothing further then but at some point between their first plates being cleared and their main course arriving they had fallen into a conversation of half-articulated grievances and vague regrets. Her fault, really. It was as if she had suddenly looked down and seen no net beneath them, unsure when it might have disappeared. This was not how she had wanted to spend the evening. If this year had taught her anything, it was the comfort of the known, the reassurance of grasping a familiar hand.
After Ned had paid the bill, they had driven home in silence, not exactly fighting but not at ease either. Once home, though, Ned had opened another bottle and lit a fire he had already laid. Grace found flowers on her bedside table. They had rediscovered their place, their rhythm, within the warm house and later, when the rain returned, they had reached for each other in the dark as they had done countless times before.
Kauri gum is a resin which bleeds from the tree. If the bark is damaged, or a branch is broken by the wind, the resin bleeds out and seals the wound. This prevents rot getting into the tree. The resin can build up into a lump which goes hard. Over time, the gum is forced off, falls to the ground and is covered by forest litter. This has been happening for millions of years.
Grace was ready to leave now. It was enough, she decided. They were here together, presenting each other with the everyday gifts of their attention, their thoughts. That was what it meant to share a life. Thirty-seven years. Grace set no store by metallic anniversaries – silver, golden. A long marriage might be simply force of habit, the triumph of routine over desire, when it wasn’t something far worse. She and Ned had their share of habit and routine but had escaped the far worse. Touch wood.
What traces would they leave behind? Their two children, of course. No grandchildren yet. Everything else was intangible but no less valuable for that, surely? When you least expected it, there was a lingering kiss on a deserted stretch of beach, a warm presence in the bed beside you that could still make your heart quicken, your breath catch. It left no visible trace, but it sustained. She could summon a day, a mood, a memory, for Ned with just a word, a name – Mapua, Vézelay – and he could do the same for her. Remember that day when? It was enough.