Unburdened by history, Fiona does a quick reconnaissance of her mother-in-law’s house, shifting memorabilia out of children’s reach.
Granny Kay sits with arthritic fingers restless on her knees, watching her daughter-in-law move a lifetime of collections with a carelessness that frightens her. She remains silent, knowing Fiona’s casual handling is safer than the random acts of her two grandchildren.
Fiona says, “This house is too big for you.”
Kay sighs with the frustration of facing another pointless argument about her future. “Let’s go outside,” she says, reaching for her walking stick.
She wants to protect the mementos of her life for as long as possible. They could be gone with one careless flick from a small hand that’s still learning how to be graceful.
“We’ll get covered in biddy-bids.” Fiona’s haunted eyes and set mouth add silently, I can’t do everything.
“Come on Fi,” her husband, Simon, cajoles. “Let’s go for a walk on the beach.”
Kay blames herself for Simon’s lack of assertiveness. As her middle child, neither leader nor follower, he learned how to stay out of the limelight. He finds life easier if he doesn’t upset anyone.
“You know your mother can’t walk in soft sand until she gets her hip replacement.”
The unnecessary concern irritates Kay. It makes her more determined to go for a walk.
“I’ll help you, Gra’ma,” pipes in her youngest grandchild.
Kay smiles fondly at Terri. She promises to be a lovely child, while her older brother, Caleb, is already showing signs of adolescent self-importance. Kay hopes she can live long enough to protect Terri from the casual negligence of teenage boys.
Pushing herself upright from her chair, leaning on her stick, Kay knows how to get her grandson interested in a walk. “Go get the cricket bat and ball, Caleb. Then, I can sit on the special chair you made me and watch you play. You’re such a good bowler.”
It’s a short walk through the garden that Kay and her darling husband coaxed out of salt scrub beside the wild beach. The rugged beauty of the coast has started to attract tourists looking for somewhere different from well-known coasts.
Kay remembers it as the ends of the earth when she was a new bride, arriving at a cottage by the sea. Eventually the salt had etched into her skin and she’d fallen into the rhythm of the tides. The feel and taste of sand came to define her days.
Since her husband passed, there are documents to say she owns this land, but she knows paper will turn to dust. It will join the bones of prehistoric animals that crawled out of the ocean onto this shore; or the dark blood of ancient warriors, spilled into the footsteps of pale-skinned opportunists.
Ahead of the group on the track, Caleb makes grand swinging actions with the cricket bat while his father, Simon, tosses the ball from hand to hand. Fiona chases them, waving a tube of sunscreen.
Kay allows Terri to believe that her small hand on the walking stick is helping. Glad of a moment to spend with her granddaughter, she points with her spare hand in the direction of a profusion of greenery growing over a corner of the garden. “That’s Marigold’s Ivy.”
“It’s a weed.” Fiona says over her shoulder. “Needs clearing up.”
Kay wants to shake her stick at Fiona. Elderly people and infants deserve the respect of good manners, same as everyone else.
“It’s Marigold’s Ivy,” she corrects her daughter-in-law. “You know she gave me that cutting to grow over the old pit after we got the new plumbing installed.”
Terri asks, “Was that where you and Granddad went to the toilet, outside?”
“Yes, dear. It was a shed. We didn’t squat on the ground.”
You can’t be serious, says Terri’s wide eyes with a twist of her lips.
Kay is used to that look when she tells stories about the long-drop toilet, and no electricity in the house. A time when a small transistor radio was the only daily connection to the outside world is beyond a child’s ability to imagine.
Fiona grabs Terri’s arms to smear them with sunscreen. “Why would you give somebody a weed?”
“We were grateful for anything that would grow in this sandy soil.”
“Who’s Marigold?” Terri asks through a face traumatised by her mother’s vigorous application of sticky white cream.
“Marigold was my bridesmaid.”
“Where is she now?”
“The cancer got her. She passed.” The weight of mortality settles into the fine morning.
Fiona shoos the spectre way. “She’s with Granddad in heaven now.”
The shadow passes over Terri, and her eyes shine again. It reminds Kay how a child’s vital energy is fed by a mother’s limited supply. She forgives Fiona’s style of parenting.
Kay wants Terri to understand how her Grandma used to be strong and vital but lived in a different world to the one she knows. That world comes alive for Kay when she tends Marigold’s Ivy.
Caleb leads the group from the garden track onto a stretch of glistening pale sand. He gives a cursory glance at the driftwood chair, built by him and his dad for Grandma in the shade of an old Pohutukawa tree. Terri clears twigs and leaves off the seat. Fiona pulls a cushion out of her voluminous bag, and they settle Kay onto her throne.
The beach cricket match begins with some argument, settles into determination, and then breaks into laughter. A gentle breeze cools Kay’s arthritic joints and stirs her skirt to caress the leathery skin of her legs. She is Queen of her domain.
Then, a tourist van pulls into the unpaved carpark beside the Pohutukawa tree. First to disembark is a young lady with glossy black hair and almond eyes set in a china doll face. She turns to assist the other passengers step down onto the packed sand of the carpark.
The group hovers around her, trying to find the momentum to escape the gravitational pull of security offered by the van. Finally, a cumbersome man, with two cameras dangling from straps around his neck, steps with surprising agility over a rope barrier.
The tour leader’s voice rings out with a strong American accent, “Stay on this side of the barriers, please. They’re protecting the sand dunes.”
“Der are no signz,” the man replies with German inflection, flinging each leg back over the rope with the grace of a dancing elephant. Kay wonders what protection a single strand of rope can provide against the next storm.
A Canada Goose, followed by two fluffy goslings, waddles across the dunes. Terri notices the baby geese and abandons her fielding position to join the bird watchers.
Fiona trails after her. “Invaders taking photographs of invaders,” she scoffs and takes Terri’s hand to lead her back to the cricket game.
“But they’re so cute,” wails Terri.
“They’re a pest, introduced to New Zealand to give men something to shoot at.” Fiona ignores Terri’s look of confusion.
Kay says, “I used to have a pet goose called Jemima.”
“But Jemima was a duck.” Terri knows all the Beatrix Potter fairy tales.
Kay nods without speaking. She doesn’t want Terri to ask what happened to the goose.
As the tourists find courage to explore, they walk down the beach awkwardly in their town shoes. Kay sees no fun in skimming over a country on a veneer of information. She wants to know a place by planting her feet in the soil, allowing time to produce the results of a labour of love.
Caleb is getting restless. There’s no challenge in a match he knows his father is allowing him to win. Kay wishes she’d taught Simon to stand up for himself and deal with his disgruntled pre-teenager.
“What’s for lunch?” Caleb asks.
“It’s too early to eat,” says Fiona. “I know! Let’s help Grandma tidy up that patch of ivy in the garden.”
The look on Caleb’s face reflects Kay’s feelings; annoyance mixed with resignation. A lethargy pushes her back into the bony branches of her chair. Simon steps forward to help her stand.
“I know it’s a weed,” she says, “but it was precious to us when we were starting our garden. Can’t we leave it as an historic site?”
“Yes, it’s Marigold’s Ivy, Mum.” Terri runs beside her mother, looking up into her face, but Fiona is striding ahead to the track through the garden to the cottage.
Then she turns. With a hand on Terri’s shoulder she says to Kay, “We can transplant it to a pot on the veranda. It’ll be easier to manage, and we’ll find something better to replace it.”
Simon adds, “The council is giving away free native plants to encourage dune regeneration.”
Kay leans on Simon, feeling the needles of age puncture her energy. “Alright,” she sighs. “Can you take a photograph for me. I want to remember it like it is.”
The real Marigold’s Ivy is a laurel tree growing in my Aunt’s garden in Wales, but that’s another story.