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TESSA CASTREE

A small boy and a woman

 

She stood on the platform of the Ohakune railway station with her grandson Chaz, aged nine, waiting for the eleven p.m. train that would take them to Ngaruawahia, a small town on the Main Trunk Line.
The train had begun its journey six hours ago in Wellington. It was wending its way towards them through Horowhenua, Manawatu. Across the Mangaweka Viaduct – thin train tracks above a narrow steep gorge, like a circus tight rope.
Chaz was excited.
‘Tell me again about the Raurimu Spiral?’ he asked her.
She had other things on her mind, what would be waiting for them at Ngaruawahia? Would his mother, her daughter, be manageable? Could she cope with her own emotions, seeing her daughter again after six years.
‘The Raurimu Spiral is an ingenious piece of engineering that enables a heavy train to climb a steep hill. You go very slowly round and round through two tunnels and up the hill to the Volcanic Plateau. Or down the hill if you are travelling southwards.’
Chaz loved hearing her talk. He loved the way she sometimes gave him all her attention, how she spoke to him the same way she spoke to her friends.
‘Has Mum done the Raurimu Spiral on a train?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes,’ she replied. ‘Andrea lived near the Raurimu Spiral before you were born. It was only for a few months.’
‘Why was she there?’
‘She was being a hippie, living an alternative lifestyle. Living off the land.’
She and Chaz heard the train coming from some way off through the still night. She reached into her coat pocket for the tickets but instead pulled out a British ten pound note. It was a very old coat, a warm one she hadn’t worn for a long time. She’d bought it in England fifteen years ago and it was seldom cold enough in New Zealand to need it. She handed the note to Chaz and reached into the other pocket for the tickets.
She said to Chaz, ‘That’s English money, it’s been in my pocket since before you were born.’
Chaz squinted his eyes at her and looked thoughtful, surprised.
‘A lot seems to have happened before I was even born,’ he said.
Then he held up the note to the insufficient yellow platform light, turned it over, inspected in closely.
‘Wow! Can I keep it?’
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘What will you do with it?’
‘I’ll save up and take you to England and we’ll spend it there.’
‘Thank you sweetheart,’ she said, as the night train rumbled in.

 

She felt foolish and a sense of cowardly relief. Andrea wasn’t at the address in Ngaruawahia and after six years why would she be. She’d known all along, really, that this was probably only the start of the journey.
‘You’ve missed her by three months,’ said the man who opened the door. He was about sixty, clean-shaven, pot belly, wearing a grey cardigan over a once-white T-shirt, old suit trousers. He didn’t invite them in, spoke through a crack in the door. There was a stale dusty smell mixed with washing powder seeping from the house and the sound of washing machine water going down a drain outside.
‘I’m her mother and this is her son,’ said Wendy. ‘If you know where she is please tell us.’
‘She went to Wellington, to Newtown.’
‘Do you have an address?’
‘How do I know you are her mother? She never talked about having a …’
He stopped talking, and Wendy looked at Chaz who was staring around the yard, taking in the hens, the vegetable garden, two old Fords. She couldn’t tell what Chaz was thinking or whether he was listening.
The man looked from the woman to the boy and back again. He looked more uncomfortable than aggressive as he continued to stare at them.
Then he held up his right hand in a stop sign position and disappeared into the house, leaving the door ajar. Chaz took Wendy’s hand and looked up at her. She was rigid and trembling at the same time, staring ahead. Inside, the washing machine was filling up with water, the drain noise had stopped.
‘Here.’ He opened the door and thrust a small folded piece of lined note paper at her torso. ‘I was going to say don’t tell her I gave it to you, but it doesn’t matter, it’s probably for the best, I don’t know.’
Wendy opened the paper, looked at the address and buried it in her coat pocket.
‘Thank you, we’ll go now, thank you.’
As she turned, still holding her grandson’s hand, she thought she might fall over, her knees were shaking so badly.  She walked with determination down the path towards the chicken-wire iron gate.
‘Where are we going, Nana? You’re going too fast.’

 

 

 

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