WRITTEN BY ROSIE EDSER
It was a bright new start for us – but the closing of a book for my parents…
Mike touched my elbow to draw my attention from the toast I’d made. He nodded towards the dining room.
“Have you told them yet?” he whispered anxiously.
“I’ll try – once they’re over the jet lag,” I promised. “Though I’m dreading it.”
A long-forgotten emotion swelled in the pit of my stomach. Guilt. Mine wasn’t the kind of news my parents would want to hear, having travelled right across the planet.
“Beech Avenue to New Zealand – a tidy step for a couple of old fossils!” Dad had joked when we’d met them at the airport last night.
“It’s only fair, Cath,” Mike coaxed. “We can’t sell the old house until they know. They might see it advertised. Come on, love, they’ll be fine with it.”
“Fine? Come on – we’re talking about my parents here, not yours. Mine only just got passports – and that was all down to Kym’s persuasion.”
Once again, I said a silent thank you to my sister for being there in England.
“OK, I’m sorry, love. I know you don’t want to upset your folks. We’ll tell them together, or not – it’s up to you.”
“No,” I replied, but then my stomach knotted. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe. We’ll see how things go.”
He looked at me with the expression that had made me love him on that first meeting. The expression that made me agree to emigrate in the first place.
“You’re the boss,” Mike said, planting a kiss on the back of my neck.
He took the breakfast tray and left me to practise my speech.
Mum, Dad, I began in my head. I wanted to tell you in person. Mike and I are selling the house back home to buy some land out here.
Even in my imagination there are tears. It’s our last solid link to the old country…
I know how they’re going to take it. My favourite daydream has them hugging me, agreeing we’ve made the right decision. Then I hear the words from our Skype call last week.
You did the right thing, poppet, keeping that house in Southampton. It’s always there, just in case…
I took a deep breath and joined them at the table.
Dad stretched his arms.
“That’s better – cup of tea, slice of toast, and we’ll be ready to see the world. Well, your garden, at least.”
Mum pulled her robe together.
“I should get dressed,” she said.
I shook my head. “You needn’t worry, Mum. We’re not overlooked.”
“Very nice too,” Dad remarked. “And there’s us, with a new block of flats too close to our boundary.”
“Will it be too hot for you, Mum? I’ve got a sunshade if you’d like it.”
“No, dear, it’s fine. Oh, look – I remember the flowerbeds from your pictures.” She sipped her tea. “You’ve got lupins and agapanthus, just like you had in your old garden.”
“The soil suits them, Mum. You even see them growing by the roadsides.”
Mike looked round the door.
“Sorry, Mum, Dad, got to dash. Did I mention that I booked us in at Mario’s on Saturday? You’ll love it there.”
Mario’s had always been our favourite restaurant for dinner. We knew my parents would enjoy the view from our regular lakeside table. That view, and a thousand other places we’d come to love, would surely help them understand.
“That’s a good idea,” Mum answered. “If you like it, I’m sure we will.”
By Friday, my parent’s body clocks ticked alongside mine. Mike left us alone a fair bit in the daytimes. His tree cutting job didn’t allow much leeway. However, he concluded, I’d be able to grab an opportunity to break the news, should the moment arise. Logical of him… but I was in two minds and two countries.
Mum and I sat on the terrace that afternoon…
I’d hardly slept, having resolved to discuss with them the plans Mike and I had made. My throat felt swollen, as if the words would have to be prised out one by one.
Dad came out from the house and placed a large blue folder on the table.
“You remember my ancestors came out here in the 1800s?”
I nodded. He pulled out some pictures.
“Well, have a look at these. Your sister found a website to help us trace their descendants. See the resemblance?”
I gazed at the group in the sepia picture. Two adults, five children, all keeping their appointment at the photographer’s. The woman’s face leapt off the paper. It could have been me – the resemblance was uncanny. My eyes stared back across the decades.
Mum smiled at my reaction.
“Yes, she’s your double. Her name is Amy Mitchell. This portrait was taken in the 1880s.”
“What beautiful clothes they wore back then. I wonder what the children went on to do.”
“Oh, we didn’t get that far with our research. Actually we thought you might want to track down her descendants. At least then you’d have some family out here to keep you company.”
I was touched. Though she longed for us to be back in England, Mum would help me to find relatives here – even if it might add to my reasons to stay. A mother’s love – there truly is nothing like it.
“They gave us these,” she said, handing me a neat bundle of photocopied letters.
I guessed who wrote them. She did. The woman with my eyes.
Dad pointed to Amy’s husband.
“She married this chap, Jack, who came from a village near us. The growing country needed people with a trade or a skill in those days. Amy’s husband was a surgeon – just the kind of man who would be useful.”
“I guess so, Dad.”
“It’s strange – I’d heard about them from my grandfather, but I wouldn’t have looked them up if you hadn’t been here. Sorry, poppet – you’re not the first explorer in the family after all.”
Mum touched my hand
“We think of Amy as a great-aunt, though how exactly she ties up with us, we really don’t know.”
That was so like my mum – she’d absorbed this woman into her family without question. Then I realised fully what a gap we’d left in her life.
Poor Mum. How could I tell her that we didn’t intend to move home again?
“Have a read through,” Dad suggested. “We’re going for a stroll on the beach, now it’s cooler.”
Mum followed him, stopping to wave at the gate.
“Won’t be long,” she promised.
The letters were sorted in date order, oldest on top. I scanned through, choosing significant paragraphs, planning to read them all one day, when I had more time. Amy’s story unfolded page by page.
Our ship was cramped and noisy, though it was wonderful to be on deck when the weather was good. It was interesting for us to watch the sailors at work. We got over our sea sickness quite soon, despite the storms, though some of our fellow passengers were still suffering on the day we docked.
The children made many new friends, and I was glad for them. Jack and I spent the time teaching them all what we knew of our journey.
I pictured a ship on a turbulent sea. What happened to the children’s playmates? Did they stay life-long friends while their parents built new lives? I moved on a couple of pages.
The country is beautiful. In truth, everything we dreamed of.
Our land sits on the side of a slope. We are lucky, for it faces north. I did not realise this was best, but Jack explained. South would be preferable if we were at home, north here, because we are now on the other side of the world.
The stars also differ. One of the sailors did us the kindness of teaching Jack Junior the constellations.
I sent a silent thank you to the long-dead sailor who’d made a difference for a boy on the boat. Another letter took my attention.
Our house is nearly finished. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is, after so many months in lodgings. The rooms are of good size, all on one level, leading off a central hall. There is a veranda that runs across the front of the house, and this overlooks the river below. Jack has drawn a floor plan to give an idea of how it looks.
I thought of the film we’d made for our parents. Hours of digital footage, showing our place in every detail.
Just one more letter, I resolved…
It is July 1886, and I am expecting again. Jack says we are blessed. Although it is a full year now since we lost Georgie, I still grieve for him. If only we could have laid him to rest in the churchyard at Holmwood.
Our new babe will arrive in March. The leaves will be turning then, like autumn at home, to beautiful shades of yellow and orange.
We had news of a terrible earthquake on the North Island last month. I pray for the people we met on the boat, who were destined there. Did you receive the photograph and my last letter? I hope so, but am writing now, in case it has been lost, and to assure you that we are safe.
There seemed to be a gap in time. I wondered what had happened to other letters – or perhaps Amy was writing less often by then. And how tragic that they’d lost a child.
The photograph she mentioned must be the one I had now. How strange that I could scan it, send it anywhere, everywhere, with the click of a mouse. Poor Amy had to trust it to a sea voyage.
Another page, another year…
There are so many kinds of bird here, you would marvel at them. I pray it will be possible one day, for you to come to visit us. We would love you and Father to see our brood. They are growing old enough to be fine company.
Jack Junior is studying to be a doctor. Missey, our wayward daughter, supports a campaign for women to have the vote. A lady from Christchurch started a petition last year, and it’s all we hear of lately. Jack says she takes after me, and by 1892 the women will have their way.
It was 1893 before they won the vote, I remembered from a museum visit when we first arrived. Missey, too, had made a difference. I hoped Jack Junior had succeeded also. I’d have to find out when I started my own research.
In the margins of this letter, Jack Mitchell had drawn sketches, coloured them with inks and initialled them. He’d included birds I recognised – the Tui, the North Island Robin, and a Fantail. Then brightly feathered species I’d never seen. It felt as if he’d wanted to help his wife with his talent for drawing. Help her reach out to her people back home, show them their world.
I pictured them on the veranda, the one that stretched across the front of the house. Jack sketching at the table, Amy seated in a rocking chair, her belly full of a grandchild.
I guessed then – though it didn’t take a genius to realise – that no-one had ever been able to visit. Her life, though they’d tried so hard to avoid it, had eventually become a sketch in the margin. Much as they tried, with letters to home, they couldn’t maintain a whole chapter.
Mike’s voice broke into my thoughts, as he joined me.
“What’s the matter, love?”
“I’m just feeling a bit sad after reading these letters.”
“Come here, love.” His arms folded round me. I leaned into his shoulder, linking my hands behind his back.
I pointed to the expensive end of the menu. “Here, Mum, look at the speciality dishes.”
“You’re spoiling us again, Catherine.” She leaned to kiss my cheek.
“The view is fantastic,” Dad remarked, gazing out towards the fishing boats.
“Mike knew you’d love it. He says you’ll be going out on the water yourselves tomorrow.”
“We are. If we catch all the fish I’ve been promised, I’ll be tempted to stay here forever.”
Mike poured the wine.
“Cathy and I used to say that, but forever is a heck of a long time. Nowadays we say we’re here for the moment. When we want a different horizon, we’ll think again.”
Mum and Dad exchanged a glance
I couldn’t read either expression, but they seemed happy. That was all that mattered.
“So, Mum, did you manage to get Kym on the phone?”
“Yes.” She grinned. “She was so jealous when I told her about our brilliant helicopter tour.”
“We’ll take her up next year when she comes out.”
“What shall we drink to, then?” Dad asked, raising his glass.
“Family, near and far,” Mike replied.
I think he guessed I was having trouble speaking.
Later that night we sat in bed, reading Amy’s letters. It was strange, how we’d made up our mind not to make a decision. We talked about it being the cowardly way out, but quickly dismissed the concept. I like to think of it as the bravest thing we’ve ever done.
That piece of land would never replace our “security blanket” house back home, no matter how much profit there was in it. Besides, the old place made a little on the rent, enough to supplement our savings so we could think about a holiday with our families in England.
“Have you read this?” Mike asked, handing me one of the pages.
I took it and studied my ancestor’s words as tears filled my eyes…
Mama, I’m so very sorry to hear of Father’s death. I can only take comfort that he knew we thought of him always. You must, of course, take Aunt Charlotte’s kind offer of a ticket here. Perhaps she will allow us to repay some of the cost? I hope so. We will be delighted for you to join us.
Jack has taken lodgings in Christchurch to be near the surgery, so we have room for you. Please let me know the date on which you will sail.
We look forward so very much to seeing you again.
Your loving daughter, Amy.
We were so lucky, Mike and me. Compared with our predecessors, we simply had it all.
Mike stretched out to turn off his bedside light.
“Now we’ve decided on a trip home, I’m really looking forward to it.”
“Me too,” I replied. “We could plan for the year after next.” I stared into the darkness, thinking of Jack Junior looking up at the stars. “Mike?”
“I love you.”
He reached for my hand. We stayed like that until his fingers relaxed as he slept. I laid awake for a while longer.
Though Mike would think me mad if I told him, it felt as if Amy had whispered to me. No – more like dug me in the ribs.
You’ll want to go back one day. Don’t cut the ties, she’d seemed to say.
The sensation was strong, tangible. As urgent as the message I’d heard before, in the restaurant as Mum and I looked at the view across the lake.
Never forget, people come first, not places, the voice had said.
And I wouldn’t forget. Not ever.