2019 Open Division: 1st Place
It sits on the edge of the paddock. Paint peels off the sides, hangs down in strips. A verandah sinks in the centre. Hunched, sagging frame. The carpet in the hallway is worn through and the floorboards in the kitchen creak as we dance across them, flooding Nan with hugs and kisses. We love the way the bach speaks to us, aching beneath our feet, hungry to make so much noise. Grandad’s down at the beach, fishing for lobster, crabs, paua. Nan tells us to fetch him, dinner in forty-five, don’t rub your dirty paws on the carpet. Mum says she’s losing her memory.
It’s not far to walk. Little sister doesn’t think it’s a real beach, there’s no sand, only rock. But rocks are the best place to find crabs, water still warm from the sun, clear enough to spy moving pincers. The boat comes chugging in, nudges up against the wharf’s wooden posts. Grandad rigs it down. The wood is rotting and he tells us to be careful, hugs us tightly. Sky an enormous orange. We finally make it back to the bach, dripping water, mud, crab shells all over the carpet. Nan’s not happy. She forgot to lay out the newspaper.
After dinner Nan and Mum sit at the table drinking tea. Mum looks tired, belly heavy. Grandad entertains us with relics from the war. A photo of Burnham Army Camp, a black and white of Lyttelton, years ago. Death of comrades. He looks sad to us. At the table Mum pours Nan more tea and beneath us the bach shudders, creaks, looks away.
This morning is filled with longing. That’s what Grandad says as he steps out onto wet grass, gumboots squelching. The paddock wraps around the bach’s backside. The horses are grazing at the top of the hill, by a lonely tree that Grandad loves but we never remember the name of. We walk through knee-high grass, watch as the bach grows smaller, a peeling fragment, the sea opens out behind it, can you see the sperm whale kids? It’s there, just below the surface, a dark blue shadow, a king of his wet country! We nod sagely, small heads bobbing.
Back at the bach, Nan is cooking lobster, fat and pimple-red inside its pot. Mum washes mesclun in a bowl, her belly bigger than it was yesterday. She places a hand on the small of her back, sighs. The kitchen hums as we enter. Trailing mud again, Nan whooshes, eyebrows sour. Beneath us the floor begins to sing.
When Uncle Killian arrives, we feel it. The bach droops, as if leaned against by a tired wind. We are polarised, hands itching to hold it back up, gently, the way we reach for Mum’s belly under the flap of her shirt. But Uncle Killian is here and he has arms swathed in hair, he has a swollen upper lip and a tattoo that blooms over his right calf. His gaze arrests us, holds us deep. Nan overcooks the lobster.
You know it needs to go, Dad.
No, Son, we don’t know that.
It’s falling apart. Sell it. Move to the city. You’re too old to repair it.
How’s the lobster, Son? That’s Nan.
Cooked it too much, Ma, these little buggers distracting you. Ha.
Mum tsks. Hand moves protectively over her belly. Uncle Killian sneers at her,
Alone again, Helen? He’s the real bugger.
Mum tells us to leave the table after that.
We play checkers on an ancient board with made up rules, tummies tucked into the carpet’s grooves. Grandad laughs at us. Mum’s gone for a lie-down and Uncle Killian is inspecting the property. Nan sits at the window and fidgets.
Calm it, Lorna, Grandad says kindly. We look up from our game.
Soon Grandad’s in the kitchen making dinner. Mashed potato and green beans and lamb.
Back from his inspection, Uncle Killian preys on us.
Dad showed you his army momentos yet? A snort. He didn’t even get to fight, poor bloke. Didn’t even pass the fit-to-fight test. He’s bloody deaf in one ear. Ha ha! Imagine that, all your mates dying and you stay alive because you weren’t good enough to help. Kills him, I bet.
The bach sags, sways.
The real estate man has a moustache and bright black shoes. He keeps pushing his glasses up his nose as Uncle Killian leads him around the house. Nan’s gone down to the beach with a bucket. Leaving, the wrinkles on her face look like holes. Grandad’s in the garden, poking at the flowers. Behind him the apple trees are turning orange, leaves flop to the ground. Soon we’re outside shuffling the leaves into bags. Mum’s bent over, pawing at them with her fingers.
Don’t worry, kids. Nothing’s going to happen to this place.
Paws harder at the earth.
We know what she really means. Empty pill bottles and the mask he wears at night, plastic strapped to his face with breath inside it. We saw him do it once, the rise and fall, Nan’s face soft with love. We felt clunky, watching them like that. Not like Mum and Dad, with all that space between them.
The real estate man inspects the oven and the water cupboard, tests the wood strips across the verandah, looks at the piping under the sink. Peers under every bed, through every window, and for once the bach is silent. Uncle Killian is deliberate, business-like. When they pause at the gate to say goodbye, he looks back. Back at the apple trees (they are bright flames), at Mum’s belly hovering over the earth, at Grandad swaying by the rosemary. They are straining to listen, we all are, even the bach. It’s silence sounds old. Uncle Killian clutches his elbows, dumps his adam’s apple.
We’ll think about it, he says. Shakes the real estate man’s hand.
The morning we leave and Grandad wakes us before the sun is up. Fingers at the light switch, a nose in the crack of the door. Get up kids, put on your jackets. He takes us to the beach and down to the wharf. Herds us onto the boat. Pink, scratchy sky. Different world out here, eh kids. Beautiful, like your Nan before she sours. Beautiful without walls and old paint.
We’re leaning over the sides, noses near skimming the water, air bursting from mouths in nuclear puffs. Wind swipes down on us, hard. Fingers ache with cold. We don’t mind, Grandad’s unspooling his fishing rod, casting it out into his wet country.
Say we catch a fish, eh kids, say we catch a whale bigger than our bach, bigger than Kaikoura! We laugh at the enormity of it, the atrocity. Nan climbing over its country-long rubber, trying to cut us up some for tea. It would take at least a hundred pots to cook it! Grandad chuckles, probably more, he says, and then sobers. Pulls the rod back in, winds it up. Soon we’re chugging back into harbour, nudging up against the wharf, rigging down. We see our 4WD parked out front, that winding road. Water rolling out beside it like dirty, lumpy metal. The cliffs that will lead us up and out. We see the bach, alone except for a tired letterbox, a thin iron shed, lengths of paddock, smatterings of boneseed. Nan will be making breakfast, the bach aching, swaying beneath her. And behind us a whale swims, just below the surface. A dark blue shadow. A king of his wet country.