Connected---from 'Coastal Yarns'
NEARLY ONE HUNDRED years of constant effort had not succeeded in broaching the defences of the old bach. Wind and hail had only managed to give the paintwork a rustic appearance and possibly a few windows stuck a little when opened in the winter. Even the cruel southerly wind from the far reaches of the frigid ocean merely passed the iconic bach to try less resilient targets. They weren't constructed using the native woods from the area; more thrown together by builders less connected to the concept of creating a home away from home.
A face appeared at the window, looking out to the nearby Kapiti Island. He pulled the curtains aside to let the natural light in; still struggling to break through the grey clouds. The sun had yet to appear from behind the majestic hills that ran like a dragon's skeleton along the coast, just inland from the narrow band of land that had to share the limited space with a railway line, road and human habitation.
The man smiled as he surveyed the island. He often wondered what it would be like to live there but he knew that it was off limits to all but the officers who worked to keep the fauna and flora safe from the invasions of would be desecrators. The island had a history; one that he was only vaguely aware of. The warrior chief Te Rauparaha had long disappeared into history; thankfully, some would say, others not so sure.
He turned around and shuffled towards the tiny kitchen, catching his slippers on the loose mat. ‘Damn… I need to fix that to the floor. One day I’m gonna come a real cropper.’ he muttered.
He was alone again. His partner rarely joined him at the bach. She preferred the comforts of the city apartment, forty kilometres or so south. Her job demanded her presence, even in the weekends, leaving him free to visit the bach most weekends and school holidays. He had managed to persuade her to join him from time to time but generally she suffered these visits in a manner that was gradually driving them apart.
For a time he had worried about his partner’s lack of interest in the bach. Had she drifted away from him? He tried not to think about it too much; it hurt and he was unwilling to accept that his marriage was anything but idyllic. The children had long since left to chase their own dreams, some as far away as Canada and Brunei, rarely visiting their parents and even more unlikely to keep in contact the good old fashioned way… writing letters. He had refused to use a computer and e-mails. He stubbornly wrote letters on a monthly basis and then complained to his partner that they never wrote back. She just shrugged off his almost petulant comments which continued to grow the gap between them.
Retirement was about five years away. After nearly thirty five years attending the educational needs of several generations, he almost yearned for the magic age looming in the not too distant future. He had often sat on the small porch as the sun buried itself beneath the Tasman Ocean, wondering how he would fill in his time once he finally stumbled into his twilight years. He had mixed feelings about leaving the profession in which he had spent the majority of his working life.
He sighed as he plugged the old kettle into the wall socket, while outside the kitchen window the Tuis frolicked in the trees that lined the pathway from the road. A smile invaded his otherwise thoughtful face as he remembered the times when the Tuis had drunkenly toppled from the branches after consuming vast quantities of nectar from the flowering Kowhai tree. However today, in the middle of winter, the pickings were less obvious and the birds had to satisfy themselves with more meagre offerings.
The click of the kettle turning off brought him back to his immediate task. Tea bags had to substitute his usual leaf tea. He preferred a pot of the brew to sit, gradually gaining in strength, allowing him to add to the pot so that by the time the pot was cold, a good deal of time would have passed. The toaster was even older than the kettle; it was a flip flop style, often causing the room to fill with acrid smoke if he left it unattended for too long. This was one of those mornings.
'Shit!' He rushed to the front door leading to the semi-enclosed deck and opened it to let the billowing smoke from the ruined toast out and uttered his contempt for his stupidity. 'Damn... that was the last of the bread.'
His thoughts turned to the ten minute walk to the shops down the road in the village near the railway line. He pondered whether he should take the car or risk a chilling shower. The tea bag was already brewing so he delayed his walk until he had sipped a quick cuppa while watching the island in the distance, the sun's rays bathing the eastern heights.
A sudden chill rippled down his spine, feeling like something had briefly touched him. This feeling was more than physical; it wasn't that he was cold, tired or hungry. Emptiness dominated his thoughts. He had sensed the same feeling several times in the past when he stared at the island in the distance. Normally he had shrugged the sensation aside and continued with whatever chore he had embarked on. This time he could not shake the feeling. It stayed, defying all his efforts to connect with the here and now.
It was only when a rainbow appeared over the strip of water, separating the island from the nearby coast, that he was able to drag himself away from the porch.
The tea cup was left on the wooden bench alongside the unwashed dishes from the previous night. He put his feet into his sport shoes, ignoring the socks lying beside them, tied the laces and then put an old jacket over his T shirt, hoping that it was still up to defending him from the unrelenting cold wind. The jacket had hung in the same place for the last twenty years, shared by the various occupants of the bach. The colour had faded to something between red and grey, surviving numerous hand washes in the ancient tub that was squashed between the toilet and the bath.
When he opened the door onto the porch he was immediately aware of the change in temperature. Even the lack of insulation in the batch was preferable to the wind that now assaulted him from the south but he steeled himself against the elements, just as he always did. He waved to a neighbour as he shut the old gate and headed towards the village.
He had taken the same journey on countless occasions but this morning was different. The feeling he had experienced a few minutes previously still lingered at the edge of his mind. Even the brisk walk failed to dislodge it completely. It was as if he had forgotten something important; he was unable to focus, yet knowing that he would regret it if he didn’t remember.
‘God… you really are heading towards dementia or Alzheimer’s!’ he said aloud, shuffling away from a woman who was glaring at him as if he had insulted her in some way.
The houses he passed were a collection of the old holiday homes that had been common on the Kapiti coast for decades, along with the recent arrivals of a more modern type of construction. The people who inhabited them were also different; the occupants of the former a generation satisfied with the simple and the others demanding technology and comfort.
Most of the early morning walkers he observed were hurrying to catch the train into the city. They were used to the vagaries of the weather, obviously prepared for most eventualities, with coats and umbrellas common. The hills behind the station did little to shield the small settlement from the savage southerly as it did its best to delay the commuters or better still, persuade them to change their minds about going to work.
About halfway to the shops, the man approached an old abandoned shop, its original focus had changed many times over the years. Now it looked like a cross between a junk shop and an alternate type of residence. It had a large mirror in the front window facing the footpath. There was no discernible reason for this but it probably reminded many passers-by just how dishevelled they had become since leaving the warmth of their homes.
The man stopped, as he often did on his morning walks, whether it was through vanity or habit depended on the mood on the particular day. In his youth he had cut a fine figure and his ruggedly handsome face had attracted the attention of many young women, his present partner amongst them. Now as he stared at the reflection looking back at him he sighed. Although still relatively fit for his age, the face before him told a different story about his state of mind.
While he sheltered in the relative protection the old shop offered, he noticed lines under his eyes that he was sure hadn't been there the day before.
'Maybe you're just getting older, eh? I better stop talking to myself or someone's gonna notice soon.' He laughed at the thought of his kids overseas. They had teased him the last time they came home on one of their rare visits at Christmas.
A creepy feeling seemed to engulf him, taking hold in a way that rooted him to the spot in front of the mirror in the shop. A shadowy image of an old woman was reflected either in the glass or the mirror. He felt her eyes boring into him. Part of him wanted to turn and look directly at her but he couldn’t move. His feet felt heavy as if they were nailed to the footpath. The thought filled him with uncertainty as he tried to break free of her gaze. He was fuelled by a deep need to know who she was, where she came from.
He struggled to free himself from his immobility as panic started to take hold. In the distance he could hear the waves breaking on the beach, driven at a crazy angle by the southerly wind. With a Herculean effort he managed to move a few centimetres and gradually he turned to face the old woman, only to find that there was no one there.
The road was almost deserted apart from a distant figure, hurrying to the station a hundred metres away. Where had the face in the reflection gone? He began to doubt that he had seen her at all. He was able to move freely again and the air around him no longer had the heavy feeling he had noticed before he left the bach.
The man continued towards the shop in the small shopping centre. The present owners had left the old world atmosphere unaltered, with its plank floor that squeaked in parts, especially near the freezers. For a small shop it was well stocked with a huge variety of groceries and other general goods. The larger supermarkets less than ten minutes’ drive away may have been cheaper and offered a wider range of goods, but the shop had many loyal customers, unwilling to see the shop close like most of its kind in other parts of the coast.
He brought his gluten free bread and a newspaper before leaving the shop. His plan was to take the longer route home along the beach. With his purchases safely enclosed in a plastic bag he headed directly towards the beach, taking the steps down to the sand. The wind had not relented, if anything it had increased in intensity, succeeding in driving everyone from its domain. The man was alone on the long beach as he headed north towards the bach. Kapiti Island loomed majestically just off the coast, the northern end shrouded in sea mist.
The wind was strong enough to give him the sense that he was being propelled along the beach. His jacket took on the form of a wind sail, causing him to almost stumble as he plotted his path between the high tide mark and the wet sand near the waters’ edge. The waves broke at an angle that was slightly deceiving, occasionally catching him before he could escape their attempts to snare him. It wasn’t long before he gave up trying to avoid the waves as his shoes filled with freezing water and his jeans became sodden up to his knees. The wind added to his discomfort but he ignored the chill, knowing that he had left the heater on low and the toast with scrambled eggs he planned for breakfast would soon cheer him up.
The tide was out, exposing sections of the beach that he rarely walked on during his morning walks. He loved to search for objects cast on the shore, especially after storms. The bach had an eclectic collection of ocean cast items, both inside and outside on the porch and in the garden. Wind-blasted driftwood moulded into weird shapes were the cause of many comments from visitors to the bach as were the colourful glass items, worn down by sand and water.
This morning he hoped to add to his collection but didn't fancy
dragging any of the larger flotsam like those he had discovered with his children in the times when they enjoyed the family breaks at the bach. No doubt they would screw their noses up at repeating those experiences now that they had sampled the more sophisticated offerings of the big wide world.
Halfway along the beach he stopped to examine some shells that appeared to be larger than those he normally associated with the area. He picked up the largest, examining its faded markings. Once in the deep pockets of his jacket he continued to amble along the sand. There was a respite in the swirling wind as it seemed to change from a southerly to a more westerly direction. This was not uncommon for this time of the year.
He could barely feel his toes as the chill took hold of his extremities. Thankfully he would be in the warmth of the bach within the next ten minutes, this thought caused him to pick up his pace and veer towards the small rise that led to the road that ran alongside the beach. The sun had broken through the roiling clouds, bringing brief moments of brightness and kinder temperatures. As he shuffled along, his left foot struck a heavy object lying partially exposed in the sand, eliciting a fowl curse before he bent to examine the offending shape.
He pulled the dark green oblong stone from the sand. His excitement lapsed when he realised that it was not one of the weapons that occasionally came to light on the coast, probably relics of long gone wars and raids from the north. Te Rauparaha came to mind when he thought of the battles that had raged near Kapiti Island before he too became a victim of a stronger military power.
This was not a weapon or anything else that the man was familiar with. The markings were etched into its surface. They were almost childlike in their patterns, covering the middle of the stone. He knew little of the nature of Pounamu or other stones and how they had been crafted to make sacred objects that represented deep meaning to the makers and subsequent owners but he sensed that he had stumbled across something beyond anything he had ever seen. Nothing he had seen in the museums around the country looked anything like this.
He gently fingered the smooth surface of the stone, feeling its glass-like finish, delighting in the coolness it imparted to his fingers. He wondered at the purpose its makers had intended and how many years had passed since its manufacture. When he looked up for a moment towards the island, the same feeling he had sensed before returned, only this time several times stronger.
The feeling was accompanied by a definite presence of someone watching him. He glanced behind him and froze. The same vision of the old lady he had seen in the shop window manifested itself in a strange shimmering light. It did not look solid. For the first time, he noticed her clothing. She was not dressed in a contemporary manner, more like elderly ladies he had seen in a Goldie painting.
He knew in an instant that he was not seeing something of his world, at least not from his present time. The old lady was silently mouthing words and gesticulating towards the stone and then pointing to the island. Her eyes were the only part of her that was clear; the rest of her form continued to shimmer in another- worldly appearance.
The wind suddenly stopped and his sense of time slowed. He was aware of his pulse and increased hearing. The gulls screamed as if they too were trying to inform him of the lady’s intentions. Then he began to hear her as she crooned over and over the same words. She did not speak English. He knew she spoke Māori and he understood, in spite of never having learned the language of his people.
'You must take the stone to your people on the island ... they are your people.'
A peace flowed over him, relieving him of the doubts he had felt for so long. He knew what he must do.
The island was part of his past... and of his future. He turned back to the vision. He was once again alone on the beach but not lonely. Nor would he ever be again.