Excerpt from Home to the Lake, a novel about the intertwined lives of a feisty spinster and an unruly lake, and the impact on both of ‘progress’ and colonial ‘land hunger’. The story is set in the remote south of New Zealand, between 1894 and 1968.
Bronwen Jones is a former journalist and current corporate writer, based at Diamond Harbour near Christchurch, New Zealand’s earthquake city. She is the recipient of NZ Society of Authors edit/assessment, and mentoring grants, and has a Master in Creative Writing (U. of Auckland). Home to the Lake is her first novel and is yet to find an agent or publisher. Meanwhile, Bronwen is writing her second historical novel.
This excerpt is from Chapter One, and is part of the submission for the first round of the Historical Novel Society International Award 2012/13, in which Home to the Lake longlisted. Jem Figge is trying to persuade her great-niece, Lyn, to leave the city, and come and look after her on her dilapidated lakeside farmlet, where the old woman lives with her cats and possums for company.
“The best solution, Lyn, the very best thing by far, is that you come out here to live with me and help me. You can ride your motorcycle to work, it is no distance to town these days with a fast vehicle. You see, don’t you, that this is the best thing?”
Lyn sits back. “Best thing for whom?” It is barely a whisper but it slices my heart. She twists her Great-grandfather’s precious Labour card in her fingers, and the longer she sits there, the steeper the downward slant of my sinking gut.
“Oh god." The crack in her voice is another warning and, in my mind, my hands cover my ears. "I can’t live out here, much as I love visiting. Sandy and me, we’ve just got a flat together in Sumner and we’re...Anyway, well, it’s this place too. Damp. Swamp. Wind howling off the lake. Big trees hovering like zombies in The Night of the Living Dead. It’s...oh....”
But she does not have to say the word because her face and body scream it at me. Depressing. I feel the slap of a cold hand.
“Your Great-grandfather bounced you on his knee when you were just a little dot.” My throat is stripped. “He is here, in the walls, in the air.”
The silly girl looks around as if expecting to see his ghost and if I were not so grieved I would laugh. She has always said this place is haunted. I know it is, and that is the way I like it.
Through the window, another black cloud bank heads this way and in it I see the black horses of Armageddon. I am dead quiet. “If you will not live here with me, then it is the end.”
Her mouth works, like her Great-grandfather’s did in those rare moments when words escaped him. “The end of what? Whose end? Are you saying I’ll cause you to…?”
She shrieks a little laugh and shakes her head, then gets to her feet, shifts the kettle off the heat and stares out the window. She comes back at last and faces me, leaning on the back of Father’s chair.
“The truth is,” she says softly. “I’ve been having a think too. You’re right. An end is coming. You can’t go on living out here alone. No one to look after you. That fall could have been much worse.”
I am unsure whether to nod or deny—these failings are all the more reason for her to live here.
“What if you fall and break something and can’t get up? You’d be stuck on the floor for days.”
“People come in—Peg, Cliff, Gail and the kiddies, Mr Suckling.”
“Not every day.”
|The lives of a feisty spinster and an unruly lake are intertwined|
This is true. Sometimes I go many days without seeing a soul and in my unbearable loneliness I stand at my letterbox in case a neighbour should pass, or I wheel out my creaking bicycle and ride around to Rangimarie.
Lyn paces the kitchen. “You don’t eat enough either. You’ve just fed Gail’s Red Cross meal to the cats. Again. For all I know you eat dog roll.”
Anxiously, I glance at her but she is not serious. What she does not know is that dog roll is not entirely unpalatable. She lets out a long sigh and wrenches around for something in her pants pocket.
“Here. I was going to talk to Peg first. But take a look.”
It is a pamphlet of some sort and she smoothes it on the table, leans on the back of the chair again. On it is a picture of a smiling silver-haired couple, a woman in a beige jersey frock and pearls, and a man in a knitted cable jumper the colour of the lake on a clear winter’s day. I am greatly taken with the contentedness that shines in their handsome faces.
I look to Lyn for a hint and am jolted by what I see there. Something akin, I’m sure, to what Jesus saw in Judas. Something dark moves within me and I feel my expression change to that of an old bitch who knows she is about to be put down.
“It’s a residence,” my Great-niece says, her brightness false now. “Each unit is standalone. Independent living. Maintenance taken care of. It’s a really good solution. Sandy thinks so too. She…”
This Sandra woman. I might have guessed. Small and neat in her navy twinset and pursed up tighter than a prune. She will not come inside but stands chatting on the doorstep pretending to be friendly, or hides in the car. Allergic to cats, Lyn says, and afraid of the possums. I am not good enough for her, apparently, and I cannot abide her.
“…shops close by,” Lyn goes on, “school children passing, people to talk to. You’re allowed to have a bird.”
“A bird.” And I am a parrot. A stunned parrot.
“A canary, say, or a budgie. Anyway, it’s close to the lake, this place. In Halswell. I can bring you out for drives in Sandy’s car.”
Now I see. I am no longer fooled by that picture. Glass shards prick the back of my neck and a familiar black worm squirms below my ribcage. Lyn wants to put me away, pass a death sentence, death among the decaying.
“You want to kill me.” My words have been forced through a mangle.
Her elbow slips from the back of the chair. “Not true.” She paces again. “Lordy, if I wanted to get rid of you I could just leave you here alone and you’d starve yourself to death like you’re already doing.”
“You will kill me,” I say again. “People die in these homes. Daniel died.”
“Grandpop was ancient and he had emphysema.”
“But he died in a home. Samuel too.”
She does that eye-rolling thing. “Great-uncle Samuel had to have round-the-clock care. He went la-la.”
“So. Do you think I am la-la? Is that it?”
“No. Of course not. But people die in homes because they’re old and—”
“No! They die because they’re stuck behind prison walls and the life is sucked out of them. What do you know? What can you know?” I sweep Father’s shoebox away, knocking over the cruet and sending salt in a spray across the tablecloth. Swiftly, I take a pinch and flick it at the devil that lurks over my left shoulder.
“In any case,” I say, “what would I do about my animals, about Stony Point?”
She leans forward, her face eager. “You could sell up. The Crown lease would fetch a bit and you could buy a single unit. I think the Council has some sort of subsidy too. You’ll have no more worries about this place, who’ll farm it, whether it slides into the lake.”
|'Home to the Lake' was longlisted for the HNS International Award 2012/2013|
Time pauses. Another future wafts alluringly before my eyes, a future without the worry of rates and lease payments, without roofs that leak, with no land to flood, no animals to look to you for sustenance. No ties. Almost like a prison, perhaps, but with some freedom and no dangerous inmates. I drift in a soundless mist, light in a vacuum of no responsibilities and no striving. Nothing to manage or control, nothing to save.
But who will I have to love?
I feel myself slipping. In the end, I cannot bear the loss of my animal friends and the loss of my ability to do for myself. The loss of Stony Point and its ghosts. The loss of myself.
Dark clouds suck the light from the room and out over the lake thunder crashes. In my mind, I see the black swans startle and take flight. Then a black serpent squirms beneath my ribcage, flicking its deadly tail. The Crown lease would fetch a bit. The girl has calculated my worth.
Fury moves in like a dark heat. At last I really know what this girl is up to. She is not the first and no doubt not the last. I see Father shaking his fist on the steps of Daniel’s place. Bugger off. Lace curtains move. Come on home, Miss Figge. Peggy’s young voice. I see her, gym slip fluttering in the icy wind off the sea.
“Oh no you don’t, girlie.” My voice is a heron’s croak. My feet take me, step by furious step, around the table towards her. The possums hiss, the cats move back. “You want me gone so you can get this place. Don’t you? Don’t you?”
She steps away, her face frozen. But I am not fooled. It is very clear to me now. She will sell Stony Point and take the money.
Lyn’s face melts from shock to some sort of understanding. “No, no. Aunty Jem, it’s nothing like that.” Stammering. Tripping over her own booted feet.
“Nothing like what?”
“You know. I heard Dad tell Mum about...Gosh. No. It’s nothing like that.”
“Don’t you judge me,” I shriek, spraying spittle. “What would you know of that? What business is it of yours? Now get out before I chase you down the hall with my broom.”
She snatches up her jacket and, facing away, takes a long moment to zip it up. Then she turns and holds up her palms. “Come on, cut it out. Just think about that residence for the future. That’s all.”
Jagged light rips through the darkened kitchen and a moment later the house jumps with a thump of thunder.
“Now I’m really going,” Lyn yells. “Or I’ll be forced off the road by sideways rain.”
In spite of my reptilian fury she touches me lightly on the shoulder then she is gone, stomping down the hall and throwing this back at me: “For god’s sake, let those poor bloody cats go free. You don’t want to live in a prison. Neither do they.”The front door slams.
by Bronwen Jones
|Bronwen Jones, a gifted novelist based in Christchurch, New Zealand|