Rotoroa

Rotoroa

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Rotoroa Island in the Hauraki Gulf, tiny and isolated, is home to a Salvation Army facility for alcoholic men. It’s also where three people at very different points in their lives share a fleeting encounter. There is Katherine, known to history as Elsie K. Morton, famous journalist and author; Jim, an alcoholic with a young family; and Lorna, a teenage mother who has turned to religion, looking for a fresh start. As the stories of their lives are revealed, so too are their hopes and vulnerabilities. 
Set in the 1950s, as New Zealand society is starting to change under the pressure of new cultural energies, Rotoroa is a compassionate, beautifully unfolding examination of loss and the possibility of renewal. Told with subtlety and intelligence, this novel affirms Amy Head as a remarkable new voice.
‘This daring novel doesn’t shout at you. It makes its moves with such care and concealment that it’s a total surprise to find it has pressed such a weight against your chest. A beguiling and brilliant achievement!’ ­
—Damien Wilkins

Amy Head lives in Christchurch. Her first book, the short story collection Tough, was included in the NZ Listener and Metro best books lists for 2013 and was the winner of the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction in 2014.             

From: Rotoroa, by Amy Head

Lorna

Where you lived was important. Not Takapuna, which was Lorna’s neighbourhood at the time, but the house and section itself. If theirs was white-painted timber, and boxy (they could pick their own window trim); if they had a lawn and a low wall at the front and a driveway for a car, because more and more people had them then, though not them, the Vardys, not for another year; if her dad went to work in the morning and her mum was out at the washing line from time to time; in other words, if their house was near enough to being the same as everyone else’s: then they’d have to be all puffed up to think anything that went on inside their own four walls mattered, wouldn’t they? It couldn’t make much difference if Lorna was an only child or if they tended not to invite people around. Everything important happened in the outside world, a long way off.

Who do you think it was at the door that day but two Mormon missionaries, their bikes leaned at the gate, their suits crease-free, jackets and ties on, so polite. Could they speak to her mother, they asked? So she let them in, and would her mother be willing to stay and listen for a few moments, they wanted to know. Yes she would, but they didn’t know that the reason Lorna’s mum listened so willingly, propped up in her armchair, was that her back was playing up that day (she would sometimes have to lie on the floor—at least once she had eased herself up from this position and told Lorna it was time they vacuumed the carpet). As it turned out, having such well-presented young men request an interview breathed life into her mum that day, the promise of something new.

For a start, both were Americans, representatives of the wider world who waltzed in and took up positions on the couch and were friendly to them, never mind what they said. More than that, they were young. They said Jesus made them happy. Well, Lorna and her mum were pleased for them. Could they come back and speak to her father? Yes of course, far better for them to explain it to him than them, so yes, please do, and when they stood to go, suits not quite the style other men might wear but so neat, Elder Cowley addressed a question not to Lorna exactly but about her: did she play sport? She’d started at high school the year before and in the basketball team a few months earlier. Yes she does, her mum said. Did she know about men’s basketball, where they bounce instead of throw, and the hoop is higher, with a backboard, and Lorna had to answer this one herself. Yes she did. Had she heard of the Harlem Globetrotters? Jumpin’ Johnny Wilson? The Globetrotters yes, Jumpin’ Johnny no. The missionaries left gospel tracts behind.

They parked their bikes in the same spot the next day, Saturday. This time they wanted Jesus to make the Vardys happy too. Elder Cowley sat at the very front of the settee cushion, leaning forwards, speaking to Lorna’s dad. ‘I’d like to ask you one thing if I may.’

Lorna guessed he was about nineteen or twenty. She’d seen Americans before, when they’d visited her school, but she’d never had a conversation with one. He had doe-like eyes and short, bristling hair. He reminded her of the young men in army posters.

‘Do you have difficulties in life,’ Elder Cowley asked, ‘things you would like to change?’

Lorna’s dad placed both hands on his knees. ‘Don’t we all?’ Her mum glanced at him. He was short and red-cheeked, her dad, and his blond hair got wild if it grew more than an inch long. She knew that from the time he’d gone to hospital and didn’t have a chance to get his hair cut before he came home. He said, ‘It’s a funny thing that I slog away at the brickworks and it’s Mum here who’s got the bad back.’ Not funny at all, Lorna thought. The Elders egged him on and pointed out passages in the Bible where God had solved a wide variety of problems, from hunger and floods to moral dilemmas. They mentioned Jesus and God casually, as though they lived over in Devonport, where the Mormons held their meetings. Her parents enjoyed the Elders’ nodding attention, that was obvious, or they wouldn’t have sent her out of the room so they could discuss different troubles she wasn’t supposed to hear. When she left them sitting there, she didn’t know how long this new order would last, her mum hopeful and her dad as though he’d been washed up on a beach without leaving the lounge, or if they were her new parents, permanently.

When her dad lost his temper over something small, say she’d bruised an apple and put it back in the bowl, he would find her afterwards. He’d crouch down beside her in her usual place at the side of the house—corrugated iron and fence posts and the mossy carpet between blades of grass—and he’d just stay there for a while. He wouldn’t say sorry, but Lorna knew that was what he meant. Every morning before work he swept the path and driveway with a broom, never mind that the dropped seedpods might blow over from next door or that Lorna might scatter sand across them when she got home. And he stood to attention in company, almost any company. He was standing like that the day he got back from the war, when he went to collect her from school.

She was five. One day he wasn’t there then he was, a father who arrived in her life instead of being around from the start. When he greeted her at the front gates, pulled up so straight and looking so serious, she was awed to think that he was going to live in their house. She couldn’t have anything to say that would interest him, but it didn’t matter in the end because she was too distracted to try. He walked them the wrong way home, and she grew frightened. He might not know the way. He might be taking her somewhere different. He might be the wrong person, someone else’s father who had just got back from the war. She didn’t recognise him and she didn’t recognise those streets. When they turned a corner to see the hedge of wild currant and hear the rushing of water under the manhole cover beside the footpath—there was the wooden cat ornament attached to Old Lady Sumpter’s letterbox—she was so relieved that she asked him for the treat her mother had told her to expect, something from overseas, and was crushed when he told her: ‘I had better things to worry about than buying presents.’

This turned out not to be true. There were two gifts, actually. She shouldn’t ask for presents, he said (it was she who didn’t know the right ways of doing things, as far as he was concerned). One was a circular piece of tin with a rim, and a picture of a ship emerging from the Stars and Stripes, with the word ‘Starline’ across the top. This object was in fact an ashtray, not that it made any difference to Lorna at the time. He also gave her lollies she’d never seen before. Spangles, which rattled invitingly in their box, and a Sherbet Fountain, which was bliss, fizzy and soft with a liquorice straw, easily the best. She kept the Spangles and the Sherbet Fountain in the ashtray on her dressing table where they more than made up for the scare she’d had earlier. She was sure nobody at school would be able to compete with this treasure until one girl showed her the Harrods of London tin she kept her pencils in. Lorna didn’t tell the girl, but she still preferred hers, because it stirred up dreams of travel and, after the lollies had been eaten, cradled sweet ghosts.

Tea was off limits in the Word of Wisdom, so her parents began their formal investigation of the faith over water. They learned about Joseph Smith, the American Revelation and a chosen people who could spread their testimony throughout the world. Lorna looked forward to seeing the Elders in the evening, in the lounge or at the table, especially Elder Cowley. She made sure she’d changed out of her school uniform into a skirt and jersey (or ‘sweater’) and brushed her hair, but to gussy herself up any more than that would have been immodest. They always wore their suits, but one night they arrived in raincoats with their trousers wet. When she handed each of them a towel, doing as she was told, she noticed one of their coats was hung with the tag facing outward. It was different from the ones she was used to, not yellow but a slick, dripping green. She looked for the brand, expecting something exotic, and saw an extra label had been sewn in and written on with a marker: ‘If found please return to Neil Cowley’. It took her a moment to realise that this was Elder Cowley’s coat. His first name was Neil. Underneath that, an address had been crossed out and replaced with another: 4 Taunton Street, Belmont. She didn’t know Taunton Street, but Belmont was the next suburb over.

The five of them could only just fit around the kitchen table. Elder Cowley’s skin was flushed when he sat down, and after he’d begun he had to stop and lean over his manual, A Systematic Programme for Teaching the Gospel, to remind himself of the spiritual reference he was looking for. This studious pose didn’t suit him. He was still growing into his bulk. Lorna had found herself following his progress when he passed by any neat arrangements, any objects that might tip or shatter. When he did gain mastery, there’d be nothing he couldn’t do. He could win a gold medal.

Elder Miller, having less to keep track of, seemed to be in complete control of every limb and digit. Lorna could imagine him at a desk beside a telephone. While they waited he pointed at the jar of Vegemite on the bench. ‘We don’t have this,’ he said. ‘I see it everywhere. Is it malty?’

‘Salty,’ Lorna’s mum said. ‘It’s made from yeast extract.’

‘Is that right?’ Elder Miller watched Elder Cowley flick through the pages.

‘They work you hard, don’t they?’ her dad said. He would have been less likely to listen to the Elders if he thought they had it easy.

‘Here it is,’ Elder Cowley said. ‘Ephesians four. Christ appointed apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.’ His lips were full like pillows, almost too full, as though they’d be cumbersome to eat and speak with. ‘We’re talking about man’s need for authority, not just in the heavens but here on Earth, flesh and bones. There are apostles among us right now. Who else was flesh and bones, from our last discussion?’

‘God and Jesus,’ Lorna said. The Mormon lessons blended the Bible stories with the real world. They were living in their own Bible now—they didn’t have to wait until they were in heaven. ‘Only the Holy Ghost is a spirit.’

‘That’s right,’ said Elder Cowley. ‘You’ve been listening.’

Elder Miller was nodding at Lorna as though he’d only just noticed she was there. ‘Lorna would be the right age to supervise the children in our primary session,’ he said. ‘Has Sister Palmer asked you about that?’

When the lesson was over, the family grouped around the door to see the Elders out. Lorna’s mum pulled back the curtain and peered outside. ‘Are you sure you’ll be all right? I don’t like sending you back out into this rain.’

‘We’ll be fine.’ Elder Miller wouldn’t be diverted from putting his coat back on.

Her mum hadn’t quite got it out of her system. ‘I’d be tempted to get the camp beds out if I thought you’d stop here.’

Lorna glanced at Elder Cowley. He met her eye for a beat, then went back to putting his arm into the sleeve of his raincoat. Neil Cowley, that was his name. She was going to think of him as Neil from now on.

‘Don’t be silly,’ her dad said. ‘Let them get on with it.’ He opened the door.

‘See you on Sunday,’ Elder Miller said.

It was her dad who dusted off birth certificates and visited registry offices, and who ordered their genealogical supplies from the church (‘What’s the difference between a Handy Book for Genealogists and a Genealogy Handbook?’ he asked. ‘The Handbook is cheaper,’ Lorna’s mum said.) He traced their lineage, including her mum’s Scottish parents in Whangarei, all the way back to a drover from Jersey on her dad’s side who came via New South Wales and who may have had criminal secrets but could still, in death, be baptised and saved so they could join him in eternity. The only hurdle was, none of their living relatives wanted to be baptised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Lorna’s grandpa just shook his head and looked uncomfortable. He had a moustache and a gentle forward curve. In his cardigan, he looked like a bear. ‘I can give you a copy of our gospel to take with you,’ her mum said. ‘There’s a branch in Whangarei who would send someone over to visit.’ She sat at the front of her chair the way Elder Cowley had, holding her back straight by pushing her hands into the seat on either side of her legs. Gran was a similar height to Grandpa but more imposing. She fixed her glare on Lorna, leading from the nose and brow. They were currently Presbyterians. ‘What do you make of all this?’ she asked. ‘You’re being a good girl and following along, are you?’

Lorna didn’t know how to answer. People didn’t usually ask her opinion. She thought Gran might understand better if she met the Elders and heard what they promised. The girls at school thought crossing the harbour to Auckland was the great beyond. They had no idea. Church magazines such as the Relief Society used words like ‘fall’ for autumn, and ‘pavement’ and ‘drugstore’. The style of the drawings in the Mormon pamphlets was completely different. Jesus was stronger and more handsome.

‘We met another family in the church,’ Lorna said. ‘Their daughter has been called to the States. She’s going next year.’

Gran smiled for the first time since Lorna’s mum had started talking. ‘Nothing like a healthy dose of self-interest to keep you grounded,’ she said. ‘Have you heard of Short Creek?’

‘They were fundamentalists,’ Lorna’s mum said. ‘The church denounced them.’

‘Well, don’t believe everything you hear, but believe some things,’ Gran said. ‘I wouldn’t bother trying to recruit any of our departed on this side of the family. They’re happy where they are.’

Grandpa had been watching Lorna’s dad. He tapped his tarry pipe on the side of the ashtray and sighed. Tobacco wasn’t allowed in the Word of Wisdom either, but her mum had decided to make tea and put an ashtray out to start them off on a familiar footing. Lorna was probably the one who was most comforted. Her grandparents were the same as ever, right down to Grandpa’s bitter smell. ‘If you get some peace out of this, George,’ he said, ‘it will be worth it.’

Funny he should say that, Lorna thought. It had been ages since she’d been awoken by her dad’s cries, muffled but urgent, and had opened her bedroom door. The hallway would be swamped in thick darkness and foreign, and her mum would be murmuring wordlessly from their room. She’d tended not to bother them with her own worries. Besides, chances were she would have forgotten by the time she woke up. Usually she would have; not always.

The morning Neil visited her during the primary session, the younger children were interpreting the Holy Trinity in crayon: one wanted to talk to Lorna non-stop, the others had their elbows splayed and their faces an inch away from the paper or their heads leaned in together, conspiring. Neil and Elder Miller were a pair, which meant they were supposed to be together all the time, but Neil was alone that day, without the other’s mild, specky influence. ‘Ignore me,’ he said, but it wasn’t easy when he placed a chair down beside her amongst the unselfconscious bodies, swinging feet, wet tongues fixed in the corners of mouths, fingers twisting hair. His knees stuck up from the child’s seat he was on and Lorna could see the shapes of his thighs through his suit trousers, hard versus her soft. The girl who had been chattering at her picked up a crayon and put on a mask of concentration. From time to time a car would rumble past outside, the sound carried through high windows. ‘Where’s your picture?’ Neil asked her.

‘I’m helping them.’

‘I’ll give it a try.’ He rummaged in the crayon box and came out with an orange. He drew three circles and began shading them in. ‘You only need to create the right feeling,’ he said. ‘It can be symbolic.’ She watched him add pulsating rays that covered the whole page. She was glad she hadn’t started a picture after all. It would have been mediocre. She didn’t know how to respond to this level of attention except to try to breathe evenly, which wasn’t easy, and hope the air would travel smoothly through the thumping in her chest. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘What month were you born?’

‘November,’ she said.

‘“November.” That accent is so cute.’ She thought, What accent? He’d had ample opportunity to comment on it before. He was acting different. He took a chapbook out of his pocket and flicked to the page he wanted. ‘November,’ he said, ‘which is the same as my brother. Says here your stone is topaz and your flower is—’ he had to sound it out—‘chrys-an-the-mum. What’s that?’

‘It’s like a dahlia,’ she said, but he didn’t show any signs of knowing what one of those was either. She’d been worried that he might ask a gospel question, but God hadn’t come up.

‘Do you know what colour a topaz is?’ he asked.

‘It’s yellow.’ She had a doll called Topaz.

‘Right!’ He held out the open book to show her the picture. ‘That’s Topaz Mountain, in Utah, where they mine for them. You might go there one day.’

‘Does this look like Godhead?’ Wiremu had brought his drawing over to show Lorna. He looked sceptical as usual. What he’d drawn resembled Cerberus, from her Greek Myths and Legends unit. She angled it so Neil could see it.

‘Holy moly,’ he said.

‘The Father, Son and Spirit seem quite angry,’ Lorna said.

‘I’ll help you with it,’ Neil said. Wiremu pointed his questioning gaze at Lorna. She nodded encouragement and handed the drawing to Neil.

‘We teach that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are three separate and distinct personages,’ Neil said, reaching for the crayons. ‘We might have to perform surgery here.’

Later, too late, Lorna found out that Neil’s father had shipped him over from Salt Lake City to get him away from something. In the meantime he leaned in towards her and spoke very quietly. ‘Have you ever heard of necking?’ She hadn’t. It sounded as though it could have something to do with poultry. He was so close to her, though, and his voice was so low, that she sensed the kind of thing it might be.

Walking back from lunch, Lorna’s mum told them that Barbara, whose husband had the goitre, had seen the branch president, Elder Palmer, with his wife in their car that morning and that she, Sister Palmer, had been primping in her hand mirror like a debutante. Barbara was a gossip, her dad said. He had begun to dress more smartly in recent months and wore a shirt and sports jacket more often, whereas her mum wore less lipstick and rouge than before. In particular, women had to guard against the wrong kind of attention. What Lorna had noticed, though, was that the most senior Sisters were the ones who took the most care over their appearance. They might be more confident about where the line was. Sister Palmer, who led the Mia Maids group for fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, told the girls later the same day that God would choose a husband for each of them. Just sit tight and wait. He would tell the men. They would know, and they would come looking.

She began her investigation of necking at school, while sitting out basketball practice at the side of the court. Her mum had disapproved of the way the girls’ skirts flew around ever since the high school ‘she-demons’ in Christchurch had murdered one of their mothers. The case was in all the newspapers and on the radio, but she wouldn’t have it mentioned in the house. Lorna was reading a story in the Improvement Era about Marsha, who was an Honour Bee, and how she refused when Thad offered her alcohol. No one would ever be called Thad in New Zealand, holy or unholy, and no one outside their branch would understand about being an Honour Bee.

Through the scuffing of shoes on concrete, the teacher blew her whistle. ‘Aggressive play, Anne Fletcher.’ The scuffing stopped, and a few moments later the bench shifted as Anne Fletcher sat down beside Lorna. On the field behind the court, a line of soccer boys stopped running, touched the ground, and ran back the other way. Lorna could sense Anne’s face turned towards her. ‘Do you have it bad, that time of the month?’ Anne asked eventually.

‘Sometimes,’ Lorna replied. When she didn’t say anything else, Anne sat back and faced forward. To her and her friends, Baptists were happy clappies, Germans were Jerrys, and Catholics were tolerated because there were so many. For Lorna’s part, she knew Anne was exposed to all manner of corrupting influences. That’s what people at church said about families that weren’t religious. On the other hand, if she was willing to discuss periods, she might discuss other things. The players had formed a semi-circle to practise their shooting. The ball bounced off the hoop over and over again, every now and then juddering through.

‘You’re a Mormon aren’t you?’ Anne said. ‘That’s the American one, isn’t it? Are there Americans in your church?’

‘Quite a few, the missionaries are.’

‘Do they have a lot of wives? That’s Mormons, isn’t it?’ A seagull on a rubbish bin watched with its empty stare or didn’t watch, impossible to tell.

‘Only a few did,’ Lorna said. ‘Last century.’ Anne’s wide, freckled face wasn’t hostile. If anything, she seemed curious, even eager. Lorna decided to risk it. Anne might tell her friends, but there was nothing Lorna could do about that. She leaned in and lowered her voice.

‘Do you know what necking is?’

‘Are you kidding?’ She said it loud enough to scare the seagull away. The teacher on the court turned towards them, then back again. She must have decided Anne was a lost cause. ‘Why?’

Lorna didn’t answer her.

‘It’s kissing and that,’ Anne whispered, and Lorna felt what she thought might be the blessing of the Holy Spirit, like a rubber band pulled back in her stomach.

Taunton Street ran across three squares on the map Lorna had taken from the shelf above the serving hatch at home. Her mum thought she was at the library. The school bus had run parallel to Taunton for more than two years, but as soon as she got off at the unfamiliar stop and turned the corner away from Lake Road it was as though she’d entered a different realm, where the ground tilted, the green-sprouting trees were taller than theirs and there were no front walls or hedges or fences, just broad lawns open to her and anyone who happened to go past. Here, she was under a nothing-grey dome of sky, smack-bang in the outside world for anyone to see. Neil and Elder Miller could be behind her or across the road, and what would she say if she bumped into them? It might be God warning her off, that rush inside her when she saw the number two on a letterbox, not a sudden jolt but something that gripped and held her, pumping her heart harder. The Elders stayed at number four. She would have thought God would understand: the end result would be the same, wouldn’t it, whether or not she sat tight and waited for something to happen? In her satchel was an envelope addressed to Neil and inside that was a beach stone, which had been sitting on her windowsill since she was little. Its orange grain had dulled now, and of course she knew it wasn’t topaz, but there were seer stones in the Book of Mormon, and this one might prophesise something.

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