Pebbles shifted underfoot as Luisa walked up the driveway to Edie’s house. The rain had stopped but everything was sodden: the grass, the earth, the dark green moss that edged the drive. Droplets of water plopped from the undersides of leaves. Sandflies had found Luisa’s exposed skin and their bites had swollen into large, irregular white welts, each with a red puncture mark at the centre. You must taste sweet – that was what her mother used to say when, as a child, she was persecuted by insects which left her sisters, with their olive complexions, alone.
The house, small and square, stood on stilts in a hacked out gap in the bush at the base of a ridge. It was encircled by a balcony which sagged on one side; wooden steps led up to a door on the other. Luisa tried to smooth her face dry with wet hands as she climbed. Her soaked dress clung to her thighs.
This wasn’t how she’d imagined it. She had flown down from Auckland that morning and picked up a rental car from Greymouth airport; Barrytown was to the north, marked on her map with a black dot. Fearful of being late, she’d allowed plenty of time for the drive, planning to sit in a café while she waited. But it turned out there was no café, no shops, no town to speak of, just an occasional letterbox at the roadside suggesting a house somewhere out of view, and a squat, brown-roofed pub, its doors closed and its windows dark.
She took the turn-off because she felt conspicuous waiting on the main road. It took her west, towards the sea, through flat green paddocks punctuated by nikau, their bulbous crownshafts balanced on slender trunks. At her back, visible in her rear-view mirror, bush-clad hills loomed. After a while the road began to dwindle. She didn’t know why she kept driving. She should have doubled back earlier. By the time she did, the road was no more than two tyre tracks with a hummock of grass along the centre. The ground was marshy. Particularly the spot in which she chose to turn. The engine whined and the back wheels skidded, digging trenches in the mud. She tried reversing, she tried going forwards; but the car wouldn’t budge.
She turned off the ignition and listened to the engine tick as it cooled. Fat raindrops began to spatter her windscreen.
‘Shit,’ she said.
She took her phone out of her handbag and called the emergency number printed on her rental car agreement.
‘Where did you say you were again?’ said the call handler. ‘I can’t seem to find it on the map.’
She put Luisa on hold and when she came back she said it would take two hours for a breakdown van reach her. Luisa told the handler she would have to call back later; she couldn’t wait that long. There was somewhere she had to be. She took her handbag, locked the car and walked back up the road, her heels leaving little round indentations in the soft earth.
Edie’s door was slightly ajar. ‘Just a minute,’ said a man’s voice, in response to Luisa’s knock. The door shuddered, then heaved open. It must have swollen or sunk on its hinges; repeated use had carved a semi-circle of scratches in the lino.
‘Oh dear,’ said the man, looking at Luisa. He was short and balding, with an oval of velvety fuzz on the top of his head.
‘It was raining,’ she said.
Luisa stepped through the porch into a cluttered kitchen, which opened to the right onto a room full of people talking in subdued voices. Luisa scanned the room for anyone who could conceivably be Adele … or Kit. There was a man who might have been him – the right age, round-shouldered, wiry. But the face was wrong.
‘If you go through there’ – the balding man was pointing down a hallway – ‘you’ll find the bathroom. I imagine there are towels.’
‘Do you think it’s okay for me to –?’ said Luisa.
‘Oh yes, yes, I’m sure Edie wouldn’t mind.’
The bathroom smelt of Palmolive soap and the creeping black mould that coated the tiles and joinery. A pair of slippers lay on a faded blue bathmat. Four or five damp towels were crowded over a single rail. Luisa took one and rubbed at her hair. In the mirror, her face looked washed-out, wary. Under the basin she found an old box of sticking plasters, Dettol, toothpaste, Disprin, a hairdryer. She took the dryer, plugged it in and dried her hair, then took off her clothes one by one and blasted them at close range. Her dress was silk: it puckered and shrank under the heat.
There was a knock at the door.
‘Just a minute,’ she called, dressing quickly. She stepped into the hallway to find herself face to face with a woman. They stood wordless for a moment, staring at each other.
‘Oh,’ said the woman.
‘Hello Adele,’ said Luisa.
Luisa nodded. Her eyes flicked past Adele down the hallway.
‘I wouldn’t go down there,’ said Adele. ‘Kit’s just gone into the kitchen.’
Adele looked tired. Or perhaps just older. Her hair was in the same style as she had worn it the last time Luisa had seen her – long, with a fringe, the front tied back with a velvet scrunchie in a half-ponytail – but her face had aged, was thinner, her skin grown sallow. It must have been ten years. Adele had been pregnant then, plump and rosy-cheeked, and had exuded an almost evangelical warmth, evidently so content with her lot that she was eager to encompass Luisa in it. She had unbuttoned her cardigan and invited Luisa to place her hand on her bump. ‘After all, you’re my sort-of sister-in-law,’ she’d said. ‘And this is your sort-of niece or nephew.’
‘Does Kit know I’m here?’ Luisa had said.
‘Not exactly,’ said Adele. ‘Put your hand here! I think that’s an elbow. Or maybe a foot.’
‘How do you mean, not exactly?’
Adele had half closed her eyes and shaken her head, as if to shake away the question. But now, in Edie’s hallway, it seemed that her eagerness for any connection with Luisa had ebbed. There was a flatness about her, a disinterest that was almost hostility. It made Luisa wonder why Adele had phoned her at all.
‘Did you want to see Edie?’ Adele said. ‘She’s in there.’
She pointed at the door opposite.
‘Of course, it’s up to you,’ said Adele, and disappeared into the bathroom.
Luisa looked at the door for a long time. It was only when she saw her hand reach out and clasp the handle that she realised she was going to go in.
The coffin was resting on trestles next to a bed. The face of the woman who lay in it was yellow-skinned and waxy. Her eyebrows, thinned with age, had been drawn in with eyebrow pencil and her lips were an unnatural pink. Luisa swallowed. The air in the room was moist, botanical. The walls seemed to veer inwards; they were covered with photographs and children’s felt-tipped pen drawings, many of them faded and curling. A bookshelf had warped under the weight of its contents: National Geographics, foreign language dictionaries, atlases, encyclopaedias. On a dresser was a dusty necklace of turquoise beads.
Luisa stepped closer to the coffin. It was lined with cream satin, ruched around the top. She waited. Surely this moment should be imbued with meaning; she searched her heart for some swelling of emotion. But there was nothing. Was that formaldehyde she could smell? Was this even Edie? She looked nothing like the Edie Luisa remembered. Of course, she had been a lot younger then. And alive.
‘It’s me,’ she said. ‘Luisa.’
The woman’s hands were cupped together at her pelvis, liver-spotted and pale. Luisa reached out and touched one. It was cool, slightly spongy. She had once seen a TV documentary in which elks nuzzled hopefully at the dead body of one of their herd. She shared something of their bewilderment. And also, because she was a human and not an elk, a dawning sense of self-disgust. What was she doing pawing at this stranger’s body? She pulled her hand away.
Whatever she had come for, it was not this.
The service, brief and secular, was held in Edie’s lounge. The coffin had been positioned at one end of the room, and mourners were clustered around it in the shape of a horseshoe. Luisa stood at the back, her clothes still clammy. Adele was with Kit at one of the horseshoe’s tips; with them were a plump, unhappy-looking girl of around ten, and a younger boy who seemed incapable of standing still. Kit had grown a beard. His hair was almost completely grey. He looked in Luisa’s direction, but appeared not to recognise her.
It turned out the balding man was the celebrant. Luisa listened to him sum up Edie’s life, or at least the publicly acknowledged parts of it. Edie had accompanied her husband on diplomatic missions to Chile, India and China. It was in Chile that Kit had been born. Luisa glanced at him. There was something about the way he was rocking from foot to foot that made her wonder if he was drunk – drunk but practised at concealing it. The celebrant ploughed on. Edie had once hosted a dinner party for Jimmy Carter. She had ridden an elephant. She spoke fluent Spanish. Each vignette was an irritant to Luisa, almost physically stung her, yet the thought of never knowing these things at all was even worse.
The celebrant invited the guests to share their memories of Edie. Someone told how she was often seen walking on the shore at low tide, stooping every so often to pick up pieces of pounamu which, despite her failing eyesight, she still had an uncanny ability to spot. Adele spoke about Edie’s kindness to her when she went through what she called a ‘difficult’ time after her daughter was born, and described how Edie doted on her grandchildren, gave them far too many lollies – here the granddaughter’s face broke into a shy smile – never believing them to be in the wrong, no matter how naughty they had been. The image of Edie as a loving grandmother was the most painful of all; Luisa felt a flash of anger towards the granddaughter, or Adele, or Edie, or possibly herself.
‘And anyone else?’ asked the celebrant. There was silence. Luisa looked at the coffin, then back at Kit, who was chewing his lip. She dropped her eyes.
‘Well then,’ said the celebrant.
Pallbearers carried the coffin out the door and down the steps to the waiting hearse. Mourners walked in twos and threes down the driveway to their cars. Luisa hung back till Kit and Adele had passed.
‘Is it far?’ she asked the celebrant.
‘Too far to walk,’ he said, glancing at her muddied shoes. ‘Do you need a lift?’
He led her to a van parked on the lay-by near Edie’s letterbox.
‘Did you know Edie well?’ he said, as they drove.
‘Not really,’ said Luisa. In fact, she had only met Edie twice. The first time was in the tearooms at the Wellington botanical gardens in 1981. Edie was taller than Luisa had expected, her hair combed into an elegant bun. She took careful sips of her milkless tea and told Luisa that she couldn’t risk her husband and son finding out about her – she was sure Luisa would understand. The second time was in 1994, in the bar of the James Cook Hotel. This was not long after Edie’s husband had died. Luisa had thought this might change things, had imagined a cautious blossoming between them; had rehearsed in her head and sometimes spoken aloud, while in the shower or driving, her answers to all the questions Edie might have asked. She would gift herself to Edie, package herself up and present herself as a successfully completed project, so that Edie would be able to say, ‘I can see I did the right thing.’ Their meeting lasted fifty-five minutes. Edie had something urgent to do, something that couldn’t wait. No, she didn’t think that she would be able to meet with Luisa again.
The celebrant turned the van down a side road, following the modest line of cars ahead of them. Luisa glimpsed Kit in the driver’s seat of a blue station wagon. It was after she’d met with Edie the second time that she had decided to contact him – she had imagined he might be able to talk Edie round. Things didn’t go exactly as she had hoped. She didn’t like to dwell on what was said the afternoon she’d turned up at his house in Wainouiomata, under the cold shadow of the Eastern Hutt Hills. A young Adele had followed her to the taxi, oven cloth in hand, and said, ‘It’s a shock, that’s all’; Luisa had handed her a slip of paper with an address and phone number, and said, ‘Call me. Please.’
‘Edie was a true Coaster,’ said the celebrant. ‘All those countries she lived in, but she came home in the end. People end up where their heart is, I reckon.’
‘Sometimes, perhaps,’ said Luisa. ‘But not always. Sometimes they can’t.’
‘I think people find a way,’ he said, and smiled lazily. He had mean little eyes, at odds with his cheerful demeanour. He pulled over behind a ute with two dogs yelping in the back. The door of the ute opened and a woman in a plastic poncho climbed out and slammed the door. Her unbrushed hair, henna red with silver roots, frizzed around her face in the damp, windless air.
‘Ngaire,’ nodded the celebrant, and the woman nodded back.
The cemetery was in a small field bordered by a wire fence. Many of the graves had sunk; several headstones lay in the grass where they had fallen, blotched with saffron-coloured lichen. Most of the mourners were already in position. The ground was muddy under its green synthetic covering, the coffin suspended in a chrome stand over a waterlogged hole.
As Luisa joined the group, Kit looked up. She dropped her eyes, but felt the pressure of his gaze.
‘Is that who I think it is?” she heard him say.
‘Who?’ said the boy.
‘No one,’ said Adele.
‘But Mum –’
Adele gave him a sharp slap on the top of his head.
Since that day in Wainouiomata, Luisa had not seen Kit, and had spoken to him only once. She had been in Wellington for a conference, had walked down Edie’s street and stood for a while under the huge rata opposite her house. The house had looked empty: lights off, doors and windows shut. But Kit had phoned her a few days later, his voice slurred and dangerous. He mentioned trespass, though she had been on public land. He told her to keep away; called her desperate, pathetic. Luisa clenched her eyes shut while he talked, then sat for a long time in her quiet hallway, her throat burning with words unsaid.
‘And so we say our final farewell to Edie,’ the celebrant was saying. The undertaker, a young man with an acne-scarred neck, pressed a button; with a mechanical whirr the coffin began to lower. A pukeko that was moving purposefully down the fenceline froze, one leg raised in the air, and cocked its head. Luisa stole a look at Kit. He was standing a little apart from Adele and the children, his expression fierce, bereft. Luisa felt a flicker of what it might have been to have loved Edie. And then there was a crunch as the coffin hit earth.
In Edie’s house, the wake was in full swing, numbers swelled by latecomers. The mood had changed: people were talking more freely, laughing even, as if no longer in danger of being overheard. The kitchen bench was cluttered with beer and wine bottles. Corn rolls, skewered with toothpicks, were lined up like little soldiers on an inlaid mother-of-pearl tray. Someone had found a sitar and was plucking it tunelessly. Adele and Kit’s son was stationed next to a bowl of salted peanuts, his hand darting from bowl to mouth with joyless urgency.
Luisa’s senses were attuned to Kit, wherever in the house he might be. She had found a position in the lounge next to a group of women whose collective solidity and generalised good humour formed what she hoped was an effective buffer. Jutting out into the room was a freestanding shelving unit, cluttered with ornaments collected by Edie across continents and decades. Luisa picked up a jade elephant, which had dust in the creases behind its ears, and was stroking its back with her fingertip when she heard Kit’s voice. He was in the kitchen. She put the elephant down, and edged behind the broadest of the women.
‘Do you often get stalkers at funerals?’ she heard Kit say.
Someone laughed – perhaps the celebrant.
‘It’s not a joke,’ said Kit.
‘Excuse me,’ said Luisa to the women, and pushed her way through the crowded living room, through the sliding doors at the far side and onto the balcony. It had grown dark, and the clouds must have thinned, even lifted in places, because Luisa could see patches of stars, and the bluish glow of a rising moon. The temperature had dropped; she retracted her hands inside the sleeves of her jacket.
To her right, there was a plasticky rustling. The ponchoed woman was leaning against the balustrade, smoking a joint. She offered it to Luisa, who looked at its crushed and soggy tip and shook her head. The woman shrugged. She took a drag and closed her eyes, then opened them sleepily, like a cat, and squinted at Luisa.
‘You’re not from round here, are you?’ she said.
Luisa was about to say no. Her earliest photograph showed a blonde-haired baby sitting on the golden sand of Auckland’s North Shore, the legs and midriffs of two older girls a blur as they ran by.
‘Actually,’ she said, ‘I was born near here.’
At that moment there was a shout from the lounge, followed by a crash. Luisa turned to see the shelving unit upended, its contents scattered. Adele was screaming. Kit was on the floor. Someone pulled him to his feet and righted the shelf. ‘Bloody thing’s always been wobbly,’ he said. Adele dropped to her hands and knees and began picking up ornaments. ‘Mind the glass,’ she said. The son dived forward and tried to retrieve the scattered peanuts. When he stood, there was blood running from his hand, a shard of glass embedded in the palm. He stared at it, perplexed. He held his hand towards Adele.
‘Oh, for God’s sake!’ she said. ‘Didn’t you listen to what I just said?’
Luisa edged along the balcony and around the corner, so she was no longer visible from the lounge. Light from the house poured through an uncurtained window halfway along the wall, illuminating the balcony and, dimly, the ground below. Luisa peered over the balustrade. She could make out a mass of agapanthus, a pair of gardening gloves left on a pebbled path. She thought she saw something move. Possum? Stoat? The bush was alive, breathing. She felt unmoored, as if her Auckland life did not exist. She moved further along the balcony, to the lit window, and looked in. Adele and Kit’s daughter was lying on her stomach on Edie’s sagging bed, an atlas propped against the pillow in front of her, poring over a map. Luisa froze, but realised she was invisible to the girl who, thinking herself unwatched, was sprawled with a complete lack of self-consciousness, her legs entwined at the ankles in the air behind her. Tracing a coastline with her finger, then pausing, flicking through the pages of the index. There was a silver charm bracelet on her left wrist; Luisa hadn’t seen one of those in years. She’d had one herself at around the same age, and found herself touching her wrist at the ghost of its memory: horseshoe, feather, padlock, key.
From the far side of the house there were voices, then footsteps on the driveway, a car’s engine. People were beginning to leave. Luisa continued around the balcony towards the door. Someone, surely, would give her a lift – to Greymouth, or anywhere she could get a hotel for the night.
She pushed the door open and there, in the porch, was Kit.
He was sitting on the stoop, trying to pull on his gumboots. They were on the wrong feet.
‘Stupid fucking things,’ he said.
He looked up. Something in his faced changed.
‘What are you looking at?’ he said.
‘Nothing,’ said Luisa.
Kit fixed his eyes on her, fierce and challenging. She should have known this was coming. She had known. She had sat on the plane and tightened her lap belt and eaten her almond-flavoured biscuits and flown all the way down here knowing. Yet she had the strange sense that whatever Kit was now going to say, whatever he was going to do, was somehow mapped out; that each of them, he as much as she, was on a course not of their own making, had found themselves washed up here, in this porch, on this night, with the dark bush heaving around them, at the house of a woman whom one of them had known and one of them had not. And as she watched, Kit’s shoulders seemed to slump. She looked at his hands clutching his gumboots, the stubby fingers with the nails wider than they were high. Like her fingernails.
‘She didn’t want you here,’ he said in a low voice.
Luisa thought about that.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘But I had to come.’
Kit was silent. There was a rustle in the bush, the sound of some bird alarmed. A mosquito hovered around his face. He slapped at it with his hand. Then he nodded, so faintly Luisa wondered if she had imagined it, and leaned sideways to allow her through. She stepped past him, her skirt brushing against his shoulder, into the kitchen with its pitted floor. The guests had begun to thin out. Abandoned glasses were balanced on mantelpieces, on shelves. Someone was collecting beer bottles and putting them in a black bin liner.
Adele appeared from the hallway, holding her son by one hand; his other hand was bandaged. Her face was flushed.
‘Is everything okay?’ said Luisa.
‘I’m just trying to find someone.’ Adele paused. ‘Actually,’ she continued, ‘have you met Ngaire? Big woman, red hair.’
‘The one in the, um, rainwear?’
‘That’s her. She does Edie’s cleaning. Did it. Could you give this to her?’ Adele held out a Yale key, attached to a green tab by a piece of greyish string. ‘Tell her I need her to lock up the house.’
‘Are you going already?’ said Luisa.
‘I have to. Kit’s not – well. I need to take him home. So if you could …?’
Luisa reached out and took the key, and put it in her pocket.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘It’s the least I can do.’
Adele turned to go.
‘Adele,’ said Luisa.
She turned back to face Luisa again, and Luisa was struck by the weariness in her eyes.
‘I just wanted to say … thanks … for phoning me and everything.’
‘I thought you should know.’
‘I really appreciate it.’
‘Like I said,’ said Adele. She paused. ‘But I do think – you’re not going to go calling us or anything, are you?’
Luisa felt her cheeks go hot.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Of course not.’
‘Because, no offence, but – will you stop that!’ said Adele, interrupted by her son, who was tugging on her arm. ‘I really have to go,’ she said to Luisa.
Luisa watched them leave, the boy still grabbing at Adele. The daughter materialised from somewhere and followed them. When they had disappeared Luisa scoured the kitchen for a cleanish glass, rinsed it in the sink, and poured herself the dregs from a bottle of red wine.
‘Waste not, want not,’ said the celebrant, appearing at her side. He was putting on his jacket. His upper lip glistened.
‘Do you need a lift somewhere?’ he said.
Luisa glanced out the door. She could see a dark, ponchoed shape moving down the steps towards a ute parked in Edie’s carport. She tightened her hand around the key in her pocket and smiled at the celebrant.
‘No thanks,’ she said.
Luisa stood at the sliding door and watched the last of the cars drive off, each set of tail lights winking out as it reached the bend in Edie’s driveway. She had an overwhelming sense then of the house, its contents – as if, now all the people had left, it had reasserted itself, and had shown their noise to have been only bluster. She listened for its sounds. The drip of a tap in the kitchen, the flap of a curtain at an open window. She walked through the house, picking up ornaments and putting them down again. She ran her finger through the dust along a bookshelf, then wiped her hands on her dress and stood perfectly still. She had felt sure that somewhere, hidden from view, she would find it: the thing she had been looking for most of her life. She didn’t know what it would be. An unposted letter, or a photograph, not Blu-tacked to the wall like the others but kept nonetheless, or a lock of hair in an envelope, the gum on its flap yellowed and dry.
At the doorway to Edie’s bedroom she stopped. Desperate, Kit had called her. And perhaps he was right. Was that what Edie had sensed, that afternoon at the James Cook Hotel? Had she tried too hard? Had she wanted too much?
She could picture herself on her knees on Edie’s floor, rifling through her things, opening drawers and tipping their contents onto the carpet, pulling clothes from the wardrobe, turning out pockets. Ransacking jewellery boxes, prising apart lockets, shaking books by their spines. Reading letters not written for her. She could scour Edie’s whole house if she chose to, pull it apart, piece by piece.
And even then, she would never know.
Luisa brushed her hair back behind her ears. She smoothed the wrinkles from her dress with her hands. And then she walked to Edie’s bed, picked up the atlas left askew on the pillow, and slid it back on the shelf. Straightened the bedspread. Shut the door behind her.
In the pantry, on a shelf sticky with kitchen grease, she found a bottle of Cognac and a cut crystal glass. She poured a drink, went into the lounge and switched off the lights. Her reflection in the sliding door disappeared. The sky was now completely clear, brightly pebbled with stars. In the distance, she could just make out a silvery line which could have been the sea. Somewhere out there the rental car was still stuck in a field. Tomorrow, she would call the emergency number again. A truck would come and tow the car to the road, and she would drive to the airport and get on a plane and fly back to the life of the person she became when Edie made the decision she made all those years ago.
But tonight she would sit in Edie’s chair, and drink from Edie’s glass, with the windows open to the sounds of the bush, which, if she closed her eyes, she almost fancied she could hear growing, unfurling its fronds and shedding its spores, snaking its green tendrils closer and closer, encloaking Edie’s house, wrapping up its secrets, and laying them to rest.