Ngaire, Ruthie and Ernest grew up with their mum, Lizzie and dad, George in a typical suburban household. Only when Lizzie was suddenly gone did they realise how much she had anchored them all.
Ngaire sat in the front garden in the chilly Oamaru morning, arms extended, palms upwards. Her furrowed brow was covered by golden story-book curls. Wearing a jam-splotched pink nightie, hand-sewn by her mummy, and with sleep encrusted eyes, she waited for her sister to jump out of the upstairs window.
Ruthie would often wake Ngaire up with screaming fits directed at their end-of-tether parents. “I’m going to do it!” Slam! went the door, shaking the walls, Ruthie’s shriek ringing through the darkness of Ngaire’s bedroom. Thump, thump, thump, went the boots on the stairs. Knuckles knocked at the door across the hall. “Don’t be ridiculous, girl.” “I’ll really jump! I’ll do it!”
Amid sighs and whispered conversation, Ngaire, quiet and resolved, shuffled into her slippers, put on her mittens, and plodded down the stairs and into the front garden. Swinging open the netted door, the breeze cut her ruddy cheeks. It was her solemn duty, she supposed, bare feet crunching through grass frost, to save her sister when she jumped.
Determined to be positioned correctly so as to best catch Ruthie, she cleared a space with her bottom in the loose bark between prize roses taller than Ngaire herself. They were coloured like homemade marmalade – warm honey yellow marbled with more intense orange rind in manicured excellence. Like an earnest watchman at his post, she sat regimented and squinted at the window, breaking eye contact only when her neck ached from craning upwards. The criss-crossed trellis, painted Victorian White, swam in her peripheral vision.
Just weeks before, the three Prince children had thrown plastic cups tumbling out of the window. Ernest had been sent out on a reconnaissance mission that, according to Ruthie, was of the utmost importance. Ngaire and Ruthie held their breath, peeking out from the kitchen door frame as he crept to the blue pantry doors. Bars of light from a street lamp shone through the kitchen blinds and onto Ernie’s pyjamas as he inched the doors open, and squeezed his elvish frame inside. Ngaire watched him, heart jumping in her chest, as he filled three green cups to the brim from a large tin of Milo, adding a decent, frantic shaking of chocolate chips. But when, back at base, chocolate smudged cheeks beaming with success, three pairs of small ears had heard footsteps in the hallway, Ernest’s conquests went cascading down into the garden.
It would have been quite a sight, the sleeping cul-de-sac abruptly interrupted by window shunting and falling cups, had anybody been watching. Miraculously, when Ngaire had examined the crime scene the next day, the cups were nowhere to be found. Maybe they’d grow into three green cup trees she could show her friends from school. Ngaire wondered what would happen if the cups were Ruthie. Would she bounce and roll, crumble like cigarette ash or splat like ice cream? It wouldn’t matter because she was there to catch her, she decided.
Ngaire was snapped out of her daydream by her mother yelling at her for playing in the grass, “If you aren’t careful, you’ll catch a cold, Ngaire!” Despite a sullen pout, that was that, as things usually were. By the time playtime came and Ngaire was dirtying her pleats in the sandpit, all she thought about was how her tight pigtails felt, whether they were going to ping off her head like rubber bands, and whether they were having meatloaf for dinner.
There was no doubt that Mr and Mrs Prince loved each other. Ngaire had heard their story many times, usually when her mum got into the sherry. The story went something like this:
They had met at the age of 16 when George had spotted her across the bar and, with enthusiasm, elbowed his friend in the ribs, “Bags the blonde.”
George never failed to find this account charming, grabbing his wife by the waist after too many beers and telling the story with a chesty laugh.
“I’m trying to feed Ernest, dear.”
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Jones smoked as soon as she could curl a fist, it seemed to Ngaire. The family photo albums showed her mother as a petite blonde, almost elvish with her pale skin and frosty blue eyes, but she could almost see the wisps of nicotine smog that followed her everywhere, like extra shadows or smudged eyeliner. She would sew her own clothes and perm her own hair, but there was no doubt her mother was aiming for top society and she had the smoking habit to prove it. Even as a 16 year old in a small town bar, Pimms blush on high cheekbones, she was poised and never hiccoughed. Cigarette in one hand, the other on her waist, Lizzie in the local ‘Farmers’ Brew’ looked out of place.
George grinned up at Ngaire from the local Matey’s service station 1969 team photo, in the itchy polo he pumped gas in, collar popped.
“I hated that berloddy uniform.”
Ngaire’s mum worked as a hairdresser in a salon that was a converted villa front room on a corner of a quiet suburban intersection. The garden on the intersection’s verge was the well-manicured stuff of domestic holiday postcards sold in local motels with names like ‘Jewel of Oamaru’, ‘Stables on Thames’, and ‘Seabreeze’. While sweeping hair, Lizzie would sing and daydream of luxury in the city, shooing Ruthie outside with her broom.
How much is that doggie in the window?
The one with the waggly tail
How much is that doggie in the window?
I do hope that doggie’s for sale.
From what she could gather from family portraits, her mother had inherited her grandfather’s rigid backbone; he was a bus inspector with a crisp collar. Her mother owned a wool shop. Lizzie knitted woollen outfits for her dolls until she was 20.
George’s father had abandoned his mother when he was a newborn, but considered Mason his dad through and through. Mason, affectionately known as “Manny,” was an important leader in the local iwi. He was the only grandfather Ngaire had ever known.
Lizzie’s mother turned her nose up at George and his family, not just because of the all “too maaorri” Manny, but also because George’s slight Italian heritage made him “too dark” for her pristine, white daughter. She saw her daughter as the stuff of cotton softener, playing on the steps of beach houses and homemade brandy snaps piped with cream; she thought George had thievery in his blood and was a man of unclean ashtrays, mismatched serviettes and muddy boots on hallway carpets.
Oamaru continued to talk of the New Zealand fairytale lovebirds well into Ngaire’s teens. Ngaire could hear George in the living room when her lights were out, planning trips with old high school friends to see rugby matches in Christchurch. When Lizzie became pregnant again, she had to quit her job at the hairdressers and George had to take more hours at Matey’s.
Eventually, George was promoted. Every calving season, he would help out in the early mornings with the births. It helped with Christmas spending.
By the time Lizzie was pregnant with Ngaire, she was exhausted but content. The bags under her eyes in Christmas card photos conveyed a warmth and wisdom far beyond age, while her usually polished up-do sprouted frizzy flyaways. Family friends always gossiped about the time when nursing Ngaire and reading the paper at the kitchen counter one morning a headline caught Lizzie’s eye: “Two Crash into Storefront in Town Centre”. There in the photo, was George and another woman looking in on their wrecked car, his arm around her shoulder. He had told her that someone had forgotten to indicate at an intersection. It was Lizzie’s ‘Big City’ piggy bank money that was going towards its repair. Ngaire couldn’t imagine her mother would have told many people, but somehow the whole of Oamaru rustled with the gossip.
Ngaire never heard Lizzie mention it herself. Apparently, she hadn’t even told George. She answered with sad blue eyes when George asked,
“What’s eating you?”
“Nothing” she said.
He must has known that she knew, and still he said nothing. In fact, to Ngaire’s knowledge, it seemed like they never mentioned it at all. It sat in the glass cabinet with cups and plates too beautiful and fragile to be used.
Once, when she was 15, Ngaire and her friends snuck out to a party- each pretending to be staying at the other’s house. After several trips to the drinks table, a very drunk Ngaire found herself being undressed by a much older and much soberer man, unable to move. Her head was too heavy to lift off the bed. This was put to an end, quick-smart, when, wham! In stormed George in a fury, swore at the man touching his daughter, grabbed Ngaire by the arm, gathered up her clothes and shoved her down the stairs and into the car.
On the way out, Ngaire noticed that her friend’s parents had also shown up. The mothers had discovered the ruse while discussing scone recipes over the phone. Ngaire vomited in the back of the pickup. George didn’t talk to Ngaire for two months. When he did talk, he never mentioned the incident.
After the children had left for university, Ngaire, Ruthie and Ernie rang home to their mother almost every day. She was their best friend and always knew how to make things right. When she died of lung cancer at 63, it became clear just how much emotional management she had undertaken for the family- especially for George. All dates of importance were only remembered by him if Lizzie reminded him first. His calls were full of awkward silences and he would stumble into offending them like a drunk cowherd into cowpats. At the funeral, Ngaire attended with her three children while Ernest attended with two and one on the way. Ruthie couldn’t make it out of bed.
Nine months later. George remarried, to a close friend of Lizzie’s. Mary was nice, sure, but she lacked the emotional nuance and care they were used to. Lizzie was a calculated juggler while George and Mary left the circus altogether. George was like a schoolboy in love all over again. They travelled to Italy. Sold the house he and Lizzie had built, bought a new one, bought a black kitten, and when it died after two weeks they bought another black one. Ngaire thought of her smiling and glassy-eyed mother throwing the fine china cascading over the balcony, smashing onto the tarmac when she thought nobody was home. In hindsight, it seemed like a reasonable response.
On Ngaire’s 40th birthday, she picked up the phone to hear George and Mary singing happy birthday- just like George and her mum used to do. She still had voice messages from birthdays when Lizzie was alive.
“Happy birthday, dear Ngaireeee!
Ngaire hung up.
Ngaire filled the empty space without complaint. When Nagire’s eldest, Morgan, now in high school, rolled up her sleeves to razor cuts, the issue was resolved after one evening’s stern talking to, and wasn’t brought up again until years later. Life continued much the same.
Ngaire was scared of heights, any animal resembling a rat, and planes. The cuttings she had taken from her mother’s marmalade roses had taken well to the soil. It was good.
A year after moving out for university, Morgan told her mother she had been assaulted by someone she had trusted.
“I’m going to file a report, Mum” she said.
“I don’t understand why you would want to go through the pain,” said Ngaire, biting her fingernails.
“Is it a revenge thing?” her dad, Henry chimed in.
After nine months of returning home to her daughter in the same place as she left her sleeping in a spare room filled with junk and empty tea mugs, Ngaire cleared a space on her bed, sat down, and started to help her daughter file a report.
Three years later, after all her children had left home, Ngaire caught the bouquet at Morgan’s wedding.
“Hey, that’s not fair! You’re already married!” said Ruthie, only half joking.
Later that month, Ngaire went on a honeymoon of her own. Ruthie, Ernest and Henry waved her off from outside the gate to customs.
“I’ll catch up with you in a couple of weeks,” her husband smiled.
Mittens on, bags in hand, Ngaire boarded the plane. “I’ll text you when I land.”