Her head ached with November sun despite the straw-hat, and dust coated her shirt and shorts. Audrey was driving the tractor in bare feet, as she had always done, and her toes danced on the brake and clutch as she eased down into the last row of bananas. To her left the first tree had a ‘bunch’ covered in the coloured plastic sheet she was looking for, a lurid orange, and she brought the trailer to a stop with a touch on the brakes and a grunt of gearbox. Her boys spilled off the edges of the trailer and started down the row, looking for further flashes of orange which indicated maturing bunches that were ripe enough for cutting. Dotted down the row were other colours, red and green, each indicating a different stage of maturation. This week it was the orange they were after. Her bandana was wringing wet and she squeezed it dry over the mudguard as she stood on the small plated step. The late afternoon sky above was a vivid blue, and for an instant she was jolted back to a land of lavender and grapes, where a small house sat on the edge of a little village. The thought startled her with its suddenness and intensity, and she shook her head, wondering which bizarre part of her brain had brought the scene to life.
There was a clump on the flatbed as the first bunch of fruit was added to the trailer’s cargo and Tony turned to look up at her. This was her grandson, a strapping 20 year-old from Brisbane who came every year to dutifully harvest bananas for his grandmother. He was tall, like his grandfather, and the fact he was hewn from good ‘banana stock’ had been a godsend in some previous years. He was also a musician, and seemed always to be on the verge of something ‘good’ or ‘promising’. He grinned up at Audrey and she realised she loved him very much. Silently she strummed her fingers on the rusty red mudguard of David’s old 165 and thought good thoughts for a second.
There was a distant sound in the hot air, a faraway call of greeting, and Tony narrowed his eyes past the tractor and back up the hill, to where two small figures were standing high on the skyline. They waved faintly in the distance. Audrey peered in surprise at the figures and wondered who they were, and even as she wondered they stopped waving and started down the hill towards the rows of trees.
“Strewth, grandma, who the heck are they?” ask Tony, looking back at her.
She shrugged in reply, “I haven’t a clue, Tony, not a clue – we’ll find out in a minute or two,” and she turned back to the trees and watched the other four workers as they stacked bunches to pick up by the side of the row. “Come on, hop on,” and she let out the gears with a jolt and started off slowly down the row. A minute later and they had a full load and she turned back for the shed with Tony hanging on the back, planning to disgorge the orange bundles carefully into the refrigeration room. As they turned out of the row she saw that the two figures walking down were almost upon them, some 200 yards away. She peered closely, and realisation suddenly dawned with another jolt of memories; braking hard with a great heave of her foot, she threw Tony off the running board onto the ground where he rolled over, unhurt. Stumbling to his feet he watched incredulously as his grandmother jumped gracefully off the tractor, let out a great whoop of joy and raced up the track towards two young dark-haired women; with a shriek of excitement all three joined in one giant embrace.
They sat on the old sofa, Jacqueline and Josephine on each side of Audrey, well into their second bottle of Chardonnay. The sun was slowly edging down over the hills behind the house and the early evening was rushing in like a dark purple shadow from the sea. Audrey had finally stopped talking with a tear in her voice, and the girls had finally stopped crying with the joy of reunion, the torrent of words had subsided to a more coherent outpouring of tales of travel and a brief recap of the last eight years of life. The girls were now 20 years in age, and they had been on the road for eight months, travelling across Asia and through Indonesia, coming down to Audrey’s valley via the north after a sea-crossing on a yacht to Darwin that had sailed from a surf and dive resort on Rote, an island on the western end of East Timor. They looked worldly and triumphant, though Audrey thought they could both do with a week’s worth of decent food. They had grown into two beautiful young women, aglow with the vitality of youth and health, and their exposed limbs glowed golden from time spent on a thousand beaches. Her heart burst with happiness and pride, and knowing now they were to stay a while, a warm nugget of good fortune simmered deep inside her.
Over supper, she brought them up to date on all her news and problems. The three of them had last heard from each other a year before, when the girls had written to tell Audrey of their plans, which, with the slow passing of time, she had completely forgotten. The twins listened intently to Audrey, the conversation a mix of French and English, a language they seemed to have fluently absorbed on their travels. Their faces glowed with wonder and sadness as Audrey outlined her life and the future she was so unsure of. When Mary’s father had passed away earlier that year her two brothers had sold the farm to the pineapple giants and Audrey’s little banana farm was now the last in the valley. Unable to compete with the huge banana industry in the far north, Audrey had crept into debt in an effort to stay alive. There was none to offer help or advice, everyone else had gone.
“But Audrey, have you nothing left at home, on your island?” asked Josephine, in her quiet but serious voice. Audrey remembered now that Josephine was the thinker, while Jacqueline was the more outgoing girl.
“No, my father is still alive, but he lives in a nursing home,” she said, unsure quite how he had survived so long. Audrey’s mother was long gone. Audrey had not gone home for the funeral – she had been eight months pregnant with Deborah, their second daughter, and she and David had been so lacking in money for a plane ticket that they would have had difficulty going anyway. Instead, Audrey had stopped by her mother’s grave ten years later when she had returned to move her father into the home. While her brother had waited in the car she’d sat at the graveside weeping; it had turned into an hour of murmured regrets and apologies as her beloved seagulls had swirled overhead in a westerly gale, trying to reassure her that time forgot and forgave. Her dear brother had waited patiently, not intruding, just understanding.
“So much life,” Audrey ended her little tale , “and so much death.” She looked at the serious faces of the twins. “Seriously, I have no idea what to do and now that Mary’s father is gone I have no one to help or advise.” The conversation was getting grim, so she abruptly changed the subject.
“How are your parents, mes cheries?” and she thought about the handsome couple she had once met and the photo she had of them with arms linked and lips arched conspiratorially towards the other’s ears.
There was a silence across the table, and Audrey wondered if she had said the wrong thing.
“Ah,” muttered Jacqueline.”That’s difficult to answer. We have not heard from them for several weeks, so we hope all is well.” She sat back and poked at a chicken bone on her plate.
“Difficult?” Audrey replied, “Difficult??” She was bemused and it must have showed, for Josephine spoke next, with a wry smile of embarrassment.
“They fight, Audrey. For years now they have been fighting. It’s one of the reasons we set off traveling and came to see you!” and she grinned.
Audrey thought about the long eight months and considered it a journey well spent if it had ended at her doorstep. “Do you want to call them?” she said.
The twins spent thirty minutes on the phone, and Audrey stayed outside on the sofa, revelling in the soft breeze that kept the bugs away. Far out to sea she could see the lights of boats on the horizon while above the universes wheeled in slow arcs through a sky dimpled with stars. Once, a flaming meteorite had fled from east to west and she had been quick enough to murmur a wish, unsure if it would ever come true. It was close to bedtime when the twins came outside, and Audrey knew instantly from their demeanour that something had happened. They nestled on the sofa beside Audrey as though she was their most favourite person in the world and she waited, knowing that they needed time to put things right inside before speaking.
It was Josephine who spoke first and after the first two hesitant words, the rest followed in a rush, a rasp in her throat betraying her emotions.
“They’re going to get a divorce, Audrey,” and there was a little sob on a shoulder on one side and a wretched squeeze of a hand on the other. “They say they have always waited until we were old enough, and now is the time for them…….” and her voice trailed off into silence.
Audrey did not know what to say, so she tried to be positive, ’Well, if it has to be done it has to be done, I suppose – at least they will both be happy, no?” and she looked down at the heads on each side of her.
There was a murmur of sadness and then a jerk of the sofa as Josephine sat up properly to dispel the faint thought that had suddenly occurred to Audrey. “Yes,” she said, “we have known for a long time that this was going to happen, but,” and she paused, and Audrey interrupted, knowing where the conversation was going.
“No, I can’t buy the house, girls. I have nowhere near enough money to come back to Europe, my darlings, not nearly enough. Even if I sell this farm, and then pay all the bills and the last of my mortgage, I would barely have enough to buy a plane ticket home….” and with those words she knew she was never going to see her little cottage again, and she firmly put the thought out of her head and wrapped an arm around each unhappy girl instead.
The twins stayed for a month, and helped with the bananas down in the plantation. Audrey could only afford to pay them a pittance but they seemed to love the work, the camaraderie of the trailer and the shed, and they integrated so well into the harvest that they became part of the gang, surfing at dawn down in the cove and carousing each night till midnight. When they left, two weeks before Christmas, Audrey had wept for a day afterwards, sitting wrapped in a shawl all night on her sofa as she watched the dawn come up on the ocean below. Having the twins there had brought her round to see the sensible side of her life, and brought her to a conclusion that she knew had really always seemed inevitable. Josephine had confirmed it after spending two days going through Audrey’s books; even with only a working knowledge of how a farm should work, she had still easily seen that Audrey had no option.
Audrey and Tony had driven the twins to Noosa, and they dropped the girls off with their huge backpacks on the coast road, crying openly with the pang of parting. It was obvious that Josephine and Tony had created a bond between them; a long kiss as they parted providing proof if needed that something serious was afoot, and as they’d turned the car and set off home, Tony had muttered something so low under his breath that Audrey was unsure what she had heard.
“What did you say?” she demanded, slewing the car sideways in momentary shock.
“I said I’m gonna marry that girl,” replied Tony with a huge grin. “Reckon I’m going to have to go to France to find her though. You going to come too, Grandma?” and Audrey had both laughed and cried at the thought.
“Oh Lord,” she thought to herself, rubbing her nose dry of tears, “What on earth have I started?”
It was Christmas Eve when they rang with the offer. Audrey had listened, dry-mouthed as a nasal voice the other end had outlined the terms and conditions of the sale, and she had shaken with emotion as she had muttered “Yes” in acquiescence to something she knew she could not refuse. It should never have been like this, she thought. It had been a life somewhat different from what she had intended, and though full and happy in most parts, there were still instances where she wondered what might have been. She went out onto the porch and stood there looking at her view; the warmth from it had given her strength in the bad times, and joy in the good ones, and as she stood there it helped once more. She sat on the sofa, bare feet on the calloused planks, and let her toes soak in the last of the evening sun, thankful her youngest daughter and husband had offered her a home with them in Melbourne.
One term of the sale had been a quick vacancy of the farm, and after Christmas Audrey started to pack on one hot summer’s day in early January. She’d ordered a large quantity of boxes and had them all taped together and ready to fill, making orderly piles of memories on one side, and a pile of discards on the other. There were books, photographs, moments from early parts of her and David’s life, paintings and drawings, sea-shells and dried flowers. The kitchen gradually filled with a pile here of one thing, and a pile there of another. At some point she stopped and wondered what she had got herself into, and she stared at all the boxes, bemused that a lifetimes memories could fit into so little. The pile of belongings going immediately with her to Melbourne, stood on the table. To another side were the things that were to go into storage, and then there was a pile of odds and ends which she had no excuse to keep, no matter how important they were; Tony was coming very soon to pick up this pile with the flatbed truck. The air was hot and sultry, and the huge fan in the ceiling turned slowly to alleviate the warmth. Also on the table was her most prized possession, her old book of French verbs and phrases. Its pages were worn and battered, littered with scrawled notes in her schoolgirl handwriting, its leather binding open and disintegrating like some decaying exoskeleton after fifty years of constant companionship.
She made herself a cup of coffee, and closing her eyes, perched on the table where her hand could reach down and touch the book. She went quiet and gathered strength from its familiarity, a rush of memories flooding into her caffeinated senses. She heard the growl of Tony’s truck coming up the hill and drew a deep breath, readying herself to say goodbye to the pile of memories by the door. A car-door slammed and there was a hesitant footstep in the doorway and then a soft voice, familiar from a thousand dreams, said, “Golly, I haven’t seen that book for a while, Auds….”
Audrey’s heart gave a lurch in her chest of such immense proportions that she spun round, sending the coffee cup flying across the room to explode in a crash of broken crockery, and the phrase-book spinning off the table to land on a pile of clothes. There, framed in the doorway, was a burnt-brown kernel of a woman with a familiar face, a wry grin of hope etched across it, framed by a tousled head of thick sun-burnt hair.
Audrey put her hand to her mouth in disbelief, her face sagging with shock and her heart pounding with excitement.
“Mary? MARY?” Audrey paused the question, unsure, still disbelieving. “Is that really you?” and the figure in the doorway came forward hesitantly, hands outstretched in supplication, the head nodding agreement to the question. The woman came into the room, and as Audrey’s eyes cleared of doubt she saw it was indeed her beloved Mary; thinner, with a skin burnt to a crisp by decades of Pacific sun, and hair bleached by the salt from a million waves. The woman’s eyes were raw with emotion and moisture and Audrey knew instantly that hers were the same, and then as one they flung themselves forward into each others arms and wept with deep utter joy, a feeling so strong that the length of years apart only added to its intensity. They stood there for long minutes, holding each other, sobbing, slowly coming to terms with the strength that they always gave to each other, the strength that no length of time apart could change.
They had a week to themselves before the house-papers were signed, and for most of that time there were tears. They talked through the nights, and snoozed during the day on the sofa on the porch, always smiling between the tears, and touching each other for reassurance. There was such an innocence to this rekindling of spirit and heart that Audrey lost the haunted look she had carried for so long.
The tale of Mary’s lifetime needed four nights in the telling, her story was so simple, and yet so complicated and Mary spent each session of its recounting in tears. Mary’s marriage had started to unravel when it became clear that they had been unable to have children. As time passed and he grew more frustrated, Stephane had become a drunk and violent husband, depriving her of communication by removing all electronics from the house, and then he sold her cameras. In a deep depression, Mary had retreated from life for twenty years, too ashamed to admit to anyone that anything was wrong with the marriage. Instead she had succumbed to a state of servitude and slipped into a form of catatonia which Stephane exploited to the full.
Matters became worse when Stephane was eventually fired from his teaching post at the school; he took Mary and a few cases of belongings and slipping Médoc from her moorings they wandered through the Pacific for ten long years, with Stephane scraping a living as a mechanic as they drifted from island to island. Médoc gradually lost her gleam and glitter, and became a rust-stained, barnacle-encrusted hulk that became known for anchoring on the extremities of every mooring, and slipping away before dawn when it was time to pay fees. By the end Stephane was probably one of the most well-known debtors in the islands, and Mary was the woman who lurked below and washed dishes in the galley.
Mary’s life changed very much for the worse in 1998 when Stephane was murdered early one morning in Pape’ete, back in Tahiti. His body had been found in an alley on the darker side of town, a heavy-handled scuba-diver’s knife protruding from his back. There had been no witnesses, no signs of other violence and no one came forward to release any information that might have stopped Mary becoming, as she ultimately did, the main suspect. Six months later, she was found guilty of manslaughter and was sentenced to life imprisonment, pending an appeal. In some way Mary blamed herself for the killing, and refused to go through with the appeal and her rights to contact with family and Australian officialdom. Her time in jail passed relatively uneventfully; she was foreign, and obviously simple, so it seemed. As a result many of her fellow prisoners kept a wide berth and she remained relatively free of attention as a life of permanent custody beckoned.
Mary may well have rotted away for the rest of her life in Pape’ete but for a chance encounter a local barman had one afternoon ten years later with a large lorry on the coastal road on the north side of the island. The barman’s Jeep had rolled off the road after the collision and then into a steep ravine, crushing its occupant as it fell some 500 feet to the valley floor. Several days later, the barman’s widow reported tearfully to the central police station in Pape’ete and told the officers on duty a grim tale of adultery and murder. It became clear under questioning that the barman had been Stephane’s killer, exacting revenge for the petty sordid affair the Frenchman had been having with the barman’s wife. Statements were taken, an inquiry held and without ado Mary was released one morning into the bright sunlight, scarcely believing what was happening. Médoc was still in the harbour, impounded in a police yard, but before she went into the water Mary had the sense to scrape the hull clean and anti-foul it with some borrowed money.
A month later, as she was sitting with a clear head on deck, mending sails, the same police launch that had taken her to jail ten years earlier came puttering alongside with an embossed invitation to the President’s mansion. There, feeling awkward in a borrowed frock, she was given an apology by the President himself and she left with a promise of financial compensation. It was an overwhelming turnaround in her life that took on a surreal turn when a cheque arrived on board later that month that was sufficient to pay for a complete refit of Médoc, a labour of love that returned her to her former gleaming glory. Once the work was done, Médoc sat on her mooring for months, swinging aimlessly in the breeze as the vessel’s captain fretted and procrastinated, unsure of her next move, unwilling to return to normality.
It was her father’s death-notice in a three month-old Australian paper in the yacht club that finally forced her hand and brought her fully into the living world. In mid-July Médoc finally set out to sea and pointed southwestwards for Australia with an itinerant sailing couple as Mary’s crew, and two days after the New Year the boat passed through the Heads at Noosa with a fit and healthy Mary determined to undo the sorrow and loss of the past 40 years. On the journey south the ocean toned Mary’s body out of its ten-year enforced neglect, and her head filled with salt air that ate away the doubts and the last lingering vestiges of depression. Her stay at Audrey’s farm was the final step to rehabilitation, and when the farm papers were finally signed, Mary was strong enough to take her sad friend’s hand and drove her the few miles south to the marina at Noosa, where they boarded Médoc and planned their future.
It took a week for Mary to come up with a plan, and the suggestion that she made was so audacious that Audrey’s eyes widened in amazement.
“Auds,” Mary started, “I’ve been thinking. Why don’t we buy your little cottage together?”
Audrey had laughed. “Come on, I know you don’t have a penny to your name. You spent all your compensation on Médoc, didn’t you?”
Mary grinned back excitedly, “Yes, I did.” and there was a pause. “But I can always sell her.” and Audrey looked at her in complete silence, pondering the enormity of the offer before she replied.
“No, you can’t – you love this boat. It won’t work”. She shook her head vehemently.
“I can, and I will, Auds. I might have loved this boat once, but it holds too many dark memories for me. I could,” and she paused before continuing with a steady voice, “show you at least three places on this fine craft where Stephane nearly ended my life.” and she looked pointedly at the step down from the companionway. “He pushed me down that so violently one night at sea I hit my head and needed eight stitches,” and she bowed forward and showed Audrey a fine scar running just below the right side of her temple.
“Oh my god!” muttered Audrey.
“It’s settled then,” said Mary and she gleefully went up the companionway leaving Audrey gasping at the table like a goldfish out of water. By three that afternoon a picture of Médoc had been posted on the harbour master’s noticeboard and the marina gossip monkeys were spreading the details of it down the pontoons. Audrey’s life was about to complete its French journey.
The hollyhocks still grew in great profusion in the yard behind the little house. The shutters were freshly painted and the ancient cobbles had been recently weeded. The small house buzzed with noise, laughter and love again. The previous three months had passed in a blur since the sale of Médoc, and as the cottage had been lived in so recently, Audrey and Mary were able to move in as soon as the sale had been completed. Tony would visit soon, they knew, and the twins would come to stay too, so they spent the time returning the house to its former charm as best as they could. There was room in the yard for a small potager, and there were grapes to pick during the imminent vendage. A brand new Nikon sat proudly on the side board in a bag, ready for Mary to return to the passion she loved so much. It would keep them busy enough, they’d decided, but they’d be careful with the money they had left and grow old and fat together. Putting flowers from the yard in a vase on the table they laid it for supper; outside the evening sun glowed on the newly cleaned roof and the last of the nesting swifts from the church tower shrieked overhead as they fattened themselves with insects in preparation for the long journey south beyond the Sahara.
I have been quite overwhelmed by the reaction to this story so far. I hope you enjoy this final part. Sorry it had to end, but I have to make way for other things, so much more planned for the blog! Thank you to each and every one of you, my readers, for your comments, for the interaction that I enjoy so much, for taking the time to read my ramblings, for without you none of this would be possible. Susan x