Authors: Tanya Moir
I want to tell you a story about my mother, although of course it is also mine – inherited along with dangly earlobes and a horror of deep water.
Janine’s mother had an obsession: her ancestry. But what she uncovered was a colourful assortment of characters and their penchant for cruelty. When her mother dies, Janine continues the genealogical search. She buys a run-down house on a tiny island, where she sits and writes up the stories of her forebears, worrying whether the damaging genes have been passed on.
Meanwhile the builder, Jake, is erecting a jetty for her, and it is his presence, along with Janine’s discovery about her grandfather, that might offer her hope of redemption.
Startlingly original and superbly written, Tanya Moir’s surprising new novel asks how much we really want to know about our futures and our pasts.
want to tell you a story about my mother, although of course it is also mine — inherited, along with dangly earlobes, and a horror of deep water.
We know how so many things happen these days. We have a map of the human genome, as well as the surface of Mars and the floors of formerly unfathomable oceans. What was once the stuff of Nobel prizes is scribbled by schoolgirls going home on the bus.
AA x aa. Blue-eyed boy x brown-eyed girl. List all possible outcomes
. At least that’s what was taught in my day.
Now geneticists explore the bare threads of our cells, search out their lesions, just as — long ago and in different cells — Babs ran cool fingers over shorn and shrinking skulls. (There will be more of my many-times-great-aunt later, as this is her field, but we mustn’t let her distract us now.)
What we’ve learnt is that we’re all made to the same pattern. Knitted up like a thrifty housewife’s sock from scraps — random unravelled bits of yarn that used to make someone else, chance combinations from the hand-me-down wardrobes of dead strangers.
But surely the execution must have an effect? After all, some knit better than others. I could never master it myself. I didn’t drop stitches or miss rows, but my purls came out uneven and my cables stretched too tight. No two attempts at a pattern will ever turn out quite the same — such is the agony and the ecstasy, to paraphrase my mother and Michelangelo, of creation. So many factors can shape a garment. Water, for instance, in which a great many substances may shrink, or stretch, or alter — and though you may think I digress, I do not, because look, here we are, back at the start of my story:
It begins, I’ve come to believe, on a day in 1959, near Invercargill, on a social studies outing. I’m not sure of the month. But it must be winter, because the frost is so thick the stones have stuck to the bottoms of 3E’s shoes. There is clattering as the class hurries, vying for position, across the concrete to the edge. Eagerly, twenty-eight faces peer into the Albert Reservoir. Moving away from them, fast, is Maggie Biggs.
Eleven years before she is to become my mother, clumsy Maggie is a sharp-faced girl of twelve, bony of knee and elbow, though neither of these joints can be seen right now, awash as they are in the heavy wool of a larger girl’s kilt and blazer — her uniform has been cannily purchased to accommodate a further four years’ growth. At this moment, the winter sun receding high above her green-ribboned head, it seems unlikely that Maggie will need the extra room. The water through which she is falling is black, and growing colder.
Does she struggle? Not much, I suspect. Twelve is not too young to believe in fate, not too early to recognise the icy clasp of doom, personified, in this case, by the inhuman depth of the Albert Reservoir, and yard upon winding yard of Black Watch tartan. I think young Maggie plummets, arms kilted to her sides, hard on the heels of the stones that have dropped from the soles of her non-regulation patent pumps.
She is saved at last by a geography teacher called Mr Pitt, and her preference for slip-on shoes. The latter she will retain until the day she dies. But never again — not once in the intervening forty-eight years, not even in the bath — will my mother put her head under water.
An acquired characteristic, you will say. You think such things can’t be passed on?
It was fashionable, once — and perhaps still is, for all I know — to play one’s unborn children music. To rock the amniotic cradles of little Sophies and Jacks with Chopin’s nocturnes, to fertilise their synapses with a thick mulch of Vivaldi. In dourer times, my zygotic
self was taught the march of fear. A sudden clutch of organs in the dark. A heartbeat agitato. A snare-drum shiver whenever my mother crossed a bridge, or glimpsed a pool. For two hundred and
days I washed in these sour tides.
Afterwards, the lesson was repeated, in the tightening of her grip on my soft hand, the sudden dampness of her palm, the clenched stillness of her jaw each time she said, ‘Don’t be silly, Janine. There’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of.’
My mother wouldn’t accept defeat. Shortly before I started school, she decided my father would teach me to swim. But the damage was done. Nothing could convince me to go beyond my depth, or put my head below the water’s surface.
‘Just try,’ my father would coax, or beg, or threaten. ‘How do you know you don’t like it if you’ve never tried?’
Does one need to plummet from a bridge to know it isn’t pleasant? In time, I learned enough to stay afloat, dog-paddling widths of Coldstream Pool, always fearful of the accidental slide, the sudden current, that would sweep me to the Deep End. If I was ever clumsy enough to let my ears sink beneath the surface, I could hear the rumble of that awful place, coming to get me, sucking me down.
Once, on holiday in Dunedin, my father took me to look at a diving pool, made me stand on its slippery, white-tiled edge, and stare down, and down, into all that water. It was the year of the Montreal Olympics. A New Zealander was through to the final of the ten-metre platform. Replays of his dives had been all over the TV news. Now everyone wanted to be a diver, it seemed — except for me, and my mother. Night after night, we teetered with him up on the high board, feeling the void behind us, desperately curling our toes.
My father held my hand very tightly, and used his don’t-be-
-girl voice. ‘See? There’s nothing to be scared of.’
But I could see shapes shifting in the pool, dreadful tentacles of darkness. It was hypnotic, magnetic, a consuming force. I’d been staying up to watch
, and I knew about black holes. If I got too close, nothing could save me.
I remember trying to pull back. I suspect I may have cried.
‘For God’s sake, Janine. How can it hurt you? You can swim!’
I’m convinced that, in that moment, he thought about pushing me in. Just to prove it was safe. Cruel to be kind — they were keen on that sort of thing, his generation. But my father was not a brave man. I was only six. And although I wasn’t aware of them at the time, there must have been people watching.
So, that day, my fate and Maggie Biggs’ divaricated. At Moana Pool in ’76, my frustrated father did not do to me as, on the crazed concrete lip of the Albert Reservoir seventeen years before, Alan Stokes had done to my mother.
Until I left high school, my mother let me believe her fall had been accidental. She thought it better, no doubt, that I fear clumsiness and the vacuum-suck of water than the murderous impulses latent in my classmates. So I was twenty-three before I discovered that a boy named Alan Stokes had pushed young Maggie into the Albert Reservoir, given her baggy-blazered back a goodly shove, and watched her pigtails disappear below black water.
And it was many years more — after I came to the island — before it occurred to me to wonder why.
I’ve always been good at remembering things — in that, too, I am my mother’s daughter. Dates. Births, deaths and marriages. Valuation figures. Key details. I remember the Latin names of plants, and obscure internet diseases. And I remember waiting rooms.
A large open space, seventies chocolate brown and — I can see now — of some architectural merit. It has timber floor-to-ceiling windows, and native ferns outside. Inside with me, in the dim bush-light, are rubber plants and magazines and my best friend Susan Fisher.
‘What’s wrong with your mother?’
(Perhaps, looking back, Susan doesn’t mean it to sound like such an accusation. On the other hand, she always was a bitch.)
I look up from an article on how to make an owl out of macramé, which my mother always insisted on pronouncing ‘macra-
’, though everybody else called it ‘ma-
-me’. The owl in the photograph is clutching a driftwood perch. He has cowrie shells for eyes and looks vaguely demonic.
‘Nothing,’ I say.
‘There must be something wrong with her,’ Susan insists, ‘or she wouldn’t have come to the doctor’s.’
I’m puzzled. Until this moment, I’ve assumed our weekly round of clinics to be part of every mother’s routine, like hairdos on Friday afternoons, and the Women’s Institute on Wednesdays. It didn’t mean there was anything wrong.
Susan is waiting. She has even stopped clicking her Rubik’s cube, and is watching me intently. ‘Haven’t they told you?’
I shake my head, defeated.
‘Oh,’ she says, in a heavy, speech-and-drama sort of way, and sucks her breath through her teeth the way you do when you’ve cut your finger.
I should ignore her, but I’m only ten. ‘What?’ I demand.
‘Nothing. Just …’ She turns the cube in her lap like a sibyl examining bird bones. ‘It must be something really bad, then.’
I stare at the string owl, and listen to the cubes click.
My mother comes out. ‘Don’t suck your hair, Janine,’ she says. ‘I’ve told you, it’s disgusting.’
It’s baby-pink, with hard grey plastic chairs. There are watercolours of kittens on the walls, and some verse in curly script beneath a rainbow. The magazines are dated and cheap, real
stuff — these days, I’m harder to amuse. I wouldn’t be sitting here at all if my jellies hadn’t blistered my feet, and I didn’t need a ride home. If I had cigarettes, or money.
Across from me, a fat grey girl is reading a Mills & Boon and chewing her greasy plait. I refrain from telling her it’s disgusting. She’s got a big gold nylon bag on her knee, and I’m betting there’s a
packet of cigarettes inside it. Eventually she sighs that waiting-room sigh, and takes a look around, as if something might have changed.
‘Been here long?’
She raises her eyebrows, and exhales a long breath, lifting her fringe, and convincing me she is indeed a smoker. ‘Waiting for my mother.’
We nod like combat veterans, real cool. ‘What’s yours in for?’
I’m still none the wiser, but this time I don’t bat an eyelid. ‘Cancer,’ I reply.
There’s one image of my mother I’ve always loved. She’s leaning on the rail of a ship, which in time I learn is not any old ship, but the great white ocean liner
. At this moment (
, according to the photo caption) they are both on their maiden voyage, somewhere deep in the Pacific.
(Not that this is a cruise. My grandparents, William and Sarah Biggs, are voyaging with a purpose. Two, in fact, as it turns out — one each, unvoiced, yet not uncomplementary.)
She is beautiful, of course — whose mother is not? — with her crisp white shirt and shiny pony-tail, and I can see through the silvery fifties-Kodak greys to sun-kissed skin and hair that is rust and copper and strawberry-gold like Katharine Hepburn’s. At eight and a half, she’s still round and soft, four years away from Alan Stokes and the Albert Reservoir, from suspicion and sharp edges. She is no one’s mother, not anyone, yet. Here, in the open ocean, Maggie Biggs is floating.
What is on her eight-year-old mind? Fruit, mostly, if her travel diary is any guide. (I have it now, a little yellow-white leather book with a metal zip, its front page signed by all the officers, including ‘Captain Rowlands’ and someone called ‘The Great Alfonso’.) This child of post-war rationing has tasted her first pineapple and is eager for another. If, on her voyage to the New
World, she thinks further ahead than this, she leaves no clue.
In the photograph, she is looking back over her shoulder, and in spite of all I know, I like to think it’s my grandfather she sees. It’s a portrait worthy of William Biggs — amid poor Sarah’s awkward attempts, her skewed horizons and missing limbs, this single frame stands out with a professional’s composure.
I want to allow William this. The jammed shutter of his mind nudged free, his thoughts a fresh frame, clean and white. The camera is right there, on the deckchair beside him. He reaches for it without thinking, and his skin doesn’t flinch from the metal, and his nostrils do not burn. He is an artist again. He opens his lens to the light, and nothing forms on his blank-sheet mind but his
daughter, and a tropical sky, and a calm and sinless sea. And it’s not that he loves her, in this moment — I don’t wish that, for what is a father’s love but fear, and retribution? — but that he sees her, that he is filled with the shape she makes on the wind and sky. Because she is lovely, isn’t she?