When I can’t sleep, which is often, I like to wander in my mind. I have my favourite haunts – Paris at night, the sandy streets of Jaisalmer, Worser Bay Beach. But lately, there’s a new place my mind likes to visit on those long, silent nights when sleep refuses to come. This wandering is called Marewa Road.
We parked alongside the small clay bank covered in scrubby plants. Through the windscreen, I could see Poppa’s Ford Fairlane parked in front of us, wide and settled into the road like a boat. I couldn’t remember the last time I had sat in it, but I knew the way the woollen blanket that covered the back seat felt on the sensitive skin behind my knees, and how I felt when I rode in it, like a princess, crawling through the city in the back of a limousine while my driver whistled and drove slow enough to annoy the people behind us. I picked at the Fraggle Rock tattoo I’d stuck to the brown vinyl seat in our Nissan Sunny then peered through the window and up to where I could just see a glimpse of the boxy off-white house high above the road. It had white paint covering the concrete exterior. Like icing on a cake.
We got out of the car and walked up the small path to the letterbox. The path was on an incline but not too steep. It was the warm up before the big climb. We all wanted to get to the letterbox first. Bringing Nana the post was a good job. It meant she didn’t have to make the trip down the steps and back and whoever handed it over would be rewarded with a warm, soft hug and a broad smile. My sister Kerryn got there first that day, swiping the small bundle of envelopes and a circular with a smug smile. She raced ahead, taking the first steps two at a time so that she would be able to hand over the mail in private. Claire and I exchanged a look. We weren’t going to run up the steps. We knew by then to pace ourselves.
I began the climb. I’ve forgotten now how many steps there were, but I must have counted them fifty times or more. I can almost hear my child-voice, muffled as if speaking through a door, reciting one.. two.. three…twenty-nine.. thirty.. thirty-two. There were things to look at along the way, little treasures deliberately placed to catch the eye and distract the climber from their rising heart rate and laboured breaths. A plant with delicate pink flowers, tucked between two rocks. Downy sage green leaves that we liked to stop and stroke on our way past. The small flat lawn in front of the house passed by on our right. We didn’t stop, but mum did. She turned around to look at the view of the sea and a passing Interislander Ferry, bound for the South Island. She pressed her hands to the small of her back and leaned back with a sigh. Kerryn was only two steps in front of us now. She’d slowed her pace around the middle of the climb, those short legs of hers unable to keep up with her enthusiasm.
We all made it to the top. Mum bent down to admire a plant and I knew we would stop here again on our tour of the garden later. Nana would pull out a sharp knife and slice off a piece of it, pressing down on the wooden handle with her thumb. She would wrap it in damp newspaper and tie the bundle with twine, telling us the story of where she’d found the plant as she worked.
At the door, we huddled together on the porch. A camellia flower the colour of cotton candy floated face up in a ceramic bowl Nana had made herself. I touched the tip of my finger to the silky petals and nudged it, sending it sailing across the surface of the water. The door opened before we had time to knock. Nana was there with an apron on; good smells were making their way out of her kitchen to where we stood. We lined up for hugs as we walked through the doorway; her blue knit cardigan soft against my cheek.
“Hello!” Poppa called out from the living room. We bounded in. He was in his chair with his feet up, a book open on his lap.
“Hello!” we sang back.
The kettle was already boiling and upon hearing it, mum made her way into the kitchen to help set out cups and arrange the assortment of treats on plates. I was secretly hoping for date loaf and Nana’s sultana cake – my favourite. The three of us sat nicely at Nana and Poppa’s house, carefully choosing what we’d like to eat from the plate she passed around, trying our hardest not to argue with one another. Sometimes, we had a milky warm tea to go with our Full o’ Fruit biscuit or piece of shortbread.
After tea, it was time to explore. I walked the length of the huge window that covered one side of the living room, stopping at Poppa’s telescope. The window wasn’t quite as big as the one at my house, but I could still see the ferries that passed by Nana’s window on their way to mine. Next, I went into the dining room and sat for a few seconds at the wooden table. I liked the spot next to the window, where I could see the steps and the garden stretching down to the street. The kitchen was next – a little dimmer than the front of the house, but nice and cool. I opened a cupboard and briefly regarded the pots and pans. I’d played them like drums the last time I’d visited and considered doing it again but then remembered the adults talking in the next room. I stopped in the doorway to Nana’s bedroom and looked in, but didn’t enter. There was a small wardrobe where Poppa hung his dressing gown and a chair in the corner. I liked Nana’s wide, flat hairbrush with the metal handle, and the smell of the things on her dresser.
The camphor blanket box was hard to open but impossible to resist. The top was carved with mysterious designs that looked exotic to my eyes and I ran my fingers over them before lifting the golden latch. It used to take my cousin Katie and I working together to open the lid but I was strong enough now to do it on my own. Inside, thick wool blankets awaited the winter. A smell – medicinal and sour made my nose wrinkle before I carefully lowered the lid.
Along this wall was the best thing in the house. I turned around and looked at it before tip-toeing over and bending down. We were not allowed to play with the laundry chute. Inside, was a deathly drop to the concrete floor of the laundry below. Throwing things in there and listing to the shloooop as it fell was one of the best things on earth. My sisters, cousins and I had spent hours yelling things to one another from either end. I ignored the chute for now and walked down the hall to the spare bedroom. There was a single bed next to the window, and a desk with hidden compartments. I liked this room because Poppa had written the heights of my dad and uncles on the wood next to the door, followed by the heights of all of the grandchildren. We marvelled at how tall our father was at our age and tried to imagine him as a small boy, even smaller than us.
Into the sunroom, the brightest room in the house. Poppa’s shirts hung over my head on hangers and Nana’s sewing machine was set up at one end. I opened the cupboard door to check on My Darling, the doll with the cracked head that we all loved. She was sleeping, her eyelids shut. Down the stairs on my bottom, bump bump bump. The wood under my hands was silky smooth. Perfect for sliding down. We had tried to make the trip on pillowcases a few times, and once, a sleeping bag. The cupboard at the bottom of the stairs was off limits, but sometimes Poppa would venture in while we waited excitedly by the door. There were shelves and shelves of special things in there. My favourite treasure was an old Mr Potato Head set. The bedroom at the bottom of the stairs was where we always slept when we stayed the night. No one wanted the upstairs room, and I can’t remember why now. There were two single beds. It was always a race to get the one by the window.
I looked at the toy box and the wooden mechanic garage with the ramp that sat on top. Playing with the cars, tractors, and metal soldiers was fun but I needed someone else to play with. I looked up at the staircase, hoping to see a sister making her way down, but there wasn’t anyone there, so I walked up the concrete steps at my side and opened the door.
The laundry was cool and damp; I poked my head in but decided not to go inside. The old washer with the wringer stood at the back. Every time I looked at the wringer, I heard Nana’s voice in my head, telling me that my fingers would be crushed if I ever put my hands near it.
I heard movement overhead, people walking around and a light burst of laughter. It was time for the garden walk. I raced up the steps to meet them just as they were at the door and we all walked into the sunshine together. First, past the camellias, then around the corner to the grassy area where we sat on Christmas morning, and then to the rock gardens that covered the bank. The adults walked the garden, stopping to look at plants, pinch off a dead flower or pluck a weed out of the soil. They were too slow for me, so I ran ahead and took the shady garden path, looping around the meet them on the other side.
It was time to go. Nana passed mum the cuttings she had taken from the garden, wrapped in newspaper, tied with twine.
Poppa put his hands into his pockets and whistled as he looked at a patch of flowers by his foot, his head down. “Goodbye Becca!” he said when I stood next to him and leaned into his side.
“Take this, too,” Nana said, pressing a tin of biscuits into mum’s hands. “We’ll see you next weekend.”
“Bye Nana!” we all cried as we started down the steps, single-file.
They waited at the top until we disappeared from view.