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Polly Riddell loved sunflowers. Here, she sits among blooms in Switzerland, celebrating her 40th birthday last year with a trip back to the country where she spent part of her childhood. She died a month later, on 16 October.

Across the whited fields: Losing Polly

Remembering Polly Riddell – and the innocents set down amongst us.

The first day

In a twilight street
a small girl laughing.

The red and yellow flowers
profuse, inhale the air.

We want to hold your name,
Polly, dancing in the rain

Polly, skipping down the street.
Sometimes the world bequeaths

then takes away the one to whom
our hearts will open wide.

We were beguiled. You are so innocent
so innocent       so innocent.

Polly, aged 3, at her grandparents' home in Palmerston North
There is a loch in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland, Loch Avon, where the waters are so clear, so bright, that wading into them and confronted by the unexpected depth and clarity, writer Nan Shepherd later wrote in The Living Mountain of “a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped”.

When I set out to write of place, of the mountains and stream in my valley in Central Otago, the tor-serrated hills, and the village where over the years people have arrived to live, I did not think I would come to write of the loss of one of them, a young woman so bright in spirit it was as if we had had an innocent set down amongst us.

How can I write of Polly, who was broken by the world, without thinking of that clear loch, in the land her family set out from, where water pours over “grim bastions” yet carries no sediment? The waterfall itself, Shepherd wrote, seemed “to distil and aerate the water so that the loch far below is sparkling clear”.

Polly had long purple hair, black-rimmed glasses and an array of wild and coloured clothing. (“That lady with the awesome clothes,” nine-year-old Jude said.) Polly walking down the one street in our village in scarf and shorts and steampunk tights and red sunglasses, wide-eyed at the hills around her, black labrador Lola at her side.

Into this village of farmers and truckers had first come one poet, then others; people seeking community or quietness, those who stayed in their garden or those who leant on their gate to talk. Then there was Polly in tartan and bangles, skipping down the street. She’d just turned 40, yet had the spirit of a child, dazzling in her beauty, innocent even of the machinations of agriculture. One night at the pub, sheep farmer Ken tried to explain to her the incidence of sheep measles in lambs caused by untreated dogs. “When we cut the lamb open…”

“You kill your lambs?” said Polly, shocked.

“Well, we didn’t know we had a problem with sheep measles until we opened…”

“You kill your lambs?” she said again, and Ken, stopped, slightly bewildered.

“It’s all right,” Polly said, recovering herself. “My dad told me I have to tread lightly in the village. I’ll zip it. I won’t say one more word about you killing lambs.”

“Just don’t feed your dog raw meat,” said Ken.

“Oh, that’s okay,” Polly said. “My dog’s vegetarian.”

“She told me she was training her dog in five languages,” another farmer, Richard, told me. “It made me smile. And I heard her, too, when her dog went to run in my gate. ‘Nein, Lola, nein!’ “He stopped. “I feel like we’ve been robbed,” he said. “All the years we could have had Polly in our lives.”

Polly lived in a studio over the fence from me, waiting for her house to be built, and when I texted “Come for a cuppa”, she would lope up the grass, a coffee already in her hands, fingerless gloves on. Sometimes I gave her healing – reiki or hand acupuncture – for the pain she lived with: a broken neck, rods fused in her spine, a shattered ankle, so that even to walk pained her. And sometimes she would heal alongside with me, sitting on the verandah in the sun, sending her bright compassionate thoughts to people she didn’t know, and went on, she told me, holding them in her heart.

 “Heartbreaking, just… heartbreaking,” the builder Justin said, standing on the pad of Polly’s home, the first wall risen.

“I wrote her name in the concrete pad,” I told him.

“I saw it. Just there, almost under the window.”

That night the concrete pad had almost dried, I’d gone over at twilight and stood beside the shimmering floor, a wide expanse like a page where a house would be written. I’d imagined a window where Polly could sit and look at the mountains, then I’d picked up a small stick and written her name into the cooling concrete. When Justin pointed out the scrawl in the hardened floor, Polly and a heart, I had missed the window by half an inch. And now her name is forever under the wall, her name etched in the floor as she is in our memories.

Revisiting a childhood holiday spot, Coalpit Dam in Naseby, near Oturehua.
Those waters of the Avon, springing from that clear loch. The water’s clearness “so absolute that there is no image for them”, Shepherd wrote. “They are elemental transparency… their quality is natural, but is found so seldom in its absolute state that when we do so find it, we are astonished.”

We were astonished.

“She was a dreamy child,” said her father, Mike Riddell. “Introverted and kind and innocent.”

When Polly was 11, she was raped.

By 14, she was a morphine addict.

At 16, she was on the streets.

Her father spoke these truths at her funeral that we may know the true courage Polly lived. (The hardest challenge in life is always going to be the fight within yourself: an abuse survivor.)

At 16, her first suicide attempt. Polly threw herself from a six-metre-high wall onto concrete. “A miracle patient who survived,” her doctor described her. Yet now the pain she felt inside was externalised.

At 28, in a head-on car crash, her neck was broken. Polly, eyes closed, with neck brace and screws in her hospital bed.

“She somehow kept her beautiful innocence and sense of wonder through everything,” Mike said. He wrote:

Rosemary said you were practising
and would get better
but you won’t ever get better
than you always were
alive with love, alive with joy,

The hawk of depression so close she could see the pinions of its feathers at the same time as hear the clarion calls of bellbirds or the froth of chirping sparrows in the willows. She carried a handbag of boxes of drugs with her, and one red bangle; a multitude of painkillers for the comfort of knowing help was at hand when she needed it. Polly in her tutu, her hair in braids, almost a rainbow.

The long shadow of sexual abuse took Polly by an unexpected, unexplained overdose. Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) victims are at an increased risk of both suicide and accidental fatal overdose, an Australian study found. The mean age of death from accidental overdose: 31. These are events that are researched, linked, numbered, given percentages. It’s unmistakeable, the possible outcome.

I am excited for our future! Polly wrote to her father Mike and mother Rosemary.
To live next door to you!
To settle our bones, adventure,

In that magical wee village, Oturehua,
Wrapped around by giant hugging mountains.

All the stars she wondered at and the glory of the sunset skies, all the love she had for her father and mother and sister and brother and the love they had for her, in that one instant could not hold her, though we longed for her to be safe.

There are 10 of us in the village whose children have grown and live away.

“I think it’s because we don’t have our children here, and we are all parents, that our hearts filled up for Polly,” our neighbour Alison said. “We wanted to protect her.” 

Hollyhocks and wild sweet peas – Blackstone Hill Cemetery in summer.
Blackstone Hill Cemetery is a small square graveyard on the flank of a rising hill. It’s edged by hawthorn, with cast iron gates at the front, and a view across fields to the Hawkduns and Mt Ida. The Home Hills are to the left, and far in the distance to the right, the long, rugged length of Rough Ridge. One warm, dry Saturday morning in February, eight months before Polly died, Brian Turner and I had driven there to weed graves. We couldn’t make the public event the next day, when 20 people would turn up to tidy and garden. Instead, we had the headstones and the birdsong to ourselves.       

We fetched spades and gloves from the car and cardboard boxes for the weeds and chose the first row, on the left, to begin. Here in the cemetery, wild flowers thrived. Especially hollyhocks. They sprouted between graves, in graves, on the edge of graves, soaring in this sheltered space, their blooms scarlet and purple. Cleavers ran wild over the ground and surged in sticky green waves over the graves’ dividing fences. There were sweet peas with purple blooms, and yellow stonecrop, white daisies, and the weeds – dandelion, yarrow, thistle, dock. Where to start? Not with the hollyhocks. Unlike urban cemeteries, which are either a concreted city of headstones or a mown green lawn, here, nature has taken a hold. Flowers come back each year and bloom where they will, bringing their exuberance to an enclosure of etched names and grief.

We pulled out dock, yarrow, long rank rye grass and the cleavers, and left the sweet peas, the oxeye daisies, and the hollyhocks. Each grave had its own low fence around it, sometimes iron work, sometimes a raised concrete edge. Before stepping into each grave – for instance, Charles Brown, died 24 June, 1917, or Fanny McKeeman, died September 1908, aged 38 – I read the name aloud, acknowledging the person we were visiting, as if knocking on the door to let them know we’d arrived. Brian and I worked side by side on the graves, which were like small houses in their gardens, set in a small grassed street. And I came to understand, head down, shaking a clump of soil from dock and tossing it into the cardboard box, smoothing over the soil, patting it down by the hollyhocks, that this was a community here – the ones who had lived before us. This was the small township they dwelt in now, with larks and paradise ducks overhead and sparrows in the hedgerows and sometimes plovers and pied oystercatchers in the green across the road.

None of the dead are ours, but in some sense, they belong to all of us, for we all know grief, and its precursor, love.

“I see you left the hollyhocks alone,” organiser Judy said when I rang her that night. “That’s good. There’s always someone in the group who yanks them out.”

When Polly was buried, mourners cast streamers and confetti into her grave.
In that golden time of flowers, Polly had driven up to visit the newly weeded cemetery with Mike and Rosemary.

“She turned around and around with her phone, filming the graves and the views for Instagram,” Mike told me. I would have liked to have seen the land and the names and the flowers through her eyes.

Instead, we arrive at the cemetery again in October, and it is Polly we are here for. The peace flags on the cemetery fence have faded to grey. I wish they were pink and purple with sparkles for her. The white hearse rolls slowly through the gates. Ken, now sextant, and solemn in black jacket and trousers, is there to meet her. Polly’s friend, it was he who was responsible for her grave, and had dug it with farmers Graeme and Bruce. The straight sides of the hole reveal the layers of soil, the striations of geology. No fake grass here to cover up what is real; the clean-smelling home of earth.

Ken has laid hay in the bottom of the grave. Afterwards, he will cover the poignant rise with hay and lay the flowers upon it. Tucking Polly in, farmer-style.

All day it has been hot, sweltering for spring. That long, hot drive back from the service in Dunedin city to the green of Blackstone Hill. As we gather in the cemetery, blue-black clouds rise over the hill and the hawthorns. Mike stands beside the coffin, his hand reaching for her lid (…with you, with you, he wrote afterwards, always with you/in a home made of love/without any roof).

Mike had once been a pastor. He knew the words of the service, but in his mouth, and in this place, from father to daughter, that age-old phrase takes on a poignant gravity: Earth to earth, ashes to ashes… We step forward, but not with soil. We cast streamers and coloured paper and confetti into that earthen bed.

“Knowing Polly, there’ll be some signs,” Mike says, and at that moment the clouds let loose the rain upon us.  

On her return to Switzerland and the mountains she loved.
A week after the funeral, Judy rings again, this time for a working bee to weed the garden at the domain. A wonderful gardener herself, Judy is now in a wheelchair. But she knows the village and the village gardens. She knows what needs to be done.

Seven of us turn up, all women on this roster. The garden is a tangled area under two trees – a mauve, weeping crab apple in full bloom and a flowering cherry with branches of delicate white. Under the trunks, cleavers, again, and dock, and ryegrass with roots so thick our spades can barely daunt it.

“One of these trees was planted for the little girl who drowned up at Beckers’ coal pits, about 20 years ago,” Wendy says, for there are five of us who’ve been here less than 20 years. But Wendy remembers and so does Carol, the last publican from the hotel. 

The publicans at the hotel then, across the road from Beckers Transport, had a young daughter, Jacy. The local children knew not to skate on the frozen coal pits. The ice there, over the coal, farmer Barry told me, is not like other ice. It’s slushy. It doesn’t freeze the same.

But if you ever did fall through ice, another farmer, Murray, told me, don’t swim towards the light. You have to swim towards the dark. The light is the ice above your head. The dark is your only way through.  

Seven-year-old Jacy went with a younger boy who’d lived in the village only a few years. Neither of them knew the dangers. They slipped away from the hotel to skate on the ice frozen over the transport company’s wash pond, formerly Mr William Clucas’ coal pit. Jacy fell through the ice. The little boy, confused, ran to the closed garage, then back to stand beside the ice, and waited for Jacy to come back up again.   

We listen to our village tragedy, bending and stooping under the boughs, tugging at the ryegrass and its roots, tenacious through droughts and ice-packed winters and all the long years since a young girl’s classmates had stood here by a sapling tree.

A four-wheel drive pulls up on the roadside. Ken, on his way to check progress on the village walkway, perhaps wondering why there is a bustle of women and tools under the two trees.

“Have you found Jacy’s plaque?” is the first thing he says. “It should be here, under her tree.”

“It’s not here,” Wendy says “There’s a hole where it should have been, because I tripped in it. Bob’s taken it home to fix and set on a new post.”

“Which tree is hers?” I ask.

“That one, the white blossom,” Ken says. And he tells the story again, of the small girl and the tragedy of silence.

On any weekday outside the store, there’ll be a farmer’s ute with dog on the back, truck driver with high-viz jacket, or villagers, all for their morning mail or paper or coffee. Perhaps Pete biking home no-handed, reading the paper’s headlines. Today, Armistice Day, there we are again – villagers, visitors, all in good clothing under the sudden hot sun: Paula in a frock, Annie from Hayes in full Victorian gear, the farmers in pressed check shirts. Ken and Graeme hand out poppies. Polly’s sister has come with Polly’s dog. The piper stands and plays, as we sit in chairs arranged on the footpath outside the store.

“Do they know I’m reading a poem too?” I whisper to Brian in the front row (I’d just arrived back from visiting grandchildren).

“Yes. I told Trevor Beck,” Brian whispers back.

The fine weather is a surprise, and a bounty for us. Last week there’d been rain and snow. Trevor steps up to the front. He’s a retired farmer, a gentleman, much involved in the community. (“Though this is the last thing I’m organising,” he says later. “I’m getting too forgetful.”)

“A hundred years ago, on the 12th of November (we were a day behind the world), the locals were gathered here in the hall in front of us, waiting for news. First, the telegraph boy arrived,” and up runs Ollie from next door, long-legged and grinning, and hands Trevor the telegram. “News is coming.”

There’s the sound of a throbbing motorbike. Pete rides into view in full army kit – Trevor’s tin hat and kitbag, army shirt and twill trousers, and neighbour Bill’s putties. Pete runs to Trevor – “Good news,” he calls, with his trademark wide grin. He hands Trevor the paper and Trevor reads: “The Germans have surrendered. The war is over.” Caught up in the drama, we stand up from our seats on the footpath and yell.

For those gathered back then, their husbands and sons still so far away, it must have been like that moment scrambling up Mt Ida through cloud, when you walk out of the swirl and mist onto rock shining in the sun, the high flanks of the mountain and the ridgeline tors clear, the tussock gold, while below, what was once claggy and unfathomable has become a soft and luminescent land.

It would feel something like peace.

There were those who came home and wouldn’t talk about it, like the grandfathers in Brian’s poem he stands to read, “Memories of War”:

‘We fought because we had to,
it was as simple as that for most of us,’
and, my father’s father added,
‘Heroics were commonplace. But no
more questions. Go outside and play.’

Not for those rheumy, shuttered-eyed men the memory of guns in putrid air.

In the valley, the men came home to the farms or the railway. But not to the school – the teacher killed and his fiancée bereft. And the other sons who didn’t make it – from the Somme, from leg wounds, from meningitis – changed or gone, we remember them. To help, there are rows of young faces in sepia on the board in front of us.

When I stand up to read my poem, there is a lull in the traffic going by. There are only the words, and the upturned faces of people I know, and the moment of shared poignancy in our lives still cradled with grief, still staccatoed by fear, and fractured by wrongdoings and missed opportunities for grace.

The house being built for Polly, still under construction when she died.

And now it ends

(for the Ida Valley, Armistice Day)

The frost that cowed the blooms was just the start –
there was hail and snow and thunder yet to come.
And now it ends, we hold the fallen to our heart. 

In the dawn, the chill winds laid their mark.
The harvest of our children had begun.
The frost that cowed the blooms was just the start.

They were taken from our yard and from our hearth,
those who’d bloomed, and those whose blooming was to come.
And now it ends, we hold the fallen to our heart.

The art of war was never any art
for us, when winter’s shadows paled the sun.
The frost that cowed the blooms was just the start.

No more the blackened leaves, the silent lark,
nor rubble in the fields concealing limbs,
for now it ends, we hold the fallen to our heart.

We let them go, and in this way, we played our part.
Across the tracks of snow, we call them home.
The frost that cowed the blooms was just the start
and now it ends, we hold the fallen to our heart.

There are sandwiches and cakes across the road at the pub. Time to sit in the sun and talk. And the mountains are still there, at the end of the valley, and the hills and the tors. On Rough Ridge, the wild briar blooming.

I thank you for always breaking the bleak times, Polly wrote in a poem to her dad.

With ease, faith and that deep, guttural laugh we share.
Throughout... the beers with Grampa at the Waterloo,
The phone calls daily, later when he loosened his grip,
Or I lost mine,
You continue to build me up, bringing such light to my
Wounded soul.

“Knowing Polly, there’ll be some signs,” Mike says, and at that moment the clouds let loose the rain upon us.
It’s meant to be spring, but there’s snow again, horizontal in the wind from the south. At the cemetery, the hawthorns are frothed with blossom. Their boughs reach to the ground. They are like bridal veils, so full of their own white in a white landscape.

Snow lies between the graves and along the headstones, but not on Polly’s warmer soil. I lay a branch of hawthorn blossom next to the cross adorned with her greenstone necklace. When I stand up, another woman with flowers in her hand is making her way between the graves. It’s Becky from Hayes Engineering, the village cafe.

“Who are you visiting?” I call.

“Polly,” she calls back. She’s brought daisies and red peonies from her garden. She lays them next to the hawthorn blossom. We stand there at the foot of Polly’s grave, silent for a minute, two bundled women in the wintry air.

When the snows melt, the Ida Burn will roll and tumble in high spate, ploughing banks and broom and young willows into its waters. No one can predict these things: how far the river will rise, how long the snow will lie on the flanks of Mt Ida or the drought last when it comes, as it will, burning the land with gold. All these things the land submits to, and survives.

In every sunrise and snowfall
we will know you, love you, Mike wrote of Polly,
you are the valley
that has cleft us raw
be at home, sweet daughter
be delirious with joy
be aching with beauty
be, just be.

When Becky and I walk past the graves, the stories are in the stone and in the words we’ve heard. We pause to consider them: this young woman who died in childbirth, this young man with the red poppy on his headstone, killed in action, this loved husband unexpectedly. We submit because that is all that can be done.

The hollyhocks have sprung from cracks and graves again, their leathery leaves wide open to the snow. The oxeye daisies are in full bud, the sweet pea tendrils sweeping over the wrought iron. Nothing is in bloom yet, but everything is ready. The names are inaccessible to us now, only to the memories we hold, and the love is in the care, in the extra turf Ken has placed on Polly’s grave because of the rain, the plastic daisies spinning in the wind, the handwritten message on a grandmother’s wooden cross. “You are the best grandmother ever.”

Two paddocks over, a farmer is shifting sheep. The dogs bark and bark. The farmer’s voice is audible but not the words, until the wind shifts.

“Here Bess! Here Bess!” across the whited fields. “Bess, come!”

This essay was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.