Linda Burgess’s essay “Ten Christmases” is the fifth from the D’Arcy Writers Grants to be published in North & South. The grants, sponsored by Mark and Deborah D’Arcy, expatriate Kiwis living in New York, are designed to encourage the writing of essays of 10,000-12,000 words on New Zealand life and culture.
It’s meant to be in winter. From when you’re tiny, when in picture books little rabbits throw snowballs, and Santa travels in a sleigh, and scarlet-cheeked girls with hands tucked inside covetable fur muffs sing carols to old folk, you know it’s wrong having it in summer.
The day before Christmas, Dad goes out to a friend’s farm with someone who has a truck and comes back with a Christmas tree. But it’s not. We already know Christmas trees are a perfect triangle but this has been a branch before it was sawn off, and it slouches like an awkward teenager who has grown too quickly, rammed in a bucket with Christmas paper taped around it, with its leg held in place by stones and bits of brick, its shoulder against the wall.
Mum has, in a non-committal way, got religion. It’s the mid-1950s and in this town, in this neighbourhood, in this decade, people go to church. So with the exception of Dad, and probably our big brother, we walk to the Presbyterian church. We spend 20 minutes or so in the church itself, which is the boring bit, then all the children troop off to the hall at the back where middle-aged women stick people and animals cut out of felt on to a big felt board and they tell us stories. One is about opening your heart to Jesus and there’s a red felt heart with a door in it and at night I lie in the dark knowing that when that door shuts you die and I can feel my door inching callously towards closure.
At the end of the service, we go back to the church and everybody sings “Amen… amen…” and then they get to “A-a-ha-ha…. mennnn…” and invariably Wendy and I are in hysterics.
The Sunday School children put on a little festive show, directed by my mother, and we dress up in simple gowns made from old sheets with two side-seams run up on Singer sewing machines. A rope tied around our waists, and a tea-towel on our heads, we sing about being away in a manger on a silent holy night. We three kings from Orient are, we sing, and it’s years till I realise that Orientar is not a place. Three of us are singled out for a verse each. My big sister, Wendy, who’s naturally musical, is one. And me! “Myrrh is mine,” I sing, “its bitter perfume.”
The director and her cohorts murmur among themselves. The other two kings will join me in singing my verse as my voice is not strong enough.
We go round the neighbourhood on the back of a local farmer’s truck, singing carols, and people come out and give us money to give to charity. Probably lepers. Leprosy, luridly photogenic on posters at the back of the church, figures large in the Presbyterian church.
There are all six of us then. Mum, Dad, four kids. Michael is tall enough to be leaving school soon and he has an eye for design and does the tree. Mum has a different hiding place each year for our presents. I search, I search. Grandma always sends me a manicure set. Aunty June sends something because she is Mum’s only sister. Often stationery, which we use for our thank-you letters. Granny doesn’t send us anything. Because she has 25 grandchildren.
We assist Michael in the decoration of the tree the night before Christmas. Dad and Michael have a tricky relationship. Not only did Dad go off to war when Michael was a toddler and not come back till he was at school, but Michael isn’t sporty. One evening, around tea time, when Michael has been out on his bike, Mum asks him if he’s seen Dad, and Michael says he has, and Dad is down outside the pub on the corner. Bragging and boasting as usual.
The tree. It’s loitering against the wall of the sitting-room. There’s a shoebox full of decorations and best of all is the little cardboard green and red boot with glitter stuck on it. Mum brings our presents from where they’re hidden and places them around the tree. We crawl on our hands and knees checking the ones with our name on them.
There’s that off-hand weather we have in New Zealand at Christmas. Our myth of sunny beaches. We have to have breakfast before we’re allowed to open the presents because there’s always our own little box of Cadbury milk tray chocolates and we mustn’t ruin our appetites. And you’re either the type who eats the peppermint one first, or the type who saves it till last so you can gloat. So. Christmas.
Now we’ve moved towns and we live behind and above the bank. Dad is a manager. Kids in my new school think the money is ours. Our house has double doors on the street frontage and at night Dad puts a bolt across them. Not a bolt. A long metal bar which he slots in place to keep out robbers.
Two things: it reminds me of a blue book we have, one of a series. Historical stories. There’s one about Bonnie Prince Charlie. After Culloden he hides at Flora McDonald’s place, and to protect him she puts her soft pale arm across to bar the door and on the outside a sword is sliding down between the door and the door jamb to deal to the obstacle and her staunch eyes stare heavenwards so she will not see the moment that her arm is chopped in half. I love that picture.
The other thing: when I hear that bar put across, it’s sleep time; they’re on their way. Turn off my pale-green radio, already turned down so low just in case my parents walk past. Poetry in motion... Walkin’, talkin’, livin’ doll... I wanna be Bobby’s girl... Up the stairs they come, then into the bathroom for teeth, open my door to check no light from radio, then down the hall to their room. Thump thump. We call it Mum walking on her stumps.
We live in the main street and our town buys Christmas lights to string across its wide, treeless blandness. The story is, they’ve come from London. Oxford St has, apparently, an excess of lights so they’re selling their leftovers. Their glamorous leftovers wander back and forth from power pole to power pole.
We get pocket money now and from about September we start saving a percentage of it to buy Christmas presents. We have five to buy, so at say 2/6 a head we need 12/6. We have to save a shilling a week; 12/6 is a magic amount because it’s what Mum used to earn for a whole week’s work selling fur coats. Inflation is measured in the price of sweets. Orange squash gums, snifters are two a penny and when she was little for one penny you got 12. Twelve!
Dad earns by the year now, not the week.
I judge Christmas by the number of books I get. I hope for four, and Mum knows to ask Wendy exactly what I want. Wendy and I are the avid readers, with a string of favourite authors. I suspect Deborah has bought me a book and I’m afraid she won’t know what to choose. So I trap her into admitting that she has, then I manipulate her into showing me what it is. She goes under her bed where her presents are hidden and she shows me a book that I would never dream of reading. When she cries and cries I wish so hard that I hadn’t made her show me.
Michael gets a ride home with another local boy who’s gone to work in the big smoke. Michael is a terrific mimic. Lucky bugger, says his driver, each time they pass a couple walking or driving together. Lucky bugger.
Christmas. Michael is in Wellington working for Kirks. Soon he’ll go into advertising at BP but now it’s Kirks’ windows and he brings home a huge print that they’ve used for a display. It’s in a fancy frame and shows leafless trees around an English lake. It’s so posh and Mum and Dad put it in the upstairs sitting room above the fireplace. Dad hates the word posh. And toilet. And pardon. The tree is downstairs ready for Michael to decorate; we wouldn’t do it till he got there. Deborah can’t wait till he’s home. He’s the oldest, she’s the youngest; there’s adoration. But she’s itchy. She can’t stop itching.
Chickenpox. We’re all to keep away. Michael stands at her bedroom door, briefly. Forever, in family history: the Christmas that Deborah so longed for Michael to come home. The Christmas she got chickenpox.
Same town. Same bank, but only just: they’re pulling it down to make a new one. The fine old building, Palladian-style like the other two banks in the main street, which are facing the same end. Three of the few buildings that give a low, flat street some dignity; that line the path to Mt Egmont. But it’s decided they’re earthquake risks. A real bugger to pull down, says the man who demolished it. Heart kauri! They’re building us a four-bedroom, single-storeyed brick house on the place where Dad has had a huge vegetable garden. The bank will go into temporary premises while they build a new one, a low, flat, brick one to match the street, on the site of the old one.
I will no longer be able to look out my bedroom window to see if the boy I like is out and about. To see if the geography teacher is staying the night at the flat of the shorthand typing teacher who lives above the bookshop across the road. I will no longer be able to see the sea from the sitting-room. The tidal wave will arrive unobserved. Without the horizon there will not be nearly such a good view of the mushroom-shaped cloud.
I won’t have a sash window, which I have been warned not to lean out of because if I do I’ll be at imminent risk of decapitation at worst, and a broken neck if I’m lucky. There’ll be no rickety fire escape to sunbathe on. The nectarine tree, with its abundant fragrant, white-fleshed fruit, will have gone.
Same family, minus one. His last weekend at home, Michael comes into my room to tell me President Kennedy has been shot. Our mother cries, even though she’d actually been a Nixon supporter. Because, she’s explained, Nixon made his own way, rather than coming from money. She has come round to Kennedy, but not Jackie, who, my mother believes, is not as pretty as some people seem to think she is.
We drive down to Wellington and have a look around the boat that is taking Michael to England. Owned and staffed by Greeks. Tiny cabins; four bunks for four strangers. It’s like the war, they stand crammed on the outside decks and throw paper, tightly rolled, to friends and families gathered on the wharf below. The tight balls unfurl to become streamers. That’s him high above us and we wave and wave and he waves and waves back, then we can see him pushing the back of his hand against his mouth and he turns away. Dad shepherds us grimly back to our car.
Michael writes that on board he has been taught to dance like a Greek. You don’t hold hands; your sweaty palms are separated by handkerchiefs. We love his letters.
We do the tree that year. The girls. I am very interested in decoration; I’m already planning what my new bedroom will be like. Pink, right down to the lampshades, just like the girls in Seventeen magazine.
There is going downtown to look forward to. Friday night is a late night and Christmas Eve is a late night as long as it doesn’t fall on a weekend. That year it’s a Tuesday. I’m going downtown with Susan, Annette and Heather. Downtown or uptown? When you live bang in the middle, it’s neither, or depends on which way you walk. We spend hours getting ready, which means rollers all day and your cardigan done up with buttons down the back. It means peppermint kiss lipstick, and it means you spitting on a tiny brush and rubbing it along a hard little block and you open your mouth while you put it on your eyelashes because it has been scientifically proven that you cannot put on mascara with your mouth closed.
My father says he hates peppermint kiss lipstick. It makes me look like one of the Supremes.
All day it means hoping. There’s a boy who looks so like Bobby Vee. He has left school now because he’s two years older and he’s got a job at the freezing works, but a white-collar job, not on the chain, because he has his School C. There is a good chance that he will be in town. There’s a good chance that he’ll be at the milkbar, where us girls will buy a Coke each and feel like American girls as we sit in the booth on either side of the Formica table. He plays pinball with ferocious insouciance. Between games he puts money in the juke box and I have fantasised that one day when I’m there he’ll put in the money and the disk will come out sideways and settle flat on the turntable and there’ll be a pause as the needle comes down. And it’ll be “I Saw Linda Yesterday”.
If I were bolder, if I hadn’t spent my pocket money on presents for my family, if I didn’t know that girls aren’t meant to chase boys, I’d saunter over to the jukebox and I’d push J8, and the song with his name in it would soar through the milkbar.
Some of the kids who go to boarding school walk past, slightly self-consciously, not of here anymore. And we stop to talk to them because one of them likes Susan, and Heather likes one of them, and one of them sort of used to like me. And Annette has peeled off to be with Neville, who’s already her boyfriend.
We go into the shops and pretend to look at things. Cubes of gold foil-wrapped bath salts at the chemist, like the ones I have carefully placed in Christmas paper and put under the tree for Mum. Magazines at the bookshop where Susan once dared me to shoplift a pencil. Up one side and down the other.
Then the car belonging to the father of the boy I like – I’d know it anywhere, it’s a big beige armadillo of a car – it pulls up just outside our bank, and he gets out. I don’t know where to look. I’m not close enough to say hello and there isn’t time anyway because he’s got out, says “See ya” to his dad and he’s crossed the road to the bus stop. It’s Christmas Eve, for God’s sake, and why would anyone who earns a wage spend it in our small town? He’s crossed the road and the bus pulls up. And he’s on his way to Hāwera.
And now another town. This town’s a village really, but, because of a huge farming hinterland, there’s a sizeable bank. Sheep farmers, not the cow cockies of Taranaki. Which pleases Dad. I’m in the sixth form so have two years left and it means going by bus to school instead of pedalling into a head wind. Wendy’s in Wellington now.
The locals assume we’ll be sent to Nga Tawa. But two girls, on a bank manager’s salary?
Michael has been away for two years and we’ve followed his progress on the map of the world on the wall by the kitchen table. He’s an excellent letter writer. He has done unbearably romantic things, like going behind the Iron Curtain with a friend who has an MG. People plead with them to sell them their jeans. So they do. He has a good eye for clothes and in Italy he buys me two fine wool cardigans – dark red, bottle green – and, amazingly, coloured tights to match. New Zealand has nothing to compare.
He’s home at last, and Mum is bringing him over to Marton to pick us up from school. I’m feverish with excitement, and am sent to sickbay. The teacher on sickbay duty is the sewing teacher, who makes our costumes for the school play, and she says to me, as if she knows me well, “Well, you are highly strung.”
I’m in my last year of school, at Rangitikei College, and I’m in the school play. We have rehearsals on Sundays, and Michael, freshly back and frequently home for weekends, drives me over. I’ve loved the opportunities offered by a bigger school. Last year I was Kitty in Charley’s Aunt. This year, ironically, I’m the sports teacher, “Miss Gossage, Call me Sausage”, in The Happiest Days of Your Life.
A teacher from England who works down the road at Nga Tawa, a friend of Bruce Rennie, the teacher who’s directing the play, lends me her stripey public school blazer to wear in the play. She says: one condition – I introduce her to my dishy brother.
In Europe, he has hitchhiked everywhere and in a reciprocal way, Mum and Dad pick up hitchhikers from other countries and it seems like every second week we have one or two sitting down with us for a meal, or even staying the night.
He’s been back just a few weeks when he comes home for the weekend and sits on the bed and he goes all moist-eyed and tells me he’s met a girl and he can’t believe how much he loves her. I feel terrifyingly grown-up, being confided to in this way. The word love is from pop songs and movies, not from your family. Daphne is English and she’s in New Zealand for a working holiday with her friend and the absolutely amazing thing was that she and Michael lived near each other in London and have even gone to the same pub, but they’ve never met.
The other amazing thing is that she and her friend Jenny are staying with the Hoggs, because Jenny’s father is someone important in the English rugby union, and Mr Hogg is also important in rugby, but in New Zealand, and he’s been in the war with Dad. Almost a friend. There’s someone called Jack Griffiths in the mix. Whenever Dad mentions him, which is often, he chuckles.
I’m going to ask Mum, Michael says, if I can bring her home for Christmas.
Mum says to me, “Well, I don’t know. Probably not. Christmas is for family.” What Mum doesn’t say is, “I’ve only just got my boy back.” And this girl is English. And he’ll marry her and they’ll have babies. And she’ll want to be with her own family. And he loved England and now he’ll move to the other side of the world.
And it turns out she is right.
But now she says to Michael, “Of course. Invite her home."
It’s my first Christmas when I guess I’m officially a grown-up, though I don’t feel like one yet. I’ve just finished my second year at university, I’m turning 20, and my friend Sue and I decide we’ll hitchhike to New Plymouth to see if we can get live-in waitressing jobs.
So optimistic in such uncertain times. It’s 1968. Although the rest of the world is in chaos – Russia has marched into Prague, French students are pulling up cobblestones and hurling them at the gendarmes – New Zealand still feels oddly innocent. Especially Massey University, with its leafy campus and its students coming mainly from the regions.
We get jobs at a hotel in Devon St, one of those two-storeyed ones wrapped in verandahs at both levels. Subsequently demolished. We do a mix of waitressing and housemaiding, which means we learn useful skills, like using a used towel to wipe out the bath after cleaning it. We get put off our food when we see what goes on in the kitchen. For a start, the head chef, who trained in the army, has a useful cloth over his shoulder. He can use it to wipe the sweat that irrigates his face and occasionally seasons the sauce, and also to tidy up any gravy which spreads too far beyond the meat. The second cook has a paralysed arm and she lifts it with her good arm and thuds it down on top of the meat, using its fingernails to render the beef immobile, and therefore sliceable.
We meet life. We meet death. Not long after we start work, a young man who has paid for his room in advance, dies in it. We can’t get him to open his door for his early morning cup of tea so we go out onto the fire escape and try to look in through the window. The blind is down but through the gap at the side we get a glimpse of an arm, very pale, which flops over the edge of the bed. We get the manager, who tries the locked door, then also looks through the window. “Oh Christ,” he says.
We meet a conman. He’s Canadian and when he wanders in looking for a job he impresses the management with his understanding of the art of cocktail making. When we get our exam results, and we’ve both passed, he plies us with Fallen Maidens and Black Russians. He’s sharing our flat down the road from the hotel, but we see little of him other than noticing he never changes his sheets.
He’s a smooth talker. He’s formed a relationship with a sweet-faced girl who works in the department store along the road. She’s a member of the Brethren church. There’s a flurry of unrest at work and a hint that the till in the bar isn’t balancing and he’s being sacked. So we go down the road to see her at the haberdashery counter and tell her that her boyfriend is about to leave. I’m not sure how, but we know she’s lent him money. She is polite but firm with us: she is unaware that he’s leaving, in fact she doubts if it’s true, because he would have said, and yes she has given him money, but this is because they’re to be married.
By that afternoon, he’s gone.
Christmas approaches. There’s still the visit from the Victoria University cricket team to come. There’s still the Watersiders’ Tournament, which so nearly could have been a #MeToo moment. There’s bullying and there’s kindness, there’s lonely travellers and nice boys staying with their parents who’ve brought their racehorses to New Plymouth. There’s friends, and friends of friends from university, there’s sunbathing on Ngāmotu Beach, an Allison Durbin concert at the Bowl of Brooklands, and walking at night to look at the lights in Pukekura Park.
There’s a letter from my boyfriend Robert saying he doesn’t want to go out with me anymore because it’s his third year and what with the time taken up by rugby, he needs to put time into his university studies.
It’s Christmas, and if I stay and work I’ll get double-time, but given the choice, I get on the bus and Mum drives over to Bulls to pick me up.
Michael and Daphne are in England now. Deborah’s working in Palmerston North so she’ll be home. The year before Wendy has left for Europe: another big ship with her waving from high above us. She has spent months in Italy as au pair to someone who is very important at Fiat. Around now, she is hitchhiking through Spain with other girls. She is not the conscientious letter writer that Michael is, and Mum has only to hear of a disaster anywhere in Europe to assume that Wendy has been involved.
I arrive home on Christmas Eve, and I’m so tired. I wake in the morning but I can’t move my limbs to drag me to the tree to see if there’s a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray. My throat hurts and my head is heavy and I lie in a darkened bedroom, which looks a bit girlish now that I’m getting older. I sleep all day. Occasionally I wake, to the distant murmur of what’s left of my family, celebrating Christmas.
We’re in England for Christmas. Does this mean snow, and sleighs, and ice skating on the Thames? No, of course it doesn’t, because it’s London, and the temperature is somewhere under 10 but above zero.
Robert is on tour with the All Blacks and we’re married by now so I’ve gone, too. Not to hang around him, but to stay with my brother in Yorkshire and friends in other parts of the country. But we get together from time to time. On Boxing Day, they’re playing the Combined Services. So Christmas will be in London.
I’m staying with Cliff and Nuala Morgan for a few days. Cliff played for Wales and the Lions in the 50s and came to New Zealand to commentate on the Lions tour in 1971. The first day I’m in London, I’m at Robert’s hotel and there’s a tentative knock on the door and it’s Ernie Todd, the team’s manager. The team have been invited to meet the Prime Minister, Ted Heath, for pre-dinner drinks and most of them are not the slightest bit interested in going. They’ve already met the Queen and Princess Anne, and frankly that’s enough.
Ernie is unsuccessfully pulling rank. He’s fairly sure Robert, brought up to be courteous, will oblige, but just to be certain, he looks at me slightly doubtfully and, clearly thinking of bulking out the numbers, says I can go too. If I like.
I’m sorry it’s not someone famous, like Winston Churchill, but I agree to go.
I think we went to the home of an official from the Rugby Football Union. We are driven in the All Blacks’ emptyish bus to a smart block of mansion flats. These do not exist in New Zealand, and we are shown to a lift which has a liftman and then taken into a room crammed with prosperous middle-aged people. In England, rugby is a public school game and most of the people in this room probably went directly from Nanny’s arms to prep school. Half a dozen reluctant All Blacks are being propelled round the room, from one coquettish woman to another. I feel uneasy, repelled. It’s like being in a room overflowing with Mrs Robinsons.
There’s a hush, and a murmur that swells, and Ted Heath, looking exactly as Gerald Scarfe has drawn him, enters the room.
“Prime Minister!” they say. “So lovely to see you, Prime Minister,” they say.
He is as uninterested in meeting the All Blacks as those who didn’t come – and indeed those who did – are in meeting him. Shepherded by a fawning female fan, he comes to our group. “A wife?” he says in bored disbelief.
“I didn’t know you were allowed.” I start a tediously lame joke about the wives being the English team’s secret weapon but my story is so convoluted that part way through, his nostrils tighten with boredom and he moves on.
We have Christmas Day with Cliff and Nuala, and their children Catherine and Nick. Cliff’s a Welsh miner’s son and he could well be the nicest person I’ve ever met. He’s articulate, with a genial generosity. He has an astute, fox-like face, entrancingly enhanced by a Puckish grin.
Since coming to New Zealand to cover the Lions’ tour in 1971, he has suffered a stroke. At 42 years old, he was in Germany reporting on sport when it happens. He’s now back with the BBC, but for a while after the stroke he finds himself with no work and little money. Friends – including Richard Burton – attempt to assist financially, but he doesn’t accept it. He has impressive friends. The phone goes when Cliff is out and when he returns a few minutes later Nuala says, “Give Spike a call.” Spike Milligan is mad on rugby. He’s ringing Cliff to say he wants to meet Grant Batty. He visits the team in their hotel in London and he flies in parallel to the floor, tackling a bemused Alan Sutherland.
Cliff’s a great storyteller. Nuala, Irish, classy, gorgeous, like someone Biba might use as a model, had been living in London with her fierce grandmother and she’s going out with Cliff, and one night she comes home and rings the doorbell and her grandmother looks out of an upstairs window and says… But I don’t remember. A hymn singing? Ball playing? Welsh something, something? It is a three-part perfectly formed phrase which I’ve remembered for years, but now, although I have the rhythm, I just can’t recall it. Will Google help me? I find Cliff’s sad obituary. He died in 2013, an awful death with a mouth cancer that takes from him that most perfect gift – his voice. I see that his son Nick is an orthopaedic surgeon so I look up a Nick Morgan with that job, and find him in Windsor.
I look up Cliff’s funeral, and his pallbearers, and the photos online of the surgeon and the front pallbearer look like the same man. The sweet, red-headed 14-year-old, for whom all those years ago we found the perfect Christmas present – a chess set that you make yourself, using plaster of Paris and rubber moulds just like the ones I used in the 1950s to make Snow White and English country cottages – is now old.
Christmas Day. I remember two things about it: Cliff has arranged with some of his friends to go to the American embassy on Christmas morning to deliver a letter to the ambassador, protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam. He asks us if we want to go too and of course we do. Robert chooses his dress uniform, which has a discreet silver fern, and off we go. Afterwards, we go to the pub with Cliff’s friends, Colin Welland from Z Cars and someone called James Cameron, who turns out to be a most distinguished journalist. The irony: they both can’t believe their luck that they’re meeting an All Black.
The other thing: we stay at the pub, on and on. They are fantastic company, but I’m getting more and more uneasy. All I can think about is the Christmas dinner that Nuala is at home cooking. I think of my mother, one Saturday night, when Dad is perhaps an hour or so late home from golf. She’s already in a state of panic. He’s clearly dead. The roast is on the edge of being ruined. In he rolls, beaming. He’s won something. He’s got a hole in something.
“Did you not think of ringing me?” she says, though “says” doesn’t really convey her tone. Did you not think of ringing me? He looks at her as if there is something she doesn’t understand. He explains – with exasperated patience – that at the golf club, if they ring their wife, they have to buy a round of drinks.
We arrive back at the Morgans probably around 4pm. Nuala is either smoking a cigarette or drinking a glass of wine. She doesn’t give a toss. It’s a lesson in nonchalance.
Robert’s back from the All Black tour of the UK and France and he comes home with a suggestion. In Lyon, the owner of the Chez Rose restaurant, who is also vice-president of the local rugby club, has invited him for a meal.
Over excellent Beaujolais he has suggested that Robert might like to come to France and play for the LOU. Which is the Lyon Olympique Universitaire, even though strictly speaking it has nothing to do with either the Olympics or any particular university. Chris Laidlaw has spent a few months playing for them, and he’s suggested Robert. They’re desperate to get into the premier division.
We say, “Why not?” He’s nearly finished his master’s and wants a change and we’re keen to live away from New Zealand for a while, and here it is, the perfect opportunity. And France has held a strong attraction for me ever since the years spent attempting to write in French to Pierre: 13, Place de la Liberation, Beaumont-sur-Sarthe.
Marcel Astic, the middle-aged restaurateur who has captured him by employing the irresistible weapon of his restaurant, uses his sons Claude and Gerard, round about our age, both with a reasonable amount of English, to complete his small but bitingly effective army. Then there’s what I know now to be a honeytrap: Claude’s wife. Robert muses, clearly without giving it too much thought, that she’s incredibly beautiful.
So. We’re going. They phone – an awkward shouty combination of my inadequate French and Gerard’s job-in-a-Swiss-hotel English – to ask if Robert knows a grand deuxieme ligne that he can bring along. Ron de Cleene, a friend who Robert has played both club and provincial rugby with for years, asks us for dinner one night. You should come, we say to them. Ron’s grand-ish. Ron and Lyn have two small boys. The next day Ron phones to ask if the offer is genuine. Did we mean it? We don’t know if we did or not. But it still seems like a good idea.
And here we all are. It’s Christmas, and the Astics being the nearest thing we all have to family, have invited us for midday dinner at their restaurant. Although my due date is mid-January, it turns out I’m three days away from giving birth.
Gerard’s in charge of the food. The tables have been put together to form a long line because there are 12 of us. Marcel and Madame, then Marcel’s daughter from a first marriage that had ended tragically when his young wife died. Their sons, Claude and Gerard, and Claude’s wife, Josie, who does indeed fit the description of the most beautiful woman Robert and I have ever seen. It’s impossible to mind that someone is so beautiful. She is so French, slight and wistful with eyes that are limpid brown pools. Every bone has been finely carved by a master sculptor. A young Audrey Hepburn. She has met her equal with Claude, who could pose with sports cars for a living.
Intriguingly, for the offspring of two such handsome people, Claude and Josie’s small daughter, Carine, is mono-
browed and slightly scary. Just two, she has yet to understand the concept of personal space, and as she comes right into mine, I reflect on the fact that though normally I love small children, and am having one of my own any day now, this is the rare time that I don’t feel even remotely maternal. She is dressed in a thick covering of feminine clothing, arriving, on that cold winter’s day, in layers of astrakhan and fake fur that ends cruelly at her thighs. There are two freezing-looking, sturdy little bare legs going all the way down to tiny lacy socks and patent leather shoes. No wonder she is baleful.
The De Cleenes are there with their two boys. Sean is eight, and although he’s been in France for only a few weeks, he’s convinced everyone that he’s fluent in French. Success matters to Sean, and he’s admirably determined to look like he’s coping. A few strategically learnt sentences, a perfect accent, and the room is alive with admiring ooh la las! When he doesn’t understand a question he just looks blasé, his shoulders reaching up to his ears in a French-like shrug, as if such a question is beneath him. He is a master-class in how to look like one knows a foreign language. Ben is five and has just started school, and he’s totally pissed off that his family have taken him from his comfortable house in Palmerston North and dumped him somewhere where everyone talks in garbled sounds that make no sense to him at all.
We are to eat seven courses. I sit next to Ben, who I’ve known all his life, and for whom I have always had such affection. He’s different. He’s internal in some ways; probably now he’d be found to be on some sort of spectrum. He’s a darling. But he is, our new French friends say, what is known in France as sauvage. He’s not going to be picked out as clever, but he knows something that not all five-year-olds know. In three months’ time, seeing me sitting lost across the other side of the room he will hurtle towards me, and hug me. Tightly. So tightly.
In three months’ time, Carine will come close to me and she will hiss, “Where is the little baby?” Her parents, grandparents, the waitresses in the restaurant will point to the sky and say, “He’s with baby Jesus.”
She will not be brushed off with nonsensical platitudes. With her piercing brown eyes, with her beetle brow, she will not stop asking: “Where is the little baby?” She will wait till other adults are out of hearing; she knows I’m the weakest link. She has a sibilant whisper, she comes right up to my face: “Where is the little baby?”
Months pass. I am pregnant with another little boy. She will come up to me, suddenly remembering, and she will say, “Where is the little baby?” And – how can I forgive myself for this – I touch my plump stomach, and I say, “Here.”
What do we eat? Now I’m not sure. It is gourmet. It’s two-star Michelin. What I remember most is a pâté which has tiny little mushrooms, truffles, and I observe the appalled faces of our hosts as I carefully separate them out: I do not like mushrooms. There are seven courses – crudités, pâté, consommé, quenelles, and we are yet to come to our main. But after four courses, Ben, beside me, has had enough. He wants it over. He doesn’t want to be in France. He doesn’t want haute cuisine. He doesn’t want to be among strangers, with Robert and I the only people he knows in this odd, cruel new world. He doesn’t want any of this baffling, mind-blowing nonsense.
“Where,” says Ben, “is my bloody meat?”
We’re at the Holiday Inn. Which is the same sort of ironic misnomer as Sunshine Crescent and Happy Valley. Lonely travelling salesmen, widowers, and cash-strapped families packed into a “family room” aren’t really on holiday. And “inn”? Where are the low beams and generous log fires?
And it’s Christmas Day. In a few hours, we’ll board a cheap flight back to New Zealand. Really cheap, because it’s assumed most people have better things to do on Christmas Day than cram themselves into economy class.
We’re holiday-inning near Heathrow Airport. Benedict is 10 months old and as usual at Christmas, I’m pregnant. Three babies in three years. The next one will be the first born in New Zealand. We are going back to family, to a job at the university in Palmerston North.
We have Christmas dinner at midday in the dining room. Robert has spent the morning in the huge indoor pool with Benedict. The sole swimmers. Now in the dining room there’s just us and a thin smattering of disconsolate lost souls. There’s a huge tree, probably not a real one, and for our entertainment the hotel has hired a conjurer. His clever acts are met with peals of laughter. From just the one source. Banging his spoon on the tray of his high chair, our baby finds him hilarious.
That night, we stand at the Pan Am counter and try to make sense of a person telling us that, yes, Benedict is indeed on my passport and yes, I do indeed have a visa to visit the US. But, explains the conscientious staff member, as if speaking to a total fuckwit, the visa was issued before he was born, therefore he does not have a visa. He can fly through America, but he can’t leave the airport.
Is there someone we can ring? “The American ambassador?” asks Robert optimistically. There is no one to ring to check this ludicrous fact. They’re all in front of splendid fires toasting baby Jesus with glasses of fine port. So we rebook to fly straight through.
At the airport in Los Angeles, where we were expecting to enjoy a few days – our prepaid hotel and our visit to Disneyland (our Christmas present from Robert’s parents) – the person on the desk says he’s never heard anything so ridiculous. Of course my visa applies to Benedict.
Too late; our bags are going straight through. Benedict sits in a pod on the wall in front of the first row in economy class and doesn’t sleep at all. He enjoys the other passengers in the same non-judgmental way as he enjoyed the hapless conjurer. He doesn’t cry once. He’s too busy waving and smiling and clapping. It’s reciprocal.
At Auckland Airport, I phone my parents, now living in Devonport, and I say, “We’re back.” And my mother says, “How fabulous! Oh how fabulous! We’ll be there as soon as we can!”
I think, when did she swap corker for fabulous?
And Benedict throws up all over a Japanese girl who has just asked if she can take him on her knee.
My sister Deborah and I cook well together. It is quite a talent, this. Although inclined to argue – she believes in home truths, I’m always right – we know whoever’s house it is, is chef, and the other is sous-chef. Other than Flora, my granddaughter, who’s seven at the time of writing, there’s no one I cook better with.
In 1983, we are the last of the four siblings left in New Zealand, though as she is married to Henk, whose entire family is in the Netherlands, there’s always the chance she too will bugger off. Michael has gone to live near Daphne’s family in Yorkshire, and Wendy has gone with her Canadian husband to live in Ontario. The map of the world above the kitchen table has a lot to answer for.
Deborah and Henk, Freia and Nicholas, have come to spend Christmas with us. We have lived in our Californian bungalow in Palmerston North for seven years. When we buy it, we love the plaster ceilings and the leadlight windows. We don’t love the mean aluminium-framed window that the previous owner has installed behind the kitchen sink. And we don’t love the fact that a substantial washhouse leans against the sunny back of the house.
One day, several of our friends bring their children round, and we give them all ice creams, and they watch the man in the huge truck with the giant crane hook the crane to our washhouse, swing it high above the lawn and the trees, and put it carefully down behind the garage. Before this happens, Robert and his father have put piles down for it to land on. When Benedict and Gemma, aged two and one, go to sleep one night, there’s a normal door that used to lead to a washhouse. They’ve seen the washhouse swing through the air and the next morning, they wake up to something different.
Benedict, sodden nappies down by his knees, toddling out from his bedroom and into the kitchen, recoils like Charlie Chaplin. His world view has been challenged. Where a normal door used to be there are now French doors that we’ve bought from the place where people who demolish buildings sell the leftovers. The past two decades have been their boom-time. Robert and his father have passed an evening usefully installing them.
I still find this capability extraordinary. One of my father’s stories was how he went to woodwork classes at night school for five years and, he’d say, pointing to the wonky bookcase, I made that. A few weeks later, Robert uses bricks we’ve bought from the same place to make a terrace outside the French doors.
Fiona Farrell comes round and says we really should buy the convent that’s come on the market. We go and look, our four children racing up the stairs to the long attic where children like ours would and should play inventive and wonderful games. There are 22 bedrooms, where young nuns for the past half-century could have well lain in narrow beds contemplating the crush they had on the priest that led them to giving up their lives to marry Jesus. We work out how many families we would need to buy it. We ring up the next day to make an appointment to see it again but, too late. It has already sold. Southern Cross has bought it, to demolish it and to build a new private hospital.
Our hatred for them for destroying one of Palmerston North’s few beautiful historic buildings segues into another more practical emotion. What will they be doing with the bits?
Using floorboards that nuns have knelt on, and wooden windows – some clear glass, some made by one of Palmerston North’s best leadlight makers – Robert (with some help from our friends Gerry and Mike) assembles, as if from Lego, the most beautiful conservatory ever. It has replaced the brick terrace, which is so treacherous in winter, and it runs along the whole length of the back of the house, facing north.
The man from the council comes round to check it out. He doesn’t know what to make of it. We have studied what you have to pay to have permission for, and what you don’t. I’m open and friendly. “It’s a verandah,” I say, “which we filled in with these old windows.”
“I dunno,” he says. This one’s in the too-hard basket. He walks thoughtfully along its length, totally bemused.
“Tell you what,” he says, “I’ll sign it off. But you’re lucky!” he calls over his shoulder, hurrying to his truck.
Years pass. It’s Christmas. Deborah and I cook, the children play, and Henk does the vacuuming, so thoroughly, in his Dutch way, that it has become a perpetual bar to be aspired to: vacuum like Henk did. Deborah and I are cooking, and I say, “I still hate that window; why have we lived here for years and years and still not done something about that window?” So while we cook Christmas dinner, Robert and Henk work out that all they need is a saw, a crowbar, and a bit of this and that, and while Deborah and I make stuffing for the chicken from apricots and cashew nuts, peel an infinite number of potatoes and kūmara to roast, and top the strawberries for the pavlova, just inches away from us they cut a huge hole in the kitchen wall. And they take out the window.
At last. A real Christmas.
Since May, we’ve been living in Montpellier, near the Mediterranean. We have taken Benedict, 13, and Gemma, 12, from their schools, from their grandparents, from their friends in Palmerston North, to the south of France. So Benedict can see the country where he spent his first year. So Gemma can see where she began.
We rent an apartment in the Avenue des Arceaux, which runs beside the Arceaux, an aqueduct that looks like the Roman Pont du Gard in the nearby town of Nîmes, except it is in fact quite modern – a replica, built in the 18th century. It still carries water to Montpellier. We look out at it from our third-floor apartment. It’s not, in theory, accessible, with heavily bolted gates at either end, but one day we see two cyclists riding along the top of it. We wave, applauding their audacity, our feet flinching with vertigo. They wave joyfully back.
The children go to a collège, Clemence Royer, the equivalent of Years 7 to 10 in New Zealand. Gemma sits in class and, in her neat girl’s handwriting, she carefully copies down everything from the blackboard, even though she doesn’t understand a word of it. She changes the way she writes decimals: not 5.8 but 5,8. Number one now has a rakish lean and a little tick at top left, it looks a little like a 7 used to. Now 7 has a dash through it.
Benedict decides that if he ignores it, it will go away. He sits in class and reads. He’s mad on fantasy. We move steadily towards financial ruin as we buy him books almost daily from the foreign language section of the Fnac bookshop. It is built over seven levels and the floor has painted lines in different colours which take you to the appropriate section. Follow blue for foreign fiction.
Someone mentions that about 100m down the road from our apartment is the American Centre of Provence, and it has a library. It’s not only Benedict’s life that is saved, I have all day available to me to devour what I’ve been missing out on by working fulltime. It is a wonderful library: the books are chosen by a garrulous gay man from San Francisco who takes advice from his sister. She and I have identical taste. And there seems to be scant competition; a new Fay Weldon, a new Margaret Drabble, arrive in the morning, and go home with me by lunchtime.
Slowly they adapt, but the fact that young people learn a foreign language so easily turns out to be a myth when you’re 12 and 13. Benedict is sad. We search hopelessly for a solution. It’s not being able to communicate that is the problem. It’s more than just words. I know how he feels; I am yet to meet anyone who shares that most significant thing – the same books read in childhood. The same music. The same movies. I miss being able to eavesdrop. Even his English lessons at school are hard; unlike French children, who can strip a sentence back to its parts, he has no idea how to conjugate a verb in his own language. His teacher’s concept of colloquial English differs from his experience – in her idea of England, children are still exclaiming, “I say!” And, “Jolly good!”
The only thing we can do is pull in any cash we can find and enrol them in a language school, a three-week intensive course. There is a language school right beside the American library. Everyone else is adult, but that’s no problem. When the course is over, we’ll take them to England for Christmas. And after Christmas, Benedict will go on a ski trip with his class.
We walk through Montpellier and the children bounce along with new energy and are greeted affectionately by a Syrian doctor who flies helicopters for Médecins Sans Frontiers. A few minutes later, there’s a doe-eyed young man who’s got a sports car, because he’s a millionaire!
And now we are on our way to my brother’s in Yorkshire, to have a true Northern Hemisphere Christmas. As soon as we’re on the ferry, everyone is speaking a language we can listen to without even trying.
We drive straight to Sandhurst in Kent, where our friends Jill and Terry live. They’re English but in the early 70s, when we were first married, they both taught in Palmerston North at the boys’ and girls’ high schools. In 1976, when we left Lyon and went back to Palmerston North, our Benedict was a similar age to their Christopher. Jill and I went to a playgroup made up of young women who taught together at Girls’ High who’ve all had babies.
This is what I went home for: women who speak my language. Old friends. Family. Other babies. Our Toby would have been the oldest, our Benedict the youngest. Quite quickly second-to-youngest, when Gemma was born. No one else has children with just 13 months between them.
We’re to stay with Terry and Jill for two days. On the first day we are going to London, as Terry is singing Handel’s Messiah as a member of a choir made up of dozens of small choirs from the Home Counties. I’m smug that my children are seeing England living up to the story that I’ve attempted to entrench in their childhood, though I’ve been less successful than my mother was in mine. We go in a bus to London. We go through Lewes.
We are with Jill’s mother, and she says, “There’s a Women’s Institute here... The Lewes Women’s Institute…”
Semi-detached brick houses obligingly line our route. Christmas trees lurch forward so we can see them in full twinkle in their bay windows. People wearing warm coats, scarves and hats walk dogs. Red double-decker buses are everywhere. Black taxis, no doubt driven by people reciting The Knowledge in Cockney rhyming slang, idle with diesel-fuelled rumbles at the traffic lights.
We’re in Oxford St, and Pātea has clearly given the street its lights back as it glitters with ostentatious glamour. There’s Harrods, its windows yet again upstaging Kirks’. There’s Prince Albert carved in stone and that huge round building, where our bus is pulling in to discharge us, is the Albert Hall.
We climb the stairs in a cosy fug of sanctimonious sentimentality. It is, after all, Handel’s Messiah, sung by at least 1000 rosy-cheeked people, and what more can we say about how Christmas is meant to be? That distant little round face with the discreet combover is Terry. Then it’s the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Gemma nudges me hard and says, “We sing this at school! We sing this at school!” And she means Intermediate Normal in Palmerston North, not Clemence Royer in Montpellier.
Jill and Terry, in quite a seriously evangelical way, have found Jesus since going home. Their pastor, who we meet on the bus, is much quoted. He is ominously charismatic, and Jill in particular is in his thrall. But Handel asks no more of us than to revel in his music. We frantically wave goodbye.
From now on, it is just Christmas cards, culminating in the one not many years later from Terry saying that quite recently Jill has come home early from her school feeling unwell. She lies on her bed. But by the time he gets home, she has died. An aneurysm. The next year, another Christmas card. He is fortunate, he writes, to have had the kind company of a woman who worships in the same church. They are soon to be married.
Finally, we arrive in Yorkshire for Christmas, with my brother Michael and his family. There is everything and nothing to talk about. Some things are off-limits. He is happier to talk about the curved lines of a 17th-century chair than how his childhood was affected by Dad going away for those war years. Whether or not our parents had a happy marriage. He is happy to reminisce, but his stories are anecdotal, pleasure comes from a carefully thought-out punchline. He loves to laugh till he weeps, and is disinclined to discuss our shared family: he has an aversion to what he thinks of as talking behind people’s backs, whereas I am fascinated by the human condition, driven to analyse, and think the best way to criticise – constructively, of course – other people, is well and truly out of their hearing.
He thinks that their current Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, has been the answer to England’s problems. He’s delighted in the disempowerment of trade unions, he’s believed in the show of strength that was the Falklands War. All around the parts of the world where Christmas is celebrated, Christmas Day with slammed doors and tears before bedtime will be common enough, but on this occasion it’s just easier not to debate.
He has two sons, James and Dominic, both a bit older than our two. We are staying in their home in York while they are in their weekend cottage in the grounds of what used to be Daphne’s family farmhouse. We travel out to them daily, through the lanes with their stone walls. North Yorkshire is achingly beautiful. The huge old trees are leafless. It’s winter, just like it should be, though disappointingly there’s no snow, so no snowman with a tartan scarf like Rupert Bear’s, with coal for eyes and a carrot for a nose. We drive through villages where stone cottages snuggle. It’s Christmas Eve, and dark falls early.
We’re having what Michael now calls supper at their cottage. There’s a knock on the door, and who should be there but candle-bearing carol singers? There’s a photo of Michael and me listening to “Silent Night”. When moved, we, like our father, are inclined to fold our arms and look at the floor. Same shaped noses, with same rosy hue, one set of brown eyes, one set of blue eyes, matching in their sentimental moistness. And behind us, a perfectly decorated, perfectly shaped Christmas tree.
About the author
Wellington-based Burgess is a short-story writer, novelist and reviewer. She was educated at Massey University, where she was Writer in Residence in 1997. In 2008, she completed an MA in scriptwriting at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. She has published collections of short stories, novels and non-fiction and has also written for television. A secondary school English teacher before turning to full-time writing in 1997, she has also published books for students.
Her 1994 novel Between Friends was shortlisted for the Best First Book of Fiction section of the 1995 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Reviewer Ruth Nichol described Burgess as “our very own Joanna Trollope... Burgess writes with a gently ironic eye and captures perfectly the moods and changes of the past three decades”. Her book Allons Enfants (2000) is the entertaining true story of her family’s time living in France.
She was runner-up in the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Memorial Short Story Competition in 1997 and the Sunday Star Times Short Story Award in 2000. In 2006, she was on the judging panel for the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, as well as the novice section of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award.
Burgess reviews books for Landfall and New Zealand Books and has a monthly slot on RNZ talking TV with Jesse Mulligan. The photographs featured in two of her books on New Zealand buildings, Historic Houses and Historic Churches, were shot by her husband, Robert (Bob) Burgess, a former All Black. In August, her entertaining essay “The first WAGs: A 1970s All Black Wife on Rugby and Women’s Lib” appeared on The Spinoff.