The Sailmaker's Daughter

A Novel

Stephanie Johnson

St. Martin's Press

 
CHAPTER ONE
Leaving Suva
Halfway to the dining-room, Olive remembered she should have put on her church frock, because today they were going on a voyage. Not the usual voyage on Dad’s little yacht to Nukulau Island for a picnic, but a trip on the steamer to Taveuni. Taveuni was where the Toffs were, and you had to dress up for them. It was seeing Dad that reminded her, going in Grandmother’s door. Olive stopped and looked in.
There was Dad, standing at the foot of Grandmother’s bed.
“Wake up, Mother,” he was saying. “Boat leaves at ten.”
Grandmother’s bulk didn’t shift. Perhaps she’s dead, thought Olive, hopefully. That would mean they wouldn’t have to go, because there would be a funeral to arrange and she’d have to stay and help Dad because Mother couldn’t; not while she was still so sick.
“Mother?” said Hughie again. He was holding the cuff of his white jacket to his nose, Olive noticed. Always there was a strong smell in Grandmother’s room. Peppermint for her “snuffle” and another sweet, cloying smell that seemed to come from Grandmother herself. It was at its most acrid in the morning because Grandmother had been in there all night, and there were no windows to let in the air.
“Mother!” Now Dad was irritated. “I know you can hear me, Mother.”
Grandmother groaned. She wasn’t dead then. If she suddenly reared up and caught a flash of Olive, there would be trouble. “Lurking”, Grandmother called it. She didn’t understand that often it was the only way of finding things out. Grandmother’s answer to “Trust in Providence”. Olive did that as well, and very often Providence showed her some very queer things.
Olive stared at her bare toes, then her fingernails. They still bore traces of dirt from her turtle’s box. She’d cleaned it out last night and laid in a store of live flies. Stanlake had eaten them all at once, of course, even though she’d explained to him that she was going away He most likely hadn’t understood. After the last fly was snapped up in his hard, pale-pink mouth, he’d blinked at her, let out a soundless, dry kind of turtle burp, drawn his head into his shell and gone to sleep.
Grandmother groaned again and sat up. Quickly, Olive walked backwards, counting, one two three, the number of steps it took to go round the corner from Grandmother’s room into her brothers’ room. Eddie had already gone down to the Sailroom to open up and the younger boys would be eating breakfast. There was only Elena, packing a trunk.
“There you are, Miss Olive,” said Elena. “I’ve put your frock out on your bed.”
Olive scowled and pretended she hadn’t heard the ayah. Elena’s strong, heavy arms shook out a shirt.
“Have you eaten your breakfast?”
“I don’t want any,” said Olive. She crossed the room to the open window, passing between the big bed shared by Ralph and Eric and the narrower one that was Eddie’s. The sheets of the big bed were peeled back. Ralph had wet the bed again. Olive pointed.
“Have you told Mother?” she demanded.
But the ayah didn’t answer. She was pairing socks.
“You should tell Mother. He’s seven now, you know.”
Elena was counting the pairs.
“They won’t need that many socks. We’re only going for a few days — until Mother is better.”
Elena’s dark head remained bowed over the chest of drawers.
“Elena!” Olive was shouting, but she couldn’t help it. She didn’t want to go to Taveuni with Grandmother and Ralph and Eric. She wanted to stay in Suva and help Dad. Soon Mother would be well enough to visit. Her horrible, frightening, shuddering coughs would ease, and Olive would be able to go in and sit on the edge of her bed as she’d done in the early days when Mother was first ill, before she’d caught the influenza, when it was only the new baby making her sick. Soon Mother would be able to tell her stories again, stories about when she was a little girl in a cold, damp place called Auckland. Stories of when she was a famous actress — Adela Knight, Bernhardt of the Colonies — and how people would want to touch her hand, or the stuff of her skirt … Elena had lifted her face and was staring at her. Olive saw something that made her heart leap, something that frightened her more than when she’d scaled the cliffs with the boys, just like the real soldiers at Gallipoli, and she’d slipped and fallen twenty feet to the beach below. Elena’s eyes were full of sorrow.
Olive climbed through the window on to the verandah. On this side of the house most of the verandah had been closed in to make a room for Harry and Tom, her half-brothers. That was why there were no windows in Grandmother’s room or the dining-room. The door stood open and the room was empty Tom’s bed was a rumpled, sweat-yellowed mess. Pages of the Fiji Times lay crushed and muddled through it. There were smudges of grey on the sheets, which may have been ink, or perhaps ash. An overflowing ashtray sat on the bedside table. There was a sticky glass leaning up against the picture of Tom and Harry in their uniforms, with a background of palm fronds. It was the studio portrait they’d had taken just before they went away
Harry’s bed had the blankets folded at its foot. The striped, ticking pillow lay undented at its head. Harry would never sleep in that bed again.
Tom had come back though, back from France, his shoulders hunched, his eyes never meeting Olive’s. Sometimes she played a kind of game with him, shifting her face, hoping his gaze would fall on hers. If that would happen just once, then it would be as good as if he’d said hullo. It seemed to Olive that the last thing Tom had said to her was “Goodbye”, three years ago, when he’d boarded the troop-ship.
There he was now, out in the garden with a cigarette, dragging the smoke down as if someone had dared him to. He’s so thin, he caves in, thought Olive. He’s like an old man.
Circling Tom’s feet was the bantam, the one who’d roused Olive from her dream. The bird never liked his territory invaded, especially first thing in the morning when he was showing off to his wives, and least of all by the mournful, smoke-puffing spectre that was Tom. Olive loved Banty and she knew the workings of his tiny, fevered mind. Tom wore singlet and pyjama pants, his feet were bare and his bony toes were perfect bantam targets. Flying from the edge of the verandah just as the bird made a lunge, Olive was in the nick of time to kick Banty in his green-feathered side. She hauled to a stop in front of Tom, whose eyes, resting momentarily on the top of his sister’s head, registered mild surprise. He’d hardly noticed Banty’s presence, despite being his victim many times before. Olive knew that since he’d come back from the war, Tom had difficulty remembering things.
“Tom, come with me.”
She took him by the hand and dragged him unresisting down the path, around the lily pond, to the cool, shaded corner that was Stanlake’s.
“Can you feed him for me? While we’re away? And my iguana and mynah bird?”
Tom nodded. He dropped the butt of his cigarette, took tin and papers from where they were tucked into the waistband of his pyjamas, and rolled another one. His sadness rushed over Olive like a wave at the beach.
“Why don’t you come too, Tommy? To Taveuni?”
Tom gave no answer but a gentle smile. He glanced up as high as Olives knees and down again.
Olive sighed and knelt by Stanlake’s box. She lifted the lid off. The turtle was still asleep. It was Dad who’d named him, after the head of Suva Police.
“That’s about the pace he goes,” he’d laughed, watching the baby turtle crawl along the grass.
Olive rapped hard on Stanlake’s shell.
“Hullo, hullo, anybody home?”
The shell may as well have been empty, like the polished ones Dad bore home from the Bowling Club as trophies, for all the signs of life it gave.
“Olive?” It was Dad, calling from the verandah. Olive took Tom’s hand again, but this time he pulled away
“Off you go.”
Olive went. The mynah in the cage on the verandah post was shrieking.
“My giddy aunt!” said Dad, when he saw her. “Look at you. Go and change before you say goodbye to your mother.”
Olive stood on tip-toe by the mynah’s cage. “When will he learn to talk, Dad?”
“Please Olive,” said Dad, in that new, tired voice he had. Olive hated it, it made her spine go stiff with rage, not at Dad, but at whatever it was that made him like that. Or whoever. It was Mother. Mother was the reason Dad was tired, and she was the reason they were going away Mothers perpetual illness, the baby and the flu. Olive looked up at her father and wondered if he knew that she knew about the baby He was turning now, walking purposefully ahead of her. Olive wondered if he was looking forward to them going away He liked peace and quiet, she knew. In the evenings he liked to sit on the verandah, with his cigarettes and Scotch. Mother used to sit with him, but lately, Olive had taken her place. She knew not to talk, at least she knew to try not to. Sometimes Dad would laugh at something she said; sometimes he would take her hand and they’d watch the evening come on in the town below. Lights would be set twinkling in windows, the Indian horse drivers would be turning their nags into the paddock below the house, or coming for rested horses and fixing lamps to the open carriages.
Now Dad’s head was down and his hands were clenched at his sides, below the cuffs of his jacket. Something was on his mind. Olive longed to ask him what it was, but he’d already turned in at the back door.


Say goodbye to your mother, Dad had said, in that flat voice. On the table outside Mother’s room there was a little bottle of eucalyptus oil and a clean, folded white cloth. Olive picked up the bottle and sprinkled it on the cloth. One or two drops flew on to her church dress, white linen with cotton broderie anglaise trim. She hated it for its tell-tale colour and absence of pockets. She hated the stockings more, the sweat and prickle of her legs. The feeling in her legs was worse now. Perhaps it wasn’t just the stockings. At their core, inside their bones, her legs were as heavy as cast iron, as if they wouldn’t walk anymore, especially not into Mother’s bedroom. Behind her the dining-room door clicked. It was Dad coming out into the hall. With the cloth held to her nose, she took a deep breath and edged into the room, around the tallboy
Mother’s eyes fluttered and opened. It was as if they’d sunk further into her head, as if her head itself had shrunk, but maybe she just appeared that way because they’d cut all her hair off. Her hair had been dark and curly before, but now in the dim, shaded light, it was silver and straight. Her thin, long hands lifted from the mound that was her stomach.
“Olive — is that you?”
“Yes, Mother.”
“Are you leaving now?”
“Yes. They will be waiting for me.”
“I can’t hear you.”
Olive took the cloth from her nose and mouth. “How are you, Mother?”
Her mother didn’t reply straight away She laughed, in a quiet, hoarse sort of way Then she said, “You sound so formal. So grown up.”
“I am grown up, Mother, I’m nearly thirteen.”
“So you are.”
They were quiet again. The eyes in the pale, round face were turned on Olive. The mouth in the face moved again.
“Well, goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Mother.” She turned, in her hard, uncomfortable boots, on the soft grass mats. Beside her on the tallboy, almost at eye level, among Mother’s silver-backed hairbrushes, were Mother’s favourite photographs and daguerreotypes. There was the wedding portrait: Mother, a bride of twenty, and Dad so much older. There was a picture of Mum and Dad, soon after he brought her back to Fiji. The boys were in the picture, too, Tom was five and Harry was three. The photographer had caught the bewilderment in Tom’s face and the bliss in Harry’s as they had held their beautiful new mother’s hands.
The third picture was Olive’s favourite: Mother holding her as a little baby, Dad’s first daughter after five sons. After Olive there had been another son, which was Ralph, and then little Rosie. Little Rosie was everyone’s favourite. It made Olive’s heart ache to think that Rosie had to stay behind in Suva with Elena. Dad said she would be too much for Aunt Maud.
Suddenly Olive turned and flung herself back on the bed, her face pressed against Mother’s hard, round tummy with the baby inside it. The bed linen still held her perfume, a whiff of violets under the overpowering eucalyptus oil and sour smell of Adela’s laboured breathing.
Under Olive’s cheek the baby moved. Her mother drew a long, halting breath. Was the weight of her head hurting her, Olive wondered? She lifted herself up to see her mother was crying. There had only been one other time she’d seen her mother in tears, the time Olive had surprised her with Elena, sorting out little clothes.
“There’s going to be another baby,” Mother had said, her cheeks wet but pretending to Olive that she was pleased, and Olive had become a shadow, drifting back, back out of the open bedroom door, skidding on the mats in the hall to turn and run as fast as she could out to the garden. This time she wouldn’t run away
“Mother — what is it?”
Mother’s hand, the long, cool fingers, was soft on Olive’s forehead, and her eyes were half-closed. She didn’t reply Outside the Chandler sounded its horn. With the eucalyptus cloth, Olive dabbed at her mother’s tears. She kissed her cool, wet cheeks. There was no powder on them anymore, Mother was so different now.
“Mother? What’s the matter?”
Adela shook her head and the movement set her coughing. She turned away, her hand falling from Olive’s cheek. The Chandler honked again.
“Olive!” It was Dad, calling from outside.
“Goodbye, Mother.” Olive bent over and kissed her mother again, and the cheek that met her lips was hard, tensed with the effort of coughing. Now Olive was running, across the slippery mats, down the hall, across the verandah, down the steps and into the waiting car.
THE SAILMAKER’S DAUGHTER. Copyright © 1996 by Stephanie Johnson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.