Cover design by Alice Aulich
Zena could hardly believe that she was on a plane, gazing down over the North Island. Everything she knew about New Zealand came from Luke's photographs and postcards: sparkling lagoons, snow-capped mountains and silver ferns. It was a remarkable sight: jewelled green land, intersected with turquoise lakes and rivers, feeding into the crystalline Pacific Ocean. Auckland was coming into view: she had not expected the city to be so spread out, more like its own miniature island, than a European city.
'Phil,' she said, rousing her husband. 'Look!'
'Oh, yes,' he said, peering over and rubbing her knee. 'There it is too.'
'Do you think we can see their house?'
He chuckled, 'How should I know?'
Their only son, Luke, had moved to Auckland four years ago. He had been a trainee solicitor in London when he met a lovely Kiwi girl called Michelle, who was in England for work experience. After a year of dating, they had decided to rent a flat together in Finsbury Park. Zena had presumed they would remain in London, or else move out to the countryside, back to Suffolk perhaps. She had been shocked when Luke announced that they were upping sticks and moving to New Zealand: the other side of the world!
Phil had not been at all surprised.
'Luke will do what he wants,' he said.
Zena was hurt when they decided to get married in secret, near where Michelle's family lived in Christchurch, then spent six months jetting off around South East Asia.
Luke had been home to visit them once. He was a good boy. He and Michelle came to stay with them at their house in Suffolk, one Christmas, though Michelle had been in bed, poorly, the entire time. Miraculously, she had recovered enough to fly off to Paris for New Year.
'Is this your first time in New Zealand?' The smiley, blonde flight attendant asked, helping Phil to lift his backpack out of the overhead locker. His back was still a bit dodgy and sitting on a flight for thirty hours certainly did not help.
'We're visiting our son,' Zena said proudly.
'Zena, I've gone a bit stiff,' Phil said.
'You'll be alright, Phil. We're here now.'
Luke was there to greet them off the plane. Their beautiful, wonderful, handsome son. 'Mum! Dad!' He gave them both big hugs and offered to take Zena's suitcase.
'Good to see you, son,' Phil said.
'You look well, Dad.'
'As do you, Mr. I've-Got-A-Posh-Life-In-New-Zealand.'
Zena gave him one of her looks. Goodness, Phil could be embarrassing. But the children were very good-natured about it.
Michelle smiled. 'It's good to see you both.'
She was a very stylish young woman. Zena had always said they made a very attractive couple. Michelle had long, dark hair which complemented Luke's fair complexion beautifully. They were wonderfully striking together and both so tall!
'You too, Michelle.' Phil winked.
'How does she stay so lovely?' Zena asked.
Luke showed them back to his car, then began to arrange their bags in the boot.
'This is a posh Range Rover!' Phil said. 'When did you get this?'
'Oh, I've had her a while,' Luke answered modestly. 'Luckily, they drive on the left over here.' He shut the boot, then hopped in the driver's seat.
Zena had thought he was going to open the door for her, but Phil sat in the front, so she climbed in the back next to Michelle.
'That's a lovely scarf,' Zena commented.
'Thank you. I wasn't sure about it at first. My colleague gave it to me.'
'It brings out your eyes.'
Luke asked them all about their flight, so Zena told him about the awfully long layover in Hong Kong and how busy it had been at the airport. Goodness, they had been struggling to find places to put their feet up!
'Now, I wasn't terribly put out, but your dad has his bad back…'
Luke wasn't really listening; he was too busy concentrating on getting his posh car out of the carpark.
Luke lived in a nice house in Takapuna. Well, of course he would. They'd seen his pictures, though Zena had not expected the scenery to be quite this magical: a shimmering stretch of ocean on the horizon, perfect blue skies over a peaceful and remote suburb, so still and picturesque it seemed like somewhere out of a story book.
'Mum, don't cry,' Luke said, squeezing her hand.
'How much did this set you back, just out of interest?' Phil asked.
'Dad,' Luke said, trying to laugh it off.
'I mean, if you were looking for somewhere like this in England. How would it compare? Is it a lot more?'
'I don't see your point. They don't have property like this in England. I don't know what you're trying to…'
'Don't mind him,' Zena teased, trying desperately to inject a bit of humour into the conversation. 'He's a bit jetlagged – aren't you dear?'
'Would anybody like a cup of tea?' Michelle offered.
Luke and Michelle were very hospitable and took their bags inside. They had made up the spare bedroom especially. It was a child's room, really, which made Zena wonder…They had kept the décor very neutral, just in case. He, or she, would have a lovely view out over the water. What an inspiring place to grow up...
'Zena, did you pack my razor in the main bag?' Phil asked.
'I don't know. I can't be responsible for your packing, Phil.'
'I'll have to ask Luke if he has a spare. I quite fancy a shave.'
'You look dreadful,' she said, kissing him.
'Well, I was going to say you look quite well for a woman who's just flown halfway around the world!'
Luke had a spare razor. He also had spare towels, toiletries and blankets in case they found themselves getting cold. It was winter in New Zealand, but nothing compared to the winters they got back in England. 'You've gone soft,' Phil told their son.
Then he went to bed for a nap, because his back was killing him.
Zena was embarrassed to find that she had nodded off on the sofa. She had only been resting her eyes… She had been thinking about her neighbour, an elderly man with dementia. It frightened her that both she and Phil were getting older, and that their only child lived on the other side of the world.
'Mum?' Luke said.
'Gosh, I am sorry.'
'Don't apologise,' Michelle said sweetly. 'Are you alright, Zena? Can I get you anything?'
'What time is it?'
'Just gone half seven,' Luke said, checking his phone. 'We were going to wake you soon anyway. Michelle's cooking linguini, if that's alright?'
'Gosh, well, you shouldn't have waited up.'
'We hadn't. We eat later now anyway. It's nice, because we have these long, light evenings,' Luke said, going over to the window and looking out. He was so very far away from home.
'I'll wake Phil, shall I?' Zena offered.
'Mum, you're not under any pressure here. You're on holiday.'
'That's right.' Michelle smiled.
Luke sat down next to his wife. They were both into their thirties now. When are they going to start giving me grandchildren?
Michelle cooked them a delicious meal. She had done herself proud. 'Michelle, this is delicious,' Zena complimented. Seafood linguini with just the perfect hint of garlic in the sauce. 'Do you get good, locally sourced seafood here?'
'Yes, well, I try to get it all from the market,' Michelle said, tucking her dark hair behind her ears.
Zena noticed that she was not drinking, despite the fact that Luke had opened a very special bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. 'Goes marvellously with fish. Dad?'
'Well, I'll have a splash more. But only if you're offering.'
Luke topped up their glasses.
'Do you not drink, Michelle?' Zena only inquired; she did not mean to pry.
'Michelle's on a bit of a health kick, aren't you, darling?' Luke answered for her. 'It's until she does this race in October. She's given up alcohol, caffeine and chocolate!'
'Chocolate is the hardest,' Michelle joked.
'Tell, me, Luke,' Phil said, finishing another swig of the Sauvignon. 'How are you enjoying teaching?'
'It's not teaching,' Luke said.
Phil waved his hand. 'Well, it's similar to teaching.'
'No, it's not really like teaching at all. Lecturing is quite different.'
'This is still law?' Zena wanted to confirm.
'Yes, that would be my specialism.'
If they were being perfectly honest, Zena and Phil were not entirely sure what it was that their son did. He had left a very promising (and highly paid) career as a solicitor in London, now it seemed that he was mostly lecturing. He mentioned something about a book that he may or may not have been writing. It was so hard to keep up nowadays.
Perhaps Zena and her husband were too old-fashioned.
'The point is,' Phil said, 'are you enjoying it?'
Luke didn't answer.
'Yes, you are,' Michelle prompted, attempting to fill the silence.
'Bloody tedious, that's what it is.'
'You said you enjoy having more time.'
Luke finished his glass of wine.
Zena brought up the topic again with her husband, when they both went to bed. It was nearly ten o'clock and they were jetlagged. The youngsters were watching television downstairs. 'What did you think about Luke's comment?' Zena said, when Phil came back from the bathroom. She was tucked in, with the blanket pulled up to her chin.
'You'll never guess where I found my razor!'
'It was in my shaving kit! You packed it, didn't you? You hid it away in one of the side-pockets, so I wouldn't find it. It was there when I was looking for my pyjamas.'
'I'm not responsible for your things, Phil.'
'Why couldn't you just tell me you'd brought it?' He climbed into bed next to her. 'Oh well. Now it means I have two razors, I suppose…Very comfortable bed,' Phil said. 'Much more comfortable than the one we have back home.'
'I don't know what he thinks we're going to do with all these pillows.'
Phil coughed. 'You know, I think it might be that that's doing in my back. The mattress.'
Zena stared at the shadow of the wardrobe on the ceiling. 'Do you think he's happy?'
Phil yawned, 'I can't see any reason why he shouldn't be.'
'No, about his job.'
'I wouldn't worry about that,' Phil said. 'Luke's a grown man, he can do what he wants.'
She switched off the bedside lamp and Phil fell asleep promptly. Zena lay awake, feeling strange and disorientated, being on the other side of the world.
Zena had no idea what time it was when she woke, though she must have overslept because Phil was gone. She opened the curtains halfway and began to sort through the main suitcase for something to wear. For goodness' sake: no matter how long she spent packing, Phil always managed to make a mess of things! He had taken clothes out, then put them back without folding them. Now all of her best blouses were creased.
Zena looked in the wardrobe for somewhere to hang her clothes. Luke and Michelle had not left them much space, which was careless. It was full of coats, ski-wear, suits – Michelle seemed to have millions of dresses and scarves. She pushed some of Luke's shirts aside, to make way for her own.
A shoe box, decorated with blue bunny wrapping paper, caught her eye. Zena knelt down to take a peek inside; as she did so, she felt her heart begin to glow. It was a stash of baby clothes, all in snow-white. She took out a pair of snow-white baby booties. A little snow-white rabbit, with a silver ribbon around his neck and floppy white ears. A snow-white one-piece baby suit, with a teddy-bear hood.
She was going to be a grandmother!
Luke and Michelle had certainly kept that news very quiet. Luke did have a habit of hiding things from her, which she did not like. She found it rather selfish. However, he and Michelle were trying which was the important thing. Zena had been worried, for a while, that her son was not interested in having children at all.
A little kiwi grandchild.
Ready and dressed, Zena was surprised to find the house so quiet. Self-conscious about the creases in her blouse, she ventured downstairs to discover that it was lunchtime and everyone was out. She felt a little hurt that they had gone out and left her, and angry at Phil for not waking her. Never mind, she told herself and made a cup of tea.
'Hi, Mum,' Luke said, when they came back. 'You had a nice long sleep.'
Luke, Phil and Michelle were dressed in jeans and jackets, with boots. Michelle looked glowing in that lovely bright scarf.
'We've just been for a nice walk,' Michelle explained, 'down by the beach.'
'Gorgeous views,' Phil added.
'Yes, this is a fantastic location,' Luke boasted.
'Zena, can I get you anything?' Michelle asked.
They decided to have lunch at home, so Luke put together some bread and cheese. He talked about what they had seen on their walk. It was a real luxury living so close to the beach, and especially brilliant in the summer, when it was warm enough to go for a dip. They had a much healthier lifestyle here than they'd ever had in London: walking, swimming and even sailing, which was a new hobby Luke had taken up. In fact, Luke announced, gushing, he had something very special to show them…
After lunch, Zena helped Michelle to clear away, while the boys went out to the garden, to have a look at the surprise. If it was a boat, then Zena was not interested. If Luke wanted to fritter away his savings on such luxuries, then so be it. She could not stop him. But if he was going to be a father, then he would need to make sacrifices, such as time. Time is very precious, she thought, diving her hands into the washing up bowl.
'Really, Zena, you don't have to,' Michelle insisted.
'You've been very hospitable.'
'Really, I just put it all in the dishwasher.'
They were the expensive wine glasses from last night. Zena was adamant that glassware this fine should not go in the dishwasher.
'It is a boat, isn't it?'
'Only a small Topaz. It's only a little two man sailing boat, for beginners mostly,' Michelle explained 'A lot of people in New Zealand have boats. I grew up sailing, you see. It's more for my benefit actually,' she laughed.
'You're a very lovely girl,' Zena said, watching Michelle dry the glasses then stack them back neatly in the cupboard.
'Oh. Thank you.'
'You look very well.'
'I must say,' Zena went on, 'Luke is very lucky to have you. I always hoped that he would end up with a lovely girl like you, someone who deserved him.'
'Yes, he's a good man.'
'He'll make a good father.'
Michelle went very quiet. She finished what she was doing with the glasses and sat down at the table, with her back to Zena, facing the opposite window.
'I'm delighted for you…'
Michelle put her head in her hands.
'But, dear,' her mother-in-law said, crouching down beside her. 'You are pregnant, aren't you? Luke does know, doesn't he?'
'No, I am not pregnant.'
'But I found the rabbit, the child's clothes, the shoes…'
'How could you?' Michelle said, starting to cry.
Zena was still trying to clear up when the boys came back. She had made an awful, unforgivable mistake. They caught her in the act, desperately trying to make herself useful in the kitchen, while Michelle sat there, weeping. Zena had never seen her like this before: sick with grief and inconsolable.
'What's going on?' Luke demanded.
To his mother's horror, he rushed straight to his wife. Luke pulled a chair up beside Michelle and put an arm around her, rubbing both her hands with his. 'Christ, Michelle, what is it?'
She continued to sniff piteously.
Phil looked around in alarm. 'Is everything alright?'
'What have you done?' Luke accused, fixing his cold, hard eyes on his mother.
'I – I haven't done anything,' Zena stuttered. 'It was a misunderstanding.'
'What misunderstanding? What have you misunderstood?'
Zena did not know what to say. She had always tried so hard as a mother to give Luke everything he ever wanted. How could he throw it all back at her now?
Michelle said, 'She thought I was pregnant.'
Luke breathed out slowly.
'She went through our baby things.'
Luke's chair scraped across the floor.
Zena turned to her husband for help. He stood on the other side of the kitchen, looking out of the window, avoiding her, with his hands in his trouser pockets.
'How dare you?' Luke stood up to confront her, with his arms folded. 'Those are our things.'
'Darling, they were just in our wardrobe.'
'This is our house,' Luke raised his voice. 'You are a guest in this house, you do not go through our private things. Do you understand?'
'She didn't mean any harm,' Michelle whispered.
'You've upset my wife.'
Zena could feel her hands shaking. It was not like her to get shaky. Luke had never raised his voice at her before and it made her feel small, as if he did not look up to her at all. Instead, he despised her. He despised his own mother.
A yelp sounded in Zena's throat. Phil turned away from his son and walked towards her.
'I think you made a mistake, love.' Phil put his arm around her waist to support her. 'Apologise, hmm?'
'Luke, darling, I don't know what to say…'
'Michelle isn't pregnant,' Luke said, sitting down. He knitted his hands together and sighed. 'She was pregnant. She had a miscarriage.'
Michelle looked the other way.
'Michelle and I can't have children, Mum. We wouldn't be able to carry a baby without a surrogate.' He squeezed Michelle's hand.
Zena could not help feeling hurt. It was hard enough that Luke lived on the other side of the world. 'Why didn't you tell me?'
Phil told her to Shh.
'Mum, you have to stop trying to control people. Michelle and I have our own life out here. I thought I'd made that quite clear. If we wanted you to interfere with our private lives, then we'd say so. I suggest you find somewhere else to stay tonight.' He turned to his wife. 'I think we need some space.'
That afternoon, Zena and Phil packed their bags. Luke searched online for hotels, even though Michelle insisted that they could still stay in the house. In the end, Phil booked somewhere to reduce the tension and asked Luke to show them the way to the bus stop.
When the bus arrived, Luke helped them on with their suitcases. Then he turned around and walked back to the house. Zena began to cry as they got onto the bus. Their only son! They had come all this way and he did not want to spend any time with them. It felt as if her entire life had been wasted. She had been so looking forward to this trip.
'Come on, Zena,' Phil reassured her. 'He'll come around.'
'How could he be so cruel?'
'I don't think he was trying to be hurtful.' Zena did not look convinced. 'You know what Luke's like: he'll do what he wants.'
Zena looked out of the window at the pale, sleepy suburb, using a tissue to mop her eyes.
'Are you alright, love?' the bus driver said in a pronounced Kiwi accent.
They were the only two passengers on the bus.
'She'll be alright,' Phil said. 'Just been a difficult journey, that's all.'
'Where are you from: London?'
'Outside London,' Phil said. He and the bus driver were a similar age, thereabouts.
'Is this your first time in New Zealand?'
'Yes, it is,' Phil answered. 'Actually, we just arrived here yesterday. It was a very long flight!'
'Beautiful scenery,' Phil commented. 'You are very fortunate down here.'
'Nah,' the bus driver said, taking a right turn onto the main road. 'It's a retirement country this. Not much for the youngsters to do here, you see? My son lives in Melbourne. Couldn't wait to get out. My daughter's in Christchurch, in the South Island.'
'That's where our daughter-in-law is from,' Phil said. 'We're going there next week.'
'Forget Christchurch. Became a ghost town after the earthquake. They'll still struggling to rebuild it, would you believe?'
'I thought that happened a long time ago?'
'Wounds take time to heal,' the bus driver said. 'Hearts don't mend overnight.'