Read the story being discussed on Jesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 12 July 2018
by Fiona Kidman
Her father sits at the kitchen table. It’s Tuesday, one of those cloudy days that lean heavily out of the sky over the Volcanic Plateau. The ritual, now that he is retired, is to visit her on Tuesdays. Her mother is away all that day, at her part-time job, and he can’t bear it, being left alone for a whole day. On Tuesday mornings he says to his wife: ‘Don’t leave me. I retired so I could spend all my time with you.’
‘No, you didn’t,’ her mother says (she tells her daughter this in whispered conversations on the phone), ‘you retired early because everybody in your family died young – or so you say, though how would I know, I never met any of them, they’re all history – and you want some time to put your feet up before you die. Well, go ahead, put your feet up, but don’t expect me to sit around behaving like an old lady, not just yet.’
The daughter is making mint jelly. She has watched the Galloping Gourmet demonstrate the recipe on the television cookery programme. Everyone in the street is trying out his recipes. Normally, she wouldn’t have time to make fiddly things like mint jelly, all that boiling and straining, but on Tuesdays she has to do something or her father will expect her to sit for hours, being still, staring into space with him, contemplating the great unknowns such as death and silence. Her constant movement unnerves him. So she devises projects, projects that will distract them both from the weight of time, that will assert her right to move in her own home.
Besides, she has a cloud of mint growing at the back door; it is like a weed, pushing up through the cracks in the path, curling over the edge of the woodbox, there is even a tendril of it, fat and pale where it has grown away from the light, pushing up under the kitchen step. She might as well use it.
She washes out Marmite jars and sterilises them with slow heat in the oven. He starts to sort some coins on to the table, just as she strains the jelly, the tricky part.
He holds up a shiny penny. ‘Look at that,’ he says, ‘it’s like a new one.’
‘It probably is new,’ she says, concentrating hard. The baby will be awake soon and then there will be no time for this inconsequential activity.
He peers at the date, pushing his glasses back above the bumpy ridge of his thin nose. ‘It’s quite old – 1931. Fancy a penny that old, and it’s so shiny. How could that be?’
‘Maybe it’s been in a child’s collection up until now.’ She considers the problem of how to fill such tiny jars. In the cupboard beneath the sink she finds a jug with a thin pointed spout that she has forgotten she owned. She greets her discovery with a little snort of pleasure, it’s ideal. ‘Somebody’s just found their old collection and thrown it out.’
‘I think it would have changed colour, even in a drawer,’ he says. ‘Copper does you know, it ages. Perhaps somebody shone it up.’
‘Maybe.’ Carefully, she tips the hot green liquid into the jug and begins to pour it into the pots.
‘You’d wonder, though, why somebody would go to all the trouble of shining it up and then putting it out for change. With the other money. Don’t you think that’s peculiar?’
She sighs. Jesus wept, he used to say when he was a young man. Whenever he got impatient, that’s what he used to say. Jesus wept. The shortest sentence in the Bible. The shortest complete sentence in the world. She says it to herself now. Jesus wept.
‘Maybe,’ she says, recklessly, ‘it’s a penny diver’s penny.’ When she was younger, she had worked her summer holidays in a restaurant alongside the gates to Whakarewarewa, where busloads of tourists alighted before going on walking tours of sulphur pools and mud geysers. The entrance to the resort was spanned by a bridge over a deep river. Maori children dived from the bridge to retrieve coins thrown to them by tourists, holding them in their mouths, their cheeks stretched like silk pouches, until they were ready to burst. Then they came into the tearooms where it was one of her jobs to hold out a basin of water into which they spat streams of coins. When she had washed the money she counted it out and gave them half-crowns or florins in exchange. Sometimes when she counted the money she found bright shining coins. ‘Why is this one so shiny?’ she had once asked.
‘It’s been in there a while, the sulphur has stripped it clean,’ the children told her. She has no idea whether this was a true explanation or not, whether scientifically it stands up, but she thinks this may interest her father. He may even know something about it; he reads a lot.
But he isn’t listening to her. Her system with the jug works efficiently and she fills the jars one by one with the clear, mint-green, clean-smelling syrup and tells him about the penny divers but he doesn’t listen to a word she is saying.
‘It’s like a sovereign,’ he says. ‘That’s what it reminds me of.’
‘But it’s not,’ she says, annoyed that she should have dusted off this memory for him, and he’s not interested. She should have known better.
‘I had a sovereign once,’ he says dreamily. ‘When I was a child, and there were still sovereigns. My Uncle Abraham gave it to me.’
‘Uncle Abraham? You never told me you had an Uncle Abraham.’
‘Oh yes, you must have heard me speak of him.’ He is silent for a moment, thinking of something, goodness knows what. It is nearly fifty years since he emigrated. He has never been back to England. He calls it Home. Most of his family died before she was born and what was left of them were wiped out in the Blitz. There is nothing there, just holes in the ground, he has told them, her mother and her, though she is not quite sure how he knows even this, or if it is true. Someone once wrote to him, an old school friend maybe, and now this person has disappeared too.
‘Fancy me never knowing about Uncle Abraham.’ The mint jelly looks beautiful, and it is starting to set already, perhaps because the jars are so small. She tries a bit of it off the tip of her finger. It tastes awful, like toothpaste.
‘There were three brothers in that family,’ he says. ‘The others were Nathaniel and Isaac.’
‘Let me get this straight,’ she says, walking the length of the kitchen. ‘You had an Uncle Abraham, an Uncle Nathaniel, and an Uncle Isaac?’
‘How come you’ve never told me about them before?’
‘Of course I’ve told you,’ he says, shifting in his chair. His eyes aren’t meeting hers. She feels tall and cruel, standing there examining him as if he’s under a microscope. She sees all sorts of things about him she hasn’t noticed before.
‘They were rich and they gave you gold sovereigns, eh?’
‘Just one gold sovereign,’ he says unhappily. ‘Just the once.’
‘Tell me about my relatives. Who were they?’ When he doesn’t answer, her voice is fierce, she speaks in a tone she hasn’t heard herself use before. ‘Tell me, who are the ancestors? Who?’
His smile is enigmatic, sly she thinks. ‘Isn’t it about time you put the kettle on? I’ll have to go soon.’
‘You didn’t tell me.’
‘Your mother’ll be home in a couple of hours. You wouldn’t want a fella to go without a cup of tea.’ As he speaks of her mother, she hears his suppressed excitement.
‘Why don’t you leave the shiny penny for Alice?’ she says, as she fills the jug. Alice is her older child. She will be home from school soon.
But he has already pocketed the coin. He unfolds his coat and beret, ready to put them on the moment he has finished his tea.
When he is gone, walking very upright down the street, she goes to the bedroom and studies her face in the mirror. The pores of her skin feel strange beneath her fingertips.
© Fiona Kidman, first published in The Foreign Woman, Vintage, 1993
Fiona Kidman has published over 30 books. Her latest in the novel This Mortal Boy, published July 2018.
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