Waiheke Island: Summer Fiction by Emily Perkins

We share a slice of summer short fiction, by acclaimed New Zealand writer Emily Perkins, author of Novel About My Wife and The Forrests.

A man’s wayward grandson is sent to stay with him on his retirement haven of Waiheke Island, a place where people come to connect with something they have lost. The old man has a task for him - one that his neighbours are fiercely opposed to.

THEY were worried about the boy so they sent him to me. I needed a job done. You’d think he was eighteen from the way they talked but he was twenty-seven. He turned up with combat boots, shorts, a hard bare chest, those earrings that stretch your lobes into some kind of saucer, and his soft voice. Good teeth; I’ve always treated family for free. His emails had come with exclamation marks and ‘lots of love’ – what is this I thought – this is my grandson? Ha. His dad harbours something against me, but the mother – my daughter-in-law – arranged the deal. She’s a communicator. After she left the island I saw her Xeroxed image up in a café, tear-off strips with her phone number underneath. Her bleached pineapple leaf haircut, her clenched fist. How to communicate effectively.

They came on the ferry and we crossed the lawn towards the cliff, holding our take-out coffees. My daughter-in-law saw the flying birds as a sign of an earthquake coming – I said they were a sign of spring. Kākā, four of them, in one of those tight, fast groups – birds that seem too big to fly so swiftly and so close to one another. Boom, incredible, jostling across my arc of sky. She admired the pohutukawa. I hadn’t told them the plan. Lew was silent, seemed to be happy to go along.

My grandson, same name as me. When I asked what it was that worried his parents he shrugged, smiled a cracker of a smile. Perhaps he is a bit simple. Chronic unemployment, a bad crowd, who knows. He had a mate on the island with an excavator and a loader. We’d get the glyphosate from the hardware store. It would be a long job, taking these trees out, a few weeks, and I wanted to get it done before they flowered again and those scribbles of red gave me second thoughts. I promised myself to landscape after, no row of unsightly stumps, not when the whole point was that glorious view. The thought of stumps disturbed me. Root systems spreading below the ground, abrupt vanishings above. He’d live in the shed halfway down to the beach. Called it a boat house but it was too far to drag the kayak, so I had another little lock-up down by the water. He brought a camp bed, a pillow, his sleeping bag, backpack, chessboard. I gave him citronella candles. We ate together on my deck.


AT THE ISLAND get togethers, when they still invited me, women in long dresses the colours of a sunset, straw-hatted men, those people used to say, a dentist – how interesting? All day in the mouths of others? We’ve all got a mouth, I’d say, which shut them up. Early retirement: I got lucky with the markets, although the investment thing was just a hobby and I don’t know why it went so well. ‘When everybody’s leaving the burning building, that’s when you have to walk in.’ But I wasn’t brave. It was timing, not mine but the decade, and once I had that haul I got out, the flames licking my ankles. Moved to this place, where people come to connect with something they have lost.

The only thing I miss, aside from my hygienist, the kindest woman I’ve ever met, is touching the frightened patients. Not in that way. (!!!! lol xxxxx, Lew would say.) There was something farm-like about it. I’d be close enough, working over a molar or tamping down a filling, that my belly would press, evenly, against the side of the patient’s head or shoulder. Just human contact – you could feel their heart rates drop. Eyes drift closed.

Some on this island are for the marine reserve but as many are against it. The optimists believe in saving fish. The pessimists warn of overflowing car parks, the ferry queues, the – what? Hard to know why they mind. They think the island will be repopulated, like some alien invasion movie, by space-takers waddling down the central road with snorkels, flippers slapping from their feet. It won’t be ours any more. ‘Ours,’ they say.

And these same ladies stopped me, shaking, in the service station forecourt and said, ‘Those trees! Our privacy!’ because Lew let slip somewhere on his amorous kayak trips with the local maidens – I’ve seen candles burning yellow outside the boat shed at night, I’ve heard the music floating up the cliff – what the excavator was for. ‘They’re eucalypts,’ I told them, which was not a lie if they knew half as much about botany as they should. ‘They house possums and mar the view.’ It’s true, the pōhutukawa were pest-damaged. Possums hissing as they stalked the grass at night. Not that I needed a reason, I just wanted my horizon. When I bought this place the first thing I got rid of was the old turning clothesline that would creak in the wind. That noise interrupted the sound of the sea like those scraggy branches blocked the sight of it. People had opinions then too: there’s a sort of nostalgia built up around white sheets stretched out on the breeze. The concrete pour at the base was rough to get out, like a skin lesion on the lawn. With the trees gone, if anyone forfeits privacy it’s me – yachts in the bay see straight to my house now, I can’t stop them. I’m prepared for the council fine. It’s worth every cent. There’ll be money for an upgrade to the art gallery but the shaking ladies won’t think to thank me then.

WE COULDN’T GET hold of a stump grinder – the golf club wouldn’t lend theirs, I’ve never been in with that crowd – so young Lew was grubbing out the stumps by hand. His strong shoulders, brown in the sun, a streak of red across the tops. I chucked him sunscreen and he squinted up at me with a grin. He was having a ball here with the girls, the water, taking the dinghy out for fish a few times a week. It was a bonding time, I told his mother when she rang. We worked together on our devilish task. I’d thought he might resist, with his earrings and tattoos, his greenie stance. Another man would have tried to talk me out of it but there was something passive about Lew. We were different animals, but I like to think he enjoyed it as I did, the spree in slow motion, two of us wielding blades in our protective goggles, earmuffs, boots, gloves – a pile of broken up tree wherever there had been a growing one, the same matter, different form. The council man came and shouted at me and I let him watch as the buzz saw took the last amputee trunk down. Tell me that wasn’t a thrill, the righteousness I handed him.

Oh the grief I got about birds and erosion. The possums were more danger to those tui than the loss of a few feeding spots. And if you’ve ever walked below a beach cliff you’ll see hanging roots, the dry clay crumbling around them, the pale system greedy for space, pushing the earth away – maybe trees prevent collapse but boy they cause it too.

Anyway they’re gone. Seven trees, chopped into bits and burning long and hot. The stumps are a problem. Poison isn’t working, the hand grubbing is a bastard, we’re going to have to wait for rain and get some diesel in there to burn them out. I patrol them for new shoots, and as I walk amongst the stumps I breathe it all in – the perfection of that ocean beyond the frame of the rocks, the haze over its lip, the low sweep of cloud. When the sun comes down shadowed ruffles will form on the water, the skin of the sea will swell and come closer, solidify, it will seem to look at me with its million invisible eyes. Lew is out there, in the orange kayak, a tiny figure on its surface. I stand beyond the place where the trees were, watching him. As I walk right to the edge of the slope to get closer a few loose stones skitter down the beach path, there’s a fast trickle of dust. I wonder if he’ll look back.

Portrait of Emily Perkins

Emily Perkins is the author of four novels, including Novel About My Wife, and a collection of short stories, Not Her Real Name. Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies. She teaches creative writing at The University of Auckland, and hosted TVNZ7’s book programme The Good Word.