Jeni Curtis

Jeni Curtis  is a teacher and writer from Christchurch. She has a keen interest in Victorian literature and history. She is a member of the Christchurch branch of the International Dickens Fellowship, and editor of their magazine, Dickens Down Under.She completed the two year course at Hagley Writers’ Institute, 2011-2012. She has published poems, short prose pieces and short stories in various publications including the Christchurch Press, Takehe, JAAM, the Quick Brown Dog, NZPS anthology 2014, and 4th Floor. She is secretary of the Christchurch Poets’ Collective.

Remember

Jeni Curtis 2014

Do you remember? Do you remember when he called you princess? Daddy’s little princess? You’d snuggle on his knee and smell the muskiness of his jersey and know you could do no wrong.

Do you remember when it all changed? There were harsh words and slaps and your mother cried and wouldn’t go out of the house. You hid under your bed and would not come out, even though he was leaving.

Then there were the letters and the promises. Soon you can join me, they would say. Soon. Soon. Australia was so far away. He moved from place to place looking for work. Nothing seemed to suit. But one day you’d be there, with him.

In the meantime you lived with your mother. She moved too. There were schools in Motueka, Greymouth, Alexandra. You lived in a housebus. You liked travelling up so high in the passenger seat, looking at the bush, the mountains, the sea. You hung a crystal from the rearview mirror and sometimes the bus was full of rainbows. You made friends and then left them. Your mum made friends, and sometimes you went to play in the park while one or other visited. You’d wheel around and around on the roundabout till you got giddy, or swing so high on the swings that your feet seemed to reach the clouds. Sometimes your mother’s friends brought you toys. Sometimes mum got a black eye and then you’d be in the bus travelling to the next town.

At one school and another you’d tell the children about your father. He was a vet who went out after bush fires and patched up koalas and wombats. He was a snake man who was called in to rescue snakes when they got into houses and to take them out to the bush again. He was a friend of Steve Irwin and wrestled crocodiles. One day soon you’d join him and help him out.

There once was a girl who ran away to join the circus. She travelled in a painted caravan, with the lion tamer and the bearded lady who were kind to her and taught her how to walk the high wire. She would draw her breath and dance, high above the crowds, whose faces looked like so many coloured balloons, far below. First one foot and then the other, the black satin slippers glittering with beads she had sewn herself in the pattern of a heart. Balance came easy to her, up in the air. She knew how the birds felt, their feathers lifted to the breeze, the lightness of the uprising wing, the downsweep of buoyancy. She knew that if she wanted she could leap into the sky and soar, all scars removed, her skin translucent as a rose petal held to the sun.

Then when you were about twelve, your mother decided to settle down for a while. Her mother’s sister had left her a bit of money, enough to rent a regular house in Christchurch. She got a decent job in a supermarket, and you started high school. You had to take the bus and you hated it. Everyone stared, you said. And the kids at school made you feel strange. You were sure they talked about you. But as time went on you found a friend in Cassie and her friend Luke. They didn’t like school any more than you did. They knew Kyle who was old enough to have his licence and you’d all drive out to Spencer Park in his Nissan Bluebird and spend the day in the sun in the sand dunes, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Sometimes you could walk for hours up and down the long stretch of beach looking south to Brighton, or catching the distant white of the Kaikouras to the north. You wrote a lot in your notebooks. Poetry or snatches of songs.

Your mother welcomed the way your friends came round and played music and video games. It made it feel like family, she said. You liked it too, the company when they slept over. The darkness never seemed so dark, then. You’d all camp out in the lounge, watch dvds or play games. Until, of course, the truancy officer caught you out. You told your mother you wouldn’t go back to school, that you’d study from home. You wrote to your father and asked him to let you stay, but he had moved again and the new house was not big enough, and besides, he was waiting for an offer of a job, further up the coast, maybe as far as Cairns this time. “Soon, my princess,” he wrote. “Just have patience. All will be well.”

There once was a girl who ran away to live with the gypsies. She lived in a painted caravan, with hearts and flowers carved into the pointed gables. She was looked after by a fortune teller whose head was covered in a lacy scarf with small coins sewn around the edges. By day the girl gathered heather from the side of the road to sell to people who needed good luck. The fortune teller told her that she would meet her true love and he would erase all of her sorrows. At night, in the firelight, she would listen to the plaintive music of the violins and wait.

Kyle was really understanding. You could talk to him, you found. He lived with his older brother, since his mother had remarried and moved to Greymouth. His father had cleared out years ago. He knew what it felt like to be alone and to dream of something better. He told you how beautiful you were and how you should become a model. You told him that you wanted to be a writer. You wanted to travel, maybe you could go together, just take off, the two of you, and work your way around the world. You wanted to see the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu. He promised you he’d take you to Paris, the city of love. You liked the way he held you, and stroked your hair, and kissed you so gently. “You’d better take precautions,” your mother pronounced when she realized what was happening.

She was feeling good too, because she’d met Pete, who was a decent, kind man, she said, and you thought she was probably right this time. He moved in, and the two of them worked in the garden together and planted a vegetable patch, and Pete made short work of all the hangers on who dropped in and ate the food and sometimes stole from your mother’s purse. You weren’t sad to see them go, even Cassie and Luke, more like relieved, because you had Kyle. It was almost like you were happy.

Yet, deep down, you knew it couldn’t last. One night you went to a party. Kyle got really drunk and crashed his car on the way home. Neither of you was hurt, and why he blamed you, you did not know, but he did, and he hit you, badly. Broke your arm. So that was that. Pete told him to go and never come back. It was almost like you had a father, Pete protecting you.

There once was a girl who ran away to live behind a waterfall. The water descended in sheets of lace, each drop a promise of redemption. Green mosses grew like velvet on the rounded rocks and small trees dipped their spring leaves in the glassy pool that was her mirror. She saw herself each day, the lines of old sorrows fading. Small fish clustered in the shallows, their fins barely moving as the sun filtered through their fine clear veins. In the mirror pool the light shattered into rainbows and one day she looked and she was no longer there.

Now there was no one, really. You made up with Cassie and she’d come round and you’d do your hair and nails together and talk. A lot of the time you spent on line. Of course you were meant to be doing your correspondence lessons, but they didn’t seem to have much point. Your mother and Pete made sure you kept up with assignments; they were keen for you to have your education. It was much more fun though to be talking with people around the world. There was Jodie in New York and Dave in London, and others who were awake in chat rooms when you were meant to be sleeping. They could be there and not there at the same time. You didn’t have to meet them, be judged by them, be hurt by them. You could laugh and joke and be yourself – or whoever you wanted to be.

That’s how you met Sam. His father was a lawyer and his mother was in real estate and they all lived together in a big house in the west of Christchurch. He was in his last year of school and you met on weekends as he was studying hard for his end-of-year exams. He was gentle and kind. He made you feel beautiful and he made you laugh. You both liked the Foo Fighters and REM, and thought Bono was overrated. You shared your dreams, how you’d like to adopt babies like Angelina Jolie, and you joked about running away together. But then his parents arranged a GAP year for him and he was leaving. “We can write,” he said. “This doesn’t have to be the end.” You cried and he grew petulant and you called him a boy, and then, well, that was that.

But it wasn’t, was it. At first you thought you had the flu, or food poisoning, or something that made you feel miserable. And then you realized. You sat on the edge of your bed and looked at the pale silvery lines on your arms where you had cut yourself once before and ended up talking to the stern-faced lady at Youth Specialty Services. You didn’t want anything like that now. You kept your secret. You didn’t want this taken from you. You curled your arms around yourself and whispered to all that was within.

And when she was born, she was perfect. Remember how you gazed at her blonde hair and blue eyes? She was beautiful. She was a little princess. She was one thing that would not leave you. You smiled at her and knew you could give her the world.

Breath

Jeni Curtis 2014

1.

She dreamed she was a seal

submerged in grey-green waters

another at her side.

no want for breath,

no need to surface

they swam in the depths of the ocean

with whales, dolphins

and darting fish.

2.

On the dresser,

sculpted in black-green stone

a seal,

underneath, a name,

Simanil Kelly, carver,

whom I will never meet.

The heat from my hand

warms its smoothness.

The black and pale striations

speak of its place in the earth

long before it was granted

this shape

this shine.

It does not breathe.

It lies askance, laughing,

flippers raised

in a solid show of joy.

3.

Far below

seals bask in the brisk wind,

the blue-grey sea lashes its foam

and froth across the rocks.

Their fur is wet and shining.

They lie like outcrops,

humped and creased

and rounded.

In the waves

seals body surf and slide.

Pups in a pool

cavort and tussle.

One sleek female lies on her side,

flipper raised nonchalantly,

fingers gloved in leather.

Look, I say,

Look, look,

she’s waving.

On the stone wall

beside me

the little girl waves back,

her other hand clasped warm in mine,

her breath upon my ear.

Trees

Jeni Curtis 2013

Our neighbour was a man called Edward Woods. His friends called him Woodie and it suited him. He was a brown sort of man. Not tall but stocky. Tanned and gnarly. He wore walk shorts and his thighs sat hairily on the car seat next to me. He asked me to call him Edward, but I called him nothing. Or Mr Woods, if necessary.

My mother said to my father that Mrs Woods was flighty. I wasn’t too sure what that meant, but knew better than to ask. I sat quietly doing my homework at the kitchen table while mum did the ironing. Flighty seemed to me a lightweight sort of word, as if she could soar out of our little neighbourhood and reach the sky. I liked the idea of being flighty. Mrs Woods liked to hang out on the deck in her brunch coat, or a bikini in summer, smoke cigarettes and read magazines. She didn’t seem to me to soar. She looked bored. “She wears too much makeup for my liking,” said dad. “And she paints her toenails.” Mum smiled as if she’d won some sort of prize.

Mrs Woods’s name was Nita. She told me to call her that one day when I was poking around amongst the things on her dressing table. Oh, I wasn’t alone. I was sort of friends with her daughter, Natalie, who was a year or two younger. Natalie was the only girl in the vicinity, and we were thrown together where we might not have been friends in another time and place. Natalie was putting on her mother’s lipstick, Max Factor, Hawaiian Coral. There was matching polish and I dabbed it on my toenails, tentatively. I knew I was condemning myself to wearing socks till it wore off. “Call me Nita,” she said, as she lit another cigarette and let the smoke curl out her nostrils. “Nita by name and Nita by nature.” I knew she was making a joke because her room was cluttered with clothes. But, of course, I couldn’t call her that either. It’d be like calling my aunts or uncles by their first name. It just wasn’t done.

Natalie came to my house too. “A nice little girl,” mum said. “She won’t lead you astray.” Since we weren’t allowed to go anywhere else, I couldn’t see how this would happen anyway. We weren’t allowed anywhere near my parents’ bedroom. We could play in my room or the porch. I was getting too old for dolls and things and preferred to be by myself and read, but mum encouraged the friendship. “You must make an effort,” she’d say. “Poor child.” I was not meant to hear that as she muttered it under her breath. But I did. Anyhow, Natalie thought my parents were strange. Once I took her to see their bedroom when they were out in the garden and there was no risk of being caught. “You mean, they sleep in the same room, in the same bed?” said Natalie. “Together?”

I didn’t go to the same school as Natalie. She went to the convent where the nuns taught. I went to the local school which was in the opposite direction. I walked to school, cradling my bag on my hip like a toddler. Most kids biked with their bag on the carrier. But I liked to walk. It gave me time to think. But some mornings, Mr Woods passed by in his car. He’d stop and wind down the window and ask if I wanted a lift. At first I said no, but I asked mum and she didn’t see anything wrong with it. He was our neighbor and it was very kind of him, she explained.

So next time, I got into his car. I slid tentatively onto the brown vinyl seat, hugged my schoolbag to me, and said thank you.

We never talked much. I wasn’t a talker and, anyway, he was an adult. Sometimes he’d ask me about my schoolwork and I’d answer briefly and politely. It wasn’t as if the journey was long enough to strike up a conversation. He rested his hand on the gear lever as he drove and I studied the way the hairs ran down his fingers and brown spots freckled his skin. Occasionally while changing gears, his hand would knock against my knee. When I got out of the car, my eyes would meet his and he’d nod, as if something was understood. All day at school, the trace of his knuckles would burn like a scar underneath my gymfrock.

One day a fisherman found Nita floating near the rocks in the harbour. Natalie was sent to live with her grandparents and Mr Woods moved away. Once when I was in Wellington I thought I saw Natalie working in a shoe shop on Lambton Quay. Our eyes flickered past each others’ and we said nothing.

The summer Natalie left I took to wandering the hills behind my house. A windbreak of radiata pines marched down the hillside. I’d sit in the sun, and stare out to the sea, far in the distance, my back pressed against the rough gnarled bark. The tang of pine lay heavy in the air. I felt the warm brown pine needles prickle like hairs along the backs of my legs. My toenails shone like coral.

The Zookeeper Sings the Blues

Jeni Curtis

I’m here to keep the animals, wolf, bear or kangaroo,
I’m the keeper of the animals, wolf, bear or kangaroo,
we aim for preservation, that’s the purpose of a zoo.

They live in their enclosures behind tall strong iron bars,
dwell in their enclosures, behind tall safe iron bars,
so people can enjoy them, their claws, their jaws, their scars.

You can hear the snarling tiger, and feel the lions roar,
the snarling fierce tiger, the resounding lion’s roar,
the squawking of the parrots, toucan, lorikeet, macaw.

The lemur from Madagascar has a long ringed curly tail,
he came from Madagascar with his long ringed curly tail,
to live in a foreign country, behind bars as if in jail.

The grey-backed hippopotamus, she swelters in her pool,
the gap-toothed hippopotamus rolls over in her pool,
it’s round and small and shallow, no way to keep her cool.

Their eyes watch me constantly, topaz, agate, amber,
I feel their eyes follow me, topaz, agate, amber,
they bore me like stigmata, with reproachful silent clamour.

The Romans they had circuses, the Spanish they have bulls,
the Romans had bread and circuses, the Spanish slaughter bulls,
all forms of entertainment to satisfy the fools.

The saddest of the animals, the big black chimpanzee,
he huddles in the corner, the sad-eyed chimpanzee,
we contemplate each other, which is him and which is me?

So many are endangered, we keep these in reserve
we’ve killed off all their brothers, we keep these in reserve,
if we manage now to save them, it’s more than we deserve.

One day I’ll take my keys and I’ll open every door
I’ll take my bunch of keys and open every gate and door
I’ll make a bid for freedom, reverse to jungle law.

But for now I take my bucket, filled with bone or grain
I take my metal bucket filled with bone and flesh and grain
I whisper to the animals, “you’ll soon be home again.”