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.