Going Home

Going Home

[I belong to an online writing group, and each month we write a story with a theme and a word count. This time, we were asked to write about ‘Going Home‘ in exactly 500 words.]

“Higher!” she squeals, ” High-errrr!” and I push the swing harder so it arcs up into the spilled blue of the sky, even though I know what’s going to happen next. And on cue Izzy swings back down and kicks her legs and shouts, “Tooooo hiiiigh!” and I catch her as she jumps, like I always do. She lets me hold her tight and breathe her in: her dimpled skin, her hot little hands, her smell of sugared strawberries, until she struggles and wriggles and tears away to run free, blonde curls bobbing, across the grass.

We are back at the park again. There are others here today, of course – it’s a perfect summer’s day, unclouded, not too hot. I sit on the warm slats of my usual bench and watch Izzy scrambling up the slide, past the older boys kicking a football, indifferent, and wonder how many years I have left before they see her, they really see her, and I lose my little girl. But right here in this park, under the buttery sun, there’s nobody with eyes for her but me.

***

I jolt awake: the air has cooled and there’s a low hum of traffic along the main road. The playground is deserted. I know where she’ll be, but my heart is thumping an unsteady bass.

“Izzy!” I call, and my voice is rusty. An old woman walking her dog looks at me, and frowns; and then I see a flash of gold in the apple tree.

“Izzy!” I know I have to tell her something, but I don’t want to say it. There’s a light breeze whispering through the leaves.

“Time to go home now,” I call up, at last, and my heart sighs.

“Not yet!” she says, as she always does. “Five more minutes!”

Sometimes I give her five more minutes. Sometimes I don’t. It doesn’t make any difference: it always ends the same.

“Hold my hand,” I tell her, gently, but she jumps down and takes off towards the road.

“Hold my – ” I call, as she looks both ways and runs out. I yell and she turns, from the other side, where she looks back at me, eyes wide.

“Come back!” I shout, heart in my throat, “Izzy, come back!” and she is coming back, straight back –

***

There’s a hand on my arm. It’s the old woman, her little dog watching, ears pricked. I’m crumpled in a heap on the path. I scrabble up, and look for Izzy, but I can’t see her.

“You know,” says the old woman, quietly, “I’ve seen you. Every day. You can’t keep reliving this.”

“She’s coming back,” I tell her, watching the road.

The old woman squeezes my arm, and says, “She isn’t coming back.”

I can’t see Izzy anywhere. I can only see an unbroken line of cars, indifferent.

The woman asks, “Do you think it’s time to go home?”

I think about it, for a while.

I think about it.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

1001 words: The First Tomorrow

East Cape scape

When the sun rises, we’ll see the first tomorrow in the world.

“We on East Cape time now!” says Tane, our driver, as we leave the teal and turquoise Pacific for a track dotted with the scarlet splashes of pohutakawa trees.

“No seatbelts!” mutters Hettie, turning the map upside down. “And where’s the lighthouse?”

“It caved in,” says Tane, “So we stop at Ronnie’s place tonight.”

The two Danish hairdressers glance at their phones as we rattle along, but we lost the signal somewhere between the sulphurous smoke of Rotorua and the glistening slate of Lake Taupo.

“Sorry,” says a bass voice behind me, “You said Regis Palace, ja?”

“Nah, mate,” says Tane to Heinrich. “Ronnie got a farm near Tokomaru. He says we can stay one night, maybe two.”

They did say this was an “informal tour” of the North Island. So far, we’ve delivered the post and had tea with Tane’s mum.

Continue reading “1001 words: The First Tomorrow”

White Lies

Wave

[I belong to an online writing group, and each month we write a story with a theme and a word count. This time, we were asked to write about ‘White Lies‘ in exactly 2500 words.]

I knew something wasn’t right when my mother stopped abruptly by the kiosk, clapped her hands lightly, and said, “Let’s have an ice cream!”

I looked up at her, squinting in the summer holiday sun.

“Ice cream!” shrieked Peggy in delight, and tried to spin around, but stumbled.

I caught my sister’s arm, and said, “We’ve only just had breakfast!” but my mother was already clinking coins over, distracted. Somewhere above us, a seagull began its harsh, halting cry. With a cone of whirled white in her hand, my mother glanced up.

“Be careful,” she said, eyeing the gull, “Or he’ll take it. – Wait!” she added, as I reached out, “Ladies first.”

Peggy took her ice cream, and bit into it with relish. Her eyes slid closed, and she swayed a little, humming.

“Patience is a virtue,” murmured my mother, in a far-off voice, handing me the second cone. I watched it coming with indifference. My tongue stung of metal snow.

My mother didn’t seem like my mother today. At breakfast she had sat in silence, tearing her napkin into tiny shreds. I’d taken another slice of toast while she wasn’t looking.

Continue reading “White Lies”

Tasting Tokyo

Sake and sashimi

I’m expecting fans, futons, and formalities, but on arriving in Japan, I’m not quite prepared for the food.

In an izakaya – crowded, wooden, smoky – with a local journalist, Hiro, I grab a fistful of what look like crisps, and find in my hand instead a cluster of small dried fish heads. On cue, the earth seems to shimmer beneath us.

“I think I’m feeling phantom earthquakes,” I tell Hiro, as he offers me chicken foie gras on a chopstick. It’s indescribable.

“Maybe it’s the subway,” he says kindly.

Or maybe it’s my stomach. I try raw horse, which is paradise on a plate, followed by crackly chicken cartilage, which is not; spilled brains, which turn out to be roe; and a whole small fish battered in tempura.

“Do I eat everything?” I ask my host, eyeing the fish’s scaly tail.

“Even the bones,” he says, and shakes a pair of maracas left on the table. A waitress materializes, and presents us each with a small bowl of soup.

“What’s this?” I ask. There’s an odd kind of meat floating belly-up in the middle.

Hiro consults his electronic dictionary, and shows me across the low table:

guts
rectum
shitbag

It takes a long time to get the soup down after that: chopsticks aren’t much help with tripe. As a consolation, Hiro orders small pieces of butter, for dessert, and a few sticks of bamboo. We wash it all down with sweet potato spirit, and the earth seems to shimmer more than ever.

Japanese has many untranslatable words, including kuidaore, or to go bankrupt because you’ve spent all your money on food and drink. But in a country where I’ve tasted the most delectable and the least palatable food of my life, it might just be a price worth paying.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

 

Why I Do What I Do

Salt flats

Sizzling black peppercorns on the burnt streets of Phnom Penh. Sun-spangled sapphire stretching off the Sardinian shore. The swish of a hundred swirling skirts at midnight in Arequipa, the sharp sting of wasabi on my Tokyo tongue, the salty force of a six-foot wave knocking me off my feet in the Tasman sea: travelling sharpens the senses, catapulting you straight into the unknown (and quite often the uncomfortable) without a seatbelt. There’s nothing like the shock of the new to make you look at home again with different eyes.

For me, it’s the unexpected moments on a journey that sear my heart and stay with me the longest: waking on the night bus, in the thinning air, to see all the stars in the universe trailing down towards the stony sand of the Atacama desert. Breathing in the mingle of five spice, flat whites, French fries and falafel on the cool streets of New York. Watching children tumbling out of church to blow bubbles like clear blossom through the apricot-stained alleyways of a small Spanish town.

But if it’s the moments that transfix you, it’s the people you meet who pull you in: the receptionist in fizzing, fairy-lit Hanoi who wants to matchmake you with passing hotel guests (“Honeymoon suite still free!”). The shoeless, switched-on ten-year-old in the shade of Angkor Wat with his canny sales pitch of “one drink for you – and one for your driver.” The tiny wisp of woman in black who shares your table in the sandy sprawl of Lima and tells you, between spoons of chicken rice, she’s returning from her husband’s funeral. The Italian soldier who recites solemnly, in the spring sun, his hand-on-heart recipe for “the best way to eat pasta”. The New Zealand surfer who stops you on the sand, bare-footed and golden-haired, and asks joyfully, “Are you saved?” The elderly Japanese man, worn with age, who shuffles over to tell you he once, many years ago, “go Rondon. Albert Haw. Ve-ry beautiful,” and starts conducting an imaginary orchestra. The Polish tour guide, who begins with the tale of the town’s war-torn history and ends, as the candles burn down over the cobbled square, with her own.

I’ve lived in seven countries so far, and I’ve long been writing stories inspired by my travels for an audience whose most common question is “Where are you going next?”

Where am I going next…?

I’ll tell you when I get there.

[Adapted from an article written for the LATAM airlines travel writing competition, March 2017]

© Joanna Rubery 2017