Green with Gold Flecks
By Lucy White
He watched the villa for some time and surmised that she lived alone.
It did not take him long to find the right house and after he settled into the Back Packers five minutes bike ride away, he cycled past almost every day.
The white villa, in a dilapidated state, was set behind a high Acmena hedge. A weed -infested flower border ran under the lounge windows. High fences, on both sides, obscured the neighbours. He peered into her sitting room window while she was out at the shops. The room was full of old style linen-covered chairs and heavy oak furniture covered with dusty china and photos - some in silver frames; two took his eye; an old style-wedding photo, the bride in floor length white lace with flowers pinned in her hair looking pensive alongside her dark-haired groom who towered over her, beaming at the camera. Alongside was a photo of a serious young girl around 12 in her school uniform with her fair hair pinned severely back. The skirt, a size too big, dipped near to ankle length and she held an awkward pose. He squinted but was unable to discern her face. A black and white cat leapt onto the window sill inside and eyeballed him while putting up a paw in greeting. He started and tumbled backward into the overgrown flower border.
Two days later he went back at night and spied on her through a half-shut curtain in the lounge. He thought the walk, around twenty minutes from where he was staying, would calm his nerves. The night air was cool with a hint of rain. He heard the occasional shout of laughter and the smell of barbecued sausage as he strode along the back streets to the old white house.
She was sitting in one of the floral over-stuffed chairs, a cream cardigan round her shoulders, her glasses perched on her nose as she nodded over a book. The TV flickered in the corner. There was no-one else in evidence. He had determined what to do. He just needed the courage to do it. He stood outside the front gate and observed. The hedge badly needed a cut. He stared for some time at the hedge and then turned and walked away leaving her at peace in her cosy reverie.
The old lady, passed him two days later on her way to the Superette on her bi-weekly visit to buy milk, bread, eggs and apples. Stepping carefully in her canvas sneakers, she see-sawed slightly on her stick. She didn't notice the old bicycle, partly hidden behind the Griselinia hedge and the slim curly-haired young man in battered shorts crouched down alongside. It was when she returned that he decided to knock on the door.
Initially there was silence. A muffled accented voice came through the door.
"Who is it?"
He tried to keep his voice steady and said "I'm doing some gardening work and house maintenance. Would you like me to cut that hedge for you?"
There was a moment as she pondered this, then,
"Maybe. What are your charges?" The voice had a soft Scottish burr.
"20 dollars an hour. My name is Kip".
Another pause as she digested this.
"I pay 15 dollars. Take it or leave it. Do you have identification?" she paused a moment and added "you sound Australian".
"Yes I am… Maam", adding the 'Maam' as an afterthought.
"Got to be careful at my age. I don't open to all and sundry y'know".
Kip dragged his driver's licence out of his shorts and pushed it under the broken part of the base of the wooden front door. Silence as she checked his credentials and then locks were undone. He counted three. She opened the door. Kip gave a lop-sided grin and put out his hand. She appraised him and gave back his licence. Gazing up at this rangy stranger out of hooded grey eyes, she took his hand and shook it firmly.
"I don't stand any nonsense. Name's Nanette. You can call me Nan. Come in Kipper ..rr".
His name, incorrect, rolled round her tongue.
He followed her meekly inside. He stepped into the narrow hall and she led him across the wooden floor into the dining room. A smell of Lavender oil furniture polish assailed him as he took in the heavy mahogany dining table and the Victorian scroll legged chairs with faded red velvet seats. A tarnished silver tea service sat on its ornate tray in the centre of the table. She did not motion him to sit so he tucked in his bony elbows to avoid bumping the English landscape paintings on the wall and stood awkwardly. He couldn't believe that he'd done it. He was here and it was so easy.
Should he reveal his true purpose now or wait until he knew her better? He decided to wait.
He was introduced to Basil, the black and white cat who, he was told, ''is a rascal who will smile at you sweetly and then steal your sandwiches".
She laid down the ground rules; no smoking, no loud pop music on the radio, in fact no radio at all, no money up front and a trial run for a week. She then took him through the cluttered kitchen. He admired the Welsh dresser displaying old English plates and hung with blue and white china mugs. The top was covered with bills, vouchers and broken reading glasses. She took him straight outside through the back door and showed him an ancient ladder with one rung broken and no horizontal safety bar, lying alongside the garage.
"There's the ladder. You can start with the hedge" and she looked at him expectantly.
"No time like the present".
He started after finding some strong rope to secure the dangerous ladder and Nan's ancient hedge clippers, blunt and rusty, were cleaned and sharpened. He found an old rake under some mouldering tarpaulin in the garage alongside an ancient red Toyota which looked as though it had been in a coma for a very long time.
He worked until the light began to die and then knocked softly on the back door.
Nanette inspected the work and said "well come back tomorrow and finish and then you can start on some weeding. The roof needs fixing too. Can you do that?"
"Yes. No worries. I'll be back at 9".
She watched him lope off down the drive and take his bike from beside the hedge and cycle away whistling to himself.
After she shut the door she admitted to herself that he had started well. She hoped he would continue in the same vein but you never knew with the young these days. Flighty that's what they are; easily distracted with all that cell phone nonsense. She congratulated herself on withholding payment 'til after the job was completed.
She turned to Basil who was brushing past her legs and meowing loudly for his dinner.
"Well Baz, what do you think? Seems a nice lad. Mind you I did wonder. You get all sorts these days. Could have bashed me on the head and taken my life savings if I had any. Do you think we ought to hide the silver?" Basil made no reply. "Cat got your tongue Baz?"
She chuckled at the joke and started opening a tin of fish for Basil who was getting over-excited at the pungent smell.
Later she took out the old photo album and spent a happy half hour reminiscing. Pictures of her with Bill, out boating. Bill doing his He-Man pose and she looking coy in an ill-fitting swimming costume. Dear Bill. How she missed him. Married to him for how many years was it? Well over 40 anyway. Picnics with the children on some desolate beach with sea gulls wheeling overhead. Her daughter, Donna, a little plump at 7, in a frilly white ballet outfit pointing her toes, always made her laugh. She turned the page and there was Donna at her high school ball in a low-cut deep blue satin ball gown, her chest thrust out for all to see and her beaky-nosed pimply partner beside her. Nanette grimaced slightly at the obvious over-use of eye make-up and rouged lips smiling for the camera and turned the page. She always left one photo, one of a young man in his first dark suit taken at a cousin's wedding, for last. He stared straight at the camera, his dark hair neatly cut and combed. She noticed a grease mark on the glass and tenderly wiped the picture with a piece of paper towel.
On the second day after Kip finished and tidied up, she came out with a bottle of beer and a slice of fruit cake. She placed the offering on the rickety table and gestured for him to sit on the wobbly cane chair. She sat opposite him on the cane two-seater and plunged straight in with, ''my son died you know. Alistair. S.A.D. Sudden Adult Death syndrome. I'll show you".
And she levered herself out of the old cane sofa and went into the house. Kip sipped his beer, narrowed his eyes and looked into the garden.
She returned straight away with a small well-thumbed photo of a dark-headed young man in a cap and graduation gown smiling broadly at the camera.
"Science degree". She said. "He worked in Wellington in medical research".
She handed the photo to Kip who acknowledged the picture, smiled and handed it back.
"He had such promise. Loved his work too. Cut down he was. They didn't really give a reason. His heart just stopped. He was only 25".
She dropped her eyes and looked away. She motioned him to help himself to cake and then continued, "and Donna, my daughter ... such a wayward girl… got pregnant and dashed off with some Australian surfer. No idea where she is now. Haven't spoken to her for years. I may have grandkids for all I know."
She sniffed disdainfully and stared unseeing into the back garden.
Kip sat upright, sipped his beer carefully as he observed the old lady closely. She had a strong no- nonsense jaw and wispy sandy hair streaked with white. She was taking him into her confidence. Was it time to strike? She turned to him.
"And you Kipper..rr. Do you have family?"
Their eyes locked for a moment and she experienced a little jolt of recognition. His eyes, green with gold flecks brought back a distant memory. An eddy of breeze ruffled the dusty leaves on the path. She shivered. He said quietly,
"I have an older brother and sister. My mother lives in Brisbane with her surfer
husband, my father. They run a café. My mother's name is Donna."
He paused and gauged her reaction. The name 'Donna' made her catch a breath. Her eyes widened as she looked at him and her lip began to tremble. A solitary tear crept down her cheek.
"You are my Nan. I'm your grandson". He put his hand across the table and touched her freckled arm gently. He said softly.
"So I really can…call you Nan".
A few days later they were comfortably ensconced in the cane chairs looking west over the tangled back garden. A soft peach evening light was illuminating the gathering clouds.
Nan took a sip of her brandy and ginger ale and said reflectively,
"I think Kipper we'll start clearing this dog's breakfast of a back garden. What do you think?"
He turned to her and smiled. The sun caught his eyes, his mother's eyes - green with gold flecks.