Jonathan Cardew Interview with Sandra Arnold
Thank you so much for sharing this heart-rending and delicate tale. Consolation, in the face of grief or loss, is a difficult path, but we all naturally strive to find a way toward it. In this story, the characters seek (or reluctantly seek) consolation in the form of a clairvoyant and guru. Can you tell us a little about how this story came about? Have you experienced a seance like this before?
The story is based on an experience I had a month after my 23 year old daughter died from cancer of the appendix in 2002. A friend persuaded me to go with her to listen to a clairvoyant who was speaking one weekend at Riccarton House in Christchurch. In the coffee break I wandered away to look at a historic cottage in the grounds where an early settler, Jane Deans, had lived from 1853 until she moved into the bigger Riccarton House in 1856. When I started writing When the Bough Breaks, Jane’s story, and other strands triggered by those two days in Riccarton House, wove their way into it.
We learn a little about New Zealand’s history in “When the Bough Breaks,” and I like the way this juxtaposes with the themes of birth and death (acorns from England eventually finding their way into oak panelling). Were you born in New Zealand or did you emigrate? Could you tell us a fact about New Zealand’s early history (or anything about New Zealand) that may surprise us?
My husband and I are both originally from the north-east of England. We came to New Zealand in 1976, planning to live here for five years just for the adventure. However, we fell in love with the stunning beauty and open spaces of the country and stayed. We now live in a little village on the Canterbury Plains. The first European settler in this area was a young man called TW Adams who came out from England, bought 100 acres of bare tussock in 1865 and began converting it to farmland. He built himself a tiny house made of earth and straw and eventually planted 150 acres of trees imported from seedlings. His first wife died a year after giving birth by falling down a well. Every time I walk in the arboretum he planted and stand outside the remains of his earth house I’m in awe of what he and other early settlers achieved through their courage, determination and the hardship they endured.
You write in various forms (flash, short story, non-fiction). Which form do you feel comfortable and/or enjoying writing in the most?
I’d always written in long forms until about three years ago when a poet friend mentioned he liked flash fiction. I hadn’t read any at that time and he directed me to Flash Frontier, a New Zealand-based journal edited by Michelle Elvy. I was fascinated by many of the pieces I read there and sought out other journals too. I love the immediacy of flash and the way it incorporates the narrative arc of a short story with the lyricism of prose poetry. The challenge in writing it well is to know how much can be left unstated and still keep its heart intact. I also love writing non-fiction and long fiction because of the ability to go into detail and use different writing styles. I think my favourite form is whatever I happen to be working on at any particular time.
For those unfamiliar with your work, could you provide us with some extra reading (links to stories/ books/ articles):
My website has all the links to published work.
I love the moment in the story where Shulgi hugs the narrator and tells her to not pack away her (deceased) daughter’s music. This is pivotal, and must steer the narrator away from her earlier skepticism. Though being a sometimes skeptic myself, I have experienced various serendipitous or uncanny moments. What are your thoughts on this? Do you believe some people have this aptitude for ‘sight?’
The scene where Shulgi hugs the narrator and makes the comment about her daughter’s music actually happened to me. In normal life I’m a logical and analytical person, but that period was far from normal and enough of the inexplicable occurred to make me realise that not everything has a rational explanation. However, I have also met frauds who have no qualms about preying on the vulnerable. These days I keep an open but cautious mind.
What’s in the pipeline? Any upcoming projects or publications?
This year I have two books coming out: my third novel Ash (Mākaro Press, NZ) and my first flash fiction collection Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK). A story The Road to Nowhere is a finalist in the Mslexia Flash Fiction Competition. Other work is due out soon from New Flash Fiction Review, Fictive Dream, Fewer than 500 and The Sunlight Press. I’m currently working on a collection of short stories.
Thanks so much, Sandra, for joining us this month at Connotation Press!
It’s a huge pleasure, Jonathan Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting questions.
When the Bough Breaks
A blackbird’s wing on the steps of Riccarton House is all it takes to stop me in my tracks. Through the window I can see a slight, grey-haired woman addressing a roomful of people. I can’t believe I let Marianne talk me into this. But before I have a chance to bolt Marianne materialises in the doorway.
Her warm hands on my cold skin.
“Okay,” I say. “Just for today. Not tomorrow though.”
She pats my shoulder and leads me into the house, through the oak-panelled hall lined with animal heads, to a seat at the back of the crowded drawing-room where the woman I’d seen through the window is talking to the audience about the stages of grief.
“Dr Claudia Drashe,” Marianne whispers. “Trained under Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who pioneered the study of dying. The short man sitting on the left is Simon, the channel for Shulgi.”
I look at Marianne and raise one eyebrow.
“Just keep an open mind.”
Once, as a teenager, I’d persuaded my aunt to let me come to one of her Spiritualist circles. She only agreed when I promised not to breathe a word to my mother, who, my aunt said, would never speak to her again if she found out. I don’t know what my imagination had conjured up about a how a medium should look, but the woman in my aunt’s darkened living room was definitely not it. This Dame Edna Everidge clone peered over her purple-framed glasses at the old man beside me and boomed, “I see a woman behind you, Sir. G... I think her name has a G in it. Does that mean anything to you?”
“G? Oh! That must be Gladys! My wife had a sister called Gladys!”
“Well, Gladys wants to tell you she’s worried about your blood pressure.”
The old man sat up straight. “Me blood pressure? Pity she didn’t worry about me soddin’ blood pressure when she was alive, the spiteful old cow…”
“Yes yes, she says she’s sorry about that. She wants you to know she didn’t know then what she knows now. She wants you to forgive her. She knows about your bad heart and wants you to watch your health.”
“Yes, you see they watch over us from the world of Spirit, you see. She’s saying ‘God Bless’ and giving you a kiss now before she leaves.”
“A kiss? She bloody well …”
“Bert? Bert? I have a Bert now – does anyone know a Bert …?”
It was only my aunt’s warning glare that kept me from bursting.
The audience claps and Claudia Drashe sits down. I realise that I haven’t heard a word she has said. Simon stands now and moves to the front of the podium. Mid-thirties, tanned, T-shirt and jeans. He doesn’t look like a medium either. He explains that Shulgi lived in Sumaria three thousand years ago and has a great sense of humour. We shouldn’t be surprised, he says, when Shulgi starts telling jokes as that is one of his teaching tools. Several people in the audience nod. I stifle a sigh and focus on the wallpaper, curtains and carpet. They are, according to the guidebook, faithful reproductions of the originals.
Five years ago we took some visitors to dinner in the restaurant of the newly-refurbished Riccarton House, with a ghost tour by candlelight thrown in.
“I always ask Jane Deans’ permission to enter these rooms,” whispered the guide. “She put her heart and soul into this house.”
A German tourist asked if the house was really haunted. In reply, the guide told a story about the birth of the last Deans in the house.
“When the infant’s sister was taken to see him she inquired who the old lady was.”
“What old lady?” asked the child’s mother.
“The old lady in the long black dress and white cap, bending over the cradle,” replied the child.
The tourists gasped. The guide smiled. Then slowly raised her candle to illuminate Jane Deans’ photograph on the wall, in her black dress and lace cap.
After that tour I was so impressed with the renovations that I wanted to book the house for Olivia’s wedding reception. Beth and Nathan came with us to inspect it. As soon as Beth saw the stuffed bison and deer heads on the walls of the restored oak-panelled hall she said she would not be bridesmaid if the reception was held there. No amount of persuasion about the heads being part of the history of the house, the cultural climate of the past, would move her. Olivia said it wasn’t worth the fight and we might as well go and book Mona Vale instead. That was just as romantic and the Avon River was right in front of the house so the bridal party could be taken up by punt.
Beth hugged her.
“You owe me big time little sister!” Olivia said. “Just wait till it’s your turn.”
“Who would have her?” muttered Nathan.
“No way am I getting married!” Beth shot back. “Guys just slow you down.”
“You say that now,” said Olivia, “but you don’t know what the future holds.”
“I know that much.”
It’s coffee time and the seminar participants take their cups out onto the verandah and find a spot in the thin Autumn sunshine. Others wander down to the river where the Deans men had soaked the oak trees they’d grown from acorns brought from England, before cutting them into panels for the hall. Marianne is talking to Dr Drashe and I want to wait till she finishes so I can explain it was a mistake for me to come. This is the first time I’ve left home in a month so even the watery sunshine is too bright for my eyes. I put on my sunglasses and wander over to the little shack John Deans built for his bride, more than a hundred and fifty years ago.
I look through the windows at the tiny dark rooms, the old wooden cradle in the bedroom. What did Jane think the first time she saw her new home? The remnants of bush preserved in the garden covered much of the swamp in the Canterbury Plains when she first came here. Did she think it was worth her journey? In her letters home to Scotland she wrote only that the cottage was dark. Just before her husband died of tuberculosis a year later, she promised him she’d run the estate till their baby son was old enough to inherit it, and that she’d make sure the bush was preserved forever. Then she built the big house where her son raised his own children. Eleven children from her one child. Not all survived. There were many ways for children to die back then.
Twenty five years ago I wrote to my mother describing Riccarton House and Jane Deans’ cottage and the way a fantail had followed Olivia and Nathan as they scrambled over fallen kahikatea in the bush and how the movements of my new baby felt like moths’ wings inside my belly and how the guidebook said, ‘Far away from home and pregnant. Those pioneer women were a breed apart.’
“Hello, I’m Anna.”
The voice makes me jump. I turn to see a woman about my own age who’d been sitting in front of me at the seminar.
“Those early settlers, eh?” She gestures to the cradle in the tiny room.
I nod and she asks what brought me to the seminar.
But I still can’t say my daughter’s name and the word ‘died’ in the same breath. So I tell her that I don’t believe in channels or whatever they call themselves, and won’t be back tomorrow.”
“That’s a pity,” she says. “I haven’t seen Shulgi before, because Simon usually works in the North Island, but there’s a woman here in Christchurch who channels a being called Kasra. Until I met Kasra I didn’t believe in channels either.”
I don’t want to discuss beings called Shulgi or Kasra and as people are starting to drift back into the house I turn in that direction. There’s no sign of Marianne. Maybe I’ll leave now and ring her later to apologise. A sycamore leaf spirals down in front of us. Anna reaches out and catches it.
“The Deans planted wonderful trees,” she says. “I love coming here in Autumn.”
I glance briefly at the deep red of a pin oak.
“You’re English, aren’t you?” she says.
“Me too. I found it hard enough only three decades ago to leave my mother and sisters on the other side of the world, so I don’t know how Jane Deans did it.”
“At least we have the internet now,” I say, managing a smile.
“Oh, e-mails!” Anna laughs. “I couldn’t have endured my daughter’s O.E without them. An only child, you see.”
I look at the ground.
“She had a flat in London, close to Regent’s Park,” Anna says, bending down to pick up an acorn. “When I went over there to bring her home we went for a walk in the park and collected the brightest Autumn leaves we could find. She gave me a book to press them in, a volume of poems by Ursula Bethell that she’d found in a second-hand bookshop in London. When I opened the book the first line I read was Such and such an autumn was very golden, and everything is for a very short time’.
“You brought her home?” I ask, curious now.
“Five years ago. Stomach cancer.”
Absorbed with the acorn Anna doesn’t see my expression as she describes the weeks of chemotherapy, the blonde wig that covered her daughter’s bald head, the nausea and vomiting, the weight loss, the pain.
“Then one morning I woke up for no reason. I looked at the clock. It was 2am. I knew something was wrong.” She pauses. “I looked for her in her room but she wasn’t there. I went out into the garden and found her. Hanging from a tree.”
I stop, my breath ripped from my chest.
“When Riccarton House was restored I thought it would be the perfect place to celebrate my daughter’s 21st,” she says. “Instead, we held her funeral here.”
She studies the acorn and the sycamore leaf. “Before we closed her coffin I took the leaves we’d gathered in England and put them in her hands. A fantail flew into the room, circled around my head then flew back into the bush. The first time I went to see Kasra he told me about those leaves, and the bird. He couldn’t have known. He couldn’t possibly have known. But he did.”
Simon ‒ or Shulgi ‒ is walking towards us. Towards me.
“I have to give you a hug,” he says.
I take a step back. I don’t want hugs from strangers. Or stories about poems and fantails and Autumn leaves and girls hanging from trees. It hurts to breathe. But he’s holding me. And he’s saying, “You didn’t need to pack away her music. Play her music again.”
Next morning the sky looks bruised. The rain is turning to sleet. As I lock my car I see Anna struggling with a bright red umbrella. She sees me and hurries across the car park.
“You came back!” she says, holding the umbrella over us both. “If you hadn’t, I’d’ve blamed myself.”
She bites her lip. “It was that cradle in the dark little room, and the red and gold in the leaves. It all just spilled out ... how could I have been so thoughtless? When I heard what Shulgi said … about her music … I couldn’t sleep last night...”
‘It’s all right,’ I soothe.
Her breath escapes.
I ask what her daughter’s name was.
“Tamsin,” she says. “And your daughter?”
I take a breath.
“Will you tell me about her?”
“I’ll try,” I say.
And we walk up the steps into Riccarton House.