I was challenged by the local branch of NZSA to write a six word short story with an accompanying image of somewhere in Wellington. So here it is.
(I wrote this last year, when my publisher The Cuba Press invited me to a poetry reading at a bookshop in Newtown... she suggested this theme... this wee thing hasn't had an airing, so I've let it out for air.) In Wellington, it’s really an old town a throughway to the zoo, home to our hospital, multi-cultural food and fond memories of my first-born at St Helen’s Hospital, purpose built for mothers and babies, like a hotel for breast-feeders high on maternity spilling our milk and love and tears and then there was the night, after La Leche, a meeting for feeding mums when I drove home in the darkness baby in a woven wicker basket on the back seat, forgetting headlights and the traffic cop stopped me on Riddiford and when he saw my baby snug under a cellular wool blanket he waved me on with a warning, my lights on full now, homeward bound past the hospital where, as a young woman in the early seventies, I moonlighted as a nurse aide, on the orthopaedic ward collecting false teeth and cleaning them only to find I’d forgotten from whose mouth the teeth came and I cannot recall how I found the owners but I do remember the anguish of an old woman with broken hips when I didn’t warm her bedpan and sometimes we were sent down to the new-born’s nursery to turn them like clockwork, from one side to the other, I wonder when I walk down Lambton Quay, and see someone who might have been a baby then, did I once turn you over in Newtown?
This essay was written while I was teaching Workplace English in Lower Hutt three or four years ago. I thought it suited a post Easter blog. I’m including photos of food I made over Easter.
I trained to be an ESOL teacher. It wasn’t even a firm commitment. It was an action taken to avoid having to seriously consider working again. I did a course that is very expensive, very pressured if you’ve never taught before, and I almost abandoned it mid-way through. Thankfully, with the support of my classmates, I hung in there. With my CELTA qualification, I have entered another world of words. The translation of one set of words from one language to another – not that I’m translating, but I’m working with adult students who are managing to bridge their thoughts from the language of their hearts and home, to a new language which will help them settle in a new home. Here is a way to be cloaked in a new golden coat. It is unwarranted, and unexpected. Simply because I can speak English, I can influence, impact and touch on other lives with words, in ways that a novel never could. This experience is entirely two-way. Each day I learn something new from my students as they do from me. We’re not on social media or tweeting, we are in the classroom, sharing words, precious, interesting, mercurial, evasive, inclusive, endangered, evocative, difficult… words, from one language to another. In both the classes I teach, there can be up to 15 different languages we straddle in a day, pulling all these threads together, weaving words and meaning. I teach, therefore I am.
On Mondays, after a long weekend, we have the two-minute circle. I am by nature a gregarious person. I knew as a teacher, this would be my weak point. Especially, if I am trying to elicit language from others. I heard about the silent teacher at a professional development course one mid term break. I loved the idea of each student being given two minutes to talk without interruption. Time to gather their thoughts from their own language and reframe them into their version (frequently limited version) of English. We sit in a friendly circle, so we are informal, relaxed and we listen, all of us intently to one person talking about their weekend. Some are natural born storytellers and regale us with long and interesting digressions – it’s amazing how long two minutes can be. Others, struggle to find the words and long silences ensue, which I have learned not to fill. Too, some students repeat, with confidence, word for word, almost the same tale they told last Monday. But it will be, the first time, since Friday, they have spoken English. It’s an amazing achievement, and I marvel at it, as I am more, or less mono-lingual. In a bar, with enough champagne, I can fake fluent Norwegian for at least a sentence or two. I lived in Norway in the seventies, three winters and one summer at a ski resort and sadly spoke far too much English with my Danish friends and work colleagues. I regret, and indeed, I rue the fact that I wasn’t taught Te Reo at school in the 50’s.
What I have learned as an ESOL teacher is that no matter race, religion, ethnicity or age, family is the essence of identity. Connection to or estrangement from family, is the impetus for our art, and shapes our identity.
Every two-minute circle I have borne witness to, is a story, retold of food, and family. The food is the window dressing to the tale of family. Over and over, I’ve heard of routines, of school drop offs and pickups, of visits to A and E, or grandmothers setting fire to backyards and front yards, of burnt pots and floods in housing New Zealand accommodation, of drunken neighbours, the police, bikes being stolen, school uniforms vanishing from clotheslines, driving lessons, driving without the right license, ending up on the road to the Wairarapa while trying to find Wellington, opening your small housing NZ flat to ten visitors from Auckland (and I no longer enquire where they sleep), fishing off the Petone wharf, buying Chinese cabbage front the Riverbank market. Food and Family and then God comes up a lot too. God in all his or her guises. Recently, a student left class at 11.45, drove to Hamilton to pick up a Pastor from his church, returned to Lower Hutt at 3.00 am and arrived in class to help me set up the desks at 8.45. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in this devotion.
For a child of the 50’s raised Catholic and working as a shorthand typist for the post office, it is a strange and wondrous thing to find myself in my late 60’s in a classroom with up to 13 students at any one time, almost all from different countries, discussing for example Easter. Standing trying to convey the resurrection (I try to reconcile the devout young girl I was who knelt for three hours or more on a Good Friday, enduring the pageantry of the Stations of the Cross)… and now if not flippantly, and trying not to be irreverent, explaining to people who have no idea, just what happened over Easter in the Christian story. When it comes to the resurrection, I struggle to find the words. Metaphors are tricky things to convey in simple English. Although conversely, many of my students convey meaning through beautiful metaphors. There are times when it is impossible to correct a piece of written work, and sometimes glaring grammatical errors, for to do so, would be to ruin a magical metaphor, the delight that comes when two languages intersect.
What I’ve learned listening to stilted, unformed, halting and careful English, is that stories are how we become who we are, and in the moment, when we tell our story, no matter how small, sad or funny, trivial or important, grave or wildly funny, it is the words that connect us.
My first poetry collection. A baby boomer memoir, to be launched March 10!
Love in MIQ
There’s a sunlit square reflected at us through the new Christchurch Convention Centre windows. It’s usually the hotel car park, but now it’s the MIQ exercise yard. We’re on the third floor, unlike some other lucky punters who have scored views from floors higher up. The online brochure depicts snow-capped mountains, a painted blue sky and that strange flatness that is the Canterbury Plains. Instead, we see the reflected shadows of people marching in a monotonous kind of circle.
It’s kind of flat in here too. We arrived at 10 last Saturday morning in Auckland, fresh from Seoul via Singapore. I’d been following a spreadsheet created on a thread on an MIQ Facebook page that I’d joined. It gave me very high odds of the Grand Mercure in Auckland for our stayover. So, it was a shock when a fresh-faced army chap jumped on board our plane minutes after we’d landed to say we were heading to Christchurch
So here we are – my husband, John, and me – at the Crowne Plaza, Christchurch, on the third floor, with a view of the new Convention Centre. We have two King single beds bedecked in fresh white linen, each single bed almost as big as my mum and dad’s double bed in the 50s. We’d requested single beds, realising 14 days in isolation might require moments of separation.
Arriving home to be greeted by the NZ Army took us back to travelling in the 70s. That moment when you landed and were told to stay seated, while one of the crew walked up and down the aisle fumigating the plane. And then there was the ordeal with officious men at customs, mostly in shorts and long socks, who quizzed you as if you were part of an international crime spree and, hey, you’ve been caught.
We learned the trick of over-declaring … acting like ingenue’s, so they rolled their eyes and ticked us through, while the extra alcohol or undeclared electronics stayed secreted in our bags.
So, it was a blast from the past when we disembarked from our flight at Christchurch airport and some kind woman from the Army, spotting John’s duty-free whisky purchased in Singapore, suggested he stop right there, open his bag and shove it in … or else, she warned, the hotel will take it off you.
We are allowed one bottle of wine each a day in MIQ. This to me sounds like a lot of wine. John is finding it a perfect ration … you must leave the empty wine bottles outside your bedroom door before they replenish. Currently, there are two empty bottles outside our room looking lonely on a dark and deserted hotel floor.
Well, Friday I started drinking at lunchtime. There’s a very sound reason for this. It was John’s birthday, and we had completed our 35 laps of the car park at 10am.
One of our exercise call-ups was at 5am. We set the alarm, then promptly rolled over and went back to sleep. We were punished for this. The scheduled walkathon that evening at 10pm was cancelled. Most of us are treading the well-worn rectangle, eyes down, sometimes overtaking slow walkers. There’s a certain courteous pattern to it all. If someone is an extra slow walker, you take a wide berth and kind of overtake them without looking pushy.
A newbie turns up, to enliven the sunlit square. She appears in golden sandals, shorts and a glowing tan, her long curling hair softly falling. She ambles, she wanders, she stops and reads the poems and artwork that decorate the enclosure. I mumble good morning through my mask and then wish I’d said, ‘Ata Mārie,’ or something more magical than good morning sounds. She beams back at me the way you do when your mouth is hidden and your eyes need to do all the work.
The nurses call at the door to do our nasal swab and they are delightful. Not the swabs, the nurses. One nurse asks John if he still loves his wife. We are both standing masks on, in the doorway. All four of us, both nurses, John and I laughed so loudly, I can’t recall if he said yes.
While I am here in MIQ, I am working on the edits for my very first poetry collection, Formica. It will open with a poem that featured in the Friday Poem collection published by Luncheon Sausage Books and edited by er … the man the woman from Narrative Muse (the ones who got half a million) had to Google. Ah yes, Steve
Later it occurs to me that the nurse’s question was a secret code for a husband to say … no, help, help, or of course, vice versa. The same nurse sang ‘Happy birthday to you’ to John through her surgical and Perspex masks. We sang along. She must have alerted the kitchen staff, because a birthday dessert treat arrived for John, iced with birthday wishes, plus a card signed by some of the staff.
There’s a rhythmic sound from the room next door each day at exactly the same time. At first we cheer them on, but we come to realise, disappointingly, that it’s probably not the people next door at all but just a quirk of the building, a kind of tap-tap-tapping, but that’s how desperate things get in MIQ. You look for signs of life everywhere.
I recall tut-tutting, early on in the first lockdowns, possibly in Australia, when lonely travellers forged relationships with the security guards. We were a wee bit outraged. How dare they! But look, I’m officially elderly, and after seven days in a four-star hotel with fresh white linen, if I didn’t have a companion I can see now how a nice man in uniform might go well with dessert.
John and I live for the phone calls (they are automated) that advise us that food is at the door. We sit with our headphones on watching separate Netflix series but always with one ear open for that telephone call.
The food is good. We were given a barcode that took us to an online form so we could complete our menu requests. Impressive. The meals have become tedious though. I’m not much of a salad girl, so the little pottles of salad are piling up on a shelf by the TV.
Today, our exercise slot is 6.30am. We’re up for it. At first there are only three bubbles walking and this is doable. When it gets crowded with families, it becomes more challenging. There are a number of people here with young children and toddlers have no understanding of two metres distance.
Watching a young couple early this morning trying to corral their two lively toddlers made me think with great sadness about the recent tragedy in Tīmaru, and the tragic loss of three young lives.. It’s not difficult to imagine the stress that family must have endured relocating to a new country through lockdowns and isolation in MIQ. It’s both incomprehensible and yet not difficult to imagine the at times intolerable stresses.
It’s okay, we’re not seeking sympathy. We chose this.
We had a brand-new grandson born in Seoul in May. He was rushed from the maternity hospital he was born in to ICU on the same day, due to a few breathing issues. This meant he was separated from both his mum and dad for the first ten days of his life. We watched videos of him being caressed by nurses wearing plastic gloves. So, you can imagine it was not something we dithered over when the South Korean government offered double-jabbed Kiwi parents or grandparents with family in Seoul a special three-month, quarantine-free ‘family sojourn’ visa.
We did not wait to see if we could get a spot in MIQ. It was an adventure. We knew we could sit at home in our own wee bubble safely or grab the moment, so we grabbed it.
On arrival in Seoul, we had to download an app that would track us. Then we were whisked in a pre-booked taxi to our Airbnb via a Covid testing station. We had to remain in our Airbnb until we got our test results the next morning by text … negative. We had to report our daily temperature for a week via the app and have one more Covid test, and then we were able to delete the app and go free.
The highlight of that arrival, was standing on the sixth floor, looking out over a small balcony to the road below where our Seoul family stood waving to us. John swears that Oli, just four months at the time, raised his arm in a wave. Such is the joy of seeing loved ones in the time of Covid.
We left New Zealand early August without a spot in MIQ, telling ourselves that surely by November double-jabbed people like ourselves would be allowed to self-isolate on return. And then Delta broke out in Auckland, and we saw our chances fading, day by day. Still, we consoled ourselves, here we are in Seoul with family. We are safe. We’ll get home eventually. Our visa was a one-off, three-month visa, perhaps South Korea would kick us out – making us stateless and therefore NZ would have to let us in. Turns out South Korea were happy to extend …
None of this came to pass, just the first MIQ Lottery. And we were successful. I should leave a space here for the howls of outrage from those who missed out. I started reading them on Twitter and on FB and had to abandon that, as some of the cases are just so blatantly unfair
Here in MIQ, we’ve nearly made it. We’ve had our third negative nasal swab result and will have one more (day 12) before we are released. Right now with the hotel at full capacity with 194 residents, it feels like leaving our room permanently could be the riskiest moment for us in terms of being exposed to Covid.
But, we know we are in safe hands. Today we got fresh linen and we danced to Jerusalema as we remade our own beds. We are grateful Kiwis… and we’ll be home soon.
Maggie Rainey-Smith’s poetry collection Formica (The Cuba Press) will be released in March 2022.
Skinship Run the sound over your tongue let it roll for a while in your mouth then swallow it whole Skinship, like kinship, meaning connection but through the skin as simple as holding hands Konglish, meaning Korean English, a new word, but not a new feeling Skin on skin, a hand in yours, a touch, skinship kinship, friendship It’s not difficult to guess why Korea created this new word Fathers holding adult son’s hands, mothers holding daughters Touching, skin on Skin, with kin this word Skinship It crosses culture it caresses skin on skin The ship of affection Skinship Sail on you beauty Daebak!
Kia ora from Seoul.
Here I am reading a poem from my upcoming collection ‘Formica’ which is due out now next year (delay due to Covid and my being here in Seoul).
John looked at me just now and said ‘You’re wearing lipstick!’. Erhem, yes, I put on some lipstick for this poetry reading 🙂
At Stewart Dawson’s corner was where I saw you, seated all orange high-viz suiting, looking tired and holding a sandwich Like me, you look too old to still be working. I can see the weariness yet, I still have a spring in my step at least that’s what I tell myself Did I once kiss you at the cabaret? down the lane by the old post office Manners Street. Was it the Sheridan? Maybe you remember, maybe not. You are a stranger in a high-viz suit sitting on the pavement outside what was once a flash jewellery shop And who knows maybe we did once Dance together at the cabaret back in the day, when we Catholic girls were cock teasers full of false promise testing our allure against your erections Then moving on to the next dance partner with whom we might exchange chaste kisses several if you please flighty bright young things, even demure At times not knowing what we would do If the music stopped and there was just you or some other bloke or someone new who was prepared to… well, chance his arm So it’s unlikely, but not impossible we kissed one night at the cabaret You look tired there on the pavement as if waiting for a new song I’m waiting for my bus to come
I talked to a man today who was here to fix my house He said he lived in an old maternity hospital with double hung windows We were talking about double glazing and the cost of heating He said, as he glued architraves to the inside of my new bathroom door His mother-in-law had been a nurse there, back in the day when you could just don a uniform His wife had been born in the same hospital and I think his father-in-law I can't be sure, as the fumes from the epoxy might have muffled my memory But I got the feeling this house that houses him and his in-laws where one or possibly two of them were born, might not need double glazing It sounded like they were all keeping warm on something modern building materials in short supply, couldn't manufacture anyway
The Ever Given Even Farmers wouldn’t give us credit to buy a cutlery set because we owed no one anything back then and friends gave us shelter housing us and our Aiwa That had come from London with us through the newly opened Suez all the way from Shepherds Bush with Bohemian Rhapsody on vinyl We saw King Tut in situ and a small boy in Somalia, living in a Sony TV carton A man with a gun patrolled The Sphinx In Cairo, but there were very few tourists In Auckland, my sister met our ship which if you knew her was a bold and beautiful moment for us all, but more in retrospect as many things in life are We were home with 50 cents between us relying on friends with kids and a spare bedroom, determined never to succumb to suburbia, certain we knew better When the ‘Ever Given’ blocked the Suez recently, we marvelled at just how narrow the canal really is and how tall the ship was laden with who knows what, people speculated, perhaps needles for our vaccine roll-out, or fabric for front-line workers… people worried because a shipment of sex toys was stranded not all happy endings can be bought and paid for and we knew that Like Freddy we’d tried to break free Only to find a quiet beauty in domesticity And now that we are officially elderly we are grateful to the ‘Ever Given reminding us we once sailed the Suez homeward, filled with towering ambition only to turn sideways and if not exactly stuck, definitely frequently adrift