Essay: Miro Bilbroughon adolescence

In the Time of the Manaroans


My father the teetotaller has an open-browed face, decent enough cheekbones, becalmed North Sea eyes that are often elsewhere, and a sudden lightbulb warmth. He wears a homespun skull cap when writing his exercise-book diary in bed – a kapok mattress or three dumped one atop the other to compensate for deformities – in the Floodhouse box room.

Off the kitchen, daylight shuttered by a stand of frowning macrocarpa that run along the west side of the house, the box room is, true to title, full of semi-unpacked cardboard boxes and, supine in stacks and dumps, novels and books of Jung and Sufism bookmarked with the occasional job vacancy for an English teacher, clipped and mailed to my father by his own father, Samuel. This unlikely bedroom–study is lined floor to ceiling with empty, whitewashed tongue-and-groove cupboards that stand over my father as he scribbles in bed. Their towering stance parallels the way his headmaster father once stood over him and psychically still does, prolonging my father’s adolescence into his thirties. He’s even retained the lined school exercise books of Sam’s watch – full, now, of the kind of uncensored interiority that my grandfather would find incomprehensible and obscene.

He likes a house of neglect, my father. He makes little open-air island-nests to feed and read in, to fantasise and hide out in, papery and grubby as those that mice make of shredded paper. More discreet are the actual mice occupying the vacant cupboards that marshall the untidy space.

The Wakamarina

Old farmhouses mingle with one-eyed gold miners’ shacks as the valley road ascends between fringes of yellow yarrow, pollen-reeking ragwort and floating micro-domes of Queen Anne’s lace. Eventually the thistle- and foxglove-spiked paddocks become numerate with remnant chimneys and the abandoned larders and gold mine shafts – thrillingly treacherous holes that suck you in by the ankles – of long-dead miners and other nineteenth-century chancers.

Gentility passed briefly through but did not stop in the Wakamarina Valley. The late Miss Young, a piano teacher and for a time my father’s landlady, was one exception. Up the road and around the bend from the Floodhouse, Miss Young’s camellia-fronted villa is now empty. At the end of his marriage, my father stopped here to collect his wits. A few months, and he was gone again. On to the Floodhouse, only a mile down the road but cheaper and deeper in dereliction. Now the gloom-speckled wallpaper, the unattended receiver of Miss Young’s party phone, and the lace-frosted windows and fretted wooden eaves that face the valley road are the inheritance of those other lace-makers, spiders. I know this because I have pressed my face to the glass of these old-lady rooms, entered through an unlocked door and, winding the weighty arm of the phone, met the silence of disconnection.

Hidden from but just below the road, the Wakamarina River makes a gladed and pellucid descent in shades of pounamu green, freezing to a fault and sacred to that contemplative high diver with flashing azure wings, the kōtare or kingfisher.

Off road I find other domestic kingdoms every bit as antic and soot-smutted as my father’s Floodhouse. Noelene’s house is one of these: empurpled by morning glory on the outside; yellowed on the inside with unrefreshed flypapers, which do nothing to cull the flies that tail you obsessively as soon as you enter. Smelling of mouse, stove and lard-coated frying pans, so dim the lack of light is a substance: Noelene’s. I’d say this is the smell of dirt poor, but not exclusively, for I encounter it later in the kitchen of the commune landlords, Mick and Edie. The gummy odour of material neglect, then.

My father has come to buy a dozen chook’s eggs and brought me sociably along. He offers as barter buttercrunch lettuce from his garden or seconds from his cowshed pottery on the highway. The chooks dance beneath the greasy hem of the kitchen table and flap between Noelene’s rooms. There’s a warm-skinned man in gumboots inside the unlit kitchen who ambles off to fossick elsewhere, mumbling shyly as he leaves and we enter. Noelene keeps us moving. I glimpse a flame-haired, platform-soled daughter in oblique transit between rooms.

Our stop is brief but performative, the transaction of well-disposed neighbours who share a shyly theatrical bent. They flirt heavy-handedly like a couple of old blokes, my father and Noelene. Or rather it is as if Noelene is the bloke and my father, whose masculinity turns on a dime, some kind of fey hippy ingénue. Noelene’s lipstick seems unlikely until you receive her boisterous smile. Her cottage is as rank as her social generosity is contagious. Even her physical ugliness has a brusque radiance. Later my father tells me Noelene is illiterate and I turn this over in uncomprehending grief.

Waiheke Island

My recently separated parents have always romanticised the remote. There was talk of moving to the Outer Hebrides or a Greek island my childhood long. Itching to be anywhere but drearily small-minded New Zealand of the sixties then seventies, their dreaming began in a two-room, red, corrugated-iron beach shack at Pukerua Bay, Wellington, where I spent my infant years. Next came a haunted house on Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

In the Waiheke house my mother was often still in bed when I came home from school. There she lay under the shady light of the bamboo blind that she and my father had fashioned from wildly disparate lengths. Running the width of the house, this room was both my parents’ bedroom and the living room. Disturbed by the lack of soft furnishings – an expression of arty minimalism that refused to soften the desolate stretch of floorboards – I would bat uncomfortably around, looking for a place to settle.

In that ill-starred house my little brother, Paolo Moses, was born and died a few months later, a cot death. I have a memory of him squalling on yellow velvet under the lemon tree, his little plum-lipped face screwed in distress. The lemon tree whose leaves the underfed goat depilated, tuft by glossy tuft, in the space of one afternoon and a night. I was there for the beginning but gone for the rest of Paolo’s short life, gone to my grandmother Margaret’s in Wellington. Nothing good ever came about in that house.

Born soon after, my sister was named in the tiny boy’s memory but with the feminine version. Paola. She was the good exception that followed his death. Retrospectively, my mother announced that she had decided my sister was going to be the first person she loved, and her utterance entered the family mythology. I was not there to hear it, but I had experienced firsthand the shortfall. By six I openly doubted her love. I had come home from school one day and quizzed her from the foot of the iron bedstead. You don’t love me, do you?

My mother’s refusal to answer burned, guttering like a small house-fire that spread inside me. And spread it did. For much of my adult life this question, and all that it contained, would become a contaminant that I worked around as best I could.

The family story about my move, at seven, away from my parents and new brother, was that my baby teeth had fallen out. Despite homeopathic medication, new teeth refused to grow. I was also having nightmares, waking in terror about the same time every night. Something had to be done.

Later, my father said he was afraid I might die, as if he were making an unwitting transference of the other death, yet to occur, of that tiny peach, Paolo Moses. His fears were an index to the way each of us failed to thrive or prosper under the influence of that house or his and my mother’s anempathic marriage.

My own grief at leaving was concentrated in the fate of a paper panda bear I had made at Waiheke Primary School in Ostend. The panda was constructed like a glove puppet: a paper outline coloured in with crayon and then stapled together and stuffed with more paper. A shoebox lined and trimmed with orange and vermillion crêpe paper became a crib for the bear. I adored these creations, but not long after their fashioning I came home one day from school to find I was not going back the next or, indeed, ever again. Why was I bound for the house of my mother’s mother? Because she had offered, and because she knew, better than I, what kind of trouble I might be in.

In my involuntary departure, the uncollected art project was the harrowing source of regret. I wrote a letter from my grandmother’s asking after it. My father wrote back that the panda had been given away to another child. I grieved unduly for the talismanic creature cradled in his black-and-white mask and festive bed, the larger grief attaching itself to the small.

After I left Waiheke, my parents’ last move was to the Wakamarina Valley. Here their marriage, branching into affairs, ended. My father moved out of their cottage at the top of the valley and down to Miss Young’s rental villa. Not long after, my young sister followed him.

One house and a few months on, where this story starts, it is my turn. At fourteen I have fallen out with my grandmother and down a rabbit hole into my father’s unknown.

Norman, Christina and Paola, Rocky Bay, Waiheke, 1971.

A brief history

How did I get here, exactly? I rang my father from the red phone box on the footpath outside my grandmother’s, praying that she wouldn’t spring me inside my emergency-coloured beacon. She doesn’t, because down inside the house below street level Grandmother Margaret is also ringing my father, but from the landline.

Three days later my father arrives to ferry me back to live in Canvastown, Marlborough. I know I am about to fall off the grid. The grid, as I know it, comprises a circle of girlfriends from relatively stable middle-class homes, my A-student niche, my weekend prowls, life as my grandmother’s last daughter. Despite my scarlet phone call, I feel I have no real say in the abrupt termination of these things.

Recently, though, I have had a bit to say – too much even. Sent to my room or to bed intolerably early for answering back, You pig! is my go-to grenade hurled down the varnished wood-veneer hall, past the black Bakelite phone fixed to the wall. You pig! bounces off the closed lounge door with swastika provocation carved into the white paint by a mutinous Uncle Martin, three years my senior. Under instruction, Martin has just slammed the door. They’re behind it now, uncle and grandmother, legs stretched luxuriously from hire-purchase sofa, television turned up loud to tune me out.

I am a storm in a teacup. The teacup is 46A Upland Rd, Kelburn, and a childhood life cosily contained inside my pensioner grandmother’s flat and immunised from the world that, increasingly, calls its siren call. Sloshing around inside is me: a fantastically restless and thanklessly horny brew passing in an unflattering teenage body. Adolescence has hit my mood centres and transformed me into an unruly devastation of discontents, pining for what, I don’t know. Sometimes I focus the yearning on a boy but there are precious few within reach. I go to Wellington Girls’ College, after all. More often the yearning remains unfocused, roving around inside my body.

My legs know things. Other things. They trek me around convolvulus backstreets where I stare into student flats and imagine other lives over long weekend hours. Only my drama teacher, Diane McCarthy, engages me as an equal: at school, in drama club, and by phone. Thinking, despite her evident marriage, that Diane might be a lesbian, Grandmother Margaret presses the switch hook and disconnects the lingeringly chatty, extra-mural calls I receive from her. My grandmother has it wrong about my drama teacher. Her transgressions are not sexual but hierarchical. Instead of treating me as her pupil, Diane McCarthy honours me as her confidante.

As for my father, thanks to geographical distance and affinity, he has been a letter-writing icon loved from afar. In seven years, I’ve only seen him and my mother a handful of times. Before I leave my grandmother’s, she warns me never to undress in the same room as him. That sets me thinking. My grandmother is a communist, far from libertarian. Her view of my parents is a lurid mash-up of warnings that I disregard as best I can. Against my better judgement, her cautioning insinuates itself into my modest baggage.

The actual luggage consists of an encyclopaedic Birds of The World; a gold-lacquer musical jewellery box – minus twirling ballerina – that Margaret’s youngest daughter, Aunt Melissa, has passed on to me; a pink sateen eiderdown; and a solitary blue towel. The towel is judiciously extracted from 46A’s Tardis-like linen cupboard, inside which I once built womb-like forts, and on whose roof Martin liked to sit in meditation pose, a phony sannyasi with two wings of glossy chocolate hair.

Three decades later the exhausted remnant of that well-travelled blue towel – a fray-fringed square – will still exist in my father’s self-effacing linen stack.

Tiger stripes

When I was a small, serious child, Margaret called me The Christian, which may have been a shade dry coming from a communist but not entirely. It was I who routinely patched up the quarrels in our household of three, the first to seek forgiveness or to forgive. Passionate in mollification, my small chubby hand advancing into the fraught air – Shake! – could be counted on to bring my antagonist around.

I had good reason to be a peace-broker. I knew that simmering family conflict could have extreme outcomes, for that was how I came to live at Grandmother Margaret’s aged seven. I could barely endure a squabble, much less the incendiary device of my grandmother’s rage, by dint of which saucepans or teacups of water and lethally unsleeved vinyl spun across the room or out the kitchen window as Martin or I ran. Now, in her summary operatic style, Margaret has as good as flung me out the window. Poor impulse control notwithstanding, she has her reasons.

Expulsion carries echoes of that earlier leave-taking, of leaving my parents’ house for Grandmother Margaret’s for a holiday that lasted seven years. One minute I was at Rocky Bay, scoffing sandy fly cemeteries – sticky slabs of raisin-studded biscuit – straight out of the packet with my visiting grandmother and Uncle Martin. Next, I was on a plane to join them in their two-bedroom Wellington flat where Aunt Melissa, ballet dancer and scholar of Ancient Greek, also lived.

Once there, I shared the one bedroom containing three single beds and generations: grandmother, daughter and granddaughter. Martin slept down the hall in the dungeon, a narrow room of tacit gloom. Between calico curtains hand-painted with Long Live the People’s Republic! in Chinese characters, a prospect of damp concrete steps and too-close fence undercut the rhetoric. Perhaps this is where Martin first fell to depression.

I was nervous about how Melissa, who supplemented my grandmother’s pension with a librarian’s earnings, would stand my arrival and the subsequent overcrowding, but I don’t hear a word of complaint. I am nervous about everything, but the close quarters of 46A are a comfort after the endless, spooky savannahs of my parents’ Waiheke house. In my new, shared bedroom, distance is so negligible that, if I have a nightmare, I can launch myself straight into Margaret’s bed with just one touchdown on the carpet in between. Reaching my grandmother’s bed, I like to dive under the sheets to feel the bevelled callus worn to a knife-edge on the bottom of her little toe. Margaret claims to leave it this way for the cutting of bread. I adore this joke, and hope that I, too, might grow such a thing. My grandmother is nothing if not generous with the ruin of her body. Tiger’s stripes, she calls the lines on her forehead, inviting me to covet the spoils of ageing. And I do. I am within the grand-matriarchal circle of kindness now.

Miro in dress handmade by Christina, 1970. Photo: Norman Bilbrough.

When I gain in confidence and familiarity, I will sometimes kiss Aunt Melissa’s manicured hand. I am a bookworm interested in the male roles – in gallantry, too. They have so much more to do, boys and sons, wizards, wayfarers and princes, and I have been blithely identifying with their universal ‘I’ since I stepped out into the transcendent world of fiction at four. Like most of my sex I have been a gender-deft reader since earliest girlhood.

Admiration for the cross beauty that is my young aunt notwithstanding, I am acutely aware, even at seven, that it is she who finances my new life. In my grandmother’s shoestring household, you come to economic consciousness quick. As for the hand kissing, Melissa is bemused. She thinks me a courtier with a courtier’s excessive form and on-the-make motive. In fact, I am on the chase with all its rush and risk, ardour and hunger. A pattern for life.

My grandmother’s house at 46 Upland Road is a three-storey green wooden layer-cake stepped into a plunging bank that overlooks a residential valley called The Glen. With its curlicued ceiling and prismatic view from front bay windows, our flat is the lovely jam in the middle. The flat downstairs, the damp-leaked bottom sponge, is rented by another of my grandmother’s daughters, Amanda, and her husband, David. Of their three children – Rebecca, Ben and Sean – it is ostensibly Becky – piquant featured, prone to spending the morning in bed, addicted to puns – I go to see. Whizzing down the concrete steps, I experience a nervous thrill at the fug of sophistication generated by caustically youthful Aunt Amanda, founder of grassroots organisation Wellington Tenants’ Protection, never without a gold carton of Benson & Hedges in hand. As I see it 46B is Modern Life at one enviable remove. Traffic between the flats is constant.

Back upstairs at 46A, life amidst the oatmeal carpets and anodyne wallpaper is a culture shock after the troubling animism of my mother’s fierce anti-furnishings and her habit of travelling naked through the day. Uncomfortable with comfort, unaccustomed, I will have to learn it. Quick smart I do.

When, occasionally, one of my mother’s letters arrives, the first journey my hand takes is from the letterbox to my nose. On the paper I can smell the ants that race up and down the Rocky Bay trees and the raw timber walls of my last home, and the oil with which my mother lacquers her body. Redolent of these things and so much more the envelope produces a physical wave of longing far greater than any word within. Gigantic words they are too.

I am learning tidy cursive at school, linking letters to order, marshalling them along the line. Cursive is a religion, my primary school teachers its clerics. To my prim infant eye, my mother has an embarrassingly outsize hand.

Melissa, Margaret, Miro and Martin at 46A, 1971.

My mother’s daughter

When I arrived at my grandmother’s she was exactly the age I am as I write these words. Fifty-four. I do not know if she was through menopause, nor, at the time, did I have an inkling of such a thing. The word was never spoken at 46A in my hearing. If it had been, I would have parsed its strangely literal three-parter and committed it to memory. I kept an ear out for multisyllables. Always.

It was, however, impossible to miss that Margaret had withdrawn what little confidence she had in men as husbands and lovers. That rum bunch! No man came courting, as she called it. Her lambent gaze and radical politics seemed to diminish the few stray male contemporaries I ever caught in the same room as her. It was left to her children to find her romantic. And we did. How difficult it must have been for Martin to grow into a member of that disappointing species, man, so empathically aligned was he with his mother.

When my grandmother and I began falling out, Martin was straining so badly at the business of living that my grandmother hadn’t the emotional reserves to do with me as well. Since I arrived, she had marked the signs of small-girl sexuality, those involuntary signifiers of my mother before me. She would frown on the small hand – mine – that sometimes sought out my vagina through my clothes. She equated this to my parents’ lack of decorum and unhealthy fixation on the sexual parts. This antagonised my loyalties and made my vagina assume exactly the energetic focus she was hoping to stifle.

When I was twelve or so, I came home on the Plimmerton train, from a girlfriend’s house, in tan nylons and an orange wool mini with gold chains on the pockets. Gifts of Trish. The sensation of encasing nylons, the train ride alone in re-imagined skin – how contemporary! When I reached home, briny with the Plimmerton esplanade, ice cream and the vacant looks of boys on bikes, my grandmother thought I looked cheap. Precisely.

It was from Trish – a short, chubby sensualist with fudge-brown eyes behind a fringe, and indulgent working-class parents – that I adopted the mid-seventies braid belt, knotted in front with ties hanging down. There was no way of getting this past Margaret’s censorial eye. She scolded that the belt must be knotted at the side, not the front where it pointed genital-ward.

My grandmother had her mind on predators. Wellington was rich in flashers at windows and wankers along Oriental Parade. But there were also generational repetitions in her fear. My grandmother monstered my mother’s flagrant sexual charisma at sixteen (not that I had inherited it), giving her marching orders early. This was rich, given Margaret’s own magnetic beauty and historically expressive sexuality. Recording this, I wonder afresh about her unhappy relationship with the middle daughter who was to become my mother.

When my grandmother was an old lady, and I had taken up the status of occasional, polite visitor to her house, she would confide that her own mother picked her up at five or six and said, I will never love you. It may have been an overburdened mother’s fit of pique but from this express antipathy my grandmother never fully recovered. That rejection became a central object, one that would ripple, daughter to daughter, down the years.

My grandmother’s mother, Great-grandmother Lily, spent much of her later years in a mental asylum. In a family photograph taken when she was young, before the ill-starred events of marriage or maternity, Lily Beere née Winter appears an exquisitely solemn, almost spectral Edwardian beauty in a white sashed shift, plaited brunette hair coiled. around her head. Here I am, her candid stare seems to declare as she rests her arm on that of her neighbouring father’s chair – and not.

Lily Beere née Winter c. 1910.

I knew little of Lily but for the intricate pencil drawings of winged and vaulted geometries she made during her long incarceration. The drawings, glossy with webs of graphite, lasted my whole childhood in a dog-eared Manila folder I consulted without ever quite knowing what I was looking at. Perplexingly intimate labours. The interiors of Gothic cathedrals. Anxious, celestial shapes. Pencil mantras. Bonsai rages. The inside of my great-grandmother Lily’s head.

Much later, in the grip of her mother’s remembered vow or a desire to exculpate the horror of Lily’s fate, or both, my grandmother burned the folder full of pencil stalagmites. This enraged my mother, who felt, quite rightly, the abstract genius of this testimony was not Margaret’s to burn. More, that Lily’s artistry and even temperament had passed to her.

But to go back – or forward, actually. Margaret’s censure of my adolescent mother’s sexuality failed as it was bound to. After an abortion, my mother became, almost immediately, pregnant again, this time with me. The way she tells it, my father was, despite the fact that he came under the Sign of the Weedy Intellectual in his unprepossessing duffel coat, someone who might look after her. And so, wildly unsuitable as they felt each other to be, barely twenty years old apiece, my parents married. A disastrous move except that it produced me, and then, seven years on, my sister.

In the middle flat at 46 Upland Rd, where life has been so jammy for her grandchild, Margaret is afraid I will become my extravagantly uncurtailable mother: original, antipathic, creative, obsessed with vaginas and penises, with female Christs with genital stigmata, with orifices, wounds and transcendently fleshy portals in her art. So many vaginas and erect penises that they have exited the subliminal discourse, and the picture plane, into plain sight.

As for me, I am my mother’s daughter and, at fourteen, I am in the process of shedding my chubby childhood cloak for more volatile skin.

This is an excerpt from In the Time of the Manaroans by Miro Bilbrough, published by Victoria University Press. Details here.