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Wordlessly, Daisy does as Velma orders, filling her mouth with the spicy red liquid and swallowing it immediately, then filling her mouth again. Within minutes Daisy can feel the wine in her head, a light dizzy feeling as if she was loose and floating. She drinks some more and Velma fills her glass again.

They drink until the bottle is empty and Daisy too drunk to move properly. Velma laughs, hauls Daisy to her feet, steers her to the bedroom and lets Daisy flop onto the bed. She undresses Daisy quickly, finding a long green sleep shirt under the pillow. She slides Daisy into it and rolls her between sheets still wrinkled from Daisy's last sojourn there a few hours before. Inside Daisy's head, the room spins and tugs. She smells Velma's musky-sweet perfume as Velma bends over and kisses Daisy's forehead. Daisy hears Velma say something, quite softly, registering that the words are in a language Daisy does not know. Then Velma lays her warm heavy hand on Daisy's forehead, presses down slightly, and goes away.

 

* * * * *

 

      In the taxi, I think about that girl I owe my life to, wondering what she's torturing herself with. So. Now she's another daughter to me. Older a bit than Ngaio but still. Thin as a snake – prob'ly not eating. But she laughed when she was drunk and I saw how she could be pretty, real pretty in that pale, red-haired kind of way.

        Velma comes again two days later, early in the afternoon when the Concert Programme is featuring Lucia Popp, and the wind is an animal, ripping at everything in its path. Daisy hears feet on wooden steps, seventeen thumps of warning. She peers through the slit between the frame and the window latch which holds the bathroom window slightly open and recognises Velma stepping down. Daisy feels a stab of chagrin at her own uncombed hair, her old green bathrobe still around her shoulders, but when Velma knocks, she opens the door.

        Velma carries a large paper sack and smiles at Daisy as she comes in, putting the sack on the kitchen counter. “Ngaio is at prenatal and the kids at school so I brought lunch,” she says heartily as she takes off her black hip length jacket, revealing a peach silk blouse tucked into dark green trousers. The gold chain is still at her neck, the gold rings glint round her fingers. She pays no attention to Daisy's feeble protestations, beginning to move around the kitchen as if it were her own. She unpacks a fresh, wet feta and some dark rye bread, a packet of vine tomatoes, some hummus, a crisp yellow bell pepper, an avocado and a head of butter lettuce. Last is a bottle of apple juice, clear and very cold. She finds the butter in Daisy's fridge, plates and cutlery, salt and pepper in the pantry. Daisy pulls her terry robe tighter and pushes her hands through her red-grey curls.

        Daisy nibbles at some bread which is so fresh and aromatic she finds herself eating a whole slice, tasting the hummus and tomatoes, eating cubes of feta and slivers of the yellow bell pepper. The food tastes so good she wonders crazily if Velma knows of stores where the food looks the same but tastes a hundred times better. The apple juice seem more like an elixir that juice, fragrant and cool in places long parched.

        “Now,” says Velma, sitting back, satisfied. “I am going to tell you little bit about myself. Then we shall have a little cup of coffee and then I'll go. OK?” Her black eyes look meaningfully into Daisy's, who slowly nods. “OK,” Velma says, settling herself back against the spindles of the chair.

        “I am the second daughter of a family begun by Ari Borich, a man who came from Dalmatia in 1864,” Velma begins. “He was a trained engineer but didn't speak English so couldn't get that work here. So he earned money digging for kauri gum. Then gold was found at Thames. He went down there and showed that he knew about engineering by building proper sluices and sieves. After that, never was out of work.” Velma's hand flies up in a half salute to Ari Borich. “His English improved and he learned Maori because many of the workers were Maori.” Velma waggles her head from side to side, lips pursed. Then, “You can learn lots over a beer, isn't it,” she says, lips broadening into a knowing grin. “He was my great grandfather.” Her tone is full of satisfaction and pride.

        “Did he find gold?” asks Daisy.

        “Little bit, enough to buy a boat trip to Dalmatia and back. His sweetheart, Lena, had been waiting. Their love was kept alive by the poems he wrote to her, one every month. When she came here, Lena put each poem on its own decorated page and bound them into a book. I'll show it to you sometime, it will make you smile, I think.” Velma puts her head to one side and looks at Daisy, giving tiny nods of encouragement.

        “I'd like to see it,” Daisy says, caught.

        “It will make you smile,” repeats Velma. “Lena and Ari got married in Dalmatia, then came together here. With the wedding money from their families and the last of the gold, Ari – Aristotle – buys land in Grey Lynn in Auckland, mostly land then, few houses. He built a five bedroom house on it, with a smaller house at the back for the servants to live in. They expect lots of babies, Ari and Lena, but their fourth one is a big baby, too big for her to birth properly. She dies in eight days. The baby nearly dies too.”

        “Ari is in trouble when Lena dies – new bubba and other kids still small. But what saves him is Ropata and Ngahuia Te Hanou Rua, both from Gisborne, earning their living with work in the house and running the land. They take over. Ari has no worry, he can concentrate on making more business for his engineering company. “ Velma pours herself some more apple juice. Outside, small green birds flicker in the buddleia. Daisy's thin fingers turn her glass, still half full, as she wonders when Velma will stop.

        “Over the years, three of Ngahuia's sisters came to help out and live in the Grey Lynn house. Ari married the middle sister, Marama. “

        “He was still a potent man, Ari, in his late 30's, strong like a bull. He and Marama had seven kids. The youngest was Johnny, my granda. When Granda was sixteen, he enlisted in the army and went over to the First World War. He met his sweetheart there, a Polish nurse named Velma Fyzinski. He married her at the war's end. Before he came back, they went to Dalmatia, to meet his Dalmatian whanau. When Johnny came home with his Velma, they too came to live on the land round the Grey Lynn house. “

        Daisy yawns and props her head on one hand. She wants to crawl into bed and sleep forever.

        Velma slaps the table top softly; the gold rings click. “Let me just tell the little bit rest,” she coaxes. “Johnny and his Velma had two children, a girl Velma and a boy Jago. That Velma was my mother. When she was sixteen, my mother married a cousin of Marama's, a man called Apirana Tamahiri. My parents. When I am eighteen, I too marry, and also a John – John Hirangi. I met him when Ari's firm hired him to manage its business.”

        Velma leans back in her chair, spreading the fingers of both hands on the table, eyes on her rings. “ Our youngest daughter, Ngaio, is wife to Matt Geszner, whose family came from Hungary. He's a customs official at the Port of Wellington and I am here, as I told you before, because she's due with her third. So. That's who I am.”

        She eyes Daisy speculatively. “Now. A little cup of coffee?”

        “If you want one,” Daisy says, preparing to get up.

        “No, no – stay there,” commands Velma. “I want to do it.”

        She swiftly collects the food, re-wrapping the feta and the rye bread, and putting the leftover pepper and tomatoes into a little blue dish. Daisy's eyes feel heavy, her stomach stretched with food. Velma fills and plugs in the kettle and comes back to the table, again sweeping Daisy with an assessing glance.

        “When we are drinking our coffee you will tell me about your family, I think,” she says cosily, taking Daisy's hands. She smiles into Daisy's eyes, her brown ones alight with warmth. Daisy's heart gives a huge thump of pain and turns to stone.

        In spite of Velma's gentleness and her warmth, Daisy cannot bring herself to say what Velma wants to hear. Velma brings the coffee to the table, putting a cup in front of Daisy. Daisy cannot speak and Velma does not. In the silence marked only by Velma's sipping of her coffee, Daisy begins shaking uncontrollably. The memory of Harriet rises up, an ice storm which freezes her throat, her heart, coiling in her gut. Her teeth chatter.

        Scooping her chair over, Velma makes little sounds of sympathy and puts one of her broad warm hands on Daisy's trembling shoulder. “Maybe you have the need to cry, hine,” she remarks, her black eyes tender on Daisy's face. But Daisy turns her frozen face away and doesn't answer.

        So Velma leaves, after seeing Daisy into bed in the bright afternoon and bringing a cup of warm milk into which she has stirred some honey. “But I shall come again, Daisy Cairns,” she says in goodbye, holding Daisy's face between her warm hands. She kisses the top of Daisy's head before she leaves.

 

* * * * *

 

        In the car, I think about that girl, my new daughter, just a little older than my Ngaio, and I don't like what I think. 

 

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