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Sandi HallSuccessful businesswoman Daisy Cairns has been married twice and had one daughter before she realises she is lesbian. The recognition costs her dear – her daughter, Harriet, by then 16, is enraged by this further fluctuation in her mother’s emotional life and disappears.

Reconciliation comes ten years later but it is almost too late, as Harriet has been diagnosed with a brain tumour which, a few months later, takes her life. Daisy is thrown into a melancholic depression, becoming a virtual recluse.

Her habit of shopping in the last hour before the supermarket closes means she is there when Velma Hirangi has a diabetic lapse, collapsing in the store’s basement parking lot.

To Velma, Daisy has saved her life, meaning that Daisy is now a part of Velma’s family. In spite of Daisy’s evident reluctance, Velma keeps in touch. Some weeks later, Velma urgently asks Daisy for help with her daughter Ngaio, who has just given birth to a boy, and subsequently been shot by her husband, Matt.

When Daisy discovers the intended victim was the baby, she agrees to keep the child in her home, where Matt will not find him. But Matt does find Daisy, tipping her into a life-and-death struggle with him deep in the heart of New Zealand’s dense bush.

 

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Chapter One

First time I see her I knew there was something up with that girl. Her eyes mostly. A flinching in there, and bruises from a battle still raging. Just a glance into them made me squint.

I first saw her eyes after she saved my life. Fool that I am, I forgot my insulin, so of course keeled over - in the basement parking lot of the supermarket. This was a bit ago, but you don’t forget the times you think death’s hugging you. I'd nipped out to get a pack of coffee, Matt having kicked up such a fuss when there wasn't any for breakfast and Ngaio just sitting there like one of the Willendorf fat girls in all the gift shops back in Yugoslavia. I know it's not called that anymore but that was its name when I was a girl and old habits stick.

You get about ten seconds warning when you're going down. When my head began to swim, I knew. That's why I fell in the driver's lane – I wanted to be seen. Not much you can do when your body takes over, but I had sense enough left to get out from between the cars. I thought I'd probably die and my last thought was not for my John but to wonder what my girl Ngaio would do, nine months pregnant, two other littlies, and a husband like Matt? But I didn't die, thank the heavens, because Daisy Cairns found me slumped on the floor like a bag of old spuds and was sensible enough to call someone.

If someone saves your life, you owe them, 'specially if you didn't want to die, which I didn't. So a few days after I got out of hospital, I went back to the supermarket, looking for that face I saw when the paras brought me round - a pudgy young man with tortoiseshell glasses. He looked like a kid's cartoon so I should've laughed or at least smiled. But I was in no shape for either, diabetes whacking hell out of me, heavy labour for old crimes. Glucose going in is silver fizz in the veins but there is a bright blank in your brain and your arm and leg muscles feel like they've each lifted a dozen hundred K weights all at the same time. But the image of the pudgy face with its tortoiseshell glasses made its way back to the surface of my mind a few days later and it didn't take me long to work out who the stranger might be.

He knew who I meant but didn't know her name. All he could tell me was that he had the late night shift and he saw her every couple of weeks, usually about an hour or so before the place closed. That suited me because the days were pretty hectic what with my little mokopuna and Ngaio in a black mood rage because of Matt going off pig hunting with his mates so much. So when the littlies were settled and Ngaio in front of the telly, I nipped out to the supermarket a few nights running to look for the woman who saved my life.

Pudgy-face (his name tag –crooked – said Martin) spotted her first, coming to me and pointing her out. “The one in the grey tee and navy sweats. See? Hair a bit of a mess. There, by the cheeses.”

And then I saw her, a little pale woman, narrow face with a weary fold between her reddish eyebrows, and those hurting eyes. When I introduced myself, her eyes reminded me of a hunted dog. I saw she didn't want to be bothered with me but I kept at her because I owed her my life and you can't let a link like that go by as if it was a nothing. We are whanau now.

 

* * * * *

 

        Daisy soon realises that the discovery of the woman in the parking lot has pulled a trigger somewhere inside her brain. In her next no-little-white-pill night, she dreams, as usual, of rooms of fire but also of a massive lumbering truck full of fire, a runaway with her at the wheel, knowing the brakes are faulty and seeing the steep downward slope ahead. When she wakes, bird chatter loud outside her bedroom window, she splashes her face with water to shake away the lingering terror. She feels pared to the bone. The back of her head thumps as if it has been hit with something heavy. Inescapably, helplessly, another room comes to her mind: climbing-rose curtains frame the white blooming lilac outside the window, a generous maple rocking chair below it and, across the right-angled wall, a long comfy blue couch on which lies the body of Harriet, her daughter, two days dead.

        Desperate, she almost telephones Rose, her friend since they were teenagers together in an ordinary Canadian high school. But Rose and her husband Gareth are currently in Moscow, doing the diplomatic dance, and Daisy, now on the sickness benefit in New Zealand, thinks of the phone bill and puts the thought away.

        To keep from thinking, she turns on the television, watches the morning news with fierce concentration. Anger flares in her when the newscast shows no real move to a diplomatic resolution in Iraq, no real move to acknowledge that what is at the centre of it all is death, death of children, of women, of the old and the frail, and of the young bodies of soldiers, hard and full of blood. She clutches her hands between her knees, flayed with fear that it may be too late, turning her face in supplication to the trees outside on the blue Wellington hills, as if searching there for a god who could make things change.

        Two weeks later, again at the supermarket, its Muzak tinkling When I'm Sixty Four, an older woman steps up to Daisy as she leaves the checkout.

        “I am come to thank you,” she says, with a light touch of her fleshy hand on Daisy's arm. “If it weren't for you I'd be dead.” She wears a navy raincoat, metal-looped epaulettes accenting her thick shoulders; double rows of navy buttons fasten it across her ample breasts. Her long fleshy cheeks guard lips full and pale. Black eyebrows are wide strips under iron-grey hair. Her eyes are very dark brown, nearly black, her nose thick, hooked, prominent between them. After a blank moment, Daisy realises this stranger must be the woman she found lying in the car park last time she was here.

        “It was nothing,” Daisy replies, tightening her fingers around the trolley's handle as she starts to leave. The woman leans forward to stare into Daisy's face, forcing Daisy to meet her intense gaze.

        “No. Please. My life is not a nothing.” She holds Daisy's look. “Let me buy you a coffee at least,” she says. “You saved my life.”

        “I – uh” Daisy panics at the thought of going to one of the cheap late night cafés, sitting there and drinking coffee. “I don't think – I can't,” she says in a rush as the Muzak segues into Strawberry Fields.

        Her glance sharpened, the older woman scrutinises Daisy. Daisy feels sweat-beads starting under her hair. “Do you drink wine?” the woman asks. Daisy can hear Maori cadence in the woman's speech but something else, too. And the woman's face is not that of a Maori kuia, nor the shape of her skull.

        “I – yes but I --” Daisy is almost at the door. The woman puts a hand on Daisy's sleeve and looks into her face again.

        “Please. What is your name?”

        “Daisy Cairns,” gasps Daisy. “It was nothing. Really. I've got to go.”

        The woman pays no attention to Daisy's plea, tightening her clasp on Daisy's arm and bringing the trolley to a stop. “Daisy Cairns. So. In this life we have to respect what happens to us. That's what I'm trying to do. If you can't be in the world, let me buy wine and bring it to you. Will you do that, yes? Give me a moment of respect?”

        Daisy is stunned that the woman can see into her so clearly, that she knows so exactly what Daisy's reactions mean. Daisy stares at her. Then, prodded by the woman's insistent gaze, at last nods.

        “Thank you,” says the woman in her harsh low voice. She slides an arm through Daisy's and steers her back into the store, where she guides Daisy to the shelves of wine, insisting that Daisy choose. Daisy worries about the price but the older woman seems to read her thoughts. “Whatever you want, I can afford,” she says, adding “I hate cheap wine.” So Daisy chooses a Hawke's Bay Merlot that she knows, which is $34.95, even in the supermarket. Then they are back at the cashier where the woman cheerfully hands over a pair of twenty dollar bills, thrusting the change into the slanted pocket of her raincoat. “Now,” she says as they walk out of the store, “let us go to your home where you feel safe, and drink together. Then I will take a taxi home. OK?”

        Again Daisy feels a slide in her senses to realise the woman knows how she feels, that she is going to have her own way but have it in a way that will be easy for Daisy. “Ok,” she finally tells her as they reach Daisy's battered green Toyota.

        It isn't until they sit at Daisy's table by the window, each with a glass in hand, that Daisy thinks to ask the other woman's name. The woman is looking out at the view, which is always lovely and particularly so on a clear night. The lights of Wellington are strung orange around the bay, and yellower domestic lights punctuate the dark slopes of the hills. Near the rim of the water a scarlet buoy flashes.

        “Well, this would help,” the woman remarks. “It yours?”

        “Yes,” says Daisy, thinking with something like awe of that former Daisy, happily efficient PR and marketing expert, partner with three other women in Fourfold Ltd, a PR firm that is making enough money for her to afford the mortgage on this Wellington hillside haven.

        The older woman turns her black glance to Daisy and holds out her large, olive-skinned hand. “I'm Velma Hirangi. I live up the coast, near Gisborne, but am here looking after my two mokopuna - my grandchildren - while my daughter Ngaio has her third. She's due any day now. Pleased to meet you, Daisy Cairns, and thank you for saving my life so I can still look forward to holding my new mokopuna.” Velma raises her glass to Daisy, eyes bright and serious. “Thank you for my life, Daisy Cairns,” she says.

        Suddenly, Daisy feels tears prick at the corners of her eyes. She is embarrassed when a huge sob rises up from her ribs and surges at her pressed lips. Velma leans across the table, glass outstretched. Breathing hard, Daisy chokes back the sob as she touches Velma's glass with her own.

        After her first mouthful, Velma shucks off her navy raincoat, revealing a deep maroon V-neck blouse, the shine of gold bridging its vee. Her skirt is linen, of the same colour and below it are a pair of glossy maroon leather ankle boots. A thick band of gold graces her marriage finger, with a series of gold rings crammed on the fingers on either side. Suddenly, Daisy feels unkempt in her own shapeless grey T and navy sweatpants.

        Velma drinks deeply of her first glass of Merlot, smacking her lips and looking at the bottle with a smile before filling her glass again. She looks over at Daisy's glass but Daisy has only taken one small sip. “Drink!” she commands Daisy. “We're drinking to life, Daisy Cairns! Don't sip, girl, take mouthfuls. Come on – drink!”

 

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