I pushed the little girl on the rope swing, guessing she couldn’t be more than seven, knowing she was my mother. The swing groaned as it arced forward, then back, the rope twisting against the bough of the mulberry tree.
We were on the periphery of a country garden that surrounded a large, off-white homestead. Beyond the house were barren paddocks — dry grass, sheep, the odd gum tree. I knew this place from Nana Naoko’s photos. It was the farm my mother had grown up on.
The garden was a kaleidoscope of colour. The air was filled with the sounds of bees working amongst the wildflowers, and the scent of freshly cut grass was so strong that I could taste it at the back of my throat.
“You can push me higher if you like,” my mother said, looking back at me over her shoulder. Her eyes were large, warm and brown, just like Nana’s.
“Ok,” I said, giving her another push. She giggled as the swing carried her away from me.
“Will you stay awhile?” she asked, as she swung back.
I thought of what was waiting for me in my own world, my own time, and I felt tears budding in my eyes. I blinked hard and took a haltering breath. I didn’t want to go back to that, not yet, maybe not ever.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m in no hurry to leave.”
When I was nine, I stayed with Nana for the weekend while my parents attended a wedding in Nowra. It was the first time I discovered that I could walk out of Nana Naoko’s garden and into her memories.
It was Sunday, and the day was warm — one of those gorgeous spring days that draws kids outside to run, to play, to just be alive. The scent of lavender was prevalent, and the air seemed to be snowing butterflies as they danced amongst the blooms.
I was playing hide and seek with Cameron Roberts, who lived across the street from Nana and was only a year older than me. When Cameron covered his eyes and began counting, I raced to Nana’s fernery — a narrow space that enclosed the back of her red-brick home.
It was refreshingly cool inside. Garden beds housed bromeliads, hellebores, moss covered rocks, and ferns. Nana’s collection of bonsais sat on shelves affixed to the wall of the house.
As always, the fernery smelt earthy and sweet — a scent that reminded me of the hand cream my mother used, a scent that made me miss her just a little. I shook the feeling away and ran on. I didn’t want Cameron catching me before I’d wedged myself in amongst the copse of tree ferns at the far end of the fernery.
As I sprinted along the path, closing in fast on my hiding spot, I suddenly noticed a strange clacking noise coming from the bonsais to my right. When I stole a glance in that direction I was shocked to find there were no bonsais, no wall to Nana’s house. I was out in the open, running across a plush clearing. About thirty yards away was the beginning of a forest.
Startled, I tripped and stumbled, sprawling onto the soft ground. My heart was hammering in my chest. I whipped my head around, desperately searching for signs of Nana’s garden, her house, of anything familiar, but it was gone. Instead, I found black pines, maples, other trees that I didn’t recognise. I heard strange birds chirruping, and a fog horn in the distance suggesting an ocean not far away.
The world suddenly felt huge and terrifying. I felt like a young child in a crowd turning around to find I’d lost sight of my parents.
What am I going to do? How am I going to get home? I wondered, my breathing harsh and ragged. The scent of pine needles was sharp in the air.
That was when the boy emerged from the forest.
He wore a white gown, flared out below his knees, cinched at the waist with a black belt. In one hand he held a wooden kendo sword, in the other, a face mask.
I scrambled to my feet and raised my hand, moving towards him, desperate for help. But before I could call out to him, a second boy emerged from the trees, similarly dressed.
I stuttered to a stop, and watched the two boys approach each other, affixing their masks in place. When they were only a couple of metres apart, the first boy raised his wooden sword above his head, holding it with both hands. The second halted, mirrored the action, bending slightly at the knees.
They stood like that long enough for me to realise I was holding my breath. As I exhaled, the dance began.
They were quick. Grunting, yelling, hacking, flaying and parrying. The clash of wood on wood cracked and echoed as they fought back and forth. One would advance as the other gave ground. One would defend as the other attacked. Back and forth, round and round — clack, clack, clack — until a sword was on the ground and the tallest boy was yielding.
From behind me came clapping. I turned to find a little girl with black hair and smiling eyes walking towards us. The shorter boy laughed, drawing my attention again. He spoke a few words that I didn’t understand, but recognised as Japanese, and then he said a word I knew — Naoko.
It was her, I realised with shock. And then the rest began to fall into place. I’d seen the boys in Nana’s photos. She’d had two brothers growing up, but she’d lost them both in the war. This was her family when she was little. I was in Kure, Japan.
I opened my mouth to call to her, but before I could speak, the three children began fading, and then they were gone, and I was back in the fernery, my legs shaky, my heart pounding, my mouth agape wondering what I had seen and why?
“Found you,” Cameron said from behind me, laughing. “That’s a terrible hiding spot.”
I turned around slowly, and when he saw the fear in my eyes his smile faltered and he rushed forward, awkwardly placing his arm around my shoulders.
“Are you all right, Gina?” he asked softly. “What happened?” I wanted to tell him, but when I opened my mouth all I could do was sob, and tears began to spill down my cheeks.
“Come on,” he said softly, “let’s find Nana.”
Nana remained quiet for a long time after I told her my story.
We were in her lounge room, huddled together on the worn couch. The room smelt of potpourri. She had a photo album on her lap, open to a picture of her family when she was young.
“We were looking at this album last night, remember?” she said eventually. “It was warm today, perhaps you fell asleep, and dreamed of these photos.”
I folded my arms across my chest and pulled away from her.
“It was real,” I said, pouting.
Nana reached for me and drew me close. I resisted for a moment, but then relented and leaned up against her small frame. She took my chin in her hand and turned my face towards her until I had to look into her eyes.
“Ok. I believe you. After all, gardens are magical, Gina,” she said, the staccato beat of her Japanese accent clinging to her words even after all of her years in Australia. “My garden is full of my favourite plants, all of the ones that remind me of those I’ve loved, and still love. The people who have helped me till the soil, sow the seeds, tend the plants. When I smell lavender, I remember your grandfather and our first house. When I cut my roses, I think of my friend, Gwenny. Perhaps my garden shared a memory of my family with you today because it knew you were missing your mum and dad?”
Nana’s eyes never wavered. They held my gaze and I felt she was sincere.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
She nodded, then rose to her feet, glancing at the clock on the wall.
“Goodness me, where has the day gone? You must be starving. I’ll put dinner on. While I do, you should pack your bag so that you’re ready when your parents arrive first thing tomorrow.”
“Ok, Nana,” I said, rising as well. I gave her a quick hug and raced to my room to pack.
The next morning, my parents didn’t show up early, or late. Instead, around lunchtime, two policemen knocked on Nana’s door and told us about the car accident.
“Your mother always loved bottlebrushes,” Nana said, as she smoothed the soil around the newly planted tree. Its spiky, green-blue leaves stood out against the red dirt.
“The flowers look like a little round brush,” Nana said quietly, as she tipped the watering can and splashed water over the fresh earth. “Your mother used to pick the flowers to brush her dolls’ hair with, at least until they wilted.”
I watched Nana place the watering can behind her, her eyes on her work.
“Bottlebrushes grow beside rivers, not in arid parts of Australia, so it normally wouldn’t belong in this type of native garden. But I think we can make an exception,” she said, as she rose to her feet and smiled down at the small tree.
I looked at it, trying to imagine my mother looking at a larger version. But I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see her. A tear ran down my cheek.
“Now,” Nana said, “I think next to it, we will plant this wattle for your father.” She picked up the shovel and began to dig.
“I like summer,” my mother said as she kicked her legs forward, the swing arcing away. “Do you like summer?”
I cleared my throat.
“I think hot weather is nice. Mama says summer kills the garden, though. She doesn’t like it like I do.”
I smiled. Nana had always dreaded the summer. It’s the time just to keep the garden alive, she’d say.
“Do you know my Mama?” my mother asked.
I took a deep breath and then exhaled.
“Yes. I know her very well.”
Moving in with Nana, at first, was a miasma of sadness, numbness, and confusion. I spent a lot of time sleeping, in those first few months. I remember the musky smell of the cotton blanket on the bed in Nana’s spare room, the room that became my own. When I refused to come out, Nana would bring me food on a silver tray, encouraging me to eat a little. Some nights she would climb into bed with me and hold me until we both fell asleep.
It was Cameron who coaxed me back towards normality. I couldn’t say exactly when, but after a while he simply crept back into my life. He was just there, as kids sometimes are, knocking at the door, asking, “can Gina come out to play?”
And I guess being a kid, even a devastated kid, I couldn’t resist the lure of going outside again, eventually. If I close my eyes and think back I still recall the self‑pity and sorrow, but those feelings are interspersed with recollections of games in the yard, the scent of freshly mown lawn and roses in spring, of Nana pruning flowers watching over Cameron and me as we played. Part of me felt I shouldn’t be happy, that somehow my enjoying myself was betraying the memory of my parents. And yet I was glad for his friendship over those summer holidays. He helped me realise there was still much in life to look forward to.
When we returned to school, Cameron looked out for me. He’d check up on me even though he was in the grade above. He’d often seek me out at lunch break — sometimes to play, other times just to chat quickly before he returned to his older friends and I mine. He made the change bearable.
But then, around the time I turned thirteen, he fourteen, we began to drift apart. There were no arguments, no falling out. It’s just we’d reached that age, right on the cusp of puberty and sex and worrying about who likes whom and all the unimportant stuff that goes through your mind obsessively when you are young and confused. It was hard at that time just to be friends with the opposite sex. And I guess he had his football, his mates, and I was, well, me. I just thought he didn’t want an immature, bookish girl following him around anymore. At least that’s how it seemed. So I gave him his space.
I missed him, though.
I was walking home, lost in my thoughts, when I was startled back to reality by a familiar voice.
I looked up, and across the road was Cameron, his hand half raised. I waved.
I was in year ten by then, Cameron in year eleven. He’d grown tall. His hair was still blonde, but his boyish physique was becoming a man’s, even if his face still looked young. The air was getting cooler, the trees losing their leaves, flooding the footpaths and gutters with a sea of reds, yellows and oranges.
He checked the road for traffic, and then trotted across.
“Hey,” he said again as he drew closer. I watched as the words deserted him, like he was suddenly wondering what had come over him to initiate contact with me.
“You heading home?” I asked, blushing as I thought about how stupid that question was. But he didn’t seem to notice.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling. “You mind if I walk with you?”
I shook my head, no, and we walked on, side by side. We didn’t say anything for a couple of blocks. I’d never felt so self-conscious walking. I stole half glances at him, waiting for him to say something further.
“You preparing for mid-year exams?” he asked suddenly.
“Hey, I heard you got man of the match on the weekend. Congratulations,” I said.
He glanced at me, a crooked smile.
“I didn’t know you followed the football?” he said.
I swallowed again, embarrassed.
“I don’t, not really. I just check the papers sometimes to see how …”
“The school side is going?” he offered.
Not exactly what I meant, but I nodded, relieved.
“You ever come down and watch?”
I’d been a couple of times to see him play. He was pretty good. He played in the forwards and he tackled hard, ran the ball well. On the field he wasn’t gawky, or awkward. He was a different person.
“Nana and I have occasionally watched a little on a Saturday after grocery shopping.”
“You should come down this Saturday … if you want to, I mean. We’ve had a good season and we’re into the finals.”
I glanced at him, and saw his eyes locked ahead, both hands wrapped around the strap of his backpack.
“I’ll check with Nana,” I said. He smiled, his eyes flitting to mine and then away once more.
The rest of the walk home went easier. Talking came more naturally, like old times.
After I waved him goodbye, I felt good. Like I’d just felt the first warm breeze of spring caress my skin, signalling the end of winter. I watched him walk across the street and disappear into his house. It was only as I began walking across the neat lawns that I noticed Nana sitting at the little cast iron table on the porch, a cup of tea in her hands, a broad smile stretched across her face.
“How’s Cameron?” she asked as I drew closer, her eyes twinkling. I felt my cheeks blushing, my neck growing hot.
“Good,” I said. I stepped onto the porch and waited for more, but nothing came. “His footy side is in the finals this Saturday,” I said. “I was thinking we could go and watch him play?”
She laughed, and nodded.
“He’s becoming a big, handsome boy now, isn’t he?”
“Ah, I’ll just go and get changed,” I said, ignoring her jibe. She nodded, still smiling, her eyes never leaving me.
“Grab the biscuits when you come back, ok? I think we deserve a treat with our tea,” she said as I rushed inside.
I was looking for a sunny spot to read my book when I walked from Nana’s garden into Kure, Japan for the second time.
After weaving around one of Nana’s camellias, I found myself in an unfamiliar open area comprised of lawns, hedges, flowers, and bare trees. It took me a moment to realise that I wasn’t in a suburban garden, but a park of some kind. I pulled up short, recollections of my first immersion in Nana’s memories bubbling to the surface. God, it was actually real, I thought. I’d always known deep down, and yet, the longer time went on it had become easier to repress, to explain my experience as simply being young with a vivid imagination. But somehow, the plants that reminded Nana of her childhood were sharing her past with me.
I turned quickly to look behind me, expecting to find some sort of gateway, or window back to my world and time, but there was only a view of a red bridge traversing a large river, and beyond that the ocean. My heart pulsated and I swallowed hard. Why now? I thought.
Then Nana walked past.
She looked so young, so pretty. She smelled the same, a hint of floral perfume mixed with the sweet scent of soil. She wore a long black overcoat, buttoned high to her neck. Her socks were pulled up to her knees, her shoes black and sensible. Her hair was a little longer then she usually wore it, darker, curled at the ends.
I fell into step behind her, wanting to catch her, to talk to her. She led me across lush lawns towards a bench under a bare tree. And there I saw him, my grandfather, Thomas, and I stuttered to a stop.
He’d died when I was young, so I grew up knowing him only from photos and Nana’s stories. This was different; a shock. A ghost in the flesh.
He stood tall and erect in his army uniform, just like in Nana’s photos. But he looked younger in person, his face boyish, nervous.
He removed his hat and wrung it in his hands as Nana approached, and I saw his smile briefly before it faltered. I forced my feet to move again as Nana halted a few feet shy of Thomas, her hands clasped in front of her, mimicking his. I watched Nana sneak a glance over her shoulder, looking through me, and then she turned back and quickly closed the space between herself and Grandpa Thomas and kissed him on the cheek. She pulled back just as fast, looking at the ground shyly while Thomas’ cheeks reddened.
I couldn’t help but smile as I circled around behind the bench seat, behind my grandfather so that I could watch Nana’s face. She looked up, staring into Thomas’ eyes, and I saw love. It was etched into her features. It showed in the blinkered way she only saw him, and I felt a lightness in my chest.
“Hello, my dear Naoko,” Grandpa Thomas said in English, and Nana’s face radiated as the words consumed her. She nodded, gently encouraging him on. “I’ve been given my orders. I’m to ship back home in a week.”
Nana swallowed, and the joy in her eyes disappeared like the sun passing behind black clouds. She wobbled, and I stepped forward wanting to help, but Thomas had her, hands on her shoulders for support. She pulled away from him, raising her chin, composing herself. I could see the storm still behind her eyes, threatening to break into a torrent, but she held it back.
Her voice was soft when she spoke.
“And us. Is that it for us?” she asked in hesitant English.
Thomas shook his head fiercely, and drew a little closer.
“No, my love. Not at all. I will send for you, I promise. And then we’ll marry as we discussed.”
It was hard to read what she was feeling. There was a little of the previous joy back, but suspicion too, like she didn’t know what to believe. Thomas took her arm, and together they sat on the bench, close.
As they began whispering, a long blast from a ship’s horn drew my attention. I looked back across the park and saw a boat moving slowly out of the mouth of the river into the ocean, leaving a wake behind. When I turned back, Nana and Grandpa Thomas were gone, and instead I found camellias and a little stone warrior peeking out from under the shrubs.
I took a deep breath, composing myself. I knew it had all turned out ok for Nana and Thomas, but it hadn’t felt like that just then. It had felt like a possible ending. A terrible, sad ending.
And I also had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that witnessing another of Nana’s memories, like the last time I was transported in place and time, meant something for me personally, something to dread. Last time, I had seen Nana’s two dead brothers and had returned to find I’d lost my parents. Was that simply a coincidence?
I set out for the house. I wanted to find Nana and I desperately wanted to tell her about what had happened. But I couldn’t. I was older, and I was afraid of how she’d look at me this time. But I still wanted to see her, and talk to her, to ask her about Grandpa Thomas. I wanted to know the rest of the tale — the happy ending.
Thursday evening, later that week, there was a knock at the front door.
“I’ve got it,” I yelled. When I opened the door I found Cameron. Seeing him, I instantly felt a little lighter. He hadn’t been at school that day, so we hadn’t walked home together as was usual now. It was only one day, but I’d missed him.
“Hey,” I said, looking up into his bright, blue eyes. They flitted to mine, then away. His mouth was a frown, and I felt my smile dropping, as I thought back to Nana and Grandpa Thomas.
“Hey,” he said, staring at his shoes.
We stood like that for a time, awkward in our silences. I could see the thoughts moving in his head, the words swilling in his mouth, so I waited.
“I’m moving to Melbourne,” he said finally, lifting his gaze. “They don’t even play proper football down there.”
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t like the way my stomach twisted. “Why?”
“Dad got a new job. Better money, more responsibility or something like that.”
“Oh,” I said again, swallowing.
He reached out and took my hand in his. I looked down at our clasped hands, and watched as he began to rub the back of mine with his thumb, goose bumps rising on my arm and neck.
“I wish we’d had more time. I wish we hadn’t grown apart before last year, you know. I wish …”
I looked up and saw him staring at me intently. I licked my lips as he leaned forward, his lips parting slightly.
“Who is it?” Nana asked from nearby, and Cameron drew back sharply as I turned to see Nana emerge from the hallway, a tea towel in her hands. “Oh, Cameron. Hello. Did you want to come in? We were about to have cake.”
He shook his head.
“Sorry, Nana. I can’t. I just came to say goodbye.”
He nodded, then looked back at me like he wanted to say more. But he didn’t. He just turned and walked back across the street.
“What’s he mean, goodbye?” Nana asked, drawing up alongside me as I watched Cameron disappear into his house.
“His Dad got a job in Melbourne,” I said quietly, watching his door close. My hands were shaking. I felt flat.
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry,” Nana said, putting an arm around me, pulling me close. And I turned and embraced her, resting my chin on the top of her head, embarrassed by the tears I felt in my eyes.
I wanted to ask my mother about herself. About Dad. About what she had done in her life, and what she had wanted to do before she was unfairly taken. And yet, what would this little girl know of that?
“So, is this your house?” I asked instead.
Her skin was so light. It was like she’d never been scorched by the hot sun out here. The rope swing creaked.
“And do you go to school?”
“Yes. In town.”
It was odd, interacting with a memory. Till now, I’d thought that I was a ghost in their world. I inhaled and pushed my mother once again.
“What’s your name?” she asked me.
“I like that name,” she said. I could hear the smile in her voice. “I have a doll named Gina.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling the tears well in my eyes, remembering being little, scared of the dark, when my mother had given me Gina the doll, her doll, to look after me.
John was skinny, but he had nice green eyes and a strong jaw. We found ourselves sharing a study break in year eleven, and we got along. Not in that deep connection, ‘I get you as a kindred spirit’ way. More in a jokey, sparring, light-hearted way. At that point in my life, it was all I needed.
He kissed me one Friday in June. It was freezing cold, and I was rugged up to the point I couldn’t move my arms properly. We’d been talking about our English class and I remember thinking that the bus was late. He’d leaned in and, soon, we were mashing lips. At first, both of mine were above his, but we adjusted, and then our mouths were interwoven, opening and closing slightly, tongues caressing soft flesh. It wasn’t how I’d imagined. It wasn’t with Cameron.
I’d never been more nervous than the day I told Nana I was pregnant.
We were sitting on the front porch drinking green tea. As I said the words, she froze, staring, her eyes a little wider than normal. Then her hand, still holding her tea, began to shake ever so gently. I watched her lower the cup back to its saucer with a soft clink.
“I think I’m going to keep it,” I added quietly.
Nana cleared her throat.
“Is that what both you and John want?”
I hesitated. John’s face had grown pale when I’d told him. He’d eventually made some soothing statements, but he’d also offered to pay for an abortion, only if I wanted that, he’d added hastily.
“It’s what I want,” I said.
I watched as her lips turned down, the lines around her mouth growing deeper.
“You have year twelve next year.”
I nodded, looking at my tea.
“I can defer. I’ll have the baby, get a part‑time job, and then go back the following year. John will help, I’m sure.”
I looked up to see Nana’s eyes moistening. There was anguish in those eyes, dread, even. Then she was looking away, somewhere over my shoulder.
“I don’t think I can look after another child, Gina,” she said so softly, almost inaudibly. “I’m too old. I’m too tired. Please.”
“Nana, I’m not asking you to —”
“You are, Gina. And I don’t think you know this boy as well as you think.”
I felt my neck and cheeks flush.
“You don’t know what it is like to be treated as an outsider. To be sixteen and pregnant. They’ll point and talk and you’ll lose friends and things will never be as they were.”
“So,” I said, my voice rising, “I give up on the baby because you’re too old and people will look at me?”
She glanced back at me for a moment, tears in her eyes, and then she turned away once more. I watched her lower lip quivering. Finally, she sighed.
“I’ll support you whatever you decide,” she said. But she didn’t look at me again.
“Come on, honey,” Nana whispered, the blanket over my head muffling her voice. “It’s beautiful outside. Why don’t you take a walk?”
After the miscarriage, I’d taken to bed. It felt like I was nine again, like I’d lost my parents all over. I slept, I cried, I fought revulsion every time a wave of relief crashed into me. I hated myself in those moments.
“Gina, please. If not for you, for me. Come back to me, honey.”
John visited me once. I knew what he wanted, so I made it easy on him. I told him we were over. I told him to go.
“Gina, can you at least say something?”
I sighed, and flipped back the blanket. Nana was kneeling by the side of the bed, her face close to mine, her warm eyes reflecting an image of my messed hair and haggard face. She’d been with me every day of my hibernation, leaving me meals, loving me, coaxing me back.
“Ok,” I said. “For you.”
That first stroll in Nana’s garden felt like emerging into a strange world. The air was cooler, the sunlight duller, and all of the birds sang songs full of yearning. And yet, there was also something pleasant about being outside, alone, wandering.
I found myself in the farthest corner of Nana’s block, amongst her roses. The delicate scent reminded me of being little, of Nana telling me the names of the roses as I pointed at each one, my mother’s laughter behind me as I tried to repeat them.
Right at the back was a very old, English rose bush covered in large crimson blooms — its final display before winter. It’d been there forever, and yet, I’d never seen it quite so alive with colour, so fragrant.
I approached it, weaving through the other roses, careful not to catch my dressing gown on the thorns when, suddenly, I realised I was not moving through plants, but people.
A younger version of the rose bush was in a large pot, sitting on a trestle table, amongst other plants. I was in a hall surrounded by women in modest, pastel dresses. Many of the women wore hats, and those without had impressive coiffures. I could smell something delicious, and spied trays of home cooked cakes on another trestle table towards the back of the room. The room was alive with chatter, the back and forth of women of a certain age gossiping. But the din ceased when the double doors to the hall sprang open and revealed a Japanese woman in her twenties. Nana Naoko.
She stood in the doorway, self-conscious, wringing her hands. Eventually, the women began talking again in hushed whispers, Nana their focus.
“… the oriental that Thomas Hibbert brought back with him …”
“… may not even understand English …”
“… I thought she’d be ashamed to show her face in town, what with her family fighting my John only a few years ago …”
My face grew hot as I heard these terrible things. I wanted to run to her, hug her, tell her I loved her. But before I did anything, I noticed one of the women approaching Nana.
She was an aboriginal lady with lively eyes and grey‑flecked hair. Despite the grey, she wasn’t old. Maybe thirty. She walked up to Nana and held out her hand.
“Hello,” she said loudly. “My name’s Gwen. Welcome to the Gunnedah Gardening Club.”
I knew the name. Nana had often talked fondly of her friend Gwen, but I’d never met her. She’d passed away before I’d been born.
“Naoko,” Nana said quietly, extending her hand palm down.
Gwen took her hand in both of hers and pulled her close, talking under her breath. I stepped closer to eavesdrop.
“Don’t take any notice of these stuck-up crones, Naoko. They’re all sorts of ignorant racists, but these here are the harmless ones. They do it because they don’t know no better. They’ve been brought up thinking black might rub off on them, if you know what I mean.”
I saw Nana smiling uncertainly.
“It’s rubbish, and we shouldn’t have to put up with it. But, unfortunately, it’s the price you have to pay to live in a town like this. And you know what, if you can suffer their jibes and stupid questions with good humour, knowing that they don’t really understand that they’re hurting you, because they mostly don’t, then they’ll come around eventually, like they did with me.”
“Oh, I see,” Nana said. I was shaking my head, furious. This wasn’t right.
Then Gwen whispered one last thing.
“It can get you down, all the pretending. But if you ever want to blow your top, you come vent with me, Gwenny, ok?”
Nana Naoko looked at Gwen for a long time, but then she smiled, broadly.
“Thank you, Gwen. Thank you.”
Gwen nodded. Then she led Naoko towards the table of plants. I followed them.
“What plants did you grow in Japan, Naoko?”
“Many plants. Cherry trees, camellias, azaleas, maples.”
“What about roses?” Gwen said, as they approached the table.
“No,” Naoko said, as she stared at the young rose bush before her. I could see the look of amazed longing in her eyes.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” Gwen said, smiling.
“I’ve never seen a flower so beautiful,” Naoko said, stretching a hand towards the nearest bloom, caressing it gently.
“Well, I grew this one,” Gwen said, reaching out and picking up the pot. “And I reckon it would not find any better home then with you. Here.” Gwen held the rose out to Naoko.
Naoko looked at it, confused, then at Gwen.
“No, I couldn’t possibly. It’s too much.”
“Nonsense,” Gwen said smiling. “A welcome gift.”
I saw Naoko’s lips quiver, her eyes moisten. She bowed, and then accepted the pot.
“Thank you,” she whispered breathlessly. “Thank you so much.”
But Gwen waved the thanks away.
“No thanks required. But I’ll tell you what. When you plant that in your garden, I’d love to come see it. How about we have tea one day?”
“That sounds wonderful,” Naoko said.
And then Naoko was fading, Gwen too, and I found myself standing back in amongst the roses feeling incredibly grateful to Nana, but also lost and alone. Where was my Gwen? But of course I knew the answer to that — he was in Melbourne.
I was seventeen and halfway through year twelve when Cameron and his Mum returned to our street, minus his Dad. Mrs. Roberts had won the house in the divorce.
A couple of days after they unpacked, Cameron saw Nana and me in the garden and crossed the road to say hello. I couldn’t stop smiling. We didn’t talk about anything meaningful. Melbourne, the weather, the garden. Cameron was only home for a couple of weeks before he headed back to Melbourne for his second semester of University. He was studying economics, he told me.
It was nice talking to him again. Particularly after the last twelve months of school, where people looked at me with pity and talked about me in whispers as I passed.
That night, Nana kept stealing glances at me as she knitted, a strange smile on her face. When I asked her about it, she’d replied with, “nothing, nothing.”
A couple of days later, Nana and I were planting bulbs in the front garden when Cameron crossed the road again. As he stepped onto the front lawn, I smiled up at him. But before either of us could say hello, Nana called out to him. He hesitated, shrugged, and then with a bemused expression he changed direction and approached her. I didn’t know what was going on.
Nana made Cameron lean down close to her and she began whispering. After a short exchange, I saw him nodding. He straightened, and I watched him disappear around the back of the house.
It was odd, but I returned to my work, not giving it much more thought until he returned about ten minutes later holding a pair of secateurs and a bunch of freshly cut roses.
“Do you want me to put these in a vase, Nana?” Cameron asked.
“No, Cameron,” she replied, grinning, “I want you to give them to my granddaughter. And then you could ask her out.”
“Nana,” I squealed. “I’m so sorry about this,” I said to Cameron quickly. His neck and face had grown red, and he had a goofy, uncertain smile on his face.
“You two are so slow,” Nana said.
“Ah,” Cameron stammered. He looked at Nana, then me, then Nana. Suddenly, he was moving. As he rushed past he thrust the flowers at me. “I forgot that I’ve got something on. I’ll see you soon though, ok?” he said.
I reached out and took the flowers somewhat reluctantly, our hands touching for a brief moment, then he quickly pulled away and was walking back across the street.
Nana was chuckling, but my embarrassment was fading, replaced with a heat in my belly and cheeks.
“Nana, that was cruel.”
She looked at me calmly as Cameron disappeared inside his house.
“He likes you too, you know. You’re just too caught up in your doubts to notice.”
I wanted to chastise her, but I didn’t. She wasn’t a child, after all. Instead, I found myself looking across the road. Eventually I turned back to Nana.
“Even if he does, it’s not your call,” I said. “I’m not ready, ok?”
“You can’t hide forever, Gina,” she said.
“I’m not. It’s just …” But what could I say?
Nana nodded. “I understand. But the past is the past. Learn from it, and then move on. Take a risk, Gina.”
“Do you need to go soon?” my mother asked. Her voice was tiny, small, and yet achingly familiar.
“I’m not sure,” I said, pushing the swing again.
“Won’t someone miss you?”
“No. Well, maybe. I mean, I live with my Nana, but she’s in hospital at the moment. She’s asleep,” I said.
“Is she sick?”
I couldn’t reply for a time. I just swallowed and swallowed, but I couldn’t dislodge the lump at the back of my throat.
“Nana had a stroke,” I finally whispered. I saw her again in my head, the tiny woman crumpled on the lawn, a pile of freshly pulled weeds next to her, her greying hair half covering her face. I felt again the abyss opening to swallow me.
“Is that bad?” the little girl asked.
“It can be, yes. Very bad.”
“Does it hurt?”
I cleared my throat, watching as the swing slowed, the arc becoming smaller. I realised I was no longer pushing. My arms were crossed, holding myself.
“I hope not,” I croaked. The swing stopped, the little girl hopped down, turned and looked up at me.
“You should go back soon in case she wakes up,” she said.
“But what if she doesn’t?” I felt hot streaks on my cheeks as the tears began to spill. “Whenever I enter one of these damn memories, there’s always something wrong. The first time, I lost you. The second time, my best friend left me, the third … the third …” But I couldn’t say it. I rubbed roughly at my wet cheeks and covered my mouth with my hand, trying to regain control as my mother looked at me confused, her brow furrowed.
“Maybe,” I said eventually, “it’s better if I stay here with you. Forever.”
The little girl stepped closer.
“You can’t stay here forever. I’ll need to go to bed soon. Plus your Nana will miss you. But we can play again soon. I’d love you to come back when your Nana’s better.”
I fell to my knees and enveloped my mother in my arms, sobbing. She stiffened in my embrace at first but, after a moment, her little arms wrapped around my neck, and I knew she was right. I couldn’t hide here. Nana was waiting for me. And I needed to be with her, like she’d always been there for me. It didn’t matter how much it hurt.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Thank you for pushing me on the swing,” she said in return.
As I released her, I heard a screen door creak open and I looked across at the house to see Naoko step out onto the deck.
“Emily. Dinner,” she called.
“Come see me again soon,” my mother said. I watched her walk away, and I breathed in the country air tinged with dust and pollen as my mother began fading, as did the house, Naoko, and then it was all gone, and I was back kneeling on red dirt next to the bottlebrush that Nana and I had planted all of those years ago.
It took a moment for me to realise that my mobile phone was ringing. I pulled it from my pocket with an unsteady hand, afraid it would stop ringing and afraid to answer. I took a deep breath, and then picked up.
“Oh, Gina. This is Wendy from the hospital.”
I felt hot blood pulsing across my temples, my stomach roiling.
“Your grandmother has woken up. She’s asking for you.”
I sat on the front lawn pulling weeds. The weather was warming, and the sun felt nice on my face.
A small family of finches were cavorting in the ceramic birdbath next to the bed of tulips. As I stared at the water, I saw a reflection that didn’t belong, an image of my mother, as a girl, running. Then the birds were splashing and it was gone.
The front door squeaked open, and I turned to find Nana’s nurse, Judy, wheeling Nana out of the house. She pushed the wheelchair across the lawn towards me, applying the brake when Nana was close.
“You missed one,” Nana said, a little slower than she used to.
“Morning, Nana,” I replied, smiling. I removed the weed she was pointing at.
“Looks like Cameron is back for the weekend,” Nana said.
I looked up with a start, and across the road I saw Cameron’s car in his driveway. How had I not noticed that before? I guess I’d just been too caught up in the sunshine. But now that I did see it, my heart beat a little faster.
“Who’s Cameron?” Judy asked, as she sat down next to me and began to help weed.
I waited for Nana to make a joke about him being my boyfriend, or something like that.
“An old friend,” Nana said instead.
I looked up at Nana as she looked down at me. Those brown eyes were smiling, and I loved her so much at that moment. I grinned, despite myself, as she nodded gently in the direction of Cameron’s house.
“Ok,” I whispered, more to myself then anything.
I stood up and rubbed my hands against my pants.
“Ok,” I repeated, “maybe I’ll go over and say hello. Are you all right here, Nana?”
“Never better, dear. I’m in my garden.”
I leaned over and pecked her on the cheek. She raised her good right hand and held it against the back of my neck, pressing her face to mine, then she let go.
I straightened, took a deep breath, and then turned and walked out of the comfort of Nana Naoko’s garden, across the street, and into the unknown.