Songs from the Violet Cafe

BOOK: Songs from the Violet Cafe
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A woman rows across a lake wit a small part-Asian child. The woman is Violet Trench, who in future years will run the Violet Café with an iron will. Those who work in her café come from a diverse range of backgrounds, but each with their own troubles and each affected by working for this enigmatic woman. Her influence takes Jessie Sandal on dangerous journeys to the Far East, and to another stretch of water to be crossed with a small part-Asian child.

 

Although the characters go their separate ways, they never forget the flavour of that summer working at the café, like the secret, surprising allure of the truffle that infused the café’s food.

SONGS FROM THE VIOLET CAFÉ

A NOVEL BY

FIONA KIDMAN

For Reuben and Thomas and Raphael

Songs
from
the
Violet
Café
is a work of fiction. With the exception of some events in Cambodia which reflect the history of that country, all other situations come from the author's imagination. Any resemblances to actual people, their names or circumstances, are unintentional, and should not be construed as real.

 
 

On a perfectly still night, that night of the year when the trees begin to wheel with light and the stars come tumbling, and backyard bonfires illuminate the children’s faces, the Andersons push the boat out over the lake.

‘Whose boat do you suppose it was?’ Don asks his wife, when she first tells him of her plan.

‘Who knows?’ She is like a high-tailed pony, flicking her gathered hair from side to side, her face alight as she phones first one friend then another, telling each one on her list: this is the way we’ll get rid of our old baggage, what a sight, it’s something different don’t you think. ‘Look, does it matter?’ she asks him, when he still seems irresolute. ‘It’s not as if you can do anything with that boat. It must have been sitting in the basement at least fifty years by the look of it. Haven’t you seen the rot in it? One of the boys might try and use it, even if you tell them not to. You know what kids are like when they’re in the mood.’

Of course, he can see that she’s right. She is about most things — their finances, what schools to send the children to, whose parents they should be celebrating Christmas with this year, all those things that he never cares to consider. He doesn’t know why he hesitates over the rowboat that’s been sitting in the basement since they bought the house. Once a solid wooden craft, painted red that has faded to a dingy rust colour, a strip of yellow drawn around it, missing a
rowlock, it might have been built by a boy in the backyard. He thinks it is this homely quality that makes him not want to part with it. When they bought the house on the edge of the lake he saw the list of people who held the title before him, but it was meaningless. The people who can afford to live by the lake these days are people like him, transient in their living arrangements, moving from one better house to the next, able to afford shiny new boats. Upwardly mobile, a term his own mother had lighted on in the eighties. She says it with pride. My boy. My son. He’s doing well for himself.

‘It’s not as if we’re breaking any law, are we?’ his wife asks.

‘Perhaps you should check,’ he says absently, studying a window frame that he thinks he might like to shift. This house won’t suit his family for ever but, while they are here, he restores and adds to it as previous owners have. In the evening, he walks down to the water’s edge at the end of the garden, watching midges dance above the transparent water and trout rise. He will not own the derelict boat for ever, any more than the house. He won’t change it and improve it and make it safe for his sons to use. Not that they would, not a boat they would care to be seen in, although there is something about its flowing bow that shows a kind of grace, despite its faults. This evening, before the fireworks are about to begin, he wonders fleetingly about a boy who might have stood under the leafy trees at the water’s edge, hammering away on a night like this, getting his boat ready to launch in the summer holidays.

‘Please,’ his wife had said, when they were holding their territory on the far sides of their king-sized bed the night before. She has small compact breasts and fair skin with a pale moony whiteness that makes him think of treasure. ‘I’ve told everyone, they think it’s so neat.’ Her voice was sorrowful in the wasteland of duvet between them.

‘It’s all right,’ he’d said. ‘Just do it.’

When dusk is settling, and his family and their friends, wrapped up against the breeze of late spring, have eaten the barbecued meats and salads, they cry, ‘It’s time, let’s set off the fireworks.’

The boat is waiting where it has been dragged down to the beach, not quite floating but bouncing around among the reeds. The women
and children have brought an assortment of items to put in the boat. Mostly it is the women, their shining made-up faces gleaming in the light of the fire behind them, who place inside the hull what he thinks of as offerings to the gods. One puts in a bundle of old letters; her sly smile and the nod of appreciation from the other women tell him that they are love letters. Another adds a calendar for what she says was a very bad year, someone else a stained quilt, another some yellowed school books. His wife’s best friend whispers to her son that it’s his last year’s school reports and he need never see them again. Then there are things that would normally go in the white elephant sale, such as a paper lampshade decorated with hieroglyphics. (There is only one rule, that everything must be combustible. He’s worried about the quilt and the metal rings in the lampshade but should he say anything? He doesn’t.) One by one, then, the women toss in notes they have written, all the old bad karma they are discarding. He tries to see what his wife is putting in the boat, but he can’t. It’s something very small and she puts it in quickly among everything else. Alongside her, one of her friends wraps an offering in a wad of tissue and slides it in with the rest. She is a slim wily woman, dissatisfied and hungry. When his wife first introduced them, he was surprised by the friendship, she hadn’t seemed like his wife’s kind of person. But he knows her scent.

Suddenly, he’s afraid. This whole idea has always been a mistake.

Finally, the boat is ready for its last voyage. He walks back up to where the bonfire is still smouldering and seizes the end of a flaming log, carrying it quickly through a crowd of spectators. As well as its freight of cast-offs and memories, the boat contains newspaper impregnated with kerosene. His wife’s friend emerges from the shadows and runs to the bow of the boat, now riding the small waves that lap at the water’s edge, fossicking for something, as if she’s changed her mind. He holds his breath. Her skirt is wet at the hem. Without looking at him, she turns and walks back up the beach. He plunges his brand into the paper and a flame roars, ripping straight away through the length of the boat. The men help him to heave it away, sloshing through the water to push it as far as possible into the eddies of the lake.

And there it burns, this barge carrying its cargo of nightmares to the bottom of the lake. On the shore, the women and children cry out and clap. Some of them join hands and begin to sing.

Perhaps there
is
a law against it. If there isn’t, shouldn’t there be? What was the message his wife placed inside the boat? Will she really sleep better, released from the dreams that sometimes cause her to wake in panic?

The boat glows in the dark for an hour or more, the sides collapsing inwards, fragments and sparks scattering in all directions. The wind rises and the licks of fire and the choppy waves seem to become one. In the end, there is just a scum of flame, the quilt perhaps, and it too subsides into the depths of the lake.

 
 

The lake was settled like skim milk, the afternoon Hugo saw the woman rowing across the water towards him, a small child seated beside her. As soon as he saw the figure in the boat he knew who it was. Something about the soft slope of the shoulders when she rested on the oars, the defiant tilt of the head. He had had her letter in his pockets for months, warning him of her arrival. I don’t know when I will come, she wrote, because to get a ship from England, the way things are with this war … well, God knows, I may never get there. I’ll simply turn up, if that’s all right with you.

All right with him? The presumption of it. But she’d done this before. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know about the changes in his life. She knew exactly where to find him, sending the letter to the correct address, when most people from his past would have thought him untraceable. As for her, she had sent no return address. That was her way though, even when she was a child — a touch of imperiousness, a certainty that made opposition seem unthinkable.

A bank of dun-coloured cumulus cast sullen shadows between the horizon and the thin surface of the lake. It was one of those days when the smell of sulphur lay especially heavy over the garden, his own uneasy earth. This was dangerous country, water boiling away under a volcanic poultice, setting traps for the unwary. Even at the water’s edge soft bubbles rose from underground springs. As he watched her rowing towards him, a drift of clouds separated above, allowing weak
sunlight to filter through, illuminating the shape of her face, so that for a moment she seemed closer than she really was. Then the clouds closed in again and all he could see was her black shape and the outline of a smaller figure beside her. Only, now that he had glimpsed that luminous remembered quality, he saw the delicate grace and surprising strength of the woman, like that of a dancer with enormous reserves of power. A surge of anticipation swept through him unbidden, as if she were a lover coming towards him. He steadied himself against his hoe, a thin stooping man with a job to do, a row of cabbages to be weeded. His face was worn, an old avocado of a face, with tobacco-coloured eyes. His long fingers were thickened from planting in all weathers, the hands of a piano tuner and sometime musician gone to rack and ruin. Braces supported his pants around his skinny waist, a cigarette drooped from the corner of his mouth. But a good-looking man, you would have to say. He was handsome once, even if his nose is too big for his face, and a pity about his teeth, like scrambled tent poles.

‘Husband. Come and take tea.’ His wife Ming walked across the paddock, calling to him, although she knew he scarcely heard her. It had been years since he heard any sound distinctly, but he knew what she said; their understanding of each other was seemingly telepathic.

A beam across Ming’s shoulder supported the tea billy on one side; on the other hung a bucket of pig manure to spread on the garden. A sack apron, pinned across her front, covered a long sombrehued dress. Her hair, drawn back severely from her face, fell in a single plait all the way to her waist.

Hugo ground his cigarette out with his heel and looked past his wife towards the house. The corrugated iron roof was held fast with extra planks nailed horizontally along a shallow arch, the timber walls were unpainted and bare. He and his stepsons had built this house together. Only a symbol painted above the doorway relieved the drab exterior. The symbol is for lightness and peace within the soul, his wife said, and he believed her. Ming had a lightness of spirit that made all of this bearable. He had promised himself to her when she was alone in the world and so, for that matter, was he. After the girl,
Violet, had gone away. He vowed to be her good husband and he believed that he was.

When Ming drew level with him, she stopped, following his gaze across the water.

‘Who is she?’

She asked in English, as if the woman were already there and she must make herself understood. When Ming first came to New Zealand she had had to pass a literacy test of up to one hundred words, chosen randomly at the pleasure of the examining customs officer. She had learned five hundred words, which, as it turned out, was enough on the day. They included please, thank you, yes, forgive me, yellow, dog.

The memory of that day was scored in Ming’s memory, as if drawn there by the pillar of stone at the peak of Meng Bi Sheng Hua, both terrible and beautiful, otherwise called Tip of the Magic Writing Brush.

‘Her name is Violet,’ he said.

 

Violet had come to him when she was nineteen, hardly more than a child in his eyes. His first wife, Magda, was dying of cancer. The Depression era was looming and he had no idea how he was going to carry on nursing her at home. The work was too hard and he had too little money. Sleep was a rare bonus in his life. The girl wrote to him, the sheltered daughter of a man who had become strange and possessive, and of a mother who had given up on life. I am so unhappy here, she told him then, everything is stifling me, the tennis parties mother sends me to, just to get me out of the house so she can brood in peace, the mealtimes that go on forever in bitter silence, not to mention the beef stews — why couldn’t my mother have learned to cook decently? I’ve asked my brothers if I can go to them but they are like my father, obsessed with work, and their wives are tied up with children and complaints. Even though I could help them, they don’t seem to see that. I could come and help you now. Why don’t I do that? The nuns at school at least taught us to look after people. I’ve bathed sick people in the infirmary. I have been saving my allowance. My father may
have lost his mind but he has not lost his business — remarkable these days, but there you are. Perhaps you could spare me for an evening or two and I could go to some concerts, if there are any shows left in town.
So
go
on,
what
do
you
think?

Her father had been his friend in the past, when they shared the same battlefield during the war — Hugo an infantryman from Manchester, Violet’s father a young colonel in a New Zealand regiment. It had been one of those odd juxtapositions, when a cup of water on a French battlefield saves a life, and roles are reversed. Later, when Hugo visited the man to whom he had offered his mug, in a shadowy, ill-lit English hospital, the colonel said, ‘There’ll be another war and England’s sure to go down next time round. I’d get out of it now. You chaps will be in trouble then.’ Meaning Hugo’s race, the unmistakable Jewishness that set him apart in his youth, the fragile unexplainable quality in himself that he had never understood, because his family had set themselves outside the memory of their ancestors. The man’s head was swathed in bandages.

‘You’d be better off out in our part of the world,’ the colonel said. ‘Plenty of work out there. I’m a bottler.’

‘Bottler?’ Hugo said, puzzling over this.

‘Tin canning. I preserve fruit for a living. I’ll give you a job in my factory’

‘I tune pianos,’ Hugo said.

‘Pianos. Well, never mind, we’ve got plenty of them in New Zealand. Book yourself a passage. My treat.’

On receiving the daughter’s letter, Hugo had written back: My dear, it simply wouldn’t do — your father would not take kindly to me stealing you from him and using you in such a manner, and I must respect his wishes. He wrote the letter several times, crossing out the parts that said, indeed it would save my life but I cannot allow it, or, I have thought long and hard about it.
I cannot allow it,
he wrote firmly and without embellishment, in his final draft.

He remembered how much easier in himself he had felt when the letter was posted. As he walked briskly from the red letterbox at the corner of the street, he plunged his hands into his pocket, finding
sixpence. He whistled some Schubert, that section from ‘The Trout’ where the water rushes over the rocks in the stream, and because the sound came from inside his head, he heard the music perfectly. He had no idea how he would see out this bad time. Soon his wife would have to go into hospital, although it was not what she wanted. But at least he had made a right decision. A correct one. He didn’t need the complication of the girl. When he returned to the house a telegram was waiting for him. The girl had already left on the train.
Arriving
tonight.
Violet.

 

For her embarkation in New Zealand, Ming was dressed in a long blue linen frock with a high collar, her black hair parted carefully down the centre and plaited braids gathered in loops around her ears. Her face was solemn with a composure she didn’t feel, as she waited for the moment when she would see her husband again and all the years between them would fall away. When she passed through the gates onto the wharf, after completing the dreaded language test, nobody was there to meet her. Her two sons had come with her on the boat. Their father, her husband, had left China seven years before; she had struggled to raise her boys in the village near the mountain, waiting for the little money he sent home from New Zealand, and for the call to come and join him. When the call finally arrived, she left accompanied by the boys and a small trunk that contained their clothes, a bolt of red silk embroidered with black roses, a rolled-up painting of yellow reeds, Chienmen cigarettes and a smoking pipe for her husband, and some cooking pots. In her hands she carried a wickerwork basket and a silk umbrella. She thought she would die of grief leaving her mother and brothers and sisters.

At first, she stood on the street, in Auckland, looking up and down, thinking that it had been such a long time since she and her husband had seen each other, that they had walked past each other, without recognition. Her sons stood huddled beside her like babies as they sensed her alarm. She saw others who had travelled with her being met. Chun Yee must surely be waiting for her.

‘Where are the husbands?’ she asked a woman who seemed at ease, as if she already lived there. ‘There must be more husbands.’

The woman spoke to her in Mandarin. ‘Are you the wife of Chun Yee?’

‘Yes,’ said Ming, her heart already full of dread.

‘It’s too late,’ the woman said, shaking her head. ‘My husband went to Chun Yee’s funeral last week. Your husband is dead.’

‘How can that be?’ Ming said, thinking that it might be a trick. The boys clutched their boxes more firmly. The elder one, who was ten, stood up straight, trying to make his head level with his mother’s.

‘Come quickly,’ the woman said, ‘or they will send you back. Tomorrow we’ll find the papers to show that he’s dead. If they catch you on the street without a husband you’ll be in trouble. They’ll send you back for sure.’

That night Ming and her sons sheltered with the woman’s family, in a house in Freeman’s Bay, where her husband had an opium and pakapoo house. She felt as if
she were dead too: afterwards, she told her second husband, it was as if I was dead, there is nothing anyone can do to someone who has been already dead. See, I have a strong spirit that was brought back so that I could be with you. I know what it is like to be already dead. I did not like it dead, but it is bearable. She talked to the men who came to visit the house, about the last days of Chun Yee, and how he had died of tuberculosis. Yes, he knew he was sick when he wrote to her, they said, but he thought that when she came he would get better. In the morning, she went to the Births, Deaths and Marriages office to get Chun Yee’s death certificate.

‘Does immigration know about this?’ asked the man behind the counter.

Ming shook her head. She didn’t know which of the five hundred words were the right ones with which to answer him. ‘Sorry,’ she said.

‘You’re in trouble,’ said the man. ‘Big trouble. You know trouble?’

‘I know much trouble,’ said Ming in a low voice.

Behind her in the queue stood a man who had also come about a death certificate, for his wife. His long thin face might have been
humorous at another time, nice-looking, although his mouth was full of crooked teeth.

‘Be kind to her,’ he said to the official behind the desk. ‘Can’t you see, she’s just had a shock?’ He returned her gaze when she looked at him with her grave steadfast eyes that said
I have nowhere to go.

‘Wait for me,’ he said.

 

Ming’s body was not much thicker now than when he met her, a tiny blade of a woman. She harboured strength, in much the same way as he remembered in Violet. She makes two of him, whatever they do. Sometimes he blushed to remember the beginning of their time together, when he first lay down with her as his new wife. He had touched her as if she were a porcelain doll to whom he had no rights at all, and she responded as if she were a knife that had to strip away his own delicacy and pare him down to the truth of his own needs. As she unplaited her hair over her bare light sepia back, it was she who put her fingers to her lips,
Do
not
be
afraid.
They have had a son of their own, as well as Ming’s boys. Too old, he said at first with a self-deprecating pride, I’m too old. Later, he just said it to himself, with a small astonished murmur, because she didn’t like him saying this. He did not say, what will they make of me, this old man from a shack at the edge of the lake with his rakes and hoes, but he knew, even before it happened, that his children would burn their report cards and letters from teachers, rather than have him turn up at the school.

 

The town where he took her was a bustling place in the summer where tourists came to visit, or at least they did before the war, to take in the thermal sights and enjoy spas in pretty gilded buildings. The visitors stayed in huge hotels with high ceilings and chandeliers, smoking rooms and dining rooms set with crystal and silver, glamorous flower arrangements and liveried waiters; they looked across the streets from their balconies, strolled on the streets, so that you could close your eyes for a moment and think that you were in some other place. At the dazzling blue-and-white-tiled swimming baths, there
were tearooms and a band that played jazz. He took his children when they were small but Ming stayed at home. The local people lived in comfortable bungalows spilling this way and that from a railway line carved out of the makeshift changing landscape, or, if they were Maori, near the lakes where they caught fish. The lakes and streams and tributaries spilled out across the countryside, filled with rising trout. When it was dark, the Maori sang, their voices travelling across the surfaces of the water. It was a place where it was possible to live unnoticed if you kept quiet and looked straight ahead when you walked down the main street. But cold, it got cold in the winter.

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