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Helen Heath: It All Unfolds

Lost, in 5.15 tram from Island Bay, yesterday, Purse in small kit, containing money and ring.

The Evening Post, Volume LXXI, Issue 91, 18 April 1906, p.1 http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=EP19060418.2.5.3

I found this advert on Papers Past while searching for information about my great-great-grandmother. Using this and information already collected by my father I took an imaginative leap into a possible narrative. It was a Tuesday that she took the tram home from Island Bay presumably to the Wellington Railway station. Would she have noticed the bag was missing when she tried to buy a train ticket home? What would have made her distracted enough to leave her bag on the tram? How did she get the rest of the way home? What was she doing in Island Bay in the first place? Why did she have a ring in her bag? Did anyone return it? Did she get home in time for dinner? What follows is a window into a creative process.

*

First notes:
The bag was on the seat beside me, I’m sure. I retrace my steps from the tram stop to my sister’s house, up the path to her little rental cottage in Island Bay, with white roses on either side of the gate, up to the front door and into the hall, the parlor. I’d been sitting in the small armchair by the coal fire, my bag sitting on the occasional table beside me. She’d offered me a cup of tea and fresh scones after her dance students had left. When she walks from the kitchen she holds a plate our mother gave her with sprays of blue flowers on it. Her back is ramrod straight, her feet turned out, her chin held high, as if looking down her nose at me. The scones had a thin smear of plum jam spread meanly over them, no cream. I asked her for mother’s ring, it was meant for me, after all; she shouldn’t have kept it when she packed up their things.

I would have helped her if I didn’t have my hands full with the children. She had no husband to cook for, no family mending or laundry, no children to take up her time, just her precious dance students. Once more she mentions the Governor-General’s children, heaven help me to bite my tongue! I didn’t want much, just the ring as a special keepsake, not much. She could have chosen anything at all from the estate and she did. I know it was hard packing it all up but soon she’ll be back home on the boat and I’ll never see it again.

I thank her, place it in my purse. Before I leave I place it in my purse. I should have slipped it on my finger, slipped it on my finger. Now they’re gone.
Mother, Father, Sister, Ring.

Heaton family at Hutt River. Private collection of Helen Heath.

After my first notes I draft and redraft a poem from the notes. Then I think it might suit the form of a villanelle, which I then attempt. This is an early draft and may well change.

*

It all unfolds
Helen Heath

After thinking about it my life whole
retrace that ride taken on the wing
my sister, the ring, it all unfolds.

We all know that fortune favours the bold
she knew well mother left me the ring
must me dance around it my life whole?

We’d lowered mother’s body down the hole
listened to a church of people sing
my sister, the ring, it all unfolds.

She gives it to me, turns to stoke the coals
placed in a small purse I’d thought to bring
and snap the clasp shut all my life whole.

leave her parlor, peeling wallpaper mould
head for the tram, a pigeon homing
that’s what past, present and future holds.

It’s not my fate to be favoured and bold
I’ve lost mother, sister, and damn ring
after thinking about it my life whole
my sister, the ring, it all unfolds.

*

HELEN HEATH is a writer and doctoral student at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Her poetry and essays have been published in many New Zealand and overseas journals. Her first book, Graft (Victoria University Press, 2012), was honored as Best First Book — Poetry at the New Zealand Post Book Awards. It was also nominated for the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2013.