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Authors: Fiona Kidman

A Needle in the Heart

BOOK: A Needle in the Heart
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A collection of six compelling stories linked by a central issue in the lives of the main characters, the defining incident that shapes their futures: the disappearance of a brother; an illegitimate child born to a young girl; a traumatic court case; a woman caught between the deep friendship of two men; a lost love; a betrayal. They are generally stories about country women, whose children have grown up and moved away to the cities, while they have remained surrounded by tight communities and an enfolding countryside. The central story is of a woman who has a drifting sewing-machine needle in her body. Every time she thinks she has composed her life, she is reminded of something that happened in her past and feels as if the needle is ‘passing through her heart’.


‘She has a rare ability to capture a sense of place and time … [Her] stories remind me of those of Alice Munro. Though they are very much of a time and place they have a universal dimension.’

 – Steven Sedley,
Booksellers News

A Needle
in the Heart


For Witi, with love,
a constant friend in a writing life

I wish to thank Ian Kidman for the many stories he’s shared with me; Dr Rob McIlroy for advice on the possible trajectory of a needle through the human body; James Young of Gillespie Young Watson for legal advice for the story ‘Families Like Ours’; Jennifer Shennan for her irrepressible insights and knowledge of the world; Alwin Verbeek for his research and Alison Morgan for her constant practical support. As ever, I thank Harriet Allan and Anna Rogers for their patient and skilful editing.


A writing grant from Creative New Zealand is gratefully acknowledged.


The author acknowledges permission from the copyright holder J.C. Baxter to quote from ‘The Glass Lamp’ by James K. Baxter.


Also grateful acknowledgement is made for the following song extracts: ‘Don’t Hang Up’ — Kevin Godley/Lol Creme © St Annes Music Limited. Used by permission of EMI Music Publishing Australia Pty Limited. All rights reserved.
‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (Harbach/Kern) © Universal Music Publishing. Reproduced by kind permission of Universal Music Publishing.
‘Look For The Silver Lining’ (Kern/De Sylva) © Universal Music Publishing. Reproduced by kind permission of Universal Music Publishing.

The weather was overcast the day Queenie McDavitt took off her bodice at the races. Queenie’s real name was Awhina but her husband had long before renamed her so that people, white people that is, would remember her name more easily. Her husband was known as Stick, because he was a tall beanpole of a man, but it was also an alias for his given name, Robert. He had gone off to place a bet on Sparkling Heels for the next race. There was a queue and, because the day was heavy and languid, the punters idled around, catching up on news from down the line. Stick wasn’t concerned about his wife being on her own at the races, she was a woman who could look after herself. Besides, she had half a dozen of their children and
in tow. She wouldn’t be going far.

This was 1925. Times were hard but things could only get better, people said. Of course, what they didn’t imagine was that things would only get worse and worse.

‘I reckon if we got a lucky break and paid the bills, we’d get ahead a bit,’ Stick said.

‘Perhaps if we just went without for a bit, and saved a some money,’ Queenie said, ‘well maybe we wouldn’t be so darn hard up.’

‘So what have we got to save anyway?’ Stick demanded. They never had anything over, and besides there had been an unexpected doctor’s bill this year. The couple lived with several of their children in a steep-roofed three-roomed cottage with a number of flat lean-tos added at the back, not far from the Main Trunk Line that ran through Taumarunui. Stick got work on the maintenance gangs now and then, when his back wasn’t playing up.

They ended up going to the races anyway, which Queenie knew they would from the moment he first suggested it. She dressed herself in her best dark skirt and a white blouse with a ruffle running lengthwise from the collar to the waist, and over that a maroon coat, a trifle tight under the arms, but the only one that came near fitting her when the Salvation Army came round with their bin. She tied a green and black plaid shawl round her shoulders, pinning it with the special brooch that had been handed on to her by her father after her mother died. Her father was a white man from pioneering stock. When he gave her the brooch, he told her, with a good many tears, that it should be hers, even though he and her mother had never found a preacher that would marry them (he said this with perplexity, so that Queenie always believed that he must have tried and been hard done by that he was refused).

Then he vanished. She heard he had gone to a sheep station down south. The brooch was oval in shape, made of fine filigree gold with an amethyst set in the centre. The back opened up to reveal a tiny shadowy picture of her mother, a woman with long lustrous hair and strong bright eyes that burned through the faded image. To finish her outfit Queenie added a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with green cabbage roses.

‘You’ll be too hot,’ Stick said.

‘You want me to come or not?’

There was no question about that. She’d been up making bacon
and egg pies and sandwiches half the night before.

She watched Stick pushing his way through the crowds and sighed. He had a pound burning a hole in his pocket.

‘Give us a quid, old girl,’ he’d said.

‘I’ve run out,’ she said, although she had one left which she’d hidden in her shoe. Her son Joe tickled her ankle. I know what’s making you hobble, Ma. The devil, that boy, although she supposed he wasn’t a boy any more. He was her oldest, a married man with children. Hard to believe that it was thirty years since she’d started on babies. Other of her children were more sober, more industrious than Joe; perhaps she’d spoiled him. He’d been a handsome child, though given to sulking. He followed his father to place the bet. She wouldn’t have bet on Sparkling Heels herself. She’d have gone for Fox Fire, but then who listened to her when it came to horses.

On the blanket beside her, Pearl began to cry. Queenie glanced round, looking for Esme, who was supposed to be in charge of the baby. Her daughter was nowhere to be seen. Queenie pulled a face — she couldn’t trust Esme not to wander off for five minutes. She took in the scene as far as she could. The girl could be anywhere among the crowd, although the race track, if that was what you could call it, wasn’t very big. The ground had been flattened out of a moonscape of felled trees after the railway went through. Bits of rope and chain divided the track off from the crowd, and tents had been put up for the refreshment counters.

Queenie’s eyes finally rested on Esme, sitting in the shade of one of the tents making a daisy chain. Like a little kid.

‘You tell that Esme to get over here real quick,’ she told Lucy, who was ten and one of Mary’s children. Mary was second in the family after Joe. ‘Tell her I’ll give her a clip if she doesn’t hurry up.’

‘You’re supposed to be looking after Pearl,’ Queenie said, when Esme came dawdling over. By now she was holding the baby over her shoulder, the practised palm of her hand gently rubbing the baby’s back to bring up her wind, but Pearl kept on crying.

‘Oh, give her here to me,’ Esme, said. She took the baby and held her chest against hers. Pearl stopped crying almost straight away,
and Queenie thought, it’s not wind, it’s the way some babies need to be held against a beating heart, any old heart will do, so long as the rhythm is there. They get so lost and lonely out in the world, after they’ve spent so long inside, listening to that steady calming sound, like rain on an iron roof at night.

‘I’ll take her now,’ Queenie said. ‘Just don’t go running off and leaving her.’

‘You were there,’ Esme said. She had rippling wavy hair that reminded Queenie of her mother’s and her eyes were black like hers. Freckles dusted her nose. Esme and Joe, the best looking of the bunch.

‘I don’t want you hanging around where there’s fellas,’ said Queenie. ‘You keep yourself to yourself. Anyway, I told you to look after Pearl, and that’s your job for the day. D’you know anything can happen to a baby when its lying on the ground? I know a baby having a bit of a kick on the grass, and next thing his mother hears him yelling. Well, this kid yells and yells until he’s dead, and after he’s died a big centipede comes walking out of his ear. You just don’t know how quick one of those centipedes can go walking up inside a baby’s ear and chew its brains all out.’

‘That’s horrible,’ Esme said. Her eyes filled with quick tears.

Over at the track, the punters were shouting themselves hoarse and the beating of hooves was shaking the ground where they sat. ‘Oh my God,’ said a man’s voice, ‘there’s Fox Fire — she’s down,’ and then the cry went up that Sparkling Heels was out by a nose, and, would you believe it, that pony had won.

‘That’ll be the last we see of your father,’ Queenie said gloomily, ‘now he’s got money in his pocket.’ Already she could see his cloth cap in the queue of felt-brimmed hats, getting ready for the next race. Esme had put the baby down in her lap where she lay
, wanting more attention. Queenie took her back. ‘I don’t know what’s the matter with you,’ she said. ‘You don’t seem able to do the simplest thing.’

It made Queenie unhappy, the way Esme was. She was such a beautiful girl but you couldn’t say anything without her taking
offence. Esme stretched out, face down on the ground beside her mother and Pearl, so that her breasts were squashed beneath her. She put her hands over her head as if to ward off the sun. Joe came back and said he’d lost ten bob on Fox Fire but the old man had made five pounds. He’d heard some man had lost a tenner each way on the fallen horse.

‘Did your father send back the quid I gave him?’

‘He reckons he can turn it into twenty-five.’

‘Spare me the trouble. You go and tell him I want two pounds back at very least, right now, before he gets to that counter. Go on, do as you’re told.’

Joe hesitated, but seeing the look in his mother’s eyes, decided to pursue his father. A shot rang out as Fox Fire was put down and when that excitement was over a huddle of people began drifting their way, men who were skint like Joe.

‘You get some food into you,’ Queenie said to Esme, holding out a tomato sandwich with her free hand. ‘Come on, you got to eat something.’ Esme pulled her hair right down round the sides of her face so that it spread in one dark pool on the blanket. Queenie sighed and touched the living silk of it. The sun was beginning to emerge; soon they would have to shift. Earlier, Queenie had taken off her shawl, carefully pocketing her brooch, and now she wriggled out of her coat. Lucy held Pearl while she took it off.

A man called Dave Murphy stopped beside the family’s picnic, a big man with his stomach tumbling over his belt and a large
. He wore a yellow checked suit and his shoes glittered in the dull sun struggling from behind the clouds. He owned one of the new timber mills in the district. From the mean look on his face and the amount of money he usually jingled in his pockets, Queenie guessed he might be the man who’d lost a tenner either way.

‘You’re a bit old for that sort of caper,’ he said.

When Queenie didn’t answer, he said, ‘I’d have thought you were a bit old for babies. Old Stick still sticking it to you, eh? Still making babies in an old lady?’ He laughed loudly at his own wit, at the same time nudging Esme on the ground with his foot.

Queenie said, ‘That’s enough. This little Pearl is my miracle baby.’ The baby had gone to sleep in her arms, and she touched her pale cheek with the back of her finger. They could have as easily called her Lily, but Pearl was what they chose, because her paleness and her prettiness had a sheen that made her glow. She’d never held a baby this fair in her arms before. Pearl’s eyebrows were like silvery smudges, her eyes milky blue, the fine down round her fontanelle white like kitten’s fur.

Esme sat up when she felt herself poked in the ribs. She sat staring down between her knees while Dave Murphy looked them all over. Queenie guessed he knew Stick had made a few quid. Dave smelled like he’d had a few whiskies. He had a way of getting round the liquor ban that was in force in the King Country in those days. Some said he had his own whisky still out in the hills; others said it was amazing what fell off the back of a goods train wagon, if you struck the right moment at the railway station. Queenie made her voice slow and reasonable, not wanting to aggravate him.

‘This little girl is an old woman’s magic baby,’ she said. ‘You remember Magic Man came to town, the one who came here about a year back and set up in the hall and did his tricks?’

‘I heard about him, can’t say I saw him.’

‘Yes you did. I saw you there, Mister Dave Murphy.’

‘Oh, maybe. A busy man like me can’t remember everything. Now you mention it, I went down there to get one of my men who hadn’t turned up to work. We had to get some timber wagons ready for the night train. Maybe I was there a half hour.’

‘And more. Remember, he did all those handkerchief tricks? Made the handkerchief stretch, and tied it up in knots without letting go of the ends. That was pretty clever. And he cut the lady in half. You saw that, didn’t you?’

‘They do all that stuff with mirrors.’

‘There weren’t any mirrors there, I walked up and had a look myself. There were no mirrors.’

‘Mum, stop it,’ said Esme.

‘Then, remember, at the end Magic Man puts the curtain down,
and you think the show’s all over. Then it comes up again and he’s standing there without a head. His head is sitting on the table beside him. That was a miracle.’

‘Hmm. Yes, remarkable. Now that you mention it.’

‘I tell you, it was a miracle. So at the end, I went up to him and said, ‘Mister Magic Man, I want a new baby, because all my babies are pretty well grown up now.’

‘Oh, so it was Magic Man who put it there?’

‘Now, I think you better talk to Stick about that. Nobody puts anything near me except Stick, I tell you. No, I just said to Magic Man, put a spell over me so I can have another baby, and that’s what he did. I got what I asked for, my own little jewel.’

‘I don’t believe a word of it.’ Dave stared around angrily, not liking to be taken for a fool. ‘What do you make of it, young lady?’ he said to Esme.

‘I don’t know anything about it,’ she muttered, the flood of her hair washing over her face.

‘Your mother here’s a dried up old lady, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Nothing dried up about me,’ Queenie said.

‘Let me see your titties then.’

‘You want to see my titties now?’ Queenie gave Pearl back over to Esme to hold, even though she tried not to take her. Esme held her as if she was a ticking bomb. ‘Don’t, Mum,’ she pleaded. Her mother’s hands were at the throat of her blouse. She freed one button after another until they were all undone. Dave Murphy stared at the mountain of brown flesh being revealed, his mouth open. The tops of her breasts rippled above the corset that held them in place, hummocks of round honey-gold flesh. Later, when Esme was herself growing old, she would think how amazing it was that a woman’s face grew lined and seamed so much earlier than the body itself, which stayed not much different from when it was a girl’s for years and years (and then the sudden devastating collapse of everything).

A group of men was collecting round Dave Murphy. They nudged each other, with sharply in drawn breaths. You could tell they were astonished at their own nerve, standing here and watching,
and already wondering what the consequences might be. But it was like a spell was cast over them, their eyes riveted on Queenie’s cleavage. She slid the blouse off her shoulders and her hands moved to the hooks holding the corset in place.

‘No,’ shrieked Esme. ‘No, no, no.’ Mary’s girl had gone to fetch Stick and Joe but Esme was mesmerised and screaming, unable to do anything except sit there with Pearl.

The first hook popped undone, the second one.

‘Magic,’ said Queenie. ‘That’s what it was.’

Then Joe leapt through a gap between the men, scattering them in all directions, his arms flailing, and Stick, following behind, threw his coat over Queenie just as her sleek breasts tumbled free, covering her long purple nipples an instant before they were seen by the men.

BOOK: A Needle in the Heart
12.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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