Annabel could barely contain her excitement as she watched the sailors lower the boats into the water below. At last, after months at sea, long months when she’d lost hope of ever setting foot on firm ground again, they’d arrived in their new home. The Captain had moored the Charlotte Jane in the port of Lyttelton just after dawn and for the first time since they’d set sail from England the deck beneath her feet was not heaving or swaying or threatening to tip her against the rails.
“I can’t believe we’re finally here.”
Annabel turned at the sound of her mother’s voice, soft and gentle with a distinctive north country lilt, from the railing beside her. Mary Williams, a petite woman whose unlined face belied her age of 35 years, was gazing out across the water towards the blue-hued hills which rose alarmingly before them, almost from the very point where the sea met the shore.
“It’s so very exciting!” Annabel pointed to the row boat which bobbed on the sea below. “Look! There’s your trunk.”
The women watched as two sailors swung Mary’s trunk into the boat and stacked it with the luggage already stowed there; trunks and boxes and odd pieces of household furniture destined for the new settlers’ huts. Which of course weren’t even built yet. The plan, according to Annabel’s father Geoffrey and the other men, was to walk over the hills to the plains they had been assured lay on the other side. Once there they would erect canvas tents to shelter them until the men had the chance to construct more solid housing.
“I must go and check on the younger children. Father said that we’re to be ferried to shore in an hour so do make sure you’re ready, Annabel.” Mary gave her daughter a tight smile, her eyes clearly relaying the fear and anxiety she’d struggled to hide from her family since her husband had first announced they were to be pioneers in a largely unexplored country on the other side of the world, and then she hurried away.
Annabel sighed happily and resumed her watch on the activity below. A couple of reluctant horses, their eyes wide with terror as they pulled against their trappings, were being led from below decks in order to swim the short distance to shore. From her vantage point she could already see some of the men from the ship urging their horses up through the ferns and gorse which covered the hills, slashing at the undergrowth with their machetes as they went. So that was to be the settlers trail, the path to their new start in Canterbury. She wrapped her arms around herself in a warm hug. The new settlement of Canterbury, a perfect new beginning for an 18-year-old girl who’d become utterly confused in relation to what was expected of her back home in the motherland of England.
Annabel hung the men’s britches over the clothes line which had been strung between two cabbage trees, comical-looking trees with thin, smooth trunks topped with long, spiky leaves. Monday was washing day, if the inclement weather allowed it, a chore which took up nearly the entire day. After three months in Ferrymead, the community which had sprung up following the settlers arduous trek over the hill from Lyttelton, they had settled into some kind of daily routine. Though of course, with the winds and rains and frequent earthquakes which plagued their new home you could never be sure when your well-laid plans would go awry.
The four ships which had set sail from England had all arrived in port safely. Along with the Charlotte Jane was the Randolph, the Cressy, and the Sir George Seymour, all of them packed to the gunnels with nervous pioneers and all the equipment necessary to recreate an English township on the exact opposite side of the world. Life was difficult and challenging but Annabel was pleased with life that way. It meant that her mother and father were far too busy to scold her about her disinterest in suitors and in finding herself a husband.
“Annabel!” Polly, her 10-year-old sister, suddenly grabbed her hand and pointed to the nearby bushes. “Look, there’s another one of them native people.”
Annabel followed her sister’s pointing finger to where a brown face was peering curiously out of the flax bushes and watching their every movement. The local native people, the Maoris, had accepted the white-skinned intruders well enough though of course there had been a few disputes. But mostly the natives have been inquisitive rather than on the offensive towards the newcomers. The biggest problem was theft as their brown-skinned neighbors appeared to have little sense of just what belonged to who when it came to the ownership of possessions.
The native, a girl, stepped boldly out of the bushes. As was common among the Maori folk she was wearing only a skirt woven from flax leaves, leaving her upper body naked. Her chin was adorned with the traditional tattoo, or moko, and a greenstone earring hung from a tiny hole in one ear. Her dark skin gleamed in the sunlight and she took Annabel’s breath away. Annabel thought she was the most beautiful creature she’d ever seen.
“Should I go and get Henry?” Polly looked around nervously for their brother. The washing line had been erected a short distance from their hut, half hidden from sight by the plentiful gorse and mad Irishman bushes which dotted the landscape.
“No.” Annabel’s eyes were still fixed on the girl, utterly charmed by what she saw. “Hello. What is your name?”
The girl, apparently just as captivated by the sight of Annabel, reached out a slim hand and touched Annabel’s cheek. Annabel held perfectly still, hardly daring to breathe, as her stomach did a flip-flop. The sounds of hammering and sawing, a constant backdrop to the ongoing construction of the new community, faded away and for an instant no-one else existed except for Annabel and the beautiful young maiden.
“Annabel.” Polly pulled at her hand again, disrupting her from her entranced moment. “What do you think she wants?” The younger girl stared at the native girl’s bare chest, her mouth pulled into an expression of distaste so like their mother’s she could have been Mary herself. “She should cover her nakedness. It isn’t seemly to display her breasts like that.”
Annabel ignored her sister. She touched her hand lightly to her own chest. “Annabel,” she said softly. She pointed a finger at the Maori girl and raised her eyebrows in question.
The girl grinned suddenly, her teeth beautifully white against her tanned skin. She patted her chest, causing her small bosoms to bounce enticingly. “Manaia.”
“Manaia.” Annabel repeated the word, thinking it sounded like a song. Musical and exotic. Perfect for the lovely girl who stood smiling in front of her.
Polly, bored now with the other girls’ fascination with each other, turned back to the washing basket. “Come on, Annabel. We have another load to do after this one and Father said he’ll take me for a ride this afternoon if I get all my chores done. He said we can go down to the beach and search for shellfish for supper.”
Annabel smiled dreamily at Manaia and pointed to the washing pile. She made a face of regret. “Later? Come back later? When I’m done?”
Manaia smiled and nodded and slipped back into the bushes. Annabel stared after her, afraid that she hadn’t understood. What if she didn’t return? Annabel couldn’t bear the thought of not ever seeing her again. She stared at the bushes, half-hoping that Manaia would step back out, but there was nothing but the rustle of the leaves in the breeze and the flurry of the tui birds as they dipped their long curved beaks into the flax flowers in search of nectar.
It wasn’t until two days later before Annabel saw Manaia again. She’d finished her chores and was sitting by the edge of the river and watching as her little brother Tom played with the boat she’d made for him out of a stick of flax. She heard footsteps on the stones behind her and didn’t look up, expecting it to be Polly who had come to join them.
The mispronunciation of her name was the sweetest word Annabel had ever heard. She smiled at Manaia as the girl settled herself down on the ground beside her and slipped her hand into hers. “You came back.”
By the time Mary came looking for them, Tom had fallen asleep on Annabel’s lap, his thumb in his mouth, and the sun was sinking below the horizon. Annabel and Manaia had devised a way of communicating, using hand gestures and pointing, and of course by deliciously connecting through shy glances and smiles. Annabel couldn’t remember a time when she’d felt more content and more comfortable in her own skin. The very air around her seemed to shift and change and grow lighter just through having Manaia nearby.
“Annabel,” Mary said sharply, “We’ve been calling for you. Come along, supper is ready.” She looked at Manaia’s nakedness with distaste, just as Annabel knew she would. “You shouldn’t be associating with the natives. They don’t have the same morals as we do.”
“Mother!” Annabel scrambled to her feet, waking a disgruntled Tom in the process. “This is my friend Manaia.”
“Hmmm.” Mary stared at the other girl then quickly looked away. “Come with me, Tom. Annabel, Polly needs your help.”
Annabel gave Manaia’s hand one last squeeze, smiling into her eyes as she etched every inch of her face into her mind in order to daydream about it later, and hurried after her mother.
After that, Manaia made regular visits to the growing township, never coming too close to Annabel and her family’s hut but instead waiting some distance away until Annabel noticed her. And Annabel came to look forward to her visits as she’d never looked forward to anything else in her life before. The language barrier between them gradually dissolved as they learned words of each other’s language, though Annabel had to stop herself from using the Maori tongue when she spoke of everyday things. She knew without a doubt that her mother and father would never stand for it. Instead she would whisper the words to herself – kai for food, whare for house, and the most wonderful word of all: aroha for love.
Six months after the settlers first arrived in Ferrymead, Mary and Geoffrey called their eldest daughter into the hut, their faces solemn. Annabel looked at their serious expressions and a cold hand of fear gripped her heart. “What is it? What is wrong?” Her initial thought was of Manaia, though of course her parents would not be looking so solemn if they had bad news to tell her of Manaia. They had made it very clear that they had no time for the Maori girl, though they had been unable to dissuade Annabel from seeing her.
Mary darted a quick look at her husband, who cleared his throat and pulled at his beard before speaking. “Annabel,” he said gruffly, “You’re nearly nineteen years old now. Your mother had been married for three years by the time she was your age and we had already welcomed you into our lives. We’ve been lenient up until now in regards to your apparent disinterest in finding yourself a husband, given our extraordinary circumstances, but life has now become more settled and steady. Samuel Harrison has asked for our permission to court you and we have granted him that permission.”
Annabel stared at her parents in horror. Of course she’d always known that one day she’d have to be married but… the thought made her skin crawl. She could not imagine what it would be like to lie with a man each night and to carry his child. Her eyes dropped to her mother’s swelling belly and swiveled quickly away. No, she could not do it. She would not do it.
“Annabel,” Mary said gently, “You are no longer a child. You need to look to the future. The success of the new settlement here in New Zealand depends on the strength of families. On young people forming bonds and having babies who in turn will grow up and have families of their own. You know this – you’ve always known this. And Samuel is a fine young man. You should feel proud that he has chosen you.”
Annabel swallowed the lump in her throat and shut her eyes for a moment. Samuel, with his loud laugh and rough hands was to be her husband. She understood the underlying message in her parents’ words. There was to be no courtship. Their union had already been decided and agreed upon without anyone even consulting her.
“Clergyman Boston has agreed to perform the marriage ceremony one month from today,” said Geoffrey briskly. “That should give your mother enough time to prepare you for, errr, all you need to know.” He cleared his throat again and hurriedly left the hut.
Annabel grasped her mother’s hands and looked at her pleadingly. “Mother, I beg of you. Give me a little more time. I’m not ready to be married.”
“Nonsense.” Mary shook herself free of Annabel’s grip. “You are more than ready to be married.” Her lip curled and she made no attempt to hide her derision. “You are spending your days running around with that native girl as if you are no older than Polly. It is time for you to grow up, Annabel.”
“Manaia,” said Annabel softly. “Her name is Manaia.”
Mary turned away, indicating that the conversation was over. “Can you go and find Tom? It is time for his lessons.”
Annabel stared sightlessly out at the endless plains, the fields of yellow tussock grass stretching in all directions, as the carriage rumbled towards Ferrymead. In the many years since their arrival in the new country multiple signs of civilization had sprung up, including dramatic growth in the township of Christchurch where she now lived. However, this 5-mile stretch of countryside between Christchurch and Ferrymead still remained more or less uninhabited, an echo of the state the entire region had been in when they’d first arrived.
“Mother.” Beth, Annabel’s eighteen-year-old daughter, leaned forward in her seat. “Are we nearly at Grandfather’s house?” She rubbed her heavily pregnant stomach. “The baby is kicking so much I fear he or she is about to make its entry into the world right this moment.”
“We’re nearly there, dear. You’ll be fine.” Annabel patted her daughter’s hand absentmindedly and resumed her study of the countryside. Beth and her husband Michael shared all the nervousness and worry of new parents but Annabel knew they’d both cope admirably once the baby arrived. At least they were in love, which was more than she could say for her and Samuel’s relationship when they’d embarked on marriage and parenthood.
It was hard to believe that nearly twenty years had passed since she’d stood, terrified, in front of Clergyman Boston and taken her marriage vows. Samuel was little more than a stranger to her and she’d dreaded the intimacy which she knew awaited her. And even worse, Samuel planned to build his house in the new settlement of Christchurch. Far away from Annabel’s family and far away from Manaia.
But, bound by expectations, Annabel had no choice in the matter. She’d married Samuel, said her heartbreaking and tearful goodbyes to Manaia, and left for her new future. The arrival of children had helped. First Beth, quickly followed by Sara, and two years later the twins, Ben and Geoffrey Jnr, had arrived. And Samuel was a good man, even if he was a little uncouth. He provided well for his family and he treated Annabel well enough. And over time she’d grown fond of him and loved him as much as she did her own brothers. But the only person who’d ever had the ability to change the very air around her was Manaia.
She’d seen Manaia on a few occasions after her marriage to Samuel. They’d made regular visits back to Ferrymead of course, and sometimes Annabel had the chance to speak for a few precious moments with the other girl. Manaia made her own union with a man named Tamati and her first child was born six months before Beth. And then one day Annabel had arrived at the settlement to find Manaia and her family gone and life had never been quite the same again.
Mary had succumbed to the fever ten years ago, leaving Geoffrey a widower. He had never married again, single women being scarce in the new colonies, but he appeared happy enough with his lot. And he doted on his grandchildren, of which he had several now. Polly and Annabel’s brothers had made good marriages, and Polly and her husband still lived in Ferrymead.
Samuel pulled the horses to a stop outside Geoffrey’s cottage and jumped down to help his daughters and wife out of the carriage. Ben and Geoffrey scrambled out, squabbling among themselves as usual, as Geoffrey came to the door to greet them.
After a cup of tea with Geoffrey during which they caught up on the news, the older man took Samuel to see his new foal while Beth and Sara settled themselves in the parlor with their needlework. Ben and Geoffrey had headed over to the river to try their luck at fishing and Annabel put on her bonnet to walk down to the bakery. The Ferrymead bakery had established itself a fine reputation in the settlement and she’d promised the children she’d purchase a treat to take back to Christchurch with them.
She pushed open the door to the little shop, her nostrils instantly assailed by the fragrant scent of yeast and sugar. A Maori woman was working behind the counter, her back to the door. “Won’t be a moment,” she called out in perfect accent-less English.
Annabel peered around at the racks of loaves of bread and buns, trying to decide what she should buy. Samuel had a fondness for scones and jam, but Beth’s pregnancy had given her a craving for sugar buns. Perhaps she should buy both?
The sound of her name, uttered from Manaia’s lips after all these years, was both shocking and exhilarating. She stared over the counter into Manaia’s eyes and it was as if all the years between them had never existed. “Manaia,” she whispered.
And in that instant she understood with absolute clarity that aroha could never, ever be restricted or entrapped by notions as simplistic as race, gender, propriety, or time.