Authors: Lesley Pearse
Tags: #Fiction, #General
To my beautiful granddaughter Sienna Marie, born 9 December 2012. Sister to
Harley and bringing extra joy to my daughter Jo, her partner Otis, and to all
the rest of our family.
‘Mariette is so …’ Miss
Quigley paused, her thin lips pursed as she searched for a suitable adjective to
describe her errant pupil. ‘So defiant!’
Belle resisted the temptation to smile
at the schoolmistress’s description of her eleven-year-old daughter. When
Belle was a child, it was often said of her too.
It was around half past four, and Miss
Quigley had called on Belle after dismissing her pupils for the day.
Belle had shown the teacher into the
parlour as a mark of respect, but she had no intention of offering tea as she
didn’t want to encourage the woman to linger. ‘I think what you are
seeing is just a sign of a strong character. What exactly has she been up to that
you find so distressing?’
‘I have no particular incident to
illustrate it, but she challenges everything I say. Just the other day I was telling
the class how many New Zealand soldiers lost their lives in the Great War, and she
claimed that France lost twenty-five per cent of her men.’
‘But that’s true,’
Belle said. ‘I wouldn’t call it defiance to point that out – especially
when her father is French and fought for his country.’
It was tempting to add that Etienne had
been awarded the Croix de Guerre for his courage, but he wouldn’t like her to
boast about that.
Miss Quigley crossed her arms.
‘But she has a view on
also get very irritated by her teaching the other children dubious French
‘I think you’ll find there
is nothing dubious about them, she just likes the sound of the language. I doubt
very much that it is anything more than, “Please pass me a pencil,” or,
“It’s very hot today.” Both her father and I wish her to be
bilingual, and we are delighted with her progress.’
Miss Quigley’s disapproving sniff
was evidence that she regarded teaching a child French as something subversive.
‘She is overconfident.’ She rapped this out like an insult.
‘She’s always the first child to speak out, takes the lead in
‘I’m very sorry you find
that troubling.’ Belle thought this dried-up old stick of a schoolmistress
should concentrate her energies on helping the less able children in the school and
be glad she had at least one pupil who liked to learn. ‘I would have thought a
teacher would like to see such enthusiasm – it is, after all, a compliment to your
‘Pride cometh before a
fall,’ the schoolmistress retorted with another disapproving sniff. ‘She
may be a big fish in this little pool, but how will she manage when she comes up
against even bigger fish?’
‘A confident child will
adjust.’ Belle was growing cross. ‘Now, shall we discuss her progress at
school? I assumed that was what you came for?’
‘She reads and writes very
well,’ Miss Quigley said begrudgingly. ‘She is quick at arithmetic too.
But she distracts the other children when she has finished her work and prevents
them from finishing theirs.’
‘By talking to them?’ Belle
felt they were at last getting somewhere.
‘Then I’ll tell her that she
mustn’t do that. But maybe
give her more work or another job to keep her occupied?’
Belle had realized some time ago that
Miss Quigley had taken against Mariette. She didn’t think it was because the
girl was quicker or smarter than other children of the same age, but purely because
neither Mariette nor Belle sucked up to her the way that so many of the other
children and mothers in Russell did.
A plain, thin and reserved woman in her
late forties, Miss Quigley had arrived in Russell to teach around the same time that
Belle had married Etienne. Rumour had it that she’d chosen to come to Russell
to be nearer Silas Waldron, a widower who live in Kerikeri, whom she’d met in
Auckland. Perhaps she’d hoped friendship would blossom into love and marriage,
but it obviously hadn’t.
It was never going to be easy for a
single woman with no close friends or family in the area to adjust to living in such
an isolated community after living in a big city. Miss Quigley had little in common
with her pupils’ mothers, whose lives revolved around their husbands and
families, and she probably found them rather backward-thinking.
It didn’t help that she was so
starchy and prim – she had no small talk and rarely smiled, let alone laughed – and
if she had hoped she might find a husband amongst the wealthy men who came here to
fish for marlin in the summer, she was out of luck. Belle doubted any of them would
want a plain middle-aged woman who looked like she’d spent her life sucking
‘If you will forgive my plain
speaking, Mrs Carrera, I do think you should curb Mariette’s wild spirit by
encouraging her to take up more ladylike pursuits than sailing. As I was coming
here, I saw her pushing the boat out from the jetty with her dress tucked up in a
most ungainly manner.’
Belle was suddenly
all ears and looked at the schoolmistress in alarm. ‘You saw Mari taking the
boat out? Wasn’t her father with her?’
‘No, she was alone, shouting back
to someone on the shore like a fishwife.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me that
straight away?’ Belle ripped off her apron and made for the door. ‘Do
you really think we’d allow an eleven-year-old to sail alone?’
‘That’s my point,
she’s defiant,’ Miss Quigley replied. But her point was lost because
Belle was already out of the door, leaving her alone in the parlour.
Belle ran at full tilt along the shore
towards the jetty, her heart thumping with fear. Etienne had promised to take
Mariette out for a sailing lesson in the dinghy after school today, if he finished
work early enough. But if Miss Quigley was to be believed, Mariette thought she had
learned enough to sail the boat alone.
It was a beautiful, sunny October day,
with just enough wind to make it ideal sailing weather, but Mariette wasn’t
strong or knowledgeable enough to control a sailing boat on her own. She had been
told this by her father dozens of times. A sudden squall of wind could capsize the
boat, and she could be struck on the head by the boom. Although she could swim well,
the water out in the bay was still very cold at this time of year, and in some parts
there were dangerous currents.
Seeing Charley Lomax up ahead, Belle
called out to him. ‘Mari’s taken the boat out alone. Can you find
Etienne for me?’ she yelled. ‘And if you see Mog, tell her
Charley Lomax was one of Russell’s
characters, about fifty, hard-working when he was sober, but he went on benders that
could last for days. He lived in a squalid shack at the back end of town, but
Etienne liked him and they often worked on building jobs together.
The man waved his
hand to signal he understood what she’d said and ran off so fast it was clear
that he was sober today.
Belle stopped running for a moment as
she had a stitch. Putting her hand up to shield her eyes, she scanned the bay. Their
dinghy had a red sail, and when Etienne first bought it Belle had often stood here
watching him put it through its paces. She had been worried when he started taking
Mariette out with him to teach her, and she still wouldn’t let him take Alexis
or Noel as the boys were only eight and seven respectively and not strong swimmers
yet. But she had relented with Mariette because the girl loved everything about the
sea and boats and liked being alone with her father.
She spotted the dinghy, which was going
at a fair lick, way out in the bay. Mariette was just a tiny dot leaning back from
her perch on the side to keep the boat balanced. Belle’s fear was that the
girl hadn’t the strength in her arms to bring the boat about, and she was
heading straight towards the open sea where the waves would be heavy.
Belle turned at the sound of Mog’s
shout and saw her racing towards her, clutching Alexis and Noel’s hands. She
collected the boys from school most days as they came out half an hour earlier than
Mariette, and she usually took them for a walk so they could let off a bit of
At any other time Belle would have
marvelled that a woman of fifty-nine with a slight limp could run so fast. But Belle
could only think of the danger her daughter was in.
‘Mari’s out there,
alone,’ she shouted back to Mog, pointing to the boat in the distance.
‘Do you know where Etienne is?’
Mog reached her and doubled over with
the exertion of running. ‘Charley went to get him. He’s only at the
Baxters’ place,’ she wheezed out. ‘He’ll go straight to the
and take the other boat to get her.
You’d better go with him to help.’
‘If she capsizes out there,
she’ll drown,’ Belle said in a quavering voice as they continued towards
the jetty. ‘I’ve told her a million times how dangerous the sea can be.
Why does she always have to challenge everything?’
‘Calm down, Belle,’ Mog
said. ‘She’s a naughty girl, disobeying you. But if you can still see
the boat upright, then there’s no need to panic yet. Etienne will be here
before you can say Jack Robinson.’
Mog was right about that. As they
reached the jetty, a cloud of dust heralded Etienne’s arrival in the old
Although fifty-one now, the years had
been kind to him and he was still as lean and strong as he had been on their wedding
day. He had more lines around his blue eyes, and his hair was more white than blond,
but he still had the power to make women’s hearts flutter a little, especially
As she expected, he didn’t stop
for explanations, recriminations or suggestions, just told Alexis to run home and
get a warm blanket, asked Mog to wait with Noel, then grabbed Belle’s hand and
charged down the jetty to where their small fishing boat was moored. He leapt in and
started the engine while Belle hastily cast off and then jumped into the boat with
him. Etienne pushed off from the jetty with a boathook and, within seconds, they
were heading towards the dinghy.
Etienne looked at the little craft in
the distance. ‘She’s handling it well,’ he said with a certain
amount of pride, but then glanced at Belle’s terror-struck face. ‘We
couldn’t have expected to have docile, obedient children, Belle! Mari has
inherited the worst and the best of both of us.’
Belle was tempted to say he should never
have bought the dinghy – and she’d never forgive him if Mariette was drowned,
or even hurt – but she didn’t, because she knew
Etienne would never forgive himself if anything happened.
Besides, she had agreed that all children living by the sea should learn to swim and
to sail, so she was every bit as responsible.
Neither of them spoke again, both
silently willing the fishing boat to go faster. As they drew closer, they could
clearly see that Mariette was struggling against the force of the wind in the
‘She’s hanging on to the
line for grim death and forgetting to use the rudder to put it about,’ Etienne
said. His teeth were gritted with fear for her because, if she continued as she was,
the dinghy would be out on the open sea very soon.
As they chugged towards her, a sudden
squall came up and, to their horror, the little dinghy flipped over in an instant
and Mariette was thrown out into the sea like a little rag doll. They saw her fall,
heard the splash, and yet she disappeared instantly.
‘Where’s she gone? I
can’t see her!’ Belle gasped.
The water around Russell had been calm,
but out here it was very choppy and the shock of sudden immersion in extremely cold
water would make it hard for anyone to swim, especially a small girl.
yelled out at the top of his voice. ‘Can you hear me?’
They had around fifty yards before they
reached the capsized boat, and Belle was beside herself with fear as she scanned the
water looking for her child. She glanced at Etienne and saw that his jaw was set
grimly as he slowed down in readiness to jump into the water.
‘Take the wheel and circle the
dinghy, slow and wide,’ he said. As she did so, he pulled off his boots.
‘Shout and wave this if you spot her,’ he added, handing her a piece of
He dived into the sea, surfacing some
ten yards ahead.
Belle did as
she’d been instructed, slowly circling the capsized boat, calling out to
Mariette as she searched the water with her eyes. Etienne kept diving under the
water, then resurfaced moments later, only to plunge down again.
Terror threatened to overwhelm Belle,
who was imagining that at any minute Etienne would come to the surface holding the
body of their lifeless child. She tried to keep the lid on her panic by reminding
herself that they knew Mariette hadn’t been hit by the boom, so she
wasn’t unconscious, and that she could swim like a fish. But every second that
passed without sight of her daughter meant she might have already drowned.
‘Please God, keep her safe,’
she whispered frantically as Etienne once again dived down.
Then, as if her prayer was answered, she
saw her. A small and frightened white face emerged from a wave, and Belle saw that
the girl was reaching out for the keel of the upturned dinghy.
‘Stay there, Mari,’ Belle
yelled out, waving the red rag frantically. ‘Papa’s coming to get you.
Hold on tight!’
Etienne emerged on the other side of the
‘This side! She’s on this
side of the boat,’ Belle screamed and pointed.
Etienne raised one hand to let her know
he’d heard. As he swam round the capsized boat, Belle steered the fishing boat
It took Etienne no more than a couple of
minutes to reach Mariette and, holding her up, he swam with her towards Belle and
passed her up into Belle’s arms.
‘I’ll just go back to the
dinghy and get it upright. We can tow it back to Russell,’ he shouted out from
the water, then turned and swam back.