Excerpt from In the Time of the Manaroans

By | 1 October 2020

The great beauty

Dressed in a dirty, earth-coloured calico dress that emphasises her fertility-goddess figure, Claire has fox-sharp features and a prominent beauty spot on her cheek. At twenty-one she is younger by six or seven years than the average Manaroan. Regardless, the commune’s survival turns on this formidable character.

On her occasional visits to my father’s house Claire doesn’t say much. Rather, she pulls on a rollie, drinks strong tea out of a blue-lipped enamel mug, chops firewood as well as any man, neglects her beauty in a way that is commanding, and watches whatever there is to go down, go down. Sometimes she chews the end of her thumb, a rare reminder of her youth. Nail biter, she confesses, blushing to the root when she catches me watching.
Claire quit school as a teenager. Not long after, she became the gardener–founder of the Manaroa commune. Now she works like a pioneer and smokes like a narrow-eyed cowboy; the New Zealand light is strong. Everyone is a little afraid of her.


Manaroa’s bountiful kitchen garden is legendary. I hear of it long before I clap eyes. Its great horticultural beauty is mostly down to Claire and those who tread her green-sprung footsteps: Kate, Sylvie and Bernadette. The garden is given over to herbs, giant rows of salad food and companion plants: frilly kale decades before it has entered urban-hipster consciousness, purple-skinned garlic, the dark-veined beet leaves that make the contents of our salad bowls pithy, marigold and borage flowers for bug-repelling and for eating, and, here and there, a lemon or tamarillo tree. This does not come close to describing the garden’s unmarshalled abundance nor its flowers.

It is in the Manaroa garden that I discover those idiosyncratic flowers that resemble two-tone jester hats, aquilegias or – as Kate, herself as leggy and astringent as a spring onion, informs me – Columbine after Harlequin’s sweetheart. Aquilegia. The word is at least half the attraction. Love-in-a-mist, with whiskery fronds that screen and frame a single star-shaped blue flower, is another literary siren with an ingenious face. From this time on, I cultivate these mercurial flowers and they me.


Kate arrives at the Floodhouse in the company of Claire: one loquacious, the other steadfastly reluctant to be drawn. Everything about them – from their muddy work boots beneath ragged hems to their labour-dented limbs – spells can-do. Kate is directly acquainted with the second wave of American feminism. It might have been she who inspired my father to mail Our Bodies, Ourselves, with its black-and-white shots of self-empowering pocket mirror held to labia, for my fourteenth birthday. Secret images right out there in the open that burn a hole in my mind.

In fact, my father has an affinity for the women’s movement that predates his acquaintance with Kate. This alliance is not disinterested. Ever since he was born, and thus subjected to the iron law of his headmaster father, my father has found men, and their delusion of entitlement and expertise, an intolerable bore. Decades before ‘mansplaining’ is coined, in another century, in one or other of the departure lounges that criss-cross my childhood, my father fills the time before take-off by pointing out a male stranger gratuitously explaining something to a long-suffering woman over airport coffee.

But Kate. Newcomer Kate’s commentaries are so commenting, her puncturing eye so visibly at work, that I retreat into failure to communicate. As for my sister, she emerges from her moody composure, steadies her Wedgwood gaze and indulges in a chattiness I have not seen before. She seems to instantly apprehend Kate’s brainy flow of reference and reflexivity. In turn, my sister’s drawings of other, less empirical empires; her collection of hand-stitched, over-stuffed, long-nosed velvet woozles; and her purloined recipes for bitter medieval lollies, are given due regard by the visitor. Disinclined to join the fun and, frankly, unqualified, I watch the way the tallest and the tiniest make my father’s kitchen their scornful salon.


Sylvie has a crystal-cut upper lip and blue eyes that clash symphonically with her hennaed hair. Her high, flirtatious laugh is uneasy in its own skin like an undecided party girl or a horse about to shy. In her late thirties, with soft Norwich vowels, Sylvie is the oldest and most striking of the Manaroans. She is also the one my father feels hopeful about.

I, too, look to this Englishwoman for clues. She is mother-age and voluptuous-bodied – a confusion of signifier with signified, this, for there is nothing especially maternal about Sylvie. Still, she pays me respectful attention on her sporadic visits to the Floodhouse. She and my father are having the kind of vacillating, experimental affair that soon peters to friendship. Butter-skinned, sensible and sometimes a little self-hating, Sylvie is hard to get to know, and I sense this extends to her relationship with herself. Perhaps this shifting opacity drives her interest in the drier, more punishing branches of esoteric mysticism and astrology.

A few years on, when she is on her way out of the hippy world, this handsome woman tells me she wants only not to be noticed. Around this time Sylvie becomes strategically interested in the drabbest, most suburban of clothes. She seeks out sensibly cut beige and brown, and lets the henna fade from her hair. Her new disguise throws retrospective confusion on the old. It is strange to see Sylvie’s grace so wilfully doused but, as she represents it, she’s had it with hippy men. She has recognised that the sexual revolution and its hippy offshoot, the myth of free love without acknowledgement of emotional need or commitment, serves its male proponents first and foremost.

Eventually Sylvie marries a sheep farmer pocketed in the most conservative reaches of the Marlborough Sounds, whose dying wife she has professionally nursed over long years. Immured in this long-duration service, then courtship, Sylvie disappears from the public eye and the feral dreaming of her once flamboyantly communal life at Manaroa.
But when I know Sylvie, when her membership of the back-to-the-land scene is in full swing, she tells me that if you are horny or frustrated or simply need to attract a man for sex you might dab vagina juice behind your ear. This is delivered in Sylvie’s habitual tone of enlightened neutrality so it is impossible to tell if she has ever done so herself. I am living in Nelson, putting myself through a final year of school, and Sylvie and I are lying companionably in my share-flat bed when she passes this piece of feral arcana on. I stash it. I am lonely but not that lonely, I decide.

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