Over twenty years ago I met someone that changed my life. Her name was Sian. We were both starting at a new school. We were both the eldest kid in our family. We both had brown hair and brown-ish eyes.Neither of us were very cool or very extroverted. In fact, by all measures upon which teenage girls measure up other teenage girls in order to become friends we were pretty similar. Apart from one thing – Sian was sick and I was not.
I didn’t know Sian for very long. In the time I did know her I knew her to be calm, kind and graceful. Sweet but funny too. Smart. A friend of mine recently described her as “stoic”, especially in the way she handled her illness and I think that is an accurate description. She smiled easily and had a gentle nature. Sian’s death, on the other hand, was anything but gentle. It was protracted and unjust. Sian was only fourteen when she died and I will always, always think that is unfair. Now, over twenty years on, I still cannot believe her death. Part of me thinks she must be out there somewhere, with a family of her own, a house, work, a real, live life. Part of me believes she just doesn’t like facebook or email, imagines that we just lost touch. Part of me envisions how great it will be when we stumble into each other somewhere unexpected and how well we will still get along, how much we will laugh. But of course that won’t happen. Sian’s death, all these years on, still makes me furious and heartbroken. Guilty. It makes me believe in chaos, randomness, senselessness and injustice.
I don’t know who I would be without the experience of knowing Sian. Some other person I cannot imagine because Sian coming into and leaving my life at such a young age planted the seed of something different and determined, something that grew and propagated over the years and ultimately transformed whoever I might have been. Guilt, rage, inspiration, love, hope, ambition and an acute understanding of the brevity and unpredictability of life – all of those things and many more that are unnamable – knitted themselves into my DNA. They shaped me and my destiny irrevocably. Mostly without my realising it.
I lost touch with Sian’s family soon after she died. I hadn’t known her long and I had been young; more truthfully though – I hadn’t known what to say or how to be with them. After high-school I went away to University. Then I left New Zealand altogether. Melbourne, London and back again. Macau, Canada and back again. Australia and back again. I heard that her parents had moved away from Auckland. I found her Mum on Facebook once and then lost her again. But wherever I went in the world Sian came with me. She came with me in the way I processed what I saw and felt, the way I worried and dreamed and what I aspired from life. Knowing her and losing her had woven itself through me; I was forever stitched with both the love and the grief of it. I spoke to Sian often as I grew up and wandered away. I appealed to her for comfort and advice; moments I can still recall now – on the Tube in London, while the broken air conditioner dripped on my floor in Macau, when my heart was broken, when I felt guilty, when I was baffled and didn’t know what to do. Perhaps it is just my wishful thinking but whenever I needed her it felt like she was right there. Drily funny, frank, kind and calm. The voice of reason, the voice of love.
Last year I was running in a ten kilometre race. I was trying to set my pace to match that of a wispy, bouncy girl with a pink balloon tied to her ponytail. She was a pace-setter, running each kilometre in six minutes in order to finish the ten kilometre race in 60 minutes, which was my goal. It seemed difficult if not impossible. I hated that girl’s narrow back and springbok stride. In my head, I spoke to Sian; I joked with her. I asked Sian if there are (insert expletive) pink balloons where she is. In my head dropped the reply “There are orange balloons in heaven”. That became my mantra the rest of the race. “Orange-balloons-in-heaven, Orange-balloons-in-heaven.” It wasn’t until I finished running that I finally realized I’d been thinking of the wrong colour balloon. I looked around. There was a guy with an orange balloon. Turns out he’d been the pace setter for five minute kilometres. Huh. In between weary, wheezy inhalations I laughed. See what I mean about her being funny?
Maybe you don’t believe in heaven. Maybe you don’t believe in life after death. Maybe you think I am completely nuts. I’m not sure I believe in those things either (though the last one is true for sure. I am completely nuts). What I do believe in is magic. Inexplicable, beautiful and sweet. The plant that fruits when it’s not supposed to, the dog that warns of the earthquake coming. I believe in coincidences, in things that are “meant to be”. I believe in my daughter’s intuition which is uncanny and urges her to go and fetch me things I am thinking about without asking. I believe in soul mates. I believe in it being possible to find work that fills you up and makes you feel like yourself. I believe in true love. I believe in all these things at least as much as I believe in chaos, randomness, senselessness and unfairness and the idea that my complex, multi-faceted brain simply gave me comfort when I needed it. I am hopeful. I believe in possibility.
The orange balloon made my mind up about something. I resolved to get in touch Sian’s parents before my second book is released in April. I remembered where they had moved to and contacted everyone in the phone book in that region with their last name and initials. I sent messages to friends who might know where they had gone. I got nowhere. One night last week I went out with a good friend, Julia, (now a successful lawyer and published author) whom I went to school with. Completely out of the blue she mentioned Sian. The coincidence jolted me into explaining that I had been trying to track down Sian’s parents. Without any luck. Julia gave me a determined look, quizzed me on all the ways I’d tried to find them so far and promised she would help. She had news by the next morning.
Julia had discovered that Sian’s Dad had died, after a similarly long battle, almost three years ago. I took a breath and felt tears of shock and sadness well up. Chaos, randomness and injustice reigned. I thought of Sian’s Mum and all she’d had to endure and cried while I poured the kids’ cereal. It was all too unfair. But by the same afternoon, Julia had more news. She believed she’d found a phone number for Sian’s Mum. The initials matched, the address was in the right area, it had to be her. It was a number I’d either missed or ignored because it didn’t include Sian’s Dad’s initials. Julia left me to it, making me promise to tell her if the number was right. I already knew, in my soul and sinew, that it was. Because fear was digging in with long claws.
Perhaps my research attempts had been insufficient for a good reason. That reason being – I was terrified. What on earth would Sian’s Mum think of me? Calling her after all this time, after not bothering to stay in contact for all those years? What if Sian’s Mum thought I’d become friends with her daughter because I had been curious about her being ill? And what if that was partly true? What kind of person did that make me? Would her Mum remember that I’d been scared at the end? That I’d visited her daughter less and less? That I’d tried to make a new life and new friends, knowing Sian wouldn’t, couldn’t be in it? Would she think of me the way I often thought of myself – fearful, disloyal and weak? Would she know me as a drama queen or a narcissist? Would she hate me? Did I even deserve to contact her? I felt ill and scared. But I knew – I had made a decision that orange balloon day that I simply couldn’t back out of now.
After I put the girls to bed I sat on one of their tiny stools, my knees bent high and my phone plugged in to the wall next to the play-kitchen lest it run out of charge halfway through a conversation. I made my husband go into another room while I rang the number. Nervy. Nauseous. When my call went unanswered I waited and worried for half an hour and took a deep breath and tried again. She answered. I asked if it was her, though I instantly recognised her voice. Then I told her my name and asked if she remembered me. She paused and said that she did. Though my voice sounded strange and I spoke too fast I told her all I needed to – that I wasn’t sure I’d be doing what I am, writing, without the experience of knowing Sian. That I still think of her daughter. Often. Exactly how I had found her phone number, eventually. I admitted I had learned that Sian’s Dad had died. We both talked about how our lives look these days, where we have been and where we have ended up. As though time has pulled our ages together we talked about our kids, both of us mothers these days. She was kind and she didn’t seem to hate me. Not even a bit. And when I told her, finally, that I have dedicated this book to her daughter, I tried not to cry.
“Oh,” she said, speaking calm and slow and sure, as I now recall she always did “How funny.” Her voice was free from tears as I swallowed mine down. “Would you believe it’s my birthday today? I’ve just been out with my son. And there is such a full moon tonight! I had just walked in the door and now you call telling me all this…”
Her birthday. Of all the days to finally call, with guilt and love and worry heavy on my shoulders. I looked out into the deck doors and into the night and the moon was indeed the fullest I have seen it in a long, long time. Fat and floating like a balloon. Bright and round and as open to possibility as an empty plate.
Like I say, I believe in magic. And I know exactly who I have to thank for it.
* Season of Salt and Honey (Pan Macmillan) has been released in Australia and New Zealand today, April 1, 2015, and will be released in the U.S. and Canada in September, 2015 by Touchstone (an imprint of Simon and Schuster). To celebrate the release Fork & Fiction will be hosting a Month of Salt and Honey during April. Recipes, reviews and other sweet treats relating to the book will feature in all our posts this month.
In addition we will be running a competition via the Fork & Fiction facebook page and the Hannah Tunnicliffe facebook page for you to win signed copies of both Season of Salt and Honey and The Colour of Tea posted anywhere in the world. Join us here at Fork & Fiction to celebrate Hannah’s new novel! *