On Levin, and grandmothers: an essay by Ruby Porter

Ruby Porter’s debut novel, Attraction, is a lucid, layered story of three young women on a road trip across the North Island. It’s one of the best books we’ve read this year. Here, Ruby writes about her grandmother – who is not like the grandmother in her book – and Levin, and how the two are at the centre of her writing. 

She tells me it’s like being underwater.

She tells me everything feels far away, and muted.

She tells me she hasn’t read my book yet. As if, one day, she could.

My grandma Sheila is 95, officially deaf, and officially blind now, too. She says she’s lucky she has her memory. She retells herself stories in her head.

Sheila and my granddad Jack moved to Levin from Inglewood in 1973, so Jack could start at Waiopehu College. Linley said it was heaven compared to Inglewood. When I was young, I couldn’t understand this. 

Levin is a State Highway One town, population 21,000, famous for Swanndri and retirement homes. When I mention it, people say they’ve never heard of it, or they’ve driven through it, or they went to a funeral there, once, as a kid. It has an enclosed pool that I haven’t been back to since my tankini top flew clean off during a diving lesson aged 12. It has a small skate park across the road, built to appease the ‘youths’. The supermarkets are busy on Tuesdays, when benefits and pensions are paid. The train still passes in the night, but it doesn’t stop anymore. 

All through primary school, intermediate, and college, I’d come to stay here in each of my holidays, often for the whole two weeks. My mum Linley and I would arrive to home-made pikelets and jam on the table, a tub of butter, flies launching themselves furiously into the white lace netting; arms flung open from the old La-Z-Boy, and a special high-pitched cry which meant she knew it was us. 

I used to lie to my crushes, and say I was going to Wellington.

Until the age of eight, one of my best friends, Dowjai, lived in the house in front of Sheila. Four years my senior, she was fearless and beautiful. She’d bike down the small descent of the alleyway, no brakes, and always manage to jump off before the metal bars. We would sneak into her school together for a swim, then stare at the concrete pool, drained for the summer. We’d take Sheila’s old dog Jessie to the playground by the lake, and feed her treats when she walked over the wobbly bridge. We’d enter pharmacy colouring-in competitions, and she’d correct me when I wrote my age. “No one writes three-quarters,” she’d say, “just put five.” She was able to stay within the lines, but I gave all my entries a rainbow border. 

Next to her, in the Levin Mall photographs, posed in front of a fake pink curtain, I look chubby-cheeked and not-quite-ready for the flash.  

When Jack died, his body was displayed in the smallest room, with the single bed. Sheila remembers Dowjai and I jumping on that bed beside him, aged three and seven. I don’t remember that, but I do remember him lying there, and I do remember that his eyes were open.

I’m staying in that room now. The second day I’m here, the multi-board in my room dies. It’s yellowed and square, a relic from the 80s. There’s only one outlet in this room. I have to choose between the fan heater and my laptop, which can’t hold a charge. I shut Word and go back to reading.

The first iwi to live here were Waitaha, then Ngāti Māmoe and Muaūpoko, and later Ngāti Raukawa. Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, who had been a commander on the side of the British during the New Zealand Wars, sold land for a township. Every tenth section was to be granted to the Muaūpoko people, but the Crown reneged on this agreement. It was supposed to be named Taitoko. But it was named Levin, after a director of the Wellington and Manakau Train Co.

Dowjai’s family did what so many young families do: moved to Auckland. I stuck to walking Jessie with Sheila and biking on the flat. And I stayed at home, most of the time. Sheila bought me a trampoline and I would fly as high as I could above the neighbour’s fence, again and again. She owned all of Mr Bean and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on VHS, and I watched them on repeat. And I’d read, of course, on Sheila’s back porch.

Sheila was one of the most voracious readers I’ve ever met. The first question she’d always ask me was what I’d read in the last term. We could talk for hours that way. Her favourites were always classics, but through her book club she kept up with Seamus Deane, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Anne Enright (who we still disagree about). She loved reading histories. The last book she read was Adam Zamoyski’s 750-page Napoleon. If you ask her about it now, she can still tell you that the Battle of Borodino was in September of 1812, or that, when returning from Warsaw, he sent Josephine a letter saying, “Be home in three days. Don’t wash.”

Lake Horowhenua, on Levin’s west side, is Muaūpoko owned but Crown-controlled. They stole property rights in 1905. After years of mishandling — treated sewage and rowing clubs, a weir which turned it stagnant — the lake is eutrophic. It’s so toxic its water could be lethal if swallowed by a small child. Philip Taueki, a Muaūpoko activist fighting to get it cleaned up, was taken to court for three years for ‘trespassing’ on its shores.

I wrote about this in a piece of creative nonfiction a few years ago. “This isn’t true,” Sheila said when I showed her. “People will be angry you made that up.” You can live in a place half your life and still never know its history. 

Whispers Café is the best place to get a coffee in Levin, but Sheila prefers the pies from the bakery next door. There’s a Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s within four blocks. She would sneak me, sometimes, into McDonald’s, let me eat fries and chicken nuggets.

Sheila grows forwards instead of upwards. Her spine wilts like a flower. Her new hearings aids are too fiddly for her to put in or take out, so I do this each morning and night. I have to brace her upright, her body so ready to fold.

The Tararua Ranges bloom along the skyline, blue and purple and white and five thousand feet tall. Sheila still calls them ‘the hills’.

Levin is where I learned to write. Linley would take me for day trips, to Otaki or Whanganui, then tell me to write about it. She was a tough teacher, pointing out every adverb, every use of ‘awesome’.

At my intermediate, we had to write a short story each term. I would draft mine during the holidays. I wrote about my dog Hope, chewing up doorknobs and being fed chocolate by Sheila (she claimed it was good for his digestion). I wrote about eating pavlova at Christmas, an avalanche of cream and berries on china plates. And I wrote about Henry VIII, reincarnated as Levin’s local butcher, seen hacking at carcasses through his home window, thick with condensation (this one, despite our strict orders to write from life, was entirely fictional).

I hadn’t thought of these stories for years, and then in 2016, when I was about to start my Masters of Creative Writing, I remembered them. The road trip in my novel Attraction, I realised, had to find its way to Levin. ‘My own little dystopia,’ I called it. Somehow, I had to force my characters, all in their mid-twenties, to visit this retirement town. So I came up with the grandma.

Sheila has heard a bit about this grandma – none of it good. When I told her I was writing a piece on her for The Spinoff, her first response was, “What’s The Spinoff?” and her second response was, “You will say how I’m not like that grandma.” I wrote it in my acknowledgements and I’ll write it again. The grandma in Attraction is cold and judgmental and scathing of too much oil in a pan and refuses to eat. Sheila is all-warmth, cooked in half-blocks of butter. She’s dessert bowls scraped each night with a spoon. The dining room in Attraction gathers dust, off-limits. Nowhere is Sheila’s house was ever off-limits to me. She let me make sheet tents in her living room. She didn’t care if I broke anything. “Never mind,” she’d say, “never mind.” She taught me how to play cards on her low coffee table, Go Fish and Patience, and I think she let me win. We were allowed the heater on all the time. For some reason, which I still haven’t quite worked out, she used to give me the only double bed. 

The first night I’m here, Sheila forgets to ask me to take her hearing aids out, and sleeps with them in. In the morning, she tells Linley there had been fireworks going off all night. She didn’t recognise the sound of her own buzzing. “And I realised,” she said, “it must be for Matariki.”

Sheila’s house is an old state home, the comfortable kind. There’s a wall of ivy which I used to abseil down with Dowjai. There’s a cherry tree which flowers religiously each spring. The slabs of concrete bake in the sun. The dogs bake in the sun. The plums drop, and bake in the sun. In summer, the sickly stench of rotting fruit flesh weaves its way up the garden. 

This house sits empty now. Fingers of ivy touch the front door.

I got the call when I was in Washington DC last year. Only a month before, I’d been with her in Levin and the doctor had said, “It’s not the flu, it’s a cold. Might’ve gone to the chest a little.” But Sheila kept calling it a flu, and we kept correcting her. After we left, she went downhill. By the time she moved from Levin to my aunty and uncle’s farm in Pahīatua, a district nurse gave her two weeks to live. 

I wasn’t told that, of course. I would’ve flown back straight away. But I was told we’d be lucky to get another Christmas. I Skyped her from my friend’s blow-up mattress that deflated each night. Linley kept pointing to me. “See Ruby, Sheila, see her.” But she couldn’t. I hardly recognised her either. Her eyes were flat. She hardly moved or spoke. “How’s Michael?” was all she managed. She’s always liked my boyfriends. Whenever we’ve stayed, she’s offered us the double bed, though everyone knows she can’t get up into the old single anymore. 

The first weekend I was back from the States I flew down to visit her. When Sheila saw me, her arms flung open from her chair, and she made that special cry, the one that meant she knew it was me.

When school and uni holidays align, Linley and I pick Sheila up and bring her back to Levin. Nothing much has changed. Her dog, Faye, is blinder, and bumps into doorframes and calves. They sleep together under a duvet.  Last year, Sheila was collecting her mail from down the driveway. Now, she doesn’t move between rooms without her walker. We orbit her in her chair.

Linley teaches her how to pronounce Pahīatua. “Pa-hee-atua,” she says. “Pa-he-atuua,” Sheila says. “No, atua, atua for god.” For the rest of the night, she sits on the couch in front of the TV, whispering to herself. “Pa-hee-atua”.

The best way to talk to Sheila now is through writing in huge, block letters. We turn whiteboards foggy and artist’s pads spotty with marker pens. I write PTO in all the corners so she knows to turn the pages. I ask her what her favourite thing about Levin is. She says the hills. She says the dog park. She says that it always looks so neat and clean and tidy, without many old buildings. She thinks about it more. “The plane trees,” she says, “down the main road. The way they light up at Christmas”.

I used to joke that Levin was ‘my own little dystopia,’ but maybe it’s not as simple as that. The plane trees are beautiful. It has the best Savemart in the country (Ilana in my novel has that wrong) and Whispers have recently added tempeh to their menu. There are beaches on all sides, if you have a car, and you get used to the taste of boiled water. The ‘hills’ swell in the mist, their lines grow plump and indistinct. And Sheila’s back porch is the best place in the world to read. 

There are Levin roads that still surprise me as we turn down them. The left side of town turns rural so fast, and the south side, industrial. Oversized trucks creep up beside you at the lights. I don’t know these streets, and now, I realise, I never will.

Attraction, by Ruby Porter (Text, $37) is available at Unity Books.

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