The sun rises early

The sun rises early in a burnt orange ball but Betty’s already awake.


She potters about, making a cup of black tea—warming the teapot, just so; turning it gently, swilling the tea bags (one for her and one for the pot), tapping her spoon on the blue pottery mug.

She saves the china teacups for high holy days, when the children come.


Betty checks the bus schedule, again; loses her glasses. 


Somewhere around there’s an old-fashioned tin—the grandkids say it’s retro; they bought it especially for her birthday, with an overpriced card.  It’s got pictures of vines and flowers, and her small hoard of biscuits.


So long as she’s up and awake, Betty uses the bonus hours, making the most of them—as she’s always done—making the best of this proximate family; making do.


She checks on the garden, framed by the window and bordered by lawns and the wheelchair-accessible path.  It’s still there, full of easy-care flax and ajuga and strange spiky plants where there used to be roses: where there should be roses.


She finds her glasses, and nibbles on a round wine biscuit, reflecting on cake tins with photos of royals or that South Island mountain and lake.  A glint of sunlight on glass reminds her of square yellow soap, the cake in a rattly cage.  Swooshing it under the tap to make suds was a treat for the little ones. They learned to wash the dishes and mostly she’d laugh while mopping their small tidal waves from the lino.  (These days, they call them tsunami, which sounds like something you’d eat with chopsticks, with rice.)


Betty makes sure the newspaper comes.  Sometimes it’s late, thrown haphazardly in its plastic wrapper by the cheerful delivery chap.  It occasionally lands in the garden or by the fence, rarely on the path.  She needs to put slippers on, to retrieve it.  If it weren’t for her poor circulation, she’d still rather go without shoes, but her feet get cold and look veiny and purple.  Before pantyhose, stockings were held up with tight bands of elastic.  All those years of discomfort; no wonder her blood slowed and cooled and doesn’t quite reach her feet.  They used to be beautiful. She used to wear shiny polish—red, orange, pink—on her toenails, and have slim ankles.


She finishes yesterday’s crossword, and wonders what’s on TV.  It’s too early to watch it, of course; at this hour, it’s all business news and foolish presenters and televangelists.  She checks the newspaper listings, hoping it’s Coronation Street day.  She wishes they wouldn’t keep changing it, and briefly misses the idea of EnaSharples.


Betty pats her own hair, thick and wavy and grey.  No hairnets or perms for her!

The girl with orange streaks, and earrings in places that aren’t ears, does a lovely job.  Her hands are firm and gentle, and it’s worth the discomfort of leaning back over the bowl, to feel those young, warm hands on her head, massaging, rinsing, combing, soothing.  Any hands, any touch is precious these days—except for the shoving at mealtimes, and the sharp elbows.

Betty used to wonder about God.  She doesn’t bother much these days.  She’s figured out how to get on with most people, and to ignore the ones who upset her, and she reckons God must do the same.  Any deity worth his salt, or hers, wouldn’t be bothered with pettiness and self-serving confessions; wouldn’t listen to whinging and constant demands.  Any more than she used to put up with the children’s begging for things, or absurd claims of “peer pressure”.  You did what was right, and that was mostly that.


Sometimes she wonders how you know what’s right any more, but she suspects it’s like cake tins: right and wrong goes in and out of fashion, and you do what works at the time and does the least damage—to other people, and yourself and the earth.  If there is a God of the sort that listens to you, Betty wouldn’t mind a word or two.  There are things she’d like to know that she’s embarrassed to ask anyone, even at her age.  Especially at her age.  You used not to talk about some things, unlike today, when it’s open slather.


She’d like to know what an MP3 is, and what’s meant by GSOH in the personal columns; and she wonders if gods—and goddesses—realise they only exist while people believe in them, which is why the old ones aren’t around any more. 


She forgets where she was going with that idea and switches on the radio.


The bird call tells her it’s news time, and then they’ll announce the weather, and she’ll decide if she should wear a scarf on the bus later, and whether to take her umbrella.  Not that the forecast makes any difference: she’s going to wear her nearly-new red coat, but it’s as well to keep up with what’s going on.  She might need an extra layer or two.


She wouldn’t like to waste the doctor’s time asking about acronyms, and if she wonders aloud to her children about some of these modern terms, they pretend to know the answers or not to hear her.  They get suddenly interested in her health, which is fine as far as it goes, and offer to take her for a drive.  As if she hasn’t been everywhere already, and seen enough.


She could ask the hairdresser about EMOs, she supposes, or that nice minister person.  It used to be “Emergency Measures Office”, in Canada anyway, but she doesn’t think that’s how they’re using it now.

If she asks the grandchildren, they’ll tell her to look it up online.  Bunch of young Yahoos!  She quite likes her little joke and thinks she might share it with them.  They’re very patient with her, explaining their careers and relationships and beliefs as if it was news to her, as if it was new.

It doesn’t occur to them that she was reading Cosmopolitan magazine and drinking cocktails of the same name before they were thought of.

They forget, or maybe they don’t know, that she worked in a shop and an office, and had a lover, and travelled, and—after the war—ran her own little business for a while, and as well as raising a family and keeping things together through thick and thin.

They grew their own veges and fruit trees in the back yard, no need of fancy GE-free, organic, non-fat labelling back then; you got fresh food because that’s all there was (except for very special occasions), and you knew what the ingredients would be without a magnifying glass for the fine print.


She scrabbles among cellophane wrappers and unnecessary packaging for a ginger biscuit, and suddenly wishes she had coffee to dunk it in.  She’ll go to the tea shop later, and have a nice flat white and a piece of cake.  It’s called Café Something now, but she remembers its earlier heyday, with those nice European owners who called her “darlink”.  She wonders what happened to them.


Betty starts to make another cup of tea, decides she doesn’t really need it, switches the kettle off.  She has another look out the window, smiles at the tomcat slinking home after a clandestine night across the road.  She smiles at the trees in their russet autumn costumes, and the green-again lawns industriously pushing up daisies.  She grimaces at her whimsical thoughts.


From all around, come the sounds of waking.  The twittering, tattling birds put her in mind of breakfast: a chorus line with porridge and vegemite.


Betty finds her cotton petticoat and her jewellery.  She lays them on the bed, and pulls on a scarlet tee-shirt.  Next, a voluminous dress of printed cotton.  Cardigan.  Shoes.


In the drawer, with the photograph albums and small mementos, is her red wedding sari.  She doesn’t expect to wear it again, in this life.  She wonders if, in this land of her birth, so far from her foremothers, her essence will some day join with all the earth; some part of her join the holy river that flows through a homeland her grandchildren have visited but that she’s never seen.

“Prayer, devotion, love.”  This is what her true name means.


Betty” is what she’s been called for most of her life, since she started at primary school.  It comes from a Hebrew name, Elizabeth, which means “consecrated to God”, or “My God is bountiful”.  It’s near enough, she thinks.


She wonders if, when the time for farewells come, they’ll remember that she was called Bhakti, once.

© Bronwyn Angela White (2008)—Wellington, New Zealand

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License