I wasn't sure how Gerda might react after all this time, but I needn't have worried.
She peered out from the door-frame with that frail hesitation that age and declining eyesight create in older folk. Then she uttered a little cry and threw her arms around me.
Gerda was slightly stopped now and her frame carried the brittleness of advancing years. Still, her hug was surprisingly strong and I returned it with the sudden relief of a child returned home. When she finally stood back, she told me how tall and glamorous I'd become. And then we laughed and hugged again before she stepped aside and beckoned me inside with a wave of her hand.
Gerda must've been 90 that year. She looked very much the same as I remembered her. Her hair was a little thinner on the scalp, but there was still a fair amount of black amongst the grey. And she'd retained her elegance. There was nothing of the typical old lady in her three-quarter jeans, flowy floral top, and sneakers. She clucked like an imperious hen when I bent to remove my shoes inside the front door. Keep them on. I'll show you the garden, she said.
Following her down the hall, I oohed and aah over all the photos of her kids and the grown-up grand-children. I hero-worshipped the first group as a kid; and baby-sat a couple of the second when they were toddlers and I was a teenager. Today they were all grinning out at me from regional sports teams, from pubs in London, from steamers in the Baltic, from mountains in Peru.
I liked the unit. It had been hard to picture her away from the sprawling three-bedroom villa in Maniapoto Road with its high stud, two parlours, and wide sweeping hall. But this little flat was convenient, modern, sunny, and neat. I realised it suited her.
Outside, the tiny fenced garden had a character I recognised as being typical Gerda. French doors opened from the kitchen onto a small tiled courtyard with a table and two chairs. Further out lay a patch of green lawn. Artificial, dear, she murmured. I'm too old to be mowing now. The passionfruit vine on its trellis took me straight back to the one she'd had in Maniapoto Road, with some of its flowering ends cascading down over our side of the fence in summer. My mother loved passion-fruit and Gerda was happy to share. I saw the French lavender, and the familiar pale roses. Both had been grown, she informed me proudly, from cuttings she took from the old place. I breathed in deeply and it smelt like home.
In one corner stood a concrete bird-bath and some flourishing tomato and capsicum plants staked securely in a raised bed. Next to these, a vertical wooden herb-garden stood against the brick fence. Tufts of parsley, oregano, peppermint, and sage poked from the tiered containers, wafting distinctive scents onto the breeze. Brendan put that in for me, she said proudly. And we laughed over the time twelve-year-old Brendan put me on the back of his two-wheeler when I was three and I buried my face in his back and cried because it was such a long way from the ground. You never did like heights, Gerda said fondly.
We moved inside then, and while Gerda bustled around the kitchen, I nosed about. In the living room I paused in front of the oil painting of a handsome young man dressed in army greens. I remembered the portrait well from my childhood and I remembered the man in it, although he was much older when I knew him. Gerda saw me looking and her hands became still.
Dear dear Harry, I said.
And she replied: It'll be 16 years next month.
She set out the tea on the kitchen table, using a china set I remembered from my childhood. She giggled, happy that she had lemon shortbread, because it was my favourite as a child. And I, who hadn't touched lemon shortbread for years, grinned broadly, remembering it was true.
Over morning tea we spoke of many things in the measured code of long-standing neighbours who are just about family. What was mundane to me was of value to Gerda. My mother had been amongst her dearest friends. My father and Harry served overseas and then later were stationed up the road at the old fort for many years. So at her prodding, I condensed the missing years and brought my family's world into her living-room. I told her about my siblings and my nieces and nephews. I talked about weddings and new jobs and babies and trips overseas.
I didn't mention any of the problems, which might, after all, afflict any family. Divorces. Drinking. Drugs. Breakdowns. And we managed to speak about the death of my older sister, without mentioning the word 'suicide'. Ellen was such a good girl. But always troubled, Gerda said quietly. It was sad. I nodded.
And then there was a pause which spoke volumes.
Wait, she said, and getting up, she bustled away into a distant room. Returning, she sat and, pushed an object across the table, looking at me expectantly.
It was Amina. Leaning forward I took in the cloth doll, her large compassionate eyes and her beautiful Malaysian costume with its tight-fitting velvet kebaya blouse, over a full-length batik stitched sarong. Amina was a souvenir from Harry and Gerda's postings overseas. I spent long afternoons playing with Amina on the floor of their lounge in Maniapoto Road as my mother and Gerda drank tea in the kitchen. I used to tell Amina all my secrets while my mother tried to avoid telling Gerda all hers.
I lifted the doll to my face and closed my eyes. She was much smaller now in my adult grasp and she smelt of dusty cotton and mothballs. Gerda said; How you loved that doll! Isn't it funny what kids recall.
Yes isn't it funny. I was recalling how safe I used to feel in Harry and Gerda's house over the fence. It wasn't until years later that I realised what a harbour of refuge it must have been for my mother as well. My father kept her isolated their whole marriage with his games and his terror-tactics and his subterfuges. It had taken me years to forgive her for her complicity and to recognise the mental prison that he reinforced with his cruelties, the narcissistic in-roads into her self-esteem.
And then there were other secrets that she must have suspected, possibly even knew in her heart-of-hearts, but could never admit to.
It had been thirty years previously and a different time - a time where women like my mother went completely unsupported while men like my father ran rogue. What a relief it must've been to have at least one friend to come to regularly - if not to confide every dark secret, then at least to distract herself from her own from thoughts. Drinking tea. Eating biscuits. Off this same china.
It's funny what kids recall. And I recalled how later I felt constantly at sea in the world, somehow lost and bad about myself. I remember debilitating headaches and days when I was too depressed to get up and go to work. I remembered four-day parties and coke lines on the coffee table, not enough money for bills. I remembered too many bad men and how I would drink myself into a stupor whenever the latest one would inevitably leave me for another woman …
The sight of the doll had unsettled me. The very light in the peaceful living room seemed to have changed, though the day was every bit as bright as it had been an hour ago when I arrived. Looking out through the kitchen doors, I saw the roses swaying slightly. The breeze was coming up. Perhaps there was rain on the way. Perhaps it had been a mistake to come.
I sat at the table, reminding myself how I'd eventually succeeded in achieving a level of peace in my life I wouldn't have believed possible. I had good friends and had found a supportive relationship with a wonderful man. At last I had a good job I enjoyed. I had sorted my life out and forgiven my parents - one for abuse and the other for neglect. The adult in me knew that my father had been a victim of abuse himself. It had left him with terrible scars, an irreversible mental illness. He made quite a success of himself against all odds. I know all this. And I had forgiven him - I had.
So then, why was the sight of Amina so upsetting?
Gerda was sitting very still, watching me.
"Your father did some terrible things, I know," she said quietly. "Some terrible, terrible things." The silence was long and dreadful. I could hear a distant bird-call outside. We'd never discussed what she and Harry did or didn't know. I wasn't sure where this conversation was going. I wasn't sure I was up to having it at all. Some things are best left in the past, perhaps. Looking down at Amina in my cupped hands, I willed her to save me as I had willed her in the past.
"I will say this for him," Gerda added quietly, after a while. And later, I realised - and was grateful for the fact - that she did not start that phrase with the word 'but'. If she had used that word, she would have pitted my tortured feelings against her opposed perspective. And I would have dismissed what came next on principle.
"I will say this for him. Just from my perspective," she said in the calm well-modulated voice I'd always trusted. "When Harry started drinking again, your father was the one - the only one! - out of all those people, who had the guts to come and tell me. And he told me he would stand by both of us. He said he would understand whatever I needed to do for myself and the kids. But he would also support Harry. And that's what he did. He took Harry to the doctor and got him into AA. He saw to it that the Welfare Officer knew my case and that I had an open channel to help. And he never criticised either of us. Not even once."
I felt something shift. I didn't yet realise, nor would I for another decade, that she had just given me what I really needed … a key that would save me from my own tunnel-vision.
Hatred is different from anger. Hatred is a miasma, fogging the view, making it hard to disentangle the threads of a situation and identify the real problems. Anger, on the other hand - properly directed - is a spear, its tip firmly and rigorously aimed at the causes of pain. In time I would realise that I owed Gerda. In showing me something kind and good in my father, she eventually saved me from hating him.
But all this would be in the future. Across the table, Gerda suddenly looked uncertain and vulnerable. She had put in her two cents-worth but was now wondering if her perspective would be of any use; or if she even had a right to offer it.
I opened my mouth, not sure what was going to come out. I heard myself say Thank you. Thank you, Gerda, for telling me that. We gazed at one another and her eyes misted.
I stayed another hour before leaving reluctantly. The breeze had dropped outside and in the garden the roses hung fragrant and undisturbed. The sun was warm and comforting. Gerda pressed Amina into my hands as I left, insisting that I take her.
I never did see our old neighbour again. She passed away a year later and I was living out of the country. But to this day Anina sits on my dressing table next to the photo I keep there of my parents in a heart-shaped frame.