The following story came to me whilst we were travelling in the South Island in June. It was a beautiful winters morning at Havelock on the Marlborough Sounds in the north of the South Island. Looking out over the water, it was easy to slip into meditation and visualise myself going to visit Grace in her Office.
I imagine myself carefully walking up the stairs to Grace’s Office. My head swooning lightly, I grip the hand rail. “Relax Monica, you know this is ok,” I hear Grace reassure me. I feel more at ease when I reach the door, but that is short lived as I open the door, I find myself standing on the edge of a mountain which drops away into a valley with another mountain ridge on the other side, beyond which I can capture glimpses of a turquoise blue ocean, speckled with islands. I feel giddy and lean back against the rock wall behind me, unsure of what to do.
“Where am I, Grace? (Silence) GRACE!” I yell.
“I am right here with you. Isn’t the view breath-taking! Aah!” she sighs contentedly, very much at ease with the situation we are in.
“Yep, breath-taking alright!” I exclaim pressing my back against the rock wall for security. “Wh-where are we?” I ask again.
“Look at the details of what is before you and you tell me!” Grace replies. I slow my breathing and look more closely. There are farm houses sprinkled through the valley. On the far side of the smaller hills across the valley are houses which seem to mould into the landscape, all painted white and blue. “It must be Greece! Grace, are we in Greece?” I turn to see a donkey with cane saddle bags. “This is Francis,” introduces Grace. “He is our guide to the other side of the valley.” The donkey braes and nudges my belly playfully. Is he smiling at me? And then he winks knowingly, the tips of his long eyelashes seem to sparkle and he turns his head pointing his muzzle to the little saddle pad and nods. I climb up and wriggle into the tiny space, my feet almost touching the ground.
Grace leads Francis, who instructs her in which way to go. He reminds me of Donkey from the movie Shrek! Confidently he takes us down the steep track, chatting about the families who live in this area, what they grow and provide for the community, how many children they have, who will marry who, and who won’t! At the bottom of the valley he stops outside a small roadside cottage. Out the front of the white and blue building are woven baskets of lush, fresh produce.
“Is that you Francis?” I hear a voice from inside of the cottage.
“Yes Lydia, it is me. How are you today?” Francis enquires. Out of the door steps a lady in traditional Greek clothing, her white hair wrapped up in a colourful scarf, a loose fitting top sits over a long skirt which stops just above her bare foot.
“Aah, my bones ache just a little, but the pipe helps that,” she chuckles. “I see you have brought our friends, delivered them safely,” and she greets us in Greek. I have no idea what she has said but by her body language, she is welcoming us into her home. I am more than intrigued now, this woman has been expecting us!
Aaah! It is Grace! I thought it would be you! Darling, how are you, it has been so long…” she hugs Grace. Then stepping back, she looks me up and down, “Hmph!” She grunts her approval, her lips curl downwards as she nods her head. “Ah yes, this must be Monica. It is good to see you again Mamaku!” More than surprised, I return the hugs from her as she squeezes me. Looking over her head at Grace, questioningly, fascinated that this old woman knows of me. The old woman continues, “Ah yes, it is Time! So good you are here. Welcome, welcome!” Excitedly, she takes my hand and pulls me firmly into her cottage.
Inside the tiny mudbrick building it is warm, the fire is burning and it feels much more spacious than it appeared from the outside.
“Aaah, come, come, sit down. I’ve made us coffee.” Francis’s nose sniffs its way through the open door. “Come, come Francis! I have made you portokalopita (orange cake) and for our guests – baklava!” Grace had removed the saddle bags and pad. He seems not much bigger than a dog now and sits down by the hearth of the fire. Lydia places some cake on a plate for him. Before eating it, he looks at her with such love. His eyes make me feel all gooey! Lydia kisses his forehead adoringly, and whispers, “Oh my angel” and pats his head. Lydia brings us cake and coffee, freshly brewed in tiny cups made of white fine bone china and a thin gold ring around the rim of each cup. The tiny baklavas, just bite size, melt in my mouth.
“Oh my god Lydia, these are divine! They are are so good!” I exclaim between mouthfuls. The sweet nutty flavours wrapped in the lightest buttery pastry was like eating angel food. Grace looks at Lydia and asks, “Are you ready?”
Slowly, Lydia finishes the last of her coffee, raises an eyebrow, nods her head in agreement and snuggles back into her chair and lights her pipe. The scent of the smoke is familiar – is she smoking weed?! I giggle to myself. Grace nods her head and winks at me. Yes indeed, she is smoking weed!
Lydia closes her eyes as she inhales the smoke gently. Exhaling, the smoke rises in tendrils, drifting to the ceiling and she begins her story….
“Long ago, when my children were small, my beloved husband, Francis died in a fishing boat accident. In a wild storm, Medusa took him from me. For many years I was angry! I never ate fish for this long time! (She prattles on in Greek, scowling). Then her face softens as she looks at the donkey with affection.
“One night, when my heart was breaking and I had been thinking about jumping off the cliff into the ocean, I dreamt of a donkey. He wandered into my garden and was eating my flowers. I saw him through the window. I was furious and ran outside screaming at him. He just looked up at me and with a mouthful of flowers, said, “Hello Lydia. It’s me, Francis.” I recall my head spinning and felt myself falling. Then I woke up sweating, upside down on my bed! I got up to make some coffee, looked out the window and saw a donkey eating my flowers. I sat down dumbfounded, drank my coffee and then a glass of grappa, went outside and confronted this donkey. I said, (and she stands up animatedly her hands on her hips), Is that really you Francis?” At first, he just looked at me chewing the flowers, like he was loving it! And then he said, ‘yes Lydia, it is me. Oh how I have missed talking with you!’
The next thing I remember is feeling very dizzy and falling. Everything went black. And then I felt whiskery lips kissing mine. I opened my eyes to see the bloody donkey kissing me! And then he said, ‘It is me – Francis! I have come back to look after you.’
And that is my story of Francis. He has been with me ever since, helping me in the garden, bringing to me the people I need when I need them. Like you!” Lydia smiled knowingly at me and Grace.
As vision fades, my consciousness returns to the view out of the cafe window across the water and I am left wondering – however can we help Lydia?
“She is to help you,” replied Grace. “Share her story.”