Some mornings, I go to Pilates and the ladies tell me that they’ve seen me at the wharf again. We are putting out our mats and they are the same colour as the sky, when the wind has rushed all the clouds away. One of them exclaims that the other day, she actually didn’t see me at the harbour, which is the strangest thing. “Because you’re always there!” she says. Someone else makes an admiring comment about hard work.
After Pilates, I walk to the wharf, making a note of the sky. I remember what the weather forecast told me earlier and count up the variables. It is sunny, which means that it will be a busy day. A little windy, but not too gusty. A northerly, so I’ll have to open the window that faces south when I get to work. This little loop of thoughts is what I have been drawing all summer. Two streets across and a little more, and then I can see the food caravan sitting near the edge of the harbour, waiting for me. It is one of those days where the blue of the sky fights to melt into the ocean, their colours are so similar. The sunlight flickers over the water, following a trail of little silver fish that zip around plastic bottles and cellophane.
I open up the shop. But for the first time, my variables are no longer guaranteed. The wind may be going in the right direction, and the globe of blue sky may be wrapped tightly around us. But when I look across the concrete harbour, I don’t see the usual crowds. I spend most of the day trying to make eye contact with whoever walks past, while the waves in my stomach lap upwards and dare to leak into my chest. Still, some tourists are around and they stop for food. Some say that they feel lucky to be in New Zealand. They ask me for recommendations on where they should go. I list my stock favourites: Mount Victoria, Zealandia, Red Rocks.
I don’t tell them about the island. Matiu, or Somes Island. I think I just forget to. Although the island sits in the middle of the harbour, surrounded by water, it blends in with the landscape. It is just another wedge of mountain in a background of elevation. Up close, the island is heavy with quiet, as if it is more vast than deep space. But from afar, it just becomes another incline, shrouded in greenery.
In 1903, a Chinese man named Kim Lee was isolated on Mokopuna Island, an even smaller island just north of Matiu. At the time, he was thought to have leprosy. But now when we look back, we realise that he might have actually had tuberculosis, or an autoimmune disorder. Before Kim was taken to the island, his shop was fumigated. Crisp floral apples were replaced with heady clouds of vapor. I imagine him sitting at the cave that became his island shelter, counting each wave that swept towards him as a marker of distance. The ocean bringing him the same things that I pick up when I wander away from land: shards of glass that have been refined into something safe for my soft skin, curved shells that know nothing more than repetition. All while the landscape of Wellington sits in the background like a sickle.
After six months in exile, Kim died alone on the island. Did the pāua shells that washed up onto the shore make it easier? Lately, I have been trying not to cough in public.
Mokopuna Island, August 2019