Gracie Sang a Sad Song

Rangitoto volcanic island from the former Crippled Children's Home

Rangitoto volcanic island from the former Crippled Children’s Home

Mary and daughter Dr Genevieve watch a young girl play hopscotch in the hospital grounds, at the start of the increasingly steep path that wound down to the water-front.

This is another moving short story, written by Mary Gabb.

            Gracie was eleven years old, but seemed much older. She was a nut-brown child, half maori, blessed with an uncontrollable shock of frizzy marmalade coloured hair. She constantly wore a brownish toned floral dress, with a mismatched cardigan of uncertain colour and she sang like a lark. Rarely could she be separated from her ukulele which was permanently slung around her neck. Often she would add to her costume a frilly pink plastic lei, and pick a flower to tuck behind her ear.

Gracie had a distinctive gait, mechanical and shuffling like a clockwork doll. She wore callipers attached to her boots and stiff leather cuffs buckled just below each knee connected sturdy steel rods to her boots. A strong spring attached to the toe of each boot corrected her foot drop and kept her from tripping over her feet; the wasted weak muscles a trophy of a polio epidemic.

The Home for Crippled Children was Gracie’s home, as it was for thirty other children. It was a magnificently gracious establishment set on acres, beautifully landscaped with rhododendrons, camellias and roses, and graced with an enormous mosaic tiled lily pond. A long sweeping semi-circular driveway threaded through the tree studded gardens and led to the entrance of the Home. It was a prime piece of real estate, with a coastal frontage, and it had been bequeathed to the city by its former owners for the purpose of housing and caring for crippled children. It had breathtaking sea views.

The outlook from the elevated, open verandahs at the rear of the Home was like a fine piece of art, a million dollar view. Dominating the scene, a sleek mysterious island with pubescent female lines, lay tantalizingly close and seemed to float on the glittering sea. Rangitoto Island! It looked so close it seemed that you could reach out and touch it. It drew Gracie’s gaze as she sang accompanying herself on her beloved uke. “Oh, I wish I had someone to love me, someone to call me their own. Oh I wish I had someone to live with, for I’m tired of living alone. If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls would I fly………” Her singing so sweet and soulful, was a prayer for a miracle; perhaps that the sea breezes would carry her voice to some angel who might hear and respond.

Gracie never had visitors, and on visiting days was left to her own devices. The existence of a track to the beach down a precipitous cliff face was never revealed to the children. But with the unerring intuition of a child, everyone knew that it was there and it began inside the conservatory which was definitely ‘Out of Bounds’. Rumour had it that the track was steep and dangerous. One visiting day, when with the distraction of visitors she knew she would be unnoticed, Gracie slipped quietly past the glittering lily pond. Mingling with and leap-frogging the groups of visitors who were fully absorbed in their own resident child, she made her way unobtrusively, to the entrance of the conservatory. Once inside the conservatory she was concealed from view by the tangled lush growth of trees and ferns. Just a closer look at Rangitoto; she wanted that so badly. The track beckoned her on, through the fernery filled with pungas (tree fern) with their furry brown snake-like fronds all curiously curled, and underneath them the unruly growth of maidenhair and sword fern.

Once out of the conservatory, steps appeared cut into the steep escarpment leading to the beach below. At first they were quite regular and zig-zagged steeply through the tangle of native bush. Intermittent landings gave a sense of safety and the steps were not difficult to negotiate. Gracie’s confidence grew. But soon the steps became irregular and some were shored up with wood in an attempt to halt the erosion caused by wind and rain. The descent was longer and steeper than she had imagined. There were no landings now; each step seemed a precipitous drop down the sandy cliff. Gracie wondered if she should turn back, but now she was halfway there and it was unthinkable to retreat without achieving her goal. The going got more difficult and more treacherous, and to make progress she was obliged to sit down on each step and carefully lower herself to the next one, steadying herself by clutching at the tangle of weeds and beach grass growing within reach. It was a tiring and frightening adventure but each step was a triumph. She gloated and wondered what the other kids would think if they could see her. But in sight of the beach, so close to her goal, a step unexpectedly gave way under her feet and threw her forwards. Overbalancing, she tumbled headlong down the last few steps onto the coarse, damp grey sand.

Just a small fringe of a beach it was, with native bush and tree ferns scrambling right down to the deserted beach margin. There, only feet away was the dazzling blue sea, and serenely floating on top of it was her Island. Rangitoto, so close and even more magically calling to her now! She struggled to her feet shaken but uninjured and dusted away the wet sand from her body. The isolation was eerie, not a sound or sight of any other person in the whole world. She had done it! And the tranquillity and splendour of her surroundings both awed and unnerved her. She was alone in the world and free! Surprise and elation made her feel proud and invincible. She wondered if she had been missed.

Gracie took a few tentative and awkward steps in the soft sand to the water’s edge, and with each step her boots sank deeper into the sand.  The benign and gentle waves lapped over the toes of her boots. With her eyes fixed on the magical island, she stumbled on the uneven sea floor and fell. Her wet heavy boots held her fast. The water was so cool and caressing. ‘I would fly to the arms of my darling, and there I’d be willing to die’……..



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