by Phoebe Wilton-Stuart

This year’s festival theme was Legacy; the stories submitted for the contest had to include the phrase “once upon a time”. Judges were Carole Beu, owner of The Women’s Bookshop, and writer David Herkt. The overall winner Steve Danby won $1000. Wilton-Stuart, the winner of the under 25 section, won $500. 

Helena Marigold is everyone’s Aunty in Hennessy, blood relation or no.

She’s seventy-eight and tiny. I’ve known her for as long as I can remember and started bending down to kiss her cheek when I turned eleven. She has a long sheet of hair that reaches down to the small of her back and has recently swapped the natural silver for every colour of the rainbow.

‘It’s for Tui,’ Helena says, twirling a lilac lock between her fingers. ‘She wants to be a hairdresser. It’s good practice.’

It’s no surprise, she’d let Damian tattoo a bouquet of violets on her thigh the year before. It took a while to heal on her brittle skin and the lines are blown out in places, but she still delights in showing it off to anyone and everyone.

It’s an open secret that Helena never locks her front door. The spare bedroom is always made up for anyone in need and the pantry is always fully stocked. No one would dare rob her or lay a hand on her unless they wanted to face the wrath of a good half dozen patched nephews. She is a protector and she is protected.

I’m around for tea one day when she lets it slip that she’s thinking of doing a spring clean, donating some of her things to a charity store. I tell her that I’ll help. She’s not the type to ask or accept it unless it’s forced upon her. And I’m not about to be the kid that let Aunty Helena fall and hurt herself carrying heavy boxes to the back of her old station wagon.

Besides, I like her company. She lets me ask as many questions as I like.

I nab boxes from the local dairy and under Helena’s instruction we begin trawling through her things, stacking them precariously like it’s an elaborate game of tetris. I won’t lie, it feels like a crime to be packing these things away. Like robbing a museum.

In each room, an eclectic mix of art has blotted out the walls until there’s only the barest hint of the garish floral wallpaper beneath. Every shelf is lined with books or sculptures or knick knacks that she’s collected from the various countries she’s visited. A little barrel man from the Philippines, a framed photo of her in a hanbok at a South Korean friend’s wedding, a row of colourful alebrijes from Mexico.

‘I’ve been to over a hundred,’ she tells me proudly as we sort through the living room. ‘Every continent, except Antarctica.’

‘Where was your favourite?’ I ask.

‘Oh, I couldn’t pick one, love,’ she says with a frown. But her eyes stray to a photo on the wall, with her and a group of old friends in Japan. They’re in front of an old temple and she has her arm around another girl, who I know to be her best friend, Gillian. She’s smiling so big it’s like her cheeks might split.

Helena’s home is the sort of place you could get lost in. Every photograph and souvenir tells a story that she is all too ready to share. I could listen to her for hours, sipping Earl Grey tea as she spins tales about her adventures in Cairo, or Baalbek. Places that are so foreign to me. I’ve never even been to the South Island.

I’m left alone in the guest room as Helena hobbles off to brew tea. I’m reluctant to toss anything, especially without her instruction. So I busy myself with wiping off picture frames and inspecting draws for rubbish. I don’t mean to stumble across the letters, and if I’d known what they were I wouldn’t have opened the first envelope. Helena always told us we were free to sift through her things. I didn’t think of these as being any different.

The letter is from Gillian, her best friend and partner in crime, or so Helena tells it. They’d been friends since they were children and took off travelling the world together in their late teens. At some points their paths diverged but every few years they’d fall back into each other’s orbit.

I never thought to ask what happened to her.

I open a second letter, curiosity overpowering any sense of shame. I’m frowning down at the words, enraptured at the story I was never told. On the third, my heart in my throat. A photo falls out of the fourth envelope and a weathered photograph of a baby smiles back at me.

I’m only getting one half of this story but it paints a bold enough picture, it’s easy to fill in the blanks. Nestled between updates on where she’s been and how certain people are going, the truth unfurls like blossoms in Spring.

Dear Helena, …I miss you terribly…

Dear Helena, …I only wish we had more time…

Dear Helena, …It was a mistake…

We can’t do this. Even if we both may want to. It wasn’t meant to be. I have a family now, Helena. You should settle down too. Please, Helena, you have to stop this.

Love, Gillian. Yours always, Gillian. Take care, Gillian.

I haven’t lived a life full of adventure. I don’t know how to ask for directions in any other language but English. The only souvenirs I’ve collected are shells from the beach and flower presses. I don’t have scars, or tattoos to cover them.

But I know what true love sounds like. How it reads. And it bleeds from the ink in the creased and age-stained paper like an open wound.

My fingers dig creases into the paper, confusion, indignation and sadness battling inside of me. I think of Helena, decades younger, opening these letters with shaking hands, how her stomach would have dropped and twisted into knots.

I feel like I have stepped into the shell of her past self. Feeling the remnants of her rejection, the sharp sting of it. The yearning.

Wedged in the back of the drawer is a pile of unopened letters addressed to Gillian, stamped with a red “Return To Sender”. My fingers itch to fiddle with the brown twine, pull it apart and pry open the sealed envelopes. But the door behind me nudges open and then Helena is in the room with a small gasp.

‘Oh no, love.’ Helena is tiny but she moves quickly when she wants to. The drawer is slammed shut with just enough time for me to pull my fingers out of the way. ‘We don’t go into that drawer.’

She’s not angry. Helena rarely gets angry. But there’s a flush in her wrinkled cheeks and she won’t meet my eyes.

Instantly, I swell with guilt. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry,’ Helena says. ‘You weren’t to know. It’s not your fault.’

It eases some of the discomfort bubbling in my chest. I suck in a breath, inhaling the smell of dust and lavender incense.

‘What happened?’ I ask and then bite my tongue. That was rude to ask. Helena sighs.

‘It was just too difficult, love. Not the right time for things like that. People weren’t as understanding as they are now.’

I grapple with her words, trying to make sense of how someone as brave as Helena would be deterred by someone else’s thoughts of her.

‘Why didn’t she try?’

A flash of steel appears in Helena’s eyes and her lips pull thin. ‘We didn’t want a life in secret. It’s not her fault either.’

It’s the first time I’ve ever been levelled with a rare Aunty Helena frown and it has my shoulders hunching up as if that’ll spare me from the scorn.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say again.

Helena exhales again and the frost melts from her expression. ‘Don’t be, love. We did okay, it just wasn’t meant to be this time.’

I nod, thinking of her house, brimming with evidence of a life well-lived. It doesn’t feel like a placeholder for a lost love. Nor does it feel like a jigsaw, with a gaping hole for a missing centrepiece. It feels like a collage, all sorts of tiny fragments torn from all over to form a beautiful, complete picture.

But still, I can’t help but feel a phantom ache as I look at another photo of her and Gillian sitting on the mantelpiece.

Because if anyone deserves a fairytale romance it was Aunty Helena.

Helena has disappeared, off to fix us both a sliver of lemon cake, she says. I linger in the spare room, eyes fixed on the drawer filled with the stories Helena doesn’t want on display but also won’t let go.

In my head, I think up my own story with Helena in the starring role. A simple story, nothing like the epics that Helena has lived through, but a story all the same.

Once upon a time, there were two girls who fell in love.

Nobody took issue with it. They got married, had adventures, settled in a quiet beachside town where they became the village Aunties.

And they all lived happily ever after.