Book extract: Cardamine

Here are the first few pages of my novel Cardamine: A New Zealand Mystery, obtainable from Amazon in print or ebook formats, or for local customers direct from me.

November 2019

After three weeks of backpacking around New Zealand, I had just enough cash left over to end my holiday in style with an “Elite Vineyard Experience” on Waiheke Island. Reluctant to think about the evening flight that would take me back to London and the challenges awaiting me there, I resolved to enjoy the last day of my adventure with the help of a few glasses of local wine. I hoped the tour wasn’t going to be too “elite”, as I had nothing smarter to wear than a half-dirty shirt and pair of shorts. But most of the other tourists on the crowded boat were dressed quite casually too.

It was a lovely spring morning. As we sailed away from Auckland’s downtown ferry terminal I stood out on the rear deck, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my skin and the light breeze ruffling through my hair. We passed the landmarks shown on my map. The Devonport peninsula, with its pretty Victorian villas built around the foot of two conical hills, Takarunga/Mt Victoria and Maungauika/North Head. The little lighthouse called Bean Rock on one side, the large peak of Rangitoto Island looming up on the other. As we left the harbour and headed out over the sparkling blue sea, I wished I could stay in the country for a few more days and explore these places.

“The geology of the islands in the Hauraki Gulf varies considerably,” said a voice at my side. “Rangitoto is of course of volcanic origin but Motutapu, which is joined to Rangitoto by a causeway, is very much older and composed mainly of greywacke, overlaid by Waitemata sandstone in the south-west.” 

I turned to see who had spoken. An elderly man, unusually tall and thin and wearing an inappropriately formal suit which looked too big for him and too heavy for such a hot day. His facial features were slightly crooked, and his expression slightly melancholy. I nicknamed him “Scarecrow”.

His monologue continued. “Motuihe, coming into view on the starboard side, has an interesting history. In 1872 it was used as a quarantine station for passengers from a ship infected with smallpox, then in the First World War as an internment camp for German prisoners, including the notorious Count Felix von Luckner who engineered an escape. During the influenza epidemic of 1918 it again provided quarantine facilities and there is a small cemetery, containing the graves of six servicemen and one nurse who died from the disease, situated on top of the promontory which you can see from here.”   

Feeling the need to make some response, I said with a certain lack of foresight, “Lucky we never get those big epidemics now.”

Although some of the information the man had told me was quite interesting, I didn’t really want to spend the rest of the short voyage listening to a running commentary from him. I said, “Excuse me, I’m going to get a coffee.” When I returned from the cafeteria in the downstairs cabin with my flat white in a takeaway cup, my companion had gone. 

We were drawing near to Waiheke. The ferry glided into a harbour dotted with little boats and flanked by wooded hills. Amid the melee of passengers disembarking onto the wharf it took me some time to spot the guide holding up a placard about the “Elite Vineyard Experience”, so I was the last to join the party, which included five people besides myself. A young couple dressed as scantily as I was, fit and suntanned, totally absorbed in one another and ignoring everyone else. A cheerful couple, 50-ish, both somewhat overweight and wearing smart walking gear. And the fifth person was my Scarecrow, standing alone a little apart from the rest of us. I caught him staring in my direction a few times and hoped he wasn’t going to latch onto me.

Our guide led us to a minibus. I sat by a window and, not wanting company, I put my backpack on the seat beside me. While waiting for the tour to start I looked through the wine tasting notes in the brochure. Sauvignon Blanc: aromas of ripe tropical fruits, melon and gentle herbaceousness on the nose. Chardonnay: stone fruit and subtle oak. Syrah: complex aromas of cassis, violets, grilled meat, cracked black pepper. I would be able to impress Orlando with my knowledge of New Zealand wines when I got home – that is, I ever had the chance. This thought brought back memories of our romantic evenings in Covent Garden wine bars, followed by passionate nights in his flat, and then our flaming rows and awkward parting. Would he be waiting for me at Heathrow tomorrow? I got my phone out of my bag intending to send him a text, but I couldn’t quite decide what to write and so when the minibus driver started the engine, I put the phone away. 

We set off along narrow roads flanked by rolling hills, on our way to visit three vineyards and sample 15 varieties of wine. I stopped thinking about Orlando and focused on what the guide was saying about Waiheke Island: “Known as the Jewel of the Gulf for its pristine beaches, world class wine and cuisine, art galleries, stunning views, etc etc.” He said that the island had a long history of Maori occupation before the white settlers came, and that its name meant “descending waters” in Te Reo.   After sampling all the wines at the first vineyard I felt a bit woozy and was glad that we were going to get a light lunch at the second one. The sunny deck outside the restaurant overlooked an olive grove, rows and rows of grapevines, and a distant hillside where horses were grazing. The place was packed with tourists, but a wooden table in the shade of a palm tree had been reserved for our group. We were presented with more samples of wine, and then a splendid deli platter of cold meats, cheeses, salmon, prawns, grilled vegetables, various sauces and dips, and rustic breads.