The flats were sort of like a huge family because everyone knew everyone else. Settling down with mum, we soon got to know the other kids and the many different people, young and old, families and single, in the other flats. At the end of the holidays, mum enrolled us at our new schools. My sister at the Berhampore School, right across the road from the flats, and me at the South Wellington Intermediate, just around the road.
My new school uniform was, a horrible, black serge gym frock, worn with ugly oversize black bloomers, called rompers, underneath. The rompers were meant to be home-made to a special pattern, but mum could not use her new ‘Singer’ yet, so I had to make do with shop ones the school didn’t approve of. Not wearing the right clothes to school started me off on the wrong foot, earning me a telling off the first day. A white blouse with a tie, and big black clodhopper shoes finished our look.
Being in a new school also meant, I had to explain all over again why I didn’t have a father. When the kids at school heard my Mother was divorced they acted shocked, like she had committed murder or something! It made me feel shamed.
Afternoons after school was out, our little gang of ‘flats kids’ The Bell and Barrett sisters, who went to the Catholic School, little Nancy Johnson, Murray Johnson no relation to Nancy, whose mother didn’t let him outside much, and Kathryn, a girl living with her Grandmother gathered for a daily chinwag. The Shaw kids from the house up behind the flats, often joined in with us, sitting around on the steps of the hall built in the middle of the flats grounds.
This same time each day, also, Mr and Mrs N, the pair of oldies from our next door flat, number twelve, emerged to do their daily walk. No matter how sunny the day was, they always appeared dressed up in winter woollies. Before we had moved into the flats, Mrs N had been very sick in hospital and now she couldn’t walk and talk proper.
Our kids voices went silent as our eyes tracked their slow circuit of the footpaths. Mr N, a bit bigger than his small, shriveled and frail wife, lead the way. Mrs N, looking like a starving, little sparrow, clutched tightly onto her husbands arm, shuffling along in tiny, slippered feet. She looked like she was doing a sort of stiff skiing as if her legs were barely able to keep her feet going. We expected to see at anytime, Mrs N trip and take a nose dive.
After they arrived back safely in their porch-doorway, I would go over and see if they needed any messages run. If they wanted shopping, Mr N, would give me a shopping list and some money to buy whatever it was that they needed from the ‘Self Help’ shop.
Occasionally, they asked me to go around the corner to the Post Office for stamps to post their letters. This was a bit tricky, because after putting coins into the slot machine on the wall, it was easy to tear the, one penny, tuppenny, or thruppenny stamps, while pulling them out of the slot. The stamps had pictures of the new Queen Elizabeth we had seen down in Christchurch on them.
Arriving back with my deliveries, I took them inside their flat which was always dark and gloomy. The curtains were kept shut up tight, even on boiling hot days. Mrs N, sitting propped up with cushions in an armchair, would look at me with the eyes on her wee wrinkly face looking huge, trying to speak. Sadly only funny sounds, I couldn’t decipher came out. Mr N would take the shopping and thank me.
Another of our afternoon distractions during our step sittings was the father of one of the little kids, Mr J. He would pop up in the entrance way to the flats like, a Jack-in-the-box, wildly waving his arms around as if he was boxing off enemies. His face, making loud roaring and bellowing yells, was bright red, just like the famous ‘Punch’, because he had too much drink under his belt, as Nana would say.
Watching how he wobbled unsteadily on tippy-toe as he weaved across the grass, missing the footpaths completely, gave us great amusement and sometimes he even toppled right over. Laying flat on his back on the grass like a cast sheep, his feet would be kicking in the air.
When he made it to his feet again, he went rolling over to thump and bang on his front door. After raging through the letter-flap for a while, poor Mrs J, came downstairs and let him inside. Crashing and banging the stairwell walls, side to side, our ears followed his progression all the way to the top.
For a bit of extra excitement if we were bored, us kids thought it was funny to call out smart remarks to Mr J during his daily spectacle. I regret to say, we never gave a thought to how his little daughter, sitting with us, felt, hearing the mickey being taken out of her father.
Mocking Mr J was like a bit of sport to us as it got him charging over towards us like a mad bull. Able only to do short jerky runs it took him some time to reach us, and at the last moment we would take off running. His little daughter also joining in the mad dash to squash through the front door of our flat.
After slamming it shut, we ducked down to huddle behind the furniture, waiting with bated breath, all hyped up, for his next move. I remember, how my heart would be racing and pounding. Changing tack took him some time, but Mr J would get his bearings, come charging into our porch really mad, shout through the letter flap about catching us next time, before stumbling off home.
I discovered that just over the hill from Berhampore in Newtown, there was a library and couldn’t believe my luck, that it was free to join and free to have a library card. Any book you fancied on the shelves you were allowed to check out, except for, kids were not allowed to take out the ‘Adults’ books.
My reading drove mum crazy, because I got lost in the happenings of those books with other worlds created with words. Always at the best exciting bits, I would hear her shouting at me, to, ‘get your nose out of that bloody book’, jerking me back to reality, to do some job or other for her.
Every Friday evening after mum got back from her milkbar work, I did the big walk over the hill to Newtown and back, so I could get my hands on a fresh swag of books to devour. I remember working my way through just about every book on their shelves. Robinson Crusoe, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, Sue Barton Student Nurse and I loved Alice In Wonderland and Through the looking Glass, but couldn’t understand some of the stuff in them.
Attending ballet lessons back in our Epuni days, before dad ran away, had gotten me mad about ballet and anything to do with Margot Fonteyn the famous ballerina. So I looked for books about those things as well. If mum was in a really good mood she would give me the money to buy the latest, ‘Sunny Stories’ magazine from the bookshop on my way.
Mum combined my trips to the library with a visit by me to the sewing shop lady in Newtown, to pay the time-payment money on her Singer sewing machine. For mum to get time-payment she had to tell a lie, saying she was a widow, as women on their own couldn’t get credit.
Fishing in my pocket to pull out mum’s money for the shop lady, and discovering it was missing gave me a huge shock one night. Knowing how hard money was to come by for mum, I ran retracing my steps all the way back over the hill, panicking. Frantically, my eyes scanned the footpath and gutters, without any luck. All the way to our door, I was praying to God to help me, dreading the thought of telling mum the bad news, knowing she would get really mad, which she did.
Nutting off at me about how stupid I was and telling me I would lose my head if it wasn’t screwed on, she went charging off into the dark night in her dressing gown with me tagging along behind. I was hoping like mad, that money would turn up fast. However it was more scary to me that someone I knew from school might see mum walking the streets in her night wear, than, what she might do if the money wasn’t found.
Peering too intently into the gutter, I missed my footing, tripped and fell down, making mum madder. She growled me to stop being so clumsy. Fortunately, neither of my worst case scenarios happened. We spotted the rolled up money, lying in the gutter just up the street from the flats. I was sure that must of been my Sunday School, Jesus, helping me out.