Looking back at our Sunday night bath ritual, mum towel drying my wet hair, is the only memory I have of any physical contact with her.
My last two jobs of the night were to iron that thick black serge gym-frock, I hated so much, and polish my school shoes. It took me ages to get the gym frock pleats all neatly laid out in place before covering them with a tea towel soaked in cold water, to create steam when the red hot iron went on. This process only worked for a few days before needing a redo.
Cleaning the clunky, black, lace up ‘Clod Hoppers, just as ugly as the gym frock and rompers, took heaps of elbow grease. I used polish from a little round tin with a picture of a Kiwi bird on top and a tricky to open key, like sardine tins have. After brushing that all over my shoes I used a rag to polish them shiny. Rubbing away got me thinking about, Nana’s, Uncle Alf story, how her sister Minnie’s husband was lovely and so good to her because he polished her shoes every morning.
My skin started going crazy, randomly growing big ugly red ‘patches’ with white scaly bits, all over my body. Mum sent me to the Doctor down at the Island Bay shops. The first time I had been to a doctor since my bad earaches as a little kid and I felt strange sitting in the waiting room all by myself. When it got to my turn, he told me my ‘patches’, were something called ‘Psoriasis’ and sent me home with a tin of ointment to put on them.
Whatever it was in that tin turned out to be useless. Mum then arranged for me to have ‘treatments’ in Wellington town, from a lady with an ultra-violet machine. On my visits there, I had to undress and lay down on a flat bed with a sheet over me while she waved a gadget, flashing blue light and making weird crackling, sparking noises back and forth over my ‘patches’. Again, I was sent home with a tin of ointment.
The stuff in the new tin was a, brown colored coal-tar cream, that stunk ‘to high heaven’ as bad as Nana’s nightcart man. Regularly shutting myself in our bathroom to check if it was working, I would stand in front of the tiny mirror on the wall, anxiously twisting and turning inspecting my ‘patches’. Sadly that stuff never worked either and I gave up.
At my dentist’s appointment at the hospital, the dentist man, spotting my patches made me feel like a leper when he asked me what they were. I wondered if the whole world was noticing I was walking around with ugly spots stuck on me.
Nana’s husband Harry, my grandfather, died, and even though they had been divorced for years, in the end he did the right thing by Nana and his kids, leaving them all his worldly goods.
Mum used her small inheritance, from the will of the father, she had never really known, to buy a little round, blue, Hillman car. Anytime we wanted, for the price of two and sixpence worth of petrol, we could get in her car, parked up outside the flats, and be free to spread our wings. It was the first time since dad left, we could go out and about where we wanted as a family.
Nana arrived to visit from the South Island and mum drove us in her little blue bug, car, visiting the far flung relatives and along the way making pilgrimages, revisiting the graves of bygone rellies.
I remember Nana’s sister Nita had at her house, at Papatawa near Woodville, a large white parrot called, ‘Cocky’, living in a tree beside their backdoor. Cocky was better than any Guard dog, as his favorite thing to do was to swoop down from his tree attacking any visitors. He gave me a huge scare appearing out of nowhere, wings flapping and full on screeching.
Crossing over from one side of the North Island to the other, at Opiki, our car had to drive over a huge wooden, swing bridge. To be allowed to cross we had to pay a toll. Watching the toll man come across the paddock to collect the toll money, got me thinking of the troll in my Three Billy Goats Gruff story.
Mum made friends at the tram sheds with Mrs W, a Scottish lady who lived with her husband, a shepherd, on a big sheep station. Our little blue car, motored us around Island Bay and up the Happy Valley Road to visit at their tiny cottage built right by the side of the road.
The first thing that hit me entering their front door was, the huge amount of noise, their big, ten kid, family made. A combination of voices laughing and calling out to each other, feet running to and fro on bare wooden floorboards, and Mrs W’s funny Scottish accent futilely trying to rise above it all and bring some order to the chaos, assailed my ears.
Heading to the kitchen at the back of the house, down the center hallway, animals were as plentiful as kids. Where ever, I put my eyes, they were sleeping on beds, in baskets and corners of rooms and in front of the kitchen fire, I saw a couple of cute orphan lambs huddled up together.
Mrs W’s small kitchen, was full of delicious home baking smells mixed with a myriad of farm animal odors, that wafted up my nose, over loading my senses. I had never experienced anything like their family-friendly-pandemonium ever before.
Mrs W, was busy stirring an enormous enamel bowl, containing the doings for the biggest, Christmas Puddy, ever. Holding up the big wooden spoon, she insisted each of us were to have a stir for good luck. This was one of her Scottish traditions a bit like Nana’s superstitions.
Outside, the W kids had their old plodder bridled up doing bare-backed trotting around the yard. Rather nervously we two town kids lined up for a turn when invited. I remember thinking how strange the warm furry feel of the horses back felt between my legs. After my go, I climbed the highest of the green sheep covered hills behind the house to stand looking down, as if I was Jack at the top of his beanstalk.
Sitting down on the grass at the top, the hills looked like they went on forever, and far removed from the rest of the world, I felt at peace and free. Looking out to sea, I was able to make out the Cook Strait Ferry, crossing on the horizon, heading to the South Island and closer in the tiny Island Bay fishing boats were trying their luck. Down below, on the road curling up the valley, little toy cars out Sunday driving wound their way past a sprinkling of houses, and the small country school, the W. kids attended.
Drifting faintly up to me, I heard a far off voice calling for me ‘to come down’. Reluctantly, I descended from my top of the hills experience, knowing however, on the inside, someday, I wanted that feeling again on my own hills. Motoring home, I was thinking, if our farm visit had reminded mum of her kid days on her Granny and Grandfather’s farm.
Mr and Mrs W, were really mad rugby fans and each Saturday afternoon without fail, they got all dressed up in their rugby clobber, hats, scarves and jerseys to turn out for the games at Athletic Park. On their return trip they stopped over at our flat for cuppa’s, or as mum put it, ‘to whet their whistles’. They often also popped in for visits on the night-times they were out and about in Wellington town.
I wondered if perhaps, they not only liked the cuppa’s but a spell from all their kids. The nights they were coming I tried to keep out of mum’s way, hoping, out of sight out of mind might work and I wouldn’t get sent to bed.
Mum made the cuppa’s, and roped me in to toast slabs of bread. Stuck onto the prongs of a long handled fork, I held them up in front of the red elements of our old two bar electric heater to turn brown. I remember I used to think there was nothing more heavenly than sipping cuppa’s and eating hot toast soaking in melting butter.
Mr and Mrs W entertained us with an endless supply of funny and fascinating farm stories that gave me a glimpse into another world. One story I remember, was about the time all the farm workers went on a horseback trip out the back of the farm mustering up sheep for shearing. A young, new, green horn, shepherd boy, was assigned to the ‘smoko’ duty, getting a fire going and boiling up the billy for cuppa’s. The boss first cautioning him to be sure to strain the river water as they never knew what could be in it.
At smoko time, all the men gathered around the fire sipping their tin mugs of bubbling brew from the billy, the boss inquired, of the young fella, had he remembered to strain the water,
‘what did you use?’
‘Me snot rag’.
At this bit, Mr W, thinking about it, couldn’t help letting out a big laugh, he reckoned everyone went a bit green around the gills.
Another story they told was about how one of their kids walked all the way from Happy Valley to the Island Bay Police station to report their dad for giving them a hiding with his stock whip. Mr W, thought it a big laugh, that the Policeman gave their kid a growling for wasting his time, then delivered them back home. That one wasn’t funny to me, I felt sorry for their kid because I hated mum’s hidings.
The downside to having night visitors, was mum missing out on her nap time between jobs making her more tired and grumpy the next day. Which is how I think she came to have her accident and not take care at the tram sheds. She was walking along carrying her bucket of hot soapy water and forgot about the big pit that the men used to work underneath the trams.
Not looking where she was going, she stepped out into mid-air and crashed to the bottom of the pit. Her back got hurt really badly, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as she never went to work for weeks and we all got some good sleeps.
Mr and Mrs W returned for one of their night time visits with a kitten for us kids. Mum told them thanks, but she didn’t want a cat. My sister, who was in her bed in the next room, overheard this through the bedroom door and flounced out in full tantrum mode.
If she was determined to get her own way, she threw full on temper fits, screaming blue murder and feet stamping, that soon got mum giving in quickly, scared the neighbors might complain to State Advances. Mum tried to scare my sister into stopping, by telling her, ‘if the wind changes your face will stay like that forever,’ which never worked.
So she got mum to keep the kitten, who liked sleeping in the warmest place he could find, under our bed-covers. One morning when he never surfaced as usual, we pulled back the covers and saw his wee body was all still. Our first brush with death, upsetting both of us greatly.