Mum found a horrible lump growing in her throat that was poking way out on her neck. The doctor said it was called a ‘Goitre’ that grew because she had never eaten enough iodine. She needed to go into the hospital and have her throat cut to get it out. When I heard this, I was thinking how do they cut your throat open and you don’t die.
With no-one to look after us two kids while she had her operation and recovered, as Nana was still in the South Island with our Auntie and cousin Judy, she booked us into the Presbyterian, children’s home. I had never ever heard about such a place existing.
When the time came, we walked with mum and our gear from our flat, to the home, up one of Berhampore’s really steep streets, Britomart. Passing by the shoe-repair man’s shop on the corner, where we got our new half soles or heel and toe plates done, and my sister’s school, we reached the children’s home, a long way further up the hill. The home was actually two big houses, one for girls at the front and in behind, one for boys.
We were introduced to the two older ladies in charge of the girls house and all the kids living there, named Aunt Kate, and Aunt Jane. Mum said goodbye to us and one of the Aunts took us upstairs to show us our allocated beds.
My sister was to sleep with all the younger kids in a long dorm and my bed was in a tiny cubicle with walls that never reached to the top, one of a row in a long room that had been divided up. My push-up window looked out over Berhampore and if I stretched my neck enough, I could make out the rooftops of the flats. I got a bit sad thinking of mum over there all by herself. Late at night, I would get scared hearing tip-toeing footsteps going past my door but didn’t dare to take a peek out.
Every kid in the home, from the littlest to the eldest, had to do daily jobs before and after school. The Aunts gave me two jobs. First, every morning, I was to get down on my hands and knees and polish the miles long, upstairs corridor. The other was fetching in the milk and papers from the letterbox at the start of the driveway, each morning and night, to deliver to both houses.
Each time I walked up to the boy’s house, they all hung out their upstairs windows, whistling and calling out. It gave me a laugh, but the Aunts must have got wind of the shenanigans because my job was suddenly taken away and given to another kid.
We ate all our meals together, in the downstairs dining room, seated at wooden tables and chairs set out in little groups. We all shut our eyes when one of the Aunt’s said prayers before we ate slices of bread and butter with spreads first. Mains and puddies were served by bigger kids through a hole in the wall to the kitchen. I thought it really great to be getting a holiday from doing meals and enjoyed eating their food.
Saturday mornings, a man arrived from the head office in town to hand out pocket money or deal out any punishments due to the ones who had been naughty. Our pocket money came sealed in tiny brown envelopes with our names written on the outside. After receiving it, if we were on the good list, the Aunts let us go down the hill to the, Berhampore dairy, to buy some sweets. Never forgetting to keep change to put in the church plate the next day, very important to the Aunts. I never heard how they dealt with those on the naughty list.
Sunday mornings after breakfast, everyone got dressed up in their best bib and tucker and we set out on the long traipse over the Adelaide Road hill, to the Presbyterian Church in Newtown. One Aunt came with us and one stayed home with the babies, and no-one, not even the little ones who got tired with all the walking, were excused.
Sunday afternoons after church and lunch was the home’s weekly visiting time. All the children gathered in the front lounge to see if anyone would turn up to visit them. A whole family of kids from the Niue Islands, always got visited by their mother, she would sit her little baby on her knee, bouncing and hugging it while talking to her other kids. Her baby was one of the Aunt’s pet, she carried it around everywhere on her hip. Some other kids had visitors and some were like us with nobody to come, and sat around gawking at the others. Saying goodbye to their visitors was hard for the kids who got upset and cried.
Sunday nights, the Aunt who had not gone to church because of the babies, went to evening services at a little church in Rintoul street and took me with her. I liked getting to go out at night, but also liked, how pretty it looked inside the church at night. We sat on carved wooden seats that had rails covered in tapestry for kneeling down to pray.
I was too embarrassed to ask the aunts what to do about my ‘monthly’ when it arrived. I had caught a glimpse of a huge blood filled bucket in the wash-house outside one day and guessed it was soaking rags. My solution was to hand wash my bloomers and rags in the handbasin in my cubicle after all was quiet at night. Hoping they were all asleep, I hung them out the window to dry overnight in the wind.
My sister and I were lucky enough to get to go home to our flat after a couple of months, making the little girl called Kathleen who had become attached to me, sad. Mum’s operation had left a scar around her neck where the doctor sewed the cut up but she was hiding it with a new pearl necklace.
Carrying on with our life at the flats, I often thought about those kids still stuck in the two houses, up the hill. I wondered how they were, especially the poor little plump girl, everyone teased, by calling her ‘Football’.