A family named ‘Tilly’ lived in a downstairs flat across the grass from us, under rowdy Mr J. They had two boys named, Grant and Warren, both a bit older than us flat’s kids. Grant the eldest, was fascinating to us kids because he liked sitting outside on their front grassy patch, doing paintings on an easel, like he was a real artist. Each time he appeared us kids gathered around to watch and I was busting to give it a go.
Grant’s, younger brother, Warren, owned an old fashioned car with a soft top that folded down and invited me to go for a spin with him. We left the flats behind, after school one hot sunny day, for a joy-ride down to Island Bay and around the bays. What a great feeling it was, zooming along, with the wind blowing us to bits.
I’m not sure how, but Warren figured out I was home from school having a sickie one morning and rang me up, on mum’s new black telephone, asking me to come over and visit. To avoid the prying eyes of the old lady gossips who might rat on me to mum, I used his backdoor on the other side of the flats.
We spent a fun day listening to music on the radio, talking and sharing lunch. He got some of his step-mother’s lipstick out for me to have a try and see what I looked like with it on me. She worked in the ticket box at the pictures in Wellington town, and whenever she saw any flats’ kids in her queue, she let them in for free.
When Christmas Holidays finally came round again it seemed like ages since we went to Nana’s at Christchurch. This year we were staying home with mum. A minister from the Church on the hill around the road, called ‘Saint Cuthberts’, came door knocking at the flats to wish everyone a ‘Merry Christmas’ and invite them to the Christmas Services. Unfortunately mum was having her between jobs nap and got mad at being woken up. She told him not to bother her again as she was not interested.
Later on, she did agree we kids could attend the Sunday School if we got ourselves out of bed in time. At the Sunday School class, they gave out paper pictures of the new church they were building to all the kids. They wanted help getting enough money and asked the kids to bring money to buy paper bricks to stick on our paper church. The real church building was finished before my paper one even got half built. Getting coins from mum for paper bricks was ‘like getting blood out of a stone’, another one of her sayings.
The last Sunday morning before Christmas, all the flats’ people woke to the beautiful sounds of, my, favorite Christmas song, ‘Away in a manager’. I lay in bed humming along, ‘no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head’ with the words sounding to me, kind of, like our flat on mum’s night off. When she was too tired to make up her couch bed, my sister and me squashed together in one single bed so mum could snore away in the other.
I raised myself up in my bed for a peek out of the window curtains. I was surprised to see, a circle of ‘Salvation Army Brass Band’ members, in their uniforms, standing in the middle of Caretaker Jack’s lawn. Their instruments, shining in the morning sun, were putting on a concert for all the residents by playing lots of Christmas Carols. Their ladies, also dressed in black uniforms, with funny wee bonnet hats on their heads, were door knocking, collecting money in rattling wooden boxes, to help the poor people have a Christmas.
Curling up under the covers again, I enjoyed listening as the Carol music floated out over the flats until all the doors had been knocked. Even after they left, seated on little wooden boxes on the back of their truck tray, their playing continued drifting, back and forth in waves across Berhampore, while their driver drove up and down the streets and the collecting carried on.
Looking out of our window later, I spotted Warren, heading across the grass to our flat, dragging along behind him a real Christmas tree, dropping pine needles all over Jack’s immaculate grass. Coming into our porch he knocked on the door, and suddenly, I felt embarrassed, even though we were friends. I was thinking maybe he thought we were really poor. However, it made me feel nice after mum opened the door, to hear him kindly offering us his tree. Mum’s acceptance was another big surprise as she never wanted help from anyone.
Christmas day, mum never had much to put in our pillow cases hanging on the wardrobe door handle, just a little toy and a book. I spent my message money from the, next doors, buying an orange, a lolly and bottle of fizzy to slip a special treat into my sister’s pillow case, before she woke up. There was no money for a special Christmas dinner this year and mum was so tired from her two jobs she slept all day.