Sport 21: Spring 1998
Barbara Anderson — Peppermint Frogs
I'm glad you asked me about my 21st. It's not a topic which crops up often, in fact I don't think it ever has before.
21st birthday recollections don't have the starkness, the wherewere-you-when-it-happened impact of global tragedies—that day in Dallas, that car crash.
Nevertheless, memories surface, and strangely vivid they are too. Looking back I see the day itself, and more especially the day before I came of age, with detachment. This was not so at the time.
My father used to say that one of the pleasures of his old age was the sudden re-appearance of long forgotten memories. A glimpse so sharp it startled him, of, for example, he and his brother fly fishing in Taranaki streams 60 years before. He could feel the sun on his back, see the silver-pink irridescence of the newly-caught fresh-run hen at his feet. The birds, even the birds, he could hear.
I told him I would look forward to such pleasures and he replied, his virtually blind eyes leaking with mirth, that he wished me luck.
I cannot include memories of my 21st among such joys. The celebrations were muted but emotions ran high.
At the age of 20 I was teaching Science at a Girl's Boarding School. I was, in fact, Head of Science. Science, in that school, was me.
As well as teaching Forms Three to Seven I had, like all the residential staff, extra-curricular responsibilities. These were a mixed bag and revolved mainly around the Boarders: House Duties with the Boarders, Dining Room Duties with the Boarders, Prep Supervision with the Boarders, Church Attendance with the Boarders, and, finally, Lights Out for the Boarders. Yippee—but softly. The Staff House held perils of its own.
A responsibility which was mine alone was the restocking of the Science Cupboard. This stood at the back of the laboratory where I taught, secured for safety yet still threatening, like some large and page 13 famished animal snarling for food. I did toss it some copper sulphate occasionally (‘Chile, girls, is virtually a mountain of copper’) but remember little else.
For some reason this task alarmed me more than most. More than Full Day Sunday Supervision with the Boarders which included Ballroom Dancing with the Seniors in the Hall after tea. Not more, certainly, but almost as much as the importunate clamour of my alarm clock each morning and the strictly hierarchical queue for the geyser-equipped bathroom in the Staff House.
I can still see the dressing gowns: the plaids, the camels, the florals and the sad. And the sponge bags creaking in the hands of First Assistant, English, Maths, French and so on down the line. Physical Education and Science tossed for second to last.
There were power cuts that year I began teaching. I had bought a radio shaped like a miniature caravan with my first pay cheque, and listened each morning to Morrie Power's session on 2ZB. Morrie was a cheerful man, or appeared to be so, and I would like to take this opportunity of thanking him for my morning laugh. At 8.30 each morning he would intone, ‘Ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of my brother, Vital Electric, please turn off your radios.’ I thought this very funny indeed and so did Val.
Val (Phys Ed) was 21 and blonde. She danced and leapt about the school, glowing with health and easy on the eye. I can remember thinking at the time that working in an all girls' school seemed rather a waste of Val's more obvious attributes. Our other friend, Woody (Beryl Woodhouse, Geography), had been teaching for years. Val and I took her breakfast in bed on her 30th birthday. Woody, attractive warm-hearted Woody, sat up in her bed and wailed, ‘I don't want to be 30.’
Val and I stared, struck dumb with horror. What could we say, what could we possibly say to our friend Woody who was 30, still teaching, still living in the Staff House, and not married.
We came to, prattled on: ‘Look Woody, bacon and fried bread. Presents! And your favourites, peppermint frogs. And we're taking page 14 you to The Best Years of Our Lives tonight. And the Green Parrot after. We've got it all worked out.’
We had, hadn't we? Yes, we had indeed.
Val's boyfriend was now working in Auckland. Mine had left university unexpectedly and was mustering in the High Country. I still find that phrase deeply romantic. As one of Janet Frame's characters says, ‘I should like to have lived in a house whose tall windows face the mountains.’ Or think I should. I enjoyed Stephen's letters and his tall tales from the hills. Also words of affection and praise were more than welcome in the chilly atmosphere of the Staff Room.
However, I realised that I no longer loved their writer. Stephen, not his real name, wrote to tell me he was coming up for my 21st. We would, he told me, paint the town red. I wrote to him immediately, saying, ‘Don't come. It's over,’ though more kindly and with grateful thanks. I still remember the relief. I practically levitated about the Staff House singing my new song to Val: ‘I'm out of love, I'm out of love, I've just ditched the turtle dove.’
My birthday coincided with Easter Monday that year. Val and I, mostly Val, had organised an overnight tramp in the hills with the left-over Boarders. Most girls and staff high-tailed for home as soon as the appropriate bell had tolled on Maundy Thursday. There were 12 stragglers left, girls ranging in age from 13 to 17, who, for various reasons, were stuck at school. The Headmistress and the cook were delighted with Val's enterprise and we set off, like Belloc's firemen, with courage high and hearts aglow.
Val was an experienced tramper and had access to one of the huts. The weather was fine, the beech trees sparkling and the girls delightful. My sense of freedom soared to euphoria. The next day, appropriately tired but happy, we caught the bus back to school. Val, I remember, taught me the words of ‘The Martins and the Caugheys, those reckless mountain boys’ en route.
We handed over our charges to the French mistress who was Sunday House Duties and thus also pleased with us, trailed back to the virtually empty Staff House and sat on the verandah, drinking tea and counting the treats in our working lives. We came up with three. A cup of tea, page 15 a hot bath (if and when the geyser behaved itself) and the Sunday Request Session.
‘Well, we've got that later,’ said Val, pushing back the hank of blonde hair which fell across her left eye. I asked her once why she didn't cut it off. She replied that the boys liked it. I understood immediately.
‘And there won't be a queue for the bath,’ I said. ‘Toss you.’
Val won the toss and I went to my room which was small and dark and much loved. There was mail from home and, lying on top, a note from the Headmistress. ‘Dear Miss Wright. Please come and see me in my study as soon as you return.’
Why on earth? I changed into a skirt, brushed hair, washed hands and set off. The Headmistress was working. She never stopped working. There are many types and conditions of women whom I admire but headmistresses of girl's schools, particularly boarding schools, come high on the list.
Miss Grainger looked up, smiled her anxious gentle smile, asked for details of our expedition, then corrected herself. She would speak to Miss Rowland and me after Assembly on Tuesday morning and hear all the details. She was glad it had been such a success. The girls had been very fortunate and the school was grateful.
She stopped, looked at me even more anxiously. She had a message for me. From a young man named Stephen something.
‘Yes. He has been trying to contact you all weekend.’
‘Here, of course. He seemed very surprised you weren't here. Very,’ she murmured to her fingernails.
‘But I wrote to him. Ages ago.’
The Headmistress's hands moved quickly. She didn't want to hear the details. Anything but. She handed me a piece of paper between thumb and forefinger. ‘He's in a hotel in town. Here's the number. Perhaps,’ said the Headmistress, ‘you might care to contact him.’
‘Yes, yes I will. Thank you, Miss Grainger.’
‘Not at all.’
I rang Stephen. I saw Stephen. Stephen told me he had never page 16 received my letter telling him that our romantic attachment was at an end. He showed me the ring he had brought up from the south. The ring he had hoped to place on my finger as a token of our everlasting affection and regard for each other. I stared at the high-domed blue-velvet-covered box, at the bright golden circle with its small diamond winking from ruched white satin and burst into tears of shame and guilt. Stephen wept too. He asked me if there was any chance of my changing my mind. I said no.
He asked me if he could kiss me goodbye. It is always a mistake to ask and I bawled louder.
Finally, thank God, he got angry, told me what he thought of me, snapped his little box shut and departed.
He married a girl called Bobbie not long afterwards and lived happily ever after.
The next day was my 21st. Morrie Power wasn't on that morning. I sat up in bed and opened birthday presents from my family and friends. Val and Woody brought me breakfast in bed and sang Happy Birthday, dear Barbara, Happy Birthday to you.
They had booked tickets for In Which We Serve. And we would go to The Green Parrot afterwards. There were peppermint frogs.
I didn't tell them, of course, but in fact I preferred chocolate fish with pink insides. And still do.