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The Godwits Fly

Chapter Three — Bird of my Native Land

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Chapter Three
Bird of my Native Land

Drift, logs, drift, down the shining stream,
Drift, logs, drift, down the shining stream—

Then some lines Eliza couldn't remember; but after them came:

Batyushka gosudar,
Wan wanes thy setting star,
Fallen art thou, the Great White Czar.

Lovely, with the memory of a thousand deaths packed into it; almost the only lovely thing that had ever been printed in the school journal. Batyushka gosudar.… She thought of Mr Duncan, who took the classes for mathematics and singing, and called him ‘Batyushka gosudar.’ It had to mean something good enough for Mr Duncan. He had a round face and a little red moustache, rather like a cat's, and a round bald spot on the top of his head. Nevertheless…

Carly nowadays stopped late at cooking-school, bringing home little piedishes and basins filled with bright-green arrowroot jelly and awful macaroni cheese. Her mouth drooped if after the first spoonful Augusta said, ‘I don't think I will to-night darling. I haven't much of an appetite,’ and John always growled, ‘Why can't they teach girls something sensible?’ But John and Carly didn't get on, that was an established household fact.

Carly's cooking-lessons left Eliza free to go home alone. She was old enough now to cross the flat little streets and the tramlines by herself; nearly eight years old. The school cloakroom smelt of wet mackintoshes and Jeyes’ Fluid, and outside, the playground was chalked with big white rings for marbles, squares for hopscotch bases. Girls and boys, though sometimes they joined in ring games, played marbles quite differently. The girls rolled their marbles gingerly up against the school walls, but the boys knelt at the side of the big rings, and very deliberately cannoned one another's rosies and glimmers out of the way. You could practise it when they had gone, and nobody was about, but somehow the trick never came off; besides, the other girls page 31 preferred their own way of playing. There wasn't any set reason why it should be so, it just was, like wearing pinafores and frocks instead of trousers, and the fact that boys could collect cigarette cards, but if they saved the coloured cards you got inside Toblerones, they were sissies.

Funny, darkling world of boys. Once two were nearly expelled for writing things on the cloakroom wall. Carly and Eliza didn't know what things, the chalk had been washed off before anyone had a chance to look. There were four sorts of boys; the ones Mother called nice, like Arnold Newbigin, who played on his mouth-organ at St Monica's Church social, and wore big round specs; the hoarse-voiced, growingup ones, with patched pants and large raw knees, like Bill Tybolt, who had to sit beside Eliza in class as a punishment for being so bad at arithmetic, and who kicked her ankles when Mr Duncan wasn't looking; the seven Orphans, who were industrious, but wore hideous yellow trousers and marched away in a little procession every afternoon, somehow isolated and queer; and the Duffel Street boys, who were like the Macartneys, only much worse. They had great cowslip freckles, sprawling together, and nits in their hair. More than one of them had been scrubbed with carbolic over the school lavatory basins, and once the nits had escaped into the ranks of the righteous, and every child in class had to be carbolic'd and kerosened. Augusta wasn't satisfied with that. She shut her family up in the porch, and blew sulphur fumes down their throats from long paper spills, until their eyes wept and their lungs wheezed. Eliza wasn't ever to take the short cut home through Duffel Street, where the slatternly little houses, squeezing close together, belonged to The Micks. But it was fun to look down from the white handrail above, and imagine what was going on down there; the fiery spit and crackle of red-headed life. Only you mustn't stare too long, or the Duffel Street boys came out and threw manure.

She passed the duckpond, brown and slimy, but leafily overhung by a great old willow. In spring its leaves were as minute as the tips of jade arrows. The duckpond and its big tree were The Willow Pattern Place, and it was satisfying to see the draggled white breasts of the ducks against the dirty water.

Mr Bellew, the headmaster of their school, loved trees, and tried to fight the emptiness of the raw clay around his brick building by getting the children to dig their own little garden-plots, where they could grow everything from potatoes to sweetpeas. Gradually he weaned them to trees and shrubs, and gave them long lectures about the duty of preserving their heritage of native bush—which they never saw, as it lay miles away over the hills. His favourite day in the year page 32 was Arbor Day, when he always managed to conjure up a Member of Parliament, like a whiskery watch-chained rabbit out of Mr Bellew's top hat. The Parliamentarian, having cleared his throat and rasped away at the children for twenty minutes, would scratch the ground with a trowel until the hole was deep enough for a sadcoloured, skinny little native tree to be planted. It didn't matter if he stuck it in lop-sided, because Mr Bellew would make the big boys replant it when he had gone.

Rear view of black trousers bending over: then the Parliamentarian came up to blow, and the Top Girls, Standard Six, of whom Carly was smallest and shyest, trebled:

‘Bird of my na-tive land, beau-tiful stranger,
Perched in the kauri tree, free from all danger.’

Bird-of-my-native-land was supposed to be the tui, but none of the children had ever seen one, or a kauri tree either. Sparrows hopped everywhere, living as the Lord provided, on spilled crumbs and dust and chaff leaking from the nose-bags of patient old reddy-brown horses, who stood stamping and shuffling their feet. And there were thrushes, if you had a coprosma hedge with fat little orange berries to tempt them. The Hannays had, and used the berries for sovereigns when they played Shops.

It was a lie to say that bird-of-my-native-land and the thin trees stuck in holes in the playground were sacred and beautiful, half as sacred and beautiful as the thin, clear flame of the English trees, which came out such a surprised green in spring. Somewhere, far away in real wildness, it might be different; but here the native things looked only grey and sad, and covered all over with dust. And the cabbage-palms and tree-ferns people grew in their backyards—like beasts in a zoo—looked cowed and sick.

Funny, the bird and tree business. Sometimes the school journal called New Zealand ‘Maoriland’ or ‘Ao-te-aroa’. There, again, you hardly ever saw a Maori, and if you did, it was in town. A dirty old wrinkled brown woman, with a black shawl over her head, sat on the steps of some indifferent building and puffed at her short pipe, while around her the sleek Wellington pigeons hopped, their breasts flashing emerald and proud opal. A few of the Island Bay fishermen were darker than the Italians; they were called half-castes, and there was something just faintly shady about them, though their babies had apricot cheeks, and great eyes and eyelashes you could only envy.

Occasionally, on holidays, the school went by train for a picnic. page 33 There were red-painted stations, stinking of freezing-works and sheds where tallow is rendered down, and the excursionists sang lustily:

‘Kaiwarra, Ngaurangha, Petone,
Kaiwarra, Ngaurangha, Petone,
Kaiwarra, Ngaurangha, Petone,
The next stop is The Hutt.’

The Hutt was a little river, willow leaves and sunlight dropping into it like tarnished coins. In its pools were electric eels, and if you trod on one it would electric-shock you to death. Also, though the wide pale water looked very shallow, its ripple broken by banks of gravel, there were places where the current pulled you under and drowned you. Lots of people had drowned in the Hutt. It was the nearest to real wild that the children ever got.

If you took a branch line to another station, there was a great azure curve of sea scalloped with foam, far beneath the highest bluff in the world. So high and airy it stood that on it you felt light and unreal, and looking down caught your breath away. This place was ‘Paekakariki’, a Maori word meaning ‘The perch of the green parrakeets’. But no green wings broke the air there any more…

Sometimes in class Mr Bellew talked about the godwits, who fly every year from the top part of the North Island to Siberia, thousands of miles without a stop. They fly north, they fly north.… They lined a dell one night with secret olive wings, and next morning were gone. Mr Bellew said, with melancholy satisfaction, ‘And the eye of white man has never looked upon their flight.’

Something there had been, something delicate, wild and far away. But it was shut out behind the doors of yesterday, lost beyond the hills, and sticking a dead twig of it into a hole in the playground, or a rotten poem in the school journal, only made it sickly and unreal. You didn't really have to think about it—Maoris, godwits, bird-of-mynative-land. Attending to it at all was a duty call to a sick-bed. History began slap-bang in England. ‘At the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, William of Normandy defeated King Harold.’ A picture showed King Harold very angry and frightened because William had tricked him into taking an oath on the bones of the Saints. You were sorry for him and didn't want him to be beaten, but of course he was; especially you wished the arrow had hit him anywhere but in the eye. Normans in England said ‘Bœuf’ and ‘Mouton’ at first and the old Saxon tongue struggled and died out, till nobody understood it, any more than people page 34 here understood Maori.… You had to know that much, or you failed in your examination.

You were English and not English. It took time to realize that England was far away. And you were brought up on bluebells and primroses and daffodils and robins in the snow—even the Christmas cards were always robins in the snow. One day, with a little shock of anger, you realized that there were no robins and no snow, and you felt cheated; nothing else was quite as pretty. The tall sorrel heads of the dock-plants were raggedy under your hands, and the bush of daisies with brown centres stuck out from under the bedroom window, its roots somehow twisted into the asphalt of Calver Street.

Chalked on the pavement, just below the Silly Boy's house, Eliza read, ‘Lizzie Hannay is Mad. She is stuk on Old Burgoo.’

She considered the white letters for a moment, before scrubbing them out with her boots. Bill Tybolt had written that. He never could spell, and he was wild because Mr Duncan made him share her desk. Mr Duncan was Old Burgoo. ‘If I tell him,’ she thought, ‘Bill Tybolt will get six cuts. Perhaps he'll be expelled.’ But there was the possibility, too, that Bill might be sent to the Head. On the surface that looked worse than being caned by Mr Duncan, but all the big boys knew that Mr Bellew wouldn't really hit them. He just couldn't. When they came to him in his office, first he slammed the door and took out his cane. Then he roared, so that you could hear him all down the corridors, ‘I'll make you dance, sir—I'll make you smart,’ and jumped about, hitting chairs, tables, even vases, anything except his pupils, who dug their knuckles into their eyes and whimpered, pretending to be terrified. When he was worn out, he said, ‘Let us hope that will be a lesson to you, sir,’ and the victim trotted back to the classroom, grinning from ear to ear.

She would manage Bill Tybolt herself—somehow. Besides, next year his father was taking him away from school and putting him on the milk-rounds, and Eliza had vague dreams of persuading him to let her ride on the milk-float. Once he had given her a conversation lolly, lettered pink, ‘I Luv U’; but when she said, ‘Do you really, Bill?’ he replied, ‘Sucks.’

Mr Duncan was different. He really whacked. Ruahine Doane had a striped palm for two days after getting six mistakes in her spelling. He only caned Eliza once, for saying with unnecessary emphasis, as they ploughed their way through Macbeth:

‘Wake Duncan with thy knocking;
I would thou could'st.’

page 35

Then, when she got home, she had cried so much that she couldn't go back to school, and John said he would call the police to her. In the end Mr Duncan had to come to No. 9 Calver Street, to ask, in his gruff voice, ‘May I ask what all this nonsense is about, young woman?’ By that time the room was filled with wavy blue light, and Eliza was so pleased to see him that after a gulp or two she stopped weeping, and forgave him on the spot. Later she explained, with what dignity she could muster, that she was crying not because he caned her, but because he had hurt her feelings in front of the whole class. Mr Duncan replied that young women with feelings had better stay out of his class, but often he called her into his study for special coaching in arithmetic, and gave her chunks of the almost inedible plum cake with which his landlady stuffed his lunches. Carly, who was jealous, said it was only because Mr Duncan was so Scotch he wouldn't let the dogs have it.

‘Why do I like him, when he's got such a temper?’ Eliza wondered. In singing-class he was worse than ever. He made them sing things written by Bobbie Burns—Eliza hated poems in dialect—and caned them if they didn't get the pronunciation right. His tuning-fork quivered like a little striking asp, struck the side of the desk. And he said, ‘Swallowed a potato, have you?’ with a crimson and sarcastic face.

It wasn't for his scalplock of red hair, or his broad, stubby face with the bright grey eyes. It was because he was clever, clever and miserable, and not in the least soft. She was soft herself, and she hated people to be.… Besides, on the whole, she felt worse if she didn't love somebody desperately than if she did. It had been like that since the very beginning. And once on the hockey-field, a dank green fen with rickety goal-posts and boys shrieking like gulls as they swiped at one another's huge muddy knees, Mr Duncan had made Eliza into what she wanted to be: Little Heroine. It was a complete accident. The girls played matches, too, higgledy-piggledy, amateurish affairs which none the less alarmed her; a crack over the ankle with a hockey stick could hurt. Just that happened. Somebody hit her on the shin, and blind with rage and pain she swiped out. Her stick collided with that of the girl who was dribbling the ball up the field … lovely clean smack of wood on wood, shooting the ball away down-field. Mr Duncan's whistle shrieked. He came panting up.

‘This little girl is the only one in the pack of you who'll tackle anything.’

The coiled-up feeling in her chest warned her that if she didn't say, ‘Please, Mr Duncan, it wasn't on purpose,’ she would pay for it after dark. At the same time George Washington's ‘Father, I cannot page 36 tell a lie,’ slid into her mind. She said nothing. Sylvia Rainer, waiting till Mr Duncan was out of earshot, called softly, ‘Teacher's pet.’

Sylvia had fawn-coloured hair, long as Carly's, but daintily frizzed up at the ends, and real lace on her pinafores, and an amber-eyed collie dog who met her at the school gates and trotted home with her to her house in Westacre Street. It was the Rainers’ own house, with Irish Elegance roses in the front garden. Irish Elegance… lovely sound. Sylvia was an only. Her parents had some sense, Augusta said. Eliza on the hockey-field held her head high, and smiled the exasperating smile which could always make Sylvia wild, lace-edged pinafore or not. All the same, she wasn't perfectly certain that she was cleverer than Sylvia, and pretty sure that she wasn't so good-looking.

On the upstairs iron balcony of his house, the Silly Boy stood as usual, swaying and smiling, ludicrously polite. His head tipped right back, so that he seemed to have no chin at all, and he always smiled foolishly, bending over double as the children passed him. He was quite grown-up, with curly dark hair, but he didn't know how to talk. Every morning his parents dressed him and stood him out in the sunshine, where he remained swaying quietly all day. Eliza had never seen him sitting down. He leaned out, as if vainly waiting for someone, and one of the trapped cabbage-palms came just level with his head. Its stiff blades, choked with dust, were tongues on which the spittle has dried. He wasn't as mad, though, as old Mrs Flint, who lived right opposite the Hannays, and every full moon became what Augusta called Very Queer. She was a minute woman, all wrinkles and flying grey wisps of hair, and from their bedroom window the children could hear her swearing and crying out. Sometimes she was taken away to the Asylum, but always she was home again in a few months. She had four children, tall and serious, with rather nice brown eyes.

Mr Potocki, who had a gymnasium class, and got drunk, thought he could fall off the roof without hurting himself. Every time he had been drinking, he climbed up to his roof and said he was going to throw himself down. His wife came to Augusta, crying and wringing her hands, but John said it would be a good thing for everybody if Mr Potocki broke his damfool neck, and Augusta ought to advise Mrs Potocki to take out an insurance policy on her husband. The only other queer person in Calver Street was old Nigger Jack, who drove about with a dusty sack round his shoulders, chanting, ‘Bottle-oh, bottle-oh,’ in his strong, sad voice. He lived at the top of the street, page 37 next to the brickyards, and had a white horse and a white wife, neither of them anything much to look at.

Augusta had forgotten the fuss she made about coming to Calver Street and sending her children to the new school; for it was quite a good school, and Mr Duncan said that Carly, though a nervous little idiot, was safe to get her Proficiency. And Mr Bellew was a gentleman, as much as Mr Forrest. The only difference was that he had a spade beard, and Mr Forrest's was a little grey fork. Mr Forrest, Mr Boad: old beards jut into your life and, go away, and are forgotten.

The tables had been turned on the Hannays, though Augusta, didn't seem to notice. Next to the Silly Boy, Mrs Flint, Mr Potocki and Nigger Jack, they were the worst people in Calver Street—the poorest, anyhow, and not well thought of, since John had become a Red Fed and started spending his evenings in Carl Withers’ bookshop. Mr Vaughan, their next-door neighbour, travelled in pianos, and had the use of a car on Sundays; Mr Mosley was in insurance, Mr Peters was retired, Mr Curnow came from England and had a tailor's shop, and the old Miss Whitneys had a lovely house with a white tower on top, and blue panes of glass in their windows. When Eliza once asked her father what his occupation was, he said, ‘Licking stamps and boots,’ which sounded so menial that she let the matter drop.

In their after-dark games the children could bring in Grandmotherand-Grandfather-Hannay-in-China, who seemed somehow more exciting than the Devlins, their Australian relatives. Grandfather Captain Hannay sat on the mantelpiece, photographed in uniform, with a tiger-skin draped beneath his long legs and poker back, and a white moustache bisecting his face. Grandmother-in-China was photographed in a long verandah closed in with wire-netting, and filled with tiny flying birds. She was the only one who sent presents, ten shillings for every birthday, five shillings each at Christmas, and sometimes a Wonder Box. The Wonder Boxes were miles the best, because usually the money got spent on something useful; but in the boxes were wee Christmas puddings in enamel basins, Chinese lanterns painted with silky birds and butterflies, scrap-books, snake bangles, wooden animals. Only Eliza was the one who came off badly, because John had written to Grandmother-in-China saying that she was very studious, and after that, nearly always got little books of views, or John's old school prizes, marked in a fine crabbed handwriting, ‘For dear Eliza.’

Ngaio and Jock Vaughan, the children next door, had pale, pointed bunches of green grapes hanging from the V-shaped roof of their greenhouse. But they never invited the Hannays to eat any, and when page 38 Mrs Vaughan realized that Carly, Eliza and Sandra were playing in her garden, she called Ngaio and Jock indoors, and shooed the Hannays away to their own place, the Back Yard. Then they could hear the steady drumming of a piano, as Ngaio did her five-finger exercises. Sandra mimicked, ‘Ping-pang-pong-Pung,’ drumming her fingers on the fence loudly enough for Mrs Vaughan to hear. But that didn't alter the fact that the Hannays had no grapes and no piano.

The Back Yard was a broken square with a clothes-prop, and at one end a wash-house. There wasn't any bathroom inside the house, and Augusta said the children were too big now to be tubbed in front of the kitchen fire, with their father sitting there behind his newspaper. So every Saturday evening the copper was heated, and robed in coats over their nightgowns, they trotted across to be boiled. At first it was fun—bright crayfish-coloured bodies poking up wet heads over the rim—but Carly, the incurable innocent of their tribe, let things out to the Vaughans, and little boys used to hang about the back fence, calling, ‘There go the copper kids.’ The Back Yard, as Augusta had complained from the first, had no privacy. By keeping right against the brick wall which surrounded it on three sides, they could be out of sight; but that was impossible, because in the wall lived the Red Insects. They had translucent wings and had lacquered bodies, and to be attacked by one was the end. ‘They fly down your neck and sting you to death,’ Carly explained.

It was Sandra who settled the copper question—Sandra, so delicate that in her first four years, the others always thought of her in terms of missing teeth, tonsils and adenoids, and a bottle of syrupy red medicine which nobody else must touch. Because she had pale gold hair, velvety blue eyes, Sandra got all the spoiling, and took herself very gravely. At first she couldn't realize that the street boys were making fun of her, but when she did, one evening, with perfect calm she removed her coat, nightgown and combinations, and stalked quite naked across the Back Yard. Carly and Eliza stood stricken dumb; Eliza, after a moment, wishing she had thought of it herself. Outside sounded a long, surprised whistle.

‘Why did you do it? Mummy will nearly die,’ Carly wept.

Sandra's head, tufted with its pale ringlets, showed above the copper. ‘Give them something to look at.’ Eliza thought, ‘Sandra's not an angel, not one bit; she's just angel-coloured.’

Augusta, when she heard of it, did nearly die. But after that she came out to shepherd them over to the wash-house, and if the little boys were about, she sent them away with a flea in their ears. They were frightened of her stinging tongue. A good many people were page 39 frightened of Augusta. Green grapes and piano notwithstanding, Eliza much preferred her mother to Mrs Vaughan, who had a purplish skin and a bobbly sort of neck.

And just sometimes—once in a blue moon—the Back Yard was lovely. On moonlit nights, when they played that the clothes-prop was a maypole, and dressed up… John could join in beautifully, when he liked, much better than Augusta, who was tired and busy, and said abruptly to her husband, ‘It's well to be you.’

They wandered in dusk as far as the edge of the Park, to find wild poppies and cornflowers for wreaths, or sometimes right over the grey hills, where on scrubby bushes grew the pale-starred clematis, traveller's joy. John had an old flute, though it bubbled rather horridly when he tried to play it. They danced, and were witches and fairies and grown-ups, and the street floated calm ebony and silver, until Ngaio and Jock slipped away from Mrs Vaughan and said, ‘Please, Mr Hannay, can we play too?’ and the Collie boys from the bottom of the street joined in. One of the Collie boys had a glass eye, because his brother shot the real one out with a pea-shooter, and he was always hiding the glass; once he put it in Carly's apron pocket, and she screamed as if a red insect had got on her. But night was lovely for the most part, warm and lovely.…

Augusta called, ‘Eliza, don't go over my soapy floor. Take off your shoes, and go round the front way.’ She obeyed, slipping silently into the empty, tiny room which was left to the children for their games. In a way, this was distinction; they were the only children in Calver Street with a special playroom, though it was only because there wasn't enough furniture to make it into a sitting-room, as Augusta reminded John when they were quarrelling.

Quarrelling.… It was what made everything in the house seem funny and strained, a tone too loud.

‘Tonight after dark,’ she thought, ‘we will play we're in the bush.’ Years ago, they had picnicked in the bush with the Harris family; and Nellie Keller was there, Nellie with her white, flat face, who had anæmia. She was dead now. And a fantail came and flirted with his fan, and Bob Harris made a supplejack bow and arrows. There was a stream, amber-brown, smelling of wild mint. The high fennel arched above their heads. They would take off their boots and socks and turn a blackberry corner. She didn't quite know what happened next, but it always developed after dark: only she had to general Carly, who was getting very religious since she went to St Monica's, and said such long prayers that she was sleepy when she got into bed.…

page 40

‘Eliza,’ called Augusta, ‘you'd better get on with that homework. You know what your beautiful Mr Duncan says about your sums.’ Eliza sighed. Loving Mr Duncan had its drawbacks.