Sport 36: Winter 2008
I was fond of dentists as a child. They gave drama to a structured and overprotected life. The first one I met, Mr Tonks, started it with what I thought was a haze of exciting words. 'Open wide while I look for caries.'
I thought he meant fairies. Clutching the arms of the chair in an effort to keep calm I counted the power lines beyond the square sky of the window above his head. Sixteen there were, counting the more frail telephone lines drooping lower and ending in mysterious white china cups, but never a fairy in sight.
Later I was moved to Mr Bob Whyte in King Street. Why I have no idea and probably didn't ask. I was a vague and dreamy child with hay fever, unlike my brother David who was spirited and demanded answers.
Mr Whyte was kind and jokey and told me I was brave which was a surprise. Squeaky clean in his high-necked jacket he was loved by all, including his receptionist Miss Protheroe (NHRN) who sat behind a desk in a starched white cap like an upturned boat, gave you appointments and pined away while Mr Whyte flourished and made his patients laugh. You couldn't help it.
Another thing of interest near Mr Whyte's surgery was the ivy-covered house across the road. Half hidden behind its privet hedge, the house where I was born gave little away. For years I kept hoping for some reaction, some interesting memory dredged up from the time when David and I lived there and Colin was a baby. Nothing happened. Only three memories remain from King Street, Hastings: Miss Morris's mother, the garage across the road, and my fairies.
The last one puzzled my practical mother. I was head down, bottom up, searching among the pansies one day when she appeared to be greeted by my wail, 'You've frightened her away.' This interest in fairies came from my four small books, illustrated and written by page 87an English woman called Cicely Mary Barker. I carried Flower Fairies of Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter long before I could read. None of them were New Zealand fairies but then nothing ever was in the books of my childhood. I studied fairies endlessly, knew each one off by heart and had my favourites, such as the reckless Thistle Fairy swinging about on top of his purple cushion, or the red baby-faced Spindle Berry Fairy shaking his berried branch with force. All the boy fairies had pointed ears, so technically, I suppose, they were elves, but who cared. The only one I never warmed to was the Wild Rose of England. Dressed in a long pink robe with a crown of roses, she was, I felt, beyond me as she sat staring straight ahead on her high branch, holding a gold staff in her hand.
Each fairy painting had its own verse which meant nothing to me before I could read, and was a sad disappointment when I could. The Burdock Fairy remains, washed up on some useless tide of memory.
Wee little hooks on each brown little burr
(Mind where you're going, O Madam and Sir!)
What on earth was a Burdock? Again, it didn't matter as I searched for Snowdrop or Primrose or Bluebell fairies among my father's Jerusalem artichokes.
I learned quite soon that not every child believed in fairies, let alone saw them. It was a shock at the time but I learned to keep quiet on the subject. Fairies, apparently, were sissy, or worse, babyish.
Miss Morris and Mother (my second memory) lived next door. Mother had white hair and was old. I had worked out that the two went together and found it vaguely interesting, but not much.
One day Miss Morris came to ask my mother if she would like to come next door and see Mother before they took her away because she looked so beautiful.
My mother, who always looked beautiful, said that was very kind but thank you no, she had a friend coming to tea and she didn't think Barbara would want to…
Miss Morris had a jar of humbugs for boys and girls on her desk.
'Yes, I do.'
Mum looked doubtful. 'Are you sure, Bub?'
I took Miss Morris's hand and trotted beside her up the shingle path page 88to Mother's house, through the shadowy hall, past the tall clock which bonged the hours away and into Mother's bedroom which was dark, with pulled curtains. The only light was a dim bedside lamp beneath a pink lampshade with silky tassels. On the bed lay Mother. I stared at the face, the closed eyes, the stillness. Something was badly wrong.
'Why's she there?' I whispered.
'Mother has passed away. They'll be coming to take her away soon.'
Worse and worse. What? Where? Why?
'I knew you'd like to see her, dear.'
'No, no, no,' I yelled and ran screeching down the path.
My mother apologised. Miss Morris forgave me. The humbugs continued.
My last memory of the Frederick Street house involved Mr Hursthouse's Garage across the road from our house. I suppose there were cars for sale behind the vast windows, but the thing I loved was a brightly-coloured placard standing upright on the floor near the front. Watched by two cows and a pig, a 1920s roadster sped along a country road, its carefree young driver laughing at the wheel, his scarf flying in the wind. Beneath were words.
'What does it say?' I asked my brother David, who could read but was already car mad, and didn't like me much anyway.
'Ask Dad, dopey.'
I did so.
It is better to be five minutes late in this world than fifty years too soon in the next, intoned my father.
'But what does it say?'
'You'll understand when you're older.'
One of Katherine Mansfield's stories I read twenty years later tells of a child's excitement when her family moved into a new house, a dramatic day which involved trailing up the long hill from Wellington city to the developing suburb of Karori.
Nothing like that for the Wrights. Our new house in Robert Street was only a few blocks away from our one in King Street. Hastings, a small country town in 1930, was, according to Grandmother Jackson, page 89'fat as your hat. Hadn't a hill to bless itself.'
The first people who saw the new house were our grandmothers. They shared the honorary title of Nana, with a long 'a', as in Nana in Peter Pan, or worse, Émile Zola's Nana. Both our Nanas were strong women and I don't know why they settled for the same name as a large hairy dog in a frilly cap pretending to be a Nanny, or Émile Zola's mid-nineteenth-century prostitute.
The Nanas' reactions to 609 Roberts Street differed. Nana Jackson said there was plenty of room out the back for a henhouse and Mum must keep White Leghorns which were the best layers. Nana Wright said there would be more room for us all to frolic.
For as long as I can remember I was aware that we were not a family who frolicked.
The house at number 609 Roberts Street remains for me as a series of spaces. The best one was the so-called Doll's Cupboard, a small child-sized place behind an odd-shaped door in my bedroom where my People lived when fairies had departed. All of them—Jane, Bunty, Josie, Molly and Bella with the long yellow legs—were never babies. They were not fed or cuddled or put to bed or woken up. They waited in dark nothingness, fat on their backs, with arms at their sides and feet facing outwards, ready to swing into instant Adventures when I opened the door.
I had little interest in the sitting room downstairs except in winter, when the fire gave one of the few sources of heat in the house, and we were allowed to warm our behinds in front of it before sprinting upstairs to bed. No one was ever allowed to poke the fire except Mum. For years I thought there must be some skill in keeping a fire going, a skill known to Mum's Jackson tribe but not the Wrights. I discovered years later any fool can do it. Another myth gone poof.
Grandfather Wright's bookcase and its books now stood against one wall, the King Street sofa and chairs were still covered in fowery linen, padded window seats stood either side of the fireplace, and always, inevitably, a vase shaped like a miniature cattle trough sat on the left hand of the mantlepiece, filled with dahlias, or gladioli, or a Mixed Bowl. Troughs, with chicken wire crumpled inside to support page 90the flowers, were the chosen vases for mixed bowls in 609 and Mum's were much admired. She was good at mixed bowls as well as fires. The thing I liked best in the room was a Tiffany vase, which also came from Grandfather, its curved rainbow colours sleeping inside, definitely not for touching, nor for flowers.
Blinds were always drawn unless people were in the sitting room. The sun was Mum's enemy: it faded the covers if she wasn't careful, and made the flowers wilt sooner.
The dining room, besides the table, chairs and Dad's sofa, held a wind-up gramophone with a cabinet in which were stored His Master's Voice 78s, including our favourites: Tiptoe, through the tulips, through the tulips, through the tulips…; The Laughing Policeman, who did nothing but laugh so hard that we did too and once Colin wet his pants; and The Cats' Chronicle, which prints all pussy cats' news.
And best of all, Frank Crumit and his bum songs. Bums were rude, we knew that, but Frank's bums were alright. They were Americans and were also called 'hobos' and sang about a land that's far away in The Big Rock Candy Mountains. We sang along with Frank.
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never wash your socks,
And little streams of alcohol come a 'tricklin' down the rocks.
The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind,
There's a lake of stew and of whisky too.
You can paddle all around 'em in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
Alleluia, I'm a bum,
Alleluia, bum again
Alleluia, give us a handout
To revive us again.
Innocent as a nest of singing birds we sang along with them all, including what I discovered later to be a bowdlerised version of Abdul Abulbul Amir.
Beneath the windows which overlooked the garden stood another page 91bookcase which, beside 'ordinary' books, held dictionaries. These were for looking up words at meal times. 'Knowledge,' said Grandfather Wright, and probably someone else before him, 'is knowing where to look it up.' None of which made any sense for any of us until we could read. Before that was an atlas or two and Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable where I found Famous Last Words, the most memorable of which was St Lawrence's, whose martyrdom took the form of being roasted on a gridiron, and ran thus—
This side enough is toasted
so turn me, tyrant, eat,
and see whether raw or roasted
I make the better meat.
Another friend was Fowler's English Usage, which was first published the year I was born therefore worth picking up. Dad read me H.W. Fowler's dedication to his brother who 'died, age 47, of tuberculosis contracted during service with the B.E.F. in 1915–16'. He writes, 'I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlived, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied.'
I liked that, and remember I nagged Dad about 'prolixities', but didn't get far.
When I could read, I discovered that the problem with dictionaries is that you have to know how to spell the word required before you can look it up and find its meaning. There are fair traps in learning.
Beside the dining room ran a long narrow place called the servery, at the far end of which was the smallest space of all, smaller even than the Dolls' cupboard. This was called the water safe and projected beyond the outside wall. It opened above a shiny wooden slab which housed three large bins for sacks of sugar, flour, odds and ends.
The safe had fly-proof netting all around the servery. Shelves surrounded the shallow square pond, into which water ran all day and then disappeared out down the plughole. It never stopped; cool water lapped around a damp brick on which sat a blue plate with daisies and on that sat a pound of butter which never melted, not even in the nineties, Mum told us. The safe's shelves were lined with things which might 'go off' if Mum wasn't careful, but she was.page 92
Years later the Fridgidaire arrived and there was more excitement as Mr Jones wheeled it in to install this miracle, with its ability to make squares of ice enclosing tiny trapped bubbles, its promise of ice creams on tap. Mum was relieved when the door opened and the Fridge swallowed up meat and puddings which sat on shelves. Above was the doughnut-shaped top where the engine was. Periodically its mechanism gave a convulsive shuddering rumble, then calmed down again. The fridge was Mum's friend but the safe was more interesting to me; the coolness of the brick in its square pond, the deep golden butter slab for spreading, the plums cooling and the sound of water falling. When I met the word 'plashing' I thought of the safe.
It was running when we came down each morning and was still running, cool and safe and endless, as we trailed up to bed. It could do this, we were told, because we had an 'Artesian bore'.
'You'll know when you're older.'
Colin loved it too.
On the dining-room side of the servery two huge meat covers hung one beneath the other. They were silvery grey and made of what Mum called pewter, another good word, though Mum says they were too big to be any use and took a lot of cleaning. Near them was a hatch through which food could be handed into the dining room. One of the few games the three of us played together was Slides. When the coast was clear we skidded onto the shelf beneath (with a leg up for Colin), wriggled through the slide, hit ground in the dining room, then ran around for another go. The idea being that someone must be in the wooden hatch at all times. It usually ended with us all singing along with The Road to Vicksburg, or one of Frank Crumit's other classics.
We were caught once or twice but the game continued for years.
Beyond the servery was the kitchen, which was of little interest. None of us was ever allowed to help Mum, let alone attempt cooking. Beyond that was a larder, notable for me because it was said I had swallowed a fly there. Another door led to the washhouse with its copper, which was lit from below and boiled its head off every Monday. When the wash was finished the floor was scrubbed with page 93Pearson's sandsoap, which was again of great interest to me. Each slab had two tiny pictures on each of its sloping sides, like those vans which now carry sheets of glass. On one side a tiny lady tended a sick child, saying, 'I Wish I had used Pearson's Sandsoap.' On the other side an equally tiny, but happy lady holds a laughing child, saying, 'I'm Glad I used Pearson's Sandsoap.'
Sometimes Wrightie came to help Mum on washing days. We all loved Wrightie and she loved us. It was she who translated the Pearson's sandsoap ladies for me before I could read. Near the end of the washing process the cool water was made blue by a little muslin bag containing a lump of solid blue Reckitts, which made your sheets 'whiter than white'. She also told us sad stories in the kitchen after she had finished in the washhouse. The three of us sat in a row on the kitchen linoleum and watched as Wrightie flopped herself in a wicker chair which crackled with fright as she landed. Then she began her stories, all of which had dreadful endings. One was about a little girl who fell in a boiling copper, which I begged for, then wept each time I heard it.
David would point at me in concerned but scornful tones, 'Look, Bub's crying,' and Wrightie would clutch me to her deep and loving bosom and tell me it was only a story, 'Just a story, dear.' Wrightie also read me the messages of advertisements for blue-bags: 'Whiter than White.' And another in which a bubble from a mouth says, 'Don't let Mrs Next Door Sniff at your Whites.'
We all knew Mondays were busy for Mum and Wrightie and we were not welcome in the washhouse. Nevertheless if Wrightie was on duty alone she would let me 'help', until one day a tiny white hand surfaced among swirling soap bubbles. Wrightie and I shrieked together. This time it was her warm wet sacking-apron which caught my terror. Even when she lifted the dripping object from the boiling cauldron with her wooden pole I wouldn't look despite her laugh. 'Look dear, just a poor wee shrunken glove that got in by mistake. It's now no use to man or beast.'
'No, no, no.'
'There, there, love—look, what's Wrightie got in her pocket?'
And out came a soft green jube dusted with damp and slightly hairy sugar.