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Sport 40: 2012

The Harmonious Development of Man — Chapter 1 of a novel

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The Harmonious Development of Man

Chapter 1 of a novel


At first I was placed at the end of a conveyor belt, packing ice cream lollies with sticks and lurid paper wrappers into cartons. The older women beside me packed swiftly, their hands blurring with the speed, but I was slow and inept and the ice cream lollies piled up, finally spilling onto the floor.

‘I think dear,’ said the forewoman, as she shuffled through the spilt lollies, ‘that I’ll move you to icing ice cream cakes. That’s the elite end of the factory. And you can be as slow as you are. Now, you pick up the lollies from the floor and take them to the bin out the back. Rosie here will take your place.’

How kind they were. I’d expected to be fired for incompetency and here I was, proud of my pre-Christmas holly decorations, my calligraphic swirls as I laboriously wrote Happy Birthday Johnny in pale blue, or Happy Birthday Mary in pastel pink.

It was a summer of roses—cream, pink, yellow, scarlet—pouring over fences, cascading down trellises, climbing up drainpipes. School was finished with forever. We walked to the factory from our flat in Sandringham through the scent and petals. Every Thursday we got our money in a brown paper envelope with a pay slip inside. Real money; folded notes and jingling coins that you could see through the holes punched in the envelope. Every Friday, as a bonus, we could take home a quart of ice cream, any flavour, wrapped in newspaper. I liked hokey-pokey best, with its tiny crunchy honeycomb candy balls dotted through the vanilla. I’d eat my way through the quart every Friday night. My four friends would make their more sedate choices, like chocolate or Neapolitan, last for the whole week. It was many years before I could eat ice cream again.

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One of the group, Jane, didn’t flat with us. She lived with her mother near the ice cream factory. She’d been good at maths as well as English and was school dux and head prefect. We all liked her anyway. Often all five of us went to lunch at her mother’s flat where we devoured a huge bowl of steamed green beans fresh from the garden. It was the best food I had ever tasted. We didn’t often have vegetables at home and they were always old. That summer I alternated between feeling queasy from hokey-pokey and the relish of those beans, soaked in butter, both against a background of the scent of roses. An odd mixture, not altogether comfortable.

Jane’s mother was divorced, which was romantic. None of us knew anyone else who had divorced parents. But she was a short stubby grey-haired ex-farm woman, which was not at all romantic. Whereas Jane’s father was most romantic. He was a Welsh remittance man who seemed dashingly bohemian to us flatmates. His name was Herman and he rented a red brick two-storey terrace house in Wynyard St just down from the University. We gave up our suburban flat, where the four of us had shared one bedroom, and moved in.

Herman belonged to an esoteric philosophic group based on Ouspensky and Gurdjieff and we used to go together to their meetings. Ouspensky was the disciple of Gurdjieff, a mystic philosopher from Armenia with impressive curled mustachios in the frontispiece to his book. Their philosophy was a mixture of Zen Buddhism, psychotherapy and Christian mysticism. I read his Fourth Way in bed at night with the same diligence I applied to my zoology texts. I hoped I would develop a higher level of consciousness, some sort of spiritual wakening.

‘Self-remembering’, Gurdjieff called it. Katherine Mansfield had been a disciple of Gurdjieff, had in fact died at his ‘Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man’. I couldn’t decide if this was in Gurdjieff’s favour or not. The leader/guru of the Auckland group was a short, fat, red-faced, retired engineer from India, a kind of modern Buddha, who chuckled as he read from Gurdjieff and made enigmatic, wise-sounding statements about how to lead a transcendental life: ‘Man lives his life in sleep and in sleep he dies’, which led onto ‘When one realises one is asleep at that moment one is already half awake.’

I felt humble and inferior as I sat on a hard wooden chair in the page 40 circle of acolytes in the dimly lit room swathed in scarlet curtains. I was sure I was asleep, and that he seemed to be chuckling because what he was saying would be obvious if only I were higher on the evolutionary self-development scale. The other flatmates seemed more impressed by Ouspensky and Gurdjieff than I was. I supposed they were more spiritual than me. I couldn’t find any inner certainty, any awareness of the purpose of it all, which they seemed to have.

My boyfriends came and went. None lasted very long. Waiting for the bloodstains to appear, and panicking about being pregnant was a monthly phenomenon. No way did I want to end up like my mother. Jane and the flatmates said it would be good for me to go out with a fellow Gurdjieff disciple: plump. thirtyish, Brylcreemed mathematician Leonard, who sniggered rather than chuckled when the guru pronounced. He talked to me about inner growth and self- development and after a few outings to movies and on bush-walks, we slept together on the sofa in his flat. He had difficulty putting the condom on as his penis was only half-aroused and I had to help him press it into me. I disliked the feel of his fingers, slimy with anti-contraceptive cream, squeezing himself in. I felt claustrophobic, imprinted into the lumpy sofa, under his continual wet kisses. He was heavy and sweaty on top of me. I was worried the condom might slide off, and despite his moans I didn’t think he had come. I didn’t feel I knew him well enough to ask him.

The next day was clear and sunny, an inappropriately beautiful day after the night before, and he took me on the back of his 150cc motorbike to an east coast beach. He had a flagon of golden Dalmatian sherry in his saddlebag and we lay on the sand against the marram grass, with a peanut butter jar each, drinking our way through it. The mathematician had a sweet tooth. I was thinking about how to tell him I didn’t want to go out with him again without being impolite about the unpleasant sex, when he proposed to me with semi-drunken sincerity, frowning and pursing his lips.

‘We only have a few moments of true self-awareness. This is one and last night was another of them. We will work together to increase them. I asked Gregory and he thinks you would suit me.’ Gregory was the guru.

The sun had warmed me and the sherry had made me feel page 41 pleasantly woozy, but in no way numinous or spiritual. Leonard was not attractive or sexy and last night had been a damp fiasco. His hair was untouchably greasy. Gregory had a nerve mating us up and Leonard had been presumptuous asking Gregory about my suitability.

When my friends next went to the Ouspensky–Gurdjieff group I refused to go with them. When Leonard rang I told them to say I was studying and mustn’t be disturbed. After this I went out with a fellow student named Colin, whom I met at the Film Society. He supposed there must be a God and an afterlife, but was not particularly concerned about either and certainly couldn’t describe them. He believed one should be a virgin until marriage so being with him was restful.

The flatmates and I also tried the Church of the Golden Light and the Spiritualist Church. The Church of the Golden Light was in New North Road, just opposite Tongue’s Funeral Parlour. It was a small nondescript brick building, painted white with amber glass windows. The Spiritualist Church, which was upstairs in a photographer’s studio, seemed to have interchangeable congregations and mediums with the Golden Light. As far as I could work out from their sermons the main difference was that the Church of the Golden Light thought their spirits were unhappy and in limbo, needing to communicate before they could move on, whereas the Spiritualists were more optimistic and felt their spirit guides had altruistically returned from a higher level to help us. The mediums were grey-haired women, who would give a short exposition on the souls who still surrounded us, trying so desperately to be heard. Then they would stare intently around the congregation, finally saying who was there with a message for whom.

The departed soul would be standing behind the person focused on. The waiting made the atmosphere dense with anticipation. I once felt a presence behind my right shoulder. I didn’t dare turn round and look, but the medium didn’t notice it. I had thought it might be God, although I was scared it could have been my father. I had always hoped for a message—it would be a relief to know there was life after death—but was terrified I might receive one. Liz once got an elderly man whom she thought could have been her great uncle. He was worried about her. There was indeed a lot to worry about in Liz’s page 42 life, but the spirit was never more specific. Several times Maria got a Maori warrior in a grass skirt and feather cloak with a mere, telling her to stand strong. But since Maria was dark skinned because of her Spanish mother, it was my opinion that the spirit had got confused and had intended to stand behind someone else.

All my friends had been brought up with some sort of conventional religious belief which they had all rejected. Each was searching for a more alternative one. I assumed my father’s atheist indoctrination had proved the validity of the Jesuit maxim: ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,’ and had left me permanently stranded on godless shores. I wanted some sort of belief, wanted the comfort and security of being able to say, like Jane, ‘Of course there is a God. I know it.’

If only my parents had pretended that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had protected the bed I lay upon. Instead, my father had taken me and my brother out from the warm comfort of our beds onto the back lawn and told us about the geological clock. We were tiny specks on a tiny insignificant planet on the edge of one of many galaxies, waiting for the end. ‘We’re right on the edge of the outside of the Milky Way,’ he said, ‘the cold of nothingness at our backs, and soon our sun will go out and that will be it for mankind. One day our universe itself will be wiped out. But don’t worry, you will both be dead long before that. Your death is just as certain as the irrefutable fact that you’ll wake up tomorrow.’

The sky was crowded with thousands of galaxies, infinitely distant but pressing down upon me as I pressed up against my father’s legs. When I was depressed I knew that less than a second separated me from the black cold of oblivion, that one day everything I knew would cease to exist as I ceased to be conscious. When I was a small pigtailed girl clutching my heavy woollen blankets around me so that nothingness could not get in through any accidental openings, I was afraid to go to sleep in case I never woke up. I had to stay awake. Fifteen years later, under my down comforter I was still afraid to go to sleep. The flatmates looked puzzled when I tried to explain this. They were fascinated by the various forms of belief, but could not comprehend unbelief.

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Living in Jane’s father’s house meant we spent hours sitting round the dining table drinking coffee and talking. In our third year at university Jane’s father married a woman not much older than us and moved into the bush where he built a gloomy log cabin lined with esoteric philosophy books and Russian novels. She had a pale thin mean face and none of us liked her much. Every time we went out to visit Herman in the dense second-growth bush there was a new disgusting, wet, grubby, baby. It must have been hard for her with no electricity and no running water but we thought she was not worthy of Herman, who smoked a pipe and had a beard and would talk to us for hours. No one else’s father had a beard, or read philosophy, or would talk to us as if we were rational beings.

As soon as exams finished, four of us drove in Liz’s sputtering V-Dub down to Nelson. An ex-schoolmate’s father was someone high up in the mental health service and he had suggested that nurse-aiding in psychiatric hospitals was a lucrative way of earning money in the holidays. And it was. Double-time, time-and-a-half, triple-time at Christmas and New Year. We applied at the mental health offices and were allotted positions down in Nelson. None of us had been to the South Island, so it seemed as if it would be a holiday as well as a way to make money.

We were given rooms in the Nurses’ Home and each allotted a bundle of starched pink uniforms with white collars and two stiff white nurses’ caps. There were three sizes. Medium was too tight, so I had the large size uniform and had to bunch it up under a safety- pinned belt, which was humiliating as I didn’t think of myself as fat.

I’d read Janet Frame’s just-out Faces in the Water and had assumed mental hospitals would be like that—‘the raging mass of people performing their violent orchestration of unreason’—but the first thing we naïve nurse aides were told was that we would not be working with the mentally disturbed. They put us in the hospital in town, which contained badly handicapped children in two wards and senile old ladies in another. We didn’t know where the senile old men were. Were there any? I was first put in the ward with the bed-ridden children. It was a long room with three rows of large cots and big windows, too high for anybody outside to look in. At first I could not page 44 comprehend the reality of what I was seeing; it was like something out of some impossibly cruel horror film. Most of the children were grossly deformed. There were enormous cephalic water heads, tiny pinheads, huge slobbering mouths, bent bodies, contorted hands waving in the air, grasping blindly, clutching as if there was something to reach for. They could grip me with such desperate strength that I had to pry their fingers off. Many were blind. I couldn’t tell how old they were.

‘He’s twenty-one,’ the head nurse said of one boy whose rigid body was set in a foetal position. ‘He came here as a baby. Here, put your hands under him and lift. He’s not heavy.’

I did. He was completely stiff; his twisted limbs were tight, with yellowed skin covering skeletal bones. He was so light I was scared I might drop him and he was twenty-one, the same age as me. I turned him as directed and put him down in the reverse position. I did it three times a day. Nurse gave me a bowl of soapy water, a shaving brush and a safety razor and told me to shave him. I’d never shaved anyone before, not even my own legs, so my hands shook. After I’d nicked him twice the nurse said, ‘Here, I’ll do it. Don’t worry about it. He doesn’t bleed much. Not much blood there. You just wash him down. Can’t do much damage with that. Not too much soap and try not to get the sheets too wet.’

Like the others he needed constant changing, wiping down and encasing in huge nappies. We threw the soiled cloths into canvas containers suspended on frames on wheels, and an aide in a brown uniform would take them away at the end of each shift. Someone, somewhere, must have hosed them down and washed them. Some, not many, of the children could stand, clutching onto their cot or the nurse, and stagger blindly for a few steps, but the nurses were usually too busy changing the sodden nappies or wiping the faecal, shrivelled bottoms to encourage this. They’d pick them up and plonk them back in their cots.

‘You don’t want them underfoot, dragging on us. We’ve enough to do without falling over them.’

There were three nurses on each eight-hour shift. We’d start at the top of the row and work our way down, then, if there was time, start over again. It was exhausting, filthy work. I had to keep asking advice: ‘She’s got a raw rash on her bottom. What should I do?’

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The other nurses were patient with me.

‘That cream there, on the trolley, that’ll do for anything where the skin’s broken. Happens all the time. Constant abrasion. Don’t worry about it.’

The only regular events were feeding times, when a kitchen aide in a green uniform wheeled in a stainless-steel bin from the main kitchens, ten minutes away. They’d stop for a smoke on the way so the food arrived barely lukewarm. All the staff, nurses and aides, smoked whenever they could.

‘Just off for a fag. Back in a minute.’

The food was soft pap. Sometimes mashed potato or scrambled eggs were distinguishable. A few children would grunt and slaver with excitement at the sound of the approach of food, but many had to have their mouths pried open and the food spooned in. They’d often spit it out onto the white wrap-around aprons we wore, or let it dribble out. They could bite, clamping down with astonishing strength. After being caught a few times I would insert the spoon, scrape it against the usually decaying teeth or the bare gums of the upper jaw and whip it out quickly. I asked the head nurse whether some of the moans and screams might come from toothache.

‘You must remember they don’t feel pain the way we do. The dentist comes to do extractions once a year. Messy business. They have to be knocked out of course. Anaesthetised. Don’t worry about it.’

‘Don’t worry about it’ was the nurses’ refrain.

We were usually too tired to do more than shower and collapse on our beds after finishing our shifts. We comforted one another by adding up how much money we were making. We kept repeating the nurses’ comment that they don’t feel the way we do. I wasn’t at all sure I believed that. I was willing to believe it of the oysters I swallowed fresh off their shells, they had a different nervous system. But I felt the children might feel it more and be unable to tell us. Maria couldn’t stand it and left. I went down with her to the small grubby bus stop in the centre of Nelson where we embraced clumsily and I patted her back while she snuffled, mumbling, ‘We’re only twenty. We shouldn’t know that there’s life like this. What if I have a child and it’s like them? The money’s not worth it.’

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In the two months I was on the children’s wards no one came to visit. I wasn’t surprised. If my child were one of these I would not want to visit. It confirmed my belief that there was no way I would have a child.

One thing that made life at the hospital more bearable was the trellises laden with sweet peas outside the ward and the nurses’ home windows. Bright, fragrant, variegated colours and wafts of scent against the garish blue summer sky. I’d inhale them when I walked to the ward in the morning, hoping my increasingly grubby uniform would last another day. The flowers hinted at something more than the rows of befouled ugliness in the wards. Thin consolation though.

Then I was moved to the old women’s ward.

‘Short staffed here, nurse, too many taking Christmas time off.’

I thought the old women would be preferable but they upset me even more. The women, Mrs Norman, Mrs Guard, Mrs DeJeune, thirty of them, had once lived normal lives, had loved, had been married, borne children, baked and iced cakes. Now they were mindless. Or their minds had gone somewhere else, into incommunicable depths from which they would never surface. Most were silent. Some chattered incessantly and meaninglessly. Some were tied to their beds to prevent them escaping, looking for the home that was long in the past. Most were incontinent.

On morning shift, I pulled back the bedclothes and lifted their legs up and put their feet onto the floor. I guided them, holding an arm, to the communal bathroom where I showered them, washing between their legs, lifting their flabby breasts to wash underneath, putting antiseptic cream on whichever bits were festering in the heat. Then I’d help them dress, pulling the clothes over their head, supporting them as I lifted their legs for the bloomers.

‘How do I know which are their clothes?’ I asked the nurse the first time.

Some items in the pile of crumpled clothes had nametags, but the names had faded into blurs with the ferocious washings of the industrial strength washing machines. ‘Doesn’t matter,’ said the nurse,

‘they don’t care. Just check they’re big enough. Don’t worry about it. page 47 There’s a bundle of new bloomers if the elastic’s gone.’

On my first evening shift the nurse told me to collect the teeth and clean them. Almost all the women had dentures. I brushed away the soft yellowing detritus. The children’s ward had hardened me against gagging at the smell, and then I rinsed them clean. ‘Oh dear,’ said the nurse, ‘you should have put their names on their mugs.’ I woke in the night worrying about those women, with the wrong teeth that didn’t fit, uncomfortable in their mouths, rubbing on their gums. I woke worrying years later, long after the women would have died. The nurse didn’t seem worried about it though. ‘That’s the way the cookie crumbles,’ she’d said. I’d never heard anyone except my American mother use that phrase.

Once a niece visited, but she couldn’t pick out which was her aunt from the group of baggy, wrinkled women in faded dresses sitting outside the ward. They all had red-black, sun-hardened faces from months, years sitting alongside the ward wall. I had to go fetch the head nurse who took the niece to a Mrs Guard. The niece stared, tried to smile, went up to her and said, ‘Hello Auntie Gwen, remember me, I’m little Gwen, your sister Doris’s daughter. Doris and Hughie.’ She put her bunch of flowers on Mrs Guard’s knee and backed away from her aunt’s vacant unrecognising stare.

‘Hasn’t been before,’ said the nurse. ‘She won’t be back.’

Back in Auckland I was dazed. Those three months had been so vivid, so real, so appalling. We were all quiet and we avoided telling horrifying or amusing anecdotes to our friends who’d worked in factories or shops. We had to find a new flat. All the student flats, shut up over summer, were full of flea eggs waiting for us to hatch them. The eggs would lie there between the cracks of the wooden floors, under the carpet squares, waiting for the thump of our feet. As the one who felt there were a lot worse things than fleas, I would volunteer to take off my jeans, walk round the prospective flat, stamping heavily. Then they’d hatch and spring up, heading for the blood they needed. But they were newly born and confused so it was easy for me to pick them off my legs, while I stood in cold water in the bath tub.

I had to forget the implications of the summer holiday, get rid of fleas, begin to learn Anglo-Saxon, read very long eighteenth-century page 48 novels and mate fruit flies. And I did forget, until November and the end of exams, when we were due down in Nelson again.

Those wards contained a truth about the short time I was going to be alive, far beyond anything Ouspensky or the spiritualists or the churches could offer me. What did it mean when Jane said, ‘Of course there is a God. I know it’? How could she reconcile that belief with those children, those women? Jane didn’t go back, despite the money we’d all made, which meant we could buy small cheap cars and expensive books, smoke Sobranie Black Russians and drive out to the Western vineyards to buy flagons of Dally plonk. Next summer, it was only me and Liz who drove my Morris Minor across the flat tobacco- growing plains from Picton to Nelson, eating juicy red-black cherries out of brown paper bags and spitting their pips out the car window.

The letter confirming our appointment told us to go three miles beyond Nelson, through the village of Stoke and up the Stoke Valley. The valley was among low, round hills whose grass was cardboard- coloured burnt ochre, even this early in the summer. Stretching up the valley were six buildings, which we learned were called villas, a nurses’ home and an administration block.

‘You’re in Villa 2,’ said the administrator, a short, very fat woman with a gigantic monobrow. ‘The matron is Sister MacFarland. She’s strict, but as long as you keep on the right side of her you’ll be tickety- boo.’ She handed Liz and me each a bundle of pink uniforms. ‘We seem to have run out of belts, but don’t worry, you’ll be fine.’

Next morning Sister MacFarland, tall, narrow and tight-lipped, took me to meet the more important patients.

‘Maggie, she runs the kitchen, don’t you Maggie?’ Maggie, fiftyish and chunky, grinned and said, ‘I do too.’

‘And Shirley, she’s head gardener, aren’t you Shirl?’ Shirley’s flabby mouth worked and she mumbled something indistinguishable.

‘And here’s Annie, she’s in control of the laundry. We’re practically self-sufficient here. Annie’s such a hard worker.’

Annie ducked her head and offered me a swollen, reddened hand.

‘Now, we don’t need that do we Annie? Nurse is a nurse, not a visitor. And nurse, make sure you have a belt on tomorrow. We have to keep up standards.’

There were thirty-two patients, all women, and they all seemed page 49 able, with some encouragement, to wash and dress themselves. They all had tasks, which Sister Mac read from a roster at breakfast each morning. There was a certain amount of chivvying for the nurses to do, to find the patient doing the task, say, peeling potatoes or cleaning toilets, and then to watch as they did it. However, after last summer, this was a friendly, even convivial environment. The patients were either jovial, trying to ingratiate themselves with the staff, or somnolent, as they dozed, drugged on lithium, on benches or sofas.

My first job was to cut long strips out of sheets of gold tinsel paper and, balancing on a wobbly ladder, tack them in a criss-cross pattern over all the wooden panels of the dining room. Then I had to add a sprig of tinsel holly to the centre of each diamond. It was like icing ice cream cakes and it took several days. This was more than a month before Christmas but Sister Mac liked to see the ward looking festive ‘bright and early’. The Christmas tree from the forest up the valley had already arrived, brought by a work party from the male villa, with their male nurse.

The next day I was assigned outdoors supervision. It was sunny so I sat beside the swimming pool, supposedly supervising some of the younger women splashing in the shallow end. What a cushy job this is. Then I saw the head of a mongol girl going under, surfacing, going under, at the deep end. I ran to the edge and jumped in, pushing her to the steps. The other nurse, hearing the shrieks and laughter—‘Look, look at nursie. She’s in the water!’—strolled out. ‘Oh dear. Now you’ll have to go and get changed. Don’t worry; I’ll hold the fort. Sister should have told you she always does this—she’s like a balloon— unsinkable. You just need to grab her hair and drag her along.’

I had momentarily felt heroic. Now, as I went dripping to change, I repeated to myself, ‘Think before you act. Think before you act.’

On Christmas day the head nurse from the male ward came, outfitted as Father Christmas, with a Ho-ho-ho and a lop-sided cotton-wool beard and a pillowcase of presents chosen by Sister Mac. Maggie had prepared a lunch of roast chicken and Christmas pudding under Sister Mac’s close surveillance. Relatives were invited but only one couple came, the tiny tentative parents of a very large woman who worked page 50 with Shirl in the garden. Maybelle was proud of them. ‘These are my mum and dad.’ I was shocked. They seemed younger as well as a lot smaller than Maybelle.

‘Such nice people,’ said Sister Mac. ‘They had enough sense to stop. Most don’t. They just keep trying. Look at Ruby and Pearl and Emmy. And they have a brother up the valley.’ I looked at Ruby and Pearl and Emmeline. I hadn’t realised they were sisters. All inarticulate and often incontinent. It was impossible to tell how old they were. No one visited them.

Moana, the other nurse on duty, served the Christmas lunch with me. I got a comb as a present from Father Christmas and swapped it for a plastic Minnie Mouse, before Joannie—‘Look. A bloody stupid toy, I’m not a baby’—threw her Minnie Mouse into the ice cream.

I was a wide-eyed innocent compared to the psychiatric nurses. Really wide-eyed, staring at their style and flamboyance and insouciance. They were probably no older than Liz and me but they seemed so much more sophisticated and they were undeniably tough. They’d been through everything we were going through and had come out bravely. The nurses’ home reverberated with Elvis and the Everly brothers, Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, played on portable multi-coloured record players. Particularly Elvis. One nurse put ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on repeat full blast, locked her door and went down to the hotel. None of the nurses minded. Next day another reciprocated with ‘A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’.

The clothesline was festooned with skimpy scarlet lacy knickers and black lacy bras, blowing in the warm valley breeze. Liz and I had never seen undergarments like these. We both wore white cotton underpants with elastic in the waist, which would deteriorate in the wash and leave you walking tight-kneed to keep your underpants up. The nurses invited Liz and me down to the hotel in the village and shouted us beer with ‘top shelf’ chasers. They played pool with the local shearers. The first time Liz and I played I beat the local champion, a dirty sun-bronzed hero. I’d played billiards with my father at home but he always beat me so it was exciting to be a champion and to be praised by the nurses who laughed and cheered me and bought me drinks.

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Once the nurses realised that both Liz and I would drink as well as play pool, they asked us to their evening soirées; ten or so would crowd into one of their rooms, cram on the bed, sit on the desk and floor, put the player on and smoke and drink and drink and drink. They joked about the patients, the matrons, their jobs and one another. They laughed at us ‘little scared white rabbit student girls’, but affectionately, so I felt included and even loved. They all rolled their own, which seemed both tough and suave. And dance! Wow, thought Liz and I, could they dance: ‘We’re going to rock around the clock tonight’ and they would. ‘Don’t be no square / if you can’t find a partner use a wooden chair,’ they shouted along with Presley, at me. Next to them, I was indubitably square.

One night, sitting on the corner of a bed, squeezed up against Liz, I watched Moana, a handsome Maori woman, crooning to the song on the player. Then she leant into the woman next to her, wrapped her arm round her neck and kissed her. On the lips. On the lips. All those songs that pulsated through the nurses’ home daily and echoed through my mind on the ward took on a new significance: ‘I can’t think straight’—‘I’m living right next to an angel, I’m going to make that angel mine’—‘cutest little jailbird I ever did see’. My God, these women were gay. Or at least some of them were. These songs were gay songs. I grabbed Liz’s arm and pulled her, protesting, out into the corridor. ‘Did you realise that Moana and Rachel are lovers?’

‘I’m not sure. They might just be being affectionate. But I think Jo and Robyn are. And I think they think we are.’

‘Oh no.’

‘I think that’s a good idea. It means none of them will try it on with us.’

That’s when I realised. I would like one of them to ‘try it on’ with me. They were so glamorous and at the same time so competent and wise to be able to handle this terrifyingly other world. I’d like to be like them. I’d love one of them to feel I was worthwhile. So I went back in.

‘Hey, here’s our little timid, white, pool-playing rabbit.’ Moana poured me half a tumbler of Jack Daniel’s, topping it with a slosh of Coke.

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‘I wish you all’d stop calling me a white rabbit.’ My discovery and the bourbon had made me brave.

‘Well you most surely are not brown.’

That night was my first blackout. I wavered to my room and collapsed on the bed, the ceiling swirling in huge elliptical arcs above me.

‘You drank most of us under the table sweetie,’ said Jo as we dished up the porridge. ‘I thought you’d be too under the weather to turn up this morning. You might be a lousy dancer but you’re sure a champion drinker.’

The endearment and the combined insult-compliment made me feel I’d been accepted. Despite my hangover I dished out globules of sticky porridge with enthusiasm.

Three nights later, with ‘Great Balls of Fire’ drowning out any attempt at conversation, the door of Rachel’s bedroom burst open and whacked into my knees. When I looked down I saw the black boots of the door-kicker then, looking up, I saw a short solid Maori woman in a red shirt and black leather biker’s jacket.

‘Hey Suzy, no need to be so butch. You’ve just slammed the door into our white rabbit’s knees.’

I wanted to draw her attention to me, but the best I could come up with was ‘Ow!’

The woman grinned at me. A wicked grin and glinting slitted eyes.

‘Sorry baby, but it wasn’t that hard was it? Nice knees. Wouldn’t want to damage them.’ She turned to Rachel and held out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. She then took a glass, and just as I’d hoped, squeezed in between Liz and me, and lit up a readymade.

‘Menthol. I’ve got asthma.’ She coughed melodramatically. I loved it—the humour, the drama. ‘I’m on sick leave, fatigue syndrome and you’d better believe it,’ she announced to the room. ‘Come on baby, let’s rock.’ She yanked me to my feet and holding me close swayed me to ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ in the tiny space between the bed and the desk. She’d thrown her jacket into a corner and I could feel her breasts pressing against mine. Shouting into my ear she told me she was the charge nurse at the children’s ward in town, and rented a cottage in Polstead Road down the valley. She smelled of cigarettes and booze page 53 with an overlay of an unsubtle perfume that reminded me of sweet peas. She kept grinning and I kept grinning back.

The next day was a day off. I was lying on my bed reading the second volume of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. My tutor had said no one read past volume one and the madeleine so I had challenged myself to read it all from beginning to end that summer. I’d already read all of Richardson’s Clarissa because the lecturer said even he hadn’t read it. Despite the villainous handsome Lovelace, I’d found it unbearably boring. Now I was wondering if Proust intended me to dislike Marcel as much as I did.

Someone thumped on my door.

‘Hey you in there, there’s the phone for you.’ No one ever rang us. Toll calls were too expensive. It was Suzy.

‘We’re driving over to the Pass. Wanna come? I’ll pick you up in fifteen minutes.’

I had no idea what the Pass was, but Monsieur de Charlus, the Duchess de Guermantes and the unlikeable Marcel didn’t stand a chance against Suzy’s husky invitation.

Suzy had a large dirty brown Holden. She introduced her two brothers, John and Richard, and a cousin, Joey.

‘You’re driving, Richard. Here, sling those flagons and those sacks into the boot. Sit next to me in the back, Ngaio. Great she’s got a hori name, eh? None of us have.’

Richard drove fast; the road was unsealed gravel and full of precipitous swerves. I was panic-stricken but also very aware of Suzy’s firm warm body up close beside me. Every curve I was pressed closer. After a terrifyingly fast swoop down into a gorse and scrub covered bay we stopped. Suzy got out two flagons of beer and poured everyone a lukewarm drink with big weakly exploding bubbles, in cardboard cups. The boys upended them and disappeared into the scrub. As Suzy and I leant against the sun-warmed car I could hear the boys hallooing in the distance.

‘Get ’em! There she is! Get ’em! Down your way Joey!’

They returned holding a large greyish woolly sheep struggling between them. Suzy handed them a length of rope from the boot. They roped the two rear legs together, threw the rope over a branch page 54 and heaved on it till the sheep was hanging, its front legs swinging. Then John cut its throat.

This, I had not been expecting. I watched the sheep jerking as its blood cascaded into a puddle on the ground. I was shocked. I didn’t want to seem a sook so I turned away and pretended to be interested in the dark green sea. I took one glance and realised that, behind my back, the men were skinning the sheep and cutting it into chunks.

Suzy came over with two beers.

‘The snotgreen sea,’ I said. ‘There’s a writer called it that: “The snotgreen sea”. “The scrotumtightening sea”.’

Suzy laughed, snorted, spraying beer.

‘God, that’s rude. You students! It’s Mum and Dad’s anniversary tomorrow. The mutton’s for that. Peter and Bob are getting the crays. Wanna come after your shift? I’ll pick you up. Don’t tell them about that sea though.’ She snorted again. ‘They’re good Mormons. They’d wallop us if we said anything like that.’

On the drive back, the sheep’s remains in hessian sacks in the boot, Suzy put her arm over my shoulder and I shivered at its heavy warmth. Yes, she told me, she has four brothers and seven sisters. She was the baby.

‘I’m the bad one, the naughty one. But that makes them love me all the more.’

The anniversary was held in a big marquee outside a small house in a Nelson suburb. Brothers and sisters and cuzzies and nephews and nieces, and, of course, the parents all hugged and kissed me. At first I automatically stiffened up as unfamiliar arms wrapped around me, and lips touched my cheek. Mine was a non-touching family. I had never been hugged or kissed by my mother or my father or my brother or my sister.

‘Any friend of Suzy’s is welcome here. Think of us as your home away from home.’ After a meal at long paper-covered trestle tables dotted with bottles of bright orange, red and yellow soft drink, Suzy grabbed my arm.

‘Come on. That’s enough of this. Time for a drink.’

Suzy’s house was a tiny cottage in a flat section of roughly mown grass on the way back to the hospital. I was so nervous. I lost count page 55 of how many gin and tonics I’d drunk. They tasted very ginny and not very tonicy. I was worried about what I was going to be expected to do; the only account I’d read of what I supposed was lesbian sex was in Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness and that simply said ‘and that night they were not divided’. That was not much help. Besides I disliked the protagonist, Stephen, who was called an invert and had broad shoulders and narrow hips and dressed like a man.

‘Come on,’ said Suzy, sounding remarkably sober, ‘come to bed.’ Suzy, naked, felt soft and warm and enveloping. Voluptuous,

that’s the right word I thought, then I stopped thinking. We spent what seemed like hours kissing and touching and sucking before Suzy entered me and drove me into a frenzy, calling on all the unknown gods of darkness. Suzy reared above me, huge and powerful, laughing triumphantly as I, screaming, came again and again.

‘That’s it baby, that’s it. Feel me in you, right up in you. Feel me.’ This was it; this was what it meant to make love. This was the transformational moment of my life.

When I woke I was enclosed in Suzy’s arms. That part of my anatomy that I later learnt to call my cunt was wet and deliciously sore and we began kissing again. As Suzy sucked on me I pondered the fact that I’d never known my breasts and nipples were erogenous zones.

‘Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.’

‘We won’t,’ murmured Suzy, nuzzling.

Suzy rang the administration, telling them I had a stomach bug and couldn’t come on duty. We spent the day tangled in the sweaty sheets. Delectably sweaty sheets.

Midday Suzy made a pot of coffee, and we shared a Kit Kat bar, suck by suck. I lay out flat, trying not to move, being nibbled and licked all over. Hard not to move. ‘Still, be still.’

I tried not to move as I learned the various ways of being entered, one finger, two fingers, three. As I writhed my body felt like a vast cavern, sucking in and enveloping Suzy. Except that Suzy was no longer Suzy—she’d become passionate carnality, arousal, intensity, beyond personality. I felt triumphant as I pushed her down and tried out the various ways of entering a lover. I was as excited pushing into her as I was by her making love to me. Lying back on the mattress, the page 56 sheets having long ago ended up on the floor, I saw over Suzy’s round soft shoulder the thin silver sliver of a moon.

‘It’s night,’ I whispered into Suzy’s soft soft mouth. How to describe that mouth? Velvety I thought dazedly, or would satiny be better?

‘Mmmmhm. Night’s the time for love.’ She slipped a finger ever so gently back inside me, paused, and began moving it ever so gently.

‘Want more? Beg for it then, little white rabbit.’ I begged, oh yes, did I beg.

I went back on duty after one more day ill with a stomach bug. I spent every night at Suzy’s cottage. Liz was first of all annoyed at the loss of her mate, and she told me any anti-Suzy gossip she could winkle out.

‘She only goes for white girls—educated white girls, the more educated the better. All her family’s married white. That’s what the Mormons encourage them to do—how to make it in the white world. Her last girlfriend’s saying all sorts of horrible things about you. She thinks you’re up yourself and you’re not looking after Suzy properly.’ But then Liz met a top-dressing pilot who took her flying, landing

on the cool firm sand of beaches of islands in the Sounds and she stopped feeling left out.

At the end of February we drove back to Auckland.

‘I’ll write,’ I promised Suzy.

‘I’m not into writing,’ said Suzy, ‘but I get leave in six months.’

I hadn’t finished Proust—it would be another forty years before I read of Albertine who ‘loves her own sex’, who meets one whom Marcel fears is a ‘practicing and professional sapphist’, and who mingles with the ‘depraved women’ of the holiday waterside town of Balbec.