And so, in 1973, suddenly feeling I couldn't cope with everything I was supposed to be doing, I resigned from my job at the Turnbull Library. I now had Charles's annuity of $1500, though I received only $1200 for about 20 years until the Dunedin law firm administering the estate decided to wind it up and discovered that one of their partners, now retired, had made a 'mistake', and they paid out the extra few hundred dollars. Of course, it wasn't nearly enough to live on (the sad thing was that when Charles made his will, back in the 1960s, it was enough) but I was still eligible to go back onto the widow's benefit until Kate was 16. It was a penny-pinching sort of existence, but it gave me the freedom from pressure I seemed to need at that time. I pushed on with transcribing the Mansfield letters but had by now lost heart over the project, and I felt, often enough, that I was drowning. Only the patient ministrations of my good friend Lauris Edmond kept my page 129head above water so that I was eventually able to recover my lost confidence.
One or two unexpected little windfalls helped. My Uncle Jim had died, childless, and left his wife with power-of-attorney. She, a sort of Presbyterian dinosaur, had disapproved of me for many years because, as a young mother, I Went Out To Work. In fact, she was not keen on any of us Bennetts, except for the youngest, our sister Kathleen, who had been good to them when they were getting old. So the money went to Kath, and some cousins who certainly didn't need it, and my warm-hearted sister gave me $3000 of her share. This lifted me an inch above the ground for a while and was a great relief.
Another windfall was thanks to Colin McCahon, not that he knew anything about it. In the old Titirangi days Colin was a neighbour and we knew him and his family pretty well. When Harry built a radiogram that needed a decorative panel to be fitted to the back of it, he said, 'Well, we have an artist right here, let's ask him to do it.' Colin then was keen to take on even small commissions, and he executed this one with thought and care and an eye for the shapes and colours of the Manukau Harbour that could be seen through the window behind the panel. It was done in the style of his 'French Bay' series and he charged us £10 for it. He said it needed some months to dry before it could be varnished, but Harry died quite soon after that, and I moved to Christchurch, taking the panel with me. Colin told me what kind of varnish it needed — two kinds, to be mixed together — and instructed me when to apply each of two coats. I did that, and each time I moved house thereafter the panel came too. It was not framed but I managed to get help in putting it up on a wall without damaging it. Over the years it darkened in colour, thanks mostly to cigarette smoke, but it continued to sit there, enigmatically watching over me.page 130
When I had had it for nearly 30 years I decided that it had given me everything it could, visually and emotionally, and the time had come when I would like a bit of money from it. I wrote to Peter Webb, the art auctioneer in Auckland, and described it to him. He rang when he got my letter, told me he knew of the painting and said he would like to fly down in the morning to see it. This he did, then said he would like to put it in his next auction, and asked if he could take it away with him. I wanted a photograph of it to keep as a memento; he would be getting it photographed in colour for his auction catalogue and I could have the negative. So he took the panel away, got it cleaned, photographed and framed, listed it in his catalogue with a provenance note that he asked me to supply, and duly sold it to the wife of a wealthy Dunedin businessman. Net profit for me — $36,000! I was stunned. I had never had anything like that amount of money. I bought a new car and a washing machine and put the rest in the bank to separate myself from rock bottom for another little while. I had an enlarged photograph of the painting framed, and it still hangs on my wall, though the intense light has faded the colours somewhat.
In 1976 my father fell ill with inoperable cancer. He put a notice on the door of his consulting rooms ('the surgery' we always called it when we were growing up — with the waiting room it formed an annex of the main house, with a separate entrance), apologising for the fact that he was forced to retire, advising patients to find another doctor and wishing them well. He was meticulous about tidying everything up and clearing out those rooms in which he had conducted his practice for 42 years. I went down to Christchurch to help him and stood in the backyard feeding the incinerator with patients' records from years past, and feeling distinctly uncomfortable, because good manuscripts librarians don't burn information about days gone by. But page 131my father said it had to be done; it would be irresponsible to keep them. He was engaged at that time in writing an autobiographical book, a sort of overview of his life which he called A Canterbury Tale. Just as he was finishing it he saw in the Listener a notice about an Oxford University Press competition for a biography of a New Zealander. There would be a cash prize, and publication of the book. My father knew he wouldn't have time to enter his book himself, so he asked me to see to it, which I did, after he died. It needed a lot of tidying up and checking and retyping but I finished it in time. By then, however, they had changed the rules: the competition could not be won by an author who was dead. This, as it happened, ruled out both my father and Charles Brasch, whose autobiographical memoir about his early life, Indirections, had been entered by James Bertram. But the judges felt both these books were of such quality that, although they couldn't win the competition, they would be published anyway. On publication, though, neither made much of a splash. I don't remember the reviews of Indirections, which I had not read myself at that time, but those of A Canterbury Tale were dull and imperceptive. Charles's book, although it is by no means the story of a typical New Zealander, is utterly fascinating. And although I might be suspected of bias in favour of my father's book, readers responded warmly to it. It is, I think, a mine of various kinds of historical information, and a highly entertaining story. His life wound uphill all the way, and his quiet tackling of all its exigencies can only be called valiant.