Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

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Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Recollecting Mansfield


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To position myself at the beginning of my 'new era' I should recount how it came about. I was becoming increasingly aware of the limiting nature of my small apartment. Its main drawback was that there was only one small room to double as a workroom and a spare bedroom. It had to house my computer, copier, desk, filing cabinets and reference books, as well as a single spare bed. This meant that I couldn't have Rachel and her family, who by this time were living in Christchurch, to stay overnight, or indeed any married couple of my acquaintance. My other deprivation was that I couldn't just walk outside onto a patch of ground wherein I could grow my own parsley or mint. And although I could see hills and water from the windows I was not, somehow, among them. So, when Kate one day asked if I had thought of moving back to Christchurch, given that Rachel was there, and that Kate and her partner, Alan Williams, were themselves planning to end page 168up there in a few years, it was like a revelation. I was free, some of my dearest friends from my Christchurch days were still there, I would be able to buy a little place all of my own.

Rachel, who has never let the grass grow under her feet, sent me the Realtor and I found something in it that I thought promising. Rachel said, 'Why not fly down and have a look at it?' So I did. It was in Lyttelton, with a harbour view, and Rachel drove me straight there from the airport, but it turned out to be a place that would get no sun at all in the winter, so I rejected it. For the rest of that Friday and the whole of Saturday Rachel drove me round looking at places listed in the real estate ads. My financial resources would be only what I could get for my Wellington apartment (plus $16,000 which the Brasch estate had paid out some years earlier when they wound up the estate and closed off my annuity), so I knew I would not be able to afford to buy in the city the kind of place I wanted, and it was a matter of looking in outlying towns and villages. By the end of Saturday we had looked at many properties that were, as Rachel put it, 'basically crap', and we both felt depressed. I began to think I should stay in my nice apartment and not expect to find something more to my taste. We still had Sunday left and Rachel said, 'There are a couple of places in Diamond Harbour we could look at.'

Diamond Harbour! Across the harbour from the town of Lyttelton. When I was at school one of the teachers, Alison Burns, a perpetually untidy, soft-spoken, kind-hearted woman, used to take the girls who belonged to the Student Christian Movement (including me) to Diamond Harbour for a week in the August holidays each year, on a school camp. We stayed in Godley House, and at the beginning of spring it was sunny, chilly, ringing with birdsong, green, fragrant and beautiful. I was always entranced by it and one year, when I was 15, I wrote a poem, 'Seabirds in the Twilight', which seemed to me not bad so page 169I sent it to the Australian Women's Weekly. They printed it and paid me 5 shillings. So Diamond Harbour was engraved on my heart, but it had never occurred to me that I might live there! Now, however, I do. The little house we found that day had all my desiderata: two spare bedrooms as well as a study, a large sunny balcony to walk out onto from both the living room and the study, a small garden, trees and hills all round, all-day sun and, from the kitchen window, a view of the Pacific and the shipping entering or leaving Lyttelton Harbour. Certainly, it is a bit isolated — there is no supermarket, the library is very small and there is no public transport to and from the city (except the launch trip across the harbour to and from Lyttelton) — but the drive to town by car takes only half an hour, and the pleasures of living here are so great that the inconveniences are surmountable. And I no longer have to traipse around town every 27 July looking for anemones — I grow my own. Lauris liked it here.

Lauris Edmond was a bright light in my life for 27 years. In fact, I met her just as I was about to go to Dunedin to see Charles for the last time. So, as Charles's door closed, Lauris's opened. We responded to each other at once, interacted constantly, bounced our hard times and our good ones off each other to achieve a better balance in our lives as we went along. During the first 10 years of our friendship we both had some devastating times — she more than I — and we gave each other a lot of support. After that, we sometimes found ourselves moving apart; we had both struggled too long and too hard for our emotional and intellectual independence to be able easily to relinquish it, even to each other. But these contrary threads were woven into the whole luminous fabric of our friendship, to give it character and texture.

When I moved south Lauris was puzzled to know what would draw me away from Wellington, and I had been here only a year page 170when she died. On 27 January 2000, my birthday, I drove another Wellington friend to the airport and we visited the Antarctic Centre and had lunch there to mark my birthday. When I got home there was a message from Lauris on my answerphone, wishing me a happy birthday. Her voice was uncharacteristically croaky but I knew she had just had a bad bout of flu. The following day she died, totally unexpectedly, and the shock waves are still apparent in the land.

During the previous winter she came to Diamond Harbour for a few days with me at the end of a stint of reading her work in Christchurch schools. My guest accommodation is downstairs and self-contained. After her first night there I went downstairs to get the paper and, passing her glass door, I saw her in a dressing-gown, sitting in an armchair in the sun with a book on her lap and a cup of tea by her side, facing the stand of tall blue gums across the road ('Give my love to your trees,' she wrote later). She smiled and got up to slide the door open. She looked, somehow, washed by sleep — her eyes were misty-bright, her face miraculously unwrinkled, untroubled and smooth, her smile happy and relaxed.

'Oh, you slept well, I see!'

'I slept wonderfully,' she replied.

And that is how I shall remember her.

Even Mansfield has come here. I get letters, phone calls, emails, from people wanting to talk about her. A Canadian poet and novelist came and stayed for 10 days. A British biographer came, with a Welsh sculptor. Having rescued me from a kind of living death, and put life into my life, Mansfield seems prepared to stay the course. To have her still in the air of these sunny uplands is an unexpected dividend.

But the whole point of my trying, over all those years, to stay afloat and make a proper life was so that those children, procreated by Harry and me with such lively hope, should also be able page 171to have proper lives. So it is appropriate, here, to catch up with each of them.

They had all been boarders at the respective Nelson colleges, had been self-supporting ever since and were now dispersed in different directions. Rachel gained experience as a journalist on the Listener and then worked as an editor for various publishers before setting up as a freelance book editor. She also has a demanding and rewarding domestic life with her husband, Mark Wilson, and their two children, Harry and Amelia. Jonathan dropped out of his undergraduate degree course to take on a number of unskilled jobs in Melbourne. When he came back he had acquired the necessary maturity to complete his Ba and then carry on to do an honours degree. By that time he had aroused the interest of his teachers in the History Department and, with their support, he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to go to Cambridge where, at Trinity College, he did a PhD in history. He now lives in Cambridge with his American wife, Anne, and their two children, Sophia and Thomas, and teaches at Downing College.

Kate got there by a different route. After her Ba she spent a number of years travelling the world and teaching English before coming back to take another degree and to train as a clinical psychologist. She practised as such for a couple of years and then she, too, won a Commonwealth Scholarship to go to Cambridge and take a PhD at Trinity College. And she pulled this off in only two years instead of the usual three or four. There is an interesting echo from the past here. Kate is the only one of my children who never saw her father because he died seven months before she was born, so she cannot be said to have been directly influenced by him. Yet she is the one whose interests coincided with his, and followed the same developmental pattern in that they both spent their 20s getting a wide general education before knuckling down page 172in their 30s to concentrate on academic psychology. They both achieved a PhD in two years amid applause from their mentors. Mind you, they both had backing from partners who were the breadwinners for the period — I was in Montreal with Harry, and Kate had Alan with her and this gave her a good head start. Kate now teaches at the Medical School in Wellington, and also works part-time for the Ministry of Health.

There has been a lot of luck in my life — almost (to echo Janet Frame) the hand of a guiding angel. Whatever it was, I am thankful for it. One bright winter afternoon, when my old friends Elspeth Williams and Helen Bascand, and my new friend Greeba Brydges-Jones were here to lunch, Greeba, who has had a longstanding interest in Mansfield, and wanted to ask me many questions about my experience of her, said, plainly, 'You must write all this in a book.' I said I had often thought of doing so but had never, until now, had the freedom to do it. Greeba said, Then this is the moment.' And so it proved.

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