Authors: Fiona Kidman
She searched her hands for cuts, but there were none that she could see. Next she examined her legs, and with growing horror, realised that the time had come; there was a small trickle of blood down the inside of her leg.
‘Mary, Mary,’ shouted her father. ‘Up higher, put it on the top.’
‘I’m trying, Gerald,’ her mother replied, perched precariously on the edge of the truck’s tray, and holding a chair above her head.
Harriet looked at her cautiously. To her astonishment she saw her mother, unable to wipe her face, suck a trail of mucus from her nose down to her top lip with her bottom one. Harriet had never seen her cry before. At least, that’s what she thought her mother was doing, though the tears were being whipped away in the wind; only the
undignified dribble from her nose told Harriet that she really had been crying. With a dull ache for her mother she wondered whether the prospect of another change to another small, hard farm was more than she could bear.
It did not seem an auspicious moment to relay the information that she had just received admission to the sisterhood of women.
She knew that the bandages would have been packed, and she would have to extract them somehow. With everything now piled on the truck, it was hard to work out which case they might be in. A mental stocktaking added up to the possibility that they were with her mother’s underwear, which was in one of the first boxes that had gone on the truck. There was no way that her father would agree to any unpacking — besides, what possible convincing explanation could she give?
When you had your periods, all sorts of taboos had to be observed, apparently. One should not go swimming, take a bath or run fast
races — not that this was a problem for Harriet. A girl should certainly not let any male know that she was afflicted by this rare and passing malady.
‘Mary,’ shouted her father. ‘The boys’ll want a cuppa. Time to put the billy on.’ He normally never spoke like this, but he used colloquialisms to help the Maori workmen understand that they were about to receive the milk of human kindness.
Everyone trooped inside and the trucks were abandoned.
Gingerly Harriet started to climb up over the boxes. To get to the cases at the back, she had to stand on the chicken crate. It was made of thin plywood. Harriet studied it and decided that it would hold; after all, she was small for her age. If she balanced carefully with one foot on the crate and the other on her mother’s sewing machine case, the latter would almost certainly balance out her weight.
While she was in this position, just as she had reached the precious suitcase containing her mother’s underwear, her father emerged from the house.
‘What in the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he roared behind her. ‘You stupid, thick-skulled, little cow,’ he added, as she collapsed through the chicken crate with a shriek. A pullet flew straight out above her head, showering feathers on her, and the birds in the box set up a fearsome cackling. Looking down she saw that she had broken the leg of one of them.
When her father had killed the injured bird and boarded up the crate again, he turned on her and said venomously that it was about time she started to earn her meal ticket There’d be plenty for her to do on the new farm, he’d see to that There had been a time when he had thought she had possibilities, that she might go somewhere. After all, look at what he had done for her, leaving behind the old country, and all they held most dear and working themselves to the bone so that she could have a ‘decent chance’. (As if, Harriet thought years later, he had analysed his sperm count years before and got on nodding terms with her years prior to her conception.)
And just look where it had got them all. A moron of a daughter who let dirty old men play around with her, a schizophrenic to boot if he could believe half of her reports. A girl, too, which was unjust when one considered that he’d put his life into building up a good farming background for a son. Now it seemed she was a bumbling sneak thief as well.
Harriet stood before this tirade without replying. She’d heard
versions of several of the points before, but never delivered with quite such fury. At last he asked, ‘What have you done to your leg?’
She looked down at the trickle of blood. ‘Scratched it on the chicken crate, I think. When I fell through.’
Gerald Wallace turned away in disgust. ‘Go and wash yourself at the tap,’ he told her. ‘We’ll be ready to go soon.’
So it was that Harriet rode to the new farm with the outer edges of her vagina thoroughly packed with a wad of the
The day they arrived, she was sitting squeezed up in the cab of the second truck with her mother. After they had been travelling for nearly three hours, the truck in front had slowed down and stopped. Gerald got out of it and came down the road to them. ‘That’s it, Mary,’ he’d said, indicating a clump of bush.
‘Where?’ asked Harriet’s mother, straining her eyes around the her dry landscape.
‘There,’ he repeated, pointing. ‘That’s our boundary line. From here on it’s our bit of country. We’ll be at the house in a few minutes.’
‘Thank you Gerald,’ she said bowing her head.
The trucks rolled forward again, and Harriet watched, her eyes darting from her mother’s face to the passing landscape. It occurred to her that her father had bought the farm without her mother seeing it. When the purchase had first been announced, it had seemed natural enough, the sort of thing fathers did. Now she was not sure.
Clouds of dust rose round them. They seemed to be in a valley, a burnt-out bowl dried to a tinder by the bright North Auckland sun. The trees and scrub growing across what Gerald had described as their country looked as if they would pack up and leave if they could. Harriet was glad that she hadn’t bothered her mother with other matters and hoped that her father had said nothing about the chicken crate episode. From her mother’s distracted air, it seemed that her misdoings were quite the least important thing on her mind.
One last corner and they were at the farmhouse. Nobody had lived in it for some time and the burnt brown grass was up to the window sills. The trucks pulled up, and they all climbed out.
‘Well,’ said Mary feigning brightness, ‘shall we go in?’
‘You’ll like it,’ said Gerald, but even he looked uncertain.
The truck drivers hung back, sensing that this was not their moment Gerald motioned for Mary to go in; Harriet decided that the invitation included her too.
The house consisted of four small rooms of the same size, each exactly square — the kitchen (a free-standing sink and a coal range), the lounge, as Gerald grandly called it (an open fireplace), her parents’ bedroom and her bedroom. At the back was a lean-to containing a copper and a tin bath. They walked around, silently inspecting it.
In the room that was to be hers, Harriet stood and wondered why it seemed different from the others. She looked to the window and outside there was a plum tree, thick and leafy and laden with ripening plums, casting deep cool shadows into her room.
‘Oh,’ she exclaimed on an indrawn breath. ‘Oh, thank you,’ she said, inside herself.
She went through to her mother. Gerald had gone outside to supervise the unloading of the trucks. She touched Mary’s arm.
‘It’s better than the last place, Mum.’
‘Yes,’ said Mary bleakly. ‘It’s better than the last place.’
‘Don’t you like it, Mum?’
‘It’s going to be a lot of work,’ said Mary. ‘Still, that’s what life’s all about’ She shook herself briskly. ‘I’d better set to.’
‘Come and look in my room,’ Harriet said.
‘It’s just the same as mine, isn’t it?’
‘Just come and look,’ Harriet urged.
She took Mary in and showed her the plum tree. For a long moment Mary stood there looking at it. For the second time that day, Harriet saw the glint of tears in her mother’s eyes.
‘Mum … would you like this room?’
‘Oh my dear,’ said Mary, ‘I’m so glad. So glad for you.’
‘I’ll help with the work, Mum. Honest I will. I’m older now.’
‘Yes, I know you will.’
‘And I’ll try not to make Dad mad at me. And I’ll watch that I don’t get a … a colonial accent.’
‘You’re a good girl,’ said Mary.
‘Shall I help you now?’
‘Why don’t you go and have a look round?’
‘But I really do want to help. And Dad’ll think I’m being lazy again.’
That was one of the best and closest moments of the summer between Harriet and her mother. For the rest of the time, Mary was working hard, distracted or fretful when she did think about Harriet, raising her concerns about her possible loneliness, something which seemed impossibly silly in view of the world that was waiting outside.
Mary Wallace worried about her daughter that summer. Here she was, having left her old school without knowing a soul, and the whole summer holidays stretching before her. To Harriet, there seemed no point in explaining to her mother that she had shed that old place like a dirty dress, and that a whole summer on her own was the nicest thing she could imagine. Surely her mother could see that she had been unhappy right through primary.
Still, it was nice that her mother cared. It seemed possible that she had always been an ally, and Harriet simply hadn’t noticed. It was odd, this new feeling between her and her mother. She guessed it was to do with the feet that she was now ‘a little woman’, as her mother put it. She searched diligently through the histories of Amy, Beth, Jo and Meg to see if they could shed any light on the situation, but there seemed to be an entire lack of information about the process by which they arrived at little womenhood.
Her father also seemed to like her considerably less than before, but perhaps she noticed him more.
The farm itself held some unexpected treasures. On that first day, Harriet made some bright and beautiful discoveries.
At first she didn’t know where to begin, and for a moment she was engulfed by a blank dark terror that if she went away she would return to nothingness — the trucks would have gone away, her parents would have disappeared, and the house would have vanished, leaving the breeze rippling through a paddock of brown grass. She began to walk timidly down a track leading away from the house, through dusty lawsonias. In front of it there was a gentle slope. At the bottom she found that she was on the floor of the valley, and it was quite different from the rest of the farm that she had seen so far.
The breeze did ripple through the grass, but what grass! Long and smooth like green silk, dotted with clover in flower, smelling strongly and sweetly, the scent of summer itself. Harriet dropped forward on her knees and spreadeagled out on the grass. Here was a scent, she thought, that she would never forget in all her life.
The sun, hovering on the brink of late afternoon, had become a friend again. The long dusty ride, the pain in her mother’s face, her father’s early morning anger had all gone away. This was her country all right.
She got to her feet, and started walking again. The flat plain was bounded by a river, dark with shadow, yet clear. Along its edge were
thick trees, some native, as well as willows and poplars, hawthorns and wild roses. The hawthorns and roses were thick with flowers and she recognised honeysuckle among them too; its flowers were part of the patterns of fragrance around her.
Harriet was sure she would burst with joy. Only a short distance along the river bank, she came to a half-fallen poplar tree that had
its growth after it had fallen, so that it formed a verandah across the river. It was easy to climb up and along it, to a crook formed by a branch and the trunk, a naturally comfortable hollow for a small person to lie and look at the sky through the tangle of leaves and flowers above. There could be no more beautiful place in the world.
Time passed and Harriet had no idea how long she stayed there. At last, when she realised that she was chilled, she climbed down from her perch. Before she left the river, she waded into it and washed, disposing of the shameful pieces of newspaper under a rock. The bleeding appeared to have almost stopped. She thought then that she would never need the bandages, and that it might spare her mother some worry if she didn’t tell her about it at all. It didn’t seem absolutely necessary for her to be like everyone else, and it was quite obvious that she was not going to have to endure her illness to the same extent that some women had done, if they needed such a wad of bandage when it happened to them.
When she got back to the house the trucks had gone, and she couldn’t see anyone about For a moment her panic returned; it was as if her vision had come true. In a few minutes, though, she heard voices calling, and realised guiltily that by now her parents would be out looking for her.
Her father sent her to bed early as a punishment for being out late, which was no great hardship, for the day had caught up with her and she was engulfed by the most profound exhaustion. She fell almost immediately into a heavy sleep and woke only when the sun, filtered by the plum tree, broke through her uncurtained window the following morning. A blackbird’s singing streamed around her as he hung on the bough of the tree.
Was it a summer of waking or sleeping? It passed like dreams and rarely did the world outside intrude, from then until the beginning of school. Afterwards, when she was older, she sensed that the summer had been a time of wakefulness before the long sleep of conventional life began.
Christmas was always celebrated by her parents in a particularly traditional English manner, neither of them ever having accepted the notion of a colonial Christmas Day. The very idea of cold meat on Christmas Day was sacrilege. On Christmas Eve, a fire was lit regardless of the summer heat, and the three of them sat in front of it to sing Christmas carols.
The same ritual was followed this year. The fireplace in ‘that lounge’ had not been used before, which presented some problems, for birds had been nesting in it since the departure of the previous owners of the farm. Smoke billowed back into the room within a few seconds of the paper being lit and the kindling flaring to light. They all staggered back coughing and gasping. Mary filled a pot of water from the kitchen and threw it on the fire, which died to a hissing, spitting little flicker.