Authors: Fiona Kidman
‘Never mind, Dad,’ said Harriet, ‘we can sing carols without a fire.’
He stood contemplating the situation. ‘No,’ he decided. ‘If we can’t put ourselves out for Christmas, I don’t reckon life’s worth living. You shall have your Christmas, my girl,’ he said
Soon he was perched on the roof with a pitchfork in hand. ‘Watch out, here it comes,’ he cried, and the nest came tumbling out of the sky.
At last the fire was lit, and they gathered around again. ‘Right — one, two, three, go,’ ordered Gerald. He gathered his reedy tenor together for ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, and they dutifully followed him, then it was ‘Good King Wenceslas’, and all the time the fire crackled and roared with a life of its own, and the room got hotter and hotter.
‘When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even,’ they carolled on. Harriet began to feel faint She got up and went to the window. Outside it was still light They had beaten tracks in the dry grass and it lay broken and untidy about the house. Why were they sitting here in this house, singing about the snow? It made everything seemed so unreal — perhaps the Christmas story itself was all a myth.
The idea frightened her. Quickly she came back to the fire.
‘What’s the matter, Harriet?’ asked Gerald.
‘How do we know it’s true, father?’ she said, staring at the flames.
‘Know what’s true?’
‘The Christmas story. How can we be sure that it’s true?’
Gerald studied his daughter and said, ‘It is true.’
‘But who says it’s true? There’s nothing to prove it.’
‘It’s history. It’s in the Bible.’
‘But the Bible can’t be proved to be truth,’ said Harriet. ‘The Bible is a collection of beautifully written literature, much of which was handed down by word of mouth amongst illiterate people, till it was finally written down. There’s no conclusive proof that it is absolutely accurate.’
Her father’s face was terrible. ‘Who told you that?’
She wrinkled her forehead. The words had come out so easily that she must have got them from somewhere. ‘I read it,’ she said, remembering. ‘It was in a book that my teacher gave me last term.’ The teacher had not been mentioned since the night the police had called, months before.
Gerald sat very still. His voice was shaking when he spoke again. ‘You will forget what you read in that book.’
‘I can’t forget what I read in books, father. How can I, if you want me to do well at school?’
‘Then you will learn to recognise good from evil in your reading.’
‘Is it evil?’
‘Of course. Harriet, this has gone far enough. Believe me,’ and his voice hardened, so that she shrank from it, ‘it is the truth because I say it is.’
‘Yes, Father.’ Why hadn’t she thought of that? There was no more obvious reason for it to be the truth than that her father had said so. It removed whatever concern she had on the subject. She smiled and relaxed. The fire was dying, and the heat was more tolerable.
She felt as if she had been through the fire and come out the other side. How good it was not to have to wrestle with problems of the mind. There would always be someone to take care of such matters, while she, she would … do what? Be like her mother? Have children? That meant being married. No, it was all too difficult. Probably she would just spend her life in the bough of a half-fallen poplar alone with the river and the sky, and some wild brown ducks she had seen down at the river. Yes, that would be it, and how beautiful it would be.
‘We will have to see to her confirmation this year,’ her father was saying to her mother.
In the morning there was cooking to do and preparations to make. Things were a little easier this year, for the farm had no stock. They had only managed to acquire a couple of house cows, and there would not be a sale until the middle of January. While there was
much to do on the farm, and both her parents had been hard at work since their arrival mending broken fences and trying to get the cowshed into working order, at least it meant that they need not do any milking on Christmas morning; her father took care of the two cows they had.
Harriet and Mary had to finish plucking the fowl they were going to roast for the midday meal, and shell peas and peel potatoes, Mary all the time bemoaning the fact that they had had to have vegetables sent out from town instead of growing their own garden-fresh ones.
‘Would you like to have dinner out under the plum tree?’ asked Mary.
‘Why not? It would be fresher outside. We could carry the table out, and set it up outside. There’s not a breath of wind today, nothing would be disturbed.’
‘Wouldn’t Dad be angry?’
Mary looked up, hot and flushed from the plum pudding. ‘It’ll be his Christmas present to me,’ she said shortly. Harriet had never heard her mother refer to her father as ‘him’ before.
Between them, she and her mother carried the table out to the plum tree, then Mary went back inside while Harriet laid out the blue and white tablecloth that had been brought amongst her parents’ best possessions from England. A thin edge of embroidery ran right around it, and in the middle were fat roses and violets, linked tightly together with immaculate tiny stitches. With the light of the tree lying dappled upon it, the cloth looked prettier and more sumptuous than she could ever remember before.
She carefully polished the worn knives and forks, also brought from England, on the edge of her skirt. The blades of the knives were so thin that they had great indentations along their cutting side, but Gerald had sharpened and re-sharpened them so often, spitting on his stone and grinding them hard in the shining globules, that they cut as clean as razors. Everything was set out, when Mary emerged again.
‘Doesn’t it look nice?’ cried Harriet, surveying her handiwork. Sunflowers straggling through the long grass had burst into life near the house, the ancient memory of someone’s garden. She plucked three flowers and laid one beside each setting. Sun, memories of snow on the ice-white of the table cloth — it must surely be the best of both worlds. There was a shine all over it.
Then she looked at her mother’s face. Mary seemed to be suffering some sort of inner convulsion, unable to speak. Harriet put down the spoons she was still holding.
‘What is it? What is it?’ she repeated across a stillness. The birds, the cicadas, even the sound of the sun cracking the seeds and pods in the trees, seemed to have stopped.
‘Mother, what is it? Please tell me.’
Still her mother was silent. Then slowly she said, ‘It’s nothing to do with us, we wouldn’t know any of them. You’re too young. I can’t tell you on Christmas Day.’
Harriet ran to her mother’s side. ‘Please … please, what is it?’
At last Mary said, ‘You’ll have to know sooner or later. It was the radio. I can’t keep it from you.’
‘Mother, has someone died?’ Through Harriet’s mind raced names of all the cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles still all in England. There were some cousins in New Zealand too, on her mother’s side, but they didn’t count. Only the ones in England really meant anything. Which one? Which one? Why was her mother’s face so terrible?
‘There has been a dreadful accident,’ said her mother haltingly. ‘At a place called Tangiwai, in the night, a train crossed a bridge and the bridge broke, the water was high, the mountain flood had come down, a man came to flag the engine as it went by, the train didn’t stop, the train carried right on down the line, they didn’t see the sign.’
Her voice sounded as though she were intoning some ancient dirge. ‘The man stood in the railroad tracks, it was too late, it couldn’t turn back, and the train went down, the train went down.’
‘What happened to the people?’ said Harriet, although she already knew.
‘They died, they were swept away. They’re looking for the bodies. It was a great mountain flood, child, cold water, and the mountain swept away from its moorings.’
Through the sun Harriet saw the cold mountain waters flooding — foaming torrents and white pieces of mountain, and a train rearing high on its heels.
Hearing her mother chanting this liturgy, Harriet sensed some old, old tragedy in her mother that time would not heal, but yet she understood the nature of the sorrow as if it were her own.
‘Will it spoil Christmas?’ asked Harriet.
Mary rounded on her. She did not speak. To her amazement, Harriet saw a strange half-smile on her face. She wondered if her mother was quite sane. ‘It will not spoil the coming of the Holy Child,’ said her mother. ‘Come on in, we’ll have a sherry.’
Harriet had never tasted sherry before. The bottle was produced only at Christmas and for her parents’ birthdays, and one modest glass was taken by each.
Mary broke the seal on a new bottle. She poured the glittering liquid into two jam jars, brim to the top, and handed one to her daughter.
Harriet looked at it in alarm. ‘Drink it,’ ordered Mary. Harriet extended her tongue carefully into the glass. Sweet fire shot up into her mouth.
‘To Christmas,’ said her mother.
‘To Christmas,’ repeated Harriet, and drank quickly. The bottom of her stomach gave a strange painful lurch. It seemed that the bounty of default that had alighted on the Blessed Virgin would never be hers, for she told her mother that her illness was on for the second time in a month. Her mother said that she must now learn to protect her virginity, whatever that was, in deadly earnest.
At least the bandages were more accessible on this occasion.
The summer moved tranquilly onwards. Late in January, the hay was cut on the lower paddock where Harriet had knelt on the day they arrived at the farm. Stock was to be brought in.
Harriet was vaguely aware that her parents had made contact with the neighbouring farmers. Their holding was very large, and it seemed that they were rich, owning a large and handsome black Chevrolet. They seemed to know everyone in the district, judging by the vast numbers of people who made dusty tracks up to their gate during the holiday season. The gate was clearly visible from the Wallace’s front window, and quite often people vomited over it when they were leaving. Harriet was sorry for them, assuming that there was some strange infectious disease at the house. She wondered whether she ought to warn her mother, but her mother had clearly seen some of the visitors in action from time to time, and said nothing. As there was some to-ing and fro-ing between her father and the men on the next farm, she guessed that the situation was under control. Their name was Collier, and a son worked on the farm with his father.
One of the main subjects for discussion during their visits and conversations appeared to be the hay. The people next door saw it as a desirable acquisition and were prepared to pay handsomely for it Gerald was hardly likely to refuse; Harriet suspected as January wore on that they were already close to running out of money to send to the store for food. The Colliers had offered equipment and labour to help cut the hay, and the price would be deducted from the price they paid.
There was, of course, nothing unreasonable in the cutting of grass for hay, and she told herself quite sensibly that it was like having an unwanted haircut, a necessary evil from which there was no escape. And yet it was sacrilege.
Mary was up early on the day they began, and by the time Harriet came out for breakfast there was a large pile of scones already piled on the table, with a clean tea-towel wrapped around them.
‘You can start buttering,’ said Mary.
‘And don’t sigh at me like that,’ snapped Mary. ‘God knows you’ve done little enough these holidays. For someone who was going to help me, you’ve done precious little. I don’t know what’s got into you.’
Harriet felt that she could well say the same of her mother, but wisely kept silent.
Mary eyed Harriet, and her face took on a curious expression, almost of disbelief. ‘A bit of stuffing and a hide like a nigger. You’ll be taken for a Maori if you don’t keep out of the sun.’
She sounded so like Gerald that Harriet wondered what she’d done wrong. Glancing down at herself, the recent changes in her body acquired a fresh significance. The bumps under her frock gave her a sudden start of pleasure. Harriet Wallace’s got tits, she said to herself cautiously, just like the kids back at school used to say when someone grew up a bit, only here there was no one to say it except her. Harriet Wallace’s got tits, she repeated with glee. Tits and bums and cunts. Wow. Tits and a bum and a cunt, she corrected herself.
‘The butter’s in the cooler under the trees,’ said Mary.
‘Yes,’ said Harriet. Tits and bums and what’s a cunt? The soft little shell between her legs, she supposed. The hairy part, come to think of it Funny, she hadn’t noticed it till the other day. It was all part of the deal, though, she knew that She’d squinted into the wash house
more times than they knew when either of her parents was taking a bath. Hair was okay. She was okay.
‘Are you going to do it, or shall I?’ said Mary, in the sort of voice that meant that if she didn’t nobody would speak to her for the rest of the day.
Tits and a bum and a cunt, sang Harriet’s heart as she collected the butter and brought it inside and started slapping it onto the sweating scones.
‘I expect you to help carry the billies down to the paddock today,’ said Mary.
‘Aw, gee, Mum …’
‘What’s the matter with you? They won’t bite you, you know.’
‘The Colliers,’ replied Mary.
‘Who are they?’
‘Oh, don’t try to be thick. It doesn’t suit you.’
know who they are,’ protested Harriet.
‘The people that live across the road. The ones that are coming to do the hay. Haven’t you seen the young fellow talking to Dad? Jim, his name is.’
‘I must have been down the paddocks,’ said Harriet.
‘Well, that’s where you’ll be today,’ said Mary. Coming on strong, Harriet thought. There didn’t seem to be much room for negotiation.
At morning tea, she and Mary went down to the paddock. Jim was on a tractor drawing a large scythe behind him, cutting swathe after swathe of grass, the shiny soft stuff falling away like material cut from a bolt. Mary set out a cloth on the grass and they spread the food and the billy and tin mugs out on it, and signalled for the men to come over.