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Authors: Fiona Kidman

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BOOK: a Breed of Women
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‘Remember,’ he called to her. ‘You just remember, fellas don’t like girls that are smart.’

As she arrived at the house, a car was pulling away from the gate. There was a tired grey man at the wheel, wearing a collar and tie. She guessed it must be the doctor. She pushed the door of the kitchen open, and put down her load at the sink, then stalked towards the door of her mother’s bedroom, determined to get to the bottom of this mystery.

At the door of the lounge she stopped. There were voices in the bedroom. Neither Gerald nor Mary had heard her come in. The bedroom door slanted open. Gerald was sitting on the edge of the bed holding Mary’s hand. Harriet could see that at least she was alive.

‘You should have let him take you to the hospital,’ said Gerald.

‘There’s no point,’ Mary said. There was an edge of desolation in her voice.

‘I want to know you’re safe,’ Gerald said.

‘I am. I’m safe, it’s only rest now that I need. All that’s beyond saving is our baby. It’s gone.’

‘Yes, he’s gone,’ said Gerald.

‘He. You never give up hope, do you?’ As he bowed his head over her hand she touched his face. ‘You mustn’t hope for too much. The doctor said he didn’t think there’d be another. My age … I’m not a young girl any more.’

He groaned. ‘Oh God, why did I bring you to this Godforsaken place?’

‘Hush, you mustn’t say that. God forsakes no one. Come now, you brought in the hay today, and we’ve more money than we hoped for, and soon you’ll be able to stock the farm and we’ll have a good turnover before the winter. That’s good fortune.’

‘And you?’

‘I’ll survive.’

‘If only … oh, if only the child … it was a boy, you know, the doctor told me.’

‘I see.’ Mary sighed. ‘He shouldn’t have told you that.’

‘You knew, then?’

‘Oh yes. What was the point of telling you?’

Gerald sat up straight on the bed. ‘Well,’ he said finally. ‘We’ll just have to make the best of what we’ve got, I suppose.’ He got to his feet. Harriet froze against the wall.

Gerald emerged from the bedroom, and he and his daughter stood looking at each other. ‘How long have you been there?’ he demanded.

‘I’ve just walked in this moment.’

‘Oh, taken your time, haven’t you,’ he said gruffly, but with obvious relief.

‘It was nice at the river bank.’ The whole day swam before her eyes. She felt as if she were going to faint and for a moment the world shifted out of focus. She heard his voice again, saying, ‘We’ll just have to make the best of what we’ve got then, won’t we?’

‘I’ll get the meal. I expect you’ll be hungry,’ she said, turning away.

‘Don’t you want to know how your mother is?’ he asked.

‘How is she?’ she asked indifferently. Gerald looked at her with hatred.

‘It was something to do with having a baby, wasn’t it?’ she added, as she began to peel potatoes.

‘You have been listening round corners, you sly little bitch.’

‘The men at the paddock all knew, didn’t they?’

Gerald went very red. ‘I had to tell them,’ he muttered. ‘I had to get an advance on the hay … for the doctor.’

‘Couldn’t you have told me before you told the men? They’ve been talking in front of me all day.’ The lie was deliciously powerful.

‘I’m sorry, Harriet,’ said her father uneasily.

For the first time in her life, she felt in command of a situation with
him. There was an enormous temptation to press her advantage but instinct warned her that it was only a slight one.

‘Would you go and see your mother, please.’

‘Oh, certainly,’ said Harriet magnanimously, wiping her hand on her teatowel.

‘It might be as well to say I told you she has the flu.’

‘I’ll watch out for infection.’

Another look of pure dislike passed over his face. Throwing discretion to the winds, she added, ‘By the way, if you want me to skivvy for you, you’d better find a few bob towards clothing me properly before long. I don’t like being looked at by some of the men round here.’

‘Yes Harriet.’ His shoulders slumped. For the moment she had him beaten, and that suited her.

In the night she lay awake again. Sand seemed to have gathered under her lids. She realised she had hardly slept for two nights now, and it was hot again, she was aching and dry, parched and stiff from her labours. But so much seemed to have happened to her that sleep was still impossible. She thought of the experience by the river over and over again, with God and Jim all mixed up. She didn’t even like Jim very much. One thing she reckoned on, and that was that she was a woman. The mechanics of the business were still to be worked out, but she was a woman all right, just like her mother was. Whatever strange act had brought her mother to this condition she was in now, she was capable of too.

She thought of her mother with pity and love. She was a wounded starfish cast up on an alien shore. She would never re-enter the sea, she was forever stranded on a barren, dusty beach where she had been tossed up by ugly wars called the Depression, the war, her father. Gasping and alone, she still allowed this act to be perpetrated upon her body, so that she might multiply and place upon the strange land males that would carry the seed and cover the country with Wallaces.

Well, now there was no hope. She, Harriet, was the one who held the power. But she must wait for the time to be right.

later, Harriet started at her new school. Three years slid by, marked by few major events. Once again she was recognised as ‘a bright child’ and ‘a difficult girl’, but now there was a sense of purpose in what she did. In order to escape the farm, it was necessary to pass School Certificate. To survive in the company of other pupils, she had to be aggressive. They took her aggression as a sign of leadership, and often followed her in rebellion against teachers. She was what, in later terminology, would be known as a stirrer.

No teachers appeared to enlighten her on any of the real problems of the world, so she sought out as much as she could herself. While obediently learning where the wheatfields were in East Anglia (or were they oats, or did they graze cattle there? She hadn’t the faintest idea in retrospect) she joined the library that opened in the small township where she travelled to school each day, and borrowed a copy of
in the original French (it being banned in English) in the hope that she might discover the mysterious act that the kids called ‘it’. ‘It’ remained a distressing problem to her, as, being established now as a leader, she could obviously not admit ignorance on the subject. She understood that one or two of the fifth formers did ‘it’, and she had once been invited to watch under the pine trees, but a vague suspicion that she was being tested made her airily dismissive. Her French was improved by the book, but the sum total of her knowledge certainly wasn’t.

She managed to obtain some Micky Spillanes that were doing illicit rounds of the school, and propped them up inside her English grammar book. Spillane offered bare thighs, sighs aplenty, plenty of talk about doing ‘it’ and having done ‘it’, though ‘it’ was never described.

When Harriet was in the fifth form, a number of significant things happened. For one thing, her confirmation finally took place. It had been delayed for some years for a variety of reasons, including her
father’s lingering suspicion of the New Zealand clergy. The breakthrough was the arrival of an apparently high church vicar at the parish church.

Another problem had been the difficulty of providing a confirmation dress; an expense that the farm budget simply never took into account. However, at the same time that the new vicar arrived, some material turned up from England. It was a white slub linen, intended to be made into a tennis frock. As the aunt who sent it had no idea how large Harriet was, or indeed whether or not she played tennis, there was considerably more material than required for a tennis dress. Mary seized upon it eagerly, seeing in it the salvation of Harriet’s immortal soul. As Harriet had acquired what were generally conceded to be ‘smashing tits’ now, and badly needed a brassière, Mary assured her that she would make her one of these objects as well. How she would achieve this feat of engineering skill Harriet could not imagine. However, she looked toward to the better presentation of assets with considerable pleasure.

In the meantime, confirmation classes had to be attended after school at the Ohaka church. As they made her too late for the school bus, she had a long bicycle ride home across the hills, so confirmation lessons were a labour of love.

The Anglican priest was fat and middle-aged with ash always spilled across his cassock. He liked to be called Father Dittmer with all its high church suggestiveness, though theologically he often seemed confused to Harriet. He talked a lot about the apostolic chain, and became inordinately angry with Harriet when she asked him if he saw himself as a direct successor to St Peter. He was not a bishop, he said coldly, from which she deduced that he had had disappointments.

Towards the end of the indoctrination, the subject of confession arose.

‘In the Church of England,’ droned Father Dittmer as a fly settled on his bald patch, ‘we have a different doctrine to that of the Roman Catholic Church. But, my little friends, we do not overlook the subject of confession. We recognise the right of the individual to do as his conscience dictates. We say some should, none must, all may.’

This struck Harriet as reasonable logic, the only identifiable piece of meat in the whole theological casserole. On the whole she had been profoundly disappointed in her own responses to the confirmation classes. Since her experience of God on the river bank during that summer, years before, she had sought some sort of
recognition of God within herself. He seemed to have cheated her, having brought her thus far, and then having tantalisingly let her go.

She had welcomed the confirmation classes, and had at first paid them earnest attention. Her challenges to Father Dittmer had been made in all seriousness, for she genuinely wanted her confusions and doubts clarified. Her emerging cynicism was something that appalled her and she struggled to hide it from the other members of the class. Father Dittmer had obviously been warned about her, however, and took her questions as personal affronts. When he discussed the possibilities of confession, she felt that he fixed her with a particularly stern eye.

On a Saturday night two weeks before Harriet’s confirmation, the Colliers held one of their frequent parties. As the Wallaces had no social life at all they had come to accept the odd invitation to go and have ‘a few drinks’, rarely staying long enough to witness the paralysis that afflicted those who stayed on for more than a few. A mixed bunch would turn up, and Harriet was invariably the youngest there. Little notice was taken of her, and as the conversation mostly concerned milk production, football, and how much beer could be consumed in the shortest possible time, she felt she had little contribution to make and kept silent.

Jim brought a succession of girls to these parties and by the time Harriet was in the fifth form, one or two of them were girls who had themselves been fifth formers when she was in the third form. They always wore spindly high heels and a great deal of bright lipstick, and dyed their hair the same colour as Marilyn Monroe’s. Their cleavages were pushed up in the best possible imitation of their heroine. Privately Harriet considered her own breasts to be in considerably better shape, but the lack of a brassiere made this a rather unconvincing hypothesis. Once she had heard Jim mutter to the girl with him that he ‘couldn’t wait for a bit’. Harriet supposed that ‘a bit’ was ‘it’, which still hadn’t been revealed to her. Jim never appeared to notice that she existed and only nodded briefly to her even when they met on the road and there wasn’t another soul in sight.

On this particular Saturday night, he didn’t have a girl with him. He’d played football all afternoon and was fired up and ready to go. His balls were fairly popping, as he kept telling anyone who’d listen, and he didn’t mean a footie ball either.

‘Lord love me, me own mother had better look out,’ he said more
than once. His mother Doris, huge-handed and stocky, roared with laughter and said, ‘Jim Collier, you’re not too big to clout yet, I’ll tell you that.’

When she heard that, Harriet’s mother stood up and muttered darkly to Gerald, who agreed they should leave. Really it was too much, what one had to endure from the locals, said Gerald’s expression, but if one wanted to fit in, there was no help for it. One simply had to put in an appearance at these things, and anyway it was a break for Mary seeing a few other faces besides his own. He knew the locals called him ‘a right wallah’ but it was rather flattering; he enjoyed that Sadly for Gerald, it was as close to being a ‘right wallah’ as he’d ever get.

As they were about to leave, Jim suddenly said, ‘Why doesn’t Harriet stay here? You always take Cinderella away before the ball begins.’

There was a general clamour of agreement.

‘Oh, I don’t think …’ Mary began.

‘Harriet’s studying,’ said Gerald, with what might have been a hint of pride.

‘Time she had a break, then,’ said Doris. ‘We’ll look after her.’

Doris Collier had been good to Mary ever since that disastrous miscarriage. She had gone out of her way to be kind, sensing in Mary a frailty that she had never shared. In an odd way Doris understood that only some quite extraordinary sense of endurance kept Mary going from day to day in the cowshed and on the land and these traits had won more than passing respect for her.

Mary looked at Harriet, obviously hoping that she would come home, for to challenge Doris’s promise to look after her would have seemed ungrateful, to say the least.

‘Thank you,’ said Harriet suddenly. ‘I’d love to stay.’

‘Good,’ said Doris. ‘Jim’ll walk her home, won’t you Jim?’

‘Yeah,’ said her son stolidly, staring ahead and forgetting his talk about his balls. Aced by this suitably convincing demonstration by all concerned, Mary and Gerald could only nod mutely in agreement.

‘Well, that’s all right then,’ said Mary. ‘I wouldn’t like her wandering round in the dark.’

Oh, if you only knew, thought Harriet. The nights by the river had become a part of her life. She had never again had anything but quiet night prowls after the first contact with God, and although she had been disappointed that it hadn’t happened again, she was more than
a little relieved that she had not been lumbered with a permanent Bernadette or Lourdes undertaking.

Probably just as well. Lately she’d begun thinking that ‘it’ had got something to do with the voice from the sky, though she failed to see the connection. Nowadays when she went for her walks at three or four o’clock in the morning, she contemplated the mysteries of ‘it’ more than she thought about God. When she considered the whole subject, Jim entered her thoughts more often than she supposed he really should.

After her parents had gone home she continued to sit quietly. The party started to liven up and old man Collier, who was getting a bit shaky these days, started up a few rounds of ‘Mockingbird Hill’, after which Jim got them all singing ‘Roll Me Over in Clover’.

When they were all going strong, Harriet went over to him and said she wanted to go home.

‘Bloody hell, kid,’ said Jim, annoyed. ‘Why didn’t you go with your folks if you wanted to leave this soon? We’re just starting to warm up.’

‘It doesn’t matter, then,’ replied Harriet. ‘I’ll say goodnight to your mother.’

‘Now wait a minute — I said I’d walk you home and walk you home I will. I don’t go back on my word.’

Outside, the night was soft and fluttering. They walked alone in silence. At last Harriet said, ‘I’ll be leaving here soon.’

‘Go on, where you heading then?’

‘I don’t know yet,’ said Harriet.

‘Your folks’ll miss you.’

‘They don’t know yet. You won’t tell them, will you?’

‘What’s it worth?’ asked Jim automatically.

‘I never told on you,’ said Harriet.

Jim stopped in his tracks. He was quiet for a minute, then said, ‘You was supposed to forget that ever happened. I was in a bad way right then, what with being left high and dry like then by my missus. You got no right to go reminding a man he done it like that.’

‘But I didn’t forget, did I? And I have reminded you.’

‘You’re not trying to be smart, are you? Remember I told you, you don’t want to be smart. From what I hear, you never listened to me. You gone and got smart with everybody round here.

He paused, then added, ‘You don’t have a boyfriend, do you?’

‘No-o,’ Harriet admitted.

‘Goes to show then, don’t it,’ Jim said triumphantly. ‘I told you blokes don’t like smart-aleck sheilas.’

‘I’ll try and remember,’ said Harriet humbly.

‘Right, then we’d better get you home.’

‘Only I want to do it again,’ said Harriet.

Jim started walking. ‘Oh, no you don’t.’

Harriet pulled at his arm. ‘But I do. Please, Jim. I wouldn’t …’ and she took a deep breath, preparing to maim the English language, ‘I wouldn’t never tell nobody.’

Jim stopped, obviously impressed. ‘Say,’ he said with awe, ‘you really mean it, don’t you?’

‘I — I want to hold onto your … dong again,’ said Harriet desperately.

‘Yeah, well … er … okay,’ said Jim. ‘Best lie down, then. Er — mind the cowshit.’

Harriet agreed doubtfully, and reminded him that the first time they hadn’t lain down.

‘You want a bit more than that, don’t you?’ said Jim.

‘Oh yes, yes, please,’ Harriet said hastily. The thought that she might not find out about ‘it’ was terrifying. God and ‘it’ were now on a collision course. Not only was she about to make a remarkable discovery, but she was also about to place herself in the position of having to confess.

At the moment, her position was rather uncomfortable. The paddock in which they found themselves was in the direct path taken by the Colliers’ cows when they went to the cowshed each day, and the grass was thin over a crust of dried earth. The sharp little points dug into Harriet’s back as Jim, on his knees, proceeded to push her down still further into the clay. She moaned as a nasty little edge dug into her kidneys. Taking this very well, Jim uttered an inarticulate cry and flung himself upon her, his mouth sucking hers like a limpet. For several minutes they ground their way through an exercise that seemed to involve Harriet in swallowing Jim’s tongue. It felt like the largest tongue in the world, and she had a quick vision of the ox tongues her mother cooked and served cut up with salad for Sunday lunch. She often had to skin them when they had finished cooking. The skins were very thick, with a great furry grain over them. She had never thought that her tongue might be the same, but now she began to wonder — Jim’s was obviously very similar to those she was used to handling.

‘Ah,’ sighed Jim, lifting his head at last. ‘You’re not such a bad kid after all.’

Fortified by this praise, Harriet tentatively felt around for the object she had been asked to hold the time before. It was positively mountainous through the cloth of Jim’s trousers, and she was very impressed. When she had peeked through the bathroom window at her father, his had seemed a very tame, droopy little affair. She wondered how Jim managed to hide his splendid equipment.

He plunged his hand down the neck of her dress and clutched her nipple between his thumb and forefinger, rolling it round experimentally. The sensation was rather painful, in fact, the whole operation seemed more complicated and uncomfortable by the minute. With a profound sigh Jim collapsed on top of her so that she was ground into the crumbling earth, pierced from below and above.

BOOK: a Breed of Women
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