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Authors: Fiona Kidman

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BOOK: a Breed of Women
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Among these was a girl called Wendy Dixon, whom Harriet had befriended because she was secretly in love with her elder brother Francis. Francis had little to do with the carnal interest of ‘it’ in Harriet’s eyes, though she supposed that if she ever got to know him well enough, ‘it’ would probably be a pleasant part of their relationship. She thought that he was quite simply the most beautiful person in the whole world. He also seemed to be rather more intelligent than some of his contemporaries, though this was something that Harriet could only judge from afar. He would walk
slightly stooped, contemplating some inner secret she could only guess at, but sometimes she suspected that some of the perplexity of her own life sat heavily upon him too. She longed to ask him, to see some sign in someone that she was not alone in all the things that puzzled and bewildered her.

When Wendy first made friendly advances to her, she accepted them with a secret glee that she was getting closer to the object of her interest — desire was too strong a word. Once Wendy invited her over to the house. It was a long journey on her bike, but she devoted a whole Saturday to it. Francis was not there. Harriet learned that he was working somewhere, up the farm and that he wouldn’t be back till after the evening milking. As Harriet had to be home for milking herself, there was no possible hope of waiting for him.

As the year wore on, Francis seemed quieter, even more remote. She knew that he was aware of her, for sometimes, idling by the places where she expected to find him in the school grounds, they would meet. His heavy-lidded dark brown eyes would flicker wide for a moment, then he would raise his cap gravely and pass on. Whatever was troubling him, Harriet was not told.

At the end of the year Francis left not only school but the district as well. Wendy told Harriet that her parents were angry, and seemed reluctant to discuss the matter. If it occurred to her that Harriet was unduly interested in Francis’s fate, she gave no indication of it. Harriet had felt unenthusiastic about resuming the friendship the following year, but it seemed that something was expected of her from Wendy, and indeed, Harriet herself had come to warm to the attention which her opinions, and frequent dissensions with the staff, attracted.

Throughout that year Harriet’s loyal coterie grew. There was a certain recklessness and daring in her actions, there was so much she knew that no one else did, and there were so many things that she didn’t know at all. There seemed to be no halfway house. She suspected that people like Wendy had some basic information she lacked. By the same token, no one had her flair for setting arguments to which teachers had no answers.

There were times when she had sailed perilously close to the wind, but few pupils were dismissed from the high school. Erratic though her behaviour at Ohaka District High might be, it was the behaviour of an eccentric who would certainly get School Certificate, and as there were all too few such shining lights in the ranks, her survival was
assured. Certainly she was dismissed from class and from the school council, which she had had the audacity to treat as a democracy, and for three weeks one teacher had followed her around the playground, entreating her to apologise for her dissent in history class, so that she could be reinstated ‘without any more fuss’, and naturally, although the teacher didn’t say so, without loss of face on her part. Harriet had finally said that she was sorry if she had caused the teacher any embarrassment, and regretted very much making her unhappy. The teacher had reported back to the head, and to Harriet’s chagrin, she discovered that she had been interpreted as having delivered an apology for questioning the teacher’s judgment, which was not what she had meant at all.

So, as the year after confirmation drew to a close, Harriet’s tree became a refuge for dreaming about the fulfilment of unrealised longings, and as good a place as any to study.

At school, Harriet, Wendy and a handful of other girls would congregate in the lunch hour to discuss their futures. Wendy planned to go to Teachers’ Training College if she got the magic piece of paper, though apparently there was some unspecified family difficulty owing to Francis’s departure the previous year. Marie Walker entertained the same wistful hope, though her chances seemed incredibly slim. Ailsa Wilson’s parents hoped that she, too, would become a teacher, not knowing at this stage that Ailsa was having a baby and planned to marry the father, a nineteen-year-old farmer’s son. This occupied a considerable amount of the conversation, as Ailsa couldn’t get married until the January when she turned sixteen, and thought it prudent to stay at school and out of range of her mother’s observation for as long as she could, seeing she couldn’t marry straight away. While secretly horrified by Ailsa’s condition, Harriet was nevertheless grateful for having learned a little basic biology, through listening to the discussions of the other girls who assumed knowledge on her part and who discussed the whole business with fascinated regularity. Ailsa’s sex life was now blissfully active, there being no concern on her part any more as to whether she got pregnant or not, and she was always ready to give a dissertation on her lover’s prowess. Apparently it improved daily, though Ailsa thought her condition might have a lot to do with her supreme enjoyment, and she gazed contentedly on a future of
She was deliciously graphic about the size of the father-
penis and how difficult it was to get it in on occasion, and from
this Harriet was able to do some rough diagrammatic equations. While they didn’t answer her questions, these conversations gave her what she considered a working knowledge of the forbidden fruit and what she should probably try to avoid, seeing little future in Ailsa’s pleasures.

Her own future was still very uncertain. One day she discussed it with her mother.

‘I’m not staying on the farm, Mum, and that’s that,’ Harriet said.

‘I didn’t expect you would,’ Mary replied quietly.

‘Didn’t you!’

‘Not really. I wish you could, but we can’t give you a very full life here. We can’t afford to pay you if you stay on the farm. We could go on keeping you if you helped, though.’

‘Helped? Do what you do?’ Harriet thought of her mother’s daily toiling with fence strainers, encroaching gorse and cows in all weathers.

‘Or you could go back to school for another year,’ said Mary quickly.

‘A lot of good that would do me,’ said Harriet scornfully. A sixth form of one. Great stuff. And who’d teach me? They’ve never had a sixth form at that place.’

‘Do you want to go teaching, then?’ said Mary.

‘Me, teach? Good God, no.’

Mary blanched slightly at the blasphemy.

‘Sorry,’ Harriet muttered.

Mary wrinkled her forehead. ‘You could go dental nursing, they’ve got a hostel you could go to, but the head said you were too intelligent for that.’

‘The head! You’ve been talking to that old idiot?’ Harriet asked.

‘Well … I wanted to know what your chances were.’

‘I don’t want to stay on the form, and I don’t want to go teaching, and I’m damn sure I’m not going to go dental nursing. Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, no thank you.’

‘You can’t have everything you want in life,’ said Mary rather acidly.

Harriet looked at her mother. ‘Some people can.’

Mary looked back at her daughter strangely. ‘Yes, some people can if they try hard enough, and …’ she tailed away.

‘If they’re selfish enough?’ said Harriet instinctively. Silence fell between them.

Finally Mary said, ‘First you have to decide what you want.’

The girls at school were equally incredulous when she announced that she had no intention of going teaching. Wendy and Marie, who both desperately wanted to go, treated her as if she was a weird specimen that they had viewed under a microscope in biology lesson.

‘What’ll you do then?’ Mary asked. ‘You can’t leave home if you don’t go teaching.’

‘You mightn’t. I will,’ said Harriet, though secretly she was beginning to wonder how she’d manage it herself. ‘Anyway, would you go teaching if you didn’t want to leave home?’

Wendy sat back on her heels, suddenly blushing scarlet. ‘I’ll be awful trying to teach physical education. And music.’

‘You’re scared, aren’t you?’ said Harriet.

‘And you’re hard as nails,’ said Wendy.

‘Why, because you don’t want to face up to the fact that you’ll probably be a lousy teacher?’

‘Do you really think I’m that stupid?’ said Wendy.

‘No,’ said Harriet, who hadn’t really thought about it before, but could suddenly see Wendy much more clearly than she had ever done. ‘I reckon you should paint and draw all the time. It’s what you like doing best of all.’

‘But I can’t go away to do that. I’d starve.’

‘Why can’t you? Lots of people in Europe do. Anybody who’s talented over there gets taught to do what they’re good at properly and they get famous … and rich too.’

Wendy’s temporary interest vanished. ‘This isn’t Europe,’ she said shortly. ‘It’s New Zealand. You do what you can.’

‘Even if you know you’ll hate it?’

Wendy got up and walked away.

‘You’re pretty hard on her, really,’ said Ailsa, momentarily distracted from her own concerns.

‘It’ll be pretty hard on the kids she teaches, too,’ said Harriet.

‘My, aren’t we public-spirited?’

‘I shouldn’t let it worry you, your kid’ll probably be too dumb to care,’ said Harriet, nodding in the direction of Ailsa’s waistline, and stalked off.

In the end, the headmaster and the history teacher came out to the farm to see the Wallaces, when the Teachers’ Training College selection panel visited the school.

The teachers told the Wallaces that Harriet was wasting her life. She had no future outside of teaching, they had endured Harriet,
they had coaxed her through high school for three years, they had given of their time to her because she was clever, it seemed, so that she might have a good future. What was it all for? What sort of gratitude was this? Had they been wasting their time?

‘Yes,’ said Harriet when the tirade finally came to an end, ‘as far as I’m concerned, you’ve been wasting your time all right. You started wasting it thirty years ago when someone persuaded you that going teaching was a good thing to do. You never taught me one single thing I couldn’t have found out for myself, except how to pass an exam.’

‘Which you haven’t passed yet,’ the headmaster pointed out, his eyes glittering.

‘No, but I probably will, and I need to, so that’s why I’ve put up with school this long.’

‘You’re arrogant,’ said the head.

‘I expect so,’ agreed Harriet.

‘Why do you need School Certificate?’ asked the history teacher.

‘I mightn’t need it, but then again, I might, to do what I want to do. I can’t afford to gamble on not getting it.’

‘And what do you want to do?’

‘Be famous,’ said Harriet levelly.

‘Immature,’ said the headmaster to her parents. ‘She needs all the help she can get. I suggest you send her back to us for another year.’

‘To knock into shape?’ asked Harriet as she walked out. At the door she stopped and said, ‘It’s a bit late for that now, don’t you think? After all, you’ve tried this long and failed.’

She did pass her exam. It wasn’t the best mark in the school. Wendy did much better and Marie quite convincingly, while Harriet just squeezed through.

Mary wrote to her cousin Alice Harrison who lived in Weyville, a prosperous and growing town south of Ohaka. Alice had lived there since her immigration and subsequent marriage more than
years before. Both her children were grown up and she was a widow. She agreed to take Harriet.

She wrote that there were plenty of jobs going in Weyville, and she was sure she would know somebody who would know somebody who could get Harriet a job. It was a pity she didn’t have better marks in School Certificate, but there you were, she’d been lucky with her children, both smart, and Mary hadn’t had much luck, had she, so she was happy to do what she could for Harriet. At least she could
learn to type at night school, and she might work up to something better than the process line at one of the factories if she put her mind to it. Not, Alice said, that she would put up with any nonsense. She’d never had any from her own two children and she certainly wasn’t going to take any from Harriet, especially after she’d seen the report that Mary had sent to show prospective employers. She could tell that Mary hadn’t been firm enough with the girl, but she supposed with all her troubles, what else could you expect. At least she had time now, and she would see to it that Harriet didn’t go off the straight and narrow. So it was decided.

On the day before Harriet left, Ailsa was married in a great smother of white tulle and net that clouded the issue of her bulging stomach. At the wedding dance, Harriet waited for Jim to dance with her, but she only had him in a change-partners waltz, and he kept smiling idiotically over her head at the school dental nurse who had stayed on in the district at the end of the term.

‘Do you know her?’ Harriet asked, as all other conversation seemed to fail.

‘Know her?’ said Jim, with a huge complacent smile. ‘You’ll be dancing at our wedding in May, soon as the cows’re dry.’

Harriet decided against telling him that she was going away the following morning; nor did she say that she wouldn’t be back for his wedding.

On her last morning she got up and dressed and had breakfast with her parents for the last time.

Her father gave her an austere glance, and she knew he was looking at her lipstick. ‘Don’t come running to me when you get yourself into trouble, then,’ he said, and continued to eat.

Mary had nothing at all to say. Her hands were permanently thickened and red from washing up at the shed, Harriet noticed. When they had eaten, she followed Harriet into her bedroom and helped tie down her suitcase, a battered relic dating from her immigration to New Zealand. When it was done, she went to the window and stood looking out.

‘You’ll miss the plums this year,’ she said.

‘Yes, another week and they would have been ripe.’

BOOK: a Breed of Women
4.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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