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Authors: Fiona Kidman

a Breed of Women

BOOK: a Breed of Women
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A BREED OF WOMEN

Fiona Kidman

For
my
children
Joanna
and
Giles

 

For generous encouragement and practical assistance in the preparation of this book, thanks are due to the following: Ian Kidman, Ray Richards, Joyce Laurenson, Leigh Minnett, Marilyn Misken, and the staff of the Reference Room at the General Assembly Library.

 

Grateful acknowledgement is also made to D. Davies & Co, for permission to quote from
The
Twilight
Time.

 

The author is grateful for the assistance of the New Zealand Literary Fund, which provided a grant while she was writing this book.

1978

1

H
ARRIET
W
OKE
T
HAT
morning full of fantasies, because the sun was shining. It was an unexpected gift — the worst had been promised for the day, sleet, hail, southerly winds, yet here it was amazingly shining and bright. This is the day I stop drinking, she told herself, today I shall lose weight, be better understood by my lover and by my husband; today I shall undertake something new and significant in my life.

And then the wind turned, and the cold began again; there were deep blue shadows on the hills soon after noon, and it had to be acknowledged that it was indeed winter. She was sad. The summer had been so splendid, one of the best she had known in years, but somehow autumn had dissipated all its promise. It would have been good to resurrect something of the season, just to save some passing joy that one could look back on, and say that was the autumn of 1978. But it would not be so.

She felt absurdly naive and gauche all of a sudden; the day before, she had spoken to Michael on the phone, and he often made her feel like this. When they were in a restaurant together she would feel suddenly clumsy, as if she might make a mistake with the cutlery, or do something silly and embarrassing. She had never had trouble with her knives and forks before.

But then she had never had a young lover either. She was clever with older men. For years they had been grateful that a younger woman would take trouble over them and she had flattered them by her presence. Often she had told herself that she would never have a younger man — they were silly and immature. Now she was grateful and yearning and obsessed, and this had reduced her to a
tender helplessness; she longed to ask him if she pleased him, but her pride stopped her.

Yesterday’s phone call had again made her vulnerable and awkward. He had phoned her. It was good to be able to say that he had phoned, because it reinstated her. The truth was that she had rung him first, but he’d been busy; there were always people around him. He had asked if he could ring back in half an hour and when she had said yes, she had waited by the phone. It had rung on the half hour, for he was punctilious, courteous and totally reliable about the things he said he would do. It was just that now he said less often that he would do anything at all. She would tell whoever was interested that he had rung her to say goodbye, that he wouldn’t be able to see her before he went abroad, and that she should take very good care of herself while he was away; it would be some months before he would be able to see her.

But she knew, she knew, that she had made the first move once again. Girls telephoned her son; it seemed that all the girls rang the boys nowadays and it was quite the teen, and pre-teen, thing. Her generation would never have done it.

She did, though. She rang Michael on absurd pretexts, and waited, sick, for his voice, passing through his firm’s switchboard, through his secretary’s cool and measured tones. She said ‘Hullo, Michael, it’s me, Harriet’, and he would sound pleased, warm, but moderate, and she would find herself being sarcastic and cooler, indifferent and harsh. He rings me, she said, and I’m cruel to him, I don’t know why. But she did know. It was because she had behaved like her teenage children, and rung him, and he had had to ring back, and she had thought of the summer, when he used to ring her on his own initiative. That was how she came to feel so silly.

This time had been different, though, because he really was going to be away all winter. She really had said goodbye to him, and there was no knowing whether she would see him again in the spring, or the summer to follow. He had said that she would, and because he was reliable she believed him, but there was still the winter to get through on her own.

As she lay awake in the darkness on the night before the sun, her husband woke beside her and said, ‘I’ll always look after you.’ She was at once cold with fear, and she lay there wondering what to say to him, certain that he must know something of the dark inner life she contained within herself. Had he heard her talking to Michael?
Could someone have told him? She lay by his side, hands clenched in panic, certain that some frightening and committing conversation was about to ensue. But he rolled over and began to snore; whatever dream had awakened him seemed to have receded.

When the day dawned with cloudless skies and not a breath of wind, she was thankful and thought, this is a rebirth. I am about to begin again. When he returns I will be different, self-contained, able to cope as I have always done.

The cold struck, she poured a sherry and watched the sky grow dark.

 

Harriet could not remember when her awakening began, probably when she and her family started their migration from north to south.

The early years in the far north had been waking dreams, which sometimes turned to nightmare. She had been a wild impetuous child, clever and ungainly among children who were apparently just the opposite. Looking back, she guessed that many of those who had seemed stupid might have been quite bright; certainly they had a higher survival rate than she did. They were all friends with each other, whereas she was always an outsider. She spoke so much better than they did; her parents, particularly her father, were so correct in their use of words that she could not have failed to master the language of her teachers better than the others did. At the time, she was scornful of their disadvantages, and, for years after, she was ashamed at her arrogance. When she came top in spelling test after spelling test, answered every question and got all her English comprehension right, her teachers held the others’ efforts up to ridicule. Justice outside the classroom was swift, non-violent, and, she realised later, more subtle than anything she could possibly have contrived. She was the target for well-placed taunts about her appearance, her lack of co-ordination and her accent, which sounded out of place and affected. The others had simply to imitate her voice and she would start to crumble.

She would try to say ‘foine noight’ to please them, and they would rock with delight. When she went home after school, she would be so confused that she would say, ‘foine noight’ to her parents, and they would laugh as hard. Her father would go around saying, ‘Foine noight, did you know it was a foine noight tonoight, Mary?’ to her mother, who would dutifully say, ‘No, it moight be a narce day termorrer,’ and her father would slap his side and keep repeating the
joke all through their evening meal until bedtime. Then he would change his tune, launching into sharp broadside about how Harriet had the advantages of a good background and must not let the side down, and that she should always remember that she was of good British stock. Neither way could she win.

And when the kids were in full cry after her at school, all the
pent-up
misery and frustration that she dared not betray at home would come out, and in a few minutes she would be a screaming hysterical creature, wild-eyed and kicking. Then a teacher would be summoned, and the same teacher who had praised her earlier would drag her to the equipment shed and lock her in, ‘to cool off’. There she would rage and shriek and shout imprecations at tormentors, all of whom would stand outside, quietly murmuring and not answering back, so that she knew they were still there. Their timing was perfect, their behaviour beyond reproach. It was she who railed and cried.

When it was over, she would go back to the classroom exhausted and dreary. For days she would try to hide that she knew the answers to questions, to be quiet and dull and not to be better than anyone else. But it was no good; in the end she would be unable to contain herself any longer and the answers would slip out, the arguments pour forth, fast and convincing.

By the time she was twelve, the teacher at the small school hated her as much as the children did. She knew more than he did — she defeated him again and again with her logic. He joined the subtle game of baiting her, telling her that if she did not behave herself, if she were arrogant, as her comments were now interpreted, she would be reported to her father. It was a time of terror.

In her last term at the school a relieving teacher came; the headmaster who normally taught the standard six children took another class. The new teacher greeted Harriet as though she were someone special, some rare being — not odd, not different, but someone whose company he could enjoy.

Together they would sit and talk — in the lunch hour, after school, while she was waiting for the bus — whenever they could. Yet at the same time he sensed her need to be private, not to make an exhibition of herself in front of the others. He would not draw her out in front of them, saving that for when they were alone. He lent her books, and they talked about them when she had read them, sometimes disagreeing, and each always recognising the point the
other was making, weighing it up, casting it aside if it didn’t work, reshaping it if it had merit. For a few weeks, Harriet was happier than she had ever been.

He was a tired, middle-aged man, who had once been handsome. There were whispers that he had gone up north to get away from some domestic trouble. At first the other pupils respected Harriet’s new-found friendship and the quiet way in which she now handled the classroom situation, but when they realised that the teacher was ignoring them in favour of her, they began to torment her again. The girls took to haunting the conversations she and the teacher had, hanging round in cloakrooms and corridors, trying to overhear, or to catch the man’s eye when he came out, for they all found him attractive.

Finally one afternoon, he said to her, exasperated, ‘Harriet, where can we get away from this mob?’

After a moment’s hesitation, she said, ‘There’s the equipment shed.’ It would be good to go back to her old jail as a free agent.

‘Right, let’s get away from this crowd. I want you to read some Shelley. I think he’s important for you.’

Together they went to the equipment shed, and the afternoon sun poked gold fingers through the cobwebs in the window, he read aloud to her. For once she didn’t hear the murmurs of the kids outside, reminding her that they were there. She heard nothing at all but the words and his voice, until the headmaster opened the door.

The teacher left the district the following day and she never saw him again. The police came to the house and asked her questions. Her parents asked her questions, too — none of them made sense. Her mother took her aside and, in a strained faltering whisper, pointed to parts of her body and asked if the teacher had touched her there. The idea was so absurd that Harriet laughed wildly.

Her mother grasped the table for support, and tried to tell her how serious the situation was. She asked Harriet what they talked about.

‘The Epipsychidion,’ Harriet told her.

The police and her mother and father held a consultation about it. Her father, who considered himself a well-educated man ‘
self-educated,
you understand’, hadn’t heard of the subject. The
policeman
said it sounded remarkably like a fancy name for you-
know-what
.

The headmaster came to the house. They told him that the teacher had talked to her about her epipsychidion. The headmaster looked
suitably distressed, and volunteered to look it up in the school’s only dictionary.

Out of habit Harriet put up her hand to speak to him. Nobody took any notice of her at all.

Just as he was about to leave, she blurted out, ‘Please, sir.’ Everyone stood electrified, her mother pale at the revelation that was about to be made.

‘Yes, Harriet?’ said the headmaster.

‘Please sir, it wasn’t
my
epipsychidion,’ said Harriet. ‘It was Shelley’s.’

The headmaster looked as though he wanted to strike her. She guessed she had probably embarrassed him by knowing too much again.

She was sent to her room, where she stood with her ear pressed against the door. There were mutters about ‘no charges being laid’, the headmaster said rather too loudly that ‘the fellow would be got rid of’, and Harriet knew she had done something dreadful to the man who’d made her so happy for the last three months. Something was said about it being a good idea for Harriet to be taught a few facts of life, and her mother said in a painful, careful way that she would see to the matter.

In bed that night, Harriet cried herself to sleep wondering how she could tell her friend how sorry she was if she had got him into trouble. She determined to learn the whole of
The
Ancient
Mariner
at the weekend as a surprise present for him. But he left, and she never had the chance.

A few days later, her mother discussed ‘certain matters’ with her, and when Harriet persisted with questions about things that didn’t add up, she was told to ‘go and watch the ducks and she would be sure to learn something’. As Harriet had long ago watched ducks, she was quite sure that the matter held no further interest for her. If that was all there was to sex, down in the mud full of droppings, she didn’t want to know about it. Looking as if she wanted to cry at this stage, her mother reminded her that she would probably have to use the curious-looking bandages that were being kept in a drawer for her very soon now. Harriet asked how she should put them on; they seemed too short to wind around her, and wouldn’t this mysterious issue of blood that was supposed to emerge slip down her legs? Her mother was too embarrassed to answer.

The school year was nearly over, and Harriet saw it out quietly. She
responded neither in class nor outside it, and the kids soon gave up trying to draw her. It seemed that in some way they knew that anything they could do to her would be no worse than what had already happened. Harriet felt that they were sorry for something they had done, but if they were, she could not apply herself to working out what it was.

When the term ended, she and her parents moved to a remote valley further south, called Ohaka.

Harriet had been loading the trucks for an hour preparatory to departure when she realised that something was wrong. Her dress was too short, and made of thin cotton and in the front was a tiny stain of blood.

BOOK: a Breed of Women
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