Authors: Jack Lasenby
ate always said it was the School Picnic that did it. Mum enjoyed herself so much that she decided she wanted to go to school, too.
“Why should I have to stay home by myself and look after the farm, while you kids are at school having all the fun? Practising for the long jump, and the sack race, and the egg and spoon race.” She grizzled a bit and said, “It’s not fair!”
“You can come to school and sit with me, Mum,” said Jimmy. “Miss Real won’t mind, and I’ll show you how to do your sums.”
“Sit with me, Mum?” said Betty. “I’ll show you how to do printing.”
“I don’t want to do sums and printing! I’m going to school for the fun!”
“It’s not all fun,” Kate told Mum. “If you go to school, then you’ve got to sit quiet and listen to the teacher. And if you don’t pass, they’ll hold you back another year in the primers.”
“Oh, pish!” Mum poked out her tongue behind Kate’s back, and we all giggled.
“You can play with us, Mum,” said Jimmy. “Marbles and skipping!”
“Skipping? Marbles? I want to eat my lunch at morning play, so I’ll have longer to play games with the big kids at lunchtime.”
“If you come to school, you’ll have to wear plaits,” Kate told her.
“Just because. And you’ll have to cover your exercise books with wallpaper.”
“You made us cover ours.”
“I’m not spending my time covering old exercise books with wallpaper,” Mum said. “I’m going to sit in the primer room and tie all the other little girls’ plaits into a big knot while Miss Real’s reading them a story. And at playtime, I’ll make all the little boys poke out their tongues and tie them together with a skipping rope.”
Betty gasped, and Jimmy said in his serious voice, “You’re not allowed.”
“And after playtime, I’ll put up my hand and ask if I can go to the lavvy, and I’ll go out into the corridor and pinch the lunches out of the schoolbags and eat the lot! And anyone who pimps on me, I’ll hang them up by their belts from the coat hooks, so all they can do is kick and howl.”
Jimmy and Betty looked worried. “You’re not allowed to eat other people’s lunches!” Betty was nearly in tears.
“Miss Real won’t let you,” Jimmy told Mum. “She’ll send a note home to your parents!”
“She’s just teasing you,” Kate told them.
Mum shook her head. “I’m going to play keepsie against the big boys and take all their marbles off them. I’ll play basketball with the big girls and get all the goals because I can just reach over and drop the ball through the hoop. And then I’ll go out and play footy against the boys and score all the tries and kick them over barefoot.”
Next morning, Mum said she was going to ride on Old Pomp, too, and she tried to take the reins, but Kate said, “I’ve been at school the longest. You’re just starting, so you have to ride at the back.”
“That’s not fair,” Betty said at once. “I’m in the rear turret, not Mum.”
“I’ll show you!” Mum said, and she got on Old Pomp backwards behind the rest of us and wouldn’t speak to any of us. We tried talking to her, but she sang “Po Kare Kare Ana” very loudly and pretended she couldn’t hear us.
Billy Kemp trotted Hiccup round and round Old Pomp, pointing at Mum riding backwards, laughing, and poking out his tongue, but he came too close, and Mum reached out and clipped him over the lugs.
“Ow! I’m going to tell on you!”
“‘Tell-tale tit, your tongue shall be split, and all the little puppy dogs in town shall have a bit!’”
and the rest of us joined in, and laughed, and poked out our tongues.
Billy Kemp peeled off in his Messerschmitt. “Whaahh!” he zoomed past. With the sun in his eyes, he couldn’t see Mum, as he tried to machine-gun us off Old Pomp’s back.
Still facing backwards, Mum turned into the tail gunner and went, “Ka! Ka! Ka! Ka! Ka! Kawashhh!” at Billy Kemp, and he was so surprised, he fell off Hiccup.
“I shot you down, Billy Kemp!” Mum yelled. “Ka! Ka! Ka! Kawashhh! That’s my secret V3 weapon!”
“That’s not fair,” said Billy, as he climbed back on and flew away down the road by himself. Mum slipped off over Old Pomp’s tail and said, “That’s the way to be an air gunner!” She waved to us and walked back home, and Jimmy and Betty yelled, “Aren’t you coming to school, Mum?”
“Of course she’s not!” Kate shook the reins.
That night, when we were having tea, Mum said she’d turned on the wireless and listened in to the Broadcast to Schools Music Programme. “I sang with them and now I know all the words,” she told us.
“So that’s where you learned ‘Po Kare Kare Ana’?” we said.
“Everybody knows ‘Po Kare Kare Ana’. When I come to school, I’m going to sing louder than anyone else,” Mum told us, and she sang “Maori Battalion” and “By the Light of the Peat-Fire Flame” at the top of her voice.
“You always tell us off for singing at the table,” Jimmy said, and Mum told him, “I’m grown up, so I’m allowed!”
Kate looked worried at that, and we all began to think of what it would be like if Mum really came to school and sat in our room and sang too loud and gave cheek to the teacher. Still, Jimmy and Betty decided it would be all right so long as she was in the primers’ room with them. And from that time on, Betty always copied Mum and rode to school backwards as the air gunner in the rear turret of our Lancaster. Billy Kemp didn’t have a show of sneaking up on us in his Messerschmitt 109.
“When I come to school,” Mum told us one night, “I’m going to be so good at footy, we’re going to beat all the other schools: Matamata, Te Poi, Hinuera, Wardville, Walton, Turangaomoana, the lot!
“We’ll give them such a hiding, they’ll make excuses so they won’t have to play us again. Then I’ll be picked as a Waikato rep, and next thing you know, I’m going to be picked for the All Blacks. And we’ll take on
and Japan at footy and thrash them as well!”
Jimmy and Betty astonished Miss Real next day by telling her Mum used to play for the All Blacks before the war. But Kate told her they’d got things round the wrong way. “It was just something Mum said. She didn’t expect them to believe her.”
Miss Real smiled. “I understand,” she said. Later, Kate told me she was really nice, Miss Real.
ot long after Mum tried to go to school with us on Old Pomp, Mr Robinson came out to the farm, and we watched while he put the wheels back on our old car and took it down off its blocks. He filled it up with oil and benzine and water, greased it, put in a new battery, and got it going again. It made a strange noise, at first, smoke came out of the exhaust, and Jimmy and Betty shrieked that it was on fire.
“How would you like to be woken up after being asleep for a couple of years?” Mr Robinson said. “You’d blow out a bit of smoke, too.” And Jimmy and Betty looked at each other and grinned.
Mum drove the car round and round the front
for a few days before she was game to take it out on the road. Kate sat in the front seat and told Mum when she should be changing gears, and Mum said, “For goodness’ sake, Kate, who’s driving this car, you or me?” And Kate said she thought she could drive at least as good as Mum, and Mum said, “That’ll do now!” and drove into one of the holes the nasty old Jersey bull
made in the front paddock before the war.
We had to get the shovel and dig out the edge of the hole before Mum could get the car going again. “And we’ll have no more instructions from you, my girl!” she told Kate. Then she drove straight into Old Pomp’s sandy patch in the house paddock.
We bounced up and down on the back seat, and said,
“We’ll have no more instructions from you, my girl!” till Mum told us to hold our tongues and sit still. Then she drove us down to the cowshed, and we wiped all the dust out of the copper, lit a fire underneath and heated some water, and gave the car a good scrub all over. We even wiped the inside, to get all the dust off, and washed the windows, and got rid of all the spiders’ webs.
We hung up the harness, and pushed the buggy backwards into its shed. It looked sad sitting there, the tips of its shafts on the ground, so Betty patted it and said, “You’ve been a very good buggy.” For a few days, she and Jimmy went down and threw water over the wheels so they wouldn’t dry out again.
Old Pomp didn’t seem to care. He never even looked at the buggy, not even when we rode him up to the shed and showed it to him. He just turned away and started pulling at the grass.
“I’ll bet he wants to drive the car, too,” said Jimmy, “like Kate.”
Next thing we knew, there was a telegram from the Prime Minister, Mr Fraser. We had the day off school, and Mum got down her leather hat box off the top
of her wardrobe and took out her hat and put it on. We all pointed at it and shrieked because we couldn’t remember ever seeing Mum wearing her hat, except when she went to a wedding.
She looked in her mirror, tucked up her hair, and drove us into the Waharoa station. Before she got out of the car, she looked in the mirror at her hat and patted it a couple of times.
Everyone waiting on the platform was dressed up, the women all wearing hats. “See!” Mum said to us. The men lifted their hats when they said hello to her.
The grownups were nervous, you could tell by the scratchy voices and shrieks of laughter. It was exciting, like waiting for something to happen, but there was something different. I looked at Jimmy and saw he was white-faced and hanging on to Mum.
There was a whistle, and a train came into sight down by the factory, and I was holding my breath so nothing would go wrong after all the years. The train stopped, and I had to take another breath and hold it, and some soldiers and a man in blue air force uniform climbed off and stood on the platform, shaking hands with their mates through the windows, while we waited for them to turn and look at us.
The troop train whistled, clanked, and chuffed away towards Matamata, the little knot of returned men watching the back of the guard’s van shrink and
, as if they’d lost something, as if they wanted to run after it and get back on with their mates. It seemed
ages before they turned around, and we could see their faces, and people started calling out names and running towards them.
“Is that your father?” Mum asked us, but we couldn’t remember what he looked like. Later on, he said it was just as well he knew who we were, or he might have had to go home without us. Mind you, Kate said she knew at once it was him because of the single wing on his blue uniform, with A G which meant he was an air gunner.
We stood around staring at Mum because we didn’t know whether she was going to cry or laugh. None of us knew what to say. People pushed their faces down into ours and asked, “What’s it like having your father home?” but we still didn’t know what to say. Instead, we squabbled over who was going to carry his blue canvas kitbag with his name and number in big black letters to the Chev, but it was so heavy he had to carry it himself after all.
“Are you coming to school today, Mum?” Jimmy said, the next morning.
Mum looked a bit surprised and shook her head. “You can all give school a miss today,” she told us, and we had that day off as well. I don’t remember Mum ever talking of coming to school again, after Dad came home.
We spent that day taking Dad round the farm, telling him how we shifted the steers for the war effort, and how we slept in the haystack to catch the bandicoot.
When Mum told him the prices at the last sales, he whistled and said we’d done real good, but we might as well buy some heifers and start milking again, now he was back.
It’s funny, when you think of it, but nobody seemed to notice how Mum changed after Dad came home. Jimmy and Betty told him about the time when she flew halfway to school as an air gunner in the rear turret of a Lancaster bomber, and how she once played barefoot for the All Blacks. I don’t suppose he believed them, not really. Most of the time, we were so busy getting used to having him home again, I think we just forgot about the funny ideas Mum had when Dad was overseas.
It was a couple of days before I thought it was safe to stop holding my breath. I seemed to have been holding it ever since Dad went away because somebody had told me it would keep off bad luck. But now I let out my breath. I went, “Huff!” a couple of times, “Huff! Huff!” just to make sure all the dead air was out, and Dad was home for good.
ll that happened half a lifetime ago now. Blue went first, and then Old Pomp, and then Jimmy when he was still in the standards. He died over in Waikato Hospital, of the diphtheria, and I thought I should have kept holding my breath. Mum and Dad both died years ago.
Kate’s an old woman now, and I suppose I’m getting on a bit, and Betty, she’s not as young as she used to be. We often talk about when we were kids. Betty always says it’s funny how we all seem to remember different things, and Kate always nods and says, “Things do look different, when you’re old.”
Just the other day, Kate said something interesting about Jimmy. “Remember his bandages? He was always hurting himself,” she said, “because Mum stopped paying attention about that time. She was too busy thinking of Dad, worrying about being on her own, bringing us up, and running the farm.”
While I was thinking about that, I asked Kate and Betty, “Do you remember we used to sing, ‘There’s
a War in Abyssinia’?”
Betty shook her head, but Kate nodded. “It was the 1930s,” she said. “Before the Second War broke out. You and Jimmy would be too young to remember.” And she sang in her creaky old voice:
“‘There’s a war in Abyssinia,
Won’t you come?
Bring some ammunition
And a little gun.
Mussolini will be there,
Shooting peanuts in the air,
There’s a war in Abyssinia,
Won’t you come?’”
She remembered that all right, but she seems to have forgotten a lot of other things. It’s funny – because I don’t know what would have become of us but for Kate.
Sometimes I ask the others if they remember
their breath so Dad would come home safe. They talk about going round the lambs, and shifting the steers with Blue, and the time we took the spuds on Old Pomp to Mick O’Halloran’s place, but they don’t seem to remember how Mum wanted to go to school with us on Old Pomp, and how she was going to tie all the little girls’ plaits together, play barefoot for the All Blacks, and eat the other kids’ lunches.
I try to remind them of the time the circus came to Waharoa, and the time Mum was going to sell us, and how we tried to sell her, but I don’t think anybody
else but me remembers everything that happened, those years we flew to school in a Lancaster bomber with Billy Kemp circling us in his Messerschmitt 109, going “Ka-ka-ka-ka-ka!”, those years when Dad was away at the war, and we were growing up, and Mum went funny.