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Authors: Jack Lasenby

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M
um was out in her garden first thing next morning, and we went and stood around and made suggestions, and told her what we thought, and watched her
weeding
the onions, and got in her way without being any help.

“You’d think,” Mum said, “a poor old body on her own wouldn’t have to slave out in her garden from daylight to dark to put food on the table for four great overgrown children.”

But we’d heard all that before, so we tip-toed away as she talked, and hid behind the runner beans. We held the big leaves apart, looked between the scarlet flowers with their mumbling bumblebees, and watched Mum weeding and talking, thinking we were still there. Sure enough, she looked up suddenly, hoping to catch us laughing at her, and found she’d been talking to nobody all that time. She looked so surprised, we fell on the ground laughing and rolled out from behind the bean row.

“We caught you that time, Mum!” Jimmy said.

“Mum was talking to herself!” said Betty.

“When you ask yourself a question, Mum, do you answer yourself as well?” Kate asked. She stood there looking as if she was really interested in what Mum had to say. Kate could keep a straight face when she wanted to. She knew it drove Mum mad.

“I’m not going to put up with it a moment longer!” Mum said. “If that’s all the gratitude I get, working my fingers to the bone to put food on the table, and all you can do is to laugh at your poor old mother…”

“We weren’t laughing, Mum!”

“Why I should wear myself out for a bunch of hollow-legged children who aren’t even grateful for what I do for them, I’ll never understand,” said Mum. “Spending my best years growing food that then has to be cooked before they’ll eat it …” She stopped and smiled to herself, and we could see she was having one of her funny ideas.

We all looked at Kate, because she’s the oldest, and she knows Mum’s mind better than she does herself. Or, at least, that’s what Kate always says when we’re talking about Mum. But Kate was quiet now, so we were all quiet, too. And, when she started pulling out some weeds, we copied her and started pulling them out as well.

“It’s too late for that,” said Mum. “You should have thought of helping me before.” And she went back down to the house, putting the trowel in the shed on the way. By the time we crept down to see what she was doing, she was driving the car towards the cattlestop.
We tore after, but she put her foot down.

“Mum!” we yelled. “Come back! Mum!”

“Don’t abandon us!” Kate cried, because that would embarrass Mum if anyone came along the road and heard. But Mum wound up the window, and the Chev disappeared around the corner towards Waharoa.

“She got away,” said Jimmy.

“Do you reckon she’s coming back?” asked Betty.

“Do I think she’ll come back,” Kate corrected her.

“Of course she will! She always does.” We looked at her and saw she was grinning. “Mum’s had one of her funny ideas, but it’s no use unless she can scare us with it. So she’s got to come back, to try it out on us. You’ll see.”

The rest of us weren’t so sure, but we felt a bit better when Kate said that. And when she went out to the shed and brought Mum’s trowel inside and put it on the table, we all grinned.

It turned out Kate was right, because there was a toot, the Chev pulled up by the back gate, and Mum got out carrying a sugarbag.

“I’ve solved the problem of feeding you lot!”

“Was there a problem?” asked Kate.

Mum looked at her. “I thought there was. Something about me having to do all the work to grow food for you, and then having to cook it for you. I’m surprised you don’t expect me to eat it for you as well.”

“That’s no problem!” we all told her. “We love your cooking, Mum!”

“This bag,” said Mum, and she held up the sugarbag, “this bag has the answer to the problem of cooking food for my ungrateful family.” She marched inside, and we marched after her.

Mum sat at the table, and we sat around it. She opened the sugarbag and took out a brown paper bag. She dropped the sugarbag on the floor, put the brown paper bag in the middle of the table, stuck in her hand, and pulled out a big jar filled with round things like thick white buttons. They didn’t look very interesting.

“What’s those things, Mum?”

“Food pills.”

“Food pills?” we shrieked.

“I think that’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“What for, Mum?”

“For eating. Food pills that don’t need any cooking. From now on you’re all going to have one food pill for breakfast. One for lunch. And one for your tea.”

“But … Won’t we feel hungry?”

“Food pills don’t look much fun,” said Jimmy.

“One pill for breakfast,” Mum told him. “And you don’t have to put it on a plate or cut it up with a knife and fork, so there’s no argument about who sets the table, who washes up, and who dries. I just tip a pill into your hand, a glass of water, and that’s your
breakfast
. Another food pill, that’s your lunch. After school, another food pill, and that’s your tea.”

“But I don’t want a pill for breakfast,” said Jimmy.

“And a pill for lunch,” said Betty. “And a pill for tea.”

“Pills aren’t as much fun as real food!” we all told Mum.

“No cooking. No dishes and knives and forks to wash and dry. No need for a table and chairs. No need for a kitchen. No need for a stove.” Mum smiled. “I’m going to sell them all and buy food pills. Think of all the time it’s going to save! Time for some people to do their jobs.”

“But we like our kitchen,” we cried. “You can’t sell our stove. It warms our feet! It heats the hot water. It’ll be cold in winter without the stove, Mum! How are you going to fill your hot water bottle without the stove to heat the kettle?”

“We like having a table!” said Jimmy, “And chairs to sit on,” Betty chimed in. Together they said, “We like having proper food like everyone else.”

“How are you going to dry the sultanas after you’ve washed them, when there’s no rack to put them on?” asked Kate.

“Yes!” we all said. “How are you going to dry the sultanas?”

“There’ll be no sultanas to need washing, not once you’re on food pills. When all the other mothers find out how easy it is to give food pills to their families, they’ll stop cooking, too. They’ll get rid of their tables and chairs and knives and forks and kitchens and stoves as well.”

“It’s not fair!”

“Don’t you want to try a food pill?” Mum smiled cunningly. “Just one.” But we shook our heads and shut our mouths. “I’ll tickle you!” she said, “and you’ll open your mouths then!” She knew we couldn’t stand being tickled.

Mum wiggled her fingers at us, and we opened our mouths wide, and she popped a pill in each one, and they weren’t food pills at all. We smelled them before we tasted them. They were round, hot, white peppermints, and we all love peppermints.

“Mum told us a fib!” said Betty, sucking her
peppermint
. “She said she was going to sell the stove.”

“And feed us on food pills,” said Jimmy, and he and Betty spoke together: “You’re a big fibber, Mum!”

“Mind you,” Mum said, “and she screwed the lid on the jar and took it out to hide in her room, “you can’t live on peppermints.”

“We can! We can live on peppermints,” we shouted after her.

“It’s all right,” Kate said, “she’s hiding them in her wardrobe. She always does. We’ll wait and help ourselves.”

Mum came back into the kitchen and said, “The idea – live on peppermints indeed! You’ve got to eat a proper meal. If having one peppermint fills you, so you don’t clean up your plate, then there’ll be no more for you.” And she began to get everything ready for our tea. Mum had some funny ideas at times, but she
always cooked us our tea in the end.

“What’s that trowel doing on the table?”

“You must have put it there when you came in from the garden,” said Kate.

“I distinctly remember putting it in the shed, on my way down.”

Kate just looked back at Mum.

“You had it when you came in from the garden,” I said. “I remember.”

“If I thought for a minute that you brought my trowel inside from the shed and put it on the table …”

“Why would we do a thing like that?” Kate asked.

J
immy and Betty sat in the kitchen crying because Mum was crying. “I’ve got nothing to give you to eat!” she said, and flung her apron over her head. “
Boo-hoo
!” I could see one eye watching us around the side of the apron, so I wasn’t sure and only pretended to be crying.

Jimmy and Betty wailed noisily, and Mum lifted her voice above theirs and cried even louder. Jimmy and Betty wailed, “Wahh!” and wanted to climb on her knee.

“Not a skerrick in the entire house! Boo-hoo!” Mum squawked under her apron. “Not a thing in the cupboard.”

“Just like Old Mother Hubbard,” said Kate’s voice as she came in the back door. “‘And when she got there, the cupboard was bare!’”

I knew by the tone of her voice as well as the grin on Kate’s face that she didn’t believe Mum was really crying, so I stopped pretending.

When they saw I’d stopped, Jimmy and Betty stopped crying, too. Then Mum realised she was the
only one crying, stopped her din, and pulled the apron off her head. Her eyes weren’t even pink, and there were no tears in them.

Because they were the smallest, and the easiest to fool, Mum often tried out her funny ideas on Jimmy and Betty first. She looked at them now. “I’ve got an idea,” she said, nodding and smiling. “Nail soup!”

“What’s nail soup?” Betty asked with a big sob, and Jimmy said, “I don’t want to eat nails.” They were all set to start crying again.

Mum took an ordinary-looking three-inch nail from her apron pocket, washed it under the tap, and dropped it in a pot of boiling water on the stove. She took the ladle and tasted the boiling water carefully, so she didn’t burn her lips. “Mmm!” she said. “Taste the lovely nail soup!” One by one, she offered us the ladle of hot water.

We tried it and shook our heads. Jimmy said he thought he could taste something, but Betty and I weren’t fooled. We sat around the table and cried again, all of us except Kate who just sat and watched.

“Perhaps it needs a bit of salt,” said Kate, and Mum looked at her and nodded. Kate put in a bit of salt, stirred it, and we each tried a bit from the ladle again.

“It tastes like salty water,” said Betty with another sob.

“What about putting in an onion?” asked Jimmy.

“If somebody can be bothered going out to the
garden
and getting an onion and skinning it and putting
it in with the nail and the salt,” Mum said.

“What about a potato?” asked Betty.

“If somebody can be bothered going out to the garden and digging a few potatoes, and washing and peeling them, and putting them in with the nail and the salt and the onion,” Mum said.

Betty ran after Jimmy. Kate and I followed. We brought back carrots, a parsnip, some scarlet runners, parsley, spring onions, radishes, a turnip, peas, a
marrow
, a pumpkin, and some celery. Jimmy found a nest under the hedge where the bantams were laying, and ran in with more than a dozen little eggs down his shirt. While he changed his shirt because of the ones that broke, Betty had a look in the laying boxes in the chook house and filled a basket from them. “We can have scrambling eggs,” she said.

While I washed and peeled the vegies and cut them up, Kate looked in the safe and found an old end of bacon, and the bones and leftovers from last night’s shoulder of mutton. As we chopped up and added
everything
to Mum’s nail soup, it got thicker and smelled better, and we hung around wanting to taste it and, at last, we ate it. Then Kate remembered to put in a bit of pepper, a drop of Worcester Sauce, and something she found in the cupboard, and it tasted better still.

When we’d eaten our soup, Mum took out the nail, washed it under the tap, and put it on the windowsill over the sink.

“What are you putting it there for?” asked Jimmy.

“I’m going to keep it because it’s such a very tasty nail,” Mum told him. “It made the best soup I’ve eaten for years.” And we all said so, too, Kate loudest of all.

“We might have nail soup again tomorrow,” Mum said.

We all looked at each other. “Yes?” we said, a little unsure. “Again. Tomorrow.”

Betty said, “And there’s lots of eggs!” and Jimmy said, “You wait till I tell all the kids at school how our mother made soup out of a nail!”

“I wouldn’t say anything about it,” Mum told him quickly. “We wouldn’t want our secret to get out, would we now?”

“Gosh, no!” said Jimmy, but I could see he didn’t know why not.


O
h, confound the blessed things!” Mum told Mr Robinson at the garage in Waharoa. “I’m sure they hide themselves deliberately, just so I can’t find them. They were in here, I’m certain of that!” She hunted through the glove box again.

“Have you children been playing with the benzine coupons?” she said, going through her purse. “Kate, I hope you haven’t hidden them!”

“Why would I want to hide them?”

“I never know with you, my lady!”

“Bring them in next time you’re in Waharoa, Mrs Costall,” Mr Robinson said, “but remember, or you’ll get me into trouble with that little Hitler at the post office. It’d be more than my life’s worth, if I got caught not asking for coupons, now petrol’s rationed. You’ve no idea, the forms I have to fill in.

“You’d think he was running the war effort
single-handed,
the way he goes on about ration books, all the extra work, and the time it takes getting them out of the safe, issuing them, and locking them up again, and the returns he has to send in. ‘There is a war on, you
know,’ he tells me, Old Grizzleguts!”

We looked at each other. Mr Robinson always said “Old Grizzleguts” and “little Hitler” when he meant Mr Weston. None of us liked Mr Weston because he told us to clear out of his post office, and he always served the grownups first, even when we’d been
waiting
for ages.

On Guy Fawkes Day, Dennis Jones used to light crackers and throw them through the post office door to explode on the shiny brown lino. Mr Weston was waiting once, and chased Dennis all the way to the railway crossing, before remembering he’d left the post office open, and a German spy could have parachuted down, climbed over the counter, blown open the safe, and pinched all the ration books.

Dennis reckoned Mr Weston ran all the way back, puffing and holding his fat puku with both hands. Dennis gave him a few minutes to settle down, then sneaked up the steps, lit a jumping jack, and threw it in the door. He also shouted, “The Jerry parachutists are landing!” This time Dennis tore the other way, through the plantation, across the railway lines, and all the way down to the creek. His father gave him a hiding that night, but Dennis reckoned it didn’t hurt. “It was worth it,” he said. “Old Grizzleguts goes purple every time he sees me now.”

But I was telling you about the time Mum got sick of forgetting her petrol coupons, and she drove home saying, “I’m fed up with this wretched old car. The
canvas is showing through the tyres, and Mr Robinson says new ones are getting hard to come by. We don’t use it often enough to keep the battery charged, and there’s the water and oil to remember. Of course, none of you would think of keeping an eye on them and topping them up. As for those blessed coupons! I’ve a good mind to get rid of it, and put Old Pomp back in the buggy. It’d be a sight less trouble!”

That night, Mum sent me and the two little ones off to bed, but Kate sat up with her and listened to the nine o’clock news from the B.B.C. I liked hearing Big Ben. The boom of the bells banging out the time shook the air the whole way from London and round the world to our farm where it just about shook the wireless off its shelf. But Mum didn’t often let us sit up late enough to hear their Bim, Bom, Bang, Boom, and put our hands on the side of the wireless to feel it shake. I lay keeping myself awake so I’d hear Big Ben, trying to feel the house shaking, and holding my breath just in case.

“On the news last night, a tanker carrying oil got torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat,” Kate told us on the way to school, next day. “The sailors jumped into the sea, but the oil caught fire and burnt them to death. Mum turned the wireless off and said it was far past my bedtime, and she pretended to be angry, but I could tell she was crying.”

“Mum cries a lot sometimes,” said Betty.

“It’s because of her funny ideas,” Jimmy told her,
and she said she knew that. Betty didn’t like it, being told things, but then who does?

Mr Robinson came out next week and put our Chev up on blocks in the car shed. He drained the benzine out of the tank, and the oil out of the sump, and he took off the wheels. He got underneath and turned a little tap so the water ran out of the radiator and made a puddle. And he lifted out the battery to take into Waharoa with him. He shook his head, but supposed Mum knew what she was doing.

“You’re not the only one,” he told her. “The Bells up Richmond Downs, they’ve done the same thing with their Ford. And the Macdonalds out the Gordon, they’ve put their car on blocks and they’re only using the lorry. It’s giving Old Grizzleguts something to complain about – people not using enough benzine coupons.”

We thought it was just one of Mum’s crazy ideas. Then we remembered the men trying to swim in a sea ablaze with oil, and Kate said, “Good on her!”

We pulled the buggy out of its shed, and tried putting Old Pomp in the shafts, only some of the harness needed mending. For several nights, we rubbed
neat’s-foot
oil into the dry leather, and cleaned the rust off the buckles with emery paper, and Mum hunted around for an awl and replaced some of the stitching with special heavy thread. It took ages, poking holes through the leather with the awl.

Mrs Kemp rang and told Mum to stand the buggy
in the creek so the wood in the wheels swelled up. Otherwise, she said, Mr Kemp reckoned the iron rims would come off. So we carried buckets of water from the cowshed and sloshed it on the wheels for a couple of days. Then Old Pomp pulled the buggy down to the creek, and we let it stand in the water, and the rims were okay after that.

It was good fun, getting the old buggy lamps going. They burned carbide and hissed and threw a powerful light. Waharoa wasn’t that far and, as Mum said, we could pick our time to go in during daylight and when it wasn’t going to rain. She said she felt a lot happier with the old Chev up on blocks. “When things are back to normal, we can get it going again,” she told us.

Some people said we were mad, going back to the buggy, but we didn’t mind. It was fun. Billy Kemp sang, “Horsey, Horsey, don’t you stop, just let your feet go clippety clop,” at us all the way to school one morning. Then he forgot, and rode his pony close to Old Pomp, and Kate gave him such a clip over the lugs, he sulked half a mile behind us.

After a few weeks, Billy and his sisters started cadging a lift in the buggy whenever they saw us going into Waharoa. One or two other people started using their old buggies and carts. Not a lot, but enough to make us feel we weren’t on our own.

Most of the Maoris down at the pa still had buggies or gigs, so Timmy Tremble told Jimmy that his mother must be a Hori. And Jimmy said he told Timmy his
mother was a Redskin, because we’d just seen a picture at the hall about cowboys and Indians, and that made Timmy start stuttering and fixed him good and proper. After that, we all used to say, “R-R-R-R-Redskin!” whenever we saw Timmy Tremble, but we didn’t let anyone hear. We knew we’d get into trouble for teasing him because it wasn’t his fault if he stuttered, still he shouldn’t have said that about Mum.

Some people put gas burners on their cars, to save petrol, but Mum heard about one that blew up, over at Te Awamutu. “I don’t trust the things,” she said to us. “It doesn’t make sense, driving along with a fire burning on the side of your car, so close to the benzine.”

“Doug Robinson said his father told him it wasn’t the gas burner that blew up the car at Te Awamutu,” I told Mum. “He said they were playing round with the fuel lines, and some benzine dropped on the hot manifold and it went up.”

“Do you know what a manifold is?” Mum asked me. “No!” she said. “And nor do I, and I’ve no intention of finding out. Even if I did know, I still wouldn’t feel safe. Fire and benzine just don’t go together. Besides, there’s all of you to think of.” And she shoved-to the big doors on the car shed, down the side of the barn, and she swung down the top end of the big wooden bar so the bottom half swung up and both ends fitted into their latches, and she put a big padlock on so nobody could get inside.

Grass grew up in front of the doors, and we forgot about our old Chev car sitting on blocks in the dark. Kate and I pulled aside a loose plank in the wall, from inside the barn, but you couldn’t see much. So we gave up thinking about it for a couple of years while the war went on.

Then I took off the loose plank and squeezed into the car shed. Our old Chev waited there, silent in the gloom. I patted and spoke to it, opened the door, climbed into the driver’s seat, held the wheel, and pretended I was Dad.

I tooted the horn, put my toe on the dip, and turned the lights on and off, but nothing happened. My voice disappeared into the dark, and it got a bit scary. I closed the door quietly, wriggled through the hole, and nailed the plank back into place.

I never told anyone and never went near the car again because somehow it might be unlucky for Dad. And I tried to hold my breath as I ran all the way back to the house.

BOOK: When Mum Went Funny
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