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Authors: Jack Lasenby

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BOOK: When Mum Went Funny
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W
e came home from school, and Mum wasn’t there, so we tore through the house, shouting for her.

Jimmy stopped and said, “Remember at breakfast she said she might run away from us?”

“She hasn’t run away,” Kate told us. “Her clothes are in her wardrobe. She’ll be out in the garden.”

We raced each other up the path, yelling, “Mum! Mum!”

“There she is!” said Betty. “Mum! Why weren’t you there when we came in?”

Mum had picked a basket of runner beans and was standing there with one broken open in her hand. It must have been one we’d missed picking, and it had grown about two feet long. Beans like that are tough and stringy, and no good to eat.

“Why is it I can’t even rely on my children to pick all the beans that are ready?” Mum said, asking the
question
up into the air. “You know perfectly well that, if you don’t keep them picked, they stop flowering.”

We grinned at each other. When Mum asked
questions
up into the air like that, we called it, “Talking to
God.” And she only ever talked to God when she was complaining to him about having to grow vegies and cook for us. The moment we saw her doing it, we knew she’d had another of her funny ideas.

“If I waited for those children to pick the beans, I’d starve to death,” Mum said. “Look at the size of this!” She held up a bean seed so someone in the sky could see it. The seed looked like a giant bumblebee, black, purple, and pink. “I’ve never seen one so big.”

“Nor have I!” we all said.

“Can we eat it?” asked Jimmy.

“Not likely!” Mum said.

“Remember,” said Betty, “Jack and the Beanstalk?”

“That’s what I’m thinking about,” Mum said to herself in a dreamy sort of voice. “If I plant this
enormous
bean seed, it should grow an enormous stalk with enormous beans. I could give those useless kids nothing to eat but beans, every day.”

“But we don’t want to have nothing to eat but beans every day,” said Jimmy. “We’d get sick of them, Mum.”

“Tough luck!” Mum jeered. “Do you ever think how fed up I get, having to cook for you every day?”

“Not really,” I said.

Mum looked at me and opened her mouth just a little. She lifted her top lip with two fingers so her eye teeth stuck out over her bottom lip like fangs.

“You’re not allowed to do that!” Jimmy said, his voice quavering.

“Why not?” Mum snarled, still holding up her top lip.

“Because it scares us!”

“Where are you going to plant the big bean seed?” asked Kate.

Mum let go her lip. “By the back door. And, in the morning, if it’s grown into a beanstalk that climbs up into the sky, I might just see where it takes me.”

“What if there’s a giant waiting at the top, and he eats you?” Jimmy asked.

“I’d eat him first, and then turn into a giant myself! Fee fi fo fum!” Mum snapped her teeth.

“Still,” I told her, “you’d better be careful.”

“Why should I be careful?” said Mum. “What sort of a life is it for me, anyway? Growing runner beans, and picking them every day, and slicing and cooking them, just so my four children can sit round the table gobbling like gannets.

“You never know, he might turn out to be a friendly giant, and he’ll want me to stay so he can cook meals for me. I’ve heard about friendly giants,” Mum said. “Giants who like nothing better than cooking meals for their visitors. Not like my lazy children who only think of sitting round waiting for me to grow and prepare and cook their food for them.”

Jimmy and Betty began to cry at that, and we had to tell them that the giant wouldn’t eat Mum, and he certainly wouldn’t want to cook her tea for her. We carried the basket of runner beans down to the house so Mum could slice and cook them for our tea. She fried bacon with them, and it was delicious, the bacon and
the runner beans with new potatoes Mum had dug out of the garden, and mint she cooked with them, too.

“Where’s she gone?” Betty asked as we were busy eating. It was Jimmy who jumped so he could see through the window over the sink and spotted her outside the back door.

“She’s digging,” he whispered.

“Planting the giant bean seed,” Betty murmured.

“Let me see!” Jimmy whined.

Mum covered it with soil, firmed it down with her foot, and turned to the door. We scrambled back to the table and were finishing our bacon and runner beans when she came in and ate her own tea. She didn’t say where she’d been, and we didn’t dare ask.

After tea, Kate washed because she was the biggest, and the rest of us dried. We took a while to get the dishes done because we kept looking at Mum. She was sitting at the table, reading “Over the Teacups” in the
Woman’s Weekly,
a smile on her face, and humming. We didn’t like it when Mum smiled and hummed because it often meant she was coming up with another of her ideas.

Jimmy went to say something, but Kate shook her head. “Like a cup of tea, Mum?” she asked.

“That would be very nice, thank you. But it’s not going to make me change my mind.” The rest of us didn’t understand it when Mum and Kate talked like that.

Jimmy could move fast, when he wanted to. I winked at him and nodded towards the door. He understood
at once, slipped outside – still carrying his tea-towel – and was back inside wiping a plate before Mum noticed he’d gone.

Except for Kate, we all went off to bed after we’d done the dishes. Jimmy said he wanted Mum to tell us “Jack and the Beanstalk”, but Betty said she wanted a story about when Mum was a little girl, and I wanted that one, too, because I thought it was better if Mum didn’t think about climbing the beanstalk. But though she told us about growing up at Mercury Bay, and how she used to chop down kauri trees, dig for gold, and go pig hunting, her story didn’t stop me dreaming about Jack and his beanstalk.

First thing in the morning I looked, but the light wasn’t green, the window wasn’t covered with bean leaves, and there was no beanstalk growing by the back door. None of us said anything, but we looked at each other as we went outside, got on Old Pomp, and rode off to school without Mum saying much either.

“What if Mum digs up the bean seed to see why it didn’t grow during the night?” asked Betty.

“Then she’ll just find nothing,” said Jimmy. He stuck his hand in his pocket and showed us the giant bean seed.

“Yes,” said Betty, “but what if she finds another and plants it.”

“We can’t watch her all the time,” said Kate. “She’ll forget the bean, but she’ll probably have another of her funny ideas when we get home tonight.”


W
e’re home, Mum!” we yelled as we ran in the back door.

“Already?” said Mum. “I thought school went on to five o’clock today.”

“No,” we told her. “Just three.”

“School never goes to five o’clock,” Jimmy said seriously. “What’s to eat?”

“You can have some bread and dripping,” Mum said. “And there’s biscuits in the blue tin. I did some baking this morning.” We looked at her. There was something funny about her voice.

“What’s the matter, Mum?” asked Betty.

“Nothing. I had a look this morning, but somebody had dug up the giant bean seed I planted last night. I was looking forward to climbing the beanstalk and meeting the giant.”

“If you climbed up the beanstalk, and the giant chased you, I’d get the axe and chop him down!” said Jimmy.

“It’s all right,” Betty told Mum. “We’d throw up a
rope, for you to climb down. And we wouldn’t let any old giant eat you.”

“She’s not listening,” Kate told Betty. “She’s having one of her funny ideas.”

Sure enough, Mum looked at Betty and said, “That’s not a bad idea.” She smiled and said, “In fact, it’s a very good idea.”

“The rope?” asked Betty.

“No,” Mum smiled. “School till five o’clock. In fact, now I come to think of it, why doesn’t school start at six in the morning? It could go to five o’clock at night, and that would give me more time to do all the jobs you kids are supposed to do. It might even give me a bit of time to myself.”

“That’s not a good idea, Mum,” Betty told her. “We’d have to get up before it’s light, to get to school by six. And in winter, we’d have to hang hurricane lanterns off Old Pomp’s harness so he could see.”

“An even better idea!” said Mum. “Get up in the dark, come home in the dark, and go straight to bed! Then I wouldn’t have to see you at all. I’m going to suggest it to Mr Jones.”

“Mr Jones won’t like it,” said Betty. “He’d have to get up in the dark and walk home in the dark, too. And he’s scared of the dark, Mr Jones.”

“A grown man scared of the dark?” Mum laughed.

Jimmy stood up for Mr Jones. “We told Mr Jones we’re scared of the dark, and he said he’s scared, too. That’s why he likes being a teacher, he told us, ’cause
he can get home in the daylight.”

“I’m going to have a talk to the school committee,” Mum said. “I’ll bet they like the idea of school from six in the morning to five at night.”

“What about all the kids who go to the shed before they come to school?” I asked. “They have to get home in time to help with the milking at night, too. They can’t go to school at six and come home after five.”

“You’re a proper killjoy! Why is it, whenever I come up with a good idea, you always look for reasons why it won’t work? The farm kids will just have to get up earlier and go to bed later.”

“When will they have their tea?”

“When they’ve finished milking.”

“But won’t they be tired?”

Mum smiled. “Then somebody else will have to give them a hand. I might hire my four, huge,
hungry
children to the dairy farmers, to help them with their milking. Sixpence each a week for the little ones; ninepence each for the big ones. That’d give me – let’s see – one and six – half a crown a week! And they could feed you as well.”

“If you make us go out and milk for other people,” we told her, “we’ll run away.”

Mum laughed. “I’ve been trying to get you to run away for years!”

Next day, we told Mr Jones about Mum’s plan for us to come to school at six in the morning, and to stay till five at night.

“Your mother might be pulling your leg,” said Mr Jones. “A lot of people couldn’t do the milking without their kids.”

“She’s serious, Sir. She’s going to tell the school committee, and she’s going to hire us to the other farmers to help them do the milking, sixpence a week for the little ones, and ninepence for Kate and me. And they have to feed us as well.”

“Would you like me to have a word with your mother?” asked Mr Jones, but we shook our heads and said we didn’t think that was a good idea.

“Well, you tell her from me that I don’t want to have to start teaching at six in the morning, and to keep going all day to five o’clock. What if I ran out of things to say? And how would I find my way over to the school and home in the dark? Did you tell your mother I’m scared of it?”

“Mum’s always coming up with funny ideas,” Kate told Mr Jones. “She’ll have changed her mind by the time we get home tonight.”

“I hope so,” said Mr Jones, but we could tell he was worried.

“Mr Jones says he doesn’t want to start teaching at six o’clock in the morning,” we told Mum when we got home from school that afternoon.

“You didn’t go telling him about that!”

We looked at Mum. “Well, you said so.”

“I can think out loud, can’t I, without you children rushing off and repeating every word I say to just
anyone you happen to meet?”

We looked at the floor. “I’m starving, Mum,” said Betty.

“Sometimes I wonder if you ever think of anything else but food!” Mum got the bread out of the bin. Whenever she got excited, she used to cut the loaf crooked. Then she’d try to cut it straight, and we’d finish up with slices all thick at one end and thin at the other.

“Stop it, Kate!” Mum said. “I can feel you standing there looking at me. Cut it yourself, if you’re so clever.” Kate took the breadknife and cut the loaf in very even slices.

“I don’t know why I can’t cut the bread straight,” Mum muttered. “I hold the knife the same, and I cut the same, and it comes out crooked every time.

“Now!” she turned on us. “What do you want on it?”

“Jam and butter! Honey and butter! Cheese and butter! Marmalade and butter!” we all shouted because we knew that would make Mum roar.

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, you can have butter, or you can have jam, but you can’t have both. I’m not made of money, you know!”

“Jam! Honey! Cheese! Marmalade!” we said quickly.

“Why can’t you all just have the same thing?” Mum groaned. “I seem to spend half my life cutting bread and spreading jam on it, and they want honey, and cheese, and marmalade as well.”

“Poor old Mum!” we said.

“Poor old Mum, indeed! I know you’re laughing at me. Well, I’ll make you laugh on the other side of your faces.”

“How will you make us laugh on the other side of our faces, Mum?” asked Jimmy with his mouth full of bread and jam. “This side, or that side?”

“Upside or inside?” Betty spoke through a
mouthful
of bread and honey. “Or sideways?” she laughed, and Jimmy laughed with her. They spluttered bits of bread.

“Very funny, indeed!” Mum said. She looked at us and said, “This afternoon, I had an idea about you lot. One that’s going to take the grin off your faces.”

“What’s your idea, Mum?” we asked, but she just shook her head and wouldn’t say.

W
e’d tried being smart about Mum’s idea that was going to make us laugh on the other side of our faces; in fact, we were really worried. Only Kate didn’t seem to care; I looked at her and tried to act the same; Jimmy and Betty kept asking Mum about her idea.

“You’re the ones who thought you were so smart, mocking your poor old mother who waits on you hand and foot from first thing in the morning till last thing at night,” Mum told them. “Well, the worm’s turned. You’ll have to to wait and see what my idea is.”

“Aw, Mu-um!”

At last Mum got sick of their moaning and said, “I heard that the circus is coming to Waharoa on Saturday.”

“True? The circus! On Saturday? Are we going?”

Mum nodded and smiled grimly. “And I’ve made up my mind about it. Why should I spend my life cutting bread crooked for children who laugh at me behind my back?”

“We don’t laugh at your behind, Mum. We laugh in front of your face.” Jimmy thought he was hugely funny.

“Don’t you try to be smart with me, young man,” Mum told him. “I still know a trick or two you don’t!”

“What about the circus, Mum? Are we going?”

“Of course you’re going to the circus. And you’re going to stay there, the lot of you!”

“Stay there?”

“What do you mean, Mum?”

“I mean I’m going to sell you to the circus!”

We stared. “What would we have to do?” asked Betty.

“I thought that would take the smile off your faces,” Mum said. “I suppose they’ll make you clean out the lion’s cage, and the tiger’s. And follow the elephant with a wheelbarrow and shovel.”

“Poo!” said Jimmy, and Betty pulled a face.

“Circuses are always looking for children,” Mum nodded. “If they can’t buy them, the clowns sneak out at night and steal them. Perhaps they’ll put you in cages and show you off, poke you with sticks, and make you roar.

“They could charge people to watch you feeding. That’d bring a good crowd.

“I’ll be able to live in comfort on the money I get for you. I won’t have to work in the garden and grow vegetables, and spend my time working my fingers to the bone cooking and cleaning, and going round the lambs, and shifting the steers for a houseful of ungrateful children.”

“We’re grateful, Mum!” we all shouted.

“On the other hand,” said Mum, “I know the circus is always looking for food for the animals.” She smiled at us, and Jimmy and Betty smiled back trustingly.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” she said, “the circus might feed you to their wild animals! I imagine the lion and the tiger would enjoy eating a fat child who’s been fed on well-cooked vegies out of my garden all his life.”

Jimmy and Betty looked at Kate. “It’s all right,” she told them, “Mum’s just making it up. The circus buys old dead cows and horses for the lion.”

“Are you sure?” Mum asked.

“You wouldn’t sell us; you’re our mother,” Betty said and looked at Jimmy who was grinning and nodding.

“We know what!” they said together. “We’ll sell you to the circus for lion tucker!” And they both roared and showed their terrible claws and pretended to eat Mum.

“You wouldn’t sell your old Mum to the circus?” she asked. “You wouldn’t want the wild animals to eat me, would you?”

“Yes!” they cried. “We would so!” And Jimmy said, “You were going to sell us.”

“Unnatural children,” Mum said. “After all I’ve done for you. Digging the garden, growing the vegies, cooking for you, cleaning the house, sewing, washing, darning.”

“Working my fingers to the bone!” we all chanted together before she could say it.

“Are we going to the circus, Mum?” asked Jimmy.

“We’ll see,” said Mum, and she wouldn’t say any more.

When she was putting Jimmy and Betty to bed, and I was getting into my pyjamas, they asked Mum to tell them a story, and she said, “I’ll tell you one, but only if you promise you won’t sell me to the circus.”

“We won’t sell you to the circus,” Betty told her. And Jimmy said, “We wouldn’t let them feed you to the wild animals, Mum!”

“Just as well,” she said. “All right, then, lie down and be quiet, and I’ll tell you the story of “Dr Dolittle and the Wild Animals of Waharoa”. Betty and Jimmy lay down and listened. It was one of Mum’s best stories. Jimmy and Betty both watched Mum’s face and her hands as she told it to us. They looked as if they’d forgotten all about her saying she was going to sell us to the circus. But I remembered it, and I knew Kate would. Kate never forgot a thing.

Saturday came. We put Old Pomp into the buggy and climbed on. Kate took the reins. Mum sang loudly all the way into Waharoa and told everybody along the road that we were going to the circus.

Billy Kemp came galloping along on Hiccup and attacked us, pretending to be a Red Indian, and we were a covered wagon. But Mum took the buggy whip and cracked it so loud that Hiccup propped and pig-jumped
sideways down the road, and Billy was too busy
hanging
on to bother us again.

They’d put up the circus near the hall. The road had never been properly formed there, just two wheel tracks, so there was plenty of room on the grass for the big tent. People were parking their cars and trucks in front of the hall. Those who’d come in their buggies and gigs, to save benzine and tyres for the war effort, left them across the other side. As Kate took him out of the shafts and tied him to the fence, Old Pomp reared up, and Mum said it was because he smelled the lion.

But Kate had taken a nosebag of oats for Old Pomp, and he quietened down and started chewing once she put that on him. Our buggy stood with its shafts down, but a couple of gigs had theirs pointing up in the air. “Like anti-aircraft guns!” said Jimmy, and I knew he was thinking of the photos in the
Weekly News
of the Blitz in London.

Behind the big tent, there was a row of caravans and lorries, and some wagons that Mum said were the cages they’d keep us in. We wanted to have a look, but a man told us to clear off. “They can have a look at the wild animals after the circus,” he said to Mum. “Sixpence for kids, a bob for grownups.”

“Sixpence each for children?” said Mum. “And a bob for me! On top of what we’ve got to pay to get into the circus… You must think I’m made out of money if you think you’re going to charge me for a look at a few mangey old half-tame animals.”

“If you don’t like it, tough luck!” said the man, and Mum told him to keep a civil tongue in his head.

“I’ve a good mind to go back and knock his block off!” she told us, and she danced and shadow-boxed, and puffed through her nose like a boxer we’d once seen in a sideshow, the time Dad took us to the Waikato Show. Fortunately, nobody noticed Mum because people were hurrying to get into the circus.

“Gee!” Jimmy said, “I didn’t know you could box, Mum!”

“Come on,” Kate said, “we’d better get inside or all the good seats will be gone.” At once, Mum ran for the entry to the big tent. Kate always knew just what to say to her.

There was an old woman in a wheelchair, selling tickets at the entry. She had white whiskers growing out of a mole on her chin, and Kate pinched us which we knew meant we weren’t to stare. Mum said to us to hang on a bit, and she went along and tried to climb under the wall, but she’d just stuck her head under the canvas when she pulled it back with a bit of a yelp, and ran back to us.

The old woman in the wheelchair had disappeared inside the tent. She came back to the door, grinning to herself, and pushing the wheels around with her hands. It looked as if it was hard going, getting them to move on the muddy grass. She started selling tickets again. As we moved forward in the line, and Kate bought our tickets, the old woman eyed Mum very sharply, but
she kept her head down, and we went inside. I didn’t like to look, but Jimmy and Betty had a good stare and followed.

Just inside, Mum put up her head and sniffed, and we all sniffed, too.

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