Authors: Jack Lasenby
um was furious when we came home from school. “Who put this up? You did, didn’t you?”
“What is it, Mum? Give us a look?”
She was flapping a notice. “The idea!” she said.
Kate had slipped off Old Pomp that morning, and stuck a notice on the gate with drawing pins. She climbed up the post and was just getting back on when: “Ka! Ka! Ka! Errowwwww! Ka! Ka! Ka!” the Messerschmitt attacked out of the sun. We were too busy fighting it off – our pilot still getting into her seat, climbing for height, and putting on her oxygen mask – to have time to read the notice.
To the Hun pilot’s astonishment, Kate banked suddenly, “Whahhhhh!” and fired at him: “Ka! Ka! Ka!”
“You can’t bank a Lancaster like that,” he yelled. “You’d tear the wings off it. Anyway, you’re the pilot, Kate Costall. You can’t fire the
“Who says! This is the latest model Lancaster.
! Ka! Ka! Ka! You’re shot down in flames, Billy Kemp. So there!”
But Billy turned into a Red Indian, hanging on to the tail of his mustang with his toes, and firing burning arrows at us from under its neck. We kept beating out the flames on the canvas of our covered wagon all the way to school, and all the way home, too.
So the rest of us forgot about the notice and didn’t see it till we got home, and Mum came shaking it at us, and telling off Kate for writing it.
“One Fat Mother For Sale” the notice said in big letters. “As is, where is. Free to a Good Home. Any offer considered.”
Jimmy laughed and laughed. “That’s what you did to us, Mum,” he said. “You put up a notice and tried to sell us.”
“Yes, but my notice didn’t say things like, ‘One Fat Mother. As is, where is’, and ‘Any offer considered’. Let alone, ‘Free to a good home’. Besides,” Mum said, “nobody had time to read my notice before you pulled it down.”
“Who read our one?”
“Several cars stopped and looked at our gate. I didn’t take any notice, because people often pull up and take a look at a farm. Then somebody got out of a car and came over to the gate with a camera and took a snap. I thought then there must be something funny going on.
“But I didn’t see your notice till I went down to the gate, to get the mail and the paper and, by that time, everyone along our road must have stopped and read
it. I’ll be the laughing stock of the district.”
“Did anyone try to buy you?” asked Betty.
“Nobody. Not a single offer!” Mum’s voice went very high and small. She sat down and flung her apron over her head. Jimmy put his arms round her and cuddled her. “There, there! It’s all right. We’ll buy you, Mum. We’ll give you a good home.”
“As is, where is!” said Kate.
“Fancy your own children saying they’ll give you away,” Mum cried. “‘To a good home!’ It makes me sound like a worn-out old horse without any teeth. ‘Any offer considered!’”
“Don’t forget you sold us for sixpence.”
“Sixpence each!” Mum took the apron off her head and looked at Kate. “Besides, that was just fun.”
“This was just fun, too. Can’t you take a joke, Mum?”
“There’s jokes and jokes, my girl, as you’ll find out before you’re much older. And I don’t think this one’s very funny.”
“You started it.”
“Yes, but I didn’t know you’d try and give me away. At least, I charged for you.”
They were still arguing when I went down to the shed for something. Rosie was drifting up the race from the paddock where she’d been feeding, taking her time, so I slipped into the shed, and looked at the old cups hanging between the bails. Sure enough, the inflation rubbers were still inside them. Some were perished,
but I found a few that were still pretty good, stretchy red rubber.
I put some water in the bath on Dad’s old grindstone, and turned the handle with my left hand. The
went round and round, the bottom half running through the water. With my right hand, I held the big blade of my pocket knife against the turning wheel of stone. It was hard keeping the pressure on, so I tried turning with my right hand and holding the knife with my left, but that was worse. My left hand went up and down, wanting to do what my right hand was doing. I sharpened the other side of the blade, and tried the edge. Real sharp!
“Moo!” Old Rosie was watching me, her head stuck around the door.
“Hold on,” I told her. “You’re a bit early, aren’t you?”
I sliced one of the inflation rubbers. The blade cut through easily, and gave me a strong rubber ring. Although Rosie mooed and shoved and clattered with her feet, I cut about thirty rings. I had to stop, once, and whip my knife up and down on the concrete the way Dad used to do.
At last, I stuck all the rubber rings and the knife in my pocket. “All right, come on, then!” I walked up to the house, Rosie bumping me with her head and
her wet mouth on the back of my shirt. When I left her at the back gate and went in for the bucket, she
ran up and down and mooed so loudly Mum came out to see what was going on.
“Poor thing,” she said, “of course you feel
. Never mind, Rosie, that wicked boy’s getting the bucket. You’ll be all right,” and Rosie mooed back at her, then I was there, and she was standing quiet. Just once, she swished her tail round and caught me in the face. Luckily there was no muck on it.
“You didn’t seem to take long over milking her. Did you strip her properly?”
I showed Mum the bucket. “She gave lots.” I shot out the door and ran back down to the shed. It didn’t take long, because most of Dad’s tools were still there, in the machine room. I sawed out the shape of a revolver in wood, rasped the barrel round, and sandpapered it smooth. By the time Mum sent Jimmy and Betty to find me, I’d finished the groove across the end of the barrel and the one on the hammer.
“Mum says you’ve got to come home and chop the kindling, and what are you doing down here when you know you should be doing your jobs –”
Their voices stopped when they saw my revolver. Silently, I fitted one of the rubber rings over the end of the barrel and stretched it back over the hammer. I pointed it at a fly on the door of the machine room. He was a good big shiny fly, rubbing his feet, twitching his nose, and wriggling his wings, getting ready to take off like a Messerschmitt.
“Take that!” I said and flicked the end of the stretched
rubber ring off the hammer with my thumb. Squelch!
“Can I’ve a shot! Give us a go!”
“Later,” I said.
“Give us a shot now, or we’ll tell Mum you’ve got a rubber gun.”
So I let them have a few shots. Betty cried when a rubber came off backwards and stung her cheek, so I said that didn’t count and let her have another go.
“You’ve got to keep it a secret,” I said, “or I’ll tell on you for firing a rubber gun.” Jimmy looked at me and nodded. I stuck the rubber gun down my shirt, and we ran up to the house.
Next morning, as we rode out the gate, the
came in fast, thinking we hadn’t noticed him diving out of the sun again. “Ka! Ka! Ka!” I just waited till he swooped up to avoid crashing into our twin tails, overtook us and banked away, and I let him have it.
“Ow!” He almost came off, dropping the reins out of his right hand and rubbing his ear. “You’re not allowed to throw stones!”
“Who threw a stone?” Kate said.
“Not me,” I told her.
“We’ve just been fitted with a new sort of cannon,” Kate told Billy, but he kept touching the top of his ear which looked red now, and flew the rest of the way to school out of range. I kept the rubber gun down the front of my shirt. With a bit of luck, I might get his other ear on the way home.
f you want a job done properly, you might as well do it yourself,” Mum said in her Talking to God voice, when we came home from school on Thursday. “There's no point relying on others.
“Some people haven't shifted the steers for several days,” Mum went on. “Some people are too busy to give a hand to their poor lonely old mother, some people. So who do you think had to go up and shift the steers this afternoon? And, on the way, I rode over and had a look at our spuds.”
“Can we start eating them?” I asked.
“Crikey!” Betty and Jimmy smacked their lips. “New potatoes!” We made gobbling noises because we knew it annoyed Mum.
“Do you ever think of anything but your stomachs?” We shook our heads. “I thought not! Well, somebody thinks our potatoes are ready. I could see where they've been feeling under a plant here, a plant there all along the creek side of the paddock.”
“Maybe it's Old Pomp,” said Jimmy.
“Old Pomp doesn't come down the creek, leaving
footprints, and paw marks, too. No, it's a man and two dogs by the look of the tracks. Helping themselves to our new potatoes.”
“Billy Kemp says his father pushes his hands into the dirt, feels for the new potatoes, and pulls them out. That's how they start eating theirs early, Billy reckons,” Jimmy said.
“It's called bandicooting. If I catch anybody doing it to our spuds,” said Mum, “I'll give them bandicoot!” She looked so fierce, Jimmy and Betty cheered.
“You'll show them, Mum!”
“You bet I will! Now, don't you go getting ideas and start pinching the spuds.”
“Because it's just the sort of thing I'd expect you to do. Pinch some spuds, and cook them in a fire down by the creek. We used to do it when I was a girl, make a big tea-tree fire, and bury the potatoes in the embers.”
“We wouldn't dream of doing it,” said Kate. Mum looked at her suspiciously, but Kate just looked back, eyes wide open.
“Kate Costall, you stop that at once!”
“You know what I mean, my girl.”
“What?” Kate sounded hurt.
“Looking innocent when you're not. I know all your little tricks, madam.”
“It's not fair,” said Kate. “I haven't eaten any of the new potatoes.” She made her voice tremble, but none of
us took any notice; she'd tried it on too many times.
“I never said you'd pinched the potatoes. I said there were a man's footprints. Does that sound as if I meant you?”
Mum and Kate were always fighting. They seemed to enjoy it. The rest of us were drifting off when Mum stopped us. “Well, who else could it be?” she asked.
“Pheasants!” I said. “Remember how deep they scratched down to get at the artichokes?”
“Pheasants don't leave footprints.”
I went to say something else, but Mum shook her head.
“Nor rabbits,” she said. “Nor hares. Nor pooks. From now on, you're to keep your eyes skinned. I don't want to dig the spuds yet; they're not really ready, and they won't keep if we dig them too soon. But bandicooting can bring on the blight, and then you don't get any potatoes at all.”
“We'll have a look, every time we go up to move the steers,” we promised. We'll ride around and have a look at the spuds, Mum.”
“What if they're doing it at night?” Mum asked. “Mr Wilson lost a whole paddockful one night, during the Depression.”
“A gang of men without jobs dug them up, bagged them, and got away with the spuds on Mr Wilson's own pack-horses. Somebody said they muffled their hoofs with sacks.
âFour and twenty horsemen, riding
through the dark.'
A lot of hard-up people in Waharoa had a bag of spuds leaning against their back door next morning.”
“Did the police catch them?”
“Spuds are spuds.”
“What about the sacks?”
“Everyone's got heaps of old sacks lying about in their sheds.”
“And the tracks?” asked Kate.
“There were always lots of hoof marks around. There were more horses in those days, of course; not many people had cars in the Thirties.”
“It must have been fun during the Depression,” said Jimmy.
“It was pretty miserable for a lot of people. You used to see swaggers on the road every day, looking for jobs, or just mooching along for something to do.”
“Maybe it's a swagger, the one who's pinching our spuds!”
“You don't see any swaggers these days. They'd be called up, or manpowered into jobs.”
“Billy Kemp's cousin, Flora, was manpowered into the ammunition factory over at Hamilton,” I said.
“Well, somebody's got to do the work, now the men are overseas.”
“Maybe the swagger eating our potatoes is a woman!” said Betty.
“I told you, there's no swaggers these days. No,” Mum said thoughtfully. “I think it's somebody closer
to home.” We glanced at each other. Did she still think we were pinching the spuds? She had some cranky ideas at times.
We kept an eye on the spuds, but the bandicooting didn't stop. Mum got so annoyed, one Saturday night she gave us our tea early, and we all went up to the potato paddock to keep watch for a couple of hours. We hid in the loose hay of an old stack, half of one left over from when we had the cows. The steers hadn't been able to get at it because it was fenced off in a corner of the potato paddock.
“We won't stay late,” Mum said. “But you never know, we might just spot whoever it is.” We looked at each other and grinned. Hiding in a haystack was the best cranky idea Mum had come up with yet!
The outside of the hay was grey and felt too soft, as if it had started rotting. Further in, it seemed to be lighter-coloured and smelt like summer as we burrowed. Jimmy and Betty went to sleep at once. Blue lay with his head on my foot. I listened to Mum and Kate talking quietly, and must have fallen asleep, too.
I heard Blue barking in my sleep. By the time I woke, he was chasing something down the creek, shadows that were there one minute, and gone the next. Mum whistled him in, and he came back growling at being called off. I remember hearing everyone's voices, and must have gone back to sleep again. Next time I woke, the sky was clear, and it was cold, Kate was tugging my shoulder, and Mum was saying, “We
should have gone home hours ago!”
I struggled up out of the hay. Jimmy and Betty wouldn't wake, so Mum and Kate piggy-backed them. Getting home seemed to take ages. I kept tripping as I followed the white tip on Blue's tail past the shed and up to the house. Then we were inside and tumbling into bed.
Old Rosie woke me with her mooing. She wouldn't stop till I milked her, so I dragged myself out with the bucket. Back in the kitchen, Mum and Kate said they'd gone to sleep last night, too, and were wakened by Blue's barking.
“I thought I saw something.”
“You did,” said Mum.
“Was it the spud thief?”
“Who was it?”
“It doesn't matter. He won't be back after that.”
“Blue gave him a good hurry along. I heard him yelp, so he must have got a couple of nips as he ran. And Blue thrashed one of his dogs as well.”
Jimmy and Betty bounced up and down. “Why didn't you tell us? Can we go and sleep in the hay again?”
“Did you see his face?”
“It wasn't light enough for that. But I've got a pretty shrewd idea who our bandicoot is.” Mum wouldn't say any more.
We had a few feeds of new potatoes, white and clear-skinned. The first couple of times, they were all we wanted to eat for tea, boiled and fresh-tasting. Mum cooked them with mint, and she let us put a bit of butter on them.
Then the leaves started turning yellow, the stalks opened up, and the skin didn't come off the spuds when we rubbed them. Mum said they'd keep now. We went along the rows with forks, and dug and bagged them, dragged the full sacks on to the konaki, and Old Pomp pulled them to the barn. We must have dug spuds for about two weeks before they were all lifted and under cover. Mum was pleased when it rained heavily as we put away the last load.
“We got a much heavier crop than I expected,” she said. “And we dug them at just the right time, before the rain.”
“What does the rain do?”
“It can start new growth, then they go all mushy, and won't keep.”
We made gobbling and swallowing noises till Mum threatened to crack us over our skulls. But we grinned. It felt good, knowing we had enough stored to take us through the winter. And we forgot about whoever had bandicooted a few of our new potatoes.