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Authors: Jack Lasenby

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BOOK: When Mum Went Funny
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I
t was colder, getting up in the mornings. Once there was enough milk in it, I curled my bare feet around the bucket and shoved as close as I could get into Rosie’s side. I reckon you could sleep warm, up against a cow on a frosty night, so long as she didn’t roll over and squash you.

It was getting colder, too, riding Old Pomp to school. His breath steamed white, and we puffed ours and said we were leaving contrails behind the
Lancaster
as we flew into Waharoa each morning. Billy Kemp’s Messerschmitt 109 had trouble with icing up, and we shot him down three days in a row, before he went back to being a captured Spitfire. When we shot him down a couple more times, he changed to a Hurricane. Then he turned into a De Havilland Mosquito and shot us down from miles away. He downed us every morning for about a week till we fitted heavier cannons in the rear turret, and Billy Kemp didn’t know what hit him.

“You’re not playing fair,” he said and flew out of sight.

“Come back and we’ll play fair!” Jimmy called after him.

“It’s okay,” said Kate. “He can’t stay away for long.”

Then, one Saturday, Mum said we were to take some spuds along to old Mick O’Halloran. “Heaven alone knows what he lives on in winter,” she said. “You’d think he’d put in a few vegies round his old whare, but there’s not even so much as a scrap of silver beet growing!”

“Maybe Mr Orr gives him some. He lets him get his water from the cowshed,” said Kate.

Mum nodded. “A length of spouting along the back of his roof, and he could collect all the water he needs for six months, in one good shower. Not that he ever looks as if he uses much.

“Anyway, you can split a sack of spuds into two bags, put the pack-saddle on Old Pomp, and take them along to Mr O’Halloran’s. It won’t do you any harm to walk that far. You can fold the sacks over the hooks and ride home, but be careful not to get yourselves hung up. And don’t go near his dirty old whare, whatever you do. He won’t ask you inside anyway, but the place is bound to be hopping with fleas.”

Kate showed me how to put on the pack-saddle and the breeching. We loaded one half-sack of spuds, but the girth wasn’t tight enough, the saddle slipped round under Old Pomp’s belly, and we had to take everything off and start all over again. Old Pomp stood till we got it
right, with half a sackload on each side, then he looked round at us and showed the whites of his eyes.

“It’s okay, we’re not going to climb on top of the spuds,” Kate told him and stroked his neck the way he liked it. Old Pomp rubbed his nose against her, and blew through it.

We followed the track through the short grass beside the road. It was easier for Old Pomp, we told each other, besides you got stone bruises, walking on the metalled road.

A couple of pukekos stalked amongst the reeds past Kemps’ corner. “Pooks walk funny,” said Jimmy. “As if their heads are on the wrong end.”

“That’s why they fly backwards,” Betty told him.

Jimmy thought a moment and said, “Mick O’Halloran lives on pooks he shoots.”

“And rabbits and hares,” said Betty. “And pheasants, and ducks. Mum says he’s an old poacher.”

“Mr Kemp won’t let him shoot on his place, but Billy reckons he does it all the same.”

“Mick O’Halloran’s too cunning for everyone,” I told them. “Boy Rawiri says his father reckons Old Mick knows where every chook in the district lays its eggs, and helps himself when he feels like it.”

We came to the depot where the farmers dropped off their cans of milk. A truck backed into the stand as we passed; the driver climbed on the back and grinned and winked at us, as he spun and clanged the empty cans from the milkpowder factory in Waharoa. We watched
for a while, then remembered Old Pomp.

Half a mile on, the road went past an unpainted, one-roomed whare, its weatherboards cracked and dry, and grey lichen covering the southern wall towards the road. Down both sides and across the back, the section was lined by tall lawsonianas. Everyone we knew liked climbing lawsonianas and sliding down their branches, but nobody ever climbed those ones.

Chained beside rusty forty-four gallon drums, two mongrel dogs set up a yammering. The Taranaki gate lay, a tangle of wire and battens that we dragged aside to let Old Pomp through. The dogs went mad, leaping straight up on the ends of their chains, threatening us with half-throttled barks. Blue wrinkled his nose back off his teeth, stepped high, and kept close to Kate, and we huddled beside Old Pomp.

The section was dirt baked hard, any grass worn out by the dogs. That’s all there was: the lawsonianas, the whare, one broken-down plum tree with bare branches, the skinny dogs, their rusty kennels, and the
hard-baked
dirt. They had no water.

Round the back, there was a door with a nail box for a step, and a small window with one cracked pane of glass, two pieces of cardboard where panes should have been, and the fourth space empty. Both door and window were closed. An empty bucket lay on its side, the one Mick O’Halloran carried up the long drive of Mr Orr’s farm across the road, filled with water at the cowshed, and carried back to his whare once a week.

A tall rusty bike leaned against the back wall, the leather seat cracked dry and broken, the tool kit
missing
. There was no pump, and both tyres were smooth. Tied along the bar of the bike was a shotgun, an old hammer gun. The butt was wound round and round with wire, which meant it was broken, Kate said later. The wood was worn and shiny, like the barrels.

“What do yez want?” We hadn’t seen the door open. Mick O’Halloran stood there, bending down to look out. His coat and trousers had once been black, but looked rusty like the old bike.

“Who said yez could bring that horse in here?”

Kate ignored him. “Mum sent some spuds, Mr O’Halloran.”

“Who told her I wanted spuds?”

“She thought you might like some.”

“Aaarhhh!” Old Mick cleared his throat, spat, and we watched the spit roll into a dirty ball of dust in front of our feet. He stood, head bent forward under the lintel, as we heaved at the first half-bag of spuds.

We had to take the weight and lift the sack to get it off the hooks, and that took some doing because Old Pomp was a fairly tall horse with a bit of draught in him. The bag came down with a rush, and some spuds spilled across the ground. Jimmy and Betty stuffed them back in, while Kate and I went round to the other sack. The pack-saddle shifted with the weight so it was easier getting it off.

“Yez can put them inside the door,” said Mick
O’Halloran, the whare dark behind him. Kate grabbed my arm as I bent to drag one sack. She tipped out the spuds where we stood, went round Old Pomp, tipped out the others, and slung both sacks over the pack-saddle.

“What’s the big idea? I can use them sacks.”

“We’ve got to take them home. Mum said so.” Kate looked at us, and we got between her and Old Pomp. She took up the lead rope. “See you, Mr O’Halloran.”

Old Pomp clopped down the side of the unpainted whare. Blue growled all the way behind Old Pomp, then ran ahead and counted us through the gap on to the road.

Kate dragged the Taranaki gate to. I held it up while she tugged and pulled at a loop of wire, to get it down over the end batten.

“It was open when we went in.”

“I just want to make sure. There! Come on, let’s go!”

Mick O’Halloran’s dogs leapt on the ends of their chains; their barks sounded creaky, as if their throats were dry. Tail up, Blue trotted ahead, looked back, and trotted ahead again. Jimmy and Betty followed him. Then Kate and me leading Old Pomp who followed us, big hoofs clopping hard on our heels as if he, too, wanted to run.

N
ot stopping till we got to the depot, Kate led Old Pomp beside the wooden stand, folded the sacks, and padded the hooks. She got on, Betty slid in front of her, Jimmy behind, and I got on at the back. It wasn’t as easy as riding to school without a saddle, and the strap to the crupper pinched my behind, but we felt safer up there, especially when we heard a creaky noise and saw Mick O’Halloran on his bike.

“He’s coming after us!”

“Giddup!”

As he got closer, I heard, tick! tick! tick!

“Hoy! Pull up!”

“Don’t look back!” Kate told us and kicked with her heels. Old Pomp broke into a shambling trot. Betty grabbed his mane, Kate put her arms around her, and I put my mine around Jimmy and hung on to the back of the pack-saddle.

“Hoy!” The creaky sound was like the noise his dogs had made, only worse. It was scary. And there was the tick! tick! tick! noise that frightened me, too.

Old Pomp couldn’t go any faster; he hadn’t cantered for years.

“Pull up, I said! Dratted kids! Are yez all deaf that yez don’t hear me?”

The creaky noise came closer. I thought it was Mick O’Halloran’s skeleton creaking, his bones rubbing together. Then I looked down and saw the rusty chain on his old bike was loose, and his front wheel was bent so it rubbed against the forks each time it came round: tick! tick! tick! And his dogs were snarling and creaking along behind him. Bike, man, and dogs all sounded as if they needed a good oiling.

As I thought that, I felt alone, behind the others on Old Pomp. “This is what the tail gunner feels like,” I thought to myself.

I was scared Mick O’Halloran was going to grab me first, so I lifted my leg, ready to kick. Blue heard them creaking behind us, and he stopped, raised his hackles, and stood his ground. Kate dragged on the reins so Old Pomp stopped, snorted, and shook his head till the bridle jangled.

“Get out of it!” Old Mick’s dogs cringed and creaked away at his voice. “Why didn’t yez pull up when I sung out? Here, give this to your mother.” He reached into the pikau on his back, pulled out a
pheasant
, and handed it up. The white ring round its neck shone against the red, blue, and rusty brown flecked feathers. “Tell her I sez to hang it by the neck till its head drops off, and it’ll be gamey enough to be worth
the eatin’, ’n yez can tell her I seen a few rabbits up the back of your place. Near her spud paddock.”

We sat on Old Pomp, Kate hanging on to the
pheasant
by its feet, all of us staring down at him, silent. Mick O’Halloran peered at us, his toothless mouth grinned, and I noticed for the first time that his eyes were faded blue. He turned his old bike and creaked away, the front wheel ticking against the forks, his dogs creaking after him.

At last Betty spoke. “He ponged!”

“They reckon he hasn’t had a bath for thirty years,” said Kate, “except when he gets caught in a shower.”

“It must be fun,” said Jimmy, “only having a wash when it rains.”

“You might get a bit sick of your own stink,” Kate told him. She passed the pheasant back, and I took it by the feet. Its long tail feathers brushed my nose.

“There was no dunny!” said Jimmy, and we all thought and said, “No!”

“I wonder where he goes?”

“Probably under the lawsonianas.”

“Poo!” We all laughed at the way Betty said it, and she and Jimmy kept saying, “Poo!” and shrieking all the way home.

“Why did Mum send Mick O’Halloran the spuds?”

“Just one of her funny ideas,” Kate told Jimmy.

“The old poacher,” Mum said when I handed her the pheasant. “I wonder whose property he shot that on. You’d better pluck it and clean it now. Heaven only
knows how long he’s had it hanging. Be careful you pull out its innards in one handful; if you break them, they’ll stink to high heaven.”

“Is Mick O’Halloran a real poacher, Mum?”

“He’s been had up a few times, but what’s the use of fining him when he’s got no money? And nobody really wants to put him in prison.

“The ranger caught him years ago, coming out of the bush up the Kaimais, with a pikau on his back, his shotgun, and his dogs. He had an old brass pair of field glasses hanging round his neck on a bootlace. Mick O’Halloran walked straight up to the ranger, handed him the pikau and said, ‘That’s the luck, indeed! It saves me looking for yez to hand these in.’

“The ranger opened the pikau and found it stuffed full of native pigeons. ‘You know it’s a serious offence to shoot kererus?’ he told Mick O’Halloran.

“‘What are yez talking about? I found the pikau in the bush.’

“‘Then what are you doing with the shotgun?’ asked the ranger.

“‘I was out for a shot at a rabbit for me tea.’

“‘Oh, yes. I suppose you picked up the binoculars, as well?’

“‘Oh, them,’ said Mick O’Halloran. ‘Me ears don’t work like they used to, so I use the field glasses to keep in touch with me dogs.’

“‘How do you hear your dogs through a pair of binoculars?’ asked the ranger.

“‘Now isn’t that a damn silly question for a man of your intelligence to be askin’?’ said Mick O’Halloran, and the ranger laughed so much, he let him off. He took the pikau with the pigeons, but he couldn’t
confiscate
the shotgun without taking Mick O’Halloran to court.”

“You said ‘damn’!” Jimmy told Mum.

“Yes, because Mick O’Halloran said it, and there’s no need for you to go repeating it.”

“Why did Mick O’Halloran have the binoculars, Mum?”

“For spotting pigeons. They’d be feeding on miro berries. There’s no flies on the old poacher.”

“There were flies all round his whare. Poo, it ponged, Mum!”

“I hope you didn’t go near it.”

“We dumped the potatoes outside.”

“Good.”

“Mum, Mick O’Halloran’s got no dunny. He must go under the lawsonianas,” Betty said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised. Did he have his dogs with him?”

“They barked at us. And they growled when they saw Blue.”

“Once,” said Mum, “your father asked him what their names were. And old Mick told him, ‘Hoodlum, Boodlum, High Cock-a-Lorum!’ And then he said, ‘What a silly bloody question to ask a man, what does he call his dogs!’” Mum laughed, and we stared at her.

“Mum! You said ‘bloody’!”

“Did I? Well, if I catch you saying it, my boy, I’ll give you a good switch around your legs.” Mum thought for a moment and said, “At least the old poacher’s got something to last him through the winter.”

Jimmy and Betty said they still didn’t understand why Mum had sent Mick O’Halloran a bag of spuds. Kate said she thought she knew why, but she wasn’t sure. And I thought to myself that Mum did it for luck, the same as I held my breath.

Anyway, next spring, as soon as Mum thought there wasn’t much chance of any more frosts, we put in an early crop of spuds, and nobody came bandicooting them.

BOOK: When Mum Went Funny
9.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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