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Authors: Jack Lasenby

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BOOK: When Mum Went Funny
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W
e were taking turns standing on the chair, looking at our milk teeth.

“Hold me up so I can see?” said Jimmy.

“Oh, come on!” Betty cried. “It’s my turn.”

I climbed down, and held a box on top of the chair, while they scrambled up and stood side by side, holding on to each other, swaying, and looking at the row of teeth along the top of the lintel above the door. Every time one of our teeth came out, Mum put it up there.

“You be careful now,” she’d say. “Don’t go
forgetting
and running a duster along there. In any case, what’s a bit of dust? We’ve all got to eat a peck of dirt before we die.”

“What’s a peck of dirt, Mum?” I asked, but Jimmy and Betty wanted another look, and Jimmy said, “They look like mice’s teeth.”

“Mice’s teeth, mouses’ teeth?” Mum said. She helped Jimmy down.

“Do you think they get hungry up there, with
nothing
to eat?” Betty asked.

“Poor hungry little teeth –” I started to say, but Mum
frowned at me. “When we first moved in here,” she said quickly, “there was a row of teeth over every door in the house. People must have had dozens of children in those days. It makes you wonder,” she said, “where they are now.”

“What, the teeth, Mum?”

“No, the children. Grown old and died, most of them, I suppose.”

“What did you do with their teeth?”

“I suppose I threw them out, cleaning up when we first moved in.”

“Where are your teeth, Mum?”

“Over the door of the old place at Mercury Bay,” Mum said, “where I was born.”

“Would they still be there?”

“My father, your grandfather, used to measure each of us on our birthdays. He had a yard rule, and he’d make us stand against the doorpost with our heads up, and we’d take a big breath, and he’d poke us in the tummy to make sure we weren’t standing on our toes, and he’d put the rule flat on our heads and make a mark. He’d write our name beside it and the date so we could see how far we’d grown each year.

“There were eight of us, so there were scores of names and dates all the way up the doorpost. My mother was always wanting to scrub them off and re-varnish the door, but your grandfather wouldn’t hear of it. ‘Scrub out the history of our family?’ he asked her. And he said to us, ‘You can come back and read your story,
when you’re old men and women. It’ll still be there, if you can be bothered reading it.’”

“Would it still be there if we went back and had a look?” Jimmy asked.

Mum shook her head. “Years after we grew up and left home, the old place caught fire and burned to the ground. All our teeth would have been burned, too, and all our heights written on the frame of the door.

“When I think of it, all those years, and all those kids growing up …” Mum sighed.

“Were we alive then?”

“You hadn’t even been thought of.”

“Can you measure us and write our names on the door, Mum?”

“Yes! Measure us!”

“I’ll do it for your next birthdays.”

“No, we want it now!”

“Measure us now, Mum!”

“Me first!”

“That’s not fair. It was my idea.”

“I’m next!”

“No, me! Me, Mum!”

“If you don’t all shut up, I won’t measure any of you. It’s time you were getting on with your jobs. And somebody had better run down to the gate and get the bread and the paper, and see if there’s any letters. I missed the news on the wireless this morning, and I want to see the map in the
Herald
of how the war’s going.

“Sometimes,” Mum said, “it seems like it’s going to go on for ever and ever, and you’ll all be grown up and gone with only a row of milk teeth over the door to show you were ever children, before this wretched war is finished.”

“And how tall we were on the doorpost,” said Jimmy. “Here’s your tape measure, Mum, and a pencil. You can do it now.”

“What are you doing with my good tape measure, Jimmy? If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times you’re not to go helping yourselves to anything out of the drawers of my machine. Give it here!

“Oh, all right, there’s no need to start crying, but you’ll have to stand straight, and hold your head up. Don’t stand on your toes. Look straight ahead. There! How I’ll ever get the work done around the place with four children having to have their height measured and their names written on the doorpost, heaven alone knows.

“Come on, you’re next. Stand up straight! Hold your head back so I can measure it. Sometimes I think I need my own head read, the things I do to keep you kids quiet. There! Who’s next?”

Kate was the tallest. Me next, then Betty, and Jimmy last. We made Mum measure Blue as well, and he barked and got excited and wouldn’t hold his head still, and Mum told him to clear off outside. And then we made Mum stand against the side of the door, and we all took turns measuring her and writing her name on
the frame, “Mum.” And we wrote the date.

“And if your teeth start falling out, we’ll put them over the door, too, Mum,” Jimmy told her. “And when you’re an old woman, you’ll be able to come back and climb on a chair and look at your teeth along the ledge above the door and say, “That’s my history!”

“You know perfectly well that I had all my teeth out years ago,” Mum said. “It was having you children that did it, the dentist said. In those days, everyone had their teeth taken out after they had their babies.”

“So you couldn’t bite us?” asked Betty.

Mum grinned. “It would have made more sense if I’d taken out yours. You were the ones who did the biting.”

“Did we bite you, Mum?” Jimmy laughed.

“Yes, when you were still feeding. And, as you got a bit older, you all went through a stage of biting each other.”

“What did you do?”

“I bit you myself. That soon stopped you.”

“You bit us?”

“Yes, I did.”

Betty and Jimmy shoved each other. “Mum bit us!”

“How old were we when we bit each other?”

“About four or five, I suppose.”

“Some kids still bite at school.”

“That’s because their mothers didn’t bite them enough when they were young.” Mum snapped her teeth. Jimmy screamed, and Betty ran.

“Here, put this back in the machine drawer. And don’t any of you go touching it again. I’ve told you before my tape measure isn’t for playing with. It isn’t a toy, you know.

“And, by the way, how is it that my good pinking shears turned up in the hot water cupboard yesterday? I’m quite sure I couldn’t have put them there.”

“You do forget things, Mum,” said Kate. I looked at her and knew she’d been up to her tricks again.

“Nonsense! There’s nothing wrong with my memory, my girl. You can go and catch Old Pomp. I haven’t forgotten you were going to shift the steers this morning.”

“Do we have to, Mum?”

“You know they need shifting into the swamp
paddock
. I don’t know how many times I’ve told you they need to see somebody every day, or they’ll turn wild again, and run like deer when it’s time to drive them up to the sales. Come on, you’d better shift yourself if you’re going to get back before lunch.”

“Oh, all right. Can’t the others come with me to open the gates?”

“You can all go, the whole lot of you! It’ll get you out of my hair; the place will be quiet, and I’ll be able to hear myself think. Perhaps I’ll have time to cut out the material for your new blouse. No, it had better wait till you’re back, so I can measure it against you. I’ve never known children grow out of their clothes at such a rate.”

“Hooray, Mum!”

“And you be careful, Kate. Don’t let Jimmy and Betty go into the paddock with the steers. There’s one I don’t trust. They can stand by the gate and watch you. Now, where’s that tape measure? What have you done with my tape measure? Have you children been playing with my good tape measure?” But we were running out the door, jabbing each other, tripping, and shoving: “Hooray, Mum! Hooray! Hooray! Bags I carry the bridle!” so we quite forgot the row of little milk teeth over the door.


M
um! Betty keeps pulling the cord out of my pyjamas, so they fall down.”

“Tell your mother, baby brother!”

“Oh, here, give them to me. Now, where’s my safety pin? Have a look in the machine drawer for a safety pin. And Betty, you stop pulling the cord out of your brother’s pyjamas!

“Give it here! Why it is I’m forever having to do this for you when you’re quite old enough to do it yourself, I’ll never know.”

As she talked, Mum was sticking the safety pin through the end of the cord, feeding it into the hole and working it along the little tunnel round the waist of Jimmy’s pyjamas till the material bunched up, then she wiggled the safety pin along, and the cord dragged through. Further and further, till she pulled the safety pin out the other end, drew the cord through after it, took out the safety pin, and gave the pyjama pants back to Jimmy.

“And don’t you dare come whining to me that there’s no cord in your pyjamas again. And, Betty, if
you pull out his cord once more, I’ll pull the cord out of yours and cut it up with my big scissors, and then your pyjamas won’t stay up, and we’ll see how you like that. Now, put that safety pin back in the drawer, so I know where it is.

“Next time, you can do it yourself. You’re quite old enough. Why you go on expecting me to do everything for you, I’ll never understand. It’s not as if I had ten pairs of hands, you know.”

“It’s not as if I had ten pairs of hands, you know,” we all repeated and laughed till Mum threw up her hands.

“I’ve half a mind to sew the lot of you into sugarbags with only your heads sticking out, and sell you at the gate to the first person going by.”

“You tried to sell us once before,” said Kate.

“Yes,” said Mum. “And you were just lucky nobody came along and bought you off me.”

“Mum,” said Betty, “you know when we were looking at our old milk teeth? Well, you know you said your milk teeth were on top of the door at your old place at Mercury Bay?”

“Well?”

“Well, that must have been ages ago, eh?”

“Years and years ago. So many I don’t like to think about it.”

“How many years?”

“Goodness me, I can’t remember that!”

“Just guess.”

“Let’s see. No. I can’t remember how long ago it was. Years and years.”

“How old are you, Mum?”

“As old as my tongue, and a bit older than my teeth. Now get to bed, and no more questions, the lot of you!”

“Mum’s as old as her tongue,” Jimmy said.

“I’m as old as my tongue,” Betty told him.

“How old’s Mum’s tongue, I wonder?”

“A bit older than her teeth.”

“But she’s got false teeth.”

“That’s what she means. Her other teeth were all pulled out by the dental nurse and put over the door.”

“So she couldn’t bite us any more. That’s why they pulled them out, because she kept biting us.”

“She’s funny.”

“No, it’s just she has funny ideas.”

“I wonder what’d happen if we bit Blue?”

“We can try it tomorrow.”

“You children stop chattering and go to sleep this minute!”

“Mum, I want a glass of water.”

“All right, just this once, but you’re to stop
chattering
and go to sleep. Here it is going on eight o’clock, and there’s not a one of you asleep. Jimmy! What are you doing? Now you’ve made me spill some water. What on earth made you do that?”

“I was just giving you a bite.”

“Biting me? What next! What on earth did you want to bite me for?”

“I don’t know. Just to see what you taste like. I’m a wolf.”

“Well go to sleep at once, Wolf. No more talking. Or biting. And no more calling out for glasses of water or you’ll be up all night. Goodnight!”

“Goodnight, Mum.”

“Mum?”

“I thought I said no more calling out…”

“Mum, can babies bite when they’re too small to have teeth?”

“They can bite all right, with their gums.”

“If you took out your false teeth, does that mean you can still bite us with your gums, Mum?”

“Yes, and if you don’t go to sleep this minute, I’ll bite you with my false teeth in, and that will hurt. Now, I’m going to count to ten, and if you’re not fast asleep, you’d better look out! One. Two. Three,” I heard. “Four. Five. Six.” But then I must have gone to sleep because I don’t remember hearing “Seven”.

It was after that business with the pyjama cord, and Jimmy’s biting Mum “Just to see” as he put it, that he clacked his teeth at his teacher. Mrs Barker had gone back to teaching so a man could go off to the war. She was taking Jimmy’s class one day, and she said to him, “Jimmy, just what are you doing?”

“I’m being a wolf, Mrs Barker,” he told her.

“Well, I wish you wouldn’t,” she said, but Jimmy
growled under his breath. Mrs Barker didn’t
understand
Jimmy was just doing it because he thought wolves growled. She thought he was growling and clacking his teeth at her, and she told him off.

“Jimmy growls and clacks his teeth all the time,” Kate explained to Mrs Barker after school. “He didn’t mean to be rude to you. I think he misses Dad,” she lowered her voice.

“I can understand that, but how would you like having to teach a little wolf in your classroom?” Mrs Barker asked Kate. She growled, clacked her own teeth, and barked at Jimmy who went for his life out to the horse paddock where he hid behind Old Pomp. We liked Mrs Barker, she was good fun, but Jimmy was careful not to clack his teeth at her again. In any case, he got sick of being a wolf soon after.


H
ere I am, growing old, spending the best years of my life bringing up a lot of ungrateful children,” said Mum.

“Wearing my fingers to the bone,” said Kate. “And what have I got to show for it? A pack of ill-mannered children who are just as likely as not to bite the hand that feeds them.”

“How did you know what I was going to say?”

“Because you’ve said it before so many times,” Kate told Mum. “Look at my grey hairs, my lined face, my back bent with toil. And who cares that I’m old before my time with worry and hard work? Not you lot!”

“You be careful you don’t go too far, my lady. You’re not too big for me to put over my knee and give a good spanking.”

“If you’re old and grey and bent with toil and worry, you’re too weak to spank me,” Kate laughed. “Maybe I’ll put you over my knee!”

“Hooray! Kate’s going to put Mum over her knee and give her a good spanking!” said Betty. But Jimmy
ran and climbed on Mum’s knee. “I won’t let anyone spank you, Mum!” he said.

“At least there’s one amongst you with a sense of what’s proper. How was I to know I was bringing up a pack of ravening wolves who’d devour their own mother?” But we’d heard that phrase from Mum too often. Before she could finish, we circled her, showing our teeth and our claws. “Ow-wowww!” we howled. Outside, Blue scratched on the door and whined. I let him in, and he raced around the kitchen, barked, and bit Mum, not hard, but a sort of nip, just to show he was enjoying himself.

“Even my dog’s turned against me!” Mum said.

“I haven’t turned against you!” Jimmy cried, but the rest of us laughed heartlessly. We knew Mum.

“Tomorrow,” she said, “I’m putting the farm up for sale.”

Mum had some cranky ideas from time to time, but this was serious. “You can’t do that,” we told her. “We’ll have nowhere to sleep. This is our place!”

“I’ll sell the farm and take to the road. A poor old woman and her starving children, trudging the
highways
and byways of the Waikato, looking for shelter and begging for food. You can take turns pushing me in the wheelbarrow.”

“It might be fun begging,” said Jimmy. “I wonder what people would give us?”

“Sticks and stones,” said Kate. “To break our bones.”

“We could be swaggers,” said Betty.

“And light a fire down by the creek,” Jimmy said, “and cook pukeko eggs in the ashes. It’d be corker!”

“It wouldn’t be much fun on the road on a wet day, the rain trickling down the back of your neck,” Mum said. “Not a dry stick to light a fire, nothing but a gorse bush to sit under.”

Betty and Jimmy looked at her. “But we’d have our raincoats.”

“Where do you think swaggers get raincoats from?”

“What do they do?”

“They just get wet, unless they have the sense to get under a bridge or crawl into a haystack.”

“We’d crawl into a haystack,” Jimmy told Betty.

“When are you going to sell the farm, Mum?”

“Any day now.”

“We’ll be able to go and live in Matamata! And go over to the station and watch the Rotorua Express come in each day. And on Saturday, we can go to the matinée at the flicks!”

“I’m selling the farm as a going concern,” Mum told us. “The lambs go with it.”

“And the steers?”

“And the steers.”

“And Old Pomp?”

“Yes, Old Pomp, and Trixie, and Blue.”

“But won’t we take them with us to Matamata.”

“I said a going concern. I’m selling the farm as a going concern, with all the animals. Fat lambs, dry
stock, horses, dogs, and children!”

“Children? You mean us?”

“You go with the farm. That’s what a going concern means. A working farm. Nobody’s going to want to buy a farm without everything to make it go. So they’ll buy you with it.”

“But we’re not a going concern, Mum. We go with you!”

“I’m not sure about that. I don’t know if I want you to go with me.”

“She’s teasing you,” said Kate. “You ought to know better than to let Mum upset you with her funny ideas. Anyway, the police wouldn’t let her sell us. Remember when we threatened to report Mum to Constable Cuff for not giving us anything to eat? Remember how scared she was?”

“That’s right! We’re going to tell on you, Mum. To the policeman.”

“And he’ll come and lock you up in gaol.”

“And who’s going to cook your meals, and make your beds, and thread the cord back in your pyjama pants, I’d like to know, if you’ve had me locked up in gaol. Tell me that?”

“Tell you what,” said Jimmy, “you don’t sell the farm, and we won’t tell on you to the policeman.”

“All right,” said Mum. “That’s a bargain! I don’t sell the farm, and you don’t tell on me to the policeman.”

“Besides,” said Betty, “Jimmy and I heard Mr Jones talking to Miss Real and Mrs Barker, and he said the
School Picnic’s next month. So you can’t go selling the farm.”

“Not till the School Picnic’s over,” said Jimmy. “Will they have a lolly scramble, Mum?”

Even though Mum agreed about the School Picnic, we watched her carefully for the next couple of days. Each night, we galloped home as fast as we could from school, so fast we didn’t have time for dog-fights with German fighter planes.

Well, Old Pomp couldn’t gallop, but he could trot a bit. And we all tried to see who would be first to see the front gate, and whether Mum had put up another notice saying our farm was for sale as a going concern with fat lambs, dry stock, horses, dog, and four children.

Kate kept turning Old Pomp’s head, and sitting
sideways
to block our view, so she could see the gate before the rest of us, but we looked over her shoulders and under her elbows and yelled we could see it anyway. And luckily there never was a notice.

Mum had some funny ideas at times but, as Kate said to Jimmy and Betty, she was just fooling. So we went back to flying the Lancaster home from school, and Billy Kemp had forgotten he was a Messerschmitt 109, so we shot him down in flames before he got his wits back and remembered who he was supposed to be.

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