hat she shuffled slowly round her run down shack made her other than us.
We ran past on our way to the sand, through the dunes, looking out for Katipo spiders, if we remembered them, and always alert for cutty grass.
Her place was near the beach, in a hollow, between a steep hill and mounds of sandy dunes. No one else lived down there. The nearest houses were a long climb and how could she manage that when she crab-crept from her door to the woodpile? Even our parents, who never ran down the hill, were puffing by the time they climbed back up to where you left a car.
Our mother said we must not call the old woman a “Maori witch,” though others did. Her name was Mrs Lake and we could say “hello” if she was outside, but none of us dared.
Because she had no electricity, only a fire, sometimes Dad made us collect dry driftwood to carry up for her stack, but we didn’t like going as near as that.
She posed some threat we barely deciphered and showed us “old and doddery”. We wanted no part of that!
She stayed alone and separate, while the other Maori were together, in a Pa. And we lived with our family, beside neighbours we knew and with cousins not far off. Her being apart was not what we could understand. There were no shops and the milk van couldn’t get down a sheer unsealed road.
She had four scrawny hens and used to fish and gather seaweed. She grew kumara and that sour green stuff we didn’t eat. But it soon looked doubtful she ever made it as far as the sea, just getting to her smelly long drop and outside tap seemed to take an age.
All five of us children sped past, so I assumed we each saw Mrs Lake the same way. It’s only now I wonder what it was that Billie saw.
I thought we just looked quickly, you couldn’t not, but never lingered. A big cousin told us how that old Maori didn’t like her own family or other people, and put a curse on anyone who stared.
We had never been outsiders.
And then we were.
Our father lost his job after the local dairy factory closed and we had to move nearer the big dairy, by the city.
Everything shrank, including Dad. He was less sure of being able to hold us round him and grew jumpy and more assertive. In the new job he had to work whatever hours he got given.
He had stood upright and we danced round him, a solid, tall trunk, the maypole at our centre. But something of him was felled and his irritation threw us into uncertainty.
Our new city house was too small for seven. The boys, tall Billie and Matthew, got to sleep all the time in a tent, which delighted Billie. We, who were called the “two little girls” got bunks and Sheila, the eldest, had a camp bed in our small bedroom. Mother grew quieter and perhaps by then she was unwell.
We all soon understood people looked down on us.
Apart from Sheila, who had once stayed with cousins, we had not been to a city before and at school our books weren’t neatly covered in wallpaper, our clothes were wrong. On the first day a girl told Lily, my younger sister, who was only six, that she smelt bad and next morning Billie came with the three of us to our primary school. He went up to the girl with one of his threats. Billie never hit anyone but could get fierce, turning red all down his neck. He didn’t touch the girl, we all saw that, but she claimed he pushed and she was the daughter of a weasel teacher at his high school.
Billie got the cane from the headmaster and everyone seemed to look at all five of us and disapprove.
I tried to be sick and stay inside as our once friendly mother began to do.
The new neighbours complained there were too many in our house, making a lot of noise.
Till then it hadn’t occurred to me what others might be seeing, but that soon became a bother. Hard eyes were everywhere. Except in one place, where Billie had a friend. After I started to read what I could find, Billie took me to a big library. He said books were the best thing and anyone could get them. Each week we went and his friend there helped me choose.
We had less than a year in the city that first time, but slow, slow weeks went on and on until Dad said Sheila and Billie were old enough to help run the house, so we could return to our town.
Father had to stay and earn, coming to us only on days off. The rest of the family went back to where we were known, but it was not the same.
Without the car we never went those miles to the wild coast , where we used to play.
The library seemed too small.
Our mother kept her defeat and Sheila grew breasts and bossiness. We couldn’t get the old house or kind neighbours and even school felt changed.
Billie, now fourteen, got a bike and took up fishing. He went off the six miles to the sea very early before school or in the evening, depending on the tide. We got sick of eating fish, with a chicken only for Sunday.
The two boys could sleep inside in winter and we had earth for vegetables and were all supposed to grow them. Though things got a bit better, that harder city time stayed behind my shoulder, with a vast unblinking eye still staring at our surprising unacceptability. A judgement had been made that crept back with us.
I didn’t realise it must be different for Sheila. Perhaps I assumed we all learned shame and disliked the city, so it shocked that our big sister complained about returning to a half dead, titch of a town. She bought patterns and material with money from her after school job and began to sew smart clothes. She befriended a girl from work who had a record player and lots of songs. Soon Sheila often sang “Let me be your teddy bear” and I wondered if she meant it.
She and Father began to argue every Sunday and Sheila didn’t want him to “lead her anywhere.”
Dad grew wary once his job was uncertain. He was careful not to be found wanting and expected us to be cautious too. But Sheila was bold and out to do whatever it took to impress. Dressing her best to strut down the small High Street was a waste, she would be successful in a city, ready to conquer any who dared find fault with her. She intended to present an impeccable standard of dress and manners and drag her siblings with her.
“You can’t control what people see!” our father shouted. But Sheila shouted louder that she would not be crushed by anyone’s need to feel superior.
When our mother didn’t put the laundry on the line, though Sheila left it washed and ready before we went to school, and when our mother was lying down as we got home in the afternoon, apparently Sheila won and we had to go again to live in the city. Dad stopped boarding and got a house but Sheila seemed the one in control.
Despite high ambition, at sixteen she went as secretary to a flabby, conceited man to despise. She brought home stories for us and left each morning in clothes meticulously ironed. She made Lily and me press our school shirts as well, until I ironed my hand. Dad insisted we were too young and he didn’t intend ironing anything! But Matthew proved a good recruit. He also began to keep the house tidy. Sheila was satisfied, although Matthew worked hard to please many and was always doing things for new friends.
Sheila made a list of what we each had to do and put it on the fridge with a yellow clown magnet whose large, drooping eyes stared straight at me.
Billie didn’t come with the family but stayed on a farm to finish school and help with milking. Our father yelled when he heard Billie had stopped turning up for class.
Sheila said that in six months he wouldn’t have to go, he’d be sixteen. “But that boy is the smart one,” Dad said.
And who had been paying attention to any of Billie’s abilities?
Not me or Sheila and not our sinking-out-of-being-aware mother.
Who knew how Billie made sense of things? What had any of us seen over that last while when Dad was home so briefly?
We did know Billie brought back fish we had to eat and that he read a lot. He could be kind but felt remote and most books he read were hard-to-understand philosophy and some only had poetry with no pictures.
It was obvious that while Sheila tried herding the rest of us, Billie, who was taller than her and nearly as old, came and went like Father.
Then once we moved without him, Billie barely came to visit because he had to milk those cows.
He stood inches taller than our parents and being so thin made him look even longer. His face, before it got hairy and gaunt, was the most like our soft, fleshy mother. “The spitting image” people used to say and that puzzled back when we were forbidden to spit.
Sheila once seemed similar to Billie but he stayed scruffy while she never looked less than tidy and, apart from him, the rest of us were to keep up. She wouldn’t belong with riff raff.
That judging eye of others was to be fought and whenever Sheila looked at me or Lily her own shadow fell across whatever there was to see. “Your hair is straggly, it needs a cut,” she said. Not, “are you growing it long again?”
And that either of us might get pregnant, to bring the family into disrepute, was such a horror, Sheila was unkind about every boy, once we started taking an interest. Our mother was away in a mental hospital by then.
Over a decade later our mother was dead and Dad remarried fast. We all shifted out, Lily moving with me to Australia.
Sheila rang to say she found Billie had been living in Mrs Lake’s old shack for nearly two years.
It seems that, back when he went to fish, he gave her some and then began to do odd jobs. The first time he turned up she threw stones at him but he persevered and left a fish. After months of this, one day she let him in and that was a surprise. Inside was good wood, well cared for and spotless. And she had books.
Billie apparently kept an eye on her for many years and helped where he could, and she left him her house but not some land, which stayed with the relatives she got away from, though why she did she never said.
“But how can she have only just died, Sheila? She was nearly dead when we were small.”
Sheila knew Mrs Lake lived to almost ninety which made her only in her seventies back then.
“But our Billie is only twenty eight! How can he throw himself away like this? He’s clever but this is stupid. He always made things complicated, playing with the dark and spooky when you two were tiny and our garden had plenty of sunshine. Things were good then.”
When our father was told he took his new wife to see where Billie was living, then phoned to tell us it was no longer as remote. The road was sealed and at the top of the hill there was a small general store, and a surf club shed at the bottom.
Billie did seasonal work, he kept hens and a good garden.
I suppose my brother still catches fish and Dad didn’t mention Billie’s books.