Aunt Effie and Mrs Grizzle (6 page)

How We All Listened to
The Phantom Drummer
and Wet Our Beds, Aunt Effie Begins the Story of Mrs Grizzle, Why a Caul is a Sign of Good Luck, and How Aunt Effie Was Christened Brunnhilde
.

In our warm pyjamas
, we sat on the lionskin in front of the fire, and Aunt Effie gave us our tea there. When we couldn’t eat any more, we made cinnamon toast on forks of number eight wire. We knocked each other’s slices into the fire and drank cocoa, and the little ones cried because their toast got burnt, and we had to give them ours, or they said they’d tell on us.

Then we sat up and listened to the wireless and, because it was so late,
The Phantom Drummer
came on. The Prime Minister, who was also the Minister of Broadcasting, came on first, shouting that children weren’t allowed to listen to
The Phantom Drummer
, but Aunt Effie was too scared to listen to it on her own.

Afterwards, she tucked us into our bunks and said, “I might sleep downstairs tonight – just to make sure you’re all safe from the Body Snatchers.” But we knew she was scared the Phantom Drummer was hiding upstairs in the huge china chamber pot under her bed.

We went to sleep listening to the rain on the corrugated iron roof of the lean-to off the kitchen, and dreamt we were sailing our scow – the
Margery Daw
– across the sea. Which was why most of us wet our beds, though Daisy insisted it was because of
The Phantom Drummer
.

We couldn’t go to school next morning because everything had to go into the wash, and we ran around wearing sacks with holes cut in them for our heads and arms to stick through.

“I might make you wear sacks all the time,” Aunt Effie said. “It’d be a lot cheaper.”

It was a good drying day, with lots of sun and wind that dried out Aunt Effie’s clothes and sheets as well, because she’d got wet through playing in the rain yesterday, too. And she’d wet her bunk downstairs, too – because of listening to the
The Phantom Drumme
r.

The day after we got all our washing dry, starched, darned, and ironed, Aunt Effie disappeared again. “She’s gone to the pub and got drunk and forgotten where she lives,” Alwyn told the little ones. But they knew Alwyn now. They stuck their fingers in their mouths and stared at him.

“You’re silly,” they said.

“What if she pinched our treasure and cut it out, shouting drinks for everyone in the pub, and now she’s too scared to come home and tell us?”

Jessie looked a bit uncertain, Jared began to cry, and Casey said, “Aunt Effie never goes to the pub.”

“How do you know she doesn’t go after we’ve gone to sleep?” Alwyn asked. “You ask the Farley kids. They reckon they hear her every night, coming home past their farm, singing rude songs at the top of her voice.”

“We’d better go and find her and bring her home,” said Lizzie.

“Who’s going to look after me?” asked Jared.

“Remember the winter it snowed, and Aunt Effie hibernated till the floods went down, and we made her house into an ark?” Alwyn asked. We looked after ourselves okay that time.”

“But Aunt Effie was here, even if she was asleep!” said Jessie. “And Peter and Marie looked after us. So there, Alwyn!”

“You’re teasing,” said Casey. “Aunt Effie wouldn’t run away and leave us to the Bugaboo.”

“You reckon? That time we saw him, she ran downstairs faster than the rest of us!”

As the little ones cried, somebody yelled: “Daisy-Mabel-Johnny-Flossie-Lynda-Stan-Howard-Marge-Stuart-Peter-Marie-Colleen-Alwyn-Bryce-Jack-Ann-Jazz-Beck-Jane-Isaac-David-Victor-Casey-Lizzie-Jared-Jessie!”

“Coming!” We tore up the stairs, and there was Aunt Effie in her enormous bed, wearing her heavy green canvas invalid’s pyjamas, oilskins, and sou’wester. “I’ve got the worst cold in the world,” she moaned, “and nobadaddy cares.”

“We care!” we yelled and watched as a big drip ran down her nose and she caught it on the tip of her tongue.

Marie brought a glass of boiling hot lemon juice and tea-tree honey, all nice and yellowy. As Aunt Effie drank it, we climbed on the foot of her enormous bed, shoved the dogs to one side, and made them give us half the eiderdown and the pillows.

Peter gave Aunt Effie a nice fresh bottle of Old Puckeroo. While she had a swig, set fire to her breath and scorched a bit more carpet, we hung our heads over the side and tried to see our treasure. Jessie looked too far and fell off.

“As if it’s not bad enough having the worst cold in the world, but people keep jumping off the end of my bed, and crying about it,” Aunt Effie moaned.

“I was just trying to see our treasure!” Jessie bellowed.

“Will you stop bothering me about that treasure!”

“If we stop looking for our treasure, will you tell us the story about when you were a little girl in the olden days before anything ever happened?” said Lizzie. “You know, the story of Mrs Grizzle? You promised.”

“You promised!” we yelled. “And you never did! It’s not fair!”

“There’s no need to shout! It’s a long story,” said Aunt Effie. “Are you sure you won’t fall off my bed while I’m telling it?”

“I won’t fall off, Aunt Effie,” said Jessie. “Honest!”

“This hanky’s sopping; somebody get me a dry one.” We jumped off, pulled out Aunt Effie’s hanky drawer, and fought for a sniff of the lavender bag she kept in there to make them smell nice.

“Where’s my dry hanky?” asked a weak voice from the bed.

We sniffed the lavender bag once again, each of us, till it had no sniff left. “Here you are!” we shouted.

“Now, what story was it you wanted?”

“About the olden days before any of us were born, when nothing ever used to happen, and you were a little girl, and you had to make your own fun, and you met Mrs Grizzle!”

“You’ll have to be quiet and not ask questions.”

“We won’t.”

“No jumping off my bed?”

Jessie nodded.

“How old were you in the story?” asked Lizzie.

“There you go, asking questions already, and the story hasn’t even started.”

“Sorry.”

“I’ll start with when I was born, before I met Mrs Grizzle.”

“Who’s Mrs Grizzle?” asked Jessie.

Aunt Effie’s eyes narrowed, her teeth stuck out sharp and pointed, like the time she woke up hungry after hibernating all winter, and we thought she was going to eat us.

“Sorry, Aunt Effie,” we all whispered.

Ann held Lizzie and Jessie on her knees and said, “They promise they won’t ask any more questions.”

“They’d better not!” Aunt Effie took a swig of Old Puckeroo and snapped her false teeth till they clanged. She stared into all our eyes without blinking once and said:

 

“The Story of Mrs Grizzle

 

“S
EVERAL HUNDRED YEARS AGO
in this very house, in this very bed, I was born with a caul over my head.”

Lizzie’s eyes opened wide, but her mouth stayed closed because Ann put her hand over it. Aunt Effie nodded.

“M
Y MOTHER
said to my father, ‘Being born with a caul over your head is a sign of good luck. We’ll name her Euphemia – it’s an ancient Maori name that means “She Who Will Never Drown”.’”

Aunt Effie had just said The Name We Dared Not Say! We stared.

“M
Y FATHER
shuddered and suggested something plainer,” said Aunt Effie. “My mother smiled and went to sleep. That was how she won arguments.

“My father whispered something in my ear, kissed me, and ran away. I never saw him again, and I can’t blame him. After all, what sensible father wants a little girl called Euphemia!

“My mother was always going to sleep. When I was three days old, we rode into Hopuruahine so I could be christened. My horse was called Bonny, a birthday present from my father. As soon as we got into the church, my mother went to sleep, and the minister had to ask me what name I was to be christened. I told him the one my father had whispered in my ear before he ran away.

“‘Strange name for a little girl!’ the minister said, so I bit him. In those days, babies came fitted with false teeth. My mother said it saved time later.

“As we rode home after the christening, we had to swim the horses where the swamp had flooded and covered the Turangaomoana Road. My mother woke and whispered, ‘Euphemia?’”

We looked at each other again. Aunt Effie’s three old husbands were always getting into trouble for using The Name We Dared Not Say.

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