Aunt Effie and Mrs Grizzle (9 page)

stood over my sleeping mother and sharpened the carving knife. I stared in terror. I had just remembered what my father whispered in my ear when I was born. ‘Watch out for red-haired, double-jointed women,’ he told me. ‘They’re all witches!’”

“‘Eek!” Daisy screamed. “We’re not supposed to listen to stories about witches!”

“Shut up, Daisy!” we told her.

But Aunt Effie took another swig and emptied the bottle of Old Puckeroo. Her eyes closed. She lay her head back on her pillow and began to snore.

“Look what you’ve done,” Alwyn told Daisy. “Now Aunt Effie won’t be able to remember where she was up to.”

“We’ll tell her!” yelled the little ones. “She was up to where Aunt Effie’s father had just told her, ‘Watch out for red-haired, double-jointed women. They’re all witches.’ And she’s standing over Brunnhilde’s mother with the carving knife.”

“I told you so,” said Daisy. “This story is having a bad effect upon the little ones.”

“Can we have a look at the treasure now?” asked Jessie. “While Aunt Effie’s asleep?” But the dogs growled, and something under the bed moved. We shrieked, pulled up our feet, and it went, “Booo-booo!”

“The Bugaboo!” we yelled.

“Everybody stand on the edge of the bed,” said Alwyn. “One good jump, and rush downstairs. The Bugaboo will only have time to grab one of us.” The little ones stood on the edge of the bed trustingly, he pushed them off, and we leapt over their heads and tore downstairs laughing.

The four little ones came crying after us, “You left us for the Bugaboo!”

“He didn’t catch any of you, did he?” Alwyn said and he pointed at Casey, Lizzie, Jared, and Jessie. “One,’ he counted. ‘Two. Three! You’re here, all three of you.”

“There should be four,” wept the little ones. “The Bugaboo has eaten one of us!”

“But which one did he eat?”

“I’m here,” said Casey.

“And me!” “And me!” “And me!”

“That’s still only three,” said Alwyn. “Which one did he eat?”

“I know,” said Jessie. She pointed at Lizzie. “Lizzie, one!” she said. “Casey, two!” she said, and pointed at Casey. She pointed at Jared and said, “Jared, three! One of us is missing!” Her bellows were lugubrious. “It must be me!”

“The Bugaboo’s eaten one of you!” Alwyn pretended to cry and rubbed his eyes. “It must be Jessie: I didn’t hear her name.”

“Stop being mean,” Marie told Alwyn. “You forgot to count yourself, Jessie. Listen: Lizzie – one! Casey – two! Jared – three! And Jessie – four! You mustn’t take any notice of Alwyn. You know he’s a tease.” But the little ones had stopped crying and weren’t listening to Marie; they were watching Alwyn wiggling his ears at them.

Why Peter Got Up and Made Cocoa, Twenty-Six Short Fat White European Slaves Bearing Breakfast on Their Heads, and Why My Father Warned Me Against Red-Haired Double-Jointed Women

While we’d been
listening to the story of Mrs Grizzle, the fire in the stove had gone out. Ann lit it again, cooked tea, and we sat around Aunt Effie’s enormous table.

“I like Mrs Gristle,” Lizzie said as we grabbed and gobbled.

“Mrs Grizzle!” Daisy corrected her.

“Gristly grizzle!” the four little ones chewed and chanted with their mouths open. “Gristly grizzle! Grizzly gristle! Gristly grizzle!”

“That wicked story is making the little ones forget their table manners,” Daisy complained. “Close your mouths while chewing.”

“I like the School Inspector,” said Jessie.

“I want some more about the crocodiles,” said Casey.

“And the monster pukekos,” said Jared.

We argued over whose turn it was to do the dishes and, suddenly, it was time for bed. We climbed into our bunks and looked at the logs burning in the enormous fireplace.

“Look up!” Alwyn pointed at shadows that flapped across the ceiling as the flames rose and fell. “Monster pukekos waiting to fly down and eat you in the dark,” he told the little ones.

“You’re silly,” said Jessie. “Tomorrow, will Aunt Effie tell us some more about when she was a little girl?”

“If you’re good,” Marie told her.

Daisy frowned and said, “I’m not sure stories about witches are suitable for small children. Especially when they’re just going to bed.”

“Bed to going just,” echoed from Alwyn’s bunk.

We were all dropping off to sleep when Lizzie asked, “Do you think Aunt Effie has forgotten about sending us to school?”

“I should hope not!” Daisy cried.

“Not hope should I,” Alwyn whispered.

Daisy huffed, and the little ones snickered. “Those infants will have nightmares,” she said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

We grinned towards each other in the dark, pointed at Daisy’s bunk, then at our heads, turned our fingers round and round, and went to sleep.

“Aaaaah! Get away from me!”

“What’s wrong?” We sat up in our bunks. “Who shrieked?”

“Go back to sleep,” said Peter’s voice. “It’s just Daisy having a nightmare.”

“It’s the red-headed witch! Riding a monster pukeko and chasing me with a carving knife. Aaaaah!”

Shadows raced up the walls and across the roof as Peter lit a lamp, got up, and quietened Daisy. “The stove’s still hot. I’ll put the kettle over the ring. It won’t take a moment to heat up, and I’ll make you a nice cup of cocoa,” he told her.

“With a teaspoon of honey in it?”

“With a teaspoon of honey in it. Here.”

“Don’t blow out the lamp!” said Daisy, as Peter got back in his bunk. “Leave it going for the little ones. In case they wake up with nightmares.”

Daisy guzzled her cocoa and went straight back to sleep, but the rest of us were kept awake by her snoring and the light from the lamp. We lay there for ages then, one by one, we got up, took our pillows, and leaned against each other on the lionskin in front of Aunt Effie’s enormous fireplace. Peter and Marie heaved a couple of logs on top of the embers and got the fire going again. The little ones wriggled into the middle, and we lay looking into the flames.…

We woke to the sound of voices. “What say we keep Aunt Effie telling us the story of Mrs Grizzle?” Bryce was asking.

“It’s not a bad idea,” Ann said. “If we cook her a big enough breakfast and give it to her in bed, she’ll tell us another bit of the story till she goes back to sleep and, when she wakes, we’ll have another big feed cooked for her, and a bottle of Old Puckeroo, and she’ll tell us some of the story, and we’ll never have to go to school – ever.”

When we woke again, Daisy was telling Peter off for leaving a lamp going. “Burning good kerosene when everyone’s asleep,” she said. “How wasteful!” Peter turned down the lamp, blew it out, and said nothing. We looked at each other and rolled our eyes, and Alwyn spluttered, “Kerosene good burning.… Wasteful how!”

Upstairs, Aunt Effie snored so loudly that the pots and saucepans jiggled on their hooks in the kitchen. We fed the chooks, collected the eggs, had a quick look round the farm, fed out hay to the stock, and tore back up to the house through the orchard.

“Why do we have to run?” moaned the little ones.

“We’ve got to cook Aunt Effie’s breakfast,” Peter told them, “before she wakes up. If she gets out of bed, we’re done for. She’ll remember we’re supposed to go to school on Monday morning.”

“She’s still snoring,” said Casey. “I can hear her.”

“I pulled her blind,” said Marie, “and drew the heavy curtains.”

“Please don’t let her wake up till we get there!” said Lizzie.

“You mustn’t pray for selfish reasons,” Daisy puffed at her, but she was mumbling something herself as we rushed towards the back door.

We tore inside, and got Aunt Effie’s breakfast ready. Porridge, steak and eggs, bacon and black pudding, kidneys and fried onions, and lots of salt and pepper and Colman’s mustard and Lee and Perrin’s Worcester Sauce on the trays. Pigs’ trotters, lamb shanks, cow hocks, tripe, and pickled onions, of course. Aunt Effie loved tripe re-heated for breakfast – with pickled onions, strong tea with lashings of condensed milk, and toast and bitter marmalade.

We put her enormous breakfast on trays, and carried them upstairs on our heads. “Like twenty-six tall black Nubian slaves bearing breakfast on their heads,” Jazz said.

“You’re being romantic again,” Ann said.

“You’re being racist again,” Daisy told him.

“Like twenty-six short fat white European slaves bearing breakfast on their heads. Is that better?” Jazz asked.

“Huff!” said Daisy, and tipped her tray so porridge slopped down the back of her neck. “You did that on purpose!” she squawked.

Just as we got to the top of the stairs, Aunt Effie’s resounding snore stopped. Before she could call all our names, we ran: “Coming! Here’s your breakfast, Aunt Effie.” We pulled back the curtains and let up the blind. On the foot of her enormous bed, the dogs lifted their heads, sniffed, and stared at the twenty-six trays.

“My runny nose kept me awake all night,” said Aunt Effie. “I heard one o’clock strike. And two o’clock strike. And all the quarter hours in between. Three o’clock. Quarter past three. Half past three. Quarter to four. Four o’clock.

“I had a terrible night, I didn’t close my eyes for a second; not a wink of sleep did I get; but it’s no use complaining. Nobody cares about poor old me.”

“Never old mind!” the little ones shouted. “We care about poor old you, Aunt Effie!” We plumped up her pillows. We surrounded her with trays of breakfast. And we gave her a knife and fork, and tied a tea-towel around her neck because she could be a pretty messy eater, Aunt Effie.

“How can I sit up? You never give me enough pillows.” Peter put another three pillows behind her back.

“You’ve forgotten my porridge!”

“Here it is, Aunt Effie!” Daisy rushed in.

We stood around smiling and watching her gobble.

“You’ve forgotten the salt,” said Aunt Effie, tasting her bacon and eggs. “Nobody cares –”

“We care!” cried the little ones. “The salt’s on the side of your plate.”

“Then where’s the mustard?”

“On the opposite side.”

We rushed the empty dishes downstairs, washed and dried them, gave Aunt Effie time to clean her teeth and brush her hair and go to the dunny, and ran upstairs again, just as she called, “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!

“Well, do you want to hear the rest of this story or not? Of course, if you’re not interested in hearing about how Mrs Grizzle cured my mother of the sleeping sickness, I’m not going to make you listen.”

We jumped on to the foot of Aunt Effie’s enormous bed, shoved the dogs aside, pinched their pillows, and snuggled under the eiderdown. “We’re listening,” we said.

“Now where was I up to?”

“I know,” said Lizzie. “Mrs Grizzle stood over my sleeping mother and sharpened the carving knife. I stared in terror. I had just remembered what my father whispered in my ear when I was born. ‘Watch out for red-haired, double-jointed women,’ he told me. ‘They’re all witches!’”

“And then Daisy screamed,” said Casey.

“Like this!” Jared screamed.

“When are we going to have a look at our treasure?” asked Jessie.

“Caligula-Nero-Brutus-Kaiser-Genghis-Boris!” said Aunt Effie. “Bite 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!”

Her enormous pig dogs knew what she meant. They picked up Jessie, and passed her around, each giving her a bite. Jessie squirmed and chuckled because their bites tickled.

Then Aunt Effie took Jessie from Boris, growled, and pretended to bite off her nose. “Next time,” she said, “I’ll tell Caligula-Nero-Brutus-Kaiser-Genghis-Boris to give you a real bite on the bum. You won’t sit down for a fortnight!” and she went on with the story of Mrs Grizzle.

Why My Mother Kept Her Eyes Wide Open, How a Well-Run Farm Works, Who Aunt Effie Found in Her Mother’s Bed, and Why We Hung Over the Stern of Our Scow

“The red-haired,
double-jointed witch, Mrs Grizzle, stood over my sleeping mother,” said Aunt Effie, “and sharpened the carving knife.

“‘Where do you keep your gunpowder?’

“‘You’re not going to cut my mother’s throat and blow her up!’ I said in my biggest voice.

“‘I am neither cutting her throat, nor blowing her up. I need a little gunpowder to cure her sleeping sickness.’

“I rolled out the barrel of gunpowder we kept under the kitchen table. Mrs Grizzle took a few grains on the tip of the carving knife, and I held open my mother’s eyelids while she trickled one grain into the corner of each eye. The rest she blew up my mother’s nose. My mother sneezed like a little volcano, woke, and said, ‘I feel better!’

“‘You had sleeping sickness,’ I told her. ‘Mrs Grizzle cured you with gunpowder.’

“‘Mrs Grizzle?’

“‘How do you do?’ Mrs Grizzle had impeccable manners. Her head turned right around on her double-jointed neck. ‘Let’s roll this gunpowder outside. It’s a wonder you haven’t had an explosion in your kitchen.’

“‘We’ve always kept it under the table,’ my mother said. ‘It’s handy.’

“We rolled the barrel into the shed and had a cup of tea. I offered Mrs Grizzle sugar, but she said, ‘Thank you. Actually, I prefer a teaspoon of gunpowder.’

“‘See,’ my mother told her. ‘It was handy, being able to dip your teaspoon under the table.’

“‘I’ll give it up,’ said Mrs Grizzle.

“‘Mummy can’t give up having sugar in her tea,’ I told her.

“Mrs Grizzle snorted till her double-jointed fingers clicked like castanets. ‘Witches,’ she said, ‘can do anything!’

“I decided I wasn’t going to be a School Inspector with rows and rows of different-coloured ballpoint pens after all. ‘When I grow up,’ I thought, ‘I’m going to be a witch.’

“Mrs Grizzle looked at me. ‘Becoming a witch is hard going,’ she said. ‘But, with a name like Brunnhilde, you’ve made an excellent start!’

“I shivered. Could she read my mind?

“‘I’m looking for a job,’ said Mrs Grizzle, ‘and I think you’ll do.’

“‘We didn’t ask you,’ said my mother sweetly.

“‘I’m telling you.’

“‘We can’t afford to pay you,’ my mother laughed her annoying little silvery laugh.

“‘Witches always pay the people they work for!’ Mrs Grizzle flung a handful of gold dollars into her lap.”

Ann popped her hand over Jessie’s mouth.

gasped at such wealth. ‘Where did you get them?’

“‘Some I made. Some I stole from the usurious bank in Matamata.’

“‘A forger and bank robber!’ My mother tried to fall asleep.

“‘I wouldn’t try that,’ said Mrs Grizzle. ‘Remember the gunpowder I put in the corners of your eyes to cure your sleeping sickness. Close your eyes – just as much as one blink – and it will go off and blow them out of your head!’”

The little ones looked at each other and propped their eyes wide open with their fingers, so they didn’t blow out of their heads.

opened her eyes very wide, and Mrs Grizzle pulled a dark-green bottle out of her swag. ‘Have a swig.’

“‘Glug-glug! Mmm … It’s nice!’ my mother laughed.

“‘That’s enough.’

“‘Just another little sip?’ asked my mother. She smiled so the dimple in her cheek showed. ‘Just one teeny-weeny little sip?’

“‘You’ve had quite enough for one day. What was the School Inspector doing here?’

“‘He’s going to nail red-hot horseshoes on my feet and make me go to school,’ I said.

“‘Haven’t you been to school, Brunnhilde?’

I shook my head.

“‘Then you’re on Correspondence?’

“‘We only collect our mail once a year, when we go into Hopuruahine.’ I glanced down and whispered, so my mother couldn’t hear, ‘I always burn any letters that look as if they’re from the government.’

“‘Someone’s got to go to school,’ said Mrs Grizzle, ‘or that School Inspector’s going to keep coming back. He gets paid for all the children he catches. I’m going to have to do something about him.’

“Keeping her eyes wide-open made my mother look very young. She looked smaller as well. ‘I’d like to go to school!’ she said in a winning voice.

“‘You would!’ said Mrs Grizzle. ‘I’ll have a think about it.’

“My mother cooked tea, while Mrs Grizzle and I went down to the shed. We found the cows had milked themselves, the pigs had done the separating and fed themselves on the skimmed milk, and Bonny had harnessed herself into the konaki and sledged the can of cream to the gate.

“‘Good cows!’ said Mrs Grizzle. ‘Clever pigs! Intelligent horse, Bonny!’ They mooed, grunted, and neighed back.

“‘That’s how a well-run farm should work,’ said Mrs Grizzle. ‘When I first came to the Waikato, the farmers spent half their time putting shells on the eggs. I taught the chooks to lay them in shells. Some day, I’ll teach the cows to give butter instead of milk.’

“‘It would save a lot of work,’ I agreed.

“Mrs Grizzle nodded. ‘First, we’ve got to do something about that School Inspector. You must have an education, Brunnhilde!’

“‘Couldn’t you teach me?’

“‘I told you,’ said Mrs Grizzle as we kicked off our gumboots and went inside, ‘witches can do anything. But the School Inspector’s like an elephant. He never forgets. Somebody’s got to go to school.’

“It made a change, not having to cook tea after milking. My mother had it ready, had put on a clean pinny, and done her hair. She looked younger and smaller than ever. ‘Would one of you like to bring me in a bucket of coal?’ she asked in her sweetest little voice. ‘It’s far too heavy for little me.…’ She sucked in her dimple, simpered, and made herself look even smaller.

“While we brought in the coal, she tried to serve our tea, but the stove was now too high for her to reach, so we served ourselves. Then we had to put a cushion on her chair and lift her up on to it before she could reach her plate.

“By the time we finished eating, she was having trouble with her big knife and fork. She had to stand on a stool to do the dishes, and I put the plates away because she couldn’t reach the cupboard.

“‘That’s enough!’ Mrs Grizzle gave my mother another sip, from a dark-blue bottle.

“‘More!’ My mother clapped her hands prettily.

“‘Time we were all in bed,’ said Mrs Grizzle gruffly. She corked the bottle and hid it in her swag. ‘We’re riding into Hopuruahine first thing.’

“‘The School Inspector will catch me!’ I cried.

“‘You’ll find things have changed.’ Mrs Grizzle brushed her red hair with the hearth broom, so vigorously that sparks flew up the chimney.

“‘How’s my mother going to sleep if she can’t close her eyes?’

“‘She can close them now. The gunpowder’s gone, her sleeping sickness is cured, and she’ll wake a different person tomorrow.’

“I piggybacked my mother up to bed. As I sang ‘Rock-a-bye Baby on the Treetop’, she fell asleep. I tucked her in, kissed her goodnight, and tiptoed out with the candle.

“First thing in the morning, Mrs Grizzle whistled the pack-horses. I went upstairs to wake my mother and found a dear little girl with long golden ringlets in her bed.

“‘Where’s my mother?’

“‘I’m your mummy,’ said the little girl. ‘My name is Euphemia, and I’m starting school today!’”

Aunt Effie lay back on her pillows, and we all sighed.

“Tell us some more?” asked Casey.

“How could she be your mummy if you were her daughter?” asked Jessie

“How come her name was Eu – what it was?” asked Jared.

“We don’t know anything about mummies,” said Lizzie. “When your dear little mummy grew smaller, did you grow bigger?”

But Aunt Effie didn’t answer. She emptied her bottle of Old Puckeroo, rolled over, and slept.

“Let’s play with the treasure and count the gold dollars!” said Jessie, but the dogs growled, and something under Aunt Effie’s enormous bed moved and went, “Booo-booo!”

“Ahhh!” We leapt off and ran several steps in the air before hitting the floor. Caligula, Nero, Brutus, Kaiser, Genghis, and Boris just slipped off. Nothing scared them.

Downstairs, they trotted outside. Aunt Effie had trained them to use a latrine up the back of the orchard, a trench they dug and filled with dirt.

“You can’t have six enormous pig dogs pooping all over the place,” she always said. It was the same when we were sailing our scow, the
Margery Daw
. She made the dogs hang on to a rope with their teeth and poop and piddle over the stern. When she wasn’t watching, we used to copy them.

“Life on a ship would be intolerable,” Aunt Effie used to say, “if you didn’t have a bit of discipline.”

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