The piece 'Gorse is Not People' caused Frame a setback in 1954, when Charles Brasch rejected it for publication in Landfall and, along with others for one reason or other, deliberately remained unpublished during her lifetime. Previously published pieces have appeared in Harper's Bazaar, the NZ Listener, the New Zealand School Journal, Landfall and The New Yorker over the years, and one otherwise unpublished piece, 'The Gravy Boat', was read aloud by Frame for a radio broadcast in 1953.
In these stories readers will recognize familiar themes, scenes, characters and locations from Frame's writing and life, and each offers a fresh fictional transformation that will captivate and absorb.
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Between My Father and the King
My father fought in the First World War that used to be called 'Great' until the truth of its greatness was questioned and the denial of its greatness accepted. My father came home from the war with a piece of shrapnel in his back, remnants of gas in his lungs, a soldier's pay book, an identity disc, a gas mask, and a very important document which gave details of my father's debt to the King and his promise before witnesses to repay the King the fifty pounds borrowed to buy furniture: a bed to sleep in with his new wife, a dining table to dine at, linoleum and a hearthrug to lay on the floor, two fireside chairs for man and wife to sit in when he wasn't working and she wasn't polishing the King's linoleum and shaking the King's hearthrug free of dust; and a wooden fireside kerb to protect the hearthrug, the linoleum and my father and his wife from sparks when they sat by the fire. All this furniture, the document said, cost fifty pounds, which had to be paid to the King in agreed instalments.
I found this document the other day, and the accompanying note of discharge from debt; and it was the first time I had known of my father's dreadful responsibility. For besides promising to repay the loan he had sworn to keep the bed and mattress and fireside kerb and hearthrug and linoleum and dining table and chairs and fireside chairs in good order and on no account sell or exchange them and to be prepared at any time to allow the King's Representative to inspect them.
If only I had known!
In our conscienceless childhood days we ripped the backs from the kitchen chairs and made sledges from them; we drove nails into the wooden kerb — the King's Kerb! We pencilled and crayoned the dining table, scuffed the linoleum, bounced on the bed, split open and explored the mattress and the two fireside chairs, looking for money. Finally, the tomcat peed on and permanently impaired the hearthrug. And all this was the King's property on gracious loan to my father and we never knew!
It is all so far away now. I have no means of discovering what my parents thought or talked about when they lay in the King's bed and ate at his table and sat in his chairs and walked on his linoleum. When a knock sounded on the door did my father glance quickly around at the fifty pounds' worth to make sure it was in good condition in case the King's Representative happened to be passing?
'I'm the King's Representative. I happened to be passing through Richardson Street, Dunedin, and I thought I'd inspect your bed and mattress and chairs and linoleum and hearthrug and wooden fireside kerb.'
'Do come in,' I imagined my mother saying rather timidly.
And with my father leading the way and my mother following they conducted the King's Representative on a tour of the far-flung colonial furniture. My mother nervously explained that there were young children in the house, and babies, and a certain amount of wear and tear ...
'Yes yes, of course,' the King's Representative said, taking out his notebook and writing, for example: wooden kerb, two dents in; linoleum, brown stain on; while my mother's apprehension grew and my father looked more worried and when the Representative left my mother burst into tears.
Or so I imagined.
'He'll go straight to the King. I know he will!'
My father tried to comfort her. He glanced with hate at the King's furniture. He wished he had never borrowed the fifty pounds.
And then perhaps he had one of his bright ideas and that evening as he and my mother sat in the King's armchairs with their feet on the King's cat-stained hearthrug and protected from sparks by the King's wooden kerb, my father took out his own small notebook and pencil and carefully studying the Great War in all its Greatness and himself in it with his fellow soldiers in the trenches, he wrote, inspecting deeply the life and the death and the time and the torture,
Back, shrapnel in; lungs, remains of gas in; nights, nightmares in; days, memories in.
Dear King, the corresponding dents and stains and wear and tear in my life surely atone for the wear and tear of your precious kerb and hearthrug etc. Please wipe out the debt of fifty pounds or passing by Buckingham Palace I shall drop in to inspect you and claim settlement for your debt to me.CHAPTER 2
The Plum Tree and the Hammock
The plum tree had its roots in our place and therefore belonged to us but two thirds of it had chosen to grow into their place; and their side, as well as being free from blight, had the big outstretched branch from which they strung a canvas hammock where on weekends and in the summer evenings one or other of the Connollys would lie reading the paper or comics or doing nothing, eyes closed, arms in neck-rest position, in an enviable luxury of relaxation, enjoying, so to speak, the auxiliary fruits of our plum tree.
No one knew why so much of the tree leaned in their direction or why their side, grafted with big plums that hung like blue lamps from leaf-woven shades, had no blight while our small mean round plums oozed blobs of clear jelly between the stalk and the skin with the crevices sometimes webbed white to make believe a nunlike creature lived there; and with a dark lump of bitterness inside, lying against the stone, not always penetrating to the surface of the plum. When we ate the plums on our side we had to keep our eyes open whereas the Connollys could swing in their hammock and reach up for the plums and eat and relish them with their eyes closed.
Truly, they enjoyed a backyard Eden — one that few knew of, for we were the only neighbours who could see into their backyard and garden. We could see into their kitchen window, too, for the house was high and the window, curtainless, made a strange frame with the light as a natural theatre light revealing the Connollys whenever they sat down to meals at the kitchen table, their silhouettes sharp, their movements precise, economical. The sound effects were also dramatic, especially on Friday night when Mr Connolly came home drunk. Mrs Connolly's laughter came across clearly too; that is, when she laughed. Her face was more often glum and long with a chin that waggled and had the appearance of being detachable. All the Connollys except the youngest had sandy-coloured hair, freckles, and a wrinkled skin, tinted yellow, like old reptilian armour.
Their life was primitive and violent with its recurring payday drunkenness; and their voices were often what my parents described in disapproving tones as 'raised'. In our house the admonition, Don't raise your voice, was severe, and when spoken by my father it was always completed by a reference to what had become our special landmark — Thames Street.
'Don't raise your voice. I don't want to hear you all the way down Thames Street.'
'All the lights in the house blazing. You can see them all the way down Thames Street.'
'Get another shovel of coal on the fire. Look lively. I'm not asking you to traipse down Thames Street.'
Thames Street was the main street with an Italian fish and chip shop at one end and a Greek fish and chip shop at the other. I remember an inexplicable feeling of alarm and loss the day when I heard one of the Connollys use our landmark as if it were their property: 'I could even race you down to Thames Street.'
When the Connollys first put up their hammock (just as the plums were beginning to emerge from the brown frayed leftover blossom) the action seemed so full of promise that we children could hardly contain our envy. Suddenly it seemed that we had no place, absolutely no place where we could lounge, really lounge. We grew restless, discontented. We asked our parents, 'Why can't we have a hammock like the Connollys?' Our father's reply, 'What do you want a hammock for?' proved that he had no understanding of the bliss-giving properties of hammocks.
The plums swelled, their green darkened with streaks of blue. The Connollys lounged.
'Waiting for the plums to get ripe,' we said nastily, 'when it's our tree.'
Our sense of neighbourliness was not strong but then neither is that of adults who need complicated laws to prevent them from fighting over fences and hedges and overhanging trees. We children had profited from the neighbour on the other side of us, a Mr Smart, who kept a garden of fruit trees that did not overhang the macrocarpa hedge but grew near enough for us to juggle a length of drainpipe beneath the rosiest apples, jerk the pipe, and watch our prize separate from the tree and roll down the drainpipe into our possession. It seemed only fair that we should get a similar bounty from the Connollys who not only helped themselves to our blight-free plums but this season would do so in a manner more suited to the realms of myth and legend; and the Connollys were no gods to have the benefit of such paradisal pleasures!
The four boys were Alf, Dick, Len and Bob. They had both the individuality and the lack of it which a family of boys may present to outsiders. One moment they were general, the next they were particular Connollys. There were a number of identifying references that we used when thinking or talking of them. Alf was old and would soon be leaving school. My sister, looking through the gap in the fence one day, had seen him peeing among the potatoes. His thing, she said, was blue. Dick was the quiet one who always came when he was called. He looked most like his mother. Len was a wag, always in mischief, raiding orchards, leading tincanning parties. Bob, the youngest, had brown hair and no freckles. He was known as a crybaby. He was the age of my youngest sister who, in our local tradition of matching the sexes by age, looked on him as her 'boy'. They were both six. By this calculation my sister had several 'boys' in the neighbourhood. And by this ruling, Dick should have come into my possession but I was fussy and I did not like his red face and his crooked nose, and my heart as well as my age had got in tune with a pale boy up the road to whom I had never spoken. He was Ron Corbie, pale and straight, and every morning he cycled by in a flash of handsome pallor on his black and silver bicycle.
* * *
Early autumn. The area of blue was spreading across the plums, seeming, paradoxically, to bruise them to perfection. Soon they would be ready to eat. Already, on our side of the tree, the creatures of the blight had set up house. We had much to bear. It was harder to face the prospect of blighted plums when our apples had long been taken over by the codlin moth that, with discriminating taste, had left us only the sourest apples.
Soon the Connollys began to spend most evenings and weekends in their precious hammock, in training, we supposed, for the ripening plums that were already prize specimens for the future enjoyment of gods, not of Connollys.
Nothing could distract us from thinking of the hammock. A timid, Let's have a go in your hammock, had produced a shocked Oh no from Alf, a Not allowed from Dick, a Get one yourself from Len, and from Bob an appealing reminder that if he let us have a go he would cop it from Alf. In families, you see, there is a kind of animal construction that makes the eldest turn, like a creature to its tail, to bite or lick the youngest.
Perhaps, we thought, we could make a hammock for ourselves. Oh why had we never thought of a hammock, not even after all those films of submarines and sailors; our ingenuity had failed us. And now, too late, when we had thought of it, we had no tree that would cooperate. Only to have a go, to try it out, we pleaded, but the Connollys refused. And when, one idle Sunday mid-afternoon, autograph books were swapped and Len Connolly wrote,
Two in a hammock attempted to kiss,
and in the attempt they turned like this,
with 'this' upside down, we didn't think it funny or clever, not publicly, anyway.
Then one morning we woke to find the plums on both sides of the tree were ripe and if a gust came or it rained they would be spoiled. My mother got out the brass preserving pan and began to prepare jars, and cut rounds of waxed paper for tops.
'Kiddies,' she said, meaning me and my middle sister, 'will you pick some plums for jam? You can eat some, you don't have to whistle while you pick them.'
I do not know if it was her musical ear or her generosity that relaxed the rule about whistling, though indeed there had never been a rule, the whistling had been something only talked of by my father who said, We used to have to whistle when we shelled peas. He spoke sadly, as people do of times that are gone, forgetting it was the time and not the whistling that held so much fun.
'Take the kit and get it full.'
'Are you going to make jam, Mum?'
'Yes, I'm making jam.'
We need not have asked that question and she need not have answered it because we all knew, and yet it was satisfying to have it said. Saying it was a kind of 'spare' saying, a luxury that confirmed the event and promised to make it memorable; it was, so to speak, an expressive icing.
'Mrs Connolly won't have a chance of making jam with them reaching up from the hammock,' we said to each other, between the agonising image of their blissful pose and our self-righteous displeasure as we bit into our meagre mottled plums.
'Here, reach me over that branch.'
'But it's on their side.'
'It's our tree.'
'But Dad said it's theirs if it hangs over their place. It takes their air and their sun.'
'But they breathe our air when they come in to get the Daily Times.'
'We breathe theirs when we go to borrow half a cup of flour for patties.'
'But it's our plum tree. Its roots are in our place and it all starts at the roots. It's where it starts that counts, not where it ends. Reach me over that branch.'
The Connollys were out. Mr Connolly, a grocer, was down at his shop. Mrs was out, down Thames Street, and the boys were probably on their last long excursion before the school term began. The rectangle of their kitchen window showed only the outline of the kitchen table with a teapot and a group of cups and saucers on it, Mr Connolly's chair where he sat to eat and to read the evening paper, the rope near the ceiling where the washing hung when it was brought in from the clothesline, and in the background the blob of other furniture and the door leading from the kitchen.
It was about half past eleven in the morning. The day was warm, full of bloom. Slow-moving clouds grouped around the hills shed a plum- and heather-coloured light on the world, on the Connollys' window, and on the plums which, absorbing the light, seemed to smear it in a kind of light-fur over their ripe skin. The sudden languor of everything was overpowering: the big ripe slow-moving clouds, the Connollys' gleaming window that held now both the kitchen furniture and a silver reflection of the clouds and the upper halves of the Brewsters' two sycamores with the small seeds sprouting their green sails that would turn brown and windmill the seeds away away with the thistledown when the first wild blowy escaping-day came.
The truth was, both my sister and I were picking and looking and picking in a kind of delirium. The tips of our fingers were stained where they sometimes poked through the too-soft flesh of the plums. For we were picking the beautiful plums, the Connollys', and now we were right inside their place (breathing their air, warmed by their sun) drawing the laden branches down, picking and plopping into the flax kit until it was full. Then, dazed, we crept back through the gap in the fence, put the kit on the grass by the plum tree, adjusted the board in the fence, and collapsed into laughter.
We ate a few of the plums on top, not because we wanted very much to, but to make sure we knew our rights and could claim them if necessary.
'We could have had a go on the hammock while they're away,' my sister said. I agreed. 'We could, too.'
How shabby the hammock had looked with its grey canvas that had bare patches; and the ropes were frayed. I had my mother's sense of danger.
'It's an old hammock anyway. You could come a cropper.'
'But we could have a go on it, just to see.'
'I bet they only pretend they like being in it.'
'What'll they say when they see we've taken their plums?'
'But they're on their side, and they always eat them. The Browns used to.'
The Browns were the people who lived there before the Connollys. How far away they seemed! Suddenly we remembered the time the Browns shifted and the Connollys came in, and the between time when the house was empty and we sneaked inside and stomped up and down on the bare floor.
I sighed. It was true. Even as long ago as the Browns, the plums had not been ours to eat.
Then my sister thought up a more formidable question for she, too, had a sense of danger.
'What'll Dad say? He said they were the Connollys' plums. In law.'
'They're not the Connollys' plums now, are they? Here, have one.'
We had one each. We threw the stones over the Connollys' fence.
'Now they can grow their own plums.'
Recovering a little from our drunkenness we sat on the grass and leaned against the fence.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Between My Father and the King"
Copyright © 2012 Janet Frame Literary Trust.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Between My Father and the King,
The Plum Tree and the Hammock,
The Birds of the Air,
In Alco Hall,
The Gravy Boat,
I Got a Shoes,
A Night at the Opera,
Gorse is Not People,
The Wind Brother,
The Friday Night World,
An Electric Blanket,
A Bone in the Throat,
My Tailor is Not Rich,
The Big Money,
A Distance from Mrs Tiggy-winkle,
Caring for the Flame,
Letter from Mrs John Edward Harroway,
Sew My Hood, Cut My Hair,
The People of the Summer Valley,
A Night Visitor,
I Do Not Love the Crickets,