Of Animals and Me
David Wansbrough is a well-known poet, lecturer, and artist, as well as the author of 16 books. He has for many years been a frequent visitor to Moscow.
With this piece English is very happy to begin a series of stories based on his New Zealand childhood and his life in the beautiful Blue Mountains west of Sydney in Australia.
Going to school was usually a hurried walk. But coming home took ages... Near to Royal Oak Primary was Chandlers Posters which made billboard advertising. Bare footed I watched fascinated as two men on scaffolds started to paste numbered squares of paper on the big space at the front of the factory. Wide glue brushes painted the coloured sides of the paper and somehow the blank side stuck down. The pictures grew from the top edges down. Most weren’t photographs but enlarged paintings with flowing lettering. Were they aiming at hypnotising 7 year olds? They obviously knew the power of the square tin biscuit box that had a picture on its side with a boy running carrying a biscuit box which had on its side a boy running carrying a biscuit box which had on its side a... because the billboard had the words: “Persil is still the best” with a packet of clothes washing soda on a window ledge with a spiral of orange rays radiating from the central word. Through the window were billowing sheets on a clothes line, a fence and a clothes line with flapping-less white pillowcases beside a fence with a clothes line with sheets like grey flags, on into the distance. Let no scholar say that surrealism and Dada had not influenced 1950s life in distant New Zealand. I was very late home. It had been sports day. We’d had to sit on the grass in marked out squares for hours waiting for our races. Then we’d have to have the blue-house squares front and back attached with over-the-shoulder ribbons that tied around our waists. A huge possibility of breaking the monotony and missing races by creating a huge tangle. So boring. Blue house was winning then dropped down to 3rd. So what? The grass had been freshly mowed so we made little mounds. As soon as the final whistle was blown we stood up and threw grass clippings at each other. We had disgraced the school in front of our honoured guests. But it was the only time that day I saw the colonel and the vicar and their “good lady wives” smile. But the whole of blue house was to be strapped. We lined up. The deputy headmaster asked: Who wants to be first? I don’t get tired. Those towards the end will get hit harder than those at the front.” I jumped up to be first but Snotty Johnson somehow pushed in front. I was last. I looked out the window. My friends looked in to see if the teacher kept his word. My hand was outstretched. The first massive swing of therazo* missed my palm and the finger tips really stung. Three on that hand then two on the other. The sixth swing had a little run up and skip like a cricket bowler. The pain was total. I loitered trying to think of an excuse for being so late home. The Chandlers’ manager shooed me off as parcels of paper squares were thrown from the loading bay to the lorries. I didn’t go into church to look at the stained glass windows. I hadn’t repented for throwing grass. I hadn’t even thought I’d done anything wrong. So I looked both ways and crossed over on the pedestrian crossing to delay going home. In the newspaper shop there was a cardboard box and a sign in the window, Day Old Chooks**, 3 pence. Well, I had six pennies in my pocket, so I bought two. The soft little chickens were balls of yellow down. Their tiny feet scratched my bruised hands but the fluffy feathers soothed.
Mum said I was in for a clip over the ear from dad who’d have to make a cage. But Dad said, “We’ll fatten them up for Christmas dinner”, and drove four posts into the grass at the back into the garage and wound a dozen yards of old wire netting around them and found a box and wood shavings. Within days the yellow fluff disappeared and feathers came. Not yellow, but mainly white. Each day I hid my bread crusts in my pockets, (I didn’t care if my hair wouldn’t be curly), and gave it to the fowls. Ugly red combs grew above and below the beaks but the two birds were so individualised they were somehow more lovely, and so talkative while scratching up the lawn. Elsie and Mabel were real characters. They’d follow me back into the cage and chat puck puck puck as I’d lace up the wire netting in the evening. By late November Dad felt their breasts as they affectionately pecked his hand. “Plumping up well for Christmas dinner.” On Christmas Eve we put up a pine branch and decorated the tree with glass balls and aluminium milk bottle caps and tinsel. There was a discussion about the chicken. “I’ll cook them but you’ve got another thing coming if you think I’m going to kill and clean the nasty dirty things.” Dad ran a whet stone up and down his axe blade. He picked up a white feather that happened to blow past. He drew it along the axe blade. The severed tip floated away gently. The axe was sharp, “Best go inside, David. Don’t look.” An hour later Dad was still holding the axe staring at Elsie and Mabel. It was only when uncle Rex came round that Dad said, “Better get on with it.” The next day I woke at 5 to open my present. Mrs Powell from the book shop had hinted that I no longer liked the Biggles books or the Rupert Bear annual, and would probably like a Henry Rider Haggard novel. Good Mrs Powell. I was so pleased with my gift and 5 shillings from Grandfather.
By 12 the Christmas dinner was cooked, the chooks ready to be carved. A bird looks not so big without its feathers. A plump chicken leg was on my plate beside carrots and parsley. The chicken gravy surrounded the boiled potatoes. So many smells! What colours pattern of golden brown, orange and white. But I poked at the chicken with my knife and saw Dad moving the food around his plate. No one slapped my ear for playing with my food. In the silence I asked if this was Mabel or Elsie’s leg? No answer. Mum said “You should start on the potatoes,” but they were islands in the lake of gravy. The juices of Elsie and Mabel. Mum took the plates back to the kitchen and scraped the food into a pot. Grandfather took the pot down behind the shed and came back saying, “I must be loosing my marbles. I thought the chooks will like these scraps, then remembered it was them. So my sparrows can have a feed.” Uncle Rex came for his bottle of beer and said we were silly. “Waste not want not.” No one was hungry. I found two boiled old silver sixpences in the pudding. I had to give them back for next year.
I didn’t feel like eating. That is, until I went two doors down Boyd Avenue and answered Mr Peters’ question about our Christmas dinner. He laughed and laughed and gave me 10 shillings, and said he’d fill out my skinny legs and fed me nut centred chocolates. I asked if it was his horse racing through the iron horse shoe on the box of Winning Post chocolates? Tears of mirth ran down his cheeks. “This is a good Christmas,” he laughed. And that day won’t disappear into the distance of memory…
* The old fashioned strap for sharpening razors.
** The New Zealand and Australian South African term for domestic chicken hens and roosters.