FOR ALL THE SAINTS
I Hadn't been working long at the hospital before I noticed Alice. She was the kind of person who stands out right away in any crowd, even in an institution where everyone has to wear a non-descript uniform. At first I thought it was her Maori blood—she was at least halfcaste—but there were several other Maoris on the staff and a few Raratongan girls too, so that colour didn't really make much difference unless someone started a fight, and even then the important thing was not the kind of person you were but what side you belonged to. I never could make up my mind until it was too late. But to get back to Alice. If it wasn't colour, I decided, it certainly wasn't glamour either that made her so notable, far from it, though some might have thought her handsome in a dignified statuesque kind of way. She was a tall heavily-built woman, round about the thirty mark, though it was hard to guess her age, with smooth black hair drawn tightly back into a bun, and a smooth pale olive skin that never showed the slightest trace of make-up. Over the usual blue smock we all had to wear, she wore a long shapeless gown, always spotlessly white, and just showing her lisle stockings and black button-up shoes. From what I could make out, her work was like her uniform, scrupulously clean and neat, and done quietly and methodically without any fuss or bother, in spite of the first cook who would have hustled an elephant. She was the kind of woman boss who is happiest cracking a stock-whip. But even after I had noted these details about Alice, and the deliberate way she moved about the kitchen, seldom smiling and never joining in the back-chat with the porters, I still wasn't satisfied. I felt there was something else I couldn't recognise or understand because I had never met it before, some indefinable quality that made her quite different from the rest of us.
I was a servery-maid in the nurses' dining-room, and my chores often took me across the corridor to the main kitchen where Alice worked. I made overtures whenever I got the chance, offering to help lift things I knew she could manage quite easily by herself, smiling and nodding, and generally getting in her way. Nice day, I'd say, or going to be hot again, but never a word back did I get. Sometimes she'd respond with a grunt or a smile or a scowl, but most times she would just walk away, or worse still, wait silently for me to move on. This went on for several days, but Alice wouldn't be hurried; she had her own way of making introductions.
First of a Series of Short Stories by Maori Authors
One morning I went as usual to collect several big enamel milk jugs from the freezer outside the kitchen door—this was my first job every day—and I was just reaching for a jug when clump, the heavy door slammed shut behind me. I put the jug down very carefully. Keep still, someone shouted inside me, as every muscle in my body threatened to batter me against the four inches of thickness, don't move, keep still! I waited till the shouting had stopped, and then I very gingerly approached the barrier and tapped on it timidly like a guilty child outside the headmaster's office. Are you there? squeaked a voice I didn't recognise, as though it were using a telephone for the first time. It's me here, can you hear me? I waited several lifetimes for the answer that didn't come, then turned away slowly like the lion on the films. Jugs, I thought dully, looking at a wall of them, nice useful harmless things jugs. But at that the whole shelf began to slant and away drunkenly. I'm at a party, dozens of people around me, talking and laughing and singing and shouting and dancing and stomping to hot boogie woogie. I strained my ears to catch the sound. Drip went a drop of icy water on the concrete in front of me. Now we're all sitting on the floor round a blazing orange fire, eating steaming savs and drinking hot hot coffee and playing a quiet sort of guessing game. I concentrated on a large wooden box against the far wall. How many pounds of boxes to a butter, no no, how many pounds of—the door swung open slowly behind me, and I crawled back to life and warmth and sanity.
Alice was propped up against the kitchen door, tears rolling down her face, and shaking so much with laugher I thought her head would fall off.
“Good joke, eh?” she gasped, while I tried to force my knees to keep me upright, ‘funny, eh?” And she gave my shoulder a thump that sent me sprawling into the kitchen like a new-born lamb. From now on, I told myself afterwards, rubbing salt into my wounds, you're going to mind your own darn business. But the next morning when I came on duty, the milk jugs were waiting in the servery. Alice had been to the freezer before me.
After this Alice and I got on like a house on fire, and it wasn't long before the rest of the staff saw what was happening and started giving me advice. It might have been because they didn't like Alice, or because I was a new chum and as green as they come and they thought I needed protecting, but whatever the reason, several of them took me aside and told me Alice was a woman with bad blood, a treacherous character with the worst temper on God's earth, and the kind of friend who would turn nasty over nothing at all. Soon after, I found out what they really meant and why Alice was the terror of the kitchen.
It had been a particularly trying day, with the thermometer climbing to ninety degrees by mid-morning and staying there, and everybody got so irritable they didn't dare look each other in the eye. I was the last to finish in the servery, and thought I'd pop into the kitchen and say goodbye to Alice before I went home. The huge cavern of a place was nearly empty and uncannily quiet. The cooking coppers round the walls had boiled all their strength away, the big steamers that stood higher than a man had hissed their life into the air around them, and the last tide of heat was ebbing slowly from the islands of ovens in the middle of the floor. Alice was alone with her back towards me, mopping the red tiles with long swinging movements, never going over the same place twice, and never missing an inch. As I watched her from the doorway, the little man who worked in the pot-room slipped through a side door and cat-stepped it daintily with exaggeration over the part Alice had just washed. She leaned on the mop and looked at his dirty footmarks with an expressionless face. A minute later he was back again, singing in a weak nasal voice through the top of his head.
“Ah'm a leedool on the lornlee, a leedl on the lornlee sahd.” He brushed against Alice, and blundered into her bucket so that the soapy water slopped over the sides. “So sorree,” he backed away, but he was too late. Alice had him firmly by the coat-collar, lifted him off his clever feet, and shook him up and down as I would shake a duster. As she threw him half the length of the kitchen through the door into the yard, I crept down the corridor, remembering the freezer and feeling that thump on the shoulder again.
But the next day I found out something much more important about Alice than the quality of her temper. She came and asked me if I would write a letter for her. I was a bit surprised and wanted to know why she didn't do it herself. She couldn't. She had never learned to read or write. At first I was incredulous, then as the full significance of the fact sank in, I was horrified. Words like progress, civilisation, higher standards, and free, secular, compulsory, sprang to their feet in protest.
“Why, Alice, why?”
“My mother was not well when I was a little baby so she gave me to my Auntie who took me way way out in the country and the two of us lived there on Auntie's farm. My Auntie was a very good woman, very kind to me but she could not read or write and school was too far away so I never learned. I just stayed at home with Auntie and fixed the farm. But one day when I grew big Auntie said to me we've got no more money Alice, you must go away and work and get some money and bring it back to fix the farm. So I did. And now I am writing to Auntie to say I am getting the money fast and will come back very soon.”
I tried to guess Alice's age once more, decided on thirty again, and reckoned that “Auntie” would be twenty when Alice was “given” to her. That made her at least fifty now—getting a bit old for fixing farms.
“You read and write, Jacko?” That was the name she liked to call me.
“Oh yes, I read and write.”
“You pretty clever, ch Jacko?” she asked wistfully. “You better show me how.”
And so, every afternoon for the next two or three weeks, I tried. The two of us were working the same broken shift from 6.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. with an hour for lunch and three hours off in the afternoon. We started with writing, but I had to give it up, I just couldn't take it. It was far worse than working in the pot-room. Alice would grip the pencil as though it were a prison bar and strain and sweat and grunt and poke out her tongue, and I'd sit beside Alice and strain and sweat and grunt and poke out my tongue. I rummaged around the bookshops down town, and eventually found an easy learn-to-read little book, strictly unorthodox, and not crammed with highly coloured pictures of English villages and stiles and shepherds in smocks and meadows with ponds and oak trees and sheep with the wrong kinds of faces and bluebells at the edge of the wood. Our book was illustrated in red, white and black, and the few words on each page were put in little boxes, and you jiggled them round so that each box had a slightly different meaning though the words were the same. I would say—
First box: look! here is a dog; second box: the dog's name is Rover. And Alice would repeat it after me slowly, pointing at the right box and looking intently at the words and the picture, and then she would roar with laughter and slap the book and very often me too. It was fun for both of us at the beginning, and Alice went ahead like nobody's business, but towards the middle of the
book the boxes got bigger and the pictures fewer, and the game became hard work. One morning I noticed Alice was looking pale and very glum. Her work in the kitchen was as good as usual but she dragged her feet listlessly and kept her eyes down even when I spoke to her. In the end I asked her what was the matter. At first I thought she wasn't going to answer, and then she burst out—
“That damn dog, Rover! All night I tried to remember what he did when he jumped over the gate, but it was no good, I couldn't think. All night I tried to remember and I got no sleep and now I'm tired Jacko, tired tired.” And to my dismay the immobility of her face broke for the first time, wrinkled up like a child's, and a tear slipped down her cheek.
“Oh Alice”, I said, feeling smaller and meaner and more helpless than I'd ever felt before, “you don't want to worry about a silly old dog or a book or reading or anything”, and I steered her into the corridor where the sharp kitchen clowns couldn't see her crying. “Look.” It's a lovely day, let's have a holiday this afternoon, let's have a good time. Let's pretend it's someone's birthday, it must be somewhere. Oh bother, we can't, its Sunday. What can we do, Alice? I waited while she struggled with her voice.
“You do something for me, Jacko? You take me to church tonight, eh?”
She was waiting for me after work. I took one look at her, closed my eyes, and opened them again carefully. She was looking happier and more excited than I had ever seen her, the trouble and tiredness of the morning had quite gone, but so had the neat uniform. She was wearing a long pale pink garment that looked suspiciously like a nightgown, and round her neck she had tied a skinny mangy length of fur that even a manx cat wouldn't have looked at twice. But it was the hat that took my breath away. I had only seen such a hat in old photos or magazines about Edwardian England. It was a cream leghorn, with a wide flopping brim, dark red roses round the crown, and a huge swaying moulting plume that almost hid her face. I didn't have a hat with me, but I reckoned Alice's would do for the two of us.
“I think I'll go home and see Auntie for a little while. I've got some money for her and when I've fixed the farm I'll come back again.” She showed me her suitcase. “I'll catch the 10.30 rail-car tonight.”
We were a little late for church, and as we crept in, all eyes swung in our direction, and stopped. That's right. I thought, take a good look, you'll never see another like it again. The summer evening sun streamed through the clear glass window, and showed up mercilessly, like strong electric light on an ageing face, all the drabness of the grey unadorned walls, the scratches on the varnished pews, the worn patches in the faded red carpets, the dust on the pulpit hangings, and the greenness of the minister's old black suit. “Remembered streams I could not keep”, I thought, seeing it all for the first time without a child's glasses.
“For all the saints, who from their labours rest,” squeaked the small huddle of people like someone locked up in a freezer. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other and leaned against the pew in front of me. Ahmmmah, droned Alice happily above everyone else, except the big-bosomed, purple-gowned, over-pearled organist who pulled all her stops out and clung to the top notes like a determined lover. Alice was holding her hymn book upside down.
After the service I took Alice home for supper. She seemed a little lost and rather subdued in our sitting-room, and sat stiffly on the edge of a chair with her knees together and her hands gripping each other in her lap. I made several unsuccessful attempts to put her at ease, and then I noticed she kept glancing sideways at the piano that stood in the corner.
“Would you like to play the piano. Alice?” I asked, remembering the natural musical ability Maoris usually have. She jumped up immediately with a delightful grin and walked over to the music stool.
“Dadadaeedeeda,” she sang on one note, and thumped up and down the keyboard. Fifteen minutes later, she turned to me.
“Pretty good. eh? I know plenty more. You like some more?” And she settled herself down for the rest of the evening before I could reply. My mother got up hastily and went out to the kitchen to make the supper. When the time came to go, Alice looked very solemn, and I feared a repetition of the morning crisis. But I was wrong.
“I got something I want to show you, Jacko,” she said. “I've never shown anyone before.” And she handed me a folded piece of old newspaper.
“That's a picture of my uncle He went away before my Auntie got me. My Auntie says he's the best man she ever knew and one day he'll come back and look after me and Auntie and get money to pay for the house and fix the farm. He's got a good, kind face, eh Jacko?”
I peered at the blurred photo. A group of men were standing behind a central figure sitting in the foreground, and underneath, the caption read—
This is the last photo to be taken of the late Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor-General of Canada, well-known throughout the English-reading world as the novelist, John Buchan.
My mother looked over my shoulder.
“But surely you've made—”
I stopped her with a sharp dig in the ribs. “Yes, Alice,” I stammered, “I'm sure he'll come back, he's got such a nice face.” And immediately I was ashamed of the weak lies. If only one could sometimes find the courage to tell
FOR ALL THE SAINTS
people things they don't want to know.
It was bright moonlight at the station. Small groups of people stood around waiting to see others off in a rail-car that looked much to small and toy-like for the long journey round the foot of the hills that lay to the north-west of the town. Alice gripped my arm till my eyes watered, and then she mistook that for something else, and gripped harder still.
“Goodbye, goodbye.” she waved out of the window, the plume shedding feathers over everything near her, “see you soon, Jacko, goodbye.”
But I never saw Alice again. I stayed on at the hospital for the rest of the summer, and then went south to another job, and Alice hadn't returned before I left. Auntie must be sick, I thought, or maybe it's taking her longer to fix the farm than she expected. Several months later I received a letter from my mother. “I've got some news for you,” she wrote. “Alice came back not long ago, but her place in the kitchen was taken, so they found her a job in the laundry. She got on all right at first, but soon there was more of the old trouble, and when she nearly strangled one of the other women, things came to a head, and they had her put away quietly. There was quite a bit about it in the paper, but of course she wouldn't know that. Poor Alice. Do you remember how she played the piano that night and showed us a photo of John Buchan? And oh, my dear, till your dying days, will you ever forget that hat?”