A small portrait of a typical Maori child with all her simplicity yet artfulness, her humour and charm, and the environment from which she springs.
I was at the back door bashing the tops off old apple cases to make some rickety but nevertheless efficient seed boxes, and, considering myself unobserved, was holding a rather silly and mostly one-sided conversation with my very small daughter. There was a bang at the water-tanks and I jumped about two feet in the air.
“What you doing, Mis' Thomas?”
It was Ngaropi, from the most notorious house of the row opposite—(it was whispered that there were seventeen children in the house; but not all of the one family, of course).
“I'm making some boxes to grow seeds in,” I replied. This was met with a non-committal grin.
“That lady says she can get puha,” said Ngaropi.
“Who is it?” I squinted at the bent figure digging at the lawn with a knife.
“That's all right. She knows she can get some when she wants it”.
“Are you having a holiday, Ngaropi?” I asked her sarcastically.
“I've got a sore tummy”, she replied.
“You don't look very sick, shouldn't you be in bed?”
“Oh, I'm not going back to school, I've left”.
“How old are you, then?”
“Fifteen,” replied this small eleven-year-old. I regarded this as wishful thinking and ignored it.
“Can I have a ride on you fellas' bike?” she asked.
“All right, as long as you don't go too far”. And that was the last I saw of her for an hour or so.
I was hanging out a line of my child's innumerable panties when Ngaropi panted up the path wheeling the bicycle.
“Did you go far?” I asked her.
“Way round Taheke”, she answered. She put the bike down right where it was most in the way and sauntered into the wash-house-cum-bathroom that graces our modest home.
“Beauty bathroom”, she sighed. My eye wandered over the thin and patchy paint to the grey smoke smudge on the wall above the kerosene lamp and I sighed also.
“What's that?” she asked, pointing to the wringer.
“A wringer. Haven't you fellas got one over there?” I slipped into the dialect as I usually do after a few minutes' conversation with the local children.
“Oh, we just screw the things in our hands, eh,” said Ngaropi.
I carted the last of the washing out, pegged it up, chased the baby to rescue various soggy bits of clothing which she filched from the basket and went inside to find Ngaropi making a tour of inspection of the house.
“You and Mr Thomas sleep ther, eh?” she said, admiring our bed.
“Yes,” I answered.
“And the baby?”
“No, she sleeps in a cot in her own room”.
“Phoo!” exclaimed Ngaropi, who shares a double bed with three other girls.
We went back to the kitchen.
“For me?” she wheedled.
“Those four up there”. She pointed to a jar where we keep odd coppers.
“How do you know there's pennies up there?”
“I looked”. I resisted the temptation to lecture about property rights and said,
“They are Mr Thomas', you ask him”.
“Oh, he wouldn't mind, he's my mate. But he shouts at us kids. You don't eh?”
“I suppose he has to shout to make himself heard above the noise”. My husband takes Ngaropi's class for a couple of lessons a week. I have often remonstrated with him about the way he yells at the children, but he always maintains that to get any work out of them he has to drive them along verbally. It certainly doesn't upset them unduly, but shouldn't he try to guide them in a kindly manner?
“I'm having kai here,” Ngaropi broke in on my pondering.
“Are you?” I said with some surprise. But it was the baby's lunchtime, so I fed them together.
“What's that?” Ngaropi asked as I gave the baby her custard.
“A sort of pudding, a custard. Would you like some?”
“Oh yes,” she said, eyes aglow. So I gave her a large helping which she tucked away surprisingly quickly and with remarkable sound effects. Peanut butter was also new to her and she demolished the last of my bread thickly besmeared with it.
“We mostly have jam,” she explained.
I gave her a glass of milk instead of the requested tea, put the baby to bed and tried to think of a tactful way of banishing Ngaropi so that I could have my usual quiet lunch and finish the book I was reading.
“Well, you'd better go home, now, your mother might be wondering where you are”, I said, at last.
“Oh no, I'm staying here”.
“No, off you go, I've got Iots to do”.
“Are you going to do your dishes? I can help”.
“No, I've got some reading and things to do”.
“Have a game of marbles. There's two up there”, She changed the game and indicated the marbles on the mantlepiece.
“I can't play marbles, but you can have those if you like”.
“Can I have that apron?”
“That one on the line—you've got two”.
“I need more than two, so I'm afraid you can't have it”.
“Why not?” she whined.
“Because I want it. Now off you go home”.
Ngaropi ignored that, and wandered into the baby's room.
“Don't got in there please, Ngaropi, I want the baby to go to sleep”.
“She doesn't want to sleep”.
“Yes she does, now out you go”. I propelled her out and shut the door. I must admit I was getting rankled, and a vague gnawing sensation in the pit of my stomach did not improve my temper. It was getting past my lunch-hour.
“Home, Ngaropi, you can come back another day”. She just grinned.
“I'm going to stay here; I'm going to live with my darling. Do you know who my darling is?”
No answer from me.
“Mr Thomas, of course”. This was news. I smiled and said, “I'll tell him that”. And Ngaropi looked pleased.
There was a few minutes silence until I again asked her to go home; I really was getting tired of the conversation. There was no movement from Ngaropi so I got up, took her by the scruff of the neck and pushed her to the door.
“Now off you go, when I say it is time to go, I mean it. You only spoil things for the others because I won't have you here if you don't behave.” I am afraid I shouted; then blushed as I imagined my husband's grin when he found out.
It had the desired effect, however. Ngaropi looked dubious for a minute then strolled off down the path.
“And shut the gate, too, please”, I called. “Goodbye”. No reply, but the gate was carefully shut.
Next morning Ngaropi popped in again, grinning and chatting as if nothing had happened. We discussed the merits of our mantle lamp and benzine iron; and the bicycle was borrowed for another jaunt to Taheke. More bread and peanut butter was devoured and Ngaropi went cheerfully home when first asked.
But this time, she forgot to shut the gate.