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Life Is Too Short To Drink Bad Wine: 6 - A Mouse In The House

Gayle Woodward, continuing her autobiographical account of family life in New Zealand, recalls the day when she, her mother and her sister sought refuge on top of a double bed until father came home after a mouse had been discovered in the the house.

Several times in my early childhood, I wondered what on earth my mother was doing. If visitors arrived without warning, such as Mormons or salesmen, we would be told to hide under the window in the master bedroom and keep very quiet.

I tried to whisper,” Why don’t we tell them to go away?”

The reply was always whispered back “Be quiet like a mouse”.

I think now that she was very isolated at home with us and lacked the confidence to be assertive and send the people she did not want to see away from her door.

Another memorable day a mouse was discovered in the house. We had no cat then and a mouse inside at autumn was not unusual. But mother got herself and her two daughters up onto the master double bed, pulled the bedspread up on top of the mattress “so the mouse can’t climb up”. And there we had to wait till our father came home to save us.

I got annoyed and said that I was not scared of mice and would go and catch it. She was terrified and would not let me get down off the bed. I don’t remember Mary arguing. I think it was always me from then on, trying to find a better way to do things.

By the time I was eight I was a great reader and loved Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven books. I collected them all and reread them over and over again. I decided that I would like to have a secret club of my own. Mum and I planned that I would form a club after school at our house straight from school on a weekday afternoon.

I think that my mother should have trained as a teacher because she entered into the planning with gusto, making felt badges, all with a number ‘7’ stitched on and a safety pin to fix these badges onto our clothes. I arranged for rules and paperwork and decided what form our club meetings would take.

It was quite secret and at school only those girls invited to take part were knowledgeable and it caused a stir. However, I was thrilled to be in charge and in the limelight at school, albeit briefly. It was to be called The Secret Seven Club (how original) and the members were my sister and I, Marian and her younger sister Kathryn and our neighbour Gaye. We would come straight from school to be met with freshly baked delicacies and fruit drinks.

We began meeting in the Play House, which our father had built for us. It was a six-foot square fibrolite building with one door and an opening window on each of two sides. It was furnished with a child-sized table and chairs, curtains on the windows, dolls’ beds and other doll equipment. A dresser contained toy crockery and a wooden painted oven was the pride and joy.

The elements were painted on, but the door opened and there were cooking trays. There were baked bread rolls sprinkled with seeds that had been varnished to keep their good looks. The whole thing was a work of art. Just one of the cleverly hand-made toys we girls had been given by parents who had practical talent aplenty but not very much money to spare.

Our parents made all our toys except for bikes, scooters and dolls. Never did we know that money was tight, as we never wanted for anything. Fruit and vegetables were grown in the backyard and mum made our daily bread, always in the morning, caring for the yeast plant, kneading and leaving it to prove in the hot water cupboard. I sometimes felt embarrassed by the coarse nature of this bread, when other children opened lunchboxes to reveal pure white neatly sliced sandwich bread. Mine tasted delicious but didn’t look like everybody else’s.

The Play House was really too small for eight-year-olds and soon the business part of the club went by the by. The club became a reason for very elaborate games to be arranged by me with a ready-made group to cast in roles that I evolved.

Having devoured the book, I decided that one such game would be Black Beauty. Most of us were horses who ‘rode around’ straddling broomsticks. It was difficult to find a role for Mary, who was only five but Mum told me I had to include her in our games. She was told to wear some old polka dot green pyjamas, (which seems rather mean of me now but at the time, there was a method to the meanness), and to stay in one place, be the groom and look after the horses.

It amazes me now to think that all club members agreed with what I had organised. No one argued or offered other suggestions. I must have had amazing confidence in my own ability and leadership.

Reading became a wonderful pleasure for me. I was a junior member of the St Heliers library and during the years from age seven to 12, I devoured most of the fairy and fantasy books in the junior section. There was a whole series, the Red Fairy Book, the Purple Fairy Book, the Green Fairy book and so on, which were full of new and fascinating stories. I would read in bed under the blankets, sitting in a tree, and even while people were talking to me.

Daydreaming took on a new meaning when I was around but it was daydreaming led by what I read in my books. I went to fabulous places and did marvellous things. It was a constant complaint in our household that whenever a job needed to be done, for instance the drying of dishes, Gayle would always be ‘in the toilet, reading’. I could see clearly that it was a convenient time, quiet and much more interesting than dish drying.

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