I still remember the day I met her. An early spring evening almost thirty years ago. Some three months after my husband and I landed in New Zealand. A tall man with a neatly trimmed beard and a stethoscope around the collar of his checked shirt was carefully explaining directions to the town’s only hospital to my husband. I merely listened to the sounds the man’s words made. We had met half an hour earlier when he examined me and asked if I had a midwife. My husband replied before translating the question for me – he knew I did not have a midwife. We had moved to the town a couple of weeks before when the man running the plywood mill said my husband could start work there. ‘It isn’t a job for a forest engineer,’ he said, but one must start somewhere. His own father did the same when he moved from England. Started at the bottom and worked his way up. We agreed and loaded our Auckland flat into a hired trailer.
The doctor said he would check if one of the midwives on duty could see us.
The hospital was not far from the doctor’s room. It was a low, square building sitting in the middle of a large field, and several concrete pathways stretched in various directions under its windows. We walked through a glass door and followed the arrow with the word Maternity written on it in large rainbow letters. A young woman with long, black hair was seated behind an oval reception desk, her name tag pinned neatly to the top-left corner of her powder-blue shirt. An older woman with short grey hair was standing further away in front of a partly open cabinet.
As we greeted the receptionist, the older woman approached the desk smiling broadly. ‘Oh, I know! You are the couple new in the country and about to have a baby. You have come to see me. My name is Elwyn. I will be your midwife.’ Her words bounced off each other in rapid staccato. She shook our hands, and we recited our names. My husband added that I did not speak English. ‘That’s no trouble,’ she said, ‘we get that quite often in this country. Just follow me.’
The three of us walked together through a pale hospital corridor that led to a small office cramped with filing cabinets, paper trays and chairs. The midwife pulled two chairs in front of a desk and a sheet of paper from one of the trays before sitting down. She smiled at me and said, ‘Now, I need to ask you a few questions. Starting with your full name.’ My husband tried to answer, but she raised her hand in protest, ‘No, no, don’t answer for her. I see that she can understand.’ She waited for me to speak. Elwyn was right. I could piece together meaning from a few words I recognised. That evening I laboured through the spelling of my name, surname, date and place of birth, nudged along by a smiling woman wearing a hand-knitted burgundy cardigan over her sky-blue uniform. I watched the movements of a tiny round clock pinned to her chest, the shimmering of the rings on her fingers, and smiled back when she complimented my efforts. She said she could see I was smart and well educated and would learn English in no time. She would come by to let me practise.
She arrived the next afternoon carrying a thick English dictionary, a few picture books and a large book of nursery rhymes. I made tea and tried to listen closely to decipher her words. I learned more after each visit. She said she preferred coming when my husband was at work so that he wasn’t in the way. ‘It is best to speak English all the time,’ she said. ‘When I was at school, there was a bunch of Dutch kids in class with me. None of them could speak a word of English. It was a disgrace. The teacher called their parents to school. They stopped speaking Dutch to their kids at home. The kids’ English improved rapidly after that.’
By midsummer she would take me shopping or to her house for a high tea. I learned the importance of having proper china and living as far away as possible from the town’s riff-raff. I wasn’t sure what riff-raff meant, but I did not dare ask.
It was during one of those visits that I saw a lavender-coloured gown lying on the edge of her bed. She saw me looking at it through the open door.
‘Isn’t it just lovely?’ she asked. I agreed that it was.
‘Come in and have a closer look,’ she said and pushed the door fully open.
I walked into the room and touched the fabric. It felt rich and smooth. She sat beside it and straightened the pleats around the collar.
‘I met my Barry in this gown. At the dance hall. It was how people met in those days. Mid-fifties. People still talked about the war all the time. I was so young – we both were. He was a striking looking lad, I’ll tell you that. Doing his apprenticeship up in the East End. I had only come out from New Zealand a few months earlier. Working at St Barts. Nursing. A lot of young lasses were doing it back then. It was very popular, and we all lived together, sort of like a boarding house. We had fun. Work was hard but we had fun too. Most girls were from good families. They had beautiful clothes, the English girls especially. I got the gown from one of them.’
I was surprised to hear she got the gown second-hand; it showed no signs of excessive wear.
‘Patsy, we called her. Short for Patricia. She was from Southampton. A looker too. Her family weren’t short of a bob or two. She had her gowns made especially, by that Russian woman who fled Russia after the war – her husband was an officer or so they said. He tried to find work but had no luck. They had two little boys. The woman couldn’t speak a word of English but made the most amazing clothes. You just had to bring the fabric and show her a picture in a magazine. That’s how Patsy got her dress; she showed us a picture in a magazine then went out and bought the fabric. Two weeks later it was ready. Patsy put it on to show us. She had a stole made for it too. Bought matching shoes and gloves. She looked magnificent, like the girls in the magazines. But then she got herself knocked up by a doctor. He was married of course. She tried to hide it, but it was no use. Do you know what knocked up means?’
‘Good girl! So yes, our Patsy got herself into a spot of trouble. She was sent packing from the hospital. It wasn’t like today. Fifteen-year-olds getting pregnant to get benefits. The brown ones especially. Make sure to keep your kid well away from that lot.’
I made a mental note to find out who that lot were.
‘Patsy tried to make it on her own. Sold all her fancy clothes for the rent money. Some girls paid what she asked or even a bit more. For the kid, they said. Not me. I bargained and got my gown for a song. I was so pleased with it. Told my folks back in New Zealand too. My father was glad I remembered what he told all of us kids, Never pay a dollar if you can get it for a half. He had his head screwed well on. Farming does that, you see. Anyway, I was as happy as a sand-boy when I put it on and went dancing. I had a string of pearls my grandmother gave me before I left. I couldn’t stop looking at myself in the mirror.’
I was grateful for the string of pearls as it was something I could easily picture in my mind – I had no idea how farming screws one’s head on and even less what kind of happiness the sand-boy felt.
‘It was the first time I wore something so fine and beautiful. When Barry came to ask me for a dance, I knew he liked me right away. We danced the whole night. I wore the gown to dances even after we got married. Right up until our youngest was born. I grew out of it after that. I tried to have it altered but it wouldn’t work. There wasn’t enough fabric. It had all gone to custard with Barry by then anyway. It turned out he had been seeing another woman for years. They had a kid together too. It was a right scandal. I packed up and left. Back to New Zealand. Took the gown too. So here it is.’
She patted the pleats with the palm of her hand as if to confirm it.
‘That was a long story, wasn’t it? I think a cuppa is in order.’
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘What happened with what?’
‘Oh, her. I’m not sure. The last I heard was that her mother came and made her put the kid up for adoption. She disappeared after that. Some said she went to America. But I heard she hanged herself in that flat she was staying in when the kid was first born.’
She got up and went to the kitchen. The rubber soles of her shoes made the lino squeal with each step.
Outside, behind the lace curtains, the sun was gilding the edges of the sky with rose-gold. It made the gown’s silvery brocade sparkle. As if smiling.
Above the wheezing of the kettle, her voice travelled into the room.
‘I might give it to you one day,’ she said.
‘The gown, silly.’
‘Oh, thank you. But I could never wear it. Not ever.’
Daylight petered out as I was leaving her house.