from Girlhood


Once we silenced Martha, clipped on her lead and left the house, we walked into the smothering white cloud which, we could see from our vantage point on the Cashmere Hills, had blanketed the city. My father began as always pointing out the architectural styles of the houses we passed – pseudo Gothic, transitional bungalow, Californian bungalow, state house. Their gardens were mainly clenched floral borders with shrubs and lawns brought to heel by regular mowing and rolling. My father only really approved of the state house which he said was at least done in the local vernacular. That dislike extended to our own house. Even though it was his childhood home he said it was a hideous pastiche. He would have happily sold it and built something angular and new out of brick or concrete but in this instance he was overridden by my mother and his parents. 

His voice rarely rose above a murmur but I liked the fact that he appeared to be talking to himself. He obviously needed to empty out his thoughts, as if releasing a small pent-up person hammering away in his head. His softly spoken monologues had a lulling effect on me, though, now I was desperately trying to resist its soporific temptations and hoping a way in to my grand plans would present itself. 

I was beginning to despair when we were joined by a woman we both disliked. My father was sure Miss Cook lay in wait for us. It did seem as if she was compelled to retrieve the newspaper or check the letterbox when we walked by and then on a supposed impulse, she’d decide to come with us to the dairy since, oh dear, she’d forgotten to buy luncheon sausage. Miss Cook was 60ish, dumpling round and short with a small head that bobbed like a loosely attached cork. 

Like my father she also talked incessantly but unlike him she required an audience. Mostly it was inconsequential vaguely news related events, petty crime, peculiar happenings in foreign parts, the royals, or the joy of having a pet (she was a cat person herself). She regarded my father with a kind of bemused tolerance. It was as if she’d taken it upon herself to plug this tall pale man with his head in the stratosphere into the world. 

My father and I never discussed why we felt uncomfortable around Miss Cook but I suspect it had to do with the way she laced even the most inane event with a faintly lascivious tone. Her concern for the moral decay of the world seemed bound up in an indecent lust for its details. Thanks to Miss Cook I knew more than most people my age about a recent report into the nefarious activities of youth in Petone, wherever that was. I knew what they’d got up to (no good) and that working mothers, contraceptives and a general decline in morals were to blame. And I knew that on learning of this report, planeloads of young men intent on having a crack at this no good had flown from all over the world to sample the fleshpots of Petone. 

On another occasion Miss Cook gave us a blow-by-blow account of the murder of a mother by two girls my age, one being the daughter, even though the crime had taken place well over a decade ago. 

As I grew older, the pinkish little plump gossip with the violet wash in her hair took to regarding me in a squirmy way. One day she called me comely, presumably a description meant as a compliment, but her accompanying stare was so avid, I just felt hot and awkward. Now whenever I hear the word comely applied to a woman, and it’s only ever applied to a woman, I know it’s code for big tits and fuckable bod. Beside me, I sensed my father cringing with embarrassment. 

Today, as usual she retrieved the newspaper lying on the lawn, and called to us as we passed. 

‘Look at you.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Such a foreigner,’ she said pointing her rolled-up paper in the direction of the large brimmed felt hat worn by my father. ‘Not many Kiwis wear a hat at seven in the morning. Or gloves for that matter.’ 

She herself wore a floral house coat and had her purplish hair pinched into tight curls. 

‘Ah yes, I suppose not.’ My father had the fair skin of the redhead so had spent most of his adult life avoiding the fierce New Zealand sun. Nan said I was lucky to have my mother’s colouring though I couldn’t see what was so great about sallow mustard. 

‘I’ll come with you. I need butter for my sausage rolls,’ she said, closing the low metal mesh gate behind her. ‘The pastry. Rich and buttery, the way I like it, so I use rather a lot.’ She took a deep breath and exhaled. I smelt something doughy and sour. She leaned her face toward my father, her voice dropped. 

‘Awful news about that 14-year-old boy who killed his sister. I heard it was because she wouldn’t have –’ she inhaled an indecent squelch of air through clenched front teeth ‘– relations with him.’ She paused. ‘If you get my drift.’ 

No one spoke for at least the length of two lamp-posts. I kept my eyes on Martha and was thankful for the blameless eagerness of a dog. ‘Hard to credit it. A young lad. Just a boy.’ Miss Cook tipped her head back and regarded my father, who looked pained and confused right now. ‘I hope you’ve warned that lovely daughter of yours about young men and their ways.’ As if I wasn’t there. 
My father specialized in non-committal responses at the best of times, most especially to Miss Cook, but this time he roused himself to defend me. 

‘Fortunately I don’t have to worry about Gina.’ 

‘Surely surely. All the same – it’s the boys you have to watch. They can barely contain themselves, some of them.’ 

My father hesitated. ‘Oh well yes. Yes I suppose. But we feel certain… I mean, Gina, she’s very sensible.’ 

‘Not just boys either, sometimes men. Men with lollies stopping children on the street. You know, those men.’ 

‘Ah yes, yes, those men,’ said my father and I wondered if he was as mystified as I was. 

‘And what about those artists claiming they need a nude model? I’ve heard about that happening. Luring young girls off the street.’ 

‘Oh that’s just ridiculous,’ said my father, finally goaded to respond. ‘Artists need models.’ 

‘Sitting in the altogether so some man can draw all your bits and pieces. No thank you.’ 

‘Oh Miss Cook…’ 

‘And then next thing you know you’ve got all that naked carry-on hanging on a public wall. Imagine people staring at a huge painting of someone’s sister or mother. Or daughter,’ she added. ‘In the flesh.’ 

My father groaned, muttered something about scare-mongering but his voice faded away. Miss Cook would never be persuaded. 
She let out a damp sigh. ‘It’s a pity she doesn’t have brothers to look out for her. Girls have to be so careful at this age.’ 

On and on she rattled until the welcome sight of a dairy swallowed her up. We both felt a loosening of spirits when that happened. All the same, for once I was thankful for meeting Miss Cook. She’d given me the perfect opening. 



Yvonne van Dongen is a freelance journalist, travel writer and editor. She is the author of two non-fiction books and numerous travel articles, some of which have won awards. However she says doing the 2016 MA at the IIML made everything she’s done to date seem shamefully easy. This work is an excerpt from her novel, Girlhood, submitted for her MA.