Vivienne Plumb writes poetry, fiction and drama, and is based in Auckland. During 2014 she held (with Frankie McMillan) the Ursula Bethall writing residency position at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch. She has been the recipient of many awards such as the Bruce Mason Playwrighting Award, the Hubert Church Prose ‘Best First Book’ award, the Sargeson Fellowship, and a University of Iowa writing residency. She has a Doctor of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong, Australia.
Vivienne Plumb 2014
We sat in our heavy red cotton bloomers and tunics. All girls doing Physical Education had been requested to report to class in the school hall. In the hall we had to sit still and listen to a local police officer who talked to us about accepting lifts with strangers. He told us a story: a girl accepted a lift with a stranger, and her dead body was found in dense scrub two years later. After the talk, when the boys and girls classes had mixed together, Denise Fox asked Michael Cassamento what the police officer had talked to the boys about. Road rules and that sorta stuff, he said. You mean if you were driving a car? Yes, he answered.
Generally, boys and girls did gym in their separate all-boys and all-girls classes, but that particular day Mrs Hutton was teaching us how to dance the Pride of Erin. This seemed like an old-fashioned dance we would never be able to use, except maybe working as an actor in a television period costume drama. At the end of the dance class the girls were requested to join together once more and go back over the main points that the police officer had given us:
- Say no thanks
- Scream if assaulted and make a lot of noise.
- If you are in a position to do nothing else, then observe everything around you. Memorise the offender’s face and any identifying marks such as moles, tattoos or scars. Memorise any pertinent facts about the inside of the car.
- Dial 111
Denise Fox and I rolled our eyes at each other. We were always being told stuff like that because we were girls.
I once accepted a lift with a stranger after I missed the bus to primary school. I was running for the bus but it went right past and didn’t stop. As I stood at the bus stop sobbing, a woman drove up in old Jag and said, I saw what happened, would you like a lift to the school? She said, I just took my daughter, Caroline, to the school and I don’t mind driving back there. I got into her car, although I had been told not to accept lifts with strangers. I wanted to believe that what she said was true. The inside of the car was knee-deep in fawn upholstery, far up the scale from my father’s old Renault. I stopped crying. In the middle of the steering wheel there was a fancy gold piece of filigree. I liked her car. She offered me a tissue from a box she had in the glove box. It was one of those travel boxes of tissues. We didn’t use paper tissues in our house, we couldn’t afford such luxuries. I took the tissue even although I had been told not to accept gifts from strangers. The woman drove me to the school. Thank you, I said. I was in time for the first bell.
I would often endure excruciating toothache. One half of my face would be swollen and sore. It might be the right or the left, it might be upper or lower. We didn’t have much money. My mother wouldn’t send me to the dentist until I was writhing on the bedroom floor in agony, howling and groaning. Most of the time she preferred to dab a brown concoction on my teeth. It came in a dark green bottle with a red screw lid. I don’t know what it was called, my sister and I called it the Brown Tooth Stuff. It smelt bitter, like bark and old leaves boiled up and left to stand for a while. It was a medicinal smell. It was strong enough to stain the sink and the floor, if spilt. Where did my mother get this liquid? When applied to the teeth it numbed the pain, leaving a strong, sour taste in your mouth. The name on the label was written in French. My sister told me that, as she was learning French at school. If my father saw my mother applying this liquid to my teeth he would become furious, and say, that’s not dealing with the source of the problem. My mother would look guilty. She might falter, and ring the dentist to make an appointment. We all entertained our own fears. Mine was the fear of pain in my mouth, and ultimately, the fear of the dentist and his drill. My mother feared what my father would say. He was the only one who could influence her.
At school assembly we were told that a man had been offering sweets to children outside Devo’s, which was the shop opposite the entrance to the school. The proprietor’s name was Mr Devon and so we called the shop ‘Devo’s’. Mr Devon was a mean old bastard who sold sweets and pies, candy bars and sticky drinks, licorice straps, ice creams, and sausage rolls and iced finger buns. He delivered pies and sausage rolls on order to the school every day. If you were in the shop trying to decide what sweets to buy, he would tell you to hurry up. He wore a scraggy old cardigan even in the heat of summer and had hair coming out of his nose. We hated Devo but he didn’t care, while he was supplying the goods, he held the power.
At the assembly we were told not to accept sweets from strangers, not to talk to strangers, and to walk straight to school and not to linger. We were never told why these people wandered the streets offering sweeties to children. My friend, Helen Pickleberry, seemed to know more about it. The lollies might be drugged, she told me. That was a revelation. I waited for a drugged lolly to be offered to me so I would be able to blatantly refuse it. Needless to say, that never happened.
My father grew up in the country and remained a country boy at heart. He loved the trees and the animals, insects and birds and flowers. While other neighbours grew roses and chrysanthemums, he was planting native bushes and trees around our house. We had wattle, banksia and waratah. He always said of creepy spiders and other crawling reptiles, and flying fruit bats, they are probably more scared of you than you are frightened of them. Then he would coax whatever it was into a container and carefully place it back outside to roam the world and live to terrorise me another day.
Open ‘public’ spaces felt safe to me when I was a child. The bush felt safe if I did as my father told me and made sure I took water and matches and a jacket. My love of walking took me across many terrains, including highways and cities. Inside the house, I enjoyed discovering strange spaces where I could hide and no one could find me. I climbed on top of the big wardrobe and also underneath the bunk bed. I preferred small spaces that I could poke my body into. I sat in my cubby on top of the wardrobe with a drink and some biscuits and read books and drew maps and plans. My mother entered the bedroom, she was looking for me. I held my breath and watched. ‘Where is she?’ my mother said out loud to herself. Her perplexed expression made me want to laugh. ‘Spooky! She has vanished into thin air!’ she said and left.
My mother declined to discuss fear. She preferred to talk about the moments when we had stared fear in the face, dealt with it, and moved on. Experience is a great educator, was one of her countless mottos. But I was a cowering sop ready to admit that I was scared right from the beginning. I cried a lot. Sometimes my sister kicked me, pushed me, or placed a sticky hand over my mouth and told me to ‘shut up or I’ll blow you to smithereens’. My way of coping with anything was to wade naively in. Once I reached the middle and realised what I had got myself into, then I would begin to panic, the panic would generate activity, the activity would attract attention, and then someone would come to my rescue. Or not.
Sometimes the fear can saturate you. You can feel your heart pumping and the adrenalin pouring in, but you can still be frozen, like a ‘roo in front of the headlights.
Because I am a woman, I am often asked if I would like a ride ‘right to the door’. I am asked if I will be ‘all right’ getting home on public transport at night. I am surprised at the number of women who dislike walking the streets at night. I have always been a night walker. In the summer, it is wonderful to walk at night when the air is cool, or even in the early morning. Because I am a woman, I have been told to shut the gate, lock the door, put a pair of men’s gumboots outside the front door, keep the ground floor windows shut, make sure I have an outside light, not to bother answering the door to strangers, never to let anyone in the house I do not know, particularly if it is a male, not to allow people inside to use my telephone, never to offer a cup of tea, and not to wear clothes that look too ‘sexy’. On the other hand, I should not dress ‘like a bag’, or ‘like a Sunday School teacher’. I should not linger in public places. I should make sure I stand in a pool of light at the bus stop or on the railway station, but I should not speak to men, never accept lifts with strangers, and never accept lifts from men, especially if there are more than one male in the car.
My first sexual experience was in a car. It was after the school ball. We didn’t go ‘all the way’, but we went close to it. I have noticed that cars are popular spaces to engage in sex, considering they can also be so uncomfortable.
My father had a second cousin of some sort who used to come and visit. He was related somehow, although I never knew how. He was an older man, single, and he drove a big stationwagon. This was before my father bought his Renault. And this relative, so-called Uncle Stanley, used to take us for drives and buy us ice creams. He was someone we knew. He gave us lollies and we were allowed to eat them. Years later, my sister confessed to me that Uncle Stanley had felt her up and taken photos of her when she was getting changed out of her swimming togs. We had been told we should like him. We had been told we should like him because he bought us ice cream and took us for drives to places we had no money to go, like the beach. But I realised that I had never much liked him at all.