Topic: Sanctuary by Mary Bell Thornton

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Sanctuary is a 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition entry by Mary Bell Thornton

Archived version here.

Sanctuary at Poet's Farm Mauriceville 1975

Jemima didn’t stir when I stroked the stray blonde strands from her face and kissed her cheek.  Her sleeping should have filled me with confidence; I felt anything but.  My belongings were in transit from Takaka where my seven-year marriage had reached its loveless conclusion. 

Malcolm and Jean Stuart, long time friends of my parents had offered me refuge at Poet’s Farm in Mauriceville West, one of several run-offs bought for extra grazing.   I’d driven over the Rimutaka from my mother’s in Waikanae to the home farm in Rangitumau, north of Masterton, and picked up the key.   I refused the invitation to stay the night en route, knowing it would lessen my resolve to live on my own.  So I drove the 17 kilometres to Poet’s Farm at the end of a gravel road, with three-year-old Jemima, enough bedding, clothing and food to see us through the next few days.

My two sons were to stay with their father until the end of the Christmas holidays.  We arrived just as the rain stopped.  The grass around the house was taller than Jemima. Cowpats littered the crumbling concrete path and a huge unshorn sheep was making no impression at all on the wilderness.  How I wished I’d packed our gumboots.  Jemima’s pretty sandals and my leather Romans were hardly the right footwear for country girls.

I was tired after a long, emotional day.  I rummaged in my bag for my book and pyjamas and climbed into my sleeping bag on the bed next to hers, hoping a read would still my racing mind.  The beds had come with the house.

I’d visited the cottage once when it was home to a newly-wed son of the Stuarts.  It had proved too remote and small for their needs.  The cottage was more run down than I imagined.  However, it was weather proof and, in January at least it felt warm.  There was an old cream and green wood range in the corner of the kitchen and an open fire in the lounge.   I tried to look past the green peeling paint and pink Feltex tacked on the floor of the lounge and instead took stock of the near-new electric stove, the old chesterfield suite, the piano, the huge kitchen table, the oak sideboard and the clattery old fridge that, I had been assured, worked like a dream. 

Apart from the kids’ beds and dressing tables, my sewing machine and our personal belongings, I hadn’t salvaged a lot from my marital home.  I didn’t want reminders.

I put my book down and turned off the light as it was attracting the big porina moths that bumbled around the room and dive-bombed the white pages of my book.  I was plunged into darkness.  There was no moon and no streetlights and no glimmer of lights from our only neighbours within two kilometres who lived out of sight up a hill.

My ears rang in the unexpected silence, except it wasn’t silent.  There was something or someone outside. I sat up.  The hairs on the back of my neck pricked.  My eyes ached staring into the black void.  My heart threatened to burst my rib cage, my face burned, sweat ran off my elbows.  I was terrified.  I heard footsteps scrunch on the gravel path… there was no gravel path.  Surely that was the heavy breathing of a-would-be rapist.

Jemima stirred and settled again.  I could hear her sucking her thumb.  Oh, to have such a comfort.  I sat stiff, not daring to move.  The catches on the sash windows had long since ceased to catch so whoever it was under my window would surely lift it and we would be found where we lay, raped and with our throats cut.  Then I remembered the sheep.  I listened hard, and sure enough footprints and heavy breathing became the munching and burping of the browsing sheep.

I was dying to go the toilet, but still wasn’t brave enough to get out of bed.  The toilet was out the back of the cottage through the lounge and kitchen, down what must have once been an outside step, across the concrete floor of the boot room where the farmers and their six kids would have taken off their mucky gumboots, hung up their oilskins and washed their hands in the large china hand basin. The toilet was up a step through a tongue and groove door.  The high copper cistern with a chain appealed to my love of old things, and it might as well have been sitting on top ofMount Everestfor the hope of my getting there.

I jumped as the old fridge rattled into life.  I took no comfort in its mechanical presence and keeping my back to the wall, listened to Jemima’s steady breathing and tried to take my mind off my full bladder.

Morning finally came.  We got up and dressed and went on an explore.  It had seemed a good idea to come to Mauriceville.  Danish settlers, brought out under Julius Vogel’s Public Works and Immigration scheme to clear the Forty Mile Bush and build the railway up to Manawatu in the 1870s, established the area.  The promised 40 acres of land for each settler was bush-clad hilly country that needed clearing and breaking in.  Poet’s Farm was the block owned by a bachelor poet, Lars Schou, whose corrugated iron shack and slab shed still stand on the property. Much of his original writing survived the mice and was salvaged.

The cows whose pats spattered the path were now in the next-door paddock.  They gathered at the fence, chewing their cud and followed us with large brown eyes.  Across from the back porch, an out building stretched the width of the house.  A dairy at one end had mesh windows; storage shelves for preserves and cheeses and hooks for hanging bacon.  Jemima commandeered it at once as a playhouse. 

A rodent-infested room with two rotten outside walls bravely stood at the other end, destined, courtesy of two re-clad walls, to be the boys’ bedroom, and a regular shed complete with a workbench and garden tools nestled in between.   I found a shovel in the shed and set to scraping the path clear of cow dung.

Beyond the sheds, a large overgrown vegetable garden presented a new challenge.  I had no idea how or where I was going to make an income. 

It was 1975.  I received the universal family benefit every week and I had been given half of my teacher-husband’s holiday pay; around $300.  When that ran out a few weeks later I applied for the newly established Domestic Purposes Benefit at the Social Welfare Department in Masterton.  I was granted the Emergency Unemployment Benefit, ‘until your maintenance payments are sorted out.’  That $84 per week was my income for the next two years when I started a new phase in my life and no longer needed financial help.

The vegetable garden, I realised, would be paramount to our survival.  I found a spade in the shed and turned my first sod.  The soil was rich and friable.  That first spadeful yielded a host of potatoes.  I fetched a fork and a bucket and dug some for our tea.  Over the next several weeks I dug enough potatoes for tea every day.  I’d not long since had a hysterectomy and the slow progress through the vegetable patch helped regain my strength.   

There was an old push mower in the shed.  I looked at it and looked at the grass and knew the meaning of impossible.  Malcolm Stuart offered me the use of a motor mower and, after a lesson on starting and mowing technique; I set to with a will. My gumboots had arrived and I was relishing a growing pride in establishing myself as a pioneering woman.  I had to tilt the mower onto its back wheels and lower the blade down over a patch of grass.  Two or three tiltings, with raking in between, and it was cut short enough to move forward a mower length.  All in all it took me three days and even then the grass looked more chewed than mown. 

Jemima was good at amusing herself and her fascination with her bovine friends more than made up for the absence of her brothers.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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Sanctuary by Mary Bell Thornton

Note:Mary Bell Thornton has had non-fiction, fiction and poetry published. Her works include several stories broadcast on Radio New Zealand. Mary’s writing room The Fo’c’s’le, nestles amongst manuka, ponga and houhere and looks out over Kenepuru Sound where she lives in retirement with her husband Peter. She writes surrounded by the song of tui, korimako, piwakawaka, shining cuckoo, a plethora of sea birds and the thrum of kereru wings. With no mains power and no road, life moves at a leisurely, creative pace.