Pukeahu Anthology

Little Houses

Robin Hyde was born as Iris Wilkinson in Cape Town in 1906 and moved to Wellington with her family as a baby. She went on to become an important novelist, poet, and journalist. In this passage from her autobiographical novel, The Godwits Fly (1938), Hyde vividly evokes what life around Pukeahu / Mount Cook was like for a young family in the early decades of the twentieth century, as well as a sense of the associations of nearby Newtown, Melrose, and Haining Street.

John’s swearing started at Melrose. Carly said it was awful, but the children were fascinated by it, though Carly afterwards spent distracted hours warning Sandra, ‘You mustn’t ever say that, or the Devil will get you.’

‘Damn and blast your bicycles,’ he shouted, ‘I’m sick of riding your damn-and-blasted bicycles. Damn and blast your hills. I won’t go on living on a precipice to please you. We’re going down to the flat.’

‘Before your own children. . .’

‘Damn and blast my children. I didn’t ask to have children.’

Augusta changed her tack. ‘We can’t live in town. You know perfectly well the rents are too high.’

‘Then we can live in Newtown.’

‘That slum . . . I suppose I can bring your children up in a hovel, with a public-house next door, and a lot of dirty, drunken loafers hanging over your gate. Or perhaps you’d like Haining Street? The hill air’s healthy for your children.’

‘Then bring up your children on your damn-and-blasted precipice. I’m going out.’

Slam of a door, and John was gone; during these quarrels, Carly, Eliza and Sandra automatically became ‘your children’ to both sides. Augusta said dramatically, ‘You’re responsible for bringing them into this world,’ and their father, darkly, ‘Oh, I am, am I?’

House in Haining Street, Wellington, 1937.
House in Haining Street, Wellington, 1937.
Photographer: Bruce Elwyn. PAColl-6013-3-01. Alexander Turnbull Library.

‘Where’s Haining Street?’ Eliza asked Carly. Carly looked important and nervous.

‘It’s the place where the Chinese dens are. Don’t tell Mummy I told you. We’re not supposed to talk about it.’

‘What’s a Chinese den?’

‘Don’t talk so loud. You always go and blurt everything out.’ Carly was on the verge of tears, so Eliza said, ‘Oh, all right,’ and sauntered away, trying to imagine the man who came round at the back door, selling French beans and wilted lettuces, sitting on a concrete floor like a lion with slim steel bars blackening his face. She found Carly’s doll, Mrs Trimble, lying on the steps above the wallflower patch, and shook it gently, so that its round scarred head wagged from side to side. ‘Damn and blast my children,’ she said, ‘I didn’t ask to have children.’ But she said it softly; Augusta would use the hairbrush if she knew.

Strife among the Hannays made the illuminated texts rattle, and little Mr Hostler, in his meek and mild way, protested to John. That gave him the excuse he was looking for. He wouldn’t stay another day under a roof where he’d been insulted. He looked fierce, all red and thin and flamy-eyed, when he was in this mood, and Augusta gave in.

Immediately John was charming again. Carly, Eliza, and Sandra were ‘the children’, and even ‘our children’, and he said happily that in Newtown he could take them to the Zoo and the pictures.

‘And bring home a lot of germs. And where’s the money for pictures coming from, may I ask?’

‘Oh, look on the bright side for once,’ demanded John, impatiently. Again Eliza felt secretly that he was right, and hoped they were going to live in Haining Street, among the Chinese dens. But there were no Chinese at all in Newbold Street. Rows and rows of grimy little streets and terraces, mostly very flat, crawled listlessly from the shopping centre and the big concrete block of the hospital to the green garment’s hem of the bay. Newtown in its half-century of life had contrived to get itself very dirty: and it was static, nothing there would change. Always little houses, little shops, the tramway sheds, the Heddington Arms, with a tower on the top and orange paper flowers showing through unwashed windows. Where it fused with Town, near the Basin Reserve which had been under water until an earthquake tossed it up, it was a melting-pot of Asiatic shops and quarters, narrow wooden houses in which old Chinese smoked opium and cut greasy cards, or thin-legged, great-eye Hindoos carried on their business as small fruiterers, ripening bananas under their beds. The Orientals were merely Oriental, and too poor for elaboration; white slatterns had settled down among them, like a covey of gulls on ship’s waste.

Stepping down from the hills was a blow from which Augusta took years to recover. It used up all her softness, all she had in hand besides fortitude and pride. Whenever she won some little advantage, a neighbour who could be called ‘nice,’ a patch of lawn, a few yards of garden which John refused to dig, something went wrong; and the furniture-van, drawn by the sage old heavy-breathing horses, pulled up outside their doors again. Sparrows picked at the heaps of manure, children bright-eyed and feckless as sparrows ran past with bare legs and drippy noses, while Augusta stood on the pavement shrieking, ‘Mind that table!’ John lost the bicycle, but on the flats caught rheumatism, bibliomania and politics, none of which he could afford. Augusta’s children were never slum children: she dominated John where his pay envelopes were concerned, though it cost her her youth. They caught minor diseases, measles and scarlartina, and Eliza cried terribly at the slightest pain. But Augusta, usually severe with them, could not bring herself to shut Eliza’s mouth with a strap.