Chapter 4

Allowance and Family Holidays


Over the 1970s white round laminate family dinner table, my sisters and I signed for our weekly allowance. Mum sat opposite us on a white plastic swivel chair with red vinyl seat pads, her wall calendar open and turned towards us, her index finger pointing to a Wednesday where we would initial to formalise receipt of our allowance.

Allowance collection was like a meeting with a bank manager or lawyer. Mum, the lawyer, would point at a Wednesday and without visible emotion state “Sign here”, and we would sign; both parties remained near silent throughout the process. If multiple unpaid Wednesdays accumulated, she would flip her calendar to the next month and state and point, “And here. And here. And here and here,” occasionally releasing a barely audible sigh of defeat. But mostly, she was blank. And always tired. There was no small talk, just pointing, confirming and signing. Mum was paid on a Wednesday so we were paid on a Wednesday. “The money comes in and the money goes out,” she would say.

Because in the country there was nowhere to spend our allowance, it often accumulated and we would sign and collect for a big purchase or event.

It was easy being a kid and collecting an allowance. We did little to earn it. We made our beds, set the table or wiped dishes, and if we did a poor job Mum would take over after repeating her maxim: “If you want something done properly, then you’ve gotta do it yourself.” She would dry the dishes at double speed which was the same speed she did everything, including driving.

Cars used to have a bell that rang when drivers went over 110km/hr. Mum had it removed. Her rushing around made up for my father’s slow pace. Dad didn’t do housework, he sat in the adult lounge reading the newspaper, smoking Benson and Hedges cigarettes and watching television.

I remember signing weeks of Wednesdays for enough cash to go with friends to the Winter Show in Halstead, a temporary fun park with dubiously assembled fun rides named the Gravatron, Superloop and Explorer.

As I signed for the cash, Mum kept up her tired commandments in relation to my spending money at the Winter Show. “Such a waste of money,” she would say. “A fool and his money is soon parted.”
She said these like her word was fact.

I didn’t understand how paying for entertainment and being with friends was equal to “just throwing your money away.”

Mum’s sayings were not offered for discussion, they were the truth, sometimes said softly and without emphasis to insidiously sneak into our cognisance. “You’ll have nothing to show for it,” was my mother’s financial advice, which implied we should buy stuff, which I didn’t understand. I never thought of my parents as materialistic, they were never extravagant or pretentious.

Dad bought a new car every other year but beyond this indulgence, I don’t remember big purchases. If something broke, it was replaced but never upgraded for the sake of having the latest technology. They didn’t care about status symbols and impressing other people – they were too socially isolated for that, and beyond nine family, including cousins, aunties and grandparents who lived in different cities, few visitors came to the house to impress. My parents socialised with the same sets of friends on a quarterly or biannual basis.

When visiting adults’ places, kids were expected to go outside and play.

I remember being dragged to one couple’s house an hour and a half away in Moana Waiwai, and after lunch I had returned inside to get more food off the table. Mum, Dad and the couple were sitting in what felt like awkward silence.

“It’s so quiet in here, no one is talking,” I observed, and my mother smiled in a way that made her look happy and gentle, but I could see she was strained and uncomfortable. She said something like, “Adults don’t have to talk all the time,” as if she were relaxed, but I could see her picking at her nails under the table. I knew she found socialising awkward and so did I. I was annoyed because my sisters and I had to play outside with kids that might’ve been our age but weren’t our friends. The only thing we had in common was we were alive. What my parents had in common with their friends was they voted for the National party, bought the same cars, researched family genealogy and collected antiques. Because it wasn’t a waste of money to collect antiques.

My parents’ idea of a summer holiday was to frequent antique shops in search of their Royal Doulton pattern, The Gleaners.

During the summer months, long weekends and holidays, we drove up and down New Zealand’s North Island searching for their coveted Gleaners. While other families settled into a bach on the coast and swam at the beach, barbecued in the evening and walked on the beach as the sun went down, our family stopped in small towns and scoured antique shop shelves for expensive redundant breakables, hoping to spot a plate, jug or tea cup and saucer.

The Gleaners pattern is forever etched into my mind. It’s a variation on the same old-English scene. On a light yellow-brown background are different arrangements of the same people and objects: an oak tree, a woman and girl dragging a bale of hay or corn, a boy kneeling with a corn bale, a man in a field, a woman and boy pulling a sledge, a boy balancing corn on one shoulder, and a man leading a donkey.
Antique shop proprietors’ ancient fat little diabetic dogs sat in baskets behind the counter or at the shop’s front entrance. Every time we entered a shop Mum reminded us, “Don’t touch anything and don’t run around.” And we would creep through narrow aisles with tightly packed shelves past cabinets that rattled when we walked and through dimly lit spaces that smelt musty and of deeply polished wood.

Mum and Dad had plenty of The Gleaners antique plates, what they coveted from deep in their being was an unchipped cup and saucer or a rare jug.

An eager-to-please child, I would search for the gypsy woman and her bundles. Sometimes finding something, with self-satisfied excitement I would rush to Mum and Dad and describe what I had seen. Mum would play it cool but I recognised her excitement-containing smirk, not quite ready to believe I had found the longed-for object. Dad would show no expression, because he never did, and, because he was deaf in one ear, chances were he hadn’t heard me – I would marvel at how my overweight father navigated his large stomach through the narrow corridors without knocking over a five thousand dollar Chinese urn.
Once the Gleaners item was located in a dark section of the shop, the grey-haired owner would produce a key from around their neck and, with reverence befitting the object’s price tag, remove it from its glass display case and present it to my parents like it was the last of its kind on earth. Mum and Dad would examine the antique for hairline fractures, crazing, cracks or chips, and if the antique passed inspection it would be purchased and wrapped in tissue paper, cradled home to be placed on a concealed clear plastic stand and displayed in one of three locked wooden glass display cabinets, much like the wooden cabinets in the antique shops. On the back of each antique on a white sticker, Mum wrote the price and date of purchase. The newly acquired antique stood tranquil and imprisoned in its new cabinet, reunited with its plate, vase and bowl kin, waiting to go up in value.

“Why do you have them?” I would ask. “They just sit in the cabinet.”

“I like to look at them,” Mum would say. “They are a good investment.”

Over the years Mum and I have repeated this conversation, and as we’ve aged, laughter has crept into our repetitive banter, each finding amusement in the perceived thoughts of the other. I don’t know why Mum laughs. I laugh because I wonder if The Gleaners have increased in value and if she ever “likes to look at them.” I’m pretty sure she doesn’t stand in front of the cabinet wondering about the old-English scenes. I see

impractical stuff, not an investment waiting to mature so my parents have additional money in retirement but no youthful body or energised mind to enjoy it. My parents could die before retiring and The Gleaners would be indifferent to their plight.

What I kind of understood was the mind of the collector and the thrill of the hunt. But mostly I didn’t get the point. Collecting felt like gambling or stoking a compulsive disorder leading to an adulthood plagued by neuroses. I saw plates and jugs with pictures of a tired looking gypsy; a woman with a sore back from a life carrying a bundle of hay, feeling she was trapped or locked into a working-class life she couldn’t rise above. I knew if The Gleaners got smashed they would be worth nothing and so did Mum. “Here one day, gone tomorrow,” my mother would say. It was a flippant remark she applied to loss to avoid grieving.

My parents drove around New Zealand to buy other sought-after antiques including Matchbox cars, small toy cars from the 1950s I put in the nostalgic childhood memorabilia category. My father had two thousand Matchbox cars displayed in custom-made rimu wood cases with glass sliding doors overlooking a pool table in the rarely used games room. The collection started with his childhood cars.

As a warm-up to family holidays, a family weekend favourite was to watch Antiques Roadshow, a television programme set in England in gardens of stately homes or castles. Ordinary people bring antiques to experts for valuation. Some antiques prove extremely valuable, surprising the owners who say they will never sell Grandma Mabel’s ten-thousand-pound antique diamond ring because it’s a family heirloom. “It’s priceless to us,” they say, but I see greed flicker in their eyes and know after the show they’ll be heading directly to Sotheby’s Auction House.

Watching Antiques Roadshow resulted in a life-long addiction to the programme and fascination with the experts’ depth of knowledge on otherwise redundant subject matter. The experts talk in excitable detail about the Royal Doulton factory or the history of doll making, subjects that without their contagious enthusiasm would be dull. Ellie, my partner, hates the programme but I know one day she will regret her disdain for the show when I return from the Salvation Army second hand shop with a Rothschild Fabergé egg I purchased for one dollar. Because I won’t be finding it in an antique shop; since my childhood family holidays, I have refused to set foot in one.

As a special bonus treat, included in the family holiday itinerary were visits to museums. One year our antique-and-museum road trip took us north through small coastal towns with crowded beaches on the East Coast of the North Island.

During the busy summer months of December and January, traffic at popular beaches practically grinds to a halt.

The traffic, moving at walking pace, frustrated my parents but I loved it. I had a glimpse into another life. I was the only one in our family who liked beaches and suntans, compounding my suspicion I was switched at birth or had a different father. Driving along beach parades I vicariously absorbed the summer festivities from the car window. It was like watching a beautiful yet sad movie about how I missed the best summer ever, brought to me in 3D, emphasised in full colour, with the new technology of real heat.

“Sand in your sandwiches,” Mum would say about a day at the beach. “The sand gets in your togs and up your bum.” I don’t know how she swam in the water or sat on the sand.

Bumper to car bumper we crawled, heading away from the sea breeze to a stinky museum or antique shop. Outside the car barefoot children licked melting ice-creams while running and leaping from one grass patch to another, avoiding burnt feet from scorching asphalt. Kids on bikes snaked through groups walking towards beach access ways. Steady lines of foot traffic entered and exited dairies with cold drinks and food. Old English gypsies carried bales of hay and corn while leading donkeys and tying them to oak trees. Stiff-salty-haired surfies ate fish and chips, looking so relaxed they appeared drugged. People moving in stress-free slow motion wore towels around their waists and floppy straw hats or caps. Young kids stood in togs drenched with sleepy heat gazing into their thoughts, knowing how special these summer days were.

And we drove out of town to learn about the English settlers and their living conditions in 1864.

My seat was behind the driver. Dad, the driver, smoked and never wore deodorant, a point of amusement to all car occupants but me. Dictated by birth order, my younger sister sat in the middle and practically on my lap because our oldest sister – who did not like anyone, least of all herself – could not bear to have any of Sam’s body parts touch her. If Sam’s foot strayed from the middle hump on the floor there would be arguments, but I had no problem with Sam leaning on me; in fact, we played “push-me,” a game where around tight left corners Sam pressed hard against me, squashing me into the car door overemphasising the g-force of a turn.

“Oh, this traffic,” Mum would complain.

All I wanted was to go to the beach and get sand up my bum. All Mum and Dad wanted to do was get out of the “hustle and bustle” to the calm dark and cool sanctuary of a museum, thinking themselves smart visiting museums during the summer weeks, avoiding the “crowds.”

Historians and volunteers, already halfway to the crypt, would take our museum entry fee and tell us to enjoy ourselves. While Mum and Dad viewed photos and read placards, enraptured by how the first family in Kerikeri built their house from local sandstone and how the stone store was flooded during unprecedented rainfalls of 1874, 1876 and 1981, my younger sister and I pushed display and diorama buttons, seeking anything interactive with noise or movement. I would push a button over and over so that a dummy behind a glass window with empty eyes dressed in period costume repeated the first few words of a pre-recorded sentence and made a rap, “Hello I am, Hello I am, Hello, Hello, Hello I am.”

Inevitably, boredom caused us to misbehave and find something trivial to laugh at.

“Your husband is the man with the beard in that photo,” I would say to Sam and point at a black and white photo of a man who looked one hundred years old but was probably only forty. He would be surrounded by eleven children and a dour wife, all dressed as if attending a funeral.

“That’s your baby,” and Sam would point at a creepy plastic baby doll looking to be wearing lipstick dressed in a long white gown in a wooden cot behind a low metal barrier.

The displays’ themes were always the same: “typical” nineteenth century life. I wondered how long it would take for our “typical” 1980s life to go on display in a museum. I pitied the future kids forced to come indoors from the sun and see a display of a “typical” family holiday; a staged scene of a family at a beach or our family visiting a museum.

Museums weren’t all boring, Sam and I did have our favourite museum sections. With morbid curiosity we would gravitate to the dentist or doctor display to examine pain-inflicting instruments. The mock-ups were mini torture chambers projecting stories of horror with ancient steel and cracked-leather chairs and trays of instruments. Sometimes there was a dummy dressed as a psychopathic dentist.

All museums smelt like the look of a sepia-tone photograph: dusty carpet, polished mahogany wood and the dark and forgotten. Museums attempted to make us understand and care about the past, but when the sun was shining and kids our age were frolicking in the waves adding a layer of burn to their already golden skin, it was difficult to care about the kinds of washing machines used in the nineteen-twenties or products sold in a general store one hundred years ago presented to us in a dimly-lit mothballed ye-olde-time museum.

Mum tried to make museums more fun by encouraging postcard collecting from each museum gift shop. Old people behind the counter took our dollar-fifty and stared back through cataract eyes. I would look at the liver spots on their hands and smell their stale food-trapped-in-dentures breath. Death feels close around old people.

One museum was like the next. It was as if my parents were nostalgic for a more difficult New Zealand when people hand-washed their clothes and had no electricity. It was as if they wanted to return to a time when stores stocked cod-liver oil and baking products were measured from tall glass jars onto steel weight scales.

I just wanted to go to the beach.

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