The movie Cousins is adapted from the 1992 novel by Patricia Grace about three cousins — Mata, Makareta and Missy — who are thrown together as girls but are then separated by circumstances. This is an extract from the book.
The kids sang it through the spaces in the boards, softly enough so that she could pretend not to hear. An eye moved behind a knot hole and she turned her head so as not to see it, turned on the stool, turned her back.
The woman in the thready dress, swinging the knob on the chimney, was her aunty. She had a pretty face, smiling with gappy teeth, smooth as though she could be young, younger than her dress.
“Get in here, you kids, and stop getting smart. Bring wood, Chumchum. Missy, bring that baby and get the washing, get her a jersey too.” Aunty moved a pot over to the side of the range and shifted a tin across.
The boy came in, put wood on the hearth and stood brushing himself, swivelling his eyes and turning his mouth down at her.
“Stop that,” his mother said, clipping the side of his head with her hand.
“Only me been looking after Bubba,” the girl behind him said, “Bubba done mimi, Bubba done tutae,” and Aunty stamped her foot, sending the girl out to the clothesline.
“Give Bubba to Mata,” she said.
The baby stank, and her name wasn’t Mata. Why did her aunty keep calling her Mata, which didn’t sound like a name at all — sounded like a noise instead, or butter. She didn’t like people making up names who had cheeky brats for children and a stinken baby, but she was too shy to say anything about her name.
Now Aunty was smiling again, “There, Bubba, your cousin Mata, see.”
“My name. Like on my bag,” she said, showing the label, “May Parker”.
“I saw, but I thought . . . So that’s your name?”
“My sister called you Mata.”
Stinken was a bad word and if kids were heard saying it at the Home, matron would put soap in their mouths, or they’d have to bend over with their bottoms bare and get whacked with the cane. At meal-time they’d have to read the Bible while the others had tea. While she was on holiday she wasn’t to forget to read the Lord’s word, to pray night and morning and to do the Lord’s will always.
She had new sandals, and a brown and white gingham dress that Mrs Parkinson had made, for her holiday. She’d darned her socks and fixed the cuffs of her cardigan and had two hankies with her name on them. It was all because she had grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who had sent for her. Jean had been jealous about the grandparents and the sandals.
She mightn’t see Jean again, mightn’t ever go back to the Home because her grandparents would want her and keep her. Then she’d have dresses and shoes like the School kids who came out of their own doors of their own houses every day, who walked along their own paths and out of their own gates every morning on their way to school. Their own curtains at their own windows would shift and the mothers’ hands would wave. Sometimes a mother would pop a head out of the window and call, “Don’t forget to come straight home after school.” The girls had skipping ropes and pencil cases, the boys had threepences and marbles.
The girl, Missy, came in with the washing and took it through to the other room. The boy was behind her with water in a basin that had a little piece of yellow soap in it. “Get this nappy, Miss, take it to the lav,” her aunty called, and Missy went running, running, somewhere.
Where? Because she wanted to go to the lav, hadn’t been since she left the Home, not even in the train.
“Stay in your seat,” Mrs Parkinson had said, “Don’t talk to anyone and don’t get off at all until you get to your station. Also don’t forget that I have charge of you, May. I am the one allowing you to have this holiday and I expect you to be well behaved and obedient. Home children are brought up to love and fear the Lord. You must guard against sin while you are away and beware of bad companions. And beware of the devil, who will whisper evil into your ears and lead you into temptation so that the gates of hell will be open unto you.”
As the train moved off she’d looked out of the window at the shunting engines, the railway buildings, the factories and sheds and the crisscrossing railway lines. Smoke and soot had streamed back from the engine as the train picked up speed. Telephone poles and sooty houses had flicked by. Pole, house house, pole, house house, faster and faster.
After that there were large paddocks where sheep grazed, or smaller ones where cows were feeding amongst tufts of weed, banks of cutty grass, rushes, and old, leaning trees. But she’d watched out for houses because that was what she liked best, liked thinking about houses.
Inside houses were mothers, fathers and children, tables and chairs, cups and dishes in cupboards, curtains with flowers on them, floral wallpaper, patterned mats on floors, beds with shiny bedspreads, drawers and wardrobes full of clothes. There were toys and dolls. The dolls had dresses and pants and there were tins of beads that you could make bangles and necklaces with, threading the beads on cotton — green white red, green white red, all red, all green, any way you liked. When it was long enough you tied it round the doll’s wrist or neck.
Then the mother came and chased you out because you weren’t allowed. Betty wasn’t allowed to bring dirty, black children into the house to make bangles and necklaces for dolls. Or Home kids. Betty was a naughty, naughty girl.
Jumping up. Beads spilling, dropping on the flowery mat, sprinkling over the patterned lino. Running out nearly peeing, squeezing her legs together. “Who told you you could come here . . . Off . . . And don’t you ever let me catch you in here again.”
Out of the gate, down the street, nearly wetting herself.
She’d been late home and had been sent into the bathroom to bare her bottom for the cane. After the caning she’d peed, so the stick had come hitting down again For, Being, A, Dirty, Girl, Now, Clean, Up, This, Mess.
“Piss pants, piss pants,” the kids had said as she went for the mop and bucket, whispering so they wouldn’t have their teeth prised open and their mouths washed out, “Piss pants, piss pants,” hissing.
She’d stayed in her seat on the train even though she’d wanted to go to the lavatory. Now she wanted to go urgently and didn’t know whether she should ask her aunty’s permission or just stand up and look for Missy, who had run somewhere to the lav.
At school, stretching an arm high for the teacher to see, you had to say, “Please may I leave the room?” Sometimes, one at a time, you were allowed to go, but sometimes you weren’t.
“Did you go at lunchtime?” Miss Bower had asked.
“Yes, Miss Bower.”
“Well then, you can wait until after school, can’t you?” Eyes. Eyes on her. Eyes on her Home dress, her Home haircut, her black face. Homey, Homey. Blackie, Blackie. “Can’t you?”
“Yes, Miss Bower.”
“Sit down then.” She’d sat, pressing her legs together, squeezing the bones at the sides of her knees and the fat parts at the tops of her legs, unable to write or read or listen.
There was a boy standing in the doorway with a snake and she was going to pee. “Good boy, Manny,” her aunty said.
“I find hees hole. I pull him out by the bank go down.”
“Out on the block outside and I bring a knife.”
She could see that her aunty was pleased as she took a knife from a hook by the stove. Aunty Who? If she knew her aunty’s name she could say please, Aunty Betty, or Jean, or Mary, may I leave the room?
She’d stepped off the train with her bag and looked for someone who might be her grandmother or grandfather, but had seen only the woman, or girl, in a big coat and girl’s shoes. “I’m your aunty,” the woman had said as though she was shy, but hadn’t said a name, “Give your bag.”
They’d walked together along a white road, not speaking, until her aunty had stopped and said, “We get through here,” and had held the fence wires apart for her, “That little house, it’s where we going.” The new sandals were covered in white dust and had begun to hurt.
Once through the fence they’d headed down a slope, stepped across a small stream then taken a track through rushes and trees. “Your grandmother and grandfather come back the day after tomorrow,” her aunty had said as they came out into a little yard. The boy and girl were there with the baby. They’d looked about the same ages as the cry-baby Home kids that she and Jean had to look after, dress, help, pull and chase to school, get the blame for. The two kids had gone behind the house pulling the dirty baby. But it wasn’t a real house.
“Silly,” her aunty had called to them. Then she’d said, “Come inside, Mata. Sit and rest, Mata dear.” But her name wasn’t Mata.
There’d been room for her to sit between the table and the wall and there was a little window high above her head. It was like being in the fort that the School boys had made once, out of boxes and boards. There was a stove with a pot and a kerosene tin on it, a basin and a row of tins on a bench and boxes nailed to the walls like cupboards without doors. In the boxes were tin plates and mugs, bowls and billies and knives. The walls were papered with old Free Lance and Auckland Weekly pages and there was a lamp hanging from the ceiling on a piece of S-shaped wire.
The School boys’ fort had had little doorways and passages that you crawled along to get to a small room where you could sit with your knees pulled up hard, but it was bad. Kids had taken their pants off in there, then someone had told and they’d all been caned. After that, boxes had been forbidden and the bank had been made out of bounds.
“Aunty I want to . . .” She stood up holding Bubba, jigging, and her aunty stopped in the doorway, turned with the knife.
“Sorry Mata . . . May . . . Out here.” She took the baby and pointed the knife along a path that went through long grass, “There, at the end you can see.”
The grass was cold against her ankles and she was scared of snakes, wanted to run but thought she might pee herself. Pee was a swearing word. She hurried, keeping her muscles tight until she came to a little tin shed with a door hanging open.
Dark inside. Stinken. She wet into a big hole where you could fall. Drown and choke in people’s wee and poo. There was newspaper to wipe with. Flies, spiders — perhaps snakes. She pulled her pants up quickly, smoothed her dress, shoved the door. Wanted to go home, running along the grassy, snaky path.
Then she stopped running. She was ten years old, nearly eleven. She liked her aunty and there were grandparents who were returning the day after next to take her home with them. At her grandparents’ place there’d be pretty chairs and cushions, curtains and bedspreads. They’d want to keep her and she’d have dresses, skirts, a dressing gown, slippers and dolls. The cousins were cheeky brats, but what did it matter?
Under the tank stand was a tin of water and a box with basins and scraps of soap on it. There were buckets of washing and an old tub, and on a crosspiece of the stand there was a piece of mirror, a cup with a razor and shaving brush in it, a wire hairbrush, a big green comb with missing teeth and a greasy jar. Two stringy towels hung over a piece of wire that stretched from corner to corner. Aunty had sent Missy to show her what to do. Missy, ginger and scabby. Ginger face, ginger stripy hair, ginger scabby arms and legs, raggy ginger dress. Skinny, toothy, scabby and ginger.
Ginger eyes, too, watching, ginger eyelashes flicking as she stood on one leg scraping her other ankle up and down it. “Makareta been on a train. Got a pie and a raspberry drink,” she said, then turned and listened. Ran, calling, “Dadda, Dadda.”
When May returned to the yard, her aunty and cousins were there looking at the cut-up thing on the board, the snake, and there was a ginger man there with wire hair. “See, Bobby, it’s May,” her aunty said, and the man hugged her and kissed her cheek.
“I thought it’s something else, her name?”
“Mata, but she said she’s May.”
“May-bee, May-bee …” he sang.
“Shut up, Bobby, she’s shy.” Her aunty’s face was red and smiling as she sat herself down on the stump by the axe.
May-bee my girl,
What are we waiting for now?
He picked Bubba up and leapt about on the dirt yard with her, singing.
It wasn’t a real house but it was warm inside, better than the School boys’ fort because you could stand up in it. It smelled like a pot cupboard. Her Uncle Bobby had lit the lamp but it didn’t make much light and she could see only the table spread with newspaper and the things on it — salt in a cup, butter on a saucer, jam in a jar, bread that looked old, like the Wednesday bread they had at the Home. Wanted some. It was a long time since she’d had breakfast, which she hadn’t wanted to eat at all because she’d felt too excited at the thought of going on holiday. But she’d made herself eat the porridge and had taken one bite out of her piece of toast before sneaking it to Jean.
Her aunty was by the stove putting food out for them, standing to one side so that light could reach the pot. Potato, and not snake, but eel. She hadn’t heard of eating eel but it must be all right because they all liked it, picking at it with their fingers because they didn’t know their manners, wiping sticky hands on the newspaper tablecloth.
There was only a spoon to use so she broke the potato with it and scraped a piece of eel flesh from a row of bones skinnier than pins, remembered they hadn’t said grace. Tasted it — worse than turnips and tripe.
Aunty and Uncle smoked. Earlier, when they were outside, Aunty had sat down on a stump with an axe struck into it while her uncle had gone hoppy walking to the tank stand for a wash. While he was away, Aunty had made two skinny cigarettes with tobacco from a blue tin and Manny had brought her a stick from the fire to light them with. The two of them had sat there without saying anything, just smoking. She’d say her own grace in her head if she could remember how it started.
Remember. Everything you’ve been told, May. Pray at the beginning and end of each day, before and after meals. The Lord is our shepherd, remember. Give thee thanks, Lord, for which that, or that which thee or thy has set here . . . Pulled more of the eel flesh away from the bones and chewed it with a piece of the bread, the way you could eat turnips and tripe. Hungry.
Her aunty was dipping eel water from the pot and putting a mug of it down by each of them. Her uncle and the kids dipped bread into theirs because they didn’t know their manners, eating the sloppy bread as though it was nice. We don’t let bad-mannered girls go for holidays, remember. Eel was pie, eely water was raspberry drink. That’s what she was having, a pie and a raspberry drink, like the boy and girl in the train.
Wires looping from lamppost to lamppost, wires stretching from fencepost to fencepost. Leaning against the window, she’d seen the black engine with the thick white smoke streaming.
Across from her were a mother and father with their two children. They’d had bags and pillows and had changed one of the seat-backs over so that they could all face one another as they went on holiday together. Back where they’d come from would be their house with locked windows and doors, but if you could go in you would find a kitchen with blue walls, blue linoleum, daisy curtains and white cupboard doors. In the sitting room there’d be a carpet-square with flowers and leaves on it, flower-patterned wallpaper, lacy curtains, a fireplace surrounded by brown bricks, a brown sofa and two easy chairs.
The girl’s bedroom would have pink curtains and brown blinds, a bed with a shiny bedspread and a floral eiderdown on it. There’d be a polished dressing table with a brush and comb set, cat doilies and a trinket box, and on the floor there’d be a fawn-coloured lino and a pink mat. The girl would have a dressing gown and slippers with pompoms on them.
In the boy’s bedroom there’d be green lino and a stripy bedspread with curtains to match. There’d be cream-coloured wallpaper and brown blinds. A set of drawers, painted green, would have boys things on top of it — a cap gun, a ball of silver paper, a cross with a nail in it, plasticine armies facing each other behind plasticine barricades. The boy would have brown slippers and a brown dressing gown.
The mother and father’s bedroom? But no, you weren’t allowed. Betty had said no, no, not allowed to turn the knob, push the door, look in.
Then she and Betty had sat on the pink mat and dressed the dolls, which had frocks, singlets, pants, hats and cardigans. They’d made bead bangles and necklaces for them, then Betty’s angry mother had come in.
Beads, beads, pattering, tinkling, scattering on the linoleum. Jumping up nearly pissing, running out the door and down the path. Betty, you bad, bad girl.
Bad boy and girl in the train. He’s kicking. I’m not. Look, look, Mum . . . We’re stopping very soon for refreshments. “Ten minutes for refreshments,” the guard had said, coming through.
“Be very good and we’ll get you a pie and a raspberry drink,” the mother and father had said. “Sit there and be good until we get back.” From the window she’d watched father running to the refreshments counter with mother following. The children had waited, waited, jumping up every now and then to look out of the window. Ten minutes. Five minutes now. Three or two. The train could . . . Coming.
Father had had plates stacked one on top of the other with all the pies on the top plate, balancing all on one big hand. He’d had two red drinks in the other hand, the necks of the bottles gripped between his fingers, straws bobbing in the fizz. Mother had brought cups of tea, fat white cups on fat white saucers. She had smiled and smiled coming into the train, and Father had reached into his pocket, taking out knives and forks.
“Have some more soup, May, there’s more.”
“No thank you.”
“Missy, take Bubba from Dadda so Dadda and me can have kai. Wipe your hands.”
“Come on, Bubba,” Missy said.
Her aunty lifted the middle ring from the stove and a flame shot up as she scraped the eel bones in. There was a hissing sound and a fishy stink and the ring clattered back over the hole.
“May I leave the table please?”
“Yes, May dear.”
“Got any tablecloths like this one, ha ha, at that place where you come from?” her uncle asked.
She didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t, Bobby, she’s shy of you, silly,” her aunty said as she handed a plate of food across to him.
I love my
“Take no notice, May, he’s silly.”
She didn’t know what to say and didn’t know what to do now that she’d stood to leave the table, because there was nowhere else to go. Missy was sitting on the floor with Bubba on her lap and Manny and Chumchum had gone outside. Bubba had stopped grizzling and looked as though she might go to sleep. It was quiet now except for the sound of her aunty and uncle sucking bones and an occasional crackle and a rumble from the stove. She’d never heard a quiet like it.
“Sit down again, May,” her aunty said, “We clear the table after and get the lamp down.”
This extract from Cousins, written by Patricia Grace (pages 14-24) and published by Penguin Random House New Zealand, is reprinted here with permission.
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