MrsNewlands was a friend of my mother’s, an older woman who lived across from the church in a fascinating old house, four-square and ordinary in a pretty garden, but untouched since heaven knows when. Her kitchen had a scrubbed pine table, a dresser and pantry (with meat safe), and an early Kooka sitting where the old range had been. A continuous linen hand towel hung from a rod, there was a SheilaMade on pulleys overhead for rainy days. The fridge ran on paraffin.
Outside the kitchen, the laundry had a big copper boiler and deep concrete sinks, a washboard, little packets of Reckitt’s Blue and huge tongs to lift wet cloth from boiling water to the hand operated mangle. Just outside the back door two long loopy clotheslines ran from uprights with wonky crossbars, and there were long notched poles to lift the centres clear of the grass. Further down the garden was a true out-house with a crescent moon cut in the door and honeysuckle planted all round it. She didn’t believe in toilet paper – newspaper was neatly cut into quadrants and threaded onto a loop of string.
The back garden itself was amazingly productive, with choko and passionfruit vines, beds of cabbages and onions, rhubarb, potatoes and tomatoes. Thick-skinned old Eureka lemons, and fruit trees. We had no idea at the time, but Mrs Newlands was an environmentalist.
Although – her husband had been a merchant seaman, and inside her house was an Aladdin’s cave of turtle shells, boar tusks, cowries, gourds, ivory, coco de mer, exquisite corals and seashells he had brought back from his trips across the Pacific. We loved it as children of course, it was like a private natural history museum. Verandas dimmed the light and the floors were dark polished wood and the whole was incredibly exciting.
We weren’t kind to Mrs Newlands. Our parents went to India for five weeks and Mrs Newlands became our housekeeper for that time, and we led her such a dance. My elder brother had just got his driver’s licence and we used to bundle the two younger children into the car and drive off. These were pretty harmless adventures, but we didn’t say where we were going or when we’d be back, and I imagine Mrs Newlands suffered agonies of apprehension. We teased her that she wouldn’t use aerosol fly killer (Oh Mrs N, you were so ahead of the times!), and to humour us she bought some but got air freshener by mistake, so the only way she’d get a fly was to drown it. We sniggered at her thrifty ways – horrible children. Does it matter that I am ashamed now?