Part Three — John and Mary
When John had been working on the farm for several months, he came in from milking one Thursday morning reflecting that these monthly trips to town may become more interesting in the future. Mary, the girl from McGuiness’s farm, had said in the course of conversation at the kitchen door that she would be going to the city next Monday with her employers, and how wonderful it was to have employers who were willing to let her take advantage of this opportunity. She had said before, bubbling over with enthusiasm, how generous they were in allowing her to share in some of the family activities.
John wondered why he hadn’t met Mary accidentally on the three trips he had made to Dunedin so far, but hoped that he might be able to engineer a meeting. He would give it some thought in the next few days.
As Mary had been in Portobello for much longer than him, she might be willing to show him around more than Michael did. Michael was good company, and had helped him immensely on both the farm and with local social customs, but had his limitations. John knew that respectable women didn’t go into hotels in New Zealand, which meant that he and Mary would have to find somewhere other than the tavern to sit and talk. John said nothing to the others, but wondered how he might find Mary in Dunedin, without making his intentions the subject of good natured mockery by Michael and the others.
What John didn’t realise was that people had been watching and waiting for the next step in the relationship. Even after such a short time, people could see what was going on before John had even recognised that there was a relationship.
Mary’s parting remark after she had got her billy filled with milk, had been, “see you all in town.” John hoped that that would be so, but didn’t have the courage to suggest a meeting.
The McKenzie and McGuiness wagons set out at about the same time, but not together. John was thinking about how he might accidentally meet up with Mary. Mary was thinking that she could meet with Jane, have lunch, and talk over yet again what had happened to them since the voyage out. This never palled. Mary was finding that Jane had a much narrower existence as a lady’s maid than she did, which meant that Jane did little except cater to the personal desires of her mistress. There were no children to brighten the place, and when her mistress decided to put on an afternoon tea for the neighbours, it was Jane who did all the work. “And somehow, something always goes wrong,” Jane had said with a shudder at a previous meeting. “Last time I had to bake in a hurry, then rush out to get cream, and whip it up and put it on the cakes, which turned out not to have cooled down properly. The cream ran everywhere both on the tray and on the clothes of the few people who did have the courage to try one.”
Unlike Jane, Mary had been able to learn a great deal about running a house, such as cooking and sewing some of her own clothes, and was respected by the whole family as a person. She was called on to look after the children when required, allowing Mrs McGuiness to visit her neighbours from time to time. She was also willing to get the milk each day and run various other errands. So far as she knew, she had not made any serious mistakes. Her energy and capacity for work was enormous, and she was becoming much more than just domestic help.
Jane, on the other hand, was finding the whole business constraining to say the least. “I came out here to broaden my horizons,” she told Mary, “but I am finding that my employer is telling me what to do in such great detail that I’m not able to try anything new, or use my brains to make things easier or better.”
“Wait until your year is up,” Mary counselled, “by then you will know a bit about New Zealand and be able to pick and choose who you work for and what work you do.”
Mary was also growing in physical strength and self esteem. While still conscious of the limits of the relationship between her and her employer, she had become a person with whom Mrs McGuiness was happy to discuss matters relating to household management, and how best they could work together. On the wagon that Monday morning, Mary started to think that she might have the skills to run a house of her own. She was well aware that she was doing things that were the exclusive preserve of Mrs McCann back home, and many more that the senior domestic staff in the Hanratty household guarded jealously as their own. She was coming to realise how cosseted the upper classes were in her homeland, and probably in many other places, including no doubt parts of New Zealand.
While aware of John’s interest in her, Mary was not really sure if she felt the same. As she learnt more about running a home, she often thought about where that home might be and what it might look like, and even who might live in it. Several men had approached her with offers to “walk out” together, but she wasn’t ready and had shown no interest in them at all.
Mary could now discard ideas about this country that she had formed in Ireland, like protecting her home against savage attacks, or having a little house in the forest where you had to be careful before you went outside in case there were bears or wolves lurking. She now understood a little more about the Maoris. There were some horrendous stories coming from up North about the battles between the settlers and the Maori people, but there was no strife in this area of the country for anyone to worry about. There were doomsayers around, who talked of the need to go home before we all get our throats cut, but nobody paid much attention to them.
The two men did their shopping, and the tasks that Mr McKenzie required of them. After they took their packages to the stables for safe keeping they had nothing to do for the rest of the day. Michael, as always, suggested the tavern, but today John was interested in the many building projects around the town, and wanted to study them more. He decided to have lunch with Michael, then excuse himself for a couple of hours until it was time to go back to the stables for the ride home.
Michael mentioned to John that they would see more of their neighbours in Dunedin than they ever would in Portobello, except at times like haymaking. “Everyone goes to town on that Monday,” he said. “A thief with a fast horse could rob just about every house on the Peninsula on the first Monday of the month.”
“Mondays,” mused John, “seem to be very important here. Maybe even more so than the Sabbath.” He hoped that today might be the day when he would meet a particular neighbour.
After a drink or two and lunch, John suggested that they part company for the rest of the day, but somewhat to his dismay Michael said, “I would like to take a walk around with you if I may. I should find out more about this place too. I haven’t really looked at it very much.”
As they left the hotel and turned left down the street towards the wharves, John nearly missed Michael’s remark, “There’s that Mary from McGuiness’s sitting in a tea room with a friend.” By the time he had woken up to what was going on, John had been steered to the open window of the tea room and both men were being introduced through the window to Jane, “my friend off the ship. We meet here on Mondays whenever we can.”
John was tongue tied during the introductions, and quite uncharacteristically had little to say, until Mary asked, “Have you men had lunch?”
“Yes, indeed,” said Michael. “We have eaten well and done all the shopping we needed to. What are you planning to do now? What about a walk up the hill?”
This all came as a surprise to John, but he soon agreed, and somehow the couples just paired off, with John and Mary in the lead. John and Mary were puzzled by how slowly the other two walked. No matter how much John and Mary slowed down, the other two never caught them up. In the end John and Mary set their own pace, and the two young Irish people found they had a great deal to talk about.
Michael confided to Jane that what they were seeing on the road in front of them looked very much like a good match. Jane confided to Michael that she was delighted to meet John, about whom she had heard so much from Mary. She was, though, disappointed that it looked as if she was going to lose her only friend in Dunedin.
“Apart from my Mondays with Mary,” Jane said, “I have little time off and don’t have the opportunity to meet or make other friends.”
Michael was not sure if this remark about a lack of friends was a hint or not, but settled it with the ungracious comment that he felt that he had too many things to do with his life to tie himself up with a woman just yet.
As they sauntered through the town, into areas John hadn’t previously seen, he was surprised by the how many of the wooden buildings were built in a style that looked as if they were trying to pretend that they were stone. The one that stood out most was Knox Church, perhaps the biggest wooden building he had ever seen, complete with a spire. “There just has to be work here for someone who knows how to use stone,” he thought, and continued to study these wooden buildings to see if he could understand their design and construction. He knew he was a long way out of his depth. “I might get there in the long run,” he thought regretfully, “but for the moment maybe all I am good for is those rock walls and shaping stones in the quarry.”
Mary was aware that she didn’t have John’s full attention, but accepted that there were so many things for him to take in on his exploratory visits to Dunedin that he couldn’t focus on any one thing for long. While she didn’t want to be tied down, Mary was deliberately taking steps into this relationship and eagerly looking forward to getting to know John better.
Neither John nor Mary had any experience of “walking out” as they had observed with older brothers and sisters and their friends. So, much of their talk was about work on the McKenzie farm or in the McGuiness household, especially the McGuiness children, or John’s thoughts about the use of stone as a building material. Inevitably, Ireland also came into the discussion, and the differences between working at home and working here in New Zealand. Mary made John laugh when she told him of her first day working on the farm, and how the men had tried to turn her into a farm labourer almost before she had set foot on the shore.
She commented on how she found her present job much more stimulating than the very narrow life she had led as a housemaid in Ennistimon. They both delighted in having this little bit of real leisure time to explore ideas and their personal stories, rather than a necessarily brief and public early morning, “How are yous?” when Mary was getting the milk.
“It’s the people,” John said many times over. “Here, labourers are as good as their masters if they put in a good day’s work, and masters are as good as the labourers because they also put in a good day’s work. I doubt that I’m going to make my fortune, but I like it here. There is so much I can learn and I am being given the opportunity to do so.”
Mary thought she knew what John meant. “Like Mrs McGuiness doing the cooking, and how we share jobs rather than me working from daylight to dark and never finishing.”
“People seem to change when they come to a place like this. They have to, to survive. There’s no way they can sit back, because success doesn’t just happen. I like the way there is no gentry as we knew it. Everyone is dependent on someone else.”
They reached a vantage point where they could see Dunedin laid out below them. Neither were sure what the name of the hill was, but it appeared that the citizens of Dunedin saw it as an obstruction, as there was a cutting through it, and men were working to remove the east side of the hill. They later learnt that the rise was known as Bell Hill, and was seen as a major obstacle to the development of the city to the south. It was being removed so that a road to the south could be built right through it.
From this position they could see some of the smaller settlements on the southern side of Dunedin, such as Green Island and Tomahawk. Along the harbour edge to the east they could see Port Chalmers with its wharves, warehouses and the tangle of masts. After commenting that Green Island wasn’t an island, John asked Mary about the name Tomahawk. Mary said she had learned that the name Tomahawk was given by the Maori people, a tomo being a kind of cave. John was interested to see that Mary had such good local knowledge. When he remarked on this, she told him about her introduction to the local natural environment, and how the children got so excited about the things they could do in the bush and on the beach.
“They give the children time to be children here,” Mary said. “At home it was work from daylight to dark, and very little fun, no matter how hard I tried. Here, even though I am sure they are just as busy, the children get some time to play every day.”
“The excitement hasn’t died down either,” she told John. “The children still go exploring through the bush and around the coastline, and every time they bring back something that no one has seen before. We all study it and try to learn what we can about it. One of the men who sometimes comes to our place,” John smiled at the use of the term ‘our place,’ “is studying New Zealand plants, so he can often help with a name and a story about how the Maori people use it.”
She went on to explain to John some of the things she had learnt from the children about kelp on her very first day at Portobello, and what she had learnt since about the healing properties of plants. John found this fascinating, partly because he did actually find it interesting, but also because he could see how Mary had adjusted to this new, strange country and very different way of life. He wondered if he was ever likely to get as excited as Mary about such things, although he hoped that he would get as involved in the life of the colony.
Mary said that the McGuiness children were soaking up all the new experiences they could, and sharing them with anyone who had the time to listen. She commented on how much better this real life learning was than trying to learn in the little old school back in Ireland. “Because,” she said, “at least what I am learning here is about real things. You can use a lot of the knowledge, and what you can’t use is fascinating anyway. I used to think that everywhere was like Ireland, and what wasn’t like Ireland was probably not as good. Now I know better than that.”
It occurred to John that, for all the talk about them, he hadn’t seen a lot of evidence of the Maori people. He found it interesting that European settlers were adopting parts of the Maori language that suited them, like the mysterious word “forry” he had encountered on his first day. “I find the idea of these people interesting,” he told Mary, “but have not yet even seen one, let alone had the opportunity to meet one. And everyone here seems to speak well of them. They are apparently not the ‘savages’ that we were given to believe back home.”
“Everyone does speak well of the Maoris,” Mary said, “and I have seen a number of them, usually working as hired labour or around the streets of Dunedin, although I believe some of the Maori women work as domestics. The thing that I wonder about them is their tattoos,” she continued. “At first I thought it was paint on their faces and hands, but I have been told that the patterns are actually carved into their skin, with a dye forced into the cuts. Getting them done must be very painful.”
John, by now, had lost himself in the landscape. It was the first time he had seen the whole area in which he lived. From the top of Bell Hill he could see the flatter harbour side areas, where people were clearing parts of the bush to create both grazing and planting land, and closer in to the city, housing for the merchants and professional people. He noticed the wharves and could get a better idea of their development from this vantage point. He wondered whether the development of the port might mean the end of Port Chalmers as a centre of business. He could also imagine all the people hard at work down in Dunedin while he was enjoying his afternoon off way up here.
Could he really pretend that he was a builder in stone and get away with it? Maybe he could find a tradesman to work with? That would give him the training he would need. He would soon be found out as a fraud if he tried to pass himself off as a tradesman. His walk around Dunedin had shown him how little he knew about actually building in stone. Taking masonry up as a trade looked like a good idea, but maybe it just wasn’t practical, or even sensible.
He didn’t want to start an apprenticeship at his age. Did they even have apprenticeships here in New Zealand? Maybe he could get away with his limited trade skills if he worked by himself? He could then take on jobs which he was confident that he could do, such as stone walls, and grow his skills gradually. Where could he ply this trade, whichever option he decided on? Certainly not in Portobello, there just wasn’t the work. It would need to be a city like Dunedin, or at least a town like Port Chalmers.
Mary could see that he was dreaming of either his past or his future. So she concentrated on her dreams and what her future might be, and how it might change because of meeting up with John today.
Mary and John had become so immersed in their own thoughts that they had completely lost touch with the other two members of the party. Then Michael suggested that it was time they went back down. “We don’t want to hold up our people,” he said. He added a comment that someone had to take charge of things while others were dreaming their lives away. This caused a giggle from Mary and a shy smile from John.
As they reached the bottom of the hill John found himself wishing that something might happen to keep him and Mary together for a bit longer, but this was not to be. When they arrived at the stables the McGuiness’ wagon was harnessed up, and the family was climbing on board. Mary quickly joined them. After goodbyes, Michael said, “Come on John, we will harness up, our horses are better than theirs. If our family aren’t too long we might even beat those people home.”
John helped get the horses out and into their harness. Just as they were completing the job the McKenzie family arrived, complete with parcels, with the young children sucking on sweets and smearing them liberally on their faces and clothes.
In both wagons the journey home was quieter than the journey out, as, except for the apparently irrepressible Michael, they were all tired. The children rolled themselves up in blankets. Everyone else sat, more or less in silence, thinking about the events of the day. For a few minutes Mr McKenzie discussed with the men the difficulties of obtaining supplies, and noted that he might need to see if any of their neighbours had surplus hay because there was a shortage on the local market. John offered the throwaway comment that he hadn’t seen a lot of wet weather so far, so there should be a lot of hay around. Nobody was really interested in answering, except to say that more land needed to be cleared so they could grow more grass. The men warned John that it would not be long before he saw some real weather.
John mused that he had enjoyed a walk up a hill without begrudging the loss of an afternoon at the tavern. He had gone down to the ‘Portobello Tavern’ with Michael a few times since he had been here, but wasn’t sure about this New Zealand beer. It seemed a bit too different to what he was used to. He did, however, realise that anything new is an acquired taste, and was happy to work to acquire it. However, the Irish pub he had been taken to in Dunedin had its own version of Guinness which he found was much more to his taste than the local beers. A day a month was not sufficient for him to really sample the local brew, investigate the layout and form of the buildings in this new town, and now, court a young lady.
John was also looking forward to his next turn on the milking, in a little over 12 hours’ time.