Mem­ory lane

The ap­palling toll of World War I on a gen­er­a­tion of young men re­sulted in a lonely ex­is­tence for many women.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by David Hill

Sev­enty years ago, I was in Primer 3 at Napier Cen­tral School, and I was scared of Miss Fin­nis. Miss Fin­nis lived – of course – in Fin­nis Lane, the lit­tle cul-de-sac on Napier Hill, 20m along from Cen­tral School. The Port of Napier Brass Band squeezed down the lane on the back of a truck ev­ery Christ­mas to play out­side an old folks’ home at the end. Al­fred Har­vey Fin­nis, lo­cal artist and Miss F’s fa­ther, had built a hand­some villa on the corner of the lane in 1906 (writ­ers Peter Wells and Dou­glas Lloyd Jenk­ins live there now). His daugh­ter had been a school teacher, but by the years I was in sin­gle fig­ures, she was re­tired, liv­ing in an­other big wooden house half­way down the lane, just over our back fence.

She was a spin­ster: that ugly, judg­men­tal la­bel. My mother had heard how Miss Fin­nis was once en­gaged to a lo­cal man, an­other teacher, but he’d been killed on the Somme in 1916. She’d been on her own for decades.

Cor­rec­tion: not en­tirely on her own. She kept cats, about a dozen of them. Any mangy stray was sure of a home at Miss Fin­nis’. “Reckon she half-starves her­self so those bloody mog­gies get fed,” my fa­ther grunted.

As I say, I was scared of Miss Fin­nis. She told me off for kick­ing stones against a neigh­bour’s fence once. “David Hill, your par­ents didn’t bring you up to be silly like that!” The teacher’s ca­dences were still there.

Like many fam­i­lies of the time, we kept ban­tams: four lit­tle red-and-gold birds in a chook run against our back fence. They gave us eggs in those aus­tere post-World War II years. One night, Miss Fin­nis’ cats some­how got into their run. Next morn­ing, the ban­tams were all dead. It was the decades when boys weren’t sup­posed to cry, but when I heard what had hap­pened, I burst into tears.

Miss Fin­nis had found ban­tam feath­ers on her lawn and guessed the worst. “She’s aw­fully up­set, son,” my mother told me. I didn’t care. I hated her now, as well as fear­ing her.

A fort­night later, we heard from Miss Fin­nis again. This time, things were dif­fer­ent. One of her cats was stuck up in the ceil­ing. Would I please try to reach it?

I didn’t want to. I hoped it would suf­fer, and its owner would suf­fer, too – just like our ban­tams. But my mother made it clear there was to be “no non­sense, thank you David”, so I went.

And, of course, it all turned out very dif­fer­ent from what I’d ex­pected. The old lady was friendly and grate­ful. Her big house was bright and wel­com­ing in­side, with shelves hold­ing hun­dreds of books. My seven-year-old legs climbed Miss Fin­nis’ wooden lad­der, reached the cat eas­ily and re­stored it to its owner – who I sud­denly saw was al­most in tears.

She sat me down, fed me pikelets and co­coa, then saw me gaz­ing at her book­shelves. “I used to love read­ing to my classes.” I left laden with Vic­to­rian boys’ mega-sell­ers: G A Henty, H Rider Hag­gard, Fred­er­ick Mar­ryat. “Good, son,” Mum said when I told her how things had gone. “She’s a lonely old thing.”

Miss Fin­nis and I didn’t be­come great friends or any­thing like that. I bor­rowed more books and en­joyed talk­ing with her about them, but we moved away from Napier Hill a few years later.

Two decades-plus on, when my son, Pete, was lit­tle and we were vis­it­ing my old town, I parked near our for­mer house and strolled down Fin­nis Lane.

The old folks’ home was no more. But half­way down the cul-de-sac, a white­haired fig­ure bent over a flower bed while cats twined around her.

“Hello, Miss Fin­nis,” I said. “You won’t re­mem­ber me. I – ”

“Hello, David Hill.” The voice was clear and firm. “How nice to see you. I hope you’re still read­ing?”

We talked for 10 min­utes, un­til Pete be­came rest­less. I never saw her again. But I re­mem­ber Miss Fin­nis and I want to ac­knowl­edge her. Her and all the other New Zealand women whose lives were robbed so sav­agely by war, but who kept on, of­ten alone, of­ten stereo­typed and side­lined. We owe you.

Miss Fin­nis was once en­gaged to a lo­cal man, an­other teacher, but he’d been killed on the Somme in 1916. She’d been on her own for decades.

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