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