Thank the good graces for gloves!
With one eye out the back window of the Dorset, the rest of Bet’s concentration was taken up by keeping her hands out of her lap. Stains would almost be as much a sin as being caught at a shingdig on the Maddigan moa farm in Upper Moutere.
“Up a Moo Tree,” Dad would chuckle around his pipe, then he would say something about the Māori-run farm which wasn’t repeatable in polite company.
“Relax,” Petey said with his contagious smile. “No one is following us.”
“Are you sure?” Bet asked for the thousandth time. “Someone was behind us.”
“It’s under control, sure Bet.” Petey squeezed one of her damp hands. She put his hand back on the wheel and patted it.
“A green Thouey?” he said. “That’s Gracey. She’s doubling back to keep a lookout.”
As they turned up the road towards the marae, the neat parcels of sheep and cow farming land gave way to the wild forest and unkempt grazing meadows of the moa corridors. Dad said they made the countryside untidy. To Bet, the trees smelled of honeyed possibility; a moa could appear at any moment.
She fussed the ill-fitting fabric. The silver-shot lavender was pretty, but would look much better on Petey. She felt like God had drawn lines around her saying This Far And No Further.
Petey’s suit was something dandy. Bet had been dreaming about the brown fabric, so dark it could be black for two weeks, ever since the invitation to the dance. That dream made her feel ill in many strange, nameless ways.
Her heart went over another bump as Petey pulled into a turnabout at a brightly lit hall. There were as many horses as cars. Bet could argue the hall wasn’t on marae grounds, just near, if someone dobbed her in.
Petey offered his elbow. “It will be fine, I promise.”
Always good on his promises, Petey had promised he would be what her father expected in a gentleman. Yessir there were plenty of good white boys working on the moa farms.
Good? White? Petey was neither, but he did very well to be both when he came into Nelson town.
She only had eyes for the suit as she latched on. “I’m ready.”
The twiddle of guitars, fiddle, and drums moved Bet’s feet and heart. The hall was redolent with brewing tea, sweat, hair cream, and wood polish. There were Māori everywhere: the band, the kitchen girls (boys?), the door boys (girls?). Dad would have a heart attack if he knew, and her marriage prospects would shrivel.
Good. Bet checked herself. Where did that come from?
Black hair primped, a Māori boy in a pretty pink dress glided forward. “I am Cassandra, your mistress of ceremonies. Welcome to dance kamp,” he said.
The word lodged in the back of Bet’s throat: kamp.
The perfect hostess, Cassandra gave directions: bathrooms are this way, kitchen that, rear exit there, and do we require dressing for the evening? Beautiful!
Other boys rushed up to admire Bet’s dress, but they filtered away disappointed once Petey announced dibs. The placid town face melted away to reveal the real Petey, sweetly excited by the satiny fabric.
Bet passed through the door marked ‘Men’ and into a secret world of feminine guffaws, hair slicking, and cigarette practising.
One girl in particular stared at Bet in the mirror, reflection to reflection.
The arrival of Petey’s suit saved her from those eyes.
Hidden in a cramped sheet-curtain nook, the dress came off much easier than it went on. Oh, the relief! Only her rag belt and underwear stayed. She could pretend it . . . let’s not go there.
Cotton and wool went on smooth as silk. Bet rolled the jacket cuffs to reveal a dash of floral lining flair.
Jostling at the mirror, Bet fumbled the tie. Tanned and scarred hands took over twining with finesse. Bet remembered those knuckles bloodied from the school cane.
“There we go,” Edwina said. “A double Windsor. Holds more symmetrical than a single.”
“Thank you, Edwina.” A dollop of shame flourished red on Bet’s cheeks as her voice broke trying to emulate Edwina’s deeper tone.
“You’re welcome. And tonight it’s Eddie.”
So modern. If a policeman asked she wouldn’t be lying.
“What’s your name?”
Bet felt ill. Had Edwina forgotten the running, laughing, hand in hand from the rain-soaked school basketball match? How they had discussed Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald over tea at the church youth mixer?
“Elizabeth,” she sighed. “But my friends call me Bet. Though mum says it’s too slatternly. Desecrates the Queen’s good name.”
“You always go by what you mother says?” Edwina did that wonderful thing Bet envied in city girls; she raised a single eyebrow. “And God will save the Queen.”
How did Edwina make that statement sound proper and an insult?
“Of course I know you’re Bet. I remember listening to Ethel Waters ‘Stormy Weather’ at the coffee shop together. I mean, what is your boy name?”
Those memories weren’t just dreams! Side by side in the mirror, Bet couldn’t help but admire what a handsome couple they made.
“Corbett. Which means I can still be nicknamed Bet.”
Everyone moved through a wonderland protected from the real world by the walls of this now. Cassandra would call a name, and the person would take a turn as she wove a magical life from the air. Looking so pretty in her dress, Petey Patricia for the evening — knew how to walk in heels better than Bet! Everyone was rich, a bon-vivant, a valiant explorer, something exciting ripped from the pulp pages or silver screen.
With knees shaking, Bet did her best to walk a straight line. “Here is your Sure Bet!” Cassandra gestured gracefully. “A daring motorcycle racer, Corbett has left many broken hearts in his wake. He lives in the grandest mansion atop the highest hill in Nelson. He drinks the best brandy and smokes the finest cigars every night.”
Her attempt to formulate a polite distaste for her father’s pipe was cut off by a strange wistful trumpeting and a yell from the front door.
The pebble of fear stuck again in Bet’s throat. Oh no. Police? Her father?
Then the shouts made sense: “The moa are coming!”
Of course. Spring migration.
“Filthy beasts,” Dad would grumble any time they drove past the hill-to-coast corridors on their way to Aunt Maud’s in Motueka. “Peck your eyes and liver out.”
Laughter. Impatient gestures. The abandonment of instruments and tea cups. Girls stripping their dresses off then and there. Nakedness! Where to look? Ah, good, Patricia was carefully hanging up his dress.
The rush of people pushed Bet and Eddie close together.
“What’s happening?” Bet managed to squeak past the stone in her throat as a boy hopped past kicking into pants.
Eddie handed over her jacket and rolled up her sleeves. “Gotta keep the moa on their tracts to their grazing spots, or the pākehā farmers get mad. They will build useless fences! Go out the back, you’ll get the best view!”
Bet admired the glow on her Eddie’s face and how her arms flexed as she guided her horse out.
Following the crowd, Bet figured out what Eddie meant by useless fences: number eight wire was nothing to a bird who could step over anything in its way.
Because there they were. Twice her size and more. Real live moa. Feathers brown, black, red, and grey. Wicked claws longer than her hand. Long necks reared up in defensive positions. The turkey-sized bush moa skittered around, barking hilarious little trumpets and pecking at anything interesting, including fingers.
Moaherds clucked and scolded the birds towards safer paths. They didn’t need any Nelson lads claiming road kill rights. Bet had heard her father’s story over and over about the one glorious time he had tried it, and won.
Why drive down such a wonderful creature? Their grace, beauty, and power was a unique gift to this land. And yet Dad said they didn’t deserve to be taken care of by such lazy people. Dad . . .
Dad dad dad! Why did it always come back to what he thought? He’d served in the Pacific during the war which declared him unafraid of anything, but he always spoke so mean of moa, though he’d eat their meat those times Uncle Aidan illegally shot a wild one.
She was tired of her father’s voice being hers, her mother’s overriding desires. She was tired of being tired. No one had told her fear would be so boring.
A collective gasp from the crowd. A horse blocked a large specimen and deflected it onto a new path. It made a low clomb-clomb grumble in its long throat.
Eddie reined up and bent down to Bet.
“This won’t take long. Grazing is a mile or so away.” Eddie said, grin freed by excitement. “Save the first dance for me?”
“My card is empty,” Bet said.