Elizabeth Smither

ELizabeth Smither has published 18 collections of poetry, was Te Mata poet laureate (2001-3) and was awarded an Hon DLitt from Auckland University and the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2008. She was awarded the Sarah Broom Poetry prize in 2016, and her most recent collection, Night Horse, won the Ockham NZ Book Award for poetry in

‘The Soul of Kate’ is a tribute to a school friend.

The Soul of Kate

The smell of damp wool and old linseed-stained floorboards. A drift of apple from a quickly opened and closed desk. Desks opening and closing through the day like secret eyelids, hiding thoughts that were nothing to do with Caesar or Keats or the River Nile. The half-eaten Red Delicious could have a bite taken out during class changeovers or when a teacher ordered a text book from the mire. Kate’s desk, though I never saw into it, was probably orderly: textbooks stacked along the sides, two deep, except for the geography text which was fat. A pencil case and sharpener, fountain pen and ink, rubber and set square, ruler gouged by the points of a compass. Each day we breathed in a certain quantity of chalk dust and the stubs (in Mr Frobisher’s maths class) were sometimes fired at one of us. Mostly the chalk struck the back wall where maps of the world and posters hung. Those in the back rows raised their desk lids and ducked.

For at least forty minutes a day we were outdoors: on the sports field, sketching under a venerable oak, or walking in a straggling crocodile to the laboratory where once we nearly gassed ourselves. In winter there was the gymnasium with its vaulting horses, climbing ropes, and balance beams, like instruments of torture. A good deal of time could be wasted complaining about lost rompers (hideous black Italian cloth, two pleats under the waistband to create a modest fullness), time of the month cramps or an incipient migraine. The romper smell was added to the chalk and linseed, the apple cores and the sandwiches which on wet days we ate at our desks.

At the beginning of the first year, when I met Kate, we were informed by Miss Vavasour, the headmistress, that we were the crème de la crème. Twenty-eight bewildered girls looking at a slim, tallish, elegant woman with rich copper-coloured hair pulled back from a white forehead, arched eyebrows, aristocratic nose, wide mouth over slightly-prominent teeth. Crème de la crème through the virtue of studying Latin instead of typing or home science. A treat of a dead language. Miss Vavasour hinted we might travel, on flying boats or cruise liners, visit the Great Pyramid of Giza or picnic in the Colosseum. “Remember this,” she repeated, before she swept out and our mouse-like teacher crept forward again to continue conjugating the verb vastare.

Nothing could have been more unlikely. What figures we possessed were encased behind box pleats; our waists, instead of curved, were tied like ungainly sheaves of grain. Black stockings, heavy shoes, a tie with a blue and silver stripe, a blazer with a crest and a beret forced into rakish postures, completed the look. For summer: a dress with a dazzling geometric pattern Enzo might have been proud of – certainly it hurt my mother’s eyes when she ironed it – sagging white socks, and a panama.

“Very crème,” I heard Kate murmur that morning. We were sitting on benches under a stone wall. In front of us rose a sweep of lawn and the long elegant slope of the old school block. Above the main entrance, through which Miss Vavasour would have disappeared after her reviving talk, blazed the school motto. A few yellow roses, designated for the vases on her desk, grew timidly against the mellow brick.

I thought Kate might be referring to her sandwich which looked like egg. I opened my own packet of sandwiches and lifted a crust to see what was inside. Cheese and pickle or marmite and walnuts were the most exotic in my mother’s repertoire. She insisted on making them while she made my father’s. When we left I think she took a cup of coffee into the lounge and read a magazine. Kate, who came from a large noisy family, probably made her own. (Someone mashed a half-dozen hardboiled eggs into a bowl and they helped themselves.) I had urged my mother to remove the crusts and cut the sandwiches on the diagonal but she insisted on cutting them like fat club sandwiches. My father had overheard me and I had been reprimanded. Kate’s sandwiches had crusts and the bread was grainy and thick.

“Do you bake your own bread?” I asked.

“No. Why?”

I hated the conformity that seemed to be growing over me like a creeper. I hated my gym tunic which my mother had had made for me “by a little dressmaker.” I would have killed for a shop-bought one. We finished our sandwiches and tossed the wrapping paper in a nearby bin. Though Kate hadn’t invited me we rose to our feet at the same time, apples in our hands. A Granny Smith for Kate, a Ballarat for me. Flecks of juice made me wonder if the ancients regarded the apple as a drink. Perhaps Adam was thirsty…? I noticed Kate’s feet were bigger than mine. One of my stockings had a run and the clear nail polish I had applied hadn’t worked.

We passed the entrance to the main block, half-expecting the headmistress to come flying out. Sometimes she wore her academic gown which gave her the appearance of a raven. A steady stream of girls and mistresses were going in and out.

“Just like the River Styx,” I thought I heard Kate say. She had a soft low voice and seldom spoke in class, unless directly questioned. I thought the banks of the River Styx must have resembled a holiday camp my parents used to frequent when my brother and I were young. The banks of the river, down which a dead cow occasionally floated, stick legs pointing to the heavens, was an odious mixture of mud and sand which squelched when we walked on it. My brother and I swam in a natural pool called the Flower Pot whose base resembled a truncated Roman pillar.

Beyond the main block was a slope and then the music rooms from which squeaking and growling noises were issuing. Neither Kate nor I took music though there was a music appreciation class once a month in the assembly hall and at the year’s end we sang, ‘The Pilgrims’ Chorus.’ I smiled to myself remembering Kate’s refusal to sing. ‘Why should I sing when I’m covered in dust and sweat?’

Now we were not far from the school gates. Palm trees and flower beds and at our backs the rearing building with its crest and the lesser buildings that bowed down to it. The headmistress with her copper hair. We could keep on strolling, nibbling near the cores of our apples. Instead we turned and walked back.

Kate O’Neal came from a large Irish family. Later that year I met them: large amiable raucous boys, gentler but still forceful sisters. Forceful meant the ability to hold a position in an argument, even when outgunned. They stood at the kitchen sink, these large soon-to-be-men, flicking tea towels, while their sisters washed and stacked plates. At the table they passed teapots, cups, slices of bread, sauce bottles, water glasses and beaded jug. And all the time they talked. It was a revelation to me. For two days after criticising my mother’s sandwiches my father refused to speak to me. Kate’s parents seemed mild and benign beside their children. Her father, particularly, beamed as their voices rose and they took sides. There was no retreat, no delicacy that felt compelled to lose the game before it was over; any viewpoint, provided it could be propelled forward with something more than mere prejudice, was tolerated. Sometimes an argument began at the sink while someone peeled potatoes. Then it moved to the table as chairs were pulled out and napkins taken out of their rings – how I loved that custom – analogous to the scarves worn by knights in a lady’s honour. I was soon as relaxed as the others though I seldom took part.

“Come on, Maggie,” Thomas would say. “Come and join battle.”

We got up from the seamless table and formed a line at the sink, dunking the dishes in suds and lifting them out, passing them to a brother or sister or both with a tea towel draped over one shoulder.

Small wonder Kate’s scorn was reserved for a group of girls called the Knitters, perpetually knitting pullovers and rugby scarves – team colours and stripes – for boyfriends they planned to domesticate.

“What hypocrites they are. Why don’t they go straight to booties and matinee jackets?” Sometimes a relationship broke up before a garment was finished.

“It will fit some other tortoise,” Kate remarked to a girl who was crying over a green jersey with no sleeves.

“You are wicked, Kate,” I said, looking at her sideways. I admired her, though I’d never dare say so.

We had been reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and I thought of Elizabeth Bennet’s remark about the purpose of existence being to divert others and be diverted in our turn. It was best to have a friend to do it with.

In winter the radiators baked the desks near the walls and left the desks in the centre of the room icy. I got my usual chilblains and the school scarf did not prevent the tips of my ears turning red. But by unspoken pact, except when it poured or hailed or there was a threat of a lightning strike, Kate and I were outdoors. We are our sandwiches, diagonals or triangles, as we marched under our umbrellas. Sometimes, without permission, we walked to the nearest dairy and bought a hot meat pie.

My visits to Kate’s exuberant family fell off in winter; I longed for summer. But we drew closer together in the classroom because a feud had broken out and we had been forced to take sides. It was one of Miss Vavasour’s initiatives to recruit young teachers from England. Many of them, freed from the strictures of class, found themselves facing something worse: a generalised bullying expressed in little spiteful acts. One such was our geography teacher: Miss Garnet, a thin willowy creature with a soft voice with a hint of a lisp. Quite often her hands were blue and she seemed to tremble inside her clothes. She rode to school on an ancient black bicycle with a basket attached to the handlebars: another source of hilarity.

It was Kate – on one of the days when we were fortified by a stout meat pie – who began it. The ringleader, who reminded me of a toad, had a group of acolytes. Kate said something about learning nothing from history and that we now had a Hitler in our midst.

“I think I can detect the beginnings of a moustache,” I said, surprising myself.

That was the signal for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ to come flying. Luckily it missed my head and landed on my desk, knocking over a pile of books in its turn. I faced Toadface, thinking it might be wise to leave them where they were, for ammunition. I could sense Kate beside me, bristling.

A few more insults were flung, then the door flew open and Miss Vavasour appeared.

“This is not the behaviour I expect from my top girls,” she said as we scuttled back to our places. “I expect the highest standards of those I have chosen,” she went on, leaning on the teacher’s desk. “I have no desire to know what this is about but it will cease this instant.”

To cease upon the midnight with no pain, went through my head. I didn’t dare look at Kate. Then the vision of authority, majesty and style, was gone, leaving an impression of expensive tweeds, soft leather and French perfume to bring us back to earth.

Of course the bullying of Miss Garnet did not cease with the visit of the headmistress. If anything it became worse. The Toad kicked me in the shins and assumed an innocent expression that would have done credit to one of William Blake’s little lambs.

Now Kate and I walked in a pair, like nuns, for a good many of the class did not wish to take sides which, as Kate pointed out, was one of the prime causes of war. The Knitters, in fact. Europe could fall and they would turn a sleeve on their needles.

We did manage to keep an eye on Miss Garnet however so she was not jostled. And in the mornings, when she rode in on her bike, Kate and I were waiting. Kate carried her satchel and I walked alongside. Anyone watching would have presumed I was asking something about an assignment.

Summer was coming and I sat at Kate’s long dining table discussing strategy with her brothers. The subject was a joy to them. “You must try to get the Toad tangled up in wool,” Thomas suggested. Perhaps he was thinking of a sharp prod from a knitting needle. He arranged the salt and pepper shakers and moved a small vase of daisies. “The Toad versus…?” and here he looked admiringly at Kate, and even I was included, “… the Easter Uprising, the Boston Tea Party, the Dreyfusards.” But it didn’t turn out that way at all. One of the Knitters, the most stalwart and faithful, knitter of three jerseys was unceremoniously dumped and the Toad was implicated. Ink was spilled on a model of a Roman village and a textbook had its pages ripped out. This time the headmistress did not visit to remind us we were the crème; she was holidaying in the Loire valley with a young lover. Still the betrayed knitter had a card up her sleeve. Her father was on the school board. Kate signed a short statement about the persecution of Miss Garnet and the Toad was suspended.

Then came the spring day when Kate opened her soul. The absence of the Toad, our covert guardianship of Miss Garnet had not bound our class tighter. Miss Garnet was quietly planning her return to England. Miss Vavasour swept past the rose beds instructing girls to pick up scraps of lunch paper blown by the wind. It was an argumentative day. A Latin assignment was handed back and the scores read out from the lowest to the highest. Kate and I were somewhere in the middle: undistinguished Roman wives, relieved when our husbands were at the Forum and our children had been led to school by lantern-carrying servants. By midday the sky was dark and it was obvious that we would eat at our desks.

“I’m going outside, regardless,” Kate murmured when our sandwiches lay on their wrappings. Cold meat and pickle. Sometimes I longed for something sticky: raspberry jam. The argument – its subject now lost – started in another quarter of the room. Probably it was about boyfriends because that was the savagest divide: those who possessed one and those who didn’t.

“What else are we born for?” someone insisted, raising her voice. “Marriage, children…”

Kate turned her head to look at the speaker. It was Claudia who had scored highest in the test.

“I’ve never heard such rubbish,” Kate said, in a voice that carried. “Such utter, absolute, blindingly stupid rubbish.”

For a moment I saw her brothers at the sink, flicking foam off their fingertips, snapping tea towels at the backs of legs.

“And what are you here for, Kate O’Neal? What is your purpose in life?”

“I’m here to save my soul,” replied Kate.

We were walking in the wind and rain. The wind brings up the rain, I thought. It was the title of a book. But that day they seemed to be working together: a gust of wind, a sudden shower. It was like someone cooking: Kate or her sister, Cecilia, rubbing the butter into the flour with her fingertips. The big golden bowl on the long table and her brothers seizing handfuls of raisins or biting into California dates.

It was a Saturday. Saving-my-soul day was Friday. The silence that fell had been obliterating. Sandwiches halfway to mouths, knitting needles poised in mid-purl. The air seemed to thicken. Oh Kate, I thought, and prayed for the bell. One by one her classmates turned away from her with that slow portentousness I would recognise later in French movies with subtitles. A silence that resembles those summarising sentences that do not always accord with what lips are saying. Kate just held her head high and looked straight ahead as if the theorem drawn on the blackboard from the last lesson held a stunning fascination.

Did I have a soul? Did I believe in one? I asked myself when I lay on my back in my bed, gazing at the ceiling. My arms were crossed behind my head and I kept very still as if listening to my body. My stomach rumbled a little. My breath moved in and out. I lowered my arms and crossed them over my chest, my hands resting on my upper arms. I thought perhaps my soul was undeveloped but Kate had hers. She not only possessed it and it possessed her but she was aware of it. I imagined a dialogue between them. Perhaps this very moment Kate, also lying on her bed, was questioning her soul. You exposed me, it might be saying. There might be a sly smile as if the soul were not displeased.

As the weather warmed up I spent more and more time with Kate’s family. My mother was glad to have the weekends to herself but my father thought I was being badly influenced.

“By life, do you mean?” I asked, intending to provoke, though I didn’t raise my voice.

“Replacing one conformity with another is not life,” he replied. “You’ll find out.”

What I found was a game of charades going on in Kate’s living room. Thomas was draped in something that looked like a curtain and waving a cardboard sword. Kate’s mother was making jam in a great cauldron. Saucers of damson plum in various stages of setting rested on the bench and from time to time someone dipped a finger in and gave a verdict. After charades was over there was a feasting on white bread and warm jam.

“Do you want to dance with a king?” Thomas asked and, with jammy fingers entwined in his, I was whirled around on the sitting room carpet. The crown fell off as we collided with a heavy old armchair and the sword snapped in two.

“My kingdom for a horse,” Thomas declaimed as he spun me around. “Isn’t that the most glorious line? The most glorious line ever?”

“It shows you can’t count on people,” I shouted back.

For the remainder of our final year I became the unofficial guardian of Kate’s soul. I was no nearer to knowing what a soul was or even what she meant. But, knowing how she had exposed herself by that one statement, I was felt it was my role to watch over her. Gradually I saw her reclaim her place: a little aloof but firm in her conviction that she knew what life’s purpose was. Miss Garnet was replaced by Miss Tancredi. Kate sailed on, like a tall mast in a storm.

I knew she saw me doing this, adopting the role I would come to love and, indeed, had already chosen. The ‘second’, the friend who pushes another forward and remains in her shadow. What a powerful role it is, leaving someone else to say the sentence that might destroy. I don’t think she wanted it and yet she did not push me away. Too blind to consider her feelings – beyond the need to protect – I revelled in the insights it brought.

Even in your teens, dressed in an unbecoming gym slip, black stockings and lace-up shoes, it is possible to see your future. Kate would be a leader – she would work in Foreign Affairs and rise to a position of eminence. Perhaps her bottom line was, everyone has a soul. And I would become, after my degree, the private secretary of a powerful man in an oil company. (Hank van Westendorp had some of the bluntness of Kate, the same dependability.) That one sentence of Kate’s had made these roles clear. I loved bedrock and I loved to go behind it, to discover what drove it and how to maintain it. With Hank a memo was sufficient. “Your wife’s birthday next week,” I would say and a raised eyebrow was enough to indicate flowers.

“You won’t ever do this to me, will you, Maggie?” he said, laughing. A politician’s speechwriter had got his revenge by removing a page of a speech and inserting a note: Carry on yourself, you bastard.

“Is something wrong with Kate?” my mother had asked. I seemed to be living at the O’Neals.

“Absolutely nothing,” I replied. “Absolutely indubitably nothing.”

In summer lunch hours we sat on the grass, knees tucked under or legs stretched out, summer uniforms ruched up to the tops of our thighs. We formed natural rings around the ancient trees that sheltered the founding girls in their ankle-length skirts and panamas. From the nearby tennis courts came the plop of tennis balls. We were discussing children’s names. We would have traded all the Latin, history, algebra, for one of Macbeth’s witches’ spells.

“Kate, anything to say?”

“Nothing I can think of. It seems there is a factor missing.”

“You mean a man?”

“Some of us will have to provide for ourselves.”

On the way back, after the bell sounded through the trees and the tennis courts fell silent, I almost linked my arm through hers. Russian girls, strolling along Nevsky Prospekt did it, I had read. But no one wants comforting for simply stating a fact.

It was time to choose our careers, to decide on universities. Some of the group gathered under the trees opted for nursing or teaching. Nursing tempted me and suited my temperament but my father thought it nothing more that skivvying. So it would be university. Then, having decided to follow Kate, at the last moment she chose a different university through the offer of accommodation with a cousin. I was already booked into a hostel. In orientation week I wandered aimlessly about and got side-tracked into anthropology by a lively group of graduates, dressed as gorillas. My father was furious. Kate meanwhile was studying political science, modern history, Mandarin. The universities were very different: mine in a park-like setting with a bell tower, ornate and brittle as cake icing; Kate’s set on a high hill and surrounded by asphalt.

There was a last dinner at the O’Neals’. Afterwards we played charades again. Thomas
was going into the police force and it was easy to guess ‘A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy
One.’ Kate and I, with Cecilia, were ‘Three Little Maids from School.’ But there was a touch
of sadness in the room, like a very subtle changing of the light. Dawn comes in the same way,
particle by particle.

“We’ll write,” Kate said when I took my leave on the doorstep.

“We will,” I agreed.

But the house stood behind me like a stage set.

Kate was not a confiding sort of friend. I had defended her when she didn’t need defending, not by words but by being a presence at her side. The second who steps alongside at a tremor in the air or a baleful expression. The courtier who moves quietly into position, the watcher on the tower with binoculars scanning the procession. Who, in their right mind, could want that, unless they admitted to cowardice first? It’s as if their words are not allowed their full impact but are scooped up before they reach the ground. It was something in myself that was finding expression, coming into the light. The power of proximity, of a certain style of servitude. When we played charades our eyes met with unusual frankness. We exchanged signals, mimicked one another without thinking. But in real life I was studying Kate. The difference that was in Kate.

“I wish I had chosen somewhere with more greenery,” Kate wrote when she was settled in her student digs. She was sharing a suburban house under an overhanging hill which kept it in shade most of the day. She was assiduous at her studies however, handing assignments in on time, reading in the library on winter evenings to save heating. I, meanwhile, was wishing I had not succumbed to the anthropologists. Most of the lecturers wore bones around their necks. I was thoroughly sick of gorillas.

At term breaks we were both home, only Kate’s family home had been sold and her parents moved into a modern brick unit. Thomas was a policeman. When he saw us in the street he gave us a wink.

I had never thought of Kate as a diplomat but her silence and reserve, her strict code, must have made her ideal. She rose as high as a single woman could: counsellor at the embassy in Bonn, first secretary in Kuala Lumpur. She fell in love with Asia, especially Malaysia. Christmas cards arrived on stiff official paper. Sometimes a photograph of a temple or a tower. I had gone to work for Hank van Westendorp.

It was Cecilia who wrote, enclosing a memorial card. In Memory of Kate, it was headed. Underneath, a grove of gum trees seemed to rustle in a breeze. Then shall all the trees of the forest be joyful before the Lord, because He comes to rule the earth. Ps 96: 12. In a hand like Kate’s, Cecilia had written, No one knew she was ill. Not even Kate. She went for a checkup for a niggling pain. She was about to fly to Hong Kong. Instead she went straight to hospital.

Diplomacy came to her aid, I thought. She would have been unfailingly courteous to those who nursed her. A quick coma and she was gone. Then, since I could not think what to do, I sat and put my head in my hands as if I were leaning on a school desk. The scent flowed back in: pencil shavings, apple cores, books touched by many hands. I put my hands over my ears so I could not hear it: the clear courageous voice of Kate saying, “I am here to save my soul.”