Steam wafted from the chink where the serving spoon emerged from the lid of the blue-and-white willow-pattern dish. A peek within revealed the bright green of the sweet steaming fresh peas. But the matching dish on the luncheon table with its bland dish of plain boiled potatoes muted the momentary anticipation.
The extending table was set for lunch with a cream linen Jacquard cloth and heavy silver cutlery. We were all gathered in from play, hands washed, and seated – all six children, Mum and Dad too – as Gran laid down the platter of aromatic roast lamb for Grandad to carve. All eyes fixed on him, plates were passed, gravy poured, and manners remembered: please pass the salt, thank you, no reaching, and elbows off the table. Serviettes were removed from silver serviette rings and spread over Sunday-best dresses. Great-grandfather August Koch was there on the wall, in the photo of the main trunk railway bridge that’d been built under his supervision at the turn of the century. From the other wall, larger than life, the baleful eyes of Louis XIV followed our every move. We had no idea why Louis presided over us, but perhaps he too had travelled from Berlin in the 1850s, handed down from the art engraver/printer forebear on that side of the family.
The first course navigated, the jelly and fresh fruit salad brightened eyes and stirred subdued spirits. Then excused and released, we sought amusement in the lifting seat of the Monk’s bench that stood in the hallway, found balls, skipping ropes and picnic rugs, and broke out into the sunlight, onto the green grass with its shiny-leafed citrus trees.
We had asked Mum, and Mum asked Grandad if we could go to his shop. Grandad was retired but he still worked. He had the draper’s store on Te Puke’s main street. That afternoon, he unlocked the back door and we entered through the dingy cluttered passageway housing a bench and sink, grimy with age. The closed-up shop was gloomy too, even with the lights on. Behind the long wooden counter were the crammed wooden shelves. Mum examined the bolts of boiled wool, the cottons and crimplenes, and as often as not left with a box full of remnants to be reworked into shorts or skirts or tops for us.
Meanwhile, we were free to finger the array of laces, marvel at the minutely graduated shades of coloured thread, and pull out the compartmentalised trays with their countless buttons in all shapes and sizes. I ran my fingers over the skeins of wool revelling in the softness, dreaming of the cosiness of being enveloped in a big baby-blue wool jersey. But not for long; I manoeuvered one of the thick pattern books – Simplicity, Butterick and Vogue – into position on the stand, flicked to the junior section, and turned the pages in quick succession. No, no, no, then yes! The perfect sundress. It had thin straps, a square neck, and a full gathered skirt. I became the picture of elegance portrayed on the page before me. Please, Mum? And can we take a book home? Often not. But sometimes new books had arrived and Grandad relinquished the old ones for us to linger over in the days and weeks to come.
Back at the house, when the grown-ups’ talk was done, and after a constrained afternoon tea of dilute lime cordial and Gran’s sugar-rolled biscuits that her recipe book called Elsie’s Fingers, we were corralled into the backseat of the Vauxhall Velox – two sitting back, two forward – Dad driving, the baby on Mum’s knee on the front seat, and one of the little ones in the middle between them – for the long trip back across the Kaimais. It’d be too late and too dark for a stop for an ice-cream – entreaties would be fruitless.
The quiet of a day done settled on me. Wrapped up in a warm cardi, I drifted into a reverie of having my very own kitten snuggled purring on my lap, and rubbing my cheek against its soft fur, until the bright shock and bustle of home, Milo and bed.