Maurice Gee – recently named the author of the best New Zealand book of the past 50 years – writes a memoir of the boy who had a dark, terrifying idea for a game: “You be a girl, eh, and I’ll be a man climbing in the window.”
Content warning: This excerpt contains a threat of sexual violence.
I doubt that Ernie had friends. He lived on the far side of half an acre of scrub, an only child whose father, a bootmaker, travelled by train each morning to his work in Mt Eden. Ernie made his way along tracks in the scrub; he seemed to be always at our house, wanting to be let into our games, but we held him off. What was it we didn’t like? His almost pleading neediness? His boasting that made him better than us in every way? We were especially outraged at his claims for his father, who, he said, could run faster and lift heavier things than ours. Didn’t he know our father had knocked men out? But his, Ernie claimed, was a champion sprinter and had won the hundred yards at the New Zealand championships – and it might have been true, for when we saw the father, Les, in his shorts on summer days, he certainly had muscular legs. And Ernie called us over to watch Les chop the heads off chooks in the fowl run.
We might have accepted him except that he was indefinably creepy. There was something wrong in his head; his understanding of what was going on was always skewed. It might have come from an injury we witnessed one day. Ernie’s mother and ours stood talking on the wooden bridge crossing the creek where Millbrook Road and View Road met. Ernie, aged about 10, was standing next to his mother while we looked through the railings at the water. An older boy, Des Hallas, came down the hill on his bike, lost control in the gravel, and came straight at us on the bridge. Ernie ducked the wrong way, into the bike, and the handlebar struck him on the forehead. I remember an egg-shaped bruise that looked more like a dent. Ernie stood unconscious on his feet, not sure who he was, or where, and I wonder about some injury to his brain. I can’t remember what he was like before but there was a kind of thick aggressiveness in his behaviour, when he wasn’t wheedling, after that.
Looking back, he spoiled something for us – or perhaps just for me. A shadow falls on my childhood when I remember Ernie. He found a cardboard box, too small for him to get into and close the lid, but I was small enough, he said, and wouldn’t it be a great idea to put it in the middle of the road and make Mr Scott stop his car when he came home. Then I could climb out and we’d have a laugh at him. I took some persuading. What if Mr Scott drove right over the box? No, he wouldn’t, Ernie said, it was too big.
So, not long after, I found myself in a cardboard box in the middle of Newington Road, with Mr Scott due home and Ernie watching from behind our hedge. Did I raise the lid and stop the car, or did Mr Scott stop the way Ernie said he would? I don’t remember. But the white-faced man burst out of his car, yelling with anger and fright as I scrambled out – not laughing – from the box. He gave me a good telling off, and so did Mum and Dad when they heard. But they believed me when I told them it was Ernie’s idea and they watched him closely after that.
I haven’t any doubt that Ernie wanted Mr Scott to run over the box.
By the age of nine or 10 I knew nothing about sex, though I’d heard boys at school talk about it and say what happened. I thought that was just big kids’ dirt, even if at the back of my disbelief a sort of knowledge moved, disguised as curiosity. But no adult had confirmed it. Nothing from Mum and Dad. Mum took us to watch a calf being born on Kellys’ farm and I found it interesting but messy. When Gus asked how the calf got in there she fell back on the planting of a seed and would only say that a bull had to plant the seed in the cow’s tummy. How? And what about people? She replied that it was a beautiful thing and we’d understand one day.
The kids at school knew. My brothers came to know. My younger brother told me bluntly that I was a mug. My deskmate in Standard Four was Clyde Markwick, a fierce little yellow-haired boy who grew up to be a jockey. I asked him why he bounced around in his seat like that.
“Practising,” he said.
I drew away from him as though he were diseased.
I knew but wouldn’t know. What about purity? What about beauty? When a group of boys down at the swimming pool at Falls Park were talking about fucking I said flatly that I didn’t believe it. My parents, I said, would never do a thing like that.
Ernie steps back into the frame. He’s about 13 and I am 10. We’re at his place, up at the back of the section by the fowl run. We climb through the fence into Kellys’ farm and go along past the scrub so we’re hidden from the house because, he says, he wants to show me how he can make milk come out of his cock. He takes out his penis, it’s big and red and looks deformed, but I watch as he rubs it and makes the “milk” come out and squirt on a pine trunk. And then I take off, I get out of there, because I recognise it’s dangerous. Ugly, shadowy, dirty, dangerous. I could write this as though it’s nothing – boys learning to masturbate, it happens all the time – or as a bit of comedy. But those four adjectives are the truth of it for the 10-year-old I was.
I got over it easily enough. Just another day in the life of an ignorant, over-sensitive small boy. In the rest of my behaviour I was rough and tough, noisy and physical, and curious about all sorts of things. But about sex I remained obdurate (can’t say firm). I would not admit Ernie’s penis as evidence.
He comes back, bringing it with him. When I wanted to get away to read I sometimes went to the porch Dad had converted into a bedroom for Junior and lay on his bed, safe from intrusion. The room had sliding windows, and one afternoon as I was reading Ernie pushed them open and climbed in. First his head, with its red thick face and eyes seeing something that wasn’t there: “You be a girl, eh, and I’ll be a man climbing in the window.”
Disbelief paralysed me as he tumbled in. He took out his penis, already hard, kept me still with one arm, and rolled on top of me. He made a couple of prods, not at anything he could see because I was fully clothed; but I’ve never known any horror like it – horror of getting his “milk” on me. I was a quick, agile boy and I got out from under him with a heave and slide and was at the door and into the house before he could move from the bed. I haven’t any doubt that I was in danger of violence, perhaps of death. He was a big strong boy.
But again I kept quiet, told no one until recently I described Ernie’s attempt to my brother Gus, who said, “Yes, he did the same with me.”
Gus got away too – he was smaller than me but tougher. Like me, he didn’t tell anyone. And we saw very little of Ernie after that. He kept away. I can’t remember even talking with him again, although he lived in the street for the rest of our time there. He must have gone to school on the train – one of the train boys – to Mt Albert Grammar or Seddon Tech, the schools that took western suburbs boys. He simply passed out of my life, except for the memories left behind.
More than 60 years later I gave him an existence after Newington Road by putting an Ernie figure into a novel and making him larger than life, a grotesque. One reviewer, with some justification, described the novel as silly.
An excerpt from the new memoir Memory Pieces by Maurice Gee (Victoria University Press, $35), available from Unity Books.