You are on page 1of 8

22.

01mm

A me mo i r o f so rt s

‘You’ll want to read this in one sitting but


it’s worth savouring every line.’
— MADELEINE CHAPMAN

‘Somehow it makes perfect sense that a great


New Zealand memoir would be written by a
dreamy, left-handed wife of an ex-All Black.’
— STEVE BRAUNIAS

A BRILLIANT COLLECTION OF PERSONAL ESSAYS


FROM A QUIETLY SUBVERSIVE WRITER.
LINDA BURGESS
These pieces read like the freshest of recent novels–clever,
restrained and wittily observant. They range across the personal
and the observational. There are essays on Linda’s lifetime of being
an All Black wife (once an AB, always an AB); her love of teaching,
education and the young; and a powerful essay on the death of her
baby, Toby, striking in its honesty.

She’s interested in family and friendship; shared and sometimes


distorted memories. Her personal truths link to universal truths.
Linda explores the era in which she grew up, and her experiences
are timeless. She looks at living abroad, at children leaving home,
at house-hunting in Wellington, at travelling with a grandchild, at ‘Linda Burgess can make you laugh and break your heart,
Leonard Cohen concerts as tribal gatherings. LINDA often in the same sentence. Clear-eyed and wise, these
elegant essays are the stories we share to survive.’
Moving but never sentimental, Linda Burgess’s essays are an B U R GESS — DIANA WICHTEL
engrossing read.

www.allenandunwin.co.nz

SomeonesWifeCVR_FNL1.indd 1 21/06/2019 13:01


First published in 2019 For Benedict, Julia, Flora and Edward Burgess;
Text © Linda Burgess, 2019
Gemma, Joe, Lucie and Max Sheehan; and Robert.
With love.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in
any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying,
recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior
permission in writing from the publisher.

Allen & Unwin


Level 3, 228 Queen Street
Auckland 1010, New Zealand
And to the indestructible memory of Les Atkins.
Phone: (64 9) 377 3800
Email: info@allenandunwin.com
Web: www.allenandunwin.co.nz

83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065, Australia
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100

A catalogue record for this book is available from the National Library
of  New Zealand.

ISBN 978 1 98854 725 1

Design by Megan van Staden


Author photograph on page 303 by Robert Burgess
Set in Baskerville
Printed and bound in Australia by Griffin Press, part of Ovato

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

The paper in this book is FSC® certified.


FSC® promotes environmentally responsible,
socially beneficial and economically viable
C009448
management of the world’s forests.

The paper in this book is FSC® certified.


FSC® promotes environmentally responsible,
socially beneficial and economically viable
C009448
management of the world’s forests.
13.

I KNOW
THEM
SO WELL
In which I discuss my longstanding
relationship with the royals
I assume it was different a few centuries ago when most
people simply stayed put. In your village everyone knew
not only you but also, by reputation, your ancestors. Just
look at the Montagues and Capulets: their families had
been fighting for so long that nobody could remember what
actually caused the row.
On one level, having no expectation of change must
have made things easier. Kirstie and Phil would never have
burst through your front door exuberantly insisting you
decide whether to love or list your hovel. As you waited to
die of plague, starvation, childbirth or burning at the stake,
you’d have been unlikely to mull over how different things
would’ve been if only you’d moved to the Home Counties. If
you’re reading this, then you can take comfort, as everyone
in the world can, that somehow your ancestors knew to
stay put long enough to plant or receive a seed. Just think,
if you can without getting dizzy, if smallpox had come just
another house down the street, if there’d been one more
Scot slaughtered at Culloden, another death from measles

201
SO M E O NE ’ S W IFE I k now them so well

in Sāmoa, you wouldn’t be here now. that attached us to them. There were sticker books for a
As my family moved around provincial New Zealand, we start, scrapbooks, special coins when they visited, and my
tended to emotionally abandon the people we knew. Once brother’s divine diorama bought around about the time
or twice I bussed to a previous town to stay with a friend, but of the coronation. You stood it up on its side and carefully
that was that. Christmas cards were big then, and the scores slotted in horses, courtiers and gold coaches, all with little
that arrived from mid-December (snow and robin red breasts numbered tags that matched the number on the unfolded
on the front, births, deaths and marriages noted inside) were diorama. It’s 65 years old, has become much smaller, and
from people my family had left so ruthlessly behind. The my brother still has it. Michael is the sort of person Antiques
cards were stored in a shoebox in Mum’s wardrobe to be Roadshow was designed for. When I was at his place two years
retrieved the next year so Mum (never Dad) knew who to ago, he brought it carefully out, wrapped in tissue paper,
write to. Aunts (never uncles) sent bubble bath for birthdays. for me to look at. He wasn’t keen for me to play with it,
Our family was the six of us: others linked by blood didn’t remarking that his Lion Annuals would’ve been worth a small
live close enough to pop in for a cup of tea. Some of my fortune now if I hadn’t coloured them in.
friends had honorary aunts, friends who were close enough The Queen was old enough to be my mother, but her
to feel like relations. Mum and Dad scorned this sort of girlhood hung around her far longer than my mother’s did.
thing: a friend was no more an aunt than a magazine was She was mythologised. As a wartime teenager more than a
a book. decade before she came into my life, she valiantly slipped on a
One of the few consistencies in my life other than my uniform, tugged the belt tight and, fresh-face and true, drove
family was the royal family. Later there were the characters trucks. That was enviable enough. But nothing impacted
from Coronation Street, but they didn’t arrive till my mid-teens. quite like the gift to Elizabeth and her sister Margaret Rose
Ken Barlow, absent only for the time it took him to be found from the people of Wales. Something that every girl I knew
innocent of molesting teenage girls, has been in my life for wanted: a house, exactly like a real one but child-sized,
a fair while now. Then there’s Rita, still going strong. And compact perfection. When I read about it in my Christmas
Danny Baldwin, who’s now on The Chase. But I don’t know annual, I was helpless with envy. My envy for the Princesses’
them. Not like I know the royal family. Not since birth. cottage was tempered with respect, and a knowledge of our
Unlike our friends who we left behind, the royal family different places in the order of things. I knew even then the
came with us when we moved, linked by all those things people of Wales were never going to pop by Pahīatua with a

202 203
SO M E O NE ’ S W IFE I k now them so well

miniature house on the back of the farm truck. been only the one frock, but there was only the one Hardy
The Queen first entered my life in the real when she Amies. She was a piping posh voice through a static crackle.
went past me, and thousands of other children, in a train. She was never filmed sucking anyone’s toes. No one ever
I was too short to see her, and was still wailing because the wrote Mountbatten Lords it Over Lonely Lilibet! or Fickle Philip on
boy behind me had decapitated my flag by whacking it with the Hunt for Zipless F***!
his. Between me and the Queen was a consoling grown-up, The Queen lost her position at the centre of my interest
completing the blocking of my view. One of today’s royals when I realised her son was pretty much my age: two weeks
would’ve noted my misery and leapt from the train to tell me older, in fact. I was interested enough in kings and queens
he too had suffered at an early age, but it was different back by then (taking a morbid interest in the ones who were
then. Not a backward glance. beheaded) to be curious about a boy my own age who knew
Times have certainly changed—now we have a new from the time he could think that one day he’d be King. What
prince-to-be who’s called Archie Harrison, both yummy must this feel like, this knowledge? And how could you look
mummy baby names, the first the sort of name that if called forward to it knowing that, when it happened, your mother
out in a playground could be answered to either by a child would have just died? I took comfort in what my apparently
in designer clothing or a labradoodle. No other royal baby wise older sister had said to me when I confided to her that
has ever had a second name which refers in a slyly witty but I was dreading our mother’s death. Airily she informed me
obvious way to his parentage. Harry’s mother could have that I’d be at least 30 by the time that happened, and by then
saved herself a lot of grief if she’d thought to do just that. I wouldn’t care. It was best to assume that this was also the
But back to Archie’s great-gran. I  read about her in case with Prince Charles.
the Woman’s Weekly when she was a young mother: the As children, we were encouraged by our somewhat
tone, consistently respectful. I saw her in The Shorts at the cynical father to view Charles as what our family called a
Saturday matinee, coming right after the serial’s cliffhanger. little drip. A little Pommie drip, what’s more, still wearing
Someone with bow lips tied by her wrists to the railway line; smocked shirts that New Zealand boys older than two
then a faraway figure in an unshowy hat and a frock that wouldn’t be seen dead in. With his hair so carefully combed,
spread out below her trim waist. Above that trim waist was a he looked a real sissy. I felt quite disconcerted when, seeing
fitting bodice and a hinting-at-off-the-collar neckline, slightly a documentary about the royal family when Charles and I
reminiscent of what film stars wore. There might not have were about 15, I discovered that with his bashful eyes and

204 205
SO M E O NE ’ S W IFE I k now them so well

his hand slipped into the pocket of his tweed jacket, he was Did the Queen drink cream sherry, which had started life in
unsettlingly sexy. In a Paul McCartney way: Paul had made a flagon, from a decanter with a silver chain around its neck?
it more than acceptable to have an innocent girly face and Surely it must have been wonderful to have a mother
long lashes. Documentaries about the royal family changed famous for not having opinions. She wouldn’t have said,
everything: now we really knew them. Are you going out wearing that? Or, Your bedroom looks
They were filmed on a family picnic. We went on family like a Chinese brothel. Also, the Queen was busy launching
picnics but our food was never in a wicker hamper, just in ships and opening hospitals, so wouldn’t have been waiting,
a tin that used to have biscuits in it, and which never quite lonely as hell in her isolated small community, her silhouette
lost that musty biscuity smell. We were photographed by humiliatingly visible behind the venetian blinds, for her
my brother’s Box Brownie huddled together in the mist on children to come home from school. There was never a
Mount Messenger; they probably had Lord Lichfield with glimpse of the Queen behind the blinds of Buckingham
them. In our photos, Dad never stood slightly to the side, Palace, desperate for news of any kind.
like the Duke, back to camera, hands linked behind, gazing Charles came to New Zealand on his own the year I was
wistfully at the distant hills. Longing for a stag at bay, or at teachers’ college in Christchurch. Two people from each
even a lost grouse. A gun. We did both have a handy blanket class were selected to meet him at a garden party at Mona
to perch on, but theirs was the family tartan, and ours was Vale. I was too proud to beg, and stood silently by while
a grey one with a red stripe down the middle which Dad our two class captains—yes, we had class captains, though
brought back from the war. perhaps they were called representatives—were deemed to
When I was about 14, I began to find my mother was be the most appropriate. When Judy came back, she was
embarrassing: had Charles felt like that about his? Did the glowing. She’d met him and shaken his hand and oh my God
Queen tell people in shops things they neither knew nor cared he was gorgeous.
about? Put on a telephone voice? Flirt with the butcher? My But another change was coming. Like most of my friends
boyfriend from university came to stay—separate rooms, I got married at a ludicrously early age, and had kids, while
quite appropriately—and my mother put Oklahoma on the Charles lingered on, an interminable teenager, still mad on
stereogram, did a flick of her hips as she lit a cigarette and the Goons, still going out with pretty girls and not finding
poured herself a small sherry. Did the Queen like musicals? Miss Right. Then he did, marrying Diana just days after
Embarrass Charles by smoking in front of his girlfriends? protesters went on to the field at Hamilton and stopped the

206 207
SO M E O NE ’ S W IFE

game against the Springboks, and it went from bad to worse.


What was once so innocent, a discreet camera following his
family on a picnic, was now any indiscretion made public.

14.
Let’s leave him here. Just at the point that he so
percipiently says, ‘Whatever love is.’ Before his tragic young
wife says, ‘There were three of us in that marriage.’ Before
he professes a wish to be a tampon. Let’s leave him while I
can still stick up for him. When I can point out the things
about which I agree with him. Organic vegetables. Free-
range hens. Gardens. Communities. Buildings with some
dignity that don’t leak.
RE-ENTERING
Let’s leave him, or both of us—let’s leave both of us—
before everything is known by everybody. When friends are
people you bike out into the country with in the hope you’ll In which my children go to
see that boy from boarding school who you fancy, going university . . . and then come home
further than your mother permits. When friends are those
who send you Christmas cards, not faceless strangers who
link to you on Facebook. When small towns still have banks
and dentists, doctors and high schools, libraries and picture
theatres. When royals—who’ve never in some way had any
point at all—still give us something to think about, to ponder.
A myth. A story. A fairy tale. Let’s leave us there. I’m happy
with that. And so, I’m prepared to guess, is Charles.

208

Related Interests