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‘Mad old Māori lady falls off her chair onto a concrete floor. Hilarious’

A brilliant and haunting short story by author Kelly Ana Morey appears in a new anthology of Māori writing. Her setting: 1964, at Kingseat, the former mental institution. Photographs of Kingseat by Emily Lane.

‘Watch out for that one,’ the nurse says, leading me through yet another bare room. She points at an elderly Māori woman, sitting in a single square of sunlight, on a straight-backed wooden chair. A blue and green crocheted blanket falls across her legs and tumbles to the floor. ‘She’s generally got a vicious tongue on her, though she goes quiet in the winter,’ continues the nurse. ‘We think she hibernates once the colder weather sets in. Barely eats a thing and goes mute, the old crocodile.’

‘Are there many like her?’

‘Long-term patients, or murderesses?’

‘She’s a murderess?’

‘The Matekai Street Child Killer, would you believe,’ the nurse replies, stopping at the door that’s on the opposite side of the one we used to enter the room. ‘Been here nearly twenty years. But, apart from being mean, she’s mostly pretty harmless — and blind as a bat.’ ‘Oh . . . of course I’ve heard about her,’ I say, hoping I’m disguising how genuinely shaken I am by the information. Though, in many ways, I’m not even surprised she’s here, at my final nurse-training placement. It’s like I’ve been waiting my whole life to come face-to-face with her.

‘She’s like Minnie Dean — kind of infamous,’ I continue, consciously keeping my voice soft so the old woman can’t hear me. ‘I grew up in Grey Lynn, so when we were kids our mum always used to threaten us with the Matekai Street Kid Killer. But I don’t even think I was born when they arrested her.’

‘It was VJ Day, 1945,’ the nurse replies. ‘Funny how you remember things like that. It was all over the newspapers. I remember them wanting her to hang for her crimes. But, in the end, they sentenced her here for the rest of her life.’

‘But, wasn’t she old back then when they arrested her?’ I ask.

‘They thought so. She couldn’t tell anyone when she was born — and still can’t. Or won’t,’ replies the nurse, unlocking the door with one of the multiple keys that jangle on a ring that hangs from her belt. ‘But here she is, nearly twenty years later, still going strong.

Though it’s obvious she’s been in the wars. The doctors say her heart is good and she’s remarkably active when it’s warm. There’s nothing wrong with her upstairs either. Still got all her faculties and of course that vicious tongue,’ she continues, holding the door open for me before following me out. ‘It’s incredible really. She’ll outlive us all.’ There’s a click as the door locks behind us. The nurse then opens yet another door, and this one lets us out behind the building and into the grounds.

Outside it’s no warmer than it was inside. The sun may be shining and the sky an endless expanse of blue, but the thin wind that’s sweeping up from the mountains has the shiver of fresh snow on its breath. I hate winter at the best of times, but out here it’s so desolate that I wonder how I’ll survive.

‘We’ll go and get your uniform sorted out and get you settled in at the nurses’ home,’ the nurse says. ‘Then you’ll have a quick meeting with matron, then someone will give you the proper guided tour.

What did you say your name was again?’

‘Jennifer. Jennifer Devich,’ I reply.

‘Oh, a Dally, eh?’ the nurse says, swallowing my name, my fair skin, my Pākehā hair and green eyes without a thought.

‘Yes,’ I reply, more than happy to be Jennifer Devich the Dally new girl. It just makes things easier. ‘If you can pass for a Tararā, you might as well,’ Mum’s always said. ‘My mum and dad are from up north,’ I continue, ‘but they moved to Auckland a bit before I was born.’

‘Rita Stephens,’ the nurse says suddenly smiling. ‘Welcome to Kingseat, Jennifer Devich. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. It’s always a bit of a shock at first. But you’ll get the hang of it and it’s not that bad really.’

So begins the next year of my life. Long shifts, lousy living conditions and the opening and closing of doors. I have one day’s leave a week to go to Pukekohe and one weekend leave a month to go home. Do I make friends? Not really. I’m just one of those girls who is passing through. The lifers, they can smell it on me. I’m soft and they know it.

My whole life I’ve listened to my mother rail against my father.

Don’t get me wrong, they have it pretty good together — but for one single thing. The house my dad bought dirt cheap in 1946 when he and Mum first came to Auckland as newly-weds.

‘Typical Tararā,’ Mum says after a few glasses of Dad’s homebrew.

‘Couldn’t resist a good deal could he?’ This always makes Lorna and me laugh, because Mum’s as much a Tararā as Dad is Māori, even if he doesn’t look it. They both have a bit of both, it’s just that Mum is as dark as Dad is fair.

But to give Dad due credit, 35 Matekai Street is a beautiful house.

It’s liberally decorated with wooden gingerbread and made of red brick from the works over the hill, though it dates from many years before Dad got a job there. It’s just a little unfortunate that it’s also the house where at least five children were killed and thought to have been eaten by a deranged blind old woman.

‘And you think, Annie, that we could have afforded this place any other way?’ Dad always replies when Mum gets riled up about living in a murder-house. This being the most he will say in his own defence on his one mistake. He’s easier with the ghosts than Mum. There’s a history of it in his family. Mum and Lorna are more literal. Me? I’m just sitting on the fence. So, my sister

Lorna and I grow up overlooking the ground where we believe they exhumed the bones of children. It wouldn’t be until much later that I would discover that all the police found when they dug up the backyard were five small skulls that had been thoroughly gnawed ‘as if by an animal’.

Throughout my childhood I randomly find children’s teeth in the backyard. Pearly milk teeth like chips of ivory. They push up through the soil like crocuses at the first taste of sun. I keep them in a Red Jacket cigarette tin that my uncle from Canada gave to me that one time he came home to New Zealand for a visit. Mum plants dahlias in the backyard every spring. We’re the only people on our street who don’t have a vegetable garden.

I never wanted to be a nurse. Not one little bit of it. But when I didn’t get into teachers’ training college, nursing was what was left in the ‘good job’ basket. So, off I went to start my training, and ended up at Kingseat — with all the loonies.

By the time the spring arrives, I tell myself that I’ve almost accepted my fate. Though if I’m honest, the place gives me the creeps. Patients and staff, we all know it’s haunted. I’m new, so I’m kept away from the patients who are locked up all the time.

Almost all the nurses who work in those wards are men. On still nights, lying in our beds in the nurses’ home, we can hear the cries of the truly deranged. It seems worse when there’s a full moon. I get to look after the drunk women who are there for the cure.

My one and only stroke of luck thus far in my working life. The drunks, everyone tells me, are the easiest. Most of them are regulars, according to the long-time staff of Villas 11 and 4 where the dipsos are kept. Periodically sent here to dry out by their families. At least I’m not serving a life sentence like some of the people here. The moment my time’s up, I’m gone. I’ll go and work in the sewing factory with my friend Erin if I have to.

I discover that the Matekai Street Child Murderess is called Mereana by the staff, because no one knows what her real name is, and no one ever has. Throughout the winter I periodically come across her, curled up in corners, her hooded eyelids dropped almost completely over her blank reptilian eyes. I see her and I keep walking. If she’s dead, someone else can find her.

It stays cold until mid-October when a warm wind finally drifts down from the Pacific and, in a matter of days, brings everything back to life. I’m doing a rare shift in one of the general wards because a couple of the staff have gone to a funeral. Because it’s the first truly warm day in a long time, we — me and three other staff — herd everyone out of the common room and into the grounds.

Everyone except Mereana, who is sitting in an armchair in her usual semi-comatose state with the ginger tomcat that’s a bit of a fixture around the place. He sits on her lap, purring as he kneads away at the wool blanket covering her legs. ‘Will she be all right by herself?’ I ask the others, who are lighting cigarettes as they watch the patients responding in their various ways to the kiss of warmth on their faces.

‘Who?’ they ask.

‘Mereana.’

‘Oh Mary Anne. Yes, she’s fine,’ the most senior nurse says. ‘She’s locked in. Nothing much can happen to her other than falling off of her chair.’ They all laugh like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard.

Mad old Māori lady falls off her chair onto a concrete floor. Hilarious.

Because I’m young and don’t know how to stand my ground, I follow the others out into the garden. We’re almost at the collection of broken-down furniture under a magnolia tree when the senior nurse turns to me and says, ‘You wouldn’t mind going and getting us a cup of tea from the kitchen would you?’

It’s not a question, so I turn back, retracing my steps. On the way to the kitchen I pause and look in through the common-room window. From my limited viewpoint I can see that Mereana’s chair is empty. As quickly as I can, I let myself back into the building, then into the common room, swearing under my breath as I fumble the keys. Mereana hasn’t just fallen off her chair, she’s got about three feet away from it. She is painfully inching her way across the floor towards the windows and the patches of sunlight that have just started to paint the linoleum-covered concrete. The woollen blanket has twisted around her legs and trails behind her like a tail.

The blanket’s scalloped pattern looks like scales in the glittering light that’s flooding the room. Mereana’s body twists and flexes like an articulated automaton. A grotesque facsimile of the real thing.

Though, what that thing is I’m not quite sure. ‘Mereana, let me help you,’ I say running across to her, slipping as I step through something viscous that’s been spilt on the floor.

Somehow, I keep my balance, a skill a psychiatric nurse learns to do fast in a place where there’s always something — blood, vomit, shit and piss — spilt on the floor. I crouch down and lean over Mereana. Her face is locked in a spasm. Her lips peeled back over her gums as the seizure grabs hold of her. Her teeth are rotted down to blackened points. ‘It’s all right, Mereana, I’m here,’ I say, grabbing her hands and lifting her head off the floor so she can feel me through the fog of electrical disturbance. Her hands are cold and she smells like the muddy creek at the bottom of my grandmother up-north’s place. The creek where my cousins and my grandmother’s cats hook out eels.

Time passes, I don’t know how much. I just suddenly become present and Mereana is calm, as am I. The only sound in the room apart from the ticking of the clock is our long, measured breaths.

‘I see you, Girlie,’ she says.

‘I see you too,’ I reply. ‘Let me help you,’ I continue. ‘Can we get you up?’ For a frail old lady she’s surprisingly heavy and it takes a bit of work to get her upright and back to her chair. I tuck the blanket in around her after I’ve settled her back in. I’m about to leave to get the tea when she beckons me close. She grabs hold of my arm, running her hands over it hungrily. ‘You skinny like a ’Kehā,’ she says dismissively. ‘No bloody good to Rūruhi-Kerepō. But I have something to tell you, Girlie.’

‘What’s that, Mereana?’

‘Ko Rūruhi-Kerepō ahau,’ she says. ‘This is the first thing you need to know.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘I don’t speak Māori.’ I wait for her to translate what she said into English but she waves me away.

‘No bloody good to anyone,’ she says again.

I hear the outside door being opened, then the jangle of keys as the senior nurse lets herself in to the common room followed by an orderly. ‘Came to see what had happened to our tea,’ she says.

‘I found Mereana on the floor,’ I explain. ‘I think she had a seizure. But other than that she seems to be all right.’

‘Oh, Mereana, you’re back,’ the nurse says, not unkindly.

‘Lock up your children,’ quips the orderly and they both laugh.

‘Nothing to worry about. The old girl comes to life every spring,’ continues the senior nurse.

‘Come on, Jen, you can find her some clean clothes and since you and her are such great friends you can help with her bath too.’

Once again she and the orderly laugh in that unkind way that people do when you’re getting the short end of the stick. As I’m about to leave the room, I look back over my shoulder and Mereana is looking straight at me. She raises a finger and taps the side of her nose, the universal sign of conspiracy. I have no idea what she means. It’s not until a few days later that I realise the ginger tomcat has vanished, and that I have no memory of him being in the room during Mereana’s seizure.

This extract by Kelly Ana Morey appears in Pūrākau: Māori Myths told by Māori Writers edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka (Random House Vintage, $38), an anthology of ancient Māori myths retold by writers including Patricia Grace, Briar Grace-Smith, Keri Hulme, Tina Makereti, Paula Morris, Renee, Robert Sullivan, Apirana Taylor, and Hone Tuwhare.

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