Mister George Lamkin carries his chamber pot to the far end of his garden. My sister Barbara and I watch from our upstairs bedroom window as he empties the pee onto his rhubarb plants and runner beans. In the summer we often wake up early and hear the shush-shushing of Mister Lamkin’s slippers as he goes down his gravel path, but today we were woken by the sound of someone coughing and hoiking up phlegm. That means the Lamkins’ daughter is home from India for a visit. She doesn’t come home very often as it’s too far. Her name is Sylvia. She’s always asking us our names, then she asks us again a few days later because she’s forgotten already. Dad says that’ll be the gin. She chain-smokes on the back doorstep and wears bright red lipstick and sunglasses and gold earrings and a lot of rings on her fingers. She wears posh, expensive clothes too. We think she could be a film star. Once we heard Mum tell Dad, in the sort of whispery voice she puts on when she doesn’t want us to hear, that Sylvia’s just married her third husband, but for all that, she’s a good daughter because she writes to her mother every day. Her mother is Jessie Lamkin who is a nice, kind lady but she’s very shy and stays indoors, so we hardly ever see her.
Mister Lamkin doesn’t stay indoors. His skin is tanned and his hair is wavy and pure white and he’s tall and skinny. That’s because of all the swimming he does. He swims to the end of the pier and back every day even in the winter, except when there’s a storm and the waves are hitting the sea-wall and throwing shingle all over the promenade. He’s very clever and makes furniture and mends antiques for the rich people who live in the big houses out in the country. When he’s working on the furniture in his workshop down in his cellar, we can hear him singing. He sings the sort of music Dad listens to on the concert programme, but really loud. That’s because he belongs to the Operatic Society, where he’s a womaniser, Mum says.
You can tell Mum doesn’t like Mister Lamkin very much. She says we must be polite and say thank you if he gives us stuff but we must never go into his garden or house, even if he asks us. In the summer he gives Barbara and me berries. ‘Hold out your hands,’ he says and we stretch up to the top of the fence with our hands and he puts the blackberries and loganberries in them. Then he strokes Barbara’s arm. ‘Lovely brown arms,’ he says, ‘lovely girls.’
One day Mister Lamkin tried to kiss Mum. We didn’t see him do it but we heard her complaining about it to Dad. She said, ‘You know, I really think he just can’t help himself!’ and Dad laughed and said, ‘Well, he obviously tries to help himself.’ Dad’s always one for a joke, but Mum got a bit huffed at that. She went all red in the face and said she didn’t think it was a laughing matter, because she didn’t like George Lamkin one little bit and Dad wasn’t being serious about it. So Dad said sorry and gave Mum a hug and said if George ever really bothered her he’d go over and have a talk with him and sort him out. Then he said, at least you have to admit George can grow vegetables.
Dad knows everything about growing vegetables and he especially knows about manure. Some vegetables he puts horse manure on. For potatoes he gets pig manure from a farmer he knows, as he reckons it grows the biggest spuds, and he says you only put chicken manure on the green vegetables, like Brussel sprouts and kale.
But Mister Lamkin grows the best beans in the neighbourhood and his rhubarb plants are way bigger than Dad’s. They’re massive. You could use the leaves for umbrellas. On really hot days our cat sleeps under them. Sometimes when he’s got too much rhubarb, Mister Lamkin gives some to Mum and she makes a pie with it for Sunday lunch. We always have a roast for lunch on Sundays after Dad’s worked all morning on his allotment. Mum’s pies are yummy because she makes the pastry with butter and sparkles the top with caster sugar. There’s a tin of evaporated milk to pour on, too. But if Barbara asks if the pie is made from Mister Lamkin’s rhubarb and if Mum says yes, it is, we look at each other and giggle and say we’re too full already and ask to leave the table.
Liz Elson studied for the Diploma in Creative Writing at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and completed it at Whitireia. She has had some short stories on Radio NZ, as well as in the 4th Floor Literary Journal and the Romance Writers of NZ Short Story Contest. Favourite food? She’ll agree with her grandmother, who said she would go without shoes before she went without butter.