Grandma Cooks

Joyce Laycock by Jenny Aarts

In 1943, well into the Second World War, my mother, Joyce, was seventeen years old and working as a hairdresser in Wellington, New Zealand. She was about to be plucked from her hairdressing job, which was classed as non-essential by the government, and sent into factory work, since the war showed no sign of abating, and most of the country’s men were away overseas, fighting. The men who remained at home were either classed as medically unfit to join up with the armed forces, or were engaged in essential industries or services. The onus was on women to provide the extra manpower needed to keep the country going.

Mum’s brother, my uncle Herb, was at university then, and one of his female classmates had told him of an alternative to the factory scene, since Mum hated the thought of being interned on a factory floor doing repetitive work day after day. This friend of her brother’s did herd testing part-time, a necessary job, as dairying was a major industry in NZ, and the quality of the milk could not be compromised. Mum liked the idea of a bit of adventure and relative freedom in the great outdoors and applied at once.

Shortly afterwards, she said goodbye to her parents and brother Herb, and travelled by train to Whangarei, a medium-sized town at the opposite end of the North Island from her home city of Wellington. After a brief training session on the art of collecting milk samples from cows, and the care and control of horses and their trappings, she was sent a further twenty-eight miles north, again by train, to a place called Maromaku, where a horse and cart and boxes of equipment awaited her at the first farm. The farmer was to pick her up from the station.

Maromaku consisted of a tiny stationmaster’s office, a post office and a general store, which served the many dairy farms nestled in the valley amongst rolling green hills. There was a tiny primary school further down the road. No one came to meet her from the train. There were two people in the shop, the shopkeeper and Mrs. Atkins. They laughed when Mum asked the way to Callaghan’s farm, so that she could walk there. It was miles away. Mrs. Atkins gave Mum a lift, the first of many kindnesses she was to receive from country people. There had been some breakdown in communication, as Mr Callaghan had no idea when she was coming, but the horse and cart were there as promised.

The horse’s name was Digger. This was Mum’s first encounter with a horse, but she soon got the hang of it. Nose at the front of the horse, tail at the back, put the bit between its teeth, harness, straps, blinkers on. There was nothing to it. All that was left to do was to hitch Digger up to the cart, sit on the thoughtfully provided wooden crate, flick the reins, say ‘Giddyup,’ and away she went.

Mums territory covered a broad area of the far north of NZ. She had only the horse for company on her journeys between farms on the lonely backcountry roads. Rough roads they were too, completely unsealed and full of potholes. The cart was a basic model with no springs or shock absorbers, so the ride was far from comfortable. She always said ‘Thank goodness, nothing ever happened to me.’

In those days, especially as there was a war on and everything was different, there was no thought given to the potential risks a young girl might encounter while travelling alone in isolated countryside. Normally, this was a man’s job. Herd testers stayed overnight on farms with people they didn’t know. Most of the time. Mum experienced the warmest hospitality, but she did have a few alarming incidents. There were some very funny moments too. I think she was exaggerating when she said nothing ever happened to her.

One day, she arrived at a farm, backed up the loaded cart in front of the milking sheds, and released Digger to a well-deserved rest and a nosebag full of chaff. The farmer appeared, and wanted to move the cart, as it was blocking the driveway and he needed to get his truck out. Mum started to offload her boxes to lighten it, but he waved her aside, inserted himself between the shafts in the same manner as a horse, picked them up off the ground and prepared to turn the cart around. The only trouble was, he turned it towards a slope, realised his mistake and made a mighty effort to save the situation, but failed, and the cart rolled off backwards, getting up quite a speed thanks to the weight of its load. The farmer ran backwards too, still clinging to the shafts, then, by a mighty effort, managed to slew it around. He was more embarrassed than hurt, especially as Mum found the whole scene most amusing and was doubled up with laughter when he managed to puff his way back up the hill, sans cart and very sheepish.

She sent the boxes of test tubes off to Whangarei by rail. One day, as Mum pulled up at the station and was offloading her samples, Digger was startled by the arrival of the train, all noisy clouds of steam, and bolted, smashing the cart and disappearing into the distance. He left behind a trail of debris and a distraught young driver, who could only think of the trouble she would be in when the boss got to hear of the damage. A farmer caught the horse eventually, but by then Mum was late for the next place and needed to be driven there. The people who offered to drive her were incredulous when they heard where she was going. Prime’s farm was too far away, it’s way out in whoop-whoop, they said. If she’d attempted the trip in her cart, she wouldn’t have got there in daylight. They rang her boss and told him off for even thinking of sending a young girl to such an isolated place. So there were no recriminations from the chastened boss about the accident, and the basic cart was replaced by a much more comfortable gig with a proper seat, ‘springs and all – real luxury,’ she recalled with satisfaction.

Maybe it was fate that made Digger choose that day to bolt. Later, she found out that Mr. Prime hadn’t asked for his herd to be tested, and hadn’t been expecting her to call, so there would have been no one to meet her along the way to show her where to go. She would have been alone with her horse and cart in the dark. Another place she went to was in a terrible state of disrepair and mess, with a dead dog rotting in the shed. Mum refused to stay there. Later, she met the farmer in the store, and he reproached her for leaving, as he and his wife had, he said, made her very welcome. He obviously hadn’t noticed the appalling stench of the dog’s carcass.

On the day Mum was to meet Dad for the first time, she was once again stranded on the road at a place called Moerewa, this time with a broken gig wheel. The cream lorry, which picked up the cans of cream from the farms, pulled up and the two young Maori blokes inside asked her where she was going. No need for her to worry, they said, they were on their way to the Vukovich farm right that minute, so she should hop in and they’d take her there. She swung up into the cabin and squeezed in beside the two men. After they had been going for some time, she asked how far it was, and they looked at each other, giggled and said nothing. This went on for a while longer, with more gales of laughter every time she asked. She was beginning to panic when they finally arrived in Hikurangi, a town more than twenty miles away, and home of the dairy company to where they delivered the cream. More laughter – didn’t she get the joke they had played on her? Mum was so angry with them they had to buy her an ice-cream to cool her off before they drove all the way back to Maromaku and delivered her safely to my father’s farm.

Dad was single and twenty-five years old, and had taken over the farm from his father only the year before. Jim Vukovich, farmer, meet Joyce Laycock, herd tester. They started going out to the pictures at Kawakawa, about ten miles away. Mum had to write to her mother in Wellington for permission to go out with Dad. She would like it known that she didn't stay in the house with my father until after they were married. It was difficult to acquire such a thing as a wedding dress in wartime, but she did, and they were married in Wellington shortly before her eighteenth birthday in October 1943.

So began this new life as a farmer’s wife in the little green valley of Maromaku, as different as it could possibly be from Wellington. The families she had visited during her brief stint as a herd tester remained friends for many years.