Lessons from Harriet as Covid cacophony has us all on edge

It was a literal meltdown.

As the butter was seeping into my toast, I was throwing a tanty worthy of the worst toddler you have ever encountered.

"Why did you butter this? I hate hot toast. How do you not know this after all these years? And it’s not cooked enough."

Stomp, stomp, stomp to the toastie pie maker, shoving the toast in and slamming the lid.

If I had thought of stamping my feet, I probably would have. My companion sensibly ignored me.

All this because he buttered the toast he had kindly made for me.

(I am mostly a cold toast person, apart from occasions when I butter it hot to squash flaky savoury yeast into it. This was not one of those times. Usually, I have it well-browned, still crisp but cool enough for me to see my teeth marks in the butter topped with a smear of Vegemite. Bliss.)

There is no excuse for my shameful behaviour, but I suspect I am not alone in feeling on edge.

At this time of year I should be preparing for my annual pilgrimage to the Murchison A&P Show and to see two of my sisters, the Queen of Cookery and the Earthquake Baby. I would already be trash talking about my show entries. There is no show this year, but a select group is gathering at the QC’s house to have a cupcake-off, using the gingerbread recipe from the celebrity episode of last year’s Great Kiwi Bake Off. At least one cupcake is to be decorated on-site with ingredients provided by the QC who is bound to be accused of cheating at some point by the Earthquake Baby.

I will not be there, having decided that my yet-to-be-boosted vaccination status meant travelling around the countryside (my trip would have included visits to relatives more elderly than me) was not sensible. The plus side of that is that I have escaped pressure to attend this gathering in fancy dress (’60s is the theme), something the QC’s friends have decided is a must for the occasion. The very idea of any sort of fancy dress sends me into a funk. I know people who love it, but I am not among them. I find it hard enough to present myself to the world in clothes that are not holey, covered in greasy splodges, splashes of bleach, or all three.

So instead of the pilgrimage, I am supposed to hunker down, book a booster at the earliest opportunity, and wait for the country to be awash with the Omicron variant of Covid-19. I have food (including lemonade ice-blocks which I claim are for soothing a sore throat). I have books. I have cat food. I have toilet paper but not in excess. I have masks and paracetamol.

At 66, I am encouraged to see myself as vulnerable which is weird when I don’t feel like that, despite my butter intake. The whole business is unnerving.

Because I am discombobulated, I have spurned worthy historical tomes borrowed from the library, opting instead for catching up on some children’s fiction. (I learned this ploy from the Old School Mate in Feilding who once sent me a copy of Roald Dahl’s Matilda when I was recuperating from surgery. I had not read it and she thought it might hit the spot if concentration was limited. She is a wise woman, rewarded with some impressive letters after her name to prove it.)

I chose Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. I am disappointed I did not read it soon after 1964 when it was first published. I would have loved it.

The best-seller drew praise for its depiction of an unconventional outsider girl character, and predictable criticism from those who felt Harriet was a bad influence.

Eleven-year-old Harriet routinely spies on people in her neighbourhood and records pithy, funny and often brutally honest observations in a notebook. When classmates get hold of the notebook and uncover her unflattering statements about them, Harriet is shunned, including by her best friends.

After Harriet eventually becomes editor of the Sixth Grade Page, she makes amends by issuing a retraction about her notebook entries which she says were lies.

But did she really think they were lies, or was the retraction a lie? Fitzhugh leaves us guessing with a parting shot from Harriet saying her nanny Ole Golly was right — "sometimes you have to lie". I find myself agonising over that as an adult in a way which I am sure I would not have as a child.

At least it is a distraction from the Covid cacophony. And, should I be tempted to throw another toast tantrum, I could follow Harriet’s lead and stick relentlessly to tomato sandwiches.


  • Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.




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