50 Years of NZ Book Awards – Marilyn Duckworth

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Book Awards in New Zealand. Our national prize has had different sponsors and incarnations over the years: it’s now the Ockham NZ Book Awards, held each May on the Tuesday of the Auckland Writers Festival.

Over the years many of our brightest and best writers, and classic books, have been recognised in the awards. Many of these authors are part of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. We’re celebrating their work this year by publishing excerpts from one of their award-winning books, along with notes from the authors on writing those books. Here’s to fifty more years of great books and our constellation of writers.

Disorderly Conduct by Marilyn Duckworth (Hachette) 

New Zealand Book Award 1985


Marilyn Duckworth writes:

I wrote most of the book in Fish Bay, in Marlborough Sounds, where I’d been offered a place to write, by my friend Joy Cowley. It was the year of the Springbok Tour, 1981. Being a mother had taken up so much of me for so many years – why not use that and write about it? I thought up dialogue and spoke it aloud as I strode around the bay. It felt liberating and practically wrote itself in a matter of weeks. It would be the novel that broke my drought after my fourth Over the Fence is Out had been published in London, fourteen years earlier.

It was my first wholly Wellington novel and the first I’d written which looked further outward, onto society and political events, rather than focussing only on interior worlds usually in domestic settings.  I took myself less seriously than when I was younger. My children provided plenty of material, obviously. I used their sparky language, a useful source, for dialogue. Apart from that I can’t attribute one character in the book to any one person I’ve known, including my children. It’s very funny for me to read now, for that reason. I had given birth to four daughters and inherited a step daughter and two step sons. I must have written something of these into this novel about a solo mother, as it was called then, but I think I also drew on my friends’ children – I knew plenty of people with broken homes and mixed, extended families. It was increasingly a symptom of the times.

The subject that absorbs me always is the need for individuals to love an ‘other’. There’s a constant tension between the need to be loved and the need to be independent. Love – Sophie’s love for her children and also her need for love – and sex incidentally – these are the bullies in her life. There are no villainous men. She might be seen as a victim, but of her own weakness, not of some awful man. Sophie feels that life, not she, has done all the choosing. She wonders if she’s at fault for not doing more choosing.

Disorderly Conduct is about a broken family – Sophie’s – a family her next-door neighbours wouldn’t have called a family at all. And yet that’s exactly what it is; a unit melded together by love and need and expectations. While I wrote I determined to demonstrate the value of humour in family relationships and how it can keep a family alive and together through all kinds of disaster.  It was a lesson I’d learned in my own life and one I tried to pass on to my children.

Extract from Disorderly Conduct (Hachette, 1984)


Chapter Five

Sophie leans from an upstairs window and sees a huge tidal wave advancing to engulf the children playing on the beach below the house. Somehow she must reach them and persuade them up the hill before the wall of water hits. She waves a frantic warning and they wave back cheerfully. She wakes, drenched with perspiration. How unfair. Children all day and now they are invading her sleep too. She should be allowed erotic escapist dreams to fill up the gaps in her existence.

……Lately her subconscious has caught up with the notion that her body is aging. She can no longer cast herself, even unintentionally, in the role of love object, desirable, pursued by attractive male. If this happens her conscious mind comes screaming into her dream, hooting with derision, writing lines on her face – until the attractive man backs off. Or himself grow obscene with age. Not that ugliness is a turn-off automatically. Her younger self has had fine erotic dreams about the most unlikely characters, in the past. But now ugliness seems a reflection of her own shortcomings. Even in waking moments she has become critical of physical defects in a way she never was. Tom’s thinning hair revealing a scalp like a dented egg – it invites another tap from the spoon and all will be revealed. Tom’s recently developed paunch, bulging with such smooth grossness that she is tempted to knead and stroke it inquisitively, like Mindy’s play dough.

……Breakfast smells are warring with sleep smells. The kitchen, having spent the night shrouded in unaccustomed silence, like a bird under a blanketed cage, now objects to being woken. The tap squeals. The breadknife grates on the formica bench top. The ‘fridge makes sudden gargling coughs and rumbles. Brian completes the violation of silence when he brings his transistor radio to the table.

……‘I’ll be late home today, Mum. There’s a school demonstration against the Springboks. We’re going to Parliament,’ Vanessa says through a mouthful of toast.

……‘Oh, good,’ Sophie says.

……‘Good that I’m going to be late?’ Vanessa asks, suspicious.

……‘No. Good that you take it seriously.’ Sophie has, of course, brought her children up to the view that apartheid is abhorrent. Brian however has discovered that his mother can be teased mercilessly on this issue of racism, and assumes the opposing view.

‘Stupid blacks,’ he says. ‘Dirty Maoris.’

…….Sophie takes the dishes to the sink. She knows what he is doing and has decided to ignore his needling. Nevertheless her throat clogs with rage and her vision blurs. How can she live in the house with someone who says such things, even in fun? And this is a child she has pushed from her own womb. She considers his father’s genes unkindly.

…….‘You should come with us,’ Vanessa says to her brother. ‘You can’t really believe black people are dirty?’

‘Huh!’ says Brian. What do you know about it?’

…….‘Oh stop it!’ Sophie spits. From the corner of her eye she catches a triumphant gleam in Brian’s. ‘What’s Mindy doing anyway? She’s been in the bathroom for hours. Mindy?’ She goes to the door and calls loudly.

…….No answer. Now she is beginning to be concerned. She approaches the bathroom door and turns the handle. Locked. She puts her eye to the crack in the panel. ‘Mindy. Are you all right? Come along. It’s quarter past eight.’

‘I’ve taken all my clothes off!’ Mindy pipes, a defiant note in her voice.

‘Are you having a bath?’


‘What are you doing then?’

‘I told you I didn’t like that frock. I won’t wear it.’

…….‘Oh Min – it’s a perfectly nice frock.’ Her words sound feeble even to herself. Hasn’t her mother mouthed similar words to her at some time or another? ‘What’s wrong with it?’

…….‘It sticks to me. Anyway it’s all crushed now. I’m sitting on it. I’ve taken my clothes off and I’m going to get pneumonia. Unless you let me wear my blue frock.’

‘It’s in the wash.’

‘Then I’ll stay home.’

‘You won’t.’

‘You can’t make me go to school. I’m not going to open the door, so there.’

…….Sophie sighs. ‘That’s all right. I don’t have an appointment like Daddy did. You can stay there all day if you like.’

‘How will you go to the loo?’ Mindy shrills, triumphant.

…….Sophie doesn’t answer. She hopes frantically that Vanessa and Brian have completed all their bathroom procedures. It is too much to hope for. Vanessa has already arrived in the passageway and is hopping about impatiently. Sophie whispers to her, pulling her back into the kitchen.

‘You’ll have to go and do it in the garden,’ she hisses. ‘We can’t let Mindy get her own way.’

‘Wipe your bum with your left hand!’ Brian yells after her. ‘Like dirty nagis!’

Sophie restrains herself with difficulty from cuffing him.

…….In the garden Vanessa has piddled on her sock and a hurried search in the washing basket is necessary to replace it.

…….‘If you did your folding –’ Sophie begins, turning over the huge pile of laundry clumsily. ‘I want this all put away in drawers by dinnertime tonight.’

‘I bet you’ve done it by then,’ Vanessa guesses. ‘Anyway I’ll be on the march. You want me to go, don’t you?’

…….Mindy appears in the doorway, dressed apart from her shoes. Her frock is – as she said – badly crushed. Sophie pretends to see nothing strange in her appearance.

…….‘Come here and I’ll do you laces,’ she offers, and Mindy bounds to her with sudden relieved vigour, holding out her striped sneakers. She cuddles into her mother’s lap while the bows are tied in a double knot.

‘Will you take me in the car?’ she asks Sophie, wheedling.

…….‘The car’s out of petrol. I’ll have to coast it downhill to the garage tomorrow. Anyway you don’t need me to take you. You’re a big girl now.’

‘I’m not! I’m a small girl. You can walk with me then.’

…….Sophie is still in her dressing gown and slippers. She plans to return to bed as soon as the children have left. Jo – lucky Jo – has taken the day off work and is sleeping soundly in the back bedroom.

‘Vanessa – how about you walking up with her? You can catch the bus from the other stop.’

‘Oh Mum – you’ll make me late!’

…….Brian leaps to his feet and grabs his schoolbag before any demands can be made of him. ‘I’m off. Meeting Glen at the corner. See ya, Mum.’ He bangs out.

Sophie and Vanessa watch him go, sharing for a moment a feeling of hatred for the male sex.

…….‘All right,’ Vanessa consents. ‘I’ll take her some of the way – if she’s ready. Are you ready, beast?’

‘I won’t go with you if you don’t like me!’ Mindy begins to weep.

…….‘Of course I like you, stupid. You’re my sister. Oh come on – give us a hug.’ Vanessa cuddles the child, who, reassured, goes to Sophie for more cuddles.

…….Silence. Blissful weight of silence, like the fullness of a stomach after a period of starvation. Sophie breathes and sighs, stretching her limbs as if it is these which have been restricted. A niggle of suspicion – born of incredulity at her freedom – sends her to the front window. She needs to be quite sure before she abandons herself to instant coffee, like the middle class Mum in the television ad. The television Mum wastes her freedom by playing tennis with another Mum. Sophie wouldn’t do that. She stands at the window. Without even lifting the light curtain she can see Mindy sneaking back down the line of the fence. Moving quietly, relentless, like a virus creeping up into the bloodstream. In a moment she will be level with the house. Sophie wants to scream. At her own child? Her adored Mindy?

…….She turns away pretending not to have seen. If she doesn’t acknowledge this scene perhaps it will go away. In the same manner she would ignore approaching migraines as a child – until the moment she spewed inconveniently on someone’s floor. Mindy has no more intention of vanishing than a migraine. The waiting period goes on for too long – the tension is unbearable. Sophie tightens the sash of her torn dressing gown and launches herself down the steps.

‘All right, you little horror!’ she calls – then stops.

…….Mindy is talking to a nice lady in a camel hair coat – one of Sophie’s more respectable neighbours. The woman is bent over the child solicitously, a hand on her little shoulder. Mindy’s face, quivering with waif-like misery looks pitifully up at her rescuer. Startled by Sophie’s outburst they turn in her direction. Mindy’s face hardens imperceptibly. The woman stares at her neighbour’s tattered state of undress. Sniffs. Pats the child sympathetically and walks on past.

…….‘Come inside!’ Sophie calls. Not what she had in mind to suggest at all. Too late. Mindy is up the steps and in the door like a cat. ‘Why aren’t you at school? Didn’t Vanessa take you there?’

‘She took me to the gate.’

‘Well, you can go in the gate by yourself. You’re in Primer Three now.’

‘The bell might have gone.’

‘It wouldn’t have. But is has by now. You silly.’

‘You’ll have to take me now, won’t you?’ Mindy says anxiously.

‘I don’t have to. But I will. This once. But you must go sensibly tomorrow – do you understand?’

‘Lovely Mummy! I knew you would.’

…….Mindy dances up the road, holding onto her mother’s hand. The sun is by now quite high. Sophie has had to dress herself and her ill temper and fatigue has made this more of a hurdle than is usual. Her clean tights are all in ladders. One of her sandals is in hiding.

…….Mindy chatters and dances. Sophie’s brain jolts after her, banging against her skull. At the school gate Mindy’s gaiety dissolves into tears.

‘Come on, darling,’ Sophie coaxes. ‘You like your teacher don’t you?’

‘But you’ll be lonely by yourself,’ Mindy declares.

…….‘No I won’t. I like to be by myself,’ Sophie says, a little too vehemently. Mindy weeps. ‘Anyway I haven’t gone yet. I’m taking you to the classroom to tell the teacher why you’re late.’

Mindy recovers.

…….Inside the classroom she weeps again and clings to her mother, rucking up her skirt and exposing the runs in her tights. Sophie, who could never cry, at whatever age, in front of her schoolfriends, finds this behaviour incomprehensible. It must be real grief. The teacher smiles falsely. Then – ‘Go!’ she commands to Sophie above the child’s head. Released by this forcefulness she ejects herself from the classroom, like a pulled tooth. Walking downhill is easier. She almost tumbles after her own feet. Tears starting to her eyes find the same downward track. She sniffs childishly, moaning under her breath. Too much. It’s too much.

…….In the sanctuary of her own home she kicks off her sandals, boils the jug and goes to the ‘fridge for milk. A quick cup of coffee before Jo wakes.

…….Bugger. The biscuit tin sits there, beaming at her pinkly. She had promised Mindy peanut brownies for playtime and she has forgotten to include them in her lunch. Damn. This isn’t in the television ad. How does that horrid woman find the time to play tennis? It’s not good, there is no escape. She will have to wrap up biscuits, put on her sandals and trundle back up the hill. For I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.



© Marilyn Duckworth, 1984, published in Disorderly Conduct, Hachette.

'One of writing’s greatest magics is to allow us – to use Kiri Piahana-Wong’s phrase – to slide outside the trap of time.' - David Taylor

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