Ngawhatu

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Ngawhatu

Ngawhatu. I tried the on-line Maori-English dictionary but I can’t find a definite meaning. So, I broke the word into two. Nga and whatu. Nga is A suffix used to make verbs into nouns sometimes called derived nouns and whatu delivered this… eye, pupil of the eye, stone, hailstone, anchor, kernel (of fruit).

Recently we were in Stoke, staying with friends who have moved from Auckland to retire. They didn’t grow up in the area, like we did. We went for a walk and ended up in a new sub-division, with nicely built, new homes. You know the sort. Large windows, stylish grey cladding and matching roofs, everything tone on tone. We commented how damp the valley was, how little sun the homes would catch, and speculated who had owned the land before.

There was an old sealed road behind a closed fence going up the hill, proof we knew, that the land had been farmed for years, possibly still is. But it wasn’t that road that we followed. I knew exactly which road I wanted to go up. There was another padlocked gate and a sign advising that trespassers would be prosecuted. I’m the obedient sort, who believes signs have a purpose. There were four of us, and two who could see that there was a gap between the padlocked fence we could slip through. We dithered, argued a little, me on the side of caution. And yet, it was me who had led us to this gate. I imagined men with guns (the writer in me) and one of us shot as we trespassed. Or perhaps a controlled explosion and the four of us collateral damage. And then a utility came down the closed road and we asked the driver of the ute, what was going on ‘up there’. He said it was a now a sub division development site, but we were welcome to walk up the road. He cautioned us to stay clear of the old buildings. He had keys to the locked gate, and we slipped through with his blessing.

Up the road to Ngawhatu

I knew this road from my childhood. It’s the road up to the loony bin. In my memory it is tranquil, tree-lined, peaceful, and today is no different, except the few buildings left, are empty derelict and eloquent in their disrepair. I remember Kinross, the villa where my Dad would stay when he volunteered to come up for a while and have shock treatment. Kinross was benign, it was where the old soldiers with ‘nerve problems’ went for a while. Nothing serious, just a lapse. Three of my family have been here – my Dad, my brother and an Uncle. Two of them volunteered for ECT, believing it helped their depression. Further up the hill, sinister scarier, were Lanark and Stirling. Stirling the worst. It was the ‘lock-up’, where the mentally disturbed, the dangerous, the weirdo’s were housed. Stories abounded of patients on tables threatening staff. We were grateful they were further up the hill. The patients at Kinross were like your next-door-neighbours, or in my case, your family.

I can’t find Kinross. Maybe it’s been demolished. There are flattened areas with cracked overgrown paths, but tellingly, lamp posts still that must have once lit the way. We speculate. I try to recall exactly. I know Kinross went off to the left. We marvel at the range of ornamental trees grown way beyond their ornamental purpose. How beautifully planted this whole area has been, still is, but not entirely any more… more rambling and where buildings have been torn down, there’s stumpy grass and neglect. In two of the still standing two-storey buildings, the windows are cracked or boarded up and we peer inside but there’s nothing to see. All the names of the villas are gone, so I lose my bearings.

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And then I found a map on the internet, with all the names of all the villas, to the left were the male villas and to the right the women’s villas. I’ve written a sestina and shared it with a fellow poet who suggested I try a freer form. I’ll keep you posted. The names themselves are quite poetic. Lanark, Stirling, Clovelly and Kinross. All of them Scottish. And then oddly, the women’s villas to the right had Maori names, Totara, Manuka, Hinau, Kowhai and Rata.

When I was a kid, you only said Ngawhatu as an insult. It meant the ‘loony bin and we all knew it. Now I’m older, and I hear what a beautiful word it actually is, the sound of it, whether it be, stone, anchor or kernel… of the stone the dictionary says a stone invested by the tohunga with powers for rendering a rāhui effective. Naturally, I then had to go further and find the meaning for rāhui – the dictionary tells me flock, herd, mob, swarm, cluster.

I can still feel the Sunday sunshine as my Aunt’s Morris Minor drove us up the hill, higher, above the damp valley where the new houses are being built, up, up, to the houses where the mob, swarm, cluster, flock or herd of old soldiers, the mentally deficient, the angry, the misunderstood, the deviants the sectioned, the alcoholics, post natal depressed, all lived for a time, back when ECT and basket-making were de rigour therapy. And oddly, I found that Lithium (once used to medicate bi-polar and depression), has its origin in the Greek word λίθος lithos, “stone”.