I’m in Nelson. It’s Easter. The radio is playing songs I’ve not heard in years. An earworm becomes a memory weevil, eating its way into my flesh, under my skin, disturbing the carefully packaged emotions, that I wrapped and tied so long ago.
Russell Morris is singing ‘Rachel’s Coming Home’ and I can’t believe the lyrics. I know them all, but I’d forgotten them long ago. It’s an anti-war song, and when I loved it, I was dating an American draft dodger who was on the Icebreakers for seven years. We met in Wellington at the Downtown Club. Now, I’m visiting my old home town, driving to meet a friend for coffee, I am wiping tears from my freshly applied make-up. Gentle tears, that are about nostalgia, about the state of the world, about this, my home town, the memories unwrapping. I don’t want this. I have tied steel bows around these nicely packaged emotions. I’ve labelled them and I know them by their wrappings, but the tight steel bow means I don’t wish to unwrap them. I think about the Red Cross Nurse from New Zealand, lost somewhere in Syria, and the tears fall freely. I don’t know her. Is she an excuse for my unravelling?
I stop in the middle of the road, indicator flashing, to turn sharp right up the hill to Toswill Road. There’s a driveway to the left off this road, where my in-laws lived in their stylish stucco home with awnings. How I loved those stylish awnings. They were above the road looking out towards the sea. The garden would overflow with flowers and vegetables, fuchsia in abundance at the back door. Beans staked and abundant. I recall Earl Grey tea with home-made lemon shortcake. The delicate balance of flavours remarked upon by me and my mother-in-law, as something to savour and admire. She was a wicked stepmother to my husband. We admired each other. The house looks more modest than I remember.
And then we are cycling. We grew up here. He was from Nelson and I am from Richmond. We take the new cycle track on the old railway line through Stoke. We climb the hill to Bishopdale along the old railway path. I recall my maiden Aunt who caught the train to school, telling us how the train would slow down on the hill climb and students would jump off and race it up the hill.
I’m excited as the cycle path takes us down below the road to an old, but once new subdivision. It’s where my older neighbour Beryl moved after she married. I was invited to stay one night in her brand-new home. I’d been to her wedding. I was in love with the Groom’s younger brother. In the morning, I was asked to do the dusting. I duly played my part only to be chastised for my inadequate job. I have dusted the surface of a nest of tables, but not the legs. The ignominy of this, never forgotten, for how could I expect to marry if I didn’t know how to dust the table legs.
I glance at the now ageing and less than impressive homes, where Beryl once lived and wonder if she’s there somewhere tucked behind the overgrown shrubs, dusting. She’d be over eighty by now and I speculate her soft brown curls will be going grey, or indeed that she may have died.
The emotion weevil worms its way through my core. I imagine, remnants of me, along the roadside, skins I shed, small memorial mounds of flesh. The Black cat dairy in Stoke. How can it still be there? The red and yellow Suburban bus would wend its way along this road towards the city. Each landmark, every corner, crossroad and oh no, there are roundabouts everywhere. They were not here back then these highway interlopers.
We’re cycling at the back of Bishopdale, looking into the back doors of houses I once only knew from the roadside view. I recognise a city of two halves. These humble State houses, grey and gloomy, have remained, they’ve aged, but back then they didn’t seem so gloomy, so very tired and cold.
The Post Boy hotel holds the history of my husband’s family. His grandfather and his grandmother ran this pub. And too, an old school friend of mine, lived with her Uncle who ran this pub. Our memories are merging.
There’s Anzac Memorial park with the almost out of place exotic palm trees. Legend has it an uncle of mine, in the Islands during the war, met his wife, my beautiful Tongan Aunt and showed her a postcard of either the memorial park or the Queens Gardens and claimed they were his family garden… She was an amazing woman who married him despite his extravagant untruths, and she never came to Nelson, instead living on the south coast of Wellington with a beautiful view of the roaring sea and out to Cook strait.
We visit the cemetery in Richmond, where all my recent family lie. Grandmother, Grandfather on my mother’s side. My mother, my father, my beloved Maiden Aunt and a much-loved Bachelor Uncle who as it turned out, was in fact a cousin. I know the cemetery intimately. As kids we walked up our street to the cemetery for something to do. We explored every inch of it. And still, the saddest grave, is the one I always look for as we drive down to the cemetery roundabout. It stands out because it has a white chain link fence. Jenny is buried there. My parents knew her parents. She was 21 and had cancer and had a leg amputated. After her leg was amputated, she got engaged (or this is the story I recall, the utter romance of it all). I must have been ten, or eleven. I feel a pang whenever I pass Jenny’s grave. It looks like the grave of a young child. There’s a headstone too, further on, for the 18-year-old daughter of a local politician, who took her own life.
My husband’s mother and my brother are buried within cooee of each other, having died the same year, within less than two weeks. They lie two footsteps apart. They are in the lawn cemetery at Marsden, in Stoke. He took his own life, barely 22 and she was 47 and too young to die of cancer, having endured long journeys to Christchurch for cobalt treatment and two mastectomies… At the time, my husband and I didn’t know one another and now we are surprised that we were both within a week or two of each other, were grieving for people we loved so dearly.
On our cycle trip back from Nelson, around Tahunanui, near to the airport, we pass the back of an industrial area. It is here, somewhere across from where I cycle, that my father found my brother’s body. It’s a long time ago, but still there lurks this visceral attention to the location, the unwrapping,
And then we’re off with glee to explore Monaco, to find the A-shaped house that our friend David built, back in the 70’s. It is tidal and we can see the muddy shore in front of this landmark house is more a seashore than a road. Remnants of a high tide obvious in the boulders washed up. This house holds a special memory of reuniting with friends we shared time in London with. Eating Nelson scallops out of a scallop shell, placed on a mound of mashed potato. The 70’s dinner party.
Robinson’s Wine is now a large outlet, bringing back memories when it was famous for Cider and hubby’s first ever hangover. We know the girl who married the boy from Robinson’s. We know the bridge before the corner at Brightwater where their car crashed and the scar she wore after a tracheotomy. Both now dead, but not because of the terrible car crash.
The highways and the hills are filled with the shadows of our childhoods, jointly and then some. We didn’t know each other back then. His mother, my brother, a foot or so apart, link us now as we are linked. Our lads remember holidays down here. The beaches, the bbq’s the rubbitty-dub as their grandfather, my Dad, called the Star and Garter where he drank every day, without fail, come rain or shine. If he ever failed to arrive for his half roast lunch, the owner of the pub would send his daughter on her bike or foot, to knock on his door, to check he was okay.
In Papers Past, there’s a detailed Court Report of an incident involving my grandfather, (my mother’s father) a blacksmith in this very same pub. The offender had made an insulting remark to my grandfather about one of his teenage daughters (my mother’s older sister) and when my grandfather took umbrage, a full glass of beer was hurled at him, smashing on his forehead. The offender claimed to have lost hold of the glass. In a lengthy summary, it seemed there might have been bad blood between my grandfather the blacksmith and the man who hurled the glass. The offender had been caught mistreating a pony by my grandfather and words had been spoken or a stick shaken.
There are memories too, that are too dark to resurrect. Some stories are best left buried. These stories are woven tightly under my skin and the weevil of emotion knows the no-go zones. These are post war stories, a family doing its best, under stress, when the adults were barely coping.
The house where I grew up, is still standing. A few doors down, is the home of my oldest friend, a Dutch immigrant, who arrived in New Zealand aged two. We cycled to college together rain or shine, wearing plastic pleated bonnets over our Panama hats. It was compulsory to wear our Panama hat. In the event of a downpour, where our coats flew open to soak our grey tunics, we would be sent to the sewing room to find an iron to press the grey box pleats into place. Her parents too have died. Both our family homes are owned by strangers. The path across the school paddock to our primary school has grown over and there’s a new and longer route to traverse. We’re both grandmothers and send photos via Viber of the memorable milestones of our grandchildren. Careful not to overdo this, not to compete.
I try to resist all these unbidden not so well-hidden memories. It seems my home town holds my DNA in a way that I cannot ignore. I blame the radio and Russell Morris as I bat away the tears.