One more story. Just one and then we HAVE to get back to farming. Spring fever starts in the autumn you know and I have to get out the calenders and charts and do some planning. Then open and shut some gates. So, one more story and then back to work.
We are going to Kumara but I am cutting in some shots I took in and around a similiar little town on a hot summer day, in the North Island of New Zealand. This is not Kumara in the South Island and in the 60’s but Onga Onga in the North Island last year. But it is NZ. Not ideal but ah well, I took photos with my eyes back when I was a kid And those only print into words.
So, we are going back to New Zealand. We are going back to the mid 1960’s. The Christmas Holidays were our long school holidays. It was high and dry summer. Our summers are Long and Hot. When we were children we would go to stay with my grandparents in Christchurch, in the South Island of New Zealand, every summer.
This particular holiday period the whole family had decamped to another house my grandfather owned in a tiny place on the West Coast called Kumara. Kumara is so small that you could ride a dusty horse carrying three skinny freckled sunkissed children on its bare back, very slowly, down the dusty main road from one end to the other, in about 3 minutes. It has hills and mountains on either side and the valley is so isolated that in those days the locals didn’t even give you a nod hullo, let alone the word, until you had lived there for fifty years. Or so the story goes.
It is an old gold mining town. The hills around are filled with the remnants of many decayed old gold mining towns. This town was still standing, a bit wobbly but it stood with its big roomy houses surrounded by big sagging wooden verandahs. It still had its broken down grand hotel and gorgeous church and lonely store that was always well stocked with icecream.
Gold was still being mined in the summer I am taking you there. Back when I was a small child of the 60’s. There was an old gold dredge that was still working its way up the river that ran past Kumara. The dredge sang. All day it sang and all night it sang. In my memory there were no men on this dredge. It was from another time. It was a whole orchestra in itself. It conducted itself. It stood high, dark and long. It moved with infintisimal unstoppable tiny steps, shuffling through and sucking at the shingle of the river bottom with its own terrible agenda. Every single moving part was metal, and every metal part met another metal part and each metal meeting was a different tone and note and rhythm. The shingle being lifted and washed and dumped rattled in under this lilting hitchy squealing jazz, like a brush on a drum. It was a lazy rhythm, and so repetitive a groove, that this myriad of sound worked its way in under your mind, right to the base of your spine and into your lungs. Your heartbeat slowed to its march and all summer we gently slumbered along to this soundtrack. It was our bird song and our footsteps.
Except on Sundays.
On Sundays it stopped itself and rested. The silence was a hole in the ground. It was a touchable stillness. The lack of our soundtrack was a massive sound in itself. All Sunday things were strange. Edgy. Grown ups were irritable. The air got hotter. No-one was hungry.
My family was Catholic so on Sunday morning we were instructed to wash and put on clean clothes and SHOES! (the worst bit) and we all walked en masse down the road to the church. Led by grandma and pa, and some mums and dads (the house was big and often there were fifteen and sixteen or more people staying there.) I will get to the food another day. Today we are going to church.
I was never a particularly pious child. Though I was very good at looking prayerful. I must has been 5 or 6 in this story so going to church was not a choice nor was it a chore. It just was. I watched the light that filtered in through the stained glass windows, brightening the saints glass eyes and was quite content to just be sat for a moment just watching. I was small enough to be able to slip to the kneeler when Mum had her eyes shut and crane my head down to look across the floor and through the legs to watch the fluff balls rock in the cool from the big open church doors, the heat would be pushed along the floor by wafts of a tiny breeze. The silence hung around us.
Now this church had an extra attraction for us kids. Other than sitting there in our outrageously clean ‘good’ clothes, being pounded into submission by the quiet and churchy murmurs. This church had a cat. A big big fluffy brown cat. This cat slept on a rug at the foot of the altar and when it was time for the sermon it would rise and pad after the priest and plant itself over there and watch us as he spoke. It seemed to know we were paying no attention to the priest and would gaze about the children’s faces looking for bad thoughts. Or was it us he was watching so silently?
Because here comes the other attraction. Pan away from the cat, across the dusty wooden floorboards, and crawl in under the pews where I was and you will see dogs. Puffing, filthy, long, rangy, sleeping, tail wagging,smelly, one eye open, old as the hills, farm dogs.
I sat under there watching the dogs, who had one eye on the cat and thought about my own dog who could count and knew stuff. The congregation shuffled preparing to sing, the organ started up sounding alarmingly like a gold dredge and I was jolted by my mother hauling me back upright as everyone stood. A movement on the altar caught my eye and as I looked back up I saw the cat, arch and hiss. Then freeze. Its eyes locked on the back doors. Then a low rumble of muted growls came from under the pews. Like a second unit congregation, all the dogs rose with a shuffle and turned as one dog and also glared at the church doors behind us. The priest caught his breath and widened his eyes, the organists fingers paused above the keys and then the whole congregation turned their heads, mouths open, ready to sing and looked to the back of the church.
There were a little herd of shiny cows looking IN through the great big wooden church doors. They were IN the foyer. Cows were coming to church! The only sound for a West Coast moment was the shuffling of the bovine hooves as they shoved at each other for a better look in and the insect scrabble of small children trying to get a much better look straight back.
Then we heard the cat make a run for it with a strangled peep miaow, the dogs bodies creaked as they strained forward stretching their bodies to the cows. Silently begging the men to make the call. The cows, startled though slowly, their heads reared up. Then knocking every single church newsletter to the floor and spraying holy water everywhere as they awkwardly turned their great lumbering bodies, they trotted apologetically back down the church steps. Followed closely by the indignant silent old dogs.
The men, with swift glances to their wives, moved out after the dogs, jamming their hats back onto their relieved heads. Of course all the women remained, bosoms heaving at the interruption, yanking the reluctant children back into upright positions in their seats, eyes forward, the organist struck up again. The cat did not reappear. Us kids exchanged our excitement with eyes and tiny hands, before drifting back into waiting.
I would like to say that we all escorted the naughty cows back to the paddock in the middle of town, but I can remember no more of that hot dusty silent day. We were not locals after all we were beach kids. I only remember the relief I felt when I woke up the next morning and the dredge was singing again.
Now, back to work all of ya!