Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Once upon a time in the Far North

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Summer's lease never runs out in the winterless north even after the passage of 40 years. Photo / Peter Calder
Summer's lease never runs out in the winterless north even after the passage of 40 years. Photo / Peter Calder

The pohutukawa is much bigger now. I'm sure of that. From the deck of the house, I used to be able to see the wide expanse of beach over the top of it but now its great grey-green crown is so high that only a single drooping bough interrupts the view of the blue and distant peninsula.

It must be 40 years. I was looking at that view when the news came on that Prime Minister Norm Kirk had died. He was 10 years younger then than I am now.

So it was a very young, newly married man who last looked out the ranchsliders of this beachfront home. My parents-in-law had sold an electrical appliance business in town and put everything into the place, building a home for a family of five, with an adjoining motel. "You're mad," everyone told them. "What do you want to go and live all the way out there for?"

But they never had a moment's doubt. When my father-in-law parked himself in his chair at the end of the day, pipe in one hand, sherry in the other, he looked very pleased with himself, as well he should have.

This impossibly pretty bay, with its distinctively red sand and water clear as gin, was the Very Far North in those days. The last leg of the trip, on an unsealed road, always seemed the longest, as the VW Beetle juddered over the corrugations. Then, suddenly, the pub, dozing by the wharf. We'd wash the dust from our throats with a cold jug, maybe have a game of pool in the dark interior, where unshaven fishermen in black singlets swapped cigarettes and tall stories.

It was odd to find myself back there last week. Poetic licence might claim an urge to revisit the past, even to make peace with it. But I felt no sadness, just a nostalgic affection, even for my young and silly self.

Everything's changed of course. The road's sealed all the way through and there's a bypass that takes you nowhere near the waterfront road past the pub and the Four Square. The motel has changed hands, who knows how many times. The father-in-law died in the 1980s and his widow, 90 at the end of the month, is in a rest home in Auckland. She went in a couple of years from playing bridge to not being able to operate the television.

The motel, once prominent on the beachfront, is dwarfed by a massive house being built for a local businessman. They say he spent $500,000 just on retaining the bank that holds up the highway. People keep driving down to gawp at the sight of the future steamrolling the past. But as I stand on the beach with my back to all this, future and past become one. Seabirds still huddle on the sandbank, beaks pointing in the direction of the prevailing wind. The water, green or blue or turquoise, rolls in and smoothes the sand clean.

Down on the beach, I talk to a local man whose T-shirt riffs on the logo of a popular sweet to announce that "it's moments like these you need Maoris". The arse is out of his wetsuit - "air-conditioning" he says, with a Billy T giggle - but he doesn't care: there's a flash of crayfish orange in his full bag of kina. The man's father is there too, a Mozzie home from Melbourne for a month. He agrees it's all changed; there used to be work around here, for a start.

I've lost touch with the ex, though we stayed on good terms. Went to see Dylan together once.

She's living down south now; pretty much everywhere's down south from here. A single photograph stares grimly back at him from a Flickr page. Her face bears the traces of the years. Whose doesn't?

Before we were married in the church on the hill, the vicar was almost visibly fighting the urge to tell us that this was a mistake, that we were too young. It would have been a waste of breath. We were just young enough to know better.

She rang a few months ago and left a long, affectionate message, but no number. If I'm honest, I was slightly relieved. I am not sure what I would have said. Except that it was long ago and far away.

- NZ Herald

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