His dad met my dad in prison and later we became friends. In the summer of 1960, on the way to Westport, my dad drove up the long, straight main road in Blackball and stopped outside his dad's house.

They went off somewhere to speak of adult things and we goofed around and found we got on: similar age, similar interests, words and war and The Goon Show jokes. Later, all the kids went for a swim at the baths.

There was moss on the sides of the pool and the water was dark and green and smelled the way rivers do on the coast: strong and pungent, dank; a wet odour of roots and leaves and soil. When it rained that afternoon the big, heavy drops fell like slugs into the water.

We became holiday commuters after that, one heading east, the other west. There was a railcar then, called the paper train, that left Christchurch about 1am, taking the West Coast edition of The Press over to Greymouth. On long weekends it was full of trampers going to Arthur's Pass. They'd get off in the dark at some remote point and disappear like ghosts.

The rest of us pressed on, slow through Otira, pale as a pearl in the grey dawn light, reaching Greymouth about 6am. You had to wait two hours before the blue and yellow Blackball bus headed up the valley, round the sharp bend above the Grey River where the Brunner Mine disaster memorial stands.

His dad was a miner. After work there'd be cobwebs of coal in the lines on his face. He'd been in the Navy before going underground and his favourite hymn was the one for sailors: "Eternal Father, strong to save/Whose arm hath bound the restless wave ...

Oh hear us when we cry to Thee/For those in peril on the sea!"

Being 14 and knowing everything, we indulged our fathers' faith. But we didn't need it. We had something better.

We had fun; on the tracks in the bush, startling fat wood pigeons, climbing tailings mounds, tossing red-lichened rocks into dredging ponds. We'd clamber under the bridge across the Blackball Creek and wait for the big steam locos to rumble over, heading right up to the mine entrance for another load of coal.

Sometimes we'd walk past the pub - not a feature in a colour supplement then, but a place where miners drank. Hot gusts of cigarette smoke, beer fumes and laughter poured out of the windows.

There were always races on the radio. For a boy mired in the tedium of school, it seemed like a good world to be in.

One night, halfway through the fifth form, a girl came to visit at his dad's place. Her dad had been a miner, too, but he'd died - though not in an accident.

Once, she talked of how she'd smell the pockets of his coat and remember him. Two became three and we explored hidden things like the water race beside the creek behind the town. There was an abandoned mine in the hills there, where a fire had started and the coal was still burning underground after 90 years. The scree slope above had no trees, just bare stones and little wisps of smoke seeping through cracks in the earth.

One hot day we found a rusty iron barge at the edge of an old dredging pond. We pushed it out and paddled about as best we could. On the stony cliffs around the pond, a few broom bushes had somehow taken root. Heedless of risk, no adults in sight, we lit some and they burned bright, like green candles, red plumes of flame rising into the pure blue sky.

In 1963, the minister of mines, Tom Shand, announced short weeks at the Blackball mine. Then it closed.

The winches stopped, the miners' cage in the vertical shaft took no one down. Houses were sold for £1. Some people didn't bother selling, they just walked away.

A few stayed, like her mum, in a little cottage with a photo of Michael Joseph Savage above the piano in the front room.

Most people in Blackball now work somewhere else - in other places and other mines. The big, red corrugated iron Miners Hall at the top of the Main Street has gone.

In the days when solidarity and class were powerful notions, the hall was where miners striking for a lunch break had met and launched their own political party.

But it got pulled down, anyway. Nobody bothered to save it.

There are still scars on the land but they'll vanish. Nature reclaims things quickly on the coast. What we build there disappears soon.

The old mine is probably full of water now. Or its shafts have collapsed. The paper train doesn't go to Greymouth any more. The Road Services bus doesn't run to Blackball.

Everything's changed. Memories fade. Then something happens that brings them back, fierce as a dream, and you realise things haven't changed. Not really.

Mining is still a dangerous thing. Miners are still braver than most. And some still pay a terrible price for doing what they did back in the time when my dad knew his dad and we became friends.