As has become the norm on this blog, a round number (in this case Story 2300) calls not for a story as such but a conversation about something taken from real life.
Since we are nearing the feast of Christmas I thought I’d tell what I used to do once upon a time when I had a bit more energy than I have today.
The last ten years or so of my teaching were at a mixed sexes high school. The thirty or so years teaching before that were in all boys’ high schools. I think New Zealand has a higher percentage of single sex schools than some other parts of the globe. The New Zealand School year goes from early February until early December. The Summer Break is December-January. It follows then that Christmas and New Year fall in the longest school break.
It used to be that secondary schools finished a week or so earlier than the primary schools. Every year I would write a Christmas Pantomime about an hour long. I would then ask for volunteers from the students and between 12 and 20 would be about the right number. We had wonderful painted sets (we used most of the same every year!) and the students had only a few days to learn the script and rehearse the pantomime.
In the meantime I had written to every primary school in the Province and given times of performances. It would be 50 cents entry per child – and “You know the ones who can’t afford it so just let them in!” There would be three performances per day – one at 10 am, one at midday, and one at 2 pm. They would have to book by phone. On top of that, they were welcome to use the expansive school grounds for picnics or sports or whatever.
Whole schools would come, often paid for by a school’s Board of Governors as “an end of year treat”. The auditorium held around 700 and it was full for each of the 15 performances.
Local businesses donated prizes for a colouring-in event which had the theme of the pantomime that year.
Buses would arrive in droves. For the week there were kids all over the place! And they were allowed to make as much noise during a performance as they wished – shouting at the Dame, and calling out at the Wicked Witch, and applauding the Prince and Princess. Each performance was always a great success.
We did this for ten years. Secondary School education lasted 5 years; that meant that an actor at the end of his time at school had done 75 pantomime performances. They were masters at controlling a crowd! Throughout the school year, for theatre performances, it was a breeze. They already had a huge experience. That is why, I think, that at inter-secondary school Drama Festivals our performances always stood out, and we were even selected to represent New Zealand at International Festivals.
The waiting list to come to that school was enormous – almost every primary school boy in the Province wanted to come to the secondary school that did the pantomimes!
Oh! And I forgot the most important thing. At the end of the week the student actors would divide the spoils. It was always a healthy sum. It was after all their “holiday job”.
Unfortunately I have only one photo of the ten years! It is the Big Bad Wolf in the pantomime called “The Horse’s Wedding”.
422 Stanley Road, Stratford, Taranaki, New Zealand
November 2017 –
We had been looking for a home for some time. We had a list of necessary attributes a rental house must have. For example, allowing tenants to have a dog automatically cut out 95% of the houses. It must have space for a garden. It must have access to the internet. It wasn’t an impossible list, but it was impossible to find!
A house for rent came online. It was near a town called Waitara. It seemed to fit the bill. We expressed interest and drove the four hours to see it. Contrary to what the photographs conveyed, you had to turn sideways to squeeze past the dining table to reach the front door. And then the crunch came: of course the owners will be storing their furniture in the garage. Uh-oh! That was a warning sign. This would be a fleeting and temporary abode. We began the long journey home.
As we passed Mount Taranaki near a town called Stratford, Eric commented that in all the searching over the years for a place he had never once seen a house come up for rent from Stratford. Travel-weary, we decided to stay in Stratford for the night. The motel had a complimentary “Village Newspaper”. In it was an advertisement for a house to rent. We drove for a look. It was perfect. The next day we went to the rental agency. The woman who had responsibility for the house was away. We filled out an application form and left.
Not long after arriving home the phone rang. It was Maureen from the rental agency. The house we applied for had already been rented out, but she had another if we cared to come for a look. We arranged a meeting time and once again began the long journey in our old ute.
Maureen wasn’t there at the house. We hadn’t come all this way not to look so we went around the house ourselves. I remember commenting, “If they knew we were coming for a look you’d think they could have made the beds.” We went back to the ute and phoned Maureen. “Where are you?” she asked. “We’re here,” we said. Except – we were at someone else’s house on the wrong road!
Quickly we made it to the correct house and loved it. It filled all our conditions, except it didn’t come with any land for a cow. It had room for a garden. It was a fairly new house on a beef and cattle farm. It had a double garage, three bedrooms, and a spacious open sitting-room-kitchen-dining-room. It had a log burner. We said we’d take it, and would move in after the current tenants moved out in a month’s time.
So that is where we are today – four years later and the longest we have lived anywhere! Much has happened over that time. COVID19 struck and the business collapsed that Eric had spent years building up. Clients went from 112 down to 2, and those 2 didn’t pay. We were not an essential service. Friends helped – even blogging friends helped out. Yvonne from Australia for example sent a gigantic box of wine! What a wonderful thing to have done! We have survived! Linda and Barry, our wonderful landlord-farmers, said if things get tough forget the rent for a time and we’ll sort things out down the line. So far we have managed to pay each week if sometimes a little late!
I have never in my life had anything published and then out of the blue, resulting from the blog, two publishing companies – one in Britain and one in the States – asked for poems to go into anthologies. I am a published poet! Not many from New Zealand seem interested. In fact, as far as I know, the only person from New Zealand who follows my blog is Sylvie from Nelson – and Sylvie is French!
About two years ago our wonderful Springer Spaniel, Bubble, developed epilepsy. How terrifying to see such a lovely dog throw an uncontrollable fit. He went on medication which controlled the epilepsy. Then one Friday night he had a seizure. And another. And another. We phoned for an animal vet. Didn’t we know it was the weekend? Animals don’t take ill on Saturdays and Sundays. No vet was available. The next ten hours were the longest ten hours of my life as Bubble had over forty seizures. And then he died. We buried him in his favourite garden spot where he liked to sit and watch the farm animals pass by.
The farm is huge as is the neighbouring farm. During lockdowns we can wander maskless over hundreds of acres. There’s always something new and something different to see and do. There’s firewood to chop and gardens to weed and lawns to mow. There are preserves and jams and breads to make and new recipes to try. There are walks to take and TV and internet to watch. There’s a piano to play and books to read and blogs to maintain. There are poems and stories and music to write. There’s work to do – although sparser than we would hope.
What an adventure it has been! It is a ridiculous thing to ask “Who knows what the future holds?” But there has been a Providence directing these adventures in the past twenty years, and I have no reason to doubt that Providence has further adventures up its sleeve.
This house is going to be largely about dogs – canine and human.
Even prior to being ousted from the previous place we had found a house in town to live in. In fact, although we would spend part of each day at the previous place we had shifted most of our belongings to the new address and slept in the new place at night. We still had the cow and the goat at the old place. The end came suddenly and before you could blink we were ensconced at 27 Saint Annes Street, Levin.
It was a large two-story house with a steep staircase that had no bannister. To get to the main bedroom you had to squeeze past the staircase, which suggested that the upstairs had been an afterthought. Outside in the front were two gigantic trees; a gum and a copper beech. Next to them was a fairly busy road. At the back of the house was a substantial lawn with a large, but old, garage and workshop. We put in trellis gates to keep the dog at bay.
We always regarded this place as being temporary. It would give us space to search anywhere in the country for as near-perfect a house as possible. We made a list of what a rented house would have to have, and a list of what would be nice but not necessary. Every day we looked online at the houses available, from the top of the country to the bottom. In the meantime we got on with living a life.
We were permitted to have a dog, so of course Delia came too as did the cat. Delia didn’t like the place much. She was used to expansive rural settings where she could roam at whim. And then she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Luckily an expert dog surgeon was visiting the town. He said an operation would be touch and go. We held our breath, but within a week Delia was happily home as large as life. Six months later we went for our daily walk. We came home. Delia sat down and died – tail wagging.
A month or so later we had the opportunity to get a puppy – a black and white Springer Spaniel. We named him Bubble.
On one side of the house were neighbours Pearl and Norm. They were an older couple, and delightful. They would frequently pop in for a chat, as indeed we too would pop over to their place. Norm was into making home brew and I wasn’t beyond making a brew myself. Norm was a car mechanic and was called upon several times to fix our car. Pearl cared for half a dozen homeless cats.
There was a neighbour on the other side also called Norm; Norm and his partner Chelsea. All day, and for a good part of the night, you could hear them screaming obscenities at each other. (You get the idea). They had seven dogs; half a dozen fluffy lapdog yappers and a vicious Rottweiler. The Rottweiler knew how to jump the fence into our property right at the back where Norm had his marijuana garden. We were at times scared to go out on the back lawn, and little Bubble wouldn’t go there to pee. Luckily, Levin had a dog park of about ten acres. We would visit the park each day and Bubble would play and run with packs of other dogs of all shapes and sizes.
I continued to play the piano at the Levin Library when invited to give a concert. Usually I would play Scarlatti Sonatas or Haydn Sonatas. I loved it, and the library users appreciated it too.
Another thing that happened was a 7.8 earthquake. It was a biggie! It went on and on. In fact it was two earthquakes following one another without a break.
Rainwater had no escape from our back lawn, and the water from the roof of the house also gushed there. The back of the house with the wretched running Rottweiler became a muddy swamp. We made some raised beds to grow vegetables.
Then disaster struck. Norm-of-the-obscenities dropped dead at his front door. The body was taken away and the partying began. Crowds revelled at the house and a few stayed the nights. A second Rottweiler made an appearance. Chelsea could not control any of the dogs. They ran amuck. A month or so later their landlord called to ask why the rent had not been paid. He booted all out. The house had been trashed.
Peace at last, but we’d had enough of the place. With greater urgency we searched for a house we could call a home. We drove several hundred miles to view a place, but that is the next story. Eric went ahead to set up the new abode; internet and power and phone and so on. I stayed behind to supervise the removal truck and to shampoo the carpet. Three days later, with dog and cat, I set sail and left the wretched place behind.
We instantly fell in love with this place during the open house that the rental agency staged. Other people attended besides Eric and me so we behaved as super nice as possible to the rental people. In the end we were lucky enough to get selected.
We met the owners. They seemed a nice couple. She was a New Zealander and he was originally from Vanuatu. Their work was one and a half hours drive away and they were tired of travelling. They would rent somewhere closer to work and rent their own place out to us via the rental agency. We signed a year’s contract.
There were several acres of land made up of three paddocks and an orchard, as well as the lawns around the house itself. The owners had half a dozen cows and about a dozen sheep; far too many for such a small property. They would feed them hay all year. Fortunately they took the livestock with them.
Billy the Goat’s house was placed in one of the paddocks and he was very much at home.
We purchased a young Aberdeen Angus cattle beast that we called Blossom. When she reached about eighteen months of age we would call in the butcher. Several months before the butcher’s engagement we bought another young cow, a Simmental, that we called Truffle. Truffle would replace Blossom.
The owners were keen that we keep the place tidy. We were permitted to have a vegetable garden under the tall trees at the entrance gate. It was infertile and shaded. The garden wasn’t overall particularly successful. We did have success with tomatoes however, as there was a concrete path all around the house and about six inches of soil with no grass growing edged the path. We planted tomatoes all along the edge of the path. Not only did the mature tomato plants flop all over the footpath making it impassable, but they produced literally thousands of tomatoes.
It was a very happy year and the translation business was going well. Such was the amount of work required that I volunteered to format the documents to be translated. I still do that to this day.
The house was modern and comfortable. I had taken up practising the piano with a vengeance. The Levin Public Library held concerts every Friday and I was invited seven times to give an hour’s concert. It was great motivation to practise the piano daily. I think the library viewed keyboard works from the Baroque and Classical Periods to be more suited to a library environment!
At one stage I had a heart attack. The ambulance arrived at the same time as the guy arrived to clean the chimney. He said he’d come back later. They put me in hospital for a week or so. The heart specialist said the arteries are so gunked up they couldn’t even do a stent. They sent me home with pills that thus far seem to be doing their job.
We got the ute (pickup) fixed while we lived here. It had become a rust bucket. And what a great job they did! It was cheaper to get it done up and made road-worthy than to buy another.
Usually a Rental Agency will come and inspect a house every three months or so and report to the owners. They were always pleased with the care we took. We signed a contract to rent the property for a second year. The day after we signed, the owners withdrew the property from the Rental Agency. They would look after the rental agreement themselves. There’s a phrase Rental Agencies have for clients who take over a contract once the paper work is done and the contract signed. I can’t remember what the phrase is but it’s not polite.
On the first Saturday after the takeover we had a six hour inspection. Every nook and cranny, every cupboard and shelf, was examined minutely. They left, giving us a list of things to be improved. They reappeared to do a similar inspection the following Saturday – and every Saturday. Eric and I would take the dog and go to the beach for the day. If it was raining we would sit in the car until sunset.
A list on the kitchen bench would greet us on return:
- There are water droplets on the board behind the kitchen faucets.
- The waste bin in the kitchen is in the wrong place.
- There is dust on the window sill in the dining room. (They would have had to have climbed under the table to see it).
- Who gave permission to plant irises in the vegetable garden?
On and on the inspections went and we still had six months to go on the contract. Things got worse. We came home after a day of sitting in the car and they had stripped every fruit tree of its fruit. The orchard was part of the rental agreement. The next thing a lawn mowing company moved in and cut down all the grass in the fields that was intended for the cow and goat. We had to quickly buy some hay. The fields were looking uncut and untidy, said the landlords. We were presented with a bill from the lawn mowing company for $180. The only thing we could do was to rent another house altogether and pay two lots of rent until our contract ran out. We made a submission to the Rental Association who ordered a hearing for the case. We were well prepared. Would you believe? We got the month wrong and missed the hearing.
The landlords seized the occasion. They took us to court for abandoning the contract and destroying property. They wanted $6,000 in compensation. They had first gone to another rental agency so that new renters could be found. We had a letter from the new rental agency saying we had abandoned the building and had broken the contract which will now terminate officially in a week. But we still had stuff at the house – such as Truffle the Cow and Billy the Goat! We quickly had to finish packing and moving. Billy went to his new home – to be cared for by one of my brothers.
The sole butcher in town was away on vacation. We couldn’t take the cow with us into town! I found the butcher’s son who could cull it for the freezer before 7 am when we had to hand over the keys. Have you ever held a light for a butcher while he guts and quarters a cow in a field in the middle of the night? Then we had to clean the house. We made it out on time yet still the court case loomed.
What nasty things had we done? “They, your Honour,” said the landlords, “have made holes in the ceiling with a broom handle, all along the corridor. And here are photos to prove it taken during the rental agency’s final inspection.” Eric pointed out that apparently they were not overly computer literate. The date and time is recorded in the photos on a computer. The photographs were taken the day after the inspection and at seven in the evening.
We knew we would get an unfavourable judgement. The judge had been efficient and curt. She clearly didn’t like us. We were dismissed with a wave of the hand and were to be informed of the outcome by letter. The landlord’s son had been murdered several months beforehand in a domestic dispute. We didn’t have such a heart-rending story to sweeten the tale.
It was the day of the presidential election in the United States. Hillary lost to Trump. The letter arrived. We have since referred to the landlord-losers in this case as “The Clintons”.
By now we worked from home so it didn’t matter a great deal where we lived provided there was internet access. But as you know from the previous narrative, there was a reason why we wanted to move house fast.
We had searched the internet and newspapers all over the country and there was nothing suitable. The problem was we had a dog. These days rental agencies and land lords and ladies don’t like dogs.
One of my sisters lives six hours away at Palmerston North. She has a deer farm next to farms owned by Massey University. Massey University is primarily an agriculture university that specializes in animal and plant research. These university farms all had houses that were rented out because farm managers rarely lived on the farm. They were not resident farmers! Who my sister didn’t know wasn’t worth knowing. Yes! There is a farmhouse available on a university farm! And yes! It is two minutes away from where I live so you can visit me often!
The removal lorry (truck) was loaded. I set out in the car with one dog, one cat, and six ducks. Eric set out in the ute (pickup) with the goat. Six or seven hours later we arrived.
It was a typical farmhouse, quite small; in fact so small that none of our furniture fitted. We stored our furniture in the garage and bought some smaller stuff from second-hand stores. But a house is a house – especially when you don’t have one. There was only one electric plug in the kitchen, so we had the microwave, the kettle, the toaster, and the bread maker, on a bench in the narrow corridor!
There was a henhouse to house the ducks at night. During the day I would let them out and they would waddle down to the nearby river and mess about all day. They would return for the evening meal, following me across the fields like I was the Pied Piper. These ducks were a breed called Magpie Ducks – quite an uncommon breed. They were developed in Wales (this is true) by a man called Mr Drake.
We had the use of a field for the goat. Eric made a goat house. The field couldn’t be used on the farm because it was a farm water system experiment and there were plastic funnels here and there that could not afford to get trampled on by livestock. Billy, our single goat, was okay. A fence is no barrier for a goat, but Billy had a long, long chain. It didn’t of course stop every other goat on the university farms from coming for a visit.
We had a good vegetable garden.
Being in the middle of spacious farms we had field after field of wild mushrooms which my sister explored with grandchildren, teaching them which fungus is poisonous and which is edible. It’s a skill one takes for granted!
Twice a kamikaze blackbird smashed into a bedroom window, killing itself on the bed and scattering shards of glass from one end of the room to the other. They must have been attacking their own reflection.
We had always regarded the place as a temporary abode. The office was in the bedroom. The dining table was in the lounge! It had a wood burner but the wind sneaked in through ancient window frames. In winter I had taped up every window to stop the draughts! The house was next to a huge woolshed which was not only the scene of erudite lectures, but was the venue for hordes of aspiring country bumpkins to hold their raucous parties.
Even though we quite liked it, the place had its limitations. We quietly began to look for a more amenable lodging; and an amenable lodging we did indeed find! Although I had to sell the ducks!
Despite vowing never to move our own belongings ever again we had not learnt our lesson. We made 13 trips with a loaded down ute (pickup), 16 trips in the car, and 6 trips with a large borrowed trailer. Thank goodness for kind friends to help out, especially with the piano.
This house was an old farm house and had been the childhood home of the current owner who was moving to run a farm several hours drive away. The husband and wife owners wished us good luck and set out for their farm job. The property we had moved to was a few acres of hilly land, and had an implement shed, a fowl-house, and a large barn and pigsty. It also had a lawn tennis court and an overgrown large bank garden designed as a rockery. It had wonderful pear and orange trees. The owner kept his four cows on the land. The neighbouring farm was a cattle farm, and Molly the cow enjoyed cavorting with the bull when it jumped the fence. There is no stopping a determined bull. The first time resulted in the birth of Prince – which the owners said we were welcome to rear and keep. We did that. Prince was short for “Prince of the Freezer”. The second fence jump resulted in a little girl called Lexie.
It was a typical farmhouse set up. The house sort of meandered with no particular plan. This room had been added over time, and that room had been altered over time. It had an excellent log burner.
Eric cleared the rockery and grew wonderful vegetables. The watermelons were the tastiest ever!
I kept a new-for-me breed of chicken called Coronation Sussex. They were very pretty chickens; white with a silver neck and tail. But after several months I learnt that they were violent. I couldn’t go near the hen house without walking backwards to keep an eye out for the attacking rooster and, believe me, he could peck and draw blood like a vampire. Anyway, they were lovely to look at and even lovelier to eat. I replaced them with ducks; a creature I had never kept before.
These were called Magpie Ducks – black and white. They were enchanting. At school a parent was one of the few breeders of these ducks in the country. She was delighted when I asked if I could breed them as well.
The property had sections where wild blackberries grew rampant. Blackberry in New Zealand is classed as a noxious weed. When I was offered a goat at school, left over from the Calf Club Day by the headmaster’s son, I said I would take it. It would eat the blackberry, and after it had done its job we would put it in a stew. Billy arrived. Have you ever kept a goat? They are totally loveable and utterly affectionate. Who would possibly ever want to put him in a stew? That was years ago, and to keep this narrative brief, he now eats the blackberries on the property of one of my brothers.
Billy learnt to escape the fenced field. He learnt to ring the doorbell. He learnt to open the door. He learnt to go into the bathroom and eat the toilet paper. Not knowing how he escaped his field, Eric watched him for an hour to determine the method of escape. All with no luck. Eric gave up and returned to the house only to discover Billy sitting on the sofa. The goat, the dog and the cat were inseparable. Billy taught the dog how to climb things. “I never knew I could do that!” said the dog. Eventually we got Billy a long chain for his own safety.
I was given a greenhouse for my birthday – made in China. The assembly instructions were atrocious. It took us three days to put it together. It was wonderful for about a month. And then a wind came and blew it into a crumbled heap. It wasn’t our fault; it was simply poor quality.
I played the organ at the local Anglican Church for weddings and the like and for their choir and sometimes on Sundays when the Anglican bishop visited.
Eric was able to cut up and stack in the barn a huge amount of firewood.
Disaster often lurks in many guises. We were about to run out of good luck.
The headmaster at school (I shall call him Arnold to give the bastard anonymity) thought he was thoroughly modern and considered the future with the internet meant libraries and books were obsolete. He was keen to do away with the librarian and save money. He frequently came to the library on the pretext of doing something else but really it was to check to see if I was hopefully doing nothing so I could get fired.
Our next door neighbour, a horse-loving housewife, decided to hang herself from a tree. She had a son at the school. I was asked to play the piano during and after the funeral. I asked the headmaster for permission to attend and that was fine. A good number of the teachers were present as well. The next day I was having a cup of coffee in the staff room and I said to another teacher that I was a bit surprised that Arnold hadn’t attended the funeral of the parent but went to a rowing regatta. She said he was usually great when something like that happened, and I said yes, that’s why I was surprised he wasn’t there. Another staff member had overheard the conversation apparently.
A short time later I was called to the headmaster’s office. Had I criticized the headmaster behind his back? Had I undermined his authority? He ranted and raved and foamed at the mouth. I left his office without a job. I began looking for another job. Fortunately I had several pipe organ and piano students that I continued to teach privately.
Now some goats don’t like rain. They can’t get wet. They have no fat. They get cold and die. Occasionally Billy’s chain could get caught in blackberry and if it rained he wouldn’t be able to get into his little house. The weather began to spit. I went to check on Billy who was on a steep hill. My footwear slipped and I went arse over kite down the bank. I had broken my ankle. They kept me in hospital for a week waiting for the swelling to subside before they operated with three screws in the ankle. It was a slow recovery, which included stays in hospital for pneumonia, and hernias, and clots on the lungs. It was almost a year before I could walk again without crutches. It’s when I started this blog with “A Story a Day”.
The next thing the house owners turned up. The man had been sacked from his job on the farm. Would we mind ever so much if they stayed in the house for two weeks while things were sorted? We asked if they wanted us to move out but they said they wanted us to stay. Two weeks was all they needed. We cleared out the main bedroom for them. They set up their gigantic television in our living room. Seven months later we were still paying their food, their internet, their phone, their electricity, and their heating, as well still paying the weekly rent. Picture me trying to vacuum the house with crutches while they sat on the sofa with the television turned up high and massaging each other’s feet.
Eric asked if their daughter, who worked on a farm and came to stay regularly, could stop saying the F-word ten times in every sentence – especially when we had visitors. Neither of us have much against swearing but this was over the top. The mother explained that the daughter worked on a farm and such things were normal. My father was a farmer and I never once heard him swear.
Eric and I began to occasionally go away for the weekend. Secretly we were looking for another house. We would return to hear from neighbours that rowdy parties had been held in the house, one even with a huge marquee erected on the tennis court.
And then they went, with daughter, on a three week vacation to tropical Rarotonga in the Cook Islands! How wonderful is the unemployment benefit! They came back for Christmas. We had put up the Christmas tree. They erected their own Christmas tree in front of ours. Enough is enough! We said we were going in a week or so. They packed up everything of theirs in a huff and ostentatiously moved into the barn. We packed up our things except for the firewood and calf which they would not let us collect. In fact they covered our firewood with a tarpaulin and tied the tarpaulin down.
We left for Palmerston North where one of my sisters lived. We arrived, Eric and I, with a cat, a dog, a goat, and the remaining ducks that the mad landlord hadn’t killed.
There are some lovely people living in the Onewhero area. But after all this, and the gossip promoted by the “lovely couple”, our name was dirt.
This home was fifteen minutes’ drive from the previous house, and we moved furniture and belongings ourselves. Never again!
Of all the houses I have lived in this would probably be my favourite. It was built by a man who had only one leg, was a friend of the Rockefellers in America, and had sold the house to a family that bred exotic parrots and let them fly freely around the mature trees that were growing inside the three-story house. The trees in the garden outside grew close to the windows. You could almost reach out and touch the many bird nests. It was like living in a tree house, and the trees weren’t ordinary; they were spectacular flowering exotics. My favourite was the heavily flowering lacy pepper tree, but the China Doll trees, especially their straggly seed pods, were a delight. Flowering cherries abounded.
The house was huge. The staircase was so grand one almost felt it would be a travesty not to don a ball gown to ascend and descend. All was set on quite a few acres of land, some of which was rented out to a local farmer to graze cows. The carpet inside where the pots for the trees had stood was in a grotty state. But things had been majestically planned – even the balcony that surrounded the house on three sides. There was a huge fishpond that leaked and was empty, over which went a rustic bridge.
The vegetable garden stretched from one end of the section to the other and it was a wilderness. Next to the garden was a hen house and run. It was there that we stored our firewood because I had given away the poultry in the house move. We needed all the firewood we could get because the house had two greedy log burners.
When we took the property we had been assured that mobile phone coverage and high speed broadband were available. Once we came to set things up there was no such thing. Even from the roof of this tall building the broadcasting masts could not be seen. We wrote to the Minister of Broadcasting, who replied that they had no intention of laying cables down Morrison Road. The only thing for it was to pay for expensive satellite coverage.
The house being made of unpainted wood was a great attraction to paper wasps. Paper wasps would dance along wooden bannisters presumably collecting cellulose to make their bulbous nests. Once a week I would tour the “estate” with a can of fly spray to destroy newly created nests.
The house was made for Christmas! And we had many a celebration and many a guest.
In the meantime the dog and the cat were enjoying their new territory. Pussy Cat was entered into a weekly pet food photo competition, and her photo won the weekly competition six times in all, and that paid to feed both cat and dog for a year. She had the advantage of being photogenic because the white markings on her face were balanced on both sides. Delia the dog had her own popular website and would message her fans. “Please don’t tell my owner that I’m using his computer in the middle of the night.” Delia had quite a following!
One side of the house opened directly onto farm paddocks so we were not infrequently spied upon by inquisitive viewers.
The grounds had been let go to ruin a little, so it was a lot of work recreating almost a park. These days, having a peek at satellite online imagery, the trees have been cut down and a swimming pool has taken their place. It has somehow lost its wonderful charm but can now be seen and admired and fawned upon from the road.
People from our former road of Allen & Eyre came to visit. They lived just up the road from where we had lived. They had a proposition. The husband had been offered a farming job several hours away from where they lived. The new job came with a house on the farm. Would we like to rent their house for a price no higher than their mortgage? Their isolated house now had broadband. It was a tempting offer. We had long been wishing to save to one day get our own home. This was an offer, plus the thought of not paying expensive satellite connectivity, that called for common sense. We said yes even though we were reluctant to leave this wonderful place in Morrison Road.
Having survived a winter in Tuakau that felt more freezing than the minus 40 Celsius in Quebec, we were determined not to repeat the experience. There was a farmhouse advertised in the paper: a small two-bedroomed house in a rural setting. To get to it we had to drive across the farm, opening and shutting gates to prevent herds of snorting bulls from escaping.
The house was near a shearing shed, and clearly it once was what in New Zealand we call “The Shearers’ Quarters”. Twice a year a gang of shearers would descend on a farm for a week or so to shear and crotch the sheep. Every farm had its Shearers’ Quarters. These days shearers whizz to the farms in their expensive pickups from motels in town!
The district was called Onewhero (pronounced On-ee-fair-row). The “town” (two or three houses) had a garage for farm machinery, and a school that went from Kindergarten to the final high school year. Every country in the world shrouds the naming and numbering of school years in mystery. In New Zealand this was an “Area School” and went from ages 3 to 18.
Despite being described as “small” the house had a large kitchen-dining room and a reasonably-sized lounge with an open fire. In New Zealand the sitting room is always called a “lounge”. Barb was the liaison person with the rental agency and Neil was the farmer-landlord. Were they generous or what?
Neil was an Exclusive Brethren and would never enter a home that did not hold members of his same church. He would drop off meat for the freezer when a bull had to be put down. For example during a storm two bulls were struck and killed by lightning. Seeing that we were avid gardeners he arrived with fencing equipment and doubled the size of the property. Barb saw to it that a log burner was installed in the dining room, and that Christmas was “rent free”!
One of the house drawbacks was the shower. It was one of those rose head showers that drop water from a great height into a cold concrete cubicle with wooden slats. You used to come across such showers at camping grounds – at least in the old days. And it was right at the door entrance! I dare say a gang of shearers weren’t too bothered after a day of shearing sheep to be showering at the door. Water was another problem as all we had was rainwater, and in summer it didn’t rain much. Landlord Neil solved the water-the-garden-problem by hitching the garden hoses up to the farm’s creek water supply. It was great for the garden but not human friendly. We had to twice buy a tanker load of water.
Eric was working at nights and I had a full-time day job as librarian and general dog’s body at the Area School. For example, seven of my forty hours were spent teaching Music and Drama even though my teaching certificate had long expired. Of course, because of that, I only got paid librarian’s wages.
Eric and I bought lawn-mowing equipment and began working on weekends mowing people’s lawns and tidying their gardens. We had quite a number of clients, including a school property with large playing fields. And then disasters began to strike!
The textile plant where Eric worked was cutting out its night shift. Eric was jobless. Earlier my heart disease had so deteriorated that I could no longer help with the lawn mowing. We had sold the mowing equipment. The hospital phoned to say a vacancy for a heart operation had become available and I had an hour to get into hospital! There was no money coming in and things had happened so fast that we were unprepared to live off the $2.60 that remained in the bank account! That was when Eric found a job online to translate a Chemistry document into French. And then he found another, and another. Of course, at the start, money from overseas doesn’t happen instantly. For my part, five days after a triple bypass I was back at work with a catheter bag strapped to my thigh! I didn’t qualify for the sickness benefit said the government agency, and in fact I had been paid for the week I had away from work and that would be deducted from the next pay. Suddenly $2.60 seemed like a windfall!
There was a story behind my heart operation. The heart operation co-ordinator had phoned that morning and said you are way down the waiting list but sometimes things could be speeded up if you are prepared to go on another list. That other list is where you are operated on without much warning if someone dies or pulls out. I said that would be fine. At six o’clock that evening the phone went. It was the heart operation co-ordinator. The heart surgeon had phoned her and said a gap in tomorrow’s operations had occurred. Who is next on the list? She said she was at a restaurant and didn’t have access to her list. But wait! I have a phone number here in my purse of someone I contacted this morning. And that is how I jumped the queue – by months!
Eric got a job for about six months with a gardening company that maintained the gardens of mansions owned by rich Americas Cup yacht owners and cosmetic surgeons and the like.
The boss at Eric’s textile plant phoned to plead with Eric to come back and join the day shift. Eric thought about it and in the end said no. His translation business was growing and he did it all from home! Well actually he worked from the tiny laundry room no bigger than a cupboard, and had now bought a British-founded translation company that had a group of translating chemists around the world in 82 possible languages!
I kept chickens, specializing in the Faverolles breed; a variety of French chicken where the hens have earmuffs and the roosters have beards. (Now you know in the Twelves Days of Christmas Carol what a “French hen” is!) Eric built a fowl house of which Neil said: “When you asked to build a fowl house I had no idea you intended to build the most luxurious hen house in the country.”
Most years I was the chicken judge at the school’s annual “Calf Club Day”. Children would bring to school their lamb, calf, kid goat, or chicken they had hand-reared themselves to be judged by us professional breeders! There were very strict rules such as date of birth of the creature and the breed. Mum and Dad could help of course, but the care for the animal had to be the child’s own doing.
Flocks of wild turkeys by the dozen roamed the area and mingled with wild peacocks. In springtime the turkeys would nest around the property. I got half a dozen turkey eggs and a bantam hen hatched them out. When they grew their loud gobbling was constant and their turkey poo was gargantuan. Fairly quickly they became inhabitants of the freezer.
We got a middle-sized dog which we called Delia. Delia would parade the property with the rooster to make sure no hen flew over the fence into the garden. One day the rooster’s authority was challenged by a young upstart rooster and the old rooster lost the fight. Delia bit off the old rooster’s head. He was no longer in charge or of use. Now and again Delia would bring home a wild turkey she had killed and we would have a feast. She would circle a turkey, around and around in ever diminishing circles. The turkey would turn and turn following the dog’s movements. The turkey would become giddy and fall over and that was it. I make it sound like she was a violent dog, but in fact she was the loveliest of the loveliest.
We became well known in the area and farmers unable, sometimes in years, to take a break from caring for their farm would call on us to look after their farm for a week or so while they went away on vacation. We would swap dahlia tubers and raspberry plants and plums and pears and such gardening things. At community parties Eric was always asked to cook the turkey. Not only could he cook a turkey to perfection, but they knew we had a convenient source. The cat thought so too.
We would harvest firewood together with others from the community. I attended a year of once-a-week night classes in cooking Indian recipes. Often on a Wednesday evening upon returning home there would be a neighbour or two waiting to taste my latest Indian creation. A neighbour kept ducks so my broody chickens were employed to hatched out and rear ducklings for them.
One of the loveliest things about the property was the peach trees. Self-seeded peach trees produced hundreds (and hundreds) of the most succulent peaches imaginable.
Thus we lived for four years. Eric’s translation business had so grown that there was no space – even for a filing cabinet. Barb came to our rescue. I think I have just the place, she said. Indeed she did!
After scurrying up and down New Zealand for four months or so looking for work, with every possession on earth packed into the car, we at last landed a job in Auckland, New Zealand. The new job put us up at a very nice hotel for two weeks. That gave us plenty of time to find a house to rent.
We did find a house in one of the suburbs. It seemed quite nice, and would be available on the very Friday that we had to leave the hotel. We turned up at the rental agency to pick up the key.
“Oh, sorry, but we rented that out to someone yesterday. We have nothing else available.”
Needless to say, it was pretty devastating. We went straight to another rental agency and told our plight. The woman said she had two houses available. Have a look at both of them and say which one you want. One was in the suburbs and a bit run down. The other was in a little village called Tuakau some way out of Auckland. We chose the one in the little village. That night we unloaded the car of all our possessions in the world. No chair! No bed! No table! But we had a computer! We sat and ate and slept on the floor!
The next day we purchased a dining table and some chairs.
My mother had died several months earlier. One of my brothers packed up some of Mum’s furniture and freighted it to Tuakau, including a clothes dryer. With it he had included money to buy a washing machine!
The neighbour had eleven dogs and seven cats. The palm tree outside our back door had a large family of rats living in its branches. (In case you didn’t know, rats love living in palm trees). There were snails in the wilderness around the house in the thousands.
The house was a bungalow – as the majority of New Zealand houses are. It had recently been painted inside. There was no heating; no wood burner, no heat pump. We bought a heater. We might as well have tried to heat the Antarctic. It was useless. It was freezing. I’ve never been so cold in my life. It was damp. When it rained the entire water from the street ran down the driveway and under the house. Quickly mould formed on the newly painted walls.
One of the neighbour’s kittens, clearly tired of living with eleven dogs and six other cats, decided to take up residence with us. She was the only warm thing in the house all winter! The neighbours had called her Bali because she had been born six months earlier while they were on vacation in Bali in Indonesia. We didn’t think much of the name, so for the last sixteen years we have called her Pussy Cat.
I would manage the Village Bookshop when Penny the owner went away. It was a good way to “meet the locals”.
Our house used to be surrounded by a cottage garden. It was now all brambles and weeds. I decided to clear it. In fact I dug over the entire quarter acre by hand and planted a pretty cottage garden all around. It was delightful. In fact it was so delightful that the owner decided the time was ripe to sell – “While it’s looking so pretty”.
At the final rental inspection the agency declared that “The window in the garage is more broken than it was.” More broken? I said. I simply cleaned it. “It is more broken and you will not get your bond back.”
We left with pleasure and with Pussy Cat. Over the next four months the house was sold four times – each time fifty or so thousand more than the previous sale. As far as I know the “more broken window” never got fixed.
The flight from Montreal to LA to Auckland was long, uneventful, and boring. We had arranged to stay with friends, Wencheng and Tim, in Auckland for a few days. There we set up a new bank account and Eric got his New Zealand driver’s licence. One of my brothers and his wife came to Auckland with a car for us! That was wonderful!
Incidentally, my mother’s funeral had been held. The four days of flight would end in a weekend followed by a series of national holidays which meant the delay of the funeral would go on and on. I said to go ahead without me. So that’s what was done.
Before we left Quebec we had organized a “farm stay”. In return for meals and accommodation one works on a farm. Margaret in Otane, Hawkes Bay, had a horse farm complete with pigs, cows, sheep, and chickens. We were to stay about three months (we had rooms in the stable) while we did some essential things on the side such as try to find work!
Getting Eric residency was a breeze. It took about an hour. Mainly what we needed to do was to show old bills that proved we had lived at the same address for several years. We had come prepared. Margaret let us leave the farm on the odd day to job hunt. At times she went away herself and left us to run the farm on our own. It was enjoyable enough, but after a time we realized that we were more and more being used. We feigned job hunt success, loaded the car, and with considerable pretended glee drove off to goodness knows where.
Eric worked in the textile field. The head of Sarah Lee in America (in fact back then the largest textile manufacturer in the world) had described Eric as one of the world’s leading industrial chemists. (He added: “If you want to employ Einstein you have to put up with the hair.” Eric had long hair!) We should find no problem in getting work for him. New Zealand being a farming economy meant there were textile plants from one end of the country to the other. Of course, unbeknown to us at the time, those textile manufacturers who hadn’t already moved to China were planning to do so.
We decided to stay in a single-roomed beach house at Paekakariki. Paekakariki was halfway between the two textile mills most likely to want employers. The one in Lower Hutt didn’t have a vacancy and went bankrupt and collapsed out of existence about a month after Eric visited. The one at Levin didn’t have a vacancy and has since packed up and gone to China.
We moved on, catching the interisland ferry which took us to Christchurch in the South Island.
We first stayed in a small motel in Armagh Street. The motel room flooded when the inhabitants above took a shower.
We found an apartment at 4/50 Champion Street, Christchurch. Yes! Christchurch would be our home, job or no job. We unloaded the car, bought some old furniture and resumed job hunting.
We had hardly put the table together before the phone went. It was a textile company in Auckland that made exclusive fabric for window blinds for the overseas market. You have the job you applied for weeks ago. You will be in charge of the night shift. We dismantled what furniture we could and packed the car to the gunnels. On the way we crossed the Southern Alps to visit a sister there.
Once again we caught the interisland ferry to Wellington.
We drove from Wellington and arrived safely in the City of Auckland; a town where we had started our job hunt four months earlier!