When I was in New Zealand a couple of weeks ago I recorded five scripts for radio. Each was (about) 1900 words long and I adapted them, sequentially, from a small book called Barefoot Years (2014). The same text, with sequels, appears in The Dreaming Land (2015). We recorded all five between 9.00 am and 1.00 pm on a wet Tuesday in the Wellington studios up on The Terrace. (Actually we recorded the first one twice, at the beginning and again at the end.) It was a relaxed and enjoyable session and I’m grateful to the producer, Duncan, and the engineer, Adam, for making it such a pleasure to do.
Afterwards I was talking to Duncan and he told me how he’d once been back to the house where he grew up, in Hamilton, and was struck by how much smaller it seemed than he remembered it to be. I’d written at length in Barefoot Years about our old house in Burns Street, Ohakune but, in answer to Duncan’s question, I had to say, no, I’d never been inside again, not since we left town in January 1962. So I didn’t know how that might feel. Whether it was bigger or smaller or just the same.
A couple of days later, on Thursday, I was in Ohakune and driving past the very house—as I always do on my returns to that town. There was a furniture truck backed up outside, a couple of blokes unloading, and a 4WD parked on the road. I stopped. An older man came over to see what I wanted. His name was Ken, he was from Masterton and, he told me, his son and daughter-in-law had recently bought the house and were intending to restore it ‘to original condition’. When I said I grew up here he became quite excited. He’d been back to the Deeds but still hadn’t been able to ascertain the way the house had been before alterations had been made upon it. Would I do him a favour? Would I come in and tell him how it was when I’d been here?
Well. Yes. I would. Of course. But what a strange experience. First of all, it did not seem smaller, it seemed the same size as it had been half a century before. The sitting room on the left, my old bedroom, which I shared with two of my younger sisters, on the right. Same size. Down the hallway, with the old kitchen on the left (no longer a kitchen) and the second sitting room, which we called the veranda room, on the right. You went along an outside veranda to the room, surely an add-on, where my other three sisters (two older, one younger) slept beneath windows of green, rippled, riverine glass. Still there. That veranda had been clumsily altered, closed in, so you no longer had to brave the howling winds or rain and snow when you went to bed.
The back of the house was more or less unrecognisable. The pantry off the kitchen, gone, the passage that led to the back door, gone, the wash house, gone. Ken, who was noting everything I said, was scathing—about the quality of ‘renovations’. They were, even I could see, shoddy. Someone had the bright idea of turning it into a Ski Lodge so the additions were ‘leisure spaces’ in which people could ‘hang out’. But walls did not meet ceilings and floors did not align with other floors. I can’t now remember where the replacement kitchen was—if there was one. Well, there must have been. The bathroom was still where it had always been, along a crooked passage that led to what was once our parent’s bedroom—now with a ricketty ensuite.
I’m being very matter of fact. It wasn’t until I stood in the door of the old parental bedroom that the strangeness of the situation really hit me. As a kid I rarely went into that room; and, as an adult, I felt the same interdiction descend. It was as if the intimacy they shared in there persisted. As if their ghosts, too, persisted. And with them, all of the other ghosts: my sisters, our pets, friends and relations, even the childish ghost of myself. They seemed all still to be there, massed, whispering, not malign, largely unconcerned. Going about their business in an everyday kind of way. As if the ghosts and the gone have other lives than ours. Or lives other than ours.
I knew the section had been subdivided. Out the back, where there’d been an overgrown asphalt tennis court, a car garage, the tray of a flatbed truck, many bearing fruit trees, the vegetable garden, the chook run, the berry patch, the woodshed, the coal shed, the palm shed, the tank stand and what else I’m not going to list—just a stark oblong square of green lawn with a wooden fence behind. There’s another, or perhaps two, cottages on what used to be a wild domain of long grass going down, past a macrocarpa hedge, to the Mangawhero River.
I’m not here to write an essay in nostalgia. I have the whole place, house (built 1910), garden, street and so forth intact in memory (with all its falsifications) anyway and I know it’s gone forever from the real world. This was different. This was about the persistence of presence, to coin a phrase. This was an experience of continuity that made me doubt the autocracy of time. Two things I took away may elucidate what is, in truth, ineluctable.
One is the floor: wide tongue-in-groove planks of maire or matai, of a colour that was somewhere between pink and yellow, and which, hard as it is, rose up towards me with a suggestion of home. I could still feel it beneath my bare soles when I woke up in the night and padded down the echoing hallway to my parent’s bedroom to tell them I could not sleep because I had hot feet. The other is the ceilings, especially in the sitting room and in my old bedroom: white, pressed metal perhaps or painted moulded timber. They too spoke to me: we are the sky under which you grew, they said; we are your clouds and your dreams.
image : surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, taken by a camera on Philae, the lander module of the Rosetta probe, c. 2014