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Life Is Too Short To Drink Bad Wine: 13 - Screams And Bumps

"I remember too, sliding down the steep bank behind the bach and beside the toilet outhouse on nikau palm fronds. The summer grass was silky and long and the fronds slid down easily. The grass could also sometimes be sharp and cutty. It was a thrill to slide, eliciting screams of fear and joy as you whizzed and bumped to the bottom, totally out of control...'' Gayle Woodward continues her delightful story of growing up in New Zealand.

My cousin Bill and I were great friends. He loved to make up quizzes about anything that came into his head. I was the willing guinea pig who had to try to answer his questions and beat him at his own game.

In a bach high on the hill behind us lived two apparently gay men. We had heard the parents giggling and joking about this and one night, very daringly, we climbed up to the top bunk to look out the skylight window at the lighted windows in this notorious house. We saw two men. I wondered what the all fuss was about. I often wonder what Bill saw.

Another interesting thing was being sent at dusk with a lidded billy can to collect milk from the milk cart that would come down the metalled back roads by the locals’ houses. It was a very responsible thing to be deemed old enough to carry the milk home safely. A man dipped a ladle into his tall milk urns and transferred the bubbling milk into my billy. I would replace the lid and then carry it all the way home, where it was poured into a jug and kept covered in the safe. I didn’t like the taste but no one else seemed to notice it.

On that same road there was a big brown horse that stood close to the road, head over the fence. We would walk that way so often I felt I knew the horse and that the horse would know me. One day I reached up to pat it on its nose. To my great horror and shock it reared up on hind legs and snorted at me. I fled, never to look at those big brown eyes and big head again.

I remember too, sliding down the steep bank behind the bach and beside the toilet outhouse on nikau palm fronds. The summer grass was silky and long and the fronds slid down easily. The grass could also sometimes be sharp and cutty. It was a thrill to slide, eliciting screams of fear and joy as you whizzed and bumped to the bottom, totally out of control. At one stage, I became infected with boils on my legs and the sliding was deemed to be, if not the source of my infection, at least making it worse. That fun came quickly to an end and I would endure months of painful dressings and a poisoned body.

As I grew older, perhaps nine or ten, we were able to rent a different and better bach. It was right on the beachfront, with no steps, close to the shop and - the biggest joy – a pohutukawa tree on the grassy bank across the road right in front of our picket fence. It was large and grew right out over the sand. The shade it provided on the sand was coveted by scores of families who would spend the day on the beach. I always felt that we were grudgingly gifting OUR tree to them just for a while.

That tree had a special curving low branch that had the rough bark worn quite smooth. The branch became my horse and I could straddle it and ride off, bouncing up and down, to marvellous places, easily visited in my ever-fertile imagination. It was even better at neap tide when the white soapy bubbles of sea swept in right under my feet. I have no doubt now that scores of other young girls, unknown to me at the time, did exactly the same thing.

The Prendergasts' bach was very much nicer. It came to feel like home when we would open the door at the start of each holiday and ‘bags’ the room we wanted to sleep in. There was a main room with colourful lino floor and painted wooden walls. On one side of this main room were a table and chairs and a double bedroom with curtained doorway. The other side opened to two bedrooms, one a twin bed room and the other a single-bedded porch. The kitchen was clean but basic.

A window seat at the beach end of this main room was a favourite place as the windows opened right out, concertina fashion. There were two wooden armchairs with cushioned seats and there were Readers Digests and old books to scroll through to your heart’s content.

The toilet was up the back, up the bank and was the hole-in-the-ground type with a wooden toilet seat built over it. It had to be regularly emptied by Dad. It was only ever used during the day, as it would have been far too scary to go out there in the dark.

Mum and Dad always groaned about the state of the wirewove double bed with its lumpy kapok mattress. I think it provided a saggy and painful sleep, if any.

The nicest times were when I could share the twin room with my Nana. There was a chest of drawers in between the two beds, and arranged on the top of this she had pots and jars of magically smelling makeup all in neat rows. I loved to rearrange these potions, just to touch the elegant packaging and dream of the day I might be able to have such delights on my dressing table.

I loved to sit beside Nana and hold her hand. Then I could move the opal ring she wore to make it reflect myriad colours. When she took the ring off and left it on our shared chest, I would slip it onto my finger. Sadly it didn’t fit and would fall off. She was, I thought, a most elegant lady as opposed to my mother, who was only a Mum.

The cousins were always at the beach at the same time as us but lived elsewhere, and Dad and my uncle continued their fishing expeditions. I can remember one hot afternoon they returned at low tide and so had a long flat walk back in, dragging the boat behind them.

I was drowsing on the sand with a book flat on my chest when I heard some shouting. I sat up to see a crowd of children gathered round where they had stopped. Someone shouted “They got a shark!” And I was off running, along with my sister, my cousins and some unknown kids on the beach. There lying on the sand was the ugliest fish I had ever seen- a hammerhead shark- rather small and very dead.

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