From Art All Magazine, 2010

Fear: Landscapes of my youth.

The last time I was home, I drove along my favourite road, up past Apiti through to Rangiwahea and then to Taihape. I pulled over for a break and spent some time throwing stones into the Rangitikei river. I surveyed the white papa cliffs opposite me and as I did, a memory came back to me long forgotten. It was fear. I felt suddenly alone and turned quickly back to the car and drove on.

When I was a small child, we lived in Taihape. Whenever we used to go to see the cousins or grandparents we would take the old State Highway One south. The road that clung to the hills and cliffs of the Rangitikei river valley is today a much smoother drive. I remember being so afraid that I would try to sit on the side of the car opposite the cliff, as if lending my pre-school weight to that side of the car could possibly prevent it tipping and tumbling off into the valley. The heart beats fast, hang on to the arm rest, shift even further way from the cliff. It’s ok, it’s ok.

I saw fear for the first time in my six month old daughter the other day as I took her to the bath. She started to breathe quickly and clung to me like a possum, digging in her fingernails and looking down at the water. I could feel her heart racing. She had just registered danger, like Haunui-a-nanaia who contemplated a wide river he needed to cross. He called that river Manawatu  – the heart caught up. I slowly lowered her in. It’s ok, it’s ok, look, here I am.

A creeping chilly fear is what used to come over me in the bush near a house of my childhood, on the edge of manicured Khandallah. It sat nestled into the hills near the Ngaurunga Gorge, just where things tumbled off out of control into bush and gorse full of cobwebs and baby spiders. There were trees and creeks to be played in at the end of fenceless sections where the grass cuttings were heaved over the bank next to nice smelling bushes with heart shaped leaves.

It was something about certain parts of the bush, that one part on the hillside, where I always felt the necessity to run, as if I felt the touch of a chilly finger. It would come over me all of a sudden, and away home into the sunlight I’d run, unable to look back, my jaw stiff as concrete.

Later the bush is shadowed in the night, the hillside a black silhouette, and the garden tree leaves are touched softly by a thin veil of moonlight. I am looking up at the moon through the window, stretching out my hand from my bed to pull the curtains back, tracing pictures with my finger tips in the condensation on the windows, listening to the anonymous noises and rustlings in the dark. In the morning the window-sill will have a small puddle on it.

Meanwhile here in the Andalusian sunlight, the land appears benign and picturesque. There are ploughed fields and sunflowers. People have poppy paintings on their walls. We pick wild thyme and lavender, but I still get frightened sometimes. Sitting outside in the sun, I envisage the wind sweeping me away over the side of our roof terrace, light and insignificant as a leaf. I shudder and move away from the edge. What is this fear now? Living in this place where story book orange trees grow out of neatly cut squares in the paving? It must follow me everywhere, my little reminder.

The night comes on. The large moon has been rising a hazy orange in the dusty sky. It looks thirsty. The tiles under my feet are still hot from the day. It makes me think of a photograph I took in 2000 of another moon-the brightest moon in seventy years. Another old home, since moved on from, and I am standing in the front garden by the hydrangeas at the bay window, the night dew is coming down. A night garden is a quiet place. The clouds come and go and suddenly the moon appears bright and glowing.

Years later, driving alone in the night on a South Taranaki back road, the moon is again bright and guiding. The sign posts are just readable. I pull over for a break and stand at the gates of a Pa in the dark looking on. No lights, no one to welcome me, because I am a ghost passing in the shadow and everyone is asleep. All is calm and quiet.


Fixing What’s Broken

Lucy is about to do something very brave. She is going to renovate. She is willing to take on the notorious Spanish plasterers, plumbers, bricklayers and electricians single handed, dealing with delays, builder language, materials, methods and madness in order to make her little home in a small hill village near Ronda liveable by the time her second child arrives in May.
Lucy always greets me with an enthusiastic “Alo poppet!”. She has a DIY heart –  a rare and refreshing find around here. We have discussed the tools we own and our love of pottering around hardware stores. Talking with her about her house plans reminded me of my father’s yellow chest of drawers that sat in at least three garages of different addresses of my childhood. It possibly began it’s life in Taihape, collecting screws, nuts, bolts, and old glass bottles that had been found under houses. It moved to Pauatahanui, then Wellington, then back up the the island again to Palmerston North, gathering interesting things, dings, saw marks, paint and glue spills and still more tools.
When I first saw Lucy’s cottage in high summer, it was like a sleepy white cat lying lazily against the hill in the sun. Situated at the highest end of the village, it was made of thick stone walls, plastered and painted white with the front door opening directly onto the cobbled village lane. The windows were like little eyelets, letting in little light – to keep summer heat out and winter warmth in (theoretically). Inside was a simple lounge and kitchen with a bathroom sitting slightly uncomfortably at one end, as the original house would never have had such a luxury. A small steep staircase went up to three rooms snuggled under a low ceiling. It was built heaven knows when, stone by stone, directly against the hill.
And that is the problem. Water is seeping through the downstairs stone wall which is set against the dirt with no seal. Being winter, it’s currently covered in mould. The roof is being held down by a tarpaulin and ropes and there is nothing between you and the wintery night sky but ancient old cracked tiles sitting on old beams. In times past, the dwellers of this cottage must have kept the fire going all winter to fight the damp and cold.
The damp, the broken, leaking roof and probably the questionable wiring, is all forgotten in summer when you go up the steps at the side of the house to the terrace built out on a levelled part of the hill. I remember that late summer afternoon still. For a while, I forgot the sad state of this country. No one mentioned it all afternoon. I sat on a long cushion on a seat under a tree in the summer heat, listening to the buzz of bees, smelling dry summer hills and Lucy’s terrace garden, looking out over the sloping tiled rooftops of the tiny village and watching Blanca, asleep star fish style, in the shade under the vines. Clara and Lucy’s daughter Ana Dhara, pottered about naked, playing with a baby bath and a hose. We ate lunch and listened to Lucy’s classical guitarist husband go through a few pieces. Needless to say, it was hard to leave.
Fast forward, back in the city and now in the final weeks of winter. We’ve just endured a rubbish strike. You could probably imagine the state of a densely populated city after ten days without a rubbish collection. It was incredibly depressing on many levels. The workers were facing a pay cut just like every other civil servant, though not as much as other sectors, but further evidence of the “trouble” nevertheless. The amount of rubbish we create was evident and that was depressing. The signs that people put on the rubbish piles, saying “This pile of shit represents our politicians”, portrayed the complete and utter loss of confidence most people currently have in the Spanish political system. Now even the President himself has been found to have received substantial amounts of undeclared cash over the years. And finally the stench, the litter flying everywhere and streets blocked by bags of rubbish, ripped apart, their rotting content strewn across what was left of walkable pavement by stray cats, rats and people who pick through the refuse every day looking for anything to sell at the informal second hand markets at the edge of town. It was an all time low.
Lucy is fortunate that there are solutions to her quaint but flawed cottage. Hopefully by May, mould will be a thing of the past – “it’s rainbow coloured Em”. There will be a new, insulated kitchen, bathroom and lounge and short term solution in place to seal the roof. We’ll go out again, enjoy a meal on the terrace and a walk down to the village swimming pool where the entire village will be, feeling incredibly priviledged to enjoy for a while the sleepy summer life of a hill village in a beautiful but seriously flawed Spain.
-Also found in Art All Magazine
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