Memories of Holidays at Grandpa’s place
At one time in the mid 90s (I think 1996), my brother Alvin Smith started writing down some of his memories of holidays that he experienced at his grandfather’s house at Ti Point. Alvin would have been aged around five and lived at West End Rd with Mum and Dad. During the summer holiday break the family would travel to Ti Point on the steamer (the only practical means in those days) to visit Mum’s parents, Joe and Minnie Torkington. The old house stood at the top of what is now Laika Avenue just off Ti Point Rd about 250 metres from the end of the road where the wharf is. At the time of Alvin’s recollections in 1996 he was living part time at Barry Torkington’s house and he and Barry and Nathan (Barry’s son) were engaged in an attempt to document the lives of some of the Torkington ancestors.
I wake. I’m a small bundle on a large bare mattress. I find that the bed’s been stripped of its sheets, the suitcases are packed. The room’s been changed, it’s now utterly bare. We’re in Boyd’s cottage (later to be renamed as Ti Cottage). Grandpa Joe picks me up to carry me to the wharf, Mum and Dad take up the suitcases and sacks, and we all go down the road to the Ti Point wharf, to catch the steamer to Auckland. The end of a holiday at Grandpa’s.
She’s doing five knots, say, on the way from Auckland to Ti Point, and she’s rolling a bit, the deck and the rail rolls down towards the sea, and then it lifts, and a canvas bucket full of wet ashes is pulled up on a line and an outboard boom from way below in the engine room, the bucket is dripping water, and over the sea the bucket is tripped by a second line and the steaming ashes fall with a splash into the water running away to the stern. There must be two fireboxes, and one is cleared as the other is fed with coal, a brown-tanned broad-backed figure rhythmically feeding in the coal, the fire doors swivelling apart as the shovel approaches.
In the passengers cabin, below, near the stern, it’s quite dull, there’s black leather-covered seats each side, a few portholes to give some light. A sleeping infant, swaddled in white fancy shawls, is cushioned safely on one of the squabs, the infant’s quite unaware of the rolling boat, and of the throb throb throb of the reciprocating steam engine as it slowly turns the main shaft and its huge propeller. The infant is my baby brother. I must now be five years old.
I climb up a companion-way up near the bow, and between the treads, inside the focsle, there’s a man stirring a stew, sliced carrots floating in the pot.
At the bottom gate, down near Boyd’s cottage, there’s the bottom well right alongside the flank of a huge Ti Point rock, sunshine and shadow coming down through the branches above, dry leaves on the grass, and a framework of four-by-twos at ground-level with boards over them to protect the well-water from falling leaves. Between rank growths of agapanthus (still even now in 1996 escaping up and down the Ti Point road), and between the massive rain-ribbed Ti Point rocks, this is where the track winds up from Boyd’s cottage to the house itself. On the track there’re some flat stones and much clay, long paspalum on each side, and the sticky seed heads looping down and dolloping my bare legs with seeds. Off the track, to the right, in a wilderness of rank creeper and rocks, there’s a strange south African plant called a yucca with its great thick cactus leaves like a bloated flax plant, with a flower stalk that’s five metres high (and they told me it flowers only once every seven years). At the top of the track on the left there’s the dairy, under a great macrocarpa, where the ground’s always dry and carpeted with the dry gritty leaves from the tree. The building itself seems to be saturated with old butterfat. Here, on a hand turned separator, the milk is separated out into cream and skilly. On the right there’s the workshop, with a long bench and a vice, but the bench is crammed with dusty and cob-webbed tools, and the earth floor is covered with ploughs and horse-collars and unused machinery. Then a few metres further up the track is the house itself, to the left of the track, with its front verandah looking out over the harbour, but the front of the house is seldom used, and most living is done at the back of the house. So the track ignores the front door and runs round to the back of the house, a huge Burbank plum tree outside the ‘boys’ room’.
Minnie mixes the dough for the bread in a large tin basin, and kneads it, and then leaves it rise by the wood stove, covered in a blanket. Once (did I see it, or did I merely hear about it?), the chooks came in, fed on the dough, and became stuck in it.
The kitchen is also the living room. There’s a big table, there’s been eight kids, though only two of them — Ernie and Ted — are still at home. Grandma (Minnie) works at the stove, preparing the meal, feeding it firewood. (‘Ernie! Bring in some more wood!’) People, perhaps they’re visitors of all sorts, Sandy and Roddy perhaps, sit around the table. More of them sit on the floor, their backs against the wall. Grandpa Joe is one of them. Another, on the opposite side of the room, is his Uncle John. There’s an animated hilarious discussion of politics going on. Joe and Uncle John swap their witticisms. The women — Minnie and her two daughters, Eileen and Agnes — work at the stove, and at preparing the table, and the men on the floor frequently juggle their lines of sight to avoid the traverses of the working women.
At the table, Joe sits at the head with a four-pound loaf of bread — Minnie herself bakes the bread for the household. There’s twelve or so people around the table. Joe slices a slice, caps it in place with the flat of the bread knife, ‘Who’s for bread?’ Then he disks the slice down the length of the table and the recipient catches it, and Joe cuts the next one. Minnie disapproves, the crowd admire it, and someone says that it wouldn’t do for the Wyatts. Minnie (her mother being a Wyatt) bites her lip, knows when to stay quiet, though she deplores the improper manners of her rumbustious Torkington, and their tribe of kids.
It’s late afternoon, the sun is now on the front of the house. The kitchen is empty. The fretwork-faced clock ticks on the mantle piece above the wood range, and stuffed into its glass door are the unpaid bills and the letters awaiting an answer. Some blowflies buzz the room. A mason bee somewhere is buzzing away, constructing its muddy nest in some nook within the room. There’s a bookcase on the wall by the table. On the top-most shelf there’s a twelve volume set of Chambers Encyclopaedia. Below, there’s a couple more shelves. I pull one of the books out, but along its edges there’s a gritty cascade of dry clay, a mason bee has made a nest for its young and loaded it with the carcases of dead spiders. I have to finger out the clay and the carcases in order to open the book. It is a handwritten notebook, and on the fly-leaf it is marked: ‘Private and Promiscuous’. Its leaves have been written in an unreadable short-hand. I need to look up the meaning of the word in the Annandale Dictionary. promiscuous: ‘of a person, having frequent and diverse sexual relations, esp. transient ones; carelessly irregular; indiscriminate.’ I spend the next hour tracking through dictionary entries, and extending my reading vocabulary. I later ask about the book, but I learn nothing, and no one but me seems to know the meaning of promiscuous. Another book was Chambers Seven Figure Mathematical Tables, with some of the pages well worn by thumb marks.
Amongst the inward mail received by the household there’s the tight-wrapped rolled-up copy of the Proceedings of the House of Representatives, a hundred-page closely printed verbatim report of what each member of parliament has said during the previous month. Perhaps this was Joe and Uncle John’s reading. After their deaths, the publication lies unopened until it’s required for other purposes. A nail is driven into it in one corner, and the publication is tied by string onto a nail in the shit house, down by the creek, where each page and the unread political wisdom of the people’s representatives ultimately join the effluvia of difficult turds and of summer diarrhoea and buzzing blow flies.
Later, after the 1935 election, which was won for the first time by Labour and by its leader, Michael Joseph Savage, there’s a new dog, he’s named Mick after the new Prime Minister. At three or four in the afternoon Ted and Ernie take a snack of bread spread with cream and plum jam.
Ted says: ‘Mick!’
The dog, dozing just outside the door, leaps to attention, ears erect.
‘Get the cows!’
Mick races away to the back of the farm, and half an hour later there’s the slow stream of cows making their way down the hill for milking.
Mick is never allowed inside the house. But when there’s heavy thunder, then Mick cringes at the back door sill, quite terrified, and then he’s allowed in. He creeps in under the big kitchen table, to the farthest darkest corner, while the thunder booms and the house trembles.
Beyond the back door is a small building called the wash-house. It does indeed contain a bath, but the bath is filled with sacks of flour. Alongside the wash-house is the chopping block, which is in use several times a day in order to feed the wood-range in the kitchen. And further away still is the horse paddock, and a solitary horse that is cunning enough, if you’re not careful, to open the back gate and get into the house paddock with its fruit trees and vegetables.
In the horse paddock, in late afternoon, the milking is done. There the score or so cows stand and chew their cud as Ted and Ernie move amongst them from cow to cow, carrying their three-legged stools and milk buckets. At the end, the buckets of milk are carried down to the dairy, and poured into the round vat above the separator. Someone turns the highly geared handle of the separator, the internal disks spin faster and faster, and then the cream begins oozing from the cream spout and dribbling into the cream can, and the skilly runs quick and full from the other one. When after a few milkings the cream can is full, it’s loaded onto the sleigh, the horse is harnessed, and the can is sleighed along the clay road to the Ti Point corner (at the junction with the Matakana-Leigh road) to the cream stand, and there, later in the day, it’s picked up by the cream lorry and taken into the Matakana cream factory.
And what of my two uncles tall, to say nothing of the antlers in the hall? Opening onto the kitchen was the ‘boys’ room’. Two tumbling beds, the end of one of them propped up by an apple case. Between the beds, a low table with some hair brushes and some old pots of brilliantine for slicking down the hair. But it was the talk! ‘Do you know the song, Take me home Kathleen?’ There was a lot of laughter, and I couldn’t make sense of it. ‘Knock knock’. ‘Who’s there?’ ‘Eyelet’. ‘Eyelet who?’ ‘I’ll let you know later.’ Trips along the sandspit, sailing the sand-yacht. Trips along the sandspit to salvage the Mizpah, and then to retrieve the lead keel which had been detached from the yacht and had sunk into the sand. Fishing at the moorings. Fishing at the beacon. Fishing even ‘at the reef’. Spearing flatties in the bay. Spearing flatties in Arthur’s Bay. Games at Dacre’s Claim, cricket and hockey. I sit on the spectators’ bank at the Claim and study the scrupulous Wyatts, immaculate in their whites, as they fill in the cells of the score book, and judge that I could do that just as well.
Minnie enjoys a game of five hundred. On Saturday nights, in the Hall in Leigh, the oldies sit on the stage, playing five hundred. On the floor of the hall, the young ones dance if there’s music, or play table tennis. On week-nights, at home, Minnie places the kerosene lamp on the large tea caddy, and, seeing that Ernie and Ted decline, the younger ones in the house must play five hundred. But there’s no five hundred on Sunday night. This, of course, is the night on which Ted and Ernie are eager for a game of five hundred. But Minnie’s father (Charles Clarke) was a lay preacher in the Church of England, and her loyalties to the family code are unshakeable.
Sometimes I’m bunked down on a camp-stretcher on the front verandah. Joe comes out with a violin and in the dusk plays the instrument to settle me to sleep, as the dusk thickens. But I listen, wide awake, to the music. Later, in the dark, there’s the moreporks. If the tide’s in, and there’s a roll on, I can hear beyond Nellie’s hill the surf on the sandspit, and even at times the single falling boom of an individual roller, and on the dark beach the final whisper of sea being extinguished on the gradient of sand.