Life in the Sticks

Desmond – I can’t stand that name. It conjures up a smug 11 year old with a Brylcreem fringe slicked back, unmoving. Even then, you could see his potential as a used car dealer a mile away.

Desmond had a young brother the image of himself, hair and all, called Lloyd. They took after their mother, a large, loud voiced woman. Sandwiched between them was Steven – we loved him because he was mad, funny, and mostly mute. The effort of speaking through his stutter was too much for him with the bullies lined up above and below him in the family.  I remember the three brothers eating with us one night, something with broad beans, my father’s pride since he’d grown them, and picked them fresh. Desmond and Lloyd looked at them suspiciously. The only beans they knew were canned, in tomato sauce.  Steven didn’t fancy them either but, with great panache, shoved one broadside up his left nostril, inhaling to the pit of his lungs.  We gaped in wonderment, mouths hanging open. Even Dad, the disciplinarian, sat transfixed until Steven fell onto the floor screaming “I can’t breathe!” and all hell broke out.

Mum rushed to the bathroom and back, dabbing uselessly up his nose with cotton wool, my father following on with a huge pair of tweezers which, when Steven saw the direction they were aimed in, made him scream louder. Neighbours materialised, stood him up, thumped his back, his head, tweaked his nose and anything they could, but the bean stayed put. He was carted off to hospital in an ambulance, a total hero in our eyes – while Mum trembled at the certain wrath of his mother. All Stevens since then I’ve been kindly disposed towards.  Yet it’s Desmond who sticks in my mind and though I haven’t met one for years, I’d detest him just for having the name, endowing pomposity and slyness upon him. It was Desmond who got rid of Julian Harper from our street.

–     –     –

At the tail end of the 1950’s in New Zealand was a steep, wooded valley named Pinehaven, where many young families lived.  This swathe of dense Maori bush was too far inland to be desirable or commercial then.  Maori are coastal dwellers, hunting in the bush for medicines, building materials, weaving fabrics like flax, but never living in it. They consider bush the domain of gods and spirits, which is easy to believe when you’re lost in it. Stones of unusual shapes found in significant places, such as the foot of bird-frequented trees, were spirits according to lore, so special lizards (moko) were sent to guard them. The most beautiful flowering tree in the land, pohutukawa, remains a coastal tree also, refusing to grow at all in the bush.

In 1928 an enterprising young Englishman, Francis Chichester, one of the many English settlers in search of a new life in the antipodes, bought this land with a business partner and set about clearing the valley floor to make way for roads and houses.  They planted over 30,000 pine trees which, 30 years later, had substantially grown into mature trees adding to the native species, like totara, already in place further up the hill. There was ponga, the famous silver fern which has a silver underside, used by Maori as track markers because it could be found back in the dark when lit up by burning torches. In our valley though, it was wheki-ponga, more common rough- fronded fern, which grew copiously.

This was our playground then, which every child in the road would sooner or later get to know like the back of their own hand, as they would the Maori name for each plant and tree.  We knew the places where the light was good, kept away from the wet, dank parts where all sorts of nasty insects lurked.  The weta was a big one, ugly to look at, not that it would kill you, even if it bit. Worse was the hu-hu bug, huge, dark brown and flying in a crowd  – these thrive only in heavily wooded areas, so if the windows were ever left open on a hot summer night these noisy flying bugs, attracted by light, would crash into the house in great numbers.  Animal noises were also easy to distinguish, possums made different sounds from rabbits, who were so prolific one year, there was a national cull to stop them eroding the land.

We built forts,  tree houses, tied vines together to make hammocks; put branches, boulders and logs across the stream so that we didn’t have to take our shoes off – pine needles are sharp! Whoever was on the street, we’d sooner or later get tired of biking, football and knuckle bones, and get into the bush, roaming the whole area completely freely with whichever dogs came along.  There was never anyone there but us.

In our garden we had chooks (egg laying hens), and the incumbent rooster Ru-Ru, who was a foul tempered bird. Whoever got the eggs in the morning had to let him out first or he’d bite. The shallow stream running down the hill passed through the back of the properties, like a kids’ Disney dream.

–     –     –

The house across the road from ours had been sold.  The long, curved drive way snaked up the hill, so neither house nor garage could be seen from the road.

“We’re  going up there now  to see if we can grab anything, before anyone moves in, ”  Desmond ordered us, one long hot afternoon.  The group had slowly diminished. Desmond’s mother had fallen out with a neighbour so the two children of that family stopped playing out on the street.  My brother Paul, now 12, decided we were all boring.

Before we could move, Desmond said,

“In this group, you have to be ten to be a member, ” looking directly at my sister and her best friend, both nine.

“Nobody, except Lloyd,”  also nine, who was now grinning triumphantly at the despondent  girls as they wandered off, dejected.  Not one of us challenged him, though Steven looked upset.  There were seven of us left.

A car quietly crawled over the crest of the hill, we stood back to let it pass. A man and a woman smiled from the front seat while the boy in the back looked nervous as they carefully drove  up past the SOLD sign and out of sight to their house.

‘Shit!” Desmond said,  “That’s a Mercedes-Benz 220S,  they’re rich……!”

–     –     –

The boy walked down the drive half an hour later, and with a serious face said,
“Hello, I’m Julian Harper, we’re going to live there,” gesturing with his head .

“How old are you?” Desmond’s welcome was as unattractive as ever.

“Hello Julian,” I said, smiling at him.

He was nervous.

“How old are you?” Desmond repeated.

“Ten…….” He looked tense, I could see immediately that Desmond didn’t want him in the group and was deflated by not being able to humiliate him by instant exclusion.

“Can you tell me your names, then?” Julian asked and we did. He was nicely formed and charming.

‘We just all p-p-p-play out here” Steven said, reddening.

“Do you go up there in the trees?” Julian jammed his hands in his pockets, addressing Steven.

“How much did your car cost?” Desmond butted in, moving himself physically between them.

“I don’t really know……’”  He looked startled.

“Where have you come from?”  Desmond again.

“Hong Kong…..my father worked there for three years  and now…….”

“Hong bloody Kong! Ha ha!” Desmond was red in the face laughing,  “All those chinks!”

I can’t remember the rest, only that Julian was resilient. He turned up when we were out there,  and did what we all did.

–     –     –

Mrs Harper was a glamorous blond in a fur coat who never bothered where Julian was day or night, except for Sunday mornings when he had to listen to a religious program on the radio.  We –  taught by nuns –  had to throw ourselves to our knees daily, say the rosary and fear God , and could not believe he could be let off, just to sit in a chair having this great, distant, one- way relationship with God – and it was OK.

Julian became a favourite in the group, for his knowledge; his life experience was vastly wider than ours.  He had plenty to say about Hong Kong, the house with servants, the international school, and the accents of many different nationalities. In Desmond’s presence he was subdued, yet he had a natural authority which could never be challenged.  In his quiet way he extended our horizons by what he’d seen, what he read, where he’d been, and the people he’d met. I loved watching him walk in front of me, he had a military back which was beautiful.  I could not hear enough about the world from him, it seemed so huge, so reachable. I was determined from then I would travel, as he had, that would be the quest of my life.

–     –     –

Julian had an idea while we got the bikes out for a spin down the hill.

“What do you think about having a smoking club?”

We were alone on the street, which happened more often and not by accident. We liked each other.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I think we’re old enough to try smoking, don’t you? Dad brought back all these cartons of Lucky Strike…….I can take some.”

“Do you think we really should? Your father might notice….”

“No, he’s  too busy, he won’t count them.”  We laughed.

–     –     –

Next time the group was up in the bush, on our side of the road, Julian produced a packet of Lucky Strikes and a box of matches.  All our parents smoked at the time, but until then not one of us had ever considered trying it themselves.

“I’ll go first,” Desmond said grabbing at the packet.

“Have you tried it already, Julian?” asked Lloyd.

“Of course, it’s fun….”

Five minutes later we were all coughing and spluttering, eyes watering, trying not to stop before the others.

“That was great,” Desmond said stubbing the butt out on a pine trunk.

The die was cast – once a week Julian smuggled one packet of cigarettes out, we all had two each and drank out of the stream on the way home, having instinctive camouflage from the parents. Soon Julian and Desmond were trying to blow rings and even that impressive thing where they could talk and bit by bit let the smoke out of their lungs as they did it. Magnificent!  Somehow the secret made the group easier, especially Desmond.

–     –     –

“Get up, out of bed, get up!”

It was Dad shaking me and Anne awake at 2.00 a.m. , then  rushing into Paul’s room pulling back the covers in panic.

“Fire!”

We could smell it – thick, acrid, everywhere.

Mum rushed in with our coats.

“Put your slippers on, we have to go, get in the car!”

“What about the dogs and the chooks?” Mum screamed.

“Get the dogs in the car too……” Dad yelled as he rushed down the back garden to open the door of the run,  so the chooks wouldn’t fry. But Ru-ru was hysterical and the minute the door was open, hung onto Dad’s hand as he ran back up the garden, both of them screaming.  We looked up the hill which was covered in muted orange flame, which as we gaped, started shooting high above the trees.

Our neighbour ran up to the car.

“Get out, the fire brigade  said everyone has to leave NOW!”

The road was heaving  with panic. Cars, bikes, dogs,  people rushing to get down the hill, away from the flames. The whole street was evacuated but the fire took two days to put out. Luckily it hadn’t crossed the creek so the houses were spared. The bush was decimated, an ugly slash along the skyline, trimmed at the edges with the remaining green pines as far as the eye could see. We had squeezed into our grandmother’s house in Wellington, but I couldn’t sleep having heard my father say angrily late one  night

“They reckon kids have been smoking up there and that’s what caused it!”

The shocked reactions  from Mum and Nana said it all. It had never crossed my mind – it couldn’t be, could it, surely one little cigarette couldn’t have …..

The police interviewed us all separately, in a sombre manner, but the sight of them in uniform struck  fear into us. We’d been found out, horribly.  I don’t want to remember what my parents said to me.  The others suffered accordingly, yet it was Desmond’s mother who blamed it totally on Julian. She went round to their house and let fly with all guns blazing.  The Harpers apologised profusely, but it could never be enough for her.

We were all banned from the bush, permanently. Ten days later, Desmond and Steven were on the street, so I went out. We were apprehensive, not knowing what to say.

“Hello Steven….”

He laughed  throwing a ball to me, I caught it and threw it back. His turn then, but Desmond stepped in and grabbed it.

“Where’s Julian? Have you seen him?”

I didn’t answer, there was no need, as he wound himself into a small fury.

“Him and his cigarettes! He’d better not come near me!”

“You smoked them, we all did. ”

I looked him in the eye.

“He forced us!”

I laughed, and he hated me. Better say nothing.

We turned around as Julian came down the drive, same as always, head up and calm.

Desmond took three big strides, grabbing him by the hair.

“Leave him!” I yelled.

“D-d-desmond…..” Steven pleaded, moving towards them.

“Let go of me!” Julian said, elbowing the arm clutching his hair with one mighty upward shove.

Surprised, Desmond did. Julian squared up to him.

“Don’t ever do that again. Ever.”

There was ice in his voice and he’d stepped nose to nose  with Desmond.

“It’s all your fault…” Desmond shouted, retreating as he spoke.

“Let’s walk the dogs,” he said, turning to me.

“Coming, Steven?”

“Later….maybe.”

By the time we got the dogs on leads, the brothers had disappeared.

We walked up the hill,  glad to be together.

“Tomorrow we’re going away….”

“Huh?  What about school?”

“We’re leaving Pinehaven to live somewhere else.”  He was shaking.

I couldn’t speak, we started walking again.

“Someone’s been phoning our house at night and not speaking, just listening, when we answer the phone. A couple of days ago someone threw the milk bottles at the car……yesterday a brick was thrown into the living room when Mum was in there….”

“But the police….”

“Mum cries all the time, it’s terrible. Dad said we can’t live here.”

I couldn’t think, the questions were too big to ask. We just stared at each other.

“When?”

“Tomorrow. I wanted to tell you.”

I sat down on the side of the road before I fell, he did too and we let the dogs run free. We sat, hopelessly, for a long time it seemed. Julian stood up, pulled me to my feet and we walked slowly down the hill holding hands. There were still no words, but our hands said soft things to each other. It was over in minutes. I went right, he went left but I didn’t turn to watch his back go up the drive for the last time. Our childhood was over.

–     –     –

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