Even in summer a faint smell of smoke hung over the town, for in those days every house had its chimney plume. Cooking was still done on the coal range, lit first thing in the morning in my aunt’s kitchen, and only on Sundays allowed to grow cold after the hot midday meal. But that year there was more than the usual amount of smoke.
The Great Fire on Broadway smouldered for days after it had razed half a block of buildings, and on the outskirts of the town scrub-fires burned intermittently all through the long droughty summer.
When the firebell clanged we left our beds, like all other able-bodied people in the town, and ran down the street in our night-clothes. Because of the drought the water was turned off at the mains every night, and when the brigade arrived on foot, pulling the hose reel, there was an agonising delay of a few moments before the arching jet hissed into the heart of the blaze. The fire had a good hold before it was discovered, and there was little hope of saving the old wooden buildings. The brigade concentrated their efforts on containing the inferno to a single block.
The bottles in the burning pub exploded grandly, and the awed firelit faces of the crowd might have belonged to strangers.
Rumour scotched rumour. The only boarder in the hotel had been burned to death. No, he’d jumped off the roof and been killed. No — no, he’d merely leapt from his bedroom window and broken an ankle
As the flames licked around the end building in the block they lit up the shocked faces of a couple standing silently nearby. There was no splendour or excitement in the fire for them; their livelihood had gone up in smoke. I shivered, feeling tired and rather ridiculous standing in the street in my nightgown. It was all like a dream; I went home to bed.
As county engineer, uncle’s work took him into the countryside. Sometimes I went with him, or my cousin Tom, but never both. One child, said uncle, was good company; two could be a nuisance.
It was a thirsty summer and one of the really best things about these trips was the stop for refreshment at a country pub and to be hoisted on to the bar and given a tall, slim-waisted glass of bright red raspberryade. I drank it slowly, making it last, listening to the conversation. Men’s talk, it was: tips for the Greymouth trots; discussing the best trout-fishing stretches on the dwindling Inangahua; and speculation on when the road over the Lewis Pass would be finished. Uncle would catch my eye and wink, and I knew that the visit to the pub was something best not mentioned to my aunt and mother.
Those evening picnics when two or three carloads of friends and relatives gathered at the river .. . the billy was boiled over a driftwood fire built on the stones where it couldn’t spread. While the grownups yarned away around the embers in the dusk and the older cousins went eeling, Tom and I lay on the riverbank and listened to the murmur of the water slipping by, making plans for the days ahead, then lapsed into drowsiness. The broom pods popped, a morepork called, and laughter rose from the group around the fire. A light from the eeling party bobbed down-river, then shouts and splashes muted by the sound of the water.
Occasionally I went alone to the river with uncle. I sat on a log, slapping at swarming sandflies; I watched him fish the still pools.
When the line was reeled in to land a small trout I was half sorry, but uncle always said with immense satisfaction, “Little fish are sweet, aye!”
We drove back home through the smoke-hazed evening in time to chase “the eight-o’clocks” round the lawn. “Eight-o’clocks” was the family name for the mysterious fat green beetles that whirred in the dusk and then were seen no more until next night. Tom and I caught as many as we could in the brief time they were flying, then let them all go.
Every afternoon, when the adults retired to their bedrooms to put their feet up and sleep off the heavy dinner, I lay on the box ottoman in the sitting room and read. I discovered Tell England, and laughed and cried over it; and there were the popular novels of the day to be dipped into: Sally in Rhodesia, Paddy the Next Best Thing, If Winter Comes, and an incomprehensible but fascinating story by Elinor Glyn only half read when mother confiscated it.
The marble clock on the mantelpiece ticked and tocked; a blowfly buzzed; the stifling afternoon bore down on I’ a full stomach, so that sometimes I too slept.
Everyone woke to eat again: afternoon tea of aunt’s scones and blackberry jam, cream cakes and biscuits. Tom and I were away to the river with a friend while the elders took mild exercise on the croquet lawn.
It was nearly the very last summer of all for the three of us. We didn’t swim in the forbidden pool, the deep dark one under the swing bridge, but downstream where the water rippled brightly over speckled stones, except in the middle where it was clear and green and didn’t look very deep. Tom and I dogpaddled confidently to the other side, supporting our friend, who couldn’t swim, between us. On the way back we were suddenly and inexplicably all three struggling for our lives. Upstream, a youth steadied himself on the swing bridge before diving into the deep pool. We shouted for help, but our voices were thin and lost in the sound of the river, and he didn’t hear us.
For a few nightmare moments we fought the water and eternity with limbs that had lost all buoyancy, clinging together splashing and gasping until, miraculously, Tom’s toe touched shingle and stones, and we were safe. We lay on the riverbank while the terror drained out of us, relief and thankfulness taking its place.
Tom was still panting when he said fiercely, “Dogpaddle’s no good. We’ve got to learn to swim properly.”
So swimming became important and we spent earnest hours trying to acquire a good crawl. But we didn’t go back into the river that day.
Outside the Anglican church was an oak tree where we’d often rest as we trudged home from the river, sometimes sharing its shade with a brindle cow which grazed “the Long Paddock.” The tree’s grace was only slightly marred by Brindle’s constant pruning of the lower branches, and it was a welcome oasis in that hot dusty street.
One morning I stood disconsolate at the gate, watching Tom and uncle drive off in the county lorry. They were going to camp out up the Maruia: no place for a girl, said uncle. It was a working trip, but the trout rod and creel were packed along with the theodolite and surveyor’s chain. While I scrabbled my bare toes in the dirt, thinking rebelliously that there wasn’t much fun in being a girl, the mine manager drove past waving cheerfully. He pulled up and backed to the gate.
“Like to come up to Waiuta? We want another escort for the gold.”
So, off on adventure. The car stopped at the hank and a man came out with the miners’ pay. He sat in the back seat with the moneybags at his feet and a loaded gun in his hand. When the car turned from the main highway and began to climb the narrow road lined with bush and fern into the hills I was half afraid and half thrilled, but it was nothing to the excitement and pride I felt on the return trip when I carried the gold.
Suddenly January was gone. The last night of the holidays we chased the “eight-o’clocks,” tripping over the croquet hoops as usual and flopping exhausted on the porch steps. In the livingroom the grownups were playing their favourite records, winding the gramophone and changing the special bamboo needles between each one. Caruso’s voice sobbed through the open window, “I love the moon. .” — and there was the bright moon rising; “I love the stars” . . . — and there they were, blinking and remote. I dropped my head on my knees and wept for the swift passing of summer; of childhood; of beauty .. . of everything that made life good.
In the morning back again to black shoes and stockings, serge costume and the white panama hat, the school uniform’s only concession to summer. I bundled into the service car and waved goodbye to the group at the gate.
By evening I was back at school, cloistered and bell-ridden. All the freedom and joy of that barefoot summer were over the hills and gone. For ever.