by Peter Nelson
Changes in the wind. End of chapter 37. Things are hoppin’. Way out in the boondocks. Tiny Glenorchy, 50 miles from Queenstown by boat. Mail comes three times a week and that’s only if the weather’s good. Anyway here I am. Workin’ hard and happy in what’s gotta be the most colossally beautiful part of New Zealand.
Or have I said that before.
Living in a small stone cottage. A bit on the dank and dusty side. Coal smoke and giddy violins and cobwebs in the corner of the solitary window. Low on firewood at the moment, so we’re burning walnut husks. And it’s not even winter yet.
Somewhere he’d heard that the cure for a saddened heart lay in hard manual labor. So in he plunged, grabbing heavy work by the fistfuls, filling his hands and emptying his mind. Until his hands grew calloused and his heart grew lighter between the piney mountains. Steel thyself. Steely Dan, Steel-Eyed Span, the cold iron ringing, John Henry was a steel-shriven man.
Hard work. It works.
Sitting by the fire in the stone hut, steam smoking off my frosted workgloves. A tiny island of warmth in this otherwise frigid universe. Little flaming bullets popping out of the fire to burn small black holes in the carpet. What kind of firewood explodes so spectacularly. Frozen perhaps. Like our water supply. Hot water comes out of the cold water tap. Nothing comes out of the hot tap. By morning the last of the unfrozen water will have been drained off into the coffee-pot, into the washing-up sink, into the loo. So it’s cheerio folks and a bath at the neighbor’s down the road every Saturday afternoon until spring thaw.
Darkly surveying this darksome circle of farmer’s wives seated together in the village pub. A circle as impenetrable as the ring formed by a herd of musk ox when a wolf approaches. Six women here and maybe thirty men. Against all odds. Sprightly ladies, tan and golden as freshly peeled oranges, retaining their bloom if not their blossom into their later years. And wasn’t it just the other day we were discussing the charms of older women.
Eyelids heavy. We work bloody long hours which leaves little time for the important things but it’s amazing how much I can get done at night. For one thing, just thinking of that bed over there is enough to keep me up all night. Climbing into that bloody sleeping bag each night is like sliding into a steel culvert under a road in the Yukon in February.
But the air’s the thing man. Out in the backyard on this bright bright day chopping firewood. Two Paradise ducks sailing over this mirrored lake. Utter silence except for the sound of my axe and a few notes of a Strauss waltz drifting out the back door of the homestead. The big stone fireplace in the sitting room is our sole source of heat. A few drafts here and there so we stuffed newspaper in the cracks, nailed a blanket over the front door (which doesn’t open anyway), tacked some hiking maps on the walls, and we call it home.
Monday is badminton night at the church hall. Wednesday is cards, Saturday there’s always a party somewhere. Other nights it’s pool and darts and booze down at the pub. On weekdays, the door of the general store is left unlocked and whenever the pub’s open, the store is unattended so you have to chase all over thunderation to find Ronnie to pay her. Since she owns both establishments. Or just leave a note telling her what you took. Same at the gas station. Farmers come down out of the hills at all hours and need their petrol, so the gas pumps are never locked. Gas is 50 cents a gallon, and the station owner leaves piles of quarters beside the pump in case you need to make change. Great living in a place where no one locks up.
Workday evenings, Ian (my Scottish housemate) and I eat with the bridge boss and his family. He has three daughters aged 10, 7, and 5—Andrea (also known as Wendy), Joanne (Tinker Bell), and Kim (Michael). I of course am Peter Pan so every evening we fight pirates and explore island forests and fly around the loft in complete bedlam until bedtime. Neat having kids around. Keeps you young they say.
Yoiks. A letter arrives. Shall I open it or just leave it there pulsating on the mantelpiece. Must weigh 3 pounds. Such wealth. Okay, here goes. Hmm. A heavy letter indeed. Cinema verite. What a fantastic letter, studded with visions of our past celestial orbits. Especially liked the part about the train ride and the candy wrapper. Joy of Man’s Desiring, I seem to recall that from somewhere. Wasn’t that the name of a waitress I knew once in Detroit. Spiders and flattened insects regardless, that leaf I plucked from a Dunedin hill on the way to Jocelyn’s house. Jocelyn sweet and sweetness, must write to her and get her to send me the clothes I left behind.
Actually, there might be a thing you could do for me. It turns out that it’s not only the mail that comes in three times a week on the boat, it’s all the bloody supplies for the entire area. The boat crew just stack everything up on the dock and then shove off. By the time it’s picked up in the evening, the opossums have made off with most of the bread. The animals get first choice — humans just get the leftovers. Anyway I’m out of writing paper. I could use the shelf paper in the kitchen cupboards, but it’s dry and old and stiff and doesn’t fold very well.
For 30 cents I’d zip back to Auckland and build a lean-to on top of Mt.Eden and live off what I could beg from the tourists. Oh well, onward to lesser things. Ours was a friendship tempered by fire. Literally. Tempered by water, by slippery trails, sharp rocks, sad songs, rainy nights, tropical moons.
“You came upon a quiet day,
You simply seemed to take your place.
I knew that it would be that way
The minute that I saw your face.
You didn’t have to be so nice,
I would have liked you anyway …”
Listen man if you wanted to visit, this cottage is big enough. Only thing is getting here. There is no public transport. It’s 31 miles from Queenstown, a one-day walk or a three-day hitch. Verily.
O iko o yaloka ni mata vinaka. Sleep warm.