by Peter Nelson
Christchurch, South Island, and holy judas is it cold. I know this is winter, but we’re not that far from the tropics, are we? Damp bone-jarring black inky cold.
Jumped off the Picton ferry, and the hitching went fine until I got to Blenheim — a reasonably warm day, quick lifts and all. But then standing on the road south of Blenheim for three stone-cold hours watching the sun droop lower while my heart sank a-pace. But I pulled on my spiffy new toque, not only warming my head, but also keeping my hair out of my eyes, and I stuck it out. Finally as the last light is fading, along comes this chap in an old beater with no heater and two side windows broken out. Bloody freezing wet and foggy offshore wind at 200 knots sea mist and dark wet bone-soaking ride.
Ah but now today is different. A clean crisp autumnal morning. Trees all red and yellow on the banks of the Avon River. Which is not as clean perhaps as one might wish but still bright and quick flowing and the ducks seem happy with it. Old men sitting on park benches in the sunlight clutching remnants of the day’s fading warmth under layers of dirty pullovers. People on the footpaths in a great hurry, cloudy trails of breath streaming behind them. The air is clear and puts a ruddy bloom on the cheeks of the schoolgirls. And the gulls are quite tame.
Christchurch is definitely the most British city in New Zealand all right. British in the sense that they’ve bloody well never heard of central heating. I’m sheltering in the public library at the moment with my feet up on the radiator and wrapped up to the teeth in more clothes than I wore skiing in Utah at 9,000 feet.
Two hours later, the cold has gone — evaporated. The day is high bright and sunny.
It’s spring, it’s spring
And young girls smile at everything.
Well okay it’s not spring but they’re smiling anyway and I’m feeling all peppy after bicycling in to the city. Fantastic place to have a bike, streets are long and flat, pedaling beside the river in the sun, nice getting a bit of exercise. Murray is quite an accommodating host — not only does he have a spare bike and the complete recordings of the Grateful Dead, but also an 8-week-old ball of black and white fur named Henry who can get into more trouble than a hundred other kittens.
Mornings cycling into the city, I chart a course that takes me past the bakeries, so I tool along with the hot fresh aroma of cinnamon bread, rolls and biscuits trailing after me. Swirling the leaves along the pavement in my wake. This afternoon we went high up into the highs on Murray’s motorcycle. Me rather unsteady on the back seat until I got the hang of how to lean on the turns. Perched between the ocean and the wide Canterbury plain. Beautifully wild and desolate. Like the Desert Road in North Island. You expect to see the Cisco Kid come thundering over the hills, yelling ‘Hey, Paaaancho.’ Right up on the ridge in the full blast of the wind, greenswept valley far and silent below. Gorse yellow and dark-green. Two hawks wheeling, hanging close to the sun. Green-grey rock. The peninsula’s a collapsed volcanic cone as big as the city of Auckland. Heathcliffe country. Wild and empty in the wind. The sound of a cow complaining far below. An ancient stone shepherd’s hut down there I would give my left soul to own.
Later sitting in Murray’s back garden in the sun. Being alternately stalked and leapt upon by Henry. He’s young enough that he still has a strong nursing instinct and he evidently looks upon most of the animate world as potential sources of his mother’s milk. Including the tip of my pen which explains why my writing is even more illegible than usual.