by Peter Nelson
Ah well, the healing music of the open road works its swiftly numbing magic, the endless song of them ole trees flashin’ by. And here’s my first ride out of Christchurch city. Nice young woman driving a small but stately sedan. A country duchess, no doubt. A breeder of horses, she obviously owns horses. You can tell by that crisp and cultured Southland accent. Wearing a floor-length black skirt. A slightly worn grey jersey. Those small brown driving gloves. And that lovely uptilted nose planted slightly askew in a field of freckles. What’s your name. Don’t let me out of your car when you turn off the main road. Instead, take me home and introduce me to your surprised and skeptical parents. And in the years to come we’ll dig potatoes together and whitewash the hallway and produce in time the proper number of cultured Southland children. And me the country squire wearing old tweeds yawning Sundays over my newspaper and the afternoon tea.
We do like each other, I can see it in your eyes. Whose color I cannot remember. Well, too bad you are going only as far as St. Andrews. Is this good-bye then. A farewell toot on your horn and a gloved wave and one last glance over that rounded shoulder.
And one more descent into the maelstrom of an empty highway.
Dunedin. Having little better to do with myself, and hoping to warm up some, I spent the morning sitting around drinking potfuls of fresh hot tea. Which I can see now was not at all a wise course. Leaving me at frequent intervals lurching desperately through these unknown streets searching for that infernally elusive public loo.
Momentarily without fixed abode. Or even unfixed. What else is new. Rained again this morning. And the wet streets combined with having large holes in each of my shoes means here I am once more in a public library, surreptitiously drying my socks on the radiator.
Jocelyn come quick and rescue me.
But it’s a lovely town, actually.
‘Human kindness overflowing,
And I think it’s going to rain today.’
Listen, the South has the most fanTASTic farms — not smooth and rolling and manicured like on North Island. No, this is the back-to-nature, back-to-god’s-country trip, spacey, not quite desolate but nearly. Higher hills, taller trees, and soooo much spaaaaaaaaaaace. Fabulous, fabulous.
The frozen voice of Rod Stewart. In this freezing room. Dunedin is one beautiful city. Spiritually and physically the most beautiful city in New Zealand. Steep, sprawling, irregular, totally random streets. Fabulous elderly houses. The cathedral bells were playing the ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s Ninth when I hit town. Is that a sign or what. And while I was wandering around trying to find Jocelyn’s place, I was deluged with offers of assistance. Old ladies out preaching the Good Word on street corners wanted to take me home and feed me. Cars stopped and offered lifts up various hills. Freaks gave me directions to the youth hostel. And everybody else stopped to talk about the weather. Which has been bloody marvelous. Air is clean and crisp and dry like the yellow leaves and the shouts of schoolboys playing football.
Jocelyn lives right at the top of one of the highest hills in the city. In one of the most chaotic households it has ever been my pleasure to cohabit. Full of students. Upstairs and downstairs the phone is always ringing, people coming in and going out, studying in one room, talking in another, listening to records in a third, continuous activity and continual shuffling around of little portable heaters trying to get warm. The kitchen is the only warm room in the house, so it’s always the center of activity. All hours, day or night, someone’s down there making toast and coffee and Vegemite sandwiches. No one seems to know exactly how many people are living here, but they have to sleep in the four beds in shifts.