Imagine exit signs on your
ranch slider and occupied flags that slide into place when you lock the bathroom door. Yet this is a farm house at the edge of an estuary, the mouth of the Puhoi River, the Whangaparoa Bay on the horizon. They call it the Schischka House now, but before Auckland Regional Council took possession, the family called it Rosedale. Five bedrooms for nine people, reminds me that two for four will work out just fine, come June, when a new child enters our lives.
Council rents the place out to groups, up to ten. Full eat-in kitchen, two toilets and two showers. Dine-in lounge with a defunct fireplace in front of which they’ve set up an artificial Christmas tree, a reproduction of one of those white-ish aluminum-ish ones that found a following in 1958, U.S.
It’s mid-December and the pohutukawas are starting to bloom.
Evening. The others work on a jigsaw in the lounge. They boy is asleep. I try reading a few pages but it’s no good. Won’t do tonight.
I look outside through the slider into the mudroom. Dark and still. That ru-ru hoot could only be one bird, the ducks long chased off, and the pukeko quite content after a day of pecking through the pasture.
Beside me is an empty bookcase, looks like one I built in high school wood shop, shelves dadoed into plain sawn boards, a couple of nails through them for insurance. Needs a coat of paint, probably white again next time council comes round with a brush, though a chip off the top right corner betrays the bold aqua green of years past. When this was Rosedale, perhaps.
Single bulb over the sink. I’m across the room at the eat-in bench. Across the other way a sideboard of honey pine, and I want it to be hewn and assembled by hand, but there are signs of rotary machines in the chamfers and fluting, the door frames spin-cut with a bit profile I’ve seen front and centre in every cabinet shop I’ve been in. Atop the sideboard a visitor book, bound in the colour of pea soup, tattered but intact after five years.
I took the book to the bench and I sat against the wall facing the sideboard, kitchen bulb to the right in front of a reflection of me in the window overlooking the estuary, night beyond. I opened the cover and flipped the first page and read: “This bach opened to the public on Friday, 29th January 2010. In the week before the opening, Schischka family members made two visits. Their names are on the opposite page.”
And on the facing page are ten names, the first an elderly scrawl “Alma Schischka, the ‘Matriarch.'” A few pages later, 16 – 03 – 10 “Alma Schischka (wife of the late Edmund)” stayed as guest for two days, here at the house over which she presided for sixty years. How about that, I muse, as quiet as the shadows on this side of the room.
I read the book from front to back, and it’s families, birthdays and holidays, sports teams, university curriculum building seminars, even a group of quilters spent a weekend. At one point, 4th – 7th July, 2011, a milestone. Nine visitors drew caricatures of themselves below their visitor comment. A flight of whimsy that took hold thereafter. Every couple of months another group of stick figures and smiley faces. Inspired by the visitor book’s contemporary history. As am I, my own way.
11-14 November, 2011: “My name is Travis, I am the moonstar.” Who will read this, Travis wondered one chilly spring night, perhaps seated at this same bench. Well wonder no more my new friend.
An occasional complaint, typically about conveniences. A microwave would be nice, they say. Maybe a barbecue. And I react: they don’t get it. Do they realise who reads this? And a microwave would be sure enough a bizarre sight in the middle of all this.
But then, I realise. My judgment bears no influence on this past. I occupy no privileged space. What am I doing but passing through?
Morning: the sea moves like a blue and green lava lamp flattened from shore to horizon.
From the Couldrey House, adjacent to the pohutukawa lined beach on the Hauraki Gulf side of Wenderholm Regional Park, we ascend the Maungatauhoro Te Hikoi Track. It’s neatly groomed, walkable for the little boy as long as his ambition holds out to climb the steps and grades. It doesn’t.
I carry him up the first stretch, knowing I shouldn’t let him get his whiny way, or so it seems. But maybe that cough and that fever last week finally caught up with him.
Top of the first set of steps there’s another set, then another, and when the hell will this end, and I’m huffing with a backpack of apples and water and a twenty kilogram front pack of wiggling kid. Hop down little man. I need some rest more than you do. And he does so, content that his personal Sherpa got him midway to the summit. Spoiled rotten, by my presence. What I always wanted, back then. But there are plenty worse ways to spend a spoiling instinct.
At the first lookout, a bench. Is this the bench I spotted from the Couldrey House grounds yesterday? Sure it is, it must be, I reckon aloud. Can’t be, Tanya says. We’re on the east side. Her directional senses trump mine on trails, and in most cases, so I take it that another lookout along the way will be the one. Some sips of water from the backpack and we’re off.
It’s tree ferns and tui, whose songs remain more complex here than in the suburban bushes where we mostly hear them. Here, undisturbed by the sounds of city chaos, they phrase into sentences, paragraphs, novellas punctuated by flutters of wings and branches. Stay still and quiet a minute Charlie, and listen to your world without words.
The trail winds and switches up further, decked over some permanent wet spots and streams. A few stairs here and there and the boy’s in good shape by now.
At the top, the Kakaha pa. Ruins of a fortified stronghold, three sixty view when the local Maori cleared it some centuries past. Burial grounds, resting places of many Rangatira, untouched and unmarked. The pa quiet. Trees and ferns grown in, grown thick. A sign marks the point of descent, the Couldrey House ahead.
Silver ferns line the path and the little boy picks one and shows it off to his grandma, her first visit here. Around the bend the bush opens to a vista, old house below, estuary on the west horizon, Hauraki Gulf east, still blue and green, sailboats leaning and swimmers and picnickers raising a happy ruckus in the low tide, their joy on the steady wind up the hill.
This is the bench I saw from the bench beside the robin egg blue Couldrey House, as impossibly distant now as this bench was then. And Tanya notes my sharp eyes. And I tell the story of that time I read the bottom row of the eye chart at Uncle Ed’s office in the hospital he ran in West Texas. Damndest thing. Is that the twenty fifteen line? Only his pilot son ever read that far from across the room. These are the gifts we’re given, I guess, I say aloud.
You’d make a good sniper, I hear between the marine breeze and tuis and fantails who’ve joined the afternoon chorus. No, I hadn’t thought to do such a thing. I suppose I use these eyes to take all this in, and I rearrange my memories, as we all do, and I write caricatures of scenes and landscapes, apply this storytelling, learned from failures made right by millions of rejected tries. The gifts. The work. They intersect eventually, assuming you’ve got a decent cache of persistence from which to draw.
I can’t tell Charlie all this yet. These realisations. But here is one, written. A rough idea anyway. On this track, at this lookout, the boy crunching an apple, the two of us shoulder to shoulder leaning against a brown painted fence avoiding the bird shit, I can make some sense to him and say
look just there. See past the two kayakers, north west. Maybe a kilometre. There’s Rosedale. Through the ranch slider you can see an empty white bookcase with a chipped corner. Used to be aqua green. And through the old house door, across the kitchen a honey pine sideboard with telltale swirls of rotary machine construction. Atop, a pea soup bound visitor book, tattered but intact after five years of stories, stick figures, and signatures. See it. Just there.
You’re a part of it all.