Fish Hook & Mower

Fish Hook & Mower

I was towards the coastal top of New Zealand’s North Island, not far from the town of Whangarei, and had crossed the obligatory ‘Fish hook of Pohe’ – a Pom designed opening bridge unique in the Southern hemisphere. The wind gathered and gusted tugging at the red blooms of pohutukawa trees and rippling the mire around pretty dead mangroves.


Gratefully I found sanctuary at a rambling colonial style house offering B&B. The felt tip on a substantial sheet of cardboard resting against a builder’s van read “PARK HERE”. I did, before grabbing my backpack and being ushered up two flights of stairs to a room festooned with large paintings of windmills and lesser-sized pictures of indigenous birds like the Takeha and the Morepork (an unlikely name for an owl to make piggy-wigs wary).


“No more luggage?” The question was asked by Jane, a gentile rosy-cheeked Englishwoman plucked from Wiltshire 47-years ago by Ian, a self-confessed, rough-handed, working-class Kiwi.


“Nope, visa run. 7-kilo limit.” I panted in explanation, cottoning onto why the house was called ‘Top Storey’ and getting an incredulous look.


“Gosh, a short time ago we had a family of Americans. They also only came for two days and yet hauled a dozen massive suitcases up here. Made Ian chuckle. Come and meet him. I think he’s just come back from foraging.”


A sturdy septuagenarian, sporting a white goatee beard, plonked two handfuls of avocados on the kitchen sideboard as we made our introductions.


Master builders are a breed unto themselves. And Ian Kippenberger’s German forefather had dragged a toolbox and awl ashore hereabouts five generations ago, creating a local family custom of crafting hilltop churches.


Ian preferred fashioning bespoke houses. The one I stood inside was one such. “They’re more useful in this day and age,” he says, admitting his religion is his family. Ideologically he floats around “like a jellyfish”, his sting a nail gun. The house, erected on a once swampy plot, had been a challenge over which he confessed to getting “a bit carried away.” Indeed, the ubiquitous top storey had caused a neighbourly rumpus of grumbles and mumbles. But that was years ago.


Picking up an avocado for scrutiny I saw it had already been nibbled. “Bush Moa? How shocking.” I joked, idly perusing a tourist leaflet showing a local museum’s exhibit – a 2000-year old skeleton of the humungus extinct flightless bird.


“Bush-tailed possum,” said Ian, a man knowing his Palaeontology from his Zoology. “Nothing stops them. They don’t do shock. Say ‘Boo!’, have a pantechnicon backfire near its lughole, or let-off a shotgun under its nose the creature remains of serene disposition. Only when all the blood has run out will a possum release itself from its mortal coil. Hence there’re millions of them and accounts for the Kiwi pastime of mowing them down.”


Seems, a century ago an Aussie toff brought a few over with a small quota of kookaburras. Of course, they escaped. “Clobber one,” Ian grinned, “and drivers will reverse, making double sure of that essential final squeeze.” I recalled the several furry darlings with rictus grins, mummified on the road. Rather liking possums I thought the sight sad, though I kept that to myself. Changing the subject, I asked about the upstairs windmills, suggesting a Don Quixote somewhere in the family.


“Mum painted them,” said Jane nonchalantly. Soon I was being wowed. Turns out her mother was the artist and writer Suzanne Mollie Beedell whose eclectic interests ranged from compiling the definitive book on windmills, to country living, to brass rubbing, to the saliva inducing Delicatessen Cook Book, to … every conceivable question answered on the menopause. Needless to say it took a long, robust shelf to hold all the tomes. Jane’s interests lay primarily in the garden and photography. I asked her straight if, given half a chance, she’d ever ‘go back’ to the West Country.


Her answer was adamant. “No”. Visiting Bristol some time ago had settled it. Country lass to her soul, the congestion had horrified her. Cue Ian chipping-in to say leaving Whangarei was near impossible and mentioning someone remarkable who’d stayed at ‘Top Storey’ for several weeks.


That night I lay cogitating at what was turning out to be a rather special place. I mean what else could I say on learning my comfy mattress had provided rest for Peter Pan? Yes, that was the name. And I had it on good authority he could indeed fly, doing so much, much faster than either of Somerset CCC’s Overton twins can bowl a cricket ball. Piloting a Vietnamese MIG fighter, though, was not winging it in quite the hands-off manner envisaged by JM Barrie. Then there was that other guest Sam-You-Eel. Self-invited he lived in the garden pond with a load of tame kokopu, a native stripy fish whose name reminded me of guano shovelled from a chicken shed. Hmm, fertilizer. What did Jane say she grew? Bromeliads, figs, grapes, guavas, oranges, lemons, bananas and …. Oh hell … um … fe-fi-fo … fiejoas! That was it …


Next thing I knew it was morning.


As I ate toast smothered in Jane’s homemade ginger marmalade, Beetle, a ginger cat rubbed himself against my leg and purred soothingly. Across the street a garden mower hummed and an ‘All Blacks’ flag flapped heartily on a tall pole. Just as Ian was wryly telling me that naming names of former guests and the order of their stay is his way of proving that he doesn’t have dementia, the phone rang.


Seconded into being Chairman of the local weather watch, the call, expected and important, had Ian leaping to attention from his scrambled egg and tomatoes.


His brow furrowed. “Stormageddon” was approaching. Having made landfall it was already peeing down a few kilometres away at the seaside resort of Opononi.


A minute later the handset rang again. Jane grabbed it, listened, and excitedly handed it to her husband. Gawd, I imagined, there’s been an upgrade to Hurricanezilla. But no. Ian turned and waved out the kitchen window at his neighbour who had stopped mowing and was talking animatedly into a mobile whist gesturing behind his bungalow. I caught the gist. There were a pod of dolphins performing entrechats and pirouettes in the bay less than two hundred yards away.


Jane grabbed her camera muttering that she should really be putting up the Christmas tree for the grandchildren. Still, she and Ian bolted.


I flew too, not wanting to miss anything, nor be caught out by Ian expertly battening down the hatches. As I waddled I mused at the confusions of names. Not just Pan. Take Moa and mower.


© 2014 Charles Wood.