Academic journal article Antipodes

Chalk, Talk, and Asphalt Days

Academic journal article Antipodes

Chalk, Talk, and Asphalt Days

Article excerpt

If a man spends his first twenty years in and about his birthplace, that is his country.

- Edward Thomas

I DON'T IMAGINE THE PAST, ONE'S PERSONAL PAST, AS FLAT terrain - that is very much the present with the past removed from it. As in a family home under new ownership, the occupants having imposed their own fashions and will on a landscape that existed as tree and undulation, sacred corner and shadow, to a landscaped flat, green lawn. Every macrocarpa tree, mature giants that darkly swayed under the northerly gusts that whistled up the gully "out the back" or on calm, still nights echoed with the call of the morepork - rooted out and cut down. And everything so much smaller, somehow reduced in scale. It is memory withdrawing from itself that recreates a varied terrain of recollection. Perhaps in the end why landscape is imbued with such personal, tribal significance. And why memory is ultimately totemic. At least, that was my experience recently when I decided to revisit my family home in Brooklyn-west, Wellington - long since passed into other hands and through half a dozen owners - after an absence of twenty odd years. My middle age afloat the raft of childhood memory, foundering. "Never look back" a traveler once told me years earlier on the Island of Crete (though perhaps, he was refening to my almost mystical/ sensual infatuation with a German girl who, after a rather intense encounter, could I felt read my mind, or anticipate my thoughts even before I uttered them, though this had as much to do with the Aegean as anything else - an experience I later found echoed in the words of the Greek poet, Odysseus Elytis " [. . .] he moved time / hours ahead whenever he embraced a woman.") Yet at a certain time in one's life there is a yearning to do this, to look back, perhaps a dangerous nostalgia, but it must be done, even if this involves the shaking of one's very foundations (assuming they are still in place) and belonging, anticipating loss and further loss incurred ahead.

I played out my school days and developed my respective literary appetites through Marist Brothers, Newtown, and latterly, St. Patrick's College, Cambridge Terrace, Wellington. The one with the Marist Brothers, teachers and foreign missionaries by trade, and the other with Society of Mary Priests. My Catholic education had started with St. Bernard's Convent, Brooklyn, and the Sisters of Mercy. Those were the days in the mid-fifties when the nuns washed your mouth out with warm soapy water if you swore or strapped your open palm with the leather strap - the same strap worn about their waists as part of the order's habit. Nor was it uncommon for school kids to have their knuckles rapped with the sharp edge of a heavy, wooden ruler.

The Convent School in Ohiro Valley, "of the moonless nights" or Happy Valley as this southern corridor to Red Rocks, Island Bay, Worser and Princess bays was known locally - into the Valley of the Sorrows - from my home high on Karepa Street, Brooklyn-west, and the long walk down the hill to run the gauntlet of the state school kids who taunted, "Catholic dogs stink like frogs in their mother's bathing togs." The school was dominated by Sister Berenice, an avowed practitioner of "the strap." At playtime or during the lunch hour she would patrol the school grounds mercilessly. She would pace back and forth the main stretch of playground where we were required to eat our lunch on the seating that run along classrooms at the back of the school with its glass windows, her eyes shut in prayerful concentration as her fingers chewed through the rosary on the large black wooden beads which hung from that strap. Who needed gothic, caped and cloaked cartoon characters when you were presented with a black grotesque like Sister Berenice! A creature sprung from the ramparts of Notre Dame.

This stretch of asphalt, which made up the central, or rather only playground, slightly elevated, fell away at either end. Somehow, as if guided by mysterious sonar, calibrated to precisely take her to the edge of the playground, she would unerringly turn about in time, an inch from precipitate disaster. …

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