A Special Birthday

In July of that year I was privileged to be able to go to Johannesburg to celebrate my granddaughter Megan’s 21st birthday. As she was born on Independence Day, she chose to have an American theme. Before I left, I managed to find some fabric with red and white stripes and some more with white stars on a blue background, so was able to make flags and sashes.

The girls here in New Zealand helped me create a movie of Megan’s life thus far. It was a good excuse to look back at old photos and re-live memories. I chose some background music and posted the movie on to YouTube. However, for some reason it wouldn’t open in South Africa, possibly due to the music copyrights. Luckily I had backup on a USB.

The day of the party we spent decorating the hall and setting the tables. The venue had not put out the vases we’d asked for, so we asked the staff to change them, only to find the ones they brought out instead didn’t work, so we had to ask them to take those away and bring out the ones they’d originally put on the tables.

But with some improvisation, we created a very festive party room. As the venue was some way out of town, Nikki had arranged for a private bus to pick up and drop off, as she did not want anyone driving home after too many drinks.

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After the final song had been played and the final dance danced, the lights went on and the grand clean-up began. Some time later, we dragged our weary selves out to the bus, where the party was still in full swing. In one hand I was carrying a black dustbin bag full of table decorations. In the other I held the remains of the cake.

Which was why I had no spare hand to hold on to the rail as I tried to climb onto the bus. Which was why I felt myself falling backwards in an undignified heap on the tarmac. But  I didn’t drop the cake.IMG_3785

However, I gashed my head against the wall, and it started bleeding quite profusely. After passing the cake to someone else, I grabbed the rail and climbed aboard the bus. The young people were most concerned at the sight of blood pouring down my neck, and the general consensus was that I should go straight to Accident & Emergency.

The damage to my head was superficial, although my pride still hurts. Amazing really, that out of a bus load of inebriated youth, the only one to fall over was not-so-drunk Granny!

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Extending the family

My efforts at gardening were random and amateur. I joined the local garden club, which inspired me, but made me wish we had made a Grand Plan before rushing ahead with raised beds and a second shed. Had I waited, I might have placed things differently. I regretted not creating an area where I could sit with a cup of tea, surrounded by colourful and fragrant plants. It would have been a place of relaxation for Vaughn, if he ever had the opportunity to unwind.

However, we both found great satisfaction in being able to produce most of our own vegetables, often with plenty to share around. We discovered a feijoa tree next to the old shed, the fruit of which I used to make chutney.

To complete our family, we acquired four red shaver pullets, which in spite of not laying eggs for quite some time, gave us much amusement. I had always been slightly frightened of chooks, with their pecky beaks and flappy wings, and I never dreamed I would be picking them up. But I grew to love those girls, and great was our excitement when the first egg appeared. When Vaughn was at home, we vied for the privilege of collecting the eggs, sometimes well hidden, and feeding the sheep with their nuts.

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While driving into town one day I heard on the radio that Alzheimer’s Tauranga were looking for volunteers. I drove straight there and was welcomed into the whanau.

So between Nanna duties, Garden Club, writing group, book club and Alzheimer’s, I managed to keep very busy.

Settling In

We settled into some sort of non-system, with Vaughn away for three weeks at a time, returning for just a couple of days, during which time he worked himself into a state of exhaustion in the garden. Our tenants had not been gardeners, thus the blackberries, gorse and ferns had not been disciplined into submission, and were marching inexorably towards the house. The paddocks were full of thistles and brambles, but the goat from the next field kindly helped us keep them down.

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As company for the goat we acquired two lambs. I had visions of them bouncing up to the fence when I called, but they were too skittish, which was just as well, because I was able to remain emotionally uninvolved with them. They were fully weaned when they arrived, and merely served as nameless lawnmowers, until their date with the local butcher.

Since then, I should add, we have become soft; our subsequent sheep have been lovely, friendly and part of the family. sheep

 

(As you can see from this very naughty lamb…)

 

For additional company, our neighbours had a retired racehorse and a Shetland pony, who also assisted in keeping our paddocks neat. The horse, whose name was Jack, came to my fence every morning for a bit of a rub and a carrot or just a handful of grass. He was rather in love with the pony, who was a grumpy old woman and rejected his attentions with a toss of her head and a snort.

Lovely as the animals were, they weren’t the greatest conversationalists. I knew I could always phone or pop over to visit my daughters, but they led busy lives and had their own circles of friends, and I didn’t want them to feel they had to be forever entertaining me. In Australia, it had taken me about 18 months before I started making new friends, so I was expecting it would be much the same in New Zealand.

However, we were blessed to find ourselves living in a rural area with a strong community spirit. I put a little ad in the local newsletter enquiring whether anybody would be interested in forming a book club and a writing group. And people replied!

 

Rats & Mice

I felt I was becoming a real country girl when I accepted having to share my home with assorted six-legged creatures, and even many of the eight-legged variety. However, when I heard a scratching behind the chest of drawers in my bedroom, a sound that could only have been made by a four-legged creature, I was not so generous with my hospitality. 

I pulled the chest away from the wall, but luckily no small animal with a long tail ran out, and only dust and cobwebs decorated the floor. The sound must have come from behind the dry wall. 

But then I found droppings in the kitchen bin cupboard where there is a hole in the gyp for drainage and wiring. Rats!

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From the size of the greetings it was probably mice, but ‘rats’ sounds more dramatic, more disgusting, more symbolic. 

They were probably sheltering from the incessant rain, and fair enough. But not in my house. It was a case for Rattex.

A while later I was in bed when a slight rustle woke me up. I sat up and watched the curtains, hoping the breeze had ruffled them, but they hung still and straight. I lay down again, listening intently. Then I heard it again, a scratching and tapping sound, the sort of sound that might be made by leaves blowing against a window. But there were no leaves outside my bedroom window. The noise came again, and this time I was sitting up.

‘Rats’, I said aloud.

Vaughn jumped up. ‘Put the light on.’

I fumbled for the switch and we both sat bolt upright staring at the chest of drawers in the corner.

‘It’s behind there,’ I said.

Vaughn went to find a broom handle and I sat with my legs and feet as far away from the floor as possible. He returned with a thin stick from my dried flower arrangement and proceeded to poke behind the chest of drawers.

‘There it is,’ I squealed, jumping up on the bed as a tiny black nose appeared from behind the furniture. As Vaughn moved to intercept the creature, it ran across the floor and under the bed. The animal was like an overwound clockwork toy, it moved so fast. Its body was the size of a small egg, with a tail the same length again, so not a rat but a field mouse coming in to shelter from the rain.

For half an hour Vaughn prodded and chased, stick in one hand, my jandal in the other, while I stayed safely on the bed making unhelpful suggestions.

Hickory dickory dock! Finally the mouse scuttled not up the clock, but up the back of the curtain. I bravely went over to see, terrified it might fall on my head. But Vaughn shook the curtain and the little creature ran out through the open window back into the rain.

The next morning, when I vacuumed to eradicate any traces of vermin, the only evidence of his visit I found was a neat offering inside my faux fur slippers.

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Nigel

For the past five years, my brother Nigel had been battling cancer. No one could have fought harder. He became a vegetarian; he trialled unproven cures, he imported medicines unavailable in Britain. He researched and he remained positive in spite of having large chunks of his body cut out.

It seemed so very unfair that someone not known for lounging around in the sun should develop a melanoma. And even more unfair that the first doctor he saw told him it was only a mole. So by the time he was given a definitive diagnosis, the disease had spread, giving Nigel a gloomy prognosis.

After his health forced him into an early retirement, he spent some time writing memoirs of his years as a pilot. During my last year in Melbourne I had the privilege of editing his manuscript. I discovered many things I never knew about my resilient brother. In his unembroidered, matter-of-fact way he described incidents that might put one off ever getting into an aeroplane. He also, very humbly, told stories of acts of kindness and generosity that made me very proud.

When we spoke on the phone during Christmas 2015, he asked if I could come over to England to help him finish the book. His time was running out. I caught the earliest available flight.

Although he was very ill, in pain and exhausted, we worked together to produce a book from his manuscript. Sadly, my knowledge of formatting was scant, and I had no experience of inserting photos into a digital book, but we managed. And in the evenings as I sat drinking wine with him and his beautiful girls, we shared many laughs.

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It was a hugely emotional farewell at the airport, knowing we would not see each other again in this life, and I returned to my new home in New Zealand with a heavy heart.

A few days later I received an email with a photo of Nigel holding the first copies of his book.

He passed away about 3 weeks later, a great man, and  published author.

 

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The blurb:

Luck is a vital part of a pilot’s career, and timing is another. The author spent some 16000 hours at the controls of aeroplanes, always fascinated by what you could see from them, what you could do with them, the places you could go with them, the skills you needed to get the best out of them and most of all the sheer joy of flying them. This book is a treasury of his experiences.
The author takes us on journeys from Cessna 150s to Boing 747s, from Hurn Airport to Kai Tak, from smooth touchdowns to an upside-down landing, reflecting on what luck had to do with it all.

The book is available through Amazon outlets in both paper and kindle versions.

 

 

Enjoying the Garden

With Vaughn continuing to work in Australia, I found myself with an overstock situation when it came to potatoes. As I noticed them starting to sprout, I thought I might as well stick them in the ground and see what happened. I didn’t think much about them until I noticed there was some above-ground evidence of growth. I ignored them for several weeks until my curiosity became too strong to resist. I eased my fork carefully into the soil, anxious not to stab what I hoped would lie beneath. And I was not disappointed. I couldn’t wait for Vaughn to come home so I could show off our first crop of potatoes.

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Thus inspired, I began planting in earnest. I started seeds in trays in the garage, and dug the seedlings I bought from the nursery straight into the garden beds. But the rabbits and possums beat me to it. Word of all those tender young leaves must have been passed around the rabbit neighbourhood, as the next morning my beds were bare.

The solution was raised beds. Vaughn and Irwin created a couple of beautiful wooden boxes, each about ½ a metre in height, one meter wide and just over a couple of meters in length, thus saving my knees and back from kneeling and bending, and my seedlings from the rabbits.

We feasted on kale and spinach, cauliflower and broccoli, beans and celery, until I could no longer cope with the white butterfly caterpillars. Even after washing the vegetables three times I still found the odd little green beastie crawling up the side of the sink. So out came the cruciferous vegetables and in went carrots and beetroot.

Each morning I was woken at about 5.30 by the beautiful warbling of a tui as he breakfasted on whatever was inside the New Zealand flax flowers outside my bedroom window. To open the curtains and watch his little white poi bounce up and down as he sang, to look out on green fields, trees, ferns and no traffic, and to breathe in all that really fresh air, made me so grateful that we had made the move.

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But in spite of the great joys of our garden and of being close to some of our children, 2016 was a year of great sadness.

 

Coming to Terms with the Garden

In attempting to create a new home, I found myself looking at my belongings with critical eyes. Things I had quite liked in Melbourne now appeared shabby. But there were things my daughters remembered as part of their childhood home, and although appearing rather the worse for wear, those things radiated the comfort of the familiar to our eyes.

I had always taken pleasure from pottering in the garden. It was good to have a little patch with essential herbs and whatever else happened to grow: pumpkin plants creeping right up to the kitchen door yet yielding no pumpkins, tomatoes sprouting from the compost, lettuce and broccoli full of caterpillars. Flowers were easier until the possums ate them. I blamed the Australian climate; either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry; and continued to spend more money on seedlings than it would have cost to buy veggies from the organic shop.

But New Zealand was different. I had the space, I had the climate and I had the time. I started off with seedlings for instant gratification. First I planted things that had grown well for me previously, lettuce, capsicums, chillies, and eggplants. But I forgot about the rabbits. I got up one morning to find the tops nibbled off and several bunnies hopping into the ferns where no doubt they had cosy little burrows. I had a vision of myself as Mr McGregor chasing Peter Rabbit off with a gun. 

I hung a few shiny jingly things around and carried on with more seedlings. I tried potatoes, sweetcorn, pumpkins, broccoli and beans. I felt very proud as my bean plants spiralled their way up the little bamboo tepees. The pumpkins grew like Triffids until they filled the whole bed and spread over the lawn. I watched the prolific leafy growth of the potato plants hoping it was an outward show of the activity beneath the soil.

And the weeds kept on growing. And the ferns, those beautiful New Zealand ferns, dropped their spores and marched towards the house like and invading army. The ‘lawn’ consisted of plantains, clover and dandelions, but I kept on mowing in the hope that grass would overcome. 

And then the rabbits returned and nibbled neat parallel lines down the sides of my biggest pumpkins. I pictured their enormous incisors chomping through the pale yellow flesh. I pictured them looking up at me and wiggling their noses with a kind of ‘we don’t care’ attitude. But I could not picture myself actually hurting them. So I got some wire netting and covered the ever-spreading pumpkin patch.

Another thing I didn’t anticipate, moving from big wild Australia, home of the top ten deadliest creatures, to New Zealand where there are no snakes, no foxes and no funnel-web spiders, was the large amount of animals that felt entitled to share our house. Mostly insects, and not very scary, but slightly challenging to get to sleep with large grasshoppers walking around on the bedroom ceiling, dodging all the daddy-long-legs that lurked in every corner in spite of my long-handled micro-fibre dusting device. Although I did feel an obligation to leave at least a few spiders as they had a purpose. It was just that sudden waking up in the middle of the night, brushing something off your face and wondering if you’d been sleeping with your mouth open. But they do say that the average human swallows hundreds of bugs in their lives without even knowing. However, I suspect that average was reached by comparing New Zealand with somewhere like Alaska, where it’s too cold for flies.

The other animal that visited regularly at first was the goat from the next field. I made a point of going to the fence to wish him and his retired race-horse friend a good morning with a flat handful of grass or half a carrot and a rub on the nose, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when one morning I was standing in our half-finished kitchen and heard a snuffle behind me. There was the goat, investigating greener pastures. I hauled him back through the lounge and out through the garage, past the vegetables which luckily he hadn’t noticed, and shoved him unceremoniously under the fence. I fortified the fence, but that didn’t deter him and he visited several times before Vaughn got back and made a decent job of securing the fence.

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