David Herkt: A summer to remember

By David Herkt

Christmas is the year’s most important holiday for a child, as David Herkt recalls.
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Illustration / Terry Moyle
Illustration / Terry Moyle

It was summer. We were at the beach. I was still a long way under 5 years old and distinctly unimpressed by the fact that my grandfather had taken over my round blue inflatable swimming pool, the one with the zebras patterned on the bottom. He’d put a dozen live scallops in the lukewarm water and their ridged shells were part-open, revealing fleshy interiors.

“It’s so they can spit out the sand they’ve got inside them,” he told me in explanation.
But I didn’t particularly want my paddling pool spat in by anyone, shellfish or human, without consultation, especially when my grandfather showed me how the scallops swiftly closed when the water was stirred.

Sorting out fragmented early memories inevitably means confronting Christmas. It is the year’s most important holiday for a very young child, and the mid-20th century was the time when the season, as we now experience it in New Zealand, was created.

The beach always seemed to be involved.

It was a long time before the suburban-isation of the New Zealand coast. Pauanui and Omaha hadn’t taken their planned developments deep into the Kiwi heart. It was still a home-made, somehow more organic, New Zealand world. Baches were grown over time rather than designed. Beaches were not necessarily white sand with surf-breaks.

We holidayed, then, at Clarks Beach on the Manukau Harbour, in a simple knocked-together bach with concrete floors. It was there that my memories first begin to cluster: an air over-full with cicada sounds, the silt and saline smell of the great tidal mudflats, and the familiar voices of relatives.

I was the first-born in a new generation of my mother’s extended family. Canvas tents flapped in breezes on the bach’s scant lawn. Tank-water was at a premium. Towels hung on a stretched-out rope. Santa delivered gifts to pillowcases at the end of beds.
Christmas trees were branches of pine trees in buckets of sand, slung with criss-crossed crepe paper.

The walk to the beach itself was down a crumbling, yellow rock slope, sharp with the tang of pine resin and the unique grey, dusty scent of fallen pohutukawa leaves and flowers. There was the slip and slop of the small waves from the beach below.

At that time, in Titirangi, directly across the Manukau, the New Zealand painter Colin McCahon was working on his great canvases of sea horizontals, landscape shifts, and huge, fractured skies, but my own focus was much more limited. It was the year I got a clockwork train from Santa.

I think I was 3. It was probably 1958. I was enthralled by the glossy reds and blacks of the painted tin locomotive, the carriage and guard’s van. When we had visitors, it was set up, going around and around me as I sat on a table-top.

While I might have been proud and fascinated, my audience had a more limited appreciation, moving past me to the door as they said their “goodbyes”. I was left alone with the now ludicrous mechanical circling and the clockwork winding down.

Christmas would also be the time when I’d finally be parted from my much-loved bottle.

It had been tried. The very last note in my blue, white and red Plunket Baby Record Book suggests that it needed to go. Even I had picked up on the fact that I’d had it too long. It wasn’t a source of sustenance anymore; it was simply the glass and nippled equivalent of a “blankie”. It was lugged around. It was comfort in bed. It was mine. The memory of its departure is vivid.

I was sitting on the bed in the sunlight of the unfamiliar Clarks Beach bedroom, having been put down unwillingly for an afternoon sleep. The bach had a concrete floor, made with cement, sand and shells from the beach, I think. I had been warned that it was hard and to be careful – if I fell on it, I’d break something.

And sitting up on the bed, chewing on my bottle’s teat, one thought met another.

I ended up, with deliberation, hurling my bottle at the floor, where it satisfyingly smashed.

When my mother arrived, alerted by the sound, I was nonchalant, something that was rewarded that same day by overhearing a muffled conversation about the matter.

“When I walked in,” I remember my mother saying, “he was just sitting there. He hasn’t
made a fuss. And we’re not going to make one either.”

Art Deco New Zealand: An Illustrated Guide, by Terry Moyle (New Holland, $40) is available now.

Source : New Zealand Herald

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