A visit to my childhood beach house brought memories flooding back

"I caught my breath - it was exactly the way it always was, and I was glad so glad that I was here in winter and had the whole beach to myself, miles and miles and miles of it."

 

I was standing in front of No 63 staring at the mass of construction works. Nothing was left of the old beach house. Perhaps it had been bowled. I laughed at myself for expecting it to be the same, after all it, was over 50 years since I’d last seen it. But then, the beach houses on either side were still standing, looking exactly as I remembered them. I closed my eyes and I was instantly transported to the holiday routine that was my life for every year of schooling I had.

We’d come here every holiday I can remember, from the day school broke up to the night before school next resumed when we returned reluctantly, brown as berries. There was always a massive exodus from home. The trailer was hitched to the car and packed full of cases of produce from the garden, and all the paraphernalia we kids needed. Sometimes the bikes were stacked on the top. Sometimes the Christmas tree. We’d all pile in and off we’d go, Mum, Dad, Grandma, four kids and Velvet, our black cat, all eager to get there, yet knowing we had to endure the winding drive over the ranges to get there. Sometimes one of us was car sick. Sometimes the car boiled over and we had to stop at the spring on the way to fill up with water and wait till the heat dissipated. Sometimes on a clear day we could see snow capped peaks in the far distance to the south. At last, over the top and the first sight of the sea.

As I stood there I knew it didn’t matter that the house had gone. I could visualise every inch of it. From where I stood on the road the property dipped down to the garage and the old caravan that was used for overflow accommodation. Beyond that the house, simple and unimaginative in design, stretching right across the property with a small concrete path on each side leading to front and back doors. There was a huge living room, with a long table with benches and stools where we took all our meals, served from the kitchen through a sliding glass window. At one end there was a fold out settee and a couple of lounge chairs – sourced from the local mart as budget and need dictated.

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Two bedrooms at the front – one for Mum and Dad and a cot for my baby brother, the other with bunks for the rest of us plus anyone else – cousins or school friends -lucky enough to be invited. Grandma had her own room at the back. Velvet moved from bed to bed sharing her favours. The bathroom was just that – a small green bathtub, no shower, green wash basin, green toilet (they must have been a bargain!). Then the kitchen – about as basic as you could get – just a stove, fridge, bench, sink and cupboards.

I wondered what sort of holiday it was for my mother with so many mouths to feed, and none of the modern appliances we take for granted today. Yet I think she enjoyed it all. My father would disappear to work in the car early on Monday morning and return to us on Friday night. Our days were filled with beach, sun, sea, sand, squabbling, playing Monopoly, and riding bikes.

I couldn’t wait to get onto the beach. Down the sealed road I went, thinking of the sandy track we used to follow, through the dunes and onto the beach. I caught my breath – it was exactly the way it always was, and I was glad so glad that I was here in winter and had the whole beach to myself, miles and miles and miles of it. A cold wind blew in my face, but the sun was out, catching the waves as they tumbled to the shore. I headed straight for the shallows. A tumble weed blew down the sand in front of me. It was low tide … perfect conditions for a game of cricket. Perfect too for collecting pipis. If you wriggle your toes into the sand you can soon find them, then quickly bend and pull them out and into the bucket of salt water! Good bait for fishing, or for eating if you had a bonfire going and had some lemon on hand.

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As I walked along the beach all the years rolled into one muddle of memories that washed over me. Catching waves on my inflatable raft, swimming with my South Island cousins, flying the great box kite that Santa sneaked into the bunk room one Christmas, the sandcastle competitions, the sunburn and the inevitable peeling.

I walked towards the Mount (for that was where I was – Mt Maunganui, New Zealand), that lovely lump at the end of the isthmus that drew us like a magnet. No holiday would be complete without a walk around the base and up to the summit. Along Main Beach I went, crunching on the shells that still wash up in profusion. I spotted a bright pink fan shell, a prize find. One year we collected shells, glued them to square wooden plaques that Dad made for us, and varnished them. I posted mine to Aunt Mary. What did she do with it, I wondered. 

At the end of the beach Millie, Molly and Mandy had once been the star attraction. The three donkeys wearing straw hats decorated with fresh flowers plodded up and down the beach giving rides.  They were much loved and patted by all the children.

The track around the base of the Mount is like a highway now – a smooth path usable by disabled people and pram pushers. No chance of tears and toes stubbed on tree roots these days. The rocky shoreline is just as it was – with a few sheltered bays where we picnicked out of the wind. One year a fur seal visited and sat on the same rock for days. The brilliant red Pohutukawa blossoms were always out at Christmas, but not now in the dead of winter. 

In the distance I could see a couple of old friends – Mayor Island, a fishing destination for Dad and the boys, and Face Island, so called as its profile is that of a face. Further on the waters narrow to form a channel – the entrance to the harbour, now a busy shipping port. I could imagine the fishing boat Tidesong, coming in, with seagulls soaring above hoping for a sample of the catch. The boat would pull into the jetty in the harbour and Freddie Bell, the owner, would sell his catch to holiday makers.

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At last the town came back into view. I stopped at the site of the little stone jetty where we so often fished. Just simple lines, a sinker and two hooks baited with pipis. So much fun … perhaps not for the sprats! It was here too that I once spotted a tiny sea horse – though no one believed me. The harbour foreshore is landscaped now and looking very smart. The calm waters an inviting playground. No red wooden canoes for hire now I noted. Dad had a putt-putt boat at one stage. It was good for a very slow trip around the harbour, and for a bit of fishing and that’s about all. I remember photos of us all posing –  countless kids, Mum, Dad, Aunty Beryl in disguise with flower pot hat and sun glasses – and not a life jacket between us!

I turned in towards the town.  The main street HAD changed, now full of smart boutiques and restaurants. I stopped at the main intersection. There was still a fish and chip shop in the same place.  How many times did it burn down? I couldn’t resist, and shortly settled onto a bench with my serve of chips wrapped in newspaper! At least that hasn’t changed though the news is now of suicide bombers, misbehaving politicians and carnage on the freeway. I tore across the end of the packet and dug in. The chips were delicious – big fat real potato chips. 

This spot was perfect for watching the New Years Eve parade – highly decorated floats sponsored by local businesses, marching girls, clown and the highlight, the Scottie band. We’d follow that band from the moment it appeared till the red faced pipers dropped with exhaustion having marched round the town several times. Their kilts swirled, their white boots pounded, the Drum Major twirled his batons and beat the enormous drum he carried. The excitement of it all ran though me.

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I wandered on toward the ocean beach again, passing the site of Peter Pan Cabaret. Teenage years and the throb of the music at the dances – Beatles, Elvis, Bobby Darin …

I was allowed to go with a brother as chaperone.  To my delight he would unceremoniously dump me at the door and be off in pursuit of a leggy, long haired, make-up-wearing goddess, leaving me to make my own decisions.

Back on the beach front at the little reserve where each summer a stage was erected  and entertainment offered – concerts, bingo, and of course the beauty pageant. The local “beauties” would strut around the stage in stiletto sandals and skimpy bikinis. There was always an enthusiastic audience, mainly surfers who’d abandoned their surfboards for the event. They whistled and cat called to encourage their favourites. The mayor was the judge!

Sometimes there was a fair. One year family friends came to stay with us, bringing their son Toby from Australia. He took me for a ride on the ferris wheel. I adored him and announced that I was going to marry him. Never mind that he was about 30 years my senior!

Back on the beach and that wonderful sense of belonging returned. What a journey. I wanted to have it all again.  But today, at least, the sand, the sun, the sea, the wind was all mine.

Christine Floyd is one of five finalists in Uniting’s Senior Memoirs Writing Competition. You can read the other four stories here and vote for your favourite here. Voting closes on September 29 at 3pm AEST.