He KōreroreroLayering

Oct 12, 2012

Nā Keri Hulmekeri

I have a feeling that a lot of people now associate ‘layering’ with clothing: “We’re going skiing tomorrow, and then next day, we’ll be down on the flats. Can’t take a lot of gear but no worries, we’ll just layer.”

Or: “Hell! If I put my clean t-shirt under yesterday’s one, it’s layered OK eh? Still fresh to the skin.”

Chook fanciers will immediately think of “a good layer, a poor layer, a good laying species”. (Brown leghorns? Yes, and sturdy for most of our conditions. Araucanas? Lovely little bird, good layer and good eggs – but doesn’t thrive in the south.) And gardeners naturally turn their minds to the art of encouraging shoots or branches to take root and the resultant plant… Stratigraphic layers? Your friendly local geologist will discourse at length on that dictionary definition: “a thickness of some homogenous substance” – as will their archaeologist mates.

Think of writing = a palimpsest, a parchment where earlier layers of writing of whatever nature were scraped off and replaced by whatever scribes of the time thought more important. Again and again…

For me, layers equal a stratigraphy of time – and, especially, of the layering of memories.

I was born in Ōtautahi, Christchurch, as was my father John William Hulme. My mother bore me in Burwood Hospital – Mary Ann Miller came from Ōamaru, and bore all her children (6) in the northern city.

None of us live there anymore.

For me, ChCh means the home I most remember, 160 Leaver Terrace.

And – here the layering begins…

When you are a child, heights and distances are different. (So are smells and sounds: colours are so intense, and time drags inordinately – or flashes by before you realise the moment had been.) The world is still a puzzlement. Nothing much seems to make coherent sense, least of all the large people.

But  –  some places begin to cohere. A kid like me (extremely short-sighted but with acute hearing and a very good memory (only for anything I wanted to remember) learns places and books and things and non-humans before the people we learn to most love become that real – it doesn’t help matters if you are a very definite and determined child who inherently hates assumed authority.

The house at 160 Leaver Terrace, and its surrounds, the beaches and the streets and the plantation and Rāwhiti domain, became my grounds of reality. As did, a little later on, Oāmaru and Moeraki.

And in my teens, the larger city of Ōtautahi – but I didn’t really enjoy city life (I loved the central library; and the coffee place in Chancery Lane; I felt estranged/out-of-place as a law student at Canterbury; I flatted in Salisbury Street for a year-and-a-half as a postie before I left the place for the West Coast – my best memory of there is finding bird’s nest fungi in the garden…)

But – that early on! – 160 Leaver Terrace was looming in my dreams – and warping my memories of the house and home I knew so well. After my father died (I was 11 and all my siblings were younger than me) my mother organised for the side front porch to be turned into a study for me (Mary well knew – and knows! – what kind of person she brought into the world!). A private place for someone who was and is a makyr, kai pūrākau and artist and – quintessentially – a solitary who deeply depends on family and friends. By the time I left for Motueka to pick tobacco, my study was changing its shape and function in my dreams – and I wasn’t quite 18…

Over the years, my childhood home became protean, and my actual memories became – well, irrelevant. I couldn’t make myself go back and view the place – because it was no longer the family dwelling. I was no longer part of it. I knew the February earthquake had really hurt it (a wooden structure with a tile roof, and a plaster-coating, and with its own artesian well… hmmm.)

I was resigned when I heard it was going to be demolished. What more could I possibly lose? The orchard was gone, as was the macrocarpa hedge.There were four properties on the place I had roamed and ranted and razed things as a kid.

But, deep within the dreams, I grieved.

Until my 65th birthday. I never thought I would live long enough to get the pension – I am utterly delighted I did!

I am so thankful that my tax payments over the years justify and revivify the social contract (as health provision has also) in my life.

It has seemed to have gotten shakier as the decades roll by…

There were various family gifts, all delighted in – but one which was an especial sea change, for dreams and for the future: my brother Andrew describes it thus: “8inches x 2inches x 4foot/ 250mm x 50mmx 1200mm” found it on a west coast beach, Great Barrier about 2005.* Hand-planed, then put through a thicknesser. Wedged open cracks then glued, then sanded glue off and finished with an imported American wood oil. Hooks,
160 Leaver Terrace.** House set for demolition, post earthquakes… contacted agents and purchased from them.)”

* The beautiful piece of planed and oiled wood has been on a long sea-voyage. The marine worms that sculptured and reformed it, created a seascape within it, may have come from South America…

** They came from the front hall … I hope to make my final home on my section at Moeraki and – you bet! – my entry way will have Andrew and Sarah’s 65th birthday present in it – and the ghost of the house – always a hospitable place – will continue to welcome us all –

Writer Keri Hulme is southern Kāi Tahu but lives in “Big O” – Ōkarito. Among her passions are whitebait and family history. In 1985 Keri’s novel The Bone People won the Booker Prize.