Talking to Aunty

Tuesday, 6 July

Aunty lives in South Dunedin and has done for most of her life – Anderson’s Bay, St. Clair, St. Kilda – places that don’t mean anything to me.  Sometimes when I stayed with Gran in Mosgiel we would go on a day trip by bus over the hill to Dunedin to visit the shops and have some lunch.  When you visit Dunedin from Mosgiel by bus you get dropped off at the railway station and then we would walk up past the courts to the Octagon, and then down George Street.  Therefore my childhood memories of Dunedin are of the railway station, and Arthur Barnetts, and even of going to see a movie in the old movie theatre in the Octagon (was it Neverending Story?), and definitely not of Dunedin’s suburbs, but even so stepping out of the airport shuttle at 9.30 in the morning in the suburb of Tainui I can tell I’m in Dunedin.

It’s something to do with the solidity of the buildings, and the sense of grander times, the feeling that you are in a town that was once a fever of money, and civic pride and industry and now there’s not enough of any of those things to fill the city up and keep the buildings in trim.  Even out here in the suburbs you pass houses which are enormous, built in brick on three levels with extensive grounds, but these buildings are often a little shabby now, or split into three or four flats, and the once generous grounds sold off to accommodate a smaller, cheaper looking building.  Probably it’s my nostalgic temperament, but I love this quality in Dunedin.

Aunty’s house is on a hill and has a view out over flat, suburban South Dunedin towards what would be the beach at St. Clair.  I stand on the footpath for a moment and let the shuttle leave.  Dunedin smells a certain way.  Probably it’s something to do with the smell of the earth and woodsmoke, but when I smell it I feel powerfully centred in this place.

Aunty greets me warmly at the front door in her dressing gown, and we shuffle down a dark hallway into the cold kitchen.  She explains that she hardly ever likes to get up before 11.00am anymore as we push past a curtain and into the warm fug of a little, closed in sun porch.  This small room is obviously where Aunty spends all her time.  There is a small couch across the far end, a table that seats two, a TV, a stereo, and a boxy two bar heater.  There are CDs of classical music in the cabinet under the TV, and a small pile of the different sections of the ODT on the floor at the foot of the couch.  On the walls are large picture frames with multiple different shaped windows for photos of different members of the family.  I see Eleanor as a baby in one, and notice a picture from Aunty’s last visit to our house in Wellington on top of her stereo.  The room has windows wrapping around the corner behind the sofa, and from here Aunty can keep an eye on her garden, and the wax eyes in the branches of the nearest tree.

“You’ll be hungry,” Isobel says.  I agree, although I’m not, because I see that she has laid out two plates on the dining table: one with biscuits, and the other with crackers and cheese.  “Would you like some tea?”  I agree to tea, and take a cracker with cheese.  As she busies herself with the tap and the kettle she asks about the flight down, and talks about the weather, and the health of the family until she is back in the little sun room and I am sipping at my tea.

“How is the teaching?” she asks me.

“Fine.  Still teaching History.”

Aunty nods.  “Of course when I was at school it was all about the Spartans and the Minoans and things like that.  I don’t know what the use of that was.”

I smile neutrally, pleased I didn’t mention that I also teach Classics.

“I remember our History teacher, a young woman, she sat at the end of her desk and swung her leg back and forth.  She went on and on and on in this monotone and all the girls started to bring in their knitting, you know?  We would sit there doing our knitting and she would say, the war was on then, she would say, “you can do knitting as long as it’s for the soldiers.”  And one time we saw her playing tennis, and she was wearing this short little tennis skirt, and, you know, in the war the woman painted their legs because there were no stockings, but she had only painted up to her knees so there was this gap between her knees and the bottom of her tennis skirt, you know.  We all thought this was very funny and were giggling.  Girls are very giggly at a certain age.”  She pauses to remember how this story started.  “So, yes, it was all about the Spartans and the Minoans.  I don’t know what the use of that was.  Still, I remember it now so there must have been something to it.”

She goes back into the kitchen to make herself some porridge, and she starts telling me another story, and I realise I am already two stories behind on my notes and I haven’t even finished my first cup of tea.  Luckily I brought my tape recorder with me.  I excuse myself to the sunroom, and go and set it up with a tape and press record as she begins to tell me about my father’s father.

“Alcoholism is a disease; it’s not the quantity you drink it’s the effect it has on the bloodstream.  He was a very, very hard working man.  Having his wife away from when we were little children that must have been terribly difficult in those days, and having a series of hopeless housekeepers until we got the final one who stayed for years and years.”

As she talks she scrapes the porridge through a sieve.  She has been sick, and is just coming back to food.  Once she has all the porridge through the sieve is filled with the grit which she takes outside and puts in a tray for the birds.  It is not long before we are back in the sunroom and she is talking, and talking, and talking.  Sometimes her voice surges a little with emotion and she rubs at her eyes to deal with the tears that leak away, and sometimes she stops in mid-sentence and smiles and I learn that it is because a little bird has flitted briefly into the branch of the tree by her window.

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