Most people who know me well are fully aware of my fixation with the land of the long white cloud. I’ve joked that my catchphrase should be ‘When I was in New Zealand’, although by now they’ve heard most of my stories, perhaps more than once. I incorporated some of my own experiences into my second novel, The Dream, and now I’m casting about desperately to think of a way that I can get back to NZ this year as it’s been eight years since my visit.
It was my dad who first told me about New Zealand, as he had wanted to emigrate there with his friend in 1953 but had been rejected on the £10 scheme due to his asthma. His friend had still emigrated, and I always knew him as ‘Uncle John’ (and have dedicated The Dream to him). For some reason all my dad’s talk about the country really sank in with me, and I always wanted to go there, and even from my teens the part that interested me most was Westland in the South Island. Finally I took a huge leap in 2007 and left my job to take an extended trip, most of which I spent in the South Island.
By that time my dad had lost touch with his old best friend John and couldn’t remember his address. I was determined that when I got there I would track him down for my dad, who by then was in his late seventies and had started to show signs of what we hadn’t yet realized was a form of dementia. I had little to go on except that John lived in a place near the Wairau River in the general vicinity of Blenheim in the South Island. After hours of assiduous searching I’d worked out from a couple of other clues of my dad’s where I thought that might be on Google Earth, and when I finally got to Blenheim shortly after my arrival in the country I went to the library and looked up my uncle’s name on the electoral roll. Having found it easily I discovered that my online detective work had been correct: he did indeed live in the location I had picked out. He wasn’t, however, in the phone book.
I texted my parents in excitement and then set out for the address, which was well off the beaten track. Eventually I came to a literal track that petered out on one side and ended on the other at a gate marked ‘private’. The gate was firmly locked and seemed to have electrified wire across it (readers might notice I have used this in The Dream). I wasn’t even sure that I was in the right place as I clambered up the nearby levee and looked around the deserted landscape. I couldn’t see any house beyond the gate, and the place was silent apart from my frustrated sobs. I had so wanted this, both for my dad and for me, and now I was apparently stymied at the last hurdle. I wiped the tears off my cheeks and sent a text to my parents telling of this disappointment, but I couldn’t bear to just leave so I scoured through my bag for something to write on, and found a piece of scrap paper on which I scrawled who I was, and my phone number, and then I thrust this note into the lock of the gate, imagining that it would never be found anyway, and sloped off into the heat haze in my hire car.
To my surprise and delight, within a couple of hours I had a call on my mobile phone from Uncle John. He was just as keen to see me as I was to see him, and we met that evening for a meal. He drove me around the area that night and the following morning pointing out places of interest, and we never stopped talking! I went back to see him again later in my stay and it was one of those happy but rare experiences where you meet someone and just automatically get on well together, despite the age difference.
I’d love to see him, and of course New Zealand, again this winter. Whether I can find a way or not is still moot!