Boo to a Goose

This dairy in Gore, Murihiku / Southland, is where my nana, still wearing her slip-on, black velvet slippers and armed with a cane basket, would go to get her groceries (or as she being a Southlander of Scottish origins would say, where she would ‘do her messages.’)

And it’s still there, after more than fifty (and counting) years; still standing. Lane’s bottled sunshine is no longer made or procurable, but the sign remains plastered there like some long-held hope.

These days this little dairy is hardly a successful commercially viable concern. In fact like a lot of little dairies in our country, it’s sadly bare of items. Gone are the days of well-stocked dairies smelling of sugar and apples, the dairy owners always cheerful and happy to serve you, wrapping your produce in careful paper packages tied up with string, catching you up with the latest village gossip as they did so. The Sunbeam Milk Bar’s sunny name belies its current spareness. And the diary’s longtime owner has had his fair share of bad luck – as this account describes.

The dairy is situated across the road from my old high school. That school that for me holds memories of sheer fear, tempered with a certain brand of excitement and nervous anticipation that there might well be something good around the corner if I obeyed the rules of uniform code, didn’t giggle in class, ignored boys (easy enough, their hairy legs were enough to put me off) and did my homework. I just hoped I could follow the timetable, not lose my satchel, get to where the next class was in time and avoid suffering another dreaded nose bleed necessitating hours in the girls’ toilet blocks stuffing toilet paper up my nostrils.

After moving to Gore from Orepuki, two years after my mother and father had also moved from there to Northern Southland, Nana and Grandad were living just a block away from the high school. Their address has been indelibly inscribed on to my memory: 24 Irving Street, a council / state house Nana kept as neat as a pin while Grandad did the same for the lawns and hedges.

During my first year of high school, this house with its lace-curtained, friendly front windows, was where I’d go each school day, running all the way, the heavy hem of my oversized (“Don’t worry, you’ll grow into it,” my mother had informed me) gym frock flapping and thumping against my calves. Running with a happy heart, yet one tinged with a desperate, keenly-felt homesickness; running towards Nana’s cooked lunch. It was a highlight of my day, serving as an island, a safe haven and a link between the familiarity of home (a 30-kilometer bus trip away) and the imposing, alienating strangeness of attending high school. I needed that safe haven in the middle of my school day.

Sometimes Nana would treat me to a stack of pan-sized, tawny-coloured pikelets dripping with golden syrup and butter. Other times it was sandwiches and home baking. Maybe scrambled eggs. All cooked and baked on the beating heart of the coal range, so central to her small kitchen. She would take a quiet interest in how my morning had gone and pour me a cup of tea to which I’d politely add two teaspoons of sugar as daintily as I could, and stir.

We’d sit at the table with its plastic tablecloth, situated right by the window that looked out on to the street from behind net curtains. Our natures were similar. Inherent. Both of us looking out at the world, neither of us prepared to say boo to a goose, but yet clever enough to locate life’s escape hatches. Canny enough to safeguard our own level of peace. Those lunchtimes only lasted for the length of my first year at high school, but I remember them fondly and gratefully. I would even go so far as to describe them as sacred, those sweet, safe half hours; those lunches laced with a kind of shy, bottled sunshine.