Island Life by David Slack


Dairy dairy me.

So many exciting things happened in my student years. I saw Toy Love go nuts at the Student Union, and Chris Knox mummified in bandages. I learned what a Tort is. I poured sixty eight million litres of Lion Brown into glass jugs for wharfies, taxi drivers and convicted burglars. I sometimes got invited home by the young women who bought their carafes of Blenheimer from the bottle store. I only once fell asleep in an exam. It was a good life, and I look back with just one great regret. I could have done a better job of my one attempt to buy a dairy.

There has never been a time in my life when I have not been too ready to say yes to any job I have been offered. I like novelty and I do not like to disappoint people.

Once upon a time you got your milk in a bottle from a corner dairy. They had the freshest bread, a big stack of newspapers, and on Sunday morning when your head was fogged and dully aching they were the only place you could go to buy the fixings for a righteous plate of bacon, eggs, fresh white bread and butter, instant coffee and Rothmans.

We lived in a bungalow at number 9 Richmond Ave in Karori amongst quiet retired folk. We were neither.

Down at the corner there was not only a dairy but a 4-Square as well. We favoured the dairy because it was open later. The owner was a man from Wales named Dave. He was short, roundish, bearded. His face was probably once cheerful, but the arch expression told you that his love for human beings had been diminished by standing in one place too long, putting notes and coins in the till.

Our first exchanges were just banter. Gradually they became longer. I would describe what had happened last night, last week; he would chortle happily. His wife would occasionally take a turn, but he seemed to favour the chance to take the stage.

One day he asked: "do you go into the shop next door at all?"
"No," I said, "why?"
"Oh, just wondered," he said, "I have an idea."
A few days later he said, "That idea I mentioned - I might want some help. Would you be interested?"

There has never been a time in my life.

"I'll tell you what I've got in mind once I've done a few things, " he said, conveying as much of an air of mystery as you can achieve when you're scooping pineapple lumps and jet planes into a paper bag for school children.

A few more days had gone by when he gestured for me to hold up as another customer gathered her bags and shuffled out. "I want to buy the shop next door," he said. "I've heard the Indians want out."

"Go on." I said.

"They won't sell to me. I need someone to be a a go-between. Do you fancy buying a shop?"

"With what?" I said.

"Nothing," he said. "I just want you to get them talking, and find out if we can get a look at the books and get a price.

"But they won't swallow it," I said. "I'm just some student who lives up the street."

"But you don't shop there," he said.

"No, but they might know my face. Anyway, who would believe I had the dough? I don't."

"Yes, but your people are on a farm, aren't they?"


"So tell them your family wants to buy a city investment."

I like novelty and I do not like to disappoint people.

A few days later I pulled on the suit I had worn just once thus far in my life. Bury your grandfather, buy a dairy. It took me some minutes to get the tie right.

The Simpsons depiction of Apu is faithful to life. You are treated much more graciously as a customer than you are as a person coming through the door of a 4-Square store in the prosecution of commerce.

The proprietor was a man in his fifties, and his expression had long moved on from arch to entirely unsurprised by any damn thing.

I had prepared an opening line, which I offered up so fast each word was shoving the one in front of it, and the lot of them struggled to stay on their feet. My parents were farmers looking for an investment property, and they'd heard this store might be on the market.

Oh really. Where had they heard that? My careful preparation had not anticipated this question. I said I was not sure. If I ever had command of the conversation, I was at this moment relieved of it. The man's wife had arrived carrying a cardboard box from the back. He turned to her and asked in a stage voice if she'd heard that the store was on the market.

"We'd have to see what they're offering," she said.

Would we be able to see the books then, I asked.

"Bring your parents in and we'll talk," he said. His expression might have been a little arch.

As I made for the door his wife added: "Tell them next door if they want this place, it will have to be a good price."

I made sure not to look in as I walked past Dave's window, but felt quite ridiculous as I crossed the road in my suit in the middle of a winter afternoon in Karori. Later that evening I reported back to Dave, who could see that if he was going to do any empire building, he was going to have to hire a sneakier class of weasel.

While others of my generation signed up to be money market dealers and brokers, I opted for less weaselly pursuits, recognising my limitations. It's funny the way these things turn out.



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