Up Front by Emma Hart


The Home Straight

The stretch of State Highway One between Christchurch and Timaru is the back-bone of my childhood. Canterbury is my land, it's how a landscape should be. That's where I feel I stand strong, with the sun on my face, the sea on my right hand, and the mountains on my left. It's where my mother was born, and her father. In the hundred and fifty years my family have been living on these plains, they've somehow seeped into our ancestral bones.

Theres even a road named after our family. Rather metaphorically, it heads arrow-straight for the Temuka river, but can never quite be arsed getting there. My grandfather was somewhere up that road, about the same age as my son is now, the day Richard Pearse flew. He missed it, of course, but he might have been there, had everyone not thought the guy was crazy.

Of course it's boring country. It's dead flat, and that stretch of SH1 is so straight the biggest hazard is falling asleep and ploughing into an irrigation ditch. At this time of year, a scattering of flower- and tinsel-bedecked crosses is a better reminder of that than the brief stretch of rumble strip south of Dunsandel. Every year we play Cops vs Morons. The Morons usually win.

We've driven it several times a year since I was four, and yet when I picture it in my head, it's always summer. There's heat haze on the road, sere umber paddocks full of panting sheep, and indigo mountains velvet with distance. All the memories are of summer: family picnics at Peel Forest, night skinny-dipping behind the Pareora dam, picking strawberries in my good black dress after my uncle's funeral.

Many years ago, I took a trip with my then-mother-in-law from Invercargill to Queenstown. We'd driven for about an hour before I worked out why I felt so horribly claustrophobic. Everywhere was green: there were too many hills and way too many sheep in those paddocks. I had no line of sight, no obvious escape route. No sea on my right, no mountains on my left. I couldn't breathe.

Driving that backbone road through Canterbury this Christmas has made me melancholy. It's as if someone has photoshopped my land; colour-replaced my EE9A49 with 228B22, then cut and pasted cows all over my childhood. It doesn't look like home any more, and it smells different – obviously, given all the cows. There does seem to be more water in those braided rivers, but we won't be swimming in it.

My grandparents' old house at Orari is still standing. The big macrocarpa tree is still there, though the swing is long gone. My Nanna's famous hyacinth garden now grows the mouldering corpses of unloved cars. They've changed the Orari bridge since I was a kid, so the view of the spot where my great-uncle shot himself is different now.

Some things do stay the same. Those poplars north of the first Rangitata bridge are still there, the ones my Nanna told me Grandad planted. I still can't hold my breath all the way across the Rakaia bridge. (This is an astonishingly simple way to get twenty seconds blessed peace when travelling with children. It might also have explained my once-excellent lung capacity.)

We took the kids to swim at Maori Park Pool, where I used to swim as a teenager. It's an open-air pool where parents can lounge on the grass while, say, their daughter does lap-circuits of the hydro-slide and diving pool. It hadn't changed at all. I mentioned this to my brother, who said it's been declared uneconomic. It'll be roofed over, paved, and the pool at the other end of town (already closed in and paved) is being done away with.

My brother and his wife hosted Christmas dinner in excellent spirits. Their new neighbours are much quieter to live with than the old one, who moved on shortly after stabbing his girlfriend in the leg with a screwdriver. From their front porch you can see the looming bulk of the house we lived in when we first moved to Timaru. Looking at it still makes me sick. I know it's not a widely-held view, but Christchurch makes me feel safe.

Those cousins we used to Sunday-drive all over the plains to visit are all gone now. My mother is the last of her generation. This Christmas, I sat down with her and we went through old photos. So many faded black and white stories, tinged with sadness and old memory. A ridiculous number of our stories involve pointless moral cruelty, which might explain some things.

My daughter will remember this road just like I do, driven every summer of her life. But she'll never have to write a letter to her brother apologising for having sex, and she'll never be disowned by her family for marrying one of those damned Catholics. I can live with a little change.

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