On our way to spend Easter break in Queenstown with Robert's family, we stopped at Middlemarch where Robert played a round at the very tidy, nine-hole golf course, and I explored this town that I have had a bit to do with over the years.
While Robert played golf, I treated myself to a cup of coffee and a rhubarb-and-apple tartlet at a place called The Kissing Gate. This cafe behind its front hedge and gate, looks just like my great Aunty Ethel's house – a turn-of-the-century wooden bungalow; circa 1900.
1971 was my first year at Teacher's College in Dunedin. I was a seventeen-year old fresher up from Gore, Southland, feeling nervous, awkward and shy. I was staying at the YWCA Hostel. My friend Aileen, another Gore girl, was there too so we gave each other much-needed moral support. In the first few days at the hostel, we met up with another girl from 'the sticks'; Pam. Pam from Middlemarch. We became good friends with her, and we're all still friends today, forty years later.
Over the three years I spent at Teachers College, Pam often invited us to spend part of the holidays with her parents on their farm in Middlemarch. We'd travel there on the red rail-car that ran from Dunedin through to Clyde. These days the railway line only runs as far as Middlemarch (one of the few minor railway lines in New Zealand still operating). It is now used for twice-daily runs by the Taieri Gorge sightseeing train. Where the rest of the line ran, is now a very popular scenic bike trail.
From there, I explored the cemetery. Guesswork leads me to presume that the solid, protestant (Presbyterian?) section, its back to the shelter-belt and eastern hills, was intentionally separated from the smaller Catholic section, with its view of the Rock and Pillar range, at the west end. I'm also guessing that the third section, at the south end, is where those of an Anglican persuasion are buried.
It's good to start with the cemetery when exploring a place. During my explorations, I sensed a robust spirit and pride in the founders of Middlemarch. A sense that they were a no-nonsense, good-living, hard-working people of the plains. They weathered the harsh winters and searing summers with a love of the land they served and cared for. It's hard to say how one can pick this up just from reading the names and dates on headstones, except that you are also sensing something that isn't written in the concrete; something intangible, but just as solid.
I thought then that I'd like to try and find where my friend Pam's family farm and house used to be. It'd been nearly thirty years since I'd been there. Could I still find my way? I decided to trust my instinctive memory. I knew it was north-east of the town, and that you turned off near the school. Something definitely felt right about crossing the bridge over the Taieri River. Then when I saw Mason Road, I remembered Miriam Mason, Pam's friend and neighbour, and the horse rides we had at their place. As I drove along a road I was sure was the right one, my instincts again proved correct, for there was the house, unmistakably nestled among autumn-tinted trees and grey rocks. It was so good to see it again, even if it wasn't painted in the right colours and no longer seemed to reflect Pam's mother's love of gardening, or her father's hard work.
A bonus was finding an apple tree growing wild on 'everyman's land' on the grass verge at the side of the road. Bowed down with its load of apples; red, rosy and without blemish; it was begging to be harvested. I picked a dozen of them, feeling sure it had sprung up there from an apple core that Pam, or one of her two sisters, had thrown there on their way to, or from, the school-bus stop. When I told Robert it was possibly a tree that had grown from an apple core Pam had thrown there (but that I didn't really know for sure) he said, “Well, it is now.”
My poem 'feeding the dogs ' (the title poem for my first book) was a direct result of one of those times spent with Pam in Middlemarch. Winter in Middlemarch meant hard frosts and frosted-over ponds we'd skate on in gumboots. In the summers, the sun shines in a hot and cloudless sky. All year round the paddocks are brown and bare, the sheep dusty and grey. The most remarkable feature is the landscape – more like a 'moonscape' according to one of Ruth Dallas' poems – interestingly strewn with dry outcrops of rock.