“We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling.” Niall Williams*
This place, my friends, is a photographer’s delight, a community resource, and a Tardis for those with a historical bent. It’s the old Customhouse on West Quay, in Ahuriri. Ahuriri is one of the oldest suburbs in Napier, often referred to as The Port, for obvious reasons. I’ve walked past the Customhouse hundreds of times, my eye usually on the activity in the harbour, immediately opposite, and remembering my stories, telling them to John – again.
He may have heard them before. Often.
Hey, it gets like that, we’ve been together a long time.
My story is usually the same one, the one about that time. The time when Dad brought me here to collect sand for my very first sandpit. I followed him down some steep and rickety steps to what’s now the bottom of the harbour. I hadn’t been around long enough to be worried about all things rickety.
I was excited, thrilled to be out and about, on an adventure with my father. I was very small. My dad was young and strong – he must have been to lug the sand back to street level! And, I was getting a sand pit.
That’s it, that’s the whole story. Nothing went wrong. Just a daughter and her Dad, more than half a century ago, collecting sand from a place that’s still there, if rather wet.
The story always ends the same way. I look down at the water and remark to whoever’s around, usually John: Things change.
And then John smiles and he glances over at the family fishing from the wharf. There’s always at least one. And he tells his story about this place. About how he brought our boys here to fish. They caught spotties. Remember, he says, that time you cooked our catch. I do. I got the recipe from his mother. Those spotties weren’t much chop – too many bones.
Sometimes you came with us, he says and he grins.
Yeah, I say, that made things really fun.
Because, you know, by then a few decades had gone by and I knew to be worried about all things rickety. Especially above moving water. I may have mentioned this problem before.
Even now, while I’m taking photos and we’re swapping stories, I’m not getting close to the edge of this wharf. No way. Not on your Nellie. There’s water down there!
Yeah, it was fun, I say. Thinking to myself, sometimes being a mother was just plain terrifying. The things you have to do for your kids: pretending not to be scared and holding back from pulling them back.
To be fair, they were very little. They hadn’t learned to swim. So what did I do? I sat behind them, of course, ready to grab them at the first sign of a stumble.
All right, so that’s a lie.
I was actually holding on to their shirts but ever so lightly.
You didn’t notice, N & B, did you? Not really. And if anyone says I was clutching – that’s an exaggeration.
These days I’d do it differently. These days, I’d go for the worry free option. I’d make them wear life-jackets while they fished from the wharf.
Kidding, just kidding.
With all that personal history within a few metres it’s been easy to overlook the Customhouse, when we’re out on our walks. And it’s not usually open. But on Sunday, it was, and we had the time.
Crossing that threshold, it was like walking back into my parents’ lives. This place is filled with memorabilia from the early years of the Port/Ahuriri. Dad grew up here. He and Mum and spent the early years of their marriage here.
And just like the Tardis, there’s room after room to be discovered; each packed with artefacts and photos and documents.
There’s a photo of the South Pond back when it was a pond and when there was a North Pond as well. These days South Pond is a large green park that gets really hot in summer. Walking across it in the heat of a summer afternoon was, and I’m sure still is, an ordeal. South Pond is also the place where my brother’s home-made kite broke free and got tangled in the power lines. At least that’s the story I was told. He might have a different version, history being what it is.
There’s a photo of the old wool stores, their jagged rooflines jutting into the air. These used to be everywhere, I say. They’re gone now, except for one or two that have been transformed into apartments, swanky apartments. There’s another, sadder photo, taken immediately after the 1931 earthquake. One I haven’t seen before. A stack of wool bales has collapsed. Several workers were killed. Those guys wouldn’t have stood a chance.
John never misses an opportunity to get the lay of the land. He’s pre-occupied by an old photo of a new bridge, trying to work out where it is, exactly. He points out the curve of the beach: That’s Westshore, he says. And he squints at the large tract of water and announces: That’s Pandora Pond. (It still does have water but it’s not actually a pond, it’s an estuary). I notice how few people there are in the photo, the absence of houses. But as John points out the landmarks what seemed foreign becomes remarkably familiar.
As if the photos aren’t enough, there’s all sorts of memorabilia, including: an old typewriter juxtaposed against a computer which you can use to explore Port Stories, a ship’s wheel,
lanterns, a lens from the Portland Island Lighthouse,
a diver’s helmet,
a mould for a ship’s winch,
and rows and rows of log books. These last list the arrivals and departures at Napier Port – each entry manually recorded. That’s what we did before computers. We wrote everything down.
Later, we drive along Pandora Road – the site of what was once the new bridge. Now, it’s one of the busiest routes in town, lined with caryards and retail outlets and cafes, all competing for attention from the stream of cars that go by. I get goosebumps. The past is still here. Even if we do things differently now.
WP Photography Challenge: Inspiration
*from History of the Rain by Niall Williams which on the strength of this quote and the recommendation of a friend (Hi P) has been promoted to the top of my reading list.
Come on in and join the korero, tell me about your very first adventure …