On Okarito and being a mistress to a ‘poet’
Bridget Wilson takes us to the West Coast in 1973, where she met someone on the road who would show her the meaning of inner worlds
In the early seventies in New Zealand, a small but burgeoning sub-culture of young people were buying up land in the backblocks. Property was super-cheap in those hidden-away places. Back then, before we had a tourism industry, people didn’t generally visit places like Okarito on the wild West Coast in the deep south of the South Island. This tiny settlement – not even big enough to be a town in those days – lay at the end of a dusty road. Half of its handful of weather-beaten houses faced the thunderous surf and the other half looked out over a still, calm estuary. If Okarito was known for anything, it was a colony of white herons or kotuku: ghostly, elegant birds, who lived and bred in a sanctuary. A few, less sophisticated creatures also lived there, but mostly it was a place for baches, or modest holiday homes built of wood.
Back in the 1860s gold miners from all over the world had arrived in their droves by ship and had to navigate a treacherous sandbar which claimed a few lives over the years. Before the arrival of the wannabe millionaires, it was a Maori settlement, whose residents had easy access to kaimoana (seafood) – and those styly white kotuku feathers which they wove into korowai (cloaks).
In the summer of 1973, my old school friend Jill Poulston and I hitch-hiked for hours, starting our journey in Christchurch on the east coast, a good 150km away. I had just finished my first job at the Timaru Herald after graduating journalism school at Wellington Polytechnic at the end of 1971. Jill was still at teachers’ training college in Christchurch, and I was on my way to the Great Ngaruawahia Music Festival, the first of its kind in New Zealand. I had no plans for any further employment but later that year ended up working at the New Zealand Press Association in Wellington. Jill went on to have a stellar career as an academic, ending up with a PhD and lecturing in her specialist subject all over the world. I stayed with journalism for 36 years before being made redundant along with scores of other sub-editors, then retraining in my mid-50s as an addictions therapist.
Back in 1973 we were 20 years old and, being car-less, hitch-hiking was our only option and still a relatively safe mode of transport in those innocent days. The 1970 murder of a hitch-hiker called Jennifer Beard had been widely reported, and the year before I’d interviewed Gordon Bray, the police’s primary suspect who was at the time living in Timaru, but he was never arrested and the case remains unsolved. Clearly, we were in denial that such a thing would happen again and happily hitched all over the country and later in Europe as well. Anyway, getting to Okarito wasn’t that easy because public transport in that neck of the woods was unheard of in those days.
We finally made it to Okarito and thanked our last lift who’d picked us up just off the main road on the rugged West Coast and driven us for a good hour along the bumpy, dusty, final leg into Okarito. It wasn’t hard to find our mates, the new landowners (of which Jill was one), who were putting up a fairly shabby tent on their match-box sized piece of Okarito dirt. I’d known we’d all be camping – there were about six or seven of us – and had brought my own sleeping bag. And at that tender age, I was not yet one for thinking things through, so hadn’t banked on there being nothing between my sleeping bag and the sandy Okarito soil.
It was raining.
West Coast rain is a bit different to rain in other parts of New Zealand, nay, the world. It’s like a wall of water. That day it was coming down in container-sized shipments. Luckily, I’d brought my trusty oil-skin parka, a garment so popular with so many of the Kiwi population in those days that it was considered a fashion statement. It came with its own special odour because the coarse, black fabric had indeed been infused with oil, giving it its water-proof property. The loose sleeves were slightly too long and its shapeless length hung around knee-level. A beautifully proportioned body underneath the famous Kiwi oil-skin parka could easily go undetected.
It was unseasonably cold for summer. My sandalled feet squished through the ubiquitous puddles, and I started to wonder why I had come to this godforsaken place.
The tent people explained that we needed supplies, so after we pooled our limited funds, Jill and I set off for the only grocery gig in town. The general store at Okarito had definitely been there since the gold-rush days. Its ancient weather boards had lost any remnant of paint decades ago. The sign on the front, General Store, looked as if it belonged in a period film. I half expected to see a hitching post. We marvelled at the quaintness of the shop inside. Cans of food on the wooden shelves looked like they had been there for 20 years. Shafts of sunlight angled in through a few high windows, and millions of dust motes floated in the still air.
As we wandered along the wide, wooden, creaking floorboards, looking for ingredients for a meal, I noticed a man with straggly, shoulder-length brown hair and a bushy beard. He looked much older than us; at least 30. He was talking to the storekeeper in a familiar way, so I guessed he was a local. I had a habit of guessing what people did for work.
‘I bet he’s a poet,’ I whispered to Jill.
Back at the campsite the tent was finally up. It had been hard yakka and someone broke out some beers. We sat around inside the tent, drinking the luke-warm, weak Kiwi ale and toasted the fact that some of our damp little party had achieved the title of landowner. Dinner was a non-descript, cobbled-together array of unappetising things we’d bought at the store. The rain meant we couldn’t use the barbeque, so there wasn’t much else to do but to go to bed. I wriggled into my sleeping bag which I found a space for on the edge of the elderly tent. It was leaking in places.
After an uncomfortable night of sleeping restlessly on the hard ground, I woke up to realise my sleeping bag was wet through in places; I was cold and grumpy and alone in the tent.
The rain had eased off to a damp drizzle and a weak sun was trying hard to break through the thick cloud cover. The Southern Alps in the distance were shrouded in mist and a pervading grey gloom seemed to envelop everything. The weather didn’t help my low mood. The others had gone off to explore, and by the time I decided to go looking for them it was mid-morning.
I was clambering around some rocks by the water’s edge when a man’s voice called out. It was coming from somewhere above me. As I stopped, balancing precariously with feet on two rocks, I looked up to see it was the poet. He was waving to me from the deck of his bach, on a small rise above the township.
‘Do you like mussels?’ he shouted. ‘I picked a whole feed of them this morning and there’s too many just for me.’
I hadn’t had anything to eat since the meal the night before and I was hungry. Now I’d have a chance to check out my theory about the ‘poet’; he looked very interesting.
His name was Dick Nicholls. He wasn’t a poet at all, but worked in a library in Victoria University in Wellington and wrote record reviews in his spare time. He was staying in his parents’ bach for a week to get away from the city. I was intrigued. No-one as old as Dick had ever paid me any attention. He seemed genuinely to want to hear what I had to say. He was 32.
I was wearing a silver roach clip on a thin strip of leather around my neck. I’d bought it in Wellington at one of those ‘head’ stores that smelled of incense and the fragrant oils that hippies wore. The tips that clasped the numerous roaches I’d smoked were slightly discoloured. I treasured it; there was something beautiful in the symmetry of the silver clasps that I liked a lot.
‘I needed that,’ I said after I had gorged on the fresh mussels that Dick had served up. Their luscious, fat bodies were a taste sensation. Afterwards, over a cup of tea Dick asked me if I would like a smoke. He deftly rolled a joint and we finished it off using my roach clip, which Dick admired. We talked for hours and hours and seemed to speak the same language despite our enormous age difference. I told Dick about my wet sleeping bag.
‘You can stay here if you like,’ he offered.
Not looking forward to another uncomfortable night in the leaky tent, I accepted. Dick was open about living with his long-term girlfriend in Wellington, but kindly proposed I share the other half of his bed.
He was a gentle, tender lover, not that I had much to compare him with. I’d had one or two trysts with inept boys, so my sexual experiences this far had left me wondering why people made such a fuss about this thing called sex. Now I began to understand. I felt so close to Dick and told him things I’d never told anyone.
Dick and I barely left each other’s side for the three days in his parents’ modest, little wooden bach. We talked and talked and laughed and laughed, and at night – and sometimes during the day – he made love to me with a tenderness I didn’t know was possible.
Given that he was in a long-term relationship, I quite liked the notion that I could be a mistress. It seemed somehow to be an exotic vocation – romance without the mundane domain of domesticity.
Dick gave me permission to fart without being ashamed. We both farted with gay abandon whenever we felt like it and laughed at each other’s wit and stories. He was a great reader and had read authors I had never heard of. In quiet times he gave me books to read. I devoured one of Anais Nin’s diaries and felt an immediate kinship with the author. Dick told me that Nin had been the mistress of the great American writer Henry Miller, which added to my fantasy about the role of mistress that I thought I could see myself carrying off with aplomb. Nin, married to a conservative banker, was such a wonderfully glamorous, free spirit; no-one in her affairs of the heart ever seemed to get hurt. I admired the way she wrote about her therapy sessions with the distinguished Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who had been a colleague of Freud. Nin alluded to a ménage a trois with Miller and his wife June which also sent me off into daydreams about how I might like to try out this kind of encounter.
‘I wonder what it’d be like to do psychoanalysis,’ I thought out loud to Dick. What would it be like to delve into one’s self? Nin used the word ‘self’ a lot; it was a new notion that I liked the sound of. Taking Nin’s lead, in the late 70s I did embark on a revelatory course of several months of therapy with the respected psychiatrist Dr Roberta Highton at Ashburn Hall in Dunedin. But that’s another story, suffice it to say that I knew no-one else who was doing psychotherapy and I was terrified that someone would see me creeping in to the dreary old psychiatric hospital each week trying to look incognito. At the time, part of my job as a television reporter involved reading the news on the nightly South Tonight regional TV news programme. We’ve come a long way since then by recognising and destigmatising mental health issues, but back then my shame was palpable.
When it was time to leave Okarito, Dick gave me Nin’s diary, volume three 1939-1944 which was published in 1963. As I walked down the path back to the tent it was hard to read his inscription through my tears. It read: ‘Build up your own private inner world and save a space for me. Farts, yawns, and belches to BW from RNipples. Okarito New Year 1973!’ He marked page 139 where Nin had written: ‘I realised we can never understand why people love each other, because to the lover they show a side we do not know. It is the lover who operates a transformation and it is to this love we give our fullest self, our fullest gifts. We outsiders never see the enlarged human being who appears in the spotlight of an intense love.’
The reference to RNipples was because Dick had played a cameo role as a policeman in a film called Tank Busters, made for television in 1970 and directed by the late Geoff Murphy, who also took a starring role. In the credits one of the characters is called Ridgid (sic) Nipples. There was much consternation at the national television broadcaster when it was about to go to air because originally Dick was named as Rock Hard Nipples, for some inexplicable reason, and in its wisdom the NZBC made the filmmakers change it.
I often remembered Nin’s piece of advice when, from time to time, girlfriends of mine over the years seemed to hook up with unlikely types and I struggled to see the attraction. Then I would remember her wise words about not being able to see the side of the lover that reveals itself only to the other. I collected Nin’s books and read them (and reread them) all over the years. I had just written a fan letter to her in 1977, when I learned that she had died. Her influence started me on a long career of keeping a journal and seeing therapists of my own, which in turn led me to becoming a therapist myself, of the addictions variety.
Dick and I made plans to hook up again in Wellington and he gave me his phone number at the library. We both wrote short stories about our three days together in Okarito. He called his ‘From the Store to Here’ and gave it to me several months later. He too had noticed me in the general store and described how a beam of light had picked up the soft fuzz of the hair around my forehead. ‘Bit like a halo,’ he wrote. I called my story simply ‘Dick’ and wrote about how good the mussels tasted and the silver roach clip that I left behind, somewhere in the tangled sheets of Dick’s bed.
Bridget Wilson is a former journalist and sub-editor who now works as an addiction therapist.
She can be contacted at www.solutionsauckland.com.
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