ReadingRoom

The curious case of a fictional spa in Westport

A personal essay by novelist and Westport journalist Becky Manawatu.

A new advertiser has shown up in our daily print Westport paper, The News. An advertisement for the Kawatiri Palms Beach Spa runs across the bottom of the front page every Friday. It arrived just as advertising was being pulled because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

I thought, “Wow, how did I not know about this place? Damn sure I’ll be down for a beach spa when all this is over.”

So I googled Kawatiri Palms Beach Spa to find out where it was and what it had to offer. Strangely, nothing appeared in my search.

*

Early in 2016 we were living in Nelson renting a really nice little house close to my Aunty Tollie’s house and the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology where I was doing tertiary study for the first time in my life. The house was also close to The Sprig and Fern Tavern on Hardy Street where I worked.

I studied during the day while the kids were at school. They’d come home, we’d have a few hours together, maybe a meal that was like a dinner and I’d walk to the tavern, where I mostly worked in the kitchen. I cooked pub grub – the chicken, beef or falafel burgers, the salmon caper and red onion pizza, the bangers and mash, the pork dumplings. I got food cooked and out to the people at a pretty good speed if I do say so myself. When the kitchen took a hammering, I was in my element. Even if I f**ked up, the stress there made me feel alive.

We came to a loose end after a year in our rental house. The landlords wanted to get some renovations done so decided not to renew our contract. We didn’t really know what we should do – all the rental properties were either too expensive or out of the immediate area we needed to live as I still hadn’t got my driver’s licence.

We were coming home to my Dad’s house in Waimangaroa in Westport a lot on my weekends off. Spent days sitting around beach fires with our friends and surfing and hiking and swimming in our beautiful awa which was just walking distance from Mum and Dad’s house.

Looking for an affordable rental house in Nelson became uninspiring. My dad was living alone in this big house. Waimangaroa was basically a ghost town – but why shouldn’t we just go back there?

One evening in 2016 I went on TradeMe to check out jobs in Westport. There were only two: one at the Stockton coal mine, and one as a reporter with the The News.

*

I used the word “serendipitous” in my cover letter to The News. I called the editor Lee Scanlon before I’d even emailed anything off because I badly wanted the job and I wanted to flag to her my CV would be on its way. She was at a wedding. I said, “Hey, anyway, I know your son, Troy, how is he?”

I’d last seen him a few months previously when he came into the tavern. I was in the kitchen, dishes up to my eyeballs and grease in my hair and a thin film of sweat on my face, and he popped his head into the wee hole in the wall.

He said, “Becky, how are you?”

I said, “Troy! I’m great. Bit tired if I’m honest, but man, cool to see you.”

It was cool, he was looking swish, I wasn’t, but a friendly Coast face popping up to say hello is always good.

Every night, smelling of grease, I walked home by the light of stars and moon, usually with my free after-work pint of craft beer in my belly, to my little rental house in the Brook and my family would be sound asleep. Sometimes I’d write a bit more of the novel I was working on before hitting the sack and yeah, life was lovely. Life is often quite lovely in hindsight.

*

One day, soon after applications for the reporter’s job closed, Lee called me up, and said she’d like to interview me for the position. I arrived to the office dressed casually, jeans, a red shirt with white love hearts on it, chucks on my feet.

We talked; me, excitedly and nervously; Lee, friendly, but stoic. As part of the interview she asked me to edit something she’d written poorly for the purpose of the exercise. Lee’s keyboard was so worn out the symbols had disappeared from the keys. The sight of it kind of slapped me in the the face a bit. It was like they were saying, “Look here little Miss Over-Excited, this woman has worked so hard the symbols on her key board couldn’t keep up, and does that matter to her? No, she carries on, will you?”

Probably not, I told myself. But I’d give it a crack.

Lee told me I was underqualified for the job. Other applicants had training in journalism.

“However, none of them are from here, and very few of them will choose to stay here,” she said.

She added that she was me once, a journalist who learned on the job.

“So I’m taking a gamble on you,” she said.

*

My early stories included about a local boy who invited friends to his birthday and asked for them to bring cat food as presents so he could donate them to the SPCA; a local identity story about an artist, Mike Duffield, who sold a painting for $1500 to Scottish travellers who killed some time waiting for their bus by taking a quick squiz at the Buller Art Exhibition; and a couple who spent a less than romantic night in their new house bus to escape the wrath of Cyclone Fehi which sent the sea up to lap at their back doorstep.

Writing these stories made me happy. One of the first times I got to make a more personal mark was when I wrote a very short column about how me and my husband had a fight and we had not long got adopted kittens/almost cats from the SPCA and one did a shit in the bathroom. Husband was running himself a bath and he was upstairs getting some bed wear or something and I went to use the loo and I saw one of the cats had shat on the floor.

The rule in our house was if you saw a cat’s shit first, you cleaned it up.

I hoofed out of there and shut the door on the steamed up bathroom with the dirty steamed-up turd and sat back at the table where I’d been when he left. None the wiser he went in and saw the shit. He had to clean it up, and started bellowing and I sat at the table giggling, because that’d learn him for fighting with me and not saying sorry. “Who’s sorry now?”, I laughed to myself.

I told hubby the next day and he actually pissed himself laughing and then I wrote a story about it and Lee published it.

In town people would stop and say to me, “Hey Becky, that cat story was crack up.”

In town people would say to Tim, “Oh mate, bit burned on the whole cat shit thing, eh?”

Strange but it was probably the thing that brought me into my own; it was when I really discovered this small power I had in me, a power which could be exerted through my love of story writing.

As much mana as there is to gain from writing well, from being capable of expressing what you want to say, there is humility to be gained by the mistakes you make in print for the whole wide Westport to see.

I once Freudian-slipped the name of a woman I didn’t like into a story of a woman who I did like. I called my boss crying and Lee said something like, “You will do it again too, so maybe pull yourself together.” But she also laughed and made me feel less alone. “Happens to us all.”

*

The sound of the printing press running at the end of the day is a sound that all daily print paper journalists get sentimental about. There’s so much meaning in that sound. It is the coming together of all the moving parts and people that create a paper. From Lee, first in the door each morning, to our manager Van Neighbours and the administration staff Emma and Amanda, from Robyn proofreading all our work and Ellen setting out the local news pages. Brett sorting ads, setting out national and world news pages, Ray getting the advertising which keeps us going, head printer Debbie, and print works comrades Steve, Shane, Rick, Kevin and Sharna, to us reporters, including Teresa who returns when we need her, to all the schoolkids arriving each afternoon for their paper run. To our readers and all the stories they trust us with.

I’ve been working away from my office long enough to be nostalgic for many things at The News building on the corner of Wakefield and Palmerston St and the sound of the press running at the end of the day is just one of them. Others are the people who wander in at random with news tips and going to people’s homes and hearing their stories.

I miss being able to run things by Lee, and chat with fellow reporters.

When I arrived at my office the morning of March 20, Lee said to me, “Mōrena. But don’t settle in.”

I saw the other reporter Ellen Curnow wasn’t in her spot and it was too early for Raquel Joseph.

I sat in a chair, opposite, but physically distant from Lee, much like the day I had my interview with her, only feeling very subdued.

She told me we weren’t going to keep printing the paper. She didn’t want to risk anyone getting sick. Though we were an essential service, she said, our last printed paper would be that evening. We would keep up a daily online paper, which would disappoint some of our readers, particularly older ones, but it was in the interest of keeping the staff safe and healthy.

It was sad. I was sad. She was sad. We were sad sitting there then, before it was even announced the country was going into lockdown, with this huge unknown before us.

Our paper has run for free throughout the lockdown. Lee and her husband Kevin made that decision, as a gesture to the community, at a time people are divided by physical distancing, we are united by local community stories.

*

Kawatiri Palms Beach Spa does not exist. It seems someone has decided to pay The News for an advertisment because they thought, well, here’s something, not a lifeline, but a gesture.

One day we might get to tell that story.

Auē by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press, $35) by Becky Manawatu is shortlisted in the 2020 Ockham New Zealand book awards, to be held on May 12. Her remarkable ReadingRoom essay "The novelist whose sister married into the Mongrel Mob" is a finalist in the best personal essay category (alongside the ReadingRoom essay about Ihumātao, "Everyone was there, e hoa" by Tayi Tibble) in the 2020 Voyager media awards, to be held in "late May".

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