It’s summer and we’re painting the spare room, and it’s reminding me of an unusual friendship that I made when I was much younger, and my introduction to gin.

It was the end of my first year of my BA at Canterbury University and I was 19, broke, and badly needed work. A mediocre waitress (too short tempered), I ignored the myriad hospitality ads on the student work board and took the one that it was likely no one else would apply for. Farm hand on a small mixed-use farm over on the peninsular. It was just out of Governors Bay where my friend B lived, and she assured me that it would be okay to stay with her and her mother M for the summer.

Governors Bay. Who knew hell could be so picturesque?

If you saw me at the time (pale, skinny, punk hairdo) you wouldn’t pick me for a farm hand, and neither did the farmer, however he had had the notice up for some time and was growing desperate, with crops to be picked and other myriad chores needed, so somewhat reluctantly he accepted. My parents were equally as surprised and probably sceptical, but I believe they were happy for me to have work and supposed that I would make a go of it, or not, and what would happen would happen.

Sheep are stupid and fast

It turned out to be pretty much the worst summer job of my life, and one of the worst summers in general. First, the work. My previous experience on the ‘land’ had been picking peas for the Chinese market gardeners over the road, who loved me and my younger brother James as apparently, we picked the best and fastest. (This was probably what gave me my false belief that I would be good at this job). I had also spent some bitterly cold mornings potato picking (and moaning) in Methven with my cousins and knew this job to be utterly without any redeeming feature, but in the warmth of summer this seemed a distant memory.

I soon realised the physical hard work and monotony involved in being a farm hand, and the farmer soon realised that I just wasn’t that good at any of it. I picked strawberries and potatoes, weeded on my hands and knees, packed produce, and on one humiliating occasion chased after sheep, trying to encourage the idiot animals to go through a gate while the farmer drove around on a motorbike shouting at me and the dogs barked fit to raise hell.  But he never sacked me, so I guess he figured even my pair of hands was better than none.

Fish and house guests stink after three days

Secondly, the living situation was far from ideal. M was a very successful author, and the house was wonderful, all angles and huge garden and books, but it was my first time out of home, and B and her mother M were very close.  I felt like a spare dick at the wedding. Unhappiness in me shows up in criticism, so I’m sure I was a difficult house guest. One night, as I lay in my bed, I heard B and her mother talk below me in the kitchen, and B told M that she didn’t want me in the house any more, and M told her they couldn’t just kick me out, and that the summer would soon be over, and it would be okay. My face burned with humiliation. It was as bad as the sheep incident. The next day I pretended I hadn’t heard. I tried harder to be positive, even though now I felt worse than ever.  

I don’t know now why I didn’t admit defeat and leave the house and job and go home. Maybe pride? Also, I badly needed the money. So I persevered.

Not really built for manual work

A strange and welcome friendship

There was one light in all this dimness. Sometimes, when the farmer had run out of things for me to do, or patience, he would tell me to go and help his British father-in-law, who was renovating the old farmhouse in the middle of the property. I was always pleased when this was the case.

For the life of me I cannot remember the old man’s name, but I can remember what he looked like. He was small, nuggety and wirey, with crazy white hair. He was painting the house white, walls and ceilings, and the work was beautiful. He would give me some small task to do, something I couldn’t ruin too much, and we would listen to the proper radio (not the horrible commercial channel that the farmer listened to), then come 4.30 or so he would make us both a large gin.

The gin was Gordon’s, which probably explains my continued preference for it above all those fancy over-priced wanker’s gins. The glass would be half gin, and half warm tonic (there was no power in the house). There may or may not have been a slice of lemon, I can’t remember. I just remember the bitter taste, and then the warmth as the gin moved into my body, flowing into the all the sad chinks and creases. Then we would sit in the afternoon sunshine and talk.

The father-in-law had been a painter and a decorator in various parts of the world. He’d also been a sailor, a cook, and other occupations that all seemed so colourful to me. I can’t remember what I told him about me. I hope that I wasn’t too much of a pain in the arse. I just remember getting tipsy with him, and finally relaxing, just a little.

An early farewell

Guilty cake in Nelson with Kathy Little

Two close friends and I made plans to go to sea-side Nelson for a week in January. The farmer, unwilling, let me go for the holiday but I was meant to return for a final two weeks to harvest something or another.  A coward, I sent a post-card from Nelson, telling him that I wasn’t returning. It was a great relief to get away from both the farm and B’s house. I can’t remember if I had the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to the old man. I hope that I did.

There’s so much in the news now about older men taking advantage of young women, and I have my share of those stories, but I never for one moment felt that the painter wanted to take advantage of me. There was just a simple friendship, offered by someone kind enough to sit with an angry and upset young woman and make at least one part of her day bearable.