Concerning Nell: Strand by strand

Cold sou’west rain in late January. Nothing like it to keep a person indoors and contemplating the sedentary work awaiting her. In this case the blog that groans and creaks from under-use.

It always helps to start with an image. (Goes hunting through recent pics…)


These rough strands? Chimney plugs. Earlier in the summer, when indoor fires were still occasionally required in Dunedin, we lit ours. Gusts and tufts of smoke forced their way out through the door seal into the living room. R climbed onto the roof and fished around in the chimney, pulled out ti tree leaves and metres of grass. Relit the fire: smoke went up; smoke came down. Starlings were seen, and heard, scratching about up there. We made more smoke. They did more bird business. Another roof expedition: more vegetation removed. More smoke — inside the house. R capped the chimney with wire netting and called the expert. What you see above is what they retrieved from deep in the flu. Think of the labour. Strand by strand, the starlings gathered and flew and wriggled into the small chimney space and wove and wound, and repeated, trip after trip — in spite of human interference and smoke storms, banging and bad-mouthing. Puts me to shame. About the only area where I’ve manage to practise such pertinacity is in the writing of novels. Scene by scene, line by line. Who knows why. Bird-brained, perhaps.

When we go to Naseby, we walk most evenings up onto Ridge Road. You can see why. The light is in constant flux. The hill at the centre is Mt Kyeburn, the highest point on the sheep station where my grandparents farmed from 1927 to 1947. Danseys Pass Road winds up the valley to its east. It must have been a formidable place to raise five children. These days, we shut up the Naseby family house in winter, knowing that any un-emptied pipes would freeze and that the little woodburner would be inadequate to the task of warming the living-room, let alone further afield. Nell and Herb (as I’ve called him in the novel) built a concrete house at Glenshee — quite a novelty in the 1920s and quite a horror to contemplate from the comfort of the 2020s, since there was no insulation. Dad was given the open-air sun porch to sleep in, year-round. Still, he got a strong constitution.

That’s Nell in white in about 1910 when she would have been 13 and enjoying one of her few high school years. She was called home to help out on the farm. I don’t know what sort of car this is, but as early as 1915, Nell drove a Singer. In the novel the car becomes her passport to freedom, or the version of freedom available to a young woman born a hundred and twenty years ago.