How to Read a Kiwi Penguin Classic
I read Came a Hot Friday by the dim light of a coal range called Old Smokey, in a remote homestead at the Gutter end of Mason Bay, Rakiura Stewart Island. A damp salty breeze ghosted through the wooden floorboards lifting coal dust perfume like a scented man candle. The fire crackled. The wetback hissed. The roof tin barked. The macrocarpas magpied. My three kids giggled in their sleeping bags in the scrim-lined bunkroom. The Husband was probably peeing off the veranda even though the house rules stated no urinating off the deck. Ronald Hugh Morrison was a deliberate choice from my boxed set of Kiwi Orange Penguins. I could have chosen Koea or Gee. But I’d never read the 1964 classic, only watched the movie with Billy T hamming it up as The Tainuia Kid, alongside bad arses Wes and Cyril and their racing rort swindling local bookies. I might have poured a wee dram in Ronald’s honour. He was a heavy drinker who earned his living as a music teacher and never left Hāwera. He died aged fifty with only two of his books published. ‘I hope I’m not another one of these poor buggers who get discovered when they’re dead.’ The first chapter sets up the story in the small wood milling town of Te Arahau with an arson gone so wrong I smelt the siphoned petrol on Morrie Shapaleski’s breath. Compulsive gambler Morrie, desperate to wipe his debt, unknowingly torched a sleeping mate. Another homestead rule is no candles. Bare bulbs powered by the solar panel under the deer antlers on the roof fluttered warnings. The place would go up like a jumping jack in a matchbox. The word homestead always makes me think of something grand like Southfork on 70’s TV show Dallas. Kilbride is your regular Kiwi rimu villa. Front door centre stage, hallway, each room afforded one window. Daylight daren’t enter. It was the home of a plucky sheepfarming family. Run 533. 1902. They hauled wool bales across the island by horse and dray to barge to Invercargill. Stewart’s a swampy mare. The mind literally bogs at this image. The lone villa is a coastal homeowner’s dream. Set back from the sweeping bay, high in the sand dunes, nestled in front of thick bush. An adventure park level swing hangs from a squawking macrocarpa. Thick fisherman rope of at least three metres a side and a slab of pine kept the kids high and happy for hours. I couldn’t read for long in the mole-worthy light. Early to bed. Early to rise. The next morning pre-dawn, just off the veranda we stood inches from a male kiwi (distinguished by its high-pitched whistle) gathering breakfast. Southern Brown / Tokoeka are the largest of our national badge, standing tall at a foot and a half in Ronald’s pre-metrics. Knee-high and seemingly deaf and anosmic to humans, the feather-cloaked dude tapped then plunged his long pale bill deep into damp sand, almost on our toes. Busy breaking fast with skulduggery on unsuspecting grubs. Occasionally, he seemed to sense my awe and cock his eye to one side. He told me to keep going with the book—Shadbolt said, ‘Surely the funniest book written by a New Zealander.’
The sun wasn’t even up.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Queenstown | Tāhuna based writer Jane Bloomfield is the author of the Lily Max children’s novels, and a keen new poet. Her writing has appeared in Tarot, The Spinoff, Newsroom, The Sapling, and Sunday Magazine. She was a Michael King Writer’s Centre Summer Resident, 2021.