Southerly by David Haywood

When the Nor'wester Blows

The abruptness with which the seasons change in Christchurch is always a surprise to me. Last Tuesday we were having pleasant winter weather. There was a frost in the morning, the day was clear and sunny, and the wind was icy. I wore my thermal jacket and felt cold. On Friday the Nor'wester blew in -- and summer arrived.

For many Cantabrians the Nor'westers of summer are an absolute torment. The Föhn effect over the Southern Alps produces a sweltering wind that roars across the Canterbury Plains like air from a gigantic hairdryer. It shakes pollen from the grass, and brings 'Nor'wester sickness' to the citizens of Christchurch. The heat is stifling. During a Nor'wester, nurses snap irritably at their patients, and fraught school-teachers put their whole class on detention.

By mid-morning on Friday the Nor'wester was raising a chop on the normally-placid surface of the Avon. It was an unusually high tide. The whitebait were migrating upriver, and -- comparatively speaking -- the tow-paths had become a frenzy of activity. I counted more than a dozen whitebaiters on the riverbank in the immediate vicinity of our house. Each of them stood alone in a Zen-like trance, with their net held hopefully in their hands. No-one was moving. No-one was catching any whitebait.

According to Wikipedia, the Nor'wester has been "statistically linked to increases in suicide and domestic violence", but there was no sign of this among the fishermen. You need a calm disposition to enjoy whitebaiting as an activity. In my lifetime, I have only once seen a display of temper from a whitebaiter, and that was when he fell into the Avon. He looked slightly annoyed, and said: "Oh heck".

But domestic violence can be just around the corner in a Nor'wester. As I walked along the tow-path I heard a child crying, and went to investigate. It was a little girl, about four years old, and her father was trying to quell her tears with an interesting technique. He was smacking her. "Stop crying," he hissed at his daughter, "or I'll smack you again." The little girl was trying to gulp back her tears, but was having difficulty under the onslaught of blows. She let out another sob. "Shut up," her father said, and slapped her face.

It wasn't a very hard slap, but I could hear it from where I was standing on the opposite bank of the river. Her father looked up, and saw me watching. "Right, we're going now," he said. He picked up his sobbing daughter, and with rapid strides carried her off into the hot dry wind.

By lunchtime it was getting on for 30 degrees. The washing we'd hung on the clothesline was bone dry within an hour. Opening the front door was like stepping into a fan-oven.

Around two o'clock we heard shouting and screaming. The phrase "I'm going to kill you" was repeated several times. I looked out the sitting room window, and saw two people wrestling in the middle of the road. By the time I'd raced outside they had separated -- and a chase was in progress down the footpath.

I use the word 'chase' advisedly. One of the protagonists appeared to be a teenage girl. Her pursuer was an elderly chap in slippers and a dressing-gown. It was hardly a high-speed pursuit -- the old bloke shuffled along at perhaps two kilometres per hour. "Come back here," he rasped, shaking his walking stick. "I'm going to throttle the life out of you!"

My presence seemed to diffuse the conflict immediately. The old chap hobbled off muttering threats, and the teenage girl -- who on closer inspection turned out to be a teenage boy wearing a dress -- sat down on the footpath and started to weep.

I asked if he was all right. He answered with a tearful request: "Could I please use your telephone?". We walked back to the house. He paused at the front door, and peered into the gloom of our hallway. "Have you had this place exorcised?" Our disintegrating residence bears a remarkable resemblance to a haunted house, so this is not an uncommon question.

He perked up when we gave him some biscuits and a cup of tea. Between biscuits he told Jennifer a long rambling story about buying a handbag. Jennifer hasn't owned a handbag since she was fourteen, but she did a masterful job of pretending to be interested.

Eventually we discovered that the old chap was his step-grandfather. They'd been having a conversation about lifestyle choices, and the dialogue had got out of hand. His step-grandfather had offered to resolve their differences by administering a beating with a lump of wood.

The boy's family was a dizzying confusion of aunties, uncles, step-siblings, and foster-parents. Unfortunately he didn't really get along with any of them except his sister. "My sister isn't narrow-minded," he said. "She lets me live my own life."

He telephoned his sister, but she took forever to arrive. In the meantime we chatted about the size of our television set, which -- as he pointed out -- is much too small. Eventually the sister turned up, and gave him a consoling hug. He looked quite cheerful as they drove away in her car.

Jennifer and I went back indoors, and poured ourselves a cold drink.

Outside it was hot and dry. The trees threshed and swayed, the power-lines thrummed like guitar strings, and the Nor'wester howled on.