The boys of summer make a splash in French Pass

1971 – the summer I was sixteen. We’d moved from the Waikawa Bay farm to Kapowai Bay on D’Urville Island a couple of years before and my parents ran launch and Land Rover transport, baches for hire and fishing trips. That January I worked five days a fortnight in the French Pass store: Monday and Thursday, the mail bus days, plus once a fortnight on ‘truck’ day – when a Transport Nelson truck brought supplies in from Rai Valley.

The store, on the shoreline near the French Pass wharf, was an old wooden building with a rusting tin roof. It dated from the end of the 19th century when Elmslie Bay was a stop on the busy sea route between Nelson and Wellington. Roy Webber, my father’s cousin, was the store’s proprietor, a JP and the local wharfinger. He was always called ‘Mr Roy’ by us youngsters to distinguish him from his brother ‘Mr Wallace’, who ran the farm, Anaru. Roy had taken over the store in 1928 at the age of 18 and run it ever since.

The store’s walls were dark with age, lined with shelves stacked with tins and packets behind a cluttered L-shaped wooden counter. Cobwebs festooned the gloomy ceiling; the only natural light came from the door and one small, grimy window facing the sea. In the 1970’s it was already an antique exhibit: rice, sugar and flour scooped from a sack or wooden bin, weighed on cast iron scales with brass weights and packaged in brown paper bags, cheese sliced off an enormous, pungent yellow block which sat in the store room under a wooden box, and of course, no refrigeration.

Roy had a complex system for managing orders telephoned in from farms on the French Pass peninsula, D’Urville Island and around Admiralty Bay. The order was written in pencil in the order book. Next the goods were collected, placed on the counter and ticked off. The first tick was crossed when the item was packed in the box carefully selected, according to the size of the order, from the store room.  It took some time to teach me this system – not because I was dense, but because I had to reproduce Roy’s method exactly. There was also the question of the pencil. It normally resided behind Roy’s right ear. Another one had to be located for me and I was enjoined not to lose it.

A widower, Roy liked routine. At midday he always sent me up to the ‘big house’, the house where his parents had lived and where he and “Mrs Roy” had raised five children, to make our lunch: tomato and onion sandwiches, two vanilla wine biscuits each and a cup of strong sweet tea brewed in a chipped enamel teapot. This menu never varied.

And so the summer passed. To a restless teenager, it seemed as if nothing new would ever happen. But one sultry Thursday afternoon, when I was outside readying crates of fizz bottles for the truck, the paua divers tied up at the wharf in their fancy speed boats.

Four long haired young men and a few female hangers-on, they were renting a farm house in isolated Port Hardy. Rumour had it they were using scuba gear to harvest paua illegally. They’d had three big chest freezers shipped down and were aiming to make a large profit selling their catch. Dad had already run into one of their ‘entourage’ when he visited the house to mend a faulty phone. Leaving, job done, he was startled when a naked young woman emerged from the surrounding bush. “She didn’t seem at all concerned to see me,” I overheard him tell Mum when he got home.

Now the paua divers were at the French Pass wharf. As I watched, they stripped everything off, climbed onto the wharf shed roof and dive bombed into the sea, yelling and shouting. I retreated inside. This was not how people usually behaved at French Pass, except perhaps at New Year when local fishing boats tied up for the annual dance. Roy shook his head and muttered disapprovingly.

Then they came into the store, tall, tanned and, to my great relief, wearing shorts. It was a quick visit: one of them opened the chocolate cupboard, took half a dozen slabs of Cadbury’s finest and tossed them to his mates as they walked back out the door. My jaw dropped at their arrogance and Roy’s passive acquiescence. I was aghast and, perhaps, just a little impressed.

Despite their confident attitude, the paua divers’ plans came unstuck before summer ended. We ended up with one of the chest freezers – the company owed money on it offered it to Dad for the trouble of retrieving all three. That freezer served our family of eight very well for a long time.

Roy Webber continued to own and run the French Pass store until his death in 1984, latterly in a new building.

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First published in the Nelson Evening Mail

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Angela Fitchett

Angela Fitchett is a retired teacher living in Nelson. Also retired from writing English textbooks and columns for local paper the Nelson Mail, she is researching and writing a memoir based around her father’s war experiences while attempting to keep up with her grandchildren and garden.