“It’s a damn nuisance the pub closed.” the elderly Englishman I bump into outside the Post Office tells me. Damn nuisance — a polite, measured way of putting it. His wife, joining us with a post box key swinging between two fingers and a slight stash of letters in the crook of her arm agrees. They were part of the Tuesday club who had a preference for sitting with their backs against the front outside wall of the pub, unless a cold wind or rain blew in from the south. They’d meet early on Tuesdays and leave early to go home for tea. Biking down to join them occasionally I might miss them by minutes or just hear the last to leave calling, “time for tea, catch you next week.” Mostly immigrants, they could rock the wall some of them, lampooning with their tongue wagging and taking the piss. Soap boxing, that plangent lot and the late, big barrel chested, big bellied Higgy laughed loudest. There was, I always thought, something nostalgic in the way they gathered, the way they sat, and being immigrants, perhaps there was.
Taheke, not the oldest pub in the country — Horeke up the road is, though a few pubs down south say it isn’t. Horeke built on the edge of the far reaches of the Hokianga amongst mangroves with its view across the water to the mission at Mangungu. Taheke, built on a very desirable spot above a very navigable river which Government land buyers and surveyors began sniffing around in the late 1860s. Sniffing around, can picture that. In 1871 a Te Taheke resident, recorded as both Eruhiri and Eruhori was issued with a bush licence and there began its long history, its heydays, its slumps and changing fortunes. In all that time I only knew the place five minutes.
They say when Group Captain Peter Townsend’s ill fated romance with Princess Margaret ended in the 1960s he embarked on a world cruise — he and his broken heart stayed at the Taheke pub. I’ve always known the photographer Peter Peryer lived there in the early 1940s as a boy when his parents were publicans. These days, with cattle grazing in the field at the front of the pub down to the river I think of his black and white shot of a dead steer on the side of a rural road. Where might that road have been? There’s an old corrugated iron duck shooter’s hut between the willows below the pub, come May 1st the gunshots will start reverberating at dawn. Come spring time there’ll be a well worn track through the grass to the river bank, and whitebait nets left hanging over night.
Taheke pub, a shabby, congenial place, its structure neglected but not its purpose, well not till the very — bitter — end. No one minded the rotty, beer soaked carpet under the tables or where it frayed in corners and the old linoleum showed through. Hole in the wall by one of the pool tables? Mick made a new rack for the cues and covered it up. Pool tables not quite right, publican would ring up and say, “Mick, mate bring your level down next time you come.” And none of the women I knew minded the toilet cubicles didn’t shut properly, let alone lock. Took me a while to get used to walking in and finding someone pants down taking a pee. Conversations kept up with the doors wide open, made me feel like one of them though I always held the door shut with my foot when I needed to go.
Here’s the thing, pub like that belongs to everyone. Pub like that, as intimate and familiar as your own home. Everyone welcome.
“Where you from, you not from here?” you’d be asked. “Where you stay?” “Come, come, haere mai.”
Rural pubs in decline, but some evenings rows of gumboots and work boots lined up without saying at the door, or really wet ones brought inside to dry beside the fire, where pub cats and small dog slept, curled up close. Winter, fire always roaring, pub washing hanging on a clothes horse in front of it, customers filled the wood box up themselves. Pub’s our place, goes without saying you lend a hand. The same way Gloria would grab a damp cloth and wipe the tables down when they needed doing. She’d take the towels off the clothes horse when they dried to fold them, and she’d have emptied all the ash trays too, back in the day. Jools, who worked on a flower farm would turn up for Tuesday club with bunches of seconds in her arms, lilies, hydrangea and orchids, going out the back before she sat down for her first beer to arrange them in a white china jug on the bar.
Some nights, big Jabba might be the only one there, always in the same soft cloth khaki hat, in the same corner talking land wars with the publican. Some nights could be hard to push your way through the crowd at the door, hard to get a park and there’d be cars on the road all the way up the hill. Maui van might pull in dislodging its travellers wanting to use the loo, and I’d think — stay, stay a while why don’t you and lap this up. Reminded me of the first time I walked in and lapped up the big welcome, the big Hokianga warmth and haere mai. “Where you from? You not from round here, where you stay?”
Taheke pub patronage — a muster of farmers with big bots of lion red or brown in beefy hands, all swan-drys and dry as a bone, black singlets, check bushies, beanies, caps on top of beanies, talking harvests, milk prices going up or down, the weather. Grizzled old fella giving results from his rain gauge, “Been keepin’ it nigh on forty years, right as rain.” Horse play and buffoonery, could hear them cracking up as you came down the hill.
Jostling and posturing muscled up young fellas with caps on backwards, caps on sideways, someone singing, someone standing at the jute box the way teenagers stand at the open door of a fridge for ages trying to decide what to eat. Anything on at the marae, whanau might roll down later and sit out front with a couple of guitars, singing their hearts out, know all the words, know all the words to every popular song. How’s that?
There’d be Sir Clement, the kumera King with half his hair swept up in pink clips, hair the colour of a pale sun, his back all bent over from hard work with hands the size of shovels. Eru in a black suit jacket and red socks with tartan carpet slippers, Eru calling out to any passing boy, “Put another bloody log on that fire boy,” and “get me a bloody drink boy.” Eru with his beautiful hands resting over the top of his old carved stick. Eru, clean shaven one week, full grey beard the next. Merv who always wore a pair of shiny black dress pants from his days as a bouncer on K Road, dancing tip toe around the pool table, cue in his arms like a taiaha till he got bashful, his Mrs calling him a clown, “Sit down you fool.” Merv who taught me to make dough boys in the pub kitchen during a pool tournament with Rawene and couldn’t fathom why I then wouldn’t try them. “She’s a vege,” he went round the bar saying, “She learnt to make dough boys, but she’s a vege and wont eat them, huh?”
There were the occasional dreadful drunks, drunks got driven home, occasional punch up in the car park. “Seen it all before,” Eru would remark from his chair beside the fire, and, raising his eye brows make a soft clucking sound in the back of his throat, “seen it all bloody before.”
Publican would say, “Me? social worker, relationship counsellor, negotiator, gotta be in this job.” A grand pair of publicans they were with their razzamatazz, David all showmanship, hats for every occasion, Gail glowing, all gorgeousness behind the bar. Those publicans, made the pub glow they were such a couple of stars.
Thing is, pub like Taheke, a place to share news. When Tommy K died someone asked at his Tangi, “Where’s so and so?” So and so and more would have known Tommy K had died if the pub was still open. Served drinks all right, but served a lot more than that, place to find out and pass on the news, all the talk and a busy notice board beside the bar — raffle results, pool club meeting next Friday, “don’t forget!!”, dates for pool comps coming up, people would write those down, whanau urupa clean-up on the 1st Sunday, cube of dry firewood for sale, only eighty bucks. Photograph of someone’s lost kuri, “anyone seen my dog?” Community. Life. That’s what it was, a shabby Colonial pub, with its Tuesday club, gas bagging and putting the world to rights. Snowball on Fridays, ostensibly practise for pool club, hone up your skills — five dollars in, winner takes all. Pool club fund raiser, putting the hangi down for pig hunt. Preparations the afternoon before, big line up under the shade of the front veranda with the tables pushed together, felt like being on a conveyor belt with those fellas. “You’ve done this a few times,” I said, salting up the vege at the end of the line my first time, happy as, a smile on my face so wide my jaw ached.
Karaoke nights the blacked out ceiling dotted with sparkling, tiny silver lights. Mean talent, awesome. You’d leave early those nights or make yourself scarce out the front if you didn’t want to have a turn because it was hard to resist for long, and then, what the hell - because in that place, didn’t matter how good or bad you were. When I gave in and had a go, awkward and blushing no one minded me singing the same Amy Winehouse every time and singing her badly. Told me I was getting better, which I wasn’t, and never did. What one woman used to say, “What I do, get my tamariki to bed, wait till my fella comes home from work and then I can come down here and sing my heart out. Best night of the week.”
Mick’s favourite thing, pool club. Never been in a club before except chess but pool club made him feel like a real kiwi.
My favourite, Wednesdays at 7.00 — Taheke pub quiz. The faithful would take turns to write and run it, the faithful- locals, blow-ins and thieves- and we brought to it, all of us, our own particular passions, our storehouse — our pataka — of knowledge. Taheke pub quiz, distinctive and classy, I’d say to the cynical who rolled their eyes thinking it was all celebrity facts and figures, which it wasn’t. Could be biblical, who were Dismas and Gestas? How many animals at a time did Moses let on to the arc, he didn’t it was Noah. How many teeth does a mosquito have? Good question said someone, what kind of mongrel question is that said someone else.
Mick, the Londoner got booed his first time- Jim, grave and quiet saying, “What you need to remember is that some of us have never left Taheke.” Mick got lambasted too for his poor pronunciation, big Angel admonishing, “Hey Mr, we don’t say it like that up here.”
Poor Mick, hard to get it right, hard to please everybody. He tried multiple choice, true and false, but even Ella, Angel’s lovely daughter with a fresh flower behind her ear, who hardly ever raised her voice shouted at him, “We hate you uncle,” and soon after, “Mum, can we eat him yet?”
“Say again Jim.” Jim always got told. “Will ya repeat the question.” The woman from Yorkshire became harder to understand as her accent got thicker as the night got longer. Lots of yelling. And that priceless moment when someone asked what the ethnicity of the Yandall Sisters was, Waima team didn’t just give the right answer they burst into the first four or five verses of “Sweet Inspiration.” Beautiful.
Quiz, on Wednesdays, two dollars to play, winning team takes all. Most teams saved up their winnings to shout rounds. Ada and Jim’s team though, they saved theirs up for flounder which the publican would cook up and serve with salad. Dinner at the pub those nights.
I loved quiz, thought- if I can sing Amy Winehouse in public I can read poetry and began my quiz with a poem — Larkin, Fenton, Tuwhare, the late Prudence Hockley on whitebait, my eye on the river, all my favourites. All right till I read one of my own and got an earful from behind, Bob the builder half on half off his bar stool, grumbling into the last glass of his jug, “I came here to drink piss not listen to this shit.” He got the firm hand on the shoulder and shunted out the door, as did the vile drunk woman who licked the face of another woman like a dog, shunted out and a six week ban.
Taheke pub these days — curtains pulled across so tight not a crack of light could get in and never see them drawn back during the day. Gate locked, no sign of life though a dog, which doesn’t look like a pet, turns a corner by the old carriage house to bark occasionally and there is a curiously domestic scene, chickens pecking on the drive. The grass cut to within an inch of its life though I’ve not seen anyone out there on the mower. Hope whoever has moved in hasn’t taken out the powder puff pink rose which grew rampant over the old whitewashed concrete tanks out the back, blooms the size of small saucers. A forlorn for sale sign hung out front for a long time before a sold sign was slapped over it. There are rumours, speculations, the new owners are dodgy, they are promising, depends on who you talk to. Taheke pub resurrected, no one really thinks so. What you do - hold dear the pictures in your head and the sounds of them. Big white bearded Naran lifting his sleepy face from a table top to say to a fella walking out the door, “You go by my whare, see my Mrs, tell her I”ll be home for tea.” “I go by your whare, see your Mrs, I”ll eat your tea.”
Tommy K, coming back to the pub soon after his leg was amputated, great big smile cracking his lovely old face and gloating from his wheelchair at the loosing teams that night, “That’s right David, recount the score and then go down on your knees and weep.” Place shut down not long before Tommy K died. “Damn nuisance the pub closed.” said the elderly Englishman from the Tuesday club outside the Post office. Lamentable, regrettable. Makes you want to weep.