When I was a kid my mum, my brother and I went to stay in Colville a couple summers in a row; a woman my uncle was dating had ties to it. Gale—when we met, she told me to try remembering her name by thinking of the wind.
There were lots of people—children and adults—and we all squeezed onto one property, in tents and campervans. Some slept under the stars. There was a rickety old house, but only the owners and their favourite guests were allowed to sleep in there.
The first time we went to Colville the journey was in three parts—car ride, ferry, hitchhiking. We parked our car and then ferried across the Firth of Thames. You’d think a six year old would love the ferry the most, but hitchhiking was the best part of the journey.
When we got off the ferry my mum taught me and my brother about the hitchhiker’s thumb. I wanted to be a better hitchhiker than my brother so I used my other hand to bend back my thumb as far as it would go, and I held both hands out which I think defeated the purpose of the thumb in the first place.
A man picked us up in an SUV—my mum sat in the front, with me and my brother in the back. My brother and I would play our favourite road trip game, count the roadkill. Every time we played I would lose count, but I loved pointing out the dead animals on the road before he had seen them. I had a keen eye for roadkill.
The journey was about an hour long and the man drove us the whole way, conversing with my mum non-stop as he drove. He had dusty grey hair and a handlebar moustache. He wore a trucker’s hat and his clothes were a little dirty.
The man picked us up the second summer we went to Colville as well, but this time it was prearranged. I couldn’t remember his name, but he was excited to see us—especially Mum. At the end of the drive the man gave my mum a ring, which she showed to all of the other adults at the property. I didn’t know why she wouldn’t take it out of the box.
I had two friends in Colville: River and Ella. Ella was only about two years older than I was but she felt like my elder. I followed her everywhere. She always wore bare feet and she had ratty, unkempt blonde hair. I desperately wanted her to like me.
Ella made me go with her to the long drop because she was scared she would fall in. We would weave our fingers together and I would act as a counterweight while she peed. She made it a joke to look right into my eyes while she emptied her bladder. It was funny to her but something about it changed me. The intensity of her stare seeped into my mind, and I can picture her eyes so clearly even now.
One time she sat on the long drop without lifting the lid, and when she started to pee it spread out beneath her. “I forgot to lift the lid! I can’t stop!” she said, as it started tracking down her legs. We were holding hands, and the pee started pooling at our bare feet. She was giggling and I was giggling. There was something thrilling about sharing this moment—it felt disobedient. Her mum was so angry at both of us and made me help clean the mess. I didn’t mind—the act felt equally mine as it was Ella’s.
River was younger than I was, and like I followed Ella everywhere River followed me. River and I both loved the fact that we were allowed to roam topless—the same as the boys—and we talked about how it made us feel like creatures. Now I think it made us feel closer to nature.
There was a creek at the bottom of the property where we used to play. We would run over slippery rocks without ever falling in and collect our favourite pebbles. River wanted to find the smoothest pebbles, and I would look for the ones with dark brown fissures.
We followed the creek as long as it would take us once. We knew we had gone further than we were allowed but we didn’t care—we were on an adventure that had no bounds.
We came to a giant concrete pipe where the creek seemingly began. We didn’t dare go any further. We hung at the mouth of the pipe, inspecting the gathering vegetation at the base. We saw what we thought was a stick insect. I’d never seen one before and didn’t know what they were, but River told me it would move if we touched it. We were too scared so River spit on it instead; it sprang to life, and we screamed all the way back to the campsite.
When questioned why we were creating such a ruckus we recounted the story through gasping breaths, only to be admonished for going outside the boundary set for us. I was so disappointed that my mum couldn’t look past our transgression to indulge in our thrilling escapade.
One night, I remember waking suddenly and vomiting down the front of my clothes. I was sleeping inside, which was a conscious decision by the adults as some kind of bug was ripping through the group. I was so thrilled to be sleeping inside, despite the illness racking my body. Having spent my time so far in a two-sleeper tent with my mum and my older brother, inside felt like a privilege that would never have been awarded to me otherwise. We were the visitors (even though everybody was a visitor—I remember feeling the most like a visitor).
I didn’t make any noise as I went to find the nearest adult. Mum was sleeping outside in the tent and I was scared of the dark—if I wasn’t, I would have gone straight to her. I asked Richard to take me to her, but he didn’t want to wake her and said he would help instead. Richard was my mother’s age, with a long beard and thin, lanky frame. He never wore a shirt and he looked a bit like Jesus.
Richard took me outside to where the bath was. He filled it with cold water and instructed me to take off my clothes. I didn’t want to. He tried to use a friendly tone, saying “Well I can’t clean you or your clothes if they’re on your little body!” but he didn’t feel friendly. I asked for my mum again—he said it would be fine and he would take care of me but he didn’t feel like a careful man.
The water was freezing. I remember looking up at the stars, the night so crisp and clear. Richard told me not to worry, that I would feel better in the morning.
My mum had warned me about Richard—said he was a bit of a weirdo who lived in the bush and shat in the woods. He confiscated me and my brother’s water guns when we got the property, putting them out of reach on the roof of the house because he didn’t like any representation of violence.
That night he cleaned my small body in the light of the moon. I don’t remember getting dry. I don’t remember putting clothes on. I don’t remember going back to bed.
In the morning I told my mum what happened and she spoke to Richard. Everything was fine again and I wasn’t sick any more.
The times when I was the happiest at Colville were when we would sing songs around the campfire. We did this almost every night—some nights I had to beg for it but I had no shame, and I knew people would love it as much as me once we started. My mum brought out her guitar and would play Puff the Magic Dragon, Father and Son, and even a couple waiata Māori. Some nights the whole group would join in.
Singing ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ with a group of people I knew for only a few weeks a year made me feel deeply sad, but I wanted that feeling to last forever. I asked mum to play the song a few times when we were home but it never felt the same.
Colville has become an abstract concept to me now but I recount the memories often. I have done for my whole life, which has twisted the shapes and reformed the meanings. In spite this, or because of it, they are some of my happiest memories.
It does feel complicated to recount now, as I don’t remember any passage of time or movement from one memory to the next. I have no recollection of what the adults did but I’m sure it involved spots and fucking.
When we were home, I would beg my mum to let me leave the house without a top on. “You can only do that in Colville,” she would say, and I would feel that deep sense of sadness again, just for a moment.
My uncle and Gale broke up sometime in the year following our second trip to Colville, so we couldn’t visit there anymore. I never saw Ella or River again, but Richard turned up at our house one day to return our confiscated water guns. My mum wouldn’t let him inside; she led him away from the house when I came downstairs.
They talked in the carpark, and then he left. She returned to the house and said he asked if he could come inside to say hi to me and my brother. I hoped she turned him away because she knew I would hate to see him again, but when I asked why she said it was because his feet were dirty and she didn’t want to clean up after him.
At least we got our guns back.