Topic: Two Things Stand Like Stone by Don Campbell

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“A failure,” I said. “I feel I’ve been such a failure.”

We sat, my wife and I, on the dune-front at the edge of Papamoa Beach and watched the gentle waves roll in and back unceasingly.

Early August 1988, Friday the 5th was Black Friday for us. The day when, with bank foreclosure inevitable, we had finally signed away our little Mount Maunganui real estate business at a ‘fire sale’ price and had come out of the business world clear of debts, but with nothing in savings. And I was aged sixty.

I looked back over my working life: the seven years of menial work with the Post Office, finishing up as a clerk. Unimpressive. Then, after marriage the unbelievable plunge, at considerable sacrifice, into primary teaching. (The post-war baby boom had made it possible for even me, with my sparse secondary education to enter that profession under an emergency training scheme.)

Then, after twenty years of teaching, some good, some bad, another big change, this time into real estate. And now, fifteen years later, this.

I knew what Ruth was going to say, and I knew when she did so that she spoke truthfully. She reminded me of my very worthwhile input, while teaching, into many children's lives, and of my good name in real estate and my generosity as a boss.

“Generosity, or foolishness?” I thought.

I remembered what an Education Board Inspector had told me many years before when I had argued with him about the low grading he had given me.

“Your biggest problem, Don Campbell, is that although you look after the children well, you don’t look after yourself.”

And he had been right. Nor, it seemed, had I ever learnt to do so - and now we were suffering the consequences. Both of us.

We sat in silence, looking at the sparkle of the afternoon sun on the waves. We loved this beach, its soft grey sand, its flatness and the absence of crowds. Right now there was hardly another person in sight. And best of all the familiar, and somehow reassuring sight of beautiful Mauao to the west.

It had always been this way with me, I had always loved the beach. My mind went back to my boyhood. At last I spoke.

“Did I ever tell you about a tide fight we had when I was a kid?” I asked.

When Ruth shook her head, I continued.

“Some Children’s Beach Mission people organised it one afternoon in the summer holidays. The guy who was in charge arranged us into teams of three or four. Then he drew a line in the sand, just a little way above the incoming tide. We then built our castles on this line, making each one as big and strong as we could. Some were quite incredible, with breakwaters and moats.

“Then just before the waves started lapping them the man blew his whistle and we stopped building and the man stuck a small red flag on a stick into the top of each castle. Then we watched and waited for the tide to come in, the idea being that the team whose flag fell last would be the winner.”

I was silent again, and Ruth waited.

“I forget who won, but it wasn’t us.”

Another long pause as in my mind’s eye I saw it all again: the laughing happy boys and girls, the boys in their shorts and shirts and the girls in their print cotton dresses, all with bare feet, and the dozen or so sandcastles, bold and brave, with the waves licking and gnawing and sucking at them.

Then the flags start to fall, a few at first, then more and until only two are left. Then another flag falls and the winners cheer and get their candy prizes. But how brief the victory. A few more waves and the winning castle has almost disappeared.

“The sea was the real winner, Ruth. A few hours later when the tide went out there was barely a ripple left in the sand, just a few bits of red rag caught up in the driftwood. And that’s been my life,” I said softly - and the tears were flowing freely now, blurring and fracturing my vision.

Ruth was calm, wonderfully at peace, and when she spoke her voice was quiet and kindly.

“We’ve got a lot to be grateful for.”

She reminded me that we had our home, small but sunny and modern, and within easy walking distance of the lovely beach where we now sat, and thankfully our home was debt free. We also had our friends, our family, our health and our good marriage. And each other.

Especially each other.

Just then Ruth dropped my hand and picked up a small piece of pumice, rounded by the water.

“What is pumice?” she asked.

“It’s from a volcano,” I answered. “It’s the froth on top of the lava.”

“Just froth?”

“Just froth. Remember the ‘froth and bubble’ rhyme we used to write in autograph books when we were teenagers?”

“Yes,” she said, and we recited it together, her voice steady and calm, mine faltering and finally failing completely.

 

“Life is mostly froth and bubble.

  Two things stand like stone:

  Comfort in another’s trouble;

  Courage in your own.”

 

We stayed a while longer, perhaps half an hour. The sunlight and the sight and sounds of the sand and the sea were all good.

Not much more needed to be said.

 

 

Don Campbell has been a stalwart of Tauranga Writers for some years, and is now a life member. He writes both poetry and prose, and is keen on local history.

‘Two Things Stand Like Stone’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers.

 

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/4A3R-DTRG

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