Some time back I happened to see a vintage episode of The Protectors, which featured NZ actress Nyree Dawn Porter, as the Contessa Caroline di Contini. She played opposite Robert Vaughn. I remember her too in other TV programmes of the sixties, notably The Forsyte Saga. I looked her up on IMDB and learned she had died in 2001.
Nyree DP is of course Ngaire Porter from Napier. She and Diana Rigg (and Miss Peachy at school) were the stuff of adolescent fantasies in my early teenage years.
Oh. And Raquel Welch.
Alas, I never met Nyree Dawn Porter. I did, however, meet her mother.
Ms Nyree Dawn Porter’s dad was a butcher up on Bluff Hill, in Napier. His shop was on the corner just a short distance from Gladstone Road, where we lived when I was a nine or ten year old kid. Mum bought our meat from him.
Mr Porter had died by the time I returned to Napier in 1978 to take up a position as City Health Inspector.
However Mrs Porter, Ngaire’s mum, was alive. She still lived in the family home up on Bluff Hill. Though I didn’t know at first that she was the mother of a celebrity, I subsequently got to know Mrs Porter quite well. A really nice lady, though to put it kindly, perhaps she was just a little dotty.
One day some time in my first weeks on the job, John Fraser, my boss, came to me with a strange gleam in his eye and told me he had a nuisance complaint for me to attend to up on Bluff Hill. A Mrs Porter had phoned to say she was plagued by giant rats. I could see the others in the office suppressing smirks, and suspected some kind of joke was being played on the new guy. Nonetheless, off I went up Shakespeare Road.
Mrs Porter proved to be a most delightful old lady. She served me tea and home made cake. She was plainly overjoyed to have a visitor and kept me chatting for quite a while. It was clear she was lonely and just needed a bit of company.
Eventually we got down to business and she told me about the giant rats she had seen in her backyard, under the fruit trees. I asked her to describe them, and they did indeed sound fearsomely big. She was adamant they did not look a bit like cats, when I suggested it.
I had a brainwave and asked if they had fluffy tails or naked, scaly tails.
So I took a possum trap up and set it in her garden. Sure enough over a week or so we caught several possums. The mystery of the giant rats was solved. However, this led to the discovery of homing possums. But I digress. Another story. More about that later.
It turned out that Mrs Porter was a regular caller to the Council, and was considered by Council staff to be somewhat of a nuisance herself. The others all thought I was crazy to take her and her complaints seriously. I never saw it that way. Maybe we Council officers had more time in those days, but I felt she was a ratepayer who need something from the Council, even if it was only an occasional visit, and some kind reassurance. I saw myself as being there to help however I could.
Every fortnight or so , Mrs Porter would call in with some worry or another, and she came to understand that at least one person at the Council would listen to her. Me. I knew these problems genuinely preyed on her mind. I also learned that she took me quite seriously and slept better once I had given some bland assurance or explanation (usually invented) about whatever was causing her concern. It was a great relationship we developed. I had a little old grandmother substitute to visit, who plied me with tea and cake, and she had someone to talk to now and then who actually cared.
One day Mrs Porter phoned me in a most agitated state. “The neighbours are stealing my section,” she said, “and they are hiding it in the phone booth down the road”. This I had to see. I went straight up.
One side of Mrs Porter’s property was a 10 metre or so cliff. She overlooked her next door neighbour on that side . Looking down I could see a trench starting at the neighbours’ place and terminating in a large pile of dirt and clay by the telephone box on Shakespeare Road below. Mrs Porter thought the neighbours were digging into the bank under her section.
After the usual cup of tea I told her to leave everything to me, and I would sort it out. I returned to the office, phoned the post office and explained why I was calling. I asked when the trench work would be finished and if they would be reinstating the verge. The said they would, and it would be completed by the next day.
I phoned Mrs Porter and told her that the neighbours had not realised what they were doing, they were very sorry, and had promised to put everything back by the next day. It just seemed more fun than explaining the mundane facts about trenching for cables.
Sure enough, next day Mrs P phoned, very excited, to tell me that they had done just as I had promised, and everything was back to normal. She was effusive in her thanks, and from then on I could do no wrong. The others mocked me for my occasional calls to visit her, and for humouring her more wacky ideas, but I did not mind.
One day I returned from a visit to Bluff Hill, and handed around a large bag of almonds.
Everyone helped themselves and munched away.
“Where did you get these?”
“Mrs Porter gave them to me. Her family give them to her. She can’t eat them because she has false teeth”.
(Pause for effect).
“So she just sucks off the chocolate”.
They all realised I had not been eating any.
I did enjoy the consternation that followed.
In fact I had bought the nuts at the Healtheries shop. But I liked my story better.
The best tales never get old. Especially the true ones.
Mrs Porter was one of my three special little old ladies in Napier.