The only thing wrong with sitting out on the deck in the Hawke's Bay sunshine is sitting out on the deck in the Hawke's Bay sunshine.
Robin came out on to the deck where she found me glumly contemplating a small, viscous, silvery puddle. "If you're peeing stuff of that colour and consistency, you need to see a doctor," she said.
"I was sitting here with a can of beer," I said. "I opened the can and all the beer evaporated before I could drink it." I gestured at the puddle. "Then the can melted."
"Wow!" said Robin. "I thought it felt a bit hot. That's an impressively powerful ray of sunshine."
"Well at least I know now why we've got brick cladding on the house rather than the more normal wood cladding that you see elsewhere in the country," I said. "If we had wood, all the nails would dribble down it leaving ugly, silvery snail trails. And then the cladding would fall off."
"That would make the house rather draughty," Robin said thoughtfully. "Good job we've got brick."
"Meanwhile, what do we do about this deck furnace that we seem to have at the back of the house?" I asked. "Either we find some way to make it more habitable or else we start to hire ourselves out as aluminium smelters."
"Shade cloth," said Robin firmly. "That'll do it."
"Shade cloth?" I asked, puzzled.
"What's shade cloth?"
"It's a rather coarse-weaved fabric that provides shade without trapping the heat," said Robin. "It's generally quite ultra-violet resistant as well, so it lasts a long time in direct sunlight without noticeably degrading. It's wonderful stuff. I fitted miles of it to my house in Australia."
"Our deck is open on all sides and at the top as well," I pointed out. "Do we need to cover it all over?"
"No," said Robin. "Let's start by just putting shade cloth over the top. That will probably do it."
I stared up at the top of the deck. "That means that one or both of us will have to climb up on a ladder so that we can fix the cloth firmly to the beams."
"Yes," said Robin.
"We both suffer from vertigo when we stand on deep pile carpets," I pointed out. "How are we going to cope with being up at the top of a ladder?"
"Easy," declared Robin. "We keep our eyes closed and look at everything with our fingertips."
"Sounds like a plan," I said. "Let's go and buy some shade cloth."
And so we did.
The man in the shade cloth shop was very helpful. "What colour would you like?" he asked.
"I've heard that black is an invisible colour," said Robin. "It blends into the background and nobody ever really notices it."
"That's sort of true," said the man. "Black really does camouflage itself wonderfully well at night, so if you want to shade yourself from moon rays when you sip cocktails on the deck of an evening, black would be a very good colour to have. But I'm guessing that you're rather more interested in shielding yourselves from the sun during the day. Am I right?"
"Mostly right," I said. "I've found that, generally speaking, the sun is much hotter and brighter than the moon, by and large. Have you ever noticed that phenomenon?"
"A lot of people pointed it out to me," said the man, "so I assume it must be true. Therefore I always recommend this attractive wheat coloured shade cloth."
We examined the recommended shade cloth carefully and it passed the Robin test with flying colours. "That looks really good," she said. "It will be easy to trim to size and I'm sure I'll be able to sew a seam in it to stop it fraying at the edges. We'll take a mile and a quarter, please."
The man measured the shade cloth twice and cut it once. We stuffed it in the car and drove home via a hardware shop where we bought some nails, some curious aluminium spikes and some laths of wood, all of which, we were assured, were vital for the fitting of shade cloth. When we got home I went hunting for the step ladder in the detritus that fills up the garage. Eventually I found the ladder whimpering softly underneath several extremely heavy boxes. I liberated it and carried it out to the deck where I found Robin swathed in shade cloth.
"I've cut it to size," she announced proudly.
Between us we somehow personhandled it up to the top of the deck where I anchored it in place with the laths and banged in a lot of nails to hold them in place. This shade cloth was never going to move again! Then I folded the ends down over the beams at each end of the deck and hammered the aluminium spikes through the cloth into the wood. One problem remained.
"There's a length of cloth over here that I can't anchor down," I said to Robin. "There simply isn't enough room to swing a hammer and I'm a bit worried that the wind might get in there, lift it up and possibly tear it."
"Hmmm," said Robin thoughtfully. "That is a problem."
At that very moment our next door neighbour popped his head up over the fence. "What you need," he said, "is a staple gun."
"Good idea," I said. "But I haven't got a staple gun."
"Today's your lucky day," said my neighbour. "I have a staple gun. Would you like to borrow it?"
"Yes please," I said.
"Here you are," he said, handing it over the fence. "Keep it as long as you like. If I ever need it back I'll ask for it."
"Thanks," I said and I stapled down the final edge of cloth.
"Nice shade cloth," said my neighbour.
We spent the first summer in our new house sitting on the deck beneath our new shade cloth. Beer no longer evaporated before it could be drunk and although the cans and bottles got a little squishy, they no longer melted. Harpo the Cat, who spent most of his days up on the roof of the house hunting the birds who made their nests in the gutter, discovered that the shade cloth made a comfortable bed. He was often to be found there curled up and sleeping the early morning and the twilight away. I kept expecting the cloth to tear and deposit a very sharp, pointed and angry cat onto the top of my head. But the cloth proved to be remarkably resilient, and just stretched a bit into a cat-shaped depression which quickly filled up with the fur that Harpo spent the summer copiously shedding.
When the second summer rolled around, and our house was no longer quite as new as it had been, Robin expressed some dissatisfaction.
"When the sun starts to sink towards the horizon in the mid-afternoon it shines directly on to the deck. It bypasses the shade cloth on the roof, pumping light and heat underneath it, right through the west-facing front area of the deck. We need more shade cloth to hang down vertically over that part, but it has to be adjustable so that we can roll it up and down early in the morning and last thing at night. So therefore it can't be a permanent structure like the shade cloth on the roof is."
"OK," I said.
"We need lengths of dowel to wrap the cloth around and we need hooks to attach it at the top and bottom. In the winter, when we don't need it, we can unhook it and store it in the garage."
"Yes we can," I said, "if we can find room for it in the garage."
"There's heaps of room," said Robin. "I might empty a small box..."
We bought dowel and we bought shiny brass hooks and we bought string that was the same colour as the shade cloth. We planned to use the string to tie the cloth when it was all rolled up. We bought cleats to wrap the string around. Robin cut a vast length of shade cloth off the roll and sewed pockets top and bottom for the dowels. I drilled holes in the deck supports and screwed in hooks and cleats. We threaded the dowels into the pockets and I stapled them to the cloth.
"Do you think we should return the stapler to the man next door?" asked Robin. "We've had it for a whole year now."
"He knows where it is," I said. "I'm sure he'll ask for it if he ever gets an overwhelming urge to staple something again."
We hung one of the dowels on the hooks at the top of the deck and rolled the shade cloth down. We secured the dowel at the bottom with more hooks. We sat in chairs and admired the hanging shade cloth. It proved to be pleasantly translucent and we could still dimly see the garden through it.
"That shade cloth is hanging rather low down," said Jake the Dog. "It's blocking my way out into the garden. What am I going to do when I need to chew on a bone or chase a cat?"
"Don't worry Jake," I said. "I've booked you in for limbo dancing lessons. Once you're certified, you'll be able to get under there easily."
"Oh, limbo dancing! Dogs like limbo dancing." He did a happy-dance in joyful anticipation and then he went and chewed on one of the off cuts from the dowel rods.
Now that we have shade cloth on both the top and the front of the deck, we've started sitting out there again to enjoy the summer days. The shade cloth is remarkably efficient – even on the hottest and sunniest days the deck stays beautifully cool. Icicles hang from the beams and beer freezes solid in the can. Shade cloth really is wonderful stuff.