I was born, a brown bald baby boy, January 9, 1980. The year New Zealanders marched en masse, pickets in hand, against that leviathan named Apartheid.
Gisborne, the East Coast. Land of fruit, of surf, of Ngati Porou. Poverty Bay – how auspiciously named. On a watchful hill, over a ghetto of burnt out cars my young parents had for three years now tilled the Kaiti land; Dad for vegetables for the table, and clay for his crockery and kiln; Mum for the money to pay the rates. Ben, my older brother, had arrived 1 1/2 years earlier, himself following Spencer (or Weasel) our beloved golden retriever. It was a naked childhood in many senses of the word. Naïve, carefree and sun kissed, outside troubles, and in, were few and far between. My memories of tepid sea baths, bees, and a wandering goat – itself a Capricorn, too.
Come 1983, and the Gardiners had forsaken Eden for a different version of home. Aberdeen Road, Auckland. Earwigs, open trapdoors and a kindergarten replete with 3-wheel trikes and peanut butter sandwiches. A fleeting romance with retail saw the parents behind the counter of a dark, incense laden frontage, with a rusty metal tin, its lid swinging on its hinges, hoarding a precious yet modest cargo. It didn’t prove enough. This won’t do.
Cue Coronation Rd. Nothing overtly royal about this one, nor Northern, but being owned as opposed to rented, this home was indeed a castle – man’s, woman’s and child’s. A Morris Minor in the driveway, defying the odds. Decking growing like algae, overtaking with shadow and nail. Minor birds, shot at by the bent barrel of a slug gun – always wide of the mark – not hidden well enough from fossicking boys. A bath under the feijoa trees, lit from beneath by a snaking gas pipe. A thick towel spread on the bottom to save burnt bums. A wooden palette perched in the branches of apples – two bickering brothers biffing prepubescent fruit at old bruises that looked like bulls eyes.
A baby sister! Jane Katherine. Folded skin – pink – tiny fists, and a smell that has lingered to this day in every newborn I’ve met. A daughter for a different dynamic. And a gate across the top of the stairs. Not that it worked. Brought on by overheating, she’d swallow her tongue on the kitchen bench in a 3am seizure. We watched on – for years – until the affliction finally passed.
More terrifying for all, I’d say, than the shard of pottery that would point out of my forehead. Ben and I had mattresses set in a runway at Aunty Colleen’s. I really did fly that night. Into the planter, and later, in a frantic ride – with blood cascading down my eight-year-old face. Reclined in mum’s lap, with flannel pressed hard to stem the wasted claret, the flashing lamplights whizzing by, guiding me in to land at Greenlane Hospital. Only to be sutchered by the shaking hand of a nurse more used to wriggling stitches through the skin of dead pigs. Her handiwork has since been another burden of guilt for a mother already flush with it. As it goes.
Plastic surgery, she says, is still up for grabs if I want it.