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Paekakariki, New Zealand

I grew up in a small coastal town nestled in the lee of a scraggy, sharp-faced spine of hill with wide, loose sections of scree held back only by sprawling wire nets and the roots of trees that have grown at angles of 45 degrees or more owing to a constant wind that comes raging and constant off the sea.

Tunnelled along it, a train-line that sees commuters to Wellington station and back, reading their books and having their loose, paper tickets clipped by people in il-fitting blue uniforms and sensible black shoes.

Coming into the town from the north you have to navigate a tricky right turn in the car, with an endless stream of traffic coming over the dip in the highway ahead, crossing the bridge. At first they seem to be coming at a decent clip, so you hesitate—only to realise you’ve much more time than you thought to make it.

As you sit, idling, you might look over to your left, at a road angling up into the mountain and, underneath it, the old BP with a sad ‘Hot Coffee’ sign in the window. Whatever it became got swallowed by a flood and avalanche of mud, stick and stones. The old flame was also extinguished, though that happened long before.

Up the gully, where that road leads to Ken’s house and alongside an idyllic stream that brings you out in the marshy flats of Pauatahanui is the usual foot-way to the top of Paekakariki Hill. We’d attack it differently every time, throwing stones at dead sheep’s swollen, distended innards—uprooting dead trees and finding solitary black spiders under lichen-coated rocks.

We’d eat lollies at the top, sat on a concrete roof underneath the radio towers, throwing the plastic bags that had held our drinks into the updrafts; maybe roll a stone or two down the face before skidding down the quarry-like wave.

Once, closer to the highway, after I’d crossed, I watched some idiots (editor’s note: friends of mine) unloose something massive (and thankfully not life changing) seeing it rolling and bounding at great speed and over the eight-wire fence and shooting across the bonnet of a passing car; who never saw it.

Approaching the town from the south, the turn’s much easier. Sometimes there’s a small wait, side-by-side with what could be your neighbour, as a train trundles by, or freight cars hurtle and shake.

As you bump over the tracks, immediately to your left is the Old Rumbling Tum, and what’s left of its Video Shack—an ode to Hong Kong yet filled with the creations of Taiwan, Japan and puberty. My brother and I used to mop the floors there and clean the ice-cream machine. It was where lovely, large Dave pointed out my first spell of the ‘dry horrors’ and where Elan and I got the Mexican pie into the pie warmer. The mechanic is still next door, or at least the smell of grease and metal is. That was where dad would get our rego done, and the certificate of fitness.

Over the road, the Paekak Pub, much changed. Before I left it was Debo’s and full of swappa crates, pokies, and familiar faces that sat smoking and drinking in the window from opening time. In the bottle shop we bought dozens and received the familiar ribbing that boys too young to buy would get upon doing just that. Later on we’d be teased for moving to the big smoke.

Also on the wide, slow strip that is Beach Road; Horace’s dairy. Now with PayWave, but once where pebbles came by the cent, and in thousands. Over the road, the hairdresser who in 1998, indulged my wish to turn blue; and the old credit union building, now a library, where we’d withdraw much more than we’d deposit. St Peters Hall stands grandly across the road, white and sacred. In 1992 it was place of chagrin, and a chance of fame gone begging.

When we moved to town, you could still get Commando-Ms, hung up like pairs of jandals at the hardware store around the corner on Ames street. Like all good tool shops it was dark inside and smelled like fertiliser, oxidising metal and plastics. It was in the garage next door that we’d pick up our piles of papers to pedal our Evening Post routes. It’s now the Dominion Post I think.

Now, you could go straight up over the hill past Joelle’s old house if you wanted a quick tiki tour of the beach before going home—driving slowly along The Parade, more often than not covered in sea mist. Far out to the left you’ll see most of the South Island’s western reaches, on a good day—curling up towards us. Further left, Pukerua Bay and the tip of Mana Island. Dominating the view though is Kapiti Island—the region’s namesake and start of many an illustration.

If you were in no particular rush at all, or had just learned to drive and been given the keys to get milk, a milky bar, or mum’s “things”, you might drive on up to Campbell Park. On the winter weekends a rugby game may have been on, now it’s girls soccer.

If it was cricket, well, you would have been out there already; negotiating the uneven bounce and sending balls into the sea that made them slick and slimey, or smashing them into the pebbled walls of the embankment, scuffing, and warping their shape. We created our own team, named after Asia’s marauding, seed-planting khan. Our record was patchy but we would often conquer the post-match and smoke weed at practice; our gear-bag switching from Ken’s boot to mine and our deaf, kind opening bowler Mark terrifying both batter and those behind the stumps. I would have scored a century once if those dicks had been counting.

If you took a right before you hit the park though, you’d follow Ocean Road back up to Wellington. On the hill above you, Dion’s old place, and a blind corner that strangely never saw an accident. In early years we came down the other way with pipes out the windows with skyrockets burning out of them. But then we’d never heard of Baghdad before the pictures began on the front pages, and never ended.

A junction then, and a right to turn home; past that really weird family that know one seemed to know, Ms Jonas on the hill, the Walkers on your left, some fertile feijoa tress we used to fill plastic bags with, and the Stevens.

Turn left and you’d hit the local primary school. With building in a U-shape, juniors to the left, the rest in the main. At the end of the block was the swimming pool we’d jump into out of hours, and spin like a washing machine in in the mornings. The boys toilets probably still smell like piss and damp cold musk. We never found out if they smelled like sex. Maybe we just didn’t know what sex smelt like then.

The sunburnt field that saw so many games of bull-rush, danish rounders, sprints, and more. Forts that got spay-painted, then demolished. A pyramid of tyres the wrenched out of the ground and squashed half a class.

On that green-brown rectangle we also enjoyed long seasons of sunday soccer, 30-a-side. It was when the older guys would sweat out their Jack Daniels and cigarettes, and when Rick and Eddy would wait in the goal square for the crumbs, no matter the looks; and shirtlessly fobbing away late-comers, no matter the pedigree or their place in the local hierarchy. All even on the pitch then, just some less even than others.

If you head across the field and over the fence (by Tom Jolly’s place) you reach a quiet bend of a street that takes you down (as we did most lunchtimes) to Tilley road. There at the T junction is a high row of trees we like to call the “bouncey bushes”. A perilous climb full of laughs, falls and scratches that took you 100 metres end to end, and 10m or so up and down. The kids that had been around for a while new the way well enough, and the sound of the power station fizzing behind it. But no one was perfect. The smell of the sap and oils from the trees would stick with you all afternoon. It’s much less itchy than rolling around in grass.

If you turn left here, you cruise down into the flat, lowest corner of town. If we weren’t all already over the tracks this would have probably been called the “bad side” of them. Small houses with small families and, sadly, smaller opportunity. It was around here that me and my brother first met the town bully, and it was probably all that jumping on trampolines that spared us from many of his violent bounces later on.

Up a steep quiet street you find yourself once again on Wellington Road, the spine of the town; with streets sticking off it like ribs. Turning right and taking another couple of hundred steps past the Steiner school, you’ll hit Queen Elizabeth Park, Paekak’s crown jewel. A place of picnics, pot smoking and heavy petting, we’d shoot videos here, learn to drive, run orienteering courses, and hear music with Elan’s parents in the Pickle Pot. If you followed the road as it wound by the beach, past the many BBQ spots along the way, you’d reach the coastal path that took you to the Raumati pools in about 20 minutes (on your BMX). We’d often make our way to one of its many lookouts, and then tumble through the scrub to the valleys below, without fear of snake or spider bites.

Driving back now homewards, about a kilometre I’d guess, you’ll pass on the top of the aforementioned Campbell Park. A place where (regretfully) mean things were written by everyone on the playground, and mean balls were delivered by tall Dutch boys against the wall. The skate ramp that once glowed, then rotted, the Scouts Hall filled with tents, torches, bean bags, badges, and rolled up newspapers. At the crest of the hill, where to road to the left went back down to the high green hedge, or right and winding, one way, back to the beach, was a house that we threw stones on every Wednesday night, and past that, dipping down to the school again. On this side is the tennis court where I bounced onto a basketball rim and then fell off it, breaking my arm and screaming for Mandy. On the neighbouring netball court Elan would think he broke his arm too, and Ken would get a ball in the balls, Chris would land insane tricks, and Dad would pull in the Holden Commodore at speed finding my sister Jane, born with wanderlust in her. We found out late how to turn the lights on.

And again along Wellington Road, up and over the hill and easing right into our little side road, where three low trees surround an unused picnic bench on the grass. Cars are still parked all around there, in front of the shed filled with shit and locked with a rusty hinge and padlock. There’s a bamboo forest to its right, behind the vines. In its centre a hollow filled with what’s left of a stack of rain-sodden, sticky porn mags and fantasies.

Circling up around it is a driveway so steep that the concrete tried to slide off, and cars went over the edge. It also meant engines revving enough to giveaway people’s arrivals when you may have been doing something at home you shouldn’t.

If you followed the little detour from the main road, and didn’t turn up the drive, you’d come to another dangerous bit of road, having to speed out quick when you got your chance. Coming right off the road, almost in a direct line ahead of you, Cecil Road.

On the corner there is the Mills’ place—full of incense, purified water, late nights, Bob Dylan and chickens. Next door is the local fire station, which is still manned by volunteers. Every Saturday at 12pm its siren reminds you when lunch is. Most of the other times it sounded were in the dark when car crashes called.

Across the way, a small whitewashed building that would be many things, but usually a fish n chip shop. For a time it did fried rice and Street Fighter II. Keep up Tilley Road hill and to the left and you’d pass the old Withams’ house where computer code was being written, amongst the dirty clothes and yellow light.

Further up the street and down a wooded drive lived the giant Krimps in their giant house with their giant Volvo. Mum and Dad’s rental property is near too, hung down a hill in the shade, overlooking the road north, a billboard, and the water tank we used to climb. Elan and I found a meat cleaver in a car near there one night but got spooked by someone and threw it in the bushes.

Turn right from the shop, and what was once ‘Salty Towers’ (where Marcus crashed the Ford into the parked car right after he bought it) and you once would reach the gravel lot in front of the train station where Dad let me do circles in the Ford Falcon. Now it’s paved. Off to the left, spare carriages, junk, and the turning wheel where Jackson Kapa got his leg squashed. At the end of this road that had houses dropped on it, where we used to walk back our cases of beer, away from prying eyes of the main road, was a little back alley that came around to the pub again. This was the route the Paekakariki Express took I guess.

To the right are the tennis court’s high fences and storied concrete. So many balls stolen for backyard cricket, so many old coke bottles of water filled in the summer sun, so many sets, too many tantrums. You used to know who was playing by the cars parked close to the kerb along the street that left no room really for two cars to pass. Over the fence is the bowls club, on land that was once under water, and became that way again. It’s still full of silver foxes, dicky knees and leader boards.

Not many people know, or bother, but you don’t have to leave town the way you came in. If you continue straight ahead from there, passing the Backpackers up on the hill, you jump on straight through the Beach Road intersection, past St Peters Hall again, past the hardware store. On your immediate right on Ames Street is the shed that once had its windows smashed out by you-know-who and friends. Up over a few judder bars, past Adriano’s bloody lawn, is the cheeky little exit that takes you back down to the Highway One, and yet another black spot. Before you turn is a small bit of parkland where my brother used to take his girlfriends, and beyond that, where we used to take boogie boards to the sand dunes.

Back on the road again and heading city-ward, again in the crook of the hill, you’ll pass the fish truck that’s been there long before food ones got to Twitter; its fresh catch flying into the backs of cars, but never to the table over the road where the dish of the day still an unending salad boat, and the chicken tenderloin of my tender youth.

To your right, and in your memory, the expanse of green-grey sea, running cold, white-capped and fast against the coast, washing over rock pools and tugging at the plastic jacketed fishermans’ nylon lines.

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Low Tide At Shoreham

I woke to the smell of the bared sea bed
The sweet and sour waft of salt and algae
Baking in the morning sun
At the rock edge the tide splashing the squatting abalone hunters
Prying off the meaty, mushrooming molluscs
Their iridescent half shell later filled with stubbed-out cigarette butts
An ashen cancer at the end of their rainbow
The copse of laddered pines are quiet now after a night of roaring in the wind
Sounding like the kind of rain that comes through your open windows and soaks your books
There’s a kite caught in the branches, sad, tattered and forever out of reach
Later in the year we’ll be down here at dawn hunting gold tops
No one here has heard of blue meanies, at least not the Kiwi kind
And we’ll be laughing on a lawn that’s heard a lot of laughter
A home like this has many memories
They come and go with the seasons, like the ocean on its step
A white capped expanse as deep and storied as a property split between siblings
You just hope they never sell it
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ME. PART THREE

Kapiti College. Years of mum buying me maroon jerseys I’d never wear. Stuffed like old socks in the back of the hot water cupboard. Missed class photos, quite by accident (you’d think there was a sense of purpose in that). Early years spent shaking the dead skin of the past moved into collecting the tabs off of coke cans (in a flat search for a world trip), Bic biros, and the downy upper-lip hair of puberty. To start with grades were paramount, excelling where I could and existing where couldn’t. History’s pages must have proved inspirational because top marks came easy, much like a back of the bus confession of love that spread like the fire of London (1666 for the record). A crush on Ben’s friend, blonde and sweet, and a note left in my diary that was probably the thing that cursed me to fatalistic romance ever after. Hopeless too.

Another blond, this time more disingenuous. Not smart enough to succeed on her own, yet smart enough to know the power of her touch. Last I heard, hairdressing was her game. Then there was Ms Jonas, all evocative pants and primal armpits. Wild as a banshee but as wonderful as a waterfall; spilling music and madness in one go. And Caleb, the Skywalker look-alike with the force in his red Stratocaster; teaching me what I wanted to know, not what I should. C block reared its head, and funnily, so did C grades as priorities shifted to a life outside school books. Bouts of surfing and Bad Religion thrumming down the fret board to drop D and heavy metal, pool on Ali’s wonky, toy table, and getting drunk at friends’ homes to keep the parents in the dark on my dark hours. But never dim.

All the while, watching Mazda RX-7s get built on State Highway One and cheese rolls being pulled apart for five years straight. Earning the number seven, and forever trying to better describe the sound the guitars made on Siamese Dream (Big Muff). One dollar cheese burgers and a trip to the sunshine coast for theme-park adventure, awkward billeting, and beating the Aussies silly. Kayaking trips to the sounds and Trewern, the affable chemistry teacher who may or may not have shared a pipe with us out back of the Palmer’s, and maybe the lips of a school mate.

Good years those all, mostly. The latter ones full of dreams of Dunedin and sports medicine, though in the end, apathy or laziness put that to bed. With a latent interest in Indiana Jones and the humanities about to evolve into a fully fledged ethnography of self, religion, the opposite sex – and a group of hooky playing friends sticking together though spinning apart. Anthropology a fluke, and an early entry in a bereft prospectus proving a worthy adversary for a new epoch of adulthood. Blue hair and all.

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ME. PART TWO

1990, and the Commonwealth Games. Months of jump rope practice in Sunnybrae Normal School’s hall comes to nought as we up sticks to little known Paekakariki – a seaside idyll on the windswept Kapiti Coast. Who needs opening ceremonies anyway. 65 Wellington Road, up the steep driveway that would see many a white knuckled screamer descend, and countless wheels spinning fruitlessly off the edge in space – chewing through the rhododendrons. It all almost never came to be. A previous recky scoped out a ramshackle compound in Whanganui. But a cracked tennis court and high unemployment rates must have been the reason we gave that a miss. And why Jane threw a favourite toy of mine from a speeding vehicle. Whanganui be damned.

Paekak. Land of the green parrot, cheeky boys, and the Rumbling Tum. Mopping its floors in the wee hours of the day, after dreaming of a false dawn and a job done. Crumbs, bleach, Mr Whippy, and squashed mice – with returning dividends in hotdogs in buns and endless credits in the spacies. The latter was probably for the best as Dad’s wallet only housed so many 20c pieces. Sorry Dad – yes, that’s where it went. But if it makes you feel any better, Ben did it, too. Elan and I (my childhood right hand man) even invented the Tum’s ‘Mexican’ pie that went on to – in my humble estimate – sell millions and send the owner to an early retirement in the Seychelles. Or at least Paraparaumu. You’re welcome, everyone.

Then there was Tatou. Tatou master. The broken Maori boy with a broken smile, from a broken home. The poor devil. How he terrorised and entertained us all. Those days, though grim, were the lightest for him no doubt. Wet socks on hot water heaters and booking time to play Carmen San Diego in the class computer. Danish rounders, endless ties for 2nd in three-man sprints, and idol worship the order of those days. Not to mention hedonistically long swims in a shallow sea stretching to the lee of the distant south island. Flounder wriggled underfoot and crabs nipped at toes as Mandy and her blonde bevy of girls giggled in the sand.

BMX bikes through Queen Elizabeth Park – or Queenie – saw me fizz along the noisy track with the two Dutch giants whose house contained not only the Sega Megadrive we all dreamed of (and a pool and the cricket bats) but also an older sister with a heaving bosom. I’d dream of that later when our nether-regions caught on. At the halfway point of our rides we’d swim the dirt out from underneath our fingernails at the Raumati Pool and eat raspberry liquorice straps.

Then there was the paper run that put hairs on my chest early, by putting the Gulf War in my face daily. The ineptitude and malice of war, and those normalising plumes of smoke, became wallpaper. Distant atrocities that fell on deaf ears, gore from Kuwait that hardly compared to the real world. To seeing that cat run over in front of my eyes. The tire went straight over its stomach, squeezing it like a sausage so that bits came out both ends wherever there was give.

And yet more blood, but this time in battling boys’ noses – a misguided, extracurricular attempt to right the balance of power in the school yard. The better man won. Or at least, the bigger. Broken windows, fugitives and their ratting out followed. And an honest, yet feeble, attempt at doing to boy scout movement proud. Dib dib dob dob and all that. We proved too loose for that, though – us Paekak boys. Far better suited to roof-rattling and underachieving as it turned out.

Though with that all cunningly figured, it was now time to start all over again and learn anew. It was off to college – for all eight of us – where the inevitable drift of time, and puberty, was waiting to begin.

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ME. PART ONE

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.

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