Tag Archives: childhood

Phantom Planet

Here’s how this post was initially drafted to end:

So I cut the red AAC wristband, straightened my non-existent tie, and walked off on damp pavements to catch my bus.

When I wrote it, the wristband still encircled my radius, bright and crumpled. I didn’t think it mattered whether or not the words were true; they evoked letting go, a holiday beginning its transition from vivid recency into hazy past. I felt that the inclusion of an absent tie signalled my awareness of whatever lies I allowed into my account. I wondered whether the words written down here would eventually become truth in my memory.

But what actually happened ended up being more interesting than the lie.

The last big activity of this year’s summer holiday with the kids was a trip to Splash Planet. It used to be called Fantasyland, a crumbling, community-built theme park famous for the train that ran around it and the smell of urine in the big castle. There were no water slides or pools with slow-filling buckets that saturate you if you time it right, or wrong.

I think I was about five or six when we went as a family in my own childhood. I recall some bright colours and the thrilling, uncontrolled motion felt by a small child going down a large slide. Above all, I recall the joy of riding that train, possibly with a grudging (though smiling) parent or older brother on child-minding duty.

For months afterwards, possibly years, I would counter any mention of Rainbow’s End with the superiority of Fantasyland. Have you been to Rainbow’s End? they would say. No, but I have been to Fantasyland, which is AWESOME. None of my friends had, so I had the pleasure of smug exclusivity and their complete indifference, because nobody cares if they haven’t been themselves. It’s not so different when you tell fellow thirty-something friends about your travels to the backwaters of Alappuzha or the beaches of Asturias and Cantabria. They’re mildly pleased for you, but they will quickly move on to the boats of the Bosphorus or the golden sands of Bali.

You move around the world and colour in the parts you see. You flood your senses and your mind and try, sometimes desperately, to commit them to your memory. But you can never hold onto them as they were, because your memory is fallible and the world’s constant physical change is undeniable.

When I visited Christchurch at the height of its post-earthquake demolition in 2012, my brain couldn’t make sense of the absence of buildings I used to take for granted. They existed in my memory but were in the process of being crushed, snuffed out, by reality.

A drive past the Tokoroa house in which I grew up was even more disorienting, with the big filbert trees replaced by a high wooden fence. The current residents scowled at me as I drove away. In this case, I could maintain a strong image of the past because it was so familiar to me as a kid, but I’ll bet nobody outside my family can call it up if required. And it was impossible to lay that image over the shocking disparity in front of me.

And that image is also likely to be wrong in some way. We know this from study after study: the brain misremembers. Its truth is mine, and mine alone.

To my surprise, many of the elements that made Fantasyland so memorable for little me were intact. Large slides, though more dilapidated than before. The tiny town. (Or am I inserting that into my memories?) The train.

I had no sense of the physical details and how they had or hadn’t changed. I couldn’t tell you whether the grassy parklands were laid out as before, or whether the train followed the same path around the castle. But I knew this was the place I had been to and loved all those years ago. I felt a child’s uncomplicated delight at being there again. For me, it was easily the highlight of the trip.

Tara cut her wristband off before going to sleep that same day. I kept mine on, not just overnight but for days afterward, even through an entire workday. I liked the way it reminded me of the feeling of being at Splash Planet the way a watch used to remind you of time passing. I liked the way it peeked out garishly from under my cuff.

I also liked showing it to colleagues when they asked how my holiday was. Fortunately, there was nearly always a connection, because so many people have been to Fantasyland and Splash Planet over the years.

That night, we discovered our chest freezer had been switched off for days. Possibly by us, in our harried and sleep-deprived state, or possibly by a vendor who carried out some work on our house while we were gone.

Point is, hundreds of dollars and dozens of kitchen hours’ worth of uncooked meat and home-cooked meals — perfect for, say, a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period — had to be thrown out. I stacked thawed containers of dinner saw on top of the oven and carted them in batches of five to a dark corner of the back yard, where I hiffed their contents onto the lawn. A feast for neighbourhood cats.

After I’d washed out all the containers and left them to dry, I collapsed onto the couch next to Tara, who had buried herself exhausted and grieving in a puzzle. I felt the wristband tug at my skin so I looked at it. There was a small blob of refried beans on the palm side. Time to let this past go, too.

“The really good thing,” said Tara, sarcastic but sympathetic, “is the scissors are out in the shed.”

I stood and went to the laundry, where I spent a minute using a pair of garden shears to uselessly shave colour off the wristband.

Then I went to the kitchen and levered a blade under it. The circle was finally broken. Pop. Toot-toot. Wheeee.

I can still feel the bracelet. It’s like my brain wants it to be there. In twelve hours twenty-four hours forty-eight hours it’ll be gone for good, but in forty-eight days it (or its imperfect neurological echo) won’t be forgotten, because I wrote this.

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Filed under Biography, New Zealand, Parenting

Other people’s breakfasts are strange

weet-bix wheat biscuits in bowl with no milk and spoon

via cogdog (Flickr)

It’s 9:45am on a Wednesday and I’m sitting at my desk in the office, eating a rather unsatisfactory bowl of wheat biscuits. Late breakfast — second breakfast, in fact, as I grabbed a chocolate twist from the railway station supermarket on the way to the office. The chocolate twist is a) a regular payday treat, b) a foot-long monstrosity of croissant pastry and brittle, plasticky chocolate, and c) bloody delicious if you have an appreciation for coarser pleasures. Where I usually eat some wheat biscuits at about 8am for breakfast, payday treat chocolate twist stodges up my belly until at least 9:30am, at which time I grudgingly add more stodge.

Anyway. Unsatisfactory? What is it that makes this particular bowl of wheat biscuits unsatisfactory? Well. This may take some time and effort on both our parts but I will attempt to explain.

My office is cold. Two clothing layers at least. That makes chilled milk from the fridge less palatable than it usually might be, like smoking on a hot day: why drink liquid fridge when you’re already shivering? So today, I had the idea of pouring some milk from the bottle into a mug and heating it — just a little! — in the microwave. I’m a genius, I thought to myself as the microwaved blared radioactivity and loud beeps at me.

I poured the milk from the mug into the bowl of wheat biscuits (which also contained yoghurt, un-microwaved, but that’s not important right now), and marched out of the kitchen with an excited grin on my face.

By the time I’d reached my desk, the wheat biscuits were already beginning to disintegrate. Too quickly. I should have known I was in trouble. The first bite made my error plain: I’d overheated the milk very slightly from ‘glacier’, through the intended sweet spot of ‘council swimming pool in summer’, to to the unfortunate ‘lukewarm’. The entire bowl was sullied. Oh, I’ll eat it, don’t worry about that, but I’ll also come on here and complain about it.

It brings to mind a shocking experience in my youth. Staying the night at friends’ houses was a frequent joy of childhood, and it was always interesting to compare the breakfast routines of other families with those of my own. Often, my friend and I would emerge from slumber to an array of branded cereals, some in tall, airtight receptacles, and a jug of milk alongside them on the dining table. I would wonder if this was the weekday standard or a special effort from mum for a weekend visitor (me). It certainly bore no resemblance to the one or two cereals in the dark pantry at my own home.

One time, I stayed over at the farm house of my friend Chris, he of his own trail bike and air rifle, both of which terrified me. Two aspects of this breakfast were particularly unusual.

First was the jug of raw, unpasteurised milk on the table, ultra-fresh from the milking sheds a few hundred metres away. I decided on wheat biscuits and placed two in my bowl, thinking it a potential faux pas to take my usual three or four. Then I began to weigh up whether or not I was all right with consuming milk of known provenance. It was fine to open the cartons delivered at home by the milkman every Monday and Wednesday; that was Milk, its mysterious origin obscured by industry, conveniently expelling any thought of actual animals from my head. But this stuff had been inside a cow just a few hours before I sat down. I wasn’t sure I could deal with that.

As I hovered on the brink, the second unusual thing happened – the shocking thing. Chris’ mum picked up the just-boiled kettle, that strange, noisy object that occasionally furnished me with hot Milo but otherwise meant nothing – I wouldn’t drink tea or coffee until my twenties. Then she carried it over to Chris, who had also taken two wheat biscuits, and poured boiling water all over them.

My eyes went wide. This seemed abhorrent. I was sure Chris would object. But he didn’t; he just reached for the sugar (another item you’d never see on our breakfast table). I couldn’t believe it. This is normal? To obliterate all texture from the wheat biscuits and transform them, instantaneously, into mush? This is what you want?

I was so confused and appalled, I didn’t see what was coming. Chris’ mum came to my bowl, kettle in hand. Then she poured boiling water all over my wheat biscuits.

To be honest, I don’t really remember what happened next. I think I copied Chris exactly: a spoonful of sugar, then the milk (if I wasn’t going to object to molten wheat biscuits, I couldn’t very well draw the line at raw milk). I imagine we downed our piping hot sludge and headed out on the dreaded motorbike, the air rifle slung over Chris’ shoulder.

Chris and his family sold the farm and moved away soon after. We didn’t keep in touch.

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Mrs Ransley’s Fish ‘n’ Chip Emporium

One of the things that I miss about New Zealand is fish and chips, or fush un chups in our delightful accent. I do presently live in a tourist town by the sea and can eat very fresh and delicious fish and chips if I take a short walk out to the cliff, but to my mind, that is not real, pukka fish and chips – not that of my memories, at least.

I don’t know if every Kiwi has a fish and chips memory that romantically sticks in the mind, but I certainly do. It was one of those great, hope-filled Friday evenings of childhood – with a whole weekend of sun and bikes and whatever you wanted ahead – and I was about six or seven. The whole family was still living at home in Tokoroa. My oldest brother Ed told me that somehow I had more pocket money saved than anyone else in the family had disposable income, so the bill for this week’s jaunt to the local takeaway was on me. This was a cause for great excitement. I could provide for the whole family! (How the mighty have fallen.)

I went down with Ed and maybe my mum or my dad, I can’t quite remember. Mrs Ransley greeted us as we entered. She taught at the school I had went to but owned our local fish and chip shop and worked it – overalls, apron and all – in the evenings. After we placed the order, I watched my brother play spacies (coin-operated video games) until it was ready. I paid, full of pride, and we took it home.

Unwrapping the newspaper, we met with an unfamiliar sight. Fish and chips are usually jumbled together – a bed of chips with pieces of fish, hot dogs, donuts etc arranged around/on top of it – but Mrs Ransley knew us all personally and had added a personal touch: she’d organized the whole meal into five little parcels, one for each of us, all labelled by first name. I eagerly grabbed mine and took it to the living room to watch TV, ripping a corner off the parcel through which to extract steaming pieces of potato, soggy and delicious.

Much to my embarrassment, I didn’t actually enjoy fish in really any form until I left NZ just three and a half years ago – first Japan opened my mind to sushi, then Kerala to meen curry and meen fry – so my little parcel probably contained a hot dog and chips. Never mind.

As I say, these were not great chips. They were not crispy, golden, perfect jacket wedges like you would get at some expensive boutique fish and chip shop nowadays. They came from a frozen packet, as did the fish fillets, and were deep fried to hell and back. They constituted the kind of grease-heavy meal that, upon finishing, you would think, “I’m never eating that again”. But it was so exciting – that Friday night reward at the end of a week of school, or a special treat whenever we went to the beach. The fish, if I had it, was generally pretty tasteless and improved vastly by a vat of tomato sauce.

It’s not the taste of the food that I remember, though – it’s the feeling of unwrapping that parcel in the living room or by the sand, tapping into the thrill of opening a gift at the same time as being allowed to eat food that is bad for you. Maybe that’s what I miss – that nostalgia-tinted memory of a simple childhood joy – and not the fish and chips themselves. That feeling never quite dies away completely, though. As those boutique shops replace the Mrs Ransleys of this world, it’s harder to recapture, but if I get to return to NZ this summer, I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to find it.

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Filed under New Zealand