The de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects of a ter­mi­nal ill­ness hasn’t stopped John ‘ Cocksy’ Cocks from build­ing a hope­ful house for his fam­ily and fu­ture

GRAB­BING A CRAY­FISH is a hit-and-miss af­fair. At times, when John ‘Cocksy’ Cocks goes div­ing at Sailors Grave near Tairua, the de­vi­ous crus­taceans loi­ter by the rocks just beg­ging to be caught. Other times, the sneaky bug­gers re­treat to safety in the cracks, with not a feeler in sight, be­fore he’s even taken the plunge.

He’s been hunt­ing for, and wax­ing lyri­cal about, the cun­ning cray in th­ese wa­ters ever since he was a nip­per – but it’s harder for Cocksy to dive th­ese days. He has kid­ney can­cer, ter­mi­nal, and the dis­ease has spread to his lungs and back. Weights distributed in his buoy­ancy-con­trol de­vice take pres­sure off the tu­mour in his lower back. “The stan­dard weight belt made it too painful to dive. It’s about adapt­ing so you can carry on do­ing the things you love.”

But liv­ing with the dis­ease (Cocksy doesn’t like the ‘C’ word) is a bit like search­ing for brawny crus­taceans: some­times you come back with a bag full and some­times the cray­fish wins.

“It’s me ver­sus the cray­fish. If I catch one, it’s mine. But if I miss out, I have no qualms and think that it was meant to get away, or I just wasn’t quick enough. But I’d never stop try­ing be­cause I failed.

“I feel the same way about this dis­ease. They gave me two years to live – which I’ve al­ready out­lived – and I’m try­ing for 10 more years.” Op­ti­mistic, sure, but Cocksy is not wait­ing to be swept into the dis­ease’s wide net.

He is fa­mil­iar to many from DIY re­al­ity tele­vi­sion shows such as My House, My Cas­tle and April’s An­gels where he was the Mr Fix-It and of­ten the voice of rea­son on a dra­mafilled build­ing site. Af­ter leav­ing the small screen, he started a build­ing firm spe­cial­iz­ing in in­di­vid­u­ally de­signed houses, work­ing closely with ar­chi­tects.

The 51-year-old is no longer build­ing for clients but mak­ing the most of the life-in­sur­ance pay­out which fol­lowed his on­col­o­gists’ de­ci­sion that, sta­tis­ti­cally, he had only one year to live.

“It’s a strange thing to get your head around. You think, ‘Yay, no more money wor­ries’, and on the other hand, ‘Hmm not long to spend it’.”

Last year, which turned out not to be the last year of his life, he built his own cas­tle. The 97-square-me­tre, cedar-clad home is shaped like a kite and points to­wards Tairua’s Mt Paku.

And she’s a beauty. Plumb. True. An­gu­lar. Pre­cise. She’s an ex­am­ple of metic­u­lous crafts­man­ship; the in­te­rior lin­ings are 9mm poplar with a 0.6mm birch ve­neer with a neg­a­tive de­tail to the join­ery frames and mitred ex­ter­nal cor­ners. To the av­er­age Joe or Jo, the house is sim­ply beau­ti­fully made.

Cocksy built it largely on his own. Friends and fam­ily lent a hand with the fram­ing and putting on the roof be­cause, at the time, he was feel­ing the side ef­fects of drug treat­ments and un­able to lift heavy weights.

“There’s no en­gi­neered steel, it’s straight out of build­ing code 3604 [3604 is the build­ing code re­lat­ing to low-rise tim­ber­framed dwellings]. It is a tes­ta­ment to what can be cre­ated with wood and a few nails. I love the feel­ing of tim­ber and work­ing with my hands and my brain.

“Pro­vid­ing peo­ple with a roof over their heads gives me a good feel­ing. In my busi­ness it didn’t mat­ter if I was build­ing a mil­lion-dol­lar man­sion or a 100-square-me­tre box, we did it with the same de­gree of pre­ci­sion. I’m con­fi­dent to say that all my new builds were level, plumb and straight.”

When Cocksy came to de­sign and build his pay­out home, it had to be on the Coro­man­del. He had spent his child­hood at Cook’s Beach and reg­u­larly vis­ited Ocean Beach in Tairua, a favourite spot for sand­cas­tle build­ing. He has lived in Tairua per­ma­nently sev­eral times in his life and his three girls, Ge­or­gia (23), Ella (20) and So­phie (19), went to school there at one stage. Now Tairua is once again home.

“It’s about a sense of place – your tūran­gawae­wae. I grew up here, I came back here; I could never leave it for some rea­son. And I want my kids to have a place here.”

He de­signed the house him­self, sketch­ing it on the wall of the then fam­ily bach known as the maimai. While build­ing it, he lived in that unin­su­lated, cold-as-a-fridge maimai. He says the rou­tine of get­ting up each day, walk­ing the dog, mak­ing toast, putting on the tool belt and get­ting crack­ing was his way of flip­ping the fin­ger at his dis­ease.

“This place be­came my fo­cus and it was part of a goal I had to achieve. When I was younger, I heard the au­thor Bryce Courtenay say, ‘If you have a dream, fol­low that dream as there are not enough dream­ers in the world.’ At that time, I had a dream to be on TV, so I did it.” It turned out to be as easy as au­di­tion­ing.

Next on the Cocksy goal list is the con­struc­tion of a sleep­out (an equi­lat­eral tri­an­gle-shaped hut with a 45-de­gree cor­ru­gated-iron roof). Fol­low­ing that, the maimai will be dis­as­sem­bled to make way for a garage with an­other sleep­out. He isn’t good at sit­ting around although his back has other ideas. A most un-Cocksy-like re­clin­ing po­si­tion gives him the most re­lief.

Tairua is also mean­ing­ful to Dana, Cocksy’s wife. The cou­ple, who met at an event for chil­dren’s char­ity Va­ri­ety a few years ago, mar­ried on Ocean Beach in June 2017 with the re­cep­tion at the lo­cal hall. Dana, a gen­eral man­ager of sales and mar­ket­ing for a trans­port and tourism com­pany in Auck­land, spends a few days each week with her hus­band at Tairua. There are plans afoot to spend more time there and work re­motely.

In sum­mer Tairua siz­zles with hol­i­day­mak­ers. The new house teemed with guests drink­ing beer on the deck while Cocky’s daugh­ters played an­i­mated rounds of Ar­tic­u­late at the kitchen table. In win­ter the town sim­mers down. There are just 1200 or so per­ma­nent res­i­dents, baches are empty and the streets dark at night with only a sprin­kling of houses aglow. It’s when Cocksy likes this place best. “I love the empti­ness of the beaches in the morn­ing; I don’t like the rush. I en­joy peo­ple vis­it­ing, but the off-sea­son is my favourite time. Ev­ery­one knows me here and I know ev­ery­one; I’m a small-town guy.”

Cocksy surfs and dives through­out the chilly months and takes mor­phine for the pain in his spine. His un­funded in­fu­sions of the im­mune-boost­ing drug Keytruda re­quire reg­u­lar trips to Auck­land.

The only thing he’s stopped is play­ing rugby and it has been hard to stand on the side­lines. “Rugby has done a lot for me over the years, so I still sup­port and spon­sor the lo­cal club. When you live in a small town, you get out what you put in – you have to par­tic­i­pate. So I wanted to stay in­volved. The town comes alive when there’s a game on.”

Even though the Tairua house is his full-time home now, there are parts of it that re­main de­lib­er­ately un­fin­ished. The sof­fits are un­painted. To Cocksy, this rep­re­sents bach ar­chi­tec­ture. Baches are built in a rush and of­ten re­main un­fin­ished. When he builds the garage and the new sleep­out, they will also start life un­painted. But someday that will change.

“The garage will be painted by the re­la­tions on a week­end and there will be a raw­ness and rough­ness to it. I don’t want to get pro­fes­sion­als in to do a per­fect job – the idea is to get the fam­ily to leave their mark on it. We can turn up with our paint­brushes and pails and get paint all over our­selves. One day we can look back and ask, ‘What year was it that we painted the bach?’ That’s the kind of con­ver­sa­tions I want to come out of it.”

Cocksy might not be around for the garage-paint­ing day. He can’t ever re­ally be sure what speeds or slows this crafty bug­ger of a dis­ease. How­ever, he does have goals. And dreams. And be­fore the paint­ing, the garage plans need fin­ish­ing and there is an ocean full of kaimoana to catch.

‘I don’t want to get pro­fes­sional painters in to do a per­fect job – the idea is to get the fam­ily to leave their mark on it’

OP­PO­SITE: Cocksy’s cray­fish tat­too and the names of his three daugh­ters are close to his heart; Big­gie Smalls, a mas­tiff- labrador cross, gets two walks a day along Ocean Beach where Cocksy and Dana were mar­ried in June 2017. THIS PAGE: The kitchen, by Cronin Kitchens, fea­tures a matt- black rough- tex­tured tile in con­trast to the sharp, smooth fin­ish of the black HPL cab­i­netry. Cocksy made the kitchen table him­self to fit the space and re­stored the sec­ond­hand chairs in the evenings while build­ing the house.

OP­PO­SITE: The white­washed ply­wood ceil­ing in the lounge has cedar bat­tens over the joins which em­pha­sizes the an­gu­lar house de­sign. The room is fur­nished with mid- cen­tury pieces to give a retro bach feel in­clud­ing a sec­ond­hand vinyl chair and Law­son cy­press cir­cle side­board. LEFT: There are plenty of read­ing spots around the house, in­clud­ing the breeze­way daybed, which also dou­bles as ex­tra sleep­ing for vis­it­ing guests in sum­mer – but Big­gie Smalls the dog isn’t fussy about rest­ing places. BE­LOW: The house in­te­rior is poplar ply with birch ve­neer which, in con­sid­er­a­tion of his health is­sues, was light enough for Cocksy to carry on his own.

The kite de­sign can be seen in the two ex­tremes of the home. Large an­gu­lar win­dows in the lounge, kitchen and master bed­room are a fea­ture while the back of the house is the ‘ tail’ of the kite where the laun­dry is tucked be­hind hinged doors.

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