ITS LUS­TRE WAS LOST

Kirsty John­ston loved Auck­land but it changed and the change was too much for her to stay

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS -

On my first day in Auck­land my jacket was stolen at the New Lynn train sta­tion. The kids who took it used the old­est trick in the book, one ask­ing for di­rec­tions while the other slid the worn black blazer silently from my bag.

I wasn’t an­gry. I didn’t even no­tice the jacket was miss­ing un­til I got to work, and by then I was too en­am­oured with my new city to care. It was Jan­uary, and the early morn­ing heat was al­ready shim­mer­ing off Karanga­hape Rd. A busker played her ukulele to an obliv­i­ous stream of of­fice work­ers and school­girls, the oc­ca­sional drunk stum­bling blearily from the 24-hour bar into the sun. In con­trast to grim, grey Welling­ton it seemed so alive, the petty theft of my un­nec­es­sary coat adding just enough dan­ger to make me feel care­less and cool.

That sum­mer, as I moved into a flat with my cousin in San­dring­ham, every­thing was tinged with the same giddy glow. I was fas­ci­nated by the drama of K Rd. I got to know the dairy owner down­stairs, the barista next door, and the sassy pros­ti­tutes who used our foyer to touch up their makeup and hair. I ate steam­ing hot pho and sticky pork buns and puffy dahi puri, my new col­leagues my culi­nary guides. Most of them, like me, weren’t “from” Auck­land, in­stead drawn to the city by its glut of jobs.

Af­ter work, we would go drink­ing at Golden Dawn, a bar you could find only through a se­cret door. If we fin­ished early enough, we’d drive to the Herne Bay beaches for a swim in the tepid har­bour tide. In win­ter I trained for a half­marathon, hat­ing the run­ning but fall­ing more in love with the city with each vol­cano I climbed.

When I ar­rived, my knowl­edge of Auck­land was lit­tle more than frag­mented snapshots — the Bom­bay Hills, the Tip Top fac­tory, the har­bour bridge. My strong­est mem­ory was when, as chil­dren, we spent the week with Nan in New Lynn dur­ing a drought, when we weren’t al­lowed to flush the toi­let. But slowly, helped by the views from the vol­ca­noes, the real Auck­land took shape in my mind. Over the next two years I claimed it as my own.

LOOK­ING BACK, I still can’t pick ex­actly when Auck­land lost its lus­tre for me.

In 2014 I went trav­el­ling for a year, but com­ing back felt like com­ing home. I re­turned to all my old haunts, al­though I joined a new pa­per and I went to me­dia events and met writ­ers I’d long ad­mired. I be­gan to gain some recog­ni­tion. My ca­reer soared.

My part­ner and I de­cided to try to buy a small apart­ment. To our sur­prise, we were turned down. My boyfriend’s choice to work two jobs in­stead of one was un­ac­cept­able to the bank. The 40 per cent de­posit they re­quired was also out of reach.

At the time, we pushed it to the back of our minds. I thought we would sim­ply try again in a year. So in­stead we trudged through packed flat view­ings, even­tu­ally rent­ing a one-bed­room unit in Mt Eden and car­ried on.

I won­der now, how­ever, if that was it? The turn­ing point? The dis­ap­point­ment of miss­ing out on a home, be­holden to a land­lord once again. At some point, every­thing be­gan to frus­trate me. The in­ter­minable wait­ing in win­ter for buses that were al­ways full. Climb­ing Mt Eden for a mo­ment of peace, to find the sum­mit cov­ered with peo­ple. Watch­ing as my favourite cafe be­came “cool”, its sig­na­ture dish

on In­sta­gram and on Sun­days you could hardly get a seat.

When a Mon­tei­ths bar opened in San­dring­ham, I was in­cred­u­lous. Its pre­dictable mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture felt out of place in the jum­ble of In­dian restau­rants and spice shops, its name — a throw­back to a com­man­der in the In­dian army — in­sen­si­tive to say the least.

The year be­fore I left, we filmed a doc­u­men­tary at Pa­pakura High School, in the south. It was only 30km away but felt much fur­ther. We spent hours and hours on the South­ern Mo­tor­way, that as­phalt rib­bon of bore­dom and rage. I couldn’t imag­ine the hell of com­mut­ing ev­ery day.

The school it­self was a bright spot among my in­creas­ing de­spon­dency about the city. The first time I heard the kapa haka group sing, their voices swelling through the door of the whare, my heart swelled too. I ate panikeke and chop suey, learned the in­tri­ca­cies of the Ton­gan stick dance, soke, watched as del­i­cate moko were drawn on ea­ger faces. This was Auck­land too, I thought, maybe the real Auck­land. But be­ing in Pa­pakura also made me an­gry at the grow­ing in­equal­ity, high­lighted as I drove past water­front man­sions to a school where some stu­dents couldn’t af­ford lunch. At the same time, home­less­ness was bur­geon­ing, with street sleep­ers crowd­ing the cen­tre city and fam­i­lies forced to live in cars.

Com­men­ta­tors urged first-home buy­ers like me to quit Sky and stop eat­ing avo­cado. “Move to Otara”, they said. I winced to think at the com­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of that com­mu­nity and the evic­tion of its res­i­dents, like Grey Lynn and Pon­sonby be­fore it. But, as the me­dian house price climbed above $800,000, I found my­self imag­in­ing buy­ing a bun­ga­low there, paint­ing it beige. Soon, how­ever, even Otara climbed out of reach, and I was saved from my­self.

In May this year, I asked my bosses if I could work from Dunedin, my boyfriend’s home town. When they said yes, our ar­gu­ments for stay­ing be­came in­creas­ingly thin. I couldn’t say I’d miss the cul­ture, the last time I at­tended a fes­ti­val had been the pre­vi­ous year. We’d stopped go­ing to Coro­man­del at week­ends be­cause of the traf­fic. I’d given up the Herne Bay beaches long ago.

In the end, the fi­nal hur­dle was con­fronting my fear. My in­ner nar­cis­sist was con­vinced that leav­ing was fail­ing. I was scared I’d be for­got­ten. That’d I hate the South. Peoples’ re­ac­tions didn’t help. “But why Dunedin?” they said. “You know it’s cold there.” At best they man­aged: “If you don’t like it you can al­ways come back.”

Some of that was born, I think, from de­fen­sive­ness. I know we are lucky to be able to leave and con­tinue to do jobs we en­joy. My wor­ries were largely those of the mid­dle class. So many oth­ers will never be able to af­ford to leave Auck­land, not un­til there is work else­where.

ON MY last day in Auck­land I drove south, my pos­ses­sions piled around me, past the Tip Top Fac­tory and over the Bom­bays. I felt, mo­men­tar­ily, sad. Then I caught sight of the new hous­ing de­vel­op­ment at Po­keno, and felt an­gry.

Auck­land, I’ll miss your heat, your hurry, your cos­mopoli­tan mix. I’ll miss the way my heart leaps each time I drive over the har­bour bridge. But I won’t miss your end­less spread, your sin­gle-storey brick boxes mul­ti­ply­ing like cells un­der a mi­cro­scope, an ag­gres­sive sub­ur­ban bac­te­ria colonis­ing fer­tile farm­land.

The poet Karlo Mila calls you a feke, an oc­to­pus. Your ten­ta­cles curl around the isth­mus, greedy, al­ways want­ing more.

Once, I would have wel­comed your many-armed em­brace, but now it feels clois­ter­ing, too hot, too close. I want to shrug you off, to see how it feels to love some­where else, for now.

I’ll miss your heat, your hurry . . . I won’t miss your end­less spread, your sin­gle-storey boxes mul­ti­ply­ing like cells un­der a mi­cro­scope.

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