Friday, 27 February 2009

Chicken Coop For The Soul

what light from yonder window breaks?

This is a post in which I will say only good things about Invercargill.


This is because I am a trainee journalist and trainee journalists must exercise fairness and balance.

(Real journalists, of course, can get away with writing shit like this).

On Saturday I leapt out of bed at midday with a fiery determination not to be such a dreary old mope.

“To the museum-stroke-art gallery!” I cried.

Invercargill’s cultural attraction is tucked away at the south end of Queen’s Park. It is housed in a building the shape of a pyramid. From a distance, with myopia and no knowledge of Paris, it is almost as if you are outside The Louvre.

Inside, I made my way straight to the tuatara house. Local celebrity Henry, his girlfriends, some mates and his eleven offspring live there. I was delighted to make their acquaintance. It seems it takes as little as staring at motionless prehistoric reptiles on a rainy Saturday to cheer a Weasel up.

(I told you I was low maintenance).

Making my way upstairs in buoyant mood I passed a splendid display of Victoriana, and entered a baffling ‘Space In Southland’ exhibit, which was enlivened by a fish tank containing a freshwater crayfish with furry claws.

Next door in the Burt Munro section I marvelled at photographs of the salty old larrikin and watched Offerings to the Gods of Speed, the documentary that spawned the film The World’s Fastest Indian, a Welsh anti-establishment polemic*.

Then I wandered through a display on the Subantarctic Islands where I was suitably impressed by several stuffed albatross (albatrosses? albatrii?), and then the museum-stroke-art gallery was done and I was perilously close to winding up my ‘Things To Do In Invercargill Before I Leave’ list.

One item remained, but it would mean getting wet.

Rain or no rain, I was exploring Queen’s Park.

A ‘garden of national importance’ because it is big and has lots of plants in it, it was described by one starry-eyed visitor as “reminiscent of New York's Central Park”.

I have been to Central Park and I can report that your chances of getting mown down by a lycra-clad man on rollerblades are significantly less here. But nevertheless Queen’s Park is lovely.

I strolled happily for hours, such was its loveliness.

There were rose gardens and Japanese gardens and amazing trees and a duck pond. There were secret nooks and dells. There was a children’s play area, blessedly free of children on this wet weekend so I could have a go on everything. There were statues. There was a bandstand. There was a fairytale castle hidden among the trees. There was an aviary I didn’t have time to visit because I spent so long in the animal enclosure. There was an animal enclosure housing pigs and wallabies and rabbits - and the finest chickens I have ever seen.

Silver Sebrights.

Remember that name. They are the Angelina Jolies of the chicken world. Sleek, good-looking, and self-assured, I was enchanted by their comely markings and the audacious gleam in their eye.

I stared at the chickens. The chickens stared at me. A connection was made. Me and the chickens, we got something going.

Time became meaningless. I sat on the concrete to better admire my new friends. I got my camera out and ran the batteries down trying to get a good shot of my favourite, the one giving me cheeky looks from behind the wire.

I have never wanted to pick up a chicken and take it home more (and believe me, I want to pick up and take home chickens a lot). I vowed that, when I am in a position to have chickens, these are the chickens I shall have.

Oh yes**.

In the end I was in the animal enclosure so long I was locked in and the keeper, who was waiting to go home for the day, had to let me out.

He didn’t mind, though, and showed me some terrapins on the way.

The terrapins were fine, but no match for the chickens.

I walked around the rest of the park until my waterproof shoes were sodden, and then I went home, high on life and and all its chickeny splendour.

Invercargill? It's all right.

* I have that on good authority, but because I am a trainee journalist I cannot reveal my sources.
** I would like to stress I am not a chicken pervert. Honest.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Long Dark Friday

for the love of Tyra

Friday lunchtime, and student 901185’s body has just been flooded with its monthly dose of misery hormones.

The first week is over: no more lessons til Monday and no homework.

Inside the classroom, I am part of something deliciously exciting.

Outside the classroom, with nothing to distract me, I have to face up to the fact I am in Invercargill.

Even the Maori name for this place hints at its character: Waihopai, to leave in good order.

‘Good order’: yes, it’s a tidy little town. The flat, broad roads are uncluttered by traffic. The pavements are uncluttered by people. All the tall trees have been herded into parks, giving the streets a plain, naked feel. Set out on a grid, wide avenues fade to vanishing point. The town is a business centre, serving its agricultural community; straightforward and practical. It has the feel of a place where nothing much happens. It is certainly nice, sensible, and orderly. It is definitely free from pizzazz.

‘To Leave’: nuff said.

No homework.


I hang about at school for a while but I don’t have any reason to be there. I won’t have computer access until next week. I’ve already read the paper. Everyone else has gone.

Reluctantly I make my way back out into the real world and with a whole afternoon yawning ahead, I wonder what the hell to do.

I might text the classmate who has already tried to lure me to the pub twice, but I don’t have money to spend on fun just yet.

I should type up a CV for that part-time job I need, but I can’t be bothered.

I could drive to the beach, five miles away, but it is raining and the beach will be crowded with petrolheads racing their cars up and down the sand.

Maybe the museum? But I don’t feel like being indoors.

I have already thoroughly explored the six blocks that constitute the city centre.

I want to go for a walk somewhere beautiful and calming. But beauty and calm are not features of the immediate area, and the weather is foul.

Harrumph. I am B.O.R.E.D.

I decide to investigate charity shops and set out into the spiteful rain.

I buy a bag of clothes I don’t want for $2. Three warm tops, for the winter which appears already to be here. I buy them in an attempt to cheer myself up, which fails, because the clothes are dowdy and I won’t wear them, and because I’ve already discovered the charity shops in Invercargill don’t open on a Saturday and I can’t even think about how I’m going to entertain myself tomorrow.

Now it’s 4.30pm. Time is dragging. It’s too early to eat, but not wanting to go home yet I get some fish and chips anyway from the place I visited the day I arrived in town.

I’ve been looking forward to this. When I’m poor I force myself to cook cheap but nutritious meals during the week and, after this martyrdom, on Fridays I reward myself with a takeaway.

“Could I have vinegar on my chips please?” I ask. You have to ask for vinegar in New Zealand. They don’t understand the British salt and vinegar thing.

“We don’t have vinegar,” the fish and chip lady replies.

“When I came last week the other lady found a big bottle of white vinegar out in your back room,” I say. And boy she'd known how to use it too – those fish and chips were eye-stingingly good.

“No vinegar,” she insists.

I sit in my car in Queen’s Park to eat, and discover she has put extra salt on the chips to compensate for the lack of vinegar. My mouth shrivels; now I’m not only miserable but disappointed too and slightly poisoned.

The rain beats down.

I look at the text messages on my phone for light relief. The latest from Flatmate describes how his bike got a puncture so he had to walk to work.

My mind floods with memories. I can see him walking: a sinuous feline movement. I visualise the effortless grace of his body, the fluidity of his limbs – those strong, elegant arms, those muscular legs. I remember how I used to secretly perv at him while he did his tai chi in the garden. I think of how he would smile and call me his favourite kitten, wrap a protective arm around me and pull me close.

Sigh. He is so beautiful.

And 11916 miles away.

Maybe not the best thing to be thinking about right now?

I wish I had a cat to cuddle. Animals soothe me. Driving out of the park, I am stupidly pleased to see some deer in an enclosure and two ducks.

I drive aimlessly for a while through areas not yet explored and find that Invercargill is all the same, flat and featureless.

There is nothing here. It is depressing. I go home.

I have rented a cheap room in an eight-bedroomed bungalow close to college which clearly used to be a care home: it has wheelchair-access bathrooms and a lounge the size of a small venue with dingy armchairs dotted about.

I share the place with three young guys: a Maori, a Tongan, and a Pakeha.

All of them live on white bread, frozen pizza and instant noodles and none of them know how to wash up.

There is graffiti on the chairs in the lounge.

There is a pile of festering towels in the laundry.

There is a swastika scratched into the surface of the dining table.

There is a hole kicked into the glass of the back door.

The boys turn the oven on for heating, which means the house is infused with the smell of burning fat.

Bizarrely, I feel safe here. I can lock myself in my room and nobody cares.

The Tongan and I watch America’s Next Top Model. He laughs in all the wrong places. I can’t live without this programme. Only a couple more episodes to go. What am I going to do when it finishes?

I am desolate at the thought.

Back in my room, I am listless. I wish the weather was better – I need to exercise. I read a book, and wish I had the internet. I am sick of lying on my bed.

The room is too cold. I turn the heater on.

The room is too hot. I turn the heater off.

I wish we’d had homework. How I am going to fill a whole weekend? How will I get through a year here? There is nothing to do out there, nowhere to go.

I wish Flatmate would text me again.

I wish anyone would text me again.

I feel sad, and very small.

I know my gloom is just PMT, but Invercargill isn’t helping.

Thursday, 19 February 2009


sweet victory

I am sitting cross-legged on a cold parquet floor.

The wood is as russet-red and as polished as a conker. The evening light reflects off it as it shines through the windows of the school hall.

My legs ache and my bum is sore from prolonged sitting but I am rigid with attention. Brown Owl is just about to announce the winner of the weekly raffle.

I tug at the hem of my Brownie uniform, ready to leap up if my number is called. Anticipation grips my guts. I can barely breathe.

“Number twenty two,” Brown Owl announces.

My eyes close; I exhale; I do not need to look at the crumpled ticket in my palm to know that I haven’t won.


I’ve been coming to Brownies long enough to have been promoted to Seconder, and yet every week I miss out. How can life be so unfair?

Disappointment wells up and I want to cry. But I hide it, as usual, and merely glance with longing at the girl with the prize of a handful of caramels as I file outside to where my Dad is waiting to take me home in the car.

All I want to do is win the raffle.

I never won the raffle.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It is the morning of Sports Day, and the sun is blazing outside.

I am in the school hall where entries for the Flower Display competition are being received.

In my hands is my masterpiece. I know I am going to win, this time.

I have lined a platform of wood with tin foil; split an orange in two. I have glued tin foil to the outside of the orange, turned one half face down and have nailed the other half through its exposed flesh to the wood. I have dismembered a watch and positioned its cogs and screws in and around the orange. The rawness of the fruit is vivid and shocking against the metallic backdrop. It is paradoxical. Disquieting. Discordant. It says everything I want it to say. It is stunning.

I am tired, having worked on my magnum opus late into the night, but I am alert.

“Which category?” asks the teacher.

“Book titles,” I reply. “A Clockwork Orange.”

The teacher fills out a card. “It’s not really flowers, is it,” she says.

“The rules say flowers, fruit or vegetables,” I reply, primly. I know my rights.

“On the table please,” she sighs.

Among the insipid floral displays, my piece is unique – there is nothing to rival it. I am a Shakespeare among Cartlands, a Thatcher among Howes.

Throughout the day I am on tenterhooks. My friends win or lose their sports events; I lose mine. I do not care.

I cannot wait for judging.

I know without doubt my creation will win.

It is, simply, brilliant.

It didn’t.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I am sitting on a comfortable chair in a modern classroom.

It is the second day of my journalism course in Invercargill.

We have just briefly ‘interviewed’ the classmate sitting next to us, and that classmate has just briefly ‘interviewed’ us. We are now introducing our interviewee to the rest of the class.

We’re doing this to make the ‘Hello my name is’ session marginally more interesting, and to show us how much we don’t know about interviewing. The tutors promise a prize for the best presentation.

Round we go, some of us grave, some of us flippant.

The tutors confer, discussing who’s earned the reward: a standard issue ring-bound notebook, bought in bulk from a local stationery warehouse.

They mutter and nod as they go through the notes they made during our speeches.

I know the feeling of not winning so well now I don’t even entertain the hope, not even for silly games like this.

Anyway I did a thousand things wrong. My findings were dull - I couldn’t think of any good questions to ask - and I barely looked up as I spoke, I was so nervous.

I sit placidly, waiting.

“There can be only one winner,” the tutor announces as he picks up the notebook. “And the winner is…”

He is coming over here. He is walking towards me. He will probably keep going, and give the notebook to the woman in the corner, who was humorous, well-spoken and insightful.

“…Weasel. Congratulations! The notebook’s yours.”

Time stops, just for a moment.

I can’t believe it. Perhaps they felt sorry for me?

No, that’s stupid.

Don’t cry! Not in class.

“Me? Oh! Wow. Thank you,” I stutter.

I am not bold enough to look him in the eye as I accept my prize.

The notebook is beautiful.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Bone Straight

"GHD!" "No, BabylissPro, forsooths!"

Break a quill sweet cheeks,’ texted Flatmate on Sunday night, ‘and remember to wear a short skirt tomorrow - first impressions last’.

As I straightened my hair on Monday morning prior to starting my career as a two-bit hack I remembered a piece of style advice I’d received from another Cardiffian.

It must’ve been 2008, or even 2007, and it was the last time I’d strayed into a hairdressing salon.

I hate going to the hairdressers. I hate going to the hairdressers because of The Conversation - no, I’m NOT doing anything nice at the weekend - and because without my glasses on I am as blind and vulnerable as a newborn kitten.

But there I was, mute and myopic, and a fat, plain girl with sensational hair was going at my split ends with unholy vigour.

“What,” I asked her during a lull in her describing her boyfriend’s adventures in hair product, “is the secret to truly effective hair straightening?”

She mulled this over as she snipped.

“Good straighteners, as expensive as you can afford,” she replied after due consideration.

She thought again.

“And good product, because you need the straighteners as hot as they can go. But the most important thing is this: before you start, your hair must be dry. Absolutely dry. All over. Poker dry.”

The words hung in the air between us.

Poker dry?

I could see her chewing the phrase over in her mind.

Our eyes met in the mirror. I watched a flicker of doubt pass across her plump, painted face.

“Poker dry.”

She repeated it with a firm nod of her head, and that was that.

Since that day, every time I’ve straightened my hair I’ve made sure my hair has been poker dry first.

Funny how some advice sticks.

Sadly my short skirt was in the wash.

The Long Drive South (Or, The Death of a Thousand Butterflies) Part IV

On The Road: Day Four

My friends are very lovely but they are committed herbivores who do not pollute their bodies with alcohol or caffeine.

So before leaving Queenstown I took Downstairs Monkey and Bear to Lake Wakatipu where they frolicked in the sun while I bought a big fat greasy sausage roll and a latté.

I can’t function without latté.

The big fat greasy sausage roll was just for the pleasure of it.

Back on the road, we soon came across another typical Kiwi traffic jam:

It’s all true what Billy Connolly says, you know.

Two hours later, in the middle of nowhere, we came across this:

Downstairs Monkey became anxious at the ape fascism implicit in this statement.

“Don’t worry little fella,” I soothed, “I’m sure they mean monkeys too.”

But do they?

Soon after that we arrived at the outskirts of the golden city of the south!

See, I told you dreams were possible in Invercargill. If it’s on a sign then it must be true.

[Note to self: invent perpetual motion machine immediately. Invent cat-free perpetual motion machine immediately]

We drove on to Bluff. Bluff isn’t the southernmost point of New Zealand but it’s the end of the road, in all senses.

State Highway One, which runs the length of the country, finishes here in a turning circle, some parking bays, a café, a souvenir shop and a very pointy signpost.

The signpost doesn’t mention Cardiff, but I’m guessing it’s a long way.

Road trip over, the boys and I headed back to Invercargill.

With admirable forethought, the council had put the Christmas decorations up already.

A chill wind whipped up from Antarctica, and I huddled into my fleece.

Now all I had to do was find a place to live, get a part-time job, learn how to be a reporter and scrape a million kamikaze insects off my car.

Welcome to my foreseeable future.

The Long Drive South (Or, The Death of a Thousand Butterflies) Part III

On The Road: Day Three

I spent another physically challenging night in the car, then it was time to head to Queenstown.

We had a nice open road this time. Oh, apart from this:

The terrain got steep. I discovered My Little Car is not equipped for steep.

We crawled up the Cardrona Pass in second gear, the clutch burning out under my feet, and down the other side, the brakes burning out under my feet.

[Note to self: replace clutch; replace brake pads. Or stick to plains. Or even sell car: Invercargill is flat. They’ll never know]

The view from the top was great though!

In Queenstown I popped in to say hi to my Ten Year Ex, his missus and their two kids whom I’d not met before, having last popped in to say hi in 2005.

I’m not broody, right, but the bubs were GORGEOUS.

AND they like monkeys.

Momma and Pops insisted I stay the night, and bought me dinner.

Friends are brilliant.

Slept in a real bed!

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Long Drive South (Or, The Death of a Thousand Butterflies) Part II

On The Road: Day Two

Waking the next morning unable to move my neck or legs and with the imprint of a handbrake on my arse, I admired the view from my mobile beachside villa.

After prising myself upright I went for an invigorating walk along the beach.

For the residents of New Brighton, it was just another Monday morning: a bit of jogging, a bit of surfing, a bit of walking the dogs.

I could put up with that.

I found a public toilet and attained perfect cleanliness with the aid of a packet of baby wipes and a cold tap (I am very Low Maintenance).

Then it was time to move on. We followed the coast road to Lyttleton and had breakfast at the top of the pass above the harbour.

That’s bran and sultanas, soy milk, and a kiwi fruit, in case you’re wondering.

Turning inland, we pushed on to Lake Tekapo.

Now we were on what locals call The Loop – the route taken by every holidaymaker on their tour of the South Island.

I found myself stuck behind hire cars driving twenty below the speed limit, massive Winnebago-type contraptions, and rented backpacker vans.

I scorn them all, for I am a Free Camper.

(ie I sleep rough in my car, and am not A Tourist).

See all that traffic! It shouldn’t be allowed.

Downstairs Monkey and Bear reminded me that, by tailgating people driving their rental vehicles really slowly at places it was impossible to overtake, I was at that moment ruining those people’s holidays. I knew, but I just didn’t care.

Shouting while driving is fun.

All three of us were delighted to reach Tekapo.

We took a stroll along the shore, visiting the pretty Church of the Good Shepherd and the dog statue by the edge of the lake, where we discovered Bear is afraid of heights.

Peckish, we found that Tekapo’s two small cafés were shut, but the freakishly expensive tourist restaurants weren't.

Downstairs Monkey noticed the garage looked busy. We poked our snoots in and discovered it was full of backpackers buying up the grocery and beer sections.

I bought one of those microwave rice things, popped it in the microwave provided to heat up pies, brazenly stood there for two minutes while it cooked, then walked back to the car, scooped a tin of sardines into it and, along with an avocado I’d brought along for the ride, feasted like a pikey king.

Downstairs Monkey just had a banana.

The Long Drive South (Or, The Death of a Thousand Butterflies) Part I

On The Road: Day One

From this...

To this...

To this. All my worldly goods.

NB: the above photo does not include the fabled rucksack of my one rucksack future, which was still upstairs waiting to take my overnight stuff. Nor does it include my overnight stuff: bedding, mattress, food supplies, toiletries, daypack, laptop, Downstairs Monkey and his chum Bear.

Believe it or not, it all went in.

Early next morning, the good ship Kaitaki stole Wellington from me.

So it was goodbye North Island

And hello South Island.

On the way, I saw a penguin and three dolphins, which more than made up for it.

Downstairs Monkey and Bear were thrilled to visit the lovely Kaikoura for the first time.

(That's Captain Moo and Lumi Pig next to them. They live in the car).

“Are those the same mountains you can see from Wellington?” my little chums asked.

“Yes,” I said, “And that is snow up there too.”

“Blimey,” they said.

After perving at seals, and a fish & chip lunch that was so overpriced I had a spring roll instead, we got back on the road.

(The road).

Wanting to explore Christchurch’s beaches, we headed for New Brighton and found a rather lovely pier, complete with dazzling full moon in a twilight sky.

(Please note all perfectly focussed photos were taken by myself; all slightly fuzzy photos were taken by Downstairs Monkey).

We decided to spend the night there, and unfurled the duvet.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Leaving Wellington

Island Bay looked like this tonight

I arrived in Wellington on a cold bright day in July 2004.

Parked on the edge of the rugged south coast, I sat in my car and stared at the snowy Rimutaka mountains across the harbour, wondering what the future would bring me in this new town.

(I also wondered, ‘Snow? What the fuck?’)

And now I’m leaving tomorrow and I had the best time and met brilliant people and managed to fall in love with Wellington despite its enthusiastic weather, so the future was pretty nice to me, I reckon.

I hope it’s nice to me in Invercargill too.

I’ve already left Wellington twice – once for a miserable three months when my mum was dying in 2005, and once in 2007 when I went to live with BK in Cardiff.

Both times, I knew I’d be coming back so it was not imperative to complete my ‘Things To Do In Wellington Before I Go’ list before I went.

This time, I’m not so sure so there were two things I needed to attend to.

Friday morning found me tramping to the summit of Mt Kaukau in a vest top, denim mini skirt and flip flops. I mention my outfit only because the other people engaged in this activity that day seemed to be clad in proper hiking gear, with hiking hats and hiking boots and hiking trousers and extendable hiking poles, despite it being little more than a steepish half hour amble to the top.

Glances were exchanged. I suspect the glaring contrast in attire made both parties feel a little uncomfortable.

Clouds swallowed the peak so there wasn’t much of a view at the top but so what.

Item one crossed off the list, and I’d done it in inappropriate footwear.


I’d diluted an urge to jump into the sea off the jetty at Island Bay into more palatable challenges - mainly, sitting on the jetty thinking ‘One day I’ll jump into the sea from the end of here’ - but with one more sleep before getting on the ferry to the South Island there was no getting away from it: it had to be jumped.

In three years I’d never once risked more than a toe in that water. There’s a reason for that - it’s bloody freezing - but still, as a mate of mine once said on the matter, “Shame on you, Weasel!”


I jumped.

It was quite scary when it came to it, so I did it quickly before my brain could argue, and yes it was screamingly cold.

But I did it.

And I even had a proper swim while I was in there.

So now, with my car packed to the gunwales with Stuff, the only thing left for me to do is go.