Hadn't seen Russell for twenty years, I reckon. We were mates from way back; were even born in the same Dunedin maternity hospital at the same time, although we weren't on a first name basis then. Our late mothers might well have been, though. They certainly were later. Russell was my first XV captain, my best friend; my best man. He was the first flatmate I didn't marry. And there he was - sitting on a stool at Muriwai beach.
You know how it is. We hugged like girlfriends, am ashamed to say. Serendipity can do that. Catches you unawares. One minute you're going about your daily business; the next, half your life is flashing before your eyes. I mean, just his face was enough to set off a film reel of memories, long since archived away. He hadn't lost his hair, either - which is what I'd always teased him would happen. One coffee turned into two, three etc.
Had completely forgotten the many undesirable nicknames my old mate had bestowed on me. "Mute": something about a habit of talking too much. "Mushroom Head": a pretty direct reference to untameable hair. This spawned another one, come to think of it, based on the fact our first XV was predominantly (ok, almost totally) white. Suddenly I became Seviafi: the token Samoan. This was irony as well; I was about as elusive as a neighbourhood letterbox.
Funny thing about meeting old friends; it's as if you've hardly been apart. Russell wasn't quite the same harrier of our youth [ed: pfft, you can talk] but everything was essentially the same. The same upside down smile; the same laughing eyes, somehow both sympathetic and mocking at the same time. The same sense of humour. The same triggers that would spark hysterics - it seemed like there was a wave-length reserved especially for us.
It was as we prattled on, reminiscing about those old Kodachrome days that we realised what had been the major sea-change in our lives. The generation in which we'd grown up (as early teens in the early seventies) was probably the last genuine age of innocence in New Zealand. Wasn't much later that parents started driving their kids to school and using terms like "stranger danger". Instead of teaching children to embrace their environment, we started teaching them to fear it.
Russell remembered cycling as an 11-year-old from Dunedin to Shag Point (a distance of nearly 50kms), where he and friends stayed the night in a relative's crib. In fact, they decided to set off for Oamaru the next morning, thinking it was only just down the road. Took them another day or two to make it back home. But no-one panicked. That's the way it seemed to be back then. More risks, maybe. But also more independence; more freedom.
It's a bit of a paradox, really. The further you go back, and despite the authoritarian and hierchal regime of the day, the more freedom there seemed to be for kids. Have written before about how, as a 12-year-old between the wars, the late, great New Zealand cricketer Bert Sutcliffe would go fishing with his younger brother on the Hauraki Gulf in a wooden dinghy. What's remarkable about that? Only that his sibling was seven years his junior.
Anyway, just wanted to pass that on. You never know what the day might bring. Woke up last Tuesday thinking I pretty much had it covered; what with household chores and writing assignments. A regulation Tuesday, really. A few hours later? Was sitting down at the beach, still semi-shocked, as this long-time mate unlocked a treasure trove of memories (mostly at my expense, admittedly). Talk about a buzz. It was life, yes. But life at its unpredictable best.
» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
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- Auckland Now