Edgewater College, Pakuranga, New Zealand, 1977
When I was seven, I took my frog, Sampson, to school for the nature table. He jumped out of his tank at lunch time and some oaf squashed him flat. Accidentally, but still. Bad things happened at school – things I couldn’t avoid, like maths and netball. A rat once ran out from under a prefab and bit my thumb. I was stung by a swarm of bees on sports day. For me, school was digging a tunnel with a teaspoon, shoving the clay in my pockets and trying to find new ways to dispose of it, day after day. Like prison, there was too much noise, too many people and there were uniforms. Shout out to the blue tartan shift with a drop waist, which I hated so much I tore it off and set fire to it after my last day of school.
In fifth form I started getting migraines, which were unavoidable and always seemed to happen at school. I was sitting outside at lunch time when the first one struck. Looking up, I saw a girl with no head walk across the quad. I looked down, blinked a few times and looked back. Still no head, just a shimmer of light where her head should be. I decided to wait it out, hoping things would return to normal. They didn’t. An hour later I was in Biology, feeling spacey, trying to see past the splodges of light to read what was on the board. Then a dagger split my head open.
In the sick bay I was questioned by the nurse. I told her I had a headache – maybe a migraine. She frowned and said it couldn’t be because people who got migraines had special medication. The pain in my head made it hard to assemble a response and I was having difficulty with the amount of light in the room. I wanted to crawl under a blanket in a dark room and hide, but Nurse Pain had me down as a malingerer. Watching me flinch and squint, she made a snap diagnosis: “I think it’s one of those headaches that needs a bit of fresh air,” she said, marching me outside.
She told me to stand there till I felt better. I have no idea how long I lasted, pinned in place by the hot sun, nausea chewing at my gut. When I began to feel faint, I leaned against the wall, trying to breathe deeply, as instructed. After throwing up all over the shrubbery, I crept back inside, and Nurse Ratched relented and rang my mother.
Migraines plagued me all year. When one kicked off at the start of a French exam, I got flak from classmates who, like the school nurse, were convinced I was shamming. A doctor told me the blind spots or flashes of light were classic migraine auras that sometimes precede the headache. Some people had tunnel vision or temporary blindness, others saw zig zags, coloured spots or stars. For me, it was always the shimmering orbs. He asked if anything was causing me stress and I mumbled something about exams. I didn’t want to tell him my father was a psycho.
We were preparing for our first national exams, which I did find stressful – shut in my room, hunched over piles of books and notes. And since my brother and I were now teenagers, there was an added layer of tension at home. We’d started answering our father back, sometimes baiting him and as the family dynamics shifted, the force and frequency of his rages began to escalate. Fortunately, his English had never been good, so if we were subtle enough, we could vent our frustrations, amuse ourselves and at the same time make him seem more ridiculous than terrifying. But it was a dangerous game.
Stonewalling was another coping strategy. If my father asked me a direct question, I answered him, otherwise I did my best to pretend he didn’t exist. I have to admit I was good at it. His response was typically brutish, forcing me to acknowledge him by smacking, pinching or grabbing my behind if I happened to be within reach. Of course, I reacted. When I realised I was giving him the attention he wanted, I doubled down and ignored him harder. This took a lot of emotional energy and still failed. The more I ignored him, the more he manhandled me and all I could do was train myself not to care.
I spent more time in my room, self-medicating with music, and never passed up an opportunity to stay with friends at weekends. One of my best friends, Claire, lived up on the hill in a big brick house with a swimming pool and the best drinks cabinet in town. We’d met on the first day of college, thanks to our last names and the alphabetical seating arrangement in class. We shared the same bent humour and the understanding that Pakuranga was a place to escape from. Most of the other high school kids were a fill of faces and names that moved by like scenery. They were casually sporty, academically average, slotting happily into the suburban landscape. At weekends they hung around the eastern beaches, working on their tans, the warm bleed of Fleetwood Mac or The Eagles seeping from car radios. I imagined they’d all marry each other and never leave.
On weekdays I walked to school early, reading in form class as the room filled with students. They made me feel like a different species, especially if I’d been up half the night after a fight at home. They talked about the TV they watched, the sports they played and sometimes the music they listened to. It wasn’t the music I listened to, though there was a song in the top 10 that seemed to be playing everywhere you went that summer.
Strawberry Letter 23 was a sweet-natured slice of soul psychedelia beamed down from nowhere that sounded like nothing else. A trippy love note about first kisses and sweet nothings, written on strawberry scented stationery. It was slinky and irresistible, layered with keys, sparkly synth leads and a funk breakdown to infinity and beyond. Shuggie Otis released the original in 1971, but it was The Brothers Johnson version that went platinum. With a dreamy bed of backing vocal sighs, Strawberry Letter was the perfect tune to get down to with your honey at the high school disco. I imagined. I didn’t have a boyfriend to slow dance at discos with. I was probably up at Claire’s, making coconut ice and experimenting with the contents of the drinks cabinet while her parents were out [NB: it’s impossible to get wasted on kahlua and milk, so don’t bother trying].
There definitely were kids out there getting it on to Strawberry Letter 23 though – I knew at least two. In our form class, Carol had started going out with Ronald, a handsome, but shy all-rounder. It was one of those sweet pairings that everyone approved of. They both seemed so normal, well-adjusted and nice. I watched the way they were together, how she lit up when she talked about him, all skittish with teen affection. I remember when she told me how much she loved this track and couldn’t stop listening to it because it was “their” song. I always imagined that Carol and Ronald did marry each other and never leave. And this track was where it all began.
Stereo Story #614