When I was sixteen by Nicky Won
Nicky Won is a fifth generation New Zealand Chinese. She worked for many years as a corporate lawyer, but realised that there were other stories she wanted to write. She is now working on an account of the life of her Irish/German great-great grandmother who married a Chinese goldminer in Otago in the 1880s.
I was sixteen and at Wellington Girls’ College and I had snuck out of school early, with three of my best friends. Wagging like the bad girls. We headed to the Botanical Gardens.
The sun was bright and the air was crisp. The rose garden was planted in circles with beds of roses that were dusky pink, sun-coloured yellow and gentle whites. We ran around giddily, stopping at roses to smell, but we were drawn to the fountain in the middle. A formal concrete fountain, in our eyes fitting of a palace garden.
Our uniforms were a teal pleated skirt (at appropriate knee length) with a white blouse and scratchy wool v-neck jersey. Because we were the geeky kids at school we proudly wore roman sandals. We shed our sandals and dipped our feet in the fountain. Our whole bodies followed and we waded and danced around the centre piece, skirts hitched up and tucked in our undies. We became drenched, but we weren’t overly concerned, we were absorbed in the moment. We would phone home later from the red telephone box behind the tea house with our cover story— staying late at a friend’s to study.
Seeing my girlfriends in the fountain, I felt a wonderment—how much I loved them. We felt alive with all the beauty before us and all the possibilities of our lives.
If I were to draw a line in my life with childhood on one side, my seventeenth year would sit on the other side. It was as though a light had switched on.
When the Springbok tour was on in 1981 we had joined the vigil down at Parliament grounds after school. Friends we met there let us know about the next lot of protests, which were held with the arrival in New Zealand waters of the USS Truxton, a nuclear warship. In our school uniforms, skipping study periods, a handful of us stood in a line outside the railway station on the side facing the main road where the cars had to stop for traffic lights. Swaying in the southerly wind and holding up placards—honk if you support us.
At other times, and in fact a lot of the time after school, we would go to each other’s houses. At Jess’ house we would hang out in her bedroom eating the chocolate peanut slabs we had picked up at the dairy. They were our food of choice, the smokey taste of the peanuts with the smooth rich chocolate. I am sure they were bigger in those days. They could be purchased for a few coins, unencumbered by plastic wrapping and hand plucked from the white cardboard box.
Lying on Jess’ unmade bed after clearing away piles of worn clothing onto her floor, we would listen on her Dad’s record player, to David Bowie. And sing along to the chorus line, untunefully in my case, ‘We can be heroes… just for one day’.
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