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(Image: Tina Tiller)
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BooksOctober 8, 2023

Apocalypse: an excerpt from End Times by Rebecca Priestley

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

A new book by Rebecca Priestley explores a lifelong friendship that has seen rebellious teenage years, climate anxiety, radically shifting beliefs, protests, punk, boyfriends and roadies. The following excerpt is a chapter called ‘Apocalypse’.

We’d been friends since pre-school and best friends since the start of high school, but before we became Christians, before our hearts and eyes were opened to Satan’s grip on the world, Maz and I were angry, because everything was fucked.

We were angry about the System. We were angry about fascism and racism, but mostly we were angry about sexism because we were told “Girls can do anything!” but that wasn’t true. “Anything” didn’t include ditching our girls’ tartan tunics for regulation boys’ grey shorts; the male chauvinist pig teachers sent us home to change. ‘Anything’ didn’t include getting the Most Improved Player cup in soccer; that was for a player in the boys’ team. To vent our angry feelings we went to women’s self-defence classes, where we learned how to fight using our keys, elbows, feet and fists and were given stickers that said All men are rapists and Women who protect themselves against the violence of men are acting in defence of all women.

Sometimes we harnessed our anger to take a stand on things. We protested against the 1981 tour by the racist white rugby team, the Springboks, which made people in our rugby-loving school hate us. “Support the tour, you fucken bitches,” said Robyn when we walked past her wearing black armbands to signal support for Nelson Mandela and the anti-tour movement.

Our female relatives, women a generation or two older than us, were angry too. They led us on protest marches, and wrote manifestos, and shouted. Some of them were arrested, and one formed a protest movement called Women Against Rugby. We also marched in protest at American nuclear ship visits because we worried a lot about nuclear war, even though our homes were Nuclear Free Zones. But now, as Christians, we were happy. The world made more sense this way.

But we still didn’t fit in. If our new Christian friends thought we were different to the other girls, it was at least partly because of the way we looked. There’s a photo of us from 1983, just before we became Christians. I’m wearing an oversized black fisherman’s jersey over a white T-shirt, the strap of an Army Surplus canvas haversack across one shoulder. My head is turned slightly towards Maz, chin down, eyes up, and I’m scowling. Maz is leaning in towards me, a denim jacket – sleeves cut off – worn over a hand-knitted purple jumper. Her head is similarly angled but instead of a scowl she’s wearing a cheeky, impish grin. She looks cute. I look a bit scary. 

The occasion for the photo was our new hairdos, ratty buzzcuts executed by electric hair clippers, with a lack of precision, and much hilarity. The sun makes golden highlights in our medium-brown hair, about half a centimetre long all over, except for the ‘fringe’. The longer front strands of Maz’s hair are woven into three tiny plaits, one hanging down in front of her right eye in a way that would infuriate our teachers when it grew long enough for her to chew the end in class. Over my forehead I have a thin fringe of hair that’s curling to one side. I hadn’t realised until my hair was this short that I had a cowlick.

The hairdos, as well as entertaining us – the foundation of our friendship was to make each other laugh – were a ‘fuck you’ to our teachers. At the start of the school holidays we had spent all our savings at Peter Zidich hair salon in Wellington, having our hair bleached white then dyed Ultraviolet and Bahama Blue, new plastic-bright colours that had just arrived in New Zealand.

When we returned to school looking awesome, one of the head teachers – eyebrows plucked into a thin arch and hair dyed tart red – called us into her office and told us we were not welcome in school with blue and purple hair; the teachers who had seen us arrive were refusing to have us in class. We went home and our mothers came into the school to defend us. “They’re not taking drugs, they’re not having sex with boys, they’re not failing their classes. Why are their hairstyles so important to you?”

We obliged by having the colour stripped, returning to school with platinum blonde locks. But we liked messing with our hair, and one afternoon we took to it with electric clippers, emerging from the bathroom, our blonde hair replaced by short brown fuzz with patches of scalp showing where we cut too close. In the kitchen, our mothers were drinking wine together. “Jesus Christ,” they said before bursting into laughter.

When we told them not to take the Lord’s name in vain, because we’d already started hanging out with Christians, they laughed harder. We returned to school the next day with smug smiles, compliant with the rules but with hairstyles that were even more extreme than the blue-and-purple salon jobs. We liked that our mothers had defended us. Mostly, though, we felt disconnected from our mothers. They were busy saving the world, talking about women’s lib, teaching underprivileged or handicapped kids, and dealing with our younger siblings. They trusted us, but it felt like their attention was usually elsewhere. 

Rebecca Priestley. Photo by Victoria Birkinshaw.

Our school in Petone was what was then called a ‘melting pot’. There were students whose first languages were Greek, Hindi, Korean. There were refugees from Kampuchea. There were students from every Pacific nation. The deputy headmaster, who was Māori, made it very clear to us that the Māori students had mana and were to be respected. Many of them were from important families, had last names that matched the names of the streets around us, were descended from the tīpuna who had founded the nearby Waiwhetu Marae.

Our own families had been in Aotearoa long enough to have lost touch with European relatives, but we weren’t Indigenous. With no religion and no sense of our culture – this was before people like Michael King were writing about what it meant to be Pākehā – we struggled to know who we were, other than that we were Pākehā, even if Maz did take ‘Māori’ as one of her options (I took French), even if Maz sang with what was then called the Poly Club, and even if my classmates told me I had ‘Māori eyes’ and quizzed me about my whakapapa. So we found our culture in music.

Music gave us a way to define who we were, delineate our allegiances, declare our enemies. At our school, you were either a Punk, a Rasta, a Trendy or a Normal. We were unbothered by the Normals but could not abide the Trendies, with their bland conformity, their expensive camel Nomads and black bomber jackets. Most of our brown classmates were Rastas, and when a classmate died, hit by a car as she was crossing a road late at night, they assured us, “She’s with Jah now.” We had respect for the Rastas.

Maz and I, of course, were Punks. We had always been a bit weird. When we started high school we wore Roman sandals and ate Vogel’s bread sandwiches and had no money for the school café. But now, with our home-cut ‘Chelsea’ hairdos, we really stood out. Perhaps the Trendies and Normals found our hairstyles alarming, but outside of school our haircuts gave us credibility. We knew about punks from Rip It Up and NME and we made it our mission to find some. 

In the weekends we would catch the train into town and then scamper around the city, or drive around our neighbourhoods in Maz’s beat-up orange Morris Oxford van, looking for punks and waiting for stuff to happen. My favourite outfit was a floral crepe de chine skirt, roughly cut and hemmed from a 1940s dress, an obscure band T-shirt, my unravelling and oversized fisherman’s jersey, black laddered tights, big boots, and a near permanent scowl that hid my shyness. Though we rejected ‘girliness’ – our only other nod to feminine norms was shaving our legs – being skinny was important, and there was an endless stream of diets. I tried the bread diet, the Israeli Army diet, the Atkins diet.

We went to gigs to listen to bands with names like Flesh D-Vice and Skank Attack, and at home we burned incense and read books by Carlos Castañeda and wondered who we had been in past lives. We read our parents’ copies of Down Under the Plum Trees, which made us wide-eyed and blushing, and the Whole Earth Catalog, which inspired us to experiment with ground nutmeg and dried banana pith. Sometimes, though, we just lay in bed, listened to Joy Division and the Cure, and cried.

When Maz started going around with Theo, we went to his house at lunchtimes to eat handfuls of broken biscuits out of the box from the Griffins biscuit factory and then Maz would kiss him with biscuit crumbs in her braces while I talked awkwardly to his friend. Sometimes we’d smoke a joint. Maz didn’t much like it, she said it made her feel paranoid, but I liked the way it made everything woozy and mellow. 

We started drinking that summer, at a family garden party, when I took two bottles of Marque Vue into the tent we’d pitched beside the jasmine bush and made a concerted effort to get drunk. It worked, but I was a miserable drunk. After the giggling stage, then the vomiting stage, I sat in my bedroom with my friends and scratched long jagged lines down my right arm with a large safety pin, the cool sharp focus of the physical pain pulling me out of my emotional pain. I’m sure there were deeper issues, but I was 15 and I liked a boy. I didn’t know if he liked me. It made me mental.

The next day, after the hangover had lifted, we both agreed that getting drunk was much worse than smoking pot. After months of hanging around the margins of the Wellington punk scene, trying to find Our People, at last we met some other schoolgirl punks. They looked like the punks we’d read about in magazines. One even had a mohawk and tiny plaits, like Annabella from Bow Wow Wow. On Friday nights we would catch the train into town then follow them up dark alleyways between rows of hillside houses, past Gothic churches and up decrepit flights of concrete steps to a place they called Flagstaff, which we could never find again on our own.

At Flagstaff, a pile of punks, real punks, lay around on the grass, a cassette player smashing out the Dead Kennedys. They drank from bottles of cider and passed around joints. A couple of young guys with shaved heads bounced around the edges, play fighting, throwing things, and laughing as they fell on people.

After they got used to us hanging around, some of the older punks started telling us where the parties were, and we went to a house they called ‘301’, where it was dark and loud, and some of the boys stopped being fun and started leering at us. We decided we didn’t like parties. But we liked going to see bands play. And we liked getting out of it. I now realise I had crippling social anxiety. I was shy and self-conscious and often found myself unable to speak, even if someone spoke to me. Alcohol helped. Not too much, but a swig out of Mum’s brandy bottle before I went out. And Maz helped. I was happiest when she was half a step ahead of me, navigating our social interactions, making things easier.

One time, at Suburban Stomp, where some bands we liked were playing, for no good reason that I can remember, I drank cheap white wine then took some prescription pills that someone had told me could make you high. The combination of wine and drugs made the room spin, and I got to the bathroom in time to vomit and vomit until I felt so weak I couldn’t get up. I lay underneath the basin, curled in the foetal position, on a wet floor scattered with paper towels, feeling worse than I had ever felt in my life but also aware that I was having an Experience.

“Did you take some of your mum’s flu medicine?” said one of the mean girl punks while she stood over me to wash her hands. As she spoke, she pushed her boot firmly into my head.
“Yep,” I said quietly. Then I realised I only felt nauseous when I breathed in.
“She’s gone blue!”
“Is she dead?”
There were boys’ voices now too.
“Okay, she’s alive. Call me if she dies again,” said our friend Peter from Destructive Adolescents, and then left to play another set. 

We made it home that night. We didn’t talk about it at the time, but later we both agreed that was the night things started getting a bit out of hand. We decided to rein things in a bit, maybe stay away from alcohol, maybe spend more time with the increasing numbers of our friends who had stopped scowling and stomping and were now walking around with happy and peaceful looks on their faces.

End Times by Rebecca Priestley (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $35) can be pre-ordered from Te Herenga Waka University Press here, and purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland from 13 October.

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