Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

8th March

"What?! You're going to New Zealand AGAIN?!?"

There’s a famous episode of The Simpsons entitled The City Of New York vs. Homer Simpson.

In it, everyone’s favourite Nuclear Safety Officer discovers that he has to travel to New York to collect his car because Barney has dumped it there after a joyride. At this news, an appalled Homer promptly drifts off into a lengthy flashback to his youth...

Basically, we get to see how when young(er) Homer had visited the big city, everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. So we see him living in a backpackers for nine months, eating other people’s leftovers, failing at hundreds of job applications, presenting a radio show that hardly anyone listens to, reversing a truck into the side of someone’s 4x4, missing the return of his favourite TV show, joining a church which required him to learn Klingon, working six days a week all year round as a TESOL teacher, and then after four years ultimately losing a residency application despite having two jobs.

Poor old Homer J.

No, hang on, wasn’t that... me?

Anyway, as the familiar Kiwi landscape once more faded into view outside the Boeing 777’s windows last Saturday, the words that escaped my lips certainly could have been Homerish.

“Hello. Auckland.”

(second word possibly uttered with eyes squinted at the Sky Tower in mistrust)

Sure enough, the cab driver from the airport did well out of my business, if only by quoting one price at the outset and then later revising it to have been an estimate. Still, I’d have looked like an idiot walking.

Upon locating my new address, everyone had heard of my imminent return and had accordingly run away. Cathy was out for the day, flatmate Dave was in Alaska (kindly loaning me the use of his room), and even Tiger had heard of my approach and left home forever. (no, not that Tiger - Tiger the cat)

Still, meeting new flatmate Luke had been a long time in coming. This complete stranger had spent many months generously storing all my gear that I’d left behind, and probably just as long again stashing it in his sister’s garage, with whom I was also unacquainted. And no, Luke didn’t want any money for his kindness. As we proceeded to talk, and talk, and talk, the old cliché about a stranger being just a friend who you haven’t met yet was well and truly proven.

As the afternoon drew on, I had my second shower of the day (after Brisbane Airport), and presently stumbled back out into the sunshine to get some shopping. By an unusual turn of fate I had actually had some really deep sleep on the flight, thanks to having had three seats to stretch out across. However now that the New Zealand sun was beating down, the dehydration and tiredness were overcoming me.

I have never had much sense of direction, so even though I thought I was just heading up the one straight road to Food Town, I still immediately got lost.

Back in London, Herschel and I had once gone through a phase of watching movies of our area back-to-front, like a mirror-image. The effect had been disorientating - a sense that each image had been shot somewhere nearby, but exactly where neither one of us could quite pinpoint.

This was similar to the effect that Howick was now having on me in real life. The grass along the pavement, the car numberplates, and the feeling of the New Zealand sun and atmosphere on my skin told me unmistakably that I was in East Auckland. Yet I was crossing road after road with familiar names, but couldn’t place any of them.

Eventually I reached the end of the road where Picton Street really should have been. It wasn’t. That really messed with my head.

Yet depite the beating sun, spitting rain, and groaning headache, through all this inner confusion, I felt a really strong sense of shining peace. I was supposed to be back here in Howick. Perhaps I should never have left.

They now sell Spider-Man toothpaste here, and yes, my One Card still works!

The next day, my famous Howick & Eastern bus pass still worked too, so I blew the 10c that I’d left on it to help me achieve a long-held ambition – to once again attend my church.

So many times in the UK I’d dreamt of this moment, however in those plans I had always arrived cool and collected, and snuck in at the back during the worship. Now that it was real life’s turn, as I got to actually walk down that corridor, of course I was boiled stupid after trekking through the relentless sun from Burger King.

Real life rarely matches our expectations, and the actual moment of my re-entry was, to me, completely unexpected. Can you see the unexpected obstacle in the photo above? Yes, it was that unforeseen red so-called ‘child-proof’ gate...

10,000 miles, only to be prevented from crossing the final inch by a kids’ safety-feature.

Frank was the first to spot the incompetent Mr Bean routine unfolding at the back, and duly came over with a big smile and a handshake to help me out. I’d wanted Frank to be the first person I saw, because I knew exactly what I was going to say to him. “Are we still on for that coffee?”

And then, despite the dedication that Brett was conducting at the front, it all unfolded. I quietly sat down at the back next to Jean, and got to grin like an idiot as friend after friend made eye contact, smiled, and came over to welcome me back. Megan, Juanita, Kate, Paul, Shaune, Kristen, Greg... Once he was free to do so, even Brett came over to quietly shake my hand and remind me that he had once foreseen this moment in a dream...

And it could not have been a better service to return on. Part one of the Pages series was all about members of the community sharing their backstories for others to become better acquainted with them. These were all – to me - new people to whom I really needed an introduction. So as an American called Sara shared her testimony of the highs and lows of moving across the world to follow God in New Zealand, I couldn’t help feeling that I’d heard a story similar to this somewhere before. I was pretty sure it was Homer Simpson’s...

At any rate, the peace of being in Howick was even stronger here. I couldn’t see it, hear it, touch it, smell it or taste it, but as I looked up once again at the musicians and the instruments on the naturally-lit stage, somehow I felt an enormous peace in that room.

Afterwards I met Maree, helped to clear up, saw Carmel, and I’m pretty sure I had my usual lift home from Random Dave.

The next day I went to the bank to confirm that my ATM card was still working. It was. All of Howick had, apparently, been stored safely in cotton wool while I’d been gone.

The next day – Shrove Tuesday - it was time to return to work, and once more the journey had me boiling like a saucepan. When my second bus showed up, apparently the driver had decided to not bother displaying the number on the front, assuming that the word “Special” would explain. So having worked this out too late, eventually I had to instead go all the way to Ellerslie and then heave myself and the cake that I had brought all the way up the Great South Road on foot. Under that great firey orb in the sky again.

Arriving only 45 minutes late for my first day back, all the newer employees joined with Phil and whoever else remembered me to march into the office and form a line to greet me en masse. Maybe they were curious about what this Englishman would turn out to actually be like, but I think they were just genuinely pleased to meet a new friend.

I played down the occasion, conscious of trying too hard to be funny and coming across as a bit smug.

That afternoon, as I sat in my new office facing the same old computer screen, with the same trading estate outside the window, and making the same phone calls to churches as usual, there was no longer any sense of Auckland’s glowing peace. There was nothing wrong either.

Aside from my now dud NZ SIM card, everything in my life was perfectly normal again.


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