Dad had us eating out of the palm of his hand on the long holiday road trip up north to Grandma's.
I am sitting between my Dad and big brother on the wide leather bench seat of our big car. Mum is in the back holding the baby.
My Irish twin, Davey, complains that he wants to sit in the front. He is 11 months older than me but I am proud that everyone thinks he looks younger than me. Plus, he can't say "fish". He pronounces it "thish", which I also lord over him.
I bags my turn to pay the tolls at the Auckland Harbour Bridge. To me it is a lovely old brontosaurus and it is thrilling to come flying over its back and down the tail. My ears pop a bit. Terrifyingly, the oncoming cars are corralled by nothing more than a streak of white paint but I know my Dad will hold the mighty Falcon steady.
We are waylaid by an extra-long queue for the toll booths. It is an irritation for grown-ups but Davey and I still fight over who gets to throw the florin to the man. I win because I am a brat and soon we are on our way.
Finally we reach the Brynderwyns on our six-hour journey to see Grandma for the Christmas holidays. The Brynderwyn Hills are pretty unremarkable. I'm just a kid but frankly they hardly seem worthy of being given a name. No offence.
Anyway, the Brynderwyns are where I have to give up the prized spot in front. When the coast is clear, Dad gives us the okay to switch places en route. He slows to 60km/h to make the transition safer, though somehow Davey still manages to give me a kick in the armpit on the way through. Now he has to put on the seatbelt because he's in the front but no one bothers in the back, despite Mum's protestations. We are bulletproof. All the same, we slow to gawk at the spot where a busload of 15 souls plummeted to their deaths 10 years earlier.
In the back of the car I slump low and let the thrum of the engine own me. The power poles whiz by and the wires do barrel-rolls in mesmeric patterns. They roll one way, reverse, reverse then vanish altogether. I hold my breath willing them to resume. It's a battle of wills.
By and by they do and I doze off. The car slows. I instinctively sense we have arrived. I lurch up from deepest child slumber, with seat buckle imprinted on my sweaty cheek, and find myself eye to eye with a Hereford bobby calf. Dad's car swims like a salmon through a stream of bovine anguish. They seem to know they're headed for the abattoir at Moerewa.
As we get closer to the Mangamuka Gorge, Dad grows confident enough to make the ultimate offer, to tell a vampire story. The climax of any scary story has to occur in the gorge. It's dark and twisty and Dad makes helpless pleas to the sky that our car not break down for who knows what could happen in this inhospitable land?
If he makes the offer too early, his voice may not last the distance. We are overjoyed to have the bejeezus scared out of us. There is always a priest, a good guy and a couple of ne'er-do-wells. Only one will live to tell the tale, which is exactly what Dracula wants. He knows that after a feast he can hibernate in his cellar till the next brood of treasure hunters comes a knockin'.
We learned some rules about life on a Dracula hunt.
No. 1: Never, ever go downstairs in a vampire's castle. The walls will reconfigure themselves behind you and eventually you will find yourselves in the dungeon and you will truly be sorry.
No. 2: Do not be called Lucy. There is always a Lucy or a Camilla in any vampire story. I'm not making that up. Check Hammer Horror for proof.
No. 3: Vampires have no reflection. A handheld mirror is a useful diagnostic tool.
No. 4: Don't trust the castle's housekeeper!
The story reaches a satisfying crescendo and Dad's voice gives out just as we pull into Kaitaia, past the stucco house famously festooned with seashells. When we arrive at Bonnett Rd, there are lots of hugs from Grandma.
Granddad is putting queen bees in little boxes to send to America which is awfully exciting and exotic. The whole garage smells like honeybees and outside the plum trees are dropping fruit to beat the band. Davey and I go hunting for the good ones in the vinegary squidge between our toes.
Tomorrow we will go to the beach. Dad is threatening to put out the Kontiki as usual but toheroas, sand-dune slides and an icecream at the Ahipara shop are a surer bet. And maybe a mince pie! Yes, maybe we'll even get a pie. Now that is something to think on!