It is a beautiful spring day on airy, tree-lined St Stephens Ave as I press the button at the gate of the large, modern house John Key built on two adjoining sections. His man, Kevin Taylor, walks to the gate past the geometric flowerbeds rimmed by box hedging in the luxuriant, lime-green blush of new growth.
The house is huge, about 920sq m. Concrete, not plaster - John Key is no mug. It is rectangles and squares and faces the gate proudly. Why should it not? It is the home the state house boy may once have dreamed of. The garden layout is grand and gorgeous. But whatever plants they are that are struggling to stand up and face north in the box hedging-rimmed beds, they are not cracking it. They have a sad, bedraggled look and are rather too sparsely planted for my liking, but I am a gardening obsessive, a failing that has cost me a pretty penny over the years. It is not an issue that will break John Key.
To me, you should not be able to see the soil in a well-cared-for flower bed and I do not understand why 99 per cent of the world does not understand this. But let's not sweat the little stuff.
The front door opens to a broad, central hallway from which a grand staircase ascends to the private apartments. The ceiling stud is high and the furniture seems noticeably small. I do not mean this unpleasantly. It is just normal furniture of the kind most people have but I get the feeling that furniture is not something that bothers the Keys, and good on them for it.
I have never bothered about furniture, either. But there is not quite enough of it in this house to fill the vast spaces I see. I find this endearing, actually. The place is big but it seems normal. There is no ostentation whatsoever. There is no obvious or overt sign of wealth, apart from the size of the house. The kitchen is spacious, full of light and many-windowed. Its equipment is nice. It is a warm family living area.
John Key is about to cook me breakfast. This is several days before the Government opened the books to reveal the disastrous and unbelievable turnaround in the nation's economy. This is several days before John Key reacted to the numbers with a flash of white anger and disbelief, knowing what they meant for his tax cut programme and the entire economy over the next few years.
Today, John Key, Leader of the National Party and the man whom the polls tell us should become Prime Minister in less than a month, is making pancakes in a sunny mood.
We chat in the garden, by the brilliant-blue pool. We look at the tennis court, into which a winter mould has embedded itself. I think it looks quite pretty but I suppose if I had paid for the astroturf I, too, would want to get rid of the mould. Key says they might change the configuration of the court because his boy, Max, is into baseball. In fact, Max plays for New Zealand in the under-13 team and recently represented his country in South Korea.
Key stands at the kitchen bench next to the vast sink and spoons coffee into the plunger. He sweetens the photographer's coffee from a plastic bag of sugar.
Then he holds up a one litre plastic container of Hansells pancake mix. He measures water into a small Pyrex measuring jug, pours it carefully into the pancake mix, replaces the cap on the pancake container and gives it to me to shake vigorously. He takes a cutting board and slices two bananas lengthwise into narrow strips. I have never seen a banana cut this way. He washes strawberries.
"So, what do you say when you hear Michael Cullen call this place a trophy home?" I ask.
"Michael Cullen spends too much time on the politics of envy and not enough on the politics of aspiration," he replies. So there.
Max comes in with his mate from the baseball team, Duncan, and searches the fridge for a snack. Key says he will make them bacon and pancakes and they go outside with their baseball gloves on. Key takes two packets of bacon, lays them on the tray and puts them in the oven.
No sign of Bronagh Key as she's at the gym. Bronagh does not like publicity. She's not especially political. "She's not highly interested. She's not an activist, but she gives me advice. She said I should have been open earlier about the Tranz Rail shares." Bronagh gives good advice, by the sound of things.
He describes the Tranz Rail shares fiasco as his worst time in the past year. What galled him about the accusations of dodginess was that he does not avail himself of any of what he calls the perks of office. He claims no accommodation allowance in Wellington. He does not claim for travel. He has no self-drive car, preferring his 2002 Holden Calais.
He says time away from home and the kids is the biggest sacrifice a politician makes and when you are leader, you are away "the whole time". He says he talks to the children about some of the negative stories that gnaw away in the news but admits that Bronagh has to handle most of that.
He appears to be a man who is at home in his kitchen and he works it with ease. He says he does most of the cooking when he is at home. He finds it therapeutic. He cooks a roast on Sunday nights. He enjoys Asian cooking, Indian, Japanese and Chinese. He makes katsu don and udon noodles. He is a tidy cook too, I observe, wiping marks and drops of water frequently from the bench.
I tell him my Newstalk ZB Producer complains that he is boring and unexciting. This perplexes him. He says he is quite casual and relaxed but politics is a serious business. When I think about it, his career path has hardly been dull, with millions in the bank and making party leader after five minutes of getting into Parliament. I make a mental note to tell my producer she needs to take a hard look at herself.
Key checks the bacon and turns it. He pulls out a big, non-stick frypan and puts it on the heat. The conversation bustles along easily. He has a good sense of humour. I tell him a joke and he laughs like hell. I throw him a couple of wild ones.
"Do you chase skirt?"
"No," he says, indignantly.
"Well, do you have an eye for an attractive woman?"
He laughs and turns to me.
"Yes. My lovely wife."
"Have you ever been off your face completely hammered?"
He laughs again.
"How long ago?"
"Before I went into politics."
"Did you have a stag night before you got married?"
"Yes, in my flat, Derby St, Christchurch. 1984."
1984, 24 years ago. He married at 23. One can forget how early in his life John Key made the big decisions. As a boy, he wanted to make a million dollars and become Prime Minister.
I study him in his kitchen chirping away, the conversation rippling along. He does not appear to have in his deeper psychology the dark brooding you can glimpse in others who aspire to lead a nation.
There is nothing of the eyes turned inwards, searching an internal landscape which you might catch Helen Clark doing as she eats intently and silently at an evening function. Then again, perhaps she is thinking about running the country. Maybe by the time she gets to eat she is simply exhausted by everyone. John Key is as sunny as his kitchen.
He pours pancake mix neatly into the pan. I ask if he is daunted by the serious prospect of becoming Prime Minister in a few weeks' time. "No. I believe in the plan. The country under-performs. I believe I have the skills to make a difference."
He says he will spend every minute of every waking hour to make becoming Prime Minister happen.
He flicks the pancake into the air with panache, turning it cleanly and neatly, the gold Cartier sparkling on his wrist. No under-performance there. The bacon is ready, the timing is perfect. The boys are summoned. The pancakes pour off the production line, every one of them flipped into the air. "Look at that! Who's the man!" he calls across the kitchen to Max and his mate. "Kick arse!"
He tips my pancake on to a plate and arranges the fruit carefully on it. With the strips of banana he forms a letter. "Look," he says, "N for National." I pour on some Chelsea maple-flavoured syrup. "The local guys, none of that Canadian stuff."
The breakfast is delicious. We are set up for the day. The boys finish and bring their plates over without being asked. Key takes them, rinses them, and puts them in the dish washer, takes mine, rinses it and puts it in the dish washer. He wipes the bench thoroughly.
The car has arrived. The Diplomatic Protection Squad is outside. The boys head outside. Mum will be home soon. John Key heads upstairs to put on a suit. Time to go.
His man shows me out. To the street of good fortune.
John Key's pancakes
* Take one bottle of Hansells pre-mixed pancake mixture, add water, shake vigorously.
* Pour small amount of pancake mixture into greased frypan, flip pancake once bubbles start appearing.
* Decorate cooked pancakes with grilled bacon, with rind left on, halved strawberries and bananas cut lengthways. Drizzle with maple syrup.