Authors: Alan Duff
RAIN PELTING DOWN LIKE A
tropical downpour, when Henry finds his
old wartime mate Barney sitting on his bench by the river.
Hey, Barney, get under my umbrella. But Barney doesn't move, just
sits staring straight ahead, drenched, hair flattened over skull, shirt showing
his every muscle, trousers against powerful thighs; he was some athlete in
his day, not fair what war stole from such a fine specimen.
You all right? You'll catch cold sitting out in this. Go and jump in
a bath and enjoy this wet in comfort. Henry grins, but Barney neither
moves nor speaks. Not that Henry expected conversation: what they've
exchanged over the years since coming home is friendship and Henry's
protection of his mate who lost part of his mind in an incident he may
At first they thought it was his hearing. It wasn't; it was picking bits
of his brother Harold from his hair, off his face, wiping the blood splatters
and brain matter from his helmet, fat gore and exploded flesh bits all over
a man right down to his boots where part of a finger got lodged in the lace
as if trying to knot it. All of that had put the inner trembling in a man and
run off with his means to speak properly.
Happened near the end of the war, not that anyone knew for certain it
was going to end, just that things had swung all the allied forces' way and
monumentally weary men dared to believe they could go home any time
soon because of the number of German corpses, thousands of disabled
tanks, reports the allies had sacked Berlin and captured or killed Hitler
Barney refused to be invalided home, conveyed to his commanding
officer he must go where his brother's remains were hurriedly buried to
grieve properly for him. Captain Henry Takahe kept insisting Barney was
not in fit state, he must return home where he must surely know his loved
ones would help his recuperation. His mates had to restrain Barney from
assaulting his commanding officer; a most serious offence even for a man
lost of his speaking ability and just lost of his beloved brother, even for a
man related to that officer.
Henry took Barney back up to the hill then and let him howl for a
good couple of hours. It was agreed to keep quiet about Barney's injury
to respect his wish of seeing the war out like a man and for sake of his
Now for the third time Henry asks Barney if he's all right. Finally
Barney looks up, wet running from his matted hair but under the shadow
of Henry's umbrella, shakes head and points at Henry, words trying to
form, wanting to form, but all he can manage is: you . . . you . . . you
Wrong about what? And why is Barney crying? Or is that rain water
running from his scalp?
Henry sits down beside Barney. Tell me with signs, I can put it together.
Doesn't know that putting his hand on Barney's shoulder wracks Barney
with guilt and he pulls away from the gesture like a man caught eating
another man's food. Tucker they called it in the war, which you shared to
the last crumb. Same as you were prepared to die for a mate.
Le-na, Barney gets out. Which has Henry stiffen at mere mention of
his wife's name and the context not too flash by Barney's expression. For
surely that's not hatred an old mate is seeing?
Barney, what's the look for? I'm not feeling comfortable all of a damn
The damaged war veteran is with risen hackles himself. Jabs at his own
chest: you talking to me in a tone like that? I am sure I know something
Barney gestures that Henry hit his wife — again. Henry tries to shrug
it away, says, women.
But Barney shakes his head adamantly, not how a woman should be
treated. With respect, he tries to say and Henry anyway knows.
Our marriage was never the same after the war, Barns. You know
why. Plus, things had changed with both of us. Five years apart at a young
age is just too long.
Well still don't hit her, Henry.
I'll try. Hard when you never knew any different.
Henry gets up. I'm going to do stocktake, want to come with
me? I'll call the quantities, you write them down. Then we'll have a few beers
afterward, just you and me, talk about things. What do you reckon?
Watching the two old friends pass under the memorial archway, by names
of their fallen comrades etched into metal plaques that each man puts a
hand on, like stroking a dying mate. She is lover to both men.
On the other side of the memorial archway in its centre a Maori
warrior statue guards this blessed place with spear and fierce expression,
tongue thrust out, daring any stranger to come here with any but best
A woman smiles in the rain with every best intention for this funny
little world that could be anywhere at times, but today uniquely Waiwera.
Henry still doesn't know her secret. Not sure she knows her own secret,
the one deep inside her that only one man of long ago let speak.
A THIRD OF HIS MONEY
has gone on the motor car. A Vauxhall Velox,
green the only colour in the car yard. The cost of freedom, a young man
liberated. Another third spent over the payment period on electric guitar,
amplifier and speakers.
School is two terms behind him. He has a job in trainee management
at the town post office, arranged by Mrs Mac. Not really him, but it's a
job to pay the rent on a flat in town and living expenses. A full life, with
the band practising every night and all weekend. Elvis Presley numbers
dominate their repertoire. Their looks are clones of Elvis. Though Yank
has started to move on from Presley, he's discovered black music through
a parcel of single and long-player records sent by his father.
You say you'd like to be a musician. Well, listen to these artists, I think you'll
like them. Don't be overawed by the standard they set, these are exceptional people
chosen from all of America, two hundred million to choose from. Negroes are born
musical. And you'll probably know from school their long history of great suffering
created great music. Mississippi is a breeding ground for black musicians. Even redneck
whites enjoy their music. Hope you enjoy. Write and let me know. Fondest. Jess.
Now Sam Cooke and Ray Charles numbers have been added to the
repertoire, and the sound is proving very difficult to emulate. He practises
on the three-hour drive.
Borstal. He grew up hearing the term and took no notice as it's not a
place he expected to end up. But when Chud got sentenced, Yank found
out from Mrs Mac it is an English penal institution for youths, this country
being founded on British principles of politics, including law and order.
He wonders how they put boys of fifteen to nineteen in a place like
this? A grim brick building sprawl, coiled barbed wire on high walls,
several watch towers where he sees the outline of guards behind glass, no
different to a prison. He's seen movie scenes like this. But as a place of
residence for his best friend?
He's arrived with three hours of spring wind in his face, singing songs
learned from the records his father sent, feeling pretty good. Sam Cooke is
still the vocal benchmark, Yank frustrated he can hear every perfect note
and subtle phrasing yet can't come close to imitating the man.
Through a life-weary security check, Yank is feeling overawed at this
place. Has to show his driver's licence to a guard, is directed to a door
which turns out to be a series of doors, leading to a large visiting room.
Takes a seat at a table broad enough to sit three on his side. The room
is filling up with other visitors, mothers and girlfriends, some with small
child in unknowing tow. Every adult has a certain look. Not Yank's type,
not a one.
He hears the clang of steel grilles opening and closing through the
inmate entrance. Jangle of keys as several young men appear the other side
and a guard unlocks.
In walk five swaggering young men in blue denim and grey jacket
uniform, Chud at first hard to recognise he's grown so much. And his
expression is so different. Though not when he breaks into smile at seeing
Relieved at seeing Chud put on the Elvis lopsided grin they used to
practise along with the legs-apart stance Elvis took, Yank stands and Chud
comes over and they shake hands.
Afterwards Yank can't remember the first awkward minutes of
conversation, of Chud's eyes constantly roving to fellow inmates, or just
unable to hold Yank's gaze. Says there's not one boy from Waiwera in
here, how he misses home but it's all right here, you get used to it. And
I've got a couple more guys to fight to be kingpin.
Has to explain the term. Which makes sense, as Chud is one hell of an
athlete and always had plenty of anger to give him fighting advantage — if
that's what's important. And clearly it is. (Yank never liked violence.)
Chud leans forward, with the eyes of a fervent door-knocking fringe
Christian looking for converts, says do you know how hard it is to be
kingpin at age eighteen? Some of these guys are going on twenty, soon
be moved to a men's prison. Yank, I'm in a fight every few days. Wonks
wanting to take me on, knock me back down the ladder. But I beat them
all. You should see the respect I got in here.
To a friend who doesn't know what to say. Who thinks, fighting for
the sake of it?
Then Chud says, I bet you got yourself a pretty girl now.
Come on, the girls always liked you.
Yeah, and I like them too. Just in no hurry for a girlfriend.
Chud got a funny smile on. Oh? You happy playing the field? As if he
wanted to hear Yank say no. As if desperate for Yank to say no.
Too busy. I formed a band. Told you in my letter I bought a car, with
money my father sent.
Lucky you. Chud's face says envy is choking him.
They talk about the different songs the band plays, Chud playing
more knowledgeable than his lifelong friend knows he is. Yank switches
to rugby, how Chud's team is doing without him (not very well). Chud
tries to force back his proud grin. They need me.
Yank wants to say, and you let them down.
Words run out, from both of them. Why Chud grows suddenly
animated, over the top in saying goodbye? Out of relief the visit is over.
Making Yank promise he'll visit again, but no hurry. You got things to do.
So have I. Even in here. Laughing. Moving his weight from one foot to
the other, like he does when covering up hurt or embarrassment.
He drives home thinking his friend's life has sort of come to an end.
As if the first journey wasn't bad enough, now he's starting a worse one.
Makes Yank sad and afraid for his friend.
FROM A SIGHT MOST DAUNTING
the crowd become our subjects, puppets
on the ends of our music-making strings, my singing and rhythm guitar,
drummer, bass, saxophone, and Nigel Blake on lead guitar. Hundreds
of bobbing heads in changing colours cramming the hall before us, The
Viscounts, a name Nigel found in a history book about old England.
Us. The band, centre of attention, manipulators of these young people
their happiness. Grinning at each other: all ours.
From Elvis we hit them next with a surprise, know they'll stop dancing
not knowing what to make of the song, a track from a long player my
father sent (his taste is amazing). Pitched at the top of my note range: we
argued about dropping it to an easier level. I said no, I've tried that and
the song loses everything. Otherwise the song came naturally, like the rasp
Negro singers have.
They get like this our subjects, at first open-mouthed at hearing the
quite unfamiliar. At it being a no-dancing number when young people
like to dance. Looking up at me as lead singer, telling me I had better sing
it good, the band had better be on their game, or we're through.
So I just close my eyes and sing in imitation of a song from one of the
records my father sent. From Mississippi, America, to here at a dance hall
in Two Lakes, New Zealand.
Have to reach the emotional high at the end of the song or our subjects
will revolt, they'll riot at the prince letting them down, he shouldn't have
built them to this state if he wasn't certain he could deliver. I have to. We
have to make them our slaves.
Need a bomb to blow out the noise erupted in here. A part Maori, half
white American imitator, with help from his friends of course, has caused
a sensation. The prince and his inner court have produced nothing less
than a miracle, taken the audience to a place they can never come back
from, they're there now, over yonder, where musical giants await. They
are saying, we've bought it! Meaning lucky us, the deliverers of another's
During the night glorious performing in return for adulation: we can
have any young woman we want. Which spurs us young men to greater
heights of being desired.
From up on our elevated platform I have views, should I wish, of the
big sliding entrance doors, opened to let cooler air in, when I see someone
right out of her age group. Framed in the centre, with light behind so I
can't see her features.
No need to. I would know her body shape, her presence anywhere.
We're doing a medley of songs by various artists; our subjects, many of
them, are singing the words of the chorus imploring a girl to answer her
phone. The usual anguish of song lyrics about the hurt and glory of love.
The infinite need of humans all on the same theme. And there love is,
throwing a smile right over the heads of my subjects solely at and for me.
Where have you been, Mrs Blake? Can hear her in my mind saying,
call me Isobel. Yet she won't say my given name. Not that names matter.
In his dancing arms Isobel, singing to her in the tiny living room of his
flat, discarded clothes strewn on the floor, curtains pulled. A hundred,
two hundred times he's played this number, and still it opens his heart and
sends forth sung-along lyrics to the woman of no age, the love she's taught
him, how she's enshrined women, taught him woman.
She has come back, to the youth a couple of years more receptive,
more open to the learning she has to give him.
Kiss me. Kiss me,
the lyrics implore, with emphasis on
As if the act
itself. Singing it now right into her mouth. Kiss me. Kiss me.