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Authors: Alan Duff

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BOOK: Dreamboat Dad
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Where was I at the same age? Safe in Henry's house, told every day
by my mother how special I was, receiving — from this man — money
which fast-tracked my music career. To my knowledge my country has
never had a single lynching.

I don't want to be any other race but Negro now. A member of my
father's race so I might right some injustices. Do not want to go home.
Have become my father's son.


with nerves, both at what she was
doing — having another affair — and the night itself. A social event quite
outside her experience, a dinner party.

A dinner party? Never heard of such a thing. In Lena's world lunch was
called dinner and the meal at night was tea. And never did you combine
the evening meal with a party, except a late-at-night cook-up of pork
bones and vegetables boiled in a big pot for the drunks.

All week anguishing over what to buy, a dress, skirt and blouse, what
about a jacket, how did she know what was appropriate? Could hardly ask
the shop assistant and look like an ignorant Maori, had to walk the streets
for hours before even finding what seemed to be a suitable store.

What if she wore the wrong thing? What jewellery should she buy,
since she didn't own a single piece other than the wedding ring Henry
bought her a thousand years ago? And what did people do at a dinner
party, according to rules the experienced knew and outsiders were going
to be exposed for not knowing? Felt like being set up to fail. But damned
if she was going to make excuse not to show. To hell with other
guests if they were going to look down on her. Might do some
looking down herself.

She got the taxi to drop her off a couple of houses short of Ralph's.
Now she was here. On the well-lit stone-patterned driveway of a sprawling
two-storey house which she was several times used to by now, yet back
to perceiving like a mansion denied common folk like her. God, had she
been here, and not to admire the architecture either.

They'd hit it off sexually, like she had with Jess; except this was better
because everyone prefers their own kind, she realised. Ralph a New
Zealander and never mind the white status. A person is more at home
hearing her own accent, the same references, and he had a down-to-earth
personality she liked. As for his library, she fell in love without knowing
she had such innate need.

Changed into her glad rags at a friend's house, where the taxi picked
her up. Bev, separated recently, had no idea what a dinner party was either.
Just don't get caught, Lena. And be proud of who you are.

Easy to say. And how should she explain her marital status to the other
guests? By removing her wedding ring, for starters. What would she say?
What to talk about when she was a stranger of another race and culture?
How different did she feel, really, to whites or any other shade of race or

Ralph met her at the front door. He was dressed in jacket and tie,
smart trousers. She had chosen a beautiful dress on the advice of a very
understanding store proprietor who knew dinner party etiquette, though
Lena didn't dare ask what she should do. Took a good chunk of her careful
savings over the years to buy the outfit.

Kissed Ralph on the cheek, in case of noticing eyes; panicked hearing
the hum of conversation inside. You look absolutely ravishing, he said.
But she was scared out of her wits.

A blur of names and faces. Women in outfits that must have cost
a fortune, and covered in expensive gold and diamonds; such confident
women who seemed so formal despite the smiles. The men seemed to
have made a social game of verbal wit: drank spirits and wines, perfectly
at ease it seemed — and Ralph had assumed she needed no looking after,
damn him. There was a surgeon, a lawyer, several in businesses Lena never
knew existed.

The women tittered and made as if men were naughty schoolboys
best with their own company. There was a ritual between these women that Lena
wasn't getting. A clamminess spread over every square inch of her skin as
the minutes felt like hours, full of conversation she couldn't get and to
which she couldn't respond, with wit or even just normal reply. The social
gap was just too wide.


Ralph teased her about fear being all in the head, what a hit she had made
with everyone, even the venom-spitters normally renowned for preying
on the socially weak, as he put it.

And why?

Because you were yourself. You didn't have the social recipe to follow
so you made up your own — and what a dish you served! Laughing,
pulling her close, eyes flicking to upstairs.

Was I really okay? Lena relieved, still not sure she had made a good
impression. Not at this dinner party with white people, especially people
of class.

You were jumpy as a flea.

You too, your first few times coming to Waiwera as a teenager. You
told me: you were scared of the rough Maori kids who turned out big

Exactly. Perception, neither more nor less. Your account of being a
tourist guide with a bunch of thick-skinned Yank tourists was a classic.

Surprised myself, Lena grinned. Inspired by our famous Guide Maggie
— she felt the equal of kings and queens, paupers and beggars, all.

I know who she is. Tip's parents had photos of her in their house.
Beautiful woman. Reminds—

I've already been told. Lena cut the compliment short. Don't want
to get a swollen head. I thought, none of you jewel-dripping glam dames
has ever taken a party of tourists over a thermal wonderland in their own
backyard. The funny bits I just added, to ease my nerves. Not as bad as I
thought. Though Janet did ask me who I was writing a letter to when we
were eating.

What a cheek.

She said, holding your knife like a pen just isn't done in the company.
Hoped I wouldn't mind a friendly piece of advice.

Ralph looked at her hard. Were you offended?

To start with.

What changed your mind?

She looked me in the face and her eyes were kind. And she put her
hand on my wrist.

She's a good sort, Janet. Her father is a plumber.

A plumber? They clean blocked toilets.

Among other things. He's a very successful one, has big commercial
contracts all over the country. But Janet grew up in an average Kiwi
working-class home. She's taken on airs, but harmless enough.

Lena quite taken aback.

Now, beautiful exotic woman who has been living right under my
unknowing nose all these years, read what my eyes are saying.

She smiled. I see a man.

Yes, that. And a man who is falling for you . . .

I see that too.

And you?

Ralph, sometimes I think this idea of love just confuses me.

Doesn't have to . . . not if you let yourself go.

And so she did, and the loving was better than good. But of love itself
she still did not know.


linen suit finishes his flawless ballad to
thunderous applause, raised glasses glinting and smiles gleaming in the
smoky semi-gloom and that whooping and shouting and hand-clapping
Yank has now got so used to.

Thank you, thank y'all. Now, I'd like to introduce a young man all the
way from a place called — New Zealand! Give a hand to Mark Hines, and
know he one of our own, brothers and sisters. Sitting with his daddy right
down there. One of them war babies came home to roost.

Titters everywhere. Look at my father, he smiles and says you go do
it, son. And up I go.

I ask the band if they know a Mel Carter number, learned from a
record my father sent. More nervous than I've ever been, I think this is
my entry ticket or ticket home. Singing to a black audience in their home
territory? Have to remind myself I am of the same stock, sitting right there
smiling up at me.

Piano takes the place of strings to open, a big bass sets up the beat,
drummer a soft clash on tin, nice and easy; my turn now, glad I've had a
few bourbons. Nothing matters now. Just the song. Doing my job. Living
in the moment. Time to go, Mark Hines. Just let go.

Hit it. African ancestors at my shoulder and out there before me, a
throng of history behind me, smiling: you do it, African brother. Do it.

Sing of nothing being able to satisfy this longing in me. The audience
lets go a smile with sound. The band unobtrusive, guess they can see I'm
a little nervous. Just focus on the music. When the time comes to step off
the dive plank, I just do it. Like diving from Waiwera bridge. I owe it to
everyone, not least to the man who began this style of singing, the great
Mel Carter.

See only my father when I walk down to his table. But everyone is
, and Jess is up and turning me around back up on to the stage.
Asking the band leader can we do a duet, by Little Joe Hinton.

My father starts. I'll follow. We've done this a few times back at home
to his record player. He takes the first two lines. I take the next two. Peas
from the same pod, and why not? It's what we are. The audience comes
on the ride with us at Jess's urging, every chorus line and heart-aching

Afterwards, for me, the drinks and compliments and welcome homes
have me dizzy. He's set this up; we go from joint to joint and each time
I'm introduced and invited to sing. Jess either joins or leaves me to it. I
don't want this night to end. It's changing me. Or my father's genes are
laying claim.

Driving home, sun soon to come up. Drunk on the night as on the
alcohol. My father in animated re-enactment of Cassius Clay taking out
Sonny Liston, the big bear, to win the world heavyweight boxing title;
Jess telling of mixed confusion and joy at the champion's name change to
Muhammad Ali, his religious belief to Islam, that it told white America
they had nothing to offer him nor any Negro living in this oppressed
land. How it upset the older, more conservative Christian blacks who
couldn't understand a Negro converting to Islam, yet inspired most of
black America to stand up like he did, be black, be proud—

Interrupts himself to say, we got company. On a country road this
hour, bearing down on us? Police.

Turns to me. This is what I been warning about. But hoping like hell
to never happen.

Guess the booze has dulled me a bit, blunted my capacity to fear. For
I ask, can't we just keep driving at legal speed?

Be our lives at stake. You hear me?

I hear him all right. But we're not doing anything wrong.

He turns on me. I been at you since you got here at what you're in
for! Ain't about right or wrong — it's about

I'm not looking at the same man of nearly two weeks' knowing. Not
near the same man. So I say sorry. Jesus, I'm sorry. And sobering up fast.

Don't say anything unless you're asked.

They cops, or—

Cops. Two sons of bitches, taking up the road side by side.
One's got to be our beloved Sheriff Gilbert. He'll know you're here. Knows
me. Let me do the talking.


One big uniformed brute at my downed window, another of large girth at
my father's window who he greets: morning, Sheriff.

Where you heading, boy?

Piney. It's me, Jess Hines.

That your place of abode, Hines?


And your passenger? Peering, like he's about to put his head in to
check me out up close.

A visitor, Sheriff.

What parts?

Near Australia, Sheriff.

Near? What, north? Make it Asia somewhere, correct? As I recall,
nothing west but ocean, south is oceans something fierce. East is all ocean
too, if I recall my geography right.

Little country called New Zealand on the east. About twelve hundred
miles of ocean between. I sailed it.

Oh? Well, is this the fella I got told about, got seen by — We-ell. I'm
told your dying daddy sent you here to say farewell to — That you, boy?

He calls my father boy. The ape in uniform my side glares at me.

Get out of the vehicle, both. And do it nice and slow.

Nice and slow two unarmed, law-abiding niggers get out of our car, to
morning's first low-glowing smile spreading on the horizon right ahead.

What we done, sir?

I am not liking this tone my father has adopted, it is not manly, it is
fawning. Just look at his face, the muscles have slackened, he's gone into
damn slave mode.

Put your hands on the roof — both you sons of bitches.

I'm forcibly assisted by my ape, while the big gorilla has balled fists
on hips and a smirky smile at my father doing as he's told, like any smart

If my father lifted his head he'd see his son trying to get silent direction
from him, but his face is side down on the roof as crude hands pat me
down, same my father. I am a passive person but not liking this.

Okay. Stand up. Bring him round to this side, Wes.

Now the dawn is swiftly melting the shadow from the highway, turning
it golden. I'm manhandled round the front and presented like a captive to
one Sheriff Gilbert. Stay humble, Yank. This is America. The South.

My friends tell me they found you wandering after midnight.

Yes, I nod.

That's a vagrancy charge on its own in my territory. Loitering with

No intention meant, sir.

His eyes widen. He pushes his hat back. Did you receive a invite?

Answer with my expression: To what?

To speak.

I give him astonished expression. He gives me a backhand swipe like a
bear lashing out. I stagger, nearly lose balance. In the moment of looking
up at my assailant see my father's expression locked grim, eyes hooded as
though in some form of sublime resignation.

Jess says, he doesn't know nothing about our ways, Sheriff.

If I took myself to India, do you think I'd better learn up on Hindus
and sheikhs, before I went?

He's just a young man, from another country.

Sure he is — in the company of a nigger. Could be one
we been hearing, right, Hines? Who don't like his own state, the lawful
way we do things here. No sir. This here could be a nigger who wants to
against time-honoured law and order, as practised and enforced by
law-abiding white folk. Tell him, Wesley.

Son of a bitch civil rights man, you better not be walking all over
civil rights. We got our eye on you, Jess Hines.

To my ears the cop said beech and civil rarts. To my eyes both are
thugs on the state payroll. And when the sheriff pulls his gun on my father,
to my mind they are officially employed gangsters.

As for my father, I can hear his chains rattling. A low price bid on his
fawning, lowered head.

Risking another swipe, I ask, officer? With respect. But what have we
done? Why did you hit me?

The gun swings my way. You might like to compare to being shot?

I say, for what? Thinking, you can't do that, you have no right even
to threaten it. In my country he'd be in big trouble.

Nigger-lover motherfucker got some mouth. He steps forward. Steel
against my forehead. You say that one more time and we goin' bury your
insolence in a goddamn coloured cemetery.

He swings the pistol back at my father. Along with the nigger your
daddy back home in Zealand loves so much.

I know no one like this.

So I, the nigger slave, say, I'm sorry if I offended you, sir. Truly I am.
Can not, will not, look at my slave father.

A smile starts spreading like the dawn with its spilled gold over us, all
four, and he says, now y'all talking like you should — with respect. He
says lak for like, and breaks up should into two parts, drops the t in
But not the sneer the smile has formed, he doesn't drop that.

The gun goes back in its holster. He looks at his deputy as if in need
of assurance he is about to do the right thing. At my father with his glazed
eyes all humble at him.

Then he says, Jess Hines, I were you I'd drop this civil rights bullshit,
and just take care of your overseas visitor and settle down to being one
obedient nigger who knows his place. That be God's will too, case you

Genesis 9: Ham's son Canaan shall be the servant of servants.
Shem will be blessed.


I asked him as we stood on the road flooded in morning's glory, who is

A biblical black man, so they claim, who came upon his father Noah
drunk and naked and so Noah cursed Ham down the ages. His descendants
would be servants of the descendants of his two brothers, Shem and
Japheth. You not learn religion?

Not in our house.

You didn't miss much. My mother didn't believe either. Her reading
set her free she said. But it was all around us, still is as you've seen. You
all right?

I guess. You?

Know what you were thinking. Saw it in your eyes. But that's how it
is, how we've survived. It's that, or take a warrior's stance and die proud.

He'd read my thoughts of swelling up Maori warrior pride. I shrugged
and said, well.

His lip curled to a shape I'd not seen.

He said, you can't apply ignorance or arrogance of wet-behind-the
ears manhood to a situation three centuries old. You can't, son. And if you
do then I'll whip your ass right here on the highway so we send you back on
a stretcher, swear I will.

Up he stepped to me, two inches taller, lived of a different life.

Motherfucker know-nothing New Zealander who may as well be
white like they are, if I have to suck dick to live till the day we can truly
proclaim victory, then suck dick I will. But I don't have to stand for my
own son making judgement on my ways of staying alive when his own life
was wrapped in the cotton wool of his soft-ass history. You understand?
Because I've been to your country, and it ain't nothing like this.

. . .

I said, do you understand?

I did then. He was trembling with anger. Which is I said sorry and
truly meant it. Truly.

Why I put arms around him and felt a grown man sobbing in my arms
as the sun shone down from a beautiful Mississippi sky.

BOOK: Dreamboat Dad
12.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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