Authors: Alan Duff
MUM HAD TOLD ME FOR
as long as I remembered: you get used to
I told her for just as long, I didn't want to live in the house with a
man who never spoke to me yet smothered my two sisters with love. And
why don't you leave, Mum? You and me can live near town, you can take
Mata and Wiki. We can come and play here on weekends.
Where will I work? Not many jobs your mother can do, just factory
work and the wages are too low to support a family on my own. Besides,
we just live different lives under the same roof. You should be grateful he
hasn't kicked us out.
Henry would rise early to get the coal range going, liked the kitchen
to himself to cook breakfast for everyone including me. A big eater in the
mornings, he sometimes roasted a piece of mutton and the family enjoyed
plates of hot meat slices with roast potatoes and slices of white bread.
I didn't eat at the table same time as him and so mornings my mother
separated herself out to eat with me; Henry ate with his two daughters,
later on Manu too when he got old enough. If it was roast mutton we were
allowed to have what we wanted of it but not the knuckle, that was his.
Pig-headed man of pride against an innocent child — I never stopped
At nights he arrived late, around eight or nine o'clock, almost always
partly or totally drunk, we became a wider family at the meal table before
he got home. Talked and laughed and joked as a normal family. So not as if
I was isolated out on my lonely little island. But still, it would always hurt.
Mum was wrong, you don't get used to it.
Every morning Henry would go for a bath up at the row of concrete
tubs. Our house had a bath but we never used it, not when just a few
yards from our house was Falls Bath, named for its waterfall feed from a
larger and hotter pool at a higher level. On weekends, no matter what the
weather, he and the girls would go to the top baths, where most of the
How I used to envy them, the trio in winter morning dark huddled
under two large umbrellas. I would watch them out the bedroom window
wanting to be with them, feeling my life had been predestined differently
to my sisters'. And I did very much wish Henry would talk to me. Didn't
even have to treat me like a son, just say something normal. Say anything.
A hug wouldn't have gone astray either, must admit.
Mum said he'd get over it, one day. But he never did. The years
of silence between us just kept rolling by. I learned to keep my own
company, to go into my imagination, discover my musical bent; I tried
out dance steps to music either on the radio or in my head. Dancing
came naturally to me. I could have hours of conversation with myself as
I practised roles and conversational styles, like the women guides, like
different American tourists, adopted the voices and attitudes of older kids.
I lived where Henry could not hurt me with his ignoring: in my head. Or
else in my mother's all-embracing love.
Mum and I ate breakfast while Henry was at the baths. Mum wasn't a
big eater and she said her people ate far too much.
In winter the coal range heat drew us to the kitchen. Our sitting
room had an open fire, but if Henry was around then I went elsewhere
in the house. Our bedrooms were freezing. I'd get under the blankets and
lose myself in imagination's landscape and settings. Sometimes Mum and
I would go and soak in Falls, relishing the bitter cold air as we sweated in
the wet heat. Henry and Barney had built a shelter so bathers could change
and keep clothes dry. They were war mates and Henry was very protective
of him: no kid dared tease Barney.
I'd walk into the sitting room or kitchen to Henry laughing or talking
to my sisters, my entrance causing a sudden, awkward silence. Mata just
stared straight ahead and would talk about anything to fill the silence. Wiki
looked down and said nothing, a bit like the child who closes his eyes to
make people disappear. Manu too young to understand. Boy, I hated those
He was gone before we went to school; my family knew I relaxed and
became my cheeky self then: I loved to play tricks on my sisters, or if I
was feeling thoughtful I liked to be buried in a book and say nothing till
we walked to school.
Chud waited for me every school day and weekend mornings too.
Often he'd have the marks of a beating but we learned not to say anything.
Chud liked the talk to be about anything but himself and his terrible father
and mother. If my sisters went to school with their pals, Chud and I did
sometimes share what he went through at home, but not too much. We'd
rather talk about what we'd do by way of revenge when we grew up, the
versions of accidentally on purpose throwing them into a boiling pool,
poisoning their food with a special plant old Merita would tell us where
to find in the forest up on Totara Hill, how to prepare it. Mostly we were
just boys living in our childhood.
As for bullying, no one, not even boys much older, dared touch Chud
as he had a nasty temper and would use anything as a weapon to defend
himself. He let others know that no one could touch me either.
School was different. Chud had no interest but I found it exciting and
challenging and the teachers liked me in their classes. I took books home
from the library. Not that I was a bookworm, I just liked words and what
the imagination could do. Chud loved nothing better than throwing and
kicking a rugby ball; he tackled young tree trunks, tackled me from behind
if we were walking on grass, crawled all over me like a laughing big cat
and would tell me, one day I'll be a rugby star.
The evenings were ours, to gather round the radio or play cards or
games. We could be ourselves as we knew Henry's pattern to drink with
his boss and their mates after work, often go to a party that didn't finish till
after we were in bed. Rarely was Mum invited out socially with him.
At our make-believe parties in the sitting room Mum would dance
to different songs, teach us steps to the waltz, the jitterbug, tango. Mata
would warn, better not let Dad catch you teaching us dance steps from the
war. Meaning learned from a certain American. We all sang along to the
songs played regularly on the radio. Mata had a great memory for lyrics
and she could sing. Like her father. My family encouraged my singing too;
I could imitate well once my voice got a bit older. Mum promised puberty
would bring the best change. I couldn't wait. Nor could I wait for other
kinds of change: even thought of running away from home.
Maybe Henry would get ill and die. Yet the thought made me sad,
sometimes overwhelmingly so. Maybe I loved him, even though he never
loved me back.
Two, three times a year Henry would come home with a mission: my
mother. Punish her for the crime of bringing me into this world and, I
later figured, the act that led to it. Something about sex that gets to men.
All men, according to Merita. Not that the old lady called it that, she
called it the business.
He'd bring it up, in front of us if we happened to be there. Asking did
she miss him. Not saying who. We knew. We'd try and melt away at first
opportunity but feared getting his attention, especially me, Mrs Sinner's
living piece of damning evidence resident in the victim's home.
Our mother had her pattern of reaction too: she would sigh and look
away, then back at him and say, how many times do I have to tell you, I
never give the past a thought? It's behind us.
Henry would say, oh, yes you do. Just that he's dead. But if he was
If he walked into this house, Henry, I'd tell him to get out. He's dead,
like I wish the subject was. How long you going to hold a grudge? And
didn't you sleep with anyone when you were away?
He'd say, you were a married woman. How could you do this?
She'd say, why don't we cut the talk and you just hit me?
And Henry would march up to her, teeth gritted, fists bunched. You
humiliated me. I'm a respected man and you humiliated me.
I've said sorry over and over. Just do it, Henry. But not in front of the
His finger would prod her chest — hard. You did your slut thing
while your own kid was back here being looked after by your parents. Did
you think about my daughter?
Kids, go to bed.
Mata would beg her father, please, Dad? Please don't hurt Mum. I
love you, Dad.
Go to bed, I said.
We'd hear him yelling. The thump of her being struck, slammed
against the wall. We'd hear Mata and Wiki's names yelled at him. But
never mine. I wanted to hear my name spoken, to feel I existed too as
someone who breathed and talked. But Mum never spoke my name to
Henry and nor did he utter it. I got guilty that when he beat Mum it was
my fault. I'd cry in private, as a boy crying in front of anyone is shameful.
Weeping with guilt that my very existence was a permanent reason for
harm done to my mother.
But mostly, once I learned to see it more objectively, Henry was a
passive man who truly loved his daughters. He was very popular in the
village, people looked up to him. I wondered why he didn't toss me and
Mum out, get another wife, rid of me.
I heard him say to Mum, there is not a day in my life I am not reminded
of what you did with that Yank piece of shit, and his damn kid living with
I wanted to rush out and say, my father is not a piece of shit —
Where will Mum and I live — in a cave?
I heard Mum tell Mata, because she was older, that Henry tortured
himself about what happened. Mata said tell me about it. Us while he's
at it. I'm sick of it, Mum. You didn't
anyone. You gave life to my
A brother who liked hearing that. Loved her too.
He did a lot of work for the village, at no charge. He said responsibility
was thrust upon him by the elders and he must live up to it. I wondered
if they minded him hitting my mother several times a year. Guess they
didn't, probably hit their own wives. A lot of men did. Did the villagers
know Henry never spoke a word to me? Probably wouldn't care, he was
their favourite son.
Henry was in a constant battle with the town council and with the
government for taking Waiwera land and, to add salt to the wound, taking
most of the entry fee charged to tourists. He called it arrogance of white
At the hotel he fought with trouble-maker patrons. They said he'd
never lost a fight, but never did he pick them. Which made me proud,
even though he didn't like me. Something about an undefeated man that
stirs a boy, even if man and boy don't talk.
Mum and Henry didn't talk a lot either. Though Mata said obviously
with Wiki being born they must do the other. Only meant something
when I found out what the other was. And then I felt like throwing up.
Manu's birth when I was nine felt like a generation between us. Soon I
was old enough to imagine the act that created him and I was disgusted.
How could my mum let Henry? Or did he force himself on her?
But my life was a joy compared with my best pal Chud's. Which was
what my mother kept reminding me of: there are others worse off no
matter what your situation is.
FROM MERITA'S VERANDAH I CALL
out to the few local humans below:
Shamed warriors who have been captured and enslaved, I own you!
Slaves! Former warriors who took capture rather than honourable death, so shall
you bury our sewage, do the heavy tasks. I despise you!
Merita's told me all the great Maori chiefs had slaves, some destined
for the cooking ovens. Our school books tell us Egyptian slaves built the
pyramids. The lowest of the low who laboured on every great world
monument, like the Taj Mahal — and who remembers their names? Slaves
are to be held in contempt. Better to be dead.
Go and build something to honour me, slave dogs!
A castle, a huge mansion
built atop Totara Hill, so all my subjects can adore me. But you shall be
forbidden to cast your lowly eyes upon my person — look down, slaves!
Do not ever gaze upon me lest you foul my presence.
Suddenly I mean something in this place dominated by Henry:
is I, your great warrior chief! Dare look me in the eye and I will hurl you into a
Merita tells me not to talk like that or someone will give me a biff
round the ear. But she has told me my mother is of a high-born family,
so that makes me high-born. Merita's spiral tattoo design says she herself
is high-born. No ordinary woman is given such honour. The high-born
endure pain as a mark of their superior status. This high-born kid endures
the pain of living in Henry's house.
One day I'll make you one of my slaves, Henry Takahe. One day my
father is going to arrive and then we'll see you tremble in front of a real
man. Kneel, slave, my father will say. And you will kneel. Then he will
behead you for how you treated his son.
THIS SIDE OF THE BRIDGE
a rock face spills down to the water from a dirt
road alongside, where early starters mill around, waiting for the decision
on what to do first, hit the cold river or warm up in any one of four
selections of baths. A complex process, not one you can rush. Boys and
girls shuffle bare feet in the dust, swish a foot in a puddle, look down, look
up, at the river, over the main thermal area, at the sky, down at the Smith
house that lost two sons in the war, at each other, away somewhere on
their own; each has his and her own best hope but not theirs to say, not
anyone's, it just happens, the moment you join with a group you become
owned by its mysterious will. Even the strong personalities don't always
decide on where the day starts.
Not that Yank has a preference; he loves all and any of it in no particular
It's the river. Boys move down and spread over the rock face like
goats ready to leap, shed of all but shorts, girls in tee-shirts as well, even
those with but a hint of breasts, shivering even if it's summer warm,
arms clutched around bodies, grinning and giving little giggles, eyes only
between the steady flowing water and each other.
Then someone jumps, letting out a cry as he goes, a big belly-flop
splash to begin the day. The other goats leap through the air after him.
That shock of hitting the cold wet; sweet immersion in a liquid playground.
No time to muck around, there are games to play, old tried contests to
engage in, swimming races above or below the surface, horseplay, tickling
of someone's body parts, a wrestle.
It's called rattling. The money-hungry ones start immediately, diving
down and whipping up sand and grit till a jingle is heard and up he or she
comes, two joined hand-scoops of material to wash like panning for gold,
so the coin edge emerges like a fulfilled promise especially if it's the largest
denomination, a half crown: feels like God Himself placed it. Puts the coin
find in his mouth, nature's purse, a perfect pouch for holding real cash
treasure and down he and she goes, into the murk if rain has muddied it,
or it's clear and they see each other and smile or glare, predators hunting
down the money prey but friends too.
A half crown is the silver nugget supreme, two shillings and sixpence,
two and six, with endless buying power as well as certain human drawing
power, kids hoping the luck will rub off or they'll get some of the sweets
and food purchases; a sibling a cousin might buy a ticket to the pictures, pay
the bus fare. Kicking feet protrude from several kids rattling down there
against the rock face where coins have nowhere else to go but sink deeper
into the sand and fine pebbles, waiting for lucky kids to find them.
Yank today with another purpose moves quite a way upstream, quite
a struggle wading against the flow. Reaches a spot out of the others' sight,
turns, breathes deep, slips beneath the waters. Gone.
To his own private galaxy: it could be the heavens he races across
— he's found a means to position his body forward in a crouch and run
as if sprinting, the current speeds him across the watery sky, he becomes
a comic-book hero, his own person none can see or witness, picking
up speed; he can see bodies ahead so he can avoid them as he sweeps
downriver, swift, a hero with power of flight, mind taken somewhere
none can know, for he is alone in this discovery with no intention of
sharing it; his mates think he just swims underwater like they all do, but
this is different.
He's doing it for his father. For the grinning Yank in the cowboy
outfit looking down from that bridge, waiting for his son to pop up. Or
he's John Wayne in US marine uniform, as he must have appeared to the
boy's mother, in dry-cleaned clothes (an American custom they brought
here). Man of perfect features and perfect grooming looking out for his
Up Yank comes, to the surface grinning up at the imaginary figure
beaming back at him. Father throws his son a half crown. For you, son.
Don't let anyone else get it. And down Yank goes, into the clear water,
can see the biggest coin of all looping its way down: propels at it with feet
driving off the sand. Gotcha!
Up he comes. Thanks, Pops!
The first coach-loads of tourists are dropped at the spot near the
memorial archway where local women guides wait to take them on their
thermal wonderland tour. Soon the first group appears on the bridge
above, many nationalities, Americans dominating, Australians, English,
Canadians, those from different European countries but not former foes
— Germany, Italy, Japan.
When really, they want the silver
coins thrown, especially a half crown. And Yank just wants to see the face
of the father come back to take him home — to America!
The others are fierce competitors now, relation or no, this is treats in
their bellies, entrance to the pictures, status and confirmation, affirmation,
acquired by charm and begging, beauty, grace and courage: just watch
them sail down twenty feet from the bridge into less than their height of
water. Lady, I'll jump off for sixpence. Sir, I'll dive off the top rail for a
shilling, do a toe-touch dive, mister, for two bob. Ma'am, you should see
my swan dive. Two and six for a somersault and pay after you've seen it.
Yank clambers up the rock face on to the bridge. Asks his Yank father
in his mind does he want his son to jump or dive? Naturally Pops wants to
see a dive. Which is a lot more scary and difficult than jumping. But if he
doesn't do it then his father will just disappear.
So he steps up on to the rail, the water so far below he wants to die.
For Pops, Yank. Do it for your father.
The American tourists call out encouragement, a local kid asks who is
he diving for, meaning he didn't see Yank put a coin in his mouth.
Yank focuses on the place his body will break apart in front of his
father's eyes, wishing there was another way to impress. There isn't. Not
at Waiwera. It's what kids do. What the son of the American must do.
Takes some time before he can find the courage. Several Yank women
suggest he step down: it's too dangerous and we can see you don't want to
do it. But he must do it. For his daddy.
Okay, ready now, Dad. Watch this.
Throws himself into the air and all fear departs, legs held together,
arms out, feels like falling forever. Fingers slice into the water, he bends
his back to break the descent, hears a snatch of cheering above him before
the water encloses him and so does pride at showing his father what a bold
son he has.
Surfaces to sight of his handsome father laughing proudly, pointing
and telling his fellow Americans, that's my son you just saw! Isn't he
something! Yank waves that he'll see his father later, there's money to be
earned. Joins the others in real time.
Following a threepenny piece as it dances and flits like a butterfly, the
larger shilling makes broader arcs, a two shilling coin short and fast falling,
the prize half crown its own zigzag loop. Bodies clash and fuse and break
loose under the water, it's another world, another dimension. The winner
breaks the surface triumphant, holding the prize aloft.
Kids stay in the river as long as bodies will stand then head for the
other blessing of warm baths. To the social warmth of touching bodies.
Water as if with a slight oil content soft to the touch, slippery on the skin,
all around sky and steaming wet.
Talking, jabbering, laughing, spit-squirting, food-smacking mouths,
the mouths just on the surface blowing bubbles, mischief brewing in the
eyes, smiles breaking white against a deep brown backdrop of complexion
and uniform black hair, heads that sink beneath and hold breath for an
impossible time and break free sucking air spitting laughter, triumph at a
record broken. Hard truth of those who surpass the record and no one
Still, this is their place all: those of weak personality, the strong, bland,
boring, the lame the limited the dumb the mentally defective, the numbed
of too harsh a home life too early, it cannot be discussed, quite a few suffer
it, just know every kid feels for you, just stay close and stay loyal, die for
us if asked and we'll give you comfort in return and die for you.
There are the ones born angry even furious, at something or just
nothing, they're in too, the social cripples, the retarded of body and
mind, the ugly, hideous, plain, the lucky gloriously lovely, the handsome,
beautiful, gorgeous of feature and body, you're the better part of it but you
owe too, everyone owes. Chud, you're one of us, you too, we don't care
your stink parents. Yank, you're in too, don't care your name its origin,
what some call your mother, none of that here, you're with us, of us.
Growing up in paradise like an underground garden sprouting a
thousand steaming manifestations. And one day a father, come all the way
from America here to claim his son.