Authors: Alan Duff
HENRY AND HIS FATHER SAW
into our future and built a four-bedroom
house of basic design on family land, on ground not likely to have thermal
break-outs. Hardly moved in as a young married couple, Henry about
to start work as barman at the local hotel, I got pregnant, then war was
Became a too-large place of lonely residence in the years of Henry's
absence, even with frequent visitors and living in a close-knit village. I felt
a nagging need for something else, something more than village gossip and
petty gripe. But I was born here too, looking in the same mirror giving
reflection of life unchanging back. Maybe I should have fallen into line,
gone with the flow.
Having the baby made a difference, kept me busy and in that blissful
state of motherly joyfulness. I particularly liked having a hot bath with
her, surrounded by our relatives, the villagers. The custom was to share
the child around, with two sets of grandparents, uncles and aunties, even
cousins. Once past the breastfeeding stage little Mata might stay overnight
with a relative. The house would feel too big and lonely again then.
Wondered if my discomfort was a premonition of the future, that I would
never really belong in this house.
When Henry's father died in 1943 my mother-in-law gave me the
task of writing to inform her son. Took several months before Henry's
reply journeyed back, expressing sadness of course at not being able to say
farewell, the usual. But between us, he wrote that his father had been an
ordinary man of no great note, other than building Henry's house with his
son's energetic help. In the meantime three Waiwera boys' lives had been
lost in a recent battle in Italy.
My own father took off with a Pakeha woman in his late forties, not
long after Yank was born. I'd wondered why he had no strong words of
disapproval for my fling, my secret revealed by the growing pregnancy.
Dad's leaving shattered Mum — killed her, some said — and shocked
and disgusted us his children; even I had the cheek to feel moral outrage.
I guess because we had a mother totally dedicated to her family. My two
older sisters moved away, in shame they said and at our mother dying of a
broken heart. My two older brothers both had children and lived in a new
suburb in town and I didn't see a lot of them. Locals said maybe it was the
teasing of Dad's pale skin, or could be his preference for white flesh like
his own was why he did what he did.
I started seeing that living in a village had its price. Same
time it wrapped you in communal embrace, they were ready with poison tongues
and hatred at the smallest transgression.
How my own transgression took place? Perhaps my father's daughter, I
had vivid sexual dreams and woke up quite disturbed.
You can't control your dreams. Nor the body, though it refused to let
me know its secrets.
Not in our reserved culture to talk about intimate matters. They skirted
it by saying so-and-so is hot, warned men jocularly to look out she'll eat
him for breakfast. But having a sexual climax? God forbid.
Then one of the tourist guides got sick, I got called in, and my life
changed. I met an American marine called Jess.
Daring to follow him to the town near their camp outside of Wellington,
I left my baby with my parents. Two weeks of unimaginable bliss, a great big
door opened to find another Lena waiting. Gay, carefree, and abandoned in
every way. Back home I couldn't care less the wagging tongues, even my
mother-in-law's evil looks, silently demanding an explanation. I offered no
excuse, simply said I'd been away and got caught up with friends.
I suppose I was in love. Difficult to tell with my head in the clouds,
amazed at what I had discovered within myself — with his help. It might
be freedom I was in love with, being liberated. Sexually unchained.
I missed a menstrual period. Then another. Please don't let it be. A
third month and still no period, and no denying the slight bulge in my
tummy. How the tongues went from behind my back to openly asking,
what the hell was I doing carrying a baby? A married mother? You better
hope your husband is killed because he's sure going to kill you when he
No choice but to become a bit of a recluse, difficult in a small village
with everyone related and knowing one another's business and the
communal baths being one of the social gathering places. I only bathed at
home or at Falls Bath right next door to our house.
My own mother was in attendance at Yank's birth. I named him Mark,
after one of Mum's brothers I was fond of. My baby distracted me too
much to pick up on my father's detachment, his late nights. When Dad ran
off with his Pakeha lover it hurt Mum more that she was white, as she had
a thing about Maoris being considered a lesser, more primitive race than
our white New Zealand counterparts. She wasn't the only one.
Mum died of despondency, I am certain, though people knew she was
inclined to melancholia.
With brothers and sisters moved away and with little inclination to
make friends given my own reduced status, I just focused on my two
children till my husband's return.
My poor Yank, having to accept that Henry had no interest in him.
Painful watching a little boy try and figure out why the man of the house
does not say one word to him, answers none of the questions an innocent
kid naturally asks. He believed Henry was his father till about age five.
Though Henry said I had caused him
at least he had
his hotel job and community work to lose himself in. And in over two
years of us sleeping in separate bedrooms, I know, just by the sniggers of
the village's nastier types, that he had other women.
One day, though, he walked into my bedroom to find me undressed
and he had his selfish — but exciting — way with me.
Things changed for the better after that; he was more his old self. Not
that his sexual interest was for any but his own pleasure. Confirmed the
saying that the beast is tamed when a man has sex, even one-sided.
His late father had left him a few hundred pounds so there was money to
furnish the house, including a miracle called a refrigerator. We were among
the first in the village to own one, and I felt quite proud. His good salary
meant we didn't have to struggle like other families. We fell into a routine
that seemed to satisfy each of us, as long as I suppressed my thoughts.
Our kitchen had a coal range, a small Formica-topped dining table
and six matching chairs, rough-hewn timber shelves stacked with pots and
pans, crockery, a few framed photos on the wall (none featuring me or
my son). Windows looked straight into tall manuka trees, the back door
opened out on to a small lawn that steamed in one corner over which
Henry had built a wooden steam box; this I used daily for cooking.
The bedrooms were simply furnished with two sets of bunk beds in
two, double beds in the others, chest of drawers, and in our resumed main
bedroom the walls had several photos of Henry's brother killed in the war
and Henry in army uniform. He'd taken down our wedding photos. How
could I object?
Another Waiwera soldier's photo featured in our sitting room. He was
Barney's younger brother, Harold, whose eyes followed you wherever
you went in the room. Henry's close mate; they grew up together. Killed
in a skirmish: Henry and Barney were witness to his death.
In the sitting room three walls were festooned with more photographs
of Henry pre-war and in soldier's uniform, from ordinary private to
beaming captain with shined shoulder pips on his broad shoulders. And
post-war shots of a different, more serious Henry in civilian clothes. There
were his family members, a few of different age-group rugby teams, some
framed postcards of Egyptian pyramids, a castle in Italy, and in the centre
right above the fireplace a print of parched, hilly Greek landscape with a
smiling Greek peasant. A figure young Yank had got to know as a friend
in his mind. I would come across my little boy talking to the man, he
called him Geekgeek. Photographic studies of Waiwera at different times
made its steamy presence known. There was a print of the Pink and White
Terraces, that fabulous thermal creation. As Mata got older more framed
photographs of her appeared, as did our other children Wiki and Manu
gain admittance to the family photographic gallery. There were no images
of mother or son.
RUNNING BARE FEET ON THE
dirt road close to the house. Yank can feel the
slight tremor, perhaps indicating how unstable the ground in these parts; by
the speed of the footsteps he can hear it's either a sprint race or someone's
fleeing from something.
Out the bedroom window Chud pulls to a halt on the patch of front
lawn, sucking in breath. For twelve years old he's big, muscles already
formed where other kids same age are still potentials waiting to happen. In
his swim shorts and that's it.
His dark skin shows no less of the blood everywhere, source being his
face. Mouth. Nose. One eye swollen shut.
Yank out in a flash. In Chud's one seeing eye Yank sees all he needs to
know: words won't do it. Both boys fighting against crying. Chud doesn't
know where to look, keeps trying to open the swollen eye.
Your old lady home, Yank?
Yeah. But don't call her that. You should go and talk to her — come
They make a sight in the kitchen, Chud sobbing in Lena's arms and
Yank standing near the back door, hurting for his pal; she's running a hand
over Chud's head, the other clasps him tight to her breasts like a baby. She's
not saying much except calling him Boyboy, the name she gave him years
ago when he first came to her for comfort after a hiding. Had just started
Come on, she says now, let's go and buy ice-creams.
They go the long way to avoid Chud's parents. Lena says you're going
to enjoy your ice-cream, Boyboy, not get put off by those drunks. Local
kids stare at his injuries, older ones snarl in the direction of the Kohu house
whence sounds of a full-scale party come, hardly past noon of a Sunday. A
teenage boy spits so Chud can see he's on his side.
A couple of dozen loud American tourists fall silent at seeing Chud with
his injuries, a woman asks is he okay. Lena answers yes on his behalf, tells
him to lift his head and
Chud finds something of a smile. Yank his habitual quick look at the
American men. In case.
Lena slips an arm around Chud and he walks at a slight angle leaned into
her, taking hope from her kindness.
Going back, when Lena deliberately turns down the short cut track to
her house, Chud leaves himself behind like a small boat cut itself adrift. Lena
and Yank several steps away. Come on, Lena says. This is part of showing
the world you might be hurt but yet you're not. And she comes back and
takes Chud under her arm once more. We're walking past them, you hear?
First Lena's mother-in-law's house to pass. She doesn't show herself,
could be peeping behind the curtains at the two people she hates most in
this world, mother and son.
Now past the party. Could be a pack of apes acting on instinct, jabbering
and cackling as they spill out the front of the Kohu house, roars of drunken
statement and mindless laughter clashing between competing primates.
The women chatter and break forth with leery laughter and each attempts
a different dance or suggestive movement and looks nothing other than
drunk, no class. All under a warm midday sun.
One starts to fall backwards, grabbed by a male hand, yanked to the man
so he can plant a kiss and spray her with beery laughter. She falls anyway,
when he lets go her hand, and everyone laughs. On the ground she kicks
like a cast animal.
Over a woman comes and tips beer out of a bottle in measured stream
to the one on the ground, her open laughing mouth. That gets the apes
laughing and jumping.
But not so of their own species they are blind to the three passers-by.
A man calls out, hey? Ain't you her?
It's her all right, says another. The slut.
So now Lena's turn to ignore and give back with a smiling disposition,
not just face. She positively waves. Not her son, though, who gives the man
hatred with narrowed eyes.
Since Chud won't dare look their way it's Yank who asks, Mum, why
are you putting up with that?
She doesn't answer, just checks if Chud is okay. Just keep looking ahead,
Chud! Hey, you — Chud!
Keep walking, Chud. Not far to go.
Ted Kohu comes swinging down the lawn like a male baboon claiming
one of his brood. When I say your name you answer, boy.
Ted's pack gone pretty well silent except for the moaners and broken
song singers too drunk to notice or care.
Lena brings her little party to a halt.
You talking to the boy, Ted?
I sure as hell ain't talking to the dog. Or maybe I am.
He's staying with us tonight.
Is he just? Got news for him — you're not! Get your black arse here
Chud says to Lena rather than Yank, I have to go.
Lena says, no, you don't. Removes her arm from Chud and turns full
on to Ted who has advanced to the edge of the weed spot supposed to be
a front lawn.
There's a lot of men in this village who won't like being shown this
boy's injuries. Henry included.
Ted laughs. What, when he couldn't even care less about you? We
know how things are in your house, missus. So don't you be threatening me
with Henry. Grinning at her.
He doesn't like children being abused. And the cops will be interested.
Ted needs to take that in. Cops? A dismissive gesture at Lena and turns
back to the others.
Hate them, Chud says out the side of his mouth to Yank. Who
THEY SING AS IF WITH
something that can never be resolved, and yet as if
all is at peace at least for the duration of their singing together. Returned
servicemen, too many back changed for the worse, yet singing the songs
learned before they went, the Western-adapted songs and melodies to
Maori lyrics, just as they break out with songs in Italian learned from
fighting that people as an enemy. Funny how not one German song was
In the years of being home, the group of twelve has gained a town
reputation, with five-part harmony and voices of natural pitch and power,
along with the gusto of a warrior race who were also the war victors.
Lena is one of over a hundred people standing outside the Waiwera
Hotel public bar, in raptures at the strains of a hymn in Maori heard
through opened windows; not a whisper from the audience, inside and
out, or something sacrosanct would be broken.
Lena thinking of the man whose voice rings out above the others
that he could come home this evening and hurl the meal she has cooked
for him to the floor, bring up again the subject of her sleeping with the
The sun is still high as it nears six o'clock of a hot December Saturday;
children play under the shade of old oak trees on the forecourt of the
sprawling weatherboard hotel, the tourists are back, there is a little more
money in their community, though the government takes the lion's
The hotel gleams whiter in the sun from a fresh coat of paint and
seems to have extra sheen with the massed song issuing from that public
bar, as if from a spell cast by the former fighting men singing their hearts
out inside. The oak trees put shade and cool on the kids playing beneath
them. Flies and bees a background drone.
Hotel guests are stood outside listening in the same amazement. By
appearance alone most are American, in their loud dress and confident
manner. Some of the American tourist men are sure to be inside the bar,
shocked at the beer-swilling. Though the singers won't be so drunk or it
would spoil their performance.
Outsiders from the suburbs have come on bicycles, men of all ages
have walked, driven in mainly old cars and battered small work trucks,
older children have trekked, couples have made it an evening destination,
kids from outside the area are drawn to the excitement, local kids check
them out to ensure respect is shown, but only a few kids appreciate the
singing. Yank is one of them, even if the main voice is Henry's.
A police car pulls up, a black Humber Super Snipe. Out get a constable
and a sergeant pretending sternness, as the sergeant shakes his head that
it's past six o'clock legal closing time. After the closing bell clangs the
patrons have fifteen minutes to vacate the premises. But this is different:
the Waiwera returned servicemen have widespread renown.
People break out in expressions of appreciation, admiration. Someone
near Lena says, thank the good Lord they came home to us safely so our
town didn't lose such voices. Of course Lena feels the same, even if with
other thoughts on the distinctive voice standing out from the rest.
Enrapturing though the song is and yes her husband's voice, Lena
keeps one eye out for her children, especially Yank engaged now in a
conversation with an American. She doesn't ask about his engaging the
Yankee tourists; a mother knows why. Though what questions he asks are
a mystery as she has never spoken one word of the man she knows he is
on a hopeless mission to find.
The cops then adopt an official posture, put on their helmets and
head into the bar, same time the closing bell erupts and soon men are
spilling out to sunlight and sober wives and children, responsibility to
which they're now oblivious.
Henry the bar manager stands at the top of the concrete ramp firmly
ushering them out. The cops have left. Every man wants to shake Henry's
hand; most are drunk.
Yank and Chud sidle up beside Lena. Time to go, get the evening
meal on the table by seven latest, even if Henry chooses not to come home
till late. Those are the rules. A woman more or less resigned to it.
Then she sees Henry and Yank find each other's eyes, it happens every
once in a rare while. Like magnets drawn to each other. Of course Henry's
gaze is strong; clearly Yank would rather not be looking into Henry's eyes.
But nor can he unlock from the big man's stare.
Yank? His mother prepared to break it. Sees he's trembling ever so
slightly. Then he turns and goes round to Chud's far side, further from his
mother and even more from Henry.
Time to go home.