Authors: Alan Duff
I GOT A FEW PAID
hours after school doing odd jobs at the Waiwera Post
Office, because the manager Mrs McDowell took a shine to me. The post
office was one place kids hung around; for some reason she singled me
out, asked did I want a few hours' work a week.
Knowing every villager's business she wanted to call me by the name
on my birth certificate, Mark. Said the name Yank isolated me when I
felt no such thing. I couldn't tell her of my mild obsession with looking
at father-age Yank tourists, accosting each with questions about the war
and had he been here in Two Lakes back then. Found six who returned to
relive old memories but, as I have no details to identify my father, could
only ask if they remembered a woman called Lena.
Mrs Mac, not that attractive, believed she was. She thought my mother
one of the most beautiful she'd ever seen and yet shook her head that she
did not appear to believe it of herself. Guess she was saying my mother
should stand taller. I did know I felt pretty lucky in the looks area, from a
mum who told me every day how handsome I was. Maybe like Mrs Mac,
though, I wasn't in fact good looking?
She gave me books to read, when our house had few and none but a
handful of Waiwera homes had any books at all. When you live in a place
like Waiwera reading is not the activity you think of and anyway, as Mrs
Mac said, Maori culture is oral. We did not have the written word until it
was introduced by the Europeans.
The post office handled not just mail but banking, post office savings
accounts, foreign currency exchanges for the tourists, and the staff took
added responsibility for the gossip and private affairs of every Waiwera
inhabitant worth talking about.
Like when the letter addressed to Lena Takahe came, bearing a United
States of America postmark and Mrs Mac herself phoned my mother on
the party line knowing eavesdropping was common practice, told Mum
there was a letter she should collect in person, or would she rather her son
bring it home this evening?
I was there when Mum turned up, a bit breathless in that way of hers
that says why would anyone write to me, or even give me one thought?
(Henry had taken something vital out of her, I was certain. I wanted her to
walk around being
of herself. Not this unassuming, modest woman
who most of our village said was still one of our finer-looking specimens.
Disgusting how some of the men, when they were drunk, tried to chat
my mother up and got angry when she ignored them, called her a bag,
a slut, said they know she turned it up for more than the Yank while
Henry was away. Cruel hypocrites: knew she won't run to Henry. On my
enslavement list too. My American father and I were going to have quite
a few people to confront on Judgement Day.)
For you, Lena. Mrs McDowell handed over the letter. The staff
whispering it had been sent from America. America! With all that that
meant. My mother occasionally filled in for guides; often tourists not just
from America but other countries were so impressed they sent a postcard,
or started regular correspondence with the guides or locals they'd met.
There could be no other possible explanation, not even to the person of
greatest hoping, me.
From my father? Impossible. Never mind the years of fantasising he'd
one day turn up in our lives. Absolutely impossible.
I saw Mum look at the letter, glance up, back down, up again — her
She was white. Trying to speak but words wouldn't come.
I heard Mrs Mac say, why don't you go and find somewhere on your
own and read it without interruption, dear?
I knew not to go after her to see who the letter was from.
Mum told me much later she clutched the letter and just started walking
into town, three miles away. On through town and down to the lake to
end up in Marsden Gardens, walking aimlessly round and round the big
spread of well-kept park. Ended on a park bench sitting there stunned in
the manicured surround.
All week she refused to say anything about the letter other than it was
just from a tourist who remembered. I knew she was holding back and
I thought it might be possible she had heard from him, my dad. But he
would have written years earlier, not waited till I was thirteen. Still, he
might not know of my existence; why would he? So many thoughts going
through my mind.
The following day, Saturday, was our money-earning day in the river
to go to the afternoon pictures. Mum said, go to the eleven o'clock picture
and I'll meet you at two thirty at the park by the big pool. Don't tell a soul,
not your best mate, not your big sister or Wiki. And don't ask me why.
It figured this was to do with the letter and yet I saw no sign in her face
to say it was epic news like that, of my dreamboat dad suddenly popped
I don't remember anything of the flick. Came out blinking in the
sunlight, told Chud I had to go somewhere and he wanted to know where
and why I was keeping it secret and why wasn't I heading back home
with him and why had we come to the early flick? Asking for the fiftieth
Told you, I don't know.
Chud still looked hurt and hell, if you had to choose between killing
your mother or your best friend, it's a very hard pick.
I'll tell you in a couple of hours, Chud, I promise. But tell
him what? I had a nervous feeling now.
My mother beside me on a park bench, as nearby steam growls its
presence, a four-foot stone wall built around it. This one's a sigher, not
very interesting. At our backs the vast poster portrait of Tudor-style
building, imposing gable spires, stripes of dark-stained wood against white
plaster of its walls, old grey slate roof. The times I was the loner coming
here I imagined the building our family castle, my king and queen parents,
me the prince. The immaculate bowling greens laid out before the grand
old building were emerald carpet offerings to us, the American Royal
One of our smaller palaces the Green Baths building in art deco design.
Named for its green pool tiles, a place kids cram at weekends, it's got a
high diving board and uses thermal heat for the smaller pools. Nothing
compared with the natural wonders of Waiwera. Though Chud and I
loved going there when flooding made our river too dangerous. Mixing
with white kids, governed by quite strict rules: Chud for some strange
reason seemed to enjoy the rules and even the company of white kids who
weren't into fighting and acting aggressive.
Never seen my mother so agitated, not even when Henry was talking
himself up to giving her a belting. She is shaking like a leaf.
SON, SHE SAYS.
Your father is alive.
What father? I'm suddenly confused though a moment ago I was
sitting in yonder building on my prince's throne right beside him, Mum
the other side. What are you talking about?
Your father, his name is Jess. He is alive, son. He's alive! And she
breaks down in tears.
Oh, Mum. I put an arm round her. But my mind is trying to find
a place to fit this information. I'm peering at the letter to see if a photo
came with it. My father? The man who, who made my mother pregnant
— with me? How can this be? And who is going to help carry me through
Don't know if you remember me. It's Jess Hines. The American GI from all
those years ago. I survived the war and if you ever gave me a thought you may have
assumed me dead, killed in action, as I did not write as I promised. I have long
anguished over whether to write or let you alone and get on with civilian life like so
many millions did. But your face, the memories, refused to let me go.
I got one letter from you. You may have written others but a mail boat was sunk
by a Japanese sub and Lord you can't imagine the disappointment, it was like an
incident of multiple deaths to men who so looked forward to getting letters from loved
ones. I don't mean to be presumptuous there.
My mother gives a silly grin at that.
Conditions in Guadalcanal were such that letter writing was out of the question.
But please believe I thought about you an awful lot. Even though knowing you are
married and likely regretted what we shared. For that I ask your forgiveness, as—
He must have written something intimate. She read this letter the day
before. Knows what's coming and where the embarrassing bits are.
What a hellhole we were sent to after the dream world of
New Zealand. The battles took place in steaming barely penetrable jungle.
Bitten mad by malaria carrying mosquitoes — death and terrible sickness
in itself, blood-sucking leeches, scorpions, snakes, biting flies and an enemy
we hardly saw, only the deaths he caused us, or their maggot-ridden corpses
and our own gruesome dead. You would not have believed how swift and hideous
the decay of life in that Hell. To think, a proud soldier would actually be
grateful to be wounded and invalided home. But that's how we all felt. Wanting
to be injured enough to be sent home, never to have to go to war again.
Seven months there I was quite badly wounded with multiple gunshots. Took
five bullets. Was flown home with scores of other wounded men. Three months
recuperating and I was assessed fit to return to combat duty. Europe this time.
Again my mother feels this Jess guy is writing private stuff and she
turns away to read it to herself. Then looks at me and says, you have two
more half-sisters, Yank.
A thought that repulses me. I don't
two more half-sisters.
He was married, got divorced a few years ago, Mum says.
I feel better: divorced at least.
I've thought and thought about writing to you, asking myself what is the point?
You'll either not remember me or not wish to, given you are married. I am presuming
your husband came home safe to you and your daughter. But then I thought, don't
be silly, you'd be lucky if Lena remembered you—
Dad. Dad? (Dad?)
Nope, just won't take. Wish Mum would stop crying now. People
going past looking are embarrassing me. All because of a letter from a man
who didn't even send a picture of himself so I could confirm or reject my
years-long fantasy on the spot.
Did he send a photo, Mum? She shakes her head. Have you got any
photos, Mum? I never asked you about it — about him. Ever.
No, you didn't. And I wouldn't have told you anyway. Not when I
thought he was dead.
He's alive, Yank. I can't believe it.
Feels like a good movie spoiled, ended too soon, halfway through
the story. It's reality now, of him actually stepping up and saying, Hi. I'm
Jess. I believe you're my son. But where's a
at the very least? What
if he's not a cowboy figure hero, a war hero, a film star, is just an ordinary
person? I ask my mother, what was he like? Yet not wanting an answer.
Through her tears she smiles and says, you really want to know?
What a stupid question. Yes, Mum.
Wonderful. Treated me like a princess.
A married princess, I can't help saying. To someone else.
But she just smiles the more. Says, and look what it gave me.
Huh? Oh, she means me. Well, you're a pretty special mother too. But
did you really have to go with an American? And now what do we do?
Write back, tell him he's got a son here and ask if he feels like visiting?
Settling back to civilian life was tougher than I thought it would be
, she read
Seems society and officialdom treated servicemen in different ways. Some missed
on veterans' loans for business and housing. Serving in two different parts of the
world meant 'papers had been mixed up'. Meaning lost. I moved to Jackson, our
state's biggest city, to get work, provide for my family. My wife worked nights, we
shared looking after the children. We were arguing a lot. We managed though to save
close to a deposit on a very modest house. Then the marriage fell apart and naturally
I gave her our savings—
Mum? Why don't you suggest he comes here as a tourist, with a group?
That way Henry won't know, we can arrange to meet like we have here.
I'm suddenly getting excited.
No, she shakes her head. It's over, Yank. He's single now. But I am
Huh? She may as well be.
Sure, I want you to meet him one day. But the past is the past.
I haven't had that past yet, Mum.
And you'd like to. I know. Her face is glowing like I've never seen.
The colour in her eyes has grabbed some light source and has them
burning like pale green flames. She's flushed. And look, the hand holding
the letter is trembling. I'm shaken too. He's alive. My God, my father
Life is pretty good now. Hoping very much yours is too. Been such a long
The rest of the letter doesn't say much, just how America is a wonderful
country to live in — for some.
, I began, uncertain at what to call him, but not Dad, and Mister
Hines would be too formal.
Not sure what to say or how to start. I can say it came as the biggest surprise
of my life to hear from you. Mum thought you had been killed in the war and me,
I guess not knowing or hearing anything about you, I invented this person in my
mind. Boy, did I imagine you in so many different roles! Actually, I was given the
name Yank long before I knew the reason.
I'm thirteen, in first year of high school. Mum and teachers want me to go to
university. But I'd like to be a musician, a singer, play guitar too. I'm obsessed with
music. It must be from you because Mum is not that musically inclined. Henry
— her husband and kind of my father — is a wonderful singer —
Not that I'll be telling him of how Henry has treated Mum and me.
Rugby is a big thing here, most boys and men play the game, everyone goes to
games and talks about rugby all the time. I'm not such a good player and secretly
glad I'm not. I want to be a musician.
My best mate Chud is the best young player anyone's seen in years. But do
I want to be like him? No. He's had a tough life. His parents are terrible to him.
But anyway you don't want to hear about that I just want you to know he's like a
brother. And if we do meet, he'll not be far away. I know you'll like him.
Seeing you've been here, you'll know what an amazing place Waiwera is.
Saying that evoked all sorts of mental images of my mother and him
writhing in sexual union. God. The sights of Mum not Waiwera.
I work a few hours a week at the local post office. The manager, we call her Mrs
Mac, is very kind and really likes me. Don't know what more to say. When I get
over the shock of getting used to you actually existing, I'll write back.
My real name feels awkward, but signing it as Yank to a Yank was silly.
Can't even write Takahe, as I'm officially known at school. That name
belongs to someone else too.