Authors: Alan Duff
A BIG SENIOR MEN'S RUGBY
match is on, against our traditional arch
rivals, Tanepatu. It's tribal warfare: fights break out in the grandstand, on
the sidelines between spectators. Rival supporters break out in the haka
throughout the game, itself a mighty spectacle of raw Maori power and
skill in ferocious competition. They're actually the same main tribe but it's
more like civil war for ninety minutes.
Chud will be at the game. He wants to be a senior men's team member
more than anything except get out of his horrible home. Waiwera is not the
same with the heart of its population absent; the tourists more or less have
it to themselves, just the elderly and our cheerful chatty women guides
along with a few penny-diver kids, too young to care how important
rugby is to our culture. Rugby is a game even girls and women are mad
on. Our men elders become young again, boys' eyes are on fire, retired
players want to play again. If I was a good player I'd share the village
passion for the game too.
Instead I think about this latest letter from America. Wonder who to
share it with — Merita? Decide she's too old for drama and maybe me
showing emotion. For Jess has sent yet another money order, this time a
hundred pounds. He's set me free. I can buy a car — a car! Pay off my
music equipment. Buy my mother something special, or give her the cash.
Who to share this excitement with in a locals-deserted village?
Find my sister at Falls Bath, by herself. Mud-grey water drops from
a concrete pipe six feet above, feeding from a larger into the smaller,
concrete-encased pool, through a twenty-foot length of eighteen-inch-wide
pipe. The overflow goes down a channel that runs, eventually, to
Mata's flushed cheeks say she's been here a while. A rock face overhangs
half the pool in a semi-circle, ferns and stunted scrub sprout where they
can take root. The noise of the water falling is constant and the enclosure
makes it resonate: you have to half shout to be heard; the waterfall can't
be turned off. We swim in the higher natural pool too, though some don't
like the squelchy mud and sometimes you hit a hot vent spurting beneath.
Two piwakawaka — fantails — chase each other and claim my sister's
attention for a smiling moment. Older Maoris believe fantails carry all sorts
of meanings depending on when and where you see them. Kids just think
It's cold and I'm keen to get in the bath to warm up. Tell her, I
heard from him again. She's happy for me, knows what how much I love
hearing from him.
Why doesn't he send a photo so we know what he looks like?
I already know what he looks like. Proceed to give my description of
a tall, lean man, very handsome, thick dark hair like his son's, musical and
probably rich. Looks like Elvis.
What if he's not rich and doesn't look like Elvis?
That's not possible.
She tells me she's getting out, so I turn my back. She's nearly a woman
now. My sister Wiki is ten, brother Manu seven. The age difference means
we're not as close as Mata and I are. Says she has something to tell me.
Oh? Well, you are nineteen. Thinking, Henry won't like this.
He's from my work. (My sister works at the telephone exchange in
town, on the switchboard.) From the Far North.
Maori or Pakeha?
Yank, who cares? God, sometimes you are obsessed with who is white
and who is brown. Does it matter?
He's Maori. Doctor said I'm nine weeks.
Does Mum know?
Yes, but not telling Dad. I'm leaving home, going to Auckland, start
a new life. My sister looks happy. And if your American father ever turns
up, you make sure I meet him or else.
I will, I promise her, and with a real sense of anything being possible
Will you call him Dad?
Why not, if he is your Dad? Would you ever call my father Dad?
For some reason her questions feel as if they've caught me. No, I say.
Though I might: I've had my moments of wishing.
Moving costs money. Does your boyfriend have a car?
If you can call it that. Might not make it to Auckland.
Arguing with myself, this is your sister and you in the position to give
her money, help her get away from Henry. How much? Fifty? A hundred?
There goes my own car. But she's my sister, who comforted me when
Henry's silence made me miserable. When Henry hit Mum who was it
got us out of the house?
You can have a hundred quid to help. Now she has me smothered in
sister's kisses. Don't thank me, thank my father.
Thank you, Elvis. She laughs. Or is it John Wayne?
Try both, I say.
WALKING UP NEWLY SEALED ROAD,
thanks to Henry. Doesn't feel the
same as dirt and stones, slippery mud in the wet, a layer of dust in the
long dry. Our town council must be sick of him with his never-ending
demands to improve the services at Waiwera.
This is the third trip of surreptitiously carrying Mata's belongings to her
boyfriend waiting in his car. Henry won't be happy even if she is legally
allowed. He's the kind you have to ask permission to do anything he considers
important. Her being pregnant Mata knows would only bring comparison to
our mother having me. Me, I still think there's something sad about someone's
pregnant kid leaving without saying goodbye. Even if it is Henry.
Houses like fluorescent paint daubs and light blotches appearing in
and out of steam drifts, a good sky of stars above and a one-third moon
portion. This is the last trip. I shake Lew's hand in the semi-gloom, he's
fine looking, very polite, good enough for my sister. I hug and kiss Mata
goodbye, she promises to write and thanks so much for the money they
couldn't have done without it.
Watch the red tail-lights go past the carved tekoteko figures you can
see their rounded head silhouettes in the car headlights, bump over the
bridge planks, under the memorial arch, and that's my big sister gone. She
was the best sister.
House lights change to smudges. The lit candles old people still use
are pencil glows, every light source turned fuzzy, or gobbled up for some
moments by the steam. Smell the candle wax on the breeze, drifts of
tobacco aroma, see the splutter of kerosene lamp up at Merita's. She raved
about Henry forcing the council to install electric lighting, yet often prefers
to read her newspaper under the kerosene light, which from a distance
throws a different hue, captures human forms and seems to slow them.
Cabbage and mutton smell emit from a steam box. Toby Taita is out
on his steps singing like a mournful Negro. I'm captivated by his singing
style; it's quite unlike most others round here, I've heard it on the radio.
I stand listening till the song finishes. Toby lends me his acoustic guitar
— or used to till my father made me rich.
Our landscape strange, eerie, with its human and creature-like noises:
someone throttled, a life being slowly squeezed by a terrible force,
conspirators whispering, desperate sips of breath like drowning, a geyser
roaring — wasted sight spectacular stolen by the dark.
Shuffling figures, giggles, kids and youths, snatches of conversation
from somewhere and nowhere, ghostly shapes flitting in and out of
existence, someone lifting a steam box lid to take out cooked food, a
stooped figure near the big boiling cauldron silhouetted and swishing, I
know by the posture, a mutton-cloth bag of vegetables; figures coming
and going from the baths keep getting claimed and revealed by the steam.
Laughter, always laughter that only the sky can claim.
People in old weather-beaten armchairs and battered sofas on porches,
spilled down wooden steps, they chat and smoke and hum, whistle, or just
contemplate. A foot taps in time on hard surface to the accompaniment
of strummed guitar, Django Reinhardt style, I know it from one of the
singers in Henry's group who plays brilliant guitar self-taught, and who
gave me a few impromptu lessons. Archie's advice: The key is to let go
to the music, kid. The other to stretch your fingers so to find chords and
combinations others don't, that's why Reinhardt is so good, because he
pushes the limits of finger extension. With his deformed hand too.
Every one of us knows each step of the way, where the ground is
prone to collapsing, little lurking fissures recently opened up, hot spots
giving warning of worse to come soon, collapsing areas.
Up on the raised level of poured concrete surface and concrete bath
tubs, heads and bodies in and out, laughter and talk aplenty; we recognise
each other by shape and the dimmest overhead light the town council
begrudgingly gave us, three lamps over a two-hundred-yard section.
To the changing shed, built on a working bee weekend by the senior
men's rugby team at Merita's urging — she found the money from
somewhere. Told the people, among ourselves we can't be dressing and
undressing outside in the open like primitives, and can't bathe when it's
raining anyway because our clothes get soaked. No windows, just an open
slot at eye level to look out of, a place acquiring the odours of our bodily
A different modesty is required when everyone bathes nude, females
covered by a towel right till the moment of immersion, males cupping a
hand over genitals. In the warm waters a baby gently sloshed and Sunlight
soap the size of its torso rubbed over its skin. Lovely; if we're lucky we'll
get a hold and coo into its little innocent face staring up at the chosen kid
with a canvas of stars on his head.
Old tattooed crones whose crinkly forms you brush against, who speak
in Maori or English, tell stories of enemies thrown off Totara Hill bluffs,
the usual of the lost status of captured warriors made slaves. Of the pride
we had as a race isolated from the rest of the world till the first European
explorers came. Of our beloved original village twenty-five miles away
but gone forever when the mountain blew up when Merita was a six year
Together, life in its different stages and ages, we stick with each other
all the way to the grave.
A gathering of naked bodies in the dark with light from the universe,
the nearer moon, maybe someone's lit a couple of candles and put them
on the sill of glassless window in the changing shed, and ember pinpricks
of cigarettes smouldering in the water-sloshing dark are still a form of
light. And all light is love.
Mata and her boyfriend, their child inside her, will be driving through
this night. I guess it is day in Mississippi if we're night here. Take our
turns at being under the unspeakable vastness of black canopy peppered
with stars, smeared with galaxies, being continually investigated by curious
bright men trying to understand the impossible distances and epic scale.
While we just see without having to understand.
The river gurgles below us, invisible unless it's caught a big full moon,
rocks above the surface like sharp pointed heads of people treading water
against the strong current.
On weekends, when we use the baths all day, it's any and every kid's
job to control the channel flow. We move between the hot and cold,
usually getting a little richer with each change: in the river till we can't
stand the cold any longer; back immersed in our lucky warm waters while
a cold rain hammers down, we sink to just heads showing, sweat chilling
quickly on faces, smiles and cheeky grins plastered everywhere.
The overflow cut-out takes away our body grime, runs down to the
river. There's the big natural bath too, cooled by a cold-water tap feed,
the pipe runs over ground, corroding like everything here. The houses
sit perched like on tiptoes to avoid the scalding heat. Or just succumb to
the thermal corrosion in pictures of sag, rust, crumble and constructional
droop. But as if with guarding eyes down on their children.
And now I have a secret. A reason for my name. Mrs Mac was right,
did isolate me. Without my knowing it had pointed me, my life,
in a different direction. The money windfall has me feeling I'm holding
back a guilty secret. For it's a ticket out of here, should I wish. Yet this is
my home: I want to show my father the parts of Waiwera he did not see.
Introduce him to the cast of Waiwera characters like out of a movie.
Chud once said to me, you're so lucky. Living in Henry's house and
him never talking to you.
I said, that's lucky?
Sure. He's the big man round the village. If you were his son you'd
be like some of the kids we know whose old man is real good at sport or
something else. They can't live up to their father. Henry doesn't care if
you fall into a hot pool and die. You don't exist far as he's concerned.
So your old lady, what does she do? Loves you ten times more to
make up. And what does that do? Makes you strong, lucky boy, on your
mummy's love. Where you get your confidence from. An old lady who
tells you over and over,
you're my special boy
Chud in a good imitation of my mother's voice, and the exact wording
of a refrain so familiar to me it must have stopped registering. Or felt as if
But Chud was right. I just felt so loved. Which did make me lucky.
A whole lot more now my father is on the scene, if yet to appear. What
of Chud then? Well, his home situation couldn't be worse. But I'll help
make up for it. He's my best friend, whatever he thinks. When we go to
America together we'll get good jobs and become rich.
Just watch us, I tell the stars as all around my people laugh and talk,
sing too. And the thermal heat never ceases its boiling.
HENRY DID FIND OUT ABOUT
Jess's first shock letter to me. No surprise in
our tiny community — but surprisingly he did not lay into me, just made
sarcastic comment that maybe my true feelings had been rekindled, maybe
I'd disappear and go to America.
I think he was just being defensive. Even a little jealous, which kind
of pleased and kind of did not. On the one hand it said he still had some
feelings for me. But jealousy is never about love, it's about self.
I wrote back and informed Jess he had a son. Not as imposing obligation
on him, he wasn't to know, just one of those things that happen. That I
had no regrets once Yank was born as a mother is a mother no matter
what. Besides, I wrote, you gave me the finest son and if you ever do meet
him you'll agree.
If I believed in God I would be able to say, it is all part of His mysterious
plan. But since I don't believe, it feels like my life was fated. How many
other local women who had love affairs with Yank soldiers ended up
having a child? For I am in no doubt whatsoever having Yank tainted
me forever in the village's eyes, not just Henry's. I think it inhibited me
from ever showing spontaneous gaiety, from going to a dance, dancing at
a party. Even my normal desire to laugh felt curbed. I just went into my
In replying to Jess I worried I was tempting fate. Yet his sudden coming
to life again did not set my heart racing, rekindle any flames of love or
even physical passion. When it should, given he freed in me not just the
climax, but the notion such a thing was possible for a woman. Oh, how
some aspects of growing up here make us ignorant and blind to life and
Yank also wrote and Jess wrote back to each of us expressing of course
his own happy disbelief. Yank and I wrote again, but it was over a year
before Yank got a reply. I'm sure he sent Yank money, though I wasn't
going to ask my son. He always had a thing about money, a craving.
Or so I thought, till I realised he craved a life better beyond this village,
much as he loved it and loved his friends. Like quite a few of the kids, my
son wanted out of here. He'd stopped begging me to take him away from
living with Henry, but it was still there, just suppressed.
Before every Christmas Yank spent endless hours in the river earning
money so he could buy Christmas presents for me, his two sisters and
Always a most excruciating time. Yank and Henry's present-giving
and-receiving ceremonies were done separately: never a present for each
other, stepfather and my son. Eating our main Christmas meal was just as
awkward, as we could hardly have two sittings. I couldn't see how Henry
could keep it up, but he did.
Two photographs of Jess I'd kept hidden all the years; only ever looked
at on the odd occasion, just to remind myself. Or sometimes if something
in Yank's behaviour suggested his father's genes had come out.
Funny how a man assumed dead had changed three lives, and probably
my other children's too. Even after Henry and I settled down into a
routine of marriage, of a sort, his refusal to acknowledge Yank's existence
kept a certain edge in our house. Henry got on with life, his job and
duties towards the Waiwera community; resumed relations with me, but
it would have been so much better if only he would have had something
to do with Yank.
Like any woman I wanted more than just a functioning marriage. In
a few years I'd be forty, with my kids all left home — what kind of life
would I have to look back on? Other than raising four kids, what had been
the point of my life since I only worked as a fill-in guide, and in the busy
season as a receptionist checking hotel guests in and out?
Telling Henry that Mata had left home was almost as bad as revealing
Yank's existence. For Henry believed he adored his first-born, when really
you have to be there in the child's first years to bond with each other.
Mata detested his violence, any violence. When Henry had had too much
to drink and was in a mood he'd hit me but not as bad as some of the men
in our village thrashing their wives and not as bad as our sensitive Mata
perceived. I think her impression got cemented from her first encounter
with Henry beating me up the day he got back from the war. Our daughter
Wiki and son Manu he spoiled rotten. Doted on his mother too, though
she stayed away from the house and never spoke one word to either me
Funnily enough Henry didn't explode as expected about Mata leaving
without saying goodbye — asking permission more like. He went for a
long walk and when he came back presented a sombre figure, later asking
about the boyfriend, was he a good young man, what kind of family did he
come from. Said, I hope he makes a better father than I've been.
Could have knocked me over with a feather. In fact I said, you've
tried to be a good dad with her. Not your fault the war took away your
Villagers know each other's most intimate affairs, but damned if I was
satisfying anyone's curiosity on the letters from America. And not as if I
was the only woman from here to fall for a Yank.
But everyone needs to share things and there was one I trusted:
A man of routine who took his baths duty seriously, last thing at night
blocking off the water feed from the boiling lake to the channels so the
baths could cool to the right temperature. His favourite place was the
wooden seat by the bridge; kids had to vacate if he turned up and he
grumbled at the wet of someone's swim shorts on his seat. Sat there like
a real-life warrior figure guarding our entrance. We had carved warrior
figures in fence-post form, tekoteko, flanking the road down to the
meeting house as symbols of guarding.
Hello, Barney. 'Ello, Lena. He'd give groaning greeting and squirm as
if uncomfortable at my close presence, shift position, reach for notebook
and pencil. We'd learned to talk without his needing to write it down. I'd
come to understand his broken sentences, found the code therein.
After posting my reply to Jess's latest letter I sat with Barney. Below
us the sounds of kids in the river, straight after school. Told of Jess's letter:
how after several years of correspondence he feared he was falling in love
with me again.
Barney pointed at himself to mean he and I might have been an item if
he'd been quicker off the mark than Henry. As for the American — forget
him. A hint of jealousy in Barney's wicked grin. But a different jealousy
Then he frowned and got out something about Henry being quick off
the mark in other ways. But looked away when I pressed him on it. Second
cousins on their mothers' side, Henry a year younger but close to Barney's
brother Harold (the one killed in the war). A rugby star, representing the
province at senior level aged only eighteen, Barney found his own war
injury cut short a most promising sporting career.
Henry had always been the more dominant personality, the boy the
male elders marked out for a leadership role one day. The same elders who
had assured me Henry would grow out of his fighting ways and then I'd
see the calibre of the man I'd chosen as my husband.
If only, eh, Barney? I laughed. We might have made a good couple. I
shouldn't have said that, for his face got serious and he bunched a big fist
and got out, 'En-ry. No good. War damage more dan me.
Not as coherent as that, required me to stitch Barney's words together
to make one garment. I found myself sticking up for Henry. He's matured,
Barney's vigorous shaking head, he didn't agree. And there seemed to
be something he'd like to say on the matter.
I described what Jess looked like, tall and handsome like you, about
the same complexion. I stood and did jitterbug dance steps he taught me.
We were laughing. Barney was saying by pointing at the faraway, how this
went on while he and Henry were at the war. I thought in chastisement at
first, till he burst out laughing and indicated he and the other servicemen
of those times also had their share of fun with the opposite sex. Henry too?
Of course Henry. Surely you knew? We all did it. It was war.
I was quite shocked. It didn't seem fair. Why was my sexual dalliance
of greater sin? Another standard for women of course.
We sat down again and he wagged a finger at me to mean, don't feel
guilty, don't let anyone make you feel guilty, let alone Henry. Barney's
face getting quite serious then. You are a good person, he said. You are
What about the American, Barney wanted to know. He spoke it
mer-can. You love? No, I don't love. Not even this much? He held up
two slightly parted fingers. Not even that much.
'Enry den? Now that was a question.
You know, Barney, I'm not sure I love any man. Teased: except you,
my very good friend. Platonic. He got his troubled look once more but
found cheer enough to say he was glad the mer-can didn't have my heart
Walking home I could feel something odd — but what? Then I realised
my knee hurt — from Barney's hard squeeze saying bye, when I had to get
the evening meal ready. Barney made gesture he felt Henry didn't deserve
either my cooking, or me.
But there was sexual feeling in his touch.
And I was disturbed because I had a sexual response. With a war-injured
man, handicapped? Or a man I knew who'd lost only his speaking
ability to that war, who I understood well, as he did me?
It felt like hope and reassurance had touched me. And desire had
squeezed through Barney's hand to my knee. Not since Jess had my heart
gone so pitter patter. My mind saying, don't be ridiculous, Lena.