Authors: Alan Duff
SHE SAID, I'M GETTING OLD,
eh Yank? She had me sat out on the porch
with back to the view. Old was right — we were eating a plate each of
steamed pudding with whipped cream. She kept missing her mouth with
the spoon. It was embarrassing.
I took the plates inside and rinsed them in the sink. The tap was corroded,
everywhere stank of urine. And her house was being eaten away.
Back out on the porch we saw two groups of tourists follow the red-uniformed
guides over our sights; their numbers increased every year.
Kids' heads and shoulders poked out of the bath tubs line-up — I could
hear their laughter. But that world no longer drew me. I was seventeen,
feeling grown up.
Like everyone Merita knew about the letters Jess wrote. I told her I
had quite a lot of money in the bank thanks to my father. She said, good
for you. Spend it on something that will help your future.
So I told of my paying off an electric guitar and amplifier and speakers,
intentions of forming a band.
Music, she said. What Maoris do best. From when I was a girl this
village has sent culture groups to America, England, to entertain. When the
Yankee soldiers visited here, we wowed them with our Maori songs, our
hakas and poi-dancing, showed we could perform modern music originally
come out of America just as good as them. Except the Negroes.
Now that lot can sing, and oh could they dance too. Right down
there, where the kids play marbles, the Negroes would teach locals their
different dance steps. We picked it up quickly but could never do it like
them. Poor things, what they had to endure in their home country. Even
when they were here some of their own whites treated them badly. But
still, they were a cheerful lot and the Maoris took a particular liking to
That war, Yank. No one knew anything about why it started. What
did we have to do with Germany and its invasion of Poland sparking off
Britain declaring war and us following right after? Commonwealth ties to
be sure. But a war the other side of the world, when our men had already
fought in the First World War? Started by the same Germans too. Not our
politics, shouldn't be our fight.
Even to those few of us who read the newspapers and magazines, it was
too complex to understand. I didn't think we the public were being told
the whole truth at any rate. They say truth is the first victim of war. Same
as a marriage breaking apart: truth heads out the door first. All we knew
was, our boys got the blood lust and signed up in their droves; couldn't
wait to get out of here, experience overseas and fight the enemy.
One minute we're living in peace, just a tiny tourist attraction and
a basic people. Next our able-bodied men are gone, the country is on
rations, months turn into years and still the fighting goes on.
Your mother was such a renowned beauty, elders from other Maori
villages had sent their finest boys to try and woo her. But nothing gets in
Henry Takahe's way, as I'm sure you know. In my parents' day it would
have been an arranged marriage, as mine was. Lucky I learned to love my
husband. Henry gets your mother pregnant with Mata then goes off to the
war. I think Henry was making sure no one else could have her.
Though Henry came back a captain and seemed to have grown up,
each and every one of those boys had broken off their boyhoods and
leapt into manhood before they should. A person has to live through the
growing-up stages, or else what was missed out comes back like a sore.
Your friend Chud will be the same, mark my words. His damn parents
took away their kids' childhoods. You can't do that to children.
Sometimes I wished Merita would remember she had seen my father,
pluck a picture of him from her old memory. But she went on about a
Our men served in the First World War, like my husband, even though
we had three children at the time. He signed up in his dead brother's name,
anything to fight. I would never have dared stop him. Sometimes men
have to be warriors, to preserve what is precious. Such a terrible death toll
too, thousands of our New Zealand boys, several dozen from Waiwera,
slaughtered in those trenches in France, Turkey. The poor French, they
But fighting for your country and coming home to the same second-class
treatment at the hands of the Pakeha? No good. Most went into
retreat, shut down to the outside world of the Pakeha. Some moved, a
few got into business and did well. But that type never stays; they wanted
a proper toilet, electricity, a job that took them places.
After World War Two, the same thing happened: the Maoris came back
to second-class citizen status. Except this time they demanded equality.
Leaders such as Henry were not going to take no for an answer. You kids
miss all this stuff going on.
What your mother did, if it had happened when her husband was at
home, yes, she did wrong. But he was not at home, hadn't been for three
years. I'm a traditional Maori woman, does what she's told. But if I had my
life again I wouldn't put up with most of it, what a woman is supposed to
endure and not say a word.
Newspapers. Ah. That way I learned that on both sides of marriage,
sometimes people get tempted. Life is never simple nor black and white.
Even the view from here changes. Depends who's doing the looking.
Remember when I told you your high-born Maori ancestors kept
slaves and you stood right here calling out to your own people they were
all your slaves?
I remembered all right. Bellowing out to a handful of local kids:
down to me, slaves!
Well, what if you are not high-born? Who does the calling out then?
THE VIEW FROM NIGEL BLAKE'S
sitting room, of the lake and the island
like a giant woman's breast in the centre, was quite something. A power
boat tore a gash in the still waters; a sail boat in the distance looked like a
cigarette paper. This was my first time at a Pakeha home.
We sat round a wooden table. Nigel and I had spent hours practising
music in the Blake's garage and his father told us we could make it our
permanent base: there was no need to garage the two family cars. Hemi
our drummer lived in the Maori settlement ten minutes' walk away, his
village our traditional rugby rival when teams relived battle days of old,
but he was too shy to take up the invite to make Nigel's home our practice
venue. We'd have to bring him into the different cultural experience
slowly. Tony, the bass guitarist, had no issue but was gone off to do other
Nigel's mother appeared, with tea and hot home-baked biscuits on a
tray. I barely looked up at her but when I did was struck by how attractive
she was. Brilliant blue eyes, dark eyebrows that matched her dark brown
hair, very good looking; her son had inherited her looks. Not that I for
one moment fancied her. Not a band mate's mother, about the same age
as my mum.
Pat Blake was headmaster of a primary school. He loved Nigel's musical
ambition and was saying he wished he'd had the guts to do what his son
had, instead of following a conventional, boring career path.
But I started to notice Mr and Mrs Blake had no connection between
them, and to my eyes she was so attractive he should be unable to take
his hands off her. But what would a seventeen-year-old know about
relationships between married couples?
Isobel was her name. I felt quite at ease with these people and realised
the race divide wasn't as bad as I'd thought. Unless I'd just struck lucky.
And surely Nigel wouldn't invite me if he knew his parents had a dislike
or disregard of brown people?
Maybe she read my thoughts: Mrs Blake — Isobel — wanted to
know if I could show her around Waiwera the same as I'd shown her
son. Sure. Would she and her husband like to arrange a visit? Pat Blake
piped up and said he'd visited Waiwera several times with school student
Isobel asked about bathing in our thermal waters. I told her our
baths were private and visitors were not encouraged. What I meant was
that outsiders were barred unless with a local who had to be an adult,
as the village jealously guarded aspects of its own life. Not sure if I felt
perverted considering Isobel in a swimsuit, a woman in her late thirties.
I pictured a rather pleasing sight.
Nigel and I veered off conversational course with his father as we
were desperate to try out a couple of Sam Cooke numbers. Nigel was
a very good vocal backer too. Back out to the garage we went into our
own musical world.
The trouble with trying to imitate a giant is you simply lack his
stature. I could just reach Sam Cooke's high notes but with nowhere
near the ease. Though Nigel swore I had Cooke's voice off near perfect,
a singer knows when he has.
Pat said Isobel would drive me home, as he had work to do. On the
way I told her I was moving into my own flat soon, and buying a car.
She asked where on earth a seventeen-year-old would get the money,
so I explained.
What a story, she said. And you don't have a photo of your father?
No, but I have this picture in mind like John Wayne from the movies.
Handsome but in a rugged way.
Like his son, she said softly. Gave a little smile in the dashboard light
I gave one back, the smile that my mother said her special boy would
one day use to woo the pretty girls.
And damn me if Isobel didn't throw one back. And an awkward,
tension-laden atmosphere came as if suddenly through the air vents.
I worried if my smile had been too flirtatious as we spoke not another
word till Waiwera. I asked to be dropped off at the bridge: so your tour
will be a surprise.
Thanks for the ride. My pleasure. Goodnight. Goodnight. See you
Stars out in their glory too.
WHEN THEY FIND OUT,
as they surely will, they'll say, there, you see? Was
in her nature to betray her marriage vow of fidelity. Not just the once.
The name the knowing gave her was apt, she is a slut and none will forgive
her, not this time.
They'll say, poor Henry, not his fault, he couldn't see what she was
like, they were just young, not out of their teen years, how was he to
know the latent dark side dwelling inside that woman? After what he's
done for us: he alone pulled and benignly bullied our village more into
line with modern times. We owe him. So does she.
They'll say, leave her, Henry. You should have ended it the day you
came home to that shocking news of her disgusting, immoral behaviour
— and with a Yank soldier to boot, while you fought for your people,
They'll say and they'll say and none of it will be right. Factually, yes,
but what are facts when those looking in are not privy to the private life,
to the circumstances that can converge and change things, change people?
Seems my lot to be unable to throw off that damned war: it keeps claiming
me, or its participants do.
It is not sex a woman does it for — ask any woman. Well, most women.
And when she does it while married there are complicating factors, she's
desperately unhappy, just wants to be loved, wants her existence confirmed.
Maybe I always wanted my existence confirmed.
That Henry's marriage to me is hardly blissful must be obvious to
even my harshest critic. We're hardly the couple of the decade. But have
I not been the best mother to my children, instilled special pride in my
kids so they might grow up wanting to be different, for life to be better
than village living? Did I not counterbalance Henry's ignoring of my son
to raise a self-confident young man with a bright future? A boy even my
antagonists, most of them, regard kindly because my Yank likes himself.
No, a married woman even in my situation doesn't just jump into bed
with another man for the physical side. Hardly physical anyway with a man
who proves so awkward, if very tender; whose impaired speech means
strange moans escape him and so do tears. Sure, there's some physical
pleasure: of course there would be after years of being roughly taken a
couple of times a week sometimes more by my husband.
Compare to this gentle soul who kisses me softly, touches my face all
over, gives his feelings and long-held thoughts through his eyes since he
can't express in words.
This man doesn't ravage me. He makes love. As any woman best
desires. There is an element of pure sensuality, a little raw lust no denying,
once I abandon to the act. But it isn't fucking. I go with him on the same
journey; we dance together; the strange sounds he makes I shut out. For a
while I think I might achieve — well, climax — the same as Jess
gave me or, rather, freed from me.
But Barney had waited too long, he told me afterwards, too many years of
wanting not so much my body as me, the person who always had time for
him, who judged him not. Not that he ever strung sentences together.
And I was hardly going to inform Henry we were through and go off
and live with Barney, maybe marry him one day. Nor was it intended,
though, as single incident; that would be disrespectful of Barney's feelings
and my own needs. A woman needs to feel loved. Men make a big fuss
about quite the wrong thing, as if what happens down there is anything to
do with what happens in a woman's heart. Dumb, blind Henry.
If you lined up every eligible male in the village in a contest for looks,
physique and intelligence, Barney would win on two counts. Well over
six foot, broad shoulders, powerful chest, and noble features mirroring
his pride . . . most women would gladly breed with him. Perhaps he had
intelligence but it couldn't get past the walls of his psychological injury,
like a serious case of stuttering happened suddenly in adulthood.
I urged Barney not to display any of his feelings in public. And not
to expect intimacy whenever he felt like it, or I would be jumping from
Henry's frying pan. Said I'd give him the signal from time to time. My
getting pregnant was not a danger; I'd had a hysterectomy some years
We sat on the bridge bench the same as we always had, and sometimes
on another similar bench Barney had built in a private setting easily
explained to the inquisitive, it was on his family's land, I was his good
friend and why wouldn't we sit and connect wherever we wished? Not as
if anyone thought Barney had sexual feeling. When, really, he was a young
man not quite forty.
We knew kids sneaked through the trees to spy on us. We were more
concerned they'd step on fragile ground and get a severe scalding than we
were to hide anything. Hardly did the deed outside nor at my house; that
would be just asking for it. We'd go to Barney's little whare his parents
had left to him and his sister who'd later died of goitre (I remember her
hideously swollen throat). It was a tiny dwelling, with carved gables, an
outside toilet, very basic inside. He wrote on his notebook the word:
welcome, with a little smiling face.
The walls were covered in photos, like every Maori house. The two
bedrooms, partitioned with walls that stopped short of the ceiling, were
never used, as Barney slept in sheets — clean ones — on a mattress on the
wooden floor of the main living area.
We made love on this floor bed. He didn't rush me; took his time, a
true, considerate gentleman. As a cover for my visit I always entered his
house with vegetables in a bag for boiling in a pool, or I left home with
a pudding or a cut of meat to cook in a steam box or on his small wood-fired
range. We sat out on the porch looking down on the main thermal
area so our people could see us and just assume the friendship. As his little
house had but one curtained window looking into the living room, we
could not be spied on even by the cheekiest kid. Barney had a pig-hunting
dog that would growl if anyone came near, a stand of trees one side of the
house, a thermally created chasm the other.
Fancy taking advantage of Barney with his war injury: it's only natural
he'd respond to the siren's call. That's what they'd say. That Lena was
born a slut.