TROUT   [4] 

Robert Sullivan
from Mokopuna Ocean, a novel in progress.
Chapter 12. 
  Five years passed. The young girls blossomed into beautiful women. The uncles aged slightly. Atawhai and his family had grown remote to the sisters again. They leant more on their uncles. Even when they weren't around both Mere and Karaitiana relied on the memories of the words of the uncles.  
In 1937 Mere was nineteen. That made her younger sister seventeen. Mere got a job washing dishes in a tearoom in the hour-away town. It was tough remembering the uncles there. She was still so amazed that she had a job that her arms seemed to move cloths around automatically while her mind was busy being amazed. After all it was still Depression days. New Zealand was barely stumbling to its feet, punch drunk from riots in the large towns, still feeling sick from not feeding itself properly.  
Mere's employment horizon had just stretched away from assisting the uncles, who now seemed distant. She could earn money. Three shillings a week. Almost enough to board in Auckland.  
She stayed with Sharon, a cousin, in the hour-away town who had a telephone that wasn't on a party-line. Mere phoned Karaitiana.  
Hi Sis. How's it going? When are you comin into town next - gonna come and watch the netball? Yeah I'll show next time. Its okay here - still the country you know. I want to move to Auckland some day. A real town. Haven't met anybody here I didn't know already. Work's a bit of alright. Hardest part is doing the dishes! I'll see ya this weekend. 
Hi Mere. Good. This Saturday - you know the uncles are having the picnic though don't you? You didn't turn up last week. Is that for real? I think Auckland's too scary. Why do you want to do it? How's the caf? See ya! say hi to Sharon. Click. 
Mere brushed her thick black hair with her mother's brush. It was like Tiaho was straightening her out. Her mother, if she was here, Mere thought, would tell her to have lunch with the uncles in the weekend. Tiaho would turn in her grave if she knew that her daughter was thinking of skipping Northland altogether. Her mother never ran. She stood her ground. Although Mere couldn't quite see what there was to stand up to. She loved her uncles. Just that there was something nibbling inside her head, telling her to get away, to turn round the corner and jump on the Sharkies Bus to Auckland. The piece of greenstone on her chest felt cold so she flipped it outside of her jersey. She had all night to think about it. 
Her eyes remained open while her spirit wandered. When dawn flecked the clouds scudding out of the night she returned, not knowing where her soul had been. 
Saturday came roaring in like the bus with the uncles and Karaitiana aboard approaching the hour-away town. The Sharkies Bus that was leaving for Auckland that day would leave ten minutes before the uncles' arrival.  
Mere waited at the bus terminus which doubled as the railway station. She was there a half-hour early, watching the driver checking tickets and throwing luggage aboard. Then he went inside the station for a comfort stop. Mere watched the minutes tick by on the clock. Very soon the uncles would be here! She quickly tucked her bags under a seat on the train tracks side of the building. The bus rolled in from Mana. The Auckland driver emerged, tucking in his shirt. His bus left as Mere began to smile and wave in greeting. 

She showed them the caf, which was really a large dairy with three tables that each sat four. Mere's job, she explained to her family, was to keep the area clean, and to take orders, including looking after the shop during the day. The owner's wife was expecting, which is why Mere got the job. 
Nonsense, said the uncles. It was because of her immaculate presentation and her ability with people. Mere smiled, and remembered their kindness, how Uncle Huriwai used to bring lollies back from town, sometimes even a slab of ice-cream, probably bought from this very shop. 
They walked together down the main street and crossed the train tracks to where the river touched the lake. They lay the picnic here and gazed out at the promontory, the ancient centre of the tribe of Mana. The uncles looked wistful as they looked at Mere. Karaitiana asked them what was wrong, but they turned their heads, wiping tears lapping at the wrinkles down to the bridge of their noses. The old men were crying and they couldn't say why. 
Hey, Mere said gently, almost crying. She hugged Karani Ocean, while Karaitiana hugged Karani Huriwai. 
You are both growing up too fast for us, Ocean said. When we were your age our parents were the leaders of the people. They drew on the prestige of their bloodlines and their generosity for power. Today your leaders are the ones who drive the flashest car, herd the most beef, have the fattest wallet. Be careful, both of you girls. The city doesn't respect your whakapapa. You'll be lumped in with all the rest. You'll get a little hut to live in between all the smoke stacks. The only job for you girls will be as factory hands. You are better off staying here, near your people. 
Mere listened closely. Her heart leapt at the mention of the city. How did the uncles know? 
They ate their chicken in silence. No matter how hard Mere tried to get rid of the lump in her throat, no matter how many pieces of chicken she swallowed, the damned thing wouldn't disappear - not in the uncles' presence anyway. 
Huriwai and Karaitiana went for a walk along the lake edge. Mere noticed that Karaitiana was taller than her uncle, so that it was he who seemed a shadow of her now. They walked deliberately in deep discussion. 
Mere was left with her shadow, Uncle Ocean. 

How did you know I was going? 

Your sister talks in her sleep. She's worried you know. We are too. It really is a madhouse down there. Do you know anyone in Auckland? Have you spoken to your father about moving? 
Stop Uncle. I'm old enough to make these decisions for myself. I know it'll be tough. It's hard enough living in this town. 

Yes I can see that. Look at you - are you getting enough to eat? Mere nodded. If you're thinking of moving down I want you to talk to your father. Do you hear me? 

Okay okay. Now can we talk about something else? 

Like? and her Uncle cocked his head to one side as he did when he was in a challenging frame of mind. 

Well, you remember Miss Enright, our teacher at Mana School? She lives next door to me in town! 

Oh really. How is she? 

She's well - still teaching. Her mother died a couple of years ago, but she still works, at Dargaville College. Her father died a long time ago of course. 

I didn't know that. They say he was a Presbyterian minister. 

That explains a bit. She's always baking for a church stall, or attending committee meetings - she's an absolute inspiration, a tireless worker. 

I'm getting to know her a bit better too. We see a lot of each other actually.  

Almost every time Mere opened the door Miss Enright would pop her head out, or ask to use her iron, or listen to her radio because a valve had blown in hers, or offer some spare vegetables, give her a steamed pudding they would share after dinner. Miss Enright seemed very interested in whether Mere had a boyfriend or not, and seemed relieved, somehow, when Mere said she wasn't even interested in talkin to any man let alone a man. 

I think she's lonely. 

Now why do you think that Mere? Ocean softened his voice. 

Well I just do. Mere wanted to say because she was lonely too, and that she must miss her mother just like Mere missed hers. And that she gave her hugs now and again. And that Miss Enright  had moved next door to her, not the other way round. 

The other two came back from their walk. 

Karaitiana announced that they were all to travel to Auckland at the beginning of May, which was a week away. They were all going to check out the city for themselves, and that if the girls found jobs they were all going to live together. Ocean said he would see if they could stay with Atawhai for a couple of weeks. 

Mere's boss didn't like it. He said it left him without any support while his wife wasn't well enough. Couldn't she leave a few weeks later? Mere agreed. 

The uncles and Karaitiana agreed to this breathing space as well.  

So she stayed in the hour-away town in phone contact with her family in Mana. They visited three more times for three more picnics. Uncle Ocean, as always, was the mangai, the voice, of the stories while Huriwai, the sensible uncle, was left to pick up any threads. 

Picnic 1. 

In the 1830s, a hundred years ago, one of the tribes of the north were having a picnic not far from here, in the next bay. It so happened that we were the tangata whenua of that area, the tribal owners. Some girls from this visiting tribe went for a swim, where our girls were also swimming. Before long the groups started taunting one another. Then it turned physical. Some hair was pulled. Punches were thrown. The group of visitors ran back to the picnic and muskets arrived at the scene. The upshot of it was the evacuation of our people from the bay by force. That is when we moved to Mana, inland from there. 

It was a bad and a good thing. 

In the old village we dominated commerce in the bay. Ships calling into port would buy grog from our shop. The grog has done terrible things to our people - you can see these problems today. We also ran a brothel which must have hurt the confidence of our women. It was good in that way that we left that bad place. 

Of course if we had stayed we would be tangata whenua of the richest part of this district, instead of that other lot. The land we have in Mana is better for growing wiwi grass than pasture. It is swampy where it is flat, and too steep in the hills. But we have our dignity my mokopuna. We have sanctuary in our village of Mana. No-one would want to take our village from us again. 

Uncle, asked Mere, didn't you say that this place was where the gunfighter pa  was that got bombed by the British? 

Yes moko. You must understand that we were a much larger tribe than we are today. We still are large, but people don't wear their bloodlines on their sleeves, do they? We had four main settlements, but the last one left is Mana. Kei te pai. That's life. 

Picnic 2. 

In 1840 the tribes of the north signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which as Miss Enright probably taught you, ceded governorship of this country from the Maori people to the British monarch. 
Sure sure. We keep our eyes open. We've heard about that Uncle! 

Kei te pai. Well did you know that you both have several ancestors who signed the Treaty? Your principal ancestor, who was an esteemed tohunga of the north, signed his name with a spiral from his facial moko. Others marked their names with an x. You see they couldn't read or write back then. There were very few missionary schools. Old Hone Heke, y'know, the guy who chopped down the flagpole, he was about the only one who could read! No-one taught them about "Let the buyer beware". I think the moko spiral of your ancestor is appropriate, because it represents our descent as a people, spiralling from the heavens to the pit of existence. 

Come on Uncle Ocean, said Karaitiana, giving him a hug. It isn't that bad. We're still living here. We can still catch eels in the same creeks, and they still fry up the same way, don't they? 
Yes my darling. You are a good girl. The eels are the same, but it is us, our people, who have changed. I heard stories about great warriors who would challenge the demigod Maui himself, from our family! Most good Maori families would have similar ancestors. But where are they today? In the bottle stores and the public bars! What's worse, the men bring their demon drinks onto the marae, the sacred forum where we as a people have shaped our very being! 

Huriwai spoke up, which was pretty rare, for him to bail his brother out in front of the girls. Come on Old Man River, you're preaching to the converted here. Now girls, Huriwai smiled, and as he smiled it made his eyes wink one at a time, you should both know that the marae has always been a robust place, that there is nothing so precious about it that it can't take a bit of slapstick, a bit of kidding around, when the time is appropriate. But the basis of what your uncle is saying is right. The marae isn't a 24 hour liquor haven. That's right. I have seen families drinking 24 hours at a stretch, and hard grog too. When you girls have grown up to be old women you must watch out for the weak ones, and take the gins and the whiskies out of their hands - at the appropriate times. Then there will be sensible talk again. It is your responsibility as leaders of the tribe. Huriwai looked firm. Ocean was trembling with anger. 

He wasn't angry with Huriwai for speaking up either. He was looking at Mere. 
Out with it. When are you going to Auckland eh? He was shaking her. You won't get out of it so easy. You've got duties to finish and we're gonna see you through. 

Huriwai went quiet again. Ocean stopped growling. If you go, we're coming with you - there's no way you can survive in that filthy place without us, me, your sister, your Uncle Huriwai, your whanau. Just think of the disruption to us eh, but we're comin. We aren't gonna let you go down to that place for rats by yourself. It'll be over our tupapaku, and over the remains of our ancestors will we let you go by yourself. There! 

The sisters were shocked by the sobriety of the picnic. The air of desperation about the uncles. 

Picnic 3. 

This will be the last picnic for a while, girls. Take a good look at this place. At least you know this is where you are at home. So many people in this world don't even have that to cling to. 
Is your boss okay about you going now Mere? 

She nodded. 

He must be a good man. So long as everything's okay. Mere nodded again. You never know, you might want to come back! Now, who wants to go by bus, and who wants to go by train? The bus is cheaper, but it's a longer trip and uncomfortable. On a train you can walk through different carriages for a stretch. And they stop at other stations along the way where you can buy pies and have cups of tea. The train then? Fine. We will leave on Friday after Mere knocks off. You finish at 4? He examined the schedule. We leave at 6 then. We'll meet at Mere and Sharon's place. I'll phone Atawhai to confirm that we're coming. 

They walked together around the lake, chatting, and breathing in lots of the old air. 

Miss Enright had picnics with Mere too. She talked about cafes and art galleries and picture palaces, the Champs Elysees and Montmartre, Tower Bridge and the Empire State, maple syrup and croissants. She took Mere to the local movie theatre to prove these things existed. Wow. 

   © 1998