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.
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.
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.
stayed with Sharon, a cousin, in the hour-away town who had a telephone
that wasn't on a party-line. Mere phoned Karaitiana.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mere said gently, almost crying. She hugged Karani Ocean, while Karaitiana
hugged Karani Huriwai.
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.
listened closely. Her heart leapt at the mention of the city. How did the
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.
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.
was left with her shadow, Uncle Ocean.
did you know I was going?
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?
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.
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. Now can we talk about something else?
and her Uncle cocked his head to one side as he did when he was in a challenging
frame of mind.
you remember Miss Enright, our teacher at Mana School? She lives next door
to me in town!
really. How is she?
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.
didn't know that. They say he was a Presbyterian minister.
explains a bit. She's always baking for a church stall, or attending committee
meetings - she's an absolute inspiration, a tireless worker.
getting to know her a bit better too. We see a lot of each other actually.
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.
think she's lonely.
why do you think that Mere? Ocean softened his voice.
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.
other two came back from their walk.
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.
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.
uncles and Karaitiana agreed to this breathing space as well.
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.
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.
was a bad and a good thing.
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.
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.
asked Mere, didn't you say that this place was where the gunfighter pa
was that got bombed by the British?
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.
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. We keep our eyes open. We've heard about that Uncle!
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.
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?
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!
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.
wasn't angry with Huriwai for speaking up either. He was looking at Mere.
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
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!
sisters were shocked by the sobriety of the picnic. The air of desperation
about the uncles.
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.
your boss okay about you going now Mere?
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.
walked together around the lake, chatting, and breathing in lots of the
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.