by Barbara Latham
e lurked just inside that front door,in the long, always dim hall, immaculate in uniform, ready to pass on bleak weight you couldn’t avoid.
His mother and sister shuffled with the permanent weight of him.
Substantial women, better kept at a distance, but that was not a choice.
They were to be kissed, despite dry talcum powder smell, mixed with the grim. This embrace, like the house itself, threatened to engulf us in something unstated.
We were taken to be its antidote, if we were especially well behaved, and did not show how much we wished to leave. But did we even know the name of that lost son of Granny D?
A second house had the handsome young man in uniform out in bright light, on the piano.
No long stare at him quite made sense of his power in absence.
Though it’s easy now to recognise that we, with our brushed hair, were there for tea, since the man in uniform was not.
Two sisters also seemed to stay on and farm as recompense for the loss of an only son and heir.
But in this home palpable sorrow left frailty, like the best china, used for tea; cups likely to shatter with careless children, best porcelain brought over in a treasure chest. Here there was not weight but beauty, a special garden and something as delicate as the fine lace Granny S wore at her neck.
We were supposed to see good manners and old toys now stored in the trunk, which once came out from England, not conjure thebloody body,encrusted with flies, of the much loved, good looking son.
Just as we weren’t meant to wonder at fathers, not only hitting as fathers did, but killing, which is what Douglas’ father had done.
The only murder we knew was a terror.
It didn’t all fit in one short word: “war”, a word easily used – unlike “sex” it wasn’t one to spare the children.
War – a word proudly said at ANZAC parades, where we, too, marched, head high, behind brass bands.
And what of war nearer home – those Māori wars?
We ran, though no bare feet were allowed, for others came and drank here leaving broken glass, we ran the round dug-out of Turuturu-Mokai Redoubt, a monument, just out of town.
Was Māori Hone Heke our hero, too, because with spirit and guts he cut down the British flagpole, how many times?
Pakeha fathers had learnt to perform the unnerving, fierce war haka.
Douglas’s father couldn’t outdo mine in ferocious faces, with outstretched tongue, yet ours was a gentle man, a hint defensive over not fighting, while the other, whose bach was next to ours, could be heard exploding when he “lost it”, “still not over being too young for it but going anyway.”
He was also the one to tell us myths of where thwarted lovers once swam, decorating the land with fireside tales.
And wasn’t it our “homeland,” now that we knew nothing else, even if so many adults still called Britain “home,” and we sat their school exams?
We learnt of strip farming in Norfolk, not about our very different cows and sheep, yet grand stories of a Māori Queen embroidered the not quite understood in which we lived. Our singular houses were built on top of land – at place names altered by our uncomprehending tongues, which carried a past that didn’t belong to us.
But no one spoke of residue from those Māori wars, or that parents of Maori children had been beaten at school if they didn’t speak only English.
A textbook told who won the battles, as if it was just a race between good sports.
It failed to speak of what was continuing.
For us it was a path to the beach, used and claimed, which made its way across Māori land – for us some remainder rippled over dark water…no bright reflection…no clarity… while in town we seemed on more solid ground.
He was a busy man, he liked to say of himself proudly, dashing around in that fast and flashy Cadillac.
On return from school, we had to be brushed and washed again before we could leave with him. On the way to promised ice creams we stopped at the local garage, “just checking the air” he explained, but gathering attention from men and youths was obviously welcome.
Soon he’d display how fast success could take you, after the biggest ice creams, taken to the front to be seen from the High Street.
Opposite stood the bank, with ten scrubbed steps, before large, wooden and locked doors. We’d been in once for sick, old Mrs Green and waited behind the bench top, thick with varnish, for her pay-in book to be pushed back.
Uncle, distracted and not following, applauded our having a bank account. He was not content as we were.
“Look at those two, it’s a disgrace!”
We were used to the sight of old Māori men, wearing for winter two un-matching suit jackets, one on top of the other. They came in with the workers, sat waiting for the bank, did what was needed, then sat again until an evening bus returned them to the Pā.
Each, with their long lives etched into flesh and alien face tattoo, had dignity.
Perhaps they niggled Uncle’s success by having no interest in his car. He’d have them cleared off the streets he said.
Now here was something!
Though some of our friends’ parents muttered and said they were dirty, no one else went as far as “if they can’t keep up the pace and keep their noses clean they should get out.”
Luckily we’d been given a handkerchief as we left home, but weren’t the Māori here long before us?
And there was ease in these old men we saw and did not know.
Their being companionably side by side, mostly silent, seemed to give some other message than “good girls to be white,washed and learning to be busy, busy.”
Mother’s reservations about Uncle, who was no blood brother, we could decipher and partially discount: “it’s all very well his throwing city money around, trying to look big, we know how he makes it.”
But where to begin with what these old men might say of him and us.
Were those layers of cast-off clothes a solemn, quiet joke?
And they stirred a question, not yet asked, over whether Uncle, when nearly dead, having to give up fast cars, would be able to sit so still.
It was clothes which puzzled another time, and Mother…something of her was exposed.
Though I was no longer ill, still being too measles spotted for school was annoying. As she would not forgo her day, I was to stay with crayons and out of sight, beneath a trestle table.
Piled above were clothes pakeha ladies gathered to sell, along with the many hats of the now dead Mrs Green, who never went out, not even for a loaf of bread, without a decent hat on her head, as she proudly told us when alive and keeping her best for the Lord, her husband having died in the first war when she was a new bride.
She never missed a Sunday and as “pillar of the community cared to maintain standards” – so her obituary declared.
“She can’t have thrown one out in seventy years,” Mother said as she made a hat display.
Dresses came from young women turned matronly, not all were from the dead.
The helpers locked their own hats in the choir room, not wanting those “sold for a song”.
Suddenly, though the hall door, as if for a party, came a busload from the Pā, with Mother hurrying to greet in a noisy rubbing of noses.
Then the bus from another Pā arrived and it really began. The embracing and laughter was followed by a pulling out of clothes as if seeking play costumes for a fancy dress.
Wasn’t this supposed to raise funds for the missionary appeal, and we heard at school to be careful, Maori had different ideas of property, yet no one seemed to be taking control.
Certainly not Mother who, though strict with our behaviour, was doing catwalk twirls in various hats.
The Māori women, having put dresses one on top of the other, pulled up benches and sang and clapped, while Mother laughed loudly and danced. Then, wearing a feathered and dull beige hat of Mrs Green’s, she was mimicking her manner.
So this was “letting her hair down,” even if her grey perm, weekly set at the hairdressers, lay beneath that beige felt.
It did not feel entirely safe.
Nor was it safe the day Māori kids threw stones down as we walked up from the sea.
Mother went boldly to sort this – apparently she knew their grandmother and throwing stones was a serious offence – she wasn’t having it.
But what exactly was the antagonism that we never played with these stone throwers?
Māori adults called our mother for a hangi, and at king-tide, when the best sea spoils, paua, could finally be prised off rock.
How lucky the children are to play all summer at a bach on Māori land – sand castles – bare feet, running free – and a river for safer swimming. Yet even that apparently still basin was perpetually on the move, over the narrowed stony exit, to be one with the ocean, from which there was no way back.
There were long days of play, and white mice in a boy cousin’s pocket, yet close behind and shadowing, the sinister lay in wait.
But that we were not supposed to notice, so were left with all of it unspoken.
The sea which was there, unceasing, held meaning that might come to visibility with the tide, like these black mussel-covered rocks.
When that pounding surf, in which grown men had drowned, slipped far out, there were sun-warmed pools, where sharp clawed crabs appeared and we children grabbed them…carefully.
A long stretch of black sand showed itself and massive stones were beached. Later in the day they became hidden again, making it time to walk to another bay.If you stayed to swim, with the force of tide, brains might smash on what lay out of sight.
And then the steep cliffs were unreliable –below were the discarded skulls of what had fallen and adults yelled their caution.
But from high on the forbidden cliff edge you could see the whirlpool. Where it went round and round was dark, and it sucked you in if you went near, but from the cliff you might find at its heart, lay a still centre.
“Get there and you could sink in peace,” Douglas once said.
Did Douglas’s father make it to that centre, or did he panic after he was dragged in?
No one said and Douglas’s mother took her children far from our black sand beach.
Years before, we had pressed our faces to the window but the milky plasticwas barely transparent.
We failed to see what we were daring to look for.
And then came thunder as it rained. Might lightning strike our temerity?
What might being unleashed in sudden storm was as obscure as hidden signs behind the plastic, but how fast we ran!
We dashed away from Mad Meg’s but the draw remained, and the not quite comprehending as barbed wire went up around the already semi-derelict, and the whispered tales.
In one her head was stuck for always, halfway up a chimney. Thighs, thick as trunks, solid but wobbly, lay spread in the room beneath. Of the body between, nothing was said
As soon as the place became tapu, disintegration began until only that tall chimney stood after the rest was rubble. A skull could still be lodged there, it wouldn’t rot as thighs did.
It had always been the wrong place for a house – unkempt and exposed on a clear top, no other homes alongside. Even before her ugly death there were stories of Meg being “funny in the head” having fallen out with others in the Pā. Then she couldn’t get out anyway, for her thickening legs moved so slowly. Dirty, furred slippers slid with such effort back into her house.Mad Meg muttering, giving furtive glances at Paheka children on “her” path as if we were the threat.
She was discomfort, with that isolation, immobility and suspicion, even before she became fixed once and for all with her head up a chimney.
Her death put the spooky in place within a tapu ruin. How she could hang herself inside a chimney was not a puzzle – we didn’t ask or expect explanation – we simply knew to go faster down that bit of path.
It wasn’t till nearly in our teens we attempted a challenge.
Adults engrossed in cards and alcohol assumed us asleep when we crept from several baches as planned.
On the way back from the cold sea, trying to run up the steepness, Douglas tripped, smashing the only torch. While his sister shouted and pulled his ear, he took it without a sound then, defiant, turned on her with a test.
“I dare you – first one over barbed wire to touch the chimney.”
“Yes!” and he was gone.
“I bet the curse has worn off now,” his sister said, too hopefully, tugging at her own wet hair as if holding on to safety. At twelve, she was born the year war ended and only one year older than us.
When I started “snivelling” fury turned on me:“stop it, or we leave you here alone.”
Yet she said not a word when he came back, a piece of broken chimney in his hand. No one spoke. We knew he’d gone too far, though for two weeks we told no one.
Only after the accident did our night of transgression come out, though it wasn’t Douglas who died.
But he and his sister soon left town and never came back.
The father took his son to fish but after lunch, having had enough, Douglas went to explore under the cliffs. Sheep fell down them and sometimes a cow.
His father got his waders to try from another spot but seemed not to be anywhere when Douglas started to look.
When the car at the road was empty, he dashed back down. The remains of lunch and fishing gear were still behind the rock.
Suddenly a Land Rover appeared, lifeguards got out at a run, and someone took Douglas home.
Another fisherman, a way up the beach, had had to hurry himself and been caught, it had been a huge one, the guy with waders can’t have moved fast enough and if you get knocked, water will fill any waders. But only after he’d gathered his stuff and moved it did he realise the other man had disappeared. He swam as far as he dared, trying to see, but as the current was too much he hurried up to the little shop and phoned for help.
It was twenty years later, and after a bottle of wine when Douglas re-found me in London, that we discussed any of it.
He was over for a conference– his expertise the Māori at War
“Can you get your tongue out further than your father and mine?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a paper, not a performance, though I do have slides.”
He knew a lot and showed it, not just the Māori hakabut our childhood now seemed knowledge conquered.
“Surely you don’t still have an overactive imagination?”
“But don’t you recall Mad Meg hanging herself?”
“I’m certain she just died and no one found her for days.”
“But her house was tapu.”
“A place could be put underrestriction for all kinds of reasons. Hers becoming tapu is no proof of suicide.”
“It was scary.”
“Well naturally for a Māori who believed, by violating the tapu you contact a hara, and calamity could overtake you.”
“How’s your mother?”
“Extremely well, happily remarried. She found a man not war damaged.”
“Did not finding your father’s body leave doubts over it?”
“No, the body did wash up, he still had his waders on – those damn waders the cause of it all.”