Ria Masae has work in publications such as, Landfall, Ika, and Manifesto Aotearoa. She won the 2015 ‘New Voices: Emerging Poets’, and the ‘2016 Cooney Insurance Short Story’ competitions. Her poetry was included in the 2017 Best New Zealand Poems collection. Ria is currently working on her first poetry collection. .
‘Some stories are confronting, but never give up on them if they’re strong and important. Fa’afetai takahē for publishing this one.’
Behind Windows and Crosses
So…you’re the Specialist Therapiss I’ve been referred to, huh? I guess my shit was too much for ol’ counsellor Jane and she had to call in the Big Guns. You got big guns then Mr. Qualified Man? I don’t see what difference it makes, y’all do the same damn thing anyhow, sit there scribblin away in your little notepads, muttering “mm-hmm” and “uh-huh” every now and then, tryna make us feel like we’re being helped and listened to. Then you go back to your serious offices and write in your serious notebooks with your serious degrees hangin on your walls. Meanwhile, we’re all in this doghouse prison pissin ourselves over the bullshit stories some of these ladies have been feedin yous. Give y’all a slab of traumatic event, dipped in some dysfunctional upbringing, flavoured with a bit of loss of innocence, then sprinkled with some ground-breaking tears, and we got a pot full of Bullkaka Soup that you quacks just love to get drunk on. Did you get drunk reading the notes Jane wrote about me, Mr. Therapiss?
Ah, you wanna get down to business. Huh? You wanna hear about that day? You mean counsellor Jane was sitting there scribblin all day and she didn’t write enough about that day? Was she fuckin dumb? Is that why she’s not here – got fired cos she was too dumb? Ah, you wanna hear it from this horse’s mouth. Sweet as, Mr. Therapiss – give you another chapter to doodle in that serious notepad of yours, huh.
Well, me and Mum were living at Mrs. Rawhiri’s boarding house at the time, on Sandringham Road, just around the corner from Eden Park. It was a big old villa with high-as ceilings that had carvings of floral patterns that ran all along the edges – a really clean white that made me think that’s what heaven must look like way up past the clouds. People came and went in that boarding house, but me and Mum stayed there a long time.
Mrs. Rawhiri was Catholic and never missed a Sunday of church the whole time we lived there. A couple of weeks after we moved in, she invited us to attend church with her. Mum said yes only to be polite, but when she realised that Mrs. Rawhiri went to the local market straight after mass, and since we didn’t own a car, Mum figured one hour a week of listenin to lectures about sin, damnation and hell was a fair trade for the chance of buyin cheap fish and veges.
Anyway, that day Mum was hangin the washing which she always did on Saturdays, cos well, even God needed a rest on Sunday. As usual, Mrs. Rawhiri was in the kitchen blasting that Christian station on her tinny-sounding radio. I was on my way to me and Mum’s room to fetch my crayons and sketch pads that Mum had bought for my sixth birthday two weeks before. There was a cricket match at Eden Park so I wanted to sit on the front lawn and watch the passers-by as I drew pictures. Most of the spectators wore hats that ranged from straw hats with wide brims, to thimble-like bowler hats, and sporty baseball caps. I’d draw a sea of faceless heads wearin a collage of hats. It always fascinated me how the crowd could be so alike yet different at the same time.
But I guess God was bored of hats that day and wanted to create some drama to liven up his afternoon, cos even with the echoing clig-glag clig-glag of my wooden clogs skippin along the polished floor of the long dim hallway, I still heard the soft call of my name through the door of Sam Glover’s room. I used to call him Mr. Glover at first, cos Mum taught me to always call older people by their last name, along with ‘Mister’ if it was a man, and ‘Miss’ if it was a woman, unless the woman said it was ‘Missus’ of course. But Sam wasn’t old – well not old old, and he insisted that everybody call him Sam, even me. I liked him straight away cos of that.
So thinkin nothin of it, I wrapped my hands around the cold brass knob of his door and turned it. It was stuck. So I bumped my weight against that door while twistin that knob left’n’right, until finally, it burst open and I tumbled forward onto my knees. It felt like I’d stumbled from the cold darkness of hell into the embracing light of heaven. I was blinded by the sunshine that flooded all around me, but damn, I sure felt real nice in its warmth. Shading my eyes I looked up and saw Sam’s silhouette sitting on his single bed with his long hair hanging down the sides of his head. Behind him was a large window pane with a white painted wooden grid – y’know, the kind that looks like a cross framed in a box. Mum and I had an identical window in our room. A giddiness bubbled inside me, and still on my knees I giggled, “You look like Jesus.” He chuckled at that, “Well, close the door, Jesus has a treat for you.” By now my eyes were adjusting to the brightness and I could gradually make out Sam’s features. Course, I knew it was Sam and not Jesus all along – but I remember suddenly feelin real sad at that reality. Ain’t that weird?
Anyway, annoyed at the disappointment, I flushed all the manners Mum taught me about respectin elders down the toilet, and demanded, “Wha’chu got, first?” He brought a hand from behind his back and extended out a palm on which lay an unopened packet of milk biscuits. I leapt to my feet squealin like a ADH-double-D Tasmanian Devil! Milk biscuits were my favourite, and I never had a whole packet to myself before! Sam pulled the treat towards his chest and with a real cunning smile, his velvety voice smoothed, “Close the door, first.” So I did. Mum taught me to always obey your elders.
I moved forward until I found I had the prized goods in my little hands – and I was sitting astride Sam’s knees. Sam fed me some cockabull story that my six-year-old mind totally lapped up, about how adults couldn’t open it cos the wrapper was made from fairy wings. He said only the pure hands of good children had the power to open them – which got me worried as, cos just the day before, I had stolen a Mackintosh toffee from Mrs. Rawhiri’s lolly jar.
Now…the plastic they use to wrap those little melt-in-your-mouth biscuits are nothin like those easy-to-rip types you get with potato chip bags. Hell no! This is some Wonder-fuckin-Woman plastic! It’s thick and tough like those foil bags you get inside those cheap cardboard wine casks. You could play a whole game of rugby with one of those silver wine bags and still get pissed on it afterwards!
So there’s me, tryna open this invincible plastic-of-all-plastics, and Sammy-Davis-Jesus is bouncin me on his knees and serenadin some nursery rhyme he said his grandma used to sing to him. I was so preoccupied with that damn package that it took a while for me to notice my dress was pushed way up – and Sam’s hands were on my thighs. I noticed then too he was bouncin me faster and harder and whisperin, “Ride that cockhorse to Banbury Cross, ride that cockhorse to Banbury Cross…” His hands stalked up my thighs with each bounce until I felt that randy perv’s fingertips brush against my Mickey Mouse panty.
I guess Sam didn’t realise I had a wild streak in me, or he wouldn’t have tried to lure me in. I guess he thought my quietness in the communal dining room was a sign of shyness. But really, I just scoffed everything on my plate so I could escape outta that room full of dust-smelling fogies and their boring jazz about how those “crafty birds were picking all the berries from the garden this spring,” and all that blah-blah-blah. Mum always said, “If you got nothin nice to say, then say nothin.”
Yep, that fool-of-a-cunt mistook me for sure.
So when I started squirming to jump off his lap, Sam clamped one hand over my mouth and the other over my Disney-covered pussy. Straightaway I started thrashin around so that his thumb slipped between my teeth. Of course, I just clamped down on that piece of bone and started whippin my head this way and that way.
By now he was wailing and cussin at me. Ain’t no way for Jesus to be talkin, for sure. So I growled through clenched teeth and bit down harder. Man, did he let out a howl! No shit – that sucker screamed like an 18-year-old pretty-boy virgin’s first night in prison! Sam punched the side of my face so hard, I went slidin across the floorboards. He’s screamin and rollin around on his bed, his mutated hand splattering blood over his clothes, bedspread and floor. Meanwhile, I’m on the opposite side of the room hunched on all fours spitting out bloody clots of rubbery skin and broken nail.
Suddenly, Mrs. Rawhiri and Mum barged into the room, but stopped short in their tracks at the sight before them. Mum cut off her own scream by clasping both her hands over mouth. Mrs. Rawhiri gasped, genuflected, then rushed towards Sam unwrapping her apron from her waist and used it to cover his hand, all the while making soothin noises to that overgrown baby. Sam glared at me and shrieked, “That little bitch bit my thumb off!”
But like I said, God must of been bored as a straight stoner that day cos before I could speak my case, I hurled two guts-full of vomit right across that room. Mum ran over and yanked my head down to catch the rest in the knees of her dress. Around my wrenching, I could make out Mrs. Rawhiri jibber-jabbering in Maori in between cries of “Oh Lord!” Then I heard that lying bastard blusterin about how I had snuck into his room tryina steal his stuff, and that when he had tried to drag me to confront Mum, I had lashed out at him.
When I’d finally stopped puking I still ain’t talkin cos now I’m swallowing the bile-tasting saliva that kept filling up my throat. Y’know that thing when you know there’s an eighty percent chance you’re gonna puke again, but you give a hundred and fifty percent of fight behind that twenty percent hope that you can hold it down? Yeah, that. So there I am on my knees as mute as Helen-fuckin-Keller, and that lying arsehole points to the discarded pack of milk biscuits on the middle of the floor and shouts,
“See! She had those in her thieving hands when I walked in!”
Y’know how sometimes when you’re so pissed off, everything in your head gets all muddled up and then that muddled up shit comes outta your mouth before you can make sense of it? Well, for sure, by then I was fuckin raging inside and before I knew it I blurted out,
“JESUS WANTED ME TO RIDE HIS COCK AND HORSE!”
Mrs. Rawhiri wailed “Oooh My Lord!” and collapsed on the floor. Mum let out a sharp breath. I noticed weird specks of red appearing on her cheeks just before I felt the sting of her slap across my face. It was the first time she’d ever hit me. Even with all the fucked-up shit that happened in that room that day, it was only then that I started cryin – Mum didn’t understand me. She shot to her feet and yanked me up, nearly pulled my arm outta my socket, for sure. Through my tear-blurred vision the last things I saw were Mrs. Rawhiri lying on the floor, and Sam standing there, his twisted sneer mockin me. The packet of milk biscuits lay unopened on the floor.
When we got to our room Mum walloped me good. I couldn’t sit or lie on my back for nearly a week. That was the second and last time Mum ever laid a hand on me – literally almost.
Later that night, Sam banged on our door and shoved his medical bill at Mum demanding that she pay it since I was the trouble who caused the whole bloody mess. Mum pleaded if there was any other way she could repay him, maybe clean his room and do his laundry and groceries for a few weeks, as she already had two jobs and was strugglin still.
I was sulking on the bed in the room we used both as a lounge and a bedroom, which was separated from our front door only by a short corridor. I wasn’t close enough to hear all of the murmuring that followed, but at one point I heard Mum protest, “No, not that way!”, then Sam hissed somethin about Child and Family Services. That’s when I saw Mum instantly shrink, her head bowed, her shoulders sagged and her back hunched. They exchanged a few quick words and then she slowly closed the door. Before the door shut, I saw the dangerous smugness that spread across his face – Jesus had no business mimicking the devil like that.
Mum shuffled into the room like she carried an invisible weight on her back. She stood at our large white grid window and stared out into the night for so long I almost fell asleep watching her. She must’ve thought I did fall asleep cos eventually she put on her cardigan then walked out.
Time passed until finally I heard the key in the lock turn and the door closing softly. Her movements sounded heavy and sluggish. Different. She didn’t climb into bed to spoon me and kiss the back of my head like usual. I remember being real glad cos I was still too sore to handle being cuddled. But I didn’t realise that from then on, there’d be no spoonin again.
I saw her slump into the only sofa that furnished our room. Resting her forehead on her fingers, she burst into a psalm of sobs. I got outta bed and crept over to her. She was cryin and shakin under the guard of her hand, so I gently placed my fingers on her other hand that lay on the sofa’s arm. She clutched them and cried even harder. Sinking onto my knees I cupped her hand and kissed it, pressin her rough toilet cleaner skin against my lips. I suddenly wanted so bad to protect her, but I didn’t have a fuckin clue how. So, I did the only thing I could do – I didn’t cry so that she could.
When Mum’s cries had died enough for her to let her hands fall and look at me through blood-shot eyes, I said, “Jesus ain’t good to us, huh Mum?” She stared at me for a long time before answering, “For sure child, for sure.”
Well, there you go Mr. Therapiss, that’s all the jazz that played out that day. Take your pinch of salt scribble back to your serious office and compare it to ol’ counsellor Jane’s serious notes and see what new recipe you come up with: a new and improved Bullkaka Soup that the panel will lap up, or Shit-on-Toast that’ll leave a foul taste in their mouths. Whether they grant me freedom or not won’t make much difference anyhow. You think getting out of these concrete walls and steel bars will mean I’m free?
Lemme tell you something Mr. Qualified Man…back then there weren’t many things I knew as absolute. But one thing I had come to hold as truth in the six years of my existence was that my mother was my shield against the world, as well as my heart to understanding the world…and that son-of-a-bitch had broken both in a single fuckin day. Tell me, how’s a child who’s still unlearned in the world suppose to not let a fucked up day like that mark the rest of her life? You got an answer in your serious notes to that, Mr. Therapiss?