Vaughan Rapatahana (Te Ātiawa) was born in Patea, New Zealand, but roams the globe. He is published widely across several genres and won the inaugural Proverse Poetry prize. His most recent collection of poems, Atonement, was nominated for a National Book Award in Philippines in 2016. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Auckland on the work of the polymath English writer, Colin Wilson. The NZBC Writers File for Rapatahana can be accessed at http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writer/rapatahana-vaughan/
Writing is a bloodstream coursing and cursing throughout me. I stop writing, I cease to exist.
‘But, mum, he’s OK.’
Euris said this from her heart, stressing her words with an expansive curlicue of her hands. Right in front of her Mother who was standing there staunchly, with that same steady frown stamped into her face and her arms akimbo like she was waiting for more of something she didn’t want.
‘He’s been a good teacher, yunno. Taught us heaps and he never seems to get too upset either.’
Mother shook her head. ‘Girl, you don’t know about this stuff, eh. Just listen to your mother. He’s a Pākehā and you just can’t trust any of them, eh. Yeah, you tell me he’s OK, but they’re all the same. Smile at you and tell you what you want to hear, but in the end, they’re all shit. Believe me girl.’ She walked away outside onto the back porch and lit up another roll-your-own, staring out into the evening like a sentinel.
Euris shook her head and sighed. Robinson was a new teacher at their Area School earlier that year and he had become popular with all of her year 11 class. He really seemed to care about their grades and their input was always encouraged. Classes were pretty much fun too, ‘cause he let them play the sounds, just as long as they weren’t too loud and not on when Old Man Pompey patrolled around outside. Pompey was Principal and could be a real pain about stuff like uniforms and jewellery and all the things that shouldn’t matter at school anyway; shouldn’t matter at all as far as she was concerned.
Euris had been going to tell her mother that Robinson spoke pretty good reo Māori too, but in this sort of mood, she wasn’t going to mention her teacher again for a while. Not worth the hassle and the black looks Mum would throw at her. She went on with peeling the potatoes and launching them into the boil-up pot brewing boisterously on the stove.
Euris sort of sighed and sort of smiled all at once. She knew her mother was still hurting big time after her father had run away all those years ago, leaving Mum to bring up three toddlers mainly by herself, although Nana had helped as much as she could back then, gammy leg and all. She realised that her mother’s distaste of anything Pākehā was nothing much to do with their skin colour, but much more to do with her ex-husband, Euris’ Dad, a Pākehā shearer who had lasted about the first two years of his daughter’s upbringing and then vamoosed to Australia. Euris never really recalled anything about him and her mother had dumped all their photographs years ago. Mind you, Nana had said a couple of times that, ‘he was a good-looking man.’
Yes, Euris was aware enough of how strange some Pākehā were, how mean, how racist; but then again so were several Māori she knew around there, including members of her own whānau. She biffed the knife into the sink and stirred the pot a few times, thinking, thinking, thinking.
A couple of days later Mum shuffled into the kitchen at around the same time Euris came home over the back fence for a lunchtime kai. Euris caught her mother staring at her with those big dark brown eyes and kind of grinning at the same time.
‘What’s up, Mum?’
‘I tell you girl, I saw that new teacher of yours last night down at the RSA playing pool.’
‘Well maybe I had a couple too many drinks, but I went up to him and told him I was your mother.’
Euris felt her inner batteries surge. ‘What! You went to talk to the Pākehā? Wow. What did he say to you?’
‘Not a lot really. Said you were an excellent pupil and congratulated me. He was…,’ Mum paused here for a bit, ‘…OK.’
‘Nothing, eh. I went back to my table and all the bloody girls were giving me a hard time about talking to him. Made me a bit whakamā, actually.’
For her mother to admit to being embarrassed by anyone or anything, was a huge one for Euris. Her mother was a tough woman. Yes, she was tender enough to Euris and even to her two older brothers now living in Australia and working in the mines, but she never really revealed any self-doubts or inner feelings. Survival tricks, she supposed.
Euris found herself grinning. ‘Jeez, you are quite a woman, Mum. You whakamā? Maybe you like Mr Robinson a bit, eh, Mum?’
Her mother sniggered for a small second and then turned all staunch again. ‘Just don’t forget what I keep telling you, Euris, never trust a white man. Anyway, here’s some lunch.’
Euris ate her pie slowly, still thinking. Her mother had launched into some vague waiata in the kitchen somewhere and was still scatting away when Euris went back to class.
About a week later, Robinson called Euris over when the bell went and asked her if she wanted to enter the Manu Kōrero later on that year? He said that he heard she had won the regional final once. Euris said that she would think about it for a bit, that yes, she had done OK in her Year 9 competition, but now she wanted someone else to have their turn.
‘I think that you would do very well if you entered,’ he nagged a bit. ‘C’mon, give it a go. You have got the gift, yunno.’
Euris wondered what he was on about – what gift? He must have picked up on her puzzlement.
‘You can make people feel better with just your smile, Euris. And when you speak, you speak clearly and sensibly and convincingly.’ He paused. ‘Your Mum is very lucky to have you as a daughter.’
Now it was Euris turn to blush. ‘OK, I’ll think about it, eh. See you.’ Euris dashed out faster than she meant to, but all this was a bit much to take in.
She didn’t talk to her mother about entering the speech competition, nor did she mention what Robinson had said about her, but she did reflect a fair bit over the next few days. Mum didn’t nag her much about school much either, which made everything a bit easier.
On Friday night mother and daughter went down to the RSA together. They sat down with a few aunties and cousins and while Mum was buying a beer for herself and a glass of wine for her, Euris glanced around the premises. Over there were a few of the usuals – and then she saw her teacher, Robinson, smiling at her, with a pool cue in his hand. She raised her eyebrows a bit and nodded and he went back to his game with her schoolmate Ronnie Hemi.
Euris’s mother came back with the drinks and sat down smiling. Mrs Huruwai liked the company, the way they could all relax and chat about things. She liked the fact that her daughter would accompany her sometimes too. She was happy enough, if not a little lonely. Still, a couple of beers always helped distract her from that for a while. She really had to give up the smoke though, couldn’t afford it anyway nowadays. Lucky Euris never took up that habit. Bloody Pākehā had introduced that one.
About half an hour later, she turned to Euris to tell her some gossip she had just heard, when she saw Euris wasn’t there. Must be in the toilet, she assumed and turned back to listen for some more.
But she never did glean more local chit-chat. Instead, she noticed all the ladies were grinning at her and big-eyed at one another too. Just then she turned to see that bloody new schoolteacher guy was sitting right where Euris had been. He had placed his jug right there too and was going on something about, ‘Euris Huruwai travelling down to enter the Manu Kōrero next month and if she would come with the school group to support her daughter?’ He had a bloody big beam across his face too. Like he was real happy to see her.
Before she could even consider a reply, Mum sensed someone right behind her and then Euris had her hand on her shoulder and was beaming away and saying something about, ‘I brought you a koha Mum.’
Euris stifled a giggle and skipped across to the pool table, and challenged Ronnie to another game.