The open fireplace, made of twelve-foot lengths of corrugated iron, took up nearly all the front of the whare. Probably more care had gone into building the fireplace than had been taken with the rest of the dwelling. A large old fashioned bed stood in the far corner of the room, alongside a kerosene box which served as a stand for the hurricane lamp. Against the other wall there was a camp-stretcher. Three chairs, a table made of rough pine board and a cupboard completed the furnishings. There was no ceiling, only axe hewn rafters, from these smoke blackened beams hung a variety of objects—some flax baskets, a coil of rope, a bucket. A rainbow coloured flax carpet brought brightness to a drab room.
Mark Taite sat on one of the chairs gazing thoughtfully into the fireplace. He seemed almost a stranger in a setting that for most years of his life had been home.
In dress and appearance he was similar to most young Maoris—the type seen in any New Zealand city, working in factories, for the council, driving taxis or buses; in their leisure hours dancing, singing, drinking. The kind you see at church, watching football, at the beach, or just strolling along the streets. Perhaps that was why he seemed out of place here—a typical city Maori in a backblocks pa.
An ember fell from the fire; he reached down and threw it back then glanced at his wrist watch. “Hell! Still half an hour to go before the truck comes. The cream truck the only transport out of here when I was a kid, and still the only way. No buses, no taxis, a man has to ride to the station in a rattletrap of a truck.” He settled back in the chair.
A fire can hold strange hypnotic powers. Under its influence, Mark's surroundings ceased to exist. He saw himself as he was three years ago—the day his greatest dream came true—the day he'd left for the city, a bright eyed youth of seventeen, one hand plucking at his unaccustomed collar and tie, the other clutching a battered suitcase. Nervous? Yes, but not in the least afraid. He was young, and the young see no dark clouds.
That was the first time he had left this isolated little valley—the valley that had echoed to the war hakas of his ancestors for centuries. The noise of the victory celebrations. The wailings as the dead were mourned. Peace sounds. Songs of love by wahines as they kept time with the pois. The shrill scream of naked, brown children at play. The babbling of streams and rivers as they hustled off to lose themselves in the mighty Pacific. That same valley had witnessed the arrival of the first Maoris; had seen them emerge victorious from many tribal wars, only to succumb, if gloriously, to the superior weapons of the Pakeha.
He thought about the elders and their belief in the Maori way of life; how they praised its traditions, cultures and philosophies, urging young men to cultivate the land, to grow kumaras, rewi, corn and food, instead of going away to work in the cities for wages.
“Money isn't everything,” they'd say. “Money becomes your God when you live the Pakeha way.”
Respect for his elders was deeply ingrained in Mark; he'd listened all right and at the right times; when they spoke, his face wore the awe, pride, rage, disgust, he thought they expected from him. But when they'd gone, he would mutter, “Silly old fools, always living in the past! When will they wake? When will they realise their way of life is finished?”
It wasn't as if he'd been unhappy. No, not by a long way; just that he saw no future, living Maori-fashion. He'd explained to Inga about the way he felt; she'd understood. She always did. He smiled, remembering how he'd been in love with her, and about the time he'd punched his cousin, George Whata.
“Why we were barely out of napkins. What was it about again? Yes, I remember, I heard him, I heard him singing, Inga loves George Whata. Strange,” he mused, “she hasn't married. I suppose if I'd stopped here I would have changed her name myself.”
And so he'd left the pa, he grinned, remembering how they had welcomed him with open arms
at the boarding house. Share room with two others … no meals… notices up all over the place … no visitors … no alcoholic liquors allowed on these premises … no bath after 9 p.m. For this he was charged three times too much, that is until he woke up.
Work in the freezing works was easy to get. The first boss he'd approached took one look at his youth, size and innocence and started him on the offal floor. Admittedly the wages were high, but the smells he endured to earn them were much higher.
Adjusting himself to this new way of life had been much harder than he had ever imagined, and there was so much that went against his nature—so much that went against the Maoris' centuries of traditions. Traditions, if ignored back home, made him an outcast. In the city the reverse happened.
If you saw a strange Maori you did not rush over and shake his hand automatically—you waited to be introduced. If you tried to rub noses with a wahine in welcome—well, if she didn't scream in fright she'd probably slap your face. Another tradition he'd dropped in a hurry still brought a flush of shame. To be called a thief for borrowing. His room-mate was out. He wasn't using the coat. The ways of the Pakeha were strange.
Sometimes he felt himself living in an alien world. How he missed the traditional cry, “Haere mai Kita Kai”, as he passed Maori homes.
The tradition had been slow, never completely satisfactory. He had tasted most of the fruits, the bitter and the sweet. Theatres, dancing, modern amenities, romance, adventure. Clean innocent fun, at least at first. For his tastes had changed lately for the worse.
“Changed so gradually, I never even noticed,” he thought. “That new crowd I've been mixing with. Why, when I think of all the stupid things we've done, where will it all end? Those all-night parties. The boss won't put up with me much longer. What with missing days, too sick to do my work. And the pubs! Before, I used to go to the beaches or the pictures, watch the sports. Now I spend all Saturdays in them, even some of the weekdays when I should be working.”
“Yes,” he mumbled, “you sure live it up in the big smoke.”
Several times in past three years he had returned to the pa. The visits had been short and boring. This trip things seemed different. Instead of missing the noise, the hustle and bustle of the city, as he usually did, he'd actually enjoyed the peace and quietness, the unhurried pace. This time the elders' words made sense. There were centuries of knowledge, he admitted, behind their words.
The change in his attitude towards the elders was not the only puzzling thing. Why had he counted the number of fences in need of repair? Why was he speculating how many cows and sheep the property would run; that is, if it was all broken in of course?
“What a mixed-up character I am,” he decided, “dissatisfied with both ways of life. That's the trouble. There's good and bad in them both.”
Mark's head lifted with a new awareness. He seemed to be looking not into the past with its unfulfilled promises, but into the virgin future. It seemed to be his for the making.
Where his family's neglected property once stood, he saw a modern house, an up-to-date farm. Cows and sheep grazing in well-fenced paddocks. At the door of the house stood Inga. She was sending two chidren, in High School clothes, to school.
Part of the scene changed. Now he was standing beside Inga. They were both beckoning to some passing strangers; “Haeremai Kita Kia”.
The answer came like a rocket take-off; a blend of the best from both ways of life.
The honking of the cream truck's horn brought Mark back to the present. He stood up, kicking over his ready packed suit-case as he made for the door. For the first time in years there was purpose in his bearing, no hesitancy in his gesture, as he waved the truck on. “I won't be coming with you Sam,” he called to driver. “Some other time, eh.” And to himself, “Never! I'll be too busy making a compromise.”