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No. 45 (December 1963)
– 6 –

THE CHOICE

The radio on the dressing table began playing the Theme from Picnic, and just for a moment Meri closed her eyes and imagined herself in the Centre, jam-packed with the usual Saturday night crowd; everywhere you looked sweating, grinning faces, people happy with their independence, the boys on the stage hitching up their guitars and starting to play something else. The Theme from Picnic had been one of their favourites then, in the days when she'd practically lived at the Centre—never missed a Saturday, and been there most other nights too, including Sundays when they'd had those talent quests. What talent, too, better than anything you heard on the radio or saw on the films—and how they'd accepted it, all of them, especially her who had never imagined the day might come when she'd long to go back and not be able to; when she would sit in a blue and white bedroom, with a man's tartan dressing-gown folded at the end of the huge double bed, and beat time, in frustration, at the sound of a familiar tune.

‘If you want to go to the Centre …’ Colin had said tentatively, quite often, after they were first married. He'd never finished the sentence, and she knew he'd never finished the idea in his own mind. Supposing she'd said yes? Then, of course, he would have had to take her, and he would have stood protectively by her once they were there, trying to look with it, trying to feel with it … poor Colin, he might possibly have managed the first, but never the second.

So she'd always said, ‘No, I don't want to go’; meaning that she didn't want to go with him, it just wouldn't be the same.

She heard the motor scooter pull up outside the house, the front door open and close, and Colin's muffled voice as he greeted his mother downstairs; his mother's answering voice, and then the sound of his footsteps on the stairs. She pushed her comic under the pillow and sat up, tidying her hair.

Her husband said ‘Hullo Meri’, and kissed her lightly. Then he went over to the window and looked out, his hands in his pockets, and she knew something was up.

She waited, aware of the comic under her pillow, wishing she had the guts to take it out and let him see it; surely it was nothing to be ashamed of, reading an ordinary love comic. Everyone she knew read them. But Colin said it was bad for the mind; he said that sort of reading matter dragged you down until after a while you lived on that level yourself.

‘Ah, Meri’, said Colin. ‘I think we should have a little chat. Mother's just been saying—you know.’ He looked at her for support, for help; he wanted her to deny it before he'd even said it, the usual old thing she supposed. Living as he did in his parents' house, struggling along with little money to get his law degree, he tried hard, with a conspicuous lack of success, to keep things on an even keel.

Meri simply shrugged. ‘Your mother's always saying. What d'you want me to do? Help, she should know by now—I'm no good with them.’

‘But you must try to be.’ He turned eagerly: that was it, she must try. Make that one small sacrifice, mix with his parents who after all had been kind enough to offer to keep them both here. He was always reminding her of this, though their house, in the best part of Remuera, was more like a mansion—six bedrooms, three of them permanently vacant, constantly prepared for guests who never came; an enormous kitchen with all the mod cons that had ever been invented, two bathrooms, and three lavs altogether, a real ballroom of a lounge, and a dining room, sitting room, study, billiard room and cavernous hall besides. What did two middle-aged people want with all that space to themselves? Her own

– 7 –

family of twelve, counting Mum and Dad, lived in a six-room house and always managed to pack visitors in, there was never any fuss or any obligations. Yet here, Colin's mother and father seemed to think she owed them her presence all the time; as if she couldn't feel the chill in the air whenever she was with them.

Even if her behaviour had always been perfectly correct, there would still have been a chill. Because Colin, with the great future they were always telling her about, had been forced to marry her at the most penniless stage of his life. It hadn't worried her to be a month pregnant with no wedding ring, but it had worried him and he'd done the most dramatic, the most original thing in his life when he took her to the Registry Office that day; then faced his parents and said he'd gladly give up his degree for her sake because he loved her and she was his wife.

So they'd opened the doors of the big bedroom, and said it was Colin's and his wife's for as long as they wanted it, and so was the rest of the house, provided Colin would go on at Varsity.

Colin said, ‘I know it's difficult, dear, but Mother and Dad are kind people really. You've had no chance to find out what they're really like because you've hardly talked to them. They are hurt, you know, at the way you refuse to approach them.’

‘Why don't they approach me?’

‘But it's up to you—don't you see that? Look, Meri, they've taken us in and they've accepted our marriage—after all, as Dad said, it's no good crying over split milk. They've done their bit. Now it's up to us. I'm sure you could get on fine with them…’

‘I couldn't, Colin, I couldn't.’

… You could do some cooking in the kitchen, make the sort of things that Mother doesn't know how to make …’ he gave a shy smile—‘teach her a few things’.

‘Yes? You think she'd like Maori bread?’

‘Why not?—I do.’

‘Puha? Fish-heads?’ she insisted. She sat up straight, the colour heightened in her cheeks. ‘That's what I want, right now.’ She was challenging him; he refused to accept it.

What he wanted to say was quite simple: My parents have changed some of their ideas, at their time of life, for our sake. It's not that they don't like Maoris, it's just that they've never had anything to do with them. Suddenly, we've opened up a new world to them. It's not easy for people of their age to become connected with a new world, new ways, new ideas—but good Lord, no-one can say they're not trying.

As usual, his thoughts were clear enough: the difficulty was to express them. He sat by Meri and took her unresisting, unresponsive hand, as if that would help; but it made things more complicated to feel her presence so strongly, and the presence of his baby.

‘For Johnny's sake,’ he began awkwardly.

She took her hand away; for some reason she seemed annoyed. These reasons were always beyond him.

‘Johnny's not even here yet,’ she said. ‘He won't be here for five months. It's a damn long time to sit here waiting, and it's silly to pretend to be what I'm not, just because a baby's on the way. Anyway, it's not your parents' baby.’

‘What's that got to do with it?’

‘Plenty.’

‘Well anyway,’ he said, ‘I wish you'd compromise.’

And left her to wonder what compromise meant, and what difference it would make if she did it.

He had dinner along with his parents that evening. They had sent up a tray for Meri; she was not feeling well, he said, and wanted to keep her feet up.

‘I hope the poor girl's not going to have a difficult time,’ his mother said.

He listened for signs of what Meri had hinted at in his mother—lack of sympathy and understanding, impatience, dislike. But his mother merely sounded like one woman anxious about the pre-natal condition of another.

‘Apparently it's often difficult the first time,’ he said cheerfully.

His parents glanced at each other.

‘The first time,’ his mother repeated.

His father coughed. Did Colin—ah—intend to have a large family? Was it wise? Perhaps he didn't realise the expense of having a child.

‘Well, naturally, we'll wait,’ Colin said. ‘I wouldn't think of inflicting too much on you, but when we have a home of our own—well naturally, we'll have more children then.’ He was apologising to them, he was bitterly aware of how he must sound: the naughty school-boy trying to exonerate himself. He felt the atmosphere heavy with disapproval, and found himself blushing.

His mother said gently, ‘We only want what's best for you, Colin.’

– 8 –

‘The cost of living is high these days,’ his father said. ‘Exorbitant really, for young married couples. A young chap on his own might get along all right …’

‘But married, and with a baby on the way,’ his mother went on ‘and studying, that's different.’

He hardly heard them; something else was going through his mind. Maori children, he thought, that's what they don't want. He looked up, looked straight at them, but he couldn't say it. He kept eating automatically. One half of him argued: we'll have a whole troupe of kids if we like. We've got our own life to lead, Meri and me; and the other half reasoned: where would you be without them, what kind of future would you have without their help to start you off? And what else could he do but study, anyway?—he'd never done anything else, never had to. When he'd finished studying, what else could he do but talk for his career, argue, cajole, reason; thumb through dusty volumes, examine evidence, question, cross-question, all for the sake of the truth and his fee.

Meri brought her own dishes downstairs, and said she would help his mother with the washing-up. Her lower lip stuck out truculently, and there was a look in her eye he had come to know lately, and wonder at. He didn't quite trust her in this mood.

‘I'll help mother, you go back to bed.’

But she refused, and his mother said, ‘Let Mary help me, it's good of her to offer.’

He couldn't leave it at that. Feeling ashamed but determined, he sat at the dining room table with his books. His father had gone to the study; the servery door between the rooms was still slightly open; he was eavesdropping in peace.

Perhaps what the two women said did not amount to much after all. His mother was always, he had to admit it, slightly overbearing with young people; and his wife, there was no getting away from it, was very often sulky.

His mother talked at some length about pregnancy: how you must do this and that, and be careful to avoid doing so and so. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘fears of having a miscarriage are natural enough; but believe me a baby is very well protected in the womb. Do you think, perhaps, a little more walking…’

‘I don't like walking,’ Meri said. ‘Not round here.’

‘No? Well there is a clinic, you know, where exercises are taught. I always feel it's such a help for a pregnant woman to mix with other expectant mothers. It makes you feel more secure.’

‘I feel all right,’ Meri said shortly.

‘I do feel, though, that the baby might benefit by a little exercise. And you'd feel so much happier, Mary. Sitting all day … constipation …’

And so on. Very little from Meri. What she did say expressed no gratitude at this concern for her welfare. He had half a mind to throw open the door, take issue with them: ‘Mother, Meri hasn't had a sheltered upbringing, she knows all about it. She's helped deliver two of her sisters' babies, she can manage her own pregnancy.’ And, ‘Meri, Mother's only trying to help. Can't you see that, can't you be gracious about it?’

But such fair-mindedness, he knew, would not be welcomed by either of them. They'd look at him and say, ‘Whose side are you on?’

And for the life of him … he didn't know what his reply would be.

After a period of silence, with only the dishes clattering occasionally, he heard his mother again. ‘Mary, I don't want you to think I'm interfering. But do you intend to have many children?’

Oh God, no, he thought.

Meri said, ‘We haven't really talked it over yet. Depends on Colin. But I'd like a lot.’ Her voice for a moment sounded shy. ‘I'd like boys and girls, about four of each.’

‘Eight? That's quite a large family nowadays.’

‘There's twelve in mine’, Meri said, suddenly defensive.

‘Yes, but …’ If she had said, yes, but yours is Maori, he would really have had to interfere. Luckily she didn't. ‘To begin with, a lawyer's life can be very difficult to start with. Sometimes it takes years to become established.’

‘Oh, Colin'll make it,’ Meri said easily. ‘He's cut out for it.’

‘Yes, of course he'll make it.’ His mother, her voice become slightly sharp, was now launched upon her favourite topic. ‘Colin has wanted to be a lawyer since he was fourteen,’ he heard her say. ‘All of his efforts and I need hardly say all of ours have been bent towards that. He could make a very fine, very upstanding lawyer.’ Pause. ‘But in that position, natural talent is not everything. Money is important, and standards … standards are most important,’ his mother said firmly.

– 9 –

Another pause. Then Meri's voice, soft and careless.

‘Yes, Mrs Groves, I know what you're trying to say.’

And his mother—‘I'm not trying to say anything, Meri, I'm merely …’ The breeze slammed the servery door, but did not shut it.

‘This damned thing,’ Meri said, and closed it with a loud, enraged bang.

Their voices rose, drifted and sank like the wind itself. He heard Meri's footsteps thudding to the kitchen door—‘Why can't you mind your own damned business?’ were her parting words—and then thudding on upstairs. The bedroom door slammed.

He bent his head and all his efforts to appear as if, engrossed in work, he had not heard a thing. His mother came in, and stood uncertainly when she saw him.

‘She really is a very rude girl,’ she said. ‘Your Mary, isn't she?’

He went to bed late. Meri seemed to be asleep, though when he touched her shoulder she moved right over to the edge of the bed, and didn't answer when he asked, ‘Are you awake?’

He knew she was; she was too tense for sleep. But he decided not to disturb her: he didn't want hysterics on his hands. And he wasn't sure what he wanted to say, he'd have to think about it. Something would have to be said, something about how natural it was for his mother to worry, she'd be just the same with a daughter of her own, if she had one. Indeed, he'd say (perhaps this would help), that was probably the whole trouble—his mother lacked a daughter and was trying to make Meri a substitute. But he'd tell her, somewhere along the line, that she had been rude and really ought to apologise. And in case that made it sound as if he was on his mother's side, he'd tell Meri he understood how she felt as well; understood perfectly. Of course, she was going to make a fine mother. It was all coming naturally to her, he could see that, and it made him feel proud …

When he woke, at seven o'clock as usual, and saw the note on Meri's pillow, his first emotion was not surprise but unpleasant anticipation. It was as if he'd been half expecting to see that note, and the only thing he wondered at was exactly what it contained, precisely how far she had gone.

Before he opened it he got up slowly, put on his dressing gown and pulled back the blinds. The light flooded in, and showed that in the open wardrobe only his own clothes, neatly pressed, hung in their place. Meri's were gone. So was her big grey suitcase. And so was she, he knew, spreading out the note on the dressing table, by the side of the transistor radio his parents had lent Meri.

His wife had written that she'd gone to her parent's place, and wanted to have the baby there. She couldn't stay here a minute longer. ‘Don't ask me to come back, because I won't. But you know where I am if you want me. I'll come back to you if you want me, because I still love you, but not to them. It's up to you.’ She'd signed it, ‘Your Meri. Arohanui.’

For quite a while he just stood there looking at the note as if something written between the lines in invisible ink might suddenly appear. But nothing did: he knew that was all he was going to get. ‘It's up to you.’ And so it was, he knew; so it was.

From downstairs came the sounds of his mother preparing his usual early breakfast. She did breakfast in three shifts; first his, then his father's and her own, lastly Meri's at about nine thirty. He scratched his head, then folded the note and put it in his pocket. No good thinking about this on an empty stomach. He'd have breakfast first, then think about it; that was the way things were done.

He opened the bedroom door and went downstairs, whistling bravely.

?

For many years there has been a Maori Club in Sydney, catering for the considerable Maori population there. The club has provided entertainment, welcomed visitors from New Zealand, and assisted in cases of distress.

Recently the club has been re-organised as the Maori Club Limited, and is attempting to raise sufficient funds to obtain its own premises. Its aim is to become a social and cultural centre in Sydney for Maoris and their friends, and a convenient place at which they can meet and entertain visiting friends from New Zealand. It is also envisaged that with its own premises, the club will be in a position to increase its charitable activities.

People wishing to know more about the venture should write to the Hon. Secretary, The Maori Club Limited, 4 Gladstone Avenue, Hunters Hill, Sydney, Australia.