Bob's eyes were downcast as the speeches went quietly on. He was tired and ill at ease. The telegram had disrupted his planned city life; broken the pattern he had become so used to. Now a little bewildered he sat in the old meeting house with the family and the old friends he'd left so long ago. He lifted gaze to the coffin, its gleaming sides covered by the tufted korowai. So, the old man was dead. Bob had never expected him to die. He'd seemed ageless, changeless, with no respect for the passing years.
Occasionally Bob had come up from the city to see the old folks. He'd been swept up in the joyful reunion, then as the days grew heavy with reminiscence and local talk, the quietness, the sameness, and the sharing that seemed to be everything of country life, pressed down on him. As soon as he could, he had escaped to the life he knew, the bright, busy, bustling life of the city.
He glanced round now noticing the elders, listening intently, sometimes nodding their agreement with the speaker on the floor, while the defiant figures round the walls seemed aloof from the sorrow, as if they shared the secrets of death itself. His mother sat silent, grief bowing her shoulders as she listened to the tributes to the man she knew better than anyone. She remembered those little faults she'd often scolded him for, but she could feel in these speeches a genuine love and she felt proud of her husband and grateful too for her people who had seen the goodness in him.
She looked at her son, now a grown man; a stranger almost. She sensed his tenseness. He'd never cared for Maori ways—for things of the past. He was listening to old Tamati. Bob knew no Maori, yet something in that quiet voice, the dignity and sincerity, bade him listen. The old man was talking to him now; he crossed the floor and stood before Bob, his hand outstretched. Clumsily, Bob pressed his nose to the old man's, and the unfamiliar greeting drew from him a response he could not understand.
The people came to him now—men and women, giving their sympathy, reassuring him. In this young man they saw much that they had known in his father. Yes, he'd gone away, left the old life and ways, but did not the world ahead hold the same challenges as it had in the past—even back to the great fleet? Bob had prepared himself well, and prevailed; as the old people had done through the ages.
He had come back to his people ashamed. They had made him feel proud. His sorrow was their sorrow. A new strength and a calmness came into his soul. Looking around the meeting house at the silent people, he said in a voice he could barely control, “Thank you, thank you”. Quietly sobbing he leant against the carved wall panel, his tears dropping from the defiant wooden face into the dust. Robert Pipito Jones had come home.
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