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No. 63 (June 1968)
– 18 –

The Home-coming

Tevita lounged in the shade of his parents' thatched roof house, strumming his guitar softly. It was 10 o'clock by his new gold watch, and back in New Zealand in the car assembly factory, it would be morning tea time. If he was still there, he would be drinking tea in the cafeteria and eating those big buns with the pink icing that he had liked. He missed them. He missed so many things since he had come back to his home island after five years away. And he had come home with such enthusiasm too.

Only three weeks ago he had been aboard the ship coming up to the island. He had been excited, so excited that he couldn't sleep, and it had been 3 a.m. when he had got out of his bunk and shaved, while the other three men in the cabin had muttered angrily. He had ignored them. It wasn't every day that a man came back to his island after making good in the outside world. And he had made good. He had three fine suitcases of clothes, and presents for everybody—a sewing machine for his mother, a double-barrelled shot gun for his father and a bicycle for his sister.

Five years before, he and his brother had

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left as ignorant Pacific islanders, setting out into the great unknown. Now he was back as a man of the world. But it was his intention to forget the world, to find a wife and settle down and grow bananas, kumaras and cut copra.

As they had come up to the island he had sniffed the rich tropical smell, a smell better than the smoke of the city.

When they had first arrived in New Zealand he and his brother had worked in a gloomy, smoky shovel factory, but then they had moved to a car assembly plant, where working conditions were much pleasanter and the money better. Bolting on bumper-bars was a good job, and Tevita had never found it monotonous standing in the same place on the assembly line as the cars moved past, doing the same job day after day, week after week.

There had been only one thing wrong with his home-coming at that moment on the ship, and that was that his brother wasn't with him. But his brother said he was crazy to go back home to grubbing in the kumara patch. Life was better in New Zealand. But Tevita had been home-sick and the call of the islands couldn't be resisted.

His foreman had been frankly envious. ‘I wish I could go to the islands where it's always summer and lie under a coconut tree.’

Tevita had agreed, but he didn't agree now.

Nothing had gone as he had expected. The welcome was warm enough, but he'd expected something somehow different. They accepted him matter-of-factly and were more interested in news of his older brother and when he was coming home. But perhaps it was his fault. He had changed, and the island hadn't.

It was just as if he had never been away, even the same cracked cups were still in use in the house. And his parents still treated him as a boy instead of the man-of-the-world he was.

He didn't think his father, or any of the family, really believed him when he said he helped to build motor cars. His father said they were too complicated for any Pacific islander to make. But how else did he think he had earned the money to buy the new shot gun, and the sewing machine, and the bicycle, and his guitar? They had accepted the presents as their due, and they used all his things without asking him. His father was wearing one of his good white shirts now.

His father was stretched out asleep in the shade of the verandah, but he had been fishing since midnight and had only come home an hour ago, and with only a few small reef fish to show for his night's work. His mother was down the back, hoeing the kumara patch. He could see her through the coconut trees if he raised himself, but it was too hot to make the effort.

He should be out in the plantation working around the banana palms now, as his sister was, but he didn't have any energy. He didn't like to admit it, but he'd much rather be back in New Zealand bolting on bumper-bars in the car factory.

The family weren't really interested in his stories of life in New Zealand. They listened for a few minutes and then returned to gossiping about trivial village happenings, of babies and marriages, or if it was men, speculating on the weather and the crops. Or they talked about the new church they were going to build in the village one day. They didn't seem to care that he could tell them about the buses and the trains in New Zealand and things in the shops, much better things than the miserable display of sugar and tea and tobacco and kerosene in the little village store.

His mother had shown some interest there, but then she had said she didn't have any money anyway, so she started to gossip with his aunty about the new pandanus mat she was making for the floor of their house.

And all his father was interested in was fishing. Of course there wasn't much to do on the island except go fishing.

He told them about the picture theatres in New Zealand with comfortable seats, but they didn't seem to think they were any better than the village picture theatre with its hard wooden seats and the scratched old films shown on an ancient projector which broke down once a reel.

They were all ignorant Polynesians, he thought resentfully, and if he hadn't said he was coming home for good he would have caught the next boat back to New Zealand. But he couldn't do that without

– 20 –

an excuse, and he couldn't think of one. He'd opened his big mouth too much in the first few days he had been back about what he was going to do on the family land. He suggested they buy a tractor—he almost had enough money to buy a second-hand one—and employ labour to work on the plantation for wages instead of the family doing it. But no, the old ways were the best ways. And they expected him to be out labouring in the hot sun. But he was a thinker, not a labourer.

Home was nothing at all like he had anticipated. All the boys he had grown up with were married or had emigrated, and the girls were so young and naive, not like the girls in New Zealand. They didn't wear lipstick and scent, except on Friday nights to go to the dance. He'd had a Samoan girl friend in New Zealand and he remembered her now with affection. But he'd always had a hankering to marry a girl from his own island. But perhaps he should have stayed in New Zealand to do that. The island girls all seemed to have gone to New Zealand to work as waitresses and maids in hotels and in the kitchens and laundries of hospitals.

He tried to get a little more comfortable on the hard ground. He'd like a cup of tea now. He had got used to it at this time of the day, but making tea here meant lighting a fire and boiling a tin of water, and it was too much trouble.

If they had electricity he would be able to put on the electric jug, but there was no electricity in the village. There was no water either. They had a tank which was filled from the rain off the roof, but it hadn't rained for two weeks, and it was empty, and his mother or sister carried water from the big village tank.

How casually he had treated his nightly showers when he had come off the assembly line before he changed into his good clothes and went down the road for a beer. People in New Zealand didn't realise how lucky they were, and he hadn't realised how he would miss a simple thing like a shower.

And he was growing a beard because his electric razor was useless in this village. It was just as well he had not brought an electric guitar back. That would have been useless here too. He strummed the strings gently so as not to disturb the old man, though his father would rise soon after a short rest and go down to the bananas and work there until sunset. He'd forgotten how hard life was on the island.

It was so hot a cold beer would be even better than a cup of tea, but there were no bars on the island, and he'd have to cycle into the main village to buy some and bring it home to drink it. And it would be warm beer because they had no refrigerator to cool it. He struck a loud chord and his father stirred.

But there was an even louder noise approaching. He watched the ancient truck belonging to Tamati of the village store chugging across the grass towards the house, coughing and spluttering because it wasn't firing on all its cylinders. It had no bonnet, and a thin trickle of steam issued from the overheated radiator. The sagging rusted body leaned to the left because its springs were broken. He thought wistfully of the smart new cars he had worked on.

The truck shuddered to a stop and his father woke. Tamati and his father greeted each other courteously. Then his father called him. ‘Tamati would like you to have a look at the engine of his truck which is not going very good. Tevita.’

Tevita sat up. ‘I do not know very much about engines,’ he said.

‘I have told everybody that my son knows everything about engines,’ his father replied softly. ‘In New Zealand he made cars.’

‘I only worked in a factory where they were made. My speciality was bolting on bumper-bars.’ He looked at the bumperless truck. ‘But my speciality would not be of much use here.’ And he smiled. But the joke went flat, like everything had since he had come home.

‘Perhaps you could have a look at it,’ Tamati said. ‘There is nobody in the village except you.’

‘The garage in town?’

‘It is a long way and the truck is not going very good.’

Tevita got up reluctantly and inspected the oil and dirt covered engine. He poked and prodded, but he didn't know anything about engines. In the factory they came complete and were put in and were staried and they went. He shook his head. ‘It wants a mechanic.’

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‘You are not a mechanic?’ Tamati asked disappointedly.

‘I am a factory assembler. I make cars, not fix them.’

‘Your time was obviously wasted in New Zealand,’ his father said sadly.

Tevita knew that he had shamed his father in the eyes of Tamati. He should never have come back, he thought miserably. His older brother had been right, he was crazy.

Tamati got slowly back in his truck and started the reluctant engine, and missing badly, it chugged off, leaving a drooping Tevita standing in the hot tropical sun.

His father wordlessly got his hat and prepared to leave for the banana plantation.

Tevita closed his eyes and slept. His home-coming had been a complete failure.

A young girl, daughter of the village constable, woke him an hour later to say there was a telegram for him at the radio station. And would he ring the radio station and they would read it to him.

Tevita wondered who would be sending him a telegram as he walked across the village green to the village constable's house, followed by a retinue of village children. A telephone call was a big event in the village, and a telegram an even bigger one.

The constable's wife beckoned him inside and he lifted the handset off the hook of the old-fashioned wooden crank telephone, nothing like the coloured plastic telephones in New Zealand. ‘Hullo,’ he said cautiously.

The radio station established his identitv and read out the text of the telegram which was from New Zealand. ‘Please send me case of bananas from our plantation.’ And it was signed ‘Brother’.

‘Was it important?’ the constable's wife asked interestedly.

‘Yes,’ Tevita said thoughtfully. ‘Very important.’ He and his brother had always enjoyed bananas sent from their own plantation, though they had always made Tevita home-sick. His brother must be feeling a little home-sick. He'd have to be cured quickly.

Still followed by the boys and girls he strolled homewards. The village houses were still in the strong sunshine. Everybody not working in the plantations was asleep. It was a very familiar scene, but he didn't think he was going to miss it. The car factory had said he could have his job back any time he wanted it, and he had laughed. He hoped he hadn't laughed too much.

His mother had heard of the telephone call in the kumara patch, his father and sister in the banana plantation, and they were waiting on the verandah for him.

‘What was it?’ his mother asked anxiously.

‘A telegram,’ Tevita said casually in a man-of-the-world manner. He was not a common villager excited by a telegram.

‘What about?’ his father asked.

‘From the car factory,’ Tevita said regretfully. ‘They want me to come back to work as soon as possible.’

His father nodded.

‘I will have to return to New Zealand on the next boat,’ Tevita said more briskly than he had spoken since the day of his arrival. He made no mention of the bananas, and he wasn't taking any back with him, they were too depressing. He felt happier than he had since the day of his arrival, and also sadder, as if he had, somehow, failed.