New Shoes and Old
Day after day we'd waited for the rural delivery van, each of us pretending to the other that we weren't. But you know how it is when you're a real family and living close like we do at home, you notice what's going on. The van came about half past eleven, and Dad and I would knock off on the farm around quarter to twelve, to be ‘in plenty of time for lunch’ Dad would say, and we'd walk up to the house slowly, saying things like, ‘Well, I'll bet Abe's late today—old son of a gun's never on time.’ We'd shake our heads in agreement, and know darn well he was always on time with the mail, unless there'd been a flood or a slip and then we would have known anyway.
We'd wash our hands real slow at the tap outside so as to seem as if we were taking our time, and saunter inside. In the first few months after my sister Queenie had left home for the big city, there'd been a few letters, so it didn't matter when we said, very casual, ‘Any mail today Ma?’, because just sometimes there might have been.
The last one we'd had had told us that a few of her pals were fed up with Auckland and that they'd heard Wellington wasn't a bad place. They were going down to have a look around and she thought she might as well go along too, she could always come back if she didn't like it, and in the meantime she was seeing more of the country wasn't she? Ma wrote straight back and said stay where you are, you've got relations in Auckland, but the letter came back after a while with ‘Gone: No Address’ on it. I suppose she must have meant to write to us but just didn't get round to it. Anyway, after a while we didn't ask Ma anymore.
One look at her face and we knew right enough, though the lunch would be set up for us, and she wouldn't have shed any tears. Maybe she did after lunch when we'd gone back to work, or maybe she did at night when she and Dad were in the big double bed together. Maybe she did, but I didn't ask Dad, and he didn't tell me.
Only on Friday, when she caught the bus to town for shopping in Kaikohe, she'd say sternly, ‘Don't you fellas forgot to pick up the mail’. We never forgot.
Saturdays, the little kids would be home, and they didn't have to pretend like we grown-ups did. They'd rush down to meet Abe, but after a while, as they were never lucky enough to run back to Ma waving an envelope and yelling, ‘Its from Queenie Ma,’ I think they went off meeting the van a bit, because going back to her without anything wasn't so good.
Sundays we would go to church; every second Sunday, that is, because the minister could only come that often, and we'd kneel on the raupo mats in the hall, with the altar set up in front of it, cloth as white as purity itself and the cross bright gold. Ma would kneel there for a long time with her eyes squeezed tight together so that the creases looked as if they were round her eyes for good.
It got to be that things were pretty quiet at home after a while. I'd had a few thoughts of my own, but I didn't say anything. Perhaps the old man could read my mind, or perhaps he'd been thinking along those lines himself for a while. Anyway, it just popped out one day when we were washing at the tap before lunch.
‘Reckon you could go to Wellington and look for Queenie, Heta?’
‘There might be a letter today,’ I said, putting off an answer.
He looked grim. ‘I don't reckon.’
‘You might do it better'n me,’ I said. ‘They'd have more respect for you.’
He looked at his big hands. ‘Nothing wrong with you Heta, boy,’ he said. ‘You're respectable enough, and you can talk to ‘em better'n I can.’
When we went inside he said to Ma, ‘Heta's going to Wellington, day after tomorrow.’
The next day, he and I took the old truck into Kaikohe, and we got my train tickets and a new suit of clothes. With the clothes went a squeaky, shiny pair of black shoes.
We had to leave at seven the following morning so I could catch the train in good time. The cows had to be milked first before Dad drove me to the station, so we were up round four in the morning. Just before I left, Ma handed me a parcel.
‘What's this?’ asked Dad, feeling the paper. He looked at her as if she was clean out of her mind. ‘There's shoes in here, we got him new shoes yesterday.’ And he pointed at my glossy feet.
‘They're his old ones. He can use them to ease his feet. Could be he'll have a lot of walking to do.’ And with that she turned away from me, hugged me tight and whispered in my ear, ‘Find my Queenie baby, Heta, find my little girl.’
So I looked for her for a week. That's how long Dad had said I was to stay. What he could afford. He pretended he meant in terms of money, which was partly true, but also he was afraid that the cities, having claimed one child, might claim another, and he couldn't afford that either.
I went to the police, and I can't complain about the way they treated me. They even found out for me that her first job in Wellington had been on the telephone exchange, but she'd left there a long time ago. They wished they could do something for me, the police, and told me to keep in touch for as long as I was in the city. I went to a welfare lady and she was very good and seemed just about as worried as I was. We got in her nice car and drove around miles of streets, stopping to knock on doors of old apartment buildings and I showed Queenie's photo to the people who answered the doors. They all shook their heads.
The rest of the time, I just walked, looking, looking, into faces — Maori faces, Pakeha faces, men, women, children—not sure any more of exactly what I expected to find, just hoping that one of them might look like my sister, my little sister Queenie.
Little sister? Well, she was the first-born, our Queenie, and once, long ago, she had looked after me guiding me past rushing streams, keeping me away from the drains, not letting me loose in the bull paddock, when I was a really little fella; all those sort of things, and boxing my ears when I gave her check, telling me to shut up on the school bus when I interrupted her and her girlfriends, and telling them to shut up if they said it to me, adding, ‘Hey you dumb sheilas, leave my brother alone, or I'll thump you.’
Now I'd come to look after her. Walking round and looking. Changing my shoes often, putting the good ones on, for when I was talking to people. I went into the Maori meeting-hall down the bottom of Lambton Quay one night, and they were practising action songs. They were flash city Maoris come from work to their clubrooms, dressed in slick suits. They had lots of trophies for their good singing and I felt shy. Then one of the women got up, not so smart as the rest, and I heard the throb, the waiata I knew, true and clear, and I nearly cried. After she had stopped singing I showed her the photo, but she shook her head like all the rest. I went outside and she followed me, to find me sitting in the bus shelter across the road, really crying. She was pretty good to me, said her name was Wai, and would I give her the photo and she'd ask around. I said no, because I needed it to help me in my search, but I'd send her one when I got back home if I hadn't found Queenie, so we exchanged addresses on the back of an envelope I had in my pocket. She said, ‘Come home, have kai at my place.’ I wanted to go, but it was the last night and I was frightened to stop looking.
In the morning I went to the police again, and they drove me round the wharves. ‘What are you taking me here for?’ I asked. They explained and it hit me like someone was smashing me up and I couldn't stop them. ‘Is that what they think? Do they really think Queenie would be like that?’
I thought inside me. And I guessed that was their answer to the whole problem and I'd have been wrong to blame them for thinking it. I was glad I was going home that night.
I went to the station early, wanting to be on my way and I was sad, and there wasn't really anywhere left to go.
I checked my ticket, and as I left the counter, I saw her. Just like that. She was asleep.
I'd walked right past her the first time, but she wasn't very noticeable, so maybe it wasn't so strange. Lying there on the seat, she had her feet drawn up under her knees, shoes off, and a hand clutching the bushy hair that she'd always wanted to have straightened. Queenie had always slept like that, with her hand in her hair, even when she was little and I used to cover her with more of the blanket when we slept together.
When I shook her gently, she opened her eyes, looking from under heavy lids. ‘Heta,’ she said. ‘Hey, what in hell you doing here mate?’
I knelt beside her. ‘Come to get you,’ I said. ‘Dad sent me.’
She shook her head, dazed. ‘No, no, he can't do that.’
I looked at the station clock. It showed seven o'clock. The train left in half an hour. ‘Where are your things?’ I said urgently. ‘Come on, quick, tell me.’
‘Things?’ She looked blank and patted the kit beside her: ‘Them's my things.’
‘All your things?’
That shook me, but pleased me too. We could get straight on the train, for I'd had her ticket bought and with me, all week. A moment before I'd nearly got the money back at the counter, but they were busy, and I hadn't had the heart either, because it was so final. I could do it back home, I'd thought. Suddenly it was an omen.
‘Hurry.’ I said, yanking her to her feet.
No.’ She pulled against my hand, and there was a quick, wild look I'd never seen on her face before. ‘No, I don't want to go back.’
‘Ma worries about you. All the time. Every day.’
‘I'll write to her.’ said Queenie.
‘Queenie, Queenie, sister.’ I didn't have anything to say.
‘You going on that train? You could have a good time here.’
‘Come round to the cafe,’ she said, with a touch of the old bossy Queenie.
I followed her obediently, and hopeful, playing for time. The cafe was warm and steamy. You had to go along behind a rail by the counter and on the other side there was a string of girls serving, mostly Maori girls with tattooed hands. I noticed Queenie's hands were tattooed too— L-O-V-E, love, on the fingers of one hand, H-A-T-E, hate on the others.
‘I worked here for a bit,’ she said. ‘They all know me.’ She smiled dreamily through the steam. ‘You want something to eat?’
I looked at the food and shook my head; the potatoes mashed to grey and black; my Ma would have died to see the way they hadn't taken out the eyes. The dark pots of sludge coloured meat.
There are springs of water under the earth. Under the darkness.
The girls smiled at us. ‘Hi, Queenie,’ they called.
‘They sure know you,’ I said. ‘Why didn't you stay?’
‘Stay? I dunno. Too much else to do.’
‘Do? What d'you do?’
‘Eh? Oh nothing.’
We bought coffee and sat down.
‘You coming with me?’ I said, and stared about me, not wanting to look into her thoughts. The Pakeha across in the next seat, picking his nose, thought I was looking at him, and decided to use a hankerchief instead.
‘Its been cold here,’ Queenie remarked.
‘I know,’ I answered. ‘I've been here a week.’
‘Have you? What for?’
‘Looking for you.’
‘Is it warm at home?’
I put my hands on hers. ‘Is it warm little sister? Warm as sunlight, warm as Ma and Dad in bed. Warm as the tunnels between their legs where we used to crawl on cold
winter mornings, warm as kisses from the little fellas at night, warm as the hangi on picnic days. Is it warm, Queenie? You should feel the cows’ flanks, they're still warm. Rosie misses you and so does Tilly —they never given half the milk they used to since you went away.
Her face flickered with pleasure. Our hands tightened together and I hurried on. ‘Warm as dinnertime, and loving, and Ma and Dad and you an’ me at home like we always used to be, only you're not there. Only cold is in Ma's face when there's no letter from her Queenie, and no Queenie coming back to see her anymore.’
I held onto her hands and drew her up from the seat.
A loud speaker voice came chanting over our heads—‘The Auckland Limited Express will depart from Platform Eight at 7.30. Hurry along please.’
Out of the cafeteria, cold blue light gushed down on us, the subway canyons streamed away on our left.
‘I'm taking you home, Queenie,’ my heart singing. ‘I'm taking you home.’
‘… Passengers are reminded…’ the voice rattled from the loud speaker—Queenie's lips moved with it, like in prayers, she'd heard it many times before—
‘…Refreshments will be served at Palmerston North…’
‘Carriage N, Carriage O—we're nearly there Queenie, the last one it is—’
‘…Please do not attempt to board moving trains..’
‘We'll be on it Queenie, don't worry—’
‘… If you wish to smoke, you must use a smoking carriage. Special carriages are provided for smokers and nonsmokers..’
‘Queenie, good day mate, how would you be?’
Voices, voices all around us. A dozen faces, brown and white, under long streaming hair, faded jeans, bare feet, a guitar.
—Mocking me now from above—
‘… We wish all passengers a pleasant journey..’
‘This is it Queenie,’ I said feverishly. ‘This is our carriage.’
Again she looked at me with dreaming eyes, from the midst of her friends. Round their heads some wore bands, worn the way our people wear their tipare when they are in costume. They looked like the wild guys I'd seen on the pictures on Saturday nights, back home.
‘My brother, Heta,’ she explained to them, not sure whether to be embarrassed or proud. I was so different. So different from her too, though I'd not noticed it properly till that moment. Until then, she'd just been Queenie. Now she was—different. She might have been pregnant but then again she might not. You couldn't tell for sure, her puku had fallen away in her jeans, but maybe it wasn't a baby. They wouldn't have minded at home. Well, not so much that she couldn't have come back. One of the boys in the crowd threw his arm around her, casual and friendly.
‘… The limited will depart in two minutes. All seats please.’
‘Get on, Heta,’ she said, and kissed me, quick and funny, on the cheek. ‘My love to Ma and Dad and the kids. Tell ‘em I'm all right. Tell ‘em I'll write.’
‘Aren't you coming home. Queenie?’ I said, knowing the answer.
‘Home?’ The vague embracing smile over her companions. ‘This is home now, brother. My friends. We take care of each other.’
I was on the step of the train. ‘On you get lad,’ said the guard. I stumbled backwards, the door shut in my face. On the platform Queenie's friends had started to sing, gently, like a conversation between themselves, with the guitar laughing along with them.
Neon signals across the way were flashing on my horizon, I couldn't see her face for lights and tears. The train started to move. For one blinding instant Queenie's face and mine focussed on each other, and she leapt at the train door. Locked, maybe, it didn't budge and she fell back as the train gathered speed, loosening her grasp. I craned my neck around, but already she had picked herself up and was catching the strolling band wandering along the platform. I guessed her face would be dreamy again.
‘Goodbye little sister—Haere ra e te tua-
hine—Haere ra e Kuini, Haere ra,’ my heart beat with the wheels of the train.
At home on Sunday, Ma would say her prayers—ake, ake, ake, for ever and ever, amine—and I wondered, this time, would she ever open her eyes again.
I bent down to change my aching feet out of the new shoes into the old ones. It was the least I could do for myself. I'd be travelling all night, and all the next day too.
Back there, she and they together might ride easy into a neon night, but my journey would not be so good.