Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa Go to Te Ao Hou homepage
No. 73 (July 1973)
– 11 –

The Best Of Dinners

The Te Pikis had trouble parking the car. Finally they found room in the long line of vehicles alongside the marae. There were buses taking up room everywhere, but they just had room to squeeze in between a beat-up jalopy with a sagging tray which threatened to collect their rear vision mirror as they edged in, and a hand-painted electric blue Chev. exploding kids in all directions. Just as they were sliding the last inches into position, Piri had to slam his foot down to avoid a tiny leg protruding from behind the Chev's front tyre. The owner of the leg emerged, all of three years old, removed the slice of watermelon from his mouth long enough to smile, and retreated.

Piri cursed thinly through his teeth, and climbed out to make sure that their shiny little Volkswagon hadn't been scratched in the manoeuvre. Sally slid out behind him, laughing.

‘What's so funny?’ he snapped. Without looking at her, he shrugged off her amusement and straightened his tie. Sally could see why he'd insisted on her wearing a hat. She never did as a rule, unless it was to a wedding, and even that wasn't as essential as it had once been. Still she kept one outrageous one in reserve for special occasions, which this, in a sense, definitely was.

As she looked at the women purposefully making their way over to the new hall, shepherding children, and looking for errant husbands who had dallied to talk in the winter sun, she saw that, except for old women in scarves, they were all wearing hats, mostly shiny white straws, cone shaped, or linen, with little rolled back brims, in spite of the season. Still, so white, so all purpose, that there was no mistaking that they were right for the day.

Piri's eyes were starting to light up with interest.

‘Shall I take my hat off?’ Sally said, fingering the huge floppy brim of her coffee coloured felt with the bizarre cut-outs on its enormous crown and the floating scarf.

‘Eh?’ Piri dragged his attention from the crowd. ‘Come on, they're going in.’

‘Shall I take my hat off?’ she persisted.

‘No, of course not, I told you to wear one. You going to wait all day?’

And he started off, without waiting for her to reply. Sally sighed and set off behind him, thinking how lucky men were, because unless they went really all out, they could get away with being smart in a less obvious way than women. Piri looked just right, in his nice brown suit, with a coloured shirt and wide tie. He'd have been right in the city, like every day when he set off to work, and he looked right now. She couldn't complain though, she kept telling herself, about the way either of them looked, or about his sudden enthusiasm. After all, coming there was all her idea.

‘Take me back to where you came from,’ she'd said to him. ‘It's your heritage, you want to separate me from it? You share mine.’

Heritage! The word had grumbled round the house at him for weeks. Why did she keep on about it so, Piri wondered, every time she brought the subject up. He'd had a poke around a few maraes in his time, been to a few huis. He knew what went on. And he remembered. He'd been nearly nine when his parents left the country to come into the city. You don't forget the early days so easily.

But what the heck, the city'd killed off both his parents in one mighty car smash before you could turn round; the welfare had had him brought up in a Pakeha orphanage; he had a job in the city that many a Pakeha would say his prayers twice to

– 12 –

get; he'd got a Pakeha wife, not for any special reason except that she happened to have been the right girl for him, and if her parents hadn't liked it too well and there'd been the odd rough patch there, he could take it. It hadn't stopped them getting a good flat, and no one complained about them as tenants, because the rent was always paid, and Sally had a home science degree, which meant she was just about the smartest housekeeper a landlord ever had.

So what about heritage!

‘It's like this,’ she'd said to him, very serious-like when they had the lights down low and they were becalmed one evening on an ocean of music and warmth, ‘It's like this, every Maori looks for his heritage sooner or later, it doesn't matter how he was brought up.’

‘Rubbish,’ Piri said, nibbling her shoulder.

‘No, it's true,’ she said, rubbing her fingers round the base of his neck. ‘I'm denying you what you want.’

‘What do I want,’ he'd said, mocking, as if she didn't know.

But she'd rolled away in the thick pile of the carpet where they were lying. ‘It's natural for you to go back to your inherent beginnings.’

‘I've looked them over,’ he'd replied. ‘I can take them or leave them. Anyway, who's been talking to you? Some of those guys you work with?’

So she'd told him about this chap who'd come in to talk to the Liberal Studies class, at the school where she taught home science. He'd told them all about Maoritanga, which he knew a lot about, seeing as he was a professor somewhere or other, and how the Maori race had inescapable bonds with their heritage.

That darned word again.

And here she was denying him of it, and expecting him to conform to Pakeha patterns of culture without giving anything in return.

He'd said, ‘We'll think about it,’ because how in the world could a man get a bit of peace if he didn't agree sometimes. ‘What about some inter-cultural relations to be going on with?’ She thought that was pretty funny and they forgot about it for the night.

Well he did. But Sally went off and did some homework. Next attack came on a Saturday morning. They always slept in Saturday mornings, maybe till eleven. He should have known to expect trouble when she got up and made a cup of tea at 8 o'clock.

She sat on the edge of the bed clutching her cup up close to her chin, so that the steam rose and encircled her face, giving her an eerie soft look, with light falling through the upper windows, lighting the smokey face with its smoke-grey eyes and long hair tangled from sleep.

‘Come on, out with it,’ Piri said.

So she told him about the opening of the church meeting hall back up where he used to live. There would be a church service first, then a hangi—the organisers said they'd have enough food for two thousand, and a football match afterwards; it was tomorrow and if they got up really early, it was only about a hundred and fifty miles away, they'd be up there in no time.

‘You might meet some of your relatives,’ she'd said on the way up, next morning.

‘Wouldn't know them from Adam,’ Piri said. ‘They wouldn't know me either. Now don't you go getting sentimental on me. You're the quizzy one, you're the one wants to have a look, not me.’

And yet—and yet, here he was striding into the crowds his head flung back, anticipation in every step. He looked back to her again, and his eyes were shining with pleasure.

‘Come on,’ he called to her, stretching out his hand. ‘Hurry.’

And as she sat with him, she watched his lips move in the remembered strains of hymns set in Maori. He dissolved amongst his people, being one of them, and she, touching close to him, shoulder to shoulder, was yet left to sit alone. After the last ‘amine’, the dedication was over and the people spilled out into the sparkling air, breathing deep the freshness of the hillside morning. The pa was high above the sea, and the waves broke below, a real fortress. Sally shivered, in spite of the light, as history seeped through her, chilling her with a melancholy of things not understood.

– 13 –

The women were taking off their hats, so she did too, the long spotted scarf trailing on the ground. Piri turned to her. She thought he'd forgotten her, and maybe he had for a moment, but he wanted her back now.

‘I want to show you something,’ he said. ‘The women have to set out the food now, and that'll take a while.’ Leading her by the hand, past the crowds, he took her along the hillside to where it gently sloped backwards from the pa, towards level ground. A small cemetery lay amongst trees and bushes gone wild but beautiful, but the graves had been tended recently. He led her straight to a grey, moss encrusted tombstone, with a bent iron railing round it.

‘My gran,’ he said. She held his hand tight.

Behind them, a voice said quietly, ‘Her favourite mokopuna. It is Piri Te Piki?’

The man who'd spoken was ageing, with white hair standing out over his ears. Piri nodded. The man held out his hand. ‘I'm your second cousin. Eru Te Piki.’ Piri hesitated, and put out his hand to clasp the cousin's. Eru held it firmly and placed his other over the top.

‘I followed you here. You were too like my cousin not to be his son.’

Sally saw Piri glance self-consciously at their ultra-smart city outfits. ‘You recognized me. But I was only a little boy when I left.’

‘You're your father's son.’

‘Now I remember you, too,’ said Piri.

‘Why didn't you come back to us?’ Eru asked him.

Piri nodded at the grave. ‘Who to? She'd gone. They tell me it was a bad year here, a lot had gone away—the welfare didn't know who to send me back to …’

Eru nodded. ‘I remember, I was away on a fishing boat that year.’ He shook his head. ‘A pity.’ He looked at Sally. ‘Your wife?’

He watched Piri looking at her, and inside her went cold, and suddenly shy. She wondered for an instant if her husband was ashamed of her. He smiled and took her hand. ‘This is Sally. It was her that made me come back,’ he said proudly.

Eru smiled warmly. ‘She's very pretty, man,’ he said softly. Then with briskness, ‘Now come along, time for kai,’ and together they walked back to the dining hall and the extra tents that had been set up outside. ‘See you later,’ Eru called to them, when they'd found somewhere to sit. ‘You got to meet my wife, but she's busy with the hangi now.’

Grace was said, and soon the food arrived on paper plates. Around them, people were glancing at the young Te Pikis. It looked like word was getting around already, but meanwhile it was time to eat. Talking could come later. Sally's plate was placed on the edge of the trestle table, in front of her.

She looked at the food and her stomach turned over. There was green wet vegetable lying slackly on one side of the plate, a disintegrating potato, and mutton floating in grease. She looked at Piri who was halfway through his food already.

‘Maori bread. Whoa!’ he exclaimed. ‘Here.’ He passed her a plate of it and she took a piece. ‘Hey, what's the matter?’ he mumbled, his mouth half-full.

‘Don't talk with food in your mouth,’ she snapped.

‘Eh?’

‘I'm sorry, I'm not very hungry, to tell you the truth.’ She bit the bread tentatively. To her it had a sour taste. The meal before her was cooling rapidly, the fat congealing.

‘Eat it,’ said Piri. ‘They'll think you don't like it.’

She picked up a forkful, and her stomach heaved towards her mouth. She put the fork down miserably. ‘Piri, no one'll notice will they? I truly can't eat it—I'm sorry.’

‘Don't then.’ They waited in silence till everyone had finished and was beginning to leave the tables. Piri pushed back the wooden form they'd been sitting on, and sarted walking. She followed him, trailing her smart hat behind her. They got to the car and Piri unlocked it.

‘Where are we going?’ she asked.

‘Home.’ He slammed the door shut and crashed into reverse not caring so much this time whether he hit anything or not. They drove back to the city, very fast, in cold silence, broken only once when Piri said to

– 14 –

her, ‘Next time you want to go playing at being a Maori, make sure you know the rules. Just don't expect me to join in the game. I am what I am.’

‘Your father's son,’ she said.

‘Shut up,’ he said, and having no more words to slash her with, would have hit her with his hands if they'd not been clenched on the steering wheel. They got back to town quite early. At home there would be no food, because she'd got nothing in, thinking they'd be late back, and maybe eat somewhere along the road.

‘I suppose you want to go to your mother's for a meal?’ he said.

‘Well, we usually do on a Sunday night. Might as well,’ she answered, trying to sound bright and normal. ‘She'll probably have something in the pot.’

‘I'll bet she will.’

But dinner was nearly over when they got there. ‘I'll cook you up something,’ said Sally's mother.

‘Don't bother, I'm not hungry,’ said Piri.

‘Neither am I,’ Sally said quickly. Her

mother, who loved whisking up snacks, was disappointed.

‘Well, there's still cheesecake to come, it's delicious, a new recipe, really rose up beautifully,’ she chattered, cutting them slices.

‘It's fab, Mum,’ Sally said, trying it. She was starving.

Piri put his down. ‘Not my thing at all.’ He pushed the plate away and stood up. ‘Finish yours,’ he said to Sally. ‘Then I think we'd better make tracks. It's been a long day.’

Sally glanced at her mother who wouldn't look at her. It was as much as she expected of her son-in-law, sooner or later, but she'd bound herself not to say so. Sally got up too, kissed her mother, and excused herself.

Out in the car again, she said, with the sort of fury there'd never been between them before, ‘You did that on purpose.’

‘What?’ he said evenly.

‘You know very well you didn't eat that cheesecake to pay me back.’

‘Don't you hand me that,’ he said dangerously. ‘Look, I eat your stroganoffs and your pizzas, your shish kebabs and your curries, and your tortillas and vol-au-vents, and I even have an olive in my drink, and I damn’ well like it all. But I don't like cheesecake,’ he shouted. ‘What are you crying for, eh?’ he snarled, as she turned her head away without answering.

‘They said it wouldn't work …’

‘Who said what wouldn't work?’

‘Everyone. You and me.’

‘Oh yes, it'll work all right, in your nice, clean fastidious, hygenic world. That's all I asked from you and that's what I got, and you go trying to muck it up with something different, that's all.’

She stared at her hands in her lap, covering them with falling tears. As she said no more, he felt fear, urgent as pain. She saw him look up and the car slowed down. Thoughtfully frowning to himself, he reversed back up the road, and stopped.

‘Now what?’

‘You must be hungry,’ he said gently, through spent anger. Beside them stood a piecart. ‘Hop out,’ he said.

At the piecart counter there was an as-

– 15 –

sortment of people; a Maori family, a young mixed couple like themselves, more likely counting than married, a couple of famished looking students, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman who could as easily have been Sally's mum getting ‘easy tea’ for Sunday night.

‘Chips, two pies, lots of tomato sauce, and two thickshakes,’ Piri ordered. When it was all ready, they climbed into the car. He gave the food to Sally to hold. They drove down past the wharves and parked. He took the food from her and after he'd opened it across their knees, they ate.

After a while, he said, ‘Good city Maori kai, good city Pakeha tucker.’

‘Did you like the hangi dinner?’ she asked.

He was close to shy, like she'd been earlier that day. ‘Yes,’ he admitted. ‘But sometimes when the hangi's cooked for so many people it's not as good as if it were… just for a family say. I should have remembered that before I blew my stack.’

‘Piri … I …’ she started, but he put his fingers across her mouth holding her lips together, like children do when they make each other say ‘a basketful of vegetables’ and she nearly choked on a chip.

‘When we go back to meet Eru's wife,’ he said … she wiggled her head—but he held onto her mouth … ‘We'll go for Sunday lunch when the bread's sweet and fresh and there's a nice mug of tea to go with it, and she's cooked for twenty and not two thousand.’

He let go of her mouth and kissed it quickly where his fingers had been. ‘And if you don't like that, I'll eat your share and have a big, cold, greasy pie waiting in the car to shove down your Pakeha throat.’ He took her hand. ‘Time to go, wahine.’

They smiled at each other, and, comfortable and replete—at last—drove companionably home.