Johnny Boy

Johnny boy!’ cried Uncle Ray. His arms outstretched, pulling me in, body enveloping mine, his belt buckle close to bursting, holding nonetheless. He wore a purple shirt with an open neck. A large hei matau pounamu on his chest, buttons are straining against his stomach in their private battle to keep it covered. His grey hair slicked back, black pants pressed — a perfect seam running through the centre of each leg — were too long, almost covering his white New Balance sneakers, their two-inch soles pressed out to either side of his feet. I hug him back, hongi, inhale the smell of fresh tobacco and cologne. I’m his favourite nephew, which is saying something; there are plenty of us.

‘Kia ora, Uncle.’

He grabs my ears like I’m ten again, caught stealing Oddfellows from the console of his mustard Holden.

‘How you been, boy?’

‘Good, Uncle.’

‘Keeping out of trouble?’

‘Just.’

He grins at me. He’s lost a few more teeth since I last saw him. He’s got the Midas touch, one of them has turned to gold.

‘Got yourself a missus yet?’

‘Nah. Still playing the field,’ I lie.

‘That’s the way, son. Half your cousins are already knocked up. Get out there and see something before you do that, boy,’ he adds, ruffling my hair. ‘Where’s your sister?’

‘Dunno. Probably running late. You know how she is.’

‘True.’

He coughs, a deep-throated thing that rattles its way through his body. The path now cleared he pulls a fresh cigarette from a pack tucked into his pants pocket. He squints his eyes as he lights up, then stretches his mouth to suck air in through his teeth while clenching the butt. My father and a few of my uncles are heading into the Marae.

‘Auē. Looks like I better get in there. You know what my brothers are like, I’ll be lucky to get a word in.’

‘Doubt it.’

He smiles at me, a wide grin that needs no words. He takes a long drag of his cigarette then offers it to me. I wave him away. He fires smoke out through both nostrils then taps what’s left of it out on the top of the pack and tucks it back in.

‘Good boy. Horrible, this shit. Seemed like a good idea when I was a kid. See you in there, eh?’

‘Yep.’

I don’t know how long it’s been since I was up here in the Far North. The water is as blue as I remember it. Ocean currents drift in from around cliffs sheltering us on both sides. Shark Fin Island beyond the safety of the bay — I never did find out what its actual name was — thoughts of a great white below it always kept us on edge. I can see the sides of a square rock face we used to jump from as kids into the deep water below. I think of the pink, blue and orange coral cradling the kina we’d get for our parents. The smell of it when my uncles pulled them apart and ate kina tongues.

I’m on the grass verge of the beach where we used to play cricket, touch rugby and bullrush while our fathers dug hangi pits to feed us all. We’d stare in wonder at the silver bellies of travelli, the pink scales of giant snapper or the coloured flesh of gurnard they’d catch. Our dads would stand there as lords of their domain, wetsuits rolled down to their waists — chests out, rubberband spears at their feet, cold 750s of DB draught in their hands.

Our Marae isn’t like the ones you’d see on TV or in Rotorua. There’s no tekoteko on top of it, or maihi to welcome us in. The shape of it is there. It’s a long hall, a giant prefab that holds all of us. Laces are tied on shoes with no feet in them, piled high in clusters to the left and right of the entrance. Cousins raise their heads and eyebrows as they pass. They’re getting older. It makes me think of time. Of when our families would bring us together, to play, enjoy one another’s company, the freedom to wander these hills, camp at their bases and listen to dogs and wild pigs chase each other during our school holidays. I think of what we took for granted.

‘Hey, Cuz.’

He’s got a year on me, closer to my sister. For the longest time, we looked like twins. He moved south, and I moved to the city. From being as thick as thieves, to strangers. It’s surreal standing opposite him, shaking hands. We’re here for an occasion, after all.

‘Howzit?’ I reply.

‘Good, man. You?’

‘Sweet.’

‘What’s going on?’

‘Not much. You?’

‘Same old.’

‘Oh yeah?’

‘Where’s your sis?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Running late, eh?’ he says, grinning.

‘Probably.’

‘See you in there?’

‘Yeah, yeah.’

I take off my shoes and look at the others. Mine are a bit flash; they’re brown and black Campers I bought online. I pair them together then hide them under a pile of other shoes to the left of the door. It’s quiet in here — reflective of the mood, one of respect for our kuia who’s left us too young. The room is full, at least two hundred of us squeeze into corners, are seated atop mattresses, crocheted quilts, on old army blankets pressed up against the walls. It’s the final day of mourning. I’ve missed the first two; couldn’t get out of work having just arrived back from a trip down south.

I work my way carefully through the multitude of relatives, being careful not to step over anyone. I know a third of them. I approach the coffin; she lies there in peace. She looks wise, confident as always, her place in nga rangi tuhaha assured. I place a palm on her forearm. She’s cold to touch, the warmth and chatter I grew up with over an endless supply of tea, has left. I whisper thoughts to her, struggle through watery eyes to put much together before I make my way to a standing space at the back of the room. My sister arrives and follows suit; her eyebrows rise in my direction. I give her a half-smile.

There are speeches, most of which I can’t understand. I look ahead, watching a foreign film without subtitles, vowing once again to spend more time learning the language. Uncle Ray takes centre stage, his arms held aloft, calling upon the many heavens to welcome our kuia with open arms. It’s another two hours before everyone has spoken. Brothers and sisters take up their positions as the casket is closed and our kuia is carried up the hill to the urupa — her final resting place.

From up here, you can see everything, the bay below to the crags of the peaks on the other side of it leading to the kūmura pits. The wind is fresh, with an easterly blowing. Flowers and poems placed around her rua tūpāpaku, final words are spoken, a waiata sung. Tears shed, hands washed as we leave her. She will remain nameless until the unveiling in a year.

Thick smoke rises from the earth; the ground overturned. Clumps of soil with the grass still attached are placed in a pile to one side of the hangi. Large wire cages are lifted with soiled tea towels then placed on the ground side by side. Cabbage leaves are removed revealing large parcels of fish, chicken, meat, kūmura and potatoes. We wait for it to cool, sit in rows on each side of assembled tables, swap stories of the lives we have led, our kuia at the forefront of the celebration that unfolds deep into the night under a clear moonlit sky.

— — —

The doors open 30 minutes before the funeral is due to start. We’re all dressed in black or white. My clothes feel crisp, freshly laundered from a black-tie event held a few weeks earlier. There’s a woman up front I don’t recognise, dressed in blue. She’s directing the immediate family to seats left and right of the podium. First cousins, second, then friends and acquaintances sit behind.

Giant yellow stained-glass panels with an ornate red cross through the centre cast a vibrant light over proceedings. An organ player in a grey suit with a small white lily tucked into a buttonhole on his lapel plays ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ as we enter. There are lots of smiles, a few whispers but not much conversation. There’s a quiet, polite order to everything.

‘Hello, Jonothan. How are you?’ whispers a woman dressed in a striking black jacket and white pants with a wide-brimmed hat sitting low on her head.

‘I’m good, thank you, Aunty.’

‘Call me Samantha, honey, you being so tall and all, people will think I’m on the verge of retirement.’ She places a hand on my girlfriend’s arm. ‘And who might I ask, is this?’

‘Phoebe, this my Aunt … Samantha.’

‘Hello, darling, lovely to meet you. Aren’t you quite the couple? Take a seat, and we’ll talk shortly. Is your sister here?’

‘I think she’s on her way.’

‘Good. I don’t suppose your father’s coming? It’s been years since I’ve seen him.’

‘He said he might.’

People are turning in our direction; their faces aren’t happy. My sister walks in with her hand clutching my mother’s. Mum’s been crying; her eyes puffed like her tears have been caught beneath the skin. She stops to give me a gentle hug before making her way to the front pew. My sister’s lips are closed though her eyes shine on seeing Phoebe. Somehow my sister sneaks in beside our mum.

My grandfather appears on the wall. A history I wasn’t aware of shared with the room in soft bullet points and projected images. Heads of friends I’ve never met nod in unison to his achievements. A few chuckle or grunt their agreement as others tell stories of places and things I don’t know. This time I understand the words, though not the stories that go with them. We open a programme with a young black and white photograph of my grandfather who I barely recognise on the front. The Grand Canyon is behind him. He looks so young, alive, ready for anything, not yet aware of the silence and slippered existence he’d eventually fall into.

With the programme’s speakers done, Melanie opens her arms — palms up — and asks the floor if they’d like to say their piece. No one volunteers. We bow our heads or look to the ceiling for anonymity. We open the programme and sing the final hymn. I count each chorus that lies ahead of us. Melanie signals the end of the proceedings. The grey-suited organ player launches into ‘Time To Say Goodbye.’ A button pushed, flowers removed, the casket disappears into the wall. Only the Grand Canyon photo remains. An invitation to take tea and cake in a room next door. We wait for the front row — my sister included, to leave. They stay at the entrance; condolences are offered from everybody as they depart.

I balance a cup of tea on a saucer with a sausage roll and a small cupcake on either side of it. The icing is melting against the cup. I burn my hand each time I pick it up as I can’t squeeze a finger through its small handle. The photograph and a thick red book are placed next to a candle by the door. Conversation stops as I sign my name, send my love then sing a waiata to a startled audience, my sister beside me.

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Scott Butler

I’m a writer of blogs, original short stories, and novels. Here is a clutch of short stories written on Fridays. Visit me for more at scottbutler.co.nz