“This must be how it feels to play professional sport”: a story of colonialism and netball by Wellington writer Michaela Keeble

We play netball every Wednesday in the lower grades of Wellington’s lunchtime league. We have a name but no team uniform, unless you count saggy leggings and stained t-shirts as unifying elements. We are The Flying Rats, after the pigeons that smother the alley behind our office.

“Why don’t you aim a bit higher?” one of the volunteer lawyers asked when we first started playing. She wasn’t talking about our grade, or the quality of our game. “Call yourselves The Kererū,” she suggested. “They’re pigeons too. They were here first.” She’s white,  but her reo is faultless. “Even better,” she added. “Poho Kererū!” and puffed out her chest as if to translate.  

“Nah,” Rangiātea said, coming to our rescue. “We’re The Rats, eh girls,” even though she’s staunch as, and could probably turn into a kererū if she wanted, beat her princely wings high into the office blocks around us. Rangi is our unofficial captain, on the court and in the office. I’m in awe of her. Sometimes I think I’m in love with her, but that’s not really what I mean. It’s more that she works so hard, hardly seems to think about herself, and still maintains an effortless cool. She has a way of asserting herself without sarcasm when Pākehā overstep the line.

Anyway, we were relieved. Most of us weren’t comfortable playing netball, let alone playing under a fancy team name we had no claim to.

These days we’re a bit more confident. We play against the corporates – banks, energy companies, telecommunications giants. Law firms, of course. Sometimes the public sector puts up a side, the Ministry of Justice or the Māori Land Court. We play hard, and mostly we win, even if we never get a grip on the final score.

We win because, apart from Rangi, who played for New Zealand and represents at Iron Māori every year, we also have Māia. Māia could have played with the Silver Ferns, but she chose law instead. She’s not very tall, but when she jumps it’s like she’s suspended in the air, a dust particle travelling in slow motion. She makes whole decisions mid-flight, always with a look of unruffled pleasure as she settles on her final direction. Time speeds up again when she hits the ground.

Our only male – we need him to qualify for the grade – is Rangi’s partner, Mākara. Mack doesn’t dominate the court, like you might expect from such a tall, shaggy basketball player. He’s considerate and encouraging. Sometimes I wonder why he plays with us at all. Maybe it’s to support Rangi, but he turns up even when she can’t play and he still seems to have a good time.

Between Rangi, Māia and Mack, we could probably qualify for the highest lunchtime grade. But the rest of us are Pākehā, or migrants of one kind or another. Not to say that white girls can’t play sport but, in our case, it’s pretty much the truth.

*

We get ready at work in a hurry, because we represent half of Community Law’s total staff. Abandoning the office during a busy free legal advice session isn’t very fair. We slip through the waiting room, full of clients. Some look at us sideways. Are we lawyers, athletes, grotty law students or a strange bunch of class action clients? Why are we leaving when the advice session is just beginning? Is the legal help in this place to be trusted, or not in the slightest?

We step out into the alley through the habitual scattering of pigeons. I shield my face with my arms and feel the updraft of their panicked escape.

If we have time, we walk along the waterfront. Through Civic Square, over the bridge with wooden teeth, down the concrete steps to the harbour. Mostly though, we’re running late and have to hustle along Willis Street, staying right at Old Bank Arcade, taking Customhouse Quay in a straight line to the stadium.

Rangi and Anna walk at twice my pace. I trot behind them, studying their backs. Rangi is broad-shouldered and tattoos proliferate across her arms and past the neckline of her sweatshirt. Next to her, Anna – an exceptional lawyer – is a wisp of smoke. She’s taller than Rangi, but so thin as to be nearly evaporated. The most substantial thing about Anna is her hair, which billows down to her waist like mist. But it would be a mistake to think of Anna as frail. Like Rangi, she doesn’t stop till her clients get what they need, or at least what can be wrung for them out of the broken washing machine of the law. She doesn’t slow down for anyone, certainly not for me.

Jogging to keep up, I’m still a head below their conversation. They’re talking about the newborn who’s just been stolen by a state social worker. Rangi’s been working for months with the baby’s whānau, but the social worker’s one of those old-school racists. She wouldn’t take her shoes off at the door to the family’s whare. Wouldn’t accept the food they’d prepared in advance. “She couldn’t see what was in front of her face,” says Rangi. “She was never gonna let them keep baby.” I hear Rangi’s despair and feel useless.

“Fuck her,” I pitch in, “you did everything you could.” But it doesn’t mean anything.

Anna, who’d prefer not to hang around in anger for too long, switches to action mode. Starts talking about framing the appeal. But today, Rangi doesn’t really want to talk shop.

With my stumpy legs and my slow heart, I can’t keep up. I fall back into pace with Lily and Zahra. Zahra is second generation Lebanese, an immigration lawyer who’s by far the most fashionable among us, wearing fluorescent active wear and false nails. She gets migraines when she exercises, so even though she’s our shortest player, she plays goal shoot or goal keep, restricted to a third of the court. Other teams find this confusing, and their defenders look guilty just for being tall. Sometimes Zahra stops playing and addresses them directly, “Can’t you just move over? This is completely unfair.”

Lily is from Dunedin. She dislikes the competitiveness of sport and goes quiet if a game takes too serious a turn. She wears op shop florals, grows her own food, grew up surrounded by folk musicians. I used to think she was unreconstructed white New Zealand. Now I see how wrong I was, or how fast she’s changing, or both, even though her shining face remains the same. She’s fearful of the ball and shies away when it comes hard at her. Rangi and Māia compensate by lobbing her beautiful, accurate passes.

I don’t know what they do to compensate for my faults. Stand back, probably, and let me run out my bluster. I’m an inefficient bulldog. I’m more like a team mascot than anything else. The only thing I’m good at is scrapping, and there’s always a scrap to be had, though not here, not among my teammates. Somehow, despite myself, off the court and on, I mainly feel like a useful part of the team.

So that’s seven of us. Mack, Rangi and Anna are the tallest. Māia, Lily and me about average. And Zahra, by far the shortest in the entire grade.

*

Mack’s already at the stadium when we arrive, having driven in his tiny, beat-up Starlet, knees around his ears. Māia’s also on court, shooting practice hoops from outside the goal circle. She ran ahead of us, and she’ll run back again too. It’s not like she doesn’t get enough exercise already – she plays touch about 50 times a week.

The first whistle sounds and we stumble on to the court, tying up shoelaces and pulling on the bibs Māia throws to us. It takes a while to figure out which way we’re shooting and where we’re supposed to stand.

“Hurry up,” their male centre mumbles, appealing to the referee, who remains impassive.

Today, it turns out, we’re playing Spark. It’s the final game of the season and the plastic winner’s trophy sits on a plinth to the side of the nets. The Spark players have aqua blue team shirts and seem older than us, though I’ve learned that first impressions are deceiving. We’re probably all about the same age – it’ll just be their wages and their haircuts giving them that well-established vibe.

The first quarter is tough. We’re lethargic and Spark is jumped-up and aggressive. They succeed in intimidating us, though they also seem to be intimidating themselves. The guys hurl the ball to each other and ignore their female players, who seem perfectly capable to me.

By quarter time, Spark is well ahead. I’m tired and angry and wishing like always that we had some subs. We collapse on to the benches just outside the nets. Lily looks stressed and Zahra slumps down to rest her head between her knees. Māia and Mack start talking about some drama in the NBA and Anna slips away to make a work call. But after a few minutes, Rangi calls us back together for a pep talk.

“Who are we?” she teases.

“The Flying Rats,” I say eventually, because I can’t stand the silence. No one else joins in.

“I said, Who are we?” Rangi’s not gonna let this one go.

“The Flying Rats, you dick,” Lily laughs.

“That’s right,” she says. “We’re The Rats. Let’s start acting like it. I know they’re mean. But since when has that ever stopped us. This is the last game of the season. You’re gonna miss this next week!”

 “And look at how they treat their girls,”Māia says. “Let’s not let them get away with it. Lighten up. Have fun. This is supposed to be fun, ok?”

“Ok,” we say, a bit ashamed of ourselves, because Māia’s the one going through chemo, and she’s the one who never lets it get her down.

Māia pulls Zahra off the ground and Rangi squeezes my shoulder. Māia takes off her centre bib and gives it to Lily, who looks fearful, but doesn’t protest. She then takes Mack out of goal and puts Anna there with Zahra instead. This is a surprise – normally if we’re struggling, Mack or Rangi take over the goal circle – literally no one can touch them. The combination of Anna and Zahra isn’t guaranteed to produce results. But it is sweet – standing side by side they look like Danny DeVito and Arnie from Twins.

*

The next quarter starts with a toss-up. Both centres face each other and the ref flicks the ball into the air between them. The first to snatch the ball and pass it to a team mate wins the toss. The Spark centre – athletic and cleanshaven – looms over Lily. The whistle goes and Lily and the guy get their hands to the ball at the same time, but the way he wrestles it out of her grasp is nasty. Lily stops playing and stares at him. He lobs to the guy on his wing but Rangi intercepts the pass and slips the ball back to Māia, right under his nose.

The tone of the game changes. The centre, who should be marking Lily, starts to dog Māia instead, jostling and contacting her unnecessarily. He shouts at his team mates to “stay on the guns,” but Rangi and Māia play him easily, stealing the ball and getting it down to our end with ease. The rough play makes us nervous but Māia and Rangi keep up the positive talk, and we lift our game to match them, playing for Māia now, as well as for Lily.

This second quarter is our power play, and Māia shoots goal after goal from outside the circle. Every goal is worth double, so two points become four and soon enough we’re back in the lead.

By the third quarter, everyone’s playing better than we ever have before. This must be how it feels to play professional sport. Anna reaches for Spark’s highest lobs and takes them easily, feeding them to Zahra, who chances enough goals to keep us from slipping behind. The ball is travelling so quickly I can’t keep up, even though I’m wing attack and supposed to be covering the middle of the court. Each time it heads back down to Spark’s end I double over to catch a breath.

Sucking in air, staring at my untidy shoelaces, I remember what happened this morning, when Rangi took the phone call from her client, the mum who’d just had her baby taken. We all listened silently while Rangi said things like, “What the fuck? When?” and “Where are you now?” and brushed tears out of her eyes while trying to sound collected and capable. When she hung up, I thought she might look towards me first. For what, solidarity? A solution? Mutual rage?

I don’t know. But anyway, she didn’t look at me. She turned towards Māia instead, left me looking at her back. I felt the two women closing ranks, taking a mutual breath. I felt the sting of exclusion. But why would Rangi share this trauma with me?

I hear Lily cry out and when I look up, she’s fallen on the court.

Māia jumps in to the fray, slight frame squaring off against the Spark centre, who seems angry enough to try and knock her out.

Rangi comes flying in from the wing, joining Māia to push back against the guy. He steps away. Then Rangi’s calling the ref over and going off at him. Next thing, the referee has sent the male player off and Rangi’s hugging Māia, who looks seriously pissed off. Māia can defend herself, but I see how protective Rangi is, and it’s enough to make me want to cry.

All of us gather round Lily, still sitting on the floor.

“You okay Lil? Did you see that, Shell?” Rangi asks me, but I didn’t. “He fully pushed you over!” she says to Lily, who nods her head.

“You hurt Lily?” Anna asks.

“Nope,” Lily says, “just a bit stunned.”

“A-hole!” Zahra says.

“Fucken dick!” Rangi says.

“He doesn’t like being beaten by women,” Māia says.

“Specially not brown women, aye kare,” Rangi says to Māia, in a way that makes the rest of us feel like we’re on the right side. “So he picks on the small white girl, eh Lil!” Rangi says to Lily, laughing, and hugs her hard.

After a stern talk from the ref to both sides, just to keep up the appearance of impartiality, the game continues, and we win, of course. There’s no way Māia and Rangi will let Spark take this one home. We get the trophy – it’s big – and we’re friendly to the other side when we shake their hands, though their centre is nowhere to be seen. Mākara holds the trophy up in one hand and laughs, “Go the Rats!” and I think about getting some pigeon t-shirts made up next season. It’s about time we had a uniform.
 

Next week’s short story: The Camp, by Elspeth Sandys

Michaela Keeble is a white writer who grew up in Melbourne and now lives in Porirua. Gecko Press is publishing her children' book about defying unjust authority and her poetry chapbook “intertidal”...

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