‘This town is getting far too Māori-fied’: a portrait of Hawkes Bay, by Shelley Burne-Field
I said to my husband, “Māori children have different values, that’s all. It’s not their fault. You know?”
My husband didn’t know. He couldn’t figure out, for the life of him, why the school principal had allowed a student to speak to me like that today? He leaned over the kitchen table, pointing.
“That girl called you a Pākehā c**t,” he said. “At the school! And you just took it.”
I turned away, my forehead hot, and bit into an ulcer on the side of my tongue. Bit it hard. The sting helped bring me back. Back to the taste of tea in my mouth. Back to my husband’s beer belly. Back out of the memory of sitting in the school office behind the glass window, shocked, my mouth gaping like a hole in an empty sack. Of being called a c**t by a student… but not just any student: Ana had been our daughter’s friend in primary school. She’d eaten at our house. She’d swum in our pool.
“Ana’s never said anything like that before.
“They always have it in them,” he said.
“Something happened to her Aunt.”
“Jesus, don’t make pathetic excuses.”
I never replied.
“Did you give her the yearbook?” His voice erupted, urgent. “I hope you didn’t give her the yearbook?”
I shook my head.
A squint pulled at his left eye, and he rubbed at it with the back of his hand. “You do too much for that bloody school. And those mongrel kids,” he said, and walked outside. Dust swirled inside the house, before a rush of air pushed it back out the door. The smell of lamb casserole wafted past my shoulder.
My hand rested on the door frame. It was Thursday. The ute pulled away, its tyres silent on our asphalt drive. Not a rasp. Not a hint of roughness. The day had deepened, yet the Hawkes Bay heat continued to throb, rising into a familiar turquoise haze.
In the front garden, my peonies exploded into scented balls of fluff. I felt re-energised for a moment, the day’s awfulness forgotten. The blooms had survived the November gusts which had sucked the region dry. Every farmer’s prayer for rain shimmered above rooftops and stalked across rutted and parched hills. We were lucky. Last summer, I’d convinced my husband to install a grey water system. It was one thing we agreed on: keeping our gardens the best in our street. The street we’d worked so hard to reach.
The dahlias had soaked up enough moisture to push through days ago, but they needed thinning. Over the years, I’d learned how to pinch out the unruly shoots, leaving the best to thrive. I joked to my gardening group that I’d learned “the pinch” from my mother’s habit of nipping my fleshy upper arms as a punishment for speaking in shops or on serious occasions.
This was Ana’s last year at school. She was a beautiful Māori girl. Thick black hair and burnt caramel skin. An excellent player in our top netball team. One of her poems had been selected for the yearbook. Her art blazed out from the cover, too. The painting showed a geometrical flower shape with Māori design, its leaves and thorns embracing the school crest. It was stunning.
“She deserves a copy of her own work,” I’d mentioned to Principal Burger.
“Ana missed the work day, Dora,” he’d replied. “One rule for all.”
You and I know that a student won’t receive the yearbook unless all fees are cleared. Over the 15 years I’ve worked in the office, the standards have remained the same. No exceptions. Cardboard-framed photographs and yearbooks were often left in boxes, never picked up by families. Or, they were occasionally retrieved the following year, after they’d paid.
Knowing Ana, I tried to defend her, but it didn’t help that her attitude had been shifting. Over the past few weeks, she’d missed classes – sometimes days at a time. I suppose after today, I knew why she’d been absent, though there was no excuse for Ana showing pure defiance towards Principal Burger, or the school. Or me.
I blame the Aunt.
Ana’s Aunt Pai, a lawyer, arrived from Sydney at the end of lockdown. She looked the part. A local law practice took her on, but she didn’t last long there. Too coarse. I tried to welcome her back – for Ana’s sake. After Covid, Pai spoke at our first women’s group meeting, but it ended in disaster. She turned up with an intimidating tattoo on her chin, and ranted about re-naming our town streets to Māori names. It struck a nasty chord and I was completely embarrassed, considering it was my turn to organise the speaker. However, it was no surprise to my cycling friends.
“Her family is pure trouble,” Barb had said, straddling her e-bike. “Re-naming Hobson and Grey Streets – if it wasn’t for Governor Grey, there would be no New Zealand as we know it.”
“Agreed.” Judy pushed wisps of hair into the sides of her helmet. “I shouldn’t say this, but EnZed would be a banana…what’s it called?”
“Republic,” Barb said, matter of fact.
“That may be true,” I said. “But it’s bit harsh, don’t you think? I believe New Zealand has done quite well, culturally. Much better than Australia.”
My friends shrugged. “It is getting worse and worse, though,” Barb continued. “Iwi want equality, and then they want special recognition? It’s separatist.”
Judy agreed again. She glanced up and down the limestone track and lowered her voice. “This town is getting far too Māori-fied. Have you seen the school buses?”
I had seen them. So had Barb. Māori designs looped down the walls, woven alongside foreign words none of us understood.
“I feel sorry for you, Dora.” The look in Barb’s eyes was comforting. “You, poor soul, have to answer the phone in the office. How can you possibly be expected to pronounce all of that? And changing street names? I’ve only ever bought houses on streets with English names.”
“Mmmm,” Judy nodded. “Me too.”
Barb rechecked the iPhone strapped above her elbow. “Anyway, I heard that Pai woman can’t get a position anywhere in town now. Completely black-listed.”
That wasn’t all. Not long after she came back, Ana’s aunt wrote a letter to the editor which caused another typhoon in the community, and this time it swamped the school. Her letter stated ridiculous claims that the school stood down or expelled Māori students more often than other races. Sometimes without any paperwork. The principal and the board of trustees were livid. I answered so many calls during the fallout.
After that, Ana organised a “black lives” protest outside the school gate. Several students pinned up black fist posters in the common room. The posters came down barely an hour after they hit the walls. Ana had stomped into the office and glared at me across the counter, her eyes narrowed. She’d braided her hair like some sort of American. It was so unlike Ana to be aggressive. She’d always blended well.
The bursitis in my left shoulder ached, and I bent my neck to the side. An odour of rotting fish blew out of the air conditioner.
“Miss, where did Mr Burger put our Black Lives Matter posters?” Ana asked, breathless, pulling up each white sock so they stretched towards her bare kneecaps.
“The principal told you they weren’t permitted on school grounds. We can’t be inciting violence,” I said. It rang true. We had to keep some sort of order. “Radical protests do not have a place here.”
“We were expressing ourselves, Miss! I thought you might understand. Our lives matter. My life matters, Miss.”
“I do understand. I do get it.”
“So, where are the posters? We painted them ourselves.”
“Incinerator. I’m sorry.”
Ana’s pupils had sparked then. I saw the change. She spat out the eff-word into the foyer where it bounced off the glass barrier.
“Language, please. I think you’re lucky it’s near the end of the school year, otherwise, you may get the leaver’s form.”
“For protesting racism? Miss, he had no right to rip them down!”
“The principal didn’t do it, Ana. He told me to take them down, and I did.”
“You, Miss?” Ana’s lower lip trembled.
We stared at each other from either side of the counter, both remembering our shared past. Both flicking through the same deck of slides, sorting through the mist of years: Ana and our daughter, Sally, running through our sunflower yellow kitchen, laughing and snatching ANZAC biscuits off the counter, then shovelling them into their mouths. Both skinny kids somersaulting together on the trampoline. Both diving for rocks at the bottom of the swimming pool.
At the end of Year 8, my husband insisted we separate the two girls. I never argued. Especially after Ana introduced Sally to that activist poet. Wild poems about sucking and sex and chicken wishbones in margarine containers. It was a sign. We always knew Sally would attend a private secondary school. The sort of secondary school that shielded her from the wrong types of influence. All our friends’ children had been on waiting lists for years. Both Ana and Sally had cried, but I was so pleased to help Ana every day at our local college. I enjoyed giving back to the community.
“You tore them down, Miss?” Ana repeated. “You?”
My lips pressed together. I wasn’t sorry about taking down vile words that stained our student’s minds. I wasn’t sorry about destroying a sentiment that denigrated my own daughter’s life. Sally mattered. Her life mattered just as much as a black person’s life. She mattered more than some. Criminals, the gang members, drug addicts, the dishonest people.
A strange shadow flitted across Ana’s forehead. A wisp of a frown. As if we were new strangers. As if I hadn’t given her a lift every Saturday to the netball courts. As if I hadn’t slaved in that office for years, helping her – helping every local student, whether black, brown, yellow, purple, or blue.
This “black lives” thing was completely irrelevant in our part of the world. The mayor had it right when she wrote a post about being “sick of apologising for being white.” It was about values.
Ana sloped into the office with two of her friends. I hadn’t seen her for a few weeks. Her hair was still braided, but today it was tied back into a ponytail. She leaned on the counter to speak through tiny holes in the glass. Her eyes looked filmy and tired.
“Can I please have my yearbook, Miss?”
“You know I can’t give it to you.”
“School fees are still outstanding, dear. You missed the fundraiser workday.”
“So? It’s my last year!”
“You missed all those days off school. Other students had to make the effort, Ana.”
“Days off? My Aunty died!” Ana whispered. “You remember her, don’t you? She…” Ana’s voice hitched and she covered her mouth with the back of her hand. One friend grasped Ana around the waist, while the other held her hand.
Died? When had that happened?
Ana lifted her chin. “She hung herself. A month ago. I found her at the house. Aunty Pai, at the house … and, and all you care about is your school fees?”
Did I know she’d passed away? Did I? I thought and thought. Why hadn’t anyone told me? Two boys bustled in the door, laughing and then whispering, before they galloped down the corridor.
“Are you listening?” Ana shouted. “I want my yearbook? Please. I wrote her a poem…”
Principal Burger strode out of his office. “Everything alright out here?”
“No! All I want is the Yearbook, Mr Burger. My poem about my Aunty is in there. My painting is on the cover. Please.”
“I understand, Ana,” he said. “But what message would it send to our core students who actually put in quality time? You’ve done well to make Year 13, but you’ve slipped recently. You’d agree with that?” The principal placed his hand on Ana’s shoulder. She flinched away.
“You’d agree you haven’t given your best this year?” he repeated.
Ana’s mouth cracked open. I could see her arms shaking, and her fingers turning white as she squeezed her friend’s hand. Why didn’t she stop and think about what she was doing? The clock ticked loudly on the wall, and the telephone buzzed into life, making me jump in my seat.
“Why are you so racist?” Ana asked. Her words rasped. They were rough, as if her throat had closed in around swollen vocal chords. As if a foreign object was lodged in the centre of tissue and bone.
“Pardon?” said Principal Burger.
“Ana…!” I said when Ana opened her mouth to speak again. For some reason I started to pant. Sweat broke out on my top lip, as if somehow I was responsible for this child’s hideous behaviour.
“She’s sorry. She really is,” I said to the principal, in a panic. “They have different values, that’s all. It’s not her fault.” I turned to Ana. “I’m so sorry about your aunt, but you can’t talk to Principal Burger like that. You must apologise.” The yearbook was suddenly in my fingers, held on top of the counter, waiting for Ana to concede. To push through.
Tears dripped from Ana’s lashes. The other girls wiped their eyes too, yet they never backed down. Ana ignored the principal and stepped towards me. She saw me holding the yearbook.
“Please, Miss?” she asked.
I replaced the yearbook under the counter, she watched me do it.
That’s when Ana called me that disgusting name. I’m sure she mouthed it, as she and her friends turned and walked out of the office. Just a whisper, mind you. A hiss under her breath. An insult that sparked up from the black stain at her centre. It shot up to her eyes, sharp and full of the future; prodding, accusing. Hot on my forehead. I swear on my dear mother’s grave. I heard it. I did.
Well after nine o’clock, I drifted out to the garden to dead-head the peonies and deal with the dahlias. The evening had cooled off. Indigo clouds carved the sky into spiralling waves, reflecting the darker bay below. I caressed the best dahlia shoots then put on rubber gloves and pinched away the rest. Pinch, pinch, pinch. My teeth cut into the side of my tongue. The relief was instant, sending warmth to my navel and lower to the base of me. Pinch, pinch.
Next week’s short story is a classic from 1959, “The Day in Bed”, by James Courage (1903-1963), to mark the new publication of personal diaries by the great Canterbury writer.