“Can you teach me the reo?”: Friday night at the Fish Whare
Inky skies glowed blue at the horizon and the fish and chip shop slouched in the wide main street. One of its roughcast walls hunched up against the old Post Office, while the other took a beating from a cheeky southerly squall that had crept up and slapped them all in the face around three o’clock.
Inside, John stood behind the counter. It was Friday night at the ‘Fish Whare.’ The windows wept onto towels scrunched along aluminium sills and people crammed onto tatty red leather stools or stood with their backs an inch off the painted ply. Two tamariki careened on and off customers’ thighs like pinballs before being cuffed by mums with shadowed eyes. One of the mums muzzled her tamahine into her side while she read notices on a large board. The other mum handed a mobile phone to her tama, then sat him on a stool. She draped fingertips across the back of his neck, daring him to escape.
The loud chatter reminded John of being back in front of a classroom. He shivered at the thought. Wind gusts rammed the aluminium door open and shut, ringing the bell into a constant alarm. Outside, a man stood vaping, sheltered in the doorway beside rows of empty gumboots. Each new customer would carry in the freezing air and tobacco-flavoured juice and then stamp their socks onto the lino before moving further inside. John was about to yell Keep the effing door closed! but thought better of it and took the next order out to Mihi – his tuahine and main cook.
“Jesus, hurry it up,” he said with a frown. “The Council needs their feed at six o’clock.” John pegged the order onto a string-line that spanned the top of a scarred Formica counter.
Mihi dragged her arm across her forehead. She wore yellow sweatbands around each thick wrist, and the same towelling band circled her head. Black hair puffed out the top like a loofah.
“I’m already cooking the kaumātua feed for tomorrow,” Mihi snapped. “Boy’s here to pick it up. Can I take home the cray bodies?” She looked up then, her eyes moist and deep.
“No,” John muttered. Christ, she was always trying to get something free. Stuff her. He pushed through the plastic fly-strips and out to the front counter, then gestured back over his shoulder towards the kitchen, rolling out his best teacher voice.
“Ah, koutou, our cook, Old Lightning, is taking her time. But don’t worry, your guts’ll be full of kai soon.”
Murmurs and laughs mingled together with a few moans.
“Sing a waiata!” somebody shouted.
“Fark no,” other voices yelled. More laughs, louder this time.
“Do Billy T!” a gruff voice heehawed from near the door.
Why not? John hadn’t stretched his lungs for a while. And they loved his voice. Everyone loved his voice. He reached under the counter and pulled out a hand-mirror. May as well ham it up. He looked into the mirror, paused until he had every brown and white face in the room hooked, and then began to sing.
“Oh Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder …” John wriggled his eyebrows.
By the middle of the waiata, battered crabsticks and spring rolls were forgotten as tone-deaf and harmonious versions rang out, steam and voices rising to the ceiling. At the end, the exclamation ‘Amine’ shuddered and lingered in the room.
“That was stink!” Mihi yelled from the kitchen. “The tongues in my pot sing better than that!” Through the doorway she held up two boiled lamb tongues and waggled them up and down like flesh puppets. The tongue skin was grey and bumpy and juice dripped down her hands. Mihi giggled and blew a sloppy raspberry – bleurrrrrkkkk! – while jiggling the tongues some more. The shop erupted in laughter and groans. John glared at her.
“Hurry up!” he mouthed.
After the din, the doorbell jingled again and a stumpy police officer skittered inside, adjusting his stab vest and walkie-talkie. He shook his hat, held it under his armpit, and made his way through the bodies, stopping now and again to chat. John hurried out to the kitchen, even more annoyed that Mihi was now in a world of her own, dancing in front of the vats. He tapped her on the shoulder and she jumped, slapping his hand away.
“Jeepers!” she yelled.
“Stop mucking around,” he growled.
“How far away is Bruce’s order?“
“It’s right here.”
Mihi grasped two steel baskets out of the fryers and smashed them down, shaking them fiercely, then set them on top of a grate to let them drain. “Sheesh,” she muttered under her breath, and emptied the contents of a smaller basket – oysters and chips for one – onto fresh newsprint, then salted and wrapped them faster than a daddy-long-legs spinning up a fly.
“And his extra fish bites.” Mihi said bites as if tearing open a chippie packet with her teeth.
“Where’s my extra fish bites, huh, bro?“
“You get plenty,” John drawled.
“No, we don’t! Tight-arse. Tell Bruce those farm boys are ripping up our dunes with their four wheelies.”
“Four wheelers,” John said.
Mihi didn’t skip a beat. She shovelled scoops of raw chips into several baskets that were lined up along a steel trolley. At the same time, she washed fillets of gurnard in a tub of creamy batter and laid them into the hot fat. “Whatever,” she replied and pointed at John, her finger dripping batter. “That cop needs to stop picking on my moko for riding her motorbike up to the dairy, and catch those Pākehās on four wheelies instead.”
“It’s Pākehā. No esses. I keep telling you.”
Mihi spat back. “I didn’t go to flash Te Aute like you spoilt baby, eh? I worked at Caltex to pay Mum’s mortgage.”
John ignored her and delivered the oysters to Bruce, plus the bag of fish bites. “Just for you, mate,” he said. “Thanks, Māori,” Bruce said, jovially. “See you for nine holes Saturday?”
John planted a closed-lip smile on his face. Bruce, you wanker. Imagine if he’d replied Sure thing, Cracker? But no. Business was business. Living on the coast was like a waltz. Leading and following, following and leading, and making sure not to step on any pale toes. John turned away, his hands bunched up by his sides. He wound the loose apron strings around his fists and bit down hard on his tongue.
The next morning, bushy treetops swept away from the sea like a wahine holding her face to the wind. The storm had passed, yet like a sulky tamaiti, the leftover squalls picked up and whipped fists full of sand across the rugby field. Seagulls glided in the grey sky, wings spread wide, beady eyes searching for a hot chip or a scrap of batter dropped in the grass. John pulled his jacket up to his chin and stood behind an upright post while Mihi trotted along the sideline. She laughed and called to her mokopuna.
“Get in there Whiti! Ruck it!” she shouted.
John joined in. “Go Arai! Go for a try!”
Whiti, long hair flying, sprung the ball and passed it to his sister who sidestepped, fended two yellow jerseys, and sprinted for the line. Arai, plaits coiled at the sides of her head, dived across and planted the ball into the dirt.
“Ye-ah, Uncle!” She jumped up, whooped, and threw John a high-five then jogged back with the team. The young players patted each other’s steaming shoulders before swigging water from plastic bottles that Mihi had carried onto the field. She also carried an ice cream container full of cut up oranges that she offered to the tamariki. They quickly sucked the segments under their lips and ran back onto the field. Mihi smiled and picked up the discarded peels.
“How much time left?” John asked, pointing to the back of his wrist.
“Fifteen minutes?” she replied. “Are you here now? I’m gonna get the feed started for the after-match.” Her smile reached her eyes. “Please?”
John turned towards the game. “Ka pai. Ka kite anō i a tuahine.”
Mihi hesitated. “Can you teach me the reo?” she asked, quietly, hovering next to John’s arm. She pulled the dark hood of her sweatshirt over her head and looked out towards the game. “I was thinking of getting me a tattoo for my chin, too.”
“A moko kauae?”
John asked, shocked. There was no way Mihi was ready for that.
“I thought I’d learn to speak first,” Mihi said, sheepishly. “Then the moko, kauae? Is that how you say it?”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, sis,” began John, “but learning te reo is more than just learning words, and I’m not sure if you’re up to it.” Her face fell into a frown and John quickly changed his words. “I mean, I’m sure you could do it, but … would you even have time?”
Mihi shrugged. Their attention was grabbed by Arai running in another try for the team, and the moment was gone. She handed over the crate of water bottles.
“They’ll need these,” she said. “I gotta get the sausage rolls on.”
After the games had finished, kids, coaches and parents packed into the clubrooms. The tamariki left their boots at the door, but brought their chattering teeth inside, warming up by drinking Mihi’s veggie soup out of paper cups. Some whānau had brought dry clothes, mums hastily rubbing their children’s red legs before dragging them into thermals. John leaned against a wall by the doors. He wanted an easy exit.
The speeches took ten minutes tops, each coach handing out chocolate and trophies. Mihi and a couple of mums carried hot food to the table. Things that kids would chow down: mince and cheese savouries, saveloys and tomato sauce, sweet fairy bread and pizza. At the end of the table sat a huge stockpot of boiled pork bones and watercress, a tray of whitebait fritters next to buttered bread, and papers full of gurnard, mussels, and crispy potato wedges. Mihi had arranged everything neatly so the table looked like a banquet. Woven harakeke flowers bloomed out of milk jugs, and in pride of place – on a silver tray – lay slices of her special corned lamb tongue. One of the ruddy- faced coaches asked for silence.
“Thanks heaps to John who provided the feed today,” said the coach, and John nodded as loud applause filled the room. “And thanks to the parents who brought a plate. Does anybody want to say karakia?” he asked. Mihi peered at the floor, her shoulders locked, then from the back of the room a voice called out.
“I’ll do it.”
John recognised Fiona immediately, though they hadn’t seen each other for years. She was still thigh-slim, same turquoise eyes, yet shorter straw hair that lay close on her neck. John smirked at the thought of his old MC Hammer pants and mullet haircut. He’d been that 80s boy. His gaze lingered on Fiona’s rose pink lips and wide smile. John swore he could smell the floral Impulse spray she used to wear on her sleeves.
In perfect te reo Māori, Fiona murmured the karakia for kai and then she was lost in the boisterous crowd. A few minutes later John spotted her standing at a bar leaner.
“Hoani!” Fiona greeted him in a husky voice. “Kei te pēhea koe, e hoa?” She hugged John against the leaner, knocking a bottle onto the floor. He scrambled to pick it up.
“Fi?” he said, puzzled. “Did you come back because of Covid?”
She nodded and took a drink. “I’m all set up at Dad’s.”
“At the cottage?“
“Mmm. My own market research firm. Koe? I thought you were teaching up North?”
John waved his arms around the clubrooms. People had filled their plates and were now sitting down to eat their kai. “What can I say? No place like home, eh? Better than force-feeding school lunches.”
“I feel ya,” Fiona said, her eyes sparkling.
This was fun. The impromptu reunion took John back to $20 all-you-can-drink cabarets, and one or two girls on the bonnet of his ’76 Hillman Hunter wagon. Had Fiona been one of them? Maybe. He’d been that pissed most times, who would know?
Mihi had been hovering by the kitchen door and John waved her over. At first, she seemed reluctant to move, her eyes twitching left and right before focussing on John’s amused face. He waved again and this time she trudged over.
“Naaww, Fi, you came back home!” Mihi exclaimed. John thought it sounded like an apology.
“My god hun, you look just the same!” Fiona grabbed Mihi by the hips. “It’s so great to see you! Kei hea ō tamariki? Kei hea tō tāne?”
Mihi’s smile faltered and she looked in panic towards John. “Uh, I dunno …” she began.“
‘Sorry, Fi,” John interjected. “She never learned to kōrero Māori.”
Mihi stared blankly past his head, her lips pressed together, elbows pinched into her sides.
“Ben passed away a long time ago…” John’s voice trailed off. He didn’t enjoy listing the milestones of his sister’s life like an epitaph.
“It’s okay, Fi. I’m good,” Mihi murmured, twisting out of Fiona’s tearful hug. “I keep busy with my mokos and stuff. Most times I can’t understand what they’re saying!” She hiccupped with a loud burst of laughter. “Anyway, I gotta go open the shop.”
“The Fish Whare?” Fiona wrinkled her nose. “Are you still there?”
“There and everywhere, lady. And guess which egg owns it now?” Fiona punched John on the shoulder. “Really? Rawe e hoa!”
“Āe, really.” He wanted to know why Fiona had really turned up. “Call in later?“ he asked.
“Āe,” she replied. “Wouldn’t miss it. Ka kite i te pō, e hoa mā.”
John watched Fiona’s jean-clad arse nudge its way through the crowd before she stepped outside the clubroom double doors. She flicked them both a wave and was gone.
“How come she speaks Māori?” Mihi grumbled and elbowed John in the side, but he simply shrugged.
“Jealous?” he asked.
“Of course, dick,” Mihi screwed up her lips. “I can’t even do a karakia for kai!”
John waved her away, his mind already on other things.
That evening the Fish Whare was busy as usual, but the rush eased later and only one customer was left in the shop at 7.48 pm. A tiny older lady limped up to the drinks cooler. John, who was counting cash, retrieved the kuia’s usual bottle of aloe juice from the middle shelf and handed it to her.
“You all good Whaea? What did you do to your leg?”
“Knees fucked, John,” she wheezed and patted a splotch of purple hair at the top of her mini head. “Arohamai. Kei riri mai koe mō taku kohukohu,” she said.
John chuckled. “Your swearing’s all good. Kei te pai.”
Mihi poked her head through the fly strips. “What did you say, Whaea Dixie? Do you want some kawa kawa cream? I’ve made lots of jars.”
“Why don’t you teach her te reo?” Whaea Dixie whispered. But John circled his finger next to his temple and rolled his eyes. Whaea Dixie poked out her dentures and pushed past him.
“Why don’t you teach her?” John mouthed.
“Kāo,” Whaea Dixie snapped. “Our dumb committee tells me off for speaking my old fashioned reo!” Then she called out, “Girl!? I’ll have that rongoā and four slices of tongue.”
Mihi bustled out carrying a glass jar, a carving knife, and an enamel dish holding a cooked lamb tongue. A thought niggled John’s brain and then blossomed. “Sis, we’ve got a meeting about wastewater at the marae in the morning! Can you make sure the tables are clean and buy some coffee?”
“It’s Ben’s ten-year anniversary tomorrow,” Mihi said quietly.
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry. That’s gone fast.” John frowned. How had he forgotten?
“And anyway …” Mihi sighed. “Tomorrow I’m cleaning the golf club and doing their invoices.” She held up her arms as if she was staring down a firing squad. “Get some other black arse to clean the marae. I’m done.”
John grinned. Mihi might be hori as, but she could be funny as hell. “Make sure it’s the good coffee, sis.”
“And when can I come to the hui? Eh?” Mihi asked, tilting her head. “I have fantastic ideas.”
She flipped John the finger-bird while holding the knife. Its edge gleamed and she tipped out the tongue, skinned and cut into it, slicing each piece delicately and so thin that they fell away from the steel blade as though she were turning pages in a book. A story she would share with the world if she could. John caught a peaceful look on her face he’d never seen before; a slight crease at the corner of her mouth.
The rain returned and pattered onto the windows. Mihi pattered too, into Whaea’s ears about the maramataka, the pink moon-infused kawa kawa oil, water storage at the marae, and selling hāngī tickets to fundraise for the kura. John refilled the chiller and the conversation turned to Mihi’s cooking.
“I love that spicy tongue. Even more than my mister’s.” Whaea Dixie winked. “It’s as good as my kuia’s recipe, back in the day,” she finished wistfully. The bell rang again and Fiona burst in.
“Kia ora koutou!”
John was still stacking bottles. “Hey,” he said, and felt a swelling in his groin. Well, well, that hadn’t happened in a while. Fiona looked good. Even better with her hair all messed up and her lips moist.
“He rawe tenei whare.” Fiona twirled around, admiring the bright lobby.
“Ahem.” Whaea Dixie cleared her throat and shuffled towards them both. She held her packages in a small carry-all, and pushed them into John’s arms before turning Fiona’s face towards her own. Both women moved forward and hongied, eyes closed, breath mingling.
“Tēna koe, darling,” Whaea Dixie crooned. “Welcome home. Ooh, your reo is lovely. You should come to the hui āpōpō. We need you.”
“Thanks, Whaea,” Fiona beamed.
Mihi shifted sideways behind the counter and scuttled away. “Sorry … I got more lamb tongues boiling in the pot for tomorrow’s hui,” she called over her shoulder. “See ya, Fi!”
“Hei āpōpō,” Fiona called back. “Whaea, do you need a lift?”
“Āe, love. Can you fit my walker in?”
It wasn’t a problem. Once Fiona had settled Whaea Dixie and her packages in the front of the ute and the walker in the back, she jogged back inside. John was peeking out the window and quickly moved back into the shop. This would be interesting.
“Hey,” Fiona began. “I actually called in to see if you’d give my staff reo lessons?”
“You seem pretty fluent?“ John replied, the penny dropping.
“God no!” Fiona laughed. “I know little bits. Enough to hold a convo. In London, Kiwis I lived with started taking sabbaticals and learning online. We all thought it was time, eh? What do you reckon?” The tip of Fiona’s tongue searched out the corner of her mouth. “Please, Hoani? I can pay market rates?”
“I’ve thought about local lessons,” John said, “but it never seemed worth it.”
From the corner of his eye, John saw Mihi peering around the door jamb. Yet when he fully turned around, she’d gone again. Heat spread over his forehead and cheeks. Then his eyes narrowed. Why did he always have to save everyone in this place? He’d teach Mihi one day, but this was different. Fiona was different. What harm was there in a few lessons? John found himself nodding and smiling.
“How about doing it … for me?” Fiona pleaded. “We need more Pākehā learning reo, eh? Even if it takes a whole year of noho, we can afford the time eh? Kei te awhina mātou.”
“Truer words were never spoken,” he murmured. “We’ll catch up at the marae, eh?“
“Cool! Ka kite anō, Rangatira!” Fiona reached up and planted a kiss on John’s cheek. His penis inflated, then deadened when Mihi’s face floated into his mind. When he ventured out into the kitchen to give Mihi instructions for tomorrow’s hui, she’d left already. Her apron hung on a hook, neatly draped, the kitchen clean and empty.
The next morning, John drove his ute to Mihi’s house – their old whānau home. Her car wasn’t in the driveway, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t home. Her kids used it as a taxi on the daily. The house was painted in Mihi’s two favourite colours: mint and sea foam. She’d picked them out the same year their mother died, twenty-two years before. The picket fence was painted mint, too, and it leaned over, tied up with metal standards and twine.
At the edge of the driveway, the spiky leaves of a dozen harakeke bushes spilled onto hardened limestone. John’s neck tensed. He hadn’t visited for a while. The whole section looked weary and overgrown. A large kōwhai tree crouched in the front corner. Two branches hung like broken arms, still connected to the trunk by wicks of wooden skin. Dark seed pods rotted at its base. Near the top of the tree, a tūī honked and whistled as if calling John’s attention. It dipped its beak into an angel-shaped flower, then another and another. The tūī fixed its blue black eyes on John and then jumped, its belly heavy with golden nectar, and sped down, just missing his head. John rocked back, a surprised smile on his lips. Their father used to keep a tūī as a pet, and he split its pūhihi – the end of its brushed tongue – so it could speak as clearly as a bright child. He kept it in a cage and talked to it every day. Mihi was only five years old when their father died, and she was five years and one day old when she opened the cage door and let the tūī fly.
John stepped up onto the verandah. A dull ache had started behind his eyes and he rubbed his forehead before knocking on the door. After a moment, footsteps thudded inside and stopped at the huge door which swung open to reveal Arai dressed as Supergirl. The costume was far too small, showing her bare wrists and ankles.
“Mōrena, Uncle,” she said and reached up to kiss John’s cheek.
“Mōrena, bub. Kei hea a Nanny?“
“I haere a Nan ki te marae. Got five bucks?“
“Just like your Nan, eh?“
“I’m going to buy Nan flowers. She was sad this morning. Go on, Uncle?”
Sad? Guilt pursed John’s lips, but he ruffled Arai’s hair and gave her ten dollars anyway. On the way to the marae, he passed the church. Most of the marae committee cars were parked in the carpark for Sunday service. Fiona’s ute was there, too. It hadn’t taken her long to get back into the groove. John wondered if Mihi had seen?
With all the important people at Church, Mihi would have time to clean up the marae meeting room and he’d bet money she’d make cheese scones as well. He had to give her credit: she contributed to the community. More than most. John made up his mind to fix her fence this week.
Mihi’s pristine Corolla was outside the wharekai. Her car was an older model but the tyres shone and the metal sparkled from polishing. John bent into his jacket and ran across the stones, the air icy despite pockets of sunbeams. When he reached the front deck, he stopped and gasped, blinking to get the scene straight in his mind.
Halfway up the steep steps lay a stock pot, tipped on its side, its contents – a large pile of lamb tongues – had mostly tumbled out and down, cascading like a slimy meat waterfall. One lumpy tongue sat on the bottom step like a leather bootie. John’s legs began to tremble as though shedding bones.
“Mihi?” he yelled, holding onto a rail.
When John heard the start of a deep, heart wrenching howl – a strange mix of karanga and a lilting flute – fear struck in the middle of his shoulder blades, travelling down his spine to press urgently into his bladder. The howl transformed into a watery wail that spluttered as though it was now from the throat of a drowning child, and John ran, following the cries, his eyes stinging already, his head pounding, rocks weighing down his ankles.
He ran along the side of the whare kai, down the fenceline, and under a large mānuka tree covered in sweet white flowers. His boot slipped on the corner of a concrete path which had grown green from a leaking down-pipe, and John slid, his arms flailing, and stumbled onto the marae ātea. In front of him, a figure knelt on the grass. A monstrous figure.
“No, nooooooo!” he screamed and staggered to his knees in horror.
John’s sister, his funny-faced, boofy-haired Mihi, waved a sharp knife above her head as though she was conducting a ghoulish orchestra. Her body thrashed, jerking side to side, then she leaned forward and her mouth retched black blood, clotting and pouring onto the earthy throat of Papatūānuku. It bubbled over her chin, outlining newly carved swirls and ruts, her skin so jagged and the shapes so familiar that John’s stomach turned, bile shooting up into his larynx. He swallowed hard, then fell forward onto all fours as Mihi’s babbling cries spiralled higher and higher and higher into the heart of Rangi-nui. She gestured to the whare tūpuna and shrieked, sharp and bird-like, before plunging the bloodied knife into the soil.
John’s breath left him. His lungs sucked into his ribs until the wind hurtled over the waves and dunes, past crackling grass and rusty fence wire, over dry fields, and hit him dead in the chest. It found Mihi, too, sweeping her tangled hair back from her temples. She heaved and rubbed at her eyes, the sand and salt mixing with blood and tears, then she sat back on her heels, blinking, a slight crease at the corner of her mouth.
“Tuahine!” John rasped and reached out like a starving man, begging for kai.
Mihi reached out, too, relief leaching into her moist eyes, then she opened her hand to reveal her tongue, severed and freed forever.
“Speaking in Tongues” is a finalist in the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Next week’s short story is by promising Auckland writer CK Stead.