I went up to Feilding for a couple of days with my photographer friend Russell. We’re doing a story on the community at Kauwhata Marae, and were given permission to attend an unveiling ceremony, which happens a year after someone has passed away. The man who passed away, Paul, had rheumatic fever as a child and died after surgery to replace two heart valves. He was in his early forties. He left behind a daughter. His parents are in their sixties and he has four brothers.
On the drive up from Wellington, Russell tells me about a guy called Michael who he recently photographed standing in a patch of vegetation between Five Mile Bay and the Taupo airfield, where, a few years earlier, he landed after falling more than 12,000 feet from a plane. Michael was an expert skydiver who’d been skydiving for years. He was doing a fairly routine jump at Lake Taupo. When his parachute didn’t deploy, he tried to deploy the emergency one. But that didn’t open either. At that point he started spinning around and around as he fell – you can see the spinning because he had a camera attached to his helmet, and you can also hear his voice – he realised that he was going to die, so he said goodbye. As he fell he thought about trying to steer himself towards the lake, but he was falling too fast and was nearing blackout from the force. His father was a police surgeon and had told him what happened to people in high-impact accidents, so he knew exactly what would happen to him. His fall became one long, horrible, bracing for impact. But instead of concrete or grass, what caught him was a 6-foot-high thicket of shrubbery, brambles, and thorns. The thicket was like a fat thorny mattress; he crashed through, it in a tangle of parachute lines. He was still conscious when his friend, who had landed safely with his parachute, reached him – but then he blacked out. He had a punctured lung and a broken ankle and his body made a dent in the vegetation that lasted for months.
There’s a tree on the lawn of Kauwhata Marae that’s filled with kids. It’s one of those trees that seems to have multiple trunks, with long grass and flowers growing in the middle of it, so kids can play in its base before clambering up into the spangly branches. The whole tree is lurching crazily. Kids carry other kids. A couple of kids carry babies. The babies look unfazed at being carried up into the tree by people only a bit taller than them. One kid carries a tiny radio that plays scratchy music from out of the tree. He leaps from branch to branch. The poor tree is losing it. Down on the lawn, the adults sit around talking and shouting and smoking. ‘That’s a good tree, isn’t it,’ says one of the elders, when he sees me watching the kids in the tree. ‘Been there for I don’t know how long. Friendly tree.’
One of Paul’s brothers, Rangi, has seen me writing in my notebook and wants me to write a story about his sexual conquests. ‘Call it, Rangi’s Conquests!’ He and two others tell me a story about when the teenage Rangi tricked his parents into thinking he was going eeling at night, but really he was going out to kiss girls. Then I get into a long, stumbling conversation with an old friend of Paul’s, Bruce, who has a straggly walrus moustache and slightly unfocused eyes. He tells me about how much he is looking forward to the ham tournament that year. I nod along and it takes me a while to work up the nerve to ask exactly what a ham tournament is. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘it’s a golf tournament where if you win you get a ham. Ham tournament, that’s right.’ He’s nodding, as if I’ve just explained to him what a ham tournament is.
There is a lot of sitting and standing around, here, in the sun, in a big group. I feel my anxiety building, and this makes me feel suddenly, deeply (and probably indulgently) sad. I realise that I’ve portioned almost all of my life into defined blocks of time, and ‘socialising time’ is always followed by a solid stint of being by myself. Doing nothing for a long time with a lot of other people feels like using a muscle I’ve forgotten, the social equivalent of staggering around with a dead leg hoping no one will notice.
Naomi, eight, has an asymmetrical haircut and a toothache. ‘Mum keeps forgetting to ring the dentist.’ She swings between laughter and whole-hearted misery because of her sore tooth. She’s the daughter of one of Paul’s brothers. When I’m in the wharenui, writing in my notebook, mostly because I’ve run out of steam and feel too shy to keep talking to everyone, she sits next to me. Because I wasn’t quick enough, I’ve ended up with the mattress right next to the deceased man Paul’s empty mattress – there’s a photo of him in a frame propped against a pillow. Naomi strokes the photo and says, ‘Hello Paul.’ Then she asks me to sing something, and we battle about this for around twenty minutes. ‘Aue, please! I’ll sing if you sing. What if we go over to that corner where no one can hear?’ ‘No, I just really don’t want to sing. I only sing when there’s no one around.’ ‘But what if I block my ears?’ ‘Then there’s no point.’ ‘What if you sing some Miley Cyrus? I don’t know what it’s called, but that song. I really like that song.’ ‘I don’t like Miley Cyrus that much. You can sing that song, though, if you want, and I’ll listen.’ She starts half-laughing, half-singing, then buries her head in a pillow. ‘I can’t do it!’ This conversation is repeated several times. Whenever I sit down outside the wharenui to put on my shoes she sits next to me. ‘Do those shoes really fit your feet?’ She hugs me a lot. ‘You’re warm. Have you been sitting the sun?’ When we sit down after being welcomed back onto the marae, after the unveiling of Paul’s headstone at the cemetery, she sits next to me and presents a crumpled cleansing wipe like one you’d get on a plane. She wipes my hands with it and grins up at me. Then, during the speeches, she wipes my bare legs, meticulously, as if she’s dusting furniture. I can’t really do anything so I just sit there being wiped.
Probably the oddest thing for me is nobody asking who I am or what I’m doing there. There is an almost eerie openness. If you see someone who you haven’t met yet, they come up and kiss you or hongi you. I haven’t done this kind of intensive greeting in years and the first time, when we’re all lined up on the Friday afternoon, I get confused and move the wrong way and end up kissing an elder on the lips. He doesn’t even flinch.
Even the rooster that the kids find down by the river (‘go down to the river, come back with a rooster!’) and bring back to the marae seems unfazed. It sits in the arms of a young boy, chortling quietly, as all of the kids fuss over it.
There’s a transgender teenager, one of Paul’s nieces, who wears a black beanie over long wings of jet-black hair that she constantly strokes. Her face is pale with powder and she has beautiful bright red lipstick. At the cemetery, after the unveiling ceremony, when people are standing around drinking from cups of homebrew and listening to music from a car stereo (‘Proud Mary’), she sips from her cup and talks behind her hands to her friends. When she sees me looking, she gives me the thumbs up.
The little kid who had the radio in the tree – he’d be about six – asks me where everyone went in their cars, and how come he got left behind. He’s wearing red Speed Racer pyjama pants and has bare feet. ‘We went up to the cemetery for the unveiling of Paul’s headstone,’ I tell him. ‘Oh is that the cemetery at Bunnythorpe?’ ‘Yes, that one.’ ‘Oh that’s where my mum’s buried!’ he tells me. ‘And my granddad, my granddad’s buried there too.’ He runs off waving his radio.
One of the elders, Ben, and I are sitting under a corrugated iron shelter out the back of the kitchen. Above us is a row of dull metal hooks, where earlier, wild pigs have been hanging to be gutted. Ben is drinking Tui pale ale from a plastic cup – there’s a chiller filled with it. ‘I seen you walking around with that notebook,’ he says, ‘and I thought to myself she must be writing something.’
Ben has been going to exercise classes to help him with his breathing. He gave up smoking about sixteen years ago; before then he had smoked for most of his life. ‘You must be a lot better than you would’ve been if you’d kept smoking?’ I say. He says, ‘Oh, no. I’m worse. It’s the giving up that did it. The shock.’ But he says he’s been a lot better since starting the exercise classes. ‘St. John’s come and pick me up on Tuesdays and Thursdays and take me there and then they bring me home.’ He feels sorry for some of the other people there. Some of them are in wheelchairs, some can’t move around much, and some have worse emphysema than he does. ‘They say, “Ben, why are you here? You’re healthy as!” But it helps me a lot, so, I keep going.’ Ben would be in his seventies, I think. He wears blue sunglasses and a duffel coat, and he agrees with everything you say: ‘That’s right, that’s right.’ He used to be a jockey, then he got a bit too heavy so he started sheep shearing.
Everywhere there’s smoke. Smoke coming off the hangi in white sheets just after they light it. Smoke is pouring out of the portable fire inside a tin near the shelter where we’re sitting. And nearly everyone’s smoking constantly, except Ben. They poke their cigarettes into the fire to light them. Between drags, the wind picks up the smoke trails. The smoke blows everywhere: into the clean teatowels on the washing line, into the men standing around the hangi in gumboots, into Ben and I sitting on the bench under the pig hooks.
Ben tells me that everyone here has their whenua and pito (placenta and umbilical cord) buried in the land around the marae. One of his nieces was born in Perth but she had hers sent back in a tupperware container and buried here. He says they’re thinking about creating a virtual marae – ‘marae in the sky!’ – for people living overseas to visit online. Some people won’t like the technology thing, though. ‘I can’t even really use this bloody cellphone,’ says Ben, pulling a Nokia out of his pocket. ‘Stupid thing, don’t even know how to answer it! Hello? Hello? Can’t even turn it off!’
Paul’s daughter is often carrying around a big stuffed dog (or a wolf, I’m not sure) with matted fur and a weird pink mouth that flaps open and shut.
‘What’s his name?’ asks Russell.
She says, ‘Russell.’
Russell laughs. ‘He can’t be called Russell. I’m Russell.’
Later a boy of about five shows me the picture he’s decided to get tattooed on his back one day. The design, on a sweatshirt, is a circle with swirls inside it, the logo for the club where he goes to learn jijitsu. Emblazoned underneath the logo is Russell.
When we sleep over on the marae that night, I can’t sleep except for one fragmented hour in the early morning (there’s a party out the back of the kitchen that keeps going until around five in the morning, and also everyone in the wharenui is snoring, but Russell, next to me, is definitely the loudest and most persistent) and I swear, around midnight, I hear someone hissing: ‘Russ! Where’s Russ?’
First thing in the morning, when I’m trying to figure out how to get unnoticed to the bathroom while blind, as I’ve lost my glasses, the kids are earnestly telling ‘yo momma’ jokes. There’s no laughter in between, they’re just reciting the jokes, like times tables, sometimes finishing the punchlines for each other before moving on to the next one. They don’t direct the lines at anyone in particular – it’s as if there is one ubiquitous Mum out there, struggling away through her daily routines.
‘Your mum’s so fat she was lying on the beach and Greenpeace tried to push her back in the sea. Cos they thought she was a whale.’
‘Your mum’s so fat she makes a beeping noise when she’s going backwards.’
‘Your mum’s so fat she sat on a TV and it turned into a flat screen TV.’
Suddenly someone takes personal offence.
‘Aue, so? Least she’s got a flat screen TV.’’
Russell is good at being on the marae. He has that photographer’s knack of fitting into places where he’s an outsider, and with his camera constantly around his neck, he has a look of authority, so people just assume he’s meant to be there. ‘You’ll need a new neck!’ a woman says to him at breakfast time, when he’s sitting there eating porridge with his camera, and there are shouts of, ’Yeah, a new neck!’
Russell has everyone – the elders, the kids, the cooks, the brothers, the in-laws, everyone – stand or sit in front of the marae in the shade of its awning, to take one group portrait. I stand off to one side. The kids do bunny-ears to each other, and make rapper poses. There are maybe seventy people crammed together, and we’re all waiting for the sun to go behind a cloud so that Russell can take the picture. ‘Once the sun is behind the cloud,’ he shouts, ‘we only have a few seconds to take the photo, so be ready.’ There begins a long commentary on what the sun is doing and how long it will take to go behind the cloud. ‘Is it going? It must be nearly behind the cloud.’ ‘Stupid sun! Fucken, get behind that cloud!’ After a few minutes of this, the light seems to ebb. I look up and the sun is moving through a holey blanket of cloud. A roar goes up. ‘Whoaaaa! The sun’s going in the cloud!’ The sun finally reaches a thicker part of the blanket, and shade briefly falls over the marae. Everyone roars again, in the shade. Russell takes the photo, and manages about three more before the sun comes out again and the group breaks and erupts out onto the lawn into the sun and the tree.