From Beats of the Pa’u
Father O’Shea leads Raro Mass this morning, his Irish accent pulling the language into awkward shapes and sounds. The youngest children who sit on the front pew giggle behind cupped hands, their ears not yet tuned to this twisted version of their parents’ mother tongue. Even if they had gotten used to the way the words tumble from his mouth, the way the words hang suspended in the air like tied down helium balloons, they still wouldn’t know their meaning. As they do during the English Masses every other week of the month in the year, they mimic the actions of the older ones behind them. They stand. They sit. They kneel. They pray.
Selena prays for the latest Barbie doll, Malibu Barbie, with her perfect straight hair and her long skinny limbs, pale and plastic and pliable. Mum prays the lump she’d felt in her armpit last Thursday is an insect bite, an insect bite she can cure with a smidgen of coconut oil and a quiet word with God. Dad prays for next week’s lottery numbers. Aunty Terepai prays for her daughter. She prays that bastard boyfriend of her daughter’s will leave her alone, without breaking her heart. She prays for forgiveness for swearing in church. She prays for forgiveness for feeling what she does.
Katerina runs her hand over her distended belly, concealed beneath the baggy maxi dress she’s started wearing. She prays her boyfriend will love her for ever— for ever and ever and ever. Amen.
Stand, sit, kneel, pray. And every now and then they sing, the words of the hymns delivered in that other language, words the youngest children on the front pew have learnt to mimic en masse, like a nursery rhyme, their tongues curled round the letters, their voices projecting the syllables with automatic ease.
Aunty Terepai’s voice rises well above the rest of the congregation’s. She sounds like a crowing rooster at the break of dawn. She caws with the best of them, beckoning the spirits of all the godly saints and angels. There is no doubt in the hearts and minds of everyone else in church that day that the good Lord is listening in on them. How could He not, with a voice like that? Even Father O’Shea is taken aback, his Irish-accented Cook Islands Māori now more stilted and whinnying.
Dad stands up, towering over the rest of the seated congregation. He saunters over to the pulpit like a man on a mission. Father O’Shea makes sure to involve the leaders in the church. It’s important that the congregation see their own people during the proceedings. It’s his way of getting his followers to stay, generation after generation after generation. He’d hand-picked them himself, the six catechists—three young couples with healthy broods, stable and reliable. Not afraid to speak up. Not too shy to treat him like an equal— almost like an equal.
Teremoana and Selena slide down in their seats in the front rows. Once their Dad is settled behind the pulpit, the older one, Teremoana, averts her eyes. The small confession booths to her right look enticing. She wishes she can enter one of them and disappear. She’s willing to commit sins for the privilege. She imagines the kinds of sins she could commit— many of them boy-related, all of them figments of her late-night fantasies. Selena, on the other hand, wonders whether Malibu Barbie comes with communion discs or chalices or multilingual hymn books. She wonders whether Father Ken dolls exist, and if he does, would he marry Malibu Barbie? Would Malibu Barbie have to become a nun?
Katerina had always been a pretty girl. When she was born the nurses in the maternity ward would fuss. She’s so beautiful, they gushed. She’s going to break some hearts one day, they said. The compliments never caused her mother to feel pride. She dreaded the years that might lie ahead of her—years of heartbreak and worry and hardship. More years of heartbreak and worry and hardship. Strangers stopped her in the streets, wanting to get a closer look. Even the second-hand pram with its plastic rain cover, donated to her by the local nuns, couldn’t hide Katerina’s charms. She was a tall baby, a long baby, and nimble. Her limbs were sleek and strong like a thoroughbred’s yet graceful like a prima ballerina’s, destined to open doors to her that other girls around her would never know were there. If she played her cards right. If she didn’t do anything silly. If her long, nimble limbs didn’t follow in the footsteps of her teenage mother.
Katerina’s eyelashes were naturally spiked, standing forever erect from the base of her eyelids. Her boyfriend would tease her about them, telling her they were like the stems of the kikau broom his aunty used to sweep out the ghosts at the house. Her brown eyes were wide and striking, and glassy like the bombies she used to trade and play and lose. Bombies that were gifted back to her by boys at her primary school in the marble pit behind the classrooms. Bombies that caused envy amongst the other girls, who were smarter players with strategies and skill, who worked hard for their small stashes of marbles and guarded them like they were jewels.
She took those innocent gifts with gratitude at first, until she realised the power she had. Then she became selective. And by the time she’d started intermediate, she took gifts only from the most popular boys. When she got to college, she took them from her volleyball coach, a man on the faculty fifteen years her senior.
As usual, Teremoana and Selena walk home with their cousins after church, their parents driving back in the old Holden station wagon, dropping off two aunties and an uncle on the way. They give the girls instructions. Go home and cook some spuds, enough for tea too. Reheat the chicken and the chop suey. Buy some fresh bread from the dairy and put it on their account. Tell Mr Roper we’ll settle it next week, and don’t pick at the bread on your way home. Holy Spirit not holey bread—only their father laughed. No ice cream. No lollies. Selena’s heart sinks.
As they walk up Mungavin Avenue, the cousins disperse in their family groups, stopping at the entrance of Bedford Street and the intersection at Champion Street by the Mobil petrol station. By the time they turn into Warspite Avenue and are walking past the Cannons Creek shops—the TAB, the fruit shop, the New World supermarket—it’s just the two sisters and Katerina left.
Katerina lights up a cigarette and inhales the fumes. She holds the smoke in her lungs for seconds before expelling it in one vaporous breath.
‘Want one, cuz?’ she asks Teremoana. She holds the box in front of her, its flip-top open and exposing the filtered tips.
Teremoana looks down at the rows of smokes. They’re flawless in their symmetry, each cigarette filling its space like a piece in a puzzle. It seems a shame to break up its precision, to make a mess of perfection, but just as she’s about to decline the offer she catches her wide-eyed sister staring up at her.
‘Okay,’ she says, ignoring Selena. She pulls a fag from the carton, creating a gap and forcing the other cigarettes in the box to lean towards the hole at awkward angles. Katerina holds the lighter in front of her. From where Teremoana’s standing, the tiny flame looks like it’s flickering from the tip of Katerina’s thumb. She thinks of Mahuika, goddess of fire. She looks up at her cousin. This is how a goddess should look. Her hair wild and unruly. Her eyes warm but steely, wide and curious— knowing and not-knowing.
The end of Teremoana’s cigarette kisses the naked flame and she takes little moth breaths, the fumes barely halfway inside her mouth. She coughs as the cigarette burns for a second, the amber glow at its tip extinguishing from lack of encouragement, the charred ends of the cigarette betraying her.
‘Let me, cuz.’ Katerina takes the smoke from her and lights it with the end of her own fag. Teremoana avoids her eye. When she does finally look, though, she sees no derision or ridicule.
‘Breathe it in slowly, cuz,’ says Katerina, handing back the burning cigarette. ‘Hold it in your lungs and then breathe it out. It’ll burn for a second but you’ll get used to it with practise.’ She demonstrates with her own smoke, inhaling the fumes and holding her breath for seconds before expelling.
Teremoana tries again. She inhales the fumes, choking on it when it hits the back of her throat the first time. She waits for the burning in her mouth to stop and for the incessant coughing to die down before she tries again. This time the burning is less severe, the coughing less persistent.
‘See?’ says Katerina. ‘I told you it gets easier, cuz.’
Selena watches on in silence. Katerina winks at her, which makes her cheeks go pink.
By the time Teremoana’s tried a fifth time, she knows to expect the burning at the back of her throat. She’s learnt to control her throat muscles in anticipation of it. She knows to hold her breath, to pause and be still and let the sensation run through her. Inhale. Hold. And then exhale.
‘You got a boyfriend, cuz?’
Teremoana feels the blood rush up her face, spreading out to the tips of her ears and settling on her forehead. Selena stares up at her, grinning.
‘Boys round here too ugly,’ she says. Katerina laughs.
‘I got a boyfriend,’ Katerina says. ‘A man, actually. A lover. A secret lover.’ Selena looks across from Teremoana to Katerina, her eyes wide open.
Teremoana nods. Katerina’s boyfriend, Hemi, head boy and captain of the First XV, is the worst-kept secret in the whole of Cannons Creek.
‘We’re gonna get married,’ Katerina says. Teremoana stares at her, unable to speak. ‘Don’t tell my Mum, eh? She’ll beat me with the fucken broom handle, then she’ll tell me I can’t have a boyfriend till I’m married.’ The girls laugh. Katerina winks down at Selena who beams at the thought of having a grown-up secret.
‘Nah, cuz,’ Teremoana says. ‘Promise.’ She nudges Selena who nods up at their older cousin. Katerina’s eyes have a faraway look and the cousins continue their journey home in silence. Selena wonders whether Katerina’s boyfriend has blond hair and blue eyes like Barbie’s Father Ken doll.
Although they live on the same street, the sisters have jobs to do. When they reach the corner of Astrolabe and Drivers, Selena pinkie-swears with her cousin and they part ways. The sisters enter the corner dairy, greeting Mr Roper behind the counter.
‘The usual this morning, girls?’
They nod. He pulls two fresh loaves from the cabinet behind the counter and puts them into a brown paper bag.
‘Put it on our account, please,’ Teremoana says. He’s already scribbling in the notebook beside the cash register.
‘No lollies today?’ he asks, winking at Selena. She blushes, shaking her head, her heart sinking again at the thought. He laughs and fills a small white bag with half a dozen raspberry drops, then hands it to her.
‘Don’t tell your parents,’ he whispers. ‘And share it with your big sister, okay?’ he says, nodding towards Teremoana. Teremoana rolls her eyes, picking up the loaves of bread. They’re still warm and her index finger pokes a hole in the side of one, exposing the white flesh beneath the crust.
‘Thank you, Mr Roper,’ Selena says, finding her voice.
Outside, Teremoana holds the warm loaves against her cheeks and breathes in the yeasty aroma. The loaves squish in her hands like aerated clay, subtle pockmarks surfacing on the crust beneath her fingertips.
When they arrive at the house, Selena runs ahead, eager to hoe into her secret bag of lollies. That’s two secrets, not counting yesterday’s. Teremoana saunters up the driveway, kicking stones in her path and stubbing her big toe. She bends over to rub her foot, the pain searing through her flesh. She notices the family car is already parked at the end of the driveway, which means Mum will have turned on the pot of spuds.
She waves out to Pele from next door. His aunty and uncle and younger cousins pour out of their van, dressed in their Sunday best, the children sprinting each other to the house. Caught up in their excitement, she doesn’t realise there’s another neighbour behind her.
Teremoana groans, grateful now for the sore foot to blame it on. She turns to face the pale, lanky teenager and cringes at the blue and white pareu wrapped round his waist. His white, hairy legs stick out like pipe cleaners; his worn rubber jandals are slung between knobbed toes.
‘Oh,’ says Teremoana, ‘hi, Eugene.’
‘Is there something wrong with your foot?’
She nods. ‘Stubbed my toe. Stupid footpath.’
She berates herself on the inside, then remembers to groan again.
‘Te-te-ka-nga tou ma-ma e pa-pa?’
Teremoana considers whether to laugh or cry. ‘Yes,’ she replies, ‘they’re in the house.’ She doesn’t know for sure what he’s saying but there are certain words and phrases she gets.
‘Meitaki ma’ata,’ he says.
She follows him through the front door. Mum stops clanging the pots from having to turn the oven on herself when she sees they have a visitor. She hasn’t actually cooked the spuds yet so she instructs her oldest daughter to do so and to set another place at the table. She doesn’t bother to ask Eugene whether or not he can join them for lunch, and he doesn’t bother to object. The TV is blaring in the sitting room, Telethon fast counting down its final hours.
Teremoana puts aside seventeen potatoes exact, to take into account their unexpected lunch guest and extras for tea. She stops peeling potatoes long enough to eavesdrop. Eugene’s friendship with her mother never ceases to amaze her.
‘That’s why I don’t like the Kiwi girls,’ Eugene says in faux broken English—his family are fourth-generation Kiwis. ‘They dress like hookers and they have no respect for themselves or their families. Even the island girls who think they the Kiwi girls. They too much try to do like the Papa’a way.’
Teremoana grins at her Mum behind his back, but she’s ignored.
‘You know what, Mrs Torea?’ he says. ‘When I’m older I will go to the islands and find myself a beautiful island vaine. We will live on the beach in a hut made from pandanus leaves and rocks collected from the mountain. We’ll eat coconuts and mangoes that grow wild around us, and catch plentiful fish in the sea. Our tamariki will run free on the land— no shoes, just shorts; that’s all they need. And every evening my beautiful vaine and I will dance in the moonlight to the beats of the pa’u from the neighbouring village.’
Teremoana leaves them to it, shutting the door to her bedroom behind her. She feels under her bed for the booklet, pulling it out and rifling through the pages.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maria Samuela writes stories that have a strong Pasifika flavour. Beats of the Pa’u is a short novel she wrote for her MA at the IIML. In 2018, Maria will be the University Bookshop and Robert Lord Writers’ Cottage Trust Summer Writer in Residence.