Andrew Stiggers

The Book Parade Prize

Over in the playground a white rabbit in a waistcoat is being chased by a barefoot girl kiwi. Everybody’s got a story to tell, Jim knows. From the deck outside the classrooms he observes the children—all dressed as colourful book characters—gather for the parade in the schoolyard below. Looking at the other parents and grandparents, Jim’s certain the families would have very different tales to share. Amongst them an old Asian man whose facial wrinkles resemble a moko shuffles alongside a Pākehā woman scanning her phone. He sees Janine— one of the mums—and waves to her, thinking it’s a shame there’s always someone who believes they’ve got better stories than the rest.

A Pasifika teacher taps a microphone to test the sound and the resulting feedback startles Jim, who pushes his way through whānau to escape the racket. Down in the yard kids gawk and giggle while she fiddles with the dials, trying to fix the noise.

After judging the rival costumes from his new vantage point Jim’s sure he’s made the best one. His daughter—waiting with her friends in the nearest group—peers up at him through the slot in her robot mask and smiles with her eyes. Yes, Brooke’s bound to win.

He notices Janine straightening the cape of her son Stevie for a second time. Jim and his wife have known her since their kids went to kindergarten and have witnessed how competitive she can be—first to enter her son in a contest, first to complain if he doesn’t win. Janine pats Stevie’s shoulder and directs the boy wizard back to his class. Love those round glasses. Of course Janine and the others want their children to do well, but Brooke’s going to get the prize. She has to. He thinks of all the effort he put in—the sketching and drawing, cutting, gluing, his daughter all the while pestering him to help out. “It’s okay, Brooke. I can manage,” he’d said again before applying the second coat of paint.

There’s a tug on his arm. A boy beneath him on the steps points to the robot waving in the crowd.

Descending to the yard, Jim hopes he won’t lose his place. “What’s the matter, Brooke?”

“The leg’s falling off, Daddy.”

“Let me see … the tape’s unstuck. Come on, we’ll get this fixed in your classroom.”

Jim bounds the ascent—someone’s in his spot already—leaving his daughter to lumber up in her costume. Inside he scours the teacher’s desk and finds a tape dispenser.

“Stand here.” He kneels and seals up the gap, wrapping the tape like a length of number 8 wire around the seam. Sorted. It’s amazing what you can do with virtually nothing—just some cardboard, egg cartons, foil and an old pot. Jim remembers when he first arrived with his young family on this island so far from the rest of the world, bringing nothing—just the suitcases off the plane. Back in the old country he used to moan like everyone else about immigrants. But not any more—I’m one of them now.

A penguin bursts into the classroom and waddles between the desks. “I’m the champion, I'm the champion.”

“Ignore him, Daddy. Zak’s being silly.”

After checking the rest of the costume, Jim stands up. “Come on, let’s get back out there, Brooke. We’ve got a prize to win.”

 

Now that the classes are lined up along the sides of the schoolyard facing each other, it’s easier to see the costumes—and catch out any troublemakers. A teacher, dressed as a witch, has words with a crocodile who’s picking his nose.

“They’re all looking great, eh?” says Koro Tipene, leaning over the railing next to Jim.

“They sure are.” His wife Susie had told him a lot about the old grandfather, how he was always volunteering for the school: organising the kapa haka group, helping out at camp. “I like your grandson’s costume. It looks like a—”

An announcement is made over the speakers—the parade has begun!

The teacher with the youngest class leads the march around the yard and Jim’s reminded of a mini Commonwealth Games—each child waving, showing off their outfits. Some receive high fives down the lines of spectators. One girl, regal in her gown and wearing a flower garland on her head, raises her hand like a royal, palm up, but keeps her distance from the others.

Many sing or dance to the book-themed music being played over the speakers, and Jim spies the Pasifika teacher bopping to the beat with the microphone in her hand. I bet she does a mean karaoke, he thinks, picturing her on stage at the local club.

With every passing class the high five slaps become wilder and the emboldened packs begin to edge inwards—Jim clutching the railing tight, seeing his costume getting squashed— before the teachers intercede and rein them back.

Keeping a close eye on his daughter while her class continues to wait their turn, Jim catches sight of a boy fiddling with the death ray strapped to the back of Brooke’s costume. Sabotage! Why isn’t her teacher doing something about it? He thinks about rushing down to prevent further damage. Bloody hell—that blasted gun took hours to make. In fact the whole thing took weeks. Susie had better appreciate all the time he’d put into it considering how much she’d nagged him to get involved.

“But I’m too busy, hon. There’s a deadline at work.”

“Jim, I don’t want excuses. You can’t even manage one bedtime story for your daughter.”

“You know I’m too tired when I get home.” He’d kept breaking his promise to read to Brooke. “I’m not some pensioner with nothing to do like that Koro Tipene you keep raving about,” he’d added, imagining Brooke’s class sitting cross-legged on the library floor, listening to the Māori storyteller recite myths and legends about the old gods and heroes in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

“This parade means a lot to her, Jim.”

“I took her to the park last Sunday, didn’t I?”

“That’s not enough. Don’t you remember why we moved here in the first place?”

“Of course, I do … sure.” Jim remembered the move—how tough it had been to abandon family and friends, to start over again in a remote, foreign land, knowing no one, being alone. In an anxious state he’d felt like a pioneer on the frontier, risking all in the hope of a new life, exploring the alien isthmus dotted with volcanic cones and house-for-sale signs for a safe place to settle. Lost in this unreal world, he’d swept through ferns in the bush, tumbling down a bank, and was shocked by his encounter with a bare-chested warrior at a gathering who’d stuck his tongue out at him, Jim fleeing to then be accosted in the street by countless strangers with smiles and friendly greetings. Desperate with hunger he’d tried the peculiar-sounding ice cream when he stopped off at the dairy in his recently bought singlet and jandals. “I’ll take one hokey pokey, mate.” And when he finally did head to his new home in his new car he hesitated, confused by the right-of-way for oncoming right-turners. Thank God that rule’s now gone—it had sent him mad.

Jim stares at the attempt to remove the death ray. If this parade really did matter to Brooke she should be paying more attention to her costume. He finally relaxes as the boy gives up and starts to play with a mermaid’s fairy wings instead. What sort of book character is that?

One of the mums cosies up to the principal. Janine. It’s just like work, Jim thinks, watching the man laugh at something she’s said. Same manoeuvres and dealings, same game.

Out on the parade ground the white rabbit hops behind his classmates carrying a giant-sized pocket watch. Jim laughs at the sight but notices several parents don’t seem interested and are talking amongst themselves instead—their children must’ve finished parading. Even the moko-faced Asian and the Pākehā woman have their backs to the kids, discussing something she’s pointing to on her phone. They’d better not be distracted when Brooke’s out there. Everyone has to see his masterpiece.

When the white rabbit finally files back into line with his mates Jim knows there’s only one more class to go before it’s Brooke’s turn. He ignores Koro Tipene’s attempt at conversation again as he has visions of Brooke receiving a medal on a podium, of them arriving home with the prize to show off to Susie. That’ll shut her up for once.

 

The parade’s over. The high fives and singing and dancing have all finished. It’s a pity it didn’t last longer—Jim was starting to enjoy himself, almost as much as the Pasifika teacher. He sees her chatting to one of the parents, microphone still in her hand.

From the way everyone reacted to Brooke on parade he’s even more sure the other kids have no chance. Well, so long as the principal isn’t influenced by a mate. His daughter had been great out there, her metallic suit advancing one limb at a time like he’d taught her. And the death ray drew some gasps.

Jim grips the railing. If only Dad had been here to watch—Brooke’s flushed grin when she took off her mask earlier for some air had reminded Jim of his late father. Yes, Dad would’ve been proud to see her win.

 

“There isn’t one.”

Whispers circulate around neighbouring whānau.

“What? How come?”

“Isn’t what?” Jim asks Koro Tipene.

“A prize.”

“Really?”

“Yes, they’ve decided not to award one because some parents complained about the winner last year.”

“I see.” Jim stares over at Janine. “How awful.”

“Yes, it’s sad—some of the mums and dads take this far too seriously.”

Jim scans the crowd for his daughter and homes in on the robot’s antenna. What a waste of my time. He’s so tempted to grab Brooke and leave but he can’t—there’s the principal’s speech first. Further along the decking Jim notices him relieving the Pasifika teacher of the microphone. She seems reluctant to relinquish it, as though hoping to perform one last song.

With the speech droning on over the speakers, Jim rests his elbows on the railing and buries his chin in his hands, gazing blankly at nothing above the heads of the crowds. Eventually his eyes wander across the yard to ponder the flag flying on a pole beside the school hall. He’d recently sworn allegiance to it—not that particular flag but an identical one on display in the local council chamber during their family’s citizenship ceremony. The event had brought together people from around the world, all dressed up in smart suits or bright, exotic dresses, or saris with bracelets and beads. Everyone had been encouraged to wear their traditional costumes for the occasion. Studying the faces of those men and women around him, Jim had wondered what stories they had to tell, what sacrifices they’d made to be there that day.

A wave of elation had arisen within him as he stood up with Susie and Brooke to make the oath, the Matariki stars on the wall shining bright, all the ancestors on the nearby panels bearing witness to the moment. He’d had to hold back tears.

“We’re a young country,” the government minister had said during the welcoming video on the screen.

The minister was right—Jim has seen them on the street, in the shops and food courts, and on the bus to work. He’s seen them in the township and on the marae. He’s seen them at the beach and in the bush. And he sees them now in the schoolyard—around the basketball hoops and beside the hopscotch grid. Pirates and elves, superheroes and fairies, princesses and a caterpillar, Christopher Robin, a cat with a hat, a robot. You can do anything, be anyone, in this white-clouded wonderland.

Watching his daughter waiting amongst her friends in front of the kōwhai mural outside the school library, Jim remembers how he held her on his lap towards the end of the ceremony—his hand clutching their certificates, her tired head resting on his chest.

 

“Looks like everyone had a good time, eh?” Koro Tipene says to Jim.

“You’re right.” Jim heads with the elderly man towards the playground where their kids are now hanging about.

They come across Janine, who greets them and congratulates Jim on the robot costume. “Oh, by the way,” she says, “can Stevie come to play with Brooke after school next week?”

Wand in hand, her son flies over from the basketball court to join them.

“I’m sure that’ll be fine. I’ll check with Susie about a day and get her to let you know.”

Jim waves to them when they depart, still marvelling at how much the boy looks like a real wizard.

Reaching the playground, Koro Tipene rushes ahead of him to hug his grandson, a fearsome-looking grizzly bear. If Dad had been here, Jim thinks, he would’ve done the same with Brooke, smothering her in his arms, not caring if he’d squashed her costume. Jim spots his daughter over at the seesaw, playing with Zak. His father would’ve been proud of her no matter what.

When Jim and the Tipenes approach her she clambers off the seesaw.

“So, Brooke, who’re you dressed as?” asks Koro Tipene, his arm wrapped round his grandson’s shoulders.

“A robot.”

“A robot, eh?” He gives Jim a wink.

“Yes. Daddy made it for me.”

 “Well, your daddy certainly did a good job of it.” The grandfather smiles at them both. “We’d better be off—Ngari’s waiting for us. See you at kapa haka next week, Brooke. See you, Jim.”

They watch Koro Tipene leave with his grandson down the other end of the playground where the girl kiwi is pushing the white rabbit on one of the swings.

Jim turns to his daughter. “You must be hot in that costume by now, Brooke. Give me your mask and helmet.” He helps her take off the parts. “I’m sorry you couldn’t win a prize today.”

“Never mind, Daddy. Can I stay a little longer before we go home?”

Behind her Zak is still squatting on one end of the seesaw, the other end sticking up in the air.

“Of course you can.”

 

And that night Jim remembers to fulfil his promise. Sitting at her bedside, he reads to his daughter about how the hero Māui slowed the sun, continuing long after she’s fallen asleep.





Andrew Stiggers

Andrew Stiggers lives in Auckland. His short stories have been published, or are forthcoming, in various anthologies and literary journals, and his achievements include being the winner of the 2017 Global Ebook Awards (Short Stories category) for his historical-fiction collection: “The Glassblower’s Daughter and Other Tales from Southwest Germany”. He was also the winner of the Trisha Ashley Award 2017 for best humorous story, and a finalist for the Tasmanian Writers' Prize 2015. More information about his writing can be found on www.andrewstiggers.com. He dedicates this story to his youngest daughter, Lily, who dreams about robots.