Poppie Johnson

Nights of Everywhere

I remember our first night everywhere cos Māmā always takes us somewhere special to tell us about the whakapapa of a place. She says knowing our history helps us to know ourselves. Our whanau is always on the move. Māmā says we’re explorers, we’re real lucky to be able to go to so many places. I like it best when we end up near the beach and I can build castles. I do tree huts too but they’re never the same, it’s harder without tools. I haven’t done a castle since Opotiki and the tides were fierce there. The castles never lasted.

I built my best sandcastle the day we arrived in Te Kaha. The rocks that peered up beneath the sands at low tide were my ramparts. I used the wet sand to make solid foundations, big, wide, stable. I planned it so it was safe. The moat filled as the waves lapped at its outer reaches but they couldn’t get far enough inside to tear it down. My sister Miriama gathered shells and other taonga to decorate it. We worked on it while Karaitiana sat and watched with Māmā.

‘Here, Tāne, try this too.’ Miriama held out driftwood excitedly, squatting down just clear of the wet dark sand.

‘Yeah, watch this.’ I poked the thin driftwood into the wide base of my fortress. Water seeped in slowly from the moat, bonding with the sand. Stabilising.

‘How high will it go, Tāne?’

‘It’s not about height, ay. We want something that’ll stick around, not flashy.’

‘But how high could it go?’

‘We’ll see,’ I smiled.

‘Is it a house for the crabs? Maybe they could live there at night? We could build a little wood shelter on top for them.’

She was so cute, my littlest sister, her dark hair curled around her face as she sucked her forefinger in concentration. It fit perfectly in the gap between her two front teeth.

‘Maybe we could, ay. Let’s finish it first though.’

‘Will it be here when Hemi comes home?’

‘Maybe.’

My bro Hemi got some work some days, up in the bush near the Uraewera. Māmā doesn’t look too happy about it but it’s mint when he comes home. He always brings us something nice. Last weekend he came with three cola suckers, the flash round ones that fizz and last for ages. They were ka pai for sure. And when he’s away it means that me and Karaitiana and Miriama get the bedroom to ourselves and Māmā gets the lounge without having to worry about Hemi coming home late every night and having a beer while she’s trying to sleep.

‘D’you think we’ll stay here, Tāne? We could build houses for all the crabs if we came down every night.’

‘I hope so, Mimi, it’s nice ay.’

‘Yup. Way better than Opotiki.’

We heard Māma’s voice across the sand, calling us.

‘Tāne, Mimi, come sit, tea time my tamariki.’

Māmā sat on the edge of the beach where sand and dirt got all mixed up and gave way to the ocean, to volcanic black sand and red tinged rocks. Her hair was out, blowing around her face, playing in the wind. It looked like a picture you’d see in some magazine. The fading light framed her silhouette against the horizon. That memory is like a dragonfly I found in the forest once, frozen in the amber of my memory. She’d spread a rug, the blue tartan rug we always had, and had the hot chips ready for sandwiches. We sat around her eagerly, smelling the hot salty chips and licking our lips involuntarily as the grease stained the newspaper.

‘Let me tell you about this place.’

‘It’s just a beach ay, Māmā?’ I tried for a chip but she was too quick, quirking an eyebrow at me in amusement.

 ‘This land is never just a beach, Tāne. Your whanau came from here a long time ago and now we’re back. Look at the bush, the hills that stretch out towards the horizon and guard the ocean. Look at those rocks, the path to the edge of the ocean.’

She pointed with one hand, tapped Karaitiana with the other, stopping her as she took her turn to try nicking a chip. Her hands moved deftly, practiced. The chips were split evenly between us kids and we could have four pieces of bread each. Loads.

The beach had that rock from volcanoes that looks like a knobbly old man’s knees. Māmā says the rocks are a taniwha, that the way they poke up just above the surface is their way of keeping mystery. Exploring it, we hopped along the bits that stuck up and looked in all the rock pools. I caught a crab there, that first night after dinner, when my fortress was complete. Karaitiana squealed and ran when it nipped her on the toes but I was brave as and grabbed it by the shell so it couldn’t get me.

Sitting on the sand, full of good kai, we saw the sun creep towards the horizon. It was real pretty, reflecting off the fading waves and the wet rocks. We had to leave our beds and stuff behind so we were all marae styles in the new place and it was a relief to be down on the beach.

Every time we go somewhere new we find a good spot to watch the sunset. The tree in Rewi, the high hill that looked over the Waiupu valley near Ruatoria, even that time we climbed on the roof cos we were in town and there was no view anywhere else.

Māmā had to give the car up when we moved from Rewi. The fella that sold it to us said it was all sweet as but something happened with the oil and the filter and it just died. Sat there on the side of the road like a piece of junk. She couldn’t sell it or nothing so we had to leave it there. The seats from the back were awesome in our Rewi house though. We took them out of the car and put them on the porch. Sometimes I’d sleep on them. Hemi was still with us then and he’d snore louder than the girls. Now he’s away, I’m the man of the house.

Our new house was on the orchard where Māmā got a job picking fruit. All the other fruit pickers were foreigners, from the islands and some travellers. They lived in their vans and in tents. We were going to live in a tent for an adventure but then Māmā said we got real lucky so could have this old house for cheap as rent.

It sat at the end of an old apple orchard, almost hidden behind trees that no longer bore fruit and sat with their gnarled branches looking all sad. The house might’ve been white once but its skin had peeled away and the wooden splinters made it look like a scary skeleton stretching out spiny fingers. The red iron roof twisted at every join and the bolts willed themselves free until they could drop unseen to the long grasses below.

I started school this year again, the day after we moved into the sad house. Cos we came at the start of the year it was easy. We’d had a few days to get sorted, figure out what was what and then before we knew it the holidays were over. Us kids walked together for the first day of school like we always did. You never knew who you were going to meet and Māmā always wanted me to look out for the girls. We heard a voice as we got closer to the school.

‘Oi! Where you from then?’

The boy sat atop the roof of the prefab classroom. His bare feet dangled at the end of his legs and he swung them against the corrugated iron walls rhythmically, tip-tap, tip-tap, tip-tap.

‘Mum’s got a job at the orchard. Our whanau’s just moved in, ay.’

‘Oh yeah. Just you and them girls then?’

‘Nah, there’s my bro too, Hemi. He works.’

The boy leapt down in a swift movement and landed on the dirt in front of me, legs flexing slightly to take the strain of landing.

‘In the bush?’

‘Yeah.’

‘My bro works up there too. In the forest ay?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I’m Joe,’ he said, holding a fist up.

‘Tāne,’ I bumped his fist with mine.

‘Wanna see my bike? It’s got mean as chopper bars on it. My dad got them last time he was down.’

‘Maybe some other time ay.’

‘Fuck off then ya homo.’

He spat on the floor next to my foot, scuffed the dirt and ran back to climb up to the top of the school house. I looked at the black crescent rings in my fingernails and viciously grabbed the last hangnail with my teeth. It bled. I squeezed the finger until the ruby red drop welled up bigger, bigger until it burst. Māmā never had enough for a bike. Even though the other tamariki had them we never learned. Joe seemed cool; he’d hate me if he knew I couldn’t ride.

‘Why did you do that?’ A small hand crept into mine and brown eyes stared up at me.

‘Who knows how long we’ll be here, hey, Mimi? We got to stick together, just our whanau. Okay?’

‘That boy seemed nice.’ She looked up, nodded to herself and ran inside as the bell rang for class.

That first week, when we were starting school again, we had to walk all the way home. The bus didn’t know we were there so the route didn’t go close yet. It was nice sometimes, the girls either side. Bare feet are all good up north in summer too. Maybe we could move closer to town for winter.

‘Remember when we had the Holden?’ Karaitiana said wistfully, absentmindedly skipping over cracks in the pavement. ‘I liked our yellow car.’

‘Mmmhmm... but walking together is good too, huh? Look out! Step on a crack, you’ll marry a rat.’ I laughed at her, distracting her.

The dirt track turned into grass ruts long before the house appeared at the back of the orchard. The good trees lined the path and sometimes we could find windfall, half-good apples to eat and throw the rest at targets on the way home.

‘How was school, love?’ Māmā asked us as we arrived.

She always tried to be home for us, even if she had to go out again later.

I shrugged. ‘Alright.’

‘Mimi?’ Karaitiana?’

‘Yeah Māmā, it seems nice. Tāne helped us.’

She looked at me and her eyes softened.

‘My boy. Looking after your whanau, hey? I’m proud of you.’

We slipped into a routine: school, walk, home. Māmā worked the orchard every day and was always sitting on the porch when we got home. I caught pipi and cockles on the weekend. Karaitiana found some cress in the gully and in the forest Mimi found wild garlic. Māmā makes whatever we find real good. She says not everyone gets the chance to find their own food.

Each week one new thing would appear. A cushion cover made from old hessian and a ribbon; curtains from sheets she found at the Salvos. My favourite was the old glass jar that she put wildflowers in. They caught the light in the kitchen, made it brighter somehow. The girls teased me but flowers are special, they’re sort of alive, they make you smile.

As the shadows lengthened and the apples fell to the ground in bigger bushels the house closed in on us. Lying in the bedroom at night, with the girls breathing on one side, I could see out the window. The thin glass had dropped with age and a breeze whistled in around the edges, teasing my nose. I could hear the scratching in the roof as the rats made our home theirs. There were more of them as it got cooler. Some nights I could hear the gnawing as they chewed at the pipes in the roof. I tried to catch them when I got home but they were quick wee buggers. I got one in the trap but the others got wise. Māmā told us stories of the old days and we tried the old tricks, burning their bodies, scattering the ashes to scare away the boldest among them. Everything worked until it didn’t, and then the claws and gnawing teeth were back in our roof and I lay awake, guarding the girls from gleaming red eyes and pointed hungry mouths.

School was the same. Joe sat on the roof throwing pebbles at the rest of us most days. He’d ride past me as I walked down the road, trying to come so close he’d run over a toe. The bike had big chopper handlebars, shiny chrome, and a yellow vinyl seat that had cracked in the sunshine. The chain slipped and the bike clicked as it came closer. The well-greased sprockets still held bits of rust that no amount of care could fix. The tik-tak tik-tak let us know he was coming. Mimi always waved, Kai looked at the ground and I tried to ignore him.

Miss Evans caught me as we were leaving: ‘Shoes are part of the uniform, Tāne.’

‘Eh Miss? It’s not that cold though.’

‘Yes, well. I’m sure you’re very tough but that’s not the point.’

She was new, took over the middle school class a couple of weeks ago. The boys all loved her with her long blond hair. She came from the city, had been some flashy lawyer before she decided to come teach us. I think she knew what she wanted to teach, she’d just never been to the East Coast before. She didn’t know us, didn’t get how to talk to tangata whenua.

‘But I have a condition, Miss.’ I wiggled my toes seriously. ’Doctor said shoes could cause amputation.’

‘I highly doubt that!’

‘It’s true! You want me to lose my foot, Miss?’

She sighed. ‘Bring me a note. A note from the doctor!’

‘Sure, Miss, sure, sure.’ I ran out.

Māmā sat on the front porch as we came up the driveway. The paper in her hand was held at an angle. Her shoulders slumped inwards and her head was in her other hand resting on her knee. That beautiful dark hair guarded her face. She heard our feet on the gravel, the girls skipping, and straightened her posture.

‘Tamariki! We are going on an adventure!’

The girls ran to her. I slowed and looked. This was our fifth adventure in two years. I was a little tired of adventuring.

‘There’s a beautiful place, not far from here, where we can live in a magical forest. There’s a big tent, a cabin and lots of other whanau around. Your Māmā will be able to work in the trees, helping the people that cut them down. What do you think of that, hey?’

‘Is there a castle in the forest like in the fairy tales?’

‘Or a house with a witch? Or with dwarves?’

The girls danced around her, their pigtails bouncing in the sunshine.

I sat down next to her and took the piece of paper from her hands. I had to sound out the word. I used to think it meant victory, something we’d won. Ee-vic-tion.

Looking back, it’s the orchard I remember. It was winter when we left. The apple trees were bare of leaves and fruit, their bare arms stretching up to the sky, bereft. Each tree kept its sap safe, deep inside, waiting to bloom again in spring and for fresh fruit. Until then we were not needed. The rats would have our house and the lovingly scrubbed floor would gradually become covered in dust and dirt until it blended with the orchard once more.

The beach hadn’t changed much since we’d first been able to call it home. The rocky spine still stretched out towards the horizon and the evergreen trees framed the bay into the distance. The water was colder now; I went for a swim but had to come out pretty quick. Even the light was more faded. I sat where we had eaten our chip butties that first night. The girls were home, packing. Māmā was taking down the sheet curtains she had made, the girls were packing the cushion covers that brightened the place up. I hoped they would remember the glass jars for the flowers.

I sat on the beach and started my castle. Even then I understood the importance of good construction. I dug a water hole next to my foundations. The sand I used would come from there: wet, sticky, solid. Equal parts sand and water. The sand on its own would fall apart. Too wet and it would collapse into a shapeless mound. Perfectly balanced though, equal parts, it would stand proud, and form impossible shapes. The water seeped in, mixing perfectly with the dry sand I added handful by handful. I built the foundations first; nothing fancy, no shell decoration or seaweed turrets. Then I built upwards, shaping each wall methodically. It was a circular structure, sturdy, reliable. I’d learned lessons from the ones I built before on this same spot. It made this more special somehow. The sun crept towards the horizon until I was the only person on the beach. My sandcastle stood facing the elements. It wouldn’t last. It wouldn’t keep anyone safe. It was just a pretty decoration. For that night though, for the next few hours it would stand at the edge of the ocean and stare it down. Finished, I heard Māmā’s voice in my head: ‘Where’s that brother of yours, hey, Mimi?’ I turned to leave; she needed me, we had an adventure to go on.





Poppie Johnson

Poppie Johnson is a 33-year-old writer and teaches English at Wakatipu High School. She grew up between Christchurch and Aoraki-Mt Cook and is currently enrolled in a Masters of Creative Writing through the University of Edinburgh.