A rugged wee boy takes a three-point position, his Red Bands digging into the dirt. His brow is furrowed, his muscles are tensed and his eyes are burning a hole in the horizon. Over and again, he hears a voice speak.
“Koro’s watching you.”
A conspiracy of children line up beside him, each with their own furtive appetite. Ignorant, the adults watch on, trading all sorts of predictions. What the weather will do and who’s gonna blow their load too early and how long it’ll take for Truce to lose his gummies.
“Bet it ain’t before he loses his shirt. Boy’s always been a bloody show-off.”
And so the starter gun fires and the children race into the distance, huffing and puffing and pumping their arms, clumps of grass and mud being kicked up and Truce taking an early lead, the boy exploding out of his stance like the North Island out of the ocean. For a moment, even the adults are silent. Bitter and impressed. Little time passes before they start again, poking fun at the kid in gumboots, jean shorts and a Hunting & Fishing T-shirt.
“Boy races like he’s running from the cops.”
“Bit of job experience you reckon?”
“Well, if he’s anything like his old man…”
Over the first hill, the first of the girls cease to sprint, a litter of six beyond the eyes of the adults slowing to a brisk walk, each revealing a Tamagotchi hidden in the waistline of their running shorts. The world around them fades to a blur, the whole of their attention divided between petting their digital pets and gossiping about the boys they’re going to marry on Tuesday. Boys they’ll never speak to afterwards. One of these fortunate few is only a little farther ahead, him and his crew jumping a fence and ducking into a field of maize, fumbling a packet of cigarettes he’d pinched from his mum a few days back. Like pork bones and pūhā, cross country and mischief have always been a perfect pair.
A hot sun beams down on the ones still running, the clouds cowering at the edges of the earth. They wouldn’t dare block its view. None but Māui has gone against it and lived to tell the tale. And even he had to catch it early—before it could clear the sleep from its eyes.
Truce goes on, his eyes wild and fiery, his breathing rhythmic and controlled, sweat staining the collar of his T-shirt and his denim sticking to his legs. To keep pace, he drives with his knees, every new step an effort to clear his gummies from the muck of the last, his gaze searching for the next second of shade. A moment of reprieve from the heat. The rest of the racers have already fallen from sight. Nowhere to be seen. He was never racing them anyway.
“Koro’s watching you.”
The track is a mess of different conditions. Asphalt bubbling from the heat and prickled paddocks and dirt tracks through maize; mini forests of pine and rolling hills and intrepid sheep; fences that need be leapt and manure that need be dodged and a single enduring puddle that cannot be avoided. Its only redeeming features are Taranaki maunga looking on proudly and a chorus of birdsong. Each portion of the track like Mario Kart features a different genre of music. Magpie rap or tūī pop or classical wood pigeon. Not that the racers can appreciate any of this through the blinding salt of sweat in their eyes and a deafening air of huffing and puffing.
Somewhere between the singing birds and the sheep feening to head-butt a child, a pack runs a steady run, putting just enough effort in to avoid an uncomfortable conversation when they get home. The cross country equivalent of Cs get degrees. A little behind them are a spotting of kids already ready to quit. One bent over clutching his ribs and two walking with their hands on their hips and three lying face down in the dirt. They’ll stay there until their parents come to collect them. Nothing like a little drama to save you from a long run. Plus, you can always claim you were top 10 before you tripped and ate a mouthful of grass.
Well-concealed in the maze of maize, the crew form a huddle and split three cigarettes between the five of them. The boys planned to go puff for puff except Jason. He’s a Year 6 so will get his own. And anyway, he has experience. His uncle gave him a sip of beer one time and he reckons smoking and drinking are the same thing.
“Where’s the lighter?”
“We can’t smoke without a lighter, you frickin’ idiot.”
“Can’t we just rub some sticks together?”
The adults pace backwards and forwards, nervous to see who will first cross the cow-pattied paddock opposite, a stretch of land marking the halfway point of the three-kilometre race. Even knowing their own children well, they can’t help but hope it is their own son or daughter who will emerge from behind the boxthorn. But of course it isn’t. In first place remains the rugged wee thing in Red Bands, his knees still driving and his arms still pumping and his gaze unshifting from the next second of shade.
A head among the crowd nods a subtle nod, a pair of old brown eyes tracking the boy. His lips shift under a thick beard of grey, the old man muttering to himself. Not saying anything anyone would recognise. These are the words of the old people. Expressions of gratitude and a gentle call for good conditions. In its stead, the sun burns on and his country bumpkin neighbours bless him only with foul looks and side-eyes.
“All that magic talk and the old fella still needs two crutches to get around.”
“And his son is still locked up.”
“And Truce is still out there running in gummies and jean shorts.”
Truth is Truce’s dad was never locked up. Poor man just fell sick one day. Doctors never figured out why. Passed away a few days later and was buried on his pā up north. Mum moved on, couldn’t manage her grief and Koro moved in, taking care of the boy. Where the rumours of prison came from nobody knows. Certainly nobody ever asked the old man or the boy. Locals just took it for granted. Course he got locked up. Fella wore dreadlocks and listened to reggae; had to be dealing drugs.
The crew twist and twirl an eclectic collection of sticks, working as hard on starting a fire as any of the runners still running. Each of them sit deep in a squat, rubbing their hands backwards and forwards with all the vigour of a man a minute from frostbite, stopping only to correct one of their mates who had to be doing it wrong.
“Not like that, like this.”
“You done this before?”
“Nah. But I know you ain’t doing it right.”
A rascal of sheep line up the girls petting their digital pets, loading up their charge like an archer loads his arrow. Slowly pulling away from his target. Oblivious, the girls walk on, shifting the conversation from marriage to children, each of them insisting they want nine. That way they could drive a limo everywhere and there’ll always be toys in the house. One asks where babies come from and another tells her from mummies and daddies. A pair of twins amongst them stay deadly quiet. They’ve been on the farm long enough to know only real gross behaviour brings babies. With a look, they ask each other how something so nasty can make something so adorable.
The twins, lost in their shared disgust, step in the same pile of sheep pellets and announce their displeasure with a squeal, the rest breaking into a fit of giggles, throwing their heads back in hysterical delight. In a moment, a collective panic takes them, the litter remembering all at once sheep pellets mean sheep. They turn and spot the flock and the flock charge and the race is on, the girls’ arms flailing in the air, their Tamagotchis left behind in the mud and the poop, their eyes glued on a cattle grid at the other end of the paddock. Their only hope of surviving unscathed.
“Reckon we’ll have any problems with the flock?” one of the adults earlier asked Ms Jeffries.
“Not as long as the kids are running.”
“And if they aren’t?”
“A flock of charging sheep might be all the motivation they need.”
Truce begins to slow, the hot sun stealing his strength, the mud drying around his gummies, his jeans chafing the insides of his thighs, his tee soaked all the way through. He suffers it all as best he can and continues into the fray, confident in his lead but knowing just winning the race was not enough. There was a record to break. A point to prove. To the adults who laughed at him, to his mother who abandoned him, to his koro who had taken him in and loved him. Looked after him.
Putting his family name in the record books is all he could think to do to honour the old man, to let his mother know she was wrong to leave him and everyone else know they are wrong about him. History in this little country school will never forget his family. Their name will be carved into the board of kauri that sat atop the town hall. They will be remembered like his ancestors were remembered. Through chisel and wood.
So on he goes, persevering, counting second by second inside himself, pushing with all his mortal power, knowing if he can keep this pace he will surely accomplish his task. Truce bites down on his teeth and breathes though his nose and puts a single foot wrong, the boot on his right leg filling with water. He’d stepped in the enduring puddle and like New Zealand’s classic pastime, was stuck in the mud, his gummie sliding down his leg as momentum carried him forward, the rugged wee boy tripping over himself, losing both his boots in the kerfuffle and eating a mouthful of grass.
“Think the boy will break the record?”
“In jean shorts and Red Bands? No way.”
“Got pretty close last year.”
“Not close enough.”
A steady stream of smoke lifts from a pair of twisting branches. Then an ember. And with some gentle blowing and a little fluff from the maize, a tiny flame. Jason holds his cigarette to the fire and its tip glows red, his eyes growing wide with delight, the crew rushing to do the same. To join in on the gag. Between a bout of coughing and some confusion about what end you’re supposed to suck and what end you’re supposed to light, the crew trade looks of awe and poorly disguised surprise. Check us out, their flushed cheeks say. We’re pretty much the Kakaramea School Mafia now.
And they aren’t wrong for the law was onto them. Above the tops of the maize, the smoke grew heavy and the always-scanning eyes of Ms Jeffries grew suspicious, the old lady excusing herself from a conversation and marching with disciplinary intent towards the accidental smoke signal. It will be no time at all before their sit down is crashed and the Kakaramea School Mafia are snapped.
“We’re gonna need some kind of patch.”
“What about a cigarette and a school pencil behind a skull?”
“We’re gangsters not pirates, Captain Dopey.”
Decorated hip to toe in sheep poo, the girls catch their breath on the safe side of the grid, only the runt among them having felt the hard-headed nudge of their woollen assailants. The poor thing in tears. Even so, having learned their lesson, they jog on together. Who knows where the next flock might be hiding?
Truce wrestles himself from the earth, leaving his gummies buried behind him. There is no time to waste. He would need every millisecond he could muster to break the record now. Nothing was going to stop him. Fortunately, with his Air Force Nones, he could run on the balls of his feet. At least as long as he could avoid the prickles and boxthorn. He leans into his stride and thrashes with his arms and thrusts with his knees, sprinting a violent sprint, making up as much time as he could make. He forgets the shade and abandons any reprieve from the heat. Through chafed legs, between the mounds of gorse and over Number 8 wire fences, the boy goes and goes and goes.
“Koro’s watching you.”
The Kakaramea School Mafia hear a rustle and swiftly take flight, cutting through the maize and back onto the track. They leap the fence and their eyes dart in every direction searching for the gaze of Ms Jeffries. Free from the presence of anyone bar the three still face down in the dirt, the crew breathe a sigh of relief.
“You see her?”
“Nah. She see us though?”
“I definitely did,” a disembodied voice answers, Ms Jeffries’ face emerging from behind the maize like Johnny in The Shining.
Their eyes swell with panic.
“Are you gonna suspend us, Ms?”
“Well, that depends: you gonna run your little legs now like you run your little mouths in class?”
And with that, they are off.
At the other end of the track, the eyes of the adults alternate between the barefoot boy sprinting and a LED display tracking the seconds. Truce’s koro keeps his own set on his grandson, wondering where his Red Bands have gone and quietly proud of the effort etched into his expression. What’s a record to an old man anyway? He’ll settle for a grandson happy and healthy and strong in character. And that he knows he has.
Still Truce sprints a violent sprint. He has a point to prove. Adults to disappoint and a kauri board to carve his family name into. At last he comes upon the final stretch, a rugby field finished by a long length of ribbon, seeing the countdown clock in his periphery. 11:59. Fourteen seconds to go. The boy would have to run the fastest 100 metres of his life. In a single motion, he strips his shirt and proclaims his will to the crowd watching on. I a ha ha!
What happened next need only be remembered by what was carved into the kauri board afterwards:
3KM CROSS COUNTRY RECORD HOLDER
Truce Tumahuki (Year 6)