2015 NZ Writers College Short Story Competition Winner
Aroha - by Jeff Taylor
Whoa! Anyone can come, but surely this person has no business here? She’s wearing this feather cloak over an expensive-looking, long black dress, and is festooned with more paua jewelry and bone-carvings than an Auckland Airport souvenir shop.
We’ve been in these temporary council rooms since the earthquake, and while a gallery of past city fathers frowns down at the intrusion, a young Queen Elizabeth smiles from her coronation photo, oblivious to grievances that would one day come.
‘Welcome,’ I say. ‘I’m Aaron. Have a seat.’
She looks around the room. ‘Kia ora. Tena koutou katoa.’ The words hang in the air like Rotorua on a bad day, and I know what they’re all thinking. There’s just been this announcement about another big Treaty settlement, while at the same time benefit eligibility has been made tougher. This is definitely no place for tangata-whenua.
She’s certainly a looker - poised and elegant, tall, slim, mid twenties, and something…? Aha! That’s it. She looks strikingly like I remember a young Dame Kiri.
Later, I ask her to introduce herself, and she speaks with a throaty, musical voice that could definitely do a decent Pokarekareana. She stands nervously twirling a strand of long, black hair.
‘My name is Aroha, and I’ve got…..um, a problem with alcohol. It’ll devastate my whanau if they find out.’ She looks directly at me with those big, dark eyes, and from that moment I’m pretty much done for.
‘I’ve been in Sydney, and I’m due back to the Waikato soon.’
‘Why Christchurch?’ I ask.
‘The distance mainly. Somewhere well away from home. I don’t want to run into anyone who knows me.’
She tells us she’s got Maori royal blood, and a degree in business management. Both her parents died when she was young, and she’d been brought up by whanau. There’d been a bust up with an Aussie boyfriend, and she substituted him with a vodka habit - a bottle a day.
The other women in the AA meeting set out to give her a hard time because of what they perceive to be a privileged background - her impeccable manners, her clothes and her grooming. Their standard dress code is decidedly shabby. If clothes had feelings, theirs would be embarrassed, while Aroha’s seem to drape on her with pride. They don’t hold back.
Lucy, the hairdresser with the tremor that you’d never want scissoring near your vital arteries, is the first. ‘Where’d you go to school then?’ she asks with a sneer.
‘I went to a private school, on a grant,’ Aroha explains. The room goes so quiet you could have heard a settlement cheque drop in the parliament buildings.
Mandy, part-time cleaner, with teeth like lopsided tombstones, throws another spiteful challenge. ‘Treaty money I suppose?’ I hold my breath, but Aroha just smiles and doesn’t seem fazed.
‘The old gravy train,’ Megan, one of the fallen housewives snipes. (Solo with two kids, husband in jail, on the benefit. She should talk.)
‘Taxpayer money.’ Tina, the other one. Late twenties, solo with one kid, several partners, on the benefit as well. (She should also talk.)
I can’t believe this spitefulness. ‘Hey, come on, it was their land after all!’ I reason, surprising even myself. ‘And the seabed and foreshore, that’s actually theirs too!’ I’m on shaky ground here though, my experience of water rights being restricted to distant memories of scuffles with Rangi Matenga after school for turns on the river bank swing. It hardly makes me an authority. ‘And you all have your opportunities. There are grants out there no matter what race or religion.’
She smiles at me gratefully, then says. ‘Please everyone, Aroha means love.’
The bitterness seems to settle somewhat with those words.
The guys in the group don’t say much. Stan, the ex-publican who always drank more than he ever sold, is gawping. Harold, the struck-off, middle-aged doctor with a preference for the top shelf is trying to uphold his image of aloof indifference. Donald the merchant seaman, who’d found a bar in every port he’s ever visited, is leering at her. Bloody rude! But I suppose some might see something in my eyes as well. And if I’m not mistaken, she does seem to reserve a smile for me that could have hidden promise.
‘I need to go back soon. They’re holding a position for me, tribal secretary. There’s no alcohol allowed on the marae, which’ll help, but I’ve got to beat it first.’
It’s overwhelming, I’ve never been smitten like this before, and one or two of them have come on to me over the years. They know my history. A 52-year-old recovered alcoholic, ex-accountant, who drank his way to a divorce and estranged his two teenage kids. I know I’m no catch either, being short, rotund and bald. Five years dry now, I’m the AA success story who is now a counselor for Community Alcohol Services.
Aroha tells us she receives a generous allowance from the tribe. I love hearing her talk, but know I must hold back any thoughts other than the counselling - for now. She’s just a damaged soul sent by fate to me to fix, and I will save her.
It becomes my crusade, and it consumes me. I tell myself that important matters depend on her recovery. I fantasize that I will single-handedly save the Kingitanga movement.
She seems determined. ‘I can do this, Aaron. I have the spirits of my whakapapa with me.’
So I work out a program for her. The bigotry and jealousy festers away among the group, surfacing from time to time. It’s like that volcanic and seismic stuff you know is simmering away beneath Aotearoa’s crust that can suddenly show itself. The quakes, the eruptions. Now you see it, now you don’t, but ignore it at your peril.
Slowly, and incredibly, the others warm to her. She wins them over, and even introduces them to some basic Te Reo Maori. Her serenity and calmness somehow rubs off on them. Soon we’re starting our sessions with a prayer called a karariki, and not a snigger from anyone. I reckon it’s only a matter of time before she’ll have us doing flax weaving and poi twirling.
I help her through the darkest moments. On her own, in a small flat, she struggles with her demons. I give her my cell number, and she calls at all hours, crying down the airways. I go through every moment with her.
And it’s all going well, until one day this Tommy creep turns up at meetings. A bronzed, good-looking guy about her age, who sees she’s got money and hits on her. I can see her responding and plead with her to have nothing to do with him.
She just smiles at me. ‘I can look after myself, Aaron.’
Tommy’s determined and cunning, and works on her weaknesses. The signs are soon there, and eventually she can no longer look me in the eye. Then her phone calls stop. I decide there’s nothing for it but to confront him. Psyching myself up, I tell him to stay away from her. He just sneers, and they both drop out of the program.
I’m devastated. I try to put her out of my mind, but she haunts my thoughts. It takes every ounce of willpower to stay dry, to refrain from trying to track her down and contact her. Worryingly, I sometimes find myself walking into a bar, and quickly have to get out of there.
Six weeks later, I see her. It's by chance, on one of the river paths at a known gathering point for local drop-outs. She’s on her own, lying scrawny and wasted on the bench like a pretzel, curled into a foetal ball. She appears to be out of it. I can smell the failure on her breath as I gently nudge her.
She lifts her head slightly and peers uncomprehendingly at me through dark glasses from beneath a peaked cap. Her hand goes to her mouth.
‘Hey, Aaron, you frightened the shit out of me.’
Taking a swig of something out of a coke bottle, she wipes her mouth with the sleeve of an old grey sweatshirt. She would never have worn anything tacky like that once. I notice how her skin has deteriorated, the tremor in her hands.
‘You’re still with him?’ I can feel bile rising in my stomach.
She won’t look me in the eye. ‘Tommy? Sort of, I guess.’
Then I notice. ‘You okay Aroha? Everything okay?’ She drops her head even more. ‘Hey, let’s have a look.’ I gently pull her hand away and remove her sunglasses. Her eyes are dark moons sitting in bruised sockets.
‘Shit Aroha! Did Tommy do this?’ Her silence gives me the answer. Then she’s sobbing, fast and heavy, and I can feel my fury building.
‘Come on, I’ll get you a coffee and a sandwich.’ I take her arm. ‘You can tell me all about it.’
She shakes her head again, mumbles something, then looks up at me. ‘Thanks though.’ She keeps glancing down the street, jumpy about something. ‘Tommy’s coming soon.’
‘I’m not worried about him.’ I stand looking down at her, hunched on the bench on the bank overlooking the Avon, the creek that aspires to be a river. ‘Your whanau still don’t know then?’
‘I can’t face them.’
‘You could have made it you know. He’s dragging you down with him.’ I’m appalled by her physical deterioration. It’s gut-wrenching and I can’t hide my hurt. I look away and neither of us speaks for a long time. ‘Good luck then,’ I say, and reluctantly turn away. There’s nothing more to say.
I leave her there and walk the streets for hours. Then I do what I should have done at the start. It takes a couple of calls before I get the people I want, and we speak for a long time. Feeling my heart as low as it has ever been, I go home to wait.
They come in a minivan to claim her. There are four of them and they’ve driven for two days. I take them straight to the place and thankfully, she’s there, with some other no-hopers who quickly drift away when they see us coming. There’s no sign of Tommy.
Her eyes widen, then she stands and starts to recite something. Words I don’t understand, in a sort of warbling, wailing cry. I stay in the background as she collapses sobbing into the arms of her grey-haired Kuia. A Kaumatua in a suit and tie starts to chant as well. Two men, tribal elders, complete the solemn group. They all join in and the prayer soars to the heavens.
There’s this eerie sensation, hard to describe, and I swear there’s something spiritual in the air. I have the same goose-bumps I’d got once when I saw Whale Rider, and another time, when I watched the Maori Queen’s funeral on TV.
They had been a rocked by what I’d told them, but grateful. It seems that she is a Kahurangi - a tribal prize-jewel, and they have big plans for her. There is an intense, animated discussion while I hold my breath. I know this could go either way. Eventually, to my relief they encourage her into the van. I hongi with them in silence. No words seem necessary.
Aroha gives me a little wave and a smile from a window as they drive away, and I’m sure she should be okay now. I stare at the bottle of vodka I’d brought along. If she’d refused to go with them I’d had visions of sharing it with her.
I empty it on the ground, toss it in the trash can, and walk away as my heart soars.
Jeff Taylor is a retired pharmacist living in Hamilton. A late starter in writing (2007), he enjoys writing short stories and flash fiction, including humour wherever possible. So far he has had some success in competitions writing about his experiences with drug addicts. The idea for ‘Aroha’ came from his childhood in Huntly, where Tainui have a strong presence.
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