2017 NZ Writers College Short Story Competition Winner

 
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'White Boy Wonder' - by Victoria Louise Lawrence

 

 

 

 

Two on the Ace.

Click.

Red Queen on black King.

Click. Click. Click.

Black seven on red eight.

 

This was shit. I closed the game as Donna walked past, brushing lunch crumbs off her white shirt.

 

“Jake. You look... misplaced. Don’t you have an Aide Memoire to send to MFAT?” She rocked back on her sensible heels. Was there a special shop somewhere in Wellington for single, middle-aged, middle-management public servants, posted to the Pacific Islands?

“Done.”

“What about prep for the High Commissioner's visit to Savaii?”

“Done.” I scratched behind my ear.

“Monthly Fisheries Project report?”

“Done.”

“Efficient today.” She squinted at my workstation. “Why?”

“Coz I eat’s me spinach.”

“Hmm. You annoy me when you’re idle.” She folded her arms across her chest. “How bout a site visit? Get out in the Hilux. See your friends at the Ministry of Health?” She grinned.

“Now you’re just being mean.” I was giving that lot a wide berth until the gossip died down. I glanced over at Semisi’s empty desk. Can’t roll without my bro.

“Nah,” was all I offered her.

“Awww,” Donna pouted, tilting her head. “You’re lonely! Someone missing his big buddy?”

Eye roll.

“White Boy Wonder lost without his Dark Knight?” she taunted.

“Don’t be sexist.” I rocked back on my office chair, then shot forward as something cracked under the seat. “Where is Sem?”

“Sick leave.” She turned towards her office.

“Three days in a row? He’s never sick. What’s wrong with him?”

“Dunno,” she said over her shoulder. “Haven’t heard from him since Monday.”

“You’d sack me for that,” I said.

“You’re not Semisi.”

I swung round on my chair, “Don’t like it. It’s not how he rolls.”

“Having to do all your work by yourself, princess?” She was enjoying this.

“I’m going to find out what’s up,” I said.

“Quick, to the batpole!” Donna grinned as she shut her office door.

 

Rubbish bin basketball was no fun without him. Rubber-banding the IT guy was no fun without him. Lunch wasn’t happening without him and his wife’s superb leftovers.

 

What. To. Do.

 

Fuck it. It took six rings before Semisi answered.

 

“Hey, Sem. Whatcha doooing?” I slouched down in my creaky office chair.

“Hey. What do you need?”

I shot a quick look at Donnas’ office door, “Ahhh. You got the monthly Fisheries report done? Donna’s on the war path.”

“Last week.” Semisi paused. “Anything else?”

“You catch the rugby last night?” I spun the chair with my foot and got three and a half rotations. Record!

“No, mate. I got to go. Report’s in your tray.” He hung up.

Huh. I slouched into the kitchen and washed my cup under the tap.

Fetu, the High Com driver nodded as he walked in and headed for the fridge. “Jake.”

“Fetu.” I nodded back.

“Catch the game?” He opened the fridge door and leaned in.

“Yup. Hey, you’re related to Semisi, right?”

“Bother-cousin.”

What the hell did that mean? “You seen him since Friday?”

“Nope, but Mum’s been over to their place.” He slapped a huge wad of butter on a slice of bread.

I watched him for a couple of beats. “Anything up with him?”

“Why?” The whole piece disappeared in one go.

“He’s been off work three days,” I said.

“Huff kifs fick.”

“His kids sick?” I threw some coffee granules in the cup, and sloshed in some hot water from the jug.

Fetu nodded, chewing.

“When’s he coming back to work?”

“Hef in Hoffital. Priffat.”

“Thanks. Watch that carb intake, man.” I emptied the coffee into the sink, dropped the cup after it and winked at the ‘Clean it yourself!’ sign.

 

Huh. Better get on the bat phone. Private hospital was for expats and politicians. If Sem’s family needed to pay then it was unusual. The man had half a village relying on his pay packet.

 

I left a post-it on Donna’s door: ‘Alfred. Out for the arvo. Kisses. White Boy Wonder’.

 

***

 

The hospital waiting room was empty. At least this one smelt like a hospital. “Semisi Latu,” I said again, reminding the receptionist of my existence and she continued to clack away on her keyboard.

 

I dinged the bell on the desk and grinned at her. She didn’t flinch.

 

The pink toy pig clamped under my arm oinked and vibrated happily. Annoying little bastard. I stuffed the envelope of money into my back pocket while I fumbled around the pig's bum looking for a switch.

 

“Not here.” The receptionist finally looked up, adjusting the enormous red hibiscus in the knot of black hair on the top of her head.

“You sure?”

“Not here.”

“Wait,” head slap. “Semisi is the dad. Kid’s name is... um. Latu is the last name”.

She sighed, eyes still on the screen. “Here this morning.”

“This morning?” I said.

“Not now.” She blinked.

I whistled in frustration. The pig jiggled and snorted. Must be sound-activated. “Can I at least drop this toy into the kid’s room?”

Nothing.

“Have they gone home?” I raised my voice to get some kind of reaction.

Silence.

“Did they check out this morning or is the kid still here?” Bloody hell.

She shot a glance at the office door to the right of reception. “He died.”

All the air sucked out of the room. “What?

“He. Died,” she said, indicating with a flick of her head that I was to get lost now.

Electricity shot out my nerve endings. “How?”

“Meningitis. He was sick for two weeks. Admitted yesterday morning. Too late.”

Fuck.

No.

Fuck!

“I need their address?”

“Not allowed.” She turned back to her computer.

Fuck.

 

***

 

“Fetu, what do I do? I need to find him,” my voice cracked. I slapped the waiting room wall and ground the phone in to my ear. “I need to... shit, I dunno... give him money for the hospital. And maybe some food. Is that what you do? Casseroles?” I dragged a sweaty hand down my face. “Where does he live?”

“The family will look after it,” Fetu said.

“Kid was sick for two weeks! Why didn’t he say anything?”

Fetu’s silence hurled me to an airless mountain top.

I tried to think but came up empty. “I’ve got a toy.”

“Funeral’s tomorrow,” he said.

Funeral. I choked back a lump. “Tomorrow? So soon?”

“It’s tradition.”

Goddam. “I’ve got some money for him.”

Fetu answered slowly. “It’s not the right thing. I talked to Donna. The office is going as a group with a fa’alavelave.”

“What?” I took a deep breath. My chest fucking hurt.

“We are all putting in money for tinned fish and lace.”

“But he needs… Lace? Are you kidding me? What good is that going to—“

Jake.” Fetu’s tone caught me in the stomach. “It’s tradition. You want to do something for him? Join in with us.”

“But he’s my best mate!” I stuffed the damp envelope back into my back pocket. Two hundred bucks. Bits of stupid paper.

The line was quiet for a couple of seconds. Fetu’s voice sounded far away, “He doesn’t need you. Come to work tomorrow. We’ll all go together.”

 

***

 

I sat, cross-legged, kneading the toy’s head in sweaty hands, staring at Semisi’s knee. Dark scars and welts clouded his coffee-coloured skin. Couldn’t look him in the eye. Tina, his wife sat beside him, rocking their other little boy gently on her lap. Face tucked into her husband’s shoulder. How do you explain this to a four-year-old?

 

Words I didn’t understand. Keening that made my jaw clench. Women with dark liquid eyes came and went, placing bolts of bight floral cloth and white lace in a pile in front of the family. Boxes of tinned beef and fish stood sentinel in the corner.

 

A small, white coffin lay on the table top, open but draped with a piece of white lace. I didn’t dare look at it. But their pain kept taunting me to.

 

Elders took turns speaking. I glanced across the room at Donna, trying to catch her eye. Should I say something? On behalf of his New Zealand colleagues? What would make any sense? On some unspoken cue, Fetu nudged Donna. She moved to add our offering to the pile. Fetu spoke soft words and gestured gently with chiselled hands. Those hands could fix anything. Not this. We dipped our heads as Semisi’s mother murmured a hypnotic reply in Samoan.

 

For a time no one spoke. A small, bare living room. Fifty people cross-legged on the smooth concrete floor, shoulder to shoulder in echoing silence, save a gentle, sad hum, and the wind in the palm fronds outside. It was killing me, the silence. Worse than the anguished sobs, the foreign words. Worse than the keening. Because I could hear my own worthless heart beating. I stared at Semisi’s big toe, jutting out past the end of his battered jandals.

 

Finally we all stood and formed a ragged line.

 

Oh no. This was not happening. But it was. Everyone filed slowly past the table. The miniature white coffin. Lace gone.

 

Men nodded soothingly and laid open palms gently in the box for a moment. Women clutched hands and whispered to their God.

 

We shuffled forward. In front of me, Donna bent her head for a few seconds, glanced down and smiled tenderly. She straightened and looked back at me with aching eyes. No. I couldn’t. I just….

 

I shuffled forward and looked down.

 

Faded Batman pajamas. Tiny little hands.

 

I blinked hard. Clenched my teeth, mashed my lips together. My first ragged breath ripped the lid off the ache. I jammed the heels of my palms against my eyes and moved away. Stood by the window, breathing in serrated gulps.

 

Don’t know how much later, but Donna finally tugged at my sleeve. I sucked in air and turned.

 

Semisi, head bent, cradling the little white box in his arms. His boy.

 

They surrounded him. Everyone. Guided him out the door, into the fierce glare bouncing off the crushed coral in the front yard. They sang as he bent over a concrete slab and gently laid the coffin in the leaf-lined grave.

 

Tina shook as she put a tiny pair of dusty jandals in the hole. Others filed past, bending to place their own mementos. A tatty picture book. A bright rubber ball.

 

I looked down at the pig in my hand. A rush of blood propelled me forward to add it to the collection.

 

More words. More songs. Then a group of men moved forward to lift a concrete slab and manoeuvre it towards the grave. Tina cried out, wrenching in Semisi’s arms.

 

And the fucking pig started oinking.

 

All the blood dropped to my feet. Oh God. No.

 

Next thing I knew, I was standing inside the house being offered cake. I had to go. Needed to get out. Fucking, fucking moron. But I had to see Semisi. Found him outside, down the side of the house, leaning against the canary yellow wall. Staring at the concrete slab.

 

He nodded once when he saw me.

“Mate,” I shrugged, blinking. “I ruined it. With the—“

“Thanks for coming, Jake.”

Shit. I rolled the corner of the envelope between my thumb and finger. Searching for words. “I got this. For you. But I don’t know if it’s the right…”

He reached forward, took my hand in both of his for a moment, closing his eyes. When he leaned back the envelope was gone.

Should I hug him? Should I drop at his feet? “Take as much time off of work as you need,” I stammered.

“I’ll be back on Monday,” he said, quietly.

“No, man. You got three days compassionate leave, but Donna will sign off on leave without pay. Take some time. I can cover you.” I jammed my hands in my pockets, hearing myself.

Semisi took a deep breath and smiled, “Jake, I’ll see you Monday.”

I started to cry. Head bowed.

“It’s all right, brother,” he whispered. “It’s just how it is.”


 


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Victoria-Lawrence-2017 WinnerVictoria Lawrence is a Queenstown based project manager, who discovered early in her career that corporate reports are not the place for black comedy. Drawing on her background in social anthropology, research into rites of passage, and fifteen years experience in development aid in the Pacific, she enjoys writing about the interplay of cultures and identity. Victoria has a Master’s Thesis on modern funeral rituals, contributed to an e-anthology of short stories and has self-published a work of fiction flavored with a hint of madness.


 

 

 

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