Your father is on the megaphone. He stands on the top step, light seemingly sucked into his leather jacket, so he is almost silhouetted. You are in town to visit him. This slowly lapping beach town, paint peeling off wooden colonial buildings and off his house-yacht. The main street runs beside the marina, the main building an ageing ferry terminal with metal bars edging its front steps. It is here the protesters converge.
You didn’t want to come but he was having none of it. You scuff your shoes against the asphalt — there’s not even gravel to kick — and glance occasionally over your shoulder.
Your mother gives your father access begrudgingly. Never at her house which is her husband’s house really. She attempts to maintain a distance between her judgement of your father and your relationship with him. He speaks occasionally of your mother — of a softness there, some mutual sense of affection. Which you doubt but it would be wrong to say. Your closest relative in this world is your brother; you learned in extension class that your genetic makeup is fifty percent the same. Three years ago he taught you about menstruation and sanitary pads. Three months ago he pushed you from his room so you would know for certain you were banned. You fell against the door frame and fractured your arm. At home, you’ve had to drink Tiger Milk and KnitBone daily.
Once, when you were both small, he was in the ensuite at home with the door locked and you were outside, hammering, mad because it was meant to be your turn. You shoved the door so hard the lock popped off. You stood there shocked while he went running to tell. Your stepfather made you pay for the new lock out of your pocket money. You were angry and embarrassed and sorry all at the same time and you think, maybe, this is how your brother feels about your arm. Maybe this is why he has treated you even worse, since.
Your mum’s taken to saying, ‘He’s just like his father.’
You glance around, trying to catch sight of him. He is off to the side, handing out leaflets for your dad. Sometimes you despise him for being so like, so close to, your father. As second child, baby, you are more the daughter of your stepfather, the house and pool, the private school. Your brother went to the local coed and has the self-etched tattoos to prove it.
The megaphone squeals and your father leads a chant. There are cheers, fists raised. All around you people are gathering. Balding old men, clusters of women in red shirts with arms linked. Some kids run past, screaming, the first one holding a banner, the others in pursuit.
A woman leads a waiata, and you are on your way. Placards on heavy wooden poles are hefted up and fabric banners tightened. ‘Oi, stand further back,’ people shout. ‘Lift higher, it’s not straight.’
A kilted man who looks ninety plays the bass in a Scottish pipe band. Others chant in time with the drumming. You see a couple of girls your age leaning against the fish’n’chip shop, pointing. You look back down at the ground, but everywhere there are backs and poles and fabric to look out for. You trip over a flag and you’re mortified, blushing and too young to say sorry easily.
At thirteen, protest is foreign to you. At thirteen, you have no recourse. Your teacher smeared marmite on the door handles at school camp but when your classmates returned the prank, they were suspended for three days. You walk with hunched shoulders. Authority Is.
Your brother does not accept servility. Instead, he has served eighteen months in youth detention. The remainder he is serving at home, with a bracelet around his ankle. He has special approval to visit your father. Protesting is not included in the approval, and he will face the repercussions of this later. You spot him again, up the front now with the other teenagers. You are still a kid to him so you walk behind your dad, in time with his limp. Walking has required conscious effort for your father since ’81, when he turned up to a match without a crash helmet. He and his mates are different from the men in your town; the only subversive there is your brother. The only parade this size, one to welcome Santa Claus to the CBD.
When you arrived on Saturday, your dad met you at the bus stop. Walking back to the marina, he had his arm around your brother’s shoulders. Asked him how it was going, being out.
Said, ‘Good you could come, boy. Least the bloody court system allowed that.’
You fell behind so you would not have to listen. These conversations started when you were eight, and you used to try keep up with your brother, reading Marx for Dummieswith him at dinner. But you did not like going home having learned about the left-right continuum, the implication that those on the right were greedy. You did not like feeling you had betrayed your mum.
When you reached the yacht, no-one helped you lift your bag over the gap. You clambered down into the hull, found them in the spare cabin, and placed your bag on the floor, gently so as not to crush the origami that filled the top third.
Your brother didn’t look at you. ‘Do I have to sleep with the bitch?’ He hefted his bag up to the top, mezzanine bunk. Your dad put his left foot on the narrower, lower bunk, reached up, and hefted the bag back down again.
‘What?’ Your brother screwed up his face.
‘It’s your sister’s turn up there.’
It was the first time your dad had ever stuck up for you. When you were small, asking for chewing gum off an uncle, he would say, ‘No, you’ve had enough.’ When you would fight with your brother — even last trip, when he was already a teenager and you hadn’t yet hit puberty, so his punches meant three-week long bruises, his vice grip meant you were stuck till he chose to release you — your dad would say nothing.
Your brother stood very still, glaring intently at your father. Your father did not move. Your brother yanked his bag forward off the lower bunk so it fell to the ground, on top of yours. Then he walked out of the room, pulling his cigarettes from his pocket. He hasn’t spoken to you since.
‘Hey kid,’ you think you hear him call, now. You keep watching your dad, his jeans dragging on the ground, and with each step you hope no pram or leg will obscure this line of connection. Step, step. Step, step.
Your brother is at your side, his brown-streaked-blonde hair, his nose ring, his eyebrow stud in front of your face. ‘Get over here,’ he says, spinning around so he is facing the front of the demo. ‘Check this out,’ he calls. You grimace but big brothers are big brothers, so you do what he says. He weaves past people, placards, a sound system, a dog, and you follow.
The front of the march is a long sheet of yellow PVC, held up by teenagers of various heights. Your brother goes to a girl with dreadlocks who is chanting into a megaphone. He walks alongside her. You walk behind them, between them, the bottom point of the V, torn between following your brother and scooting back to your dad. You wish you were at home, at your best friend’s tenpin-bowling-and-movies-sleepover.
‘This is my sister,’ your brother says, ‘Give her a go.’ The girl hands you the megaphone. You shake your head but the thing is in your hands and she is tying her dreadlocks behind her head and your brother doesn’t see you because he’s grabbed the PVC and is hoisting it higher.
Your father’s voice comes across on his megaphone, loud enough to carry over the crowd between you.
‘When I say Union, You say Power. Union.’
‘Power.’ You hold the megaphone up and say it with the crowd, too humiliated even to giggle. Your brother leans over, grabs the wee microphone from where it dangles below and holds it to your mouth, his thumb on the button.
‘Union,’ your dad says.
‘Power.’ Your voice resounds along the beach front, echoes with the crowd’s.
‘Power.’ You say it louder now. You hear and feel a buzz, like when the doctor sticks her ear-torch in to check your ears.
When you don’t say it, the crowd sounds weaker, unsure to your ears. When you say it extra loud, the crowd sounds louder.
Your dad changes the chant. ‘Working families, under attack.’
You get the response on the second go. ‘Stand up! Fight back!’
You are between your brother and the girl, striding now, not even thinking about it, the street ahead just lampposts and blue-vested cops at intersections and mostly emptiness to be marched down.
No one says ‘You’re too young’ or ‘You don’t even know what a union is,’ so you don’t tell them. Instead you march, and chant, and turn back once when it sounds quiet behind you, and you see that the march has drifted apart, the front few hundred and the back few, so you walk slowly with the banner line until you’re one again.
When your brother and the front line sit down in the middle of the street, you sit down with them, still chanting. When someone starts singing, you sing with them. When you see the BBQ set up and your brother standing there, goofing around with his bony elbows out, pretending to flip sausages, you help him, grinning.
You stand next to your brother, your hair whipping about in the breeze and your dad on the steps of the monument on the edge of the street, giving a talk through his megaphone. You listen, and most of it is still gibberish but when he says, ‘Union’ you yell ‘Power’ with the others, and when you see him swaying slightly, forward and back, just like you do during school speeches, saying ‘Together we are strong,’ you race your brother to get your fist in the air.