The Queen (1953)
The young Queen was smiling as she looked into Tama’s eyes. She could be a movie star she’s so pretty, he thought. He was just about to tell her so, when Dickie Whittaker came into the classroom.
“What are you looking at her for you dirty sewer rat?” he said.
“I wasn’t,” said Tama. “Anyway, it’s only a dumb portrait. It’s not like she’s real or anything. There’s no law against looking.”
But Dickie had ruined everything. When Tama went out into the playground Dickie was already acting out a dramatic love scene. “Oi, slum boy, when’s the wedding?” Everybody laughed.
“Eff off dick head,” said Tama, but not so anyone could hear. He wasn’t that stupid. It didn’t matter anyway. Dickie wasn’t looking for a conversation. He’d find someone else to pick on in no time. It’s only one more day, thought Tama, one more day and then all this will stop.
Tama pretended the stones were Dickie’s head as he kicked them all the way home. He didn’t care that he was ruining his only pair of shoes, but he stopped when he saw his sister Moana waiting at the gate. She didn’t take shit from anyone. “I bloody dare him to call me a sewer rat,” she said. “I’d shove my fist right down his dirty cake hole.”
Dickie Whittaker was right though, it was a slum. From the road they could see right across the harbour, but the old tribal village ruined the view. Paint was peeling off the houses. Roofs were a patchwork of rusty iron. The old hangi pit was filled with bottles from the huge leaving party a year ago when almost everybody had moved into brand new state houses just a few blocks away.
Tama had been waiting for this day for so long. They were finally leaving because they had no choice. Their time was up. There were women down at their house now, wiping and sweeping and mopping. The windows were gleaming, ready for the freshly washed curtains to go back up. Their mother was beating the carpets against what was left of the fence. Men were piling boxes and furniture up outside. Pāpā was carrying their old brown couch on his back.
“I can’t wait to leave this dump,” Tama said to Moana. Pāpā stopped in his tracks.
“Idiot,” she said. “You know he hears everything.”
Pāpā put the couch down and beckoned them over.
“Come,” he said, “let’s sit down for a bit.” He said nothing for a very long time. “It wasn’t always a dump,” he said, finally. “You have forgotten.”
Tama hung his head.
“All of this was our land once as far as you could see. ‘Only a hundred years ago.”
Tama said nothing. He didn’t need to. Pāpā was lost in his memories of a place that he in turn only knew through the stories of others. Lush green pastures, all gone except for a few swampy acres. Shellfish beds, all ruined by the sewerage pipe which had gone in long before Pāpā was born. It had been a dump for the whole of Tama’s ten years. He couldn’t wait to move.
“Why did we have to stay, Tama?”
“Because everyone else has already gone, and we’re not frightened little rabbits like them.”
“Because,” said Pāpā, “we don’t want the history books to say we gave up without a fight.”
“I just wish it wasn’t us that had to go in the history books,” Tama told Moana later when they were out of earshot. “I wish it was someone else.”
It hadn’t been much fun living there since the men from the city had started calling their village names. When the pretty new Queen came, she would drive right down their road. They said she wouldn’t like looking at a slum. Yeah, thought Tama, who could blame her.
All the little kids in the neighbourhood liked the village the way it was though. There was a lot more space than in their own backyards, and his cousins who had moved out were always back there playing. There was a gang of kids down in the swamp now, poking around with their big sticks, looking for eels. They were covered in mud when they turned up back at the house. “Shoo,” said one of the women. “You can’t come inside like that. Go down to the beach and wash that mud off. Tama, you take them. Don’t let the water get in their mouths. We’ll be out of here by teatime.”
Yeah and we’ll be out of here forever, he thought happily. He couldn’t wait to get into their new house and start his new life. He certainly wouldn’t miss the village and he wouldn’t miss smelly old Ōhaku Bay either, where even the fish didn’t want to live anymore.
“Pong,” said Henry. “Tama, it smells real bad today. Why does it smell so bad?”
“I think it’s the way the wind is blowing,” said Tama, but he knew it wasn’t the wind.
“Bastards.” It was the only time he had heard his father swear. “They won’t fix it because we’re squatters. On our own land! They broke that goddam pipe on purpose.”
When they got back to the house Pāpā was waiting for them. “Time to say goodbye,” he said.
Oh God, thought Tama, can’t we just get this over and done with?
Good riddance, he thought, as they turned their backs on the village. Pāpā was very quiet. Everyone was at the new house to welcome them and Moana had bought hot chips and white bread and laid blankets out on the tiny lawn outside. Their view was of other houses, all in a row, and more just the same across the road. “It’s ok,” said Moana, “the beach isn’t far away. And they’ll have to make the smell go away before the Queen drives past. They’ll fix it all up real good.”
No more slum boy, thought Tama happily. His house was just the same as Dickie Whittaker’s now, except newer. There wasn’t much room inside but he didn’t care. Their grandparents had their own house now. Everyone was close by, it would be just like it had always been, and he would have a bedroom to himself when Moana moved out. She had stuck some pictures on the wall of the Queen’s Coronation. The Queen was smiling. He lay on his bed and smiled right back at her. “Thanks for getting me out of there,” he said. “It’s going to be way better now.”
When Tama was shaken awake the next morning the sky was red. “Good,” said Pāpā. “I hope it rains.”
It was much too early to be up, but Tama understood there was no choice. Mum had tried to make Pāpā change his mind. “No Hone, enough is enough, I don’t want the kids involved.”
He had insisted. “They need to have this memory.”
They were early, but the bulldozers had already arrived. It only took a few minutes to flatten the house they had been born in, the house that only yesterday the whole village had scrubbed so clean, because “no one is going to accuse me of being dirty,” Mum had said. Nobody even noticed how clean it was, thought Tama. Nobody cared.
Tama could see people in the remaining three houses. “Look Pāpā!” he screamed. “Uncle Hemi and Tane and Joe are still inside. Make the bulldozers stop.”
Rows and rows of policemen were coming their way. Tama’s friend Ruari appeared beside him, crying, as his own father raced ahead with his baton in his hand. “Dad doesn’t want to do this,” he said. “I wish everyone had just left like they were meant to.”
“I know,” said Tama. “It sucks,” but he had a funny feeling in his tummy when the policemen started to drag the men out. They didn’t arrest them. They let them stay and watch. What for, he thought. This is horrible.
All that was left standing now was the Marae; the heart Pāpā called it. The bulldozers had stopped and for one small hopeful moment Tama thought the Marae might be spared. “Pāpā,” he smiled, but suddenly the thatched roof erupted into flames. A figure burst through from behind the police lines and ran towards it. “It’s Hemi!” someone yelled, and Pāpā was running, but not in time to stop Uncle Hemi from throwing himself inside the burning building.
Ruari’s dad got there first and pulled him out and rolled him up in his big policeman’s coat. Uncle Hemi was swearing, and Pāpā was shouting out orders and then suddenly there was Mum, ashen faced, grabbing the little ones, muttering, “enough, this is more than enough.” She’s right thought Tama. Nobody should ever have been made to watch this.
He didn’t stop walking until he got down to the port where the Queen’s boat was going to come in. He supposed they would fix the port up too. There was a lot of fixing up to be done before she came. He walked back slowly along the route she would be taking, trying to imagine what it might look like when it was all finally fit for her eyes. All he could see was the thick black smoke and Uncle Hemi on fire.
He went back to his shiny house where it smelt of honeysuckle instead of sewerage, but he couldn’t get the burning smell out of his mind. He lay on his bed, looking at the Queen for a long time. “The slum has gone,” he told her at last. “They’re gonna make it real pretty for you instead.” He tried to smile but his heart was no longer in it. His tummy still hurt. He would wait until tomorrow to celebrate his new start.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tracey Schuyt has a BCA and a DipGrad in English Literature from Victoria University of Wellington. She has spent 2014 studying Creative Writing at Whitireia Polytechnic.