Despite putting on his reading glasses and holding the laminated menu at arm’s length, Dad still couldn’t read Vietnamese. When the squiggly vowels finally became clear enough to read, he frowned and said, ‘I don’t suppose I can get a burger here, either.’
I gritted my teeth. ‘It’s good kai. I reckon you’ll like it.’
Two deep breaths later he said, ‘Mate, I’ve got no idea.’
Dad eventually ordered the beef soup, and almost smiled when it came in a bowl half the size of his head. He sniffed his dinner and watched me struggle with a pair of chopsticks. He rolled his eyes, as if to say ‘Well, you’re the one who wanted fancy Asian food’. Of course, he’d never say that – he’s not a talkative guy.
It was a lot easier talking to Dad when I was still going pig hunting. Every Saturday morning we’d be up before the sun and off to meet Uncle Kev and his son Robbie. Then we’d be back at the truck for a late lunch, then drive into town for the weigh-in at the Aramoho Pub. There’d be bloodied Swanndris and kids running in gumboots and a rack of pigs hung by their jaws. I’d stand by Dad in the car park while he spun yarn after yarn about the boar we’d nearly caught. Well, the boar he’d nearly caught. I never enjoyed hunting, not since my first pig hunt. I’d come home with a split lip, and that pretty much killed it.
It was a drizzly afternoon out Tokumaru, and we were heading back to the truck with soggy trackpants stuck to our thighs. Me and Robbie were walking behind the grown-ups, jostling to step into the flat spots left by Uncle Kev’s boots. Kev stopped to check some pig sign in the grass and – BAM – I walked face-first into the butt of his rifle.
‘Jesus, why are you so bloody close?’ asked Kev.
‘You can’t walk so close when you’re pig hunting,’ said Robbie. ‘It’s weird.’
My lip was throbbing and half-numb. I touched it and my hand came back red.
Dad pulled a roll of toilet paper from a zip-lock bag and said, ‘Go on mate, let’s have a look at that lip.’ He held the back of my head and pressed until the bleeding stopped, then threw the bloody wad into a bootprint.
‘There ya go’, he said. ‘You’ll have decent battle scar there. A real manly one.’
And he was right, it did scar. I still have the thin white line on my lip.
Eight days before dinner with Dad, Gary messaged me to say it was Brian’s anniversary. Five years since he wrapped his Commodore around a pohutukawa tree on Alma Road, just up from Dad’s place. Brian Anderson, with his famous cheekbones and his shaved head that was perfectly round like a tennis ball. And then I realised – apart from a text message at Christmas, I hadn’t heard from Dad since I moved to Wellington. So a few days later, I gave him a call. We yakked about work and Mum and Sarah, then I heard him trying to end the conversation.
‘Hey, Dad. One more thing before you go. The Black Caps are playing down here this weekend. You wanna come down to watch the game?’
Four whole seconds of silence.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah, that sounds alright.’
Three days later we were sitting in the stadium together, watching the field and the big screen, and avoiding eye contact. It was strange seated beside him in those plastic seats; a little too intimate. And facing him across the table in the Vietnamese restaurant was even worse.
He picked up a mouthful of noodles, but they slid off his fork and fell back into the broth. He sighed and dropped his cutlery into the half-finished bowl of pho.
‘You wanna order some more?’ I asked.
‘Nah I’m right.’
‘You’re not into the food?’
‘Well, it’s not very bloody edible, is it?’
I’d forgotten how he was about food. Thirty-odd years of hunting meant he didn’t trust an animal that he hadn’t gutted himself. It was never an issue when I was young, cos we always had a freezerful of meat. Once or twice a year Dad and Kev would chopper into the bush with a canoe, then spend a week shooting and sticking and paddling their way out. They’d come home covered in blood and pig lice, with a stack of boars and a dog in need of surgery. Mum usually had a quiet grumble about vet bills, but one day she decided she’d had enough.
‘We can’t afford these bills.’
‘Pig dogs get ripped, that’s the way it is.’
‘But they’re getting ripped every six months. It works out cheaper to buy chicken at the supermarket.’
‘We’re not eating bloody chooks from Pak’n’Save.’
‘It’s all well-and-good for you, buggering off hunting and not worrying. How are we gonna pay the vet?’
‘I put the food on the table, you look after the chequebook. That’s the deal.’
‘We can’t afford it anymore,’ she said. ‘We just can’t.’
The restaurant owner avoided eye contact as he cleared away the bowls and empty bottles. I ordered a plate of spring rolls and another round of beers.
‘I don’t want anything else’, Dad said.
‘Then don’t have any. I’ll eat them.’
We opened our bottles and said an unconvincing ‘cheers’.
‘How’s the beer?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, not bad.’
Talking to Dad was like breathing through a straw. There were two versions of my Dad: the one I’d seen hunting and at weigh-ins – talkative and funny and friendly – and the one that sat across from me at the Mekong Café. I hadn’t seen that first version since I finally told him that I wanted to quit pig hunting. I’d thought he’d be mad at me, but he just went quiet. He still had Robbie, I guess, and Robbie loved hunting enough for both of us.
One school holidays Robbie went through a phase of trapping and killing birds. When all the birds at Uncle Kev’s place were dead, Dad invited him to stay with us. One afternoon Robbie came running to the back porch with something cupped in his hands. ‘Oi Uncle,’ he yelled, ‘Look what I got!’ He held out a dead fantail with blood in the corner of its beak.
‘Well done,’ Dad said. ‘You did a good job to kill him clean like that.’
‘I didn’t want to smash his head,’ he said. ‘I had to keep softly hitting his body and it took ages.’
‘They’re beautiful birds, eh? They’d look good on the wall, if they weren’t so tiny.’
I must’ve grimaced, cos Dad looked at me then back at Robbie. ‘Oh well. Chuck it on the pile and get back to work.’
By the time Robbie left, the birds were gone and Mum and Dad were fighting more than usual.
A couple of weeks later I came home from school and found Mum in the back yard, mowing a strip of shorter grass. She saw me through the ranch sliders and called me outside, and handed me a set of cricket wickets.
‘Go whack those down by the back fence, will ya?’
‘For playing bloody tiddlywinks,’ she said, rolling her eyes. ‘They’re for cricket, silly. I thought you and Dad could play.’
‘But I don’t play cricket.’
She squatted down next to me. ‘You guys both need to try, okay? I can’t do everything.’
I signed up for the school cricket team the following day, and for the next two years Dad would come home, have a quick cuppa, and say, ‘Whaddaya reckon we chuck that ball around, ay?’ And outside we’d go, just me and him. Mum used to say that Sarah should be wicketkeeper, but he said cricket was father-son time, and that was that.
The restaurant door opened and a man entered with two kids. They took the table next to us and the guy ordered in Vietnamese. One of the kids ran off and grabbed the man a beer from the fridge, and tried to open it himself. I saw Dad smiling behind his drink. Okay, I thought. One last attempt at a conversation, then I can say I’ve done my part.
‘Good game today, eh?’ I said. ‘Those bowlers take huge run-ups.’
‘It’s a hard-case, alright.’
I faked a cheeky grin. ‘I didn’t see any long run-ups from you, back in the day.’
He wasn’t smiling.
‘Mate, I was buggered from work.’
I looked at the TV over Dad’s shoulder, sipped my beer, and gave up.
‘Oh well,’ I said, ‘I wasn’t much of a cricketer anyway.’
The children next to us started playing on the chairs. Their father scolded them and they ducked back under the table, whispering and grinning. Dad looked at them and smiled again, then said, ‘Yeah, I probably should’ve taught you a proper run-up.’
After dinner, we went looking for a place to re-watch highlights of the day’s play. We walked past an English pub full of guys watching soccer on the big screen, with tight jeans and black and yellow scarves up to their well-groomed beards.
‘Wanna head in for a beer?’ I asked.
Dad looked at the soccer and dug his hands into his pockets. ‘Nah, I’m alright.’
‘Or we could grab something from the bottle store and find a quiet spot, if you want?’
‘Yeah, that sounds alright. Cheaper too.’
I’d forgotten how hard it is to pay Wellington prices with Whanganui wages. Dad had been at the meat works for thirty-two years, and he’d seen it drop from good union rates to almost minimum wage. Life got easier when Mum started working again, but that changed things. Suddenly it was her money paying for chopper trips and vet bills. We started eating a lot more chicken and a lot less wild pork. The last time we had chicken as a family, Dad came home from work and thumped his bag down on the kitchen table.
‘Bloody chicken again?’
‘Well, you’re welcome to cook something different,’ Mum said.
Dad scooped the chicken bag out of the sink and threw it in the rubbish. ‘It’d be nice to have some real meat instead of this supermarket crap.’
She didn’t reply.
He went into the bathroom to shower and called out, ‘Where are the clean towels?’
Mum slammed down the chopping knife. ‘Check the cupboard. And if there’s none there, then wash some.’
‘I’ve had a long day. I don’t want to come home and do laundry.’
‘I’ve had a long day too, okay? You need to start pulling your bloody weight.’
Dad grabbed a dirty towel from the basket and shut himself in the bathroom.
They finally split when I was fourteen. Me and Dad stayed on in the house and kept playing cricket, but neither of us were interested. My mates were playing Magic: The Gathering and listening to Marilyn Manson. They weren’t into cricket. So I started flaking on Saturday matches and eventually I was dropped from the team. No more team meant no more practice. From then on, Dad would come home and sit in front of the telly with a plate of leftovers and a couple of beers. I’d sit on the couch across from him, listening to music and playing on my phone. And that was fine, until I decided to pierce my ear. In hindsight, I should’ve told him. When he came home and saw me sitting on the couch with a stud in my earlobe, he said, ‘Jesus, what have you done to yourself?’
Dad came over and flicked my swollen ear. ‘Pierced ears? Mate, you look like a fag.’
I gritted my teeth and pretended to look at my phone.
He put his lunch bag on the kitchen counter and sighed. ‘Well, I can’t take you to the weigh-in looking like that.’
‘So I can’t hang out with a bunch of dirty pig-hunters?’ I said. ‘I’m devastated.’
He didn’t reply. He grabbed a plate of leftovers from the fridge, then put it on the bench and went to take a shower. He was in there a long time, longer than usual. And the whole time I couldn’t stop thinking, Dad-thinks-I’m-a-faggot-Dad-thinks-I’m-a-faggot-Dad-thinks-I’m-a-faggot.
When finally he came out, he said, ‘Right-o mate, how about I heat you some pork, ay?’
‘I don’t want your fucking pork, okay?’
He stood there for a second, then slammed the cutlery drawer. ‘Well, if you don’t want my pork and you don’t want to play cricket, what do you want?’
My ear throbbed. ‘I dunno.’
‘Well figure it out. Now piss off to your room, I’m watching the cricket.’
I don’t think Dad meant anything nasty by saying that. It was just a word to him, just something to say when you want to piss someone off. He wouldn’t have said it if he’d known how I felt about Brian. In fact, I’m sure he wouldn’t have said it.
A couple of days later, I stopped eating meat and moved in with Mum and Sarah. Dad said it didn’t make sense to have the whole house to himself, so he moved out and we moved back in. He still came over every fortnight to mow the lawns, always leaving a strip for the cricket pitch. But after a while Mum said he didn’t need to mow the lawns, and that I could do it. Within a month, the cricket pitch was gone.
Dad and I walked into a cramped liquor store on Cuba Street, and stood in front of a fridge full of craft beers.
‘Whaddaya feel like drinking?’ I asked. ‘My shout.’
‘You’re right mate, you got dinner. Let me get this.’
‘Nah, I can get them, I’m earning enough.’
He looked at me. ‘Let me get them, son.’
I thought of him spinning yarns in the pub car park and pressing that wad of paper against my lip. I thought of him coming home covered in mud and blood with weeks of food on his back. Then I remembered his half eaten bowl of pho.
‘Yeah, right-o,’ I said. ‘Cheers.’
He grabbed a box of Tui from a stack by the chiller door. The assistant turned the Eftpos machine towards him, but Dad paid with a crumpled twenty.
We walked up and around the corner to a sheltered lawn tucked between heritage buildings and the highway. The light was fading behind the clouds as we watched kakas from the sanctuary loop and scree. We sat together on the park bench and looked down at the highway. As he passed me a can, a kererū flapped down and landed on the powerlines.
‘You get wood pigeons this close to the main road?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, I guess so.’
He looked down at his beer. ‘They’re a good looking bird.’
I watched it sit on the wires and puff out its lush green feathers, and I sipped the beer he’d given me. ‘They’d look good mounted on a wall’, I said. ‘They’re meant to be good eating too.’
Dad shook his head. ‘Nah. Beautiful birds like that, people ought to leave them alone.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aaron Horrell is a full-time bureaucrat and part-time creative writing student at Victoria University. His short stories have appeared in New Zealand’s Headland, Alluvia, Takahe and Whanganui Chronicle.