‘Mi’i, where’s your Grandfadda?’
Ugh, why does she always ask me, as if she doesn’t already know where he is. Papa’s out in the orchard; he always is. Seems like there’s always something that needs to be done out there.
I pinch the light lace curtain and lift it to one side. ‘Nanna, he’s right there on the tractor, spraying the pears.’ I turn and point, but she’s already setting the table in the next room.
‘Ten co tell him dinner’s ready,’ she yells.
I lean over a little bit to watch him drive out of view.
‘He shouldn’t even be out there anyway. It’s, like, eight o’clock! And he’s been out there since before I got up.’
‘A’e, he wan’ to lease the pear, he petter pe out there all day.’
‘Seriously though, I don’t even think he can see out there.’
‘Well, you co, and tell him axnxhyxpaw for dinner. Szvbrcwfkgazxqc your Papa, vcueffcfvwaci outside.’
I let the curtain fall back to the window and turn over my shoulder to look at her. Her eyebrows look like they’ve been taped to the top of her forehead. She’s waiting for a reply, so I say, ‘What?’
‘A’e, jdybasx –‘
‘Uhh… you know I still don’t speak in tongues, right?’
‘Tongues?’ She pinches my arm. ‘You’re gonna ket it, cheeky.’
‘Xzqmk – uhh… Nah, I can’t say that.’
She’s poked enough English holes for me to see what she’s trying to say, but there’s no way I can relay the message. Not the way she wants me to.
‘Mi’i,’ she says, grabbing my hand. ‘You have to learn.’
I nod. She pulls me down to kiss my cheek.
‘Okay. I’ll go get him.’
I take the long way out. Mum needs to get up anyway. I come to her room, but the towel hanging over her door has wedged it shut. I knock twice. Only softly, in case ‘Moni’s asleep. And she is; tucked into Mum’s chest, like her second heart. She doesn’t have a dad either, but Mum says she doesn’t need one because I didn’t need one. Not sure that’s true.
At least she still has Nana and Papa, though. I think they’re trying their best to pack our culture into her, since us others never learned. They send her to Kōhanga, since the language is similar, so she can learn her a, e, i, o, u’s, and her ah, eh, ee, aw, ooh’s too. And here I am, twenty-three, and I can’t even roll an ‘r’. Rrrrr. Nah. Good-bye to being the favourite grandchild, I guess.
‘Aw, Mum,’ I whisper, as I lean into her room. ‘Nana said dinner’s ready.’
‘Cnwue zqmvj,’ she replies. ‘Adxqwo piczc dinner?’
Really? Jesus, does anyone in this house speak English? I don’t even bother to reply.
I pull the door, and its towel, back into place. With all the Cook Island spoken at me, it’s a wonder that I haven’t picked up anything at this point. Like my immune system’s evolved to protect me against catching the Cook Island language. And, now, here I am – healthy and monolingual.
I did try. Did try. Back when they lived at the old house, Mum would leave me with Nana and Papa after school some days, and I loved to play messenger for Papa. He’d wave me over and whisper a few words in my ear to tell Nana. When I did, she’d laugh, and wheeze, and say, ‘A’e! You an’ your Papa need’a cood hiding, aye!’ Always a good laugh.
But, as much as it was a just bit fun between the three of us, I think it was also a way for him to share his language with me. Because, even now, it’s all that he can speak. That’s why Mum and Uncle Aro learned to speak it, and why Nana still tries to teach us grandkids. For Papa.
But I don’t like to play the messenger anymore. Too conscious of my poor pronunciations, and ashamed of my lack of understanding. Still, he and I get by. We work a light game of charades into every encounter, and eventually we get there.
After Mum’s room is the siting room. There’s music coming from inside, but it’s softened by another towel-shut door. I listen for the rhythm and feel in my heel. It’s Papa’s old Pacific Paradise CD. Track three. I’ve heard it enough times to know that much.
‘Ko Koe Okotai Te Tumu’, it’s called. And I only know that because it’s the only CD he has, and he puts it on every morning. Track three, that’s his favourite, so Nana always has it ready for him in case the orchard work’s put him in a bad mood. If she’s ever unsure when he’ll come back in, she just leaves it on repeat.
I sway slightly, driving my right foot into the floor in time with the slow beating drum. The rhythm weakens as I continue beyond the front door. No towel, but I pull it tightly shut.
The rusty tractor’s sickly grumble isn’t rolling throughout the orchard. He must be done.
‘Papa! Fvxzak — uh. Oh, for f… Dinner’s ready!’
I see flashes of his yellow flexothane spray suit flicker as he walks by tiny spaces between the mosaic of leaves. The suit makes him look like a big, yellow, rubber beekeeper. Wouldn’t be very good at keeping any bees with what he’s spraying, though. Not even the Pukeko like it. But keeps the pears going.
He’s come within earshot. I have to wait for him to get a little closer, though. It’s even darker now than when I’d spotted him through the kitchen window earlier, and I need him to see my actions. I don’t want to have to flail my arms to get the point across.
The grass is long, and thick enough to have to wade through. He takes a while, but eventually gets close enough to reach out and pat me on the arm. Down goes his helmet. He leans back, and into a long deep breath, finally free from its filtered mouth piece.
He waits for me to start.
‘Dinner,’ I mouth, shovelling gulps of air into my mouth, far bigger than my small imaginary spoon. Obviously obvious. I’m not sure anyone ever really eats like that, apart from, maybe, when drowning their sorrows in a post-breakup tub of ice-cream. And yet, we all understand the awkward action to mean eating rather than depressed. Well, at least, I hope so.
‘Ah, cwnxu’, he replies, lisping without his false teeth to press his tongue against. He repeats my action for dinner and nods.
‘Yeah, uh cwnx… whatever.’ Sounds right to me. I think he gets it. ‘Inside.’
I follow him as he walks to the back door. Nana’s not in the kitchen, probably waiting at the table. I can see Mum, though. I make out her silhouette waving at the end of the driveway. Embers flake off of the smouldering column tucked between her lips. ‘Still?’ I think to myself. ‘Thought she’d given up for baby.’ But I guess that’s another thing me and ‘Moni will have in common.
Papa stops to peel away the rest of his heavy suit. ‘Ixwouh xvhy qwkp?’ he says, pointing to his toothless gums. He shrugs.
‘Oh, your teeth? Where?’ I shrug too. Papa shakes his head.
I take it to mean that he doesn’t know either, but if anyone does, it’ll be Nana.
‘Nana!’ I call, as I step through the dining room. ‘Moni’s already strapped into her chair with a plastic spoon in her potato and gravy. Better than breast-milk and nicotine I suppose. But if Mum’s out, then Nana should be here.
‘Nana!’ I call again, turning to the kitchen. ‘I think Papa lost his teeth. He doesn’t kn– Oh my God! Nana!’
She’s leaning against the cupboard under the kitchen sink. Sweating. Shaking. One hand is clutching her chest, while the other reaches for the top of the counter. Short breaths. Shallow breaths. Her inhaler!
I throw myself into the kitchen. The handle of the top cupboard cracks against the wall as I break inside.
Plasters, no! … Bandaging, no! … Panadol, no!
I tear the entire first-aid container apart, tossing its contents across the kitchen. ‘Where the fuck is it! Oh, I mean – sorry, Nana.’
Papa hears me, and bursts in with his foot still half wedged inside of a gumboot. He looks down. Tears drown her eyes.
‘Ciwue xkwbeicuh whebxwbj xqwi!’ He erupts into an explosion of words and falls to the floor beside her.
It’s not in here.
Her breathing’s worse. Shorter. Sharper. The coughing won’t stop. She’s choking. I have 111 to my ear, but she needs her inhaler now! Papa’s rambling won’t stop. He shakes me to get my attention, points to Nana and pats his chest.
‘Yvwkup! Yvwkup!’ he says. ‘Yvwkup!’
‘Yes! Yes! I know! Papa, inhaler. Where’s Nana’s spare inhaler?’ I make a skewed fist, leaving out my index finger. I use it to mimic the motion of pressing down the inhaler. I take a sharp breath from the bottom of my palm. Inhaler.
‘Cnwxoqq?’ He mirrors the action for inhaler. I nod eagerly.
‘Yeah, yeah! Where?’ I shrug and leave my palms out in front of me, so he knows I’m asking him a question. Where?
‘Cnwxoqq xcoiudxcuh vcwlzk!’ His hands are suspended in front of his chest, grabbing something – like a book? He moves them up and down like pistons, but it’s not quite straight up and down. The movement is circular, like a wheel. A wheel! The wheel! Of a car!
‘Car! In her car!’ I shout as I turn the imaginary wheel.
‘Ca-ar.’ He repeats.
I jump to my feet.
That’s all I need.