Summer journeys: In the final of a special travel writing series, playwright and novelist Renée reflects on the past and ponders her future on an evocative drive up the East Coast.
I know this road, I know the willows at Waipukurau, I know the rivers, I know the one where I swam and my sons swam and where their kids can’t swim now because it’s polluted. I know this road along Westshore, knew it when it was shingle and know it now it’s sealed, but I don’t know whether to continue teaching or not.
I love road trips. I love being in a car and looking out as people and places blur, centre, blur… I like looking on more than being in the middle of things. A trip up the coast with someone else driving is perfect. A heady, happy feeling. All my life I’ve tried and failed to escape responsibility but for the next week I might just crack it. And I’ll be free to decide about teaching. Should I continue or not?
It’s very simple. If I’m not going to continue then I need to tell the people who email me wanting to come on the courses. If I advertised it would be easier. I could make the decision, pull the ads, all very neat, over and done with, but it’s all word of mouth.
Westshore, Bayview – settlers loved changing names, loved the totally pedestrian – or the ugly – Upper Hutt, Lower Hutt.
Tūtira. Small quiet ripples today. I used to stop here to see the black swans. Now they’re gone. A long time ago I read Guthrie-Smith’s Tutira. Stodgy. I think of Wi Huata’s Tūtira mai and smile. He nailed it. That waiata is sung by millions.
Raupunga. Dusty, poor. Black Power controls this side of Wairoa, the Mongrel Mob the other side. If you want to drive south from Wairoa, you have to go through Raupunga so if you’re a Mongrel Mob member I guess it’s heads down as you go through.
Wairoa looks OK from here, well-tended gardens, good cars parked in driveways, Wairoa College, green lawns, but once over the bridge in North Clyde – (another shit name, thank you settlers), you can see poverty in the empty buildings, the holes on the rough-cast gritty footpaths. The two sides of the bridge are the two sides of Aotearoa, the two sides of me.
Thomas Lambert wrote Tales Of Old Wairoa, very Victorian, huge chunks of words, with little, if any, space getting through. No room for the reader. He was editor of the Wairoa Guardian which became the Wairoa Star for which a long time ago I wrote a weekly column.
I like teaching. I like the way it changes people. It’s good to see them focus, get a different slant, realise that writing is hard work, that the moment of heady exhilaration we call inspiration only comes after you do the work. For the last few years it’s been mainly women doing the courses. There seems to be more of a desire to write their life story or saying, what the hell, I’ve always wanted to have a crack at a crime novel, now’s the time.
The river is blue today. I’ve seen it roar and I’ve seen it sulk. Today it’s singing.
David arrives and we go first, as always, to Whakamahi – the bar. I love the way the two sides, river and sea, clash so furiously with each other. I’d like my ashes to be scattered there but I’m not sure it’s ethical or even legal.
We drive through Kihitu. The roads here are rough metal, narrow, lots of grey dust and tired grass but I wouldn’t miss this drive for anything. Once people walked, carrying a couple of kete as well as one slung over their shoulder. Vegetables, fish. We stop to take a photo of the place where Porohiwi was shot. The murderers claimed he was a bad tohunga who killed or made people sick by looking at them. The magistrate, Donald McLean, said something like, “Naughty boys, don’t do it again,” and let them off.
“You want to see the coffin?” asks David.
My friend Ruth wrote about her partner Stephan making a coffin for a friend at the friend’s request, and I thought “what a great idea” so I asked David. He went to a course run by his friend Geoff, whose myriad talents include working with wood. David sent me a text, “How tall are you?”
Geoff and Allie are smiling, pleased to see me. He pulls out the coffin which is goldy/brown wood with a little gold plate on the top saying Renée, my own scrawl, because Geoff did something very clever. He smiles. “Put rainbow handles on it,” he says.
1986. That first march up Queen Street. The hate from the footpaths. I was terrified. We were all terrified. Now, 34 years later – rainbow handles.
The next morning the sun is shining but there are wisps of mist along the lagoon to our right where the sun doesn’t go till later. When people talk to me about writing their life stories they are invariably apologetic, “I haven’t done much.” And then I find out they had 10 kids all home schooled and a sick husband. Not too sick, I think grimly.
Mahia looks the same. That wide curve of beach, picture-book perfect on one side, and rocky on the other. Once my kids and I stayed here in a bach for a summer so perfect I wanted it to go on forever. I did practically nothing but lie under Te Tairāwhiti blue and read.
I was around 13 the first time I saw Te Tairāwhiti blue. I was in Gisborne for basketball. I was a bum player and short and they put me on defence. That was the time you had nine in a team. I was billeted and that night someone turned the doorknob which opened very very slowly. I sat up, mouth open, ready to yell and the door closed. No sleep but next day under that blue blue sky, the world became heaps better. Te Tairāwhiti blue.
The fact is, I’ll be 91 in July.
“So what?” says an ex-participant when I meet her up Main Street, “you’re still compos mentis.”
But teaching is not only about brains. I know I’ve got a good brain but it wasn’t only my brain that made me want to teach.
Te Tairāwhiti, Gisborne, is a large area although commonly it’s only the city which is called Gisborne – the coastal strip is more likely to be called the East Coast or simply the Coast. The kind of place where when you ring about booking a motel, the voice on the other end says, “Oh, could you ring back after the cricket?”
It’s sunny, the sky, the bay, Te Tairāwhiti blue all the way. We drive up Kaitī to the lookout and talk about Cook and the nine people killed and how he called this beautiful place Poverty Bay.
Witi Ihimaera probably knows Te Tairāwhiti blue very well because he grew up under its clear gaze. Think I’ve read everything he’s written. Never forgotten Tangi, which when read by the class of fifth formers confirmed my then-tentative thesis about teaching – start where the student is, not somewhere dictated by some nob in Wellington who likes daffodils. I am so lucky I worked in community theatre rather than attending training college. Hard yakka but it taught me how to prepare, how to hold an audience.
I’m not sick of teaching. I’m just wondering if it’s sick of me.
At Tolaga Bay I walk to the end of the wharf and back. This doesn’t sound all that much but it’s a long wharf, covered with tar and small shingle, and I have a stick. Both David and Chris ask if I’ll be all right and when I say yes, continue talking. They’re keeping an eye on me. Fair enough. I used to keep an eye on them. The sea is thrashing the poles underneath and it’s hypnotic but I stare it out. It blinks first.
Walking back I pass a guy carrying fishing gear. We say, kia ora, and I add, “What do you reckon?” He smiles. No question. Fish for dinner tonight. I wonder how his schooldays went.
We meet a friend at the Tolaga Bay hall where he’s renovating an outside staircase. At first I thought it was a fire escape but he says he thinks it was also used as an entrance onto the stage for some scenes. I think of actors climbing up the steps in the pouring rain to make their entrance. Possible I suppose.
The Coast is looking a bit daunted today. Been a dry summer. Like the grasses at Kihitu, it’s droopy, tired.
Over the years there have been lots of closures. Cheese and butter factories, meat works, buildings now deserted, crumbling. Men and women out of work, having to scrimp and scrape on the dole, no future for kids in these circumstances so they either go away or go on the dole. I don’t think school teaches them much about living on the dole. I read that the cannabis farm a little further up is doing well. Perfect climate for weed. I hope the use of cannabis is legalised and not just left at the cop-out medical option.
It’s sunny and the sky is Te Tairāwhiti blue when we visit Whāngārā marae. It looks amazing, the mown grass green as green, the deep red and cream wharenui. That red paint reminds me of Waipoapoa out the back of Maraetōtara where we worked in the 50s. All the single men’s quarters, the sheep yards’ fences, shearing sheds, and the house that went with the job, were painted that red. The manager’s house was cream and green and had electricity. His wife was surprised I had a typewriter.
David went to Prince Tui Teka’s tangi at Tokomaru Bay. He was with a friend who snored all night and kept everyone awake. I sometimes watch the video of the Prince doing E Ipo, the song he wrote for Missy. Auē, ki te aroha, e ipo… Ardijah do a good version too.
We pass large signs. No drilling. I wish them luck but I guess they’re all pretty clued up. Sometimes you win but mostly you lose until it becomes so damned obvious that some things are not worth the cost.
Tikitiki became a destination not just a pass-through when a friend from Invercargill called in a couple of weeks ago. A guy from Blind and Low Vision NZ was showing me white sticks so she only came in briefly. Her exuberance fizzed into the room. “Discovered my father wasn’t my father – my father is this guy who lives in Tikitiki but he doesn’t want to know.”
I tell her I’ll stop at Tikitiki and glare at him if I see him.
“Still doing the memoir course?” she says.
“Ah,” I say.
And here is Tikitiki. Small, dusty, tired but Te Tairāwhiti above. A good omen.
The RSA building offers tea and coffee.
Tukutuku panels. Apirana Ngata smiles from the wall among lots of framed photos, mainly of soldiers. A feeling in the room. The past and the present merging. In front of a hatch is an area of small tables and chairs and on the right a long table with two women sitting at it, talking quietly. Another woman comes in with a thick wad of mail, sits down, opens letters and sorts them into piles.
Another woman smiles at me through the hatch. Everything is spotless. I order a spring roll which turns out to be the best spring roll I’ve ever had. Our tea arrives plus a pot of hot water. A pot of water without asking? I’m smiling.
One of the two women at the long table is studying for the health and safety certificate. I did extramural study at Massey for a number of years. It can be a lonely business. I’m glad that the other woman, the tutor, covers the coast from Ōpōtiki to Tikitiki. At least there’s a link with a human being who understands.
OK, maybe I’ll do one more year.
Someone takes photos of us standing outside the doorway.
Hicks Bay. Chilly, Te Tairāwhiti blue just a memory. Below the motel is the beach and a large pōhutukawa tree standing guard.
I am pleased I’ve answered the question.
One more year.
Next morning we’re off.
Auē ki te aroha
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.