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The other guys Kevin Bates was with that morning leaned back all over the long benches as if they owned them. Acting up, smoking despite the signs, and they kept talking loudly about 'PD'. They had tattoos everywhere, hands, faces, ankles: they had jandals on their feet even in here. Like they were showing themselves off, Kevin thought. But ignoring him all the same. Kevin sat still and apart at the far end of one bench. He was hunched over with his lanky arms down on his knees. Waiting. Trying to seem indifferent. He was a tall, trim, sandy-haired youth with a round face and a soft jaw. He looked, he knew, like the type of normal, middle-class person these sorts might pick on. But they ignored him, talking only to each other.
It was a long time before he realised what 'PD' meant. They were going on about periodic detention. There was a sense of vanity to it, as though they were prisoners of their own selves. These guys, Kevin thought, they were born so lucky that even when they got punished, they didn't need to end up in jail--they could just hang around here instead.
When he was called, he stood up quickly and then stretched--trying not to look too eager. He found the man behind the counter was an amiable, middle-aged Maori in a white shirt. A paunchy, fleshy-faced man, with what was left of his wispy hair so badly combed over that it was mostly bunched around his ears. The man grinned in a way surprisingly keen to please as Kevin sat down. Kevin looked across the brightly-polished blue counter and wondered why was there no necktie on this guy--he'd wear one, if he were doing this sort of job. Just a fuzz of greying hair out of the top of the man's shirt. But already the man had turned to the computer on his desk. He was entering Kevin's details with his elbows raised and his fat fingers punching at the keys, as if maybe his skills were new, Kevin thought, and it was important to have them on display. The man paused to scan the monitor every now and then, rocking backwards each time, a little long-sightedly, and mumbling the date when Kevin had registered as unemployed.
Then he asked, in that mouth-full-of-cotton-wool, Maori kind of way, whether this time Kevin was intending to apply for the benefit.
'I don't know,' Kevin answered.
But that was untrue; he'd expected to have a job lined up by now. And Michiko had made him promise to apply today, no matter what, so they'd be sure to have something to live on.
'I been overseas, up in Japan on the JET scheme. You know, they send people to teach English and that,' Kevin said, and realised with some self-contempt that he was already roughening his own voice in imitation of the other fellow's. This fellow who already had a proper job, even if he couldn't speak properly. Kevin added, 'I've been away up north on Sado Island for three years.'
The man stared into his monitor as if trying to see through to the back of it and said nothing more, and Kevin thought, why was this guy pretending not to be impressed? Wasn't like he'd been up there too--he'd been here, obviously. Kevin glanced away, past the other people sitting at the row of counters for their interviews. He thought how new the whole building appeared. It was airy, with lots of aluminium-frame windows, and the lino was new and the wallpaper on the white walls still mostly clean. New, to inspire hopefulness. Must be worth a few bob, he thought.
'So, you speak Japanese?' The man had looked round at him and was brightening again.
'Not really.' Kevin hesitated. 'No.'
The man returned to the computer, almost reclining on his chair, arching his lazy shoulders back and with his stomach straining up against his shirt.
'Nothing here, mate, nothing for English teachers.'
'Yeah, that's what they told me last time I come in here,' Kevin said. 'But I thought if anything clerical or--'
'Clerical, no. Nothing like that. Says here--' the man's dark eyes squinted '--says you got an M.A.?'
'Well, it's still...' The man was impressed now. Almost disbelieving. One plump hand left the keyboard and he gestured clumsily across the counter to somewhere behind Kevin, back towards the other guys on the bench. 'I mean, you'll get something, right?' he said. 'With that, eh?'
But Kevin hadn't got something--he hadn't, and he felt his own troubles rising up in his throat again. Because he'd promised her more. Michiko. And because he was the sort of person who couldn't get rid of an idea, once he'd let it enter his head.
'I got married,' he said suddenly, 'and we've only been back a couple of months and...you know, we're just living in this flat up at the top end of Lombard Street.' His voice choked. He managed to say, 'I was a teacher over there.'
'Yeah, well,' the man said. 'Don't worry, you're only--' his eyes flicked to the screen '--twenty seven. And you are looking, right?'
Kevin nodded. He said clearly, as he'd promised, distinctly, 'This time I want to apply for the benefit.'
'Yeah, all right. Did you check out everything on the board in the lobby?'
Kevin glanced over one shoulder again, pointlessly, across the room towards the wide glass-doors. He made a show of nodding, though the Maori guy was bouncing his fingers over the keyboard once more--in thrall to that machine. Then the guy stopped, and yawned.
A slow, long yawn. He apologised.
'Mate, you wouldn't believe the night I had.' The man grinned confidentially. He said, 'See, my auntie and her new boyfriend come up from Otaki, and they stayed the weekend. So anyway, late last thing he gets really pissed, this fellow, and he has to go to work next morning, eh, so my auntie's got to drive them off home in the car.' The man chuckled, as if reassuring himself that his tale was worth telling. He leaned further back in his chair and rubbed a hand inside the open neck of his shirt, against his broad collar-bone. 'So on the way this fellow, he said to my auntie, stop the car, I've got to take a slash, eh. And he climbs this fence in the middle of nowhere and he's doing his business into the river on some cockie's property, right, when...well, he slipped and just falls down the side of the bank. In the water! Shit!'
The man had been raising his voice--he looked past Kevin into the room. When he saw no one had noticed, he seemed pleased with himself. He continued more quietly.
'So my Auntie May, she's a really big woman, I mean big fat, right...I don't know how she got across that fence, but she does, eh. And so she gets him up and she carries him, right, carries him out of the water on her back...boy, that's love. Anyway he's stuffed, and she's hurt her knee and then she can't get back over the bloody fence. So we get her...I mean, you know, she rung us up on her cell-phone at half past one. The middle of nowhere.'
The man giggled in falsetto.
And Kevin thought, that's Maoris for you, always together. And he and Michiko, they didn't even live with his father--in his father's huge house on Victoria Avenue! Which the man owned freehold, no rent troubles, and them not staying there didn't seem to bother him one bit--didn't seem to mind at all.
But the Maori guy was still talking.
'Well, I'm a bit pissed too, and my poor missus, she has to drive us both out half the distance to bloody Otaki, till we can find them. I mean, she's growling all the way, that woman, eh, but can you blame her? So, they're all right, but the whole three of us together couldn't get my Auntie May back over the fence, and in the end we have to go wake the cockie up and get a ladder.'
Now the guy was laughing. Big belly laughs. Sliding around in his chair. Didn't care who heard him. Kevin thought of his father, rattling on alone in all that space. The man limping with his left knee that never really healed, not even after the physio. His health failing. Because you just couldn't share a place, not even a big place, with someone like that, set in his ways. The world wasn't fair--God! it wasn't even close.
Kevin promised himself that he wouldn't look at the board in the lobby again on the way out. That skimpy collection of job-offers, all stuck up there with brass thumb-tacks. And this guy, too busy yabbering, trying to be friendly because I'm not like most of the others that come in here, the no-hopers, the ones all set to inherit the earth, this guy probably only got his job because he's a Maori. Kevin felt a little guilty after deciding that, but he believed it all the same.
He came in the front door of the flat and tried not to let the door slam when he saw Michiko in the hallway, sitting on the wooden crate by the phone. Clutching the heavy black receiver with both small hands and laughing at something. Her head bent forward but sitting up stiff-backed, so that her small legs in their jeans could stretch out to brace her against the daggy straw-mats on the floor. He looked at the mats, stitched together and put down instead of carpet: dry, slippery, scuffed yellow squares that came with the flat. Straw on the floor--they looked like straw anyway. High time they were tipped out.
Michiko was talking in Japanese. And crying. Her shoulders weren't shaking with laughter, Michiko was crying. Her delicate face was screwed up, bent over the phone, tears on her cheeks, almost immobile with misery.
He stood, waiting.
'My grandfather died,' she wailed to him.
Michiko said something more into the phone and then hung up. Kevin put his arms out for her, but she didn't try to stand. He had to bend down, awkwardly, to hug her.
'I'm so sorry,' Kevin said.
'My mother found him, he was in his room.' Michiko sobbed as she spoke--she seemed to need to explain even more than she needed to cry. 'He was...he ate a mochi and he couldn't swallow properly. In his throat. My mother telephoned to me, he died two days ago. Two days. They waited.'
'They waited?' Kevin tried to squeeze her comfortingly, hug some of the pain out of her. But he felt guiltily conscious of how uncomfortable he was, himself, standing bent over.
'They say their reason: it is so I don't need to go funeral today. But why?' Michiko pushed him away and looked up at him through her long black hair. It had fallen, dishevelled, across her beautiful face. Even now her face looked beautiful, perhaps never more so. He saw her eyes were searching his with passion. She asked, 'Why they do that?'
And he thought of her parents. A postman and his wife, stuck on that snow-swept dot on the map, they'd never been anywhere. Reasonable, careful middle-aged people with three sons, frightened of the capricious world but leaving their only daughter to the care of a foreigner and letting them go off together overseas. He knew why they'd waited: because of him. Consideration for him! Because they figured he couldn't afford all the airfare so that Michiko could go rushing back. Because...practical people, country people, they'd think of him like that in those simple terms. And because, the way things were going, maybe if Michiko went back then she might stay there--and that would be worse than going off with a foreigner in the first place.
Kevin said, 'Perhaps your parents were worried about how much you'd be upset.'
But she just started to sob again, even harder. Her tiny hands with those strong, tenacious fingers gripped at his shirt-front, his good work-shirt that she'd made him wear to the interview. She got her head onto his chest.
'Why they wait?' she said.
Why anything? he thought. Why not live in Auckland where there'd be better chances for a job? And he thought again--he just couldn't clear his mind--of the guys at the dole office, talking about periodic detention and just waiting for their money. Because if the system couldn't use you, it figured out how much to give you to go away. Just enough to keep you from messing things up. Her parents had done him a favour, he didn't want her to go back, he loved her! Pretend you aren't floundering, he told himself--he wished she'd stop crying so angrily--protect her, fight for her.
'When we left Sado,' Michiko was saying, 'my grandfather was frightened he never see me again. And I promised to come back in one year.'
Kevin looked down at her, willing her to look up once more into his eyes. 'I'm so sorry,' he said.
'Only go away one year!' she wailed. 'But he was old!'
Her teardrops on the floor were blotching the straw-mat things. Kevin raised Michiko to her feet--getting her to move wasn't easy--and he began to manoeuvre her upright along the hallway towards the dining room.
'I've got the benefit,' he said. 'If my father signs the form and explains why we're not staying with him, then...'
He could hear the doubt already falling into his voice.
'Because your father, we're here,' Michiko said. She was weeping and gulping air. Her voice hardened as she said, 'He must sign, or we go.'
'There's no one else to look after him here,' Kevin said. 'Not like with your parents.'
And as soon as he said it, he felt guilty. Though it was the bare truth. After being so full of himself on Sado, and being so sure of how much better he was going to do once he got off that rock--after all of it...Kevin shuddered at the thought of going back. Yet this, here, this was all he'd managed.
Unsteady--she was still crying--he finally got her sat at the dining-table. At that long, ugly table they'd picked up from the second-hand place. Maybe he should make her a cup of tea. Tea...Christ! Couldn't he do better than that? Kevin sat with her and gave her another hug. She turned and leaned against his chest again. He looked up over her, over his thin arms around her and at the cracks far off in the old plaster ceiling, trying not to sigh.
There was no way it was going to be easy to get his father to sign that form. The old guy, so proud of his independence: he'd rather die than admit why they were back in New Zealand, let alone why they weren't staying with him. Because Kevin couldn't stand his own father--he thought Michiko had probably figured that out by now. Maybe she could persuade his Dad to sign--she never caved in on things. Kevin imagined the old man flinging the paper onto the table. This is your idea of trying? Think of your self-respect! Oh, it wasn't fair. He didn't deserve all this. Something welled up in his heart and then he was crying, too. Because Michiko had started sobbing hard again and he couldn't stop her--and because he couldn't get a job or get a break and organise the dole, and he couldn't stop people dying or even protect his wife from his relatives.
Michiko was still sitting in the dining-room with the cup of tea cold on the table. Staring across at something absentmindedly, the skirting board. Waving him away when he suggested he would sit with her. And he was getting hungry--his hunger starting to pinch in the pit of his stomach. Kevin hated thinking about food but he couldn't help it. When he'd sugggested he make something himself for them both, she'd waved him off again, irritated.
'I do it later,' she snapped.
It didn't help. He tiptoed round the rest of the flat, knowing he wasn't being any use. Why couldn't he do better than this and get something right? He went back into the dining-room and sat down with her for a long time, without asking, without saying a word, waiting as the hard summer light through the windows edged along the walls and the afternoon slipped gradually away.
At last Michiko sighed, deeply, and then placed her hands on her knees as if to get up. She said very clearly, 'I want to go church.'
Why would she...? Like all people when truly surprised, Kevin felt the words sink into him and nothing come out. He couldn't react. He gazed at his wife's small features in her determined profile, the eyes resolved, the jawline set. Michiko wasn't even a Buddhist. She wasn't anything, as far as he knew.
He asked, 'A local church?'
'I will pray for my grandfather.'
At those times on the island, he'd rattled a big, clattering bell-thing hanging from a heavy rope in the shrines they'd visited. Stood and tossed a one-yen coin towards the open spaces in the collection-box, clapped his hands, thought it silly. No, no, she'd always said, do it right--there was a right way to do everything: but one thing about Sado, you spent a lot of time isolated within your own self. And with his hands pressed together, there, he'd just felt a lonely, somewhat Christian guilt at doing it at all.
When Kevin got up from his chair, he wondered whether he'd become round-shouldered, or was it simply from the way he was trying to give Michiko his arm? Moments before they left the flat, she let go of him and went to the kitchen for a packet of salt, and sprinkled it on them both back at the front door. Salt to get rid of evil. Could it be that easy? Kevin felt the grains of the stuff as he walked, left in the gap between his socks and shoes.
They walked in the quiet, cooler temperatures of the early evening--the heat still coming off the old asphalt--heading to the only church he could think of. In the Square ten minutes away, and when they drew near, Kevin was pleased with his choice. The church up ahead, it looked good because the street-lights had just flicked on in the low, yellow sunset. A big, brick tower sticking up far on one side and casting a long shadow, it looked like an ancient church-tower in a picture. The front walls all weathered-brick in the lamplight, like battlements but grandly arched, with a big, arched church-window at the top. He could sense Michiko was impressed. They approached a square, open doorway in the base of the tower. As they stepped up into the carpeted entrance and paused, there was a musty smell, exactly like a church.
Kevin couldn't see past the corner to inside--he hoped they could just slip in somewhere at the back if there was a service going on. Explain to the vicar if need be. The guy, he'd have to understand, wouldn't he? Kevin thought of everything he'd been through and figured he ought to be allowed...but then he admitted he didn't really want to do this, if there was maybe some way he could wriggle out. But Michiko was calm now, so he stepped forward. As he led the way, she reached for his hand.
She whispered, 'If your father would not sign that form, we go back Japan.'
There was no one else inside: nothing going on. Just the high space up in the rafters above them, lit with dim lights--churches always seemed to be spacious but heavy, crowded with space, Kevin thought. He looked at the long rows of wooden pews on either side, off to the choir-stalls and the altar, the cross. And the carved, round thing for speeches across the way, the pulpit--amazing, how beautiful. That golden wood everywhere, what was it? His mother used to send him to Sunday School, and he could scarcely remember any of it. Hadn't been in a church for a long time. Too long, he thought, with a hint of self-satisfaction.
Kevin glanced up and saw some lights on a bank of stained-glass windows along one wall, commemorating fallen soldiers. Lives wasted. With an historical-looking, torn flag up near the ceiling--why? It was a mystery. He wondered how many people who came to this church noticed something like that.
And nobody around in the quiet but Michiko, waiting beside him. He walked her halfway up the aisle, chose a pew, motioned for her to sit down--wasn't there something more holy about sitting at the rear? He showed her how to slide forward off the pew and kneel. Bend forward. Kevin himself hunched over as if trying to hide, but Michiko knelt with her back straight, head up, praying hard. She gripped her small hands together tight; she looked like a survivor in the water reaching for a lifeline. She closed her eyes.
Kneeling with her, Kevin tried to think of what he'd say if someone came in. But he heard only the occasional sound of a car, passing outside. Long moments of complete stillness. When he'd been a boy, going to sleep, noise carried so far in the perfect night in Palmerston North that he'd been able to hear the comforting sound of the goods trains, shunting on the far side of the city. He'd lain among the blankets and thought of God gazing down protectively on his house and town. Nothing ever changes for you in a place like this. Nothing. He thought of high school, one afternoon. How from the narrow windows of D Block, the sky outside had looked so blue, and their grey uniforms--the grey shorts, the flannel shirt and jersey, the copy of the little English gentleman--smelled dusty, woolly, and he felt so bored. Being called out of class to the office, and strolling the long way across the asphalt to the main block wishing for once, just once, for something. Something. What? The woman, the headmaster's secretary with her nervous, kindly eyes, she met him halfway in the quad--did he have his bag? No? Better go back and get it, they're waiting for you at the headmaster's office. Your father is waiting. He said, what is it...bad news? She said, yes, get your bag. Then she hesitated, those sympathetic eyes--Kevin thought he'd never seen anyone look so sorry for him, he'd remember those eyes forever--and she said, yes, it is bad news. And he knew straight away someone had died. He went back to the class trying to tell himself it couldn't be mum, it couldn't be, it couldn't be, and he entered the classroom to a wave, a shocking wave, of laughter.
The teacher cried, 'Bates, you just missed a howler!'
It was all surnames, back then. He'd never heard anything so inappropriate. Everything was broken, and it could never be repaired. And he'd gone back to the empty house with his father, who made a cup of tea...
He looked at Michiko. That was what she was going through. Oh God. And he was impressed--impressed at her stickability, to believe in anything now. In this big, big room, with a religion that wasn't even hers. Oh, he was stuck, Kevin thought, and his knees hurt. He hadn't even been smart enough to pull down the personal cushion-thing he saw now, for kneeling on. Oh God! he wanted to cry out. Cry out for help. Sinking, he was stuck and sinking! The old man was never going to sign that form, he'd never get a decent job here and they couldn't afford to go on living even in the crummy, made-up sort of way they did at the moment. And she, she was going to go back to her snowy island, far away without him. Trapped in this sinkhole alone. Hot tears pooled in the corners of Kevin's eyes; he felt close to collapse, to hysteria. That was what she was going through--some things beat you down so hard you never get up. A curse! he felt it raining down on him from the rafters.
Michiko unclasped her hands. She opened her eyes.
'I'm sorry, I make you worried,' she whispered.
His heart fluttered with happiness--in his surprise, he didn't know where the feeling came from.
'That's all right,' he managed to say. 'How're you doing?'
'Okay. I talk to my grandfather. We go home now.'
Still nobody in the church. They stood up. They were going to come and leave and no one would notice. Kevin helped Michiko out into the aisle again--their feet padding on the already well-worn parts of the carpet. And as they went, he found himself praying quickly, over his shoulder when they neared the last pew. Praying that they'd make it all the way to the door and not get caught.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2008
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