[Patea Bay, Karikari Peninsula]
Tour of Duty
I think I might have just lost my fucking mind. People keep reassuring me that it’s all just a normal part of the grieving process. They could be right, but I’m not convinced. I feel mad, and if it was just a normal grieving process, why do my friends and family keep asking me if I’m still seeing my counsellor? My mood swings are epic, I have outbursts of crying, I forget everything, including pin numbers, paying bills, and where I have left the car. It’s not as bad as it was a year ago, but then it isn’t a lot better. Still, the decision to go up north doesn’t seem crazy. Weekends away are good. Packing the wairua of my dead husband into a hat to accompany me, just so I could say, “Look, it’s Pat in a Hat,” well that’s a bit more questionable. Pausing at the motorway on-ramp, I selected the play list I had made for the trip, titled, Really Fucking Happy Songs, and hit the road.
I decided to take the trip on the first anniversary. They call this area of Waikumete Cemetery Chapel View. It was sunny on the day I chose it, and from the plot you can look down the slope of graves, to the little chapel below. The smoke coming out of the chapel chimney was the deciding factor. Pat had insisted I purchase a double wide, for pure economy of scale. I liked the idea of being on the hill, in the hill, with what was left of Pat seeping into the soil around me, till our decomposition was complete, while others disappeared in a cloud of smoke below. It cost nearly six thousand dollars, and it comes with a title document, like a house or a section. Auckland property prices are insane.
At the one year anniversary it was blustery and windy. I stood shivering and crying, getting cold and wet. I wasn’t sure how long I should stay. Not that anyone was watching but, well I didn’t want to look like I had rushed it. Our section still boasted a slight hill. Some Maori believe that when the earth subsides that means the soul has departed. If Pat was still around I wasn’t feeling anything but rain dripping down my back. As I drove away from the cemetery I knew that with the plot nearly flat I had one remaining death duty to fulfil. Whanau from the far north had asked that I take something of Pats back to the land and bury it, by the bach, beneath the urupa on the hill behind, and looking out on to Doubtless Bay.
In the last year I had been north plenty. I spent last summer working in a bar in Paihia, where I had lived before I returned to Auckland and married my best friend. I hadn’t been up to Whatuwhiwhi though. I just couldn’t. The thought alone made my heart break in another place every time I considered it. Facing the place where we had spent so many happy times, and the people, all of those who hadn’t come down for the funeral, the kind words, and just the loss.
Now though, a year had passed and I knew Pat would have been honoured to be regarded as part of the hapu, and the idea of it and the act of it seemed more real and relevant than the headstone on his grave. It was time for me to select something that symbolized Pats wairua, and put it in a box. The mound was nearly flat, the hill was receding. Whether I felt ready or not, it was time.
I hit the motorway at speed, the music is loud, and I feel myself relax after the mad rush of packing, loading up the car and getting the hell out of the city. I only really decided to go last night , and was still non-committal in the morning but my friend from Russell had rang and persuaded me by saying that there was going to be a party and a band playing, and she was on holiday. It had been a manic packing episode. Not that it mattered as regardless of how carefully I planned, I always had the feeling of forgetting something.
I love getting away. It’s not from uni or the city, it’s from the house. The house is where my madness manifests most obviously. I just can’t be rational. It’s not only the house, I have established now that I lose the ability to function and am prone to breakdowns over anything that I deem as ‘not my job’ and anything that isn’t my job, was obviously Pat’s. Little things like remembering to put out the rubbish, any aspect of dealing with the car, but these are things I have had to force myself to overcome. It is anything that involves the house, which is still likely to push me over the edge.
When Pat was sick, transferring the house to my name, and sorting out the will were paramount. I didn’t give a shit about money, I just wanted a place to live. Now that the house is mine, it feels like a giant anchor to the past, dragging behind me and holding me in place. It is a burden. Everyone keeps telling me how lucky I am though, and warning me to look after the house, don’t sell the house, “as long as you have the use you will be okay.” This ownership is suffocating and debilitating, and yet it is the thing that is supposed to be giving comfort and security. I’ve started worrying about the property market.
The toilet broke and I cried for three days. Finally I had to leave the house and see my trainer. She asked me what was wrong, so I told her the toilet broke, and I started to cry again. She gestured across the gym to a buff young guy working out. “He’s a plumber, and a mate. I’ll give him your number and we’ll sort it.”
I just kept crying, and Trainer Jo, trying so hard to be empathetic, leaned in close and asked, “Is it because Pat sat on it? Is that why you don’t want to replace it? You can’t keep it.” How can I explain? It’s not my job. Easier to let her think I covet the broken toilet seat where Pat shat. I stopped crying and finished my set. Leaving the house is always a relief.
The road north is so familiar I feel I could drive with my eyes shut, and I think I may have. I can do the trip to Paihia comfortably in two and a half hours. You shouldn’t try to beat that. It isn’t a challenge. The bach is a further two hours north.
I lived in Paihia for four years before moving back to Auckland to take up a job at the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, advocating for sex workers, and marrying Pat. Driving over the top of the hill, where the road down to Opua is, and where you get your first glimpse of the Bay of Islands, still feels like a welcome home. Today I pass the intersection and drive straight into Paihia, instead of heading across the water to Russell. I text Viv to ask her if she wants anything from Paihia that you can’t get in Russell, like a cooked supermarket chicken.
Paihia, Russell and Opua, sit like bright white shiny spots, surrounding Waitangi. Paihia is desperately trying to climb the social ladder of tourism, and aspires to be the Queenstown of the North. I suppose they are both good places to get drunk and laid, only Paihia closes at 1am so you have to be quick. You need to start drinking faster and earlier. Paihia has changed in the twelve years I’ve been gone, but as a constant visitor, the changes have been incremental, happening too gradually to be a shock. The little tourist dependent town is now a junky whore to the cruise ships. What started as an occasional thing has developed into a full time addiction. By the time I left there were maybe half a dozen ships pulling in each year. This summer alone they are expecting forty eight.
On the morning a cruise ship is due to hit the town, Paihians will rise at the crack of dawn to start primping. A craft market selling shit designed especially for ease of packing is set up on the green, people busking, roughly assembled groups of teenagers getting ready to break out any kind of performance, anything that allows them to collect some change. The buses, the souvenir shops and the cafes are all pulling their tops just a little lower, licking their lips, and praying for rain so tourists are forced to look for inside entertainment. The whole town has turned into a great, glistening pussy that’s just waiting to get fucked. Not that I object to whoring. As long as it’s by choice. No one likes trafficking.
Having purchased a couple of chickens, safe in the knowledge that that is what I will crave as soon as I know the ferries have stopped running for the night, I drive back over the hills, down to Opua and the waiting car ferry. The plan is to stay tonight, Friday, drive up to Doubtless Bay and the bach tomorrow on a day trip, and then party Saturday night at The Duke, heading home late on Sunday.
As I sit on the car ferry, looking over to Okiatao Point, I am, as always struck by the beauty of the area. Travelling to Russell by ferry gives it an island like quality, and though the trip barely takes five minutes, it is a different little world to Paihia. While Paihia wants to commercialise itself to become the tourism centre of the north, Russell is trying to market itself to the more discerning and cultured tourist. Russell isn’t marketing wholesale sex, Russell is marketing love, romance and what sex workers call ‘the girlfriend experience.’ But if Paihia is a vagina, I ponder while watching the shore approach, what does that make Russell? Obviously I’m tempted to say clit, but to be honest, Russell just isn’t that exciting. Apparently it used to be, back I the day. The nerve centre that incites passion and response is obviously Waitangi. Just saying the name is enough to get some people flushed and flustered.
Romantic Russell with its rose coloured glasses, still flaunting its colonial past with pride. A couple of years ago some of the locals got together and started a promotional weekend to raise the town profile, by focusing on the towns sordid past. Promoting Russell has become a series of weekend events. This weekend is the Tall Ships Weekend, there is Bird Man Festival, the Oyster Festival, and now, thanks to industrious locals, Hell Hole of The Pacific Weekend. The festival consists of local women dressed as happy whores, and some street theatre.
A local artist, Helen Pick, has been commissioned to paint cut out portraits of historically clad figures as decorations. They have been attached to poles throughout the three streets that make up the village. Attaching effigy like figures to poles in my mind was just the first really doubtful decision in the epitome of community art gone horribly wrong. The figures show wahine wearing bright western dresses with a lot of cleavage, looking slutty, and warrior’s with blankets, clutching guns. Of course there’s no pakeha figure clutching a beach. Russell residents were shocked last summer when some of these works of art were vandalised. One was decapitated.
I noticed the figures on my last visit. Some business owners liking the art so much, they have opted to keep the figures on permanent display. When I asked Viv about them, and she told me about the shocking vandalism, she was offended by my comment, “I’m not surprised.” There isn’t one in front of the Duke of Marlborough Tavern. Mind you since Simon Gault’s mate took over the picture perfect, historic Hotel, it really is a great place for an Aucklander to get the kind of food and service we are used to. A chocolate mousse to die for.
I called into Viv’s, and without even unloading the car we head down to the Duke for a drink. Viv runs the local Swordfish Clubs. A highly political job that takes diplomacy skills rarely seen, even at the UN level. It helps that Viv is local. Viv used to run a little music shop, and sometimes she talks in song lyrics. Born and bred in the Bay, her family still own half of Kawa Kawa. The half that isn’t the Hundertwasser Toilets. Thinking of the toilets makes me think of Pat. I remember the first time we stopped at them, and I asked Pat what he thought and he told me that Hundertwasser must have been a piss head to empty all those bottles that help make up the walls, and that they might be ‘art,’ but they still smell like public bogs.
Viv noticed my eyes getting moist and asked, “So, you sort out Pat, and put him in a box?”
“It’s a hat, actually. A Pat in the Hat.”
“Ahhh,”she cooed, “That’s nice. He’d like that. He was always forgetting his hat. Remember in Houhora when he got so sunburned his nose melted.”
“How could I forget?” I replied, clearly getting emotional. “Do you think I should pop in some sunblock?”
Viv looked thoughtful. I had called her and asked what to pack. What objects captured Pats’ wairua? I had decided to go with a hat, a t-shirt, a clock and some photos. It all fitted within the hat which was nice. There was room for some sunblock. Then Viv, always the problem solver, offered me a sample sized bottle of sunblock, and she might have an insect repellent as well. As the next round of vodkas arrived, I sipped thoughtfully and then reached a decision. “Yes to the sunblock, no to the repellent. He never got bitten.”
“Fair call. What time shall we head off?”
It hadn’t occurred to me that Viv could come with me and that I didn’t have to do this alone and that it didn’t have to be sad. I smiled at her gratefully. “No rush, lunch time-ish.” I looked out to the water, with the sun in my eyes, and I was happy to be here, in this little town of iced cake architecture, good vodka with real limes, and a past nailed up on posts, yet still oddly invisible to those who lived here.
The next morning I got up and went for a walk. Walking around Russell is one of its delights, and has recently become another one of its weekend profile raising attractions. Russell Walking Weekends. The first had just been and attracted around four hundred people. You could walk anything from a guided stroll around the towns of the Bay, or for the super keen, the full day trek out to Cape Brett. My goal was just a quick forty minute walk from Viv's down to Long Beach, back to the village and coffee and through the church yard. It wasn’t until I was walking down from Long Beach and toward the waterfront that I saw it. Sitting just off Tapeka Point, was a cruise ship. No matter how many times I see them they still unsettle me. It’s like waking up to find someone has magically built a high density, low cost, apartment block in your back yard. Of course I know not to vocalise my thoughts. When a social user becomes a full-fledged junky, there is often a sense of denial. Paihia was dependant, and I, not being a resident was in no position to judge. After all one of the reasons I had left was lack of work. I had left for the job at the Prostitute’s Collective, and there was no demand for that here.
Already the ships tenders were disgorging aging tourists, who were walking the tiny town determinedly getting photos of everything. This ship was a Celebrity Solstice, which carried around two thousand five hundred souls, all desperate to make land. I smiled benevolently at the woman on her own, dressed in starched khakis, and obviously channelling David Attenborough. The entire ensemble looked brand new, including the hat which looked to be decorated with fishing fly, sturdy hiking boots, and a utility belt, complete with water bottle. I may have imagined ammunition belts across her chest. She nodded curtly, not smiling back, and I wondered if her costume in any way reflected what she had read about the town before arriving, and if she would be disappointed at being over prepared. I didn’t smile at the couples in matching sweaters. That was just sick.
On my way home to Viv’s I noticed that two of the cut-out figures were missing from the main street. I walked back up the hill through the beautifully restored church grave yard, enjoying the sun. I was even looking forward to the day ahead. When I got back to Viv's we decided to drive down to the village for some breakfast, and then we would head up the coast to the bach, singing loudly. I could complete my tour of duty, by leaving something of my beloved in the land.
Now that I had come this far, I felt relaxed about the whole process. There was no rush. The sun was shining, the land wasn’t going anywhere, and the time constraints I had put up were self-imposed. I didn’t feel sad at the thought of revisiting the bach anymore. The bach and its location couldn’t have been more different from Russell.
The bach is situated on a dune, in the centre of a sandy beach called Patea Bay on the Karikari Peninsula. The bach is the only building in the sheltered bay, apart from the marae, tucked into the furthest corner. This is Maori land. Land that’s has been returned to Ngati Kahu, through the Waitangi Tribunal, and the bit of beachfront that the bach sits on belongs to the Pivac’s, who were awarded close to thirty acres, that spread back from the beach, up into the hill behind, running beside the urupa, that looks out over the entire vista of Doubtless Bay. What started as a summer rental from a friend, became a lease and a ten year relationship with a whanau that will not end with the death of my husband, or the death of Helena, with whom we struck the initial contract. I met Helena at the Prostitutes Collective.
As Viv and I drive back down the hill to Russell, with its perfect villas, and picket fences, I’m struck by the difference. Here each house is fenced and bordered, individually separated, for the use of its inhabitants. Compared to the bach, where we quickly realised that the use of the bach included an extended family that would join us throughout the year, and share not only their land, but their children, grandchildren, ex-wives, and cousins, and we would gradually through this sharing and caring, become part of it all. The land really belonged to all who used it and loved it, not those who occupied it most. Nobody buried at the urupa, with views of Doubtless Bay, were paying nearly six thousand dollars, and being issued with title. They were brought back there because they belonged. The value in the land was that it was treasured. Property in the far, far north is cheap.
As Viv is still sipping her coffee, I go to the car and pop the boot to reorganise all the shit that was hastily thrown in when I left, so I can put the roof down. I did put some clothes into a bag, but the rest of the stuff I had just thrown into the boot free range. Protein powder, dog toys, water bottles, three pairs of boots, two pairs of trainers, my gym bag and about twenty recyclable grocery bags that I always forget to take into the supermarket. I start shifting and sorting. I start pulling everything out of the boot until its empty and then as I realise what has happened, I start repacking the boot, slowly and methodically. I close the boot and go back to join Viv, ordering another coffee on the way. I sit down at the table and breathe deeply, looking out across the water to Paihia.
“What’s the matter?” asks Viv.
“I forgot Pat in the Hat. I left him on the kitchen bench with the keys to the bach. ”
“You forgot to bring him?”
Viv looked at me with concern. She is waiting for a reaction, sitting still, poised and ready to jump into action, should I start to fall apart.
Viv has witnessed the hysteria that normally followed these incidents of forgetfulness, which I was sure were indications of my grief actually morphing into insanity. Viv had been there in the weeks following the funeral, when I locked myself out of the house repeatedly, locked the keys in the car, and when I got lost in the car park, so overwhelmed I couldn’t move my car, because I didn’t know where my home was. Viv knew about the broken toilet.
I exhaled slowly and started to smile. I didn’t have to go to the bach. I wasn’t sad. The land would wait. It would wait as long as it took for me to return, and accept that part of Pat, and part of me, now belonged there. The relief as the realisation hit me was almost palpable. I sat back into my chair picked up my coffee and felt the tension leave my shoulders. As Viv sat, still poised for action, a thought from earlier suddenly returned.
“Where are the whore and the chief with the musket from the main street?” I asked.
Viv, well used to my insanity and sudden change in tact, rolled with the punches and sitting back in her own chair, answered,
“Chris has taken them inside. She’s worried about the vandalism. She’s not going to put them back out till later in the season.” Chris is an American who now lives in Russell and runs an art gallery where they sell incredibly expensive pieces of glass, some beautiful wearable art and some paintings that don’t seem to sell. Her taste in glass is impeccable.
“So are they like in protective custody?”
“Yes,” replies Viv, “It’s for their own good.”
“Do you think I could see them, and maybe take photos of the ones still walking the streets?”
Viv is concerned and suspicious of my motives, as she should be.
“Are you sure you still want to go for a drive up to Doubtless?”
“No,” I reply, “I want to find the missing wahine whores. It’s what I should be doing.”
Viv and I head off for the gallery but not before Viv gives me the warning talk, about not upsetting the locals, who meant no harm. She thought that maybe it was better if she did the talking. The gallery is called Just Imagine.
Outside the art gallery, on the street running parallel to the waterfront behind the Duke, was another hanging figure. This one dressed in European clothing and carrying a brush and paint palate. As we entered Chris, came over and Viv introduced us, she introduced me as a writer from Auckland. She said I was interested in the Helen Picks portraits.
“Was it a community art project?” I enquired, very politely. Chris was happy to tell us all about the figures in her Californian accent. As it transpired she was the driving force behind the Hell Hole of the Pacific weekends. She knew all about the figures, and was happy for me to photograph the ones in protective custody. They were merely portraits, not quite caricatures, but accurate enough to depict the town’s folk of 1830, she informed us. I asked if they were supposed to be specific historical figures. She leaned forward, conspiratorially and said that would be totally inappropriate to local Maori.
“Really? Why are they all of Maori?” Her answer was quite reasonable. She pointed out that they weren’t. The ones painted with a paler complexion were supposed to be pakeha, as all the Maori back then were very dark, and it is only through inter breeding they have gotten lighter. As to why all the women were wahine whores, well that’s just because they were. The whores would have been all Maori, as they had been sold or traded into prostitution. I wanted to ask why they were so happy then, but I knew the conversation was going nowhere.
Tourists were browsing below the mezzanine where she stored the figures with their heads peering over the balustrade, smiling at the people milling in the space below. I snapped some photos and started to follow Chris back down, Viv was looking relieved, until I asked, “Chris, what about the vandalism? Do you think it’s racially motivated?”
“No.” Her answer was quick and firm, but I didn’t think she had really understood what I meant. I should have worded it better, but Viv pinched my arm, so I stopped. Outside the shop, Chris tried to convince me that the figure, with the prominent wide nose and lips was pakeha, because he was an artist, and of course, paler.
The rest of the weekend was spent enjoying Russell and I decided to make like a tourist. Viv was happy to comply, as long as we had regular stops to enjoy the food and wine of the waterfront, and took time to speak with all the locals. We went inside the tiny church, where we saw community art at its finest. Every seat and every pew boasted a hand embroidered, tapestry cushion. There must be over one hundred, each cushion paying tribute to some aspect of the town. The buildings, boats, clubs, flower and fauna, and families. All lovingly represented and waiting for arses to be parked on them every Sunday. They were almost as good as the Hundertwasser Toilets.
We even took time to check out the Russell museum, where I read about the town and its seedy origins. The in house literature said that Russell had twenty eight brothels and thirty something pubs. I wondered where Chris came from in America, and if there was a town decorated by swinging effigies of slave whores.
On the Sunday as I drove my car onto the ferry I thought about returning to the empty house, with its weight of memory and responsibility, but for the first time I didn’t feel like it was going to drown me. I had a plan. I would come back to the north. Not just for the weekend, and to bury Pat in a Hat, but at some time in the future I would be back, to make a home, and count the whores. Someone needed to look out for them and make sure they weren’t still getting exploited.
I glanced out to Tapeka Point, beautiful again without the cruise ship. I glanced around the ferry and then noticed that tucked behind the bin on the portside there was something that looked like feet sticking out. I got out of my car and walked over. I bent down and pulled the feet to reveal a cut-out, which judging by the height and size of its feet was a whaka wahine. She had no head. The clippie who was working came over and told me that they had found her floating this morning and would drop her back to Russell side on the last trip of the day. As I drove off the ferry, and out of town, I still had that uncanny feeling that I had forgotten something, and I wondered what it was I had left behind this time.
© Kate Davis
[Hell Hole of the Pacific]