There was the fish factory, the grain factory, or the potato factory — the tattie factory. They’d had a Kiwi couple work there one season, years ago. Good workers, Kiwis. The girl was seven months pregnant and never a day off. The head white-hat, Paddy, hired me. I wondered if it was his real name, the only Irishman in a factory of staunch Scots. Staunchly staunch. As if this close to the border they might become English by accident without vigilance.
That first day on the belt. The white-hat plucked a few potatoes off the rollers to show me the green bits, the pale wormholes. We were lined up, each in front of a disposal chute. All women, I was the youngest by at least a decade. Hands darting back and forth, voices high and loud but unintelligible over machinery and shreds of music. Their faces lumpy and pallid as the potatoes. I kept getting distracted, imagining luggage would appear on the conveyor, or game show prizes. The white-hat was watching. I stared at the potatoes, tumbling opposite to the rollers, flaws reeling briefly visible. Dizziness mounted, but I was afraid to look away from the belt. The white-hat tapped me on the shoulder, said something I couldn’t hear let alone understand. I nodded and smiled, a high-pitched whine needling my head. She turned and walked toward the outside door, a glowing rectangle of light, and I followed. My head large and light, my neck weak, I took giant steps as though on the conveyor, reached for the doorframe, crumpled, came to with sick in my hair and instant notoriety throughout the factory.
I was sent to recover in the quality lab, a testing kitchen where they boiled and fried potato samples. I sat on a stool and sipped water, wondering if I was fired, whether fish was preferable to grain. A lab white-hat showed me to the tearoom, a whistle blew and the workers filed in, pulling off their yellow rubber gloves. Women to one side of the room, men to the other, as if it were an old fashioned dance.
A clutch of women joined my table. I couldn’t understand them. They understood me perfectly. They’d seen Neighbours and Home and Away. They forced me to perform a lackluster haka. They asked me to speak some more of the ‘native language’.
Kia ora, I said. Aroha, ka pai, whanau, nau mai, haere mai. They made noises at each other that might have been words. They nodded, wanting more.
Eketahuna, I said. Taumaranui, Paekakariki, Whakatane, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa. More positive noises. I took a deep breath for my finale. Something we’d memorised in school as if for a moment such as this: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu.
Wide eyed they breathed out their approval in a single vowel, Eeeeeeeeeeeee.
The backpacker’s was next to nowhere, conveniently close to the factory. They’d send a mini-van to town and mop up bewildered travellers by offering free transport to cheap accommodation, then strand them out here in a converted row of cottages. By the time they found a way out they’d spent enough on food and drinks and Internet access to keep the place profitable. I’d been one of those travellers, at the end of my bank account. Now I did double shifts, only needing a place to sleep. Any Kiwi’s I avoided, or pretended I was Australian. I spent little on food. I breakfasted in the communal kitchen, thought of how my workmates might get a kick out of the similarity between bubbling porridge and bubbling mud.
At work we could take as many potatoes as we liked. Supposedly from the reject bins, but much of the working day of many was devoted to finding perfect tatties and putting them aside. Though the one time I brought one stuffed for lunch — the way people looked—as though it was the first potato they’d ever seen.
I settled in. I learned Nadine, King Edward, and Marfona. I could tell my Maris Peer from my Maris Piper. I understood a little more. They extended names. Jack was Jacky. James was Jamie. Ken was Kenny. Ken was ‘know’. Barry was good. It was still fifty-fifty whether I should be at Packer A, or Packer E. We climbed a ladder to sort tatties on the DL5. As the machine started it shook the scaffolding we stood on. This is just like an earthquake, I said, still milking my ‘exotic’ background, but projecting nostalgia, never letting on how eager I’d been to leave. They looked at me like I was noble, brave, like I had lived on the edge of a volcano.
I was on a one-person station, sprinkling peat chips over boxed washed potatoes. This tripled their worth, and was easy work. I was joined by a black hat, a bit younger than me. He loitered at the end of the rollers looking a bit lost, obviously on work experience. I smiled and nodded at his hat. You must be a baddie, eh? I said. He seemed surprised I’d spoken to him, almost grateful, God the hierarchy here, then he scanned my name badge, and gave me a cheeky smile.
You could call me Mr Black he said.
Would you like a turn? I said.
He stepped up and tossed some chips into a few boxes.
More like this I said, leaning across him and throwing peat around with extra finesse. It has to look natural, like a virgin dug them from the field and shook the soil lightly from her floral apron. I let him try for a few more painful minutes. I’d better take over again, I said. It’s just a one-person job really. Check with Kenny, he’ll have something. He ambled off, unperturbed. I didn’t think he’d last.
One of my half days I cycled to a castle ruin, helmetless, reveling in the tiny legal freedom. Everything was solid. The sky, the earth, even the hedge lining the road had a stonewall core. Everything was old, yet cultivated. There were no sagging wire fences, or piles of rusting metal like at home. It all appeared neat, and on purpose. One morning I’d seen a deer through a flicker of trees, on another the road was awash with hounds. Men on shining horseback, higher than my bicycle, which had suddenly felt weird and shabby, like outdated technology. I’d dismounted, been engulfed, passed unscathed.
At the ruin I walked around with National Trust headphones on like I was operated by remote control. Turn right, ten paces left. Here is the fireplace of the main hall. A boy’s sole job was to rotate the spit. Day in, day out, he turned the meat. The moat was like a large grassed storm water ditch, narrow, with deep steep sides. I considered rolling down the bank, but was afraid I’d lose my location on my audio tour, that I’d get a random dog poo in my hair. The guide informed me a dog in a mouse wheel replaced the boy.
Back at the hostel the coal man was delivering. A rounded peak visible over the trailer edges, like a black iceberg. I stood with my bicycle, waiting for him to unload. The truck backed up to the cellar doors and began to tip. Not one piece of coal budged. Steeper and steeper and still they held, as though a frozen solid block. The driver jerked the trailer once, twice, and then with a roar the coal chunks tumbled into the open throat of the cellar, vanishing, leaving only a black cloud of dust which rose and hung in the air, taking a long time to settle and dulling everything when it did.
There was a women’s work meeting at the local pub. Five four and I had to duck my head to clear the doorframe. Either the pub had sunk in the three hundred years since being built or people were much shorter back then. Inside it was all dark wood and flock wallpaper, brass things hanging on the walls. I was herded to the bar and ordered to order. Not much of a drinker, I didn’t like the taste of wine, didn’t know the names or types of beer.
Cider, I said.
The barman sneered. We don’t have cider here, he said. The English make cider.
Oh, I said. My eyes swam over the bottles behind him. Whiskey, I said. I’ll have the house whiskey.
The barman smiled, all was forgiven. He pushed a glass across the bar, shook his head. House whiskey, he chuckled.
Seven whiskeys later, the meeting apparently over, I understood no more than usual but cared less, when Mr Black and two friends entered. Heads dipped all three showed early signs of crownal thinning. They wore kilts, buttonholes of thistle and heather. Handsome and rowdy they leaned on the opposite side of the bar, took photos loudly like they owned the place.
The women shrank together like boiled wool, held their glasses close to their mouths, spoke over the liquid. They nodded across the bar, muttered about young Mr Black. And that’s when I realized he did own the place. The factory. And his father before him, and before him. And these women, and their husbands, whole generations eating their meals separately. I sat at the table’s edge, quietly unraveling, recalling my peat sprinkling demonstration. I had a sudden desire to go to the toilet. Though this was unconnected to Mr Black. Since the fourth whiskey I’d been paranoid I would wet myself without knowing and had made frequent visits. However, he intersected me on my way back. Ah, he said. It’s our bungy jumping lass.
Hello Mr Black.
He laughed. You can call me Mark, he said. There’s no law.
You know. Mark, Marky. Never mind.
How is your family in New Zealand doing?
Good. I guess.
Feeling far from home?
I shrugged. Just the usual eighteen thousand k’s or so, I said.
He looked at me strangely. You do know about the earthquake, he said.
In Christchurch, he said. They’ve confirmed one hundred dead so far, I expect that’s quite a lot for your population.
The Big One, I thought. It must be The Big One. And I felt something inside me shifting, sliding. I remembered gold panning in Arrowtown on a family holiday. The tiny flakes of guaranteed gold dust. The brief rush still mining tourists a hundred and fifty years later. But that wasn’t even Christchurch. I didn’t know anyone in Christchurch. I’d always disliked the place from a distance, thought it flat and racist. He’s got it wrong, I thought. It’s Wellington, surely. We all know it’s Wellington.
—so do you know Jonah Lomu?
He was a rugby—
—Yes I know him, I said, waving my hand in the hope he’d shut up so I could think properly.
How’s his handicap these days?
He’s not disabled, I snapped. It’s a kidney condition.
I mean his golf.
We played when I was there in my gap year.
Oh, I said. I don’t actually know him.
It’s not like we’re all related.
Right, he said. It was a memorable game, that’s all.
Well, you invented it, I said, and walked off as steadily as I could, concentrating on remembering to duck at the door.
Darkness would have been a relief, but there was this interminable twilight. I sobered as I cycled. Some kind of spindly cabbage was in flower, field after field of sulphurous yellow, burning shadows into my closed lids whenever I blinked. I saw a barn owl, silent white field ghost, and passed the big house where the hounds lived. I realized the deer I’d seen wasn’t really wild. It was probably bred to be shot. At the Backpackers I went on the Net, searching for footage, but apart from the Cathedral I didn’t recognize anything. It could have been anywhere.
The next morning I was on the Grader. The first step from the field. The wide flat belt went at a clap. Mud, clods, clay, chucked up with the tatties. It was the only station in the factory where the workers relented and wore earmuffs, the noise was that bad.
The idea was to pull off the worst. Let the rest go. But today it was harder than ever to keep up, the hangover I guess. Earth and stones tumbling past. Me throwing them down the chute, frantic, my breath loud in my ears. Me hesitating as the odd dark patch of fur turned, sped along the belt, always gone before I could grab them. I hoped they were already dead. It just kept coming. At the whistle the belt halted. The others on the line whipped off their earmuffs and hurried to the tearoom while I cleared the stationary debris, scraped every last piece of mud until the belt was clean.
I tried to bring the quake up at morning tea. The women reacted as though it had almost been asked for.
You knew you had it coming one said.
There’s new land, I told them with increasing passion, manufacturing facts in hopes of rousing some discussion. New land thrown up by the thrusting plates. There’s been a scramble to stake claims — survey pegs and tape all over. A few of the quake refugees are considering relocating there, settling. There’s an iwi occupation by Ngati Hou, a newly formed tribe. It’s vast and unlegislated. It could vanish as easily as it appeared. No one knows how long it will last.
But they wanted to discuss their up-coming holidays. All year they toiled for a winters worth of coal and two weeks in Majorca. Some had started getting their tan sorted already.
But you have them all the time, they said. Every day, you told us.
You don’t feel them all, I said. Not like this one.
They nodded and smiled and patted my knee.
Those wooden houses can’t help, one said. All those different colours.
People are dead, I said, aware I was jabbing my finger, that conversation had quieted, people listening but pretending not to.
A woman from the next table bent forward. Eeee, she said. What about that mudslide in Bangladesh. It happens every year; you think they’d have a better drainage system by now.
I stood up, my chair grating the floor. There was silence in the tearoom. I was raging inside. I took ten quick breaths, more like snorts, trying to calm myself down, before allowing myself to summon the most offensive insult I could think of.
Go boil your heads! I shouted. The whole lot of you!
They looked at each other. I mean really looked. The woman looked across at the men, and the men across at the women. And then they started to laugh. Silently at first, their shoulders shaking, then quietly, behind their hands, at last erupting into bellows and guffaws, slapping their thighs and dabbing their eyes, their laughter rocking the room, the teacups rattling on tables. Thus ended my career at the tattie factory and began my return to my homeland.
The Hand that Feeds You
I sit up late playing cards in bed. Solitaire, Foundation, The Clock. My boyfriend and I fought and broke up two days ago, and I’m waiting for us to get back together. I miss Euchre, I miss Five Hundred.
Sometimes we play Snap. Often he lets me win, leaves his hand pressed firmly on top of mine for a few seconds. I can feel calluses at the base of his fingers. He used to wait around the Four Square and help the bread man load the truck with the day’s unsold loaves. He got paid in crumpets. Now he’s scored a proper weekend job, on a farm. In the school holidays, he works night shift. The factory processes asparagus by day, pet food by night. I can hardly believe it’s legal. He likes it. They have blood clot fights. One day he took me there to show me how he can drive a forklift. I sat on the cracked vinyl seat, and he stood. He moved a small metal skip around. It was full of the parts that weren’t even fit for pet food. They slopped against the sides like soup.
Because my boyfriend’s father makes him buy his own clothes, coffee, and soap, he bakes secretly. Twice I’ve found a chocolate cake outside my bedroom window. Each wrapped in a tea towel stuck to the icing like a Band-Aid. One summer night we raided the local greenhouse, split melons on a corrugated iron fence and buried our faces in their sweet red flesh. When my mother caught me sneaking in she seemed almost disappointed that we hadn’t been stealing cars and having sex in them.
Round and round The Clock. Soon his shift will finish. There’ll be a stone on the roof. I’ll open my window wide and lean into the night. It doesn’t matter what happens in each hand, every time the cards are laid down the odds are even again. It will come out.
I can hear people moving between the kitchen and the lounge. The familiar hacking and coughing, the snorts of held laughter. My mother sort of taps on the door as she opens it.
‘Get up,’ she says, leaning heavily on the handle. ‘Come have a feed.’
‘And watch Karl suck brains and spit eyes? I’ll pass,’ I say, though my stomach lunges with hunger. We distrust each other’s boyfriends, for opposite reasons, but she doesn’t have to live with mine.
‘Come on Miss Stuck Up, I’ve got a surprise for you.’
It’s quicker to agree, so I pull a sweatshirt over my pyjamas and follow her, ears straining back toward my bedroom.
‘It needs to be eaten,’ my mother says over her shoulder. ‘It all needs to be gone tonight.’
I expect fish heads. Laps and table covered with newspaper. Lips and hands and little talking. Everything bundled up and buried at the end. But there are large white platters of small fruit tarts, brandy snaps, savouries, sushi, and miniature pavlova. There are cubes of cheese speared with toothpicks, and oysters in their shells. There are crustless club sandwiches. To one side is a large slab of fruitcake, its fluted icing stabbed with a white handled boning knife.
I avoid the eyes, or rather the sunglasses, of the men, knowing there’ll be no acknowledgement anyway. No one has taken their shoes off, and they’ve brought their dogs inside to yawn and scratch. There are always too many dogs. Bottles rest on the floor. Not tall beers, but wine with foiled necks.
At my elbow my mother pushes a paper napkin at me. I take it, still gazing at the spread, deciding where to start. Everything is designed to fit in one mouthful, one bite. You can eat it all standing up. I notice the platters are balanced on boxes and boxes — cases, of wine.
Karl is strumming his guitar and humming, slapping the tempo on its body. I try to place the tune. He’s closer to my age than my mother’s and is always trying to talk to me about music. Every new band I suggest only reminds him of an older, apparently superior one. I guess you get to a point in your life where everything reminds you of something else.
My mother is plucking my arm as if removing lint. I turn to her and she takes a surprisingly steady step back, and there’s my boyfriend, slumped in an armchair, eyelids at half-mast. Karl begins to sing. His voice so even you’d think he was sober.
‘Bells will ring. The sun will shine. I’ll be hers…’
I look back at the food and then stare at my feet, bare and pale on the sticky carpet. I wait for my boyfriend to say something. My head feels weird, like my lungs are in my skull.
‘Going to the chapel, and we’re gonna…’
Everyone laughs over him. My mother higher and louder than the others. She’s sitting on the arm of my boyfriend’s chair. He has a stupid sleepy grin slapped on his face. If he even registers I’m here he obviously can’t do anything about it.
Karl leans over his guitar and holds a bottle out to me, dangled by its neck. Behind him the blinds are down. They’re black but from outside there’ll be tiny holes where light pricks out a feeble imitation of stars.
I reach for the bottle and my mother quacks in protest. I try to tilt it so I can drink without my lips touching the glass. The wine is warm and fizzy, acidic and sweet. It reminds me of sick.
My mother berates Karl. I’m underage, what’s he playing at, I’m a minor, Karl, a minor. He ignores her. Everyone ignores her as I tuck the bottle under one arm load up the napkin with food I can’t stomach, and head back to my room.
Years later I got married. Not to that boyfriend, but to someone else, somewhere far, far away, where they barely even spoke the same language.
The morning after the wedding, my husband and I called at the reception venue to collect the gifts. The owner was vacuuming, preparing for a luncheon. There were four lidded buckets lined up outside the front windows. Through the opaque plastic I could see the muted outlines of éclairs and miniature quiches and meringues. I stood there, staring at them, clutching a cardboard box full of photo frames and linen, ornaments we’d bring out when certain family members visited.
‘We paid for all that,’ I said, pointing them out to my husband. ‘Per head.’
He shrugged, a sandwich press under each arm.
‘It just gets thrown out then?’
‘Does it matter?’ He kissed the tip of my nose in a way I’d grow to hate. ‘It’ll be for the pigs or something.’
‘For the dogs,’ I said, but he was gone. I remembered how for months there were bottles all over the place. At the back of the neighbour’s section, under the house, some were even buried. Every now and then I’d dig a couple up. My mother would try to reprimand me. What are you going to do, I’d say?