Kia mau ki te tokanga nui a noho — there’s no place like home for West Coast writer Becky Manawatu.
I was 18 years old when I left Westport for Napier.
I can still picture me and Tim — my then boyfriend, now husband — driving off from my parents’ house in Waimangaroa. I don’t think Dad or my brother Kodie were there because they’re not in the memory. Nor are my sisters Tami and Nicole — they’d long left home.
In the memory, there is just my mum, standing on the verandah, smiling, waving.
I was annoyed she wasn’t crying.
Later, on the phone, she told me she cried after we left.
She didn’t want to make me feel bad, she said, for leaving.
At the time though, her lack of tears made me think she looked forward to cleaning up the kitchen, knowing I wouldn’t be back to make a mess.
My stomach began to hurt before we’d even crossed the Buller bridge.
We headed to Kaikōura first, I think to say goodbye to Tim’s cousins, before we would drive to Picton, take the ferry to Wellington and make our way to Napier.
There Tim would take up a contract with the Hawke’s Bay Magpies rugby team and I would “find something”.
In Kaikōura, we went eeling. We took Tilley lamps and gaffs up the Conway River. Wading up the awa, Tim taught me to how to hook the slippery fish, spin them, and smash them onto rocks.
I can’t remember how many we caught, but it was an addictive activity. To be so violent in a river, by just the light of a lamp and the moon, awakens something hungry in you, and I fear we might have killed more eels than we should have.
Tim’s family was big though, and his grandad liked eel smoked, Tim said, which made me feel better.
The activity had taken my mind off the increasing pain in my belly — a soupy, acidic sensation like I’d eaten a partly corroded battery then drunk an entire ocean.
I’d left home, officially, and doing so was more enormous than I’d anticipated.
We went to a pharmacy the next day and I bought a large bottle of Mylanta. The antacid was a chalky white liquid, and I chugged back more than the recommended dose.
Tim seemed fine. He didn’t require over-the-counter medication.
His mum had howled when we said goodbye to her.
It was a decent summer, but I remember wearing lots of clothes throughout the trip because I couldn’t get warm.
I kept imagining Mum, standing at the verandah of our Waimangaroa house, waving, smiling, not crying, before turning her back on the dust our car tyres had churned up, to go get the vacuuming done.
Which wasn’t true. She’d gone inside, probably made a cup of tea, probably had a smoke, and cried, quietly, alone.
In Napier, my first job was at a restaurant on the pier, which, as far as I recall, paid $9 an hour.
I had left Buller High School with little to show for my time, probably due to my lack of engagement and the grudge — which I haven’t dropped — for the dumb streaming test which told me and all my teachers and all my peers that I was average before I’d even opened my brand-new books.
An ability to work well under the pressure of the hospitality industry was something I’d gained while working at the Mandala Café on Palmerston Street for Barb Watson and Murray Herbert.
The café was always busy. People loved the pizzas, lemon meringue pies, iced chocolates, chicken and mushroom filos, and the fries served with a delicious sauce which was actually tinned tomato puree.
I’d used the high school’s electives week to do work experience while most of my friends took surfing classes or played touch.
My second job in Napier was working at Hawke’s Bay Seafoods for two charming Italian brothers, Nino and Joe D’Esposito, who offered me $12 an hour, Sundays off, and any Saturday when Tim had a home game at McLean Park, free.
There I learned how to fillet fish, got discount prices on crayfish, and once got punched in the mouth.
A few years later, Tim got himself a rugby contract with the Piacenza Lyons in Italy. By then we already had our son, and I had found that the umbilical cord attaching me to my northern Buller village would stretch.
We had moved from Napier and were living in Taumarunui where I worked two part-time jobs: one at the local supermarket’s lottery counter and another doing the morning baking and occasional waitressing at a café/restaurant.
The idea of going to Italy was extremely romantic and exciting and I’d require no Mylanta.
However, the night before we were to fly out to Milan, Tim and I got into an argument and I unpacked my bags — bags which contained all the things I had carefully chosen for making a new but temporary life in a foreign country — and proclaimed I was no longer going with him.
He was used to me by then — how quickly I could change my mind, how ardent I could become when provoked — and began repacking for me.
Acting peevish but secretly pleased, I helped repack, maybe somehow comforted by the intrinsic sureness that this was a loop — via Piacenza, via Rome, via Frankfurt, via Nelson, back to Waimangaroa — and I would ascend the verandah steps where mum had stood 20 years ago waving, and go inside to unpack my bags.
This piece was first published in the Westport News and is republished here with permission.
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