Becky Manawatu’s first novel Auē was dedicated to the memory of her cousin Glen Bo Duggan, who was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend in 1994. He was 10 years old. Before he returned to Christchurch, to his mother’s care, Glen Bo lived for a time with Becky and her family in Birchfield, West Coast. Writing about Glen Bo became a form of therapy for her after he died, and he’s never far from her thoughts.
There are no pictures of this camping trip so I’m writing one for us.
This memory is a taonga because it is one with Glen Bo.
Of Glen Bo’s whakapapa, I only know the one that I share with him, which is our Irish whakapapa. But I can tell you this. Glen Bo was a child that you — my dear tāua and koro, dear māmā and pāpā, you my bro, my cuz, my sis, and you my uncle and aunty I’ve not met — would’ve pressed to your chest forever. I know it.
Have you come here for him? Just for these few minutes? To see with your own eyes the bright, beautiful child before he was killed by a man?
I won’t tell you about that though, because we don’t need the mamae now. The tears would blur our vision and make it hard for us to find our way, to find what we need to bring home from Te Korekore.
Can we go together now, my cuz?
To take three pictures of him that were never taken. Come on, my sis, we’re going to Te Korekore, for chaos, treasure, ballads, stories. For the perfect darkness of the void. To excavate. For Glen Bo.
Mum and Dad have borrowed Nan and Grandad’s campervan. Me, Kodie and Glen Bo sit in the back, no seatbelts on, playing Go Fish and listening to Kenny Rodgers singing, “You gotta know when to hold em . . .” over and over.
We find camp beside a river near Whakatū.
Camping means a swim as soon as sun’s up in the morning. It means the octopus Dad netted up when we were out on the dinghy is dinner.
The hairs on my legs swept up every bidibid in the scrub today, while we played hide and seek and the tūī sang above us. But we are camping, so I pulled each one away and didn’t tread careful the next time. Sat down and did it over again, because it’s the path to the best hiding spot, and that’s how you are when you camp. Tough. Tough, but not so tough you won’t smile for no good reason.
At dinner time, my octopus tentacle still looks like an octopus tentacle on my plate. When we eat animal at home it doesn’t resemble the animal. So that’s confronting. But I don’t stare wide-eyed at it. “Get into it, kids,” and we do. That’s camp food. No molly coddling. We kids, we hold up our tentacles like they are dino bones and we are Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm. We take giant bites. And big open-mouthed chews as we plan stuff.
Glen Bo drinks a can of coke and then another. He gets a pain in his belly. He burps. “Guess I drank too much,” he says.
Back then, in 1992 or 1993, we didn’t know how much we might need to see these moments again. No one took a picture. But we can take one now, e hoa mā. Of Glen Bo eating occie beside the river, two empty coke cans in the grass, beside the campervan, beside the fire, beside us. Snap.
We play The Gambler on the tape deck and when it’s finished we press rewind and play it again. The song is the portal into this place now. That good old country song. “On a warm summer’s evening, on a train bound to nowhere.” And there we are laughing, singing loud, at the very top of our bright, ripe lungs.
Sometimes it feels like we were together for a lifetime, but given the facts, that can’t be true.
Then again: without the facts, have we? Have we been — all this time — somewhere else, bound for nowhere, on a warm summer’s evening playing Go Fish, sitting at the fold-down Formica table, a loose ribbon of mountains and sky and cloud unspooling either side of us?
Part of me is still in that campervan — and part of you now too, e kare. Looking across our Go Fish hand into Glen Bo’s big brown eyes, at his brilliant smile and nothing bad is ever gonna happen. Not ever. Let’s promise that now. Say it with me my bro. “Nothing bad, not ever.” That promise kept is the potential, the potential which is being held for us, there, in the other realm, waiting to be unlocked like treasure in a chest. Tihei mauri ora.
Is our beautiful mum — his precious Aunty Maureen — reading by the campfire which threatens to spit at her and us? If that is true, it could spit. We wouldn’t mind a bit. Add a burn to the harmless scars, the bruises caused without malice, add it to the knotty locks and dirty knees.
In the morning we go to the river to splash water on our faces. Ice cold. A mist hangs on the beach, but we are not even at a beach and is this the beauty of Te Korekore? That it can recognise the potential for the beach and the mist and so these phenomena arrive.
At the river, splashing our faces makes us gasp. The smarting of our skin delicious like fresh octopus.
Do we strip down to our underwear and dive in?
Yes. Look. We do. Me, Glen Bo and Kodie. See us. Diving in, in our underwear.
Alive. Alive. Alive. Āke, ake, ake.
Another camping trip then. They merge. And I can’t find Glen Bo — has he already gone to Ōtautahi? Nicole though. I find my big sister. She didn’t want to come, because she preferred mischief to camping with the family. But now we are here, and she is making it the best. And I love her. So much. And I’m sorry I was mad. Who was I to be mad? What right did I have?
A picture taken this time. Snap. Us on the bunk, loved up.
Mum’s shoes got pulled away by the tide last night. One of them anyway. Dad gathered beach mull. He found lost-at-sea twine and a bit of something that might have been shipwreck and made a shoe which had to be assembled on Mum’s foot. When she takes it off it will just be lost-at-sea twine and pieces of shipwreck again.
Mum was happy. And I thought my dad was MacGyver. Dad had grunted and fussed and made Mum shoes better than any shoes I ever saw.
But where’s Glen Bo?
Let’s go back to the campervan. Sit in the campervan at the Formica table with us. We are singing loud now. Gotta know when to walk away, gotta know when to run. Take a look over Glen Bo’s shoulder, peek at his cards. Get an eyeful and soulful of his small wrist, his thumb nail. His jawline, his heart, diamond, ace and find him a club.
Look at it all here, perfectly kept, in Te Korekore. Whisper, don’t frighten him, tell him we love him and we wish he were safe in Aotearoa. Tell him we will do better from now on. Give him your heart, your diamond, find him the club to break walls and doors. So he can run out onto the Ōtautahi street.
But look at what I am doing now, leading us to sadness, and we need to stay happy, bring him back to life and take the pictures that weren’t taken.
Like this one: we are out on the dinghy now, on the Tasman Sea, just off Nelson. And Dad has something on his line. It’s heavy, it’s fighting.
Dad is pulling and hauling and the water is choppy and grey. Mist again. Mist, though it’s summer. That’s how it is here in Te Korekore. The mist, our ghosts, our potential, gleaming.
The line is taut, and Dad is pulling and Mum is peering and we are sitting, sitting, waiting for a writhing silver, pink, blue fish to break the surface.
Dad needs a net, needs a net, get the net. Who gets it in the end? I can’t remember, and I am so sorry that I can’t remember. I wish I could. I would trade my few physical assets for these memories that pull away like ghost fish on broken lines. Who gets the net? Let’s pretend Glen Bo does. “Here Uncle,” he would have said, and in Te Korekore now, we can let him. “Here Uncle, here is the net.”
Stay sitting on the boat, my cuz, the boat that bobs on a mist-covered summer sea, see Glen Bo as the octopus is netted, pulled over the side and into the boat to writhe and pulse and beat like the ocean’s heart, pressing into the net, a tentacle poking free. See us there, our mouths agape, our luscious lungs holding our breathtaking breaths, see Glen Bo.
See his big brown eyes widen and shine in the dark of Te Korekore. He’s perched there leaning, gravitating toward the sea creature. Hear us, but especially, hear him, his voice now: “Wow!”
Take the picture of his face, his eyes, his voice, his aliveness. Bring it home. Keep him safe. Mauri ora. Keep the promise, my bro, sis, cuz.
“Nothing bad, to any of us, not ever again.”
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