It might have been fifty years ago when it happened. Fifty, or forty or sixty. Hei aha… doesn’t matter, time, but if you’re fussy well it was long before we had the fancy satellites bringing us the panui on the sky’s business.
I was a weather presenter; one of the first when television started in New Zealand. I was the only one in the Auckland studio. Later on the other cities had their own television stations, but Auckland was first so it’s true I was it. I was young and not too bad looking either; long time ago now! Charisma was the word they used, when they talked about Tāwhiri-matea. Charisma and potential.
By chance I’d bought a new suit earlier that particular day, a lovely new suit and a tie to match. It had been a really beautiful morning – a breeze, a nice dry heat that played with washing on clotheslines and made the womenfolk happy. February, or March, I think it might have been. So, at the end of this beautiful day, I was in the studio in my new clothes, feeling good about life, all set to go.
The picture of New Zealand was on the wall behind me, and I had my pointer in my hand. I stood before the camera, ready to read off my cue, and I pointed to the map. First, the kōrero on that day’s weather, that big bold word FINE printed in yellow boxes across the country. That’s how they did it then, yellow boxes and big simple words.
That all went okay. I mean, that bit was always a bit hōhā, in my opinion. Everyone already knew they’d had a fine day. It was the next part people were interested in. What tomorrow would bring.
The markings on the map were complicated – highs and lows coming at us from all directions. I had just begun my commentary when, pai kare, everything failed. All the equipment.
My cues stopped rolling. The guys scrambled around, fiddling with the electric cables, smacking the sides of their cameras with the palms of their hands, trying to get things going. It had never happened before. We had no instructions on what to do in a situation like this. There was no picture going out, nothing on anyone’s television screens, just black.
While all the fuss was going on, I closed my eyes. Things ran through my head. They played themselves fast-forward, fast-backward, all over the show. The words were out of my mouth before I knew it. There was just the sound of me, telling people what the weather would be like the next day.
…Heavy rain way up north, hard, fast, flooding out the little bridge just outside of Kerikeri. Thunder, lightening. I told the viewers all about that. Steer clear of there tomorrow, kia tūpato. Dangerous, you better stay home. Dust stirring in big clouds further down the east coast, skinny cows pushing their heads through wire fences, mouths reaching for grass on the roadside. Drought. Nothing new there, not worth a mention but I talked about it, all the same, talked about those skinny cows with nothing to eat. Down down down the coast, across the Cook Strait., view tilted in the wind. The coast again, then inland. A shiver. Wrong season. What’s this? Crisp, crunchy frost touching the ripe stonefruit on the trees in central Otago – kia tere, people, hurry up, get outside now, see to your crops. Cover them up… and on I went, right to down to Stewart Island.
When I opened my eyes, the lights were on. The studio was silent. Everyone was staring at me. The producer, who had a huge brown moustache, came in. The moustache quivered like a mouse under the paw of a cat.
“What the hell was that?” he yelled at me. He was straining at me; if the camera guys hadn’t stepped in he would have punched me, without a doubt.
“The weather forecast,” I told him.
“Whose bloody forecast?” he stormed on. “The viewing public…Jesus…”
“There wasn’t a viewing public,” I said. “No-one could see me.”
I was only young, remember. Pretty cheeky back then.
“You’re fired,” he said. “Get out.” Then he turned to the crew. “How much of that shit went out?”
“Not much,” one of the camera guys said.
“Thank Christ for that,” said that producer.
The next day, it rained and rained up north. Flood waters broke through the banks of the Kerikeri River and washed right through the settlement, taking out a bridge on the edge of town. There was a car on it, a green Zephyr. The driver made it out okay, but the river took the car.
A freak frost spoiled acres of apricots in the deep south.
I sat at home, by my transistor, and listened to the reports of the chaos around the place. In between the bulletins, I worried about how I was going to pay the bills now that I was out of a job.
The next day, I got a call from someone at the station. Could I come and see the boss, this person wanted to know. I put on my new suit and a clean shirt, and went in.
It was quiet as I walked through the corridors. I’d never been in that part of the building before. The door to the boss’s office was open. I stood there and waited, there was nothing to knock on. The boss, I forget his name now (they came and went) was sitting behind his desk. He jumped up, and came to the open door, holding out his hand for me to shake.
“It’s Tar-ferry, isn’t it?” he said, and I nodded. Back then no-one made an effort with the reo. “Come in, come in. Take a seat.”
He was pretty nervous, I could see that, one hand shaking mine, the other not knowing where to put itself. It hovered over my back, nearly touching me but not quite. I think he feared a shock if he closed the circuit between our bodies.
The office was all dark wood panels, with a couch and matching armchair in the corner and two little round tables shaped like kidneys. We sat facing each other over one of the little tables.
“What happened the other day. Tarferry.”
I wasn’t sure whether this was a question, it sounded more like the beginning of something. I thought he might be working out what to say next. I waited.
He scratched the back of his neck. “Well, what the hell did happen?”
“There was a power failure…”
“I know that. I know about the bloody power failure. I meant, how’d you do it? How’d you predict what was going to happen… with so much detail?”
The poor guy was hunched forward in his chair, hands clasped between his knees. The look on his face was somewhere between excitement and terror.
“I’m sorry, I really can’t explain it.” I wanted to laugh but I held back; I could see that it would upset him more.
“Does it happen often?” he asked.
“It’s the first time there’s been a power failure when I’ve been on,” I said.
“No, no… I mean, can you do it all the time, predict with such accuracy?”
I shrugged my shoulders. These questions were a bit much. “It’s just something that happens.”
I forget exactly how the rest of the conversation went, but what it came down to was this: I had got the forecast right, but they couldn’t have me closing my eyes and chanting my predictions on television.
It wasn’t professional, the boss said. Science was marching on, worldwide, new gadgets being invented every day that would improve the accuracy of weather forecasting. My particular method wasn’t the future direction of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation.
“That’s okay,” I remember saying, standing up to leave.
“I want to keep you,” he said. “I want to keep you, but I don’t know what the hell to do with you.”
“Kei te pai,” I said, and he looked at me blankly. “That’s alright. Good on you.”
He wouldn’t let me walk out the door. I’d get up to leave, thinking our kōrero was over, and he’d get all anxious again; leaning forward, blocking my way. In the end, we came to an agreement. We agreed that I would be the back-up weather presenter, in situations of extreme emergency. I would stay on full pay, come in every day as usual. Everything would be the same, except I wouldn’t go on camera. Unless it was an emergency. If that happened, I would step forward and repeat the performance of the previous day.
“But, if you could just stick to the facts,” said the boss. “Without the embellishments and the lingo. Just use words like fine and wet and windy. That would be good if you could do that, Tarferry.”
I wasn’t happy with this suggestion, but I had to accept it. It wasn’t just me I had to think about – I was also supporting my elderly father, who lived on his own way out in the country.
“Alright,” I said. “That sounds okay to me.”
As far as these sorts of agreements go, it was a pretty good one. It outlasted his career, whoever he was, and several bosses to follow. It outlasted entire changes of staff, changes in policies. Changes, even, in the weather patterns themselves.
It happened now and again that I was called on to present the weather. I managed to stick to the rules: no matter what was going on in my head, I kept to the script. Fine, wet, windy, cyclone… these words were all okay.
Sometime further down the track, the deal was altered. When was it? I can’t recall. But just as seasons had come and gone and returned, change caught up with me.
One day, the boss told me not to bother with the makeup. The new weather presenters were all trained as meteorologists, capable of winging it if the technology went pakaru. I could just stick to showing school groups around the studio. You’ve got so much knowledge about the place, Tāwhiri she said. It was a she by then, and people were starting to make an effort with the reo. More than anyone else here. The look on her face was gentle, kind – she was doing me a favour.
Now I’m an institution; part of the PR. I’m the old fella who comes in every day, looking sharp in his suit and tie, kept on to entertain the cheeky school kids. This is Tāwhiri! He was one of the original weather presenters! And he’s still with us!
My pay got dropped back ages ago. But I keep coming in. What else would an old weatherman do with his time?
Children in the corridor – the slap slap of loose leather sandals against tough heels, a chicken-coop racket. They burst through the doors of the newsroom.
“Shush, you’ve got to be quiet in here,” their teacher says.
I watch them over the top of my newspaper, from my chair in the corner. Rich kids, you can tell – little hands gripping i-things, all the expensive shirts and shoes and hats.
The teacher’s a young man, barely taller than some of the boys. His head’s shaved, he wears an earring. His students have infected him with the excitement of celebrity-spotting. His eyes dart around the room. He glances my way, but my face is not one to know.
“That’s what’s-her-name,” he says, elbowing one of the fathers with the group. The teacher and the father-help ogle at Carole in the way men have looked at women since time began. “What’s her name, you know, the weather chick?”
The children have spotted Carole too; they nudge each other and point, then set about the business of checking that it really is her – ticking off this flesh and blood female against the real Carole Joseph; the larger-than-life beauty on their big plasma screens.
Long blonde hair, parted on the side and layered to frame her face. Skinny as. I reckon you’ve got to look like that, to be a weather presenter now. Immaculate makeup, sapphire earrings picking up the blue of her eyes.
The girls like Carole’s ruby red shoes. “See, sir, she doesn’t wear her slippers on tv,” they giggle.
Carole swivels in her chair, gives them a wave. “Welcome.”
The girls smile coyly, hands fluttering back like birds in a birdbath. The boys look down, scuff their expensive runners at invisible spots on the floor.
“Looks like a good weekend coming up,” says Carole, pointing at the big anti-cyclone on her computer screen. “Who’s got plans to do stuff outside?”
The children say nothing. They stare at each other and giggle.
“Don’t be shy guys,” says the teacher. He’s a puffed up rooster now. “I have,” he says to Carole. “Big beach party up at Orewa. My birthday.”
“Well, you’re lucky, it should be fine,” says Carole. “What school are you from?”
“Crawford Intermediate,” says a boy at the front, fists shoved hard in the pockets of his baggy jeans. One of his friend’s sniggers and the boy punches him in the arm.
“Ouch. Fuck off.”
“Ryan,” the teacher says vaguely, still looking at Carole.
“What’s the day looking like out there?” Carole carries on through that beautiful white smile, ignoring the swearing, the gawking of the men.
“You should know!” the children chorus, giggling.
“Oh yeah, suppose I should,” says Carole, grinning. She uses that line every time a class visits.
A boy at the back of the group says “lame.” Three brisk steps, the teacher is next to him. He grabs the boy’s arm tightly, above his elbow. The boy does not pull away.
“Ta-ferry, I warned you,” the teacher says to the boy.
My namesake stands taller than his classmates, his arms folded across his chest. His clothes are hand-me-downs. His hair is cut short and his eyes are the same colour as mine, pounamu.
He is covered in eczema, this boy; angry red blotches on the backs of his legs, on his neck and inside his arms. He’s agitated, scratching at himself with his free hand.
The teacher’s voice is calm; there is no emotion. His jaw is clenched, sinews in his neck stretched taut, as though he wants to bite the boy. I wonder whether manhandling is allowed again in schools. I thought not, but I can never keep up with the changes.
“Well sorry, but it was lame,” my namesake says.
“That was rude, and you will apologise,” says the teacher.
“No offence,” this boy says, looking straight at Carole. “I just thought it was a bit lame, you know. A bit of a lame joke from a weather person.”
Carole laughs. “You’re absolutely right. It is lame. Sometimes I get away with it, and sometimes, when the kids are smart, I don’t.”
“Watch yourself, Ta-ferry,” says the teacher. He’s still holding the boy’s arm.
I hear it, clearly, from one of the other boys. Cheeky darkie. Sniggers ripple around the group. The teacher tries not to smile.
Patty from Public Relations has finally caught up with the group. “Sorry guys,” she pants, as she comes through the door. There are little beads of sweat across her top lip, damp half moons under her arms. She glances around the room, looking for me.
“There you are, Tāwhiri,” she says.
“Yes, here I am,” I reply, and I fold my newspaper and stand.
The visitors swing around too, startled to see me – even the teacher, who has forgotten I am in the corner. They look me up and down, trying to place me in the women’s magazines. They take in my grey suit, my white shirt and my meteorological tie, the one with the big H against a bright yellow background. The children – some of them – are sniggering again… hey Taferry, he’s your grand dad… I wait for blunt words of reprimand from of the teacher but he says nothing.
“Everybody, over here please,” says Patty. “This is Tāwhiri. Tāwhiri is our, how shall we say, Tāwhiri?”
Patty sweats at me, thin eyebrows arched so high they almost touch her fringe. I try not to close my eyes but the sudden drop in air pressure is pushing hard against my temples …cyclone leaves the strangest of molds and fungi in its wake… and when I open my eyes, Patty’s mouth is stretched wide in a tense smile, her teeth clamped together as though she is frightened to breathe the same dehydrating, aging air as me.
“I’m the schools’ host,” I say.
“Yes,” Patty shrills great westerly winds summonsed by Titokowaru to mask his gun-fire attacks against the land-grabbing British...
I drag myself back to now.
“Tāwhiri is our host! He was one of our first weather presenters! He’s been here longer than anyone else. How many years now, Tāwhiri?”
I shrug and smile. How many years?
“A long time anyway,” says Patty. “He could step into that studio and present the weather off the top of his head! Probably… couldn’t you Tāwhiri.”
I smile again.
“So. Who knows anything about reading a weather map?” says Patty.
One of the girls standing next to Tāwhiri-my-namesake says something under her breath. The class sniggers and the girl dances a hiphop shuffle, fingers pointing to the ground. The teacher rounds on young Tāwhiri and takes his arm again. I can see that the grip is tight, that the boy must be hurting, but he doesn’t flinch.
“I warned you, Taa-ferry,” says the teacher.
The boy closes his eyes and opens them again. “It wasn’t me, sir.” He’s brave, but not so far from tears now.
“Get out,” says the teacher. “If you insist on ruining it for everyone, just get out.”
The boy moves away from the group, towards the door. I’m surprised he backs down so easily but then I see the faces of his classmates: in this group, he is utterly alone.
I step forward and reach out, letting my hand fall on the teacher’s arm. “The boy’s right,” I say. “It wasn’t him.”
The teacher’s eyes roam the length of me – the ancient skin on my hand, my old suit. I see the beginning of a sneer; only the beginning – I leave my hand resting on his bare skin. It cools under my touch. I feel goosebumps rise. The sneer falls away.
“Oh,” the teacher says. He would like to say more but can not.
“You’re sure about that?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure. I was watching, you see.”
“Alright then.” He glares at the boy: The boy looks at me.
“And his name is pronounced Tāwhiri. Taa-whiri,” I say quietly.
The sneer returns, but the teacher says nothing. Soon he will feel a shiver run through his body. For the rest of this stifling, still day he will be chilled to the bone, unable to warm himself up. By tomorrow morning, he will be confined to his bed. When the shiver happens, that almost imperceptible quiver, I deliver him my widest, most charming weatherman smile.
Tāwhiri-my-namesake is standing tall again, at the back of the group. Those green eyes are fixed on me now. I meet his stare and hold it.
“Kia ora koutou. Would anyone like to start with a question?” I say to the group, and the boy raises his hand. The teacher shakes his head in disbelief.
“What would you like to know?” I ask.
“Everything,” he says.
“Where shall I start?” I say.
“At the beginning, please.”
The beginning’s so long ago, too long. But when I close my eyes, it’s all there. It’s the boy. With the boy standing there, it is all clear in my mind. I open my eyes. There is only him and me.
There were six of us, all boys. I was the youngest. We were the sort of kids who spend all our free time outside, I suppose these days we would be skateboarders, or rugby players. Back then, we found our own fun.
We lived miles away from anyone else. I can’t tell you whether we learned the same things as town kids; our mother just taught us things as we needed to know them.
You know what it’s like when you’re the youngest. You get no say in anything. There’d been this business going on at home, my older brothers getting angry that they were missing out on stuff. Things you could do in towns, like school and sport, girls probably. Anyway, these fights had been going on for a while and Tāne and Tū – they were oldest two – they’d been talking to Mum a lot, when Dad wasn’t listening, trying to get her on their side.
But the thing about Mum was she was stubborn. No matter how much Tāne and Tū would talk to her, trying to get her to convince Dad to even think about shifting, she wouldn’t listen. We belong out here, in the country she’d say. We all belong together, out here.
One time, it was getting towards nightfall. We were summonsed to hear some news, not by our mother and father, as you might expect, but by Tāne. He stood on the back steps and hollered for all of us. “Kia tere, get inside, you guys,” he called out. “There are things to be said.”
The house was a wooden cottage, small for a family of eight. It was on top of a hill, near the sea. Don’t ask me where, I can’t remember. Hei aha, doesn’t matter.
So Tāne stood on the steps and yelled. This was back before there were all the modern gadgets, playstations and the like, certainly no cellphones, no texting us to get home. Tangaroa was down at the sea swimming and old green fingers Rongo was round the back, fixing stakes in Mum’s vege garden. Haumia was off in the bush doing who knows what, he spent hours in there and when you asked him what he’d been up to, he’d just shrug his shoulders and say this and that. Looking back now, I have my suspicions as to what he might have been growing in there. But that’s another story.
Where was Tū? Off causing trouble somewhere, of course. He just couldn’t help but pick a fight. I saw him arguing with himself one day, marching along the dusty metal road bare-chested in his raggy shorts, ranting and raving to himself, waving a long stick, conducting one side of an armed attack on The Enemy, then taking up The Enemy’s position and defending it to the death.
I was just inches away from Tāne. I was hiding under the house, under the step he was standing on. Under the house was where I went when I got the itch. The itch came before a rise or fall in the air temperature; it started in my hair and it spread down my neck, down my back and front. It was a rash that crawled all over my body, I couldn’t stop scratching. It drove me mad and also everyone around me. I’d disappear under the house to get away from annoying everyone with my scratching. Once the storms started, the rash would fade and the itching would stop. It was just a matter of waiting it out.
So I was right there as Tāne stomped down the steps. When he stopped to yell, I reached up and laid my hands against the hard underneath of the step, the wood separating me and him. I felt the vibration of his call run through his body, through the soles of his boots, right through the timber and into the palms of my hands. When I lifted my hands away from the wooden surface, the rash was deep and pulsing on my palms. I could feel tiny blisters forming. I listened as he stomped back up the steps inside.
The first lightening struck just as I was crawling out through the gap in the weatherboards onto the damp grass. A flash of pale, like a sheet flicking in the wind.
I was crouching on the ground, my head tucked into my shoulders. How many seconds? I guessed at six, and started counting slowly. One, two, three, four, five… six. The thunder felt as though it was deep in the ground beneath me; more vibrations, like the ones from Tāne’s foot steps. I grinned. I always got it right. I jumped to my feet and took the steps, two at a time, into the house.
I was the last to come in. The storm had knocked the power out, candles were burning around the front room. There were six; two on the mantelpiece, one on the window sill and three on the wooden table. The candles were always ready, boxes of matches sitting nearby. In those days, the power seemed to be off as often as it was on; any storm would take it out.
Ae, everyone was there. My mother was sitting in the armchair in the corner. My brothers were gathered around her. There was Tāne at the back of her chair, his hand resting on her shoulder, as though he owned her. On either side were two more of them, I think Rongo and Haumia , then the other two were sitting at her feet. I thought maybe we were going to have a family photograph taken, maybe that’s what the occasion was, because that’s exactly how everyone looked – all stiff and uncomfortable. I’d probably get told to go and tidy up for the photo, get some decent pants on at least.
Dad was on the other side of the room, standing in the doorway.
Is the boy still with me? The others have drifted off elsewhere with Patty, but I don’t care about them.
Yes, he’s there, hasn’t moved all this time. How long have I been talking? The big black clock on the wall says no time at all, but that can’t be right. I’ll speak to someone about the batteries in that clock.
The boy nods at me, carry on is what he’s saying. If he moves away with the others, I will no longer remember.
It is a joy to remember, a joy.
Dad was as tall as the doorframe, only just fitting under it as he passed through. His shoulders filled the space sideways. I always thought that one day he stood quite still in an empty green field, his great arms crossed on his chest, and men had come with their timber and their tools and built our house around him.
That is what I didn’t understand, on the night that Tāne called us to the house. My father was standing in the doorway but he had shrunk. I could see great dark spaces above his head and around his body.
His head hung low, his dark curly hair falling forward over his face.
“Dad, are you okay?” I said. “Are you sick? What’s wrong with you?”
My father said nothing. He didn’t lift his head.
Tāne spoke. In the flickering light of the candles, I saw that his hand was still on my mother’s shoulder.
“For a long time, things haven’t been right,” Tāne said.
I looked at Mum again. This was probably going to be a bit of a telling-off. We had these family meetings now and again, where we all got pulled into line for playing up. Mum and Dad would let things go for ages, then they would decide enough’s enough and get us all in together for a bit of a kōrero. That’s what this was. A telling-off.
“We’re sick of living out here in the wops,” Tāne went on. He was staring at Dad. “We’ve had enough, man. We’re going.”
“We’re going to the city. No future here, no jobs, no nothing.”
“No.” Barely a whisper, this new voice of my father.
“You can stay. Please yourself. Mum can please herself too. But we’re going, all of us kids.”
Outside the house and inside my head, the pressure rose and fell. The pain was like fire.
“No one asked me,” I said. I’m sure I said it out loud but no one looked my way. “No one has asked me.”
Tāne stepped out from behind my mother’s chair. Every time he took a step forward, he seemed to grow taller, broader. I looked back at my father, who seemed to be disappearing with each of Tāne’s movements.
“What are you doing Mum? Staying, or coming with us kids? ”
The idea was so stupid, I laughed. I cracked up, you’d say these days. Outside the storm was cracking along too, the wind had come up and was hissing through the crannies of the weatherboards, bringing a chill to the room. Rain smashed hard against the windows, as though it was knocking to come in and dampen my pōrangi giggling.
What were my brothers doing? Nothing. They sat quite still, at my mother’s side, and let Tāne speak for them. After a time, I stopped laughing.
“Mum,” I said. “Tell him to cut it out.”
My mother had lost her will to speak. Her eyes were dark, empty. I watched as they filled with tears. She didn’t brush them away, they ran down her face in two tiny wet lines. I looked over again to Dad. He had put his hands against the doorframe, as though he needed it for support to stop him falling to the ground
Tāne started pacing around the room. With every step, he seemed to grow; pulsing and pumping life, energy. I had always been frightened of him, my oldest brother; the only one to take on Tū and win a fight. He put himself out there as a peaceful guy but look out if anyone challenged him.
“Mum won’t let us down. What mother would let her kids go off to the city? On their own?” Tāne was ranting now.
A terrible tight feeling was building in my chest. I’d had enough of this. Tāne had gone pōrangi. Bloody crazy. I got up off the floor and stood before him, between his huge body and my father.
“Kāti,” I shouted at him. “Cut it out. What do you think you’re doing?”
He pushed me away from him. “Keep out of this,” he said. “You’re the youngest, you don’t understand.”
The power came back on, though the wind and the rain were still howling outside. I turned back to my mother. Under the harsh glare of the bare light bulbs, she looked so pale. She was sobbing.
“Tāwhiri’s right,” she screamed at Tāne. “You’re mad. I don’t know what all this is about, but I’m not leaving. I’m not going anywhere.”
“You see?” I shouted at Tāne. “What are you doing? They’re happy. We’re happy. What else do you want?”
My father looked up at Tāne. “Don’t take her, son,” he said.
Tāne loomed tall over Dad. “She’s going, Dad,” he said. “We’re all going.”
It was like a strange dream, none of it making sense but rolling on anyway, out of control. Mum didn’t want to go. Dad didn’t want her to go. The whole thing was driven by Tāne, supported by all my other brothers.
I went to Mum, still in her chair. I wanted to climb into her lap – as the youngest, I could still get away with doing that – and she reached forward to pull me towards her. But Tangaroa kicked out at me, forcing me away from her. “Get off,” he hissed. “Don’t be such a baby.”
Back to Dad I went, backwards and forwards between the two of them, trying to make reason. The house was shaking in the storm and the air pressure in the room rose and fell, rose and fell. My ears were hurting more and more and my rash had returned. My whole body burned.
Tāne leaned over Dad and spoke quietly into his ear. “Let us go, Dad,” he said, pushing me away as he spoke. “Let her go. She can’t survive here without her kids.”
He and Dad had locked eyes. I fell back from them both; whatever this thing was, this enormous thing, it sat between them now.
“Go,” Dad said, waving his hand, dismissing us. “All of you, go. Take her with you.”
He walked away, down the hallway, into the darkness.
Tāne turned and smiled at me. “In time,” he said “you’ll understand.”
My brothers had released my mother; she sat slumped in the chair like a sad clown, her mouth turned down at the corners. Tāne spoke to me quietly. “Go and pack your bags,” he said. “We’re going tonight.’
I was full of rage: the rage of not understanding, the rage of powerlessness, the rage of being the youngest. It started as the itch, then it built up inside me to something I couldn’t control. It bubbled hot beneath my skin; my whole body turned pink, then dark red, as though I’d burned myself under the sun.
I think you’d say today, I lost the plot. I don’t actually recall the moment, but some time later, I found myself sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. The tables were broken, smashed into pieces. The candles were waxy pools on the floor, stomped flat. Every window was shattered, the thin curtains ripped from their rails, the stuffing torn from the insides of the armchair and sofa.
I was covered in blood; my hands cut. There was no sign of my brothers or my mother. I got up and walked through the dark house: everything belonging to them was gone, it was as though they had never lived there.
I heard crying. I opened my parents’ bedroom door. My father was on the bed, curled up like a child. I climbed onto the bed and lay behind him, wrapping my arms around him. “I’m not going, Dad,” I said. “I’m staying with you.”
With the hands on the clock not moving, I have no idea of the time. The late afternoon light in the newsroom hasn’t shifted either. The others in the school group are nowhere to be seen.
“Shall I go on?” I ask the boy, and he nods. Green eyes glistening, are they tears?
My mother and brothers never came back. They settled in a big city a long way away. Tāne became an influential person in the conservation movement, Tangaroa an entrepreneurial fisherman, with his own fleet of fine trawlers. Haumia and Rongo pooled their knowledge of plants and gardening, and together established a big gardening store. Tū? No prizes for guessing. Soldier first, then later a politician.
All this I learned over time, a bit of gossip here, a snippet from a newspaper there. It was of little interest to me; I could think only of my mother. I obsessed over her. I couldn’t leave home, couldn’t risk leaving my father in his fragile state. I made do with scavenging news of her from any source.
I watched, listened, read. Once, when I was lighting the fire in the kitchen, I happened across a photo of Tū in an old newspaper. He was in the foreground, at a lectern, giving a speech about the importance of maintaining old military alliances in an ever-threatening climate of unrest, or something like that.
Behind Tu’s earnest face was my mother. Her hands were clasped beneath her chin, almost as though she was praying. She was looking at the back of Tū’s head, but the camera had caught her face perfectly. The expression was one of enrapture; absolute, unconditional devotion.
I finished lighting the fire and hammered on my father’s bedroom door.
“I need to talk to you,” I shouted. I expected the usual response Go away, leave me alone. But for once, he called me in.
He was sitting up in bed. Although I saw him most days shuffling around the kitchen, it was only then, swaddled in dirty bedclothes, in the middle of a too-big bed, that the true depth of his despair revealed itself. Everything about him had turned grey: his hair, his skin, even, it seemed, the room. The air was heavy and putrid – the windows had not been opened since my mother had left. Black mold grew up the walls and across the ceiling. It was as though my father was embedded in the calm, foul vortex of an ugly storm.
“Enough,” I said.
He looked at me as though he had no idea who I was.
“Let’s go. Let’s pack up our stuff and go to the city.”
“No,” he said.
“We can’t stay here Dad. This is hopeless. Look at you. Look at us.”
“No. It could never work out.” He recited the words slowly. His eyes wandered to the window as he spoke. “She made a choice. The boys ahead of me.”
The itch was coming: the tingle on my scalp, the prickle on my neck.
“I stayed with you Dad. Now you should do something for me.”
“I owe you nothing,” my father said. “It was your choice to stay.” And he turned away from me again.
The rash spread like fire down my body, across my shoulders, down my arms and chest and into my groin. It came down my face, searing my eyelids, parching my lips. I ran my touch over them and felt the fragile skin beginning to crack, as though I had spent months with my face turned up to the blistering sun. I started for the door, for my usual hiding place under the house. Then I remembered – there was no-one to bother now with my scratching, no-one except my father, who no longer cared about me.
I got as far as the front door of the house. A rage was building inside me but it was different from the rages I had experienced in the past, the ones heralding a storm. It was a rage against myself – my stupidity at choosing to stay with my father, with a man who clearly did not value my sacrifice.
The blind white anger that had engulfed me the night our family split came over me again. My last recollection was standing in the doorway, looking out at a beautiful clear, warm day. My next knowing moment was coming to, in the same place at the front door, in the middle of a hail storm – a whiteout of freezing cloud, ice balls as big as my fists smashing hard against my face.
I stood quite still, cold white mist touching my hot skin, cooling it down. It was beautiful relief. I tore my shirt off and let the invisible droplets take the rage out of my body. I closed my eyes. The cool brushed against my eyelids like an iced feather.
I should have been frightened, but the relief at the timely whiteout was too great for me to feel panic.
The day unfolded like most others around that time; my father remained shut in his room, exiting only to nibble at whatever he could find in the kitchen and to use the outhouse. I roamed the hills around our house, bare-chested, enjoying the delicious chill of the mist on my tender skin. I stayed out until night fell and the mist turned into a thick wet fog. I lay on the wet grass and tried to peer through the strange white stillness to the stars.
While I looked at the fog and the sky, I started to think about the whiteout. How I had not felt its approach. How I had wished for something to cool my itching, raging skin. How I had wanted something like that so badly, and how I had got what I wanted.
For a long time after the day of the whiteout, I misused my gift. Don’t forget, I was still a kid; an angry, lonely boy caring for a man who didn’t seem to want him. Instead of letting the anger build up inside me, I had a bit of fun.
I’d think of Tangaroa out fishing, bringing home kai for them all to share while my father and I made do with the sad, straggling remains of my mother’s vegetable garden. A wild storm would pummel the seas, tearing his precious boats to pieces and casting fisherman to their death.
I would think of my two green-fingered brothers and their successful gardening shops. A salty wind would blow hard from the sea, through the rows of plants, burning their green leaves to a black, brittle crisp.
I thought of Tū, his desire for conflict charading as noble loyalty. That one was easy. Did it ever rain on his military parades? Always.
Mostly, though, I thought of Tāne. I played out, over and over in my head, the night he called us all together then split us all apart. I thought about him carrying on about the wildlife cause. I would think about it, sitting on the front porch, looking way into the distance. I would sit and look and think and soon I would see it: the haze of a bushfire drifting across the horizon.
Over time, the news came that my brothers had married and had children. It was only then that I came around to understanding that our family would have just died away we’d all stayed together, alone. I still wasn’t happy about things though. I still reckoned we could have worked things out a different way.
Tāwhiri-my-namesake is smiling.
“You understand, don’t you,” I say, and he nods.
“Shall I continue? You want me to continue the story of how I became a weather presenter?”
The boy shrugs his shoulders.
Everyone is back, each child standing exactly where they were before, the two men still glancing at Carole. The long black second hand on the clock has just started moving again.
“There’s an old rumour round here,” says Carole. “That Tāwhiri’s been here so long, he can predict the weather. And that’s how he came to be a weather presenter - one of the first ones.”
“You don’t want to believe those silly stories Carole,” I say. “Sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it kids?”
Ugly sneers from the boys at the front of the group; mutterings stupid old coot… impatient shuffles.
“No no,” I carry on, ignoring the boys. “It was nothing as mysterious as that, a far more ordinary story, I’m afraid.”
I tell how a young man with a passion for watching the clouds moved from the country to the city, worked hard, got a job at the television station and worked his way up to become a weather presenter. The children are bored, who could blame them? I’m bored too with that talk. I’ve given it too many times to count.
I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window. An old man in a suit that’s too big for him. Look how my shoulders fail to fill the jacket. And the trousers, sagging in the backside, pulled tight by a belt on its last notch. At the end of my talk, I look to the back of the group.
Tāwhiri-my-namesake isn’t there. I search the faces. He’s nowhere.
Carole has been listening too, perched on the edge of her desk.
“Tāwhiri, can I have a quiet word?” she asks. “I just wondered, do you want to read the weather today?”
“Why?” I ask her.
“I’m not feeling that well,” she says.
“Are you sure you’re not well enough?” I can tell she’s fibbing.
She looks at me, grinning. “Actually, that’s rubbish.”
She feels sorry for me, having to perform in front of these rude class groups. I won’t accept pity, and I’m about to tell her so, when I change my mind.
“Okay,” I say. “You take over here.”
The make-up girl is new, fresh out of training. Her long black hair is clipped back and coiled into a shiny eel bun. Her name is Wanda, she tells me brightly.
“Kia ora Wanda, I’m Tāwhiri,” I say, reaching forward in my chair to shake her hand.
For a moment we look at each other in the wide mirror: one ancient, crevassed face and one new pale canvas. Wanda puts a hand on my shoulder.
“So, Tāwhiri. What do we usually use for you?”
The fat little make-up pots with the black lids line the heavy glass shelf under the mirror. There are ten of them, identical in size and shape, each containing liquid of a different skin-tone. They graduate in colour: an alabaster white to the sunkissed tan in the middle to a syrupy black oil on the far right.
I shrug my shoulders, remembering a time long ago. “It doesn’t seem to matter, Wanda, which one you go for. Once it’s on, it always turns out the same.”
Wanda’s neat, pruned eyebrows knit in confusion, then relax. Silly old fella is what she is thinking. “Okaaay…” she says politely, and goes over to Reina.
“Reina, what do we use for Tāwhiri?” she whispers.
Reina is distracted, filling bottles at the bench. “Take your pick.”
Wanda giggles. “Alright then,” she says. She runs a finger down my face, as though checking for dust. “Let’s try this one.”
She reaches for the alabaster white. They always do.
The smooth, thick liquid sits on my skin. Wanda’s hand moves quickly – more and more of it scooped from the pot, dolloped on to me. The brush swirls like a feather duster over my closed eyes, my nose, down over my cheeks and lips. I feel the heaviness of the cream hanging off me, and Wanda’s mutterings. Jesus, man, weird.
When I open my eyes, the job is done. It’s heavy-handed, but the exact shade of my skin. Wanda’s pretty cupid bow of a mouth is hanging open.
“I don’t get it,” she says. “What happens, under the studio lights? What does it look like on-screen?”
Reina joins her behind me. She rubs my shoulders.
“Tāwhiri doesn’t usually do the broadcast, Wanda,” she says.
I lift my old bones, rearrange myself in the chair for comfort.
“Reina’s being kind, my dear,” I say. “This old man has nothing much to do and the network keeps him on to talk to rowdy school kids. Except for today. Today I get to present the weather.”
I smile at the silliness of it, at the pity on both their faces, that kind, sad grimace reserved for the aged.
“Ah, go on with you both!” I say, chuckling under Reina’s hands. “Where else can an old koro get a free massage from beautiful young girls?”
“Excuse me,” Reina says. “Old man getting a free massage? Who else would put up with those little shits? He’s the man, Wanda,” she says, laughing. “I mean it. You deserve more than a massage, Tāwhiri.”
“More than a massage, really? If you’re offering…” I wink at her in the mirror.
I sit back to let Reina and Wanda trim my eyebrows and spray my hair into perfect silver waves.
It feels strange not holding a pointer. Oh, I know things have moved on, but still. That pointer was lovely to hold; smooth, cool, like a wooden taiaha. It kept the nerves at bay.
Now I have this gadget, this tiny clicking thing. Just hold it in the palm of your hand they told me. When you’re ready for a new screen, just push the button. Simple!
So I stand, waiting, in the studio as the sports presenters finish their bit.
How different everything is. The light-hearted banter between the presenters, as though we are all sitting comfortably in someone’s front room, chatting about world politics, who’s winning the golf. It’s a big, bright, friendly moment.
“We’ve a special treat for you tonight folks – a face from the past…. Did they have televisions back that far, Tāwhiri?”
Ha ha, the the wit of it all! That’s my cue.
“Thank you, and yes they did. Grainy old black and white screens, but televisions nonetheless. None of these television remotes, though, just an old wooden pointer…” I wave the remote towards the camera, give it a great big presenting smile.
“Well good luck then Tāwhiri, let’s hear what tomorrow brings, weather-wise.”
The forecast is good for the whole country, I say, clicking my little button to move the images behind me.
Up the country we travel – south to north these days - how smooth it all is, as though we are birds passing over the land. I do the right thing, remember to warn about strong sunshine, remind everyone to slip, slap, slop, cover up.
On we go, across Cook Strait – calm seas, people, put the boat out – and onto the North Island. I pause the graphics over the East Coast.
There will be rain, I tell the camera, a slow, steady fall that will go on for days. There will be significant breaks – time to get a load of washing dry before the next shower, time for the parched land to absorb the moisture before the next downpour.
All the time I’m talking, I remember the dry dust clouds, dying cattle and devastated farmers of decades ago. It feels good to settle that debt.
Up the country, nearly done. The camera man is moving towards me, zooming in on my face, and I remember what Carole said about ending the segment: finish on a personal note.
I look calmly into the camera. I am talking to millions of people, but I can see only one person staring back at me down the lens.
Tāwhiri’s school teacher.
His hard face, smug at having destroyed the boy’s spirit, excited about his big beach birthday party with the generator pumping, music blaring, coloured lights swinging from the pine trees.
I remember what Carole told me, and smile into the camera.
As though you’re there with them, in their homes. It’s like you’re part of the family these days, Tāwhiri. So personalize it, as much as you can.
“Tomorrow night, folks, the place to be is Auckland – just north actually, up there at that beautiful Orewa Beach. That’s the place to head to, if you’re planning a big birthday party. The weather will be fine, perfect.”
The vision in my mind is in black and white. The electrical storm will be one of those rare, freak events touching just a tiny pocket of land, leaving surroundings untouched. So small, it never featured on the computer screens before we went to air. The storm is hardly worth mentioning. Hardly worth mentioning, so I don’t.
If I closed my eyes, I would hear a man screaming, ambulance sirens in the background. I would smell it too, the smell of burning. But I leave my eyes open, stick to the cues. Smile into the camera, until the signal that we are done.