Topic: Okarito by Melanie Drewery

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Archived version here.

I saw Keri Hulme going into the Whataroa shop. She was buying bread and milk and maybe the paper.

“Hey,” I said. “I think that’s Keri Hulme.”

“Nah,” said my husband, Jeremy. “You think?”

“Yep, I’m pretty sure.”

“Who, who?” said the kids, like a bunch of noisy owls.

“She’s famous, she wrote The Bone People. Have any of you read it yet?”

“No.”

“You will, you’ll do it at school.”

“I think I do it next year, in year 11.”

“Is that her there? The one with the mullet.”

“That’s not a mullet.”

“Yes, it is.”

“You wouldn’t know a mullet if it bit you.”

“Sssssh. Yes that’s her.”

“Oh.”

She wasn’t a magazine cover and the kids lost interest fast. They went instead to check out the tiny playground and dangle their too-long limbs off the rusty bars. I stared and tried not to gawp too blatantly.

“I wish we had our book here for her to sign,” said Jeremy.

“Which copy? We’ve got three.”

I was glad we didn’t. I don’t think she’d like being cornered, with her bread and paper, and asked to sign old work on her home turf.

We watched her climb into her car. There was no skinny, scarred boy waiting. No drunk and shambling Maori man. The book was written years ago; they would be different now. Besides the book that shaped all those fifth form minds and was plucked apart in essays and exams was fiction. I think.

Her friend laughed at something she said, and they drove away. Jeremy watched them intently.

“Shall we keep going?” he asked.

“I can’t,” I said.

Jackson’s Bay was still at least three hours drive. There were winding bits and steep bits obvious on the map. Okarito looked promising, with a campground only about ten minutes away, give or take twenty. We agreed to break the trip and camp there.

Jeremy got back on his motorbike, and zipped off. That sounds like undressing, and it was in a way. His ride was naked compared to mine. A man and his bike, childless, solitary. My ride was crammed with hormones and impulse and fights about whose music was crap and feet on the seat. Still. Even after a whole day of travel.

This isn’t a poor little wife’s tale. I wanted him out there on his motorbike. It wasn’t a favour I was doing. I wanted him fresh so that he could deal with teens and tents after the driving, and I could drink something. Anything actually. I like to think it's a West Coast tradition.

I put my music on, old Violent Femmes from my teens, it was probably crap. I turned it up and up and up, the fighting reached a noisy peak then faded. It was only lazy fighting after all, and not worth the effort.

“Mum, you’ll break the speakers.”

I turned it off and the car went silent as we drove by a dead forest. The trees stood stark and bare in the swamp, with mist swirling at their feet. White bleached wood against a thunder grey background of bush and sky. Spooky, the sort of place where I imagine ancient lost Maori souls would hang out.

“Cool.”

That would be a spot for a stone tower. No one would visit a tower on an island in there.

On the road in to Okarito there was a fast-moving river, throwing sparkles and bashing its way across the rocks. I was desperate for a swim, but there was a beach at Okarito. I had to wait. The signs turned us up into winding bush road. They warned us of kiwi crossing.

“Slow down! Slow down! You’ll hit a kiwi.”

I slowed to a crawl.

The girls looked hard out the windows. They had just seen one in the Hokitika kiwi house. Their freshly-trained eyes would be sure to spot another.

“I think they’re nocturnal, you know, they come out more at night,” I said, speeding back up a bit.

“What would you do if you ran one over?”

I considered the distance back to the nearest vet at Hokitika.

“I would make sure it was dead.”

“Mum!”

“Then what?”

“I would make sure no one had seen me.”

“Except us.”

“Except you.”

“And then?”

“I would cook it and eat it.”

“Oh yuck, that’s disgusting.”

“Why? They’re quite big, we could all have a taste. You should eat what you kill.”

“You’re gross.”

“Yep.”

“I’d just hide it.”

“But someone might find it.”

“How would you cook it?”

“Maybe there’s a DoC cookbook.”

“There is not!”

“Then I’d ask Keri Hulme - she’d be sure to know how, and she lives near here. She’d probably tell me to marinate it in something strong from the stone cellar, after gutting it, of course. ‘Tough as old boots,’ she’d say. ‘You’ve got to cook it slowly.’ Would she be a plucker? I don’t think so. I hate plucking birds, myself. I think she’d have a better way.”

Maybe she’d tell me to wrap it in clay, impress upon it the images of loved ones, and set it in a slow fire made from the wood of a broken life. Let it stew in its own juices and alcoholic soup. That would be perfect. Then you could crack the hard ceramic shell and peel it away, taking the skin and rubbish, and the little ashy feathers, leaving just the tender insides.

My mouth watered.

“You couldn’t eat a kiwi, it would be like cannibalism.”

“Mmmm,” I said.

“And you would go to jail.”

“What for? Kiwi killing or cannibalism?”

“All of it, even the speeding.”

“Fair enough.”

My youngest daughter is big on jail. She likes the idea that all wrongs will be righted by a stint inside. She’s done hard time-out.

We made it through the bush without killing any kiwi, and followed the road skirting the edge of the mud flats. With the tide in, it’s the perfect place for kayaking, or canoeing, depending on how bent your nose is. I can never remember which is which. There were signs for guided kiwi night walks.

“See,” I said. “Nocturnal.”

But they weren’t listening. They were too keen to point out that I’d driven right past the campground.

“I want to see the beach first,” I said, which was a lie. We stared out over the great grey beach. Wild. Shipwrecky. I breathed it in through my open window and turned the car around.

On the way back to the camp-ground I saw a familiar figure.

“Hey it’s the mullet lady from the shop.”

“Don’t call her that.”

The children waved as we passed. Keri Hulme looked away. I shrank.

The campsite we found backed right on to the beach reserve. I folded out my chair, and sat some distance away. My husband and the four girls squabbled like seagulls. Every now and then there was a plaintive call of, ‘Mum.’

But the wild sea wind whipped it away to mingle with the other bird cries. I was busy forgetting who I was. I sat and stared, lost myself in the rumblings of wave thrown rocks. Drowned myself in the vast sky and dunes of a real west coast beach. Anything could be possible on a beach like Okarito, even a break from being me for a while.

As I rose, to return and take my place as camp cook and dutiful mother, I noticed that I had become a meal for thousands of sand flies. Lucky for them, they like their kiwi raw.

 

About the writer: Melanie Drewery lives in Ruby Bay. She works as a writer, potter, and painter. She has published twenty children's books, all firmly set in New Zealand. Now she's enjoying branching out into short stories for adults. You can read more about Melanie on the Storylines website by clicking on the following link:

http://www.storylines.org.nz/Profiles/Profiles+D-H/Melanie+Drewery.html.

‘Okarito’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers.            

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/7EY3-DSDR                                                                         

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