Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings
Mere is Ngāti Mutunga and Iraia is Moriori, the son of a slave woman who was brought to the mainland by Mere’s uncle. They have left Mere’s Queen Charlotte Sound home so that they can be together, travelling to Wellington by Ferry. The year is 1882.
It seemed as if a cluster of stars had fallen to earth and remained alight near the water’s edge, striking long reflections in the harbour. It was a mirage surely, a perplexing dream brought on by the rigours of the day and the excitement of such an extreme change in circumstance. As the steamer ploughed into the harbour, the city ahead seemed vast. Mere shook her head and blinked, tightly squeezing her eyes together. When she opened them again the scene was unchanged, except it had become blurred. These were not the flickering and modest flames of lamps in homes or moving along sleepy streets, they were something unreal. Could it be that the city radiated its own light?
Neither of them had seen a city lit by gas lamps. As they got closer they could see the outlines of fine, large buildings, and carriages passing by from time to time. Mere straightened and re-straightened the clothing she had, repacked what was left in their kete, counted their money. Iraia stood, with his hands firmly jammed in his pockets, watching the wharf get closer, forgetting to breathe, then taking in sharp breaths and willing himself to continue. Now was not the time to lose heart.
But neither of them knew what was next. Despite his suggestion that they stay close to what they knew, they could have been in a foreign country after all. Neither had stayed away from home before, neither had seen a city, or had to find accommodation in one. They had not thought past leaving Waimua.
The steamer docked, and they disembarked. They were surrounded by busy people for a time, everyone intent on their luggage and their destination. Several young men seemed to be employed exclusively hauling belongings and cargo. Iraia wondered if it might be something he could do. Everywhere he saw jobs that needed doing. There was a lot of construction happening along the wharf, surely they would need labourers. Paid work. He felt a curious jolt, as if someone had reached through his skin and tugged his insides.
‘We should ask,’ said Iraia. ‘A place to stay, we should ask someone.’
‘Couldn’t we just go for a walk? The streets are so well lit. We can afford a night or two at a hotel, and there may be some along the waterfront. We’ll look for work and a proper place to live tomorrow.’
As they crossed the street, buildings loomed, as if they were watched from above. There was an illuminated clock tower, and strange domes, sillouettes of statues and glowing lamps that gave everything an oddly warm hue. Mere was tired. Subdued. Iraia was tired too, but his exhaustion was tempered by the rising excitement of so many choices. He hadn’t chosen this freedom before, he knew. He could have had it, could have run away a long time ago. Tū probably would not have cared or followed him. He could have made his own way in the world. It was a Christian world they lived in now – a world that pretended to know nothing of invasion and slavery and the old ways.
But he hadn’t left when he was old enough to choose. He’d found every excuse to stay. He knew nothing else. Tū would beat him. He had nowhere to go. He might starve. None of it was true, he saw that now. They lived a quieter, separate life at Waimua and Motuora, but they had seen enough of the town to know what choices were open to them. So why had he stayed? He saw that now too. It was her, only her, that had kept him captive.
And he didn’t mind. He was glad he’d waited. This was much better, to have Mere on his arm. He had so much mixed up inside him: he was just as nervy and worried as he was hopeful. But with Mere beside him he felt strangely sure they could manage anything that came their way.
They walked north along the quay, completely unsure of where they were heading. After a couple of blocks, Mere wondered aloud if they should turn left at some point, as the streets seemed more well lit in that direction. She took Iraia’s arm as he led her down a side street. Iraia was invigorated by the adventure of not knowing anything about their destination. Mere found herself at the end of her strength and was glad to have Iraia’s arm to guide her. It was not that her body was weak, but that the consequences of what she had done had finally begun to become real to her. All the fear and worry she had been keeping at bay the entire day assaulted her at once.
They reached the corner, where Mere read the signposts that told them they were now at the intersection of Johnston Street and Lambton Quay. On each corner were two- and three-storey hotels. They tilted their heads to stare at the uppermost windows where lights shone behind curtains. A woman’s laugh filtered through an open window, high and sharp.
Horse dung and natural gas, open drains and fresh-treated wood. The city was dense with scent and sound, each one pushing against the others. Other people nodded in greeting or pretended not to see, called to each other in their work, or to the horses that drew them from place to place, great wheels banging and rattling coaches along the rough clay roads.
They were walking past a small but grand building on Johnston Street when suddenly the doors opened and streams of people poured out, all talking and laughing loudly. Mere and Iraia were confused by the sudden bustle until it became evident from the conversations of the people around them that the building was a theatre. Mere hadn’t noticed, there was so much to take in. Now she found the sign and read ‘Theatre Royal’ to Iraia. It was such a busy city. There must have been hundreds of people walking past, pushing them along. Iraia took Mere’s hand and pulled her through the doors to the closest hotel – the Oxford.
The room they entered was imposing, with a long mirror sideboard behind the main desk, and complex ornamentation along the skirtings and ceilings. Plush maroon carpets lay between well-cushioned settees, and Mere couldn’t help wishing she could sit there. Iraia imagined staying, purchasing a room for the night, and treating Mere to all the pretty magic the city had to offer. But the sharp stares of the desk clerk and the night porter reminded him how they must look. A richly attired couple entered through the door he and Mere had just used, obviously fresh from the theatre. They stopped and stared openly, causing the night porter to take a step forward. Iraia and Mere saw what would happen next and opted to leave before they were required to do so.
They exited via different doors that led them out to Lambton Quay. They were almost heading back the way they came, but on a different, busier street now, so they continued, marvelling still at the public lights and the colourful dress of the city folk who were now making their way home from the evening’s entertainments. Lambton curved into Willis Street, and they walked on, casting longing looks at hotels they passed.