11. Ma Wai Ra?

I.

Vita could have reverted to imperious. But after many months alone, after months with the therapist, that dance with Firefly, on this quiet evening making its way into darkness, Vitawants to tell her story.  So she takes a deep breath too. (Gracie hasn’t told Jo about the Google search either, so it’s all new to Jo, who sits a little apart from Gracie and Vita, relaxed and happy.)

Vita starts fluently. After all, the first part’s something she wrote. And re-wrote (many times). And read in print. And then, after an intermission, she moves on to the main event, surrounded by events referred to nowhere on Google. And her story becomes like a written deposition: paragraph one, paragraph two.

Five years ago, in Paris, by chance, Vita meets Marie, the mother of a man convicted of murder in the United States. Marie’s a primary teacher, in her early fifties, who lives in Toulouse. Chic and disciplined, your average French woman.

Marie’s brought up two children mostly on her own, loves all things American.  And Marie has money to spare, inherited. So, in her early forties, her sons grown, and doing well, she spends her summers in Texas. She takes up line dancing, and, always impeccably groomed, the wardrobe to match. Including a Stetson. In the photos, she looks a little like Cher. Inevitably, she meets a guy. They fall in love. They marry. But it’s not a conventional arrangement. Marie likes her life in Toulouse. So she continues it as usual, teaching all year, except for the long summer break with her husband in Houston; a summer romance is extended into a summer marriage. And she’s careful, Marie. Always insists on a condom. The arrangement’s also a condom, a protection of her interests. If things go wrong, the guy, who works as a prison guard, has no access to her property; her home and work lives are safe.

Her sons love America too. One’s happy to be a regular visitor; he’s settled in Toulouse. The other, Benedict, wants to stay. He’s a bright guy, but can’t get a green card. And he steals a dead child’s identity. Lives with his step-father.

For a few years, everyone’s happy. Then the step-father’s murdered. What they call an ‘overkill’, stabbed many many times. Benedict’s arrested. Marie does everything she can. The evidence is weak. Benedict maintains his innocence. But Benedict’s an illegal, who’s stolen his identity, too. He’s convicted, sentenced to life.

Marie quits her job, vowing that she will do nothing but work to help Benedict. She’s entitled to live in the United States, but continues to travel to and fro, with her other son. There’s a treaty that provides for French people who are convicted in the United States to serve their sentence at home. But the Texan Governor can veto this option. And he does. Then she does. It goes on for years.

Marie works tirelessly, in France and in Texas, helped by some, hampered by others, particularly the Texan lawyers she employs. When Marie and Vita meet, Marie’s desperate, looking for a lawyer who’s also a writer, who can visit Benedict in prison and publicise his plight.

Because, between them Marie and Benedict uncover an alternative story. In the Texan prison system, some guards rape whomever they choose. Benedict’s stepfather was one of these guards, and he was HIV-positive. Benedict believes that his stepfather infected at least one of the men he raped, who took his revenge when he was released.

When Vita meets Marie, Vita’s son Mark, aged twelve, is off with his dad. Vita misses him, is a bit bored. And between assignments. So she flies to Texas with Marie. She helps Marie—whose English tends to desert her at crucial moments—sort through the lawyers (totally entertained by the lawyers’ snakeskin cowboy boots with their suits, and their rapaciousness). Finds a lesbian law firm to help Marie. And starts investigating. The investigation takes two years.

A pause here, while Jo asks irrelevant questions about the lesbian law firm, the beautiful house where they have their offices. (No entirely relevant question about how and why a lesbian law firm.) Fuck Jo and the way she enjoys tangents, thinks Gracie. Tangents, the essential accompaniment to the blurt– And interrupts.

—Coffee, anyone? Hot chocolate?

And runs downstairs while Jo asks about the bath where the lesbian lawyers keep the champagne during their parties; and sets a fire in her fireplace.

When they all have their drinks again (no brandy for Vita’s hot chocolate), gathered round the fire, Vita’s hesitant. Fuck. Fuck, thinks Gracie again. So she thinks a moment, and speaks up into the silence.

—It’s such a powerful article. When I read about you in that heat standing at the prison gate holding up your passport, then being searched, when I read about how all the prisoners had to share a single razor blade, one after another, about Benedict’s untreated gum disease, about him continuing to work on his case when he was force-medicated, when I read how you come to love him and believe in him, and feel him slipping away, I had this lump in my throat.

It’s dark now. And Gracie’s so intensely involved in her very own almost-blurt that she doesn’t notice that tears roll down Vita’s face. Jo does. She’s kept her distance from the other two, because the story’s all new to her. And she thinks before she speaks, while Gracie continues.

—And then there were those guys you found, and their stories about the guards in other Texan prisons. It was great. And at the end it said there was a second part. And I looked for part two. But I couldn’t find it.

You’re so SLOW sometimes, babe, thinks Jo.

—Gracie–

Gracie looks at Jo, who is looking at Vita. Gracie peers at Vita. OH.   Jo shifts her chair next to Vita and rests her hand on Vita’s. Gracie gets it. And shifts so she can put her arm round Vita. And they sit there in the firelight, as the weeping becomes sobs.

II.

Jo, of course, wants to look after Vita. Gracie’s more interested in what happened next. Jo makes various offers: a bath, a lie down, one of those wonderful Italian macaroons made with almond flour from Jo’s pantry, another brandy. All refused. Eventually, Gracie’s shamed into offering one of her foot massages. And Surprise! Vita accepts.

—And I’ll wash my face.

So she goes downstairs with Gracie, who gets her massage oil. And Vita decides that yes, she’d like a macaroon (or two) with a cup of tea. Up on the roof. And once she’s washed her face and is up on the roof, cup of tea in hand, and plate of macaroons nearby, she wants to finish the story and have the foot massage as a reward, afterwards.

—Let’s get this over with.

So the deposition-like paragraphs start.  Vita’s quick, counting on her fingers.

1. In Houston, I meet an English boy, a bit like Tai. I call him Streak. Streak, a promising football player, didn’t get on with his single mum, who was often unwell. His personal trainer in England grooms him and rapes him, then shares him around. He enjoys some of the benefits of life with the personal trainer and his mates. Gets sucked into the drugs of course. And, while Streak is still gorgeous, the personal trainer takes him to a party at a mansion (which Streak remembered and describes to me). He delivers Streak to the mansion’s owner for sex.

2. The owner takes Streak on a private jet (which he found glamorous) to Austin, where he became essentially a sex slave among another group of guys.

3. After a short while he has a heavier drug habit and is really ill. He’s dumped in Houston, and meets one of my informants on the street.

4. I offer to take Streak back to England, help him out. Streak always had a strong sense of survival. He leaps at the chance.

5. I work hard, to get him out of the States and home (he had no passport), into rehab in England. After rehab I have him at home, where he and my son, Mark, were about the same age. They get on well, go to school together. Now and then, I take Streak to visit his mum, sometimes in a psychiatric ward. And I continue to work on Part Two of my story, wondering how best to include Streak’s story, if at all.

As Vita moves from her left hand’s fingers to her right hand’s, she pauses, left forefinger on right thumb. That imperious look again. Ah, Gracie thinks, that’s really just her brace-myself look. And brace-yourselves everyone else, too.

Gracie sees Jo open her mouth to fill that pause between paragraphs. Jo wants to ask “More tea?” Gracie gives Jo a stern look. Jo closes her mouth.

Vita closes her eyes. Opens them, and looks out beyond the roof-top to the lights of Cuba Street.

6. I get invited to some glamorous parties that Christmas. Including a big publishing do. Mark’s with his dad, so I take Streak as my ‘partner’, a way to do something fun with him.

7. Streak hears the publishing empire’s major owner’s welcome speech, and slips away from me. Is upset later, won’t tell me why.

8. But he tells Mark: he’d got near to the guy giving the speech, let’s call him Mop. And he was convinced that Mop was the guy whose mansion he’d been delivered to; he’d recognised Mop’s voice when he gave the speech, and checked him out in close up. He remembered Mop’s hands.

She pauses, left forefinger on right middle finger. Taps the middle finger a few times. Closes her eyes again, swallows.

9. He and Mark find the personal trainer, ask him if Mop’s the one. The personal trainer denies it.

10. Mop invites me to a ‘family party’: bring your family. I didn’t know a thing about Streak and Mark’s investigation. Streak won’t go. But Mark does.

She’s run out of fingers. She leans forward in her directors chair, hands clasped between her legs, rocking slightly, looking down, whispering.

11.While we’re at the party, someone tries to break into my house. And Streak rings me, rings the police. “Leave Mark with us”, says our host, “He’s having a good time. We’ll drop him back.” So I rush home.

12. Streak says immediately, “Where’s Mark?” He’s very worried about Mark, but I don’t notice, because I’m more concerned about the break in.

13. Then I get the call. Mark’s fallen out of a window, three stories up, into a courtyard. Thrown out, I think.

Jo leans forward and places her open hand on the arm of Vita’s chair. Vita looks up, grasps Jo’s hand, looks down again, the other hand still clasped between her legs. Jo places her other hand on Vita’s thigh. We’re here. Vita Keeps Rocking. Vita Keeps Going.

14. In the autopsy, they find heroin in Mark’s blood, Mark who had zilch interest in drugs.

15. It’s all a blur for a while after that. Until Mark’s dad flies in. Furious with me. I should never have had custody because all I care about is my career.

16. Streak doesn’t leave the house. Just stays in his room. I think he was terrified. Poor Streak, he had no idea what to do. Until Mark’s dad stormed out

17. That’s the first time I’m alone. Heartbroken. And Streak creeps in and sits across from me. I think, go away, go away. Then he speaks. Tells me about his visit to the personal trainer, taking Mark. I’m furious with him. How could he risk Mark? It should have been him that died. I tell him to leave.

18. Ten minutes later I hear him leave. Almost immediately I regret it. Grab my phone, speed-dial him and run out the front door after him. Can’t see him. Then hear Mamma Mia, his ring tone for me. Where is he? Look over, around. Then down. And in the gutter’s his phone, ringing. And quarter of an hour later I get a text: Streak gnePix 2 folo. Ur nxt if opn mouth.  The pictures come, and I know it’s true.

19. I’m terrified.

20. I get very sick in the head. Don’t know where to go. Drink too much one night and realise that if I keep drinking I might say something, three drinks now my maximum.

21. So I run home. Here. Find the City Radio job. Avoid my family, who don’t know the whole story, who blame me for Mark’s death. A bad mother. And they’re right.

22. See Mop with Firefly in Hemingway’s that first night I came.

23. Then, on New Year’s Eve, get a bit pissed and told Firefly who I am. WANT to speak up.

She raises her head, looks at Gracie and Jo. This time, they’re weeping. Gracie, who nevercries, is unable to speak. Jo, who’s used to her own tears, gently takes her hand from Vita’s, wipes her eyes, then shamelessly wipes her nose on her sleeve, eyes fixed on Vita. Takes Vita’s hand again, in both her hands, and says

—How can we help?

Into the silence, a rourou calls. From the west, Kelburn Hill.

And then, Jo sings. Very softly. A song her dad taught her:

Ma wai ra

E taurima

Te marae i waho nei

Ma te tika

Ma te pono

Me te aroha e.

All the verses.

And when she stops singing, Vita’s ready to go downstairs.

To that foot massage. For a bath. For a few sips of milk-and-honey in Jo’s clean white spare room. And then the best sleep she’s had for a long time.

NOTES

Henare Te Owai of Ngāti Porou wrote Ma Wai Ra, a lament.

Thanks to MokopungaAkonga for this clip, who notes:

*Should be sung as “ma te tika, ma te pono” — but this was the only audio file I could find of this moteatea.

Audio and full lyrics  here.

Ma wai ra e taurima
te marae i waho nei?
Ma te tika
ma te pono
me te aroha e. 
Who will take responsibility
on the marae now?
There can be justice
and truth
only if there is love.
Noho au i taku whare
whakarongo ki te tangi
o te manu
rere i runga
rere waho e
I sit in my house
listening to the cry
of the free spirit
flying up
and away beyond here.
Nga wawata, nga roimata
i maringi ki te pa
Hei aha
hei ua rangi
me te aroha e?
The yearning, the tears
flow at the Pah.
Why do
the heavens send down rain
if not for love?
Tangihia au tinei*
kua riro koutou;
ki te iwi
ki te rangi
ki te Atua e.
Without your guiding light,* I bewail
your departing;
to the people
to the heavens
and to God himself.
Ma wai ra e taurima
te marae i waho nei?
Ma te tika
ma te pono
me te aroha e.
Who will take responsibility
on the marae now?
There can be justice
and truth
only if there is love.
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