‘Bluey’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
My cousin told me that house is a tinny house. That’s a stupid name for a house made of wood, I said. And she said I was stupid and now we ain’t cousins no more. I reckon she meant roof—tinny roof—cos that’s the only tin on that wooden house that I can see.
‘Lock the doors, bub. Keep them locked, remember. Don’t open the doors for no one, k? Stranger danger, don’t forget.’
Dad wouldn’t leave me alone until I locked the doors so I leaned over and pushed down the button on his side of the car. All the locks went click at once and then I watched Dad walk up the drive towards the tinny roof. When he reached the side of the wooden house, he turned back to check on me before he disappeared round the back.
The car key was still in the hole. I turned it twice towards Dad’s window like I’d seen him do heaps of times and the radio made some scratchy noise. Then I pressed the buttons on the radio until the golden oldies station came up. Dad listens to the songs from the olden days cos it makes him remember when things were easy. I listen to them cos I have no choice, and now I think they’re not that bad but I’ll never tell my dad that. I knew the song on the radio from Nanny and Papa’s place. They sing it all bloody night when they’re on the piss under the blue plastic at the back of the house. Dad says I’m too young to swear, but what he don’t know won’t hurt him, I reckon. So I turned up the radio and sang my bloody heart out.
‘Wasted days and wasted nights …’ When I didn’t know the words I just hummed along. There were other cars in the street that didn’t hang around for long and people coming and going, but all that mattered to me right then was getting wasted all day and night. But not for real. Cos getting wasted means drinking too much piss and singing old songs too loud with a guitar. And my Papa says I have to be at least fourteen.
My Nanny and Papa buy their piss from Uncle Anaru who sells them for five dollars per Coke bottle and calls the drink his Raro homebrew. That’s cheap, he tells my Papa. Family rates. It’s the real thing, too, he says. Just like the good stuff back home. Nanny and Papa must reckon he’s right cos they buy four bottles of Raro homebrew from Uncle Anaru and four bags of Raro doughnuts for the same price from Aunty Polly every Friday night. Then Nanny goes to housie and Papa has to wait for her to come home before he’s allowed to get wasted. If I’m sleeping over, like I was tonight, then I’ll go to housie too. You’re my lucky charm, says Nanny. And if the Holy Spirit has been kind to her also, she might bring home a meat pack or the twenty dollars she’s won back on her housie cards. If it’s a meat pack, then there’ll be rump steak and doughnuts for breakfast the next day.
Papa’s favourite song came on next. He loves country Western even though we’re not white. I can tell the singer is a white man cos how many cowboys with rhinestones you know are brown? I asked Nanny what rhinestones were and she showed me her wedding ring and hard out it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. More beautiful than the glass Rosary beads my Nanny and Papa gave me for my sixth birthday. This will protect you, my Nanny had said. She didn’t say from what. I wore it to school once, like it was a string of rhinestones, and Mum beat me with the kikau broom. Not too hard cos I was just a dumb six-year-old, but hard enough so I wouldn’t do it again. Anyway, none of the men in my family gonna wear sparkles like that in their cowboy hats. None of the men in my family own any bloody cowboy hats, let alone sparkles to put in them.
I was still singing about white cowboys when Dad came back to the car.
‘Open the door, bub.’
He knocked on the window three times even though I already seen him and this fulla behind him I didn’t know. He was black as.
‘Rosie,’ said Dad, ‘open the door.’ He knocked three times again and it made me think of another old song. Knock three times on the ceil—
They weren’t going nowhere so I leaned over and pulled the buttons back up. I left Dad’s door to last so I had to unlock each door one by one. The wind blew through the car when Dad opened his door and his head took up the whole doorway.
‘Rosie,’ he said, ‘this is my mate Bluey. Say hello.’
I looked over at my Dad’s mate Bluey. He wasn’t family. He was too fat to play rugby with Dad. I would know if he was from around here, and he wasn’t. I didn’t know this man from a bar of soap, whatever that means. That’s what my Nanny says. So why the bloody hell should I say hello? Stranger danger. I looked straight ahead at the road. There was only one other car left in the street now. Even the rhinestone cowboy was gone from the radio.
‘Rosie.’ I could tell by Dad’s voice that he wasn’t playing. ‘Say hello to Bluey, and get in the back seat.’
I turned my eyeballs to Bluey. Like I said, he was fat. His dreadlocks looked like dirty ropes. His clothes were black. His skin was black. His eyes were brown. His teeth were yellow. What teeth he had left. The gap where his two front teeth should’ve been made him look like a baby. Bluey. What a stupid name for a fat, black, dirty, toothless baby.
‘Nah, nah, bro,’ Bluey said to Dad, ‘it’s all good, eh. I can sit in the back seat.’
‘Rosie,’ Dad said, ‘get in the back seat. Now.’
By the time I went to move to the back seat, Bluey already had one fat leg inside the car. He had some old black track pants on, the kind that go in at the ankles.
‘All good, bro,’ he told Dad. ‘More room in the back seat, eh?’
I knew Dad was giving me the eye. ‘Bluey,’ he said, not taking the eye off me, ‘this is my daughter, Rosie. She takes after her mother.’
Bluey laughed. It made the back of my neck itchy. He laughed like a girl—a fat, black, dirty, toothless baby girl. Dad was still staring at me so I turned to look back at him but there was a chubby hand between me and my dad’s face. Bluey’s fingernails were too long for a man, and the dirt underneath them looked like the black side of half-moons.
‘Nice to meet you, Rosie.’
Dad flicked his head at me and I let Bluey shake my fingers. His hands were sweaty.
‘Faarr, bro! This is a flash car, my bro. Look at these things, bro. Electric windows, bro!’
The window behind me went whirr then stopped. Whirr. Stop. Whirr. Stop.
‘Gets us from A to B. That’s all we need. A to B.’ Dad turned the radio down.
‘One foot in front of the other, eh, bro.’
Some kids were playing rugby on the road. They stopped just long enough for us to pass.
‘When Rosie’s older, I’ll teach her how to drive. Then she can pick me up at the pub.’ I knew Dad wanted me to look at him so I could laugh with him but he knows I hate it when people make fun of me, so served him right if his feelings got hurt.
‘Must be my lucky day, my bro, running into you like that.’
‘It’s been ages since I seen you, bro. Not since,’ Dad went quiet, ‘school days.’
‘What school do you go to, Rosie?’
Only my family called me Rosie, cos they know me better than anyone. If I had a best friend at school, even she wouldn’t call me Rosie. She’d call me Rosita. I would’ve made sure of it.
‘Can your daughter talk, bro?’ Bluey leaned over Dad’s seat. ‘Fuck that, bro,’ he said, looking at me out the side of his face. ‘She’s too young to be a dumb mute.’
When I fight with my cousins we call each other stupid and dumb. It’s the worst thing you can call someone you love. It means you think you’re better than them and when you think that about someone you love they may as well be a ghost.
‘Maraeroa,’ said Dad. ‘Primer three.’
‘Far, man.’ Bluey tried to whistle through the gap in his teeth. It sounded like wet wind. ‘What a brainy box.’ It went quiet in the car for about a minute and I could tell Dad didn’t like it. Some people are too scared to talk in their heads. They’d rather talk about the weather than be quiet for a minute.
‘Remember when we were at school, bro?’ said Dad. ‘Things have changed a bit since then.’
‘I only lasted that one year at college, bro. Hardly even counts.’ Then Bluey let out more wet wind through his gappy teeth. ‘I remember your mum, Rosie. She was pretty as, your mum.’
Usually I didn’t mind being quiet for a minute but I wished I had something to say about that.
‘She was the prettiest girl at school,’ said Bluey. ‘She looked a lot like you, eh, Rosie.’
I could feel my face getting warm. I opened my window. Whirr. Stop.
‘Fuck she was smart.’ Then he said sorry. ‘Didn’t mean to swear.’
Dad waved his hand as if swearing was OK now. ‘Nothing Rosie hasn’t already heard.’
I turned in my seat and looked Bluey in the eyes. ‘Were you in Mum’s class, too?’
His eyes went big as the moon. He stared at me then Dad then me. ‘Yep,’ he said. ‘All three of us were in the same class. Just in the third form, though, cos I,’ he paused, ‘left early.’
His moon eyes got glassy and I thought he was gonna cry. I turned back to the front cos it’s none of my business to watch a grown man cry. We passed some brick houses that looked like tiny brick jails and some yawning boxes for houses with no upstairs.
‘Bluey and his family lived next door to your Nanny and Papa’s. We were next-door-neighbours for ages, eh, bro?’
‘Yeah, bro. My old man always said youse were the best boongas he knew.’ He stopped himself. ‘Oh, sorry, bro. I didn’t mean boongas; I meant coconuts.’
Dad laughed and I gave him the eye. ‘My dad always said you horis were OK, too.’ They both cracked up like they were back in the third form.
‘Did you know Mum’s family?’ I turned in my seat again and looked into Bluey’s moon eyes.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I beat up her older brother. That fucker tried to pash my girlfriend.’
‘That’s Uncle Davey! He has a boyfriend now.’
‘Fuck,’ said Bluey, ‘did I beat up a faggot?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘you beat up my uncle.’
‘Careful, bro. That’s her favourite uncle.’
‘Sorry, Miss. Me and my big fat mouth.’
It felt like we’d been driving for ages before I noticed the turn-off for the motorway.
‘Dad,’ I said, staring down the open road, ‘where we going?’
The car picked up speed.
‘Don’t forget to drop me off. It’s housie night.’
There weren’t any brick jails or yawning boxes on the motorway. Just road and grass and signs and cars. I couldn’t tell what time it was—it was hard to tell when the days got sunnier. All I knew was that housie started at six and Nanny left home at five-thirty on the dot and I finished school at three and we would’ve spent at least ten minutes at the tinny roof.
‘Don’t forget, Dad. Nanny will be waiting for me.’
‘Hey, bro, remember when we used to …’ Bluey went quiet. ‘Remember when we used to go into town for … a movie?’
‘Yeah, bro. I remember those days.’
I couldn’t remember the last time Dad took me to the movies. The last movie I saw was about a boy and his turtle. I cried at the end and so did my Nanny. But Nanny cried cos she misses the islands, where the movie was made, not so much cos she cares about turtles.
‘You, me, and Juju were thick as thieves back then.’ Bluey poked his head round my seat. I smelt onion on his breath. ‘That’s what we called your mum back then, Rosie. Cos she had the biggest juju lips at school.’
I pressed my lips together and checked my face in the side mirror. I looked like Kermit the Frog. Bluey’s face was in the side mirror, too. We both looked away at the same time.
‘I mean,’ he said, ‘we called her Juju cos her name was June. Juju for short.’ I looked at his face in the side mirror again and he was looking back at me and he didn’t look away. His moon eyes turned into bung eyes.
We passed Tawa and then J-ville. I looked out for the road signs. Dad showed me how to read road signs since when I was little. And maps and other things like the names of towns. Follow the Ones and keep your eye on the centre line and you can drive to Auckland, no sweat, he would say. I looked out for the state highway signs to make sure we weren’t lost. At the bottom of the hill, just before the city, I watched a truck full of lambs turn off the main road.
‘Beautiful,’ Dad said when we drove past the sea. ‘Look at that water, bub. One day I’ll teach you how to fish. Fresh fish from the sea. We can make our own fish and chips, eh, bub?’
I wondered how long it took us to get here. And how long it would take us to get back home. I didn’t want fish I had to catch myself. I didn’t want to follow the Ones and end up in Auckland. I wanted rump steak from a raffle ticket. Old songs under the blue plastic. Turtles. Doughnuts.
‘We fished here all the time, your mum and me. Ages ago, before you came along.’
Mum loved the water and she taught me to swim. The hard way, in the sea, with no boards to help me float. The air in my body kept me from sinking. My arms and my legs got me moving. And soon I learnt to breathe with the waves. I dived under the water without getting scared. It felt safe under the sea. Like a giant bubble. Like a pillow over your ears at night that kept away the bogeyman.
The last time I went to the beach with Mum we didn’t paddle in the water or build castles in the sand. We sat on the rocks and said nothing for minutes.
We went through a tunnel. It felt like under the sea. I forgot about Bluey. Then we got to the other side.
‘Remember that time we walked through that tunnel, bro? Remember that night?’
‘We were dumb kids back then.’
‘Dumb kids back then, alright.’
We stopped at the lights. The buildings in the city made me feel tiny. Almost invisible. But with nowhere to hide.
‘Remember that prick, bro? Big Al or something, they used to call him. Remember what he tried to do?’
Dad knew I wanted him to look back at me and he didn’t. I tried not to let my feelings get hurt.
‘What a cunt, eh, bro? Remember what he did?’
Dad said nothing about Bluey using the C word. He said nothing until we got near the big cricket field in the city.
‘Fuck’s sake, you idiots! Get off the bloody road!’
Some kids came out of the cricket field. Dad stopped to let them cross. I’m glad that he did. I thought he wasn’t going to. Then I wondered who this Big Al fulla was.
‘Chatting up your missus like that. Fuck that, eh bro?!’
Dad pressed the horn and the kids turned back and gave him the fingers. I wasn’t expecting that and my lips turned up without me making them.
‘Stop that, Rosie!’
My face went warm again. Whirr. Stop. I forced the edges of my lips back down.
‘Served him right what happened to him, bro.’
I looked in the side mirror at Bluey. His lips went like string and his head shook from side to side. He was staring out the other window. Remembering things.
‘I never seen you so mad, bro,’ he said.
My dad only got angry when he watched the rugby. And mainly at the ref who was usually a blind idiot. Come on, ref! Open your eyes! What’s the matter with you? You blind idiot! He hardly even swears in front of me. I learnt most of my swear words from Nanny and Papa’s place.
‘I thought you were gonna give him the bash, bro. I had to hold you back, you remember?’
It went quiet in the car for a minute and I could tell Dad was talking in his head. He gawked at the road like he was watching a movie. I wanted to say something but I opened my window instead. Whirr.
‘Rosie!’ I jumped in my seat. ‘Fuck’s sake, girl. Stop playing! You gonna pay for that when it’s broke?’ Dad leaned over me and pushed down the button. I watched the window wind back up. His body felt hard pressed up against me. It was hard to breathe with his elbow in my tummy. ‘Shut up, Rosie. Why are you crying?’
By the time I felt the tears at the back of my eyeballs, it was too late to stop them from falling out. I wiped them off my face with my sleeve. I sniffed only when I felt the snot dripping.
‘You were pretty strong, bro, even back then when you was just a young fulla.’ I caught Dad watching Bluey in his driver’s mirror. ‘Juju started screaming, remember? You had to calm her down. She went fucking mental.’
Bluey was talking to the window now as if the window was gonna talk right back. Then he turned and looked straight at me in my side mirror. First I saw his eyes, then I saw the gap in his teeth.
We passed the hospital and I felt more tears behind my eyeballs. I opened and shut my eyelids quickly to keep the tears inside. Smoke was coming out of one of the hospital chimneys, where they burn the dead bodies, my cousin had told me. My aunty heard her and gave her a clip around the taringa cos that’s about the time my mum died.
‘What a dumb cunt.’ I turned in my seat and made bung eyes at Bluey. He couldn’t see me, but Dad could.
‘Rosie! Eyes front.’
Apart from his lips, Dad’s face was ice. Frozen. His knuckles stuck out like tiny rocks around the steering wheel.
‘You were ready to smash that prick, bro. Who knows what would’ve happened if Juju hadn’t’ve screamed.’
The back of my neck started to itch again. When Mum died Dad screamed hard out like a baby. I never told him I heard him like that cos it ain’t my business to know about things. But ever since then, I know grown men can break too.
‘Bro,’ said Dad, ‘we’re nearly there, bro.’
The old shops in Newtown looked like rundown shoe boxes. All sorts of wires crisscrossed above us.
‘Serves that arsehole right what he got, bro.’
I still didn’t know what time it was, but Nanny and Papa would be starting to worry.
‘Shut up, Rosie!’
I looked into my side mirror. I hated that stupid moon-eyed baby.
‘Serves that fucker right. I didn’t even care when they sent me off. I laughed in their fucking faces, I did.’ Then Bluey laughed like a crazy man. He laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.
We stopped at the lights and Dad turned in his seat. ‘Stop it, bro. My daughter here.’
It went quiet in the car for a full minute it felt like. I kept my eyes upfront.
‘Sorry, bro. Sorry, Rosie. I forget where I am sometimes.’
Nobody said nothing the rest of the way. We turned the corner at the end of the road and Dad parked up near the flats by the zoo. The animals were crying inside their cages.
Bluey got out and tapped my window. I pressed the button.
‘Sorry ’bout the language, Rosie.’ His face and dreadlocks took up the whole space. ‘I’m not a brainy box like you are, Rosie. Just a dumb cunt is me,’ he said.
He tried to smile and I stared at the gap in his teeth. ‘Hey, Bluey,’ I said, suddenly remembering. ‘Why they call you Bluey?’
The skin on the sides of his eyes went wrinkly. ‘It’s my blue eyes, Rosie. My blue eyes.’
He disappeared into one of the flats. I watched Dad watch Bluey go.