Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Red Cardigan

The Red Cardigan by Lee Murray The Red Cardigan Things with Rawiri are getting serious, so I drive out to Lower Hutt to talk to my grandmother. I should’ve rung first, because when I get there Por Por is out - taken the unit to Petone to pick up some wool for her latest knitting project. Only my aunt is home, watching her favourite soaps and eating peanuts. She can’t help me. At 62, I doubt she knows the first thing about men. Worse, she’s in one of her belligerent moods. Katy Yee has been menopausal for the past two decades. I decide to wait anyway and make a pot of tea. From the kitchen bench, I see Katy Yee switch the My Sky to RECORD. Then, carrying her peanuts in a green plastic bowl, she waddles through to join me. ‘If there was a war between New Zealand and China,’ she says, as she manoeuvres herself into the window seat behind the kitchen table, ‘which side would you choose?’ I bristle. She’s being a cow, as usual. She knows I can’t answer that. Whatever I say will be wrong. She pulls the bowl closer and goes on cracking her peanuts, waiting all who-me and innocent for my answer. ‘Which side? New Zealand or China?’ she prompts, popping another nut. She rolls it to the back of her mouth. It cracks when she bites down. ‘The winning side,’ I say, passing her tea across the table. This isn’t the answer she wants, so it annoys her. ‘No, no! You have to choose.’ ‘I can’t.’ The Red Cardigan, Lee Murray 3 ‘You have to!’ Katy Yee insists. ‘There’ll never be a war,’ I say. ‘We’d be crazy to get into a fight with China. There are over a billion people there.’ Katy Yee brushes stray bits of peanut shell off the table into her hand. ‘Yes, but if there was a war. What then? Who would you choose? Would you pick New Zealand or China?’ Any side you’re not on. I hate these kinds of arguments. ‘Let me think about it a bit,’ I say. I get up and rinse my cup, leaving it on the dish rack to dry. Then, I step into the hall. ‘Wei-Ling? Where are you going?’ Not Wendy, but Wei-Ling: my Chinese name. ‘Chee-saw,’ I reply, but I don’t go to the toilet. Instead, I go outside, get into my car and drive away. Better to glare at the road. It’s not that I don’t like the occasional good fight. I do. I’m an occupational therapist: there’s always someone worse off to go into bat for. But Katy Yee’s question was purely rhetorical. As far as my aunt is concerned, there is only one right answer. I’m half-Chinese and when you are Chinese, even the tiniest titre, you are always Chinese first. It’s like the other day. I’m at the fruit-shop, standing at the counter while the fruit-shop lady passes my purchases over the scanner. Inside the paper bag, my apples tumble about, getting bruised. I’m digging for the change in the bottom of my purse when the fruit-shop lady asks: ‘So where are you from?’ ‘From here.’ She looks puzzled. The Red Cardigan, Lee Murray 4 ‘Where?’ ‘Here,’ I say. ‘Wellington.’ The woman scowls now, as if I’m being deliberately obtuse. ‘Yes, but where were you from before?’ I hold out the change, impatient. A week doesn’t go by where someone doesn’t take a look at my flattened nose and the colour of my hair and ask me where I’m from. I stifle an urge to say, ‘Solly, me no speakee English.’ Geez! I should be used to it. In the seventies when I was growing up, my brothers and I were the only Chinese kids at our primary school, so we took a fair bit of ribbing: ‘Hey, you wanna Chinese burn?’ ‘You know Bruce Lee? Yeah, well you better look out aye, ‘cause I’m the Boss!’ ‘Ching-chong chinaman sitting on a rock, along came a nigger and shot him in the cock!’ That one always got a laugh. There’re extra points in it if you can insult two racial groups in a single sentence. And then there’d be someone who’d pretend to be blind like Master Po, who’d stare at me all glassy-eyed and say: ‘Ahh Grasshopper, how is it that you do not see?’ The thing is, people look at me and all they see is this short Chinese woman. Yet on my mother’s side, the Chinese side, I’m a third-generation New Zealander, and on my Dad’s side the family got here even earlier, in the late 1700s. That’s a pretty good Kiwi pedigree. I was your regular Weet-bix kid, raised on fish and chips and L&P. Spending half my life shoeless and wearing boardies. I know about players not The Red Cardigan, Lee Murray 5 releasing the ball, and the off-side rule. Hell, I can even sing the national anthem in Māori. ‘I’m from here. New Zealand,’ I spit back at the fruit shop lady. That accent, I wonder where she’s from and how long she’s been here? Less than five minutes, I shouldn’t wonder. Straight off the bloody boat. Disgusted, I grab my bruised apples and leave. Fruit shops feature largely in the family history. Not surprising really, since by the time my grandfather got here in the early 1940s, Southland’s gold fields had been pretty picked over. My grandfather opened his first fruit shop in Christchurch, got his brother out from China to help him, and for a time the pair of them lived in a shed at the back of the shop. Later, when he’d moved to Wellington and opened a second, bigger fruit shop, my grandfather sent home for a wife, who came out to join him. The brothers are both gone now. Of that generation, only my Por Por is left, and she’s nearly ninety. I don’t go straight home. Instead, I drive around for a while, cooling off, thinking of all the things I wish I’d said to my aunt. I’m no good at thinking on my feet. If the perfect come-back line occurs to me, it’s always hours later. Of course, I’d never have the balls to say anything. Too much Chinese in me. All that respect for your elders crap drilled into us as kids. New Zealand is a meritorious society, but only if your mother isn’t Chinese. In the afternoon, I weed my vegetable patch and dream of Rawiri and me. I turn the soil, breathing in its masculine scent, admiring the curvature of my spade as it The Red Cardigan, Lee Murray 6 slips into the earth. The feathered carrot tops tickle my legs as I pass though the rows, making me laugh. For a time, the regular thud of my spade penetrates the soft drone of the motorway in the distance. My cabbages are almost ready to harvest, their globes of pale green like boulders in a river. I spray them with the hose, leaving a trail of moisture beads. Just before I put my tools away, I turn over an outer stem to discover a lumpy caterpillar hidden in the crevice. Lucky I found him: he’s almost invisible, but by tomorrow, he could’ve devoured the whole cabbage. Later on, Rawiri picks me up in his ute and we head out to his parents’ house in Porirua. Rawiri’s cousin, Julie, just graduated as a nurse so the family is having a party to celebrate. Apart from his mother, who was once my patient, I haven’t met any of Rawiri’s family. I’m like a gawky teenager on a first date. My hands are sweaty. I wipe them on my jeans. Judging from the cars parked on either side of the street, the party is already in full swing. The house is a fifties state house: the rare two-storied sort. I notice the paintwork on the weatherboards is fresh. A bunch of kids’ toys are tidied away to a corner of the yard. We’re met at the door by a thin man with a hooked nose. Rawiri claps him on the back. ‘This is my girlfriend, Wendy. She’s Chinese. New Zealand-born. Wendy’s grandfather was a military strategist for Chang-Kai Chek. Wendy, this is my uncle Angus. My father’s adopted brother. They fished the Kaituna River up at Maketū together as boys. He’s a pretty good fisherman, but not as good as me.’ The Red Cardigan, Lee Murray 7 ‘Nice to meet you Wendy,’ Angus says, taking my coat and hanging it over the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. ‘Don’t you listen to this cheeky so-and-so, will you? No way, he fishes better than me.’ They’re still laughing when a woman, the same blocky build as Rawiri, rushes at him from the other end of the hall. ‘Vania!’ ‘Hey, you made it!’ She gives his nose a tweak with her fingers. He pushes her away, laughing. ‘Yeah, ‘course. So where’s our graduate?’ ‘My sister - the nurse - is in the kitchen stuffing her face. You’d think nurses would know something about cholesterol, wouldn’t you?’ ‘This is Wendy.’ ‘Hello Wendy. Where are you from?’ I don’t believe it! ‘Here.’ ‘Actually, Wendy’s from Taupō originally,’ Rawiri says. ‘Went to school there, didn’t you Wendy?’ I raise my eyebrows, say nothing. Rawiri goes on. ‘She went to Mount View. Near Tauhara.’ ‘Yeah?’ Vania says. ’You must know the Loughlins? They’re from up there.’ ‘No, sorry I don’t.’ Her face drops. Uncle Angus, still hovering near the door, says. ‘You’re from Taupō? What about the Otenes? Do you know them? Barney and Carole?’ I shake my head. ‘Sorry.’ There’s a shout from upstairs. The Red Cardigan, Lee Murray 8 ‘Hey, Aunty Vania! Darren’s locked himself in the toilet. He won’t come out and I’m bursting!’ Vania and Angus excuse themselves to sort out what’s going on upstairs. When they’re out of earshot, I turn to Rawiri. ‘Why do you always do that?’ I hiss. ‘Do what?’ ‘Introduce me like that. Like you have to make up an entire family tree for me. Hey, meet Wendy, she’s Chinese, but it’s okay because she was born here and guess what, she’s got some famous ancestors. It’s like you have to make a special exception for me.’ ‘Is that what you think?’ ‘No, that’s what you think.’ He drops his voice. ‘Don’t be like that, Wendy, please.’ His lifts his hand to touch my cheek, but I jerk away. ‘Like what? Chinese?’ ‘You’re over-reacting. It’s just our way. You’re my girlfriend, Wendy.’ I nod as if I get it, but I don’t. I feel out of place. Foreign. I slide my coat back off the newel post. Maybe I can slip away later. I’ll walk into town. Get a taxi back to my place. But Rawiri must sense I’m about to make a run for it, because he places his hand in the small of my back and guides me away from the front door, into the living room. The furniture is pushed back to the walls, and the room is heaving with people in various permutations of the chicken dance. We stand together at the edge of the chaos, Rawiri rubbing his thumb over mine, not letting me go. Suddenly, someone The Red Cardigan, Lee Murray 9 starts a chain. There’s a flurry of jostling and shouting. The little ones run to get on the end. Arms reach out, beckoning to anyone not already in line. ‘Come on, Rawiri! Bring your girlfriend! Join in.’ As the line moves past us, a smiling girl grabs me around the waist. My coat is hiffed into a corner. There’s no getting away now, as I’m pulled into the heart of that twisting twirling taniwha. At the front of the beast, like the Pied Piper, Rawiri wends his way through downstairs rooms, a stream of lively whanau following along behind. The next day, Sunday, Por Por phones me. ‘I hear you come to see me, but I not here,’ she says. ‘Yes.’ ‘I here now.’ So I drive out to Lower Hutt again. When I arrive, my aunt glowers at me. Probably miffed that I declined to answer yesterday’s groundbreaking survey. ‘Katy, do the washing, please,’ my grandmother says. Obedient, Katy Yee goes off to do it. She might be the world’s oldest, crankiest virgin, but she’s still a dutiful daughter. I sit on the floor at Por Por’s feet, while she takes up her knitting, already halfway through the back of what will eventually be a tiny red cardigan. She raises her arms slightly, holding up her handicraft for inspection. ‘Cardee-aa,’ she says, putting her Cantonese intonation onto the end of the word. ‘For friend baby,’ she says. She drops her arms again. ‘So what the matter you?’ ‘There’s nothing the matter. Not really.’ The Red Cardigan, Lee Murray 10 My grandmother purses her lips and continues her knitting, the clink of her needles marking time. After a while, we hear the back door open and the crackle of the wicker basket as Katy Yee steps out the back to hang out the washing. Por Por stops her knitting, the needle halfway into the foxhole, and waits for me to speak first. ‘It’s Rawiri,’ I say. ‘Ra-willie?’ she says. ‘The one I see from your work? Come hospital visit his mother?’ ‘Yeah, him.’ ‘Yep,’ Por Por says, her dark eyes twinkling. ‘That one, big trouble.’ She’s making a joke. Rawiri weighs about 130kg. He makes Ma’a Nonu look skinny. ‘It’s getting serious between us.’ You think she’d be like other grannies, drooling in delight, already planning the names she’ll give our future babies. But no, she sits quietly, holding the beginnings of a cardigan in her bony fingers. Then, tilting her head, she asks, ‘You scared after last one?’ She means my marriage to Craig. It didn’t work out. We were young and stupid and we argued a lot. Two years in, he started staying out late after work, which made us argue more. In the end, we split over cultural differences: his allowed cheating on your wife, and mine didn’t. I’m over it now, but it hurt at the time. ‘It’s not that.’ ‘Hmm,’ she says, tapping one of the needles against her teeth. ‘This Ra-Willie, he nice man?’ The Red Cardigan, Lee Murray 11 I nod. ‘Good job?’ ‘Uhuh.’ ‘Nice body aye?’ ‘Por Por!’ She gives a naughty giggle. ‘Okay. I serious now. What matter?’ ‘He’s Māori.’ ‘Aah,’ she breathes. She nods knowingly. ‘Same-same.’ I sigh in relief, feeling the tension in my shoulders dropping away. It’s not that I’m racist. I swear, it’s not like that. I work for the District Health Board. You can’t go two steps in any direction there without coming face-to-face with the Treaty of Waitangi plastered on the wall. I know all about cultural sensitivity. The thing is, if you have the smallest drop of Chinese in you, you’re Chinese. But Māori: sometimes they’re even more Māori than Chinese people are Chinese. I tell her about the party. ‘Hmm,’ my grandmother says. She slides her knitting into the basket beside me. Then she turns to me and places her hand on my head. ‘Let me tell you story, Wei-Ling,’ she says. I lean over and put my head in her lap, the way I always do when she has something special to tell me. The empty washing basket on her hip, Katy Yee passes in the doorway, but then my hair falls over my face and I can’t see her anymore. A moment later the television goes on down the hall. Por Por smoothes the wisps back behind my ear, waiting patiently while I wiggle myself comfortable before beginning her story. The Red Cardigan, Lee Murray 12 It’s a tale from just two weeks ago. In her staccato English, Por Por tells me about a Chinese bakery newly-opened in Lower Hutt, one selling loaves of soft sweet white bread, so light that it bounces back when you squeeze it between your fingers. The Good Luck Bakery, it’s called. Following the scent of almonds and a display of bean curd cakes wrapped in coloured paper, Por Por steps into the store. At the rear, behind the counter, a fat-cheeked baby plays in his high chair. Already he is the boss here, banging his cup against the platter. His mother is younger than I am: in her early thirties. Tired lines around her eyes suggest the cheeky baby is the boss at home, too. Drying her hands on her apron, she calls to her husband. ‘There’s a customer.’ Immediately recognising the rise and fall of her own mother’s tongue, my Por Por orders herself a fresh bean cake in that language. In Hakka. ‘Yuiet baeng, m’goiy.’ The woman’s eyes widen. ‘Come quickly!’ she cries. ‘Come!’ Her husband, his arms dusted in flour, comes running from the back of the bake-house. ‘What is it?’ he says. His wife points at my grandmother, who is munching on her bean cake. ‘She’s one of us.’ They close the store for an hour. Make tea. Tell stories. My grandmother bounces the baby on her knee, sharing cake crumbs with him. I sit up and brush my hair out of my face. The Red Cardigan, Lee Murray 13 ‘They closed the store just because you speak Hakka? But heaps of people speak Hakka.’ ‘Not so many here.’ We’re quiet for a bit, both reminded of the time after the war, when Por Por took Katy Yee and returned to China, where they scoured the Wai-Yeung province looking for her family. My mother says they were gone for a year, searching. Eight brothers and two sisters, all gone. No cousins. No aunties. They found no one. I imagine the pair of them going from place to place, knocking at doors, politely asking people where they came from, asking about grandfathers and uncles and brothers, about wives and cousins and school friends, looking for any small connection, desperate for a clue to the whereabouts of her family. Por Por leans over and pretends to be busy rummaging around in her knitting bag. I take her hand in mine, suddenly surprised by its papery texture and the spidery veins I find there. ‘So you agree with Rawiri then? That I’m over-reacting?’ Por Por shakes her head. ‘Why you always look for reason, Wei-Ling? It just a story,’ my grandmother says. She smiles. ‘You make some tea?’ Then, taking up her knitting needles again, she winds the lucky red wool around her index finger. I watch for a moment as she carries the strand over the needle, making a new stitch, one loop woven into the next. The familiar chatter of her needles follows me through into the kitchen. (ENDS 3066)

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