Speaker by Various Artists


The Spirit Level

by Che Tibby

So it's 1982 and I'm standing on the porch watching Mum move a sack of spuds out of the shed and towards the car. I can see it like it's yesterday, her with her shoulders slanted, a fag hanging out her mouth, high elbow pointed upwards as she grunts and hauls the rough fabric.


"Taking these round to Trish and Tony."

"Can I come?"

"Get in."

I've grown accustomed to not talking much in the car, so we sit silently while she drives out and up to Papamoa Beach Road and along the long empty stretch of lupins and grasses out to their place. There's old pines and that half-round hay shed that's been there forever. There's graying fences and the occasional car parked up at the roadside, occupants over the at the nudey beach.

She flicks ash out the window.

When we stop the scene's reversed, with her popping fag between lips again and hauling the spuds out of the boot. She carries them across the driveway and into the house, not pausing to knock, and heads up the stairs. I follow diligently, my head popping up past the guard rail just as she's putting the spuds down in the kitchen. The first thing I see is Tony sitting there at the table.

His shoulders are square and he's sitting bolt upright, his narrow face weather-beaten and slightly strained. His forearms are resting on the table and his hands are fists. His hair has been combed to one side with his fingers. Tears roll down his cheeks.

"Ya didn't have to." He murmurs.

I look across as Trish speaks. "Liz, you can't afford those either. Take them home, we'll be alright."

She looks at me and says, "We're leaving before they make us take them."

And just like that, we walk out, and climb into the car.

So why you say? Well, "82 was the time when the government took away all the fishing rights and Tony has a boat parked up at the wharves in Tauranga that can't work. It's been months and they have three kids to feed. A mortgage to pay. And they have nothing.

But us? We have a Widow's Benefit keeping us going. The money is barely enough to keep us in clothes and shoes, but Liz takes the food out of our mouths and takes it over to their place, leaving them enough to see them through.

And we don't talk about it on the way home. I just sit and look out the window and wonder about a better time. A time when I'll understand what just happened. A time when a gift of charity like that will be more than a moral lesson for me, and more like a something I'll need do myself. A time when I'm a man who'll have an inkling of what it must be like to not have any way to feed your kids. A time when I'll remember that what I saw was the real New Zealanders, the ones who give a fuck about the pōhara because, they are the pōhara.

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