It’s not steep but it’s still uphill. There’s a gentle sloping footpath leading through the memorial garden, up to the central cenotaph. Park the wheelchair. Get up. One step at a time. A wobble, hold it, a few more steps, lean on the stick, pause. Stare up at the marble spire, polished and reflective, permanent and sorrowful. Glance down, it’s blurry, look up again, it clears. Left hand outstretched to the raised base, lower until the hand finds the sun-warmed stone, gently sit. Rest. Rummage in the left coat pocket, bring out the flask, just a splash, lid on, back in the pocket. Ponder.
‘Uncle Joe! Uncle Joe!’
A jolt. Look over to the right. He’s moving, he’s fast, standing upright, looking here, wind in his springy black hair. He’s on a scooter. It’s downhill, George Street is. Check the flask is secure in the left pocket, feel the safety of the stick. Wait.
He glides to the end of the street on the footpath, takes the hard left turn into Queen Street, passes the empty wheelchair and enters the small memorial grounds. Moving up the footpath, he kicks twice, enough to carry him to where he stops with a skid.
‘Sup.’ Voice of a new teenager.
‘You’re pissed again.’ A mix of snigger and sneer on the handsome bronze face. A wisp of facial hair, medal to his recent arrival at manhood.
‘Fallen asleep in anybody else’s garden? Pissed on the street again? Nanna says you should take a bath, nah — the whole town says that.’
His words find a nerve. Blink. The boy grins, full lips, perfect white teeth.
‘You know we got lunch today, why you always wandering off, making Nanna angry? You’re the pain in the arse great-uncle that I’m always lookin’ for, always wheeling around town, just a lost old fart hanging round waiting to die. You make everyone cringe.’
Somewhere deep down, that hurts.
The boy’s expression is blank.
The smile is gone. He sees no point.
‘I’m going back, I’ll tell Nanna you aren’t coming.’
Watch him turn, a kick and he’s leaving, tall and upright, at attention. Down the path and he’s off. More kicks as he easily takes the George Street gradient. His face is set, his face is familiar, his face … it’s now, have to say something now, it has to be said. Stand. It’s quick, the back, the knees, hips, everything feels the urgency, the stick is helping, the wobble has gone. A determined breath.
‘Mohi Maxwell, come here.’
He stops. Quickly. The voice, deep, powerful, in control. Mohi’s expression is one of uncertainty. He turns, rolling down the hill, round and back into the memorial. Off the scooter, he lays it down beside the wheelchair and walks the few paces and stands. In a hushed voice:
‘Help me sit down son. I will tell you a story.’
He nods apprehensively. Stare towards the footpath.
‘Your great grandfather and I were very good friends. He was one of the last full blood Maoris I knew, dark skin, handsome, cheeky. I had a Jewish father so wasn’t liked that much by the other white kids. We grew up very close to here. We left school soon after the war started—’
‘World war two.’
‘Were you in it?’
‘I was fourteen when it started. We cut flax, it was sent overseas to make webbing.’
‘Canvas belts and straps that hold equipment on a soldier’s back. We did that for a year or two. Then, just like everybody else, we joined the Army. We had to be 18 but got in at 17. We did our training and were lucky enough to get sent to the same unit. For months we worked up—’
‘Worked up, did you go to the gym?’
‘No, serious soldier training, after basic training. Our unit was the 34th Battalion of the 3rd New Zealand division. In the spring of ‘42, we were sent to Tonga as Garrison—’
‘It’s like guarding, or defending a place.’
‘The Japs had taken Singapore, the Yanks and Aussies had slowed ‘em in the Coral sea and they gave the Jap Navy a thrashing at Midway. It was at Guadalcanal that they were stopped. Us and the Yanks started hitting back in the stinking jungle on that and surrounding islands.
‘But not Mohi and I—’
‘He was Mohi?’
‘You’re named after him.’
Let it sink in. Keep moving.
‘We were sent to Tonga. We all dug trenches, stood guard and went on patrols, manned our Vickers guns and filled sandbags. Of course we met the locals. Mohi did. He met a girl named Makea. Our billet was outside her village. We all got on well, your great grandfather got on just a bit too well. We were there five months before being sent into action in the Treasury Islands.’
‘We were helping another unit flush out some left over Japs on Mono Island when your great grandad was killed by a landmine.’
Don’t look down, vision is blurring.
‘We came back after that and were disbanded to help the home labour shortage. Many of us went to Italy with the 2nd and shot up the krauts, I was one of them. A little payback for Mohi and my father.’
‘I didn’t get home until ‘46, married my wife then went back up to Tonga. There we found Mohi’s girlfriend, Makea, had died but not before having Mohi’s daughter. My wife and I took her in, naming her after her mother and raised her here in Waiuku. Help me up son.’
‘Help me round to the right, look at the side of the cenotaph.’
‘It’s a memorial to people buried overseas.’
Stare at the eastern side, marble, gray. Names, lots of names, names in stone.
Point the stick at just one.
‘Read this out loud.’
‘Private Mohi Honetana, my best friend. Your Nanna is Makea Maxwell, her mother was Makea Ariki, Mohi’s girlfriend in Tonga. You are named in honour of my friend and carry my family name but you have another name too.’
‘Mohi Maxwell Ariki Honetana.’
Look at him. The blur, the tear. His voice is laboured.
‘Just one name has lots of stories.’
‘They all have stories son. We remember them, every ANZAC day. That’s just a few weeks away. I wonder if you could push my wheelchair up here then, you can wear your family medals.’
‘Yes, your family. Your medals.’
‘Will you be pissed?’
‘I’ll bring Nanna.’
‘Then I’ll leave the flask at home.’
This is a chapter from Unknown Places, a collection of short stories about Auckland by undergraduate creative writing students at Manukau Institute of Technology published here this week. The published stories are: