Simba is my husband. We’ve seen too much of each other since we lost our baby and I had to quit my job. I met him at Mo Heke’s birthday party. Someone said, “Who’s the sissy nigger?” So I went up to him, asked him who he was and where he was from. “I am Simba Newhouse,” he said. I waited and said, “O.K. What’s a Simba?”
“It’s the word for lion,” he said. “The only African word my mother knew.”
I looked at him. “Your father African?” I said.
“No, I’m American. My mother is Poppy Wharekura.” He told me how his mother and father met during the war, how his father was gone before he was born. Later, his mother married a Pakeha butcher, bossed him around till he got fed up and died. “Anyway,” he said. “I have these three white sisters who get a big kick out of introducing me as the black sheep of the family.” Then he laughed, which made me think of hot tea in my throat.
He took my hand and we went outside to drink our shandies under the old quince tree. The Hekes were fancy. They had a fountain and a fish pond, brooded over by the grandfather quince. Since it was Mo’s twenty-first birthday, they hired a photographer to go around blinding people for the family album. Simba and I dangled our feet in the water and talked about cabbage. Simba wallows in cabbage: corned beef and cabbage, sausages and cabbage, fish heads and cabbage. There was even a dish that his mother made for him of cheese and cabbage. I laughed and Simba kissed me. He spilled his drink down my back and we fell in the pond. The photographer caught our exit from the water. That shot still gets laughs in the Heke household when they’re showing the family album. The Hekes agree with those that don’t laugh, that you had to be there. Simba held my hand and walked me home and I decided he wasn’t a sissy, because his mouth tasted of beer and cheese.
We’ve been together ever since. First it was the movies, then moonlight swims, boat rides, picnics and walks that took too long to please my mother, so I brought him home. Mother said no. A Maori was hard enough, a black Maori was impossible. But, since he was here, she showed him her garden. Besides, he already called her mother, instead of Audrey. He knew the name of every flower except the bougainvillaea, which made her sad. She gave him a cutting to take home to Poppy. Poppy’s a gardener too. Mother can be sentimental sometimes.
Simba asked Daddy if we could get married. Daddy said yes. Daddy always says yes. Mother said yes because Simba likes her garden. She and Poppy had a fight about who was going to do the wedding flowers. They yelled at each other for a week, enjoying the sound of their voices, Mother’s soprano loud, and Poppy’s bass through clenched teeth. They didn’t argue points, they were trying for endurance. Mother said she won because she had the best garden, but it was because her voice outlasted Poppy’s. The fact that she was the mother of the bride helped. Anyway, Poppy hadn’t been at her place long enough to have a garden. She enjoyed the fight. She and Mother get along like some species of ant or rat.
Of all the flowers in Mother’s garden, she made me carry Christmas lilies down the aisle. They were heavy, and they shed pollen on my dress. I felt like a fool. My students, who were at the wedding, laughed at me.
Simba had to have instructions since he wasn’t a Catholic, and Poppy went with him to make sure Father Ryan didn’t teach devil worship. She made a big deal of her being a Baptist, not approving of all those statues and crucifixes. She was delighted, Simba said, because it was another opportunity for a fight, but Father Ryan didn’t know it. Every time she shot a question at him he came unglued. He should have been a Jesuit. Poppy can be scary.
Actually, Poppy enjoys the old priest. She has him to dinner most Sundays and gives him a bad time about celibacy, the sacrament, indulgences, the fallibility of the Pope. He comes to try to allay an antagonism only he fears. She studies for two days a week at the library in order to give herself ammunition. She enjoys seeing the man squirm. But Poppy’s OK. She knows how to handle Simba.
After the wedding Mother insisted we live with her and Daddy. I think it was more to get Simba than to keep me. Simba was hard to figure out. He slaughtered and butchered a cow for us, but when the wind damaged the azaleas, he almost cried. Daddy said he couldn’t understand someone who was murder on the football field, yet whined when he was asked to nail up a board.
Simba played wing for Te Puna. His wild look affected the speed of his legs. He had the reputation of being unstoppable, because no one tried to grab him or run him down. He couldn’t stand a clean uniform and would dump any clean player into the nearest puddle. Mother called it making Simba pudding. She would sit in the stands and scream for Simba. Daddy and I usually moved away from her when she got too loud.
Simba and Daddy went to the pub together after each game. Simba bought beers for the team when he got a glow on and sang love songs with Teddy, the Te Puna quarterback. Daddy would bring Simba home on the bus and let him lean on his shoulder as they came up the hill. On Sundays, after church and dinner, they would go for long walks together, to get away from the women, Daddy said.
Simba is a lineman for the post and telegraph, so he spends his day up a telephone pole. I teach school. Walking to school one morning, just after we were married, I heard a voice above me. “Oh teacher, sway your hips. You sway so nice.” I looked up at Simba, his hard hat askew, his safety belt slicing across his middle, and a mouth stuffed with big white teeth. A half dozen faces turned up with mine.
“Who’s that, teacher?”
“He’s my husband.”
“You married to him?”
“He’s a lineman, Dummy,” Benji said.
“Hey,” said Simba. “My wife don’t teach no dummies.”
“He’s not in her class,” said Benji.
I got pregnant and Simba took it hard. He took to holding my hand, playing with my fingers, pushing the nails up with his thumb. “Nick,” he’d say. “We made a baby.” One time he said to me, “You know how to be a mother?”
“I thought it came naturally,” I said.
“No,” he said.
I started throwing up, not just in the morning, but all day and into the night. Mother would laugh at him, wringing his beautiful black hands while I knelt to the toilet. Sometimes he’d pat my back and say, “Oh, what have we done?” I’d try to laugh.
Then he quit our bed. I’d go, and he’d wait till I was asleep. Heaven was to wake up with his arm across me. Then he stopped making any contact at all. He stayed close, his hand hovered, but it never touched. Mostly I would wake up and see him
looking at me, crying. His eyes were red in my sleep. I asked Mother to talk to him. “Listen,” she said. “Women have been having babies for thousands of years.” She told him how having children was natural, no big deal. She told him I was going to do just fine. She had had four kids. “Easy as falling off a log,” she said. “Stop worrying.”
Simba didn’t buy it. He became a beer slob, spending silly time at the pub, making loud speeches about death and desire, crying in everyone’s beer. The barmaid would call Poppy; she’d go and bring him home. She’d try putting him to bed in our room, but even drunk, he angled off toward the spare room. He still sleeps there.
When I started to spot, the doctor put me to bed. Simba wanted to take time off work, but Poppy wouldn’t let him. “Audrey and I will take care of her during the day. You can fuss over her at night,” she said. He came to watch me every morning at five, bringing me breakfast so I could eat with him. I’ve never been an early eater, but I would try. At lunch he would come home to check on me. Poppy got tired of that. She threatened to lock him in our tool shed until I had the baby, so he stopped. But he insisted on cooking dinner, every night after work. During his lunch and breaks he studied recipes and bought ingredients on the way home. He got quite a feel for cookery once he learned to tell tsp. from Tbs. Mother made him a big apron with frills. Poppy hated it.
I taught him to knit, as an excuse to get close to him, but he learned too easily. It took him a couple of hours to learn to do plain, a couple more to learn to do purl, and no time to put them together. I told him that he should knit a baby blanket but he decided on a scarf and we talked about everything but the baby.
Poppy and Mother pampered me during the day, then at night went to bingo at the school, or Five Hundred at Dordie’s. Often they would come home fighting because, being partners at Five Hundred, Poppy had counted wrong or Mother had given the wrong signal. They both hated losing almost as much as they enjoyed fighting.
One night, I asked Simba to give me a kiss goodnight. He kept his hands busy, folding his cuffs up his arms.
“You might get some disease and give it to the baby,” he said.
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“No,” he said.
“Then come lay by me on the bed,” I said. “I might hurt something. But I’ll sleep on the floor by the bed,” he said.
I asked for another piece of watermelon and he watched while I ate. He liked to watch me eat. I coughed up a seed. I coughed more. I couldn’t stop. Simba looked scared and I began to bleed. “We’ve got to get to a hospital,” I said. He cried as he moved. He threw the mattress on the back of the truck and carried me out to it with a towel between my legs. At the hospital he carried me in. He was not looking at me. My blood ran down his arm onto his clothes. I remember thinking, “He’s holding me.”
Days later, Father Ryan held my hand and told me all about my baby, how only twenty weeks and perfect, she was no bigger than a baby bottle, but alive, for a while. He said he baptized her Daisy. They had buried her in my grandmother’s grave. Father Ryan cried.
I am here popping fuchsia buds. It feels good, like thumbing someone’s eye.
Mother sees what I’m doing and says, “Don’t do that. They’ll bloom funny.”
“Can I help with the potatoes?” I say.
“No,” she says. Mother goes to where Simba is chopping up lamb with a meat cleaver.
Mother puts down the wire basket of potatoes and says, “Go tell her to stop popping my fuchsia pods.” I hear her and pull weeds instead.
“What’s this about fuchsia buds? Sounds pretty silly.” He stoops and picks a cineraria, twirls it and plucks the petals. “She loves me, she loves me not,” he says. I want to grab his hands.
“What about the buds?” he says.
“I like the sound,” I say.
“I’d rather have snapdragons,” he says. “You told me ixias were your flower,” I say.
“I changed my mind,” he says, and then smiles.
The tents are up, and the wood is chopped for the hangi. Poppy and Mother have gone from stuffing chickens to cutting pumpkin and fixing the tree. Tomorrow marks the start of our week-long Christmas bash. Everyone will be here, even Father Ryan. Daddy is enjoying his last quiet cup of tea before the crowd comes. He is sitting alone, in one of the tents, watching me. He sits by a smoky blue gladiola in a white vase. Every time Simba goes by, he winks, but Daddy doesn’t notice.