Short Story: ‘Islanders’ by Michael Botur

Islanders

by Michael Botur

Sefo Teina closed the dating website and the Facebook and opened up the design suite so it looked like was working, and crammed all the documents and shit into his bag, so it looked right. He wasn’t looking forward to the stupid workshop his stupid boss was making him deliver. He didn’t check what he’d packed, but he looked organised. Mostly his bag was crowded with scrubs, exfoliants, nose hair pluckers. His boss Lee had organised the projector. Sefo told everybody who would listen that the workshop he had been told to deliver was No Sweat. Lee brought a cup of green tea through to Sefo’s office, where Sefo was rubbing his biceps through his silk shirt. She saw where his wages went. She said to him, ‘Now, we sharing a condo, you and me. It’s real important that we look good, so don’t take too many girls out tonight, get lots of sleep. We a outstanding branch, ne?’

‘If you say so.’

‘And your workshop’s gonna proud us proud eh boy?’

‘Dunno.’ It seemed to Sefo that the only good thing about putting themselves on an island would be the Welcome Home sex he’d get when he reconnected with the mainland. He would have to hook something up. He expected to fuck all the island pussy within a day.

Lee pulled her head back and gave him her huge, white Tuhoe eyes. The hollows around her eyes were the colour of dark fudge. Her boobs were pinned down under a Mean Maori Mean t-shirt, thick Thai cotton. Everything about her was large and embracing, thick blubbery arms and legs and a torso which radiated warmth. She was shorter than Sefo. The curls had been burned out of her hair with hot tongs. Her nails were long and blood-red.

‘Make us proud, Sef. This conference, it’s about Tuakana, Pacific and Maori together.’

‘I should take off my shirt eh? Show em my tats?’

She had booked this thing for him, made the decisions, spoken for him. They were going to talk about the rape of the land, the rape of their people, bondage, how the Tangata Whenua had been fucked, all that. Sefo reckoned he’d catch some sleep while they did their old people stuff. He put his discomfort to the back of his mind. Sefo raised his chin, staring at her chest, sizing her up as if she was facing him from the opposite side of the league pitch. It made him nervous, when folks faced him, which was why Lee was such an awesome boss. She never said no to him.

She didn’t tell him to keep his tats to himself.

On the ferry, Sefo pulled ammunition from the rubbish bins and threw it at seagulls which came too close. He asked Lee for the Te Reo names of every bird and every island that he saw, and forgot them instantly. Lee told him what she knew, and transliterated the rest. Sefo bragged about the sea legs that ran in his people’s genes. Islands were exiles; Islands, to Sefo, had been cut off from the mainland and flung far out to sea.

Lee said, ‘How the language lessons going, you picking much up?’ She was wrapped up in a Kathmandu puffer coat and sipping on a hot chocolate with marshmallow. Everything about Lee was sweet and warm and bad for you. She had stared down parking wardens and gang prospects and she let nobody criticise her crew. They delivered learning programmes to educational institutions and tried not to get their hands dirty when their people fucked things up.

When Sefo thought nobody was checking him out, he rubbed the shivering flesh of his arms. His board shorts showed the geometry of his calves and his quads but his flesh was naked and exposed, uncovered and cold.

He kicked at the seagulls, which quarked like they were questioning him.

The island had one resort clearly superior to the others. They could see it lain across the hilltop as their ferry approached. Lee had carved a generous slice from their budget to afford it over the weekend. The government had pulled a lot of funding from their sector, but their heads wouldn’t be cowed.

The resort was draped like a luxury blanket and caught all the best sun. Its view looked away from the hard angles of the metropolis, out towards a glowing horizon. Even the diesel tankers sparkled like fairies far out on the water. Their hefty cargo was only full of good things.

Lee came up beside Sefo, who was trying to see his reflection in the stiller waters to the sides of the ferry, and said, ‘You looking at the ship, e hoa? Probly full of lamb flaps for your aiga, man.’ She chuckled. Sefo, a product of protein powder and salad lunches, tried not to think about his uncles tearing the shitty meat with their teeth, licking their fingers, hiss-smack-slurp. They didn’t even use a knife and fork, bro.

She let Sefo lead the way as they disembarked. Her legs weren’t as steady as his. She put a frail hand on his side, which he guided low. She huffed their bags into the taxi’s abdomen and Sefo became irritable, half pissed off that he wasn’t showing off by lifting things, half pissed off that he was stuck on an island for some gay-arse conference with a bunch of hold hags, ladies so un-hot that Lee was the hottest of them, and that wasn’t saying much. Warm and nice was not the same thing as hot.

‘I should’ve carried your bags,’ he grumbled.

Lee chuckled about that. ‘I know you’re strong, boy. You don’t need to prove nothing.’

At the counter, checking in, Sefo made a joke about how they were husband and wife, and hoped the receptionist would tell him that he was much too young and good looking and buff to be with someone like her, but the receptionist didn’t say that. Sefo made a mental note to fuck the arse out of her pants later.

Lee let Sefo navigate down the hill into their condo, again clinging to the hip of her tuakana. A porter hovered like a bee, but Lee considered it denigrating to pay somebody to service her, especially foreign-looking help. She asked the porter what his name was, repeated it slowly, checked the pronunciation. The man was from Vietnam. She said, ‘That’s part of the Pacific, ke te pai, nau mai haere mai.’ Sefo repeated what he heard. He knew that her language skills were only two steps ahead of his; he believed that any time she spoke her people’s language, it was just to make him feel bad. All Sefo spoke was English. Lee was white underneath, he suspected. That fuckin straightened hair.

Sefo took the room with the body-length mirror. If Lee needed a mirror, she would have to spend some time in his room. He felt himself getting hard.

In the Welcome Room, sniffing through a crowd of Islanders smaller than him, mostly women, he located the organisation’s Tumuaki. She wasn’t attractive to Sefo, her posture was too stiff, inflexible – she didn’t look like she could be bent. He made small talk to impress her. She called him by his full name, Iosefo, said to him, ‘Got your head in the clouds today, boy.’

Sefo said, ‘True, we a tall people, I feel ya.’

‘I ain’t saying you’re tall, Iosefo. I’m saying, you should come down to earth huh? Sit on the floor with your people. Then see who’s tall.’

Sefo was looking to see if he had any male competition at the hui, and wasn’t listening to Te Tumuaki. He excused himself, ‘Gotta get my work on.’

‘Yeah, you working, little brother,’ Te Tumuaki said to his disappearing back, ‘Just maybe you not working for us.’

Under the conference table, beneath the cloud of quarrels, he texted his mates, 2 much brown talk lol. A beef had broken out about the right nomenclature for their organisation’s third-in-charge. Sefo agreed with what Te Tumuaki said, but it bothered him that no one would challenge her. He thought of volleyball games he’d played at the Community Centre, the women he’d made run after his serves. The women had struggled, and Sefo had been strong. He’d made them pant, beaten them back. After each game, he would avoid the women, because they would get him with words. Women were fucked-up like that, how they didn’t do man stuff, it didn’t make sense to Sefo. They were on a different island to him.

One of Lee’s ears was spare and he leaned into it and asked her if there were any sports at this conference, volleyball or touch or anything? He pumped his fists and made the muscles in his forearms bulge. The air conditioning was chilly, but his sleeves were up.

Lee put her hand on Sefo’s thigh, which was surprisingly hot, and dropped his cellphone on the carpet. Her lips brushing against Sefo’s ear, she said ‘You can get out of here if you want, dear. Let the grown ups talk. Come back for the fono component if you like, ne? Pasifika korero, talkin bout the Tuakana? Maori and Pacific brotherhood. That’s two o’clock, brown time. So three o’clock!’

Her laugh turned her eyes to feathers.

Sefo went back to the condo, passing the Vietnamese porter and winking at him. He’d only spotted one other man at this conference, and Islander like himself.

Inside the condo, he straightened his business shirt in the body-length mirror, sucked in his stomach, clenched his jaw so that it looked tougher. He took the three tubs of hair gel out of his bag and took scooped gel with his fingers and spent minutes smearing his curls flat and straight. His head reflected like plastic. He folded up a stack of his conference handouts and stood on them so he looked taller in the mirror. The pages tore; who cared, he could always print more. He showered, enjoying himself with his hands. He used three towels to dab himself – who gave a shit, the Asian porter would clear those up – and stood in front of the mirror until he was completely dry, looking at his body from different angles. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and looked into the mirror, trying to gauge how Lee saw him. He wished his bros were here.

His tats were a great cloak, and accentuated his surfaces. He’d got them cheap from a tattooist in a King Cobras t-shirt because the traditional way would take too long and it looked a bit painful. Around his neck hung a bone carving gifted by Te Tumuaki at their last Hui Heke. It bothered him, itched like a noose – he only wore it for Lee, and she hadn’t even noticed it since it was gifted him. He undid some extra buttons on his shirt. He could see his chest, and it made him proud.

He tossed the taonga behind his shoulders so that he couldn’t see it. He stood up, matched the pose of Michelangelo’s David and held it, fetched his cellphone and took a pxt of himself in the mirror. He sent the pxt to his lady friends, his sisters – well, not his sisters. Sefo would never fuck his sister.

He went outside and looked around for something to do instead of spinning his company’s achievements to the old bitches. There was an air conditioning vent where he could hear agitated voices bickering. They sounded like his nana and aunties. After every declaration he heard the Mmm, mmm, of nodding heads. The noise from the vent made him picture them sitting on the carpet like fat babies. That thing Te Tumuaki had said about him coming down to their level was itching him.

*

Lunch was good to him. Everything looked like it had taken a long time to prepare, nothing fried. Actually, it surprised him how much of an effort they’d put in. Sefo had never cooked anything for anyone. He was surprised to enjoy exotic alloys of food, baked tofu with watercress vinaigrette, coconut pork, strange comings-together.

He asked the old ladies what he’d missed that morning, ha-ha, he’d had crook guts, he said. They couldn’t bring themselves to blame him. They needed his support.

Lee was talking shop with her counterparts from regional branches, out on the smokers’ porch, Northlanders in gumboots, Kai Tahu in flash dress shoes, a whanau from Horowhenua wearing tracksuits. Sefo was eyeing up the other bloke, who wore a Waikato Chiefs jersey. Definitely an Islander.

Lee rescued Sefo from the conversational island he was one, settled them into a chair. She crouched at his level. ‘Darling, I’m not sure I’ll need you back with us this arvo. Voting in a new board after the fono. I can speak for you. That’s up to you though, I’m not trying to fob you off.’

Sefo said, ‘Course you need me back.’ He put his hand on her thigh and gave her a horse bite. Lee looked into Sefo’s eyes, rumpling her eyebrow in curiousity. She placed his hand back in his lap.

‘Ee, save your hands til you get a wife,’ she said, and dragged up a belly-laugh, covered her mouth and wiped it with a bunch of napkins. ‘Now, your workshop ready?’

‘Course it is.’ He realised had no clean handouts left – they’d all been torn when he had stood on them in front of the mirror. They would be all wet from the towels now…

Sweating, he typed up fresh handouts and made the receptionist print them while the fono was held. He understood that Lee would be in there speaking for their people, their organisation. Rape Of The Land or some shit like that, nothing new.

The workshop was no big deal at first, but Te Tumuaki slipped in the back just as he was beginning. She sat with her arms folded and pushed her chins down, concentrating deeply. What was her problem? Why’d she hafta come and listen so hard? Everything Sefo said was coloured by her presence, he felt her eyes worming into him. He plugged the wrong cords into the projector. He couldn’t pay attention to all the eager faces sitting on their bums, the over-forties who’d rediscovered a lust for learning in their own way. Te Tumuaki stuck her hand up with questions about Sefo’s strategy to attract learners from Maori and Pasifika communities. She asked just how likely it was that people from Tokelau would be able to take Sefo’s online assessments, which Sefo was trying to display using wireless internet. She asked him why composing mihimihi wasn’t an objective.

Sefo said, ‘What’s that?’

‘What’s mihimihi?! You telling me you don’t know what mihimihi is?’

Sefo scratched the back of his head. He flexed the pecs in his chest to try and regain his audience.

The Chiefs supporter intervened and said, ‘What I think Sefo and his people are trying to say is… ‘

Sefo looked for his people, but couldn’t see Lee, so he let the stranger speak for him. The chatter, the babble of the audience was like the sound of waves, lapping the island he found himself on.

Later Sefo was called upon to give his branch’s response to New Initiatives for Maori – NIMs – because Lee was outside conferring on her mobile.

‘I’ll have to speak for Lee, he said.’ Sefo cleared this throat and stood up, getting the first part right. He lurched forwards on that confidence. He said, ‘Kay, we feel, the first thing to instil Tino, ah, Rangitahi in our people is – fuck, install? Ah– ‘

And old woman with a wattle and a moko slapped the ground and objected. Te Tumuaki had to shush the crowd. Suddenly they weren’t a collective, they were a collection. She held her hands out and pushed downwards and everybody shut up. She said, ‘What I believe Sefo and his people meant to say was… ‘

‘Sit down!’ the old woman began screeching, ‘Who told you to stand, boy?’

Sefo stood in front of the urinal for so long that he felt useless. Nothing would come out of his cock. He supposed he should have prepared, drunk a lot of fluids. He didn’t want to leave the Gents. The Chief came up and stood beside him, urinating easily and thickly. Sefo said, ‘Dude, this Maori stuff’s doing my head in.’

The man said in a particular, geometrical accent, ‘I think you need to hask yousef why you here. Jus’ speak for yousef’.’ It sounded like Speak for Iosef. The Chief drilled Sefo with his brown eyes, zipping his fly up as he did so, unconcerned about exposing himself. He washed his hands aggressively, flicking droplets onto the linoleum, and went back to the hall full of aliens.

Dinner was a hangi done in an oven. There were complaints, and praise, and a lot of talk about food. Sefo sat outside in the cooling air, waiting for people to come to him. He found his steak chewy, realised he was munching on a wad of gristle, pulled it out of his mouth with his fingers and threw it onto a roof below the resort. He didn’t think it mattered much – whoever was down there was beneath him, and he was above them.

Two gaggles of smokers from the literacy network merged into one, and sat down around him, but they did not incorporate Sefo. A woman with proper tatau walked outside and started rubbing her arms. Sefo said, ‘Heyyy, talofa lava!’ and asked for a cigarette. She told him that smoking was obscene to her people, and went back inside, making sure that the door was fully shut behind her.

Sefo texted his mates, told them it sucked being on the island. No one was fucking here.

Sefo was watching sport with the volume off when Lee sidled in, apologising, tip-toeing with such exaggeration that it proved she was drunk. Sefo was slurping a Sapporo beer from the minibar. It had taken him forever to decide between the Sapporo and the Steinlager. Lee settled her round bum into a couch opposite Sefo. He turned the label of the can towards her so that she would be impressed by his fine choice of beer. She tried to look him dead in the eye, to catch up, to have a proper korero, but her eyes were imbalanced. She laughed and lay back. She was wasted.

Sefo ran his fingers through his sticky flattened curls, and stared at Lee’s straightened hair. It was so much hotter than an afro.

‘People been saying things,’ she said, and stopped. Her sentence was a peninsula.

Sefo put the volume on, went over to Lee’s couch on confident poupou legs. She started talking about dessert, and verbal contracts she’d made at the wine bar, and slurred her words, mixed her metaphors. She told Sefo how much confidence she had in their Tumuaki, the Maori quorum on their board, the Te Reo translation of their Best Practice protocol. She said softly, ‘Ae, and you’re doing a great job for our people, Sefo. You an honorary Maori! There was some impressed niggers at your workshop, man.’

Sefo put his arms around her, said ‘Comfy?’ He sniffed the back of her neck.

Lee said, ‘Darling, I’m a grandmother you know.’ Sefo didn’t think she was lying, but he thought she was skipping ahead of his schedule. ‘Stop flexing, e hoa,’ she said, ‘We all know you think you’re a big man.’ Then, regarding nothing in particular, she said, ‘We don’t need to prove anything. Too much justification, hey.’ She urged the remote control over to him and leaned her head back. ‘Chuck it on a brown channel.’

Sefo found Maori TV. The presenter was dressed immaculately and wore a taonga bigger than the TV remote. The show was about Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Sefo said, ‘That’s the treaty.’

Lee said, eyelids closing over her softened eyes, ‘Te Tiriti. You’re on the other side, Sef. You and me, we’re a, we’re a living embodiment of the prissiples. We come together, eh. You’re the Tauiwi, I’m the– ‘

Sefo didn’t want to hear himself called Tauiwi, so he pulled her into him. He heard the voice of Te Tumuaki as he buried himself in her. He held her shoulders down with his strong arms and rolled over on top of her. She could tell all the other bitches how strong he was. He brushed Lee’s hair behind her ear, wrapped his neck around hers, closed his eyes and sucked on her neck. She struggled, but Sefo was strong. She had told him he was strong. He was so strong that he snapped her belt and ripped her knickers and broke into her.

What smelled like perfume? The perfume smelled good… chicks… women. He had a chick in his room! He searched his sleep, trying to remember who.

She was spraying perfume onto her neck. The smell said Trouble, Misdemeanour. The smell spoke of primary school principals and high school deans, telling him where to direct his strength. The smell spoke of barristers representing his older brothers before they got sent up. Family group conferences, Immigration lawyers, all that shit.

He was naked. He must’ve fucked someone – shot bro!

The sun was spearing through his curtain, invasive, like fingers prying open a lady’s –

She sprayed the bottle four times on each side of her neck, and then again. She was wearing a jacket with shoulderpads, and the hair straightener light was on. She saw him in the mirror, but didn’t make eye contact. When she brushed her hair, he noticed she had fingernails broken.

Sefo knew from her body language who was in his room. She was using his mirror.

‘It’s a choice mirror, that one.’

‘Mirror? Huh. It’s you who needs to take a look in the mirror, Sefo Teina.’

‘Wake me up for lunch, Lee.’

‘Hurry your arse up,’ she said, ‘Whakamutunga, that’s Debriefing to you, then we catching the ferry back. Deporting your arse off the island, Sefo Teina.’

Sefo cupped his hands over his crotch and limped to the bathroom, hoping she was watching him.

He vomited in the toilet and scolled water from the tap, but he couldn’t remember having gotten drunk last night. No, Lee had been way drunker than him. He wasn’t taking no blame, he hadn’t done nothing wrong, man.

Sefo recalled holding the big woman down. Everything she had said had seemed ironical to him, she’d said stuff to lead him on. Fuckin Lee, playing hard to get…

I’m married, boy –
– You my brother, stop it, stop it, get off me!

You part of us, our people don’t, don’t DON’T, STOP! Get OUT! Get OUT!

Lee had never said No to him before. He only came inside her because she’d crooned at him not to, begged him, scratched and cried. He kept hearing the squelch, the squish, the twist, the roll of her hips to the side. She had groaned like he had broken her bones; yeah, he was a heavy boy, all of it muscle.

He remembered how disgusting she’d seemed after he was done with her. She was suddenly not pliable, suddenly stiff. It wasn’t muscles, but something about her seemed disgustingly strong.

The shower scalded him. He had no idea which suit to wear, and paced the room. He doused himself in cologne. He flattened his curls, covered his tatau with a business shirt, cuffs and cufflinks which made him feel a little better. His dick ached. Its tip was raw, bright red. He’d cut if off it he could, fling it far out to sea from the resort’s highest point.

When he turned around to check on the rhomboid muscles at the top of his back, he saw scratches, one of them over a foot long, carved into his skin. Something damn powerful musta done that.

Nobody at the closing ceremony seemed exhausted other than Sefo. Where were they getting their energy? Sefo was the only one sucking down energy drinks. The karakia was water to them. Even Lee had energy, although the liquor last night had flattened her, made her pliable – today her voice was mean and level. Sefo’s throat was dry. He threw back dozens of small glasses of water and sneaked out to the toilet every twenty minutes, purging through his burning urethra. Something had definitely bitten his cock and scratched his back. He would get to a doctor, then maybe the Police.

The speeches merged into a melancholy waiata that everyone except Sefo seemed to know. Lastly, Te Tumuaki spoke for them all. Sefo looked at her with venom and thirst.

‘The theme of Te Hui Heke for this year was Union between Tuakana and Teina. We have reinforced our kaupapa with the support of our Polynesian brothers and sisters, brought to Aotearoa by the same stars, let down by the same promises.

‘Te Hui Heke has been about representing ourselves not to the government, not to the Crown, but to the people who came to this country on their own waka, whether that be the Whakatohea or the Pacific Star. The tino rangatiratanga of Samoa! Tonga! Fiji! Niue! Rarotonga! We embrace you all. The Crown took our land and raped us, but it is you that we rely on to heed our cries. You are our whanau, and we are yours. We are stronger than any muscle, any force. We will be raped by no more.’

§ One Response to Short Story: ‘Islanders’ by Michael Botur

  • Q: Michael, why is the story called “Islanders”?

    A: The story is called Islanders because there isn’t just one Islander. All the characters in that story come from other islands, and they have been brought together on an island. The story explores what it’s like to have an identity based on isolation and reconnection. Various characters belong to the Samoan islands, New Zealand’s islands and Waiheke Island.

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