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Talia Marshall, aged 16. “I can be an unpleasant woman,” she writes, “but I am constantly unpleasant as a teenager. Especially to my father.” Photo/Supplied

River monster: My elusive and charismatic father

Talia Marshall finds her way through troubled waters to the elusive and charismatic father who finally claimed a place in her life. 

In 1994, my father flies me up to Auckland a bit so I can get to know him better. I can be an unpleasant woman, but I am constantly unpleasant as a teenager. Especially to my father.

The one thing I do like about being with him is going out to eat; he is a generous and eclectic diner. Communal steamboat in a grimy place near K’ Rd, yum cha, bouillabaisse, and decent pizza at Prego. Vinnie’s, a fall-of-the-empire feel at SPQR, and the thickest Italian hot chocolate at Alba. Japanese fish custard, risotto, thin ravioli, and a Thai place at the back of a shopping strip near the city with the best banana fritters.

Good food makes my father happy and gregarious, although he is both these things naturally. But I set the twin lasers of my disapproval on him – more specifically, on his world. He is a property developer, and people pull up a chair outside Sierra, the espresso franchise before it gets tired, and tell him they know about a piece of dirt.

A woman wafts past in white and tells him she loves his leather jacket. Sadly, it is quite cool: oily charcoal-brown, Spanish looking and worn in the right places. He nudges me about a chilly blonde at the counter and is at pains to point out that it’s TV presenter Susan Wood. I have not expected my Māori father to be like this and, in my conceited way, decide I feel more Māori than him. I’m taking reo for School Certificate and despite his late claiming of me, I’ve always known I am Māori. Mum has made sure of this. More Māori than the froth on his cappuccino, his silver Range Rover and a frankly amazing pâté made out of sundried tomatoes from the bakery next door to Sierra.

All these words condemn him to a certain point in Auckland’s culinary history. And I am greedy, despite my contempt. I catch him smiling at me once over juice and hummus in a mall. Beaming, he notes I liked my food, and I try to hate him some more.

We wander ill at ease around design stores, and he buys me a pair of black 10-eye Doc Martens and some Workshop jeans that never suit me. The design stores have Thunderbirds replicas; Grace Kwan has a collection of them in her apartment on Shortland Street, where she torments Lionel. I torment Paul, my father, by playing Cowboy Junkies in the car between eateries and stores. My mother’s lesbian music.

I call my father “Paul” in 1994, to remind him that he is not really my father. I eye his bottles of Calvin Klein in the bathroom cabinet and by the bed. And it comes to me, it starts creeping in unwanted at my edges, that I might be quite like him. Obsession. Eternity. Comme des Garçons – the Italian extravagance he passed on even though the Sciascia whakapapa we share is poor and southern. He was always a bit too continental for Blenheim, a bit Mediterranean, despite the First XV rugby and the rowing, the fishing and diving for crays and pāua.

He takes me to meet a lot of nice, rich people and I am rude in all their houses while I covet their stuff. “See those billboards,” he says, driving through the CBD and over the motorway. “My friend Gordon does them.” He eyes women at the lights and I eye him, disgusted that he seems to be a sexual being at 34. He mentions how many cousins of ours are famous for sports, but I’ve given up netball by then for the real blood sport of boys and getting wasted. He takes me upstairs to the London Bar, where I smoke and drink openly and pretend to like jazz. I am 15 going on 16. I am a pretentious, badly dressed annoyance wearing too much lipliner. Exposing your midriff is in fashion but, as Paul has already pointed out, I like my food.

He takes me to Andiamo on a Friday night to meet Alec and Andrea, but he is probably just desperate not to be alone with me. Andrea is a petite architecture student who I take a liking to immediately, and have to squash this feeling for the rest of the evening. Happily, Alec is a Pākehā who calls land “dirt”, too, and says something a bit racist about cannibalism. Nothing wrong with cannibalism, I say, sticking out the chin I got from my father. Paul says cannibalism is sick and looks genuinely ashamed. I decide everyone at the table is stupid except for me and start calling Alec, “Awec” because he says Māori words badly. How would you like it if I…? And so on. A fight! But where did all the mongrel come from?

Paul sends the plate-sized whitebait fritter back for being undercooked and watches the waitress as she swings away, as if there is a bulls-eye between her hips. Otherwise, he is the ideal patron and table host, ordering the right wine in copious amounts and fussing at you to try things off his plate, even though he’s ordered most of the menu.

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An expression of Marshall’s search for identity, using her birth certificate – where her father’s name  is not recorded – and plastic Māori figurines from a cereal box.
What Māori used to eat is a touchy subject, not least because we spent most of what is coyly known as our classical period eating each other. Or rather, our rangatira had first pickings over their enemies and human flesh was a special-occasion food. This era is book-ended by the halcyon Kentucky Fried Moa Hunter period and the terrible atrocities of the Musket Wars. Liberals who cry for the inclusion of our post-contact history in school curricula shy away from the Musket Wars, despite the fact it was only 20 years before the New Zealand Wars and, in terms of political cause and effect, similar to World War I and World War II.

Pākehā and contemporary historians seem to prefer the New Zealand Wars because it allows them to adjust the stake in their conscience for descending from the perpetrators of colonial trauma. Hobson’s Pledge love the Musket Wars, which is a bit of a problem. So, too, is the discourse around cannibalism thanks to Auckland historian Paul Moon and the smelling-salts approach of his book This Horrid Practice. Personally, I think it’s much more uncivilised to turn up at a dinner party after the food’s gone cold and get squirmy about the savagery. It’s not just rude, it’s none of his business, because Moon is a Pākehā and wasn’t invited. In fact, hardly any Pākehā were eaten; they were too useful, and their pigs and potatoes better for farming.

Māori were in charge before we signed Te Tiriti, there can be no historical doubt about this. It was powerful northern and then Waikato and Taranaki iwi that drove the push for trade in new technologies and the expansion into other rohe to dominate rival iwi and their resources. The trade in slaves and the practice of cannibalism escalated with the purchase of each new musket. As did the subjugation of women, born high or low. And like all Māori cultural practices, it was actually deeply organised. Some of the musket handles were beautifully carved. Cannibalism is a dark, taboo practice, but then what do you call the “decluttering” of the concentration camps? Progress? Civilisation? What do you call the cool physics of Hiroshima?

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War makes men invent things; it also makes them organise themselves better than a linen cupboard. The rotting corpses in the fields or the ash in the ovens are an afterthought, a matter of taste.

But women dispensed utu in the Musket Wars, too. Te Pēhi Kupe’s widow, Tiaia, drank from the neck of Taihaimaranui’s wife, Te Whe, after she had watched her husband pulled apart by his entrails as punishment for the death of Kupe, who was Te Rauparaha’s uncle.

Taihaimaranui and Te Whe had already thrown their daughter, Roimata, from the horror ship Elizabeth to save her from the war camp of Kāpiti. The complicit Pākehā, Captain Stewart, hid below deck while my already enslaved people, Ngāti Kuia, boiled in his pots. And Rangi Topeora, one of the few women to sign Te Tiriti, took pleasure in consuming the flesh of her enemies on Kāpiti, where so many of my tūpuna were either killed in the failed battle of Wai-ō-rua or enslaved, tortured and eaten.

Once Te Rauparaha had control of the Wairau, it was the death of a Māori woman – shot between the eyes, like my father watching the waitress’s hips – that marked the start of the New Zealand Wars with the Wairau Affray in 1843. And it’s at that point, near the Wairau River, that the muskets and the fight for sovereignty converge.

A cousin tells me about a woman who fled into the sea during another wave of the wars; her people were strung up like pigs and the blood from their necks splashed over her as she descended the steep bush of Kenepuru Sound. One of the enemy warriors held her head under the water to save her from discovery, but later she had to marry him. Maybe he took a liking to her hair; Ngāti Kuia were known for their hair. Maybe she sat shivering on the beach while he lifted at the kelp of it, waiting for her hair to dry as she ignored the smell of her cousins rising from the pits because she was famished all of a sudden. “E kōtiro, anei tā kai,” he says, nudging some human crackling at her.

I have my father’s hair: curly, thick and stubborn. And lodged inside me, if epigeneticists are to be believed, I carry the terror of that young woman. I also carry the glee of the invaders hunting her down and forcing her into their bloodline. I do know I feel torn a lot. Although by some accounts, the Ngāti Rārua chief we descend from, Pukekohatu – a witness to the Wairau Affray – was a peacemaker, acting in deference to Te Rauparaha. It all hinged on that mercurial rooster, a genius war general whose tyranny makes more human sense when one takes into account the fact he was avenging the death of another uncle and tamariki by my ancestors at Lake Horowhenua.

A photo taken by the author of her son (left), her father, Paul (centre) and a cousin fly-fishing on the Wairau River.
Paul takes me fishing, at the end of my first year at university. He’s driven me from my Dunedin home to Blenheim, cutting all the corners of the Kaikōura coast road at speed and exclaiming how beautiful everything is. It is beautiful, but the terror gets in the way of enjoying the blur.

That morning by the river, I think you just dangle your line into the water and that’s all there is to fishing. But he’s fly fishing for trout, which means having to recast the line a lot, and I quickly tangle it in a willow tree and sulk off to use the novelty of his mobile to call friends and announce where I am, always uncertain about saying his name: Paul.

He gets his trout easily, and buys a portable smoker for his parents on the way home, then cooks the fish in brown sugar and lemon over mānuka. It is mushroomy-pink and falling apart on thin slices of brown buttered bread and, like all the food I eat with him, it is unreasonably good. I’m not ready for the way the green and blue of the Wairau, his river, tugs at my heels or how at home I feel at the mouth of it where freshwater gushes into the sea.

In 2002, I fight with my father about my presence at his niece’s wedding. One of my son’s first memories is of me attempting to kick in Paul’s VW Polo outside an Ōnehunga motel – a motel I feel we’ve been banished to by the rest of the family.

My favourite uncle, mum’s brother, rescues us, my boy at two tottering along oblivious to the hostility as my uncle bristles past Paul, because he’s never liked him for abandoning his pregnant sister. Monsters Inc, the Pixar movie, reminds me of that time, because I used to watch it with my son, over and over. I was much more invested in the plot than my boy; he was too young for it and the ending always made me weep while he wandered off, bored. It takes me turning up at a tangi four years later for me and Paul to speak again. Since then, I’ve slowly let him in.

In Monsters Inc, Sulley, the big, blue, gentle monster voiced by John Goodman develops an attachment to a little girl he’s meant to be scaring but comes to adore, amid the stress of hiding her from the other monsters. The monsters have to scare the children because their screams fuel the power plant that serves their world. But laughter creates a power surge, too – something Sulley realises while looking after “Boo” – and this laughter is later put to sweet effect when the monsters become comics, rather than scarers. At the power plant, Sulley has to relinquish his attachment to the little girl when the door to her world is shredded. He keeps a piece of it, and the final moments see him given one last chance to enter her room and they speak each other’s name, at which point I’d always dissolve.

Paul died without warning last October, alone in his apartment, aged 59.

In the weeks that follow, I listen to “Right Down the Line” by Gerry Rafferty on repeat, edging towards a new love foolish with grief. I say there was no warning, but there were all these signs. The day he dies, and before we know, my son gives me a picture he drew of family land in the Sounds that Paul had to sell; Hine-nui-te-pō hovers in the middle of the bay encased in a heart. I send my son off to the inlet to get me some cockles so I can make vongole, the way Paul does, for my baby sister. And later, I remember I wrote the first paragraph of this the week before he died and was still occupying the present tense.

“Right Down the Line” came out the year I was born. My father held me while my mother, who’d taken me to meet him, held her breath. He was on the radio then, or about to be, but I’d never heard his voice, which is chocolatey and booming. I cried all night and he wasn’t that interested in me. Mum says the crying really wasn’t like me.

Marshall as a toddler at Glendhu Bay on Lake Wānaka,  with the “darkest tan in the whole camping ground”.
Lately, the river has been a bit of an issue for our iwi – cousins fighting cousins over it, and other uaua. Post-settlement politics are not pretty. Now, we’re forced to digitally eat each other. On Facebook, which Māori seem to gravitate towards more than Twitter because of the “family atmosphere”, it becomes feral.

I used to see a red notification flag and wonder what my bull of a father was posting on the whānau page now. I’d wince at his florid phrasing, grammar and blatant desire to take down certain cousins, but the wincing also made me realise how much ownership I felt over him. Besides, all the whānau posts were florid and highfalutin’, a common trait.

He went on and on about the sewage running over our ancient bones and his memories of growing up beside the river, and linked to my writing on the first migrations at Wairau Bar. Really, I was so happy he did this that, when I wasn’t ducking, I was proud. I wrote to a close cousin he had fallen out with and told them that when Paul was playing fullback, he used to get so concussed they’d have to turn him around to face the right way, otherwise he’d run for the other team. I was starting to tell his stories like I owned them.

When Paul died, he was driving trucks again, the same job he had when he met Mum. But I liked the man he had become so much more than the property developer who talked about dirt and crashed his Ducati. I was about to vote for him in the iwi election, while my son chuckled at his antics. “What’s Paul doing now,” he’d say?

When things were getting really heated, he’d ring daily to find out more history he could use against his relatives, and I remember his shy admission that in all the old excavation pits down by his first home beside the archaeological site of the Wairau Bar, in amongst the layers of shellfish and bones, there were no human drumsticks. Our tūpuna were kept separate with offerings of jewellery and the promise of a moa egg. He’d been with his mother to a talk by a historian and it had made him feel better about where we come from.

During his tangi, I look up from comforting my sobbing sister to the one photo of me in the slideshow of his life, where I glare, chubby at 15 in a velvet choker and frozen into a new family. I shout at my mother before the funeral, not wanting to go. Paul’s brother had taken me aside the night before at the poroporoakī, embarrassed that there were barely any photos of my presence in their family and wary of my capacity for taking offence. But I am not asked to speak at the funeral and I sit there mute in the larger jigsaw puzzle of the whānau, feeling like the stupid grin of the missing piece.

I think of his mother, keen to avoid the politics of the marae, saying he was a Pākehā boy really when she took him home to lie in state instead. A Pākehā boy, even though his brother knows which auntie to avoid in case they give you a job. And I wonder if my father really was just a Bounty Bar, an Arab-looking Māori making “all hui-no dooey” jokes and loathing any talk of victimhood. I mean, if he was just a Pākehā boy, then why do I feel so Māori – and further, can’t feel Māori with any authenticity without feeling for my connection to him?

Mum’s parents were the ones who took photos of me, playing in tiny aqua togs by the lake, the darkest tan in the whole camping ground, which my grandfather chuckled about and glossed over by calling me Topsy. One of a lost tribe of half-castes indulged by Pākehā grandparents to the point that until he decided he wanted me to know him, I hadn’t properly registered my father’s absence. I used to fly from Wellington over the frilly lagoons of the Wairau on the way to spend summers with my grandparents, and know, even at five, that one day I’ll have to meet them, these Māori giants – my father comes from a big family full of big people, and in mythic times, there were giants, Kāhui Tipua, based at the white cliffs of Cloudy Bay.

Mum reminded me once that she and Paul were only 18 when she got pregnant, barely life-sized, as she coaxed me into trying to forgive him, due to the unlikely coincidence that I was pregnant with my son when he called to let me know he was having his own baby. After the service, she reveals they were almost forced to marry, that we were this close to a whole other life. But if I permit myself to go there, into parallel lives, I can’t sustain the kind of gaps that transform a child into the outsider who imagines they can write their way back in: into the unique alchemy of a family, and into the body of my first cousin who is older than me by mere months, and who my father made a speech for at her wedding hākari back in 2002. I imagine him talking with soft eyes about the little girl he’d watched grow into a woman. I imagine myself banging on the glass of the yacht-club ballroom demanding to be let in, which is absurd, as I was safe at my uncle’s, eating beef fillet that Paul would have sent back for being overcooked.

Months before he dies, Mum and Paul argue amicably about which of them gave me the “mongrel”, which is what they call my anger, and I, in my shame, call rage at the fear of being unwanted.

And I keep in mind that shame can kill. My father’s shame that anybody other than my baby sister should see how he was living when he died: the reduced circumstances, when he still had such generous and hopeful aspirations. So many people told me what a big-hearted man Paul was, and I agree with them, so here I am clutching it, rich and red, these last scraps of the pâté. But I’m revealing too much; a story relies on the shadow of what you leave out as much as what makes it in.

Maybe it is more tasteful to remember he had this jolly, slightly off-centre way of describing tough things, a high Māori turn of phrase to his punnery, best illustrated for me when he called a couple’s break-up “splitting the sheet”. It’s true in a practical and metaphorical sense that if you tear a worn sheet, the only use for it then is rags, and this applies equally to love. But that is not what I want to make of Paul. Even though he is gone, I still have all this mending to do.

An artwork by Marshall’s son, who gave it to her the day her father died, but before they had heard the news. It depicts family land in the Marlborough Sounds that Paul was forced to sell during the Global Financial Crisis.
Ten days after we bury my father beside his in the urupā, I am in Auckland again, baffled as I walk around that it is no longer the 90s, even though young people are wearing the same clothes. Midriffs are back and I am alarmed by them. I’ve been back to Auckland a few times since the 90s, but it is all those dinners out with my dad at 15 going on 16 that keep returning to me.

Finally, after lying like a coward in another room down the road from his place, avoiding the task of sorting through his things that I’ve signed up for, I walk a narrow hallway where the door to his room shimmers darker in the darkness. There is a smudginess oozing at its seams, a malevolence as I fumble the keys and turn the lock. And I’m pausing here because that room doesn’t contain his real story. There is no such thing as a real story, just the pursuit of a dream with its promise of a more palatable version of the truth.

I push the door open then and find: a rākau, a branch floating up the river where the sun pokes its finger through to make the valley golden. Kei puta te Wairau: it’s here, the gap in the clouds where you cast and recast the line, but oh, what tree is this? Maybe it’s the pounamu cross I lift from your room, tapping a root into my hand?

Ko au te awa; te awa ko ahau: I am the river and the river is me. Here is our toto – our blood – spilling from your neck like bait on the run. Where I don’t need a map to find my sister, and I splash through the first time my son scores a try, through a surprise love of sports and the mongrel I seem to have inherited from you busting a leash.

You are my father sinking into the sand, into the stones, the little bits of shell and bone as the water laughs through the door of No. 19. And look, now we are rowing through blood that is the greenest shade of blue.

This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.