literature

Chapter Three. The School Bus

Chapter 3

Photograph reproduced by courtesy of Stuff Limited.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections Footprints 02766

Hemi didn’t get to go to boarding school. He didn’t know anything about where Guy had gone to school. Only that he had gone away. Hemi was going to the high school in Dannevirke, Dannevirke High School. The one Guy’s mum didn’t think much of. It used to be a good school, once upon a time. Maybe that was a story the older people used to tell, as you can’t really prove any of that stuff, except by how good the 1st XV was in the old days.

Hemi was going to take the bus to high school. He’d been given his uniform to start his first day at high school. His mum had borrowed bits of uniforms from other people who didn’t need theirs for their kids anymore. Hemi’s mum was called Hine, she was very resourceful, too many kids to feed and never enough money to buy stuff. Hine was about 30, very attractive and small but strongly built, long black hair, but light skinned for a Maori, with green eyes, which was unusual.

None of the borrowed clothes fitted properly, of course, and it all looked pretty second hand, which was what it was. Hemi thought it was stink, but he’d never had a brand-new item of clothing in his whole life, anyway. It wasn’t just that it was second-hand, it was also that it stunk of mothballs and they hadn’t bloody worked anyway if the moth holes were anything to go by. It was more than stink, it was ‘shit house’, Hemi thought to himself. His parents had no advice to give him about school. It was a bloody long time since they went there, and they didn’t pay any attention when they did. Hemi had never had any sort of conversation of any sort about education with his parents.

His mother made him some sandwiches to take. Stale bread sandwiches, with Marmite and cheese in them. Bloody awful by lunchtime after a morning in a hot school bag. He knew that much about school anyway. He didn’t believe high school would make his crappy lunch taste any better.

He’d met some of the kids who were going to be going to Dannevirke High though, as he’d played rugby with and against them in the winter. It was a rural community, so you pretty much knew who everyone was within a 50-kilometre radius. Which was about the size of the catchment area for the high school.

The school bus is a microcosm of New Zealand society. There’s no class system, but there is definitely a hierarchy. Kids from different backgrounds stuck together, they sat together on the bus. Farm owners’ kids mostly went to boarding school. On the school bus the farm manager’s kids were the top of the table at provincial high schools, then the people who owned businesses—the local stock truck company, or the rural pub. Then there were the shepherds’ kids, the shepherds might be farm managers one day. Then there were the shearers and the fencers’ kids. The people doing the hard physical stuff that required skill with the hands and repetitive experience, were often Maori.

So Hemi was going to take the bus. He waited out by the old bus shelter on the dusty road. The bus shelter was an old, corrugated iron water tank that had been cut in half, with a piece of wood for a seat. He sat and waited, watching the morning happen, listening to the gentle sounds that penetrated the silence. He could hear magpies warbling to each other in the macrocarpa. There was also the sound of sheep coughing and then bleating contentedly. That maa-sound they make with a mouthful of grass as if passing comment on the quality of the pasture. Off in the distance there was a Fletcher top-dressing plane working some far valley.

He could also hear the bus making its way up the long, winding hill road, changing up and down gears. There was quite a lot to hear in this rural semi-wilderness. He wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, just watching and listening. The bus doubled as a mail bus; it had already been travelling for a few hours before it got to Hemi’s place. It came from down on the beach at Porangahau, a small community a long way from anywhere, beside the sea. He knew how long the trip was going to take and wasn’t looking forward to it. He lived so far from town that getting to and from high school was three hours of his day, every day. That’s a long time in an uncomfortable seat.

The bus ride to Dannevirke from Hemi’s place took over an hour and a half, it was half an hour until they even got to the tar seal. Hemi was the second kid to get on after the bus left the beach. The beach was 40k’s away. The first kid on was from the big station in the hill country. Hemi could choose his seat. Choosing a seat for the first time on a new school bus is a minefield of social etiquette. He had to decide where ‘his place’ was. He wouldn’t go down the back, as he’d find himself marooned among the hard kids, or the ones who thought they were. You had to earn a place at the back of the bus. He knew this because the high school bus rules are the same as the primary school bus rules of course. but with older kids you hadn’t sussed out yet. He couldn’t sit at the front either. That’s where the goody-goods sat, the tell-tales, the kids who would dob you in for anything. No, he wasn’t one of them either. He needed to be in the middle, but he might sit in someone else’s favourite seat. He could bugger up the dynamic of the natural unstated seating plan.

He decided to sit across the way from the kid from up at the station. He knew her by sight only. He’d lived within a couple of k’s of this girl for all of his 13 years; she was just up the road. But he was the shepherd’s boy on a different farm. The people in the big station didn’t mix with the other people out here. He didn’t know why she didn’t go to boarding school. She looked a bit strange though. Not quite right. She had something wrong with one of her eyes, as though it was glass, she looked in different directions with each eye, and walked funny, not disabled as such, but not right either, as though one leg was slightly longer than the other. She was wearing a sun frock with flowers on it, tied at the waist.

He gave her the standard New Zealand greeting for someone you see but don’t want to use any words to say g’day. When you are more acknowledging them rather than actually greeting. It’s a physical expression, you jerk your head up a bit, while also raising your eyebrows a bit and sticking your chin out slightly, all in one swift fluid movement. It says all you need to say with one fluid movement of your head. He sat in his new seat and looked out the window. The bus pulled away and he watched his place get smaller in the distance. The bus stopped and started, picking up more kids, young adults. The chatter increased, nobody stopped to say g’day to the new boy, just the silent acknowledgement.  There was no need to say g’day, they knew who he was, and he wasn’t one of them. He was the Maori shepherd’s boy. All the kids who got on the bus knew exactly what seat they were going to. They sat where they always sat and with whomever they always sat. He wasn’t in anyone’s seat yet. He hoped the bus wouldn’t fill up either. He might even get to have his double bench seat to himself. Choice! Then she got on and sat beside him.

She came out of some crappy house on a rundown block not that far from town. The house was in a shittier state than his and that was saying something. The yard was covered in broken crap, old cars, bits of machinery, one of the glass panes on the front door, the middle one, was boarded up. Ripped curtains in the filthy windows, grass was growing in the roof gutter; half the front fence was missing. Man, that place was a dump. She was a Pakeha, with dirty hair, cut in a bowl shape like Guy’s, and a scruffy uniform, it was dirty. Then he smelled her. She smelled of piss. There was always someone at school who smelled of piss. Like she’d pissed herself and hadn’t had a wash. It was Monday morning, the start of a new school year and she stunk of piss and was in dirty clothes. What the hell was that about? Why did she have to sit with him? He couldn’t get up and move, she was in the way and he didn’t have any reason to move, other than he was embarrassed to be sitting with her, a stink Pakeha girl. It was a real dilemma for a young fella on his first high school bus ride. What to do man? He wondered, this sucks. She was ugly, stunk of piss and was in dirty clothes, and sharing his seat. What if people think he’s mates with her? His mind was swimming. He looked out the window, trying to pretend she wasn’t there. But she was inches away from him. She said hello, well not so much hello as hi. She said her name was Beverly, Beverly Simmonds. Hemi’s heart sank; now he had to say g’day, so he gave her the silent acknowledgment. She wasn’t going to settle for that though. She asked him where he was from, she hadn’t seen him before, she wanted to talk to him, make friends. That was bad enough, then the penny dropped who she was. She must be old mad Bert Simmonds’ daughter. Everyone for miles around knew about old mad Bert Simmonds. He had no nose, blew it off with a shotgun when he tried to kill himself when his Mrs left him. He missed, how the hell do you miss your own head with a shotgun? Jeez man, how could something so stink happen on his first day, he wondered. He did not want to be making friends with this dumb, stink Sheila. He was getting all worked up now, but not showing it though, ay. He was just going to have to suck it up until he got to school. He had a look around the bus for where he could sit on the way home. He wasn’t going to make this mistake again, that’s for sure

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