Soon enough, the town boundary appeared and Hemi and his mother were cruising down the main street. Hemi enjoyed watching the Charger’s reflection in the shop windows, thinking, man, this car was cool.
‘Right, boy, let’s get your shorts. I’ve got groceries to get, we have to get some stuff for dad at Williams and Kettles, and I want to get some flagons and say g’day to my mate from work at the pub and then we’ll get home’. Before long, Hemi had a new pair of grey shorts, his first new pair of shorts. His dad had a new sheep whistle and a load of dog food, and his mum was driving into the pub car park.
‘I won’t be long, boy, you go to the chemist and get that cough mixture for the girls and meet me back at the car, I’ll leave it open. Nobody is going to nick it, ay? Everyone knows whose car this is’.
So Hemi walked, (shuffled would be a better description) down the street, heading for the chemist. Across the road he saw Stuart Gardner walking along with some of his mates. Stuart Gardner had been at Hemi’s primary school, in the same year, but on the other school bus, from the other direction, from nearer town. Stuart Gardner was skinny, but lean, short dark hair. He had an arrogant swagger about him, he walked everywhere as though he owned the place. He had a mean skinny face, a tiny mouth, like a slit in his face, which seemed to always be fixed in a sneer. He looked like the nasty piece of work that he was. He’d been in Hemi’s class, he was a dick. Hemi didn’t like him at all, he was a smart-arse loudmouth, and you could tell he didn’t like Hemi because he was Maori. Guy didn’t like him either. In fact, most people didn’t like Stuart Gardner. He’d gone away to boarding school as well, ‘Snots Porridge’ as Scots College in Wellington was known. So, he must be home for the weekend. The other three with him were a couple of fullas Hemi recognised from his school but didn’t know, and some other kid Hemi didn’t recognise at all.
They were talking too loudly, showing off to each other, jostling one another, jumping up to hit shop signs, swinging on the awning poles, making a racket. Hemi watched them make their way along the opposite footpath. Then he saw them, Nicky and her mum, Guy’s little sister. His heart jumped in his chest. He hadn’t seen Nicky for ages; he rarely saw her now that Guy hardly ever came home from his stink school.
Hemi was suddenly aware that his heart had jumped, and he blushed even though nobody had seen his reaction. He was embarrassed for some reason he didn’t understand. He was trying to make sense of what just happened. He was getting agitated and breathing more heavily, standing there, lost in an unfamiliar place in his own head. Hemi was unable to articulate to himself that he had always had a massive crush on Nicky. Stuart Gardner didn’t like Nicky. He was always teasing her at primary school, teasing is probably the wrong word, he bullied her. She was a girl a year younger than him and he bullied her all the time. Hemi hated that, but what could he do when mostly he wasn’t around? So, he just told Guy what a dick Stuart Gardner was, and Guy agreed. Guy and Stuart had regular arguments, calling each other names and being particularly rough with each other in school playtime in games like bull rush and long ball.
Hemi and Guy didn’t know why Stuart Gardner, and only Stuart Gardner, didn’t like Nicky. The only person who didn’t like arty, sporty, pretty, clever, kind, helpful and thoughtful Nicky, was Stuart Gardner. You’d probably struggle to get Stuart Gardner to really understand why he didn’t like Nicky. The truth is Stuart Gardner didn’t like Nicky simply because she was prettier, cleverer, more sporty and more thoughtful than his own sister of the same age. He resented Nicky. Nicky had done nothing other than be some things that Stuart Gardner’s sister wasn’t. So, he resented and punished her for it.
So here was Hemi, in a bit of a state, processing his reaction at seeing the girl he had always been a bit keen on. Close, growing up together on the same farm, but so far apart in so many ways. Here was Stuart Gardner, walking—loudly showing off, being egged on by his three mates—across the street, towards Nicky and her mum. Nicky was nearest the shop windows, her mum nearer the road. Nicky had stopped to look at a display in the bookshop at the same time her mum had started chatting to a friend of hers who had just walked up.
Stuart Gardner sees Nicky, runs up behind her and tugs her ponytail, far too hard. Nicky shrieks in shock, surprise and pain. Her mum, a bit slow to process what just happened, puts a hand on Nicky’s head and glares at Stuart Gardner. Hemi is already running, Stuart and his mates are laughing, and Hemi is running across the street, between cars, he doesn’t even slow down when he gets to the opposite footpath. He throws all of his weight into Stuart Gardner, knocks him to the footpath and starts smashing fists into his face.
‘You fucken prick!’
Pandemonium has broken out in seconds. The three mates take a few moments before piling in to help their mate, Nicky’s mum grabs her daughter and hugs her, now watching the fight on the ground, screaming at the boys to stop it. Nicky is crying. Two farmers ran out from the motorbike shop next door and roughly dragged the fighting boys apart. Hemi is still swinging,
‘you fucken prick!’
Stuart Gardner has a bloody nose and ripped shirt; he and the other three are swearing at Hemi,
‘Fucken Maori bastard!’
The boys are all swearing at each other but are easily restrained by the big blokes, who’ve now been joined by mechanics and a couple of nearby shopkeepers.
‘Piss off out of here, you lot’.
Shouted one of the men at Stuart Gardner and his mates, as they started shepherding them away.
‘He fucken started it!’
Whined Gardner, believing he should be allowed to pull girls’ hair in the street without any sort of fallout.
‘I don’t care, piss off, all of you’,
Obviously, he also knew Stuart Gardner was a dick.
‘What the hell was that about Hemi?’
Asked one of the famers, who Hemi now recognized as being a neighbour from their place in the sticks. Nicky’s mother was open-mouthed, now realising who this was.
Nicky was still holding her hair. She’d stopped crying, she knew exactly what that was about. Nicky just looked at the ground, then back at Hemi. Hemi was hanging his head, kicking at the ground with his bare feet, his clothes were also torn.
‘What do you mean I dunno?’
Hemi didn’t know. He’d never had a fight in his life, now he’d just run across the street to punch a guy who’d pulled a Pakeha girl’s hair. That Pakeha girl is his mate’s sister but still, he, the Maori shepherd’s son had attacked a Pakeha farm owner’s son in the street, in front of a bunch of people who just saw the Maori boy attack the Pakeha. Everyone knew that was wrong. He was protecting a girl he liked, but something ‘wrong’ happened here. A bigger wrong than simply the attack itself. It was ‘wrong’. Everyone knew it.
This had changed everything for Hemi. In one moment, he had gone from a liked, or unknown, quiet Maori boy, to punchy, aggressive, violent Maori teenager. Nobody was going to think too much about why he did what he did, just that it was wrong. The wrongness didn’t even have a name, it was just known. Nicky knew it was wrong. Secretly, she was pleased to see Stuart Gardner get what he deserved, but even Nicky knew something was wrong with all this.
Hemi sloped off back to the car, he wiped the blood off his nose and rearranged the torn shirt so Hine wouldn’t notice. He decided best not to tell her, no point going looking for a hiding. Eventually word got back to Hemi’s dad though, when he was at the motorbike shop in town. He said to Hemi when he got home from town.
‘I hear you smacked that Gardner kid, about time someone did ay boy?’ He smiled a rare smile at Hemi and walked off. Hemi had never felt so relieved in all his life.