They made me drink piss out of a gumboot. Not just a sip but half a litre or so. Disgusting. I was sick everywhere afterwards, no surprise really. Then they told me that was just the beginning. O the joys of being a Prince Mamba leader’s son. People said I was doomed to end up in the gangs – born to it. What a life, what a curse.
My childhood was not a normal one, but of course I only know that now. We lived in a rented state house in Kaiti, with three wrecked Holdens parked abandoned in the drive. A couple of pit bulls kept guard. There were always gang members loitering around the house, chucking their empty beer cans wherever it suited them. I used to try and clean up but I was fighting a losing battle. My two older brothers were initiated at eighteen and they became just like Dad – ruling with iron fists. Mum was dominated by Dad, who ruled over everybody. He would have tyrannized the whole town, the whole of New Zealand, if he’d had his way. My Mum was spaced out on Valium a lot of the time. Dad would have killed her if she’d tried to leave. No family member taught me the practicalities of life – I learnt how to cross roads at school. No adult ever read me a bedtime story.
It was my Uncle Taika who taught me how to surf. Surfing saved my life. Whenever I got sad or angry I would just take the board my uncle bought me and head out to the waves. I had to keep the board at my uncle’s house or Dad and his mates would have just sold it for drug money. I used to dream of being Australasian surf champion. It was in the waves that I met my first and only real friend Kya. Kya was tall for her age and thin and she was a demon on the board. I wasn’t in love with her or anything corny like that but she was a good friend; somebody I could really talk to about all the many problems at home. She didn’t judge me on my background which was more than you could say for most of the herd in my classroom. We just enjoyed each other’s company. It was good to feel accepted by somebody on planet Earth.
I had been dreading my initiation ceremony. There was no question that I would join the gangs, because of who my father was. It wasn’t my own wish at all – it was just something that you did in my family – kind of like some kids growing up with everyone assuming they will go to university. My Dad would have beaten me to a pulp if I ever thought about not joining. My life circumstances made it very tough for me to assert myself. Earlier in the year at school there had been a program run by the police on stopping youth from getting into gangs and a Pakeha lady called Jasmine had come to our school to talk to us about it. Was it just my imagination or had she had taken a special shine to me? When she spoke it seemed as if she was talking directly to me and I wondered whether she knew I was a Prince Mamba leader’s son. At the end of the week she took me to one side and asked me what my ambitions in life were. I told her I wanted to be a pro surfer and didn’t mention that it was a lot more likely that I would end up being a fully patched gang member. She smiled and nodded when I talked about surfing and commented that Gisborne had some gnarly waves. I couldn’t believe she had used the word gnarly, like a teenager. Perhaps she was trying to be down with the kids.
When the big day rolled around, my eldest brother took me to one side and told me that it was time for me to be a man. I had witnessed other initiation ceremonies and did not see how drinking urine from a gumboot was a mark of manhood but I didn’t say anything. I drank as much of the piss as I could and then was sick everywhere. Then Dad’s right hand man Rangi, took me to one side and told me I was going to have to do a burglary. Rangi has ‘We ride together, we die together’ tattooed across his neck. He said he was letting me off lightly and that there didn’t have to be violence or firearms involved. Sometimes there can be rape or even murder in the initiations, or taking the rap for somebody else’s crime and doing hard time in their place. They told me that they had chosen a do-gooder target in posh Wainui Beach so that there would be lots of loot. Wainui Beach residents are all loaded.
Rangi said that Jimmy would drive me to the job. He said he could take one of the better cars for it, so that all those nice white middle class residents would not be alerted to our purpose. The deal was to go down on Saturday night when a lot of people would be out partying, leaving their houses empty and ripe for the picking.
When Saturday rolled around I was dead nervous. What if the cops caught me? I was only seventeen and I didn’t want to end up in prison. My Dad had been put away numerous times; we’d just had to soldier on without him. He said that clink was softer than his life on the outside, he reckoned prison made him into a pussy. He didn’t have to fend for himself in there, you see, he was provided for by the government. He had friends on the inside and they all stuck together, in a gang, just like on the outside. My father was King Dick in prison. I couldn’t imagine being inside; in a small, cold cell. Three solid meals a day mind you, and a guaranteed place to sleep at night, rent-free, maybe it wouldn’t be all bad.
We waited till 11pm and then drove the car slowly through Wainui Beach. I thought we looked terribly suspicious and kept telling Jimmy to speed up a bit, to drive authoritatively, so that it looked as if we knew where we were going. I got out at the start of Wairere Road and started walking through people’s back sections trying to find a house that looked deserted. It was hard to tell because most people had all their lights out. At number 35 I stumbled across somebody’s dog, a huntaway, that started barking loudly at me.
Oh God, I thought, just what I need to alert the neighbours for miles around.
Eluding the vocal dog as quickly as I could I darted around the side of what appeared to be a wood shed, I waited for about a minute until the dog became bored and started sniffing under a hedge for the elusive hedgehog he’d been after for months. Adrenaline was coursing through me – I’d never been so petrified in my life; I just wanted this over with.
Thankfully the next house appeared deserted – no car, no lights on and most importantly no dogs.
I skulked up the outside stairs to the back door where I found a cat flap. I had done this once before when I had gone around to my uncle’s house unexpectedly and he hadn’t been home. After shivering on the doorstep for half an hour I had reached up through the cat door and managed to turn the key in the lock. My lankiness I had often been teased about came in handy in this instance.
Reaching through the cat door I discovered it was a lock with a push button in the handle – this was unnervingly easy. I was in! Heading straight for the bedroom, unzipping my bag as I walked, I found an Ipad on the duchess that became my first stolen item. Opening the drawers next, I found a phone, some jewellery and a wallet. I put it all in my bag. I hesitated, thinking that I could hear a noise downstairs. Listening intently I heard two car doors close.
I froze, something touched my leg and I jumped. Looking down I saw the fattest, fluffiest cat I’d ever encountered rubbing against my leg as if it had known me forever.
I had to get out of here. There were sounds outside. I scanned the room looking for a window, found it, ran over to it – then remembered I was on the second floor. The sounds were inside now. I couldn’t think straight so I dropped to the floor in between the bed and the wall.
I heard footsteps coming up the stairs and began to freak out even more. Although I was a gang member’s son I was no hardened criminal, I only wanted to spend my life surfing. I had seen what gang life had done to my father and my brothers and I did not want to end up like them. Footsteps up the hallway now, I felt like a stoat in a trap.
The door opened and I saw two long shadows cast upon the far wall. A man spoke.
“Hey, why is the top drawer of my duchess open?”
At that moment my body took over my mind and I stood up and tried to make a run for it. The man, who was solid and looked like a rugby player blocked my path. There was a brief scuffle, then he grabbed me in a headlock.
“Jasmine call the cops. We’ve got ourselves a thief!”
“Hang on a minute Nick. I think I know this guy.”
At that moment our eyes met and I recognized her. It was the lady who had come to my school and taken a special interest in helping me stay out of the gangs. I felt so ashamed. Why did I have to target her house? The gods had it in for me. I groaned and sank to the floor despondent.
“I didn’t get away with anything” I said. “Just take back what’s in the backpack and let me go. This was meant to be my initiation into the gang. I didn’t even want to do it but I had to. They made me.”
Jasmine gave me a long look then said “Come into the lounge, I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
Nick grabbed the backpack from where it lay on the floor and checked its contents.
I followed Jasmine through into the lounge. She boiled the kettle and made us both a cuppa. I put three spoons of sugar in mine – I was in need of a pick me up. Then I remembered Jimmy who was driving the car. He would be wondering where I was by now. What should I do? I decided to forget about Jimmy and concentrate on Jasmine. If anybody could help me get away from gang life it was her.
“So tell me about tonight,” she said. How did you come to be burgling my house?”
“I was told to by my father’s right hand man. I was told that it was time for me to join the gang and that I had to take part in initiation.”
“Is this the life you want?”
“No, definitely not. I can’t stand violence and drugs. I’m into surfing. I don’t want to end up like my father.”
I breathed a heavy sigh.
“I can help you break the cycle”, said Jasmine. “But you have to listen to what I say. I think you should stand up to your father and tell him that you don’t want to join the gang.”
I was silent. She obviously didn’t know my father. We talked on for half an hour and I began to think that I had found somebody other than Kya who cared about me. It can be hard, letting your guard down and trusting somebody, even a little bit, when all you have known is cold, unkind treatment. Jasmine gave me a ride home. We talked in the car further. I knew what I had to do.
# # # # #
When I walked in through the front door I found my father pacing the living room as my mother nervously busied herself in the kitchen.
“Where the hell have you been!?” bellowed my father. “And where’s the bloody loot!? Jimmy came by here an hour ago. Who gave you a lift home?”
I remembered Jasmine’s words. Stand up. Stand tall, like a man.
“Look Dad, I don’t want to be in the gang. I want a normal life, like a normal person. I’m not into the kind of life you lead.”
My father’s right fist hit my jaw with a thunderous crack.
“Don’t you get cocky with me, boy! Bloody mamma’s boy! You’re nothing but a sissy. It’s time you were toughened up.”
He punched me hard in the stomach and I fell to the floor. My mother was crying and screaming for him to stop but he didn’t. The beating went on for what seemed like eternity and only stopped because my uncle came in and pulled my father off me when I was on the verge of unconsciousness. I could not see out of my right eye, but I went to my bedroom, gathered up my meagre belongings and put them in a backpack. I was out of there, no looking back. My father was a dangerous criminal. I couldn’t stick around.
I managed to sleep a few hours and in the morning pretended I was going to school. Instead of attending I went to Jasmine’s office and told her what had happened. She was horrified and said that I should move to another town and that she could get me police protection. When I asked where I should go to she suggested Nelson. She said she could provide me with the money for a plane ticket and some cash to help me find my first flat then get me hooked up with work and income. After that I said I would look for a job, maybe some bar work. She said I should stay with her for a few nights and that she would take care of me. Nobody had ever taken care of me before and I was a bit suspicious but what choice did I have? I couldn’t go back to Dad’s place or he would’ve murdered me.
Nick didn’t take too kindly to having me around, but he tolerated me, since I was part of Jasmine’s job. I looked online on TradeMe for places to live and made a list of four flats to visit when I was down there. Jasmine said I was doing great considering all I had been through. At night I suffered terrible nightmares about being hunted down and castrated by my father and would awake in a sweat.
A few days later I found myself on a one way flight to Nelson. I’d never been there before.
When I disembarked from the plane, the first thing I saw was a lone yellow balloon on a string which was floating high into the sky. For some strange reason I felt a sense of serenity as if this balloon was a sign of hope and freedom.
I stayed in a backpackers that first night. I barely slept and got up early to search for a place to live and a job.
Finding a flat was easy the first place I went to I moved in, I was living with three others, Jackie who was a florist, Steve who was at polytech studying personal training, and Anna who was a truck driver Finding a job didn’t take long either I got a job as a barman it was tiring working late nights but the staff were great, the pay was above average, and it was a very sociable job. It was great meeting lots of new people.
Kya was texting me flat out worried about where I was and if I was ok. She had heard from my brothers that I had received a beating from my father and that I had taken off. I didn’t tell Kya where I was for her own safety’s sake but I told her I would keep in touch. Apart from her and Jasmine no one was bothering to contact me which suited me fine. I wanted to forget my old life, start fresh. My flatmates and I were becoming great mates. Steve and I went to the gym together. Working out was great for my mental health. Things were going great and after two months of living in Nelson I felt myself finally relaxing. Little did I know my father hadn’t finished with me yet. In a case of ‘revenge is best served cold’ he blindsided me.
# # # #
It was a typical Friday night at the bar where I worked. Not as busy as a Saturday night but busy enough. I was pouring a round of shots for a group of girls when out of the corner of my eye I noticed Pete and Clive the bouncers outside attempting to keep some guys from entering I walked over to the door getting ready to help. The next thing I knew the door swung violently open and two burly tattooed guys came barging in scanning the room aggressively. It took me a mere three seconds to recognize them; two of my father’s plebs. What the hell were they doing here? Before I had another thought they spotted me and started to walk over. I had to think quickly. I ran for the back of the bar into the men’s rooms. Locking a cubicle door behind me, I opened the small window above the loo and squeezed myself out of the small gap. Hitting the ground at a run I sprinted home hoping like hell they didn’t know where I lived.
I was safe. They had tracked me down at the bar but it appeared they did not know my home address for they did not come for me there. At home I locked all the doors. Thankfully no one else was home. Anna was away working driving her truck to Queenstown, Steve was probably at the gym as he seemed to practically live there, and Jackie was no doubt at her sick grandma’s where she seemed to hang out most weekends.
I located my cell phone and didn’t even notice my hands were trembling until I tried to dial Jasmine’s number. It was late – 12:45am. Jasmine answered after five rings with a sleepy voice.
“Tane, are you OK?
“ No, they came for me Jasmine, they came for me at the bar!”
I was freaking out
“Calm down, take a deep breath. Who came for you?”
“Some of the gang. My father must have sent them to find me. I just ran, I saw it in their eyes Jasmine – they wanted blood.”
There was a pause.
“Hang on a minute Tane. I’ll just go talk into the lounge.”
“Right. This is what you need to do.” Jasmine’s authoritative tone came down the line. “It’s obviously not safe for you in this country; it sounds like your father will never stop hunting you. Give me your bank account number – I’ll put enough money in for you to get an emergency passport and a ticket to Australia. Go to the nearest travel agency tomorrow they will help you with both of those things.”
“Ok,” I said, “Thank you so much Jasmine, you’ve really helped me so much.”
“No worries Tane I just want you to be safe, keep in touch.”
Five days later I had obtained an emergency passport and a plane ticket to Sydney. My boss understood why I had to leave. My flatmates were sad to see me go and made me a nice farewell dinner the night before my flight.
Australia was great – the weather, the surfing, lots of jobs – I got a job and a flat in Manly at a bar. I finally felt safe. I didn’t think the gang would bother to track me down over here.
Kya was texting and calling me a lot. I told her all about how great Australia was and all the surf spots there were and that I’d pay for her to come over to visit.
She joined me two weeks later. We became boyfriend and girlfriend not long after and were married the following spring. Children followed and much joy was brought to my life. I had been praying to god to bring me through the storm and it appeared that he had answered my prayers and I now felt safe and happy. Sometimes trials are sent to test our faith and we should lean on god to see us through. The gang members did not bother me or try to follow me to Australia and the remainder of my days on earth were blessed and happy, full of the joys of life, for I knew what it was to suffer and so I more fully appreciated the good times, the high points and felt that I was now strong enough to make it through whatever trial or tribulation life should send my way.
Laura Solomon was short-listed for the 2009 Virginia Prize and the 2014 International Rubery Award and won the 2009 Proverse Prize. She has had work accepted in the Edinburgh Review and Wasafiri (UK). She has judged the Sentinel Quarterly Short Story Competition. She has won prizes in Bridport, Edwin Morgan, Ware Poets, Willesden Herald, Mere Literary Festival, and Essex Poetry Festival competitions. She has published 12 books. She has a 2.1 in English Literature (Victoria University, 1997) and a Masters degree in Computer Science (University of London, 2003). Her website is www.laurasolomon.co.nz.