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By Celestine Hitiura Vaite
Little, BrownCopyright © 2004 Celestine Hitiura Vaite
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Day You Came to Me
When a woman doesn't collect her man's pay she gets zero francs because her man goes to the bar with his colleagues to celebrate the end of the week and you know how it is, eh? A drink for les copains! Then he comes home with empty pockets, but he's very happy. He tells his woman stories that don't stand straight to make her laugh, but she doesn't feel like laughing at all. She's cranky and she just wants her man to shut up.
Finally he falls asleep. He wakes up with a sore head and says that he'd like some slices of roast beef and lemonade.
Well, Materena is fiu of all this!
She's not asking Pito to give her all his pay down to the last franc. She just wants a few thousand francs, that's all. Just enough for food, gas, kerosene, washing powder, and bits and pieces for their son. That is why it is imperative that Materena collects Pito's pay, to which she believes she's absolutely entitled. She's Pito's cook, cleaner, listener, lover, and she's the mother of his son. It's not as if she does nothing all day.
Materena asks Pito if she could collect his pay, with sugar in her voice and tenderness in her smile.
"Don't even think about it, woman," Pito snaps, flicking a page of last week's newspaper. He tellsMaterena about his colleague whose woman collects his pay, and how all the others mock him. "Who's the man and who's the woman between you and your woman? Who's the noodle? Who wears the pants? Who wears the dress?" they taunt him. Pito doesn't want the same thing to happen to him. When you have no respect at work and the colleagues mock you from seven thirty in the morning to four in the afternoon, both behind your back and to your face, your life is hell. You don't get invited to the bar on Friday afternoon.
On Thursday night, Materena combs her hair wild-style, rubs coconut oil on her body, sprinkles perfume behind her ears, and attacks Pito with caresses just as he's about to drift off to sleep. Pito opens his eyes and chuckles. And while Pito is busy satisfying Materena, she's busy thinking about collecting Pito's pay, filling her garde-manger, painting the house, buying a new oven. The future and not just tomorrow.
Materena often imagines herself old, with her gray hair tied up in a thin and tidy bun. She's sitting in a colonial chair and Pito, old too but still handsome, is standing behind with one hand on Materena's shoulder and the other leaning on a walking stick. They are in a photo studio.
Materena moans with pleasure because Pito sure knows what he's doing. She loves him so much right now. She adores him. He's the king of the sexy loving.
"Pito, I love you!"
With a grunt, his nipples harden, Pito sows his seeds. After the romance, Materena tenderly and lovingly strokes Pito's hair as he falls asleep with a smile, his head nested on Materena's chest. Materena hurries to ask Pito about his pay before he falls unconscious. "Pito, cheri ... You're so wonderful ... your muscles are so big ... Can I collect your pay?"
Pito's answer is a tired whisper. "Non."
That con, that jerk! Materena yells in her head. He only says oui when it suits him! Well, sweet water is over. Materena lifts Pito's head off her chest and plonks it onto his pillow.
The following Thursday Materena (one hand around nine-month-old baby Tamatoa sitting on her hip and the other stirring the breadfruit stew) asks Pito, who's just walked into the house, about his pay.
"Are you going to leave off about that pay?" Pito growls.
"Non!" Materena's answer is loud and clear.
"You want the colleagues to laugh at me?" Pito professes again how he sure doesn't want the colleagues to laugh at him. He doesn't want the colleagues to say behind his back: "Between Pito and his woman, who's the noodle? Who's the boss? His woman, she wears the pants? Who slaves by the machine five days a week? Pito or his half?"
Materena, who didn't even have enough money to buy a can of tomatoes for the stew, explodes, "Ah! It's your mates who decide these days? It's not you? It's your mates who wash your clothes, who cook your food? It's your mates who open their legs when you need?"
Pito gives Materena a cranky look and stomps out of the house.
"Pito?" Materena calls out, rushing to him. "You're not eating?"
But he's gone.
Materena and Pito have a miserable week. There's no yelling-no drama. Pito doesn't talk to Materena, and he sleeps on the sofa.
A few times Materena tries to lighten up the atmosphere, but Pito refuses to cooperate. When Materena tells Pito, "It's hot, eh?" he doesn't reply. When she irons his clothes in front of him, Pito looks at the ceiling. When she asks him if he'd like to eat corned beef with peas and tomato sauce or corned beef with breadfruit and tomato sauce, he shrugs. But he eats everything. He even has second servings.
Four times Materena says, "Pito ...," and waits for him to say a word, but he's lost his tongue.
A week ...
Gradually things get back to normal. Pito sleeps in the bed again. He agrees with Materena that it's hot. He smiles. He rakes the leaves. Materena forgets about his pay. Materena smiles.
Then Materena finds out she's pregnant. She cries her eyes out because she's happy but at the same time she's devastated. Another child, with the pay situation still the same! Materena can't believe what's happening. Aue eh ... eh well, the baby is conceived, she tells herself. Welcome into my womb and into my life. Now, Materena decides, she will simply have to collect Pito's pay.
Materena is very nervous as she opens the office door. She's wearing her old faded brown dress. She wants to make the right impression.
"Iaorana." Materena does her air de pitie to the young woman at the reception.
"Iaorana." The woman's greeting is polite and professional. A bit abrupt too because, so Materena understands, the woman doesn't know who she is and maybe she's mistaking Materena for someone who's here to sell something to eat. So Materena reveals her identity (I'm with Pito Tehana, he works here, we live in Faa'a behind the petrol station, we have a ten-month-old son, he's with my mother today for a few hours, etc., etc., etc., and how are you today?).
Minutes later Materena knows that Josephine has a tane and a fifteen-month-old son. She lives with her tane's parents but that's only temporary, she's looking for a house to rent. Josephine's mother-in-law is a bitch woman. Josephine's father is a postman. Josephine's mother died a long time ago, she fell out of a tree. Josephine was in labor for forty-eight hours with her son, Patrick. Josephine's tane just stopped smoking ...
Finally there is a silence and Materena can explain her delicate situation.
Josephine immediately understands. "Aue oui, of course," she says. "There's food to put on the table ... There's bills to pay ...
No problems." She gives Materena the envelope with Pito's name written on it and Pito's pay in it and asks Materena to sign her name in full in a black book-the picking-up-pay procedure. After the procedure, Materena opens the envelope and takes Pito's pay out. Then she puts back one thousand francs. There, that should be enough for Pito to buy himself three beers at the bar tonight.
Less than two hours later Materena is in her house feeling very happy as she puts away the cans of corned beef, the packets of rice, the washing powder, and the chocolate biscuits for Pito. The family-size can of Milo that was on special and ... what else did Materena get? Ah, mosquito coils, two cans of salmon for Pito, a bottle of Faragui red wine for Pito, soap, aluminum foil, shaving cream for Pito. Materena's arms are sore from carrying the shopping bags, but she's not complaining. It hurts more walking home from the Chinese store carrying just one can.
After putting away all the goodies, Materena steps back to admire her pantry stacked to the maximum. Nothing compares to a pantry that is stacked to the maximum; an empty pantry is so sad to look at. Materena hopes Pito is not going to be too cranky with her. She hopes he's going to be very happy about the salmon, the chocolate biscuits ... and the baby inside her belly.
At quarter past midnight, the baked chicken is still on the table, but it is now cold and stiff, and Materena is still waiting for Pito to come home.
He's absent the whole weekend and by Wednesday he's still missing. To explain things to the relatives who ask where Pito is hiding, Materena invents a story about Pito looking after his sick mother. Six relatives, including Materena's mother, say, "Ah, that's nice of Pito to be with his mama when she's sick. I didn't know he was like that. We learn things every day."
Pito makes a brief appearance one Friday morning very early to inform Materena he's leaving her, and she can keep his sofa, but he's taking his shorts, his shirts, and his thongs. Materena, half awake and standing still like a coconut tree in the living room, wants to shout, "Stay! I'm pregnant and I love you! I'm never going to pick up your pay again! I swear it on top of my grandmother's grave!" But she just looks at Pito from under her eyelashes as he turns around and leaves.
She remembers herself with him in the shower and they're embracing like they're under the rain. She pushes the soap away with her foot. The last thing she needs right now is to slip on the soap and crack her head open.
She's with Pito under the frangipani tree behind the bank and he rips her sexy black underpants with his teeth before she has the chance to tell him that they're not her underpants, they're her mother's from a long time ago when she wasn't religious.
Pito busts a wall to install a shutter so that more light and fresh air come into the bedroom. Materena passes him the nails. He doesn't know what he's doing and she tells him what she thinks. He gets cranky and yells at her. She yells back at him.
Pito is gone now, and Materena walks to the kitchen to get her broom. She starts sweeping long, sad strokes.
She doesn't know what else to do.
Excerpted from Frangipani by Celestine Hitiura Vaite Copyright © 2004 by Celestine Hitiura Vaite. Excerpted by permission.
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Frangipani is the second novel by Tahitian author, Celestine Hitiura Vaite and the second book in the Materena Mahi series. Materena is a champion professional cleaner whose forte is her discretion. This instalment describes the highlights (and lowlights) of Materena’s life from her twenties to her forties, in a series of vignettes of everyday Tahitian life. Vaite includes many traditional Tahitian rules in the form of Materena’s Welcome to the World and Welcome to Womanhood for her daughter, Leilani. Much of the advice is practical and wise; some of it pointless and baseless if, nonetheless, amusing. Secrets for the grave are explained; confessional detectives feature; words that can cut you are elucidated. Materena’s Rules for Being a Visitor, when her son Tomatua goes overseas, are both sage and sensible. With the support of family and friends, Materena goes from professional cleaner to a position where she can facilitate women to help, warn and encourage other women. Vaite’s personal experience is obviously drawn on for this uplifting novel which was shortlisted for the 2005 NSW Premier's Literary Awards and longlisted for the 2006 Orange Prize. Funny and inspirational.
As a native Pacific Islander reading this, I was able to not only grow in my appreciation of Pacific Island female authors, but also of our rich culture which was depicted very accurately through this piece. It is a definite must-read if you are one that is interested in what it might be like to take a peek into the life of a 'woman on the rock' :o)
On Tahiti, after a spat with her spouse Pito, cleaning woman Materena Mahi finds she is pregnant while her husband has run away. She debates what to do in the interim while she waits for Pito to come home which she assumes he inevitably will. Meanwhile she gives birth to the precious Leilani over the next few years she trains her daughter on how to be a Tahitian, but is unable to provide her beloved child with answers to her western style questions. --- Though she detests sending her daughter to the Catholic school as she sees her daughter as a blessing, Materena does because they can respond to Leilani¿s curiosity much better than she can. Her only stipulation to her cherished offspring is to insure that she does not make her into a grandmother before her fortieth birthday. However the spirited and intelligent Leilani falls in love anyway. --- This is a fascinating family drama that provides a strong look at the culture of native Tahitians as much as the universality of love between a mother and a daughter. The story line focuses initially on Materena, but quickly switches to her relationship with her beloved Leilani. Fans of character studies (predominately two women) from a rarely seen locale will appreciate how the mom ignoring the local truism that daughters are curses raises a chip off the old block, a strong caring young woman. --- Harriet Klausner