You Meant to Leave Us

A poem by Sisilia Eteuati

 

 

You meant
to leave us
with
nothing.
But
I see in
My son
your ears
that stick out
and
rabbit teeth
too big for his mouth.
I see in
My daughter
your almond shape eyes
your light hair.
Hers turns
golden
in the sun.
And I thank you
For taking with you
a shriveled useless heart
That could not even allow you to
truly
love yourself
and for
leaving behind
that
which was
most precious.

Thank You To My Nurse

A Poem by Rosie Jimson-Healy

Thank you to my nurse, for turning a blind eye to the crumpled figure of my partner, sleeping in the blue plastic hospital chair next to me, so I wasn’t alone at night.

Thank you to my nurse, for stroking my hair while I cried.

Thank you to my nurse, for smuggling me a brown paper bag of sandwiches at some ungodly hour, when I was finally allowed to eat again (they were delicious).

Thank you to my nurse for waking me softly, smiling, with blood pressure cuffs and pills every three hours.

Thank you to the nurse who painted my best friends nails when she was alone in mental health care.

Thank you to the nurse who told my mum not to leave hospice to buy lemon zinger tea bags on the double, because nana was dying, and sometimes when people are dying, they don’t know what they say.

Thank you to the nurse who will help me when I have babies, when I’m weak or sick, when my partner is hurt, when my brother falls off the back of a car again, when my dad doesn’t take care of himself, when my mother is in pain.

Thank you to our nurses, for your knowledge, for our comfort, for your heart.

I Want My Bike Back

I want my bike back.

Even though I never want to ride it again and I was sick of mountain biking, it’s still my bike and I want it back because he bought it for my birthday and the idea that she’s riding it now tears me up, knowing that he even put a new seat on it for her so that she’d have a smoother ride.

He wasn’t interested in giving me a smoother ride.

He told me I should be grateful the bike had front and rear shocks, alloy body, flasher than any of my friend’s bikes, he said.

I didn’t tell him I didn’t want shocks or an alloy body. I didn’t tell him I preferred the bikes on the other side of the shop, the upright ones in mint-green with baskets and a bell on the handlebars, like the ones they ride in Amsterdam with a stick of bread poking out the top.

I didn’t say that.

I said thank you instead.

He smiled and pushed the bike out of the shop.

I left my sweat on the handlebars of that bike, wishing every minute of the climb to be over, closing my eyes in terror on every slick corner.

I hated that bike but I want it back anyway because it’s mine, and even though it was a dud-ride it was my dud-ride. I want it back because he bought it for my birthday and the thought of her riding it tears me up and some things are sacred, even bikes.

Spotlight on: Refugee stories

It’s time for New Zealand to step up and welcome home more refugees

A practical, hands-on guide for everyone who wants to do their bit.

“We get to decide our national character. If we want it to be one of manaakitanga and welcome, we can work on that while we’re lobbying for an increased quota. We can build up a stash of goodwill and energy that we’re happy to spend on people who need care and hospitality.”

Read the article here.

The story of the famous writer who arrived in New Zealand as a refugee and a nobody

A haunting and affecting essay by Adrienne Jansen.

“We’re thinking a lot about refugees these days – not only the Syrians, but also the Colombians, the Burmese, the Afghans, the Iraqis – and about changing countries, the lost and found of it. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the loss of language – it’s not just about communication, it’s about power, and identity.”

Read the article here.

How do you settle when your loved ones are in danger?

A well-researched and sobering investigation into the process of family reunification. Tessa Johnstone peels back the layers of the New Zealand Immigration System.

The current system puts families in a queue – a very long queue, jostling with hundreds of other at-risk families. There are currently more than 1400 applications, representing some thousands of family members, waiting to be processed under the Refugee Family Support Category. Immigration NZ estimates it will take at five years to work through them.

Read the article here.

Together We Make a Nation

An unmissable series of short documentaries.

Together We Make a Nation weaves together video, delicious recipes, data visualisation, cracking yarns and moments of shattering sadness.

Read the full story on The Spinoff, here.

 

 

Community Law Manual – New edition out now!

At nearly 1000 pages long, it’s a far cry from the ring-bound resource of its earliest iterations. But in the most critical way it hasn’t deviated at all. The Community Law Manual exists to make our justice system fairer and more accessible to all.

From its humble beginnings in the 1980s as a loose leaf resource in a ring-bound folder, the Community Law Manual has grown and transformed into a glossy-covered, 1000 page book setting out complex legal information in clear language. Accessed by hundreds of people every day, the Community Law Manual is comprehensive yet accessible, offering real-life examples to help everyday New Zealanders understand the practical application of the law.

We know from our statistics that the Manual is accessed online by over a million users every year and we also sell hundreds of hard copies. The demand for the Manual is evidence of its value, yet for all of that the Community Law Manual remains staunchly committed to its founding principles and is completely free online to everyone who needs it.

Funds generated from the sale of the hard-copy Manual are channelled straight back into production costs for the next year so that each year it can be updated, refreshed and improved. Here’s a glimpse of what’s new in the 2018/19 edition of the Manual.

What’s in this edition that wasn’t in the last one? 

New Disability rights chapter

This year, Community Law has collaborated with individuals and organisations from the Disabled and Deaf community to produce a new chapter on Disability rights. This includes all the topics in the old “Health and disability” chapter, but is much broader and more practical. It covers things like supported decision-making, discrimination in employment, a person’s right to use New Zealand Sign Language, reasonable accommodation, and access to special education services.

Domestic violence

The Domestic Violence chapter has been rewritten to make it more accessible and relevant to people experiencing DV. There’s also a new section on preparing to leave a relationship, a new popout guide to protection orders and new content added to the “other resources” section at the end of the chapter.

Refugees and Immigration

We’ve split up the Immigration and refugees chapter into two chapters: ‘Immigration’ and ‘Refugees’, and updated the entire chapter for changes to policy over the last year. We’ve also added new content about citizenship and community organisations refugee sponsorship schemes.

Begging, busking and sleeping rough

Our “Neighbourhood life” chapter has been refreshed and now includes some other aspects of living in the community, including laws around begging, busking and sleeping rough. Our “Driving and traffic” chapter also explains the laws about dodging bus and train fares (“fare evasion”).

Specific law changes

As we always do, we’ve updated the Community Law Manual to include the various specific law changes that happen every year – for example:

  • “Dealing with Work and Income” covers the Ardern government’s Families Package passed in December 2017, including the new Best Start and Winter Energy payments.
  • We’ve updated the “Employment conditions and protections” chapter to include the new parental leave entitlements, which increased from 18 to 22 weeks on 1 July 2018.
  • We’ve explained a change in ACC policy about whether you’re covered if you break a tooth on a small stone or other foreign object that’s gotten into your food (the bad news is you’re not covered anymore).

We’re also steadily including more examples from real cases to help show what the law can mean in real life and to give a better idea of what it’s like trying to enforce your rights. We talk about how courts and judges have been interpreting and applying the laws we’ve explained in the Manual. For example, in the “Wills” chapter (under “Making a will”), we’ve summarised some cases showing how judges have taken a liberal approach to deciding whether informal notes like emails and text messages can be a legally valid will in some situations. Online readers who want to delve into the details of these cases to find useful comparisons to their own situations can follow the case links we’ve included.

Every year the Community Law Manual evolves, changes and grows. With a combination of support from volunteers, funders and like-minded organisations, Community Law is able to respond to changes in the law, keeping pace with developments in society and technology in order to provide a legal resource that supports the most vulnerable in the community. At nearly 1000 pages long, it’s a far cry from the ring-bound resource of its earliest iterations. But in the most critical way it hasn’t deviated at all. The Community Law Manual exists to make our justice system fairer and more accessible to all.

By buying a copy of the Manual you are not only getting a hard copy to keep within arm’s reach, you’re also directly improving the chances that others in the community will be able to do the same. Together, we can continue to improve and refresh the Manual, next year and beyond. Order your Community Law Manual 2018–2019 now. Email: info@wclc.org.nz

 

Busking: The unwritten code

The council brought in all these new laws. Time limits and noise levels and shit. Gotta have a permit, can’t work one spot for more than an hour. Gets me wild.

The thing about busking is you gotta know where to set up. Location is everything. Don’t bother wasting your time outside a bank, rich people are mean-as, won’t throw you a cent. Outside a chemist’s the spot. You’d be surprised how generous sick people can be. Nothing makes a person feel better than knowing there’s someone out there worse off than them. I look at them and smile and as soon as there’s eye contact, boom, hand goes straight to the purse.

And another thing. There’s an unwritten code when you’re busking. You don’t go and set up next to someone. There’s this woman, she plays the violin. Doesn’t matter if I’m here first, she’ll go and set herself right beside me, I mean like right there. Gets me wild. I say to her ‘lady, we’re not in a fuckin band, get your own spot.’ But she doesn’t listen. She’s got no manners. I’m not like that. If I come down and she’s there, I go somewhere else. I got manners.

Couple times I’ve been moved on. The council brought in all these new laws. Time limits and noise levels and shit. Gotta have a permit, can’t work one spot for more than an hour. Gets me wild. Took me months to get a permit last time and I then I didn’t get asked to show it once. Waste a bloody time.

There’s this place downtown, outside Noel Leemings. Yeah. The manager there hates me. Accuses me of playing the same song over and over again. I tell him, ‘bae, I’m not a fuckin’ juke box and I wasn’t put on this earth to entertain you.’

But if you wanna know the truth, I do it on purpose. Bob Marley especially gets him wild. I wait til I know he’s on the counter and then I start up. Say I remember…. when you used to sit…. in a government yard in Trenchtown….  Sure enough, nek minute, here he comes, wild as, telling me to get lost. Fark, cracks me up.

But I gotta get my laughs somehow. This ‘aint an easy gig out here. You have your good days and your bad days. A good day I might get a hundred bucks. Bad days I get nothing but a fuckin’ head cold. People look at me like they feel sorry for me sometimes, ‘specially in winter when it’s pouring with rain.

I know those looks. It’s a look of dollar signs.

Fighting for Justice – Working at Community Law

“There is no such thing as an average day for our community lawyers.”

Lawyers often get cast in a rather unflattering light. You don’t need a lawyer when everything is going right in your life. Instead, they are often the bearers of bad news or the person you have to turn to when you’ve already got the bad news. They are there on the edges of relationship break-downs, evictions and letters of demand. Yet in my 6 years working at Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley (CLWHV), the lawyers I have worked with are anything but the vultures described in pop-culture jokes. They are consistently passionate about fighting injustice, driven to get the best for their clients and motivated to ensure everyone in our community understands their rights.

There is no such thing as an average day for our community lawyers. They spend their days travelling between our advice clinics in the suburbs, supervising the drop-in clinics in or presenting legal education for free in between making sure any client work they have is being attended to. This month I spoke to three of our current lawyers, Kate, Sarah and Ione to find out what working at CLWHV means to them.

Prince Billy By Michaela Keeble

Billy joins john down in the paddocks at the end of the village. Beyond the paddocks, a swollen stream full of celery weed. Beyond the stream, Whitelock Farm and the national park that fixes the boundaries of the village so it can never grow any bigger.

John is in bare feet even though the ground is sodden. His jeans are rolled at the bottom and he’s wearing an old work shirt, hot pink singlet underneath. His face has eroded into hard lines, but his hair is a bright crown of curls, which makes it difficult to figure out his age. He seems old, but his hair is so full of life.

John slips the bit into Rocky’s mouth, buckles the bridle and swings himself up on to Rocky’s back. He doesn’t use a saddle. He says he used to, but when the leather cinch finally broke he weighed up his options and went au naturale instead. John rides Rocky most places, or just walks. He doesn’t leave the village, doesn’t own a car.

John might not be too old, but Rocky is. Their fastest pace is a walk, like cowboys.

“Come on, Prince Billy,” John says.

Billy doesn’t know why John calls him Prince, but he likes it, that’s for sure.

“Stay away from behind us.”

Rocky kicks. Billy learned the hard way. His hooves are steel-shod because most of the town’s streets have been sealed, and when the tide is high and the beach is inaccessible, or when the southerly is bad and John wants to get somewhere quickly, they take the road.

John is riding to the shops to buy some coke for his vodka this afternoon, and the daily paper. He says he prefers smoking pot to drinking but it’s not that easy anymore, not in this town, full of yuppies and dickheads and people who obey the law even while they pretend not to. He’ll stop for a coffee at the cafe, unless there’s already too many people. But at this time of the morning, just past 8am, the village is quiet. He can have a smoke and read the news in peace, and there won’t be too many kids to get up in Rocky’s face.

Sometimes – not enough but he’s always grateful – John reaches down and swings Billy up in front of him, so Billy is straddling Rocky right up on his withers. Rocky is part Clydesdale, he’s a giant. Today isn’t one of those days, but Billy won’t ask. John has his reasons and his moods, like Rocky, and if they don’t want him up there he’s not going to beg.

So Billy trots alongside them in the gutter, hand fluttering up now and then to rest against Rocky’s heaving chest.

Billy has some dog in him, that’s what John says. Half boy, half dog, like a sweet mongrel puppy without an owner. It helps Billy to think of himself like this. Helps him work out how to behave, even though he has a mum. The kids at school say she’s a hippy. She likes crystals, and doesn’t shave her legs or under her arms – but Billy can’t see how that’s a bad thing. The real problem is that even though she laughs a lot, and pretends to be happy, she’s always talking with people Billy can’t see.

He wishes she would tell him what to do, or how to do it, but she never does.

When they reach the cafe, John ties Rocky to a street pole. Billy fetches the bucket from inside and fills it at the tap, hauls it outside and stands there while Rocky dips his muzzle in and out, frothing up the water a bit, looking sideways at Billy. Billy loves him so much, even though Rocky is mean and would bite if he got half a chance and John wasn’t around to give him a whack.

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready for school, Billy?” The cafe owner asks. She’s standing in the doorway with one hand on her hip, grey hair spiked into a peak.

“Reckon I could have a hot chocolate?” Billy says in reply. She’s safe, she doesn’t make him feel greedy or rude for asking. A few minutes later she returns with his hot drink in a takeaway cup, a few marshmallows piled on top. He perches on a wooden chair at John’s table. John puts down his paper and raises his own cup of coffee. “Cheers, Billy,” he says.

Billy should be getting ready to go to school, but it’s a Friday, and recently his teacher asked his mum if Billy could stop coming to school on Fridays. “What do you think, Bill?” His mum asked, as if it was his decision, and he said, “Okay,” because it was what the teacher wanted, even though he liked school and didn’t understand why it was best if he stayed away. John used to be a school teacher and he thought Billy’s teacher should be fired for asking Bill to leave school. “She can’t do that,” he said, “it’s against the law.” But Billy wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do about it. He wished John could be his teacher, and not Mrs Brunton.

Billy doesn’t want to risk outstaying his welcome, so when he finishes his hot chocolate he jumps up and says, “I’m gonna go check the river, see if I can catch any flounder. Want one if I do?”

“Right, Prince Billy, sure,” says John.

“I’ll drop one round before Scouts tonight”, Billy says, mainly to let John know he’s still going to Scouts and hasn’t dropped out yet. He’s never caught a flounder big enough to eat.

“Good Bill. See you later then.”

BILLY MAKES HIS WAY back along Marine Parade towards the river mouth, but at Peel Street he diverts suddenly right, away from the sea, up the hill towards the Norfolk pines he likes to climb. They line the street like plastic lego, weird and symmetrical. He’s half way up the tallest tree when a car skids to a stop beneath him. At first he thinks it has stopped because of him, because it’s against the rules to climb these trees, because he’s supposed to be in school, but the driver door opens and Finn’s mum gets out, swearing at the boys inside the car.

“Finn! Get out you filthy little shit. Get those pants off.” She marches round the front of the car and yanks open the passenger door. “We’ll have to go home and change and you’ll all be late for school and I’ll be fucking late for work.”

Finn must have wet his pants in the car. He falls out the door and stumbles to the trunk of Billy’s tree. Billy prays Finn won’t look up. He doesn’t want Finn to know that anyone has seen him, or seen his mum being so mean. Finn takes off his shoes and pants and Billy himself looks up through the crowded branches towards the sky, refusing to invade his classmate’s privacy.

Finn’s in Billy’s year at school. He’s lucky, at least that’s what Billy thought till now. He’s smart and good at sport and the teachers like him. He always has new runners. He and his brothers all look the same, a happy gang. They also look like their mum and dad, who go to parent teacher interviews and school working bees and know every kid in school by their first name. It’s a shock to see Finn’s mum being cruel.

Finn shuffles back to the car, naked from the waist down, and his mum slams the door after him. Something makes her look up and she sees Bill, hiding above them. Billy thinks she’ll swear at him like she did at Finn, but instead she forces a smile across her face, pretending nothing just happened.

“Hi there, Billy, what you doing up that tree?” Her voice is strained and suddenly ugly. She’s trying not to show her surprise. “Kids, eh?” she says, as if he’s not a kid himself, as if he’d have done the same thing to Finn if he were Finn’s mum, running late for work.

She eases the car away from the curb, driving slowly now. She pulls a U-ey and drives back the way they came. Billy breaks off a long pine tendril from the branch above him and throws it like a spear, after the car.

BILLY SLIDES DOWN THE trunk and decides to go to the river after all. He spends the rest of the morning building complicated traps for juvenile flounder. They shelter in the river mouth, just above the tideline. You see them best if you lie flat on the bank where sand chunks off like icebergs into the fast-running water. You have to relax your eyes to see their rounded diamond bodies, perfectly camouflaged on the river bed, no bigger than an adult’s hand and mottled the way adult skin goes. Eventually you make them out. They’re not very clever. You sneak up behind them, put your hands under their bellies and pick them up. They barely even flap around.

By the end of the morning he’s built three separate complexes with four or five fish in each. Sometimes he thinks of the traps as farms. He’s farming the fish, sorting them into pens like salmon or sheep. Sometimes the traps are more like hotels. He’s rescuing the fish, giving them brothers and sisters, keeping them safe from predators and dangerous weather.

Whatever he’s doing, it’s only playing. Soon enough the tide will come in and engulf the beach. Salt water will dissolve the sand traps and the fish he has caught will rejoin the ones he didn’t see, didn’t catch.

BILLY IS FIRST AT the Scout Hall, and mucks around in the park while all the other kids are racing home from school for a snack, changing into their uniforms and racing back by 4pm.

It’s a few months now since he stole his mum’s EFTPOS card and withdrew $60 at the dairy to pay the Scouts fees. He did ask his mum, and it wasn’t the cost that stopped her from saying yes. She wasn’t tight with money, she just didn’t agree with Scouts. “It’s all bullshit, Bill. You know you have to swear allegiance to the Queen. Well, to the painting they’ve got of her in there. And all that ANZAC crap. They’re just trying to indoctrinate you.” She was exaggerating, of course, having a bit of a laugh, but she didn’t understand how badly Billy wanted to join.

He already knew how to use her card. She always sent him down the shops to buy bread and milk, maybe an icecream if she was in a good mood. He knew her PIN off by heart and even though at first he’d been scared of the EFTPOS machine and didn’t know whether to press the cheque or the savings button, the dairy owner helped him work it out. Eventually it became easy, and Billy learned how to say Sanjeet’s name, and Sanjeet would ask, “How are you, Billy?” and even if he didn’t really want to know, “How’s your mum doing these days?” When the card got declined he let Billy put it on tic until his mum got paid the following week.

So when Bill decided to withdraw the cash from his mum’s account he knew he could do it without being found out. But he wasn’t prepared for how bad it felt. His hand was shaking, he couldn’t look Sanjeet in the eye and he nearly got the PIN wrong. In the end, Sanjeet didn’t seem to notice and was already looking over Billy’s shoulder to the daytime soap on the TV. So Billy got away with it. Gave the $60 to Dan, one of the scout leaders, who assumed it’d come from Billy’s mum cos the notes were flat and clean. And Billy became a scout. He stashed his t-shirt in his school bag and because he got home late anyway, his mum never asked or suspected a thing.

ALL THE KIDS COME skipping and running down the hill to the hall, some of them on their bikes, some on scooters. “Billy!” they cry, “You’re so lucky you don’t have to go to school,” “Mrs Brunton is such a bitch,” “She’s only ever nice to the girls.” Eventually the leaders manage to get them into their sixer groups and they do their pack cry and spend the next hour and a half running around like loons.

Billy stays to help the leaders clean up, and its past dusk when he steps out of the hall into the park. He sees Rocky and John lumbering up through the track, returning to the paddocks at the end of the village. Rocky is so black only the gleam in his eyes is visible.

“Prince Billy!” John cries. “Come on up here.” He leans down and pulls Billy up in front of him. He smells of vodka and isn’t even holding Rocky’s reins. “We’ll take you home, won’t we Rock?” and Billy really does feel like a prince. Dan comes out of the hall and thinks John has come to pick him up deliberately, and that is really as good as having a real dad, better even, because John is an ex-teacher and pretty important in the village.

John lets Billy take the reins. “That’s right, Bill, soft on his mouth. You’ve really got the knack.” Billy feels down through the leather to Rocky’s mouth, and from Rocky’s mouth to the horse’s brain, and thinks, “I’ve got you Rocky,” and he holds on to the warm leather all the way home, where John lets him down and kicks Rocky onwards.

Billy is so euphoric he forgets to take off his scout shirt, but when he goes inside his mum just looks at him and says, “Are you a scout now, Bill?” and seems pleased.

WHEN HE GROWS UP, Billy thinks, he’ll get his own horse, and look after children. Maybe he’ll be a teacher. Maybe he’ll be a vet.

Afterwork by Michaela Keeble

“As UNHCR refugees the Syrians were entitled to try and bring family members to New Zealand under the family reunification scheme. The workload Miriam shared with four other part-time staff was building.”

Miriam got home from work, slipped her key into the lock and dropped her backpack on the floor before properly entering the small Newtown flat.

She took a few steps and reached the kitchen bench, pulled over a stool and sat down.

The door was open and she could hear the neighbour’s kids in the garden. One of them had a whistle and was blowing it like a professional – a referee, or a soldier. It was nearly 9pm and dusk light filtered through her windows, coming to rest on her sofa and across the rug that looked authentic but came cheap from the sale at Briscoes.

Miriam took the phone from her pocket and opened Facebook, began scrolling through news she didn’t really have the energy to read but felt she must. Aleppo.

At work they were already dealing with the first wave of Syrians – a third of the families who’d come through Mangere had been settled in Wellington. They’d hired new staff in anticipation.

She matched the blue tooth on her phone to a tiny speaker she’d bought off a friend. The quality of its sound was startling, like musicians were actually in the room. Her dad would have thought it was magic.

Miriam was a qualified lawyer, not that it mattered much. She could have been a musician, though she would have had to work a lot harder at it to get anywhere. Where would she be now if she’d been brave enough to stick with singing? Probably no worse off, maybe even a bit richer in the account of spiritual satisfaction. But she knew plenty of dissatisfied musos.

She scrolled through the music till she found the album she wanted. She got up from the kitchen table, closed the front door and lay down on the rug. She stared at the picture of the album on the screen: Aleppo’s ancient buildings intact, where Facebook had the city in ruins. She pressed play on her phone.

The sound from the depth of an oud begins with a hard edge and opens out into a field, horizon indecipherable in the distance. The close-set strings trigger a repeating pulse as if someone is tapping on your chest, asking to be let in.

When she was 13, Miriam’s dad gave her a cassette player. It had two tape decks and a way to record from one cassette across to the other. She taped her favourite lute solo end to end on both sides of a single cassette, the three-minute tune fitting neatly 10 times each side. She listened to it obsessively, switching the tape over and over, pressing down hard on the analogue buttons, sometimes fast-forwarding through the music to the final phrases of the song, which expressed – or maybe even created – intense feelings that seemed too adult to have to handle.

She was listening to that album now, though without skipping the early songs. She couldn’t believe it was available on Spotify, as if it were somehow equivalent to, an equal of, all that blond Americana. She gave the album her full attention, stretching out on the rug to create as much space inside her as possible.

The music provoked in her a landscape, a progression. It lifted her high on to the crest of a hill and left her cold, alone on dry ground. The journey seemed to repeat itself with only small variations, and she didn’t tire of it, and the journey didn’t tire of her. The sound filled her like liquid, expanding into parts of her body that had not heard real music for years.

The gravelly tune lifted her to her feet, and she moved in one direction then another, turning slightly, leaning into the pull she felt. She wasn’t dancing, but turning on the axis of herself, letting her body do the thinking, pressing pause on the clunky buttons of her tired mind.

She felt something in the cradle of the strings supporting her. It was a mutual listening, although the album was older than her and the oud player no longer alive. She was listening more carefully to these notes than to spoken words, and the notes were listening back, responding out of a discipline which seemed more spontaneous, more expressive, than speech.

The music stripped her of layers, addressing and discarding each in turn. She took off her skin as a soldier steps out of uniform, and the classical guitar whistled through her bones like wind. It hummed, and described to Miriam her childhood, her parents, the books that she had read, the region in her back which required more armour than her chest or head. The music kept her sore but soothed at the same time, allowing her slightly to unravel. She felt the hardness she wore in daylight softening and becoming pliable.

The oud was born in Mesopotamia. Maybe even Aleppo itself. Who among her clients were musicians? Why didn’t she know?  She’d read that musicians and music teachers in particular were being expelled – but what can you trust on the internet? If the U.S. and Soviet jets dropped guitars not bombs, if New Zealanders listened to any other music but pop, if she trained as a musician not a lawyer… Then what? She was missing home.

As the final track began her anxiety began to kick back in. The music made her nervous, correcting her, but not like a bully to a victim. It corrected, driving towards something cleaner, more true. It muttered about the past, and the future, but she couldn’t understand its message.

She wasn’t even sure the Syrians should be getting this fast track into New Zealand. Their situation was really no worse than for their clients from Yemen, or Myanmar. That is to say, all her clients were running for their lives. Not that, if she were in charge, she’d turn the Syrians away. She’d just let everyone in. Of course.

Through the rest the night, through the early hours of the morning until the first demented tui start crying in the garden, Miriam slept on the hard rug, her sleep a kind of hallucinatory drifting that never sunk into restoration.

The Flying Rats Part 3 By Michaela Keeble

We play netball every Wednesday. We have a name but no team uniform, unless you count saggy leggings and stained t-shirts as generally unifying elements. We are The Flying Rats, after the pigeons that smother our alley like we’re some kind of inverse Trafalgar Square. We play in the lower grades of Wellington’s lunchtime league. Our grade is mixed, men and women, but at Community Law it’s the women who are competitive.

“Why don’t you aim a bit higher?” our workmate asked when we first started. “Call yourselves the Kererū, or something. Poho Kererū,” she suggested, “even better. They were here first. They’re pigeons too.”

“Nah,” Rangiātea said, coming to our rescue. “We’re the Rats, eh girls,” even though as our unofficial captain she’s staunch as and could probably turn into a kererū if she wanted, beat her princely wings high up into the trees. We were relieved. Most of us weren’t comfortable playing netball, let alone playing under a fancy team name.

These days we’re a bit more confident. We play against the corporates – banks, energy companies, telecommunications giants. Law firms, of course. Sometimes the public sector puts up a side – the Ministry of Justice, the Māori Land Court. So our reputation’s on the line. We play hard, and seem to win, but we don’t actually pay much attention to the final score.

We win, because apart from Rangi, who played waterpolo for New Zealand and represents at Iron Māori every year, we also have Kahuariki, who could have played netball for the Silver Ferns but chose to play for the national touch team instead. She’s not very tall, but when she jumps it’s like she’s suspended in the air, travelling in slow motion. She makes whole decisions mid-flight, always with a look of unruffled pleasure as she settles on her final direction. Time speeds up again when she hits the ground.

Our only male – we need him to qualify for the grade – is Rangi’s partner, Mākara. He’s a basketball player, but he doesn’t dominate the court. He’s considerate and encouraging. Sometimes I wonder why he plays with us at all – maybe it’s to support Rangi – but he turns up even when she can’t play and still seems to have a good time.

Between Rangi, Kahu and Mack, we could probably qualify for the highest lunchtime grade. But the rest of us girls are Pākehā. Not to say that Pākehā can’t play sport, but in our case, registering in the lower grades gives the amateurs among us a chance to feel part of the game.

We get ready at work in a hurry, because we’re half of Community Law’s total staff, and abandoning the office in the middle of a free legal advice session gives everyone who’s left a lot to do. We step out into the alleyway through the habitual scattering of pigeons. It’s like a feral tickertape parade. You shield your face with your arms but you still feel the updraft from their panicked escape. If we have time, we walk to the stadium along the waterfront. Through Civic Square, over the bridge with wooden teeth, down the concrete steps to the water. Mostly though, we’re running late, and have to hustle along Willis Street, staying right at Old Bank Arcade, taking Customhouse Quay in a straight line to the station.

Rangi and Anna walk at twice my pace. I trot behind them, studying their backs. Rangi is broad-shouldered and tattoos proliferate across her arms and her neck. Next to her, Anna seems like a wisp of smoke. But it’d be a mistake to think of her as frail. She walks with no patience for her shorter and more lazy workmates.

Even jogging to keep up I’m still a head below the conversation, so I fall back into line with Lily and Zahra. Zahra is first generation Iraqi, and by far the most fashionable among us, wearing fluorescent active wear and false nails. When she runs too hard she gets migraines, so even though she’s our shortest player, she plays goal shoot or goal keep, restricted to only a third of the court. Other teams find this confusing, and their defenders look guilty just for being tall. Sometimes Zahra will stop playing and address them directly, “Can you just move over? It’s not really very fair.” She’s shameless and lots of fun.

Lily is from Dunedin. She dislikes the competitive aspect of sport and gets grumpy when things get too serious. She’s fearful of the ball and shies away when it comes hard at her. Rangi and Kahu compensate by lobbing her beautiful, accurate passes.

I don’t know what they do to compensate for my faults. I run around like an inefficient bulldog. I try my hardest and fall over a lot. I’ve never played netball as an adult before and I’ve never played above my grade in anything. But somehow they make me feel like a useful part of the team.

It’s not quite true that all of us walk. Mack drives his beat-up Starlet and Kahu runs to the game and back again. It’s not like she doesn’t get enough exercise already – she plays touch about 15 times a week. By the time the rest of us arrive, Kahu and Mack are well and truly warmed up, shooting practice hoops from outside the goal circle.

The first whistle sounds and we stumble on to the court, tying up shoelaces and pulling on the bibs Kahu throws to us. It takes a while to figure out which way we’re shooting and where we’re supposed to stand.

“Hurry up,” their centre mumbles, appealing to the referee, who remains impassive.

Today, it turns out, we’re playing Spark. It’s the final game of the season and the plastic winner’s trophy sits on a plinth to the side of the nets. The Spark players have aqua team shirts and seem older and better-paid than us, though I’ve learned that first impressions are deceiving. We’re probably all about the same age.

The first quarter is tough. We’re lethargic and the other team is jumped-up and aggressive. They succeed in intimidating us, though they also seem to be intimidating themselves. The guys hurl the ball to each other and ignore their women, who are perfectly capable.

By quarter time, they’re well ahead. I’m tired and red-faced and wishing like always that we had some subs. Lily looks angry and Zahra slumps down to rest her head between her knees. Rangi and Mack start talking about some issue with their flatmate and Anna slips off court to make an important work call. But after a few minutes Kahu calls us back together for a pep talk.

“Who are we?” she teases, poking fun.

“The Flying Rats,” we respond sheepishly.

“That’s right,” she says. “So be proud. We’re lovers not haters. They’re mean, I know. But let’s just have fun and lighten up. Pai?”

“Ok,” we say, a bit ashamed of ourselves, because Kahu’s the one going through chemo, and she’s the one who never lets it get her down.

Rangi pulls Zahra off the ground and Anna squeezes my shoulder. Kahu takes off her centre bib and gives it to Lily, who looks fearful, but doesn’t protest. She then takes Mack out of goal and puts Anna there with Zahra instead. This is a surprise – normally if we’re losing, Mack and Rangi take over the goal – literally no one can touch them. The combination of Anna and Zahra isn’t guaranteed to produce results. But it is sweet – standing side by side they look a bit like Danny DeVito and Arnie from Twins.

The next quarter starts with a toss-up, where both centres face each other and the ref flicks the ball into the air between them. The first to snatch the ball out of the air and pass it to a team mate wins the toss. The Spark centre – athletic and cleanshaven – looms over Lily. The whistle goes and Lily and the guy get their hands to the ball at the same time, but the way he wrestles it out of her grasp is nasty. He lobs it to the guy on his wing but Rangi intercepts the pass and slips the ball back to Kahu, right under his nose.

The tone of the game changes. The guy dogs Lily, jostling her and contacting her unnecessarily. He shouts at his team mates to “stay on the guns,” but Rangi and Kahu play him easily, stealing the ball and getting it down to our end with ease. The rough play makes us nervous but Kahu and Rangi keep up the positive talk, and we lift our game to match them, playing for Lily now, as well as Kahu.

This second quarter is our power play, and Kahu shoots goal after goal from outside the circle. Every goal is worth double, so two points become four and soon enough we’re back in the lead.

By the third quarter, everyone’s playing better than we ever have before. This must be how it feels to play professional sport. Anna reaches for Spark’s highest lobs and takes the ball easily, feeding it to Zahra, who chances enough goals to keep us from slipping behind. The ball is travelling so quickly I can’t keep up, even though I’m wing attack and supposed to be covering the middle of the court. When it heads back down to Spark’s end I stop to tie my shoelaces – really to catch a breath.

Then I hear Lily cry out and when I look up she’s fallen on the court.

Kahu is next to her, slight frame squaring off against the Spark centre, who seems angry enough to try and knock Kahu out.

Rangi comes flying in from the wing, joining Kahu to push back against the guy. He steps away. Then Rangi’s calling the ref over and going off at him. Next thing, the referee has sent the male player off and Rangi’s hugging Kahu, who looks seriously pissed off. Kahu can defend herself, but I see how protective Rangi is, and it’s enough to make me want to cry.

All of us gather round Lily, still sitting on the floor.

“You okay Lil? Did you see that, Jo?” Rangi asks me, but I didn’t. “He fully pushed you over!” she says to Lily, who nods her head.

“You hurt babe?” Anna asks.

“Nope,” Lily says, “just a bit stunned.”

“What a fucken dick!” Rangi says.

“He doesn’t like being beaten by women,” Kahu says.

“Specially not brown women, eh kare,” Rangi says to Kahu, in a way that makes the rest of feel like we’re on the right side. “So he picks on the small white girl, eh Lil!” Rangi says to Lily, laughing, and hugs her hard.

After a talk to both sides from the ref, the game continues, and we win, of course. There’s no way Kahu and Rangi will let Spark take this one home. We get the trophy – it’s big – and we’re friendly to the other side when we shake their hands, though luckily their centre is nowhere to be seen. Mākara holds the trophy up in one hand and says, “Go the Rats!” and I think about getting some pigeon t-shirts made up next season. It’s about time we had a uniform.

We walk back towards work, all of us, even Kahu, even Mack, who’s car’s still parked at the stadium and who lives in the opposite direction. There’s something, apart from victory, in the late spring air today. It has that mineral tang of clean adventure. The water in the harbour is heartbreaking – a deep and inviting mirror. I feel suspended, like Kahu mid-leap, like a particle of seaspray, drifting with pleasure.

Near the corner of Frank Kitts, at the bridge that leads to Te Papa, we slow down and gravitate towards the edge of the wharf. We’re milling around chatting, not wanting to go back to work just yet, reliving the game, reliving Lily’s heroic ball toss and Anna’s willowy intercepts. Suddenly Mack scoops Rangi up in his arms and tosses her, shrieking, into the harbour. Then we’re all laughing and shrieking and dropping the bags off our backs, kicking off our shoes and leaping off the wharf, all of us together in chaotic, ungainly flight for the few majestic seconds it takes before we hit the water.

The Flying Rats Part 2 By Michaela Keeble

The alley hangs between two city buildings. One of them is well-maintained and freshly painted, and its owner charges standard city rental to the law firms and accounting practices that rent out its fifteen floors. The other building is old and run down, its landlord – a slum lord – charging cheap rent to the not-for-profits that have no other choice than to pay what they can afford.

Roqué is the manager of the interpreters’ association, which also employs one administrator and four part-time interpreters. They have about fifty freelance translators on their books, who between them cover most of the languages of survival in New Zealand. They translate at doctor’s appointments and the police station, in school offices and at Work and Income. They do a lot of work upstairs for the law centre, where the people of his community go for help when the craving for family dwarfs the difficulty of bringing them to New Zealand.

Roqué speaks only Spanish and English, but he knows hello from every angle and sets colleagues and clients at ease. His third-floor office overlooks the alley, and he’s arranged his desk so that he sits tucked between it and the window. Without judgment, he pays close attention to what happens out there.

He’s inhabited this office for so long he’s seen the languages change, from Spanish in the days of the Latin American coups, which brought him to this country in the first place, to Vietnamese, Samoan, Arabic, and now Khmer and other tribal Asian languages that have nothing to do with commerce or free trade. Time flies. Forty-five years since Pinochet. Fifteen since Afghanistan. Great grandchildren have been borne since then.

He looks to the window. Forty, fifty, countless generations of pigeons.

Several of them perch on the window sill, heads bobbing. He moves towards them slowly. They see him, their hearts race, they poise for flight. He freezes, they calm down, he moves closer. They’re nipping at the tiny bugs caught in the cobwebs. He’s pleased that they’re surviving off this, real food, not human produce or refuse. Good on you, birds. He gets right up close, eye to eye through the dull glass. His eye must be so large the birds can’t see it for what it is.

The association is about to lose its funding. They’ve been undercut by Ersco, more than ironic given its history of running deportation facilities for refugees across Europe. Roqué met yesterday with the ministry officials, bearers of the news they have no control over, either. If they understood the irony, they weren’t allowed to admit it. But after the meeting, Carmen, one of the officials, invited him out for a drink. He accepted, despite his better judgement. He felt the brazen heat coming from her, but he owed it to his staff to give it one last shot.

“But Carmen,” he’d said after the obligatory small talk, “what if we had some half-decent ideas for how to make the funding go further?”

“Honestly, Roqué, the ministry doesn’t give a shit about your good ideas. It’s too late for that.” She’d only had two wines and was already letting her hair out.

Roqué was mildly surprised she’d shown her hand so quickly, and to hide it he said, “That’s a bit premature, Carmen. Here, I’ll get us another round.” He smiled and made his way through the crowd of suits inside to the bar. He hadn’t pictured the ministry official for such a lightweight. With her blaze of grey hair and expensive suit he’d assumed her to be a seasoned bureaucrat, a bottle a day drinker at least.

He returned to the table with the drinks. “How exactly did you get into this side of policy work, Carmen? Competitive tendering, I mean,” Roqué asked then. “Aren’t you too senior to be interfacing with a little NGO like us.” Half a compliment, half a body blow. Roqué’s way with English meant he could get away with murder.

“Oh, you know, I used to work in the community too. I know your sector inside out.”

“You do?” Roqué asked, still smiling. “That’s a relief.” He was reminded of a schoolyard bully who hit the kid she most wanted to be friends with. “Which one of us did you work for?”

Carmen hesitated. “Community Law, actually, just upstairs.” But Roqué had been drinking with Community Law for years. He couldn’t place Carmen and had never heard her name mentioned. He raised his eyebrows.

“Just briefly,” she rushed on. “But I always knew I could have a bigger impact inside government. Charities,” she blustered, “so much inefficiency.” Roqué saw the doubt in her face, or perhaps it was regret.

“And did we ever have a chance at winning this tender?” Roqué was tired, suddenly, and sick of flirting.

“Let’s be real, Roqué. The charity sector’s corporatising. If you’re not prepared to modernise, you’re out.”

“We can’t keep up with Ersco, Carmen.”

“No,” she said. “No, you can’t.”

A day later, Roqué is still gazing out the window on to the alley when a pigeon flies into the grimy glass. It rebounds off his window on to a ledge jutting out of the building opposite, two storeys off the ground. The pigeon lies still, its wings broken and twisted upward in abject semaphore. Is it dead? Roqué can’t tell. He forces himself to watch it, watch for signs that it is suffering. The wind picks at its feathers, revealing the soft down close to the bird’s skin.

The Flying Rats Part 1 by Michaela Keeble

Jase sits on a hand-painted stool in the middle of the alley, smoking. Pigeons coo and mingle around him; he doesn’t kick them away. The stool is spectacular, the mottled rainbow creation of one of the artists who works in the community studio upstairs. Jase found it on the roof, toppled over and abandoned, and when he stopped in at the studio to give it back, an old woman with a bit of a beard said, “It’s yours babe, it’s got your name on it.”

Don’t call me babe, Jase thought, but the lady was genuine and besides, he wanted the stool.

Today, he wants everyone to appreciate its three-legged beauty, which is why he’s perched himself in the middle of the alley. But he doesn’t really want to be looked at himself, so he avoids eye contact with anyone passing. It’s a difficult balancing act.

“Cool chair, Jase.”

“Yep.”

He has a lot of mates here already, and he’s only been in Wellington a few months. He is young and handsome. He sweeps his long hair back into a pony-tail. At second glance, he has the face of a woman. He only ever wears loose shorts with workman’s boots and thick socks rolled down into cylinders. He has great legs – his best asset, people used to say – he carries himself like a dancer.

The alley he’s perched in is a universe of pigeons. They coo and sound more like cats or mammals. They don’t whistle – maybe that’s why they’re exiles from the bird kingdom. They spend all their energy in flight, wings describing fast half circles as they scatter into the air. So exhausting. They’re such unlikely travellers, and yet they’re all over the world.

So many pigeons, and they keep doubling in numbers. The city wants them gone – culling them with poison and anti-roosting metal spikes. Like others seeking refuge, the pigeons have gathered here in the alley. Jase loves their contradictions. Their grey feathers are dull and dirty, and when the massive bull pigeons puff themselves up for a fight, or a fuck, they are the ugliest birds around. Yet the smaller birds – the younger or less aggressive ones – move with grace. They wear their iridescent green and lilac wings like robes. Their pearl-coloured eyelids blink gently, front to back. They mate for life and show off less than their dovish cousins. Why they’re targeted by the city and not other birds seems illogical to Jase.

Later that evening, after the drop-in centre has closed and all its staff have gone home, Jason uses the pass card no one knows he has to get back in. There’s a false wall in the corridor on the fourth floor, where he’s stashed a sleeping bag and other supplies. He pulls out the panelling and reaches in for the boxes of breadcrumbs and bird seed and comes back down to the alley to feed the pigeons. The rich, ignorant landlord thinks the birds come here for no reason, can’t figure out how to get rid of them and won’t spend the money trying. They come for food. Why not?

After a feed, the pigeons drift up to roost in the rooftop carpark. The exposed ceiling of struts and sheets of corrugated plastic is covered in guano and the pigeons call out in human voices. Coo, move over, I’m cold. Move over, move over.

Some of them are so sick he can tell they won’t live to see the next day. They’ll crawl beneath the bushes of the scrappy rooftop garden bed, or huddle into the guttering, and give up. A lot of them die. He’s the only one in all of Community House to bother cleaning up the bodies. Well, there’s the lawyer from the legal service. She has a thick accent, maybe Russian? She’s young and loves the pigeons too. Sometimes she takes the sick ones to the SPCA. If she thinks they might get better she hides them in boxes under her desk. She tells him this in a whisper, as if she’s under surveillance.

Sometimes, if it’s a nice day, he takes the dead ones to the park up the road, Volunteer Corner, which is full of low scrub and fern. He picks his way through the greenery, lifts the birds out of his bag, and places them where they can’t be seen. Scatters a bit of dirt and some leaves across their feathers. Once or twice he’s dug holes, but passersby think he’s stealing the plants, so he doesn’t do it anymore.

But most of the time in this city it seems to be windy or raining, and there’s so many pigeons he normally just wraps them up in newspaper and walks them to the rubbish bin out on Willis Street. People think he’s throwing away fish and chips, but if they looked closely they’d see he never tosses the parcels, but places them with reverence into the darkness.