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.