The afternoon light penetrates the parlour curtains and irritates me. Flickering on my eyelids, the red-white on and off wakes me.
Red. Heat. White. Cool. The custard-thick air is hard to breathe. The last strands of sleep drift from my body. It’s hot. There’s that scraping sound. My wheelchair twists and follows my body when I turn to look.
He’s scratching. He does it again. Archie’s fingers dig into yellow foam, his face creased in concentration. He’s scratching the seat of his chair. If it were alive, he would have rubbed it raw by now. Above his fingers, the folds of his trouser leg are pinned over his stump. Two decades ago, the stump was the only part of his left leg that came home from the Battle of Normandy. Even less of his mind returned.
Nurse Sarah pulls Archie’s hand away. He stares at her face, wild eyes reminiscent of horses straining against the bit.
“Leurrrrgh, eurrrrrgh,” he says, and other sounds, all stripped of meaning. Yet the desperation in his voice is clear. I look away towards the highly polished wood of the radiogram. My reflection looks back. Tufts of wiry hair quiver on my head, a dandelion clock in the last days of summer. Hooded flesh envelops my eyes.
At ninety I, Harold Johnstone, am the oldest resident at Abbeyfield House. My memory is sharp, my hearing reliable, and my eyesight good for a man of my years.
Lace curtains billow like petticoats at the window, the thin squeal of a dog permeates. An oriental lady walks on the footpath with a dun-faced child pulling on reins like a small pony. Brown faces are commonplace now. Once they were as rare as exotic birds. Now they arrive with aunts, uncles and cousins, and settle in the workers’ cottages near the railway station. They come from India, China and Singapore. They work in the hosiery factories, or take positions in the new University. Their faces careworn, but dignified.
None are as noble as the natives I knew as a child.
A spider crawls on my trouser leg. I lift my hand to brush it off the grey gabardine and notice the creature is missing a limb, its asymmetrical walk stilted.
Brown faces, that irregular walk, and the heat all take me back.
I am transported to the plains of Canterbury, to the most memorable summer of my youth.
We arrive at the port of Lyttelton, New Zealand in September 1881. I am struck by how steeply the mountains rise away from the harbour. A native wearing a dapper suit helps us to load our belongings onto the carriage. His knee bends the wrong way, his withered leg drags behind him, scraping the ground. I stare at his deformity. Father reprimands me, throws a rope and asks me to help fasten the trunks. My sister Victoria looks at the man, but Father fails to notice. He doesn’t see the man smiling at Victoria. It is a warm welcoming smile.
My sister smiles back at him.
I was small for my eight years. At fifteen years of age, Victoria towered over me. On the voyage, I’d pull her hair or knock her bonnet off. I’d trip over her bustled skirts attempting to retrieve my spinning top when it landed near her. I behaved as if we were both still children. A smart slap reminded me she was no longer a child. Her features a vague echo of a mother I struggled to remember; she had grown up.
Our brother Robert was barely weaned when we lost dear Mother. In the four years since her death, he had learned to love Aunt Rose. Over the three-month voyage, Robert wept for her, a painful reminder of how I missed my aunt’s warm embrace. We were entrusted to the rough care of Agnes, a ruddy-cheeked daughter of a farm hand. She had acorn-coloured hair, and was more accustomed to looking after lambs and pigs than children. Agnes had leapt at the chance of becoming our help. She’d missed the opportunity to sail to the colonies when her fiancé contracted tuberculosis and died.
I’d wept silently on the voyage; much afraid father would see my tears.
We arrived in the City of Christchurch at the same time as a peal of ten bells. They had been cast at Father’s old foundry in England. The bells were destined for the Christ Church Cathedral, a modest church that was soon to be consecrated. It was no grander than our Parish church back home.
Father had secured a post as a manager at a foundry in Christchurch. He grunted disapproval at the wooden cottage that had been procured for us on Colombo Road, in a settlement called Sydenham. The building was modest. There was a scullery containing a fat-legged oak table and an outbuilding that housed the cesspit. It was near the school I was to attend, so Father decided we would remain there for a few months. He planned to move to somewhere more suitable in time. He hoped for an introduction to the Canterbury Club, where he might meet other gentlemen.
“In Christchurch,” he warned us “the lower classes have a tendency to mix with gentle folk. One must be selective about whom one speaks to.” Victoria shook her head, eager to show Father she understood.
“Back home, Basil Henry said common people stink,” I said. “He said he could smell them when they walked to the market.” I pulled a face. “Are there many common people here?”
“There are, and you must learn to recognise them.”
Later Victoria pulled a lock of hair over her chin to make a beard and mimicked Father’s stern warning. Robert and I laughed.
Our father was busy at the foundry. We saw very little of him in those early months. It was a summer of hot winds and the hills to the south burnt to a crisp brown colour. Robert and I amused ourselves outdoors.
Victoria immersed herself in books and embroidery at first. However, it soon became clear we could do as we pleased. No longer under Aunt Rose’s watchful eye, it was easy to slip away from Agnes. My sister would take walks in the Domain. Sometimes Robert trailed after her, pulling at her skirt.
“Take me,” he’d cry. But Victoria would shake her parasol at him.
“Be away with you,” she’d say. “I’m a lady now. I don’t walk with children.” Sometimes our sister came back with straw in her hair, her hat askance. She didn’t look like a lady on those days.
Agnes encouraged me to take Robert.
“Keep ‘im off me ‘ands. I’ve enough to do.” We walked for miles, and then we’d kick our boots off and wriggle our toes in the scorched grass. The mountains to the West seemed so large on a clear day.
We peered into shop windows. We roamed to the countryside, passing unfamiliar trees and birds. We threw pebbles into the river, made mud pies and fashioned weapons out of twigs. At home, Agnes barely interfered with our play. We dawdled for hours with our tops and hoops. Sometimes I’d place a book over my mud-stained breeches and read to Robert.
The laughter of the Sydenham boys seeped through the windows. Heedful of Father’s warnings, I stayed away from them for a while, for I knew them to be common. But their joyful shouts were so appealing. After a few weeks, I could resist no longer. I began to talk to them. The boys’ strange accents were hard to understand. I had to ask them to repeat themselves. The Lanky-town boys, as they were known, welcomed my brother and me into their fold. They called us Rob and Harry.
“Tell us about the old country, tell us!” They wanted to hear about the home they’d never known. I am a little ashamed to say I exaggerated wildly, spinning tales of taking tea with Her Majesty, and an escaped lion from a circus.
One day a fat boy snatched my hoop.
“Gimme, gimme it’sh mine.”
The sluggish movements of his tongue made him sound slow as if his mouth were full of treacle.
Another boy of eight or nine came running from nowhere.
“Leave him be, Billy Jones,” the new boy shouted, “or I’ll tell your ma.” We stared as Billy dropped my hoop and ran off, a line of spittle arcing behind him.
“Thanks.” I was frightened but pleased I’d not lost my toy. “Thank you,” I said to the boy. His bony knees had poked holes in his britches. “What’s your name?”
“Matthew McWilliams,” the boy said. “Billy’s simple, but he won’t hurt.”
“I’m Harold. Harold Johnstone, but folks call me Harry.” I tried to speak like a Lanky-Town boy, but the words felt strange in my mouth.
We sat on a low wall and talked. Matthew had lost his mother too. She’d died from typhoid when he was a baby. He had a grown up brother.
I saw Matthew the next day and the one after that. It wasn’t long before we became friends. We ran down the street, dodging steam-powered trams. Robert tagged along behind us. We drooled at the biscuity smell from the factory on St. Asaph Street. We watched cattle being driven to the sale yards, leaving heaps manure in their behind them.
One day Matthew said, “Maka made a rope swing.” We ran to a tree with a bough overhanging the Heathcote River. His brother had tied a knotted length of the hawser. We swung for hours. Later we set traps for animals and paddled in the river. Our feet wrinkled like the dried fruit.
Matthew had darkened to a deep brown colour in the sun. Some of the Lanky-town boys said he was a darkie, but I couldn’t see it. Besides, apart from the man at the port, we never saw any darkies in Christchurch. They must have been wrong, for one morning a man with straw-coloured hair approached Matthew and me. The man ruffled my friend’s hair, nodded at me and then walked away.
“That’s my Pa,” Matthew said. “He’s very important. He organises meetings for factory workers.”
That night, Father had company. Someone from the foundry was visiting. The man sat in the soft chair, smoked his pipe as he spat his words out.
“That scoundrel Joseph McWilliams will be the ruin of us.” Father scratched his peppery beard, his face scarlet. He nodded in agreement. Robert and I played with a wooden train under the fat-legged table. I stilled my brother’s hand with my own. I knew the name McWilliams. It was Matthew’s name. I thought it would be prudent not to mention my new friend anymore.
In those days father was preoccupied. He pored over books of figures late into the night and chided Agnes for being uneconomical with the victuals. I didn’t let these sour moments spoil things. I was due to start school in a few weeks and intended to make the best of the remaining days of summer.
There were happy moments. When Father trimmed his beard with the heavy black scissors, I’d pick fallen strands of hair from the stone flags and stick them to my upper lip with spittle to make whiskers. How Robert laughed.
Once a week Robert and I would watch Father clean his rifle. I longed to touch the gun’s sleek barrel and polished wooden butt. I inhaled its crisp iron smell and dreamed of firing a shot into the air.
“I’ve joined the National Rifle Association,” he said, and showed us a picture in the newspaper. “This is the trophy, the Ballinger Belt.” I imagined the Belt hanging on our wall. Father locked the gun in the wooden cabinet he’d made. I wanted to look at the rifle again. I wanted to hold it as if it were my own. I wanted to feel the teardrop shaped powder pouch that hung from a hook in the cabinet. I loved its leathery texture and gunpowder smell. Father twisted the key with its heart-shaped bow, and then pushed his massive bunch of keys into a pocket.
Robert and I joined Matthew early one morning, to visit his Uncle’s farm. Mist hovered over the grass, and a peaty dampness flavoured the air. We followed a mud track. I glimpsed a crooked form in the distance, an indistinct figure in the remnant mist. I recognised him as the suited native who’d helped us at the harbour. He had a pronounced limp, his knee pointing backwards like a horse’s.
“Maka, eh Maka! We’re here.” Matthew ran to him. The man’s face creased into a smile. I shuffled uneasily when I saw Matthew next to his brother. They had the same curling lips, heavy brow, and swarthy complexion. My mouth began to feel dry, and heat rose in my cheeks as I realised the Lanky-town boys had been right. Matthew embraced his brown-skinned brother. There was no denying the fact that my friend was a darkie. He may have been half-caste, but he was a native!
And with that came the realisation that I didn’t care that he was a darkie. I would have loved Matthew if he had been green, red or blue.
I wake and look at the darkening sky through Abbeyfield’s narrow windows. The radiogram plays Vera Lynn’s We’ll meet again. A tear tracks down Archie’s face. I have lived a long and eventful life, but there are things that happened that summer that still haunt me. Sometimes I yearn for what is lost. Robert never returned from the Great War, and Victoria is long departed. In my mind’s eye, Matthew is an old man like me, with a wife and grandchildren. In my mind he lives on a farm. Vera croons − some sunny day. The song reminds me there are folk we are destined never to meet again.
“This is Maka, my brother.” Matthew beamed.
“Let me take that, Harry,” Maka said and hoisted the picnic basket from my arms.
The entrance to the farm had a carved lintel. Maka’s dead leg made a noise as it dragged on the damp earth. Chur, chur. Then Uncle Tama’s greeting and a chorus of squawking chickens drowned the scraping sound out. Matthew spoke to his uncle. Strange words hiccupping off his tongue, words I didn’t understand. I looked at my feet.
“Haere Mai!” I didn’t understand her words, but I felt the warmth of Matthew’s aunt’s embrace; the softness of her belly, her motherly smell. I sank my face into the starched white apron tied around her waist.
“You are Harry?” Aunt Moana said as she pulled back. She had a tattoo on her chin. I’d seen paintings of tattooed ladies in the museum. Those pictures had frightened me. But Aunt Moana looked strangely beautiful with those marks on her wrinkled face. She held her forehead close to mine. I breathed in her scent, soaked up the warmth of her smile.
It’s hard to forget the joy of running through the dappled light under the tress. The laughter.
“Kia Mākona, enjoy,” Aunt Moana said, and served us meat and vegetables she’d prepared on hot stones covered in earth. The air was still, hot and humid. Uncle Tama poured us each a tumbler of golden cider. He’d brewed it himself. The fruity bubbles burst on my tongue. Drinking Uncle Tama’s cider was more exciting than taking tea with Queen Victoria. I was a grown man, drinking with other men. Robert took a sip from my glass, and then ran away after Matthew to look at the donkeys and pigs.
Maka took a pocketknife and a piece of wood from his pocket. He was carving an amulet, a human figure, about an inch long. He showed me how to hold the knife, and I pared a little wood off the side. When Robert returned, Maka gave him the figure. He held it in his sticky hand, passed a finger over the carved features. A spider crawled onto the rug. I was about to dash it with a stone when Maka put his hand over mine.
“Leave him be,” he said. “He’s missing a leg, but can still walk. He’s not whole, but he’s one of God’s creatures.” He allowed the spider to walk onto the back of his hand, where I was able to count its legs; one, two, then it moved … one, two, three, four, it moved again, but I kept count: five, six, seven.” Maka smiled as the spider made a line of silk and descended onto the brown grass.
Uncle Tama fetched a penny whistle and played a tune. Maka sang along. Aunt Moana banged a skillet as a tambourine. Matthew sang a harmony. I lay back on the rug and stared at the cloudless sky. I squinted at the sun through half closed eyes. For the first time since losing mother, my life was complete.
It seemed our endless summer would sustain us forever. At weekends, Maka took us fishing. If a carnival came to town, though Father was constantly occupied, Maka makes sure we didn’t miss anything. Sometimes he took us to the beach and built castles in the peculiar grey sand.
The Cathedral bell ringers performed regularly. I took pride in their endeavours because the bells had come from Father’s old foundry. One Sunday Maka approached Robert, Victoria and I as we walked near the Cathedral. He smiled and shook our hands in turn. Wearing his Sunday best he appeared the perfect gentleman. Passers-by turned to look at him as he stood tall and proud, despite his deformed leg. I was glad to be his friend. Robert ran to greet Maka, and nearly knocked him over grasping the good leg. Victoria smiled, blushing a deep rose pink.
“Ma − Master McWilliams,” she said.
“Miss Johnstone, how do you do.”
More than words passed between them. They seemed to speak to one another with their eyes. It occurred to me that Maka and Victoria knew one another.
My sister had been venturing further into society. She painted watercolours with young ladies from well-bred families Father had been keen to introduce her to. Perhaps one of her new companions knew Maka, and so they had become acquainted. It was Father’s wish that my sister meets an eligible suitor. I hoped Maka could be the one. Then we would become true brothers.
Robert, Matthew and I regularly visited Moana and Tama on the farm. They rarely ventured into town. I began to love them as my own family. I’d learnt a few Maori words from them. One day Agnes heard me shout kuri to a stray dog. She’d come out of the house to throw out some slop. She slapped me hard and took my breath away.
“Your father won’t have you talking native,” she warned. “And whilst I’m at it,” she continued, “I’d caution you not to spend so much time with them McWilliams boys. Your Father don’t notice much of what’s goin’ on round ‘ere, but that he’ll not tolerate.” I had forgotten Father’s stance on these matters. I put out of my mind an occasion when we’d visited a gentleman from his club in England. Father had refused to take tea served by a blackie. His disdain for the lower classes was exceeded by his hatred of what he viewed as inferior races. The dream of Maka as brother-in-law went rattling into the gutter along with Agnes’ vegetable water.
I next day black clouds filled the sky, and it rained until Colombo Road flooded. Robert and I stayed indoors and watched ducks swim across the road. Summer was over.
I saw Matthew again at school in Sydenham. I told no one at home that we played together. Robert occasionally asked why we didn’t visit the farm anymore, but I fobbed him off with lies.
An opportunity presented itself to me one Sunday. The others had gone to church, and I remained at home with a toothache. Agnes was off seeing her new beau Andrew, a New Zealander who wheezed like a set of bagpipes when he spoke. Father had left his enormous bunch of keys on the oak table. I located the heart-shaped key. I checked no one was about and walked to the rifle cabinet.
My jaw gave me a jolt of pain.
I sucked harder on the clove Agnes had given me. The cabinet opened easily. I took the teardrop shaped powder pouch from its hook. I held it to my nose, breathed in the poisonous gunpowder scent, fingered the soft leather. I was about to lift the rifle out when I heard raised voices. In one fluid movement, I dropped the powder pouch onto the floor of the cabinet, slammed the door, turned the key, and placed the whole bunch on the table.
At first, I couldn’t understand why Father was shouting. I didn’t think I’d been seen. Robert rushed in like a small dog, straight under the fat-legged table. He mumbled something. Saw them together.
Who? I inquired urgently. But then Father walked in. His fury caused the bristly flesh under his chin to wobble. Victoria followed him, eyes downcast.
Robert and I were sent to our room. We heard little of the altercation that followed.
Later we were allowed out but remained warily silent. Father and Victoria wore sullen faces. It was Agnes’ day off, and we’d planned to dine at the inn. However, as the sky darkened, Robert and I were sent to bed with no supper. Our stomachs rumbled, with only the muffled sound of Father’s reprimands to sustain us.
I lie next to Robert. Sleep evades me. With a start, I remember I didn’t return the powder pouch to its hook in the cabinet. I sit upright suddenly. Robert stirs, but all is quiet in the house. No sliver of light from the lamp below our door. No whining drone of Father berating Victoria. No clashing and banging of Agnes’ pans. I tiptoe across the room and turn the brass handle. It creaks.
My tooth causes me to wince in pain, but I am reassured by the resonant howl of Father’s snores. I examine the scullery by moonlight. I run my hands over the cold oak table to check if Father has left his keys. The saltcellar topples over, rolls across the table. I catch it before it crashes onto the stone floor. I feel sick. I am hungry and worried.
I reason Father must be upset about something else. He won’t have noticed the misplaced powder pouch. I have time to replace it. A draught pours from the slit under Victoria’s door, distracting me. I wish I were wearing my bed-socks as I pad across the stone floor.
“Victoria,” I whisper, my voice breathy, “Victoria, did he beat you?” I enter her bedroom to ask what punishment Father has meted out. I hope to ascertain what her indiscretion was in the first instance. I push open her door reasoning she will forgive this intrusion, as I am concerned for her well-being. The curtains fly like wild demons through the wide-open window. My sister is not in her bed.
I pull on one of Victoria’s jackets as protection against the brisk wind and climb out of her window in my bare feet. I have to bite my tongue, so I don’t cry out when I step on a jagged stone.
That scraping sound. It doesn’t make any sense but is strangely reassuring.
The wind whistles like a boiling kettle. I believe I must have imagined the noise. I look around at the moonlit back yard. I hear it again.
I slip out of our yard and follow the familiar route to school. The sound seems to come from that direction.
There are ghostly shadows in the moonlight. They move in the wind. I hear a low moan. Then another. A different voice. I follow the sounds, uncertain what they are. I trip on a pile of hoops in the school grounds and follow the moans from the side of the building. The aspect is sheltered from street view.
I sense I am near the source of the sounds. I hear panting. I step as quietly, uncertain what I’m going to find. Something makes me think of Father’s rifle. I hesitate before turning the corner. My eyes have become accustomed to the faint silvery moonlight.
I see a pair of bloomers, slumped on the ground picked out by moonlight. They look like discarded legs. I see Maka pressed against someone on the wall. It’s dark under the eaves, but I see his body pushing against hers. Against my sister. I almost scream but realise they are embracing. Her corset is partially unlaced. I want to look away, but can’t. Victoria’s bosom is bare. In the pale light, Maka’s breeches appear to be around his boots. One bare knee is pointing grotesquely backwards.
He grunts and pushes against Victoria. Harder. Faster. An animal howls in the distance. The wind settles momentarily. I fear for my sister’s safety as she lets out a shuddering cry, her sobs barely audible. I hear one word.
She is not in mortal danger, although I am uncertain about the safety of her soul.
The thud of a hand on my shoulder causes me to yelp in fear.
Victoria and Maka turn to see Father and me at the corner of the schoolhouse.
After Father had found us, I was told to return to the house. I don’t think I’d ever heard him so angry. So furious, his voice came out in short still gasps.
I returned to find Robert whimpering. I tried to still my shivering limbs as I hushed him back to sleep.
Shortly afterwards the door slammed. I strained to discover what was being said. I heard a scraping sound, followed by another slam, and Victoria’s urgent screams,
No, no, not that!
I lay in the bed petrified. The sheets warmed up around me, as I emptied my bladder in terror.
Another sound. A distant crunch. A whimper.
The bed turned colder. And colder still. Yet I lay there with my teeth clenched, not daring to move.
When I awoke, daylight was streaming into the room. Robert was weeping.
I ventured into the scullery. Father’s heavy black scissors lay on the oak table next to the upturned saltcellar. The stone flags were covered with long strands of hair. Victoria’s hair.
I found my sister in her bed with one of her Sunday hats pulled over her head. She told me to leave her be.
I lie in the home I have shared with others in the twilight years of my life. I think of those events more than eighty years ago. Sleep eludes me. I think about how our return to England was swiftly arranged after those dreadful events.
Did Maka think I had betrayed him? Deliberately given them away? Why had he been violating my sister? I never knew what happened to him in the end, not for sure.
I attended school intermittently while we waited to leave New Zealand.
I never saw Matthew or Maka. There were wooden boards nailed onto the windows of their house. I thought of visiting Moana and Tama’s farm, but Father or Agnes watched our every move.
When we sailed, Agnes did not return with us to England. Andrew, her wheezing New Zealander, had asked her to marry him.
In England, Robert changed into a quiet, sullen child. People began to whisper that he was simple. I too was terribly distracted and fell behind in my lessons. I suffered horrifying nightmares. Nightmares about that terrible night and what I had discovered the next day. Things I could barely understand.
Upon our return to England, Father began making matrimonial enquiries for Victoria. Some of his choices were not very ambitious. A cobbler. A smith. Victoria was still wearing French berets to cover her disfigurement and had replaced her ladylike gowns with loose, shapeless frocks. None of Father’s propositions came to fruition.
My sister died of a mysterious fever a few months after our return. The physician came out of the room where my sister lay, carrying something in a brown sack. The sack had dark red stains on it. Seeing Robert and me outside the door, he’d shaken his head and told us to look away.
I only came to understand what the horrifying contents of the brown sack were as I grew older. I realised what my sister had done and what the likely consequences were. But even as I became a man myself, I was still haunted by what happened the morning after Father had found us in the schoolyard.
I was delirious from lack of sleep when I went to school that Monday. My teacher’s cane rapped my knuckles for the misspellings on my slate.
I’d loitered outside the school gates afterwards, but Agnes appeared, pulled me by the ear and led me back to Colombo Road.
Father was preparing to take Victoria to see the Reverend Butler. She wept silently. There was a kerchief tied around her head. Father told Agnes to take Robert to the domain. In his distracted state, my father left his key fob on the fat-legged table. As soon as the door clicked shut, I picked out the heart-shaped key, turned it in the lock, with a view to repositioning the powder pouch.
I opened the cabinet.
A cold chill rushed from my fingers to my feet.
I didn’t need to re-position the pouch. It was hanging exactly where it should have been. Someone had placed it on its hook beside the rifle.
I placed my finger and thumb on the gunpowder pouch and discovered it was empty.