Midwinter : The Junction
Midwinter : The Junction
When I got down from the step of the truck I was cold, not in the stomach, for the driver and I had been drinking earlier in the afternoon at a bar in Taihape; when we came to the Desert Road and I began running up on the road on the western fringe of the King country, the other way, I ran doubling up for warmth against the winds.
I was then nearly south of the mountain, in the rain shadow of some pines at the roadside. The tussock was beaten down and white grass bleached under a box, under the table of low level cloud that reached out twenty miles from the mountain foot and broke off above and around; here the edge was shatteres from time to time and restored itself, throwing down the copper light that the grass blades take sometimes. At the roadside the pine needles turned in the wind and my coat settles slowly and damply on my shoulders.
A Chinaman drove by to Ohakune Town with his cab steaming full of children. Some golfers in a station wagon were driving back from the course where they had watered all day at the nineteenth. There were two short convoys of Army trucks with cheerful drivers and dispirited men who spat over tailboards.
I might have been ankle deep in water; it lapped about my shoes and inside my shoes and flowed effortlessly like salmon over my instep. After a while my feet were numb, and when I wriggled my toes the water distilled through the lace-holes and burrowed back into the wet leather to go round again. Wiggling and waiting I stood there until a modest sort of a man in an old car shot through with soft water rust and daubed with aluminium paint stopped for me.
It was as nearly the shell of a car as you could imagine, though the sight of the engine at my feet disarmed suspicion. The man was not at ease even in his own car, quick-mannered and shy, sometimes careless with the wheel, sometimes giving himself quite over to driving in the miserable road among the tufted hills.
I made pleasant talk about the car but he dissembled readily enough: all very well, but the rust was cross-hatching the shell all over, there was a whispering in page 9in his cylinder and no pick-up.
And he picked on an old Austin and pressed his foot hard down. He hunched himself happily when the car began gaining, and grinned when the engine beat harshly in his ears. He swung wide just before a bend, and was beating his way past when a great Buick jumped up and rushed right out to avoid us. My friend swung wildly in and the big car thrashed along the side by the bushes, and tore away beyond the frightened Austin in the rear vision mirror. My friend relaxed.
"Y'see." he said shyly,"-no pick-up." And:
"I'm living in a private place down at the Junction. We've got little rooms of our own, my friends and me, and we get together nights like this for cards. Sometimes in our rooms, sometimes in the others - you know - for a change in the wall paper... the landlady cooks our meals but you can be late and get your own. It doesn't matter. It's a nice place and there's always the films."
Then I told him I was a 'varsity student going home and how I planned my journeys. While we talked we drove back past the firewatchers at Karioi, through the forrest there, to the green belt of Ohakune Town I had plans of buying a second class ticket and living on sandwiches and hard-boiled tea. We entered the town.
"I'll drop you here," he told me. "Going up the road. If you're at a loose end you could come up later."
"Look here," he said, "I'll tell you what. You could come up to dinner with us and we could all sit round the fire afterwards. It's a fairly decent meal. Not mush of a place, but there's always the pictures."
"No," I said, "better not. I've got a fare to worry about."
"Look," he said, "I've been in a tight spot before now. I know how you can get left."
He put some money into my hand.
"Here... I've no need of...."
The engine was running.
"No need at all for..."
The car moved forward and he smiled, ill at ease, carrying that advantage beyond reach and leaving me standing at the mountain corner.page 10
The wet gravelled footpath to the Junction is two miles or more long. The wind off the mountain was blowing tirelessly about me, the fine stones chafed busily and the road turned aside perpetually, going west to come north. At the end, with a great turn about, it became the main street of the Junction. Behind the shops an engine was running slowly back and forth on one of the yard's lines.
In the station it was fire-lighting time and one of the men had boarded the engine as it went past, the jumped off with his shovelful of coals reddening in the wind. He passed by above when I was on the ramp and when I went into the Ticket and Waiting Room he was kneeling down in front of the fireplace and emptying the scuttle on them until the heat was filtering through a foot of cold carbon. Being pretty cold myself I went to a cold resturant for a hot meal.
It was quite cheap, but I had to take a long digestive walk. Whenever I get something wrong with my body I think about sex to take my mind off it; this would be paradoxical enough, but at these moments it is better to keep fantasy.
Saturday night: The street was clear of men, but in some of the doorways they came and went and watched the very ragged sky. The trains had come down from the Park lightly laden in the rain, and the timber workers had laid bottles of beer under the trucks to cool in the winds of the viaducts. The men themselves had come flaming with money in the truck cabs, raving with secret laughter, to pass the money unblushingly, to lunge in the charities of the common women of the town...
Purely a matter of conjecture of course. What I did see, after a while was a Maori boy standing dead drunk under a falling verandah. His eyes were black with his generous resentment. He considered me, and swayed:
"O-o-o-h, you -----," he said at last, and paused for effect, "you ------ Pakeha ----."
And in his racial way he may possibly have been right.
In the waiting room the coal was firing nicely and the canoes were holding a reunion. There were four soft wood chairs being sat on by women with flax kits and reinforced paper bags. Their men were sitting on the chair arms, their sterns sprawling over the narrow wooden strips. The children were in a row along the back wall like important African page 11Japanese ju-jus on a mantelpiece on Olympus.
By the hearth a wet pakeha hiker was drying his gear. His skis were propped up against the coolest bricks; his sleeping bag, shaving gear, underwear, spare shirt and hiker's boots smoked busily in front of the fire. The maoris were embarassing him.
Just behind him a graceful woman sat, very hard fleshed, She was barely fifty, and her voice was youthful, but small lines of moko were hardening the corners of her mouth. She fingered the sleeping bag:
"That is a good cloth, Where did you find that cloth?"
The hiker sat astonished.
"In a shop at Auckland."
"My uncle had one with cloth like that onec, when he used to go climbing, but that was years ago. You will go ski there? I used to... when I was a girl. Have you seen the hills all round, all the same; the rivers go deeper over on way.."
She had been born here; she had been away to school, and come back. Nothing new in the Junction that was good, nothing old that was particularly enduring, but she did not say that; she talked in light short sentences, solicitous of reply.
The door opened and the black-eyed boy came in. He walked straight to the fire and knelt among the hiker's belongings. Then he turned round, pleased with his place on the hearth, and offered the hiker the neck of his bottle.
"Ha...have a drink."
"There's nothing in it," said the hiker in understatement. There was no botom in it.
The woman caught at the boy's sleeve and turned him round.
"Tena koe," she said.
"Eh..." said the boy. "No."
"You heard me... you know what that is. You -"
"Don' know... no I don' "
"Listen," she said, "now listen. You hear me when I say it. Tena koe. You know that."
"Te... na koe."
"Now you listen," and the voice carried on; he listened in surprise while she spoke to him in Maori, something remembered from his childhood only. He sat lolling back and let the words pass him by, but there were phrases that kept recurring and she kept at him recalling until his good humour was unsettled again. At last he turned to her in the dignity of his manhood and said:page 12
The woman was silent. The hiker sat subdued, releived that she had stopped talking. He had heard it without much understanding.
The children sat among the brown bottles, shining with laughter in the shadows made by the blacklit coals. When the men went out to the edge of the platform the wind blew straight in, the fire changing in intensity, not flaring up.
The word got round and the railwaymen, being used to it, retired behind the ticket windoe. Many others came up the ramp from the Junction with a great deal of beer.
The action got heavier and heavier, thick arms and lips and voices, blue streams of smoke when the lights were turned on, and after a while everyone seated on the floor near the fire disappeared under its black hood, and I lay looking down through the blue currents at the brown seaweed arms, the changing sea-cow women, the men in moments of action moving legless about and rubbing noses with the women.
Pretty soon I lost my balance andlay down on the floor. There was a pretty, Stringy waitress at the ticket window, come to relieve the staff while they went down to supper. She had small scaly arms and her mouth was drawn out in lipstick, and her eyes were restless.
There was an old man witha purple wedge for a nose, who came to the door and posed for a moment on the threshold amazingly drunk and full of football matches.
He bailed up a great Maori and said:
"D'you ever play for Te Aute?"
"N... no," said the man, and fell flat on his face.
The old man knelt down and spoke at the back of the Maori's neck:
"Who are we?"
Can you guess?
We are the boys who make no noise
Ruck ruck ruck
Go go go
E... hoa the blowfly
Te Aute!page 13
"No," he stood up. "Not me. Not this man! Not Te Aute. No no no no no no no." He paused. "No. Palm... erstonorth Bor Zoischool." He shouted it out:
"Doesn't anyone here ever play for Palm...,"
He stopped, seeing the woman at the window. She drew softly back, but he had seen her white apron and was not to be put off. He cut through a gap and went to the ticket office with a burst of speed.
"Hold on, girly, givers ticket."
"Where to?" she said unwillingly.
He thought it over. "The Park" he said.
"Uh... three and six."
"First Class," he said. "I'm from Palmerston...! 'dyou know I was a wing at school when we used to play footbal there? No? Well, you can put a ring round that lady!
"I was only so high when I was running away through them and I played them before you were born...E... hoa the blow-fly. When I was a boy I could run rings round them and never thought... twice about it. You can put your finger round that woman.
And why not? When I was a boy I went to as good school and God knows I was as good a home ... better family than yours was and you could thank you stars if you ever had chances like mine... "
He took another look.
"If your daughter has," he said, "and you can stake your life on that, ny dear!"
"A...no," said the woman, and propped a wooden block behind the glass.
The man stared at the stained wood for a minute or two, and went to sleep.
Down they went heavier and heavier, big hands settling on big bodies, seeing nothing with the lidless eyes, not the dead clinker in the fire, or the sleeping children or the open door refreshing the room. The young pakehas and the hairless young M Maoris went out to take the air.
In the theatre over the road the session had ended and the people came over to see their Saturday night express.
The man with the rusty car was standing on the platform, page 14and he smiled, recognizing me when I cam out. I walked to him and gave him the three florins.
"I don't need those you know. Thanks all the same."
He smiled again.
"The others didn't come. It was a good picture."
"See you," I said, and walked away. Did he think there might be something his best friends weren't telling him?
A man and woman were walking along the platform talking softly together. The woman's head was tilted a little back and she was engrossed in him. She was framing his thoughts for him as they were uttered and smoothing the talk a good three moves ahead. He was not thinking much about what he said; her skill was such that he had no need to.
As the passed the door he turned and watched the mountainous people who were left there, the protective arms of the men and the fat printed bodies of the women and the children's astonished, sleeping faces. And speculating on these he stopped talking.
The woman glanced at the door and drew quietly closer, tilting her head a little further back, recovered him with a small display of vivacity, pressing on his arm. He began talking again.
Down at the Refreshment Rooms I found a pair of children who had once lived a few doors from us. One was a dark boy, about twelve the other a pale girl, very thin and somewhat older. I asked after the family, and they told me about their dead brother.
He had made a raft from some dead willow logs and stolen twine to float down to Wanganui; he started out one day telling no-one but his brother, and somehow managed to get through the rapids down-river. But he had only gone half a day when the raft must have quietly sunk somewhere in the papa gorges behind Tokirima...
(That would be the small one. There was an older brother who used to burn the Guy for them. When he was one of the fashionably wicked gang of boys he soaked the base of a totara tree with petrol and set fire to it. For a few years the tree stood through successive Guy Fawkes, but at last it became top-heavy without the big branches round the base and fell down narrowly missing the whole family.
The oldest brother had played football. He once missed selection for a Roller Mills team when they found he couldn't adjust to a wet paddock. The trial was played in six inches page 15of water. He was half-back and would lose his head when the ball floated from the wrong part of the scrum. After a while he seemed to stand flat-footed waiting for a favourable curent.)
"...Drowned," said the girl.
we went to see the train come in.
Between the gothic-grey arches the young men and girls ran along the platform to the Refreshment Rooms. When they had all passed and were dead-locked safely there, I jumped into a First-Class carriage and sat watching the platform through the window. Everything was purple. The purple stragglers returned with purple teacups and big purple triangular sandwhiches.
Before the train was properly started the guard came through and found me being asked to change seats by a man who had not even travelled with a coat to hang up and warn off the ursurpers. He asked me if I had a reservation and ... the upshot was I went forward to second class.
On the way through I met of all people, Kelvin, backing out of the Ladies' toilet. I dug him in the ribs and he gave a panicky grunt and almost re-entered to finish his apology, He recognised me and tried to explain how the situation had arisen. There was a party down in the carriage nearest the engine and he'd gone looking for the toilet.
"You are in the fourth carriage, at least.,"I told him.
"Maybe," he said, "It seemed a long way....
"Any way when you nudged me I thought the devil you know from the devil you don't and perhaps I (huc) appeared to dive back.
"Hee hee," he said. "Huc."
How come you're going North,"I asked him - "you don't live up this way."
"Oh no - this is a team for the Teachers' Colleges Tournement. At Auckland. Be in."
Down at the front, in the first two carriages, there was a party going full tilt two hundred feet long. The second carriage was all guitar music and heart's ease, but doown behind the engine people were standing on chairs and craning their necks, and others were sitting wrapt in the aisles.
On either side the blankets brushed when we walked nearer. Then we shrank aside as the aisle-sitters yelled at us. With page 16his back to the engine, a colossal shadow stood with his feet on the arms of the seats. On the left a drunken ponerous lieutenant was getting the Word direct. On the right was a devious lieutenant, ghostly in his shirt-tails. But the colossus was beside himself in an attack of Poet's Head, a long way after Byron:
"I should have guessed her age at twenty-three;
A pure, refined and irritating person
- Not fair, but pallid; or pure, but white, a she
Not ravishing, but open to suggestion No no
no no person person cure on her son per no..."
The devious one, full of the spirit, was in a mood to absolve him, but the interminable colossus fell down on him, and went climbing the seats again.
"Th..rown down," he cried, driving his pantherish, middle aged body to further efforts, "thrown down! Like - "
"A colossus?" asked the drunken one and fell down under the wieght of the Unbearable.
"Right! " said the great man climbing past him. "Like the bitter-bodied thrown-down cast Colossus in the roads... the roads... in the Port of -"
"Rhodes," said the drunken son.
"That's what I told you... of Rhodes in the harbour...M.. mouth."
The other pondered. "Rhodes, all the same," he said staunchly. He marshalled his thoughts and seated himself with abrupt dignity. His hands were clasping the colossal darkened foot.
The monster rolled his body above and arrogantly trod on somebody in the aisle as he desended. He trod on several of the other students and stood up and beat his breast howling:
"Travellers!" and tried to duck-walk along the arm of a seat. He fell carelessly to the flor, and began crawling back nearer to the engine. When he was half way there he stopped near a blanket, and knelt there in front of it.
"Hey," advised the ghostly lientenant.
"Wrap up." said the colossus softly, and crawled under the blanket.
"A good man if you get to know him." kelvin said, "though I don't think you'll be seeing him again tonight. I'll intro-page 17duce you to somebody. If I can find anybody."
The train had finished climbing and drew quickly into National Park, where it was stopping to take on water. The singing party in the second carriage had become a shouting and then a dancing party; when the train stopped they all conga'd out on to the platform, and some of us from the first carriage joined them.
They went it from one end of the covered platform to the other, their bodies in a great hip-rolling millipede, then went whooping forty or fifty yards into the open; but the second or third person in the line said;
And some of the others said hey look, and the line broke The air was dry and the clouds were going away overhead.
The moon ran among them undimmed by the thin shapes, racing to hold its place in the sky. The stars were very few and shone weakly.
There to the east was the mountain, grey with snow. The sky lay so deep around that no stars could shine there. Ruapehu so clear and close after the high winds and rain that they might all step over as if to touch a cunning hardboard silhouette.
But the white earth was furled under our feet to break out beneath the feet of the explorers.
For a short time we watched. Then some laughed and we returned to the train, now ready to go again. Beside me a girl turned away.
"Have you two met?" said Kelvin.
"I don't think so," I said. I knew not.
"How do you do?" and she knew not, for sure. She put it into words. "I haven't seen you around."
"Oh... on section."
I knew enough to say that. We walked up the platform.
"What are you going for?"
"Oh... I'm women's Hockey."
We entered the train.
"I should have seen you sometime," she said.
"You will ...next term," I suggested.
She smiled, "Maybe," and looked for a seat. There were none, but the girl spoke to her friend who went away taking the blanket wither her. Blankets seemed to count for a great deal.page 18
We sat down together.
"What's your name?" I asked her. "I can't get to know you if I don't know your name."
"And the other one?"
"Larcombe. And yours?"
"No. Guess again."
We settled down.
"No blanket," she said softly, and giggled.
We talked together, and for a while after the train started I was able to tell her what was outside the window. The train was coming to the western edge of the plateau, moving into living bush. Then there was the long confusing trip down the Spiral.
We gave up talking in Raurimu, which is nothing to talk about, and made love. The moon outside spread a fine bubble over the stone shapes in the bush. Smoothly the carriage grew utterly dark and the train was moving more slowly on the weak roadbeds at the side of the Wanganui River valley. The weak river mist lay a hundred feet thick between us and the sky.
I sat wide awake with my arms around her listening to the Manunui straight, the bridge and the level crossings in town. As always the train was a little late. I got up and stretched.
She opened her eyes. She too was wide awake.
"Where are you going?"
"I won't be long. I'm thirsty."
"Don't be long."
"No," I said, "I shan't be lone."
A taxi was parked alongside the freight ramp, the driver out to the wide. There were some new street lights, stronger than before, but the ends of the street were obscured with fog.
At the east end, past the shops, the plane trees grew on both sides and the street lights were further apart. I passed the school and went down the short slope to the lower river terrace. The main road lay dead flat there.
The fog was growing thicker and the lights weaker. I was about five minutes from home. The air moved quietly by and the hills stood withdrawn.