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Sport 14: Autumn 1995

Shelagh Duckham Cox — The Demolition Yard

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Shelagh Duckham Cox

The Demolition Yard

‘Do you remember the house?’ the old man asked.

Catherine looked at the four great curving bow windows, upstairs and down, misted with cold. ‘It’s not quite a memory,’ she said slowly, ‘more an imprint of a starting-place. Or something genetic, perhaps.’

Her grandfather smiled at her. ‘You were so young when you left,’ he said, ‘so little when they took you away, so small a person for an emigrant.’

The bulges of the house loomed. They were what she had sought in Levin: in the roundnesses of the Ford Zephyr that had followed the three of them by cargo ship, in the curve of the Morphy-Richards toaster none of the other kids had on their kitchen benches, the shapes that stirred her with every car-ride, every breakfast.

She looked up to the pointed attic gable on the third floor. This was the other shape that had prodded her through her childhood—the giddying angle of a mountain-top, a decaying church roof in an empty paddock, an A-frame bach at Hokio beach.

Then she felt her first jolt of real surprise. So her mother had grown up in a house with thick stone walls that couldn’t be cut into bits with a saw.

The old man started to move again. He struck at the gravel with his shooting-stick and bent over to strike again at whatever it was that lay hidden below. Ancestors’ bodies, perhaps: one generation after another building up the loam. Underneath is where we belong, Catherine thought suddenly, all of us except Joey: perhaps my mother already, this old man soon, me in the end.

Her grandfather headed for the lawn and his coat swayed from his arms like moss from the branches of an ancient tree. On the grass he made his final attack, stabbing the sward, turning the green skin of turf into the brown flesh of earth, grunting when the stick took hold. Starting on his own grave already. But no, he was making a place for himself to sit. With a push he tried out the plinth the stick now made and pulled the two halves of the handle apart into a narrow leather seat. He lowered himself onto it with a startled look on his heavy face, disbelief that he had come to this decrepitude perhaps.

Safely sitting, he smiled again at Catherine, this time letting her share his page 66 glimpse of the antics of the nature that was doing him in. His coat flowed down in fold after fold of expensive cloth, the way her mother’s clothes used to fall when she explored the demolition yard.

Her father, Joey, came from behind the house. ‘A good army man,’ her grandfather said. ‘He reconnoitres as soon as he arrives.’ He spoke, this time, as though he expected her to laugh.

Joey had circled the house as he always circled houses and now he sped across the gravel towards the two of them in his agile self-dismissing way. Catherine felt a familiar longing. She wanted to play an old game, dance up to him and jump away at the last minute so she didn’t slow his forward movement. Instead she stayed where she was. It was only at the old man’s side that she could do what she’d come back here to do and find out what she needed to find out.

Joey joined them. ‘I remember you that first day,’ the grandfather said to him. ‘A soldier of the queen, that’s what you were. You drove up in a Defence Ministry Humber Super Snipe. I looked out of the window and asked myself why I was getting a visit from top brass.’

‘Top brass?’ Still lilting on his feet, Joey went up on his toes. ‘Not then. My general was in Salisbury and I was taking the car back to barracks.’

‘It was a pretty horrible moment for me, I can tell you,’ the old man said. ‘In those days, in that job, anything out of the blue had me worried.’

‘What were you afraid of?’ Catherine asked.

‘You live near Salisbury, my masters said,’ he went on as though she hadn’t spoken. ‘Start with a direct hit to the cathedral. The whole city’s razed, kaput, nothing to be done there. Your brief is with the countryside around it.’ He wobbled a little on his stick and waved his arm at the peaceful fields beyond the garden hedge. ‘The effects on the food chain. Radiation. Injuries. Epidemics.’

‘Was it all secret?’

This time her grandfather answered her.

‘Top secret.’

‘And you thought the army was turning up at your door.’

‘Carelessness, maybe: I’d dropped a file. Human frailty: someone’d seduced my typist. Our girls were cleared for the work, of course, but you never really knew. Spies everywhere, that’s what I thought then. It does strange things to the mind, you know, working on things you can never talk about. Then I took a closer look. And I saw there was only a private in the car.’

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‘Driver. I was a driver, not a private,’ Joey said.

The old man’s face assumed a vividness and power, and—more than that—a familiarity with vividness and power. This time his voice was a young man’s, musical, compelling, amused. ‘Your father put on the brake, Catherine, leapt out, and ran, simply bounded, round his machine, rubbing at a spot on the bonnet with his sleeve, checking the locks. I made for the front door pretty smartly and your mother was behind me, trying—a bit late in the day I thought—to tell me what was going on: it’s all right, she said, you don’t need to worry, he’s just doing his National Service, he’s only got a year to go. And that was it. The first I’d heard.’

Joey looked down on him in the manner of a man looking up at someone. And indeed the grandfather was now a leader of men on a fine horse and her father was the groom, his arms hanging loose, ready to take the reins when they slackened. Horseman and groom. With her mother, in those days, mounted in her proper place at the horseman’s side.

‘Didn’t they tell you about all this?’ the old man asked, as though a key element had been left out of her childhood.

‘I remember your army hat,’ Catherine said to her father, ‘the beret you wore when you cut up the Levin house.’ He’d made sawdust and her mother had vacuumed it up. She’d made the long descent from horsewoman to groom’s assistant, the vast move from here to there, and Catherine didn’t know anything about it. ‘What on earth were you up to? Why did you bring the car here?’

‘To take your mother back to London.’

‘Did they let you do things like that?’

‘It was her idea. She decided to sit in the back and pretend to be a general’s daughter. For a lark.’

‘A lark,’ the grandfather said, and he moved his head, just a little, on the swivel of his neck.

‘Tell me,’ Catherine said to her father.

His legs twitched with a groom’s longing to leap on whatever horses came his way. Filched for a while, the stories he could occasionally be got to tell were always profoundly illicit steeds.

Words, for Joey, were brief hurls round fenced paddocks.

Words, for Joey, must be spurred on by other people.

He had taken his bloke west, he said. To the Salisbury Plain. For a three-day autumn exercise. For war games.

‘War games. Really? What: finding a knoll, white puffs of smoke, waving page 68 little flags, men buckling at the knees…’

The grandfather laughed. ‘This was nineteen fifty-five, Catherine,’ he said, ‘not eighteen twelve.’

‘So your general sat in the back of the car and you opened the door whenever he wanted to pee or look through his binoculars or send a dispatch.’

‘The Blues against the Reds,’ her father said. ‘My bloke was in charge.’

‘At the height of the Cold War,’ the grandfather said.

‘Did a referee blow a whistle when they’d finished each other off? Did the dead bodies get to their feet and brush themselves down?’ Catherine had the heady feeling of going too far but her grandfather was still looking amused.

‘When it was all over I drove him into Salisbury. My bloke said to drop him at the hotel on the rise by the cathedral; an officer he knew recommended the poached salmon there. Then he leaned over and put two half crowns on the front seat beside me. Down on the flat I’d find a café that did a pretty good mixed grill, he said.’ Her father was slowing down now, reining in, getting ready to slide to the ground again. ‘I had to take the car back to London afterwards. So I skipped the mixed grill, got myself a pork pie and called in to see your mother.’

‘What did she think?’

‘Think of what?’

‘The salmon. The mixed grill. The hotel on the rise for him. The café on the flat for you.’ Catherine paused. ‘Is that why you went to New Zealand?’

‘Did we go to New Zealand because my bloke gave me five bob for a feed? Is that what you’re asking?’

He had finished his circuit in his own time and his own way and Catherine knew there was no point in saying anything more. Not yet.

The garden began its long English wintry task of closing in on them. Crepuscules of mist caught in the bare branches of the trees beyond the lawn and blurred the edges of the bow windows and gables of the house.

‘It’s getting cold,’ the grandfather said.

Slowly he raised his great bottom from the seat of the shooting-stick and half closing his eyes, the way powerful men do who turn for aid but won’t acknowledge the person who’s providing it, clutched her father’s forearm with both hands. Joey steadied him and deftly pulled the stick out of the turf with his free hand.

This was the way her father did things for other people. He waited his page 69 chance to become a functioning part of them. So, as they set out for the house, he held the grandfather’s arm and gave him a hint of a stride; Catherine, walking beside them, remembered with a sudden sense of loss how, long ago, he had given her the height of his shoulders and the speed of his legs.

Inside the house the grandfather tackled the job of finding his chair and sitting down in it. Now there was no need to keep himself upright or balanced he fell into an unnatural stillness. The horseman became an equestrian statue. His manhood spread out, grew lichen, drew bird-droppings, and his eyes became eyeballs of dull gold. He seemed to see himself as immortalised incarnate power, Catherine thought. Perhaps he had spent his adult life learning how to cast himself in bronze, how to prepare for posthumous life on a plinth, how to turn the eyes of awed onlookers up towards him.

He was the monument to the childhood she would have had if her parents had stayed here.

She remembered nothing of the sitting-room, none of its bulges or angles. Each piece of furniture made a leap backwards and age was an attribute to be delicately brought out—in polish, in upholstery, in hangings—not a past to be done away with. For twenty years her grandfather had lived here by himself yet this was still a woman’s room. Not her mother’s, though. Its woman’s touch lay in strange objects: gros-point seat covers, hand-made lace edgings, watercolours that depicted nothing in particular.

It seemed her father not only remembered the room but knew what was expected of him. He went to a table with bottles and decanters and glasses, asked what they wanted and poured for the three of them.

Perhaps he’d been asked to get the drinks on his very first visit here. Perhaps it was on that day and in this room that her mother started the long process of letting Joey provide for her. Mounted beside the grandfather she waited to be served and talked with his firm mouth, listened with his long-lobed ears and glanced out of the window with his eyes at the Humber Super Snipe waiting for her in the drive.

‘She sat in the back, I suppose,’ Catherine said to her father. ‘When you took her to London. In the back she could get away with it. Her lark. Passing for a general’s daughter.’

Joey sat down in lithe reluctance at the reimposed duty of listening and talking.

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‘She’d have to sit in the back, wouldn’t she?’ Catherine said. ‘She couldn’t travel in the front. Not without …’ She paused.

‘Not without slumming,’ the grandfather said.

There was a silence.

Not without slumming. The words that brought Joey into danger, hurled Catherine out of his circuit altogether, and she was suddenly in open unfenced country, riding free amongst unfamiliar thoughts.

Her parents’ marriage began by playing at eloping. The Humber Super Snipe was their illicit steed, the drive to London the first leg of their great journey. Emigration started with a lark. The open road, the driver in front, the general’s daughter in the back, the line dividing them along the top of the front seats. Her mother reached over the leather boundary into the foreign country on the other side. With the frill of her white glove she touched her driver’s beret, and in this way she made her first real move towards the life of crossing borders that was hers from that time on.

But not till much later, not till Catherine was five and starting school, not till they got to Levin, all three of them, did she make her way forward openly. Once they were there, with the Ford Zephyr safely in the garage and the Morphy-Richards toaster on the kitchen bench, she took her place at Joey’s side.

In Levin, groom and groom’s assistant, they broke in a better world.

There were trips to the demolition yard on the Hokio Beach Road. Her mother left her father to unload the trailer and went to pay a kind of homage to the stacked bits of houses. She framed stained glass transoms with her hands and squatted to look upwards through them to the sky. She felt the grain of floorboards that stood on end and pierced the air. She opened windows on breeziness and doors on clumps of marram grass.

Once there was a whole wall, propped up from behind by bricks, and she spreadeagled herself against it, laughing and daring it to fall. Then she grabbed Catherine’s hand and they ran round the demolition yard together. A field after battle, she called it: arms here, legs there, broad manly chests with holes in them in that far corner.

Joey, steedless, came up to them and Catherine broke away, climbed up on his back and told him to gallop to the car.

Now, instead of galloping her father out of harm, she had led him into it.

The grandfather looked from Catherine to Joey without moving his head. ‘Rankers sometimes do very well in the colonies,’ he said and lifted his brazen right arm to hold out his empty stirrup cup to Joey. But it was page 71 Catherine who jumped up, took the glass and went to the table where the drinks were kept. She turned on the table lamp. Her father half rose, perhaps to reach out to her, perhaps to stop her doing anything else. Catherine filled her grandfather’s glass and raised it—silently, apologetically—to her father.

She put the drink down beside the old man and sat down. In the one dim light the jutting ledges of his lower eyelids began to glisten. They filled to the brim and overflowed. Tears ran down the wrinkles in his weathered cheeks and he made no attempt to wipe them away as though they were what they appeared to be, the effect of a necessary change in his internal weather.

Now it was time for him to mourn her mother.

But his mood changed again, he clenched his fist around his glass and drank. ‘She wasn’t the one who needed to better herself,’ he said.

Catherine should stop all this. Then she saw she didn’t need to. Now forbidden things were being said her father rose to his feet in his agile self-dismissive way. He went to the window, looked out at the gathering night mist, lifted the latch, went up on his toes, opened the door. ‘I’m going to get some air,’ he said, ‘before it’s dark.’ The door shut again and he was gone at once. In dismissing himself, so rapidly, so easily, Joey dismissed his claim to any right to be insulted.

‘Running away,’ the old man said, condemning the manners that were his by marriage. No. Wrong again. He wasn’t talking about Joey any more. ‘Going like that.’

He meant her mother.

‘She said she couldn’t stay, you know,’ he said confidingly. His voice was young again, compelling, musical and Catherine was about to find out what had happened. ‘She went because she found the paper, the paper I forgot to lock away.’

And she didn’t understand.

‘I could’ve dropped it, my typist might have spilled the beans. Instead she saw it on my desk. Maybe I meant her to find it. Top Secret stamped across the top of every page but she read it anyway.’

His job. The emigration. Not the disappearance.

‘She read my paper, then she came and told me. She couldn’t stay in a country where such things were going to happen. That’s how she put it.’ He glanced at Catherine. ‘I wrote about the bomb. Afterwards. Beyond the epicentre. What would happen to survivors.’

The Salisbury Plain, the Reds, the Blues.

It was dark outside now and the room, the two people, the old man page 72 leaning forward in an urgency of explanation, his grand-daughter leaning forward in eagerness to hear this story and a greater eagerness to hear the story she wanted most of all—these things were reflected in the glass of the French window. Its latch clicked twice, faintly, a double sound made by a movement outside it. Joey. Circling.

That day in Levin he galloped to the back garden where Catherine was playing. Half way through his circuit of the house he stopped for her, not offering her his shoulders, instead grabbing her hand and making her run faster than she had ever run, round the first corner, round the second corner, to the front. There, waiting for them, was her mother, spreadeagled against the new front door, daring the wall of their house to fall, her head turned away, pretending not to see them come.

Joey stopped suddenly but Catherine was running too fast to stop and she tripped and fell out of the end of one lark and into the beginning of the next.

Only there was no new lark. Her father pulled her to her feet and stood her in front of him. So it was she, not he, who leaned sideways and looked into her mother’s face.

Joey simply offered up his daughter and his blamelessness. Later he took Catherine indoors to put her to bed. The last time she ever saw her mother she was in pyjamas, her teeth brushed, looking through a new window at a woman stretched out against a new door.

Now the old man spoke. ‘After she’d left the country it came to me. She didn’t understand it. She couldn’t. It was a scientific paper. Some of it, yes: irradiation, leukaemia, anarchy, panic, corpses. And the food chain stuff was quite straightforward. But she couldn’t know what I’d found out. Not from my paper. Not properly. She had no physics, no anatomy. Girls of our kind just didn’t learn those things.’

Mounted at his side Catherine would lead him out of his twenty years of sad perplexity. She’d take him from the reason for the emigration he knew was wrong to a reason he’d soon see was right. She’d start with slumming and the Humber Super Snipe, gather speed with rankers in the colonies, rein in with the groom and groom’s assistant.

When the old man was comforted and glad to have her faithfully beside him still, she’d ask her questions about the final disappearance.

But something else was happening. Catherine was on her feet and the grandfather’s mouth was already beginning to hold fast. ‘She must have told somebody. You. There was no one else she could tell.’ She stood over him page 73 and his lips hardened, one against the other, both of them against her. The questions all came at once. ‘Did she speak to you? Say anything? Write? Hint? Did you have any idea? Why did she leave us? What have you imagined ever since?’

Slowly, unstoppably, the old man went back to bronze and Catherine found herself at the bottom of a plinth begging the statue above her to explain.

It wasn’t any different from what she’d known before, not really. Ever since her mother went for good Catherine had done all the imagining for everyone. Now she sat in the English sitting-room and moved to what she invented for herself even before the searches ended and policemen stopped coming to the door.

Her mother walked through the night to the demolition yard. At dawn she climbed in through the fence. She tried out bit after bit of all the broken houses, opened doors on the cold air of daybreak and windows on dewy clumps of marram grass; she spreadeagled herself against a wall propped up with bricks until it swayed behind her, just a little, in the first breeze of the new morning.

The wall fell down on her and drove her deep into the earth, deep enough for her to burrow far below the reach of policemen’s shovels. She took a floorboard to the beach and surfed it out to sea, on and on, till she found an island. She made a pile of chimney bricks that nearly reached the sky, climbed to the top and stayed till she was wafted by a friendly wind to a country she liked better.

All this was as it had been.

Now there was something new and it too would always be in Catherine’s imagination.

War games.

The well-run demolition yard, the tidied battlefield. Doors, windows, floorboards, walls in separate stacks: arms here, legs there, manly chests with holes in them in that far corner. Her mother was just another fallen soldier and there was no life anywhere in the whole abandoned world of houses.

Catherine went to the French window. At first she couldn’t see Joey in the mist, then she saw his feet and lower legs beneath the bottom of the whiteness, circling still.

She opened the door and her shout filled the air before she knew if she was going to call him back or tell him she was coming, she was coming.