"Act of God"
"Act of God"
"You'll come into the house for meals from now on. I can't be bothered traipsing over to the back every five minutes."
Clevedon knew, or hoped, it was a kindly gesture. Mrs. Tate had that knack of putting people at their unease.
He much preferred his bach. The house had a mothball and carbolic smell that seemed to deter the very air; antiseptic no doubt; like a morgue, clean, cold not comfortable.
Breakfast was not a pleasant meal. He had lifted, but luckily not applied, his spoon, when Mrs. looked hard at Mr., who began to mumble into his plate of porridge. Mr. and Mrs. had their heads down. His eye caught Mary's. She winked, a broad, country wink.
Mr. ate in the same limping, undecided way he did everything, pick at this pick at that. He said little. Mrs. supplied the conversation, sniping from behind the milk-jug.
"I told you not to put them in the home paddock; it wouldn't be so bad if there was a decent fence around the house."
Mr. hunched a little further over his meal, an island of silence.
It was his silence that drove Mrs. on and one; if only to force a response. Clevedon felt embarrassed for them both.
"Yes Clevedon," she said, bringing him into it, "The lazy brute wouldn't even get up to them. One o'clock in the morning and me in me nightgown. Now what d'you think of that?"page 6
Clevedon tried to pass it off, "These things happen."
"They'll happen once too often, that they will."
An uneasy muttering lull while she manipulated the rashers and eggs out of the pan on to the plates.
Don't forget you're driving me and Mrs. Stendal to W.D. today,"
"Did you think I said yesterday?"
"I was going to do those pigs."
"What! You haven't done them yet? The poor brutes. Well, you'll have to get started. What are y'sitting there for? And don't forget, be here sharp at ten, we'll want to leave by a quarter past."
About time you learnt to drive yourself, thought Clevedon, putting answers into the husband's mouth. But none came. Slowly Mr. Tate rose, his bulk casting its shadow over the whole table. That's what made it so ridiculous; she wasn't much higher than his elbow.
But when you saw his rolling walk, knit one, slip one, you could understand her perpetual exasperation. He was so slow, so tentative.
"It was his knee," she said, "He'd hurt it one season and I told him not to play the next. But he was bull-headed stubborn in those days -" there was a faint note of nostalgia, but the bitterness soon seeped through - "I've milked, I've worked with him from sun-up to sun-down, I've skimped and saved for twenty-three years. Up till now, we haven't been able to afford the help, apart from haymaking, that is. This was the wrong farm for us, like. There was a place in the Coromandels we would've taken, but he wasn't game to tackle sheep. Game to go out and get his leg smashed though."
Clevedon learned from their neighbour, Mr. Henry, that it was through football, ironically enough, that the Tates had first met.page 7
"He'd gone with the team to Hamilton. Good lookin' chap he was in those days. Whirlwind wedding, it was. Came up here and thought she was a cut above the locals. But the women, bless their hearts, they soon cut her down to size. It wasn't until last year she became secretary of the W.D... Go a long way in that direction, too, talk the legs off a chair..."
It was a relief to get out of that house. His boots scuffed up little clouds of dust and the sun blazed down from a blank sky, lulling him into an 'unaccustomed sense of peace. But not so Mr. Tate -
"I heard you come in. Lucky the Mrs. didn't wake," he said "Tomcattin' round the district already."
Clevedon grinned. It had been a good night last night. Not the usual helter-skelter from pub to pub and a boozeroo outside the dance. He'd got himself tangled with a girl. The boys hadn't liked it much, but that didn't worry him now,
"Reckon you'll be fit enough fer this lot?"
Mr. was giving him the usual sidelong stare, "Done your dash, eh?"
He hoicked and spat. "Get away with murder, nowadays. Don't know what's come over the country."
A little gob of spittle ran down his chin, "In amongst the heifers, eh? Don't think I don't know, I've seen 'em, butter wouldn't melt in their mouths."
"Lay off them high school girls, boy, you'll be getting your name in the papers, if you're not careful."
The papers...Mr. Tate pawing them eagerly, Crimes of Violence, Sexual Offences, Juvenile Delinquency, the same second-hand pleasure as he was getting now.
It was almost possible to ignore him - a perfect day - too hot for work though.
Glevedon would have liked to have gone up the hill, lie in the grass and let the wind blow over him. It was the page 8next best thing to swimming, but the sea was thirty winding miles away.
"Ah, here comes Mr. Henry, dead on the dot, for once. Just nip up to the shed and get the dettol, will you?"
Mr. Henry as usual, wanted to talk, but old Tate was itching to get the job over and done.
"Come on, Clevedon, don't just stand there, drive them up."
Mr. Tate stood at the gate, shuffling the pack, boars from the sows, boars to the pen, sows up the race and out. Mr. Henry stood back and talked, talked, talked, but when the time came, he was in the middle of it, noosing a hind leg, pulling an unwilling squealer from the huddle. Then, while Clevedon took the leg-rope, Mr. Tate noosed the snout and pulled the pig stretched out on the rope; Mr. Henry flipped him over and he lay, belly-up waiting the knife.
It was the first time Clevedon had seen it done. Mr. Tate cut quickly, neatly. He poured dettol into the two red slits on the belly, the ropes were unleashed for the next, and the finished one lay there, sucking air and pissing gently.
The first one wasn't so bad. But by the fifth, Clevedon wasn't feeling too happy about it. The reek, the heat the sound of the pigs as the knife and pincers cut and plucked and a sudden hot gush of piss across his face forced him out to the tap. He let the water gush down over his head and shoulders.
"Come on boy, we can't take time off for you."
"You'll get used to it," said Mr. Tate, his hands and arms smeared and slimy, his face dripping. "Make a man out of you."
"Yeah, just like Jack Tate," said Mr. Henry, with a wink.
The next was a big one, about seven months.
"Been left too long," said Mr. Tate.page 9
"He's gonna miss his," said Mr. Henry.
The boar on the ropes screamed to a mute heaven; the sound seemed to come at Clevedon through great tunnels of pain and heat; the whole flank of the pig rippled and shuddered as the knife slit and the pincers went in.
"Aren't they "beauties, though," said Mr. Tate, lifting them in his hand. "Young Clevedon here could do with a pair like this."
"A pound, if not two," said Mr. Henry, "He was well hung."
Mr. Tate had been a little careless in loosening the noose. The boar had clamped its jaws over his hand. The teeth had gone through in at least three places. It was streaming blood. Mr. Tate poured dettol over it. "That'll do for now," he said, "Let's get the job done."
"I'll just put a handkerchief round that. Here," said Mr. Henry.
Clevedon was under the tap again. The hills were a long, long way away.
Then, to his relief he saw Mrs. Tate, walking down the road towards them, all dolled up, fit to kill.
"Come on Clevedon, can't you take it, boy? Takes more 'n a bit o'tomcattin' nights to make a man. Here, have a go with the knife."
It was slippery with blood.
"Have we got time for any more?" asked Clevedon, "What about Mrs. Tate -?"
"Aw, bugger her," said Mr. Tate.
Clevedon and Mr. Henry exchanged glances. "That's the way to treat them," said Mr. Henry.page 10
"Here she comes new," Clevedon warned them.
"I got tired of waiting," she said, "Oh, good morning, Mr. Henry." She turned back to her husband. "Better get washed at the shed. Mrs. Stendal is waiting at the house."
Without a word he left them, knit one, slip one, up the hill to the shed.
As they watched, one of the pigs tried to escape from the ropes. Mr. Henry gave it a sudden, savage prod with his boot.
"Poor bloody brute," he said.
Mrs. Tate raised her eyebrows and turned away without a word.
Mary had gone over to see her people and Clevedon was sitting in the kitchen, flipping the pages of the "Free Lance", wondering whether to get lunch for himself after all, when he heard the sound of a car, coming very slowly, turning in at the gate, and then Mrs. Tate's voice coming up the path.
"And how long do you think I had to wait for you this morning ? But no, you'd grudge me a skimpy five minutes, would you - " Kick, kick, off with her shoes in the porch -"Like you've grudged me - "
Seeing Clevedon in the kitchen silenced her; she cast a cold eye over him, from milking socks to magazine. "And how long might you have been here ?"
" 'Bout twenty minutes," he said.
"Long enough to get lunch. I suppose you've had yours, have you ?"
"No, where was it ?" said Clevedon innocently.
"Well, you may as well put the kettle on while I get changed, and you could stoke the fire."page 11
The look in her eyes implied that he could have done all this twenty minutes ago. He tried not to let it worry him. He wasn't paid to do Mary's work.
"Did you finish the pigs ?" asked Mr. Tate.
"Well, that's really good. Never thought you would've. I was thinking we might manage to clean up those pukekos if we had time. Must've been about twenty of the blighters there when I went over yesterday."
"Yes, so you were saying."
"You should see what they've done to those turnips."
"One gun'll need cleaning. I'll go and get - "
"You're not trying to tell me, boy. Get them all, will you ? I'll give them a good going over. The oil's on the coalshed shelf, I think."
Lazy old beggar, Clevedon thought. By the time he'd found everything, Mrs. was back making a great show of filling the kettle and stoking the fire herself.
"Let's see the three-oh." Mr. squatted on the step with it.
"You know that I won't have guns in my kitchen, John. You haven't got time anyway."
Mr. had his head down, apparently deaf. His finger was tracing a line down the walnut stock.
"A lovely gun," he murmured. He turned to Clevedon, "That's one thing about shooting, boy. Football's good for, say, ten years. But as long as you've hands and eyes you can shoot. I may not be quite the shot I was. Many a page 12fellow that can't - "
"Yes, yes, we all know about you. Now out you go.
I'm not having loaded guns in my kitchen."
She'd touched him on a matter of pride.
"Loaded ! Huh ! " Mr. turned deliberately away from her and asked Cleve, "Got the oil ? This bolt's not as free as she should be."
He drew it back, palmed it into place.
Clevedon was watching Mr. Tate, head down, muttering at his gun, ignoring his wife as she clattered her displeasure with the dishes, hustling through the everyday ritual of the meal, the bright sunlit kitchen, the ordinary things that you don't think about until afterwards.
The gun sprang beneath Mr. Tate's hands. The intolerable noise of the shot echoed into a silence louder than sound. You could hear Mrs. choking and bubbling for breath.
Mr. Tate was down on his knees in front of her.
"Martha, Martha, Martha ! "
There was a big, bright red bubble underneath her chin. It grew slowly, and suddenly it had gone, spreading into the carpet.
She had no throat.
Numbly, Clevedon went from cupboard to cupboard, looking for newspapers, to put under her, to soak it up.
The bubbling and fluttering had stopped.
"What're you friggin' about for, ring the doctor, damn you ! "
Clevedon stopped. What was he doing with that pile of page 13papers ? He stacked them carefully under the cushion on the easy chair, picked up the 'phone, didn't know the number, churned through the book, found he was looking at the New Plymouth section, fumbled through the local numbers, glanced across and realized, she was quite, quite dead.
By chance he saw Police Station, 33.
"Double three, please."
The girl at the exchange sounded strangely normal, as if nothing had happened.
Silence, as he waited, except for the ticking of the big clock and three sparrows squabbling outside the window-pane. He felt much better, spoke almost casually to the sergeant.
"Clevedon Wright here. There's been an accident. Mrs. Tate's been shot."
"You wouldn't be trying to have me on, would you, now?"
"I tell you she's shot." He lowered his voice. "She's dead. It was an accident."
"Who's speaking ?"
"Clevedon Wright. I work at Tate's place."
"Now, let's get this straight. You work at Tate's ? George Tate's ?"
"What. Jack Tate ! "
"Yes. Mrs. Tate's shot. It was an accident. He was cleaning his gun and -"
"Have you rung the doctor ?"
"I tell you she's dead."page 14
"Makes no difference. Ring - oh no I'd better do that. Now just hold everything, I'll be right out -"
"Here give it to me ! " Mr. Tate grabbed the 'phone.
"That you Bill ? Martha's dead Bill, I did it, I killed her, Bill, can you hear me, are you there Bill ? No, wait, I want to tell you, I knew it would happen, she told me not to, but I didn't care, I shot her, she's dead Bill, and I did it. It's all right, I'll pay the price. That's only right isn't it ? Bill, are you there, Bill ? I'm only sorry it's you, boy, because we - "
Cleve tried to take the 'phone back, but Mr. Tate held on. Across the mouthpiece, Cleve told him, "Go and lie on the bed, Mr. Tate, he'll be right out. No, I won't tell him anything. All right, all right."
Clevedon tried to make his voice as calm as he could.
"Look, I was here, I saw it happen and it was definitely an accident." He lowered his voice, "I tell you, I think he's a bit - a bit off balance."
Mr. Tate reappeared. "Give it to me. I'll talk to him." He barged at Cleve. "Whose 'phone is it ?"
"Are you there, Bill ? There Bill ? Working. Are you there, Bill ?" But the line was dead.
Mr. Tate looked reproachfully at Clevedon, as if he were responsible, and went into the kitchen. Clevedon thought he'd better get the brandy and give the old boy a tot. Luckily he looked in the kitchen first, and no sooner looked than leapt.
It was a good thing Tate was shaky. He couldn't quite get the bullet into the breech. Clevedon had the rifle, and Tate, in a huff, threw the bullet on the concrete floor of the porch.
The crazy old fool. What would he want to go and do a thing like that for ?page 15
"Anybody home ?"
Trust him, he can smell trouble a mile off -
"Ah, Cleve, d'you think you could give me a hand with - what's up ?"
Clevedon stood back, let him see in.
Mr. Henry's jaw fell, but only for a moment. He brought it up, shut it tight, and, to cover his confusion, dealt with the problem in army style.
"She'll be dead ... Seen 'em before like that. Nothing we can do about it."
"But what about him. He's -"
"Seen 'em like that before. Got the shakes. Same as shellshock. Put 'em in bed and keep 'em warm. Got a whisky ?"
With Mr. out of the way, Clevedon stood in the hall and told Mr. Henry what had happened. He didn't like the way Mr. Henry was looking at him, as if he didn't believe him.
"I tell you it's true," Clevedon reiterated.
Mr. Henry reached out an arm, took a firm grip of Cleve's shoulder and said, "Now look boy, you needn't try and kid me."
"But I tell you, I saw it, it's true."
"That's the style boy. But you don't bluff me, no siree. Tate just wasn't the type to leave a gun loaded or even to point it, unless he meant to. Man, you don't know how careful he was. And a crack shot too - that shot was just his style. But you needn't worry about the cops boy, they don't know what I know."
"But he's good as told them he did it on the 'phone."page 16
"Clevedon, Clevedon." Mr. Tate's voice sounded very weak.
Clevedon went in but he didn't seem to have anything to say after all. Probably just wanted the company, poor brute. There, but for the grace of God, go I, Clevedon wondered, now where had he heard that ?
He didn't want to became involved, turned to go.
"Don't go yet," said the old man, "You know I'm going to pay the price, don't you ? We all have these little secrets, you wouldn't begrudge me that, would you ? I was three years at Mt. Eden, you know - on the right side of the bars though, ha ha ! "
"I thought you'd always been on the farm."
"No, I had a fair spell away from home. Things were tough in those days - "
His voice droned away like a fly in the safe, while Clevedon sat, half-stifled in that box of a room. He could hear Mr. Henry prowling round the house, playing at being detective. Why couldn't he help look after Tate ? Clevedon felt slightly sick. His eyes flickered round the walls to the small, high-set window with its blank patch of sky, three lurid prints - "The Blessing", "Crucifiction" and "Ascension", the bare dresser, the dark wardrobe and Mrs. Tate's corsets peeping out of the cabinet.
He was only too happy to hear Mr. Henry's "I think we can leave him now."
"Clevedon, there's something I want to get clear. Exactly what did he tell the - Jeezuz, here he comes now ! Remember, I'll back you up boy, all the way - but I don't think we've got a show."
"They went to school together, didn't they ?"
"Arh, but a cop's a cop wherever you go."
They went to the verandah and waited for the sergeant.page 17
"Ah, good afternoon Mr. Henry ! " The sergeant nodded at Clevedon. "Where's Mr. Tate ?"
"We've got him in bed. He's damn near off his rocker," said Mr. Henry.
"That's right," said Clevedon, and almost went on to tell how the old boy tried to shoot himself. But anyway, who was to judge ? What good would it do to tell them that? Mr. Henry was handling it well. Clevedon decided to stay quiet until he was asked.
"You saw all this ?" the sergeant turned on him.
He told his story. The sergeant didn't even seem interested, much less impressed.
"And you say it was an accident," he spoke flatly.
The door opened and in came Mr. Tate. "Hullo, Bill," he said, "Clevedon's a good boy, but you mustn't believe him. He knows it wasn't no accident. Now, you can get all the talking over with an' get on with the job."
"How did it happen ? Suppose you show me where you both were ?"
They went through all that had happened, except that this time Mr. Tate aimed the rifle.
He put it aside, and passed his hand over his eyes. "Look, will that do ? I can't take much more."
"You're shivering. Better get back into bed," said the sergeant.
He looked at the body. "I knew her. Knew both of them well. Funny things happen."
"It was an accident," said Clevedon.
"Couldn't be anything but," added Mr. Henry.page 18
"These things have to be decided by the law. And as far as I 'm concerned," the sergeant paused, savouring a sense of power, "It was an act of God, as you say. But the old boy will have to be certified. We won't have to worry about his testimony - I know the doc pretty well, we all went to school together, so that looks after that. No point in making trouble."
"That's right," said Mr. Henry, "What's done is done."
All men together. No need for niceties. As far as Mr. Henry and the sergeant were concerned, she'd had it coming. Clevedon had done a good job of covering up, but he didn't bluff them, no siree.