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Man Alone

Part One — Chapter I

page 7

Part One
Chapter I

Johnson went to New Zealand after the war because men he had met in France had talked of it as a pleasant and well-to-do country. He had been billeted with some New Zealanders in a rest-camp and the way they talked about it made it seem like the only country in the world. In that period, just at the end of the war, the distance and strangeness that such a journey involved and going there to a new country with no money, was slight beside everything else that had happened to him in the last four years of his life. He was demobilized early and sailed in March 1919 with an ‘assisted emigrant's’ ticket. The ship that he sailed on carried convalescent soldiers and emigrating Englishmen with their children and families. Four people died on the voyage, two from pneumonic influenza, one armless soldier from wasting and blood-poison, and one old lady from heart failure in the heat near Panama, so that funeral services at intervals regulated the conduct of the ship. A stale tiredness hung over everyone and made the voyage long and wearying. It lasted six weeks, but they came in early one morning to Auckland, and when Johnson came on deck he could see the new country that he had chosen to live in.

What he saw then was the brightness of red iron roofs straggling down to the shore on two sides of a land-locked harbour and clustered together on one side the steel-grey cranes and advertisement-plastered buildings of the port and city. The ship moved slowly in and hung at anchor in the stream while the long business of medical inspection went on. Johnson leant on the rail, watching the shore and page 8 the small boats that went by. The deck was full of luggage and people moving and talking. Beside Johnson, a returning New Zealand soldier, still in uniform, spat carelessly into the water. The tide from the upper harbour moved swiftly down tugging at the ship. The warm mist of a day's rain that had lifted hung over them. The soldier turned and said to him:

‘That's Auckland, mate–the Queen of the North.’

‘The what?’

‘The Queen of the North. That's what they call it–in Auckland. This is God's own, this country.’

‘It looks all right.’

‘It's not a bad little town–nor a bad little country neither. It looks small after London though, don't it, mate? It looks different now to me to what it did.’

The soldier had a face that was shrunken and pockmarked and unhealthy-looking; his left arm had not recovered from a shrapnel wound; he carried it stiffly in front of him. He said:

‘It's three years since I seen those wharves. We was billeted in the wharf-sheds two nights before we sailed. It was cold as death.’

‘I didn't think it was ever cold here,’ Johnson said.

‘It's cold enough sometimes in winter, mate, if you're not sleeping in your bed, and we weren't sleeping in our beds.’

He coughed, lighting a cigarette.

‘It's home again now for me, mate,’ he said, ‘and there'll be the wife and kids and all there waiting to meet us.’

He spoke without enthusiasm. Johnson said, not answering him:

‘D'you know anywhere to stay in town for a night or two?’

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‘Why, you stay at the “National ”,’ the soldier said, ‘right at the bottom of the street.’ His face lit up. ‘I used to know the fellows there, if they haven't changed. Jack Oakley keeps it. I tell you what, son, we'll go along there first and get you fixed up.’

‘You'll have people meeting you,’ Johnson said.

‘That's right, but they won't mind waiting. The “National's” just across from the wharf. We'll do that and have a drink. I won't probably be seeing fellows like you again for a time.’

‘Well, thanks, then,’ Johnson said. ‘We'll do that then. I'll be staying here a day or two to look about me.’

‘That's right, that's the thing to do,’ the soldier said. ‘It's a nice little country when you know it.’

So they sat all afternoon with two other men from the ship at a little table in the long bar of the “National” and talked, drinking beer. They talked mostly about the war and places they had been to like men that had come back from a long journey that was over now. They talked on quietly and drank beer that was bitter and strong, tasting of tobacco and salt. One or two men that the other three knew came in and, seeing them, walked over to shake them by the hand and to have a drink. But no one got merry with the drinking. There was a quietness and sickness over everything and over the other men in the bar. The men who had stayed there and who welcomed them now, coming back, did not want to hear about the war any more. The men who had come back had returned from another world which they were too tired to describe.

Johnson felt out of things and withdrawn from them, not speaking quite as they did nor having the same background of friends to draw on, but they were very friendly to him. He was young then, not more than twenty-two, page 10 and thin and white with three years of war and travelling emigrant class through the tropics. His hair was brushed smooth, his teeth were white, his hands clean, and clothes neat. He did not talk much and spoke, when he did, precisely and like an Englishman, but the others treated him as one of them and called him ‘chum’ and each bought drinks in turn until the bar had filled up towards six o'clock and closing time. The room was more noisy then, but not more cheerful. It was full of men talking loudly, but no one was listening to what they said. In the end they all went off and left Johnson there. He went up to his room and had a bath and ate dinner almost alone in a large room with a fat, white-faced, dark-haired waitress to serve him. She would not smile at him, but served him, resenting him and the work he caused her. He was lonely then and disliking the strangeness of a new town. Sitting in the lounge afterwards, he read the evening paper, going through the column of ‘situations vacant’, idly, and not so much looking for a job as trying to see what sort of jobs men were offered in this country.

There were a lot of jobs, jobs of all kinds for young men in offices, school-teachers, married men with families for share-milking, jobs for cow-hands, shepherds, drivers, laundry-men, mechanics, jobs for men with experience, without experience, two pounds a week and all found, small capital will buy share in land agent and stock-broker, old-established, farms well-stocked near road and rail, good milkers, on easy mortgage, on small down payment, salesmen able drive, new Ford, old Buick. Beside these were other columns, jobs wanted, situations desired, returned soldier, in good health, soldier's widow, three children for house-keeping, in good health. He read up one column and down another.

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While he was doing this there were two men talking on a sofa opposite to him, and he watched them, trying to estimate them, listening to what they said.

One of these men was red-faced and strong-looking; he wore leather leggings and a check coat. He was talking loudly and he was saying to the other man who listened to him, tiredly and not speaking–he was younger, this other man, but more dispirited. He had a face that was lined with trouble and a twisted, drooping mouth–and the first man was saying:

‘Sam, boy, it's a scandal. It's a graft and bloody murder and I don't care who hears me say it. The whole country's crazy and it'll be years before they see sense again.’

The younger man nodded.

‘They'll see sense,’ he said.

‘Forty pounds the acre! Sam, you could get land ten miles out of London for less than that.’

‘That's right.’

‘And pumice land–it's not farming land–it never was farming land. It's a hold-up, and God help the poor bastards who have to take it at that price and try to farm it.’

‘They don't know any better,’ Sam said.

‘They'll know better. They'll know better than to think butter'll always be half a crown the pound. They'll know better when the soft stay-at-homes that sold it to them are riding round in cars in town and they're out on their arses trying to pay the mortgage off.’

The big man took a pull at his whisky and soda.

‘It makes me God damn sick, Sam,’ he said, ‘the boys coming home to a country like this and being treated that way. By God, it makes me sick.’

When the big man had gone off, the hotel-keeper leaned out across the cash-desk.

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‘Tom isn't feeling so good,’ he said.

The younger man's face screwed into a smile, tiredly and dispassionately.

‘He's been in town all day,’ he said, ‘trying to sell some land to the board and they wouldn't look at it. He's a bit upset,’ and they both grinned.

‘That's a good one on old Tom,’ the hotel-keeper said.

Johnson went out after that into the main street of the town. There was a fine mist falling that muddied the streets and the pavements. Few people were about in the streets though the shop windows were all lighted up and the picture theatres were open. There was an electric light sign of a kettle pouring tea at the bottom of the street, like a detached fragment of Piccadilly. Johnson walked up the street and down it again. Coming back there was a woman on a corner whom he had passed and noticed on the way up. Now she looked at him and smiled and he stopped to speak to her. He talked to her in the only way that he knew.

‘Come and have a drink,’ he said.

‘I could do with one. It's a wet night,’ she said, ‘and cold, too. Where'll we go?’

‘Anywhere,’ Johnson said. ‘I don't mind.

She smiled again. She had a bright red hat and false teeth that fitted unnaturally. Her face was pleasant and kindly.

‘You're just out,’ she said. ‘There's nowhere open after six here.’

‘That's all right. I'm staying at a hotel.’

‘Which hotel?’

‘The “National.’”

‘I don't think I'll go there,’ she said.

‘What's wrong with it?’

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‘There's nothing wrong with the “National,” only I don't like it much. There's only one place I know to get a drink.’

‘Let's go there then.’

They turned up a side street running steeply up a hill. She took his arm.

‘It's got quieter than ever in this town since the boys came back,’ she said.

They went in through the swing door of a hotel. The door from the hall into the bar was shut, but she turned the handle and opened it, and they went downstairs into the bar that was crowded with men. There were two other women there who called out to her as she came in. A small, dark-haired boy, with the kind of sharp face that is given to boxers and jockeys and wearing a bright-blue polo sweater, was serving drinks. He was busy, not talking, banging glasses down on the counter as he filled them. The air was thick and heavy with tobacco and the stale smell of drink. Johnson bought drinks and they sat down. He was sleepy then with the drink and the heaviness of the air. After a time, the woman was talking to someone at the bar and he did not mind this and drank his beer and after that two men were talking to him. They were sitting one on either side of him and buying drinks for the three.

‘It's a homey,’ said one of them. ‘Ah, chum,’ he said, in exaggerated north-country, ‘tha-a-at's reet.’

Johnson grinned. He did not mind them.

‘It's a homey,’ the other said to the room at large. and clapped him on the back. ‘Ha’ ye just coom over on the boat, lad?’ and they both laughed.

Johnson bought drinks for the three of them. One of them was saying:

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‘I wouldn't touch our Rose, lad.’

‘She's no good?’

‘She's no good to touch.’

‘I won't touch her.’

‘He's a smart lad, eh?’ one said to the other.

‘He's smart all right’

‘Listen, you don't want to buy a farm, son?’

‘I haven't got the money.’

‘You don't need much money. Just a bit down. I could put you in the way of a good bit of dairy land.’

‘He could do that,’ the other said.

‘I haven't the money,’ Johnson said. ‘I'm not looking to buy a farm. I'm looking for a job.’

‘You haven't got two hundred pounds?’

‘I haven't got twenty pounds.’

‘You can't buy a farm with under twenty pounds–not these days,’ the first one said.

‘I wasn't expecting to buy a farm anyway,’ Johnson said.

‘It's a pity, son,’ the first man said.

‘I don't mind saying you're not right,’ the other said. It's a bad time to be buying farms. Prices are crazy.’

‘I'll tell you something,’ the first man said. ‘He's a good kid, I'll tell you something. Don't you buy anything in this country, see, don't you buy nothing.’

‘That's right,’ said the other.

‘You take wages, son, and you hang on to ‘em. I wouldn't say this to everyone, but you're a good kid and you haven't no money.’

‘Drink up,’ said the other man.

‘I'll buy these,’ Johnson said, finishing his drink. He put his hand into his hip pocket and brought out a pound note. The first man put his hand on Johnson's.

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‘You stick to your money, son,’ he said. ‘We'll buy these. You're a good kid.’ He got up and went to the bar and came back with three glasses. They drank up slowly. Johnson was feeling a little sick, but more with the heaviness of tobacco smoke than the drink.

The bar-room was growing emptier by then. Rose had gone. The boy behind the bar was mopping down the counter, whistling through his teeth. They had a last drink, standing up at the bar. In the end they went with Johnson down to his hotel and saw him inside.

‘So long, chum,’ they said. ‘You keep looking for work.’

He shook hands with them both and went inside and upstairs to bed.

It was nearly ten when he woke up the next morning, his mouth dry and his stomach feeling heavy as lead. He got up and poured some cold water from the jug into a basin. Outside he could see a street of warehouses lined with vans and drays being loaded up. The sun was shining from over behind the hotel and there was steam coming up off the pavements, still wet from the last night's rain. He washed his face with cold water and rinsed out his mouth. The water in the carafe smelled bad so he drank from the bedroom jug instead. He rang a bell that hung down beside the bed. After a while, when nothing had happened, he rang again. A girl put her head round the door.

‘What is it?’ she said.

‘I want some tea.’

‘It's too late for tea. It's after ten.’

‘I suppose it's too late for breakfast?’

‘We don't serve after half-past nine.’ She looked at him disfavourably.

‘All right,’ Johnson said. ‘I don't want anything.’

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She closed the door, going out. Johnson lay back in bed, then a thought struck him and he sat up and looked in his pockets. His money was still there and he lay back again.

He was trying to make up his mind what to do, running his eye over the pink-flowered wallpaper and the faded yellow curtains and the white-plastered roof. I'll get out of this town, he said, that's one thing I'll do.

When he was dressed and shaved, a little later, he went down into the lounge and through and into the bar. They were putting out counter lunch along the bar. He drank half a glass of beer and ate some bread and cheese sandwiches and felt better. When he went back into the lounge he saw the man called Tom that he had heard talking the night before. He looked as strong and red-faced in the daylight as he had at night and wore the same ridingleggings and check coat and shirt. Johnson went up to him and asked him:

‘I'm looking for work on a farm. Have you got any jobs?’

The big man looked him up and down. He looked Johnson over in a way that was aggressive, but not offensive. He said:


Johnson shook his head, not understanding him.

‘I mean do you want to learn farming or d'you want a job?’

‘I want a job.’

‘Can you milk?’

‘I was brought up on a farm. It's a while since I was on one. I expect I can milk.’

The big man looked at him in silence for a moment.

‘I get a lot of fellows asking for jobs,’ he said. ‘Not all of them want them. You're just out?’

‘I got here yesterday.’

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‘In the war?’

Johnson nodded.

‘I reckon we ought to help fellows that were in the war,’ the big man said heavily. ‘I'll tell you what. Name's Blakeway. I'll give you my address. Farm's fifty miles south of here, dairy farm, one hundred and twenty cows. You turn up there two to three days from now when I'm back. I'll know then if you want the job. Most of you fellows that come out here'd rather stay in town. Good men are scarce. I'll give you a chance at it.’

He scribbled his name and address on a piece of paper. He nodded then and went off. Johnson asked the hotel-keeper later that day about him.

‘He's got money,’ the hotel-keeper said. ‘He's got money all right, but he's mean as death. He'll die of blood pressure one of these days.’