Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Man Alone

Chapter XI

page 92

Chapter XI

Sundays were the worst days on the farm. Even Stenning did not work then except to milk, and there was nothing to do for the three of them, Rua and Stenning and Johnson, but to sit about and wait for it to be Monday again. If it rained and they had to stay in the house all day by the evening Johnson had had enough and would go back to his whare and lie there reading. It was a relief when Monday came and they could ride out again. Stenning never talked if he could help it, not even to Rua, and she would sit sulkily or play her few worn records on the gramophone until Johnson knew every scratch in them by heart. When Stenning swore at her, as he did, she would stop and give them a meal, banging and clattering with pots and burning the food, as likely as not, and then they would eat, silently and bad-temperedly. Johnson himself found Stenning trying on days like this. He would sit for hours before the fire, neither moving nor speaking, perhaps playing with his sheath-knife, sharpening it on the sole of his boot or carving wood shavings from a bit of firewood until the hearth in front of the range was littered with them. Then he would get up and perhaps look out of the window at the fields and the rain, grunt heavily to himself, and sit down again.

Johnson didn't like Stenning personally. He didn't blame Rua if she felt the same way towards her husband. He tried to imagine once what it must be like for her living with Stenning, and reckoned it probably wouldn't be the world of fun. Stenning himself never showed any page 93 tenderness towards her; what he did show was a good deal of ownership, but he was tolerant enough and never interfered with what she did provided the milking was done and the shed kept clean, and the meals tolerably enough cooked and ready when they were wanted. Rua seldom looked happy. She dragged about the house, as a rule, in a soiled frock, the neck torn and open, her hair unwashed and uncombed, in down-trodden slippers. It wasn't all to be answered by her complaint that she never had a new dress or any new clothes since they were married. There wasn't any money to spare for anything except the necessities on Stenning's farm. When the lambing season came and Stenning was busy with his sheep, she and Johnson took on the milking again, and work of this kind she did fairly well. She milked well and, in spite of the fat lines of her face, was as strong as many men. She could lift the cans of cream up on to her horse for the ride to the corner without effort.

Johnson saw her happy only occasionally, when her friends and family would come over to visit her. They lived in a village on the site of an old pa, ten miles down the valley, and rode over sometimes on a Sunday to spend the day racing their horses up and down the fields and jumping logs, or sitting in the sun singing and talking. They were an odd, cheerful, shiftless lot, as careless as gipsies, and more temperamental. Rua's young brothers and cousins were smart young men who affected wide purple flannel trousers and broad-brimmed hats with coloured feathers in the band. The women were either ageing and fat and contented, or young and shy and perhaps pretty. They nearly all wore pink. They never came except in a large party with several children and baskets of food. Stenning never joined in the party, but sat and watched them with amusement, tolerantly enough.

page 94

‘Them's my relations-in-law,’ he said once to Johnson, watching them in the fields. There were at least twenty of them.

‘You've got plenty,’ Johnson said.

‘You said it. There was a time when I first got married, seemed like they were all coming to live here. I reckon I stopped that. Now they get tea when they come over here and that's all. Don't seem to mind. They're not a bad lot.’

Sometimes Rua's father, a wizened man, whose bloodshot eyes indicated an illicit source of drink in the dry King Country area, or one or two of the older men, would talk to Stenning, arguing volubly about the merits of horses or cows or ways of farming, and Stenning would listen and comment dryly without ever paying any real attention.

‘They're damn' poor farmers,’ he said to Johnson. ‘The only thing they can grow's potatoes.’

But Rua was really happy at these times. She ran and played with them all, and talked and laughed. It was obvious to Johnson that she made jokes with them about Stenning and himself, and once he saw her imitating Stenning, with his slanting eyes and rough, shambling walk, to an admiring group of children. If Stenning noticed this, he didn't seem to mind. His contempt for them all was too great. On days like this when they had gone, riding off in the late afternoon to milk their own cows, with a great deal of noise and shouting and probably four children on a starved Maori hack bringing up the rear, Rua would be more sullen and more restless than usual, and more careless of herself and of the house.

It was clear to Johnson, nevertheless, that she had advanced herself by marrying Stenning. Her friends and her family to whom she really belonged might laugh at page 95 Stenning. They probably despised him for marrying her, but Rua herself had gone up in the world. She had married a white man with a farm, and not a poor white either, who would one day come back and live in the pa with them, but a real white who worked and kept himself.

They had a good party with the family at Christmastime. The year had gone by then and the summer had come in, slowly at first, with more rain through September and October, but by November it was hot and the fern was going brown on the hills. They sheared the sheep in November. Stenning did most of this while Johnson yarded and rolled and baled. Part of the clip went into the shed with last year's and part went out to the sales for what it would fetch. Then when the first dry weather came in December they burnt off the four-hundred-acre paddock they had fenced, sweating to keep the fire in line and away from the fences. Stenning could not buy enough seed to sow it all, but they scattered as widely as they could and turned stock on to it and trusted to luck. In those days, when the sun was at its height, it seemed to be hotter up on the hills than it had ever been anywhere else, even in the north. Ruapehu was dazzling white and the snow melting filled the river to its banks.

It was a good summer after the wet spring. Johnson and Stenning cut the grass in the hay paddocks with a borrowed cutter before Christmas. ‘Last year,’ said Stenning, ‘it rained every other day till March, when it set in to rain perpetual-like. There wasn't any hay. There was just ensilage.’ Then, two days before Christmas, some of Rua's people came over to help with the hay-making. They camped in the wool-sheds and down by the river. The hay-making was something of a party which Stenning himself couldn't take seriously.

page 96

‘These bloody cows,’ he said, ‘and this bloody hay. If I could afford to have just sheep, there'd be something to be said for the farming life.’

It was hot down in the fields, hotter even than it had been up on the hills, where there was sometimes a little wind. Down below there was only the choking scent of hay and the glaze of the sun. The Maoris made a race of everything they did so that sometimes Stenning swore at them for missing corners or raking badly, but they worked hard. On Christmas Eve they worked on until dark, getting the last field gathered to leave them free for Christmas Day. There was still the clover paddock, but they left that, cocking it up in case of rain, and called it a day. Even at that Johnson couldn't sleep until late in the night with the singing and laughing and banging of doors that went on in the wool-sheds beside him. Christmas Day was all heat and laziness. There were cows to milk, but no other work was done. The whole party, up to nearly thirty, came over in the morning, and the women cooked dinner in the open down by the river, with fowls and hot hams and sweet potatoes sent down from the north. They lay about afterwards in the hot part of the day and Johnson swam with some of the boys in the river. In the evening there was beer and a dance in the wool-shed. It was the one party of the year and bad times would not stop it. Two Maoris had brought the beer in sixty miles by road, two great barrels on a dray covered with tarpaulin from the sun, and everyone turned out to welcome it. They cleared the wool-shed, stacking the bales round the sides so that the floor was an almost passable dancing floor, and everything rank with the rich greasy smell of wool. They sat round there as the sun went down and one of the Maoris–Tom Heeney, they called him, though that was not his real name, he was fat and called after the prize-fighter— page 97 played a concertina and they danced with others, riding in from miles around, and the first barrel of beer being opened with noise and excitement in the yards outside.

Johnson found Stenning up at the house and they sat there sharing the bottle of whisky which Johnson had brought with him. Rua's father and two others came in for a while. Rua's father talked a great deal, with reminiscences of older and better times to him, and a long story of his brother who had been killed in the Boer War. After a while he went to sleep with his head on the table, and Stenning finished his drink, putting down the china cup he drank from, and got up.

‘I'm going to bed,’ he said. ‘Thanks for the drink,’ and went into his room.

Johnson went out and down to the wool-shed where the party was still going on. They gave him some beer in an empty tin that tasted of disinfectant and he sat watching them. After a while Rua stopped dancing to talk to him.

‘Where's Bill?’ she asked–meaning Stenning.

‘He's gone to bed, went to bed an hour ago.’

She shrugged her shoulders. ‘Can you dance?’ she asked him.

‘I can try,’ he said, and got up. She said something he did not understand to the young boy who had been her partner and danced with Johnson. ‘Tom Heeney’ was still playing his concertina. ‘Moonlight and Roses’ was his song and he played this over and over, singing it to himself. It was a long time since Johnson had danced, and he did not do it very well, but felt comfortable with the beer warming him on top of the whisky he had drunk. Rua laid her head on his shoulder while they danced and did not talk. There were not many other couples dancing. Rua's younger sister and a white boy, whom he had never seen, made one of them. Rua's sister was slight and pretty. She page 98 was pretty as Rua herself must have been not long ago, though she looked pretty this night with her hair done smoothly and a clean frock on. After a while Johnson stopped, apologising for himself and his dancing. Rua laughed and left him, going back to the young Maori boy who seemed to have been waiting for her, and Johnson sat down by the door again and let them fill his tin of beer. Some of them were growing a little noisy and one boy was sparring in front of ‘Tom Heeney’, challenging him to fight. The big man stopped playing for a moment and pushed out his hand with the fingers extended, hitting the boy in the chest so that he staggered across the room and sat down heavily on a bale, while everybody laughed, and ‘Tom Heeney’ began playing again.

After that the evening grew quieter. Towards the end of it they were sitting around and singing. They sang ‘Maori Moon,’ which was a song half-jazz and half-native, and sang it softly and sweetly. The lanterns inside threw shadows over them and the tired children sleeping, and outside, through the cracked boards, there was the glimmer of a harvest moon. Then they sang songs which were their own and which Johnson had never heard before, with Maori words and Maori rhythms, while he listened half drowsily until, growing sick with the beer he had drunk, he went out and walked up and down in the cool air away from them. He could still hear their voices clearly in the night. Some time after that the party broke up and men saddled their horses and rode home though most of Rua's party slept by the river or in the shed. They were awake again when Johnson was getting the cows in at six o'clock, and when Stenning and he rode out later in the day they were packing up to go. The two men waved to them, saying good-bye.

page 99

‘You couldn't stop them having a good time,’ Stenning said, ‘that you couldn't. Who'll pay for that beer of theirs, nobody knows. They'll sell something; they'll pay for it all right. There's not one of them hasn't a store account for a hundred pounds or more. D'you enjoy the party?’

‘It was all right.’

‘Rua seems to have enjoyed it, she ain't properly up yet. She said it was a good party. It's good for them to have a break like this once every year. It costs me nothing except a bit of time. It's going to be a scorcher again today.’ They rode on up the ridge, Stenning on his white mare ahead and Johnson's Darky going warily and neatly behind.