There was an old man in the hut, sitting at a table with his back to the open fire. The old man had long white hair which was smoothed carefully, and a white beard stained yellow round his mouth. He wore an open shirt with rolled-up sleeves and sat at the table eating bacon and broad beans with a sheath-knife from a tin plate. He looked up as Johnson stumbled into the room, bringing with him through the door that swung open behind him a blast of cold air and rain.
‘Howdy, mate,’ the old man said. ‘Come on in. Shut the door.’
Johnson did not hear accurately what he said. He stood up, holding himself with both hands on the edge of the table.
‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘Thanks very much,’ and trying to sit down on the box by the table, collapsed so that he missed the box and fell on the floor. The old man came slowly round from his place by the fire and picked him up without a word. He put his hands underneath Johnson's armpits and half dragged and carried him to an open bunk against the wall where he laid him. Johnson was only half conscious of this. He had a dim memory of the old man's face bending over his, the white beard and strong lines of the face with hooked, predatory nose, and of being given warm condensed milk to drink. He watched strangely and without feeling the old man taking his clothes and torn boots off his body. He went to sleep after that in complete deadness; but once, turning over in the night, he saw by firelight the old man lying on the floor of the hut asleep.
When Johnson woke up again it was broad daylight. He felt the aches of his body curiously. His clothes were page 151 all gone and he was lying naked and comfortable between grey blankets; his hurt right foot had been roughly bandaged with a coloured handkerchief. The hut was empty and he dozed off again to wake two hours later when the old man came in. The old man came over to his bunk and looked down at him curiously.
‘You feeling good?’ he asked.
‘I'm pretty good,’ Johnson said.
‘You were sleeping well this morning. I didn't wake you, couldn't 'a done, I reckon, if I'd tried. You talk a lot in your sleep, son, don't you, heh?’ and he chuckled loudly. ‘You was talking away good. You been in the bush long?’
‘A month or so,’ Johnson said.
‘Get yourself lost, heh?’
‘More or less,’ Johnson said. ‘I was trying to get across a bit of country, I found it tougher than I expected.’
‘It's hard country all right,’ and the old man chuckled again. ‘You don't want to come in here unless you know where you're going, no, that you don't.’ He kicked the fire together with his foot. ‘Reckon you could eat a bit now?’
‘I reckon I could.’
‘I reckon you could do with a bit. There's bacon and beans.’ He pushed a wire hook over the centre of the fire and hung a pot of beans on it. Then he cut slices of bacon from a large side hanging from the roof and dropped them into the pot so that they rested on top of the beans. Johnson sat up in his bunk.
‘My clothes about?’ he asked.
‘You ain't got no clothes to speak of, son,’ the old man said, and continued to chuckle. ‘I hung 'em up outside what there was of 'em.’ He took a coat and an old pair of trousers from the back of the door. ‘You better wear these,’ he said.
Johnson put them on, dressing himself painfully, and page 152 sat on the edge of the bunk, wrapping himself round with a blanket until the meal was ready. The air inside the hut was warm and heavy in spite of the rain and wind that could be heard outside, but Johnson felt weak and cold still within himself. He ate a good meal and drank tea afterwards. The old man did not talk while they were eating except to grunt to himself. He smacked his lips noisily while he ate. When he had finished he filled a pipe, cutting tobacco from a black stick. Johnson refused tobacco and, lying down again without apology on the only bunk, went straight to sleep again.
The old man's name was Bill Crawley. He was surprised that Johnson had not heard of him and refused at first to believe him.
‘Everybody knows Bill Crawley, I reckon,’ he said. ‘Along the Bay and other parts as well. You can't come into this country without hearing of Bill Crawley.’
‘I didn't come in from the Bay,’ Johnson said. ‘I came in from the other side.’
‘Did you? All the same I should 'a thought you'd 'a heard of old Bill Crawley where you came from. That was a damn fool thing you did just the same. I never heard of anyone doing that, not all the time I been here. How long d'you take over it?’
‘About two months,’ Johnson said.
‘It was good going at that, I reckon.’ Old Bill Crawley sat up suddenly on his wooden box. ‘Say, son,’ he said, with the first sign of excitement that Johnson had seen in him, ‘there ain't anyone looking for you, is there?’
‘Looking for me?’
‘Ah, search-parties, friends getting anxious and that, heh?’
‘Not that I know of,’ Johnson said. ‘I didn't tell anyone I was coming in here. I haven't any family in this country.’page 153
The old man sat back relieved. ‘That's good,’ he said. ‘Once there was some trampers lost in here and I had no peace at all for three weeks. They never found them either. Two of them there was, college boys. That's good. We don't need to worry.’
He relaxed, drawing at his pipe.
‘You better stay on till you get in shape to go out. It's thirty miles to Waite's sheep-run where the road starts.’
‘That's fine,’ Johnson said. ‘You sure you don't mind? You got enough food?’
‘There's enough for a month or more. I generally make a trip out for stores in the spring, 'bout October. There's a gun there, you can do some fancy shooting.’ He grinned, showing yellow teeth beneath his drooping white moustache.
‘What do you do here?’ Johnson asked.
‘I don't do much, son. You looking for work?’ He chuckled loudly. ‘I used to prospect a bit once, it's too far away now. They found a little gold right away in here once, never saw it meself. You after gold?’
‘I wouldn't know it if I saw it,’ Johnson said.
‘Every now and again there's fellows in here looking for gold. There's none here, son,’ the old man said, as if not believing his assurance. ‘They used to think there was. You ought to try down the West Coast. There's gold down there. I been there. It rains more there than it does here and the bloody sand-flies–You'd go a long way before you found a dirtier looking bit of country than up back of the Karamea. I been in New Guinea, Australia, too. There's no good gold left now, son. They got the most part of it.’
‘What d'you live on then up here?’ Johnson asked him.
‘I got a little money, son, and a pension. It don't cost much to live up here.’ He looked at Johnson sardonically. page 154 ‘My money ain't tucked away under the floor, if that's what you're thinking. I got it banked. It pays the stores’ account.
‘How long you been in here then?’
‘Couldn't say, son, a fair number of years.’
‘Since the war, eh?’
‘The last war?’
‘Yeah, the Great War.’
‘They've all been great wars, son. My father called the war they had in the 'fifties the Great War. It would be about since then though, I reckon. I was living down on the back of Waite's then, riding his fences, me and my old woman.’
‘You were married, eh?’
‘Sure, ain't you married?’
‘No, I'm not married.’
‘Well, I was. Everybody gets married once. She must have died, my old woman, time of the last war and I moved in here. It was quieter like. That's when it would be.’
Johnson, in borrowed trousers and boots with his own shirt and coat patched up, moved about comfortably enough for a few days and began to feel well again, though his feet were still bruised and sore and worried him. Old Bill Crawley would go off, as a rule, for most of the day. He walked the hills, sometimes looking for a bird or a wild pig. He took Johnson up some of the small creeks and showed him where he had washed for gold. But most of the time old Bill Crawley seemed to prefer spending his days alone. Johnson rested in the hut and to make himself useful, got water and wood. He piled up a great heap of firewood at the back of the hut. In the evenings Bill Crawley liked Johnson to read to him. He could read himself, but only with great difficulty. He had a store of old magazines and illustrated papers, some of which page 155 dated back five or six years, and Johnson went through them for him. He seemed to like having Johnson there, or at least not to mind him, once he had got his own bunk back and Johnson had made up a bed for himself on the floor.
After about three weeks–in late September as near as Johnson could judge, for the old man kept no calendar–he said one day to Johnson:
‘Listen, son, I'll have to make my trip out soon. You're eating me out of beans and flour.’
‘I'm sorry,’ Johnson said.
Bill Crawley chuckled. ‘It's nothing, son, you're welcome. You just made the spring trip come a little earlier, that's all. I can see the bottom of the flour bin and I'm getting short of tobacco now you got the taste for it again. To hell, it doesn't matter, only I'll have to make the trip, that's all. What you say to coming out with me? It'd be a better trip for you.’
Johnson looked at him carefully, trying to judge him. It was an evening, after supper, and they were sitting in front of the fire on boxes. Johnson said:
‘That'd be fine. I'd better tell you, Bill, I'll be in trouble when I get out there.’
‘What sort of trouble?’
‘Well, see Bill, I killed a man, that's how it is.’
Bill Crawley drew on his pipe.
‘That's interesting, son,’ he said. ‘How d'you come to do that?’
Johnson told him.
‘Well, that's certainly interesting,’ Bill Crawley said. ‘That's a bloody interesting story, son. I didn't know I was entertaining such a bloody interesting fellow. But you shouldn't 'a got mixed up with married women, not a man your age. It's all right for young fellows, don't know any page 156 better. It reminds me, that does, of a fellow I knew in the Solomon Islands–name of’–he stopped and lit his pipe with a burning ember from the fire–‘name of Paynter. He got living with native women there–several of them from what I heard tell–found him one morning in a hut with his head missing. That was the Solomon Islands. Paynter the fellow's name was. English boy. There's always trouble with the natives there. Come to think of it,’ he added, ‘best fellow I ever knew was a Maori.’
Johnson brought the talk back on to the lines that concerned him.
‘Well, you see, Bill,’ he said, ‘the way it is.’
‘Yeah, I see how it is, son. But they won't still be looking for you.’
‘They'll start looking for me all right once they see me.’
‘Maybe you're right. You better stay on here.’
‘I can't do that,’ Johnson said. ‘There wouldn't be enough for two of us. I can't eat up all your grub.’
‘There's a lot of living in the bush if you care to look for it,’ Bill Crawley said, ‘but perhaps you're right. You'd get tired anyway after a time here. If you were my age, you'd like it.’
‘I'll have to get out,’ Johnson said. ‘I just want to find the safest way of doing it, that's all.’
‘It's a pity you're not a better shot,’ Bill Crawley said. ‘You could 'a took up bush-ranging–a man with your record. There's a good living there for an able-bodied man with a good horse.’
He wasn't joking.
‘Son,’ he said, reminiscently, ‘I remember in Australy when they got the Kelly gang–those were the men, heh?–when they rounded up Ned Kelly, six of them, and he got two–dressed in chain armour they say he was at the end there.’page 157
‘Those days are over, I reckon, Bill. They don't stand for gangs like that nowadays.’
The old man shook his head. ‘I don't know, son. What about that fellow in the Wairarapa?’
‘Never heard of him.’
‘Rode around the Wairarapa for days on end with a gun, broke gaol and all. Fellows out looking for him shot each other by mistake. They didn't shoot him.’
‘I never heard of him, Bill.’
‘Well, he did all right for himself. You could make a good living with somewhere to hide in the hills here–and a good horse. That's the trouble with those fellows, they always want to go drinking around towns with women and all. That's how they always get them. You're a steady fellow, I reckon. You could do well for yourself with a good horse in the Bay.’
‘They wouldn't stand for it now, Bill,’ Johnson said. ‘They'd be out after a man with aeroplanes and all sorts once you started that. They wouldn't like it a bit, nobody would.’
‘Well, then, what you want to do, son?’
‘Get out of the country.’
‘That's a hard thing to do.’
‘I know it's not easy.’
‘You're damn right, it's not easy.’
There was a long pause in the conversation while Bill Crawley wrinkled his eyes in thought, pulling on his pipe, and Johnson sat staring into the fire.
‘I tell you what,’ Bill Crawley said, at last. ‘You better let me go down and see what's being said about you, see if they're still looking for you. Then we can see what to do.’
‘It'd be damn' good of you,’ Johnson said. ‘I'd be grateful.’
‘We'll do that, son. Then we can see.’page 158
‘You don't mind my staying here?’
‘I don't give a damn what you do so long as you don't want my bunk. I built that bunk myself and I'm too old now to sleep on the floor.’
Two days later the old man set off on his trip down to the nearest store. It was going to take him two days to reach it given good weather, a day or two there, and another three days back, packing his stores up to the hut with horses which he borrowed for the job and took back afterwards. Johnson loafed around while he was away and read magazines and chopped wood. It never occurred to him to worry about Bill Crawley informing on him, but he found himself nervous with curiosity as the time for the old man's return came near, as to what the outside world was saying of him. The old man got back late one night after Johnson had gone to bed. Johnson helped him unload the stores and feed the horses. After that he cooked him a meal and they sat afterwards smoking. Bill Crawley said to Johnson:
‘Son, they think you must be dead.’
‘Well, I looked through the papers,’ Bill Crawley said. ‘I'd trouble enough finding anything at all about you without making the hell of a lot too much fuss, but they keep the papers for me at the store the way they always do and I looked 'em through. Took me a time I can tell you. I don't read too fast. It seems they wanted to see you all right when you went away, they was looking for you all right. This girl of yours told the story about quarrelling over her, the way you said she would. Then they never found any trace of you after you was on the mountain–on Ruapehu. They reckon maybe you got lost up there. That's what they say. The fellows down at the store didn't know anything about you as near as I could make out.’page 159
‘That's fair enough,’ Johnson said.
‘It's fair enough as far as it goes. Now you got to clear the country without them waking up to think you ain't dead.’
‘It ain't easy.’
‘I'll bet it isn't.’
The old man smoked on in silence for a time while Johnson rolled himself a cigarette. He was enjoying, for the first time, real cigarette tobacco that had been brought in for him.
‘You know anyone has to do with ships?’ Bill Crawley asked him.
‘I worked on a ship once,’ Johnson said, ‘on a trading scow. That's the only one I know–fellow called Petersen.’
‘He be any use to you, d'you think, son?’
‘He might be,’ Johnson admitted. ‘He's retired now though, last I heard of him's some years ago–lived some little place outside Auckland.’
‘You better go find him,’ Crawley said. ‘You want someone knows about ships. If you could get to Australy, you wouldn't do so bad.’
‘That's a fact. That's what I'll do,’ Johnson said. ‘I better come down with you when you take the horses back.’
‘All right, son, but there's plenty of food here now if you want to stay.’
‘I better go.’
‘Reckon you're right. You got any money?’
‘I got two pounds I kept in my tobacco tin.’
‘You better take some more. I can lend you a pound or two. You want some money in your pocket.’
‘I'll be all right,’ Johnson said. He was reluctant to take money from the old man. ‘I'll get to Auckland all right. After that I'll take my chance. I'd like these clothes of yours.’page 160
‘You can have them. We can't have you going down naked, son. You don't look so bad in them.’
‘I don't look so good.’ They hung all over Johnson like sacks. ‘I'll change 'em as soon as I can. There's one thing I would like and that's a shave.’
‘Son, I told you. I don't know what a razor is,’ Bill Crawley fingered his beard caressingly. ‘You wait till morning and I'll go over you with the scissors.’
He did this next morning before they started on their journey, spending nearly an hour on Johnson. It was slow and painful though he handled the scissors with great care. At the end of it Johnson's hair was a reasonable untrimmed length and his face made him look like that of a man who badly needed a shave. They set off about midday riding the two horses, the pack-saddles padded with sacks to keep them away from the hooks.
‘Knew a man got caught on those once,’ Bill Crawley said, ‘and travelled three miles before the horse brought him home. A proper case, he was.’
Johnson had borrowed an old hat from Crawley and a pair of boots. He knew that he would not feel comfortable or move easily anywhere until he had clothes that came nearer to fitting him. The track ran steadily downhill through thick bush. It was well made and clear of roots, nor did it have enough traffic ever to have ruts worn in it.
‘Surveyors made this fifty years ago,’ Bill Crawley said. ‘God knows what for.’
In the late afternoon they came out on to an upland of tussock, a little plateau of dry pumice land. There were some cattle feeding on the edge of the bush as they came out; they ran, startled, back into the bush.
‘Waite's always has run stock up in here,’ Crawley said. ‘It's God's own game mustering 'em. They're wild as rabbits.’page 161
They camped on the edge of this upland before it dipped down again. It was a relief to Johnson to feel himself out of the bush country with some open space around him. They built a great fire which roared up, lighting the fringes of trees and scrub for yards around; and hobbled the horses near them. Bill Crawley cooked bacon and beans over the fire.
‘Can't trust anyone else to do it,’ he said. ‘Nine times out of ten they burn the bloody bottom out of the pan.’
Johnson made tea and collected wood for the night. After they had eaten and before they had slept, the old man was in a reminiscent mood. He talked about times in the 'eighties when he had made money prize-fighting.
‘The “rib-and-jaw-breaker” they called me,’ he said. ‘Son, I fought thirty rounds once in Tasmania at a horse-show for ten pounds. There wasn't any money for it out there. It was all for the sport. Not but what the fellows that bet on you wouldn't throw something in. I was jailed once after a fight in Bendigo, yes, son, and they passed beer into the jail till the warders were dead drunk in a line outside the cell and fellows fighting each other right away through the jail.’
He chuckled to himself at the recollection and Johnson watched him, the firelight playing on his hooked nose and great head while he bent forward filling his pipe.
‘You think times aren't so good now as they were then?’ Johnson asked him.
‘I don't know, son,’ the old man said. ‘I reckon they must be much the same.’
‘Maybe, you haven't been out much lately to see it,’ Johnson said, ‘but times have been hard lately all round.’
‘Times never was so damn easy,’ Bill Crawley said. ‘You should've been in Ireland when I was a boy.’
‘How old d'you think you are, Bill?’page 162
‘I don't know, son,’ he said. My old woman could 'a told you. She used to reckon things like that up when she had nothing to do. ‘Bout eighty, I reckon. How old are you?’
‘You're doing right, son, to try and stay out of jail. It's a pity for a man to waste the best years of his life that way. When you're seventy or so it won't matter.’
Early the next morning they started down the track again and, going through broken and half-burnt bush country, came to the edge of Waite's farm and the first fence.
‘I wouldn't come any farther,’ Bill Crawley said, ‘not now with me. We might meet someone. It'll look awkward if they see you walking out o'here with me. They re used to me by meself. I'd lie up here till dark and get out of this hill country before anyone knows where you come from. It's two miles on to Waite's homestead. It's five from there to Wakanui–that's where I'm going. That's where there's a store and a post-office. Past there ten miles you come to a better road. You get out on there, no one won't worry about where you come from.’
Johnson nodded. He got down from his horse and fixing a rope on the bridle gave it to Crawley.
‘I won't see you if I go through by night,’ he said.
‘That's right,’ the old man said. ‘You won't see me. I'll sleep at Wakanui the way I usually do. You'll be all right now. You got some grub for the day?’
Johnson nodded. The old man kicked his heels into the pack-horse he rode and started off.
‘So long,’ he said. ‘Don't go shooting up too many of your friends when you get out.’ He turned round to speak over his shoulder. ‘Don't let them catch you,’ he said. ‘It won't do the fellow you shot any good and you'll only be an expense to the Government.’page 163
‘So long,’ Johnson said. Bill Crawley turned round once again twenty yards down the track.
‘You might drop me a note,’ he called out. ‘Let me know how you get on. Wakanui Post Office–I'll pick it up some time’
‘I'll do that,’ Johnson said.
The old man soon disappeared down the track, riding heavily, with his long legs hanging stirrupless on either side of the pack-horse. Johnson turned off the track into a clump of scrub and settled himself to pass the rest of the day there. He walked twenty miles that night and came out on the main road with cars passing him once or twice. He was conscious once he was out on the road of his loose, ill-fitting clothes and unshaven face. He slept off the road again during the day and went on by night. On the second night he stopped outside a small village. It had about a dozen wooden houses, two stores, a small hotel, and a garage. In the morning, when the bar opened at nine, he went into the hotel.
The owner was as unshaven as Johnson. He breathed frostily of brandy; he was unused to custom so early in the morning. Johnson guessed the drinking was probably done after hours at night. The owner opened a bottle of beer for Johnson gloomily. Johnson tasted it, finding it strange and unpalatable.
Johnson said: ‘What's this place called?’
‘It's Waiapapa,’ the barman said.
‘What's on around here?’
‘Nothing I know of.’ The barman lounged tiredly against the door behind the bar. He looked at Johnson with disfavour. ‘What d'you expect to find?’
‘I don't know,’ Johnson said. ‘Any work going?’
‘Not that I know of.’
Johnson was making himself a cigarette. Lighting it he page 164 threw the match into a sawdust-filled spittoon on the floor.
‘Got a barber here?’ he asked.
‘Nope. What you want a barber for?’
‘I want a shave.’
‘Well, there's no barber here.’
After a while he spoke again, as if unwillingly. ‘Ern Thompson at the garage cuts hair sometimes,’ he said.
Johnson finished his beer and went out. The hotelkeeper watched him go without moving. At the garage he found a boy working underneath a car.
‘You Ern Thompson?’ he asked him.
‘I'm not,’ the boy told him. ‘Ern's off on a job.’
‘When's he coming back?’
‘I dunno. Afternoon.’
‘Can you cut hair?’ Johnson asked.
The boy grunted, working away with his head hidden under the car and only his legs showing. ‘Nope, I can't.’
‘Can I shave myself here?’
The boy put down his tools and crawled out to look at Johnson. He was not more than fourteen years of age and slightly built with an old-looking face. He looked Johnson over carefully.
‘You can go ahead,’ he said. ‘The makings are in that little room on the right by the office. I'll have to charge you for that. It'll be sixpence.’
‘Is there any hot water?’
‘Nope, there's no hot water. You got sixpence?’
‘Yes, I've got sixpence.’
‘You better give it to me.’
Johnson shaved himself painfully. Staring at himself in the glass he knew that no one would easily recognize him now. The lines of his face had drawn and sharpened with the bush-life and starvation of the winter until they came to a point at his chin. His eyes were deep and sunken and page 165 his skin had lost its brown and developed a blue pallor of sunlessness. He looked altogether older. There were streaks of grey for the first time in his hair. While he was shaving the boy came in and watched him. When he had finished he sat for a moment on the running board of the car where the boy was working, and rolled himself a cigarette.
‘You going far, mister?’ the boy asked.
‘Don't know,’ Johnson said. ‘Looking for work, just got off a ship down south.’
The boy grinned. ‘Who d'you take them clothes off, mister?’ he asked.
‘Borrowed them,’ Johnson said, smiling. ‘I lost my own.’
‘Thought maybe they were off that scarecrow Ern had out at the back last year,’ the boy said and laughed broadly at his joke. He sniggered to himself, going under the car again to work. Johnson finished his cigarette and walked on.
Later in the day he came to a small farm-house set near the road. There were cultivated fields of vegetables behind it and in front of it and in one of these, between the house and the road, there was a woman working. She had her skirt hitched up to her knees and a shawl over her head, and was hoeing energetically along lines of cabbages. Johnson walked up the drive that led to the house and stopped when he came opposite her. He called out to her:
‘Got any work, mother?’
The woman rested on her hoe for a minute looking at him, then she bent down again and worked steadily along until she came to the fence where Johnson waited. She put down the hoe and came over to him. She was a middle-aged, flaxen-haired woman with a brown wrinkled face. When she spoke it was with a strong foreign accent.page 166
‘What you want work for?’ she asked.
‘I'd like a meal,’ Johnson said. ‘I'd like some clothes if you've got any.’
‘Where 'r your own clothes?’
‘I lost them. I been shipwrecked.’
‘You been shipwrecked?’
‘That's right, lost all my outfit in my last ship.’
‘Well, I don't know,’ the woman said. ‘You any good with a hoe?’
‘I can do anything,’ Johnson said.
‘I don't mind about that. Can you hoe all right? That's what.’
‘I can hoe all right,’ Johnson said.
She regarded him dubiously.
‘We might have some clothes about the house,’ she said. ‘Some of my boy's. You go around the house to the shed, the little one on the right. You'll find another hoe there. Bring it down here and we'll see what you can do.’
Johnson found the hoe and went to work with her. They hoed young cabbage plants, going quickly along the rows, clearing the weeds and piling earth up round them. Johnson, unused to work, found it tiring on his back. He felt bound to try and keep up with the woman, but was not able to do it. She gained a quarter of a row on him regularly. After a time, when he began to grow tired, he would rest a little at the end of each row. Whenever he did this she would look up at him; once she called out to him. When it came to be about two o'clock in the afternoon, as nearly as he could judge the time, he shouted across the field to her:
‘Say, mother, you stopping for lunch any time?’ She shouted back to him, without putting down her hoe.
‘We don't eat before milking time, mister.’
They went on working. At the end of the afternoon a page 167 youth of about twenty came across from a field on the opposite side of the house and stood at the end of their field watching them. The woman stopped at the end of her row and called to Johnson.
‘That's enough now. Finish your row, mister.’ He joined them at the top of the field.
‘Fellow wants some clothes,’ she said, explaining him to her son. The boy looked at him levelly without speaking and they went up to the house and ate eggs and bread and butter and tea. The food was good and Johnson ate as much as he wanted. As far as he could see the woman lived alone with her son, though they did not tell him this nor talk to him while he was eating. Afterwards he helped them milk, and when he came back to the house he found two pairs of old slacks and a coat put out for him on the back-door steps. The clothes were old, though better-fitting than those he was wearing, if a little small. He wrapped them up into a bundle and put them under his arm.
‘That's all right,’ the woman said, watching him. ‘Don't go getting shipwrecked again.’
She walked round the corner of the house and watched him until he was off the place. He stopped down the road and changed into the new clothes, leaving the old ones behind. He felt better once he had done this, but it rained during the night and he walked, getting wet through, before he found shelter and slept beneath a culvert on the road.
The next day he struck a main road and got two lifts, one into a fair-sized town and another outside it in a road-transport lorry going north. Johnson told the same story of having lost a ship and going north to join another. No one in these inland parts seemed to worry about its general improbability.page 168
‘I can take you as far as Hamilton,’ the driver told him ‘Don't mind a bit of company on this run. It keeps a man awake.’
He took Johnson two hundred miles north through steep bush roads. At one point, before they came down again into the dairy plains that Johnson knew well, he could see away to the south the snow of Ruapehu, standing out against the sky. He felt pleased to be leaving it behind. The lorry was large and built to carry heavy goods; it thundered along at thirty miles an hour over most roads.
‘I got a schedule,’ the driver told Johnson, ‘two days on the road, a day there, two days back. I get the week-ends at home.’
He was a thin, dark, and melancholy man with an Australian accent. Tiredness showed in his voice and face.
They fell to talking about the state of the country. Johnson, now that he was back in civilization, found it hard to accustom himself to conversations in which every man was a politician.
‘The country's all right,’ he told Johnson, ‘but they're ruining it. That's what they're doing – ruining it. Now take this service. They're running us off the roads.’
‘Who's doing that?’
‘Why, the bloody Government – cuts down the railway traffic, see, so they don't like it.’
‘Well, that's bad luck,’ Johnson said. ‘Was there good money in it?’
‘Two-ten a week.’
‘How many hours?’
‘Well, Jesus now, as long as you take to drive. Most of the week.’
‘Yours a big company?’
‘Pretty big. We got twenty of these. Smart fellow runs it, big man in the money, owns a lot of property in the Bay. page 169 That's what they do to a fellow here, though. He shows a little enterprise and they step on him.’
‘It's a case all right,’ Johnson said. ‘It's not a bad country only there's always something wrong with it.’
The lorry driver grinned for the first time.
‘You got to keep complaining,’ he said, ‘otherwise they take no notice of you.’
Johnson had a drink with the driver when they got into Hamilton and shook hands with him saying good-bye. He went out into the streets – it was early afternoon – and into a picture show. He came out again about five o'clock. It was still broad daylight. This was a town where he had once known people, only that was years ago, and he felt curiously carefree now strolling down the wide, main street. He walked down to the station and went into a hotel beside it for a drink. He used to come to this place years ago, but there was a new man running it now and he could see no face that was familiar to him in the half-filled bar. It got more crowded towards six o'clock and closing time, and he finished his drink quietly and went out on to the street again. People were coming and going to and from the station, and the pavement was crowded. He turned out from the side-door of the hotel in front of two Maori girls coming from the station and, looking at them, saw that one of them was Rua.
He saw her first, but she had recognized him before he could turn away. Rua and her companion came to a stop facing him. The woman with Rua was rather older than Rua was; Johnson had never seen her before. They were both well dressed. Rua wore a brown costume, trimmed with pink, and a decorated hat. The expression on Rua's face was one of embarrassment, not of surprise or fear. Johnson, too, did not know what to say. They stood there blocking the pavement, and looked at each other.page 170
‘Hello,’ Johnson said. Rua smiled anxiously. Her cheeks had filled out and she looked fat and well. ‘What in hell are you doing here?’ he asked.
‘That's no way to talk to a lady,’ the older woman said sharply. Rua smiled.
‘I'm on holiday,’ she said. The older woman looked at Johnson, not knowing who he was.
‘We thought you was dead,’ Rua said.
‘I'm not dead.’
‘I didn't really think myself you was dead, but we all thought you was, Rua said.
There was a further silence. People were passing them, going round on both sides as they stood in the centre of the pavement. Johnson began to feel conspicuous.
‘I'd like to talk to you a minute, Rua,’ he said. She glanced at him sideways, rolling her eyes in indecision so that the whites showed. Then she said something to her friend that Johnson could not catch.
‘Where d'you want to go?’ she said.
‘You can come and eat with me,’ Johnson said.
‘I'll come back to the hotel later,’ she said to her friend, and she and Johnson went across the road together and into a small fish and egg cafe.
‘You look awful rough,’ Rua said.
‘I'm a working man,’ said Johnson. He did not take his hat off and was careful to sit with his back to the light.
‘You come into money?’ he asked.
Rua kept her eyes on her plate. She said:
‘Bill left a little money. He was insured, too. They sold up the farm.’
‘They did, eh?’
‘That's right. I come up here with my sister-in-law for a holiday. Where you been?’page 171
‘I've been about,’ Johnson said. ‘I'm leaving this country. Your sister-in-law know who I am?’
‘I don't think so.’
‘You'd better not tell her. You'd better not tell anyone you saw me. D'you understand?’
‘You'd better understand it. You'd better keep your mouth shut this time. If you don't I'll have you in court with me as sure as God.’
Rua said nothing.
‘You'd better eat that as quick as you can,’ Johnson said, when they had got some food. ‘I don't want to be seen about with you.’
‘Nobody knows me here.’
‘That's all right so long as they don't. You eat quick all the same.’
They did not talk any further while they were eating. There was nothing to say. At the end of it, Johnson asked her:
‘Have you got the cash to pay for this? I'm short.’
She put half a crown on the table without a word.
‘I'll be going,’ Johnson said. ‘I'm travelling tonight.’
She looked up at him. ‘Where you going?’ she asked.
‘Never you mind,’ he said, and went out leaving her in the café looking after him. He went down the street and back into the town, and took a seat in a service car leaving for Auckland. He felt unsafe and uneasy for the first time.