Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Man Alone

Chapter II

page 18

Chapter II

Going down to the farm by service car was seeing a new country open out like the raw edges of a wound. It had a green, rich, unfinished look. The road ran out into loose metal and ruts through low hills half-cleared, and farm-houses, wooden, unpainted. Where the land was cleared as it was for miles at a time with fences and no hedges, the grass grew springing with life.

‘Top-dressing,’ said Sam, the little Maori car-driver, smoking green Three Castle and driving with one hand. ‘They spread it like butter hereabouts.’

Johnson got to the farm in the slack period after lunch. It was a large farm with a great iron milking shed as big as a village hall, the farm-house half a mile in from the road surrounded by dark pines. The dairy flats ran in from the banks of the dark Waikato. They stretched for miles with only cows and odd sheds and pine trees to break them, as flat and dull as the back of your hand. He walked up to the farm-house from the road, his suit-case in his hand, feeling dusty and awkward in city clothes.

No one came to the front door when he knocked, so he went out again and through the yard to the back door. He knocked there twice and a woman called to come in. It was dark in the kitchen coming in from the light and warmth with the stove burning and the smell of food. A pale middle-aged woman sat at the table and there was an old lady in a rocking-chair by the fire. She was very old. She wore a long black dress and a white lace cap, and looked like Queen Victoria grown thin and asleep. page 19 Johnson explained himself shortly. The woman at the table smiled palely.

‘Tom rang up about you,’ she said. ‘Sit down. Have some tea. The men'll be in soon.’ She poured some tea and cut bread and butter. The old woman by the fire woke up suddenly.

‘Who's that?’ she said sharply. ‘Who's there?’

Blakeway's wife leaned over and touched her arm.

It's all right, Mother,' she said; the old woman leaned back in sleep again. Johnson answered questions about himself, talking quietly.

Milking at the Blakeways' was as much like working in a factory as anything else. It passed the first day as it did in all the three years he was there, in steam and the warm smell of milk and cows and the noise of the motor-engine that worked the machines. They showed him how to strip the cows and wash them and drive them out when they were milked dry. There were one hundred and twenty cows and men working for three hours evening and morning to milk them.

Afterwards he went over to a little hut against the farmhouse where he was to live, and washed and changed his shirt. He talked there for a time before they went into the house to eat, with a man, Scott, who was to share this hut with him. These men he talked to did not worry him very much. They were not curious about him. Finding he came from England, they were not interested to inquire further. They let it go at that, being interested in the things in front of them.

This Scott was a small man and dark, with a moustache like a Mexican, and kind and tired-looking eyes. He stood with hands in his belt below his hips, in the doorway, looking out at the night coming down over the pine trees.

page 20

‘I wasn't in the war,’ he told Johnson. ‘No, boy, no war for me. M'chest's bad so they said. It's a good thing it's over now.’

And Johnson, sitting on the doorstep, was trying to roll a cigarette.

‘You got to pack it fairly tight,’ Scott said, ‘and roll it round a bit. You want to pull the end off and shake it down. They're better than anything you'll buy.’

‘He's not a bad old sod,’ he said, a little later of Blakeway, ‘only it's an easier life when he's off the farm. The missis is all right. Her scones is good. They had a daughter used to be here, Eileen, that was all right, only she's gone off now into town. You can't blame them with wages being the way they are and work the way it is in the country. The old girl in there is crazy as a coot.’

It was not long before Johnson was at home in this country. He talked as they all talked. He got to know the dates of the race meetings and where to get beer in town at most times, and the story of the 1905 match when Wales beat the All Blacks by one try to nil, and why it was necessary to have a farmers' government to protect the real interests of the country.

Going in to Hamilton on Saturday nights after milking with Scotty and the others on the farm Ford lorry, and perhaps dancing or just drinking and talking in the back of the ‘Central’ was as good a time as he could want then. Coming home late at night and perhaps singing ‘Abe’ and ‘Swanee’ over the dark roads where the man who drove had still to be thinking, or warm and asleep in the back of the van, and coming in quietly to the farm-house so that the dogs would know them and not bark. Blakeway cut his wages when the first slump came in 1921, but raised them again in 1922, and all the time the warm rain page 21 came down and the grass grew thick and green and the cows came into the milking-shed heavy with cream.

‘It's only the old bull has a good time on this farm,’ said Scotty, and Johnson grinned, hosing down the concrete floor after milking time.

They used to talk at times, Johnson and Scott, about buying a farm. Everybody wanted to buy a farm sooner or later in New Zealand. You didn't buy a farm and build a house and grow pine-trees round it to stay there, but to sell it to somebody else and live on the profit. To hear two farmers talk the towns were full of men who had sold farms for the profit and an easy life. Blakeway and his missis had lived there twenty years. They were always trying to sell their farm. Blakeway had missed the best times just after the war; he felt badly about this. Now there mightn't be any good times again, not really good times, no half a crown a pound times, not in their time.

Scott had the ideas about buying a farm, getting in on a small deposit, on a soldier settlement, working sharemilking to make the money first, and Johnson listened desultorily, having no ambition. Johnson went to dances with Mabel from the small farm two miles down the road. He walked out with her and kissed her in the back of the car at dances, Mabel at twenty-three, strong, solid, and wanting a husband.

Mabel's father had ideas about buying a farm.

‘You don't want to go on taking wages from that red-faced bastard all your life,’ he said. ‘You want to keep your eye out for a bit of land.’

‘I'd work ten years before I bought an acre round here, Johnson said.

‘You get a good team of horses and hire them out and work around with them. You make money that way. You page 22 want to get half-cleared land and bush land and clear it. That's what you want to do. The missis and I chopped firewood outside the back door when we moved in here.’

His face was grizzled over a drooping grey moustache, but the lines of his face were well formed and well fed. His wife, Mabel's mother, was a short plump woman with arms as powerful as a horse's leg, but her feet were troubling her.

‘There's only one thing you want to be a farmer,’ Mabel's father said, ‘that's a good partner, that's one like my old woman. Someone'll work with you, cook with you, not one of these going off into town running up doctor's bills. That's the first thing a man wants.’

‘He wants a bit of land,’ Johnson said. ‘He wants a little capital.’

Mabel's father was back in the old days, the pioneer days, when you had to bake bread if you wanted to eat bread, no groceries coming in three times a week on the cream-lorry. Mabel's grandfather had shot Maoris for his bit of land. Mabel had ideas about farms, but they ran on Scotty's lines with a small deposit and the government scheme; and Johnson listened desultorily, having no ambition.

Scotty talked to him persuasively.

‘You and I could make a nice job of a little farm,’ he said, ‘up back there in the hills. First we'd have just the few cows, keep us going like. Then when we'd cleared a bit we'd run sheep. Then more sheep. After a time, no bloody cows, just condensed milk and sheep and good holidays in winter before lambing time. Come ten years you could sell out on that.’

‘You'd want money to start up like that,’ Johnson said.

‘You don't want so much.’

‘Maybe I'll marry Mabel, get her old man's farm’.

page 23

‘You won't get that farm except on a mortgage that'll sweat your guts out. That old man isn't giving nothing away.’

‘I'm not so sure.’

‘I'm bleeding well sure.’

Mabel didn't like Scotty.

In Huntly with the miners they were drinking one night; it was an old soldiers’ night. Scotty got to talking with one man, a tall, gaunt riding-man. He called Johnson over.

‘Listen, Johnnie,’ he said, ‘this fellow's got a farm he wants working. This is my mate, Johnson,’ he said. ‘We work together.’

Scotty having drunk a lot quickly wouldn't let either of them talk.

‘This is the thing, Johnnie,’ he said. ‘Here's Thompson here got the farm I was telling you of. One man can't work it. Three men could work it like nobody's business.’

The tall man nodded, not smiling, and Johnson having drunk all he needed to drink that night, nodded too.

‘We could work that farm like nobody's business,’ said Scotty warmly, his hat pulled down over his forehead, squinting with one eye.

‘We ought to have a look at this farm,’ Johnson said, contributing something to the conversation.

‘We'll come right up and have a look at it, next weekend.’

‘How'll we get there?’

‘We'll borrow the truck and drive up.’

‘You can't drive up, not in winter,’ the tall man said. ‘You'll have to ride in. It's thirty miles from here.’

The stewards were going round filling glasses from enamel jugs.

page 24

‘We'll drink to your farm,’ Scotty said when their glasses were filled.

‘Yes, sir, the farm,’ Johnson said, feeling heavy and solid.

The thin man who owned it said nothing.

Two weeks after that they packed up and moved in to the farm, hiring two riding horses and a pack-horse for the ride, giving Blakeway one week's notice and getting cursed for it. Johnson didn't mind the change very much. He was young then. The country was still new to him and he believed what Scotty said. Mabel didn't mind much. There were other young men in the district. Johnson had the idea at first that after a while he might marry Mabel and she could move up and cook for them, but he changed his mind after he had got to the farm. There was only a small hut for the three of them to live in with bunks around it and a lean-to kitchen, and it was fairly clear that short of another world war there wouldn't ever be money to build a house. So he forgot about Mabel.