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Man Alone

Chapter IV

page 30

Chapter IV

He still had a little money in the savings bank at Huntly that hadn't gone into Thompson's farm, and he drew this out and moved north lazily, travelling the road.

He meant to stay in Auckland and see city life, but when he got there he couldn't like it. It was too noisy after the country, and the summer was coming in and the air smelt good from the hills west of the city and the sunlight splendid on the blue Coromandel range across the gulf. He moved on north through the fern-hills and the clay to the gum-fields beyond Whangarei. It was warm and he slept out at night.

There wasn't anything to do in the gum-fields. The kauri gum was all worked out and the gum-diggers had gone or lived on Maori farms and old-age pensions, so Johnson came in one day to a little hotel on a long tidal arm of the sea, lying up among pine-trees and looking down on mangroves and the warm smell of mud. He put his swag down on the veranda and the proprietor, coming out from lunch, brought him a bottle of beer from the room inside that served as a bar.

‘You don't get a drink anywhere else within twenty miles of here,’ he said. He was a red-haired man with mean blue eyes. The beer was warm but tasted good.

There was an old gentleman sitting on a rocking-chair on the veranda, an old fellow in a white coat, a man of about sixty with white hair and a white moustache and very red face.

He woke up to talk to Johnson when the owner had gone inside again. He asked him a lot of questions about himself.

‘It's a nice place here,’ he said. ‘I'm thinking of settling here. It's nice and quiet and plenty of sun.’

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‘It'd be just too quiet for me,’ Johnson said.

‘It's all right and very restful,’ the old man said, nodding his fat red face. ‘When you've seen all the world I have and forty years in the Indian Army, my boy, you won't ask more than this. You play cards at all?’

‘A little.’

‘Poker, eh?’

‘I play it a little.’

‘You stay on here to-night and we might make up a little game,’ the old man said, and folding his hands across his stomach, he dozed off to sleep.

Johnson helped the red-haired pub-owner to make a fence along the bottom of his garden through the afternoon. In the evening after they had all had a meal, Johnson and the old man sat out on the veranda with a pack of cards. The red-haired pub-owner watched them for a while, not liking it. It was nice sitting there on the veranda. The tide was coming in over the mud-reaches pushing a line of foam with it and the mud-holes cracking open as it came. The air was soft and warm with a scent of pine and fern and warm mangrove mud. Only the moths and mosquitoes drawn to the lamp were a nuisance. The old man, who was called Captain Dawson, ordered some whisky and gave Johnson a cigar to keep the mosquitoes away.

The old man was not very interested in varieties of card games. He liked playing show-poker, just turning up the cards to see which way they fell. He lost to Johnson a bit at first and raised the stakes. After they had played for an hour and a half he owed Johnson three pounds and went into his room to get some money.

The pub owner kept coming in and out and watching them. While the old man was away he bent over the table and said to Johnson.

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‘Listen, don't take any more of his money.’

‘Why not,’ Johnson said. ‘It's quite good money, ain't it?’

‘He don't know what he's doing. He shouldn't be playing cards at all.’

‘He knows what he's doing as well as I do. He's just unlucky.’

‘Listen, you bastard,’ the pub-owner said, ‘I'm supposed to look after the Captain. He's not supposed to play cards.’

‘Well, you tell him,’ Johnson said, but when the old man came back at that point the pub-owner said nothing except to grunt:

‘It's getting late, Cap,’ but the old man took no notice, breathing heavily as he sat down. He raised the stakes again and it wasn't long before he owed Johnson five pounds. After that he started cutting aces high at a pound a time to get some of it back. Johnson lost twice, then won four times in a row, he lost once again, then won three times running. The hotel-keeper was standing beside him sweating. He couldn't stand the sight of the pound notes on the table. But the old man didn't seem to mind.

‘You've cleaned me out, son,’ he said, and shook hands with Johnson, dividing the last of the whisky with him. After a while he went off to bed.

The pub-keeper turned on Johnson.

‘You hand that over to me, you bastard,’ he said. That's three weeks' board and lodging you got there and I seen the way you handled those cards.'

‘You tell it to the Captain,’ Johnson said. He had drunk some whisky and felt warm and very pleased with himself.

‘Listen, you know why the Captain comes and lives down here? It's because he can't keep off the races and gamblin’ in town. So he lives down here and I pretend page 33 I don't play, see? I promised his family. And then you come down here and throw those cards around the way I seen you'

‘He might just as well've won,’ Johnson said. It's the way the cards were falling. I don't often get a run like that.'

‘You hand that nine pounds back to me.’

‘Or what?’ said Johnson, and got up.

He locked the door of his room and would have shut the window only it was too hot, but he backed a chair against it and tied the mosquito curtains across to make it difficult for anyone to get in quietly. He was still laughing as he went to sleep and when he went off in the morning he had to laugh again. The Captain wasn't about when he took the road and the red-haired man said nothing as he paid his bill.

A week later he got a job working on a coastal scow. He was sitting on the end of a wharf one day watching the tide come up the river and three Maori children fishing with tea-tree rods from the end of the wharf, and waiting for one of them to fall in. He was sitting there because it was dry and pleasant sitting in the sun before it got too hot with the heat of the day. The river was narrow and deserted, with tea-tree hills coming down to it on both sides and no houses in sight. A clay track led away from the wharf and disappeared into the hills. Beyond that there was nothing and nobody in sight. While he sat there, the scow came round the bend in the river with its grey sails slack in the wind and its auxiliary engine chugging softly. It was a large, flat-bottomed boat with a white streak round the water-line and a blunt bow. It tied up alongside the wharf and Johnson watched while the captain and his Maori deck-hand put two large packing cases ashore. The captain was a fair-haired, grizzled page 34 giant of a man with a drooping moustache. He said to Johnson:

The lazy b——s here won't build a shed. If this stuff lies here a week and gets wet, it won't be me to blame.' He turned to the oldest of the Maori boys.

‘Say, you,’ he said. ‘You run off and tell Jack his stuff's here.’ The boy grinned. He shuffled his feet and rolled his eyes so that the whites showed, looking at the other two boys. They all giggled, but did not move. The captain gave it up.

‘There's no sense anywhere in this part of the country,’ he said. He sat down heavily on the end of the wharf and talked to Johnson while he filled his pipe. After a while, he offered to take Johnson down with him to the whale-fishing town of Whangamumu.

‘You want to smell that place just once,’ he said. Though it's not as good as it used to be. The whales don't come down the coast any more.'

He was in no hurry and waited for the tide to turn. In the early afternoon they cast off and backed the scow laboriously round and went down-stream. The Maori children were still on the wharf. After Whangamumu, Petersen, the captain and owner, offered Johnson a job as an extra hand for a pound a week and his keep. He was not very useful on the ship, but Petersen and the half-cast Maori cook did the sailing and Johnson helped with the heavy work of loading when they had a load and learned to run the engine.

Those were good times for him. They covered all the small bays of the north, going up the winding rivers to drop stores at deserted wharf-heads, coming down with wool or cattle, or sometimes long rafts of logs for Whangarei, when the drag behind would hold them until they were hardly moving on the open sea. There were days page 35 adrift and in no hurry, going up the coast, waiting for the sea-breeze to come in, the great boom creaking across, and a hot sun beating down on them. And there were days, too, waiting in Tutukaka for the gale to blow over, two anchors out, and the sharp gusts shivering as they came across the hill, the white thunder of surf outside, and ashore, warm fires and company.

They were good days along the coast. ‘Moonlight and Roses’ and ‘Show me the Way to go Home’ were the songs they sang then, and the Maori girls singing and an accordion playing outside the little dance halls as they came in of an evening, the air warm, and young men from the cruising yachts laughing as they rowed ashore. Tom Blake, the Maori cook, would have disappeared ashore and Johnson and Petersen would be sitting there, the deck just lifting to the swell from outside the bay. They would sit there and smoke and talk, though not much, and watch the moon coming up in the sky and the lights ashore, and the riding lights of the yachts and their own light on the mast-head shaking slowly across the sky.

Petersen had travelled. He was a Swede, born in Nova Scotia. He had worked on a whaler and round the islands. He had been married twice, once in San Francisco and once in Singapore: the first wife had died and the second had disappeared. He was sixty years old. He talked about men he had met and places he had seen sometimes, but not very often. He was a simple man. He cared a lot for the old Sea-Spray, which was his life's savings. He tried to explain to Johnson the ambitions of personal ownership, but Johnson said:

This country's all right for me as it is. I don't worry about not having a ship of my own, Pete. I don't worry about that any more than I worried about not having a page 36 farm. There isn't any better country than this, not where a man can go about and get work, and stop when he wants to, and make money when he needs it, and take a holiday when he feels ready for one’

Petersen grunted. He said:

‘You're bloody young still and that's the way it was with me and it's the way all sailors live, but the last ten years I started saving. You got to start saving and looking after yourself some time. If I'd started earlier, I'd be better off. Listen, I went about thirty years. That time, if there was profits on the voyage, who got it? I didn't.’

‘If there was a loss you got wages.’

‘Sometimes, I didn't. Profit on the voyage and you got your wages and nothing else, no profit and you got what you damned well could. You know why the fellows go on living like that? Because it's easy. It's easy to take what's going and move on somewhere else.’

‘I don't mind,’ Johnson said. ‘It suits me’

‘It suits you now all right. It won't always suit you. If I didn't think you were all right I wouldn't think you were such a bloody fool.’

Johnson had changed by then. He was stronger than he had ever been before, his skin bronzed and roughened, and his hair bleached white. He was alive with the sun and the sleepiness of salt air and the long days at sea. He didn't worry about anything Petersen said. He was in charge of himself and he did not worry.

It was easy not to worry working for Petersen, he was the philosophic type. There were bonuses at Christmas, or when things were going well, and when things were going badly he swore to himself and never to anyone else. When there was an election in 1928 no one of them voted. Tom Blake couldn't write and didn't know where his home was, Petersen couldn't remember ever having page 37 voted, and Johnson didn't believe he was a resident. When the Liberals got in Tom Blake said the Labour men were sore because their programme had been stolen. Petersen roared with laughter reading the pink-covered weekly that sometimes came aboard.

‘Borrow seventy millions,’ he said. ‘Borrow, boom, and bust.’

‘Seventy millions,’ Johnson said, ‘that's a lot of money.’

‘By God, it's a lot of money,’ Petersen said. ‘It's fifty pounds each, by God. Yes, sir, we'll all get our piece of that. Fifty pounds, I'll get those sails patched so you won't know ‘em’

‘Me,’ said Tom Blake. ‘I'm buying a little sailing boat with mine, yes, Cap, just a small boat with maybe a little motor and stay around doing fishing.’

‘Let's hope they get it quick,’ Petersen said. ‘I don't believe there's that much money loose around the world.’

But the good life came to an end in 1930. By then the railway was through to the north; roads were being opened up and the river trade was almost gone. The little that was left of it was taken from them by a new diesel-engined and sail-less ship that covered their ground in half the time and always on time, with the roar of her engine shaking the cliffs. Tom Blake got off at Whangaruru to settle down and grow melons and brew bad drink from tree-bark. Petersen and Johnson took the ship down to Auckland to be sold for breaking up. They made their last trip against a cold south-westerly wind and were glad when they had brought her in. Johnson sculled the dinghy ashore and came back with food and a bottle of whisky. They cooked steak over the oil stove in the cabin and sat afterwards drinking whisky through the evening. Petersen's grizzled eye-brows and blue eyes sunk deep beneath them had not changed in any of the time Johnson knew page 38 him. He sat now not talking and smoked his pipe, spitting all the time on the floor of the cabin. They went to bed late and the next morning Johnson took his things and went ashore. It was going to be some time before the deal for the ship went through and there was nothing for him to do on board.