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Man Alone

Chapter V

page 39

Chapter V

That was the last of the good years, though Johnson didn't know it at the time–1930, when everyone had money and the war was long over and never coming again. What's a Wall Street crash down there in the South Pacific, or reparations with the summer coming in and the price of butter fat still good? Nineteen-thirty–the second year of the talkies and ‘Gold-diggers of Broadway’, Al Jolson and ‘Sonny Boy’ already a memory. In the town, picture theatres were going up and new hotels and always full. Johnson moved down the Waikato, looking for Scotty. He wanted company. Thompson had gone, they told him at Huntly, and no one knew of Scotty, and then, at the ‘Central’ in Hamilton, he got news of him. He was working, cow-punching, they said satirically, at the Government farm, so he got word to him and Scotty came into town.

Scotty had grown older, there were streaks of white along the sides of his hair. He smoked more and coughed more and his eyelids drooped a little, but he still wore his slouch hat and moustache like a Mexican. He was shamefaced explaining himself.

‘Just the rouseabout,’ he told Johnson. ‘Just the old farm-hand, milking and clearing up after the boys that are learning to farm. Me that was working up to own a farm–it's the hell, ain't it?’

‘And Thompson?’

‘You know, Johnnie,’ he said. ‘I even feel sorry for that bastard, that's the way I am. He was a mean man, he was mean as dirt. We'd go for months there not talking and me tearing my guts out clearing his logs. But they got him page 40 in the end, yes, sir, they sold him up. That farm wasn't no good. It'd break any man, it was poor country. Everybody knew it was poor country. Only Thompson wouldn't ever admit that, not Thompson, so in the end the company had to tell him. Where's Thompson? I dunno. Gone off somewhere’

Scotty didn't need any persuading to start travelling again, though he looked mournful gazing down at his beer when Johnson suggested it.

‘I guess that's the thing to do,’ he said. ‘There's wages on the railroads makes my mouth water, twelve and six a day and no questions, no piece-work, no trouble.’

‘We could do that,’ Johnson said, ‘clean up and have a bit in hand for the winter.’

‘I reckon so. I guess I will,’ Scotty said, still mournful. ‘I've kept clear of that pick and shovel work all my life. I'm a farming man, but I reckon I will.’

So they went south together through the King Country and farther. They crossed over to the South Island, picked fruit and hoed tobacco through the summer, then went on the railway again in from Nelson and lived easy on public works. By autumn they were coming back again through the Wairarapa.

Prices began to fall in 1931. Wool went first, it had been going down for two years, and butter followed it. There was talk in the pubs at that time of slump and depression and currency reform. Someone got hold of Scotty on the sheep farm, where they had two weeks' work, and loaded him up with it so that he could talk of nothing else.

‘Ye see, Johnnie,’ he said. ‘It's this way. There's so much in the country like what you and I might be making, lamb and wool and the like. Then there's so much money, not real money, mind you, but bank-notes, just printed off. Well, it doesn't suit these boys to print enough.’

page 41

‘Why doesn't it?’

‘Well, see, they've got most of them as it is. If there's only a little of this money it's worth more, see?’

‘Yes, I see that.’

‘Well, naturally then, that's how it is. There ain't enough money, see, so prices fall and who gets the hell of that? Why, you and me do.’

‘Well, so what? So what are you and me going to do?’

‘I'll tell you. All it needs is the right men in charge and we could clear this up in a week. Listen, I'll tell you something. The way things are now, d'you know what's going to happen?’

‘No, d'you?’

‘I'll tell you. There'll be a real farmers' party that'll clear this up. The fellows they get in now, they're just yes-men. They do what they're told. D'you think these fellows are going to stand for that with prices falling the way they are? Not much, they're not. No, Johnnie, a real farmers' Government that'd take hold and run these banks, that's what's going to happen.’

‘Sounds all right,’ Johnson said.

‘You bet it sounds all right.’

They were in a small Wairarapa town after that job ended in time for a ‘Cheer-up Week’. The organisers hadn't got Scotty's idea. They had another idea, that all you had to do was to start spending again and get the money moving around so quickly that it couldn't ever rest. The main street was decorated with fern-leaves and electric lights. There were processions and prizes and a fair amount of small change spent on bunting and coloured paper. Scotty and Johnson watched the procession.

There was a crowd of young men in it dressed up as cowboys on horses and one as Queen Boadicea in a milkcart. There was a brass band and they were singing. They page 42 were singing the American song then, ‘Happy Days are Here Again’. They were singing very loudly and happily, some of them with drink and mostly with the excitement of being in a crowd together with the band playing. They were conducting a ceremony. They were burying an effigy called ‘Genera Depression’ in the public lavatory in the centre of the town. This was shocking some of the older city councillors a little, but most of the crowd seemed to like it all right.

This ‘cheer-up’ movement suited Johnson. He had usually spent the money he earned as he got it.

‘I must be a good citizen,’ he said. He was saying this to an old man beside him over a drink afterwards, for business in the bars was still good. This old man had white hair and a long nose with a thin, rather mean, face. He said:

‘Son, I seen a depression before when I was a boy and it wasn't so good. It'll take more than those young sods out there to bury this one.’

The man behind the bar laughed.

‘Roll on good times,’ he said.

By the end of that year the bottom was falling out of everything, falling so far that it never seemed likely to come back again.

Johnson felt the temper of the country changing. It had always been a lucky country, a country where, if a man were well and strong, he could wander about and live well and eat well, where everybody was your friend in a hard, casual way, where a man tramping the roads in the back country could be sure of a night's rest and a meal wherever he stopped. It was strange to see how things changed now that the luck had turned, how people grew uneasy and careful with each other, and kept to themselves, watching and saving what they had.

page 43

Johnson and Scotty worked through the winter on a railway in west of the King Country. It was wet, cold, miserable work, but there was still pay to be had. Scotty's cough grew worse with living and working in the damp, sticky clay so that he had to take days off. No one believed the line would ever be finished. It was being made in patches, a cutting here and an embankment there. They had given up laying sleepers and rails, and concentrated on digging which needed no equipment and little skill.

When the spring came, and the farming season got under way again, they went north. They were looking for work in the dairy country where Johnson had begun twelve years before. They wanted to try share-milking; they had ideas of living and farming by themselves, but there were no jobs of that kind going. Farmers were doing their own milking, talking of mortgages and waiting for the stock-companies to foreclose. They went back to Blakeway's and found that the farm had changed hands four years before. They called on Mabel's father and found him still alive and still working. He told Johnson he was no good:

‘The country's rotten with fellows like you,’ he said.

Mabel was married and had two children. Her husband had a post-office store on the Auckland road. She made tea for Johnson and Scotty when they called.

‘It's no life for women on the land,’ she said. ‘You don't get a minute to yourself.’

‘You're well out of that, Johnnie,’ Scotty said afterwards, while they waited by the road to pick up a lift. ‘She's a mean woman, you can tell it by the way she watches her husband while he eats.’

Things were bad in Auckland. The first thing they knew they were out of money and standing in a food queue.

page 44

‘There's no sense in this,’ Scotty said. ‘These towns never did me any good.’

‘It's a hell of a way to live,’ Johnson said. ‘I've got a feeling it's always this way in town.’

He wanted to go on north and get into the country again, but Scotty wouldn't go.

‘You've seen the way the country is, Johnnie,’ he said. ‘We're better off here for the time being. Things can't go on this way. They can't keep all these fellows standing around here like thi.’

But the queues got longer with men coming in from the farms and they were very quiet. Fortunately the summer was on and the weather was warm, so that they slept out at night in the parks. Scotty found a place after that where they could doss down near a boat-building shed on the water-front. They got to know their way around the relief depots. Scotty, who was sick a good deal of the time, got several sets of clothes and boots, but Johnson still looked too well to be really effective in front of charity workers. Some of the days they spent walking round the suburbs asking for work from door to door and once or twice they got odd jobs in gardens. Scotty still read the papers each day in the library, but Johnson had given it up.

‘Things can't go on this way,’ Scotty kept saying, but Johnson wasn't so sure. He felt badly about the way things were turning out.

‘They're ruining my system,’ he said.

‘What's your system?’

‘It's the keep on working and moving, it's the hard work for the good time and never stay long anywhere.’

‘That's a hell of a system. That's what makes a fool of you. You know where you and I ought to be right now?’

‘Not here.’

page 45

‘You're right, not here, you're bloody right. We oughta saved up and be on a bit of land we owned and just laying back careful-like till things blow over.’

‘A hell of a chance we had,’ and they stopped talking, but the conversation kept beginning again.

In January they were on relief work, tidying up the edges of roads, twenty men with pick-axes and shovels and spades moving down suburban roads with work to do that even the borough surveyor had difficulty in finding and a job to discover when it was done. Scotty got into an argument with a ratepayer going to work about the waste of money weeding the roads and was told by the foreman to shut his trap. In February, being unmarried men, they were sent out of town to a relief camp.

The work of the camp was making a scenic road that might, when there was ever money to metal or concrete it, be a tourist drive around the city. It was slow work and monotonous, made slower because the work was done with picks and shovels instead of scoops. The work had to be made to last. In the long run it was the uselessness of the work which was wearying, rather than the work itself.

Johnson shared a tent with Scotty and two other men. Scotty had been finally diagnosed as consumptive and coughed miserably at nights. One of the others, Roach, a little Cockney not long out–‘Pommy,’ they called him, and mimicked his speech–wanted him shifted, but the others did not mind. The fourth man was older, a grey-haired Scot named Robertson. His reserve and solidity appealed to Johnson; they worked together and shared clothes.

It was a passable routine when the weather was fine. When it rained and the cold came–and autumn seemed nearer to winter that year–life grew wretched and uncomfortable. There was no floor to the tent and after a page 46 day's rain, mud and damp seemed to swallow everything. Even the one big meal-tent grew thick and squalid with men crowding into it to play cards or talk. There was nowhere to dry clothes when the men came in wet and heavy with clay from the roads. Johnson bore all this as the other men did because the camp and the work had a temporary and make-shift air about it. There was no money to put flooring down in the tents. If there had been money it would hardly have been worth while since the camp wasn't always going to be there. Things would ‘pick up’ soon and there would be real work and money in the country again.

The camp was in a dry area. Suburbs voted themselves dry periodically in Auckland and the camp lay inside one of these temperance areas, rather irrationally, for it was off the main roads and houses and in the thick of tea-tree hills. The nearest pub was down by the water-front, on an arm of the harbour, five miles away. The nearest picture-house was two miles away and only showed pictures three times a week.

Johnson was saving money. He had cut down on smoking. He didn't go into town if he could help it. He said to himself each morning as he got up, climbing into wet clay-heavy slacks, this is a hell of a thing, this comes of living in towns, I'll get to hell out of here the first thing I can, it can't be worse in the country. But men coming in every day to the camp from the country said it was worse, farmers were turning off old hands, working themselves the way they'd never worked before, getting sold up by the banks.

One Saturday, going over to the pub late in the afternoon because they couldn't stand it any longer, Johnson and Scotty had three drinks before closing time and page 47 bought two quart bottles each. They sat down off the road in the tea-tree, a mile out of camp on the way home, and drank them. After the walk and not having anything to eat and not having drunk for a long time, they got to feel good so that they were making plans again and Scotty was talking about farms and opportunities there were for men, now things were bad, to pick up something cheap. But it came on to rain with a light drizzle from the north as they were finishing the last of the beer, and walking back to camp Johnson was sick by the road. He remembered only getting into bed feeling bad and waking in the early morning with the light just coming in through the tent door and birds calling from the bush, dry-mouthed, listening to Scotty breathing heavily in his sleep and Robertson snoring, lying awake and saying to himself, I've got to get to hell out of this, this isn't any life for a man.

Johnson got to be unpopular because he wouldn't join the U.W.M., the Unemployed Workers Movement. He said to the organiser that asked him:

‘I'm not a union man. I'm a farm worker.’

‘It doesn't give a damn what you used to be. You're unemployed now, ain't you?’

‘All the same I never joined a union.’

‘Your ought to. You got to stand together these days.’

‘And a hell of a lot you can stand together for. What you going to do? Go on strike? That's a good one.’

Scotty told him afterwards:

‘You ought to join. He's right, Johnnie, you got to get together.’

‘For what?’

‘For better times. These are Labour men these fellows. I will tell you what's going to happen in this country, page 48 there's going to be a farmers’ government, see, with Labour, the fellows in the towns joining up with the fellows in the country and taking things out with the hands of the bankers and the politicians.

‘Christ, they're all politicians,’ Johnson said.

But still most of the men went into the city for weekends, crowding into open lorries on Saturday afternoons, the few married men to their families, the others for a night in town. And Johnson was getting unpopular, not joining the U.W.M., saving his money. He was saving about six shillings a week, taking off tobacco and a new pair of boots that he had had to buy when he started work. He had never been unpopular like that with a crowd of men before, but he kept saying to himself, to hell, they won't keep me here long.

He remembered one conversation that he had with Robertson not long before he left there. He was lying on his bunk in the deserted tent on a Saturday afternoon reading a magazine when Robertson came in and sat down, grunting stiffly as he unlaced his boots. He said:

‘You're not in town with the boys?’

‘Not to-day, Mac’

‘They tell me its beginning the football season,’ Robertson said.

‘League maybe, I don't know. I never watched it’

Robertson lay back on his bunk folding his hands behind his head. The tent-door flapped open showing the line of tea-tree and a grey sky. The low hills around the camp were barren and desolate.

‘Christ,’ he said, at length. Johnson was silent turning over a page. ‘Did ye never think of getting out of this country?’ Robertson said.

‘Not me,’ Johnson told him. ‘It's been all right for me.’

page 49

Robertson raised himself fiercely on one elbow to look at him. ‘Ye don't think this is all right,’ he said.

‘It'll be all right again.’

‘That's what the daft fellows here are all saying, the damn fools. You give them enough to eat–just enough– and a drink once a week, and they go on working day after day, working in muck for nothing. Is that all right? It'll get better. Who the hell knows it's going to get better?’

Johnson said, not laying down his book: ‘What's the use, Mac? You can't do anything. I'm getting out just as soon as I can.’

Robertson lay down again.

‘You can't do anything,’ he said more quietly. ‘No, you can't do anything. That's right. Or you won't do anything. I don't know. I'd give a lot to get home again, and mind, it's the first time I ever thought that.’ He had come out as a young man and worked all his life on a sheep farm in the South Island. It had taken a major depression to uproot him.

Johnson grinned at him. It was unusual to see him disturbed.

‘Scotty's the one,’ Johnson said. ‘You ought to join up with him.’

Robertson wrinkled his face disgustedly.

‘That bloody social creditor,’ he said. ‘If he talked less, I'd listen more. The little bastard never worked anywhere till now. It's a har-rdship to him, by God.’

‘Scotty's all right,’ Johnson said. ‘He works all right. He's interested in politics, that's all.’

Robertson was silent for a moment.

‘I wouldn't clear out,’ Johnson said. ‘Not even if I could from this country. It's no better anywhere else. You've just to read the papers. Back in England now——’

page 50

‘Ah, back in England, eh?’

‘Sure, where's your working man's friend, Ramsay MacDonald now, eh?’

Robertson spat disgustedly over the side of his bunk.

‘He wasn't ever a Scotsman,’ he said. ‘Everyone knew that. Did you never hear of Keir Hardie or Willie Gallacher?’

‘Well, all you'd get'd be the dole, and you know it.’

‘It'd be a more gentlemanly life, boy. You're young–you wouldn't appreciate that. Just a few shillings a week and a drink now and again and no useless bloody work to do. No rain, no mud, no digging holes for someone to fill them in again on a public works programme. None of that in the old country.’

He breathed heavily, pulling the grey blanket up over his legs and relaxed, turning over on one side. When Johnson looked at him again he was asleep, breathing heavily, his mouth open beneath his grizzled grey moustache, the lines on his face old and tired. Johnson lay for a while not looking at his book, but at the stretched seam of the canvas over him. He was trying to think what he could do, how long he could stay there, and where he could go. To hell, he said, they won't keep me here, and he took up his book again.