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Man Alone

Chapter VII

page 61

Chapter VII

Johnson came to himself again, leaning still sick and breathless against the wharf gates, trying to feel strength in his legs, to remember what had happened, and what he should do now. He could feel blood still running, though less freely, down his left cheek, and put up one hand to feel the swelling above his eye. It was swollen badly and tender to touch but he judged not seriously cut. He wiped some of the blood away with his handkerchief and smoothed his hair down so that it partly covered the bruise. His hat was gone and a pocket of his coat was torn open. When he had done that and could stand again he started to walk back along the road that ran by the wharves to where the lorry and his friends would be.

The town seemed much quieter now, if it were not just the contrast of the half-empty streets with the roar and singing that was still in his ears. The clock on the ferry building chimed the half hour. He looked up. It was halfpast ten. He had last thought of the time when the same clock struck seven as they were marching to join the procession. He must have been a long time by the wharf gates so that the cold he felt running through him was not unreal. As he passed the foot of the main street, walking on the far side and away from the town, he looked up it to see what was still happening there. It was very quiet now, though even from where he stood he could see light catching on broken glass strewn across the street and the shop windows that he saw were gaping and glassless. It was a clean business of wrecking that his friends had made.

He stopped waiting in the shadow which a corner of the ferry building made and looked carefully ahead to page 62 where he had to pass the bright light of the street lamps that were still shining. Little groups of people were standing on street corners talking anxiously; others were wandering up the centre of the town like sightseers in a ruined city. And, what he didn't like, police were about again, and what seemed to be special patrols already, men in white armbands pacing up and down in front of the broken shop-windows. Some of them carried rifles. Ahead of him they had drawn a line across the road to the west and were searching people for loot as they went past it. He waited a moment uncertainly and then walked forward.

He had gone only a few yards in the bright light when he saw two men watching him from the other side of the road. One of them pointed to him. He recognised him by his build. It was the police sergeant whose fist had cut open his eye. The sergeant had found a helmet again which tilted forward strapless, over a rough white bandage; he had with him a special constable, a young man. As Johnson looked at them they moved forward towards him. He waited a moment, uncertain whether it was towards him or not that they were coming, and then, as they quickened to a half-run, saw that they were. His legs were stiff and weary, his head still ached, and his stomach was sick. He turned and ran.

They did not follow him for long as he went back towards what seemed like welcome darkness. He heard their footsteps halt and, looking round, saw them standing in the middle of the road looking after him. He slowed again to a walk and saw the special constable leave the sergeant and, crossing over to the far side of the road again, come hurrying along towards him. Johnson broke into a run again. The line was not drawn so closely to the east. He saw someone from the other side of the road page 63 run half-way across in an effort to cut him off and he heard a whistle blow that might have been for him. But there was too much still going on and too much disorder for them to have time to attend to every man that ran. Bending forward, his arms swinging, catching his breath in great sobs, he ran into the darkness.

When he stopped again he was in darkness by the far breakwater a good mile from the town. It was off here that he and Petersen had brought the Sea-spray to its last moorings; he could see, looking out now across the harbour, the shape of hulks breaking the sky. He felt better now, weary and still tired in every part of his body, but clearer-headed with the cool night air. Cars were going along the main waterfront road, hurrying into town, with anxious property owners or the merely curious. The outer suburbs of the city were mobilizing. He smiled to himself, watching them without resentment. They could do that if they wanted to. He rested, taking his breath.

It was not long before he grew cold again and, with the cold, stiffness returned to his legs and the throbbing to his head. He would have to move on, but first of all he felt through his pockets and found his tin of tobacco and papers. He rolled himself a cigarette clumsily in the darkness and smoked it carefully between thickened and dry lips while he made his plans.

He knew certainly now that he would not go back to the camp. For the future and for what would happen in this city he did not know; he did not care. There might be more troubled evenings in the town, more rioting, more looting; and they would have the soldiers out, the navy, the territorials; more shops broken, more bandaged heads. In the pain of his head was warmth and pleasure, and a good feeling running in his arm, remembering the surprised look that had come over the sergeant's face and page 64 the way his head went back. But, whichever way it went, it was no longer his fight and he did not care. The forces of disorder could not win; they could express themselves, but while they existed in disorder, they could gain nothing. It was possible that if he went back to the camp, walking through the night, no one would search for him, and he would pass unnoticed while things settled down into the slow-running of the depression. He did not mind the police, but he wanted now neither a term in gaol nor a further term in relief camp. He had seen enough of cities and clay roads and camps, and the communal life of disheartened men. There was no life here either on relief or on riot. He would go away.

He felt in his breast-pocket, using his left hand with its sore knuckles tenderly. The little money that he carried and slept with was still there intact in its leather purse. He had twenty-four shillings-no railway fare for the distance he wanted to go–and, in any event, he judged it better not to travel openly with his clothes and his broken head telling their story. Behind him were the lights of the water of ferry boats and harbour traffic and beyond the Rangitoto beacon winked steadily. There was a way of travel there, perhaps, but it was hard to get aboard ships and, besides, on the surface of the water was the ripple of a cool wind that made it look chill with winter. Over in front of him, not far away, were the railway station and the main railway yards, apparently still working normally with huge arc lights and sparks going up into the air from glowing bunkers. He stretched himself stiffly and smoothed his torn jacket down. He would go away.