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Man Alone

Chapter VIII

page 65

Chapter VIII

Only after he had been in the truck for some hours did he wish that he had risked the lights of a station coffee-stall to get something to eat. It was bitterly cold and the stench of fertiliser, with which the truck was filled, blinded and choked him. He shifted two sacks again, grunting with the effort, to make room for himself between them, and pulled tight the tarpaulin which he had loosened to get in so that only his face was open to the air. The train moved uneasily along. He dozed fitfully in halfdreams that were filled with breaking glass and men fighting over him.

He was wakened finally with the train stopping. It had been held up before, once, at a junction just outside Auckland, but now, listening, he could tell that the trucks were being shunted off the line to come to rest with a jar of grinding brakes. He waited to see what would happen and heard voices and steps going down the line. Two men passed close underneath him so that he could see the glimmer of a lantern going past him and away in the distance and then quiet. He waited a few minutes longer, then lifted the tarpaulin carefully.

The night was breaking; he could see already a greyness in the east and the outline of trucks and station buildings growing sharper against the sky. There was a keenness in the air and a cleanliness that his cold body felt gratefully. He did not know where he was, one of the mining towns south of Auckland perhaps. Wherever it was, it was not far enough. He slid quietly out from under the tarpaulin and lowered himself gently to the ground. Then he stood, pressed against the truck, and replaced page 66 the tarpaulin so that no one noticing it would be on the look-out for a thief or a vagrant. Brushing the fertiliser dust from his clothes and hair he felt aching in him the hurts of the night's fighting and travelling, his head throbbing inwardly seemed to press outwards upon the bruised skin. He was tired and still sleepy, his mouth dry and parched. He followed the track cautiously back towards the lights of the station, his feet stumbling over the edges of sleepers that jutted on to the track, and stopped where a canvas boiler-filler hung down to drink gratefully a few drops of stale water.

Then he saw what he wanted. Nearer to the main line, and probably ready for pulling out, stood a line of trucks, cattle-trucks, for the most part, with one or two covered vans in the middle. He crossed over to it quickly, keeping in the shadows that were cast by the station lights a hundred yards in front, and tried to read the white chalk markings on the trucks that would tell him where they were bound for. It was hard to make anything out in the half-darkness and he was not willing to risk a match. ‘Palmerston, two of them said. If he was lucky they were going there, a long way to the south. Some of the trucks were filled with cattle, moving uneasily. If he was unlucky, they were waiting for daylight to be unloaded; he would have to risk that. He listened, his ear pressed against one of the covered vans. It was empty. If he was still lucky, it had come from the Wairarapa or the Bay and was going home again. He opened the door and climbed warily in. After the sharp chemical dust of blood and bone mixture, the smell of straw, which lay over the floor of the van, was sweet. He curled himself up in one corner and went to sleep.

When he woke again it was with the jolt of the train starting, and for a moment his eyes wandered trying page 67 to place his surroundings. It was broad daylight now and his eyes took in at last the grey planking of the van. Then he turned on one elbow, feeling his stiffness and recollecting himself again, and saw that he had company.

At the end of the box, surrounded as he himself was by a pile of damp straw, sat another man, an old man with close-cropped grey hair, and a gaunt unshaven face on which the white stubble showed. He looked like an escaped convict, with his grey flannel shirt and blue dungarees. Around him were spread his belongings, strewn from a canvas kitbag, clothes, boots, two black tea-billies, a shirt, a khaki scarf, and a grey blanket. The old man sat in the midst of this, sightless and uncaring, swaying gently with the motion of the train. He held in one hand a black, unlabelled bottle, and while he rocked backwards and forwards his lips moved as if in prayer.

Johnson got up and shook the straw from himself, then, leaning one hand against the side of the car to steady himself, walked towards him. The old man looked up without emotion.

‘Good day, brother,’ he said.

He tilted the bottle upwards and swallowed, straining the bony muscles of his neck. When he lowered the bottle he did not offer it to Johnson, but holding it tightly, and not looking at him, but towards the floor, said:

‘Brother, you and I are brothers. That is all we know now, brother.’

Johnson put down one hand from above him and took the bottle. The gnarled fingers closed on it despairingly, but once it had gone the old man did not move or protest, but sat, his eyes still on the floor.

‘Where is Christ now?’ he said. ‘Where is Christ now, where is Christ now, and where is Calvary?’

Johnson, braced against the wall which seemed to be page 68 rocking more violently, swallowed two mouthfuls of raw whisky. It was a cheap spirit that burned his throat and made him choke. He took a deep breath and drank again. Then he gave the bottle back to the old man who clutched it sightlessly.

‘Mother Mary,’ he said. ‘Mother Mary. Where is Christ now, where is Christ now and His good men?’

Johnson sat down beside him, trying to catch the focus of his glazed eyes. His close-cropped head, the tight skin on his cheeks, gave him the look of an old and evil toad.

‘Have you anything to eat?’ Johnson asked him.

‘I tell you, brother,’ said the old man ‘this is the end of the good things you and I know, the end of them now.’

Johnson was searching in his kit, at first fruitlessly. At last he found what he wanted, a half loaf of white bread wrapped in newspaper inside one of the tea-billies. He broke it and ate hungrily.

‘This is the end, brother,’ the old man said tonelessly. ‘This is the end. Where is Christ now? There are no men with us, no good men now, no Seddon, no Massey. There is no Christ, no Calvary. They are not with us.’

He broke off and, as if observing Johnson for the first time, laid one lean hand on his knee.

‘You are a good man, I can see that,’ he said. ‘I could be content then with one good man and Christ.’

Johnson, filled for the moment with dried bread, leaned across and took the bottle from him again. It was now less than half full. He took two mouthfuls before giving it back. The old man had withdrawn his hand again from Johnson's knee.

‘There is no peace now,’ he said, ‘no peace on earth. I knew Absalom, O Absalom, and Seddon, I knew Seddon. There are no more now, no more.’

Johnson went back to his own end of the truck and, page 69 rolling himself a cigarette, watched the old man. He took one more drink, and then, corking the bottle solemnly, for which Johnson was glad, put it aside; he unrolled his blanket laboriously, and, wrapping himself in it, lay down and seemed to sleep.

The train moved south slowly all through that day. It waited three hours at what Johnson thought must be Te Awamutu, another three at Taumarunui. Each time it stopped Johnson got up and stood ready to jump out if anyone came along; but though they shunted some of the trucks once, the centre part of the train and the vans were not touched. The old man woke up once in the afternoon, walked across to the corner of the box and relieved himself, and then lay down again. Night came on as the train took its slow way, climbing through the bush-hills to the high plateau that runs across the centre of the island to the three snow mountains. The air grew colder and a steady rain was falling on the roof. Johnson, remembering the line, felt the curve of the spiral as the train climbed, and felt it straighten out again as it reached the plains. If it stopped again now, he was ready. It went on across the tussock flat and then started to go down into the valley beside the mountain, and as it slowed he saw the lights of a town that must be Ohakune.

He struck a match and bent over the old man, who still slept, breathing heavily. He seemed to Johnson to be well provided and well enough inured to small adversities. Johnson picked up his cloth cap and put it on; it would hide the ugly bruise that still showed on the side of his head. He took the woollen khaki scarf and wound it round his neck, turning up his coat collar to keep off the rain that was beating on the roof. He would have taken the old man's raincoat, as well, but the old man slept in it and it would be difficult to remove without waking him. The page 70 train slowed to a halt. Johnson moved quickly to the door and as the brakes screeched jumped out on to the track, falling forward heavily on to his hands and knees. The momentum carried him forward and down a bank into long wet grass. The train had drawn in near the centre of the small station and there seemed to be lights on all sides. After waiting a moment he began to crawl along the shelter of the bank. Looking back he saw a guard walking with a lantern down the outside of the track coming from the engine. The door of the truck, which he had not had time to shut, swung half open, and he saw the lantern stop beside it. He was sorry to think that the old man's night should be disturbed in this way, but he could not stop to watch. He walked on down the line until he came to a bridge which ran above the road. He climbed over the edge, for it was without railings, and dropped ten feet into the road below. Then he picked himself up and, hurrying to get out of the rain, walked back into the town.

There seemed to be no place open where he could get a meal and the hot food he wanted so badly, and, after wandering around for a few minutes, he took his way back to the station. There he saw his goods train still halted by the side and apparently waiting for the arrival of a through express from the south which came in as he got to the station. Johnson drank coffee and ate sausage rolls at a counter crowded with travellers using a ten-minute break. They were from all points south and mostly going to Auckland; they talked, anxious for news of how things were going on in the city. ‘My God,’ said one man, coming in, ‘I've just been ringing through and they're at it again.’ They made way for this man and plied him with questions that he could not answer. Johnson, watching them, wondered if they were worried about their businesses or their wives and children. They talked as if they page 71 were going into a war area. Listening, he considered the necessity which all men have of dramatising themselves. Then the train pulled out and he was left finishing his second cup of coffee in front of a tired and irritated waitress, who watched him suspiciously. He pulled his cap further down over his eyes and went out along the platform to the waiting-room.

There was a fire there and two signalmen, sitting in front of it, talking of the latest news. ‘It's a proper dust-up,’ one of them said. ‘Well, you could've guessed it was coming,’ said the other. ‘Human nature won't stand the way things have been, no, it won't,’ and they agreed on that. Johnson got as near to the fire as he could and lay down on one of the wooden benches. He was ready to sleep again. About an hour after he had settled himself he was woken by the door opening and someone else coming in. It was the old man from the train. He carried his kit-bag over his shoulder, his grey blanket under one arm, the bottle sticking from his pocket. He did not seem to notice Johnson nor recognise his cap or scarf, but sat down on the opposite side of the room and, watched by the signalmen who turned round to look at him, drank the last few drops from his bottle. The old man seemed to have slept enough for the time. He remained sitting upright, his lips still moving quietly as he talked to himself. When Johnson woke up again in the early hours of the morning the old man had gone.

Johnson woke with the fire dying and the waiting-room empty, and the chill air of the morning coming in. Going outside he could see that the sky had cleared and now caught for the first time, rising above him, the white snow that was Ruapehu, the mountain of the plains. It rose up, nine thousand feet high, above the little township of timber mills and dairy factories. Below the snow-line came page 72 dark bush that ran down steeply to the edge of the town, and looking westward was flat that ran into bush hills as the country dropped again. In the cold of early morning the land looked cheerless and the bush heavy, dripping with the rain of the last night.

Johnson waited in the fireless waiting-room until the sun should come up and warm the air; about eight o'clock he found a small café that gave him breakfast of bacon and eggs and tea. He paid two shillings for this and bought some more tobacco, so that he had just one pound, which he put carefully away. Then he set off to walk, going westward, away from the mountain. It was still clear, though with drifting clouds and a cool wind coming from the south and west, but there seemed to be little alive or moving in the country that he passed, and the few small farms were uninviting. One or two cars passed him, but none offered a lift. It was still too near the towns for the real hospitality of the road. He came to a small town of more dairy factories and bought some bread, which he ate walking, and went on out of the town still going westward.

Early in the afternoon the driver of a cream lorry called to him, passing, and he ran after it.

‘You going far?’ said the driver. He was a dark, thickset, swarthy man with no hat, and a head going bald backwards from his forehead.

‘Looking for work,’ Johnson told him.

‘You'll go far in this part of the world, mate,’ the lorry driver said. ‘You better jump in. One part of the country's as good as another for what you're doing.’

Johnson got in and they drove on. Johnson said, shouting above the roar of the engine and the rattle of empty cans in the back and loose metal on the road:

‘Things bad round here?’

page 73

‘Not too good, mate. Not too good. They ain't been worse as far as I can remember’

After a while the lorry driver said:

‘More trouble in Auckland last night, they tell me, the bastards.’

‘What happened?’

‘Tell me more windows broken though not so bad–soldiers out. Guess they'll have to be shown again the way they were in 1913, that's all. I was in that. I was in Hamilton then, just before the war it was. I tell you we was out and down in the wharves before sun-up with guns and all, no trouble at all. Loaded the bloody ships ourselves we did.’

He spat over the side. Johnson was rolling a cigarette.

‘Can I roll one for you?’ he asked.

The driver nodded and so Johnson did this, and after lighting it, handed it to him. He had heard the story of the dockers' strike of 1913 before. It was a long time ago.

‘What's behind all this trouble now?’ Johnson said, making conversation.

‘What's behind it? Why, hell, it's the same old trouble, ain't it? You're a farming man, ain't you? Bastards in town always had a good time–always wanting something more, more wages, shorter hours–makes me sick. Anyone ever worry how long the farmer works? Now things aren't so good in town and they don't like it. What d'they do? They listen to a lot of reds, a lot of bloody agitators. If they ain't Russians, they're Australians. That's what the trouble is.’

‘The farmer's not too well off, eh?’

‘You're right, he's not. He's bloody badly off. What'd we get round here for a wool clip last year? Not enough to pay for taking it off the place. The wool-sheds are full of it, last year's, the year before's. Jesus.’

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‘There's something a good deal wrong, you can see that,’ Johnson said. They were travelling along over desolate country where the great bush-fire of the early 'twenties had been. Blackened trees still standing, blackened, unrotted logs on the ground gave the hills the derelict air of a battle-field.

‘There's something a good deal wrong, all right,’ the lorry driver said. ‘It's this bloody Government.’

‘It's a farmers' Government, isn't it?’ Johnson said.

‘Farmers' Government, my—,’ the lorry driver said. He seemed to like talking. ‘It's a bloody bankers' Government, that's what it is. If they'd take hold of the banks and make'em do the work we want, now that'd be talking. Listen, everybody's had a cut, haven't they, one way or the other? Well, have the banks cut their wages?’

‘I don't know.’

‘You can bet your boots they haven't. That's what we want then, ain't it? Just the right to control our money. Take over our banks, we'd be all right then. Now I'm no politician, mind you, but that's the way it seems to me. Control the money, we'd be all right. Mind you, I'm not one of these reds, don't go thinking that way of me. I just want money to do its work the way it ought to do.’

The lorry slowed to a stop at a corner where a man stood waiting.

‘This'll be Stenning,’ the driver said. ‘You'll have to ride in the back, mate, if you're going on. I promised I'd pick him up.’

‘Who's Stenning?’

‘He's got a farm round here.’

Stenning was a little man, shorter than the lorry driver, who was not tall, a man of about forty-five with grizzled fair hair. The thing that was striking about him was the great thickness and strength of his forearms and legs. page 75 He had light blue eyes that did not look directly at anything. He watched Johnson curiously as he got down and went round to the back of the van. Johnson got inside and travelled jammed up against rattling cans that slid backwards and forwards as the lorry took the corners. They were going downhill now, leaving the plain that ran right across to the foot of the mountain. It was the same fire-swept, devastated country, broken and seamed, and showing clay where dry weather had caught it and cracked it. Johnson, observing it, felt tired and dispirited.

When they stopped at a cream-stand a little farther on, the lorry driver leaned on the back for a moment before taking out the can that Johnson passed to him.

‘This Stenning says he might have a job for you,’ he said. ‘You better talk to him.’

Johnson got down and went round to the front of the van.

‘Tell me you might have a job?’ he said.

Stenning looked at him for a moment without speaking. His was not an unpleasant face except for the very light blue eyes that turned, making him look a little shifty or mean. They took away from the strength of his body and made him seem uneasy.

He asked Johnson: ‘You used to farms? Can you milk?’

‘Sure. I can milk.’

‘Where you come from last? You know anything about sheep?’

‘Down south, Masterton way,’ Johnson said. ‘I've been on sheep farms.’

‘I got a job,’ Stenning said, ‘but there'll be no wages, not to speak of. You know what I took off of my farm last year? Fifty-two pounds. I can keep you in tobacco, some money if we make it. It's not a big farm.’

‘How big?’

page 76

‘’Bout fifteen hundred acres. I got eight hundred sheep, ten cows, a few horses.’

‘I'll take it,’ Johnson said.

They shook hands solemnly. The lorry driver, who had joined them and stood stolidly listening, said:

‘It's as good as you'll get, mate. You could do worse with things the way they are.’

‘You got any gear?’ Stenning asked him.

‘I left it down south,’ Johnson said. ‘I'll get it sent on.’ He climbed into the back of the lorry and they drove on. At the next stop the lorry driver paused again as he lifted a can out and said:

‘You won't be doing so bad, mate. This Stenning's not a bad fellow.’

‘He seems all right to me,’ Johnson said.

‘They say he's a bit mean–reckon he's a good farmer,’ the lorry driver said, and lifted the can out on to the stand. He came back again.

‘He's got a half-caste wife,’ he said.

‘What of it?’

‘Nothing. She's a bitch, that's all.’

‘He got any children?’

‘Nope. He ain't got any children. He ain't been married so long, a year or a bit more. She was well known around here, she was.’ He grunted to himself and walked back to his seat in the front.

Two miles beyond that point they came to a creamstand and letter-box where a small clay road turned off to the left to Stenning's farm, and Johnson and he got down. Johnson said good-bye to the driver.

‘I'll see you around some time,’ the driver said. ‘Name's Sayers.’

‘Mine's Johnson.’

page 77

‘I'll be seeing you around.’ He started up the engine, then leaned out over the door again.

‘You play football?’ he shouted.


‘Pity. We get up a team around here sometimes.’ He waved his hand and drove off. Stenning arranged the parcels that he had collected in two sacks and gave one to Johnson. They set off to walk down the clay road.

‘It's a mile and a half,’ Stenning said.

The road ran sharply downhill into a small valley. On both sides were dead trees and standing fern; little creeks bursting with the rains of the night before ran down from the hills; their feet splashed heavily through pools that had formed in the deep ruts of the road. Except for an occasional ewe nibbling at some odd patch of grass among the fern, there was no life and no sound except running water.

They walked on in silence at first and then Stenning talked a little about the riots. He summed it up finally:

‘It's a damn’ bloody hard country wherever you live in it,’ he said.

They came at length to the white gate of Stenning's farm. The clay road ran on past it, sunk low now in the valley. They went through the gate and up towards the small iron-roofed house that stood on a rise surrounded by paddocks that flattened out towards the river. Johnson could see that the green grass on these river flats was worth farming: it grew thick and heavy and clean. The dairy sheds and the yards and the wool-shed were farther down towards the river, and the cows from the field beyond had drawn in ready for milking. It was about five in the afternoon. As they walked up the track to the house a woman ran out from the front door, stood looking at them for a moment, and went in again.

page 78

‘My wife, Rua,’ Stenning said. ‘You'll be sleeping in the whare down there,’ he said. ‘There's no room in the house.’ He pointed to a little hut that stood near the sheds.

Stenning's wife came out again and met them on the steps of the house. She was little more than a girl, perhaps twenty-two or three. She had been pretty not long ago; she was still pretty, though sulky and ill-tempered looking. She was not very dark, and her straight black hair, hanging down over one side of her face, showed off the deep olive pinkness of her cheeks that had grown a little too fat and rounded. She looked at Johnson curiously and rudely, without speaking. Stenning said:

‘This is Johnson. He's going to stay and work a while.’

She turned and they followed her into the house. The table in the kitchen in front of the range was set for tea. She set another cup, banging it noisily on to the table, and took the tea-pot from the range. They ate tea and bread and butter while she asked Stenning what he had brought, jumping up to tip the sacks out and open the parcels on the floor. The house was crudely and amateurishly built, unlined, and with newspaper for wallpaper pasted over the cracks of the weather-boarding. There seemed to be only three rooms and no bath-room. The house as a whole looked dilapidated and dirty. There were unwashed dishes piled in the scullery, the butter was badly made, saltless, and full of water. Johnson, helping himself to strong tea, felt gratefully the heat from the stove and the steam rising from his legs, wet after the road.

‘You and I'll milk,’ Stenning said, when tea was over. Johnson nodded.

‘You won't want me, eh?’ Rua said, looking up. Her voice was pleasantly soft and curiously musical. The ill-temper remained in her eyes.

page 79

‘You can have a rest to-night,’ Stenning told her, and to Johnson: ‘Can I lend you some clothes?’

‘What I have 'll do,’ Johnson said, and looking down at them realized that they were in no good state for anything but the cow-yards. What had been a rough tweed suit, wearable in a city, was dirty and torn and still smelled of blood-and-bone. Rua was watching him curiously and he remembered, now that he was indoors and his cap off, the ugly bruise still showing on his forehead. He ran his hand over it gently and smiled.

‘Fell off a train,’ he said, and getting up went out with Stenning down the track to the milking-shed.

Coming back to the house later after Stenning, who had left him to finish, carrying the buckets and separator parts to be washed, he heard Rua's voice arguing shrilly inside. She was saying:

‘And who he is God knows, and you don't, and up to no good around here. But that doesn't matter to you that I've got enough work already without cooking and feeding for him as well. And I suppose you think there's enough food in this house for everybody?’

Stenning said something which he could not catch, and the buckets clanking on the gate that led into the yard at the back of the house stopped the conversation.

Johnson washed himself at the tank outside and sat on the steps watching the last of the light catch the snow on Ruapehu. He had seen the mountain before, but never at such close quarters as it was now in this part of the world. The glaciers rose up red and bloody to the peaks, that were clear against the sky, and below them was the dark line of bush and the shadow of the foot-hills. He did not seem to have moved far in his day's travel. The mountain towered up directly out of the country as it had seemed page 80 to do at the station in the morning. Near at hand to the house, bush came down almost to the yard at the back. It was quiet and heavy with night coming on. Bush-hens were calling across the valley and he could hear the hushed roar of the snow river going by. Johnson smoked a cigarette and stretched his tired legs gratefully. He sat there while the air grew dark and cold about him and then went into the kitchen. After supper he helped wash up the dishes and then went, with Stenning and a storm lantern guiding him, across the field to his whare. He slept well.