Alexander Powderham, fortyish, handsome and bohemian, limped his way up Cuba Street. His left leg, having been crippled from infantile paralysis, was supported by a steel brace. He was dependent also on canes, of which he had an impressive collection, and on this occasion he was using one intricately carved by Aroha Raharuhi, his longtime lover.
The air was unseasonably warm for mid-September Wellington, which heightened the smell rising from the mounds of horse ordure left from the morning’s military parade. Outside the Duchess Tea Rooms, Alexander paused and rested on his good leg while he adjusted his recently tailored jacket, smoothing down the Irish linen with his hands, delighting in its texture and colour of golden flax. Then he adjusted his silk tie, cream coloured with charcoal flecks, loosening the knot a little at the undone top button to ensure that rakish look, which was one of casual elegance. The white, Egyptian cotton shirt had also been crafted especially for him by the clothiers “Munster & Munster” who, through four years of war, had survived patriotic vandalism by hanging a large sign across their shop windows, WE ARE NOT HUNS: WE SUPPORT KING AND COUNTRY. Alexander’s chocolate brown, wide-brimmed hat with a duck’s feather poking from the green woven band was also avant-garde, of a high-quality felt and based on a design he had seen in a fashion weekly from London.
With deference he tapped the brim of his hat with an index finger as Miss Hortensia Rice approached. She was obviously rushed, for she was panting. But she stopped and said in that lilting, cadent voice of the educated: “Oh, Alexander, I’m so looking forward to our book group. I’m riveted by Crime and Punishment. So psychological. And atonement and redemption! And that brat Raskolnikov! Fyodor Dostoyevsky! Just those names take me to Saint Petersburg.” Her eyes looked startled, but it was merely excitement. “My inner mind, Alexander. I feel I’m delving into something…so…deeply profound…philosophical, this novel…this novel…”
“Petrograd doesn’t have the same caché, does it?” said Alexander, smiling. “I can’t wait to hear what you have to say at the book group. And what you think about the murders.”
“The murders! Oh, I’m so late for class. Adieu, Alexander, adieu. I don’t know how to say it in Russian.” Then she was off, her school teacher’s satchel swinging on her back, her maroon skirts around her red boots as she rushed down the street in the direction of Wellington Girls’ College.
Standing outside the Duchess Tea Rooms and watching Hortensia Rice turn the corner he again saw, and not without the usual poignancy, that she was the sort of woman he would have married had he been normal. Just for a second, he closed his eyes to the street, to Wellington, to the morning’s news of the latest batch of New Zealand troops being dispatched to the trenches of Europe. Her red boots and maroon skirts swayed behind his closed lids, but he saw with that familiar, stabbing notion that Miss Rice was an alien world to him, no matter how eloquent her voice, her social standing, her caring, her desirability. She spun in a galaxy far removed from his and his mind went dark, then darker, as the distance between the of two them expanded into its vast and discordant orbit.
“Imagine, a world with Miss Rice as Mrs. Powderham,” he thought as he flew through the darkness. But he couldn’t imagine it, for that was an abstraction too great, too removed at his age, at forty, given his proclivity. All he saw emerging from that void was Hortensia Rice unfolding a red sun umbrella in his back garden with the high trees soughing, the sunlight slanting on her as in a painting, her head back, laughing and laughing. Yet it was also more a nightmare than a happy vision, the sort where he yelled out, and from which Aroha would wake him saying: “It’s only the dreams speaking.” Alexander Powderham opened his eyes, and instead of seeing a laughing Miss Rice, he saw his own reflection in the window of the Duchess Tea Rooms and he knew immediately what he was: a Wellington character; a dandy; a cripple in a too fashionable linen outfit with a too fashionable fop’s hat. With that same punch of hurt he recalled an old acquaintance telling him years ago, after an argument: “All the trappings and pretences of a Gothic rake, but without the requisite masculinity.”
Throughout his reveries he had been gazing into the cafe’s window, oblivious to those staring out. Now, he caught the eyes of three women inside staring at him, puzzled and fascinated, as if at a spy, one of those creatures that was infiltrating the country sniffing out military secrets and sewing mayhem. Germans, Austrians, Hapsburgs, Red Russians, anarchists, socialists, war shirkers, pacifists; the press was constantly reminding the populace to be vigilant of such unpatriotic malignancy. With a rush of fright, Alexander saw these women assessing him against that list, this creature so very different from their menfolk. Seeing their eyes on his, scouring him, his mind went racing down a dangerous tributary, swift and swollen, in which he was bobbing up and down and close to drowning with all sorts of thoughts during his last moments alive. Arriving from another direction, and also bobbing up and down in similarly swift and swollen waters, were the images of the five Finks, the Silesian family who had been hounded out of the premises next door to his bookshop.
“I should have done more for the unfortunate Finks,” he thought, turning his back on the staring eyes inside the Duchess Tea Rooms. “I could have saved the Finks. The Ministers know me, I could have pleaded the Finks’ innocence.” But he hadn’t. The dark, green river was moving swiftly, taking the five Finks with it. Their boarding house had been shuttered, the façade vandalised. He could see the five Finks standing there with a clutch of bags and cases. Little Ursula was crying something in German and in her guttural English Mrs. Fink was yelling: “But we are Jews, not Germans!” And all Mr. Fink could do was utter: “We thought we would be safe in Wellington.” It was a long list of people Alexander had known and admired and who were now exiled as dangerous aliens to Somes Island in Wellington Harbour. They were, each of them, now reprimanding him for his silence. What had he done to save them? Nothing. His own judgment was swift. The jury in his mind banged down their gavel and shouted: “Alexander Powderham! Guilty!”
The thoughts stopped him, stuck him there, left him unable to move up Cuba Street. All he could do to look normal was to check the watch on his gold chain and look about as if he were innocently waiting on someone for morning tea in the Duchess Tea Rooms. He simply couldn’t find his feet. He couldn’t move.
“This war. This war. And I’m as mad as that insane Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment,” he thought as he looked about him. The street was busy with the remnants of well-wishers who had come to cheer as their boys had set off for Europe. Hundreds of reinforcements had just marched and waved their way through Wellington, the horses clip-clopping with the hierarchy astride them. He could sense them still in the streets, those men at this moment being fed into the hulls of troop ships: farmers, clerks, haberdashers, teachers, fishermen – all sweating after their long march in the sun as they neared the point of embarkation, their vessels with belching funnels waiting to transport them to the trenches in faraway places with names like Somme and Flanders and Ypres and Passchendaele. He leapt forward a few weeks, months, a year even, to when these patriots joyfully waving at the doomed file would receive a telegram, tapped-tapped out from over there, informing regretfully that so and so was missing in action, had died of sickness or had been killed, buried in Belgium.
“My poor head,” he thought. “Poor civilisation. I’m not Raskolnikov yet, surely?” He had deliberately not come into town until the military parade was over, for to witness these men marching off to be sacrificed for a king and country who cared nothing for the person, their sanctity as a human, was too distressing. He wanted not to go to his bookshop for another day of work. The smell of horse manure and the thought of those gorgeous men being blown apart were driving him to turn and limp back up the hills, to Tinakori Road and the sanctity of his large, dark house, and be there, too, in case the conscription authorities came again to harass Aroha.
Behind the window of the Duchess Tea Rooms he saw those ladies socialising after waving off the troops and the irony, the hypocrisy, the smugness, sickened him. They were the symbols, in fact the actuality, of everything that was ill about this Dominion at the bottom of the world whose women folk had just cheered away their men for sacrifice to a king seemingly senseless to destruction. He wanted to clutch his head, to throw his hat into the gutter, to scream at them all. But instead he smiled at the elderly woman whose hunchbacked husband delivered the coal, and she nodded pleasantly, her wicker basket over her arm filled with vegetables. Then on she went in her faded dress towards the harbour. From across the street a newspaper boy shouted shrilly, his voice filled with excitement as if war were his invention: “War news! Prime Minister’s ship leaves Honolulu. In Auckland in two weeks. Russian Revolution chaos!”
“Are you all right?” said a voice. “Alexander?” Alexander opened his eyes, which he had clamped shut after nodding at the coal monger’s wife, and met the big, dark, sad ones of Harold Smythe. Harold Smythe managed the Aristotle Press, which had once been progressive. However, and with significant disappointment, Alexander had assessed that it had now succumbed to dullness and complacency in this era when everything was subject to censorship and the restrictions under the War Regulations Act. He wanted to say: “I hear you’ve turned down publication of Michael Smith’s Treatise on Pacificism,” but instead he said: “Yes. Very good indeed, it’s just this unusual heat.” He took Harold’s proffered hand and shook it and added: “How are things, Harold?”
“My son George…” There was that frozen moment that anyone with a loved one in the trenches succumbed to when mentioning them. “But we have faith,” he said. “Faith in God. It’s all we can have, isn’t it, Alexander?” Harold Smythe peered into Alexander’s eyes as if seeking some mitigation for the obvious, that Alexander was not a believer. He wore a drab suit, one he would have for any formal occasion, with there being no distinction between them: a funeral, a wedding, a meeting with the Education Department officers to promote his company’s books. “And we’re just hoping that our next, Philip…” He searched for a word, one he should be using given what they read daily in the papers or heard shouted in the streets: sacrifice, patriotism, selflessness. Each presented itself to him but did not emerge from his mouth. Instead, he said: “He’s turning nineteen next week, which means it will be up to us, his parents, to give permission for him to go, he not being twenty. I thought the War would have ended by now. What a decision, for he wants to go. And yet…” He trailed off, for he too was visioning things past and present: his two sons’ smiling faces; the oldest was even smoking a cigarette so keen was the verisimilitude. They were talking to him, but he couldn’t gather their messages and they seemed to be speaking as in dreams, or from a vast distance. Or from death. Harold Smythe started and blinked his eyes, and as he looked at his watch, he said: “My, my, it’s late all right.” With a nod of his head he walked off, mindful that as a citizen he had given away too much, and that as a man, he had been far too emotional about his fear and loss and sadness.
Alexander, still standing outside the Duchess Tea Rooms, thought the better of going home. His bookshop was just up the street and he knew, really, that Aroha could look after himself against those conscription bureaucrats should they visit. He turned and saw that the women in the Duchess Tea Rooms were now well into their conversation. Their heads were close together, their teacups poised, and he sensed each of them as frozen in time at this exact moment in mid-September 1918 on the day that more men had marched off to fight for something pointless.
Whether the ladies were discussing something big or something small didn’t matter, for at this moment they would be forever represented in his mind as they were, behind the café’s windows. With none of the beauty with which the poem was usually associated, he thought that they were exactly like the ancients trapped in John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, these wealthy, gossiping ladies suspended into the eternity of that moment in a Wellington tea house. He couldn’t help but stare at these matriarchs in their frilly outfits, one of whom wore a hat completely covered in violets. Even the leaves were deep green and lifelike, so that it appeared as if she had simply dug a patch from her garden, stuck it on her head, and come to wave at the troops before tea and cakes and gossip. He had to shake his head to clear the visions of Grecian urns and ossified matrons and violet smothered hats. He took a few steps up Cuba Street as he did. It was then, as he approached the corner, that he heard, cranking up, preparing for her crusade, the arched and preachy voice of Mrs. Sybil Meatyard, the denizen of the New Zealand Women’s Anti-German League.
“Bugger,” he thought. “It’s the Meatyards.” The impulse to take his carved cane and knock Cecil Meatyard on his head and do the same to his buffoon of a wife, the shrill and odious Sybil, was overwhelming. One knock on her head, one knock on his, and they and their dour Protestant association would be gone forever from the streets of Wellington. It was a fantasy he had often entertained as much to rid the streets of their noisy public stirrings as to eliminate their hatreds.
“Raskolnikov’s theory was right,” he thought as he leaned on his cane and looked at Sybil Meatyard. “The benefits of killing a nasty and useless human for the betterment of mankind are indeed a justified murder.” The thought of having to pass those ardent Protestants on the corner where they had taken up position to voice their tireless tirades against war shirkers, socialists and the godless was almost too much to bear. Just then, a gust of wind came rushing off the harbour, right up Cuba Street, as if to purposefully stir the stenches and mix them all up and carry with them the voices of the two proselytisers.
“Bugger,” he thought. “How much hatred must I carry for these pathetic Meatyards? It’s disproportionate, surely?” It was a strain to his thinking to have to acknowledge that his Wellington in which he had always lived, watching it grow from a colonial trifle into a city of considerable standing, one he had tried his best to inculcate with books and culture, was now supporting this demeaning and ideologically driven crusade to harass and single out men like he and Aroha, the so-called misfits and shirkers.
The red brick Victorian façade across the street was lumpen with large plaster ledges. Its solid presentation to the street demanded respect for its heavy, masculine features. Alexander looked up at the façade and met the gaze of innumerable gargoyles positioned to support the ledges, their popping eyes looking back at him much like those of the three monkeys every school child saw illustrated and was warned to follow with their moral demands of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. From an open window, an imposing woman with a high pile of hair stood and gazed down imperiously, her white frilly collar stiff and formidable, her entire presence reminding him of someone somewhere he had seen but could not recall. To her left and to her right the gargoyles her guardians.
Mrs. Sybil Meatyard had a vocabulary of disdain. Some months back, upon seeing Alexander in the crowd, she had shouted: “It’s the Oscar Wilde types we must abhor. Effeminates are surely the biggest shirkers given their diseased minds!” In her tartan knit hat with its large black pom-poms she had stood on a soapbox outside the Wellington Public Library castigating and taunting him, playing on her fiddle of popularity all the tunes of discord and division. Waggling her finger at the onlookers, pointing at him directly, invoking the spectre of Oscar Wilde, she had made them all laugh and look around at her victim. Her sarcasm had been infectious. A man in a worn bowler hat, one obviously above his station, and which must have come to him second hand, shouted: “Pansies! Send them to the Front. Give them a good whipping! Yes to universal conscription, no to shirkers!”
Now with the wind had come the dust, which blew around and around in clouds. From some distance Alexander stood with his handkerchief held against his mouth and nostrils and observed these ideologues as they shouted at the Wellingtonians. Amongst the onlookers, some thirty or forty of them, was a tall man in uniform with a thick row of war medals across his chest. The man’s squinty eyes, in an otherwise distinguished face, looked about the crowd as if, Alexander surmised, he was a lizard searching for its victim, its long sticky tongue about to dart out to catch it. The military man raised his arm with the sort of motion that would have silenced his men and brought them to attention, and he shouted: “No special exemptions for coal miners and wharfies. No shirkers. No exceptions. Equal Conscription!” Sybil Meatyard rewarded him with a wave of her placard, across which was festooned a hand painted white feather, the symbol of cowardice. The very thought of the white feather made Alexander shudder.
At the beginning of the War, he had been presented with one in the street by a young lady with a posh voice and he had said to her: “Should cripples be made to run across minefields too?” and had limped on, outraged. There were insignia that men could wear to show that they had legitimate exemptions to conscription, but both he and Aroha had refused to wear them: “My leg and my attitude are my exemption medals,” he’d declared.
“And there’s no compulsory conscription for Māori, so damn them,” had been Aroha’s response to the suggestion to wear one by Jamey, their good friend, who had, in fact, volunteered and whose legs had been blown off in the Somme. He had died within minutes, crying, according to his commander, who had written to his parents in Auckland. There on the corner, the thought of Jamey suffering in a French field in winter made Alexander want to weep, for none of this, surely, seemed possible. It was as if it were an invention, all of this war, by some great big, ugly, Gothic monster with the brains of a gargoyle. Alexander, who had always been fascinated by Napoleon Bonaparte, had read numerous accounts of his armies marching across Europe, of them sacking this and sacking that, villages trampled, Moscow in flames. From history books, however, he understood that war was merely an alarming lesson from which to learn. But this real thing was catastrophically empirical and four years of it had only swelled his lamentations and neuroses. And what had been the constant alarm, but one not yet committed to the history books, was that the majority of New Zealanders supported this conflagration: “Like sheep being herded to the abattoirs,” he thought as he stood absorbing the scene before him. “With vicious little Protestant dogs like these Meatyards yapping at our hooves.”
A woman in a black dress and a red hat walked by with a woman in a red dress and a black hat and the latter said to her companion: “I just can’t understand the price of butter. Or jam. And as for meat, it’s ludicrous.”
“It’s too exhausting,” Alexander thought. “To be so human. Just to turn off the brain for a moment would be delicious. Just for a day not to have to think.” The War had created this, even in Wellington, which was so far removed from the stink and stench of the broken cities in Europe. He sighed, for even here in this remote Dominion there were the distractions of war where once there had been the trivia of daily life. Then, that trail of thought disintegrated and regrouped and he thought: “Jamey’s parents never replied to my long letter of condolence. They must have known I’m a Pansy.”
Another newspaper boy, touting for another paper, shouted: “Americans push hard at Huns. Forty-seven Kiwi deaths.” It seemed to Alexander as if the to-and-fro between the touts was just a game of tennis, or as if the news that the boys were shouting was nothing more than about the price of carrots. Nevertheless, an elderly man fished in his trouser pockets for change, and with a big smile the paper boy handed him the paper. A woman at the tout’s right had dropped her handbag, and as she picked it up with a little laugh, she said: “What a Silly Billy I am.” The same women in the same combination of black and red outfits now returned and, pausing in front of Alexander, the one in the red hat said to her companion in the black hat: “It’s just war profiteering, pure and simple. The farmers are on the pig’s back, and the townsfolk all suffer.” For a moment Alexander wondered if he were confused between irony and mere incredulity, or if there was even a word for what this all represented in a world where millions were dying and people here were simply living in the shadow of its catastrophe and talking about the price rises in butter and meat and jam and calling themselves a Silly-Billy.
“This is just like the descriptions of Saint Petersburg in Crime and Punishment. It’s as insane here as what Dostoyevsky describes there in the eighteen-sixties, and I’m as mad as Raskolnikov,” he thought. But his mind was suddenly pulled to the shouting at the soapboxes. Cecil Meatyard was waving at the people as if he were someone noble and distinguished, even a royal. His beard, in the style of King George V, was pointy at the chin. Oddly, and Alexander had never before noticed this, Meatyard sported two flashy gold rings on each hand, one on the little finger and one on the index, an unusual affectation for a man in any position, regal or otherwise.
The female Meatyard was extolling the virtues of equal conscription: no exemptions for coalminers and wharfies when the farming community was being conscripted without exemption. She had immediately pounced on this argument shouted out by the handsome military man, who now beamed at his promotion. Despite having a mind of patriotic rubbish, the military man was actually very handsome and, as Alexander had cause to notice, with considerable envy, he had two strong legs.
In the bottom drawer under the socks and underpants in his bedroom in Tinakori Road, Alexander had hidden an antique silver pistol that his father had bought in Rome when on tour in the 1870s with which Alexander would quite expertly shoot Australian parrots that screeched in the back garden. Alexander had the very clear vision of Raskolnikov, that handsome, desperate Russian student and murderer, pointing that very same pistol at the military man’s head and pulling the trigger. That was how the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 by that revolutionary Serbian student, with a pistol in his outstretched hand.
A bullet through the Archduke’s jugular, and a bullet for his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg. A bullet now through the temples of the military man, and one through Mr. Cecil Meatyard’s, would be truly magnificent. Then one for this faux duchess as she stood on the soapbox ordering coal miners and wharfies off to the trenches whilst castigating the Oscar Wildes of Wellington.
“Yes,” thought Alexander. “Do it for me Raskolnikov, murder them.”
A dog barked savagely and growled and a short woman in front of Alexander shrieked in fright, the commotion extracting Alexander from his visions of assassinations. The gargoyles, however, still stared down at him when he looked up and the woman in the window with the high pile of hair shook her head in disbelief and promptly disappeared, whooshing away phantom-like. He thought: “Of course, that was Sophie Hohenberg in the window. Soon there’ll be revolution here too.” The sweat dripped into his Egyptian cotton and again he shook his head in an attempt to clear the visions, for he saw that they had elaborated into a Gothic tale with pistols and crazed women as if in a Bronte novel, or in those stultifying narratives of betrayal by Sir Walter Scott. The barking dog now slunk off, its tail stiffly between its spindly legs, and the short woman was adjusting her velvet hat, poking into it a bright hat pin that had been handed out with “Support the War Effort” embedded on it.
“What mad times we live in, if only we could move back,” he thought. “To those times when…”
For Alexander, the very thought of a time before this war was a soothing breeze flowing over him, and he smiled at its sweetness. That pacific current, however, was not long lasting, for the crass hilarity of the crowd jolted him back, reminding him that this war was an utter catastrophe. His friends had been blown up in places that four years ago people had never heard of. Robert, Jamey, Bruce, were all dead and darling Freddy unaccounted for.
“Why more sacrifice? Why should Aroha have to volunteer?” he asked himself. “I have to do something, just as Raskolnikov did.” The idea of avenging the needless deaths of his lovers and friends struck him. “Sybil Meatyard’s right, I’m a cowardly Pansy. I just agonise. I’m not a pacifist. It’s all as Pavlov said, Sybil Meatyard’s driving me to it.”
Alexander Powderham, a keen reader of medical and psychology journals, was fascinated by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who had theorised on the psychology of cause and effect. For several moments Alexander thought about what those psychological equations meant within the vortex of this situation, and there in his mind, as if in front of him, he saw Pavlov’s dogs salivating at meat, big bloody hunks of it. He saw, unequivocally, as the Meatyards shouted from their soapboxes, that both Pavlov and Raskolnikov were right about reacting to certain stimuli, the former the theorist, the latter the practitioner.
The same dog that had slunk away now came back with its tail erect. Another dog, equally as mangy, swiftly followed it, prancing almost, its nose sniffing in the other dog’s backside. “Pavlovian behaviour there somewhere,” thought Alexander, observing the mongrels. “But conditioned behaviour is clearer with my equation for revenge than with theirs sniffing each other, surely?” He watched the excited dogs, and then thought: “Or perhaps not.” The short woman with the patriotic hatpin looked down at the two dogs and shouted: “Shoooo! Shoooo! Dirty creatures!”
It was like before, outside the Duchess Tea Rooms, for he could not move, could not seem to find his feet. He had read a report in some journal about shellshock amongst men subjected to constant bombardment in the trenches, how they became mute or stuttered or shook all over or simply couldn’t think so racked were they with fear.
“I have some sort of shellshock, life shock, do I not?” he asked himself. “The consequence of living through this sort of nonsense.” But how could he, Alexander Powderham, well off, a mere dandy, and on the other side of the world, be so affected? The thoughts scrambled for an answer as he watched, without really giving her conscious attention, a plump woman dressed entirely in black, swathes of it, despite the heat. A little girl was holding the old woman’s hand. He had an impulse to look up at the façade to see if Sophie the Duchess of Hohenberg had returned, but he resisted and focused on the girl, who yelled: “Support the war effort! Support our King!” The girl then raised her arms and shouted something which Alexander didn’t hear, but the people around them applauded. The old lady again raised her arms as if she were a diva in an opera, joyously at one with her audience.
The Meatyards were themselves practiced performers. So used to the adulation were they for their relentless evocations against sedition, pacifists and shirkers, with general lasciviousness thrown in for good measure, that they had created their own spectacle, one that the town’s citizens viewed with either admiration, indifference or derision. Many passersby had stopped to watch the grandmother, who now stood, her arms outstretched, warbling a popular song about the country’s military heroes sailing off to the Mother Country. The crowd had spilled out into the road so that several motorcars could not pass. Alexander watched the passenger in the rear seat of the first motorcar blocked by the crowd, a man evidently of some wealth, for the motorcar was new, a Chevrolet, its rubber wheels shining, the little front lights so modern that they stood out, begging for attention. Then he realised it was Mr. Harold Beauchamp, the Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand, and father of the handsome Leslie who had been blown up in Belgium by an explosive.
“I wonder what Harold’s thinking?” thought Alexander. He knew from Elizabeth Norris, his shop manager, dear friend and confidant, that Katherine Mansfield, Mr. Beauchamp’s estranged daughter in London, was struggling to write on account of her brother’s death.
“Such a waste,” Alexander thought, leaning against a Victorian pillar, lighting a cigarette, his hat tilted to ward off the sun, with the tilt only increasing that look of rakishness. “Being blown up by an ordinance that you yourself are holding, not even a hero’s death, and Leslie was so gorgeous.” Harold Beauchamp might have been thinking similar thoughts about loss as he sat in his car with the top down, for he had a scowl on his face and his brows were knitted. Straight backed, attired in a smart suit of a silver coloured cloth, his impressive top hat one that only the wealthy wore and which, Alexander assumed, he had purchased in London, where he had visited on account of his son’s death. Harold Beauchamp leaned forward and said something to his driver, a thin, wiry man in a uniform and black cap. The driver nodded and beeped his horn, and the crowd looked about and slowly parted, as if unwilling to do so for this high-class personage. A woman yelled: “Have some respect for the war effort! Who do you think you are?”
It was one of those moments that seemed to either sum up history or foresee the future, or combine the both as they crashed, all in a fireball.
“This could turn revolutionary, like Russia or Germany,” he thought.
The press was full of dire news: the European masses were rebelling; capitalism was in retreat. The New Zealand workers’ unions were demanding that capitalists pay for the war. Crime and Punishment had so saturated Alexander’s imagination with images of tormented Russians, that as he watched Harold Beauchamp in his American car he envisaged a huge Bolshevik explosion in this smug little enclave at the bottom of the Pacific. He drew on his cigarette and saw Raskolnikov slink into a dimly lit lane. What replaced that murderous and rebellious student was the memory from a decade earlier of Leslie Beauchamp walking down Tinakori Road hand-in-hand with his sister, Katherine Mansfield. The sun was on their faces and they were smiling and looking up at Alexander as they talked to him: “Alexander, I want to write stories about the Wellington wind, about our seas, and lives,” Katherine was saying. He could hear her, the way she spoke, in that far away summer, long before this time of death and war. Then they disappeared, as they had that day, quickly down Tinakori Road, opening a wooden gate, evaporating behind a hedgerow.
“It’s war shirkers we’re after!” yelled Mrs. Meatyard. She was fifty-ish, thin and very, very pale, her lips emboldened with vermillion. She wore, he noted with some disdain, an unusual hat that was merely a pile of lemon coloured squashed felt with dyed blue feathers: “For which some poor ostrich died,” he muttered.
“She’s a one, isn’t she mate?” said a voice next to Alexander. “You got a smoke for me mate?” the voice continued, this time lower, and so close to Alexander that the warm breath touched him. “You there, mate?” the voice continued.
“What?” asked Alexander, looking up, the sun in his eyes.
“She’s a one? Who is she?” The man’s face was very close. Beyond him were the Meatyards and the crowd, with the shouting and laughter.
“That old bag screaming,” the man said, pointing at Mrs. Meatyard.
“I wouldn’t question her out loud,” replied Alexander as if he had just been woken from a deep sleep, and cranky for it. “You’ll get done for sedition.”
“Sedition? Bugger me, mate. They wouldn’t bloody dare after my sacrifices, the bastards. Can’t touch me. Got that smoke mate?”
All around there was shuffling and movement, and several people sneezed at the same time. With an eyebrow raised, Alexander assessed the stranger further. The man was tall, broad shouldered and sinewy, his blonde hair receding. Given what he had just said he was obviously a returned soldier, and his left arm was missing. His jacket sleeve was pinned up over where the appendage had been. The man stood there as if this inspection was to be expected, enjoyed even. Alexander noted that the suit was fashionable and of a good quality, well woven summer cotton. Despite the man’s somewhat working-class voice he had an oddly polished look, as if he were not quite one or the other, something roughhewn, but attractive for it. Alexander took from his jacket pocket a slim, tin cigarette box on the cover of which was a cartoon of an Ottoman-looking character wearing a red fez with a dangling tassel.
“You’ve got Turkish cigarettes, mate. That’s sedition, isn’t it?” His accent had changed from working class to that of someone slightly higher up the social ladder, a senior clerk, even a school teacher, the voice now deeper and heavily tinged with irony due to the nature of the question.
“A tin evidence of sedition?” asked Alexander, lighting the cigarette, which the man obviously needed for his one hand shook as he cupped the gasoline lighter against the wind and drew in, touching Alexander’s fingers softly as he did.
“Nah,” the man said. “Just that I smoked them in Turkey. I thought they’d stopped enemy goods.” He stared into Alexander’s eyes as if he had captured a spy, with treason being rooted out right in front of him. Then he smiled in connivance, the little wrinkles, the tiny lines criss-crossing around his eyes, showing that he had been subjected to fierce sun and deprivation.
“It’s an Ottoman tin from before they were banned,” said Alexander. “I place my local cigarettes in it, for pretence. You know how it is about sedition, it’s fashionable.” It might have been a dangerous thing even to be flippant about to a stranger but he enjoyed it for that, especially to this man with the eyes of a lynx, and a lynx, Alexander knew, wouldn’t be a part of the establishment. That medalled military man was a member of the hierarchy and his looks betrayed him for it; but this man, he saw, was a one-armed rake, the sort who’d say: “Mate, I’d do anything for a fiver.” Alexander shivered slightly and exhaled his smoke through half pursed lips.
His father had brought back with him from France nearly forty years earlier a set of postcards, which Alexander had guarded zealously from his siblings. The twelve cards unfolded accordion-like, each card displaying a person with the series encapsulated as: les Parisiens. Number three in the exotic series was labelled le Parisien and le Parisien was blowing smoke inhaled from a green cigarette in an ivory holder. His pomaded hair slicked back, tweaked eyebrows, Gallic nose, slightly rouged cheeks and haughty air were what Alexander had studied for decades. As he looked at this man with the cropped blonde hair the colour of summer hay, he saw himself as a type, le homme de Wellington. At that very moment, and it flushed through him with joy, he knew that he had waited all these years to enact the pose of le Parisien in front of a masculine rake.
The man sniggered in compliance. “You need to come to your senses, mate,” he said. “They don’t like sedition, not even little bits. What about that pacifist Parliament bloke they gaoled, and those pacifist ones they sent off to the Front and crucified?”
“They literally crucified them,” uttered Alexander, reverentially, lowering his voice, keenly aware of his surroundings. There would be supporters of the New Zealand Women’s Anti-German League all around, those hunters of spies and seekers of sedition. Just last week three women enjoying an evening picnic in the Karori hills had been accused of sending signals with their picnic lamps to German military boats in Wellington Harbour, an act of hysteria that even the Minister of Defence had admonished the papers for so much as reporting.
“Where are you from?” said Alexander, tempted as he said it, to add “mate”.
“I’m not from around here, but I keep myself to myself, if you know what I mean?” There was an inflection in his voice that hinted at something. “Boer?” Alexander wondered, although he had only ever heard soldiers returned from South Africa mimicking it. He surmised it was not Australian, for it wasn’t sufficiently harsh. Then, with further alarm, he recalled that the press had warned the citizenry repeatedly about this very sort of situation: foreigners with accents infiltrating crowds; Germans posing as Kiwis. He looked into the man’s eyes as if for verification, but what he saw was lust, not treachery or sedition.
“Cat got your tongue?” the man asked with an insouciant smile, which showed white, even teeth. “Worried about being crucified?” He hadn’t been wearing a hat, which was unusual for a man, but he pulled a cap out of his back pocket as he looked at Alexander, his blue eyes shifty and squinting. With a flick of his one hand he fitted his smart fabric cap to his head and patted it down. In a voice that really might have been Boer, he said softly: “Secrets mate? Secrets? You gonna tell ya Mac?”
“I do like your cap. Is it from somewhere exotic?” Alexander said, using the sort of voice le Parisien might have used had he spoken English. The man’s grin loosened into a smile and creased his tanned, angular face.
“Keen aren’t ya?” he said quietly while looking about, his eyes darting. Then he laughed in a thin, high giggle at his question. “My name’s Mac. For now, anyway, mate.” The laugh descended a few octaves and ended in one formed by too much smoking, gravelly and masculine.
“There’s no one like this man in Crime and Punishment,” thought Alexander. “Perhaps Svidrigailov.” Svidrigailov was the chiselled sensualist and murderer, a true lecher, the one character Dostoyevsky required his audience to view with repulsion, if not hatred. Alexander again sized up the man, his eyebrow raised as if assessing another man’s linen suit rather than determining how Slavic he was. But no, this one-armed man had nothing Russian about him, let alone anything repulsive. He was too much of another sort of type: “More a rogue off a whaling ship,” Alexander thought. And what he thought, he said, critically, archly, as if the smart linen suit was, after all, ill fitting: “More Herman Melville than Fyodor Dostoyevsky.” He straightened himself up and shook his gammy leg to get the blood running and prepared to limp off from this stranger who was surely a crook of some sort. “I don’t want to get caught in a web with a disreputable whaler or blackmailing sodomite,” he thought, with the images now of gaol doors clanging and a bewigged judge with owl eyes pronouncing sentence upon him for licentious behaviour.
“I haven’t read the Russian sounding one, but Moby Dick didn’t make sense, especially the ending,” said the man. Alexander started at this unexpected literary knowledge and what else popped into his head was that beautiful moment of Aroha from long ago in the Botanic Garden. He laughed, his heart beating with the excitement at the hugely symbolic coincidence of that memory and everything that this man had just imparted. “Moby Dick”, he said, “we could drink to that.”
“Keen, though, aren’t ya mate?” said Mac.
“Keen? Me? My dear, not in the least,” said Alexander in a coquette’s voice, dropping his cigarette and stubbing it with his good foot before saying: “Good day, sir. I’m off.”
The crowd had dissipated and across the road Sybil Meatyard was chatting to the military man and a woman in a blue hat and a green coat.
“But wait, mate,” said the man who’d said his name was Mac. “I’d genuinely like to talk to you about things.” His eyes said that too, with real meaning, and he searched into Alexander’s. His mouth puckered and then spread into an endearing smile, one that could be thought of as genuine. “Don’t cast me off, mate, like everyone does. You know what it’s like, I can tell that. We’re both…different.” Alexander was poised to take his first step. His good foot was forward, his lame one behind, but he paused. Then he looked to his right and saw Sybil Meatyard, the military man and the woman in the blue hat looking at them, their countenances all-knowing as they stared at the two men who, to their practiced eyes, were both obvious misfits.
The military man was simply a staring shape as he stood watching, his arms stiff by his sides, his moustache shining blonde in the sun. It was as if he were at a military tribunal, one of those set up to determine if a man was a genuine pacifist or simply an Oscar Wilde. Or if he were one of those disingenuous shirkers claiming a deep and abiding commitment to pacifism through Christianity and who, under questioning, couldn’t recall the name of a certain psalm or explain a religious reference. There were even cases reported of cowards seeking exemption for such weak kneed and nefarious reasons as a disposition to seasickness or a phobia of uniforms. “Prison” was written over each of the three staring tribunal members’ faces. And in the eyes of the military man and Mrs. Meatyard particularly was the accusation of “Oscar Wilde”. Alexander thought, with some trepidation, as his eyes met those of the military man: “His tongue will dart out and get us.”
“Don’t go that way,” Mac said. “Bit dangerous, I reckon. Turn around now, don’t look at them. Follow me. I know you like books, talk to me about that Russian one you tried to trick me with, sort of as if we’re just mates discussing about something normal.” His voice this time was polished as if practiced through allocution, a completely different tone from the whiny Boer or Aussie wheeze of: “Give me a cigarette mate.”
The man with one arm and the man with a bad leg. It had all the essence of a parable, and was very Old Testament, and Alexander sniggered at the equation. The unusual heat, the edge of sedition, the enticing stranger; each element combined and rushed through him in a thrilling moment that pulled him from the tedium, threw him into something exciting, into what he hoped would surpass that of Sodom and Gomorrah. But he said: “Since you like books so much, you should read the Russians. They’re finally being translated. Have you ever heard of Crime and Punishment?”
“That’s my bloody motto, mate,” the man said. “It’d be yours too if you’d been through what I have.” He stopped in the middle of the footpath. A scruffy dog came running along, its tail up, and it too stopped as if it had finally found what it was after. It sniffed all around the lamppost then it lifted its crooked, hairy leg and urinated.
“So public, isn’t it?” said Alexander, thinking of how Anton Pavlov might interpret this feral canine action. “So strange that animals have no shame the way we do, as humans.”
The man said in a voice that was simply angry, with no pretence at accents, just a voice that was plain nasty: “You didn’t get stuck on a bloody cliff at Gallipoli being shot at by Mohammedans. You’d know about bloody human shame if you had, mate. Dogs are saints in comparison. My mates got mowed down, shot through the head by bloody Ottomans, so don’t talk to me about shame.” All that bravado and bonhomie, the mateship and innuendo, had just evaporated. Now he was just a man with one arm and no hope, with bombs exploding in his head. Even the blue eyes had become duller. The male dog, a big mangy, orangey creature, ran off with a limp, its broken leg crooked, leaving its urine to dribble across the footpath in front of them. They were standing at the exact spot where Alexander had castigated himself an hour earlier for not helping the Finks.
“I know some Silesian Jews who were accused of being Huns and are now on Somes Island suffering, but Gallipoli, my God…” he said. The man put his hand on Alexander’s shoulder and dug in deep with his fingers.
“Mate, you’ll never understand what it is to see a man being cut up, his guts falling out of his stomach.” His fingers dug in deeper, it actually hurt, but Alexander braced himself on his stick for support, the fingers gripping him, telling him that war was the dirt of history, that he was right to oppose it in every shape and form no matter what the consequences. He looked up at the man, saw the damage in his eyes, that reflection of everything they would soon see in the eyes of those who had marched off that morning, should they return.
“My God,” Alexander said. “We were the first nation to export frozen carcasses in ships to Europe. Look what that led to, mass exportation of men to slaughter. Cows, all of us, sheep. Their name is Meatyard, they do this.” Wafting around was the stench of stale blood, like an evil omen. “Dear, dear, Freddy,” he said.
“Baaaaaa! Baaaaaa!” the man said and loosened his grip. “Moooooo!”
For several seconds they looked into each other’s eyes. The blue ones smiled; the dark ones wanted to weep.
“You don’t have a home, do you?” said Alexander, blood in his head, pounding.
“No mate, I don’t. I followed you all the way up Cuba, watching you all the while. I knew you were the type I needed.”Read on