© 2010 Lynsey

353 – Overnight

Mud kicked off Eddie’s boots stuck like brown shit to the bleached strainer post. With one eye on the leaden clouds he flicked himself over the rusting wires with practiced ease. Walking back towards the two naked light bulbs in the packing shed’s mouth, he worked the words over in his mind. It wasn’t that he wanted to leave his Mum and Dad’s world, or the other kids; he was 19, he just wanted to see what else there was beyond the grinding market gardening life. Every day Eddie would straighten up, aching, and look towards the distant hills. Long rows of cabbages converged into a grey-green haze, and beyond that, the railway line. On still days Eddie could hear the call of the tracks.

His uncle got the train home over Easter, bringing oranges and Easter eggs for the kids. Eddie and Uncle got away to the beach for a couple of days, staying at the old shack. They fished and walked, and on the last night, while they cooked up kahawai and some kumera, they hatched a plan. Eddie could come and live with him, in the capital. Eddie could get a job easy, and Uncle would have someone to share the bills with, have a beer with, meet some girls with. City girls eh? They both giggled. Uncle played the guitar and Eddie sung along.

The war had left Uncle with raw nerves and sleep haunted with dreams and terrors. His woman had decided she couldn’t wait for him and found the Yanks far more to her liking. Uncle got home to find one of them had knocked her up, there was a big argument, and she found a place and the baby went away. Too much drink, too many fights, and when things got too hard she booked a passage to Sydney. Uncle spent nights alone behind the barbed wire with his dead comrades, a half G of beer, and the howling southerly winds. He kept a loaded .303 in the wardrobe ready for the Japs. He spent his days driving the trolley buses and never let his conversations stray from the job.

With new shoes pinching and his tie feeling uncomfortably tight, Eddie and the whole family sat waiting in the station. It smelled of creosote and carbolic, and the big clock ticked like a heartbeat. It was suddenly sad to kiss Mum good bye, and Eddie saw a new shine in Dad’s eye as took Dad’s strong hand. Eddie wished the kids hadn’t sung ‘Po Atarau’, and when every one joined in he wanted to jump off the train and never leave. “God, I hope I haven’t made a big mistake – the fields weren’t that bad.” He sniffed, and tried to be invisible as he looked out at the landscapes racing past. People laughed, played cards, smoked cigarettes, and comforted crying babies. In just over an hour, the train roared down past the harbour, alive with the twilight sky, and towards more lights than Eddie had ever seen before. Uncle was waiting on the platform. He looked him square in the eye.

“You been crying, boy?”

“No, Uncle, too much smoking on the train.”

“Yeah, true. How’s my big brother? And your Ma? And the ratbags?”

Eddie laughed, for once he wasn’t one of the ratbags. Uncle was the baby of his generation, Eddie the oldest of his – they were more like brothers, brothers-in-arms. Eddie shivered outside the pub while Uncle bought beer, and then with a nod and a wink to the driver they were on the bus home. “Driver’s perks eh.” Eddie nodded and hung on tightly to the lurching beast, casting shy glances at the exotic-looking office girls. These were not the Cantonese-speaking potatoes from back home. Makeup, jewelery – these girls were like butterflies. Uncle gave him a flip on the back of the head. “Put your eyes back in, we’re here!”

Eddie got a job in the market, thanks to a letter from Mr Chong, and soon, instead of planting cabbages and cauliflower, his days became filled with the loud confusion of the auction business. Oranges from Gisborne. Onions from Pukekohe. Kumera from Kaitaia. Boxes of cabbages from home – Eddie recognised his Dad’s handwriting on the boxes. The months flew past. Eddie liked the work. More people to talk to and have a laugh with, and, despite the early starts and long days, it was clean and dry – much better than working in the fields.

He used to get the bus home – as often as not driven by Uncle. He’d put in his meal order with a laugh, and Eddie, being the first home, would make the evening meal. One wet afternoon, when the bus was particularly crowded, Eddie was standing, dreaming of the summers on the beach back home. The bus lurched suddenly and a young woman stumbled and fell against Eddie. He was flustered, and the girl smiled and apologised. Eddie looked up and saw Uncle laughing in the mirror. Eddie grinned back foolishly. The bus had faded away before he realised that he had forgotten to get her phone number or address. Did she even have a phone? He thumped his chest with frustration.

Uncle was jovial when he got home, and his good humor did little make Eddie feel better. “What’s up, boy?”

“Nothing.”

“Bad day at work?”

“No, nothing.”

“You should find yourself a girlfriend. Like that one who threw herself at you today.” Uncle laughed, his eyebrows jumping up and down.

“Hardly throwing herself at me, besides, how can I see her, she’s gone.”

“No she’s not, she gets the same bus every day. She’s a regular. If you got the same bus tomorrow big chance she’ll be on it.”

Eddie made sure he was on the bus at the same time the next day, and, sure enough the girl was there. He stood back, looking to make sure it was the same girl. He burned her face into his memory until he could shut his eyes and still see her face. He wanted to say something but his mouth was too dry to speak. As the bus faded away from his stop he clapped his hands and rubbed them together. Tomorrow!

The next few days the girl was not on the bus. He looked at all the faces. Eddie’s pain and frustration was palpable. “Don’t worry boy, she’ll be back.” A couple of days later she was, and Eddie lost no time. “Hello, I’ve seen you before.”

“Really? I don’t think so.”

“Yes, here on the bus. You fell on me a few days back.”

“Oh yes. Sorry. Hope I didn’t hurt you.”

“You did actually.”

“What? No…”

“Yes, you did. My foot was crushed, my arm was almost broken, bruises, very shocking – the hospital said I was lucky to be alive.”

“Eh?” There was a look of concerned disbelief, and then she laughed. Beautiful. Her laughter sounded wonderful, and Eddie was transported to the river back home – that place where the cool water that flowed under the willows. He wanted to go – right now – and swim with this girl – this woman. “I’m Eddie.” “Hello,” she said, “I’m Miriama.” They smiled at each other.

Miriama’s study at the Teacher’s College was coming to an end. Eddie’s love for her deepened daily and he asked her to marry him. She cried and it made him cry too, and they both knew a good marriage would flow from their love. They would get married the following April – Easter Saturday. “Get the most of harvest over.” Uncle was delighted and kissed Miriama on both cheeks. “Keep it down, Uncle, I still have to ask her old man yet, and we got to talk to Mum and Dad too.”

Miriama booked to take the Christmas Eve overnight train home, and Eddie would follow a couple of days after, in time to be with her and to ask her Father on New Year’s Eve. “He’ll be happy then, and the whole whanau will be together – all the aunties will want to inspect you that’s for sure. Don’t worry, they don’t bite, and they’re what you need to protect you from Dad. Besides, we can tell him we’ve invited Queen Elizabeth to stay on for our wedding. Think of those presents.” She laughed.

Everybody left work early on Christmas Eve. Eddie met Miriama under the clock at the station. They were both excited about the next few days, and not a little sad too – they’d seen each other every day for months. Miriama’s luggage was crammed full of presents for her family – toys and teddy bears for her brothers and sisters, jewelery for her Mum, and books for her Dad. They had a cup of tea out of those thick railways cups, and a sandwich.

“Eat up,” Eddie said, “Last feed before Taumarunui.”

Miriama smiled, but looked sad. “I don’t want to be apart from you.”

They hugged and kissed standing on the platform. Miriama held her thumb to his jaw and rubbed her lipstick off his lips with her finger, stroking along the bottom lip, then across the top. He grabbed her hand, kissed her fingers, and gave in to the tug of the train pulling away.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be looking for you!”, Eddie shouted, running after her, “I love you!”.

Eddie stood on the platform and waved until the train was entirely out of sight. “I love you”, he whispered. The buildings and colours blurred as tears ran down his cheeks. He walked aimlessly through the streets crowded with the shoppers desperate to get the last minute gifts, past the drunken office workers, past the lost and lonely, the religious and the homeless, and started to wait for a bus home. After a while, feeling irritated, he decided to walk home. He hadn’t gone more than a hundred yards before the bus went past.

When he got home he was a little surprised to find all the lights on. Uncle was pale and very agitated. “Where have you been? You’re late!”

Eddie was surprised, angry – “I saw Miriama off, and I missed the bus so I walked home! What’s it to you?”

Uncle staggered forward a little. “Haven’t you heard?”

“No, what?”

Uncle rolled his lips inward together, pinching the blood out between his teeth. “I heard it from a mate on the railways. The Auckland train’s been lost. Crashed into a river about 10:30. People are dead! Maybe Miri…” He stopped, shook his head, and choked back a sob. He slumped down at the kitchen table and held his head in his hands.

Eddie’s world began to disappear.

First it was small things. The pigeons in Pigeon Park flew away. Music and laughter – gone. The pictures on the wall vanished, and then it was the walls themselves. His job. People. Colour. Time. Each moment fell like a snow flake. Eddie could look upwards and watch the tiny flakes falling, drifting down towards him. Silent.

Eddie woke with a start. He was in a bed, in a room with oatmeal coloured walls. His head hurt, his muscles ached in a way they’d never ached before. ‘Have I been working? Planting?’ He felt his teeth move when he unclenched his jaw. His muscles twitched. He shut his eyes and imagined he heard the sound of a pumpkin leaf being cut off. As a kid he discovered hollow pumpkin leaf stems, and he’d cut them and use them to blow bubbles in the cow trough. When he sucked water up through a stem it tasted of raw pumpkin juice. The door opened, and a nurse walked in. “Eddie, there’s someone to see you this afternoon.” ‘Afternoon?’

Uncle walked in. He looked really old. Eddie didn’t understand this. “Have I been asleep for a really long time or something?” He rubbed the burning feeling on the side of his head. He could hear distant cicadas buzzing in his ears. A taste of raw pumpkin juice was in his mouth. Was something wrong? “It’s ok, boy, come on, it’s time to go home.” Uncle helped Eddie off the bed and got him dressed. Eddie felt happy – or would have felt happy if he could remember what he was doing there. Or even where he was. He frowned with the effort of trying to remember.

They got in Uncle’s car. “When did you get this car, Uncle?”

“The Chev? About a year ago I guess.” Uncle looked at Eddie for a sign. He sighed and started the car.

They drove out of the hospital gates and began winding around the estuary heading north. “You won’t want to go back to Porirua again eh boy?”

Eddie smiled and wondered who the person was who was looking back at him from the sunshade vanity mirror. Going home. Someone was going home. He didn’t know who, but he felt good about it.

After about an hour they turned off the highway and headed out towards the coast. The unsealed road was fill of potholes and dust wafted up into the car. The sun had almost entirely dipped below the horizon when they arrived at a shack. “Give us a hand boy, help me get our stuff out.” They unloaded the car, and put away the food and the rest of the gear. “Looks like someone’s going to be here for a long time, Uncle.” He just smiled and nodded. They pulled a mattress out by the fire in the big room – “We’re going to have to share like the old days.” Uncle cooked sausages and eggs, and they ate with slices of white bread and tomato sauce. Uncle made them a cup of tea. They drank it sitting on the verandah, watching the waves, and the stars coming out. The moon rose over the hills behind them, and the wave foam glowed. “Uncle, I – I feel like I’ve forgotten something. Something – I can’t explain. There’s something missing, empty. Something’s gone.”

Uncle made a strange noise, coughed, and stood up. “Come on boy, let’s go for a swim!” He peeled off his clothes and ran down the beach naked. Eddie could see him in the moonlight running back and forth into the nearest tiny waves, playing and laughing like a child. “Come on boy!”

Eddie peeled off his clothes and ran after Uncle, splashing him and whooping as he ran past. He dived into the waves and stood up, dashing the water from his eyes. “How far can you swim underwater, Uncle?”

“Further than you that’s for sure.”

Eddie just laughed, “Come on then, show me!”

They both laughed and spluttered, swimming and catching the waves. Eddie felt the aches ease out of his muscles to be replaced with genuine tiredness. “I’ve had enough, let’s go.”

Uncle wrapped a towel around himself, and lit candles. He gave Eddie a towel to dry off. “Wrap up in this when you’re dry,” pointing to a blanket. Uncle stoked up the wood and coal range and put a pot of water on to boil. “I’m going to make you some tea, boy, special tea my Nanny taught me. You have a rest, I’ll bring it when it’s ready.” Eddie lay down on the mattress, pulled the blanket tighter and closed his eyes. Turning his attention to the pot, Uncle began to karakia quietly, and sprinkled leaves, bark, and berries into the boiling water.

Uncle’s chant changed to a song. Eddie stirred and sat up, making room for Uncle on the mattress. “Sip this, boy, while I tell you what happened, see if we can’t call you back.” Eddie grimaced and choked a little at the taste. Uncle smiled, “Just like Nanny used to make. Now drink it.” Eddie sipped again, sniffed, and took a big swallow. He gritted his teeth and the potion stayed down. Again, and he set the cup aside with a shudder.

Uncle pulled a blanket up around himself. “Boy, you’ve been lost, walking between the two worlds. Your body never left, but you went looking for a spirit. Do you remember any of this? No. That’s ok, it’ll be ok. Eventually everything about you got lost and they took you into the hospital and shocked you, and that’s why I came to get you back today. We have to get their poison out first.” Eddie stared at nothing on the other wall for a long time. A shudder passed through him, and another. Quietly, and then ever louder he began to wail like a wild creature, thrashing and sobbing. Uncle pulled Eddie, weeping and shuddering to him and held him to his bare chest, rocking gently like he held a baby. Uncle quietly recited protective karakia until Eddie subsided into sleep, and then more until he himself felt safe to rest.

Not all of Eddie’s memories returned. Some tried to – they were like reflections in a pond that when you tried to reach them rippled away. It was better to not try to remember, and then one day the memory would be there. He would find himself on the railway platform staring into the faces of the passengers trying to remember something or someone. He knew there was something special about someone, but always the reflection would shatter and go.

Uncle’s mate in the railways got Eddie a job on the platforms. Eddie’s workmates sometimes wondered about his unconscious habit of looking at the departing trains while holding a thumb on his cheek and rubbing his finger around and around his lips – like he was rubbing something in. Every December 24 he’d go back to the beach and stay in the shack. Mum, Dad, and the ratbags would come too. Uncle never remarried. The years began to run in together, blending, healing.

Manifesto
05. Every day is now. The present moment.
10. Every day connect with somebody.
18. Every day express love. Some people need to hear it. Most people need to see it. Don’t take it for granted.

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