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Authors: Bernard Beckett

Home Boys (3 page)

BOOK: Home Boys
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* * *

Waking the next morning was even stranger than falling asleep. The dream remained with Colin in such detail it was difficult to believe it was a dream at all. Being on the ship felt more like a dream, and that afternoon, when he met Gino again, Colin wasn’t even surprised.

Colin was sitting in a small alcove high up on the side of the ship, two levels above the deck; two locked gates and a No Entry sign away from being disturbed. He heard someone walking towards him and pulled in closer to the wall so he wouldn’t be noticed. But Gino, who was moving furtively, checking left and right as he went, saw him straight away and stopped dead.

He stared at Colin and Colin stared back, silent, as if they both knew this was a conversation that would take some getting into. Gino’s hair was cut short, and he’d grown a beard that wasn’t much longer; and when he spoke the accent had gone,
or at least been buried beneath a careful disguise, but there was no mistaking the eyes. As alive with hope and wonder as any eyes you would ever see. Beautiful eyes, Colin had once heard a girl from the village say, and he could see what she meant.

‘My God, Colin.’

‘Gino.’

‘It’s Joe now.’

‘Why?’

‘I like the sound of it.’

Gino squeezed in beside, beyond the reach of curious eyes. ‘So, what are you doing here?’ Colin asked, although that wasn’t exactly the way he meant it.

‘I’m going to New Zealand,’ Gino smiled. ‘How about you?’

‘Yeah, I am too, I suppose.’

‘You’re lucky then,’ Gino told him. ‘Very lucky.’

And those words, which from the teachers, and the man at the dock and the other children on the boat, had always sounded so empty, were suddenly filled with promise. Colin remembered his rule, and tried not to let the excitement take hold, but this was Gino. Colin had dreamed him, and now he was here, and that meant impossible things, like happiness, like adventure, were possible again and maybe it was wrong to deny that.

‘Here, look.’ Gino took a wallet from his pocket and
produced
a piece of paper which he carefully unfolded. It was a picture, from a magazine by the looks of it, of a beach, painted in colours that couldn’t be real; golden sands and blue blue water, and trees that looked as if they were on fire.

‘Isn’t it beautiful Colin? And the women are beautiful too they say.’

Gino held the picture a moment longer in front of Colin’s
nose, then carefully folded it back up. From the wear of the creases it was easy to see how often the picture had left the wallet, how many of Gino’s dreams lived there.

‘Why didn’t you go home Gino?’ Colin asked him, when silence threatened to settle. ‘After the war?’

‘Ah, well,’ Gino smiled. ‘I could have I suppose, but it is
complicated
, the war, and maybe not everybody there thinks the things I did are the things I should have done, and while I don’t mind that, sometimes moving is easier than explaining.’

‘You could have stayed in England though, couldn’t you?’

‘I needed an adventure Colin,’ Gino told him.

‘So, are you running away then?’

‘No, I’m running toward. What about you though? Are you with the other children? Were your family killed Colin?’

‘No, they’re alive enough. There’s me Dad and me brother, and me Mum, but I don’t know where she is, and Dad won’t say, and Jeffrey won’t either. He just came back from the army, he’s finished his time, and I think this was his idea, putting me on this ship, because he thinks he’ll have to look after me otherwise, but he won’t, because I can look after myself, and I look after Dad too, and who’s going to do that now.

And that was the thing that got him crying, thinking of his Dad, alone now, with only Jeffrey, who never really
understood
him, who wouldn’t sit and listen when Dad made no sense. Gino took him in his arms, and it was enough to be able to swallow his tears, and think ahead, to the world past the endless ocean.

‘What will you do Gino, when you get to New Zealand?’

‘Find a job perhaps. Work a little, play a little. Move on when I need to.’

‘Can I come with you?’

‘Can you swim?’

‘A little.’

‘A little’s not enough I’m afraid.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, the thing is Colin, probably when you came on this boat you had a ticket, and papers, and when you got on people checked them, and when you get off people will check them again. But me, well I would have had them too, I paid a man to get them for me, but when I arrived at the ship I was taught a little lesson, about paying in advance. But that wasn’t going to stop me from getting on the boat. I waited until it was
almost
dark, and the packing was underway, and people were distracted, and well, here I am. But now, well getting off will be tricky too. I have a friend here, who works with the
engines
, and for a little more money he says he knows a place where I can jump off, as we enter the harbour, and swim in on the tide, to start my new life. So it is a little dangerous you see, too dangerous for you anyway.’

‘I don’t mind.’

‘But I do. I’m sorry Colin.’

‘But, but you could come to where the boat comes in after, couldn’t you? You could see me then?’

‘Maybe,’ Gino told him. ‘I could try perhaps. It is an empty country they say, so maybe I will see you anyway’

They talked some more, but Gino became nervous of being seen and said his goodbyes. After that the journey passed slowly. The other children, and the teachers too, soon learnt that Colin preferred to be left alone. He met with Gino a few times more, but Gino was afraid of being out in the open and their
conversations were short. Colin retreated into the rhythm of the boat, until he became a part of it; the throb of the engines, the rolling of the sea, the patterns of the weather, relentless and numbing, and too complex to ever read. As the days counted down to their arrival in Auckland, Colin’s fears
returned
, fears for himself and fears for Gino too.

The night before they reached the shore he couldn’t sleep. He lay on his back, his eyes lost in the darkness, feeling every vibration, hearing every break in the regularity of the ship’s noises, imagining each of them was Gino, climbing high onto a railing, getting his bearings, launching himself into the
unknown
. Colin worried his friend would be sucked down by the ship’s engines, or would swim the wrong way in the dark, or be caught by a turning tide, or thrown against rocks by the heavy sea. There was so much could go wrong, when nothing was certain, and Colin couldn’t believe Gino wasn’t frightened by that.

The next morning was grey. The children were herded up on to the deck by their teachers, to get a first glimpse of the new home. Nobody said much as the buildings behind the docks lost shape in the thickening rain. The boat stopped and the crew below threw out ropes and instructions. The children began to look around at the friends they had made. Uncertain smiles passed between them. Some held hands, or hugged, and tried to think of the right things to say; and some of them cried. Colin looked at the other end of the world, both
familiar
and strange, and nothing like the picture Gino had carried, and he was glad he hadn’t made any friends on the journey out.

On the wharf a short man with a red nose and a big voice
welcomed them all to
Nu
Ziland
then consulted his list and pointed them to their various destinations. A small crowd had formed to the side. Not, as Colin first thought, families to greet them, but rather locals stopping to stare at the new
arrivals
, curiosity and sympathy displayed in equal measure. Colin looked around for Gino but of course he wasn’t there; and the hurt it brought wasn’t the hurt of surprise, it was the deeper crush of the inevitable.

Along with three of the others, Colin was led to the nearby railway station where he was informed he was to take a train down to Wellington. He was given his ticket and told which platform to stand at.

‘Mr and Mrs Sowby will meet you there. They’re good people. You’re very lucky’

M
R and Mrs Sowby were late. Colin was the last
person
left standing at the platform when they walked over.

‘That yours?’ Mr Sowby said, looking down to Colin’s bag with his name printed on the ticket tied to the handle.

Colin nodded, looking them both over. Mr Sowby was the shorter of the two, but only because his wife was so unusually tall. Her face was long and thin, as if some invisible force was pulling her up by the top of her head. She wore little make-up, just a red splodge of lipstick to mark the location of her small mouth. She didn’t have the sweet perfumed smell of the
teachers
on the boat, and didn’t bother with their smiles either.

‘You need a haircut,’ she told Colin, flicking his hair back from his eyes with a rough, cracked hand.

‘We’ll soon have him shorn easy enough,’ Mr Sowby said, and they both began to laugh in time; his deep and slightly wheezy, hers higher and, Colin thought, meaner too.

Mr Sowby’s nose was long and sharp, with dark hairs growing from its tip, darker than the greying thickness of his eyebrows,
or the lighter whisps surrounding his suntanned bald top. He was a heavy man, broad at the shoulders with a generous
stomach
settled over his trousers. Strong too, Colin guessed, although he didn’t offer to help with the bag.

‘Car’s this way.’

‘Don’t talk much do you?’ Mr Sowby remarked, when Colin caught them up. They were walking quickly and Colin was struggling to keep up. His bag swung forward with the effort, knocking into the back of Mrs Sowby’s legs.

‘Sorry.’ His own voice sounded tiny and frightened in the huge space of the station. And funny too, by the way the Sowbys reacted.

‘Sorry,’ they both mimicked, looking at each other and
breaking
into another round of laughing. The car was actually a small truck, dark green with a flat-deck tray behind it. Mr Sowby stood at the driver’s door, Mrs Sowby at the other. They looked back at Colin, who was unsure what he was expected to do, and already wishing he was back on the boat.

‘So what are you waiting for then?’ Mr Sowby said. ‘Up ya climb.’

He looked at his wife and she looked back, like it was part of some joke they’d been having all their lives. Colin did as he was told, threw his bag up onto the deck and scrambled on behind it. The other two climbed into the cab without a word, and through the small back window Colin could see there was plenty of room for a third.

Colin had often ridden the buses back home, one stop at a time, getting off before he had to pay, but this was different. The tray of the truck seemed to be alive; unhappy to find Colin on its back and determined to shake him free. It jumped and
swayed and Colin held on tight, too frightened to look around, aware only of the colours blurring by. The light blue of the wind-broken harbour, the dark green of bush-covered hills, the dirty grey of roads and railway lines, the creams and whites of wooden houses.

After a time that seemed longer than a day could hold, the greens became lighter and swamped the other colours. The road began to turn and twist on itself and the truck ground its way up a long slow hill. By now Colin had grown more used to the movement, but that only made things worse. Now he could watch the swaying countryside, and the shapelessness of it made him ill. The fumes from the truck thickened as their progress slowed and Colin knew he was going to be sick. He turned so he could see through the window into the cabin and banged with his fist on the glass. The Sowbys seemed not to hear so he banged again, harder this time. Mrs Sowby looked around, as if annoyed by the intrusion. Frantically Colin tried to signal his situation, blowing his cheeks out and pointing to his mouth, but her face only tightened with displeasure and she turned away.

Colin was running out of time. He banged again, three times, hard enough to threaten the glass. The truck lurched to the side as Mr Sowby took a hand off the steering wheel and banged back, just as hard, with what might have been an angry word or just a growl.

Colin’s problem changed with the rising in his throat. They weren’t going to stop and he had to find a way of vomiting while the truck still moved. He crawled to the side, falling forward as they took a sharp bend. He grabbed the raised edge of the tray and pulled himself forward. His idea was to be sick
over the side, on to the road, but wind and momentum and plain dumb luck conspired against him. He watched helplessly as the contents of his stomach hit the air and were apparently sucked forward, plastering the drivers’ side window. From the explosion of sound within, Colin took it the window had not been fully closed.

The truck slowed to an angry halt. Colin rose to his knees, the taste of bile high in his throat, thinking only if he had finished vomiting. Through the fuzz of his nausea he heard both doors slam, and looked up at a sight he would grow used to soon enough: Mr Sowby’s thick features squeezed in anger, great ridges and valleys of compressed rage.

‘You little shit, come here.’

A huge powerful hand had Colin by the collar and he felt his knee collide with the mud guard as he was hauled down to the ground. He would have lost his balance had Mr Sowby not pulled him back the other way, forcing him to straighten. Not for the purpose of saving him from injury though, but rather to stabilise the target.

The blow, although open-handed, hit him with such force that Colin felt his feet leave the ground. It had come too quickly for Colin to prepare himself by moving away from the fury of it, or at least going numb. The pain of it glazed his eyes and his ears rang with echoes of violence. And it wasn’t over. A second blow, then a third, and Colin crumpled to the ground.

‘You filthy little bugger. I knew this was a poor idea.’

Colin didn’t move. He heard footsteps on gravel, then the doors closing, hers first, then his, harder and louder. The engine turned over and spluttered into life, as harsh and angry as every other sound in this ugly place. But still he found himself
standing unsteadily, and scrambling back over the side of the tray as the truck moved off.

* * *

Colin spent the rest of the journey between sleep and
unconsciousness
. He awoke to a pain behind his eyes, and another at his shoulder blade, in a scene as far from home as he could imagine. The house before him, where presumably the Sowbys had gone, for the truck was empty, was wooden and a long time ago had been painted white. On the near side a verandah faced the low sun, still hot on Colin’s neck. There was on old sofa out front, its sides shredded as if attacked by wild animals. Two pairs of Wellingtons stood at the doorway, similar in size, and on either side of the closed door was an identical window, each with tatty curtains pulled across. Colin understood what it was to be poor well enough, but this was something
different
. Neglect sat heavily upon the place, pushing holes in its guttering and pulling down the sagging floorboards of the porch.

The location, though, made the biggest impression. The stark, lonely singularity. It was impossible to imagine why anyone would build a house here, surrounded only by miles and miles of grass and wire fences, with only the occasional stand of trees to mark the shrinking of the land on its way to the dark line of distant hills. It made no sense to live in a place like this, and only added to the swimming in Colin’s head, and the foreign smells that filled his nostrils.

The rocky track, with its bumps that hadn’t been able to wake him, ended in a circle of packed dirt where chickens moved about with a curious, jerking motion. There were three
other buildings he could see. An outhouse to the left, with its roof extended to the side to serve as a shelter for a stack of firewood, and on the same side, but closer to where the truck had stopped, a small, oddly angled shed with a single tiny
window
, too small to serve any useful purpose. In the distance, maybe two or three fields further on, a long low building that might have been a barn.

The front door to the house opened and Mrs Sowby
approached
him, still wearing the same clothes, her expression not much changed either. She walked to the shed, produced a key and undid a padlock before swinging back the door.

‘This is your room. You don’t have to start work ’til
morning
.’

‘Work?’

‘What, you thought we’d be keeping you for free did you? That’s a good one.’ But she didn’t laugh. ‘Here, give us your trousers then.’

‘What?’

‘Your trousers. We’re not stupid you know. We’re not leaving you here just to run away first chance you get. Come on, don’t be shy.’

Most times, maybe any other time, Colin would have said no and found a way out. But he was too tired, and sore, and hungry and numb, and most of all he felt too strange. Colin dropped his trousers, stepped out of them and handed them to Mrs Sowby. He looked to the truck and realised they had already taken his bag.

‘Righto. We’ll call you in the morning then. Hope you’re used to early starts.’

‘Actually, I’m quite hungry.’

‘Well that’s no surprise, given what you did with your lunch. There’s a tap at the side of the house, if you need any water. That’s your toilet.’ She motioned to the outhouse with her thumb. ‘Good night then.’

Night was still two hours off although the inside of the shed was so dark it hardly mattered. Colin lay on his canvas stretcher and stared into the blackness of the ceiling, and told himself to stay numb, and wait. It wouldn’t be for too long. The teachers had explained it on the ship. Every month the Welfare Officer would visit, and help them with any problems they were having. Stay numb. Watch. Remember. Wait for the Welfare Officer. Those were the things he had to do. He closed his eyes and tried to dream himself away to another time, but the trick wouldn’t work here.

* * *

The next day began in darkness with a clanking outside the shed and then three heavy knocks on the door.

‘Outside in ten minutes.’

Colin stood, feeling dizzy and still tired. He had slept
without
dreams, or dreamt without remembering, and his head was as cold and empty as his stomach. By the time he reached the door Mr Sowby was gone. The large plate he had left
behind
was piled high with porridge; cold, and thick enough for a spoon to be standing upright in the middle. Colin ate
hungrily
, and downed the mug of warm, strange-tasting milk beside it.

The outhouse he’d had pointed out the night before was obviously no longer used. There were thick cobwebs across the doorway and the hole was almost full with ancient waste. Colin
used it anyway, washed his hands at the outside tap, then stood out front in shirt and underwear, waiting for his instructions, and his trousers.

It was another fifteen minutes before Mr Sowby emerged. The trousers landed at Colin’s feet and Mr Sowby strode past as Colin struggled to step into them. He headed down
towards
the low shed Colin had noticed the night before. Colin caught up at the first gate and immediately he could smell the drink on Sowby’s breath.

‘I’m going to be bringing the cows in now. You stay here and make sure they don’t walk past this way. Then I’ll show ya how to milk ’em.’

He walked off, leaving the instruction to replay in Colin’s head.
Make
sure
they
don’t
walk
past
this
way.
Colin had come across a few sheep during his time up north, but never a cow. He’d seen a picture of one, but only in a story book, and that cow had talked, which would have made things easier now.

It was the fear that kept Colin from thinking other things, like why he didn’t just shut the gate behind him, and why, if that was the case, Mr Sowby had left him to do the job in the first place. And before his mind could turn to such simple thoughts, the cows came. A huge herd, more than he could count, stretched out across the field, advancing slowly, together, with the confident air of large beasts. Large and growing larger, until Colin could make out the detail of their dribbling faces; massive dark eyes, black noses, shining wet, and pale bottom lips, hanging loose over yellow teeth. Colin could feel his legs shaking, pleading with the rest of his body to let them run. He saw now that this was some sort of test, and his life here would become even harder if he failed it.

But knowing is only half the battle and the cows kept coming, showing no inclination to either slow or turn. Soon he could smell them, the bunched up stench of creatures that live
without
pride. Colin waved his arms wildly above his head and shouted out ‘shoo’, hoping they might understand the same words as pigeons. ‘Get away.’

The cows didn’t ‘get away’ though. Their big empty stares didn’t even seem to register he was there. They were only
seconds
from him and Colin lost his nerve.

He turned and ran at the nearest fence, hurdling it without thinking, and tumbled to the ground on the other side. He twisted in the fall, ready to run, expecting to see the herd
stampeding
behind him, but they had turned the corner without a fuss, and were headed quietly in the direction Mr Sowby
required
, just as they did every morning. Mr Sowby was following behind them, his ample belly expanding with air, to stoke delighted laughing.

‘Ah Pommy boy, fair shit yourself didn’t ya? Come on then, pick yourself up, there’s milking to be done.’

The shed was packed with noise and smell. It pushed in on Colin, making it hard to breathe. The regular mechanical sound of pumping bounced off the concrete floor, reminding Colin of being on the ship, only here there was no smell of ocean spray to wash away the diesel, just the sickly sweetness of fresh cow shit. The cows walked on through, even more terrifying in a confined space, and Colin backed up against the wall.

‘Don’t be so scared of everything,’ Mr Sowby shouted in his ear. ‘What do ya think they’re going to do to ya?’

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