Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Boo

By the 1970s, the old Hutt Road couldn't cope with the traffic any more, so they finally ran the Hutt motorway through into the centre of town, cutting straight through the bottom of the old Bolton Street Cemetery. Not everybody was happy with that, but I guess you can't rest in peace in the path of progress.

Anyway, come the end of the decade, I was studying up at Victoria University, and if I had a late lecture the Kelburn cable car would have stopped running before I was out of there. It didn't matter - it was only a twenty minute walk to the trains, and downhill all the way - but come winter, it was well dark after six o'clock.

Usually I'd hike down The Terrace, but from time to time, just for a little variety, I'd find an alternate route, maybe skirting the Botanical Gardens and coming down Clifton Terrace. Whatever took my fancy. This one night, there was pretty close to a full moon and so I cut a big corner off my route by nipping through the remainder of the cemetery where it bordered the motorway.

It had been raining earlier in the day, and there was enough in the way of wet pine needles and the like to require care in where I put my feet as I came down the hillside. Fortunately, the ground was well lit in that strangely silver way, and the path was otherwise very well maintained. Traffic was a persistent muted roar, nothing more.

Another sound carried though. Higher pitched, sharper, a metallic tink, tink, tink. Close by, quite ordinary, but I couldn't place what it was at all. It grew louder as I descended; a few taps, a pause for a few seconds, then a few more taps. Repeat. I began casting round for the source. A side path led off to the right, and the sound was coming from that direction. As I moved closer, I could triangulate it. A few yards from the walkway, there was someone hunched beside one of the headstones. Quietly, I stepped a little closer, then my foot unexpectedly skidded off the slick, moss-covered surface of an exposed pohutukawa root.

I kept my balance but my feet hit the ground below the root with a very solid thump. The effect was electrifying: the crouching figure started up, dropping something as he lurched abruptly to its feet.

"Jesus!" an old man's voice exclaimed breathlessly.

"Sorry mate," I said, embarrassed at startling him, "Are you okay?"

I bent down to pick up the object I'd made him drop. It was a hefty chisel. As I handed it back to him, I could see that he'd kept his grip on a hammer in his other hand.

"Thanks," he said, taking it back from me. I had a closer look at him now. He was wearing a long, heavy greatcoat of some description, though what colour it was I couldn't tell. It wasn't light enough under the moon to distinguish anything beyond shades of grey. He had a particular look about him. The look you see at the Anzac Day dawn parade; the look you see at wreath-layings; the look you see at the table in the corner at the Returned Servicemen's Association with a full ashtray and a half-full jug of DB Draught. The left breast full of ribbons and medals was quite redundant.

I felt further apology was warranted.

"I didn't mean to frighten you."

"That's all right. I shouldn't be out here anyway." He hefted the chisel uneasily.

I took a couple of paces to the left, bringing the face of the headstone into view.

    FREDERICK BURGESS
      1878 - 1956

Beneath that, in small lettering I had to strain to make out

     VETERAN OF THE
    SOUTH AFRICAN WAR
       1899 - 1902

The lettering of the name appeared to have been picked out afresh, explaining the chipping sounds I'd heard, though he couldn't have done anything about the way it was off centre from the rest of the inscription. It seemed odd that the old boy felt like he had to do this under cover of darkness, but it hardly seemed my place to remark.

He spoke again. "Ya haven't got a fag, have ya?"

"No, sorry, I don't smoke."

"No worries. I shouldn't anyway."

Curiosity finally got the better of me.

"Look, I hope I'm not being rude, but why are you doing this?"

A look of irritation crossed his worn features, chased away by a resigned sigh.

"Had to fix it, didn't I."

"Fix what?"

"The buggers spelled my bloody name wrong."

1 Comments:

At 3:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heh. Now there's a man we could use in the newsroom. Although for a misplaced apostrophe, I'd come back from the grave with something capable of inflicting a little more damage than a mere chisel.

 

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