On Hay Barns


I am seven when my brother burns down the hay barn. My mother and I watch him from the kitchen window. We see him run from inside the workshop and struggle over the fence carrying a bucket of water.

My mother says, ‘What’s your brother doing?’ He disappears down the hill and then we see the smoke. There is a silent explosion, hundreds of feet into the air. By the time we reach the fence he is back, and Mum is screaming at him ‘Did you burn the hay barn down?’ He is yelling, ‘No, it just caught on fire.’


Bad news should not come at five in the afternoon. It shouldn’t come after a perfect day at the beach. Not after watching the kids swimming and eating huge ice-creams: vanilla, boysenberry and chocolate dripping white and red and brown down their arms in the sun. It shouldn’t come after saying goodbye to best friends; or just before I shave my legs to go out to another Christmas barbecue. Bad news would come in the middle of the night, wouldn’t it? It wouldn’t come three days before Christmas, and it wouldn’t come to me.


He is, at last, the son my mother wanted. Finally, he’s respectable. Finally mainstream. Finally on time, clean shaven and sober. The only thing wrong with this now perfect son is that he is dead.

My mother plans the funeral. We sit there like children again, aware of what happens if we upset our mother; even as adults we’re afraid of her anger. She makes plans for a funeral for the type of son she wanted but not the one she had.


My brother Nigel and I spend Christmas Eve at the funeral parlour. Looking and talking to this cold body who was our brother Justin. When we get there Nigel says to him ‘Jesus, Bro, what have you done?’ At that moment, the pain in my brother’s voice breaks my heart more than the death of the other.

At the funeral parlour we want to bring him home to the farm. To lay with him in the lounge and to put him on the back of the truck and drive him round the hills of Te Pohue. But we can’t. So we leave him there in that place alone. I put cigarettes in his top pocket and a beer in his hand. Later when his mates visit they smoke the cigarettes.


The fire engines have to come from the forestry at Te Pohue, but by the time they get there, there is no hay, and no barn, just fire. The wind blows the fire onto the fence posts and they burn too. Everybody comes, all the neighbors and their kids and we all sit and watch the fire and the firemen. Mum makes scones and feeds everybody.


My mother says that she and my father will not be celebrating Christmas. On Christmas morning, my partner and I sneak downstairs and put presents out for our son. When he wakes up we all whisper and open the presents in silence so as not to wake my mother. She hears us anyway and comes downstairs and asks us why we haven’t waited for her.

I cook Christmas dinner just for something to do. We have pork and I make the best crackling ever, my Dad loves crackling but this year he had to get false teeth and can’t eat it anymore.

On the day of the funeral we go to Napier and it is 38 degrees. I say I’m going to drop dead in this heat, my mother tells me to shut up. Before the funeral starts my mother starts to cry. I pretend I don’t see her.

Because it is Christmas people are away and not many people come. That is what we say to each other but it could be because Justin had been a shit. He fell out with loads of people before he left Hawke’s Bay. He knicked off with their stuff, he double-crossed them, he got drunk and probably thumped them as well.

He moved to Motueka and was a fisherman in Nelson. I know nothing about his life there. When he dies, friends from his ship ring. They tell us that Justin was the bosun and in charge of a whole crew of men. The Justin we knew wasn’t like that. You couldn’t leave him in charge of anything. He tried so hard to make us not love him, that in the end I thought that was all he had succeeded in.


Years later at a party Dad asks Justin if he burnt the hay barn down but he says ‘not me.’ He says it was already burning when he got there and he tried to put it out. The insurance company put it down to internal combustion: wet hay drying out under black polythene.


On the way home from the funeral my sister-in-law drives fast along state highway 5. I am scared. I am sitting in the back of her car and I ask her to slow down. I wonder how it could be that my brother who drove drunk and always fast died sober doing the speed limit, knocked off his motorbike by a man in his seventies who forgot to look left.

At the funeral, because no one else will speak and because I don’t know what else to say, or where to start, I say, I was seven when Justin burnt the hay barn down.


Amanda Hanan is a writer, actor and comedian. She has written for print and radio, with a preference to blend fact and fiction. Amanda is studying for her BA and has attended the IIML Creative Nonfiction Workshop in 2003.