Brett Stewart Remembers
It was hard to read the bit when Mrs Munro asked him. It took a long time to find page fifty-seven, and then he didn’t know what she meant when she said ‘start at the second paragraph’, so he held the book in his left hand and put the tip of his right forefinger on the page to show he was trying to find the place. Tracey Walters leaned over and showed him the start of paragraph two and he knew what the first word was. It was ‘the’. ‘The,’ he read. ‘The, the -’
‘Three wise men,’ hissed Tracey.
‘The three wise men, um, um.’ He moved his finger on the page, took a deep breath and said, ‘The three wise men, um -’
‘That will do, thank you Brett. You don’t seem to want to contribute. Would someone else like to read out this miraculous story?’
Hands waved, someone was chosen. Brett shoved his Sunday school book shut and from under his springy hair his eyes glared at the others. How did people like Tracey know what the words were? Thing was, he could say the alphabet and was pretty sure he knew all the letters when he really looked at them.
But just starting like Tracey did, that was a mystery, maybe some of the others had an extra way of seeing things that made reading easy for them.
He reopened the book and eventually found page fifty-seven. ‘The three wise men.’ Well he knew ‘the’, would have known ‘three’ if someone had said it was a number, he knew ‘is’ and ‘wise’ had ‘is’ in it but the word wasn’t wiz. Again he shut the book and looked out the window. Soon church would be over, the class would end, and they could go home. His father would be at home because he never went to church. Well next year Brett’d be at high school and wouldn’t have to go to Sunday School. When he was old enough he’d go to the pub like other men.
His Dad didn’t go, or not very often. Whisky and beer was what they drank at the pub and that was demon’s drink, his mother said.
Perhaps his Dad didn’t go often because though the demons made some men get all singy and laughy, his Dad got quiet and didn’t want to talk, just got mean. But not usually as mean as sometimes. It was hard to know what made him get into a really mean mood. Sometimes the dogs started it off, they wouldn’t do what they were told and the sheep went the wrong way and then his father got the dogs and tied them up and then gave them such a walloping that all he could hear was the whack and the yelps and the ‘you won’t do that again you bitch’ and another whack and another loud high-pitched bark. When Brett was little he would run away and hide so he couldn’t hear the noises but later on he stayed and watched and sometimes he felt like giving them a good wallop too, sort of so he could be on his Dad’s side, and also because of the way they just took it, just let his father hit them and didn’t bite back or do anything.
Right then, he reckoned that smarty Mrs Munro could do with a walloping, and look at silly little Kevin Brown, all proud because his picture of the three wiz men was tacked to the wall.
Brett’s foot shot out and back again – and look at that would you, stupid little Kevin Brown sprawled on the floor.
Of course afterwards, when the dogs lay there, no tail pumping, no eyes twinking, he felt a bit sorry for them and wished his father hadn’t done it and wondered why he’d felt like doing it too. Usually they were pleased to see him, but after a walloping they wouldn’t look up – just lay in the back of their kennels and wouldn’t move for ages. That’s when he got them some water and sometimes they had a drink. He usually gave them a biscuit or two as well, but they hardly ever wanted to eat it.
It was time to leave the Sunday school room and the teacher was looking at him through her stupid sheep eyes and saying, ‘we’ll have a better day next week, won’t we Brett?’
‘Yes, Mrs Munro,’ he said. But next week he wouldn’t be able to read any better. Maybe it was because he wasn’t lucky. Maybe that was why he had a Dad that got mean sometimes and would say ‘boy I told you not to do that,’ or ‘boy I told you what to do’ and would hit Brett just like he walloped the dogs and Brett would hold himself into a tight ball inside and wait till it was over. In a funny sort of way he knew his mother was doing what he did when the dogs got a walloping. His mother was wanting his father to stop but also his mother was wanting to join in.
Afterwards she would say ‘Oh he went too far, he really went too far,’ and she would offer Brett some cocoa or some cake. But he didn’t usually feel like eating it, he just wanted to go away and lie down a long way away. Sometimes he went to the other end of the farm but he never went to his room, that was too close to his father and too close to his mother, who was just like him, his father, really, or maybe he was just like her. You just couldn’t be sure of anything.
Ruth was doing another turn on museum duty when a campervan slewed into the car park and came to a halt. A map obscured the front passenger’s face but the expression on the male driver’s indicated they were arguing. Travelling in those things seemed to do that to people – confined space, boredom, excessive exposure to the company of one person, who could know the reason – but it certainly didn’t always bring out the best in people. When the man thumped the steering wheel with both hands the side door shot open and a boy catapulted himself into the car park. He stood still facing the museum, turned to slam the door of the van, then strode towards the entrance. Ruth waited to see which parent would come after him. Neither did. The boy entered the museum.
‘Hello,’ said Ruth. ‘Welcome to Wainui. And where are you from?’ Her standard greeting.
The child said nothing. Perhaps he didn’t speak English.
‘Would you like to look round?
‘No thank you.’
‘No thank you.’
‘That’s better.’ He was standing in front of the whaling display. Ruth pointed at a vertebra near his feet. ‘That’s from a whale’s backbone, they sometimes used them for stools in the early days.’ The boy scuffed it lightly with his sneaker, then sat on it.
‘Pretty hard, I think they’d have needed a cushion.’ That rude-noise one of Barb’s would have been ideal today. The boy didn’t reply. Poor kid, couldn’t be anything worse than parents fighting.
‘You know there were sometimes boys your age on whaling ships?’
‘Funny thing, not to know if you know. Anyway they reckoned if boys went to sea young enough, they were more agile – better – at working in the rigging than others that started when they were older.’
The boy was looking at his parents in the campervan. ‘My age. That’d be good,’ he said.
‘Well, no, not always good. Food was awful. Stuff they called “biscuit” broke their teeth – mind you they all had rotten teeth, so they softened the biscuit in water. Trouble was, the water was green and scummy, which disagreed with their stomachs. Toothache. Belly ache. No fun. Their dried meat was often black with mould, and what they called peas, actually lentils, was usually so full of weevils they would float on top.’
‘Then there were explosions,’ said Ruth. ‘Could be the whole ship caught fire, you can imagine that – full of oil. Whoosh. Or if they found a dead whale, they would tie it up to their ship and start cutting into it.’ She looked at him carefully, he was listening, boys loved explosions. ‘But if it was really old and rotten, the whale itself could explode and the whole ship, decks, sails, everything, would be covered in putrid, decaying whale flesh. Be in their hair, their eyes, their mouths, their clothes. Revolting. Pretty hard to get clean with only cold salt water, and no soap like we know it.’
The boy stared at her, horrified.
Ruth glanced out the window, the man was out of the van and talking to the woman. ‘No, you probably wouldn’t have enjoyed being a ship’s boy,’ she said. ‘Now I’m about to have a cup of tea, and I’ve got some ginger biscuits, so I’ll make one for you too. Have a look at that photo while I bring the kettle and cups through here.’
It was an old black and white photo of a garden with roses growing over arched supports, the shape of church windows. ‘Those arches are whale ribs,’ she said on return, demonstrating the ribs of her own sturdy frame. If he’d been younger she’d have demonstrated on his, and tickled him.
‘Here, open these.’ She handed him a sealed packet of biscuits. ‘Then tell me what you think that is,’ she added, indicating some small dark mounds of potters’ clay. Really, Barb might do a reasonable job on the wheel, but she was no sculptor. They looked like nothing much.
‘Dog doos,’ said the boy, making a face, and in a truculent tone.
‘You know, you’re one smart kid,’ said Ruth. ‘It’s whale doos. Or comes out of whales with their doos, also known as ambergris. They’re just pottery imitations. If they were real they would be worth thousands and thousands.’
The door opened and the boy’s parents entered.
‘Jacob,’ said the man. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Aw,’ said Jacob.
‘Jacob and I were about to have a cup of tea and a biscuit,’ said Ruth. ‘He was going to offer you one. And the tea’s ready.’ She indicated the biscuit packet in the boy’s hands and began pouring water into the four cups with teabags in them. Fait accompli, pretty hard for them to refuse.
‘Guess what that is?’ said Jacob, pointing at the pottery shapes.
‘Faux ambergris?’ said the woman.
‘How’d you know?’ disappointment leached Jacob’s voice.
‘The label,’ said his mother, and smiled tentatively. They gazed at the label Jacob had overlooked. ‘Ambergris,’ read out his mother. ‘Doesn’t say ‘faux’ but of course it can’t be real. If it was real people would steal it.’ She jiggled her tea bag and looked around for somewhere to put it.
‘Here,’ said Ruth, handing her an empty cup over the top of the milk. There was an uncomfortable silence as tea bags were deposited in the empty cup, milk poured, biscuits accepted, first sips taken.
‘Actually,’ said Ruth, who wasn’t looking at Jacob, but at his parents. ‘I hadn’t finished telling Jacob what I know.’ She fiddled with the safety pin on her glasses and then turned to look at Jacob. ‘Sperm whales eat squid, but their sharp beaks won’t digest and that irritates their stomachs so the whales cover the beaks with this substance they make from themselves – a bit like oysters make a pearl to cover irritating grains of sand.’ Jacob was on his second biscuit, but listening. ‘So they work away at what’s irritating them, trying to cover them over, but it gets to be too much and they have to get rid of all the irritations. So out they come. All at once. Of course, when the irritations are out of the way they feel much better.’ Ruth paused, he might make the connection. ‘Do have another biscuit.’ She offered the packet to Jacob’s father, who appraised her, then the biscuits, took one and tousled the boy’s hair.
‘And the irritations become worth thousands?’ Jacob grinned at his father and took a biscuit too. His third.
‘Sometimes.’ Ruth looked from one parent to the other, then at Jacob. ‘If it floats clear and gets a good drubbing – that’s the old word for washing or beating – a good going over, in other words.’
The family finished their tea and began wandering round the exhibits but Ruth didn’t farewell them, she was taken up with the arrival of another visitor.