The destroyer rested in the channel, broadside to Wharekaho Beach, its bow pointing towards the northern cape of Mercury Bay. On the crest of the hill above the beach, Stan stood with his hands in his pockets, concentrating.
Feet and voices came to the paddock behind him. Liz was striding over the pasture amid a cloud of children.
‘Still,’ she said, coming beside him.
‘Hasn’t moved.’ Third day, today.
Their five children encircled them. The oldest, Suzie, ran to a fresh cow pat that glistened, green-brown and steamy.
‘Suzie,’ said Liz, with half a heart.
‘Cold toes,’ the girl said, smiling, squirming, sliding her bare feet in the warm cow-shit.
Stan turned to his wife. ‘I’ll take the dinghy out.’
She took a while to speak. ‘We’ve not got much petrol.’
Liz nodded once. ‘A destroyer,’ she said, speaking the word hard. They’d matched the warship to the pictures in the newspaper. ‘Why the Americans, here?’ she said.
‘Look,’ said Stan. ‘I’ll take them a brace.’ He’d take two lambs, to the men on the ship. He and Liz had talked about it, to a point.
‘They’re not ours to give,’ she said. They merely managed the farm, and Liz seemed always to have this in mind.
‘Sheep are lost all the time,’ he said. ‘We pay for them either way.’
Rose, two years old, waddled over and grabbed Stan’s leg. ‘Rose,’ he said. He placed his hand on the back of her neck. ‘Rose-of-mine.’ His fingertips were thickly callused, numb to soft things, but he knew well enough the smoothness of her skin.
‘What about our boys?’ said Liz. She meant their troops. The meat was destined for the kiwi soldiers – wherever they were in the world.
‘You’re right,’ he said, but he would still row out with the lambs.
In his duffle bag he stowed his whetted six-inch knife, two meat hooks, a bone saw, and his stubby club. From the drum in the north shed he filled two flagons with fresh-pulled beer, sadly under-hopped from scarcity – another tragedy of war. He’d tried to grow his own hop cones, but – the wind, the sea, the animals. He corked the flagons tight and wrapped them in oilcloth, and top loaded them in his duffle.
He met Liz at the top of the trail down to the beach. It was early afternoon. Rose was strapped to Liz’s back, asleep; Henry, Rose’s twin, was propped on her hip. Liz led two good-sized lambs, dumb and docile, yoked together perfectly, so the beasts would neither slip the rope nor buck from stress. He took the animals from her without a word and followed the trail, carved fast to the hillside, down to the water’s edge.
As he rowed, the lambs sat like puppies in the dinghy’s stern, patient, sniffing at the unfamiliar air. He counted out a rhythm with the oars. One two three four. Pull two three four. Every twenty beats he looked over his shoulder to correct his heading, and each time the destroyer had grown larger, darker. Half an hour it took before he came alongside. The destroyer blocked out the sun, and the water was black in its shadow. He lashed the dinghy to a hook on the hull.
A row of heads bobbed and turned a hundred feet above him until – perhaps fifty men staring down. A steel cable ladder was lowered. He took his duffle over his shoulder but left the lambs, and climbed. By the time he made the deck he was winded, and he rested, hands on knees, while recovering his breath. The sailors gathered in a semicircle, and to a man grinned widely.
‘Lieutenant Commander Jameson, US Navy,’ said the captain, stepping forward to shake his hand.
‘Stan Keep,’ said Stan.
‘How may we be of service?’ said Jameson. The sailors around them stared and grinned. How many, on this ship? And still they came, pouring from hatches like water. Their arms bore stripes, badges, but he could make no sense of the rankings.
Stan pointed over the rail. ‘I’ve brought a couple of lambs,’ he said. He looked around the crowd. Not enough meat for a morsel each. This warship was a city. ‘And some beer,’ he added, hopelessly. If he had a hundred thimbles he could still not make the beer stretch.
‘You’re a gentleman,’ said Jameson, who looked to one of his sailors, who himself looked to two others, and that pair vaulted over the rail and descended the ladder.
‘Do you live there?’ said Jameson, pointing.
‘We manage the farm, my wife and I.’
‘You raise sheep?’
‘And cattle. For our soldiers,’ he said, and wished he’d said sailors, too. Did sailors consider themselves soldiers?
‘You keep your boys marching,’ said Jameson, no doubt knowing it was also what kept Stan from the draft.
Stan looked at the destroyer’s guns. Each one had a bore wide enough to swallow an arm. There would be anti-aircraft batteries too, and torpedo mounts, depth charges – he’d read about them all. The ship was a giant explosive. The sun was hot, even this far into autumn, and made the whole sky yellow.
Jameson looked to another sailor. ‘Fetch Cook,’ he said, and the sailor ran off at a sprint.
The pair of sailors previously dispatched climbed back of the rail, each with a lamb over his shoulder. They dumped the beasts on the deck and Stan watched as the lambs’ legs folded under them. He tied them together as before, gently, firmly. One began to lick the salty iron deck; the other one, noticing, followed suit.
‘Fresh food, courtesy of Mr Keep here,’ said Jameson to Cook. Cook – a worried, sweaty man – had arrived silently.
‘These are sheep,’ said Cook, staring at the creatures. ‘What I mean is – ’
Jameson waited for Cook to continue.
‘I can cook lamb, but I can’t slaughter sheep. I don’t know how.’
Jameson looked around the crowd of sailors, who uniformly looked at the deck. The lambs, too, inspected the steel under them.
‘I’ll do it,’ said Stan.
His tools were lined up on the destroyer’s deck in the order he’d need them, and he’d hung two lengths of rope over the barrel of a five-inch gun that had been ratcheted down to near-level.
He pushed each lamb into a crouch, then stood on the rope that joined them at the neck, pinning both to the steel. Steadying the first lamb in his grip, he landed the weight of the stubby club heavily and precisely between its ears. The animal twitched and slumped. The second lamb pulled away hard, but he was ready, and he struck it as cleanly as the first, and in seconds both lay stunned. Taking up the knife he slit each lamb’s throat through to the spine. Blood pulsed over the deck. He hooked the lambs through their thick hides and hung them from the gun-ropes to bleed. He stood still, puffing, not a speck of blood on his shirt or trousers. All was still, and quiet: no buzz of flies. No flies, when you slaughter an animal at sea.
Jameson came over to him. ‘Strange, isn’t it? These beasts turn grass and grain into meat. So simple.’
Stan didn’t look to the captain. What a thing to say. His girl Suzie, though only eight, knew better. Suzie knew about the shit and the mud and the parasites, the oily wool and the smell of rot that always accompanied the march of life.
He should have given the carcasses longer to bleed, but he pulled the first down. He made careful slits between the skin and the membranes at the hindquarters and forequarters, broke the joints, pushed his fists hard under the hide through to the beast’s shoulders, then removed the skin in one piece like shedding a pullover. With the bone saw he removed the head, then strung the carcass up again. He did the same to the second: as he worked, the sailors began to drift away. They seemed somehow embarrassed. By the time the last intestine had slithered to a stop on the deck, only a few men remained.
A thin, wonky sailor approached. ‘I’m a gunner,’ he said, as if Stan had asked. ‘A pointer.’
‘Right,’ said Stan.
‘Have you ever been a gunner?’ The sailor was intent, serious.
‘No,’ said Stan.
‘I know what you’re thinking. But it’s not the same. I sit in there.’ He pointed to the front left of the gun mount. ‘These guns, it’s all noise and smoke and shudder. That’s all they are. But it’s all noise and smoke, it’s all the shudder, you know?’
‘I wasn’t thinking anything,’ said Stan. ‘I wasn’t thinking it was the same.’ The same as what?
Jameson and Cook, who had both slipped away during the butchering, returned. The captain looked to the wonky sailor, then to the bloody mess on the deck, then back to the sailor. The sailor saluted, ran to a hydrant, heaved the lever, and with a stream of water like a geyser he washed the lambs’ heads, innards and blood into the ocean.
‘One lamb for the officers,’ said Jameson to Cook. ‘And one for the crew.’
Stan looked at Cook. ‘How many crew on board?’ he asked.
Cook said nothing, but looked to Jameson. The captain replied. ‘Three hundred and twenty-nine. That’s the full compliment.’ Jameson paused, perhaps running the sums. ‘Cook, prepare both lambs for the officers.’
Stan leaned against the rail, looking into the sea. The water below was pink and foamy with the lambs’ guts, and as he watched, in came the gulls, and then silver flashes of fish. And then, a shark, small and graceful, no bigger than a child – no bigger than Rose.
He looked back towards the farm. Afternoon was getting on, and smoke coiled from the chimney of the house. Liz would be in the garden, seeing first to the veg, then to the flowers – her roses. Rose-of-mine. He closed his eyes. He wanted, fiercely, to go back down the ladder and row like fury until the dented, weathered prow of his dinghy parted the grey sand on Wharekaho Beach.
‘Stay for a drink,’ said Jameson.
Stan turned. He’d brought the beer, after all. ‘I just might,’ he said. He felt no motion from the waves, but somewhere across the ocean, across dry deserts and frozen fields, the world was at war, and everything, everything, was in motion. He followed the captain.
The officer’s mess was tight but efficient, and Stan was drunk. He’d been introduced to the various officers, but he’d lost all their names, and anyway, they came and went, and were replaced by others who looked more or less the same. If the officers had blurred together before the beer, they were utterly indistinguishable after the rum was tabled and poured – and poured, and poured.
‘What’s that you’re thinking,’ said Jameson.
Stan was staring at the tabletop, trying not to yield to the drink. ‘I’m concentrating,’ he said. He rarely drank spirits. Beer he could trust, but spirits, no. Spirits snuck up, quietly, then boxed you on the brain.
‘I’m trying to remember.’ The grog didn’t wipe your memory. It just made you stop caring about remembering. Made you forget to remember. ‘It makes you forget to remember,’ Stan said. He formed each word deliberately; he refused to slur.
They’d eaten the lambs. Chops, steaks, shapeless carvings, some pulled from the bone and tossed in a dish, like mixed greens.
‘What’s to remember?’ said Jameson.
He looked at the thin, clear liquid in his cup, its surface taking time and effort to bring into focus. He swirled the rum and made a whirlpool. He was struck by an idea, that food was land and grog was ocean. ‘Look at that,’ he said.
The officers looked at him.
‘Round it goes,’ he said, of the rum in the cup. It made him dizzy, watching.
The room seemed to wait for something.
‘Why are you here?’ Stan said, louder, quicker than he had planned.
Jameson stared at him, letting seconds pass before smiling. ‘We sailed for Auckland. But I like it here. We wait.’ The captain made a hairy fist and rubbed his knuckles.
‘Auckland,’ said Stan. ‘What’s it like?’
‘Not like your place.’
‘What’s my place like?’ said Stan. He closed his eyes and saw colours.
‘Wharekaho Beach,’ said Stan, trying to pin all those colours down.
Jameson waited to reply. ‘Are you a native?’
Stan looked at him, quiet, concentrating.
‘You’re very brown,’ said Jameson.
He looked back to the captain, whose skin could only be described as red. The walls of the officer’s mess were solid, no portholes. Were they below the waterline, or above? His mind was filmy and fluid. He tried to form and hold a solid thought, a memory, but it was like squeezing water in a fist. Stan looked down, at his arms. They were, indeed, a shade of brown. ‘I’ve got to go,’ he said.
‘Not yet,’ said Jameson. ‘Stay a while.’ Jameson lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. The other officers did the same.
‘I have to get back,’ said Stan, standing.
‘What’s the hurry?’
‘My family,’ he said.
‘Must surely be in bed. Sleeping.’
‘Yes,’ said Stan, his arms twitching for his oars. How long, drunk like this, to row back?
An officer refilled his drink. Stan sat down, but his chair seemed to have moved and, unbalanced, he knocked the cup of rum across the table. Jameson looked at him as if he’d thrown it on purpose.
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ said Stan, and he began, ridiculously, to look for a cloth to wipe up the spill. One of the officers got to it first with his handkerchief.
‘Get some coffee,’ said Jameson, to the room.
Outside on the deck, Jameson held a heavy package wrapped in thick, brown, oil-proof paper, secured with twine.
‘For you, courtesy of FDR,’ said Jameson.
‘What is it?’
‘A Grease Gun. A Greaser, and ammo,’ said Jameson.
‘A Greaser?’ said Stan.
‘An M3 submachine gun, with a box of ammunition, thirty-round magazines.’ The captain stared at him in the darkness. ‘For self-defence.’
Stan looked at the wrapped gun, his vision glazing in and out of focus, and he concentrated on remembering. He nodded his thanks and stowed the package into his duffle bag. They began walking.
‘If they come.’
‘Who?’ said Stan.
‘The Japanese,’ said Jameson, stopping him and looking at him square. ‘The Japanese.’
‘Will they come?’ asked Stan.
They won’t,’ he said calmly. ‘We won’t let them. But if they do – ’
Stan looked at Jameson, concentrating, but his eyes would not steady themselves. He swayed – he knew he swayed.
‘Were they to come,’ said Jameson, smiling, happy to find this way to express his sense, ‘they would come first to the cities. They would take the highways, the railways, the seaports, the airports. Then they would come for the food. You have the food.’
Stan felt like a ghost, as if he might turn to a wisp of fog and float up to the moon.
‘In which case, you shoot them dead, like the fucking animals they are,’ said Jameson.
He rowed. One two three four, pull two three four. How quickly he lost the feeling of mist – how quickly he returned to bone and gristle, his muscles knotting, burning, tangy blood lining his throat. Twice he vomited, the first time over the gunwale and the second time onto his boots. But he rowed.
The beach was a big target. Even haunted by rum, Stan landed his dinghy well enough. He dragged it onto the dry sand, and sat, panting and spitting.
He looked for the house, but it was obscured by the night, and trees, and the rising, rolling earth. Remember, remember, he thought. He heaved his duffle over to the rocky northern end of Wharekaho Beach, and climbed. Onto the slippery rocks he climbed. He climbed, still sickeningly drunk, into the scrub, and up onto a ledge on the steep cliff face. ‘I’m going to die,’ he told himself, over and over, as a way to keep himself steady, focused – alive.
Twenty feet into a narrow cave he dug with a piece of driftwood – one two three four, dig two three four, rose rose rose-of-mine, dig two three four – until, drenched and cold with sweat and fear, his hands gloved with mud, he’d made a grave for the Greaser and the bullets. He buried them, and he thought, forget, forget. And off he went, half-tumbling half-running down the side of the cliff. And into the waves he ran, and he washed the dirt and vomit away, and the smell of oiled iron. And he rinsed his mouth with seawater, and it was cold and salty, and it cooled the rum in his blood and eased the tight meat in his stomach. With time, his breathing slowed. In the calm between each wave he watched the hairs on his arm catch the soft, moonlit sea-foam.
His strength was nearly gone by the time he made the house. He shivered through the front door and into the hallway, stopping outside the kids’ room. Rose-of-mine, he whispered, his head against the doorjamb. Concentration – that was what it took. Concentration, even when drunk and exhausted, not to cry. He touched the door handle with his fingertips, but didn’t go in. Let them sleep.
He went to the bathroom, was quietly sick for a final time, and fell asleep with his head on the toilet seat. At times through until morning, Liz brought him water in an enamel mug, and he drank it, because tomorrow there were sheep to shear.
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