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Lizzie Bubb killed her husband--everybody said so. Even Lizzie Bubb said so. 'I killed my husband,' she told everyone in the Opiki district: at least, anyone who might listen. And she really had done that, too.
Lizzie's mother, Alice, had already killed her husband for saving her life. This sad business happened after Alice's uncle by marriage, Charles Bubb, had bought a 700-acre block of new farmland from the Douglas Company way back in the middle of the nineteenth century. Charles was from Oxfordshire and of good family. He was planning to run sheep. One ran some sheep--and then, at length, one ran home with the profits. Charles burned off most of the land's forest cover in a mighty conflagration and sowed grass seed in the ashes; the blue-black mud and soot and bare, charred tree-trunks made the farm look much as the Somme would half a century later, or Passchendaele, during the unspeakable horrors of the Great War. But the grass grew and the farm got started. Charles liked to tell the story that, soon after he'd cut timber to put up a simple slab-hut to live in from the remaining virgin bush and had written home that he would soon be established on his new property, his English family took the words 'new property' after their own fashion and sent him out linen and tableware for twenty people, as if for a country estate. Lizzie often repeated the story long after Charles was dead and gone.
'I seen some of their silver spoons when I was a little girl,' she said, whether anyone was listening or not. 'I seen spoons with the family crest on.'
The crest was a righteous arm grasping a sword. After Lizzie's death, not a trace of the spoons could be found.
Charles was usurped: that's the only way to describe it. This was because Lizzie's grandfather, Arthur Bubb, had also emigrated to the colonies with his wife and children. By the 1860s Arthur was working as a teacher at a night school in Hokitika. He came up to Opiki and helped his elder brother use a pit-saw to cut a lot of lumber and build a large, proper homestead at last. Arthur was the sort of man who expected to get ahead, and everyone said he probably would. One of his students on the West Coast was a young, semi-literate Lancashire gold-prospector. The student's name was R.J. Seddon. Arthur gave him an education and in return R.J. Seddon gave Arthur a watch-chain, made from gold he'd panned himself at a nearby claim. Then R.J. Seddon went on to become New Zealand's longest-serving prime minister, 'King Dick' Seddon. But after Arthur's death the watch-chain disappeared like the spoons and Arthur did not get into the history books.
Charles was an English gentleman at heart and knew almost nothing about farming. He was a bachelor who knew only how to spend his inheritance in grand style. When the winds changed to the north-west, they desiccated the flat, open pastureland of the Manawatu that Charles had bought, and at times his entire herd was living on nothing but well-water and scenery. As for Arthur, he was not an English gentleman in the colonies--he was an English gentleman's younger sibling; he went back to Hokitika, since it was his sad role to be forever closing in on success and then thwarted. But at length Arthur's eldest son, Richard, came up north and gradually he began to take over the farm. The property interested him. He wanted to prevent its going further into decline (though, surely, 'decline' is the only objective way to describe the ruthless deforestation of 700 pristine acres of native bush and the half-hearted establishment of a pseudo-English sheep farm). Richard was the eldest son of somebody who didn't count: he had a good chance of becoming an actual New Zealander.
Richard was a shy, diffident man by nature. He married late in life. His bride was named Alice--the one who was going to kill him--and her people were from Worcestershire, though she was born in Masterton. Alice was a nuggety, energetic woman with large, peasant hands, and she was capable. She ran the house her own way. The carefree, upper-class filthiness which Charles had cultivated around the homestead was banished; the empty pantry was filled up with her baking and preserves. When an infestation of rabbits became a problem, Alice took a rifle and walked about the farm killing every rabbit in sight. There were an awful lot of rabbits and Alice gradually became a crack shot. When hawks became a problem, Alice strung a carcass from a tree and lay in the grass of the home-paddock with her gun for a whole day. Soon there weren't any more hawks. Alice even kept her gun inside, propped up next to the dining-room door: it was for shooting from the house when she spied something problematic through the windows.
Once, Alice shot a rabbit and the other behind it also fell down dead. That was because her bullet had passed through the first and then also killed the second. Alice was always making progress. She didn't give a shit about saving the environment.
Richard was already in his forties when Alice presented him with his first-born child. It was 1918. She'd promised him a son, but Richard didn't mind that it was a girl. Somehow he'd retained his mild-mannered ways. In any case, Lizzie was such a huge baby that the midwife told everyone Alice had given birth to a giant. Over the next three years more children followed, all boys. Alice didn't like losing an argument, even when it was an argument with fate.
'I'm ill,' Alice said. And she was, too. She was lying in bed in the corner bedroom, at the very centre of the mattress, rigid among the sheets and blankets--her whole body was struggling to fend off disaster. Soon Alice had a kidney removed in a hospital, under ether. It was an operation of unbelievable complexity and danger. People in the know said that it was remarkable, even miraculous, that Alice could survive such a thing. Afterwards, she was kept to a strict diet that forbade meat and eggs. To pay the medical expenses, Richard raised a heavy mortgage on the farm with a disreputable finance company called Tipping and Howse (may God forever curse their names and families). Later, Alice couldn't forgive him for it.
She never forgave him because, a year after the operation, the farm was lost in a mortgage sale to Messrs Tipping and Howse (may God forever curse their names and families)--by 1922 land prices had slumped. At the last moment Richard was able to separate the home-paddock from the rest of the property; the family could go on living there freehold. Well, that wasn't so bad. Richard found work in the flax mills nearby. Everyone in the district said it had never been good country for running sheep anyway. The property was mostly broken up for dairy farming. When Lizzie was old enough, she milked cows in the neighbours' sheds twice a day. And she was old enough from a very young age: it was even before she began attending school. So Lizzie thought it perfectly natural that the low, muddy paddocks behind the house and the rolling, bald and rutted hills beyond them should all belong to somebody else. Lizzie grew up with the agonised cries of gulls that were flying up out of the grass at her approach as they escaped for the sea, and with the cream-van riding the dusty metal road along the frontage to someplace else. But Alice believed that everything was Richard's fault.
They argued. It was nasty. One day Richard disappeared, and so did Alice's rifle. They all reckoned she'd shot him and buried him somewhere under that outsized house. They also reckoned she'd cut him up and burned the body in the stove and swept away the ashes with an old straw broom. Arthur died later; Charles was already dead. But Richard was almost a local and he was the one who got the rumours. His whereabouts remained a mystery.
But for Lizzie, the insoluble problem in her life was the walk of several miles each morning, trekking in her loose, flapping gumboots, over to the nearest country-school. She had no other form of transport. She wandered down an almost perfectly straight road than ran onwards between stock-proof fence-lines with clumps of toetoe, Christmas lilies and wild onion growing up against the wire and loose battens. She walked under the long grey streaks of a massive, cloud-heavy Manawatu sky. Every morning, on her way to absorb a little of the accumulated knowledge of western civilisation, she stopped and waited helplessly when the other children rode up to her on their bikes.
They chanted, 'B at the start and B at the end, and but for you, Bubb, you'd be B'all.'
Children can be very cruel. But they're not stupid.
There were cherry trees down one side of the family's property on the home-paddock. It was Lizzie who taught herself how to save the fruit over the final weeks of each year by covering the branches with tarpaulins when rain threatened. It was Lizzie who sold the fruit to the Chinaman's shop in Shannon; she took her produce to the township in butter and cheese boxes strapped to the back of the family's old black bicycle (which the family had somehow acquired from somewhere--don't ask). And it was Lizzie who damaged the bark on the walnut tree so it would bear. She wagged school--she was going to make a great name for herself (well, she was Arthur's grandchild). Each time she crossed the Opiki swing-bridge the aging toll-keeper used to tell her he'd settle for a smile instead of the fee with something between flirtatiousness and menace in his voice--until one morning, at last, he confessed that the fee story was just a big fib because a bike wasn't a fee-paying vehicle anyway. Lizzie said that one fine day she'd get his job and then, by korry, she wouldn't let him across this bridge, no matter what, not ever. It was Lizzie who bullied her younger brothers into doing their daily chores: they said she wanted to be a man. But she made them do as she ordered or they'd have their dinner off the mantelpiece.
The brothers packed themselves off from home as soon as they could. Two of them lit out across the ditch to Australia; another one died, eventually, with the Third Echelon in the Western Desert, fighting against the Afrika Korps and his own Pommie officers in the new war that had sprung up. Apparently anything was better than having Lizzie Bubb take over your life.
Alice arranged for a neighbour to drive herself and Lizzie over to Palmerston North. By now, Lizzie was twenty three. Alice was old. They had lunch at the Grand Hotel on one corner of the Square; the hotel had a veranda along both sides of the building that faced the street. It was constructed in stone and went four storeys high. Inside the main entrance there was a broad, polished staircase with bright blue carpet-runners. Lizzie had never seen a staircase before, and this was a good one to start with. She held onto its ornate wooden balustrade as she climbed the nine steps up to the landing--she thought the whole thing was a bit fussy, but how handy a staircase would be if they ever got an upstairs at home! In the dining room, Bill Morrison was sitting at a table in a new suit. His hat was lying on the pure white cotton tablecloth beside the butter-plate. He stood up carefully--he'd had a few drinks. He was a short man with ruddy colouring and a wide, heavy-browed face.
'Well,' he said. 'This is nice.'
Everybody shook hands. Bill wanted to shake everybody's hand so much that he stopped a passing waiter and shook his for good measure. Bill was thinking to start a skin-and-hide business in the Manawatu area. He was hoping to get married, too. He was also thinking and hoping that a business and a wife would keep him out of the army for the duration of the war. After their lunch, they all three walked round the Square to the Registry Office and Lizzie got hitched.
Bill cut down the cherry trees by the homestead. He bought an old boiler, which had once driven a winch in a sawmill outside of Levin, and he put together a rendering plant. Bill showed Lizzie what to do: it was not for the squeamish (you might want to skip a little here and make for the next paragraph). When a fresh batch of dead stock was pushed off a truck onto the end of the driveway in a heap of mangled limbs, first Lizzie and then Bill would climb all over the animals--a jumble of sheep, cows and pigs with the fear still frozen in their lifeless eyes--skinning them and hacking up the cold, stiff bodies and legs with an axe, to get pieces small enough for the digester. During the work they were splashed with gore and flecks of entrails. Soon Lizzie was in charge of cooking the parts of the beasts: four hours at a time. All by herself she drained off the steaming fat for tallow. Later, she boiled the meat and bones to a pulp and then bagged the dried-out results with a shovel for selling as manure. It was disgusting but very lucrative.
Bill liked to spend as much of his time as possible out in the truck; he liked filching wood for the boiler. He thought of himself as a provider. Alice, who had gradually become bedridden, took up patent medicines and smoking, and spent many an hour rolling her own cigarettes for having sometime later. But at length she died--nobody missed her much. After Bill and Lizzie moved into the homestead's master bedroom, Bill put away his suit in the dark-stained, chestnut wardrobe and never touched it again. He wore overalls, and a watch on the inside of his right wrist. He usually came home in the evening with a bottle of yellow brandy.
Despite Bill's drinking, the business made good money; it really was very lucrative. Bill arranged for some workmen to put a brick veneer around the house, to save on paint and maintenance. Lizzie was annoyed: she thought they could have done the job themselves.
The Honourable Bob Semple visited Opiki as Minister of Works (this part of the story isn't so important). But when Bob Semple came to the swing-bridge, the elderly toll-keeper--this was the same ugly old man who used to let Lizzie pass for nothing--insisted that even a cabinet minister had to pay the fee if he wanted to go across the river. Semple sniffed through his little moustache and complained at great length that the bridge was like something out of a comic opera; he said that his government would build a new one straight away, one without need of tolls or a keeper. He spoke in his customary grand style, using his arms sparingly because their movement might spoil the cut of his woollen coat. But he paid up, meanwhile, reluctantly. A few weeks afterwards, surveyors came and banged in a few survey-pegs nearby--and that was all. History can be like that sometimes, especially ours.
The British won their latest war and the boys came home. Bill celebrated with a drink; he was very patriotic. He liked victories, he liked celebrating. He could be a famously good fellow when he turned up in the public bars of the surrounding townships. He liked to shout everyone in the room--and those old-fashioned bars are on the large side. It got so that men would leave the nearby stores and offices of the town and rush to the pub whenever they heard Bill Morrison was there. Lizzie started to grow jealous of the men, who saw more of Bill than she did. She grew jealous of her women friends from school who had married for love. She grew jealous of Bill for having fun while she did all the work. Local cockies told tales of seeing good old Bill parked at the side of the road, passed out behind the wheel.
'I'm pregnant,' said Lizzie. Bill stopped coming home altogether.
After several weeks without her husband, Lizzie got worried and telephoned the police--it seemed the right thing to do. The phone was on a party-line and some neighbours, who were listening in, were able to tell her that Bill was staying at the Albion Hotel. That was over Shannon way. The police decided not to waste their time any further. That was all right with Lizzie; the neighbours thought it was the best idea, too.
Lizzie's baby was named Paul. Lizzie's labour went on for twelve hours, but her 'twilight sleep' made the birth more civilised. She woke up in a hospital bed in Palmerston North among coarse sheets that smelled of starch, and soon she was cradling her infant in her arms. 'Isn't he lovely?' she asked a young intern who was passing through the ward in a harassed manner which he'd contrived to seem authoritative. The intern glanced down at her past the sleeve of his coat. 'What a hairy baby,' he said, and moved on. Lizzie looked about to see if anyone else's baby was better than hers.
For a while Paul lay in his bassinet at home. He was another achievement.
Bill may have come back. If he did, though, he disappeared again quickish. What really happened next was that one of Lizzie's younger brothers visited with his wife, up from somewhere in the city. The wife was a skinny-faced, red-haired woman clutching a big handbag and wearing a wide straw hat with a floral-wreath arrangement--she looked as if she'd come out for a day at the races. She put on such airs and ways that even her hubby seemed a little bit embarrassed. Then, sitting poised on the edge of the living-room sofa cradling her bag in her lap, as cool as how-do-you-please, she declined the offer of a cup of tea and demanded to know if they were finally going to get their share of the property, especially the antique oak sideboard that had come over with Charles Bubb from England.
Lizzie fetched a rifle--she planted both feet in the centre of the living room and stared the woman down. The rifle was a three-oh-three; that much is beyond doubt. But nobody who talked about it later knew for sure if it was Alice's or where the gun had come from.
'I killed my husband with this, and I'll kill you too if you don't fuck off out of here!' Lizzie screamed.
In one hand she held the rifle slung low, with the barrel pointed up. She was holding Paul on her hip with her other righteous arm. The wife fucked off out of there.
'I killed my husband,' Lizzie said after that to anyone in the district who'd listen. But nobody really believed her: at least, not at the time.
For one thing, Lizzie had received a telephone call concerning Bill from the Hawera Hospital, either shortly before or after threatening to murder her sister-in-law. Over the line a nurse said in a detached, clear voice that Mr Morrison was in the wards with angina and circulatory problems; he was being discharged and needed to be taken home. Lizzie borrowed an old Austin for the trip into Taranaki. Its engine was buggered and it needed a rebore; it pulled badly to the left and had all the acceleration of a one-legged pukeko coming home late from a hard night--it was a good job she was only following along the coast and not going anywhere difficult like over the Desert Road. But Lizzie brought back the shrivelled, pyjama-clad man who met her just inside the hospital's main door. His head shook badly on his scrawny neck, his grey hair was greasy and awry, and he looked nothing like her husband. Even Lizzie thought there might have been a mistake. She fed him porridge and scrambled eggs. He kept mumbling and pleading for a beer; she always refused him. She told anyone who dropped off dead stock in the driveway that Paul's sick uncle was visiting. Finally Bill--that's if indeed it was Bill--disappeared once more.
'I killed my husband again,' Lizzie said to everybody.
The years began to pass. Each was a lot like the last, without even much rhythm to help from the subtle changing of the seasons. The grass grew hard and thick around the house, the flies came and buzzed on the dry putty along the bottom of the windowpanes, and possums, an infestation of them, ate up the snails on the property and then got into the roof. Paul grew into a precocious child who liked all the attention Lizzie gave him. He had toys and his own room, and his bed had a gaudy pink-and-purple picture of Old King Cole above the bedstead.
'I'll just go see old Kingi Cole,' he would announce to her in the evening.
That meant he thought it was time for him to go to sleep. He was a good boy, so what happened afterwards probably wasn't his fault.
Lizzie sat at the kitchen table with the elements of her business beside her: the telephone to bark into if somebody rang, a packet of smokes, a magnifying-glass for any reading and a grimy metal cashbox with the money for skins and hides. Boy, she ran that business. She brought the radio in from the living-room so's it would be on the spot; she cut her hair short to save on trips to the barber and she went on wearing the same old blue cardigan day in, day out. They said she deliberately let the garden grow wild and just put plastic flowers in all the vases round the house. Lizzie taught Paul to be a skinner, soon as he was old enough. And he was a beaut. He was ambi-thingy--it was like he had two strong right hands. He used to wag school almost the whole term. He even helped his mother serve tea and scones on a tray to the cockies whenever they came over with stock--Paul used the carcasses as a makeshift table. He stopped being precocious.
Lizzie and her idiot son became local characters.
While no one noticed, Paul became a young man. First, he was out a lot. He started going out for a short spell immediately after work, then he started going out sometime after dinner for the rest of the evening, and at last he started going out around midnight and not heading back before the dawn chorus. One morning, he came home riding in a cobber's truck with a battered electric guitar bouncing on the tray at the back, and he started teaching himself to play some chords. Paul didn't know how to read music and was never a very good musician--rock 'n roll could have been made for him. He joined up with a local band that toured the dance halls in the district. He'd wake up in strange places in the morning with his ears ringing and his mouth dry from vomiting and then attempt to remember what it was he'd done the night before. But what he'd done the night before never seemed to include getting laid.
One week, when no carcasses had come in to skin and there'd been no gigs for over a month, Paul took a crowbar and knocked all the flaking brick veneer off the walls of the house. It came down in big, broken sheets and got left, smashed and forgotten, amongst the surrounding scrub that had once been the garden. Paul still wasn't getting laid: he was a textbook problem.
Paul went to the nearest doctor's rooms about a sore throat.
'Uggh, uggh, uggh,' Paul said.
'Open wider,' the doctor replied.
The doctor sent him to the Palmerston North Public Hospital. The hospital regretted to inform Paul that he had cancer of the larynx--the news secretly kept half the Opiki district entertained. Paul's larynx was removed in a short, easy operation; it didn't give the doctors any trouble. An orderly threw the severed organ into an incinerator without even thinking about rendering it into something else that could be sold and used. At home again, when people dropped round, Paul showed off the broad red welt that stretched along his throat--but no matter how wide Paul opened his mouth, not a sound came out beyond the rasping of his own breath. Lizzie gave him a cup of tea; Paul couldn't tell her to put more milk in. Paul could not communicate to her about the grades of skins when they were brought in to be examined. Giving him a pencil and paper was no good--Paul was illiterate, and he wasn't inventive. He couldn't even make an 'x' to vote. Now he couldn't ring his mates to go to gigs and they stopped coming over. Paul started to tell everyone that he was angry at what the world had done to him, and generally fucked.
'Uggh, uggh, uggh,' Paul said.
Paul started to like riding the Opiki bus into Palmy and back. He liked to choose a pleasant woman on the bus to sit by and then would lean across and press himself up very close beside her. He was not a young man about town; he was a creature of appetites. At length, the women riding on the bus took to sitting in the aisles with their bags piled up on the window seats as a kind of barrier; and that was around the time the girl went missing. It was mid-winter. There was lime, sulphate of ammonia and nitrogen in the gardens, all over the country. The girl had been a tall, curvaceous brunette with good cheekbones and almond-shaped green eyes--she was too old to be called a girl, but you know how people are--and both of the local policemen in the area were sweet on her. The police came over and asked Paul a few questions about it. Paul didn't have much to say. He just grunted like an animal. He looked like an animal, too--he was unshaven and all bent over and wore a faded blue flannel shirt, buttoned to the neck, with dribble down his front. In fact, the only difference between that little bastard and the beasts outside in the paddock was that you couldn't milk him or get a penny for him over at the local abattoir, and if you boiled him down you wouldn't even have decent manure. Oh, there was something moronic and cruel in Paul, and the police just couldn't beat it out of him, though they tried. At least beating Paul made the cops feel better, so they came round and tried it again from time to time--and they forgot about the missing girl they loved, whose name was Miranda. It never pays to mess with the authorities, who in any case are too busy counting fallen sparrows to care about the likes of us.
So anyway, Paul probably cut her throat; he used to do it to some of the old laying-hens here and there across half the district. I mean, fair dinkum. Or maybe he had his own gun stashed away in a dark corner someplace. The family was like that. Everybody went back to calling Lizzie 'Bubb' again: 'Morrison' was better for lawnmowers.
This continued for years. In the end, Lizzie Bubb did what people do who don't get killed: she died. She lost weight and vitality, and then her legs began to pack up. She claimed that she felt all right inside herself, but she lay in bed staring up at the ceiling--unsure if it really was the ceiling or whether heaven was looming nearer. Her eyes were going; they were losing all the colour from their irises, although her mind remained mostly steady. At last her lungs seemed to drown her with every breath she took, while she was living much of her life again in her head.
'I killed my husband,' Lizzie finally rasped. It was a huge effort for her to speak. She groaned, 'I boiled him down into glue and used him to paste up the wallpaper.'
When she died, all that remained of Lizzie was a sort of bric-a-brac: the Bakelite phone, her cigarettes (an old brand), her magnifying-glass and the moneybox. And, of course, Paul.
No one could remember when the bedroom wallpaper in the house had gone up; that was a private matter. It was getting on for the days of D.N.A. testing, but there was no one around to compare any D.N.A. with. There was only Paul--and nobody was really all that sure if he was Bill Morrison's son. But everyone knew his mother killed her husband, and everyone knew his grandmother killed her husband--and everyone knew about Paul.
(Haven't you already guessed that Alice is dissension, Lizzie is envy and Paul is just plain hate? Really? Shame on you! Oh God, my God, what on earth made me think I was going to manage anything sublime from this--out of this, a story about my family?)
It was in the blood. Best not to marry Paul, that thing of the dark. He lies around like a lizard, waiting to crawl into your guts. Don't ever marry him--he will corrupt your thinking. You're next. Don't have anything to do with him. Remember the toll-keeper who settled for a smile.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2017
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