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The History Speech

Editor’s Note: Mark Sweet has been a BayBuzz writer from the very beginning in our tabloid days. He is also a writer of fiction, and we are delighted to feature some excerpts from his latest novel, The History Speech. The publisher’s precis that follows provides context for the excerpts. 

Mark Sweet01 February 2020

BB51

In 1960s provincial New Zealand, conventional middle-class lives are not always as respectable as they appear. Callum Gow’s family and their social circle are influential and prosperous, but below the surface intrigue thrives.

In this atmosphere, Callum is coming to understand his own identity and where he belongs.

When his grandfather’s life is threatened, Callum confronts authority and power. In doing so, he uncovers forces hell-bent on destruction, but he also attracts kindred souls determined to find resolution and harmony.

All the while, Callum is composing his history speech. 

Chapter Four

‘I have an appointment with the hairdresser,’ his mother says, a hand brushing back her hair where she usually wears a clip. ‘I’ll drop you at the library. I’ll only be an hour.’ 

‘I want to see Granddad,’ he says.

‘You know we’re not seeing him at present, Callum.’

‘Why not?’

‘Daddy told you when he had his little talk. Remember?’

‘He told me Granddad wasn’t talking to him because of business. He said Granddad was too old to understand the future now Britain was joining the EEC.’

‘That’s right.’

‘But Granddad and me never talk about business or the EEC.’

‘It doesn’t matter. This is a family thing. We stick together.’

‘That’s not fair on me and Granddad.’

‘It’s your grandfather who’s not being fair.’

‘How come?’

‘Didn’t Daddy explain?’

‘No, he didn’t. Not properly.’

‘The Works need to expand, but Granddad doesn’t want to, so he’s not letting us merge with Selby’s.’

‘So Daddy won’t talk to him?’

‘It’s the other way around.’

‘Granddad won’t talk to Daddy?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Or you?’

‘We stick together in these matters.’

‘But he’ll talk to me. I know he will. Please, Mummy.’

Hastings in the 1960s. Images: The Knowledge Bank.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has been a month since the fallout. ‘Fallout’ is the word his father uses for the rift. His father had told him that merging with Selby’s would make them the biggest meat processors in the province; third biggest in the country. Selby-Gow was too good an opportunity to miss, he had said. 

‘All right. You can see Granddad, but on one condition. You must not tell your father.’

Agreeing not to tell his father was a strategy that had evolved slowly, but one he and his mother were exercising more and more.

‘Thank you, Mummy.’

His grandfather’s house was built in 1928, and withstood the great earthquake of 1931, although the chimneys collapsed, and some roof tiles popped and slid to the ground. In the house next door a baby was killed when a marble clock fell off a mantlepiece onto the cot in which she was sleeping.

He breathes deeply as he parts thick velvet curtains separating the entry lobby from a long hallway, and walks slowly down the darkness toward where he can hear his grandfather muttering. He doesn’t want to hear what his grandfather is saying to Ralph Gibson, so he bangs his fist heavily on the door frame, and shouts, ‘Granddad.’ 

Slowly, his grandfather looks away from the photograph of his friend from the war, his eyes far away, like a consumed reader’s disturbed from their page.

‘I’ve come to see you, Granddad,’ he says.

‘Scotty?’

‘Yep.’

‘Come to see me?’

‘Yep, and I think we should turn down the pork bones.’ 

‘What pork bones?’

‘It’s Friday. Mrs Maaka always does pork bones on Friday.’

‘Very good,’ says his grandfather. He pulls open a drawer at the side of the desk, and places the photograph, face up, on top of a small leather-jacketed book, underneath which, wrapped in muslin, is the revolver he brought back from the war.

‘Can I make you a cuppa, Granddad?’

‘That’d be grand. Thank you, Scotty.’ 

His grandfather has called him Scotty since they first met when he was five years old. He had been born in Edinburgh, and had a Scottish accent at that time. Traces remain in the way he rounds his vowels and drags out the letter ‘r’.

‘Do you want regular or posh tea, Granddad?’

‘Let’s have posh.’

Posh tea is kept in a tin and had with a slice of lemon and no milk. Regular is from the yellow Bell paper box and had with milk, poured before the tea, although his mother does it the other way round. She says people who pour their milk first don’t know any better. That way the milk is scalded, she says. His mother and his grandfather agree about heating the teapot first with hot water, but not about the milk. He doesn’t take sides when the subject comes up, although he was more impressed by his grandfather’s knowledge of the boiling point of milk than his mother’s explanation that that’s the way they do it in Scotland. 

When they sit down at the table, waiting for the tea to draw, he says, ‘Granddad, you remember telling me that Ralph was your best friend at school?’

‘Both schools.’

‘But were you sometimes not friends … you know, sometimes, for a while?’

‘You mean did we ever fall out for a while?’

‘Yes.’

‘Sometimes.’

‘So it’s all right sometimes.’

‘Sometimes.’ 

His grandfather is cleaning his pipe. It comes apart in three pieces. ‘Need some more pipe cleaners,’ he says.

‘You want me to go to the shop for you, Granddad?’

‘We can go together after we’ve had our tea. Now. You can be mother.’ His grandfather smiles, and he smiles back, and he pours the tea, and his grandfather turns on the radio, and they sit listening to The Archers, each blowing the surface of the tea before taking an air-filled sip. They both like Mr Ambrose best.

When they reach the corner across from the shop, and he goes to cross the road, his grandfather tugs at his sleeve.

‘Have to go to the next shop,’ he says, pulling him back.

‘But they’ve got pipe cleaners there, Granddad.’

‘It’s not that, Scotty. The shop changed hands. Bought by a Pommy.’

‘A Pommy bastard?’

‘That’s right.’

He’ll never forget the day he learned about Pommy bastards.

Can’t shop there then, eh?’

‘That’s right.’

Chapter Six

He likes doing the rounds with his mother. They start in the Village at the butcher. She tells Mr MacPherson what she wants to cook, and he finds her the best cuts of meat. His mother talks a lot with Mr MacPherson, and he has noticed how her accent grows thicker and her words flow faster when they talk about the people they both knew in Edinburgh, and about black puddings, and single malts. 

She signs the book, and, as always, Mr MacPherson passes him a saveloy wrapped in white bread and says, ‘There you go laddie.’ When they leave his shop, they stamp the sawdust from their shoes on the grate outside.

If the blacksmith is working at his forge he will often stop and watch him while his mother shops for groceries at the General Store. 

Today, the heat from the fire blows a warm draft across the footpath, and the clunk clunk of metal hammering on metal draws him toward the stable door. His mother nods and walks on. He squats down, and waddles under the two-tier stable door, which is closed at the top. The inside is so dim; his eyes grab every shred of light as they focus on the black form with a smudged head on top, glowing orange from the fire in the forge. He edges along to the bench in the corner of the room where the blacksmith lets children sit. He is not alone. A girl sits staring intently, her chin clasped in her hands as if to steady her gaze. He recognises her. He too is drawn to the scene Angie McDuff fixedly watches. 

In one hand the blacksmith holds his hammer, its head as big as his fist. In the other he grips a pair of metal tongs, with which he places the horseshoe into the forge, before beating it into the shape of a horse’s hoof, while it’s still red hot, with blows that shake the floor. The blacksmith plunges the horseshoe into a bucket of water. Steam rises in a mushroom cloud, and vanishes like the morning mist. Angie is on her feet, clapping vigorously, and she is under the door before he realises she is gone.

His mother stands beside the open boot of the car being stacked by the grocery boy, who looks at her with a silly grin as he passes her by. She’s smoking a cigarette; she exhales in wispy trails from the corner of her mouth, and when she finishes, she throws the half-smoked cigarette to the ground at the grocery boy’s feet, and stabs at it with her foot. 

‘Cooey,’ a voice calls from the veranda of the store. 

Bea Whitehead is a friend of his mother’s. ‘I like your hair, Kathy,’ says Bea.

The grocery boy’s head bounces up and down.

‘That’s all, thank you,’ his mother says, and the boy blushes.

Callum looks away, hoping Bea won’t try to kiss him, and sees the Miss Bannisters pulling up in their Model T Ford pick-up. He waves to them.

‘God, look at this, will you?’ Bea says, with her nose screwed up.

‘They always wear lovely clothes,’ his mother says.

‘But those trousers the big one’s wearing,’ Bea sneers.

‘They’re slacks,’ his mother says. ‘Wool, and beautifully tailored.’ She waves to the Miss Bannisters, who smile but don’t raise their hands. 

‘You do know they’re lessies, don’t you?’ Bea says, her hand cupping her mouth.

‘Don’t be silly, Bea,’ his mother says. ‘They’re sisters.’

‘That’s what they say, but …’

‘Shh.’ His mother drapes an arm around his shoulder, and says, ‘Bea. We’ve got the rounds to finish. See you at the McDuffs’ on Saturday.’ 

Chapter Nineteen

Only after he hears his father’s car leaving does he come out of his room. His mother is sitting in the sun drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette.

‘I don’t want to go to school today,’ he says.

‘Do you feel sick?’

‘No.’

‘Then you must go to school.’

‘We’ve got swimming practice,’ he says, ‘and I don’t want anybody to see this.’ 

He pulls up his pajamas top and shows her his back. The skin is broken in places and crusts have formed over the wounds. 

‘I’m so sorry,’ his mother says.

He doesn’t tell her he has scratched the welts to make them appear worse.

‘I’m having the Humber serviced today,’ she says, as she dabs his wounds with red liquid poured from a bottle onto cotton wool. He winces and sucks his breath. 

‘We must get cracking. The appointment’s for 9 o’clock.’ 

‘Can we go to The Farmer’s Tearooms?’

‘Yes of course.’

The Farmer’s Tearooms are opposite Tourist Motors where they take the car for servicing. His mother always chats with Mr Blake, and while they’re talking he wanders around the yard looking at the cars for sale, and he can’t help sniggering when he sees the big sign saying, ‘Rootes Group.’ 

‘I need to go to Westerman’s first,’ his mother says, and they walk the block to the big departmental store. While she shops he stays by the counter and watches people. An old woman brings a stack of sheets and pillow cases and pays with notes. The assistant writes up an invoice, which she folds around the money and fastens with a rubber band, before stuffing into a canister. She places the canister in a tube that curls like a snake from the counter, twisting across the roof, ending in a glass framed office high above. With the push of a button the canister is propelled inside the tube, and by the time the purchase is wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, the canister has returned with the change.

At the Farmer’s Tearooms he insists on taking the lift even though they have one floor only to travel. As he’s closing the grated metal doors a voice calls out, ‘Wait for me,’ and Pauline Grosser squeezes her backside through the gap before he has time to prize them open. ‘Have you heard about Beth?’ she says breathlessly.

‘Yes, it’s very sad,’ his mother says, ‘but I didn’t know her. Did you?’

‘Oh yes, she’s younger but we were at school together. Always a wild one was Beth.’

‘John said it was a car crash. Do you know any thing more?’

‘Well,’ Mrs Grosser lowers her voice and looks around although there’s no one else in the lift, ‘They would say that, wouldn’t they?’ 

‘What do you mean?’

‘She was into drugs, didn’t you know?’

‘You saying she OD’d?’

‘OD’d?

‘An overdose.’

‘Most likely, isn’t it?’

‘I don’t know. Why not just say so?’

‘Oh, you know Anne and John.’

‘No, not really.’

‘Well,’ Mrs Grosser sighs with a heave of her chest. And she edges closer. ‘Those accusations about John doing things to her.’

His mother’s eyebrows crumple and she shakes her head.

‘Just to get money, of course,’ Mrs Grosser says quickly. 

He heaves the lift doors open and his mother and Mrs Grosser are bound in chatter as they queue at the long counter in front of glass cabinets stacked with sandwiches and rolls and pastries. He chooses a chocolate éclair, a pink lamington crusted in coconut flakes, and he asks for a banana milkshake.

They sit at a table by an open window overlooking the street below, and he counts the cars passing by, quietly naming the makes; Ford, Humber, Holden, but his attention is drawn to Mrs Grosser when she says, ‘So sorry to hear about GT. Pete tells me you’re putting him into Gonville. For his own good of course.’

His mother is shaking her head in a sign for Mrs Grosser to stop talking but she doesn’t pick up the cue, and says, ‘So sad when they go senile. My poor old father was the same. The war was too much for him in the end.’

‘Please Pauline not now,’ his mother says firmly as a waitress brings their drinks to the table.

Mrs Grosser winks, and quickly says, ‘That Dutchman makes a good coffee. How’s your milkshake, Callum?’ 

He wants to spit some at her through his straw, but instead says, ‘His name is Mr Van Bohemen.’

‘What a funny name. You’d think they’d change it to make it easier to say, wouldn’t you? Make it easier to fit in.’

He sneers at Mrs Grosser, and goes back to counting cars, and when he sees Jack Barlow’s green Zephyr pulling into Tourist Motors, he nudges his mother and says, ‘It’s after eleven. The car will be ready now.’

Jack Barlow is talking with Mr Blake, beside a brand new Chrysler Valiant, and he likes the way Jack smiles when he sees them. 

‘What a lovely surprise,’ Jack says.

‘You going to buy it?’ he asks.

‘What do you reckon?’ 

‘It’s the V8. 5 litre. Really good car,’ he says.

Jack Barlow ruffles his hair and he doesn’t pull away. 

‘That’s it then,’ Jack says to Mr Blake. ‘The young fella likes it so I’ll order one now.’

‘What colour you gonna get?’

‘What do you reckon?’

‘Silver, definitely silver.’

‘Done,’ Jack says.

Mr Blake seems pleased, and says, ‘We’ll go to the office, shall we, and do the paperwork?’

‘Sorry,’ says Jack, ‘I have to get out to the beach. I’ll come back Friday if that’s okay. Same time.’

‘That’s just fine,’ says Mr Blake, ‘I’ll have everything ready for you then.’ And turning to his mother, he says, ‘All’s well with the Humber, Mrs Gow, I’ll get you the keys.’

The Humber is parked at the front of the yard. The tyres have been blackened, the paintwork and chrome trim, cleaned and polished.

‘Callum,’ says his mother, ‘Could you go with Mr Blake for the keys please.’

Glancing over his shoulder he sees her standing very close to Jack, and when he returns his mother is twisting a strand of hair in her fingers, and by the way she’s looking at Jack, he knows she likes him, a lot. 

‘Callum dear,’ she says, ‘Jack’s asked if you’d like to go out to the beach with him.’

He hesitates because uppermost on his mind is telling his grandfather about the plot to put him in a rest home. 

‘I have to pick up my crayfish pots,’ says Jack. ‘Could do with some help.’

‘In a boat?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Okay,’ he says. 

Mark Sweet01 February 2020

BB51

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