After the Earthquake by James Courage
More than a century ago, many people from Britain sailed out to New Zealand, to start new lives as farmers or doctors or teachers. It was not a crowded country, and people on farms and in small towns all knew each other. They knew each other’s family history, how much money they had, who loved whom, who hated whom…
Children, of course, must not know too much, about what adults do and think and feel. But Walter, who is only six, notices things and likes to ask questions…
The earthquake happened late on a Saturday right in summer and shook the coast, the farms, and the towns for twenty miles, from the sea to the mountains. At the Blakiston home, everybody had gone to bed and was asleep, but the shake woke Mr Blakiston immediately. When it was over, he sat up in bed, lit his candle, and looked about him at the walls and ceiling. He could not see any damage, although the quake had been strong and had shaken the house from side to side for a moment or two.
‘Are you all right?’ Mr Blakiston asked his wife, who was now awake beside him.
‘Yes, dear, but do go and see if Walter is awake. He may be frightened.’ She had been frightened herself, waking from a dream of ships on the sea.
Her husband rested on one elbow, staring at the candle and listening for sounds from his son’s room. Walter was six and had his own room near the top of the stairs.
‘He must be all right,’ said Mr Blakiston, hearing no sound in the house. He blew out the candle and lay back beside his wife. ‘Still, that was a bad little quake. Yes, a damn bad little quake.’ Soon he was asleep again.
In the morning, they found little damage outside, except for the old washhouse chimney, out at the back, which had fallen onto the washhouse roof. But inside the house a thin china vase had fallen onto the floor and broken. At breakfast time, Mr Blakiston brought the pieces of the vase to the table, to show his wife and son.
‘English china,’ he explained to the boy. ‘Very fine too. See that letter D? That’s for Doulton, the people who made it.’ But Walter was more interested in the earthquake. ‘Did the whole house shake?’ he asked his father.
‘Shook, yes, and went up and down a bit.’
‘Do you think it shook down any houses that we know?’ ‘Not many – maybe a few ceilings and chimneys.’
Walter ate his breakfast. ‘I’d like to see an earthquake,’ he said. ‘I’d like to see houses falling down, and all the people inside them getting frightened.’
‘Walter,’ said his mother, ‘you shouldn’t say things like that. It’s very unkind. You should think first.’
‘I did think first,’ said Walter softly, to his plate.
‘What did you say?’ asked his mother. ‘Speak clearly.’
‘I only said I’m sorry I didn’t wake up in the earthquake.’
That day was a Sunday. Mr Blakiston was a farmer, and although there is work to do on a farm every day of the week, he usually spent Sundays in and around the farm buildings near the house, resting himself. Every fourth Sunday the family went to church in the town down in the valley. But today Mr Blakiston, with Walter’s help, began to clear the bricks from the roof of the wash-house, where the chimney had fallen.
Walter always asked questions when he worked with his father. ‘Do earthquakes happen in England?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ said Mr Blakiston, ‘But not often.’ He was enjoying the work, and found Walter’s questions a little boring. The broken vase made him think about England, the Old Country, and he wanted to think in silence.
He had had his farm in New Zealand for nearly twenty years, but he still thought of England as home. Colonial life was freer, and he liked it better, but it was not as English now as it used to be. Life was changing in this young country, and he was changing with it.
Now, as he threw the bricks from the roof down to the ground, he knew that he would never go back to England. He was a colonial farmer for life. Time had decided this for him, and he felt pleased.
‘Can I drive to town with Mum in the morning?’ asked Walter.
‘Yes, if you want to. Now climb down and put those bricks tidily by the wall.’
Next morning at eleven o’clock, Mr Blakiston brought the horse and gig to the front door. Every fine weekday morning at eleven Mrs Blakiston drove to the town four miles away to get the post and the newspaper and to shop at the store. Summer or winter, she wore a flat grey hat and long gloves.
On this Monday morning, Walter went with her. They drove past wide flat fields of hot yellow grass, burnt by the sun, until they came to the town. Mrs Blakiston stopped the gig by the verandah of Lakin’s General Store.
‘Can I go in?’ asked Walter, getting ready to jump down.
‘Mr Lakin will be out in a moment,’ said his mother. She opened her purse and found her shopping list. ‘We’ll wait till he comes.’
Soon Mr Lakin came out from the shop door. He held his hand above his eyes to keep off the bright sun and looked up at the gig. ‘Good to see you’re all right after the quake, Mrs Blakiston,’ he said, in his high thin voice.
‘I’m very well, Mr Lakin, but it did frighten us a little, so late at night. Did you have any damage?’
‘I slept through it, myself. But I found a few broken bottles on the floor yesterday morning.’
Mrs Blakiston gave Mr Lakin her shopping list.
‘Have you heard about old Mrs Duncaster?’ he asked.
‘Heard about her?’ Mrs Blakiston was not sure.
‘The quake brought the ceiling down on her. She died of shock, they say, early yesterday.’
‘Oh, but what a terrible thing, Mr Lakin-‘ said Mrs Blakiston. ‘I had no idea -‘
‘Well, it was a sudden end,’ Mr Lakin said. ‘I thought I should tell you,’ he added. ‘I don’t like my old customers dying.’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Blakiston. ‘Thank you, Mr Lakin. I hadn’t heard about it, of course. I’ll go and visit her daughter this morning.’
Mr Lakin went to fetch Mrs Blakiston’s shopping.
‘The Mrs Duncaster, who is dead,’ said Walter, ‘is she the old lady I know?’
‘Yes,’ said his mother. ‘I’d no idea,’ she added quietly to herself. ‘Of course it was Sunday yesterday, so we didn’t hear.’
‘Did the roof fall right on her face in bed?’
‘I don’t know, Walter. Don’t ask silly questions. You heard what Mr Lakin said.’
‘I think when there’s an earthquake you should get right under the blankets. Then the ceiling won’t hurt you.’
‘She was very old. It’s very sad that she’s dead,’ said Mrs Blakiston. She pulled Walter’s sunhat down to his eyes, and made him sit up straight on the hot seat of the gig.
‘Are we going to visit Miss Duncaster?’ he asked.
‘Yes, we must go and see her. She loved her mother very much.’
After Mr Lakin had put the shopping in the back of the gig, Mrs Blakiston drove up the street to the post office to get the post and the newspaper. She then drove to the north end of the town, where the Duncaster lived.
A row of trees hid the little low house from the road. Behind the trees, long wild grass, burnt almost red by the sun, grew up to the verandah.
‘There’s somebody here already,’ said Walter. A dark brown horse stood by the verandah, tied to one of the posts.
It was a farmer’s horse, a working horse.
Mrs Blakiston looked at the horse for a moment, then, carefully holding her long skirt, she got down from the gig and knocked at the door. She knocked twice, in the hot summer silence, before the door was opened by a tall woman in a dark grey dress.
Walter watched his mother kiss Miss Duncaster. He had hoped to see Miss Duncaster crying for a mother killed in an earthquake. Bur he was sorry to see that Annie Duncaster’s light blue eyes and pink face looked just the same as usual.
‘You must come in and have tea,’ said Miss Duncaster’s deep voice to his mother. ‘And Walter with you. Please, please do. I’d like it.’
‘But you have a visitor already,’ said Mrs Blakiston.
Miss Duncaster looked quickly at the horse tied to the verandah. ‘Nobody’s here,’ she said. ‘Nobody at all. Please come in.’
So Mrs Blakiston put the gig under the trees, tied up the horse, and took Walter with her into the house. ‘You must be quiet,’ she whispered to Walter, ‘and not ask questions.’
Inside the house, it was dark and smelt cool after the hot morning. The little room behind the verandah was full of china and books, but the most interesting thing to Walter was a great creamy-white egg in a corner. It was bigger than his hands. When Miss Duncaster had brought in the tea, he sat down to stare at the wonderful egg while his mother talked.
‘I’ve only just heard about your mother, Annie,’ said Mrs Blakiston. ‘I’m so very sorry.’
‘Mother hated earthquakes,’ Miss Duncaster said calmly. ‘We had a bad one here, you know, just after father and she had first come from England. She had always been frightened of them since then.’
‘They frighten me too. Did your mother die suddenly?’
‘A little of the ceiling fell, you know, in her room. I got her out of bed and into a chair and ran downstairs to make her a cup of tea. When I got back, she was dead.’ Miss Duncaster put down her cup and stared out of the window. ‘It was all a great shock. The earthquake itself and then my mother dead.’ ‘I slept all through the earthquake,’ said Walter, ‘didn’t I, Mum?’
‘Yes, dear, luckily,’ said his mother.
Miss Duncaster, who had begun to cry a little, suddenly seemed happier and said, ‘Of course, my mother was no longer a young woman. But even at sixty, people like to live. And she had had a wonderful life. Young people like me can’t hope for nearly so much.’
‘Yes, Annie, I know,’ said Mrs Blakiston, who also knew that old Mrs Duncaster had been at least seventy and that her daughter was at least thirty-five. ‘It is hard for you, on your own now,’ she added.
Miss Duncaster got up. ‘Oh, thank you, thank you. But I won’t let myself be lonely.’ She looked quickly out of the window, then moved to the door. ‘I’d like you to come and see my mother now,’ she said. ‘She’s lying upstairs in father’s old room. She looks beautiful.’
‘Yes, of course I’ll come up,’ said Mrs Blakiston. ‘Walter, you stay down here for a few minutes.’
‘Oh, but I want Walter to see her too,’ said Miss Duncaster. ‘She always loved children, you know.’
The stairs were very narrow and dark, and the air was warm up under the roof.
‘In here,’ said Miss Duncaster, opening a door.
The small bedroom was full of dark furniture and had a window in the roof. The bed was against the wall by the door, and on the bed, covered by a sheet up to her neck, lay the dead Mrs Duncaster. Walter was surprised; the round creamy-white face was like the big egg downstairs, he thought, but somebody had given it a nose and a mouth and put a hard line down each side. He hadn’t remembered that old Mrs Duncaster looked so serious; she had always laughed at him and given him sweets.
On a table by the bed, there was a vase full of green leaves and large open milky flowers that gave out a strong smell.
‘Magnolias,’ said Mrs Blakiston gently, her head on one side. She loved flowers. ‘Beautiful,’ she added.
‘I picked them from the garden,’ said Miss Duncaster. ‘Mother planted the tree when I was born. It has grown up with me. I felt she’d like to have the flowers beside her now.’ ‘Yes,’ said Mrs Blakiston, ‘yes, Annie, of course.’
Walter turned away to look at a box made of dark shiny wood on the floor by the window.
‘That belonged to my father,’ explained Miss Duncaster. ‘He was a doctor, you know – the first doctor in this town. All his doctor’s things are in that box.’
‘Did he come from England?’ asked Walter.
‘A long time ago, in a sailing ship, with my mother. Mother missed England all her life, but she didn’t go back, even when father died.’
At that moment, Walter noticed old Mrs Duncaster’s hand on the side of the bed, lying just under the edge of the sheet. The hand held a book with something in gold on the cover. ‘What’s that?’ he asked.
‘My mother’s Bible,’ said Miss Duncaster.
‘No, I meant the gold thing on the cover-‘
‘Oh, that’s my mother’s family crest. Yes, that meant a lot to her.’ Miss Duncaster sighed, then added, to Walter’s mother: ‘She came from a very old, important English family, you know. I never knew any of them, of course. They meant nothing to me.’ She pulled the sheet over the dead hand and straightened the magnolias in their vase. ‘I’m a colonial,’ she said. ‘My life is here, in this country.’
Soon they went downstairs. ‘Walter and I must go home now, Annie,’ said Mrs Blakiston.
‘You have been so kind,’ said Miss Duncaster. She looked around the room for something to give them. ‘Wait now and I’ll cut you some magnolias from the garden.’
The big magnolia tree grew at the back of the house. Its dark leaves shone in the sun, and the white flowers were like sea birds high up in the branches. While Mrs Blakiston and Walter stood and watched, Miss Duncaster jumped up to reach the branches. She pulled them down and broke off the creamy flowers, careful not to damage them.
‘They go brown so easily,’ she explained. She laughed, her face pink and untidy, as she gave the flowers to Walter. ‘He’s surprised that I can jump so high,’ she said to Mrs Blakiston, laughing again, this time at the boy’s face.
‘I only jump up like that when I’m really really happy,’ said Walter. ‘Don’t I, Mum? I can jump damn high.’
‘What did I hear you say, Walter?’
He had learnt the bad word from his father. ‘I can jump as high as the sky,’ he said softly.
They walked round to the front of the house. While Mrs Blakiston went to get the gig, Walter waited with Miss Duncaster. He looked around and saw that the brown riding horse was no longer tied to the verandah.
‘Where’s the horse gone?’ he asked.
‘What a funny boy you are,’ said Miss Duncaster. ‘What horse?’
Walter pointed with the magnolias that he was holding. ‘It was over by the verandah,’ he said. ‘We saw it.’
Miss Duncaster bent down and hit him on the arm with her open hand. ‘You’re damaging the flowers,’ she said in a quick, angry voice. ‘There was no horse.’
Mrs Blakiston drove up with the gig. ‘Come on, Walter. Say goodbye nicely to Miss Duncaster.’
On the way home with his mother Walter said, ‘I didn’t ask too many questions, did I?’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ said his mother, but she did not sound very sure.
‘Then why did she hit me?’
‘I don t believe she did. It’s just one of your stories.’
That evening, when Mr Blakiston came in from the farm for his tea, he saw the big bowl of magnolias in the middle of the table.
‘Not ours are they?’ he asked.
‘No.’ His wife told him of their morning visit to the Duncaster’s and of Mrs Duncaster’s death in the earthquake. While she talked, she picked up pieces of the china vase that had broken in the earthquake and put them together with glue. Walter, his own meal finished, watched her and listened to her talking.
‘Of course, it’s terrible for Annie, alone in that old house,’ he heard her say to his father, ‘but she seemed very brave about it.’
Brave? Mr Blakiston said. ‘She’s probably damn pleased about it. For ten years and more, she’s been shut in that house taking care of that old woman. She’ll have a chance to marry now.’
‘I don t think she’s the kind of woman who gets married.’
‘Don’t you believe it. I hear more than you do,’ said Mr Blakiston.
‘Does Joe Sleaver ride a dark brown horse?’ Walter asked suddenly.
Mr Blakiston looked surprised. He took his pipe from between his lips and studied it before he answered. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I think he does.’
Walter, warned Mrs Blakiston, ‘you remember what I said to you today, about not asking questions, don’t you?’
‘I only meant-‘ began Walter, and stopped.
‘What’s this about? What are you two talking about?’ said Mr Blakiston. ‘Why shouldn’t Joe Sleaver ride a brown horse if he wants to?’
‘Walter thinks that he saw a dark brown horse tied to the Duncaster’s’ verandah this morning,’ explained his mother.
‘I did see it,’ cried Walter. ‘Mum saw it too!’
His father and mother looked at each other. Then, with his pipe in his mouth, Mr Blakiston reached forward and picked up a piece of the china vase. ‘Well,’ he said, smiling as he spoke, ‘well, we don’t have earthquakes every night.’
‘I did see the horse,’ Walter said again. Why did his parents want to stop him finding things out? All older people were the same. ‘I did see the horse.’
‘Of course, you saw the damn horse!’ said his father suddenly. ‘Be quiet about it, that’s all.’ To his wife he said, more quietly, ‘I was thinking yesterday, you know, I shall probably never go back to the Old Country. It’s too far away now, too long ago.’