By Majella Cullinane
When I can no longer see tree shadows on the wall I’ll know then I’m blind. For nearly a year I’ve watched them, leaves swaying on the Eucalyptus like dancers I saw in Egypt once. In my eyes darkness grows like a deepening murk, as if I were swimming beneath the sea on an unsettled day and the water is a grey-green tangle of waves. I can just about make out where I am, but the precise details of what I see around me are indistinct, ill-defined. No matter. I know this island well, its curving shores bind me in my dreams. I know the number of steps it takes to reach the dormitory from the common room, from the common room to the parade ground, from the parade ground to the hospital. Each morning I open the door, and the hinges creak. The duty guard sleeps. On the rare occasions I accidentally wake him he doesn’t mind me. It’s not a prison, or so they tell us.
I like to walk early, to leave the sleeping men to their dreams. At half past four there’s not a soul up. I creep past the macrocarpas and the keeper’s house, past the chickens and the sheep, and up onto the parade ground. It’s the flattest part of the island and big enough for drills. We must be kept occupied, reminded that we are still soldiers. The sheep like to gather here at night and sleep. I hear them stir now as I approach. Do they think me a wild dog, a fox come all the way from England to eat them? I utter no words of comfort or dismissal as I walk past. I stand with my hands tucked into the pockets of my great coat. My feet are warm for a change. I look to the sky and its blackness is as deep as I’ve ever seen it. I can no longer see the stars.
I thought Finucane a dreamer from the first day he arrived on the island last winter. We watched Forester, the C.O, salute him as he disembarked Peterson’s boat. Salute him as if he were serving in a real army, and not sent to recover with a disease-ridden bunch of no-hopers. His salute was half-hearted at best, and before following Forester up the hill, he stopped and looked at the small bay opposite the jetty. Carved and hollowed by the sea, the rock was a sodden mauve and ochre, flecked above the tide line with moss and lichen. I liked to imagine a small boat tied up there for fishing, that this island was part of an archipelago, where the peninsula was not attached to the mainland, but rather another island, with rusted old hulks and barges washed up around its rocky shore. Forester had turned then and looked for the new arrival, perhaps concerned he had thrown himself into the sea. When he discovered him still standing at the end of the jetty captivated, like a child who’d never seen the sea before, he bellowed his name, Private Finucane, and we all laughed.
A couple of weeks later I was having a smoke outside the common room, and said hello. I offered him a cigarette. He thanked me, called me Sir, but declined. I asked him what his hurry was, had he a boat to catch, and he smiled, scratched his jaw. One of his front teeth was missing. Get into a fight I asked, and he dawdled, uneasy, his eyes cast towards his feet. I was about to say half the island were as toothless as old hags, that it was one of the many side effects of the treatment, but he’d already walked away. I wondered about his reserve. Apart from Forester, rank didn’t count for very much here. Perhaps the other men had warned him against me.
After lunch he liked to relax under one of the old macrocarpas near the hospital. Casual as you like, a man who might have been out for a picnic, or waiting for his sweetheart. Like he belonged here, like one of the many spoonbills roosting on the Ngaio trees, gazing towards the mainland at twilight. One day he was leaning against the trunk and said “Good Afternoon Sir.” He asked me how I was. The only person I could answer this question truthfully to was Dr. Munro, so I said I was fine. He was writing a letter, but he wasn’t much good at it he said. He had light blue eyes and his cheeks were red like his nose, and if it hadn’t been winter I might have thought he was sunburnt. There was the lightest down of hair on his upper lip, and his skin was fair and freckled; his hair a kind of coppery blonde. He couldn’t have been more than twenty. He enquired after my family, if they were well? I didn’t say I didn’t know nor that they wouldn’t care. Anyway, I doubted if anyone knew where we were, and it was unlikely any letters were ever posted. I said they were fine. He was quiet for a moment, and then asked me if I knew how to spell latrine and I laughed. And he laughed too, and I thought how odd we must have looked, two gummy soldiers laughing about a latrine. He was trying to describe the facilities he said. And I couldn’t help it, but that made me laugh harder. And he laughed as well, so much so that the letter fell from his hands, and into the wind. He jumped up and tried to catch it as it was swept across the grass and towards the parade ground. It was I who finally caught up with it, and while the wet grass had stained the paper a little I couldn’t help but notice the handwriting was remarkable. I struggled not to stare at it. When I told him how beautiful it was his cheeks flushed redder. He said his mother’s father had come out from Ireland to the Central Plateau, and had taught him Gaelic script. Just like the old monks his grandfather had said, and he’d really taken to it. This place wasn’t so different from a monastery I’d often thought. Seventy men or so in small quarters, three bunks high, our day regimented by meals and drills, by what Forester stressed was our duty to “maintain military standards.” The worst cases like myself in and out of hospital for treatment. I returned the letter to him and spelled out latrine before leaving him to his writing.
At night the hospital is quiet. No Sergeant Jeffers to tell jokes before sleep like in the soldier’s quarters. No unison of laughter. No voices quietening as the room grows sleepy. I have never found it easy to sleep. Although my mother insisted I was a wonderful sleeper as a child. I don’t remember. All I know is from the time I went to boarding school I found it difficult to get to sleep. Like many insomniacs, to distract myself I listen to sounds – a particular snore or breath, the rattle of the window on a windy night, how the cold air claws its way through the wooden planks of the wall. I can’t help but wonder about all the people who have slept here since the island’s time as a quarantine station. All those dreams, all those breaths inhaled and exhaled, all those bodies like mine tossing and turning on hard mattresses, trying to find a comfortable position so they might quieten their mind and sleep. A place where they might hold onto the promise of beginning in the New World for one more day. That new beginning achingly close. Barely a mile to the mainland, but having to wait. Like I wait. Then I drift off, not so much to sleep, but rather as if I were picking up and laying down the threads of dreams like tapestry. I often think if we combined all the dreams of the island what a strange story they would tell, the stitches of the past bleeding into the present as they have always done.
I usually arrived first to the dining hall each morning. I’d hear Lyall the cook busy preparing porridge, which would be doled out by his assistant Private Dillard directly after morning drill at eight. A viscous kind of gunk like the gruel Oliver Twist was served up I imagined, and with salt and sugar severely rationed it was barely palatable. I was reading from a volume of poetry when I heard a sound from the common room like a repetitive scratching. At first I thought it was a rat, and as I’m not particularly fond of rodents, I walked slowly into the hall. The common room door was open. I peered in and saw the back of a soldier, his arm moving vigorously as he scraped creosote from the chimney flue. It wasn’t until he lost his footing slightly and had to lean his hand on the floor, cursing the black stain it made, that I realised it was Private Finucane. I didn’t say anything until he turned to me, his face an outward expression of the question I was about to ask – what on earth are you doing? But rather than answer he slapped his hands together, and wiped them on a cloth hanging from his pocket. I’ll have to give the floor a scrub now Sir he said. When I asked if he’d lost something he said no, he was gathering creosote to make ink. Ink, from the coal bucket I asked. I know it must look strange he said, but it gives me something to do. As he scrubbed away the stain with some hot water, I listened as he told me about how he made ink and quills. His grandfather used black walnuts, but there weren’t any available on the island, so he sometimes took the creosote from a lamp, but mostly from the fireplace. He then mixed it with honey, which given the keeper’s many hives, was perhaps the one thing that was in abundance on the island. Then it was as simple as adding a drop of water at a time until the liquid was the right consistency. The best feathers for quills were duck or geese, but turkey feathers also worked well. What he didn’t tell me then, but which I already knew for there were few secrets here, was that he’d been reprimanded a month or so after he’d arrived for wandering too close to the chicken and duck coops at the keeper’s house. Apparently he’d got so close, he’d startled the keeper’s young daughter. The family weren’t allowed on our part of the island just as we were forbidden from going anywhere near their house. Forester had punished Finucane with solitary confinement, and bread and water for three days. So now he scoured the island looking for the cast off feathers of seagulls and harrier hawks he said. He didn’t seem to care that Forester would probably confine him again for missing that morning’s drill. It was only because of Dr. Munro’s recommendation that I myself was excluded.
He offered to show me how to make ink and fashion a quill. I didn’t tell him I had stopped writing letters some time ago but rather, before the men arrived for breakfast, I followed him to the macrocarpa he’d more or less claimed as his own. He took a small box from his satchel, inside which were half a dozen or so feathers. He chose one, stroked it with his index finger and thumb, and then taking a small pen knife from his inside pocket, he cut the quill, shortened the plume, and stripped away the barb. He removed any membrane inside the feather using a piece of thin wire. To nib the pen, he thinned the tip by scraping it at an angle on either side of the slit, and then it was ready. He asked me to hold the quill while he started on another, but just as he was about to strip the barb, Forester’s underling Sergeant Robinson arrived, hollering Finucane’s name, telling him the C.O was looking for him, that he was to report to his office immediately. He stood up, and packed away his things carefully while the sergeant looked at me with disdain. The quill, I started, as they walked away, I still have the quill, but when Finucane turned, Robinson grabbed him roughly by the arm and pushed him forward.
It was a hard winter that year. Peterson the boatman told us that most of the South Island was knee-deep in snow. On the radio they warned motorists and cyclists of black ice on the roads. Come the end of August it seemed as though winter would never let up, southwesters ripped through the quarters and hospital, and despite the fire burning all day it was impossible to stay warm. Forester marched the men harder, as though their stomping feet might send the wind back to the Antarctic. Still Finucane provoked his ire by turning up late for drills, or not at all. One night he went missing, and was found the next day in some bush not far from the old graveyard. He’d spent the week before fashioning himself a kind of makeshift shelter from fern fronds and mānuka branches. When I asked him what on earth possessed him, wouldn’t he rather be tucked up in his bed inside, he smiled and told me that growing up in the shadow of Ruapehu he was accustomed to big snows and cold. There were days when the ground was as white as the horizon, and the only way of finding a lost lamb was through keen listening and persistence. Though the winds could shift between morning and evening, bringing sharp Antarctic chills, there was never any snow on the island, only on the hills of the peninsula, and perhaps it was this Finucane missed. If we were neither prisoners, nor in his view, proper soldiers he had told Forester, what did it matter where we slept. That insolence, as the C.O. called it, got him another three days in solitary.
I was taking a short walk near the hospital a week later with my binoculars. I wasn’t what you’d call a birdwatcher, more of an unabashed snoop perhaps. Truthfully, I liked how the binocular lenses reduced the mainland into one small section of green or grey, as if everything else on the periphery were insignificant. I spotted Finucane’s bright hair. He was standing alone at the western bay, looking out to sea, and occasionally picking up lose rocks and casting them out over the water. The day was unusually calm for late August. The sea resembled a lake, and the water easing towards him was a mere ripple. I wondered if he felt as I did sometimes – that every tide, every seesaw ebb and flow of foam took something from him, drained him of the past. And was the past any great thing to hold onto? His back was to me, and when he crouched down I could see his hands dip into a small pool of sea water. He cupped the water in his hands and splashed some on his face. He stood up then and turned around, looked towards the hill. I lowered my binoculars and took cover behind a tree, which was silly really for I doubt he could have seen me, and even if he had, I was just looking towards the mainland. Where was the harm in that?
I suspected Nurse Bransford addressed me as Professor Barnes because Dr. Munro had told her to, for it was only she, and the kindly old doctor who used my title from before the war. I had a check-up each week. Apparently I was a rather odd patient, or at least this is what Munro told me, for I was one of the rare cases that hadn’t responded to treatment at all.
It was towards the end of September that upon my arrival at the clinic Nurse Bransford announced that Munro was on leave, and it would be Dr. Phillips who would examine me instead. Dr. John Phillips, a balding man in his late forties had broken capillaries around his nose, which gave him the appearance of a man who liked his tipple too much. Though he’d examined me before, he behaved as if he’d never met me in his life. As on the previous occasion he listed my symptoms in a deadpan manner, with an accent I guessed was Northern English. Visual impairment, particularly of the right eye, lesions on the torso and arms, frequent sores and rashes, chancroid, dizziness, tremors, hair loss, tooth loss, severe nausea post injection. As on my prior visit he winced when he read, silently as he had then too, of the origin of the disease on my body. I imagine if he could have worn two pairs of surgical gloves as he administered the injection he would have. He flinched when I expressed discomfort. He made no attempt at small talk as Dr. Munro did. The Scotsman liked to discuss my area of expertise, the Classics, and how he particularly enjoyed Ovid. He’d even asked me that if I could metamorphose into anything what it would be? He’d chuckled when I’d said a boat so I could get off the bloody island.
Dr. Phillips concluded my examination by saying that if my condition were to continue to decline, Dr. Munro would have to consider moving me to a mainland hospital. So I wouldn’t need to change myself into a boat after all I thought, but said nothing as he called on Nurse Bransford to show me out.
Despite having lost nearly all his front teeth, Finucane couldn’t help smiling. In fact, the young man was beaming, his face more flushed than usual, his hair, which had grown out somewhat, was a bright amber in the morning light. He clutched a few letters in his hand, and asked if he could join me at breakfast. See Major Barnes, Sir, he said, I told you it was worth writing. He showed me the envelopes with the neat Gaelic script I guessed was his grandfather’s, and which addressed him as Private Michael Finucane. Good news comes in threes his grandfather had always told him. That morning Munro had said his treatment had been a great success, and that in a fortnight he should be able to take home leave before returning to the Front. I didn’t tell him that the letters and his improved health only meant two pieces of good news. He’d been training in North Africa less than two months when he’d contracted the disease, so as far as he was concerned he hadn’t seen any real action. There were things men had to discover for themselves, and it wasn’t for me to spoil his happiness. So I congratulated him, and asked if he might have some spare ink and quills that I could use, that perhaps I would start writing letters after all. He smiled and told me that he’d be sure to get me some by the end of the day, and true to his word he did.
As paper was rationed like everything else, I had to find a way of procuring a decent supply in a short time. I was lying in my hospital bed one morning, watching the Eucalyptus tree outside my window when it struck me where I could find some more, assuming of course no other genius had thought of it first. I waited until the men were at drill and went to the only book case on the island, the library if you could call it that, which comprised of precisely one hundred and twenty-nine books, and fifty-seven journals. Despite my illness I did my best to keep up with my duties as the island’s sole librarian. As it turned out only about a half the men took any interest in reading. Most preferred playing rugby or cards.
I scoured each book in search of end pages, which were in various degrees of wear and tear, some more yellowed than others, some already scribbled on. The next task made me slightly uneasy, but I told myself that I wasn’t really defacing the books themselves just the marginalia. Selecting books with the cleanest endnotes, I cut along the spine until I had some thirty pages gathered together, just enough to make a booklet. I returned the books to their shelves, and thought it unlikely that anyone would notice.
I was never very sure of my handwriting. I knew it to be legible, but nothing as beautiful as Finucane’s script. The intermittent tremors in my right hand made writing a slow business, not to mention the quill which felt odd between my finger and thumb. I realised early on that it was essential to allow the ink to dry on each word before proceeding. Holding the magnifying glass to my one reasonably good eye caused my left arm to ache. By the end of an hour my eyes throbbed and I had to rest. I imagined those Irish monks Finucane’s grandfather had told him about, how they must have strained to maintain the acuity of their work, these scribes whose shoulders and backs must have been warped like the old hulls dotted around Falmouth where I grew up. Men who would have spent hours each day, and perhaps into the long evenings with only candlelight and the pungent smell of tallow to illuminate their parchment. While they copied from other manuscripts and books, I was attempting to recall verses from memory in Latin, and then translate them into English. The regular intervals between writing and rest helped stir my memory: Once did I pass my hours in sloth and ease, cool shades and beds of down could only please. By the end of the evening my hands were covered in black ink, the tips of my forefinger and thumb sore from writing. And strangely during those days I slept better than I had for years. I slept as those monks must have in their beds beneath the earth. And each night I recalled the story Finucane told me his grandfather had recounted to him once, of an Irish monk who had scribbled a few lines on the page of a medieval text: I am very cold without fire or covering...The robin is singing gloriously, and its breast is beautiful, I am all alone. Oh God, be gracious to my soul and grant me better handwriting. Oh God, be gracious to my soul and grant me better handwriting.
The night before he left I asked him if he wouldn’t mind accompanying me on a walk, that I had something I wished to give him. I explained to him that my sight was failing, and asked if I could use his arm as a support. As we approached the parade ground I could just make out the faintest yellow from his flash lamp, the smallest petal of light. Though it was now only a week to summer, the late November air was cool and fresh. I caught the scent of freshly cut pine as we walked past the hospital wood shed. I thought this is how it would be from now on, my nose and ears would do what my sight had always taken for granted, would make sense of the world for however long I remained in it.
Finucane’s grip was reassuring, the smell of carbolic soap from him, a smell that took me back to Cornwall before our family had moved to New Zealand, to Saturday night baths as a boy, to my mother humming some tune as she washed my brother Tom and I, a towel draped over her knees.
Finucane stopped in the centre of the parade ground. I heard the flick of the flash light turned off. I asked him to tell me what he saw. He said the night was clear, apart from a few clouds drifting over the peninsula to the east. So many stars Sir he said. He asked me if I knew how many stars there were. I said I had no idea, that I didn’t think anyone knew. There was no moon so the night was as black as black could be he said. I told him I’d like a smoke, and listened as he struck a match and lit the cigarette for me. He handed it to me coughing, said he didn’t know how I could stand the stuff. He was bloody cold he said, and asked if it was true I got up before dawn each morning to come out here. I told him it was. I didn’t tell him this had been the first time I couldn’t see the stars. I handed him a small parcel, and he thanked me. It wasn’t much I said, but poetry had been a great comfort to me at the Front. I apologised for my handwriting. Just like that monk I said laughing, I’m still praying for better handwriting. He laughed too, and then stomped his feet a few times and blew into his hands. A few more minutes I said. I listened to the breeze pick up, the sea air brisk on my face. I thought this is where I belonged now. In the dark. The dark where everything was sharper, clearer in its intermittent rustling and silence.
Majella Cullinane is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Practice at the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies in Otago, (South Island), New Zealand. Originally from Ireland, she is a recipient of the Sean Dunne Writer’s Award for Poetry and the Hennessy XO/Sunday Tribune Literary Award for Emerging Poetry. Her first poetry collection Guarding the Flame with Salmon Poetry, Ireland appeared in 2011. Her first novel The Life of De’Ath was recently shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize.