Bill Sutch with his wife and daughter after his trial
Another instalment of my autobiography before reverting to my normal blogs
It was an extraordinary year, but it just seemed ordinary at the time! After Bill and Shirley’s visit at the start of 1975, our family plunged into village life, which included the annual flower show, probably the most important event of the year in our valley. We were still visited regularly by our extra-terrestrial visitors, and the whole family became accustomed to their presence.
We were also visited by different members of Arthur Thomas’s family, his parents, his various brothers, his wife…all needing to chew over the cud and somehow wring some shreds of hope out of their visits, after which I usually felt totally drained.
A few weeks after the end of the summer holidays, the children and I set off for a distant country school across the ranges, where a district sports day was to be held. With both children in the back seat, we could manage one more child there, though I resolutely refused to let any child sit in the front seat by me, in these pre-seat-belt days.
So when we skidded sharply over fresh gravel on a hair pin bend with a steep drop one side, and rode up the steep bank the other side, it was only me who shot through the wind-screen when the car turned upside down. I was pinned with my arm crushed between the roof of the car and the road, but luckily all three children were able to climb out of the back, with only the petrol from the tank spilling on them as they crawled out.
Another car full of children now rounded the corner, and then another, and the farmers driving them were able to extract me. They were so concerned, that I felt anxious and quite protective towards them. I sat and thought, so this is what an accident feels like.
Later in hospital, I had a four-hour operation to get all the glass and grit out of my shattered hand. A dentist had to cut my rings off as there were shards of glass sticking out all the way down each finger. I returned home a few days later with my broken arm in a half plaster cast, and swathed in bandages for the lacerated hand and wrist.
At home, I found a certain amount of chaos. My son now lapsed into shock and wandered round the garden sucking his thumb, and holding his pillow. My daughter checked on what we expected to get from the insurance for the car which was a write-off, and began scanning the for-sale columns of the newspaper for a replacement car at the same price. Bill and Shirley were on their way to spend a weekend with us, and Patrick had been unable to track them down on their journey north, to ask them not to come.
They arrived half an hour after I did, and at the same time as the wonderful district nurse, who came to suss me out and check on my bandages. She then soaked my arm in warm salt water in a deep antique Victorian bowl, the salt water a home remedy far more helpful than anything else.
The chaos was compounded by a neighbour’s teenage daughter seeking safety in tears of fright because she said a man in a car was following her. The one thing I didn’t have to worry about was food. The whole community had rallied round and delivered pies and casseroles and cakes of every description.
Shirley bustled off to a law conference, leaving us with a very frail-seeming Bill to look after. So he was unable to rescue me when I went for a one- armed walk with the three dogs on leads, who darted into a bramble bush after an enticing smell, and dragged me in with them. There we stood until a neighbour passed by in her car, and untangled us all, the long haired afghans and cavalier King Charles spaniel!
The arm took three months to heal, and the doctors told me I’d never have the use of my hand again. But as the months went by I felt the pain and stiffness drain out of each finger while I was meditating and within months was back to normal – able to crochet, play the piano, and peel potatoes!
I only missed writing one column in the week of the accident, and immediately got back to work the second week, typing with one hand and one finger for the most part!. We couldn’t afford for me to miss my payments, as we were terribly hard up since Patrick was paying two thirds of his salary to his first family.
Our life never stopped while I coped with the aftermath of the accident, friends like John and Oi came and went, and another new friend, Richard Hirsch, came often too. Before we met him he had been director of the Auckland Art Gallery, but after much- publicised internecine struggles with the staff, he resigned and then threw himself out of the window of his apartment on the top floor.
When he came out of hospital, he had lost a leg, and on my way into the Star to deliver one of my weekly columns, I suddenly realised that this person slowly negotiating the hill down to the Auckland Star on crutches, and then making his way to the reading room, was Richard. Work in the reading room was all he could find to do after all his misfortunes.
I suggested to Patrick that he could stop on his way to the newspaper every day, and give Richard a lift, and so developed a friendship. Richard’s parents had been part of the group of rich artistic American friends who had supported the poet Kahlil Gibran, author of ‘The Prophet’ and Richard had grown up being the only focus of his doting parents, who thought he was too special and precious to go to school like ordinary mortals.
So though he passed his childhood in places like Paris and New York and Switzerland, he was deeply angry and bitter at never having had a normal childhood, and he found it hard to sustain any relationships at all, hence his problems at the art gallery.
He found some solace in his friendship with my children. Underneath his pain and rage and bitterness was a loving and gentle soul, and it leapt in recognition of those same qualities in the children. I longed for him never to move away from this essence of himself, but his deep rage and unhappiness exploded even in an innocent conversation when drying the dishes.
Inevitably Richard became the recipient of Happy Cards too, and once after my daughter had sent him a picture he wrote: “Thank you so much. There are a number of varieties of pictures. Some are pretty or merely alright. And then there are others which I call nourishing – like yours. Nourishing? Well, yes. Have you ever thought that the eyes are hungry all the time? A good meal – and you won’t feel hunger for hours. But your eyes roam all the time – hunting for patterns. Hunting for them everywhere in the room. Toys for the eyes to play with. Nobody ever talks about the games the eyes play every minute of the day… So thank you for providing such a lovely toy for the hungry eye.”
Richard died a few years later from cancer of the throat, choked, I felt, by his un-assuaged pain. But for a time I felt we gave him a little joy.
Now came Bill’s trial in this year of milestones. I couldn’t bear to read the reports of what was a sensational event in New Zealand’s history. The trial turned out to be black comedy. The charge was that Bill gave ‘unspecified information’ to the Russians, in spite of him having retired years before and having no worthwhile information. All his various appointments to talk to the Russians were written in his diary, so there was actually nothing secretive about them. And someone must have tipped off the SIS who observed every meeting with his Russian friend.
The agents were revealed as incompetents who lost dates, muffed places and times, and actually didn’t have any evidence against Bill. Their strongest card seemed to be the journey he had made across the top of the world as an adventurous young man in the early twenties, when he explored places like Tashkent, Samarkand, Afghanistan and northern India. This proved he must be a communist! (though this was not illegal in a free country like NZ !) Bill was not a communist and he was acquitted. But he didn’t recover from the ordeal of the trial. For a patriot like Bill who had spent his whole life working for his country, it had been a betrayal.
As autumn turned to winter, the nights turned cold and we awoke to frost, beautiful and sparkling in the clear bright sunshine. And now the friend I had helped to start Alcoholics Anonymous in Hong Kong, came to visit, bringing her alcoholic husband, three daughters and toddler son. They stayed for two weeks, and we had long intimate talks, family feasts, evenings dancing and laughing while my son played the piano, playing games, and showing them the beautiful country-side where we now lived.
Though I was sad to see them go, I was also exhausted from cooking for ten of us, and looking after everyone, plus the dogs, one of whom was feeling so neglected that she made her feelings known by peeing in our bed.
Oi suggested that I come and spend a restful day with her. Hardly had I arrived at her tranquil home hidden amid trees and by a stream in the prosperous Auckland suburb where she lived, than Patrick rang me from the office. He told me that my friend Phillipa’s ship was on fire, and she was in a life-boat.
I spent the day praying for my gallant friend and her children. By the end of the day it was obvious there was no hope. The next evening, I rang the hotel where Jean, her husband, was staying. I heard the recognition and relief in his voice when he heard me say who I was, and as soon as he had dealt with the aftermath of the disaster he came out to stay with us.
It was an excruciating time. He spent long hours walking through the valley, and I never see white clematis now without remembering Jean who climbed a tree and brought me back a spray.
We drove up to Whangarei for the funeral, though my daughter refused to come. ‘God will hear my prayers just as well from here,’ she said. I arranged for her to spend the day with friends. At the ceremony in the church, Jean wore his naval uniform, and with his great height, pale skin and huge black haunted eyes looked like a remote, carved stone figure, a medieval knight rather than a twentieth century sea captain.
After the ceremony, we drove to the harbour at Tutukaka, where a police launch was waiting. We piled the overpoweringly sweet-scented spring flowers from the church, which we’d brought in our car, into the cabin, and then made our way out to sea. We rounded the point and moved slowly across to Whananaki where Philippa had died. It was a sparkling winter’s day with smooth glassy water, cloudless blue sky overhead, and in the distance, the line of yellow sand on the beach where a solitary policeman stood watching and waiting.
“Here,” said Jean, and as the launch slowed to a stop we were surrounded with an exquisite fragrance. Then the door from the cabin was opened and the church flowers were brought out. We caught our breath – they had a different perfume to the other- worldly fragrance which had been surrounding us … was it the Presence of Love, or Philippa – it has always been an unsolved riddle…
Now, deep in his pain, Jean slowly tossed the flowers overboard as he said his last goodbyes to those he loved. With great courtesy, he gently gave the last bouquet to the only child there – my son – to throw into the sea. This ritual with the flowers was an old Breton custom in the fishing community Jean came from on the other side of the world.
Back in our country home, Jean continued to visit until he left New Zealand. We didn’t tell him we were about to celebrate our marriage – it seemed too cruel. And when we wrote to invite Bill and Shirley, Shirley replied saying that Bill was dying from cancer of the liver, and had only another week to live. He died after he had held his new born grandson in his arms.
A week or so later Patrick and I married in a quiet Anglican church not far away. I felt the absence of our cherished friends, but we now began a new chapter of our lives, in which the plight of Arthur Thomas continued to dominate, and into which was added a dreadful new dimension of drug-runners, and their threats and dangerous actions which dogged us during these years of drama and derring-do.
To be continued
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Sometimes I want a quick refreshing pudding and this one made with fresh oranges is the answer. Allow two or three oranges for each person. Peel, cut in half and then thinly slice across the fruit. Pile into a glass bowl and pour over a glass of wine and four heaped table spoons of caster sugar. Leave in the fridge until needed. Then spoon into small glass bowls and top with a dollop of whipped cream.
Food for Thought
Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print. Barbara Tuchman historian