After Z Hour, by Elizabeth Knox
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The first new edition since 1987 of the prize-winning debut novel by the acclaimed author of The Vintner’s Luck, Wake, and other New Zealand classics.
First published on Armistice Day 1987, After Z-Hour was acclaimed by reviewers including Margaret Mahy and Keri Hulme, and won the PEN Award for Best First Book of Prose.
Stranded by a South Island storm, six people usurp the stillness of an old house. As they tell the fragments of their story, a seventh voice responds: a young New Zealand serviceman who died in 1920 soon after his return from France. As the storm deepens, the hauntings of the mind and the hauntings of the house become one.
From: After Z Hour, by Elizabeth Knox
Chapter 1: Jill
When the storm broke I had just passed the summit of the Hill. The road dipped down, narrowed, and cut into the side of the Hill. I’d been driving with my windows open and the sound of my tyres hissing on tarseal dampened by earlier showers seemed a thin shell between my car and a great expectant silence. Dusk was thickening and the pasture had gone a dull khaki, as though it lay under the red-tinged shadow of smoke, rather than cloud. The air was dense and still.
For months I had felt I was in flight, but in that moment before the storm’s first salvo I had the sensation of being overtaken, and overwhelmed, by pursuers as swift, lethal and nebulous as a swarm of bees. One minute my wheels were rolling and the white strokes of the median strip falling behind me like marked-off seconds, the next I was engulfed in a pause; the air went as solid as a caught breath, and a smell like a hot-plate—a clean, metallic tang—filled my head.
In that pause I understood that, though I’d been running, I hadn’t got away—from my husband’s house, the farm, the tidy, collected time following disaster; from the sounds longing would conjure, of a chair creaking in a empty room, as if someone was stirring and was getting up to come through to ask a question, or fix a snack, or switch on the TV; from the sensation longing would conjure, of a person stepping out of my way as I entered a room, as if my presence displaced possibilities in passing from room to room—because every room was empty. I’d performed all the ceremonies of getting away. I’d packed my bags, and left a few final instructions for the neighbour who was to mind the farm. I’d taken leave of my cat, Shackleton, held him as I stood by the window of my tidy kitchen, my nose buried in his fur and its scent of dry earth and decaying leaves. My sister had said, ‘Come and stay and take stock.’ So here I was, in flight, partway between the farm, where there was nothing left for me to do, and my sister’s house, where I’d be expected to show some sign that I was ‘putting it all behind me’, not in my good own time, but at the convenience of those who had undertaken to look after me.
Then time stopped, and I wasn’t in flight, I was falling. Falling under the utmost power of gravity, but with freefall’s illusion of weightless suspension in space. In that pause I hung suspended, it seemed, between negative and positive time, the seconds around the silence counting, minus one, zero, one—
And then the storm broke. An immense, vital entity touched a finger to the Hill’s summit, and the road ahead was obliterated by light. Thunder tumbled over my car like a rockfall. There was a sudden downpour of heavy rain, and, as my car rounded a left-hand curve, I saw the way ahead blocked by a mass of yellow earth. I braked, my car slithering, rear end fish-tailing. Its right flank gently kissed the crash barrier, then it slewed around and struck the slip at an angle. The front wheels reared up over the heaped earth, its undercarriage ground across rubble, the steering wheel jerked out of my hands—then the drive wheels hit the tacky clay, sank in and stuck. My car came to an abrupt stop, and its engine stalled.
For a moment the only sounds were my own gasping breath, the engine’s metal ticking cool, and the whispered commentary of the rain. Then I began pounding on the horn, as though the slip was a herd of sheep blocking the road. After several seconds the noise began to scare me, so I stopped—just sat and cried; bawled as I hadn’t done for years, hitting the dashboard, competing with a storm, stalled on an empty road.
When my tears had subsided to a few hiccupping sobs, I decided to try the engine. It started. I put the car into reverse and lurched backwards. The wheels slipped and spun in the mud. It wouldn’t budge. I switched off the engine, got out, and was within a few moments nearly wet through.
Since there was nothing else to do—and I had to be doing something—I started back up the slope. Perhaps I might spot the lights of another car. A membrane of silt, flowing from a flooded ditch made the surface of the tarseal slippery. My hair hung in dripping strands against the cold flesh of my cheeks, and water trickled down my neck under my jersey. A wind was coming up, mixing with the rain, striking my body at one angle, then another, in brief, freezing gusts.
I stopped at the corner and peered along the road. The thick stand of beech trees I’d just passed through was only a smudge on the grey-on-grey silhouette of the ridge. Back down the slope my car, a bright yellow Toyota, which I had always considered highly visible, was, through the rain, only a slightly sunny blur. Any vehicle coming down the road would run into it. I should have left its lights on.
I began to hurry back. Water pouring down the slope washed around my ankles, and I stumbled as I walked. My skin was so cold it felt burned. As I hurried I noticed that the slip had scooped a cavern out of the bank, and above the gouge a crumbling overhang of mud and boulders threatened my car. I was so busy looking at this that I wasn’t watching my feet. I slipped and fell, jarring my knees and grazing my palms on the road’s gritty surface. I got up, and watched blood spring up in stinging stitches, and then form webs on my wet hands. I picked my way gingerly back to the car, got in and wound up the windows to inhibit the sound of the rain and sight of the threatening slip. I turned on the lights and the heat. My clothes became clammy as I warmed. The windows fogged over, sealing me off behind misted glass from the sight of the rain clawing my skewed car.
My stepdaughter Nicky’s funeral had been held in a crematorium chapel, a room panelled in pine and hung with mustard-coloured curtains. A Presbyterian minister in a purple suit read the service, saying that we must all think fondly of her: ‘I didn’t know Nichola well, but I’m told she was a good girl and well loved—’
I had come out onto the porch of the farmhouse to find her trying to crease the crown of my old straw sunhat. ‘I’m playing rodeos,’ she told me. And I knew she was copying a TV movie we’d seen, about women rodeo riders. She set the hat on her head and straddled the rail of the porch, incongruous in her peacock-blue bikini with her little pot-belly. I laughed and went inside. Shortly after that she found a rope, and walked out over the field to her pet bobby calf. She slipped the noose over his head and tried to make him come to her. Then, to look the part I guess, she tied the rope around her waist. The calf, for some reason, bolted—dragging Nicky out of the paddock and along the driveway.
Well loved. Lying in an undersized coffin, in a room full of stinking daffodils, skinned, with a little dent in her temple and beige make-up covering the brown and yellow bruises that had formed around her eyes after death, from all that blood in her broken skull.
The intimate funeral was Nicky’s Grandma’s idea. She wanted none of those ‘old speeches’. None of those glorious speeches that, by the beauty and conviction of their language, ask not to be questioned: ‘He will change our vile bodies, to be like unto His glorious body, through that power by which He subdues all things to Himself—’ Instead, there was the coffin, lying on a trolley of laminated wood, like a tea-trolley. There was organ music, undistinguished. It was a sketch of a funeral, not a funeral. The service was a medley of sermon and prayer, and promises impossible to believe: ‘She has gone to heaven, and lives on in our memories. Remembered by those qualities she possessed which we loved, perhaps gentleness, perhaps that she was a good daughter—’
A good daughter whom I remember coming to sit before me on a stool at the breakfast bar, dropping her school bag on the floor. Watching me slyly and turning her tale, guided by the expression on my face: ‘We said Lucy was stealing and Mrs Parry said we were racist. But Lucy was stealing. Mrs Parry told us off, then she said, “Nicola Morgan, you needn’t glare at me like that!” and I said, “But we are telling the truth.” Then I got sent to Mr Bailey, and he held me by the nose.’
The minister came to the point. ‘We commit her body to be cremated, doing so with reverence; as in life, this body was the temple of her spirit—’
I remember her picking up the frozen puddles that formed in the hollows in the drive. Carrying them indoors so that I could look at the stones and dust in the ice, and the light through the ice. Her fingers red, then white, holding the heavy sheets up by the kitchen window over the sink.
Outside the crematorium the cousins stood holding those flowers that didn’t follow the coffin into the furnace. Sally’s two-year-old grizzled, uncomfortable in his stiff, dark blue coat. My husband’s family were weeping, and shaking the minister’s hand—some perhaps automatically because they were polite people, and some perhaps relieved that he didn’t say anything they didn’t expect.
I walked over to my sister and took her hand. We stood by a roaring air-conditioning vent. Overhead the sky was pale green; a still, autumn sky stained by the smoke from house fires.
A loud tapping on the driver’s window startled me. My car was full of clouded light—the headlights of another vehicle, shining in the back window. Through the fogged glass beside me I distinguished a shadow and a pink fist. I rolled the window down. A woman in a green anorak leaned through and smiled at me. She said, ‘If you start it up, Ellen and I will give you a push.’ Then, noticing the mud and water on my clothes, my grazed hands and pale face, she touched my shoulder. ‘Are you OK? Can you drive if we push?’
‘I can. I’m very grateful,’ I said, collecting my wits. She stared at me in concern, then reaching in front of me, she took the chamois off the dashboard and handed it to me. ‘Wipe the windscreen, then we’ll all be able to see what we’re doing.’
I took the cloth and began clearing the windscreen. She and the other woman, who had been standing behind her, moved around in front of my car, picking their way carefully across the clay. I started the engine. The first woman waved, then both bent and began to push. My car shot backwards out of the mud, nearly running into the campervan parked behind me.
The woman came back to the window. ‘You look in a pretty bad way. Would you mind if I got in and drove your car after our camper? We’ll go back a little way and see if there’s somewhere we can park, then you can come in the camper and change your clothes if you like.’
I opened the door for her, and wriggled across to the passenger’s seat. She waited for the camper to perform a laborious seven-point turn, then drove after it back up the hill.
She was tall, with broad brown hands and bitten fingernails. Her face was thin and angular, skin pitted with purplish, flushed acne scars. Her nose was straight, her brows thick and dark, and her hair brown and cropped short. She looked to be somewhere in her late twenties—my age.
The camper pulled off the road on the wide verge of a sweeping curve. We parked behind it and waited for Ellen to open the camper’s side door, then dashed through the rain and into the van.
Ellen fetched some clothes out from the base of one of the beds. ‘These’ll be not a bad fit, you look about my size.’
‘I’m sorry about the mess.’ I was dripping muddy water on the camper floor.
‘Did you try to free yourself?’
‘Yes, and I fell over.’
Ellen looked past me. ‘Will you make some coffee, Hannah?’ Then, to me, ‘I’ll leave you to it.’
A few minutes later we were sitting on divans at a small fold-down table. I introduced myself properly and, as the coffee revived me, I told them how I came to run into the slip.
Ellen was English, she had a cultured London accent and an air of poise. She was extraordinarily good-looking, pale, clear-skinned, and black-eyed. Her straight, ash-blond hair was cut in a short bob. She had the kind of beauty that should have made her awesome, and yet she wasn’t; rather she gave the impression that she didn’t think of herself as especially beautiful. Her manner was bright, breezy and flippant. Hannah, on the other hand, was a serious person. As we talked she kept taking a particular tone which wished me to realise the trouble I’d been in, as if I was some careless child that had to be made to appreciate danger in order to be more cautious in future. Hannah’s self-confidence bordered on smugness. But I was tired, and my irritation was probably exaggerated.
‘Are you up to driving, Jill?’
‘I suppose so.’ I was reluctant.
‘Well, I could always drive your car and you could ride with Ellen. You’ve had a pretty nasty shock.’
Hannah looked at Ellen. ‘I guess we’d better go back to Pohara.’
Ellen heaved a sigh. Then she and I got into the cab, and Hannah stepped out into the rain and stalked off towards my car.
‘Does she think I’m inept?’ I asked Ellen.
‘Oh dear,’ Ellen said, and laughed. ‘She can be a bit of a know-it-all. You know—opinions on everything, especially how she’d have handled any situation where someone else got into difficulties. I have to occasionally remind her that everyone else isn’t locked up in dark attics. That we do read newspapers and books, and can think and act for ourselves. Also, because she’s terribly fit she supposes everyone else is puny.’ She laughed again. ‘Listen to me bitching.’ She drove a little way in silence, then went on, amused and unrepentant, ‘You should see her brother, he’s even worse! Always charging up hills to show how fit he is, and leaping out of the way in small places. Always underfoot trying not to be underfoot. But of course men can be chronic—you know, busting their guts to show how competent they are.’
‘Yeah, I know the type,’ I said.