Henry was 18 when he left to fight in the great war. He came from a good Christian home and was confident that God would see to the hasty defeat of the Hun and together they would soon put the world to right. When the war of mud and death ended in 1918, the bright-eyed optimistic 18-year old had become a very hard, cynical man.
He spent his first few days back in New Zealand with his parents up in Helensville, North of Auckland. It didn’t go well for him or his family. The man that returned from France was so different to the son that had left, they almost believed he was an imposter. Unable to relate to his parents and sick of their constant badgering about the importance of faith, Henry said he was leaving. His mum pleaded with him to stay, but his mind was made up, and a few days later he said his goodbyes. His mother’s last words were “Henry, I’ll be praying for you until the day I die.” Henry scoffed.
After a year or so of wandering around the North Island doing odd jobs on farms, and living it rough, he won a ballot under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act and secured a loan to buy and improve some Crown land over Te Kuiti way.
It was a very rugged bit of native forest and breaking it into a paying proposition would take a massive amount of work and a fair amount of good fortune. It was while he was out surveying his newly acquired land that he spotted smoke coming out of the chimney of a Ponga Whare by the Waimihia stream. Someone was squatting on his land, but not for much longer, he would see to that. He pushed his way through the scrub and bellowed to whoever was inside that he was coming over. Rolling his sleeves up, ready for battle, Henry was greeted by a thin man, with a severely hunched back.
“You’re on my place, and need to leave.” Henry barked, he wasn’t one to beat around the bush.
The man nodded, not attempting to speak.
Henry could see inside the whare, it was basic even for those days. There was just enough room for a manuka framed bed and an old packing case that had been made into a table. On the table were a battered old Bible and a lined exercise book.
“What’s your name?”
“L-L-L-L-Les.” he stuttered.
“How long you been here?”
Les held up 6 fingers.
Les’ appearance and stutter embarrassed Henry out of his anger.
“Well, you need to think about moving on. Unless you can do a bit of work around the place to earn your keep?”
Les smiled, nodding his head.
“Once I’ve got my camp set up, you come over and see me and we’ll sort something out. It will be on the true right of the stream up by the end of logging road.”
Les smiled and tried to say something, but his speech got tangled up.
Henry shrugged. “I need to get cracking.” He’d used up his words for the day and was eager to get on with his survey. There was work to be done and the love of a good day’s work was the one thing the war hadn’t robbed him off.
The next 4 years rolled by quickly. Henry built himself a basic house and managed to get a few acres of bush knocked down and into grass. He employed Les to do some fencing and other odd jobs about the place, paying him a pittance. Nearly every cent Henry earned went back into the developing farm, and he wasn’t about to waste it on a cripple. Les was a hard worker, but because of his deformed back and small stature, he couldn’t hold a candle to an able bodied man. The two of them seldom spoke, Les due to his stutter and Henry because he couldn’t be bothered.
In his 4th year on the block, he met Rebecca, the daughter of the local postmaster. She wasn’t pleasing to the eye, and as women outnumbered men she had resigned herself to spinsterhood by the time she reached the grand old age of 22. Henry, however, was a pragmatist and needed someone to take care of the house and cook the meals so he could spend more time on the farm. A son or two to give him a hand wouldn’t go amiss and a homely woman was less likely to walk away from such a rugged existence.
The courtship consisted of a few trips into town to her parent’s place for a Sunday roast. He proposed to her not long after his third visit and said he’d see her again when lambing was finished. It was 3 months before they caught up. Life was busy.
Henry took a day off work to get married, and never did get around to inviting his parents. He hadn’t seen them since he’d shot through all those years ago. They had the honeymoon on the farm, and Henry’s was relieved when the last of her relatives finally left so he could get stuck into the farm again.
12 months later Rebecca had a baby boy who they named Peter. He was a solid little bloke which pleased Henry, though not much else did as his livestock were failing to thrive and financially they were on a knife edge. Rebecca quickly learned to stay in the background and choose her words carefully, he never physically assaulted her, but his tongue could be sharp.
Progress on the farm was slow as Henry didn’t have the means to pay a living wage, so the only help he had was from Les, who seemed quite happy to accept the pittance Henry paid him. From time to time, Les would work on neighbouring properties doing a bit of fencing. The quality of his fencing was second to none, though due to his physical disability he was very slow and as he was paid by the chain, his earnings were poor. Les was a very private man and never went off the property except to work. Occasionally, when Rebecca was going into town with Henry for her monthly shop he would give her some money to buy flour, tea and sugar. Rebecca once asked him what he ate, he told her the bush and his vegetable patch gave him everything he needed and the flour, tea and sugar were for special treats. Rebecca trusted Les, and unlike her husband, he never swore, always treated her with respect and she never heard him say an unkind word about anyone, not that he said much. One afternoon when Henry was in one of his rare good moods, she asked if they could invite Les over for a Sunday meal, much to his and her surprise he said yes. She saw to it that it became a weekly event, Henry didn’t seem to notice.