Henry was lost in thought as he slipped and slid his way to Les’ hut and hardly noticed the dawn chorus as thousands of birds greeted the morning sun. Hope had lifted his spirits, and he briefly let his imagination paint a picture of what his burnt over block of bush and mud could one day be. Instead of slush, stumps and ashes, he imagined acres of grass, tight fences and healthy stock. He remembered an old saying of his mum’s when times were tough.“Oh, how bright is the sun and beautiful the day when a storm has cleared the air.” He allowed himself a brief smile as he thought of those better days, those days before the war.
The war; just the thought of it made him flinch. Steeling himself, he pushed away his fanciful thoughts and focused on the cold hard reality of life. The farm of his dreams was years away, and he knew the chances of achieving it were low. And then there was Les, what to do? Henry was relieved that Les was on the road to recovery, but he was another burden on Henry’s meagre financial and emotional resources. He was beginning to warm to Les, and that was a luxury he couldn’t afford. It was a hard lesson learned in the trenches of Passchendaele. The vision of friends bodies draped over barbed wire and buried in the foul, stinking, mud often haunted his sleep. He had no room left for the pain friendship can bring. Les had to go, he was of little use around the farm, and the worry of the man starving to death was a responsibility Henry could do without. The sun was warm on Henry’s shoulders when he arrived at the ponga whare.
“What to do?”
He sat down and rolled a smoke, a vice he’d learned in Europe. Dragging deeply on his cigarette an idea came to him which at first shocked him. But as he mulled it over it began to make sense. Finishing his smoke, he tossed it into the scrub and entered the hut to retrieve his axe and saw. He had a good look inside. Apart from a few eating and cooking utensils and the Bible and exercise book, the hut was bare. He stepped back out into the sunshine and gathered up some dead ponga fronds and other dried vegetation and piled them up against Les’ home. A breeze had started to rustle the leaves of the few remaining trees, it would serve his purpose well. Breaking up some manuka twigs he kindled a fire and watched guiltily as the flames licked and smoked up trough the ponga fronds.
When the flames reached the whare walls, Henry had a pang of conscience and rushed inside to retrieve the Bible and exercise book. In less than five minutes the hut was reduced to a few sheets of twisted roofing iron and smoking ash.
Henry didn’t feel proud of himself, but it was done. He’d planned to tell Les that the hut must have burned down the day they left, but now he had the books. He couldn’t bring himself to chuck them in the scrub nor could he return them to Les. He opened the Bible, something he hadn’t done since the war. On the inside cover, written in copperplate was the inscription ‘Awarded to Leslie Jamieson for perfect Sunday School attendance. Dec 1904.’
Underneath the inscription in a rougher hand was written the following verse.
John 15:3 Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Jesus Christ
He snapped the Bible shut and roughly placed it on the ground before rolling another smoke. He had a couple of puffs before opening the exercise book. Inside were rows of figures written in the same hand that had written the Bible verse. At the top of the first page was written ‘FOR MY OLD AGE’ Underneath Les had documented every penny he had earned or spent. The amount spent on himself over the years was tiny and consisted mainly of flour, salt, sugar and soap. Henry knew he was prying, but couldn’t stop turning the pages as he watched Les’ tiny savings grow. At the top of page six was the final entry.
05/06/32 My friends – £87.30d
And the hard man wept.