Juliana Feaver is a Christchurch writer. She was the 2014 winner of the Cooney Insurance short story competition and the 2015 Australia/New Zealand Regional winner of the Samoa Observer Tusitala short story competition. She was short-listed in the 2017 International Yeovil Literary Prize and has had stories long-listed with Fish Publishing and the New Zealand College of Writing. Her stories have been published in The Cambridge Times, Our Heritage, the Ocean (a compilation of the top stories from the 2015 Samoa Observer Tusitala Short Story Competition), Mindfood Magazine and Takahē.
Juliana has written a collection of short stories that feature Barney O’Sullivan from ‘Headlong to Hell’ and is now working with the same character in a novel.
Some characters muscle their way in. They choose the best seat, put their feet up, become part of the backdrop and are hard to shift
Headlong to Hell
A bleak day with low puffed out clouds that threaten rain or worse. Away from the coffee kiosk the air is sharp. I wrap my hands around the cardboard cup for warmth. When I fire up the Beemer, the grinding noise from the heater nearly blows my eardrums. I’d put up with noise if there was any chance of heat. Flick it off, foot to the floor. By the time I pull up at the police station, the blood in my feet and hands has solidified. The officer at reception greets me with a nod and weary eyes as I biff the used cup in the bin. Stroll down the corridor to the empty open-plan office. Time for more coffee. Spoon ground beans into plunger, add boiling water, drag a column heater alongside my chair, unbutton wool coat but leave on. Pull a file the size of a nineteen-eighties phone-book from the cabinet.
Start at the end.
Max Harley Gibson, male, twenty-five, heavily tattooed, undernourished, bloodstream chock-full of narcotics, bruising to torso consistent with a good kicking. Cause of death – multiple stab wounds to the neck and upper body. The weapon is described as a small flick or pen knife or possibly a domestic one, like a non-serrated vegetable knife.
Born in Timaru, Max was the youngest of four kids. He was flagged by social services at eight months old when his mother took him to A&E with breathing difficulties. A doctor noted unexplained bruising to his body. First placed into care, aged four, after his father, high on booze and drugs, beat his mother. She was so badly injured she never recovered and spent her last miserable years eating through a straw in a palliative care hospital. Two years into his stretch for GBH, the father was knocked out and killed in a fight club session in his cell.
Pete arrives wrapped in a black puffer jacket, knitted beanie and gloves, Michelin man, with a lined and troubled face. Comes in complaining about the weather and threatens to use his leave on an extended Island holiday.
“You can’t afford it,” I say, pleased of the distraction.
“Cheap as chips according to the Air New Zealand email that arrived this morning.” Pete scrolls through the emails on his phone. Produces photo of a gorgeous white sandy beach and a couple, fresh from the runway of Paris Fashion week, strolling hand in hand beside a luminous sea. With a last wistful look at the beach scene, he shuts down the phone.
“Refill?” He picks up my empty mug and weaves around the desks to the makeshift kitchen. “What time’s the funeral?”
“Eleven. Want to come?”
“I’m washing my hair.”
“That won’t take long.”
He pulls off his beanie and rubs hands over a nearly bald head. Assures me the job’s bigger than it looks.
“Do you reckon they’ll put on a spread?”
“I’m not expecting cucumber sandwiches and cups of tea,” I say, when he delivers my refilled mug. “More like roll-your-own reefers and P pipes.”
The coffee’s lukewarm but I drink it anyway. Overload of caffeine, leaves stomach swirling and hands jittery. Decide I can’t face the funeral without food. I’m no fan of these outings, should be paid double for attendance, especially for the heart twisters like the kids and young parents. Search through my desk drawers for a black tie. Moan that someone’s pinched it. Pete pulls one from his over-the-shoulder leather satchel and tosses it to me. Offer him last chance to come to the funeral while fiddling with a Windsor knot.
“Don’t have a tie,” he says, smug look.
Pack up the phone-book file and dump it on Pete’s desk. Suggest he look for the missing link. Bury hands deep into coat pockets. Walk to café opposite the station.
Order eggs, smashed avo on ciabatta with a double side of bacon and more coffee. Settle in the corner away from the door and flick through today’s paper. Stop at a small article buried on page five with funeral details for our murder victim, Max Gibson. Offers a brief outline of an unhappy childhood, a troubled youth, borstal, gang connections and how when he was fourteen, he crashed a stolen car, killing the passenger, his fifteen-year-old brother. Nothing new for me there, just confirmation that this line of work is littered with seriously screwed units. Hoover food, sip coffee and ponder the weird tilt of the earth the day Max was pushed into the world.
Back in the Beemer, I head towards the crematorium. Ignore temptation to try heater. Warmed by Robert Plant’s spectacular guitar playing and drug-fuelled philosophical musings that: Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven. Can’t help but think that young Max’s stairway isn’t and never was, heading to heaven.
A smattering of cars in the carpark: a couple of Skylines, several old Corollas and a Honda that’s one warrant away from the crushing plant. I park as far away from them as possible. Ten minutes to go, listen to the end of the song. Hear them before I see anything. That distinctive rumble. Half a dozen Highway 61 boys pull their Triumphs and Harleys to a stop alongside the Honda. They’re decked out in tatty leather jackets, jeans, black helmets and balaclavas.
Follow the boys, past the rose gardens and manicured lawns, to the chapel. Keep far enough back not to draw attention but close enough to hear the banter about some new slag that’s joined the chapter. The wind, straight off the Southern Alps, is laden with ice shards as it whips along the walkway.
I’m greeted at the door by a young funeral director, who seems overly pleased to see me. Probably our matching ties. I sit in an aisle seat at the back where I can get a good view of everyone. The bikers are three rows from the front. A plump older woman with straight grey hair and wind jacket is sitting behind a group of five thin and wasted late teens, two I recognise from a drug bust earlier in the year. Across the aisle from me sits a middle aged bloke from the Press I’ve met before. The front rows, usually reserved for family are depressingly empty.
Subdued elevator music.
The coffin is a simple pine one – closed, wood handles, no flowers.
A middle-aged woman in a black trouser suit speaks in a slow confidential way about the sadness of a life taken too soon and in tragic circumstances. Reads new age crap about mindfulness in difficult times, wraps up with the Lord’s Prayer. Surprise invitation given for warm drinks and sandwiches in the adjoining lounge. Elevator music cranks up as the curtains part and Max takes his final journey. No noticeable tears.
A sorry end to a sorry life.
Tea, milk, no sugar, a club sandwich and stand alongside older woman. Ask her how she knew Max.
“I was his foster mother,” she says, tired, resigned eyes. “And you?”
“Detective Inspector Barney O’Sullivan,” I say, not too loud even though I know the bikers would’ve clocked me the minute they swung into the carpark. I’d have stood out like a boil on a ballet dancer’s bum. Shake her hand. Explain I’m trying to piece together the puzzle of Max’s life and find out who killed him.
“Good luck with that,” she says, between mouthfuls of an egg and chive sandwich. Tells me her name is Alison. I ask what Max was like.
“Troubled.” She shakes her head. “He lived on the edge of the edge, that one, always only half a step away from disaster.” Sighs, eyes fill. “Eventually it catches up with you.” Alison drowns her coffee before saying that she is surprised he lasted so long.
I get her another drink while she fills a plate. We sit away from the others. The bike boys are stuffing themselves while eyeballing a thin, spaced-out girl in a torn lace dress and red fuck-me shoes. She spies them looking and headlong to hell starts to flirt. I’m smacked by a wave of gloom as my age spirals to eighty-five. Ask Alison if she knows what the gang connection is.
“The tall one with the pocked marked face,” she says, “is Max’s older brother.”
“Was Max a member of the gang?”
“I don’t know. A car accident meant he couldn’t ride, but he was keen on the drugs.” She shakes her head and wipes her eyes with a paper serviette. “He was around ten, when he first turned up on my doorstep,” she says. “He was the cutest looking kid with black shaggy hair and big chestnut eyes. The things that kid must have seen.”
She offers me a sandwich from her plate before telling me that he was an absolute terror. How he spent more time off school for fighting than sitting in the classroom. That he was like a cornered rat. Yet, despite all the hassle she couldn’t help but like him. After a year with her he went to live with his sister and her boyfriend.
“By then, his brothers were tied up with the gang and in and out of the big house. His sister was okay but her boyfriend was a horrible creature. That didn’t work out and six months later he turned up back on my doorstep. He was with me for four or five months before it got too much for me.” She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. “I hate to admit it,” she says, “but, with a family like his, the poor kid never stood a chance.”
I wonder how far through the file Pete will be as I watch the bikers follow the lace-dress-girl outside. She needs saving. But I’m past taking on a pack of over-heated dogs on my own. I tell Alison that I need to get back to work. About to stand when she says she thinks something bad went down at the sister’s place.
“Although Max was always trouble, he was spunky, bright eyes, cheeky smile,” she says. “But when he came back from the sister’s, the spark had been snuffed out. The eyes were blank and he was wetting the bed.”
“Did he say anything about what happened to upset him?”
“That was the thing,” she says, shaking her head. “He was always a real little chatter-box but after the stint at his sister’s, I couldn’t get a word out of him.”
Bingo, the missing link?
Alison doesn’t know what happened to the sister. Thought she would be here today. Thinks the boyfriend’s name was Massey or Ferguson or maybe Deere.
“A tractor name,” she says, as we walk towards the carpark.
The bikes have gone and I try not to think about where the lace-dress-girl might be. The temperature has dropped and the wind picked-up. I ask Alison if she needs a lift.
“I’m good thanks, Barney. My trusty Honda’s still legal.” Twitch of the lips, cloudy eyes with a hint of sparkle.
Say thanks, give her my card, and tell her if she thinks of anything to give me a call. She wishes me luck and gives me a hug. Smells of the same Tweed perfume my mother wore. She dissolves into the car. Blue smoke blows from the exhaust as she cranks the motor and disappears out the gate. An unexpected flash of sadness grabs me. There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving.
Send Pete a text. Ask him to look into Max’s sister. Tell him I’ll be back soonish. Edge the Beemer onto Johns Road. Gun it. Stop at service station. On impulse, buy a bunch of flowers and a Mars bar. Hit Highway 73, head west past the prison, turn into Weedons-Ross Road, pull-up in the empty carpark. Wind cuts through my wool coat and stings my face. Place flowers alongside the headstone. Apologise to the old man, like I do every time I visit the grave. He was of clear and sound mind when he told me he wanted his ashes scattered over his beloved Alps.
“My soul is braided through the earth of these mountains,” he said to me the last time we climbed together. “You’ll have to fight your mother, mind. She’ll want me in a box buried in a plot like the family dog.”
It was early one Friday evening. My folks had packed the Land Rover and were heading to their bach at Bealey. A drunk driver on the wrong side of the road just out of Darfield missed the stop sign and ploughed into them. They were all killed instantly.
After several sleepless nights, I asked the crematorium to split dad’s ashes. Half of him rests here with mum surrounded by deer paddocks and an uninterrupted outlook to his treasured mountains. With the second urn tucked into my pack, I took the rest of dad on his final climb up Avalanche Peak. I stood at the top, read his favourite poem by Robert Frost and in a profoundly cathartic moment, let him go.
I eat the Mars bar as I walk back to the car. The wind has blown the clouds away. A watery sun sweeps over the snow-covered peaks. Caught in an Irish moment, I fancy that it’s my father letting me know that I did the right thing.
Slow drive back to the station. Random thoughts while Led Zeppelin blasts through the Bose that there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run there’s still time to change the road you’re on. My head’s a punch bag as I brood over the world according to Robert Plant.
Back at the station, the phone-book file is open on Pete’s desk at about the half-way mark. He looks up and asks me how the funeral was.
“Heaps of sandwiches.”
“You should have let me know.”
“You didn’t have a tie.” Plonk his tie on the desk. Flash a smile. “Any luck with the sister?” I ask, as I hang my coat on the back of my chair before sitting down.
“I’m working on it.” He flicks me an accusing look. “What took you so long?”
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by.”
He shakes his head and suggests that maybe there was more than egg and mayonnaise in the sandwiches.
“Easy does it,” I say, turning on my computer. “That was my father’s favourite poem.”
“I know it’s a poem. But what the hell’s it got to do with anything?”
“There’s the rub, Pete,” I say, my voice thin and jaded. “It has everything to do with everything.” And then, because he looks as though he’s been pushed in the deep end without his flotation wings, I ask him if he knows a straight-up auto electrician who could fix the heater in my car.