have i told you the story of Johnny Pokaka's grandfather's deafness? No? It is an interesting story, though not amusing.
Johnny's grandfather is a magnificent man, all shoulder and belly and wide-straddled knees, and with a wide twinkling smile creasing his brown, white-pricked cheeks. His eyes are twinkling too, and little and knowing. He looked at me one day with that knowing twinkle, and tapped the air with a hefty forefinger.
‘You're looking at my ears,’ he stated.
‘I am admiring them,’ I admitted. And well worth admiration they are too—every inch of their flapping expanses. Now he cupped one, and turned it radar-wise towards me.
‘They are very nice,’ I bawled.
‘They're big, ne!’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said, nodding violently so that I wouldn't have to repeat myself.
‘Looking at ears like mine,’ he said with satisfaction, ‘you wouldn't expect me to be deaf.’
‘No,’ I said, shaking my head this time.
‘I'm completely deaf in one ear,’ he said.
‘This one,’ and his helpless right ear was grasped in a huge hand. I assumed an inquiring expression.
‘Do you know how I got deaf, boy?’ I shook my head. ‘It's an interesting story,’ he said.
Johnny, on the other side of the table, shifted his weighty bulk in assent. ‘It's an interesting story, ne,’ he said. They both nodded, and I looked from one to the other with polite interest.
Johnny's grandfather signed to Johnny's grandmother with an imperious paw, and she bustled forward, the boards creaking under her sturdy bare feet, and poured us more tea. It was cosy there, sitting drinking thick sweet tea like comfortable old ladies. It was a bit too cosy, as a matter of fact. The sun was blazing outside, yelling at us to come out with a banner of hot light flung through the window, and a fire was roaring happily in the range behind me. A cyclamen bloomed riotously on the window-sill: I wasn't surprised at it. However I was relaxed and comfortable, if moistly so, as I watched Johnny's grandfather munch scones, waiting for him to trudge out his story.
‘Haven't you heard the story of Pa's deafness?’ Johnny's grandmother demanded. I said ‘no’, and she clicked her teeth. ‘It's an interesting story, boy,’ she said.
‘You,’ said Johnny's grandfather thickly. I blinked for a moment, but then realised that the piece of scone in the huge paw was gesturing at Johnny.
‘No-o’, said Johnny, but his grandfather's look was full of silently powerful authority. ‘Well’, said Johnny. He thought for a moment, shifting weightily, shrugging himself into the mood of the story.
The story happened on a black summer's night, as warm and hushed as a whisper. Johnny and his grandfather were mightily tired: they had been shooting up on the high spine of the country all day—had caught nothing, but were nevertheless wearily happy, full of the rare spirit of a man who is tramping a man's country with a man's weapon on his back. Still, it wouldn't look so good if they returned with nothing, and so they angled down from the tops, plodding down the ridges to the coast, making for the shack Johnny's grandfather had on the beach. They arrived there after dark and cooked up a rough meal over a hasty fire on the hearth, and then collapsed into a couple of the bunks, each of them tossed into a blanket, and not caring a single blessed thought for the hard boards and sulky sandy palliasses.
‘Ho-o’, sighed Johnny's grandfather, nodding slowly as Johnny paused to take out his tobacco tin and make a roll-me-own. ‘We surely were tired that night. Not a single warning I had, boy.’
The fire had flickered into short grey shadows and then collapsed into a pile of ash, rustling dryly. A morepork flickered past the doorway and alighted softly on the ridge-pole. Its shrieking cry, aw-w-ah, aw-a-ah, sawed through the quiet blackness, but Johnny's grandfather didn't stir. Crickets clicked and scraped in their idiotic way, clambering around in the hishing
grass. Lupin pods spat and popped in the cooling air, and the sea breathed and thudded as the tide surged in, but Johnny's grandfather lay oblivious. Johnny grunted, alarmed at some galloping dream, and flopped on to his back. He snored resoundingly, with a magnificence of snorting and whistling, but his grandfather didn't hear, lying there sprawled and helpless on the bunk.
‘Ho, the pain!’ said Johnny's grandfather, shaking his head in serious memory. ‘I wouldn't want to go through that again.’
Johnny had snapped awake in heart-stopping alarm. His grandfather was screaming, threshing around in the bunk in agony, tearing at his right ear with both frantic fists. Johnny grabbed him, yelling, and tore those fists away, and peered, groping in the darkness. No good: he stumbled over to the cupboard with some vague memory of the lamp it might contain. Dishes shattered and pans crashed. Nothing. He groped to the doorway, stumbled to the shed out back, kicked open the door. An old shovel cracked down on his head, and the harness hanging on the wall seized him round the neck. But the lamp was there, hanging dusty above the scythe. Johnny cut himself and yelled with panicky fury, but tore down the lamp and stumbled back to the shack.
The lamp was empty. Johnny's grandfather's screams had descended to hoarse groans, as he swayed half-demented in his bunk. More dishes crashed; the bottle of paraffin was at the back of the cupboard. Then the painful groping of getting the lamp fueled: but at long last it flared into dusky brilliance.
Johnny gulped at the last of his tea. His fag had gone out; he struck a match, and then sat looking at the little flame in a meaningful silence. ‘Yeah,’ he said at last. ‘That was a bad night, that was.’
‘But what was wrong, hey?’
Johnny fixed me with a serious eye. ‘You
know those little jumpity wetas?’ he said softly. ‘One of those had got into grandfather's ear, and was gnawing on his eardrum.’
The silence was hot and buzzing. ‘What did you do?’ I said at last, trying to imagine the huge pain.
‘I tried to pick it out,’ Johnny said heavily. ‘But all I got was one hind leg—the rest was too far inside. Tweezers were what I needed, ne.’
‘Aii’, his grandfather sighed softly.
‘Wire, I thought. So I tore through that cupboard again: nothing. So out I went to the shed, out with the lamp, and hunted for wire and a hammer. A hammer I found.’
‘And the pain,’ said Johnny's grandfather. ‘There was I in the pain of hell.’
‘Ho, the rush!’ Johnny exclaimed. ‘Over went boxes, and rubbish, and all sorts of old things, and the blood was running from my hand, and I don't know what else. And do you think I could find any wire, ne?’
‘Did you?’ I asked.
‘Not a piece I found, until I banged against the door—and there was a whole coil hanging on the back.’
By this stage I was panting with interest. ‘Pliers,’ I said. ‘Did you have any pliers?’
‘Pliers!’ snorted Johnny. ‘Was I going to waste time hunting for pliers?’
‘I was suffering the pains of the damned,’ said Johnny's grandfather.
‘Well?’ I asked.
‘I broke it!’ said Johnny. ‘I broke off a piece of wire. And then slam! I hit the ends with the hammer, and flattened them, and then I doubled up the wire to make tweezers, panting like the very devil, ne, and all the time the blood was running from my hand. And the screams from the shack…’
Johnny's grandfather rubbed his ear with tender recollection. ‘Aii,’ he muttered.
‘So in I ran, and grabbed grandfather where he was flinging around, and held him down, and dug out that black weta, all in little pieces.’
There was a long silence. At length I could stand it no longer. ‘Well?’ I said. Johnny was silent, grim behind the lighting of another smoke, but his grandfather cupped his ear towards me.
‘Did it work!’ I yelled.
He shook an old wise head. ‘It took too long,’ he said softly. ‘That little weta had all the time it needed.’ He nipped the magnificent flap of his right ear between thumb and first finger, and extended it towards me with a certain pride of ownership. ‘You see this ear?’ he said. I nodded. ‘Completely deaf,’ he said mournfully. ‘No eardrum at all.’ Then he peered up at me with a surprisingly twinkleful eye. ‘An interesting story, ne?’ he asked.
I looked at them both, and then caught the eye of Johnny's grandmother, who was lingering proudly at the table.
‘A very interesting story,’ I said.