The Meaning of Words

Everybody knew Joe, a little old man with a large head and bushy white hair, but people knew nothing about him. He had drifted here and stayed. You would see him out, walking. He seldom spoke to anyone. He just looked at you with intense, unblinking eyes. If he did say something, he spoke softly, clearly, slowly, with an accent that was hard to identify. He seemed to weigh every word. You’d see him going for his stroll every day, up Main Street, turn left by the old Post Office, walk along Harris Road towards the railway line, cross over, then back the other way around the block. It was a good walk for an old man.

He lived in the large ramshackle house behind Molly Cameron’s store. It was a house in need of a coat of paint and some maintenance, but it was comfortable enough. He had just turned up in the store, Molly said, lugging a battered suitcase. He told her that his car had broken down. He asked if there was anywhere to stay. There are no motels or hotels here. There is only a run-down country pub, a service station that closed down recently and Molly’s general store. ‘So this is how Joe ended up here’ Molly said. ‘He asked me if anyone could put him up for the night.’ She told him that there was plenty of room in her house, he could doss down right there. ‘I live on my own’ she said, ‘I thought it might be nice to have someone around the place.’

Of course people talked, wondered what Molly was up to, but I am sure that she just appreciated some company. She had inherited the store when her father died suddenly. She had lived with her father, helped in the store, looked after him, and had never left. It could be lonely in this small town even if you have lived here all your life. I don’t think that there was more than that when she put Joe up. She is a big girl, a good looking woman, young enough to be Joe’s daughter.

Joe stayed. He was on his way to nowhere, he told Molly, when his car broke down He had no particular place to go to. After a while he became a familiar sight in town. People saw him so often that they thought that they knew him. He would often walk past my place, I would notice him from my window. There were not many strangers here. Anyone new, different, stood out. He stopped in front of my house one day, when I was working in my garden. I was planting my spring bulbs.

‘Talking to your plants?’ he said.

I looked up. In a sense this was exactly what I was doing, talking to my plants. Every plant, every bush, every tree in my garden had its own story, and I reflected on these stories as I pottered around. This was my mother’s garden. She had lived here in silent exile most of her life.

‘I suppose you could say that’ I said.

After that he stopped by often, had a little rest. People often say ‘Nice day’ or ‘looks like rain’ as a form of greeting, just to acknowledge you without expecting an answer, but Joe’s words always challenged you. He would notice something new in my wild, overgrown garden, or something in the old house. After a while I looked forward to seeing him coming around the corner, stop and greet me. I invited him in for a cup of tea. These morning teas became regular parts of our lives. There is not much new happening here. One day is like another. But Joe’s short visits were something different. He would pick up a fine, fragile china cup, consider the flower pattern, and remark that such crockery speaks of a certain refinement. They were my mother’s, I told him. They must have represented her dreams, he said. Perhaps she had hoped for a different, a better life. Perhaps she did, perhaps, when she met my father, the rugged, taciturn soldier from New Zealand, and left her home in Scotland, she had some expectations that she had never realised. Joe read her whole story in that cup. She had trained to be a teacher, but didn’t complete her training when she married my father near the end of the war. She found life in this small country town dull. There were few people to talk to. My father came from here, lived here until he went off to the war. He brought home a wife, an attractive, tall, fair Scottish girl, but for my father’s family, she was too hoity-toity. Joe somehow must have sensed that.

He would look at an object, a book, an ornament, a piece of furniture, and it was as if he saw an aura surrounding it, telling him about the lives of the people who handled it, their inner lives, lives they were never prepared to talk about. Just by looking at a book on my bookshelf he knew more about me than anyone else ever bothered to find out. He sensed that I belonged here, yet I did not belong. This is where I was born, went to school, started teaching, but I had to get out, get away. My mother said that I would suffocate here. I went overseas and taught in England, came back, taught in Gisborne, in Napier, and ended up as deputy principal. When my mother died, ten years after she was widowed, and the house was left to me, I took early retirement and moved back to the house that I always thought of as my mother’s house. Here I live alone, content to observe the flowers grown my garden.

I suppose Joe just walked into my life. His looks, his speech, gave little away, beyond that he was not from these parts. His feel for words, his conversation suggested that perhaps he was, like many of us as we get older, something of a writer. He liked it here, he said, he had all that he had ever wanted. He had retired. He had worked in the post office, sorting mail. He knew every postcode up and down the country, every small rural settlement by heart. People, he said, recognised the postie, the person who delivered the mail, but not the faceless men who sorted the mail into their appropriate pigeon-holes. People all knew Jim Baxter, he said, the poet, postman, the bearer of tidings, but not Joe, unseen poet in the post office sorting room.

He knew many of the poets and writers of his time: Louis Johnson, Jim Baxter, the Englishmen Mike Doyle, Peter Bland, the Italian Renato Amato, who wrote about fascists in Italy, Alistair Campbell from the islands, and others who are now forgotten. Wellington was that sort of place. They all hung around at the Midland or the St. George, whatever watering hole was in favour. He listened to their conversation. He seldom said anything himself. Once Joe had asked a poet who edited a poetry magazine if he would care to read some of the poems he wrote. ‘Sure thing,’ said the poet, and Joe shouted him another beer. Joe never asked for his poems back. He never mentioned the poems again. He guessed that the poet had lost them, without ever having read them. ‘Who cares,’ said Joe. Poems written over all those years, poems he had written when he first came to New Zealand, were all lost.

Here he started a new life. The old one was not much good anyway, he said. Way back, in his old life, he told me, his previous life, in a world that ceased to exist, he wrote poetry, poems about the harsh side of life, about victims, the downtrodden, the lost. His poems had been published in newspapers and in literary journals. He was well known once. But he was not one for ‘isms’, fascism, communism, or nationalism. He only saw unfortunate souls kicked around by life.

‘It was poetry that got me into trouble’, Joe said. There is a time at twilight when it is neither dark nor light. Like that, the war was over but there was yet no peace. People emerged from the basements, their air raid shelters. The street to street, door to door fighting had ended. Gradually silence prevailed. The call for vengeance, however, the resentment for all the betrayals, was still burning. In the chaos of no war no peace, the fascists picked Joe up, together with some socialists and communists as a final assertion of their failing power. They beat them all, then got a truck and loaded everyone on, taking them to be shot. But there was some commotion. In the hurry to get moving, they had left Joe behind. He wasn’t going to complain, he said, about not being shot. He just walked away trying not to be noticed. People assumed that he was dead, killed.

The communists had sent him to the countryside for “re-education”. No use for layabouts in a communist society, even if they wrote poetry. After the revolution, or was it an uprising in1956 Joe had fled. When he heard about fighting in the cities while he was cleaning out the pigsty in the remote village where he lived in exile, he picked up his hat, started walking and walked and walked, until he was across the border. In Vienna he saw people, refugees, queuing up for visas to some place to go. He joined a queue and ended up in New Zealand. No one here knew or cared who he was.

I heard the chill in his words. I could feel the icy midwinter cold; hear the crunching of the snow under the feet of the men beaten, tortured, trudging towards their death. I could see Joe cowering in the shadows, lonely, abandoned, feeling guilty for being alive. ‘It is a great good fortune’, he said, ‘to be living in a place where people don’t care about literature, where you don’t get murdered for the words you write’.

The poems he wrote were difficult, he said, hard to understand, even the ones he wrote in English. Although the words were simple, clear, people had trouble grasping their meaning. You find a button in the street, he said, and it tells you so much about the person who wore it. A white shirt button, faded and worn thin from washing, says a lot about his poverty. The thread holding it might have disintegrated, snapped, just as his collar and cuffs had frayed. ‘A frayed shirt keeps you poor for the rest of your life,’ he said. ‘No one is going to give you a job if you turn up in a frayed shirt. Or take something different; a button covered in leather. Perhaps it came off a fleece-lined overcoat, which kept its owner warm, no matter how cold it was outside. He was snug while the rest of the world froze.’ Joe had a collection of buttons he found in the street. ‘It is the little things that matter,’ he said. ‘You can tell so much from one button.’ He wrote a poem about buttons, but nobody would publish it, no one could understand what it was about.

His attention to small details was seen in the most famous poem he ever wrote. “Soup” was about a soup kitchen. When the kitchen served bean soup it was a special day. It filled the men up. They felt good about life. It was like Sunday among the days of the week. And if there was barley in the soup, lots of thick barley, it was like Christmas. Every word has a shadow, he said, an echo, a smell, a feel, and memory. He had to capture these. He had learnt English from the men at the freezing works where he worked when he first arrived. He learnt by listening to conversations in the pub. He knew how difficult it was to think in one language and write in another.

‘Take the word “Offal”, he said. ‘Who uses the word? Butchers! You’d never use the word in conversation. What does the edible internal parts of an animal mean? What internal parts; the heart, the liver, the tongue? When I say “Heart” What do you think of? A big cow’s heart going pitter-patter, beating fast, terrified of the slaughterer, or does it denote love? Do cows fall in love? Or the liver; I think of the delicious smell of the liver my mother used to cook, with onions, paprika, slightly braised. If you have never tasted it, never smelled chopped liver cooked with paprika, you can’t share my thought. If I describe the forests I knew as a child they were different from the bush you think of. The trees were different, the light was different. There are no witches, no Hansel and Gretel in the bush here.’

When I taught my girls, beautiful girls with brilliant minds, I kept telling them, teaching them, just that, to read between the lines, find the essential inner meaning.

These conversations and the many others I had with Joe stayed in my mind. I looked forward to his visits. Yet I wondered at times. How much of what Joe said was true and how much of it was made up. I was born well after the war. I knew about the battles, the fighting, but didn’t I feel them in my guts, in my bones, in my sinews, as people did who lived through them; I didn’t hear the deafening noise, the paralysing fear that those who were there experienced. My father never talked about his war. I know that he went through some great, brutal, bloody battles as his unit fought its way up the Italian peninsula, I read about these in war histories, but he never talked about them. He had lost some mates, who were occasionally remembered in passing, boys from our town, but when you asked questions about hem it he clammed up. There was a silence about the war, about the horrors, about the life changing damage it inflicted on those who were there. When Joe talked about his life it was like a voice from the distant past, like history speaking. People wondered at times about Joe. Who was this old man who carried such an enormous burden of memory.

There were rumours, speculations. Perhaps he was escaping from something he was trying to hide. Perhaps he was a paedophile, or someone with a criminal past Why would a stranger like him move to a town like ours, why would anyone want to settle here? There is nothing our town can offer to a stranger like Joe. The words you would use to describe this place are ‘boring’, ‘dull’, ‘slow’, ‘quiet’. Quiet, but not peaceful. There was a lot of underground, suppressed bitterness, jealousy, some going back for generations. You sensed a lack of hope and ambition This is a place of ghosts. Joe remarked once. People leave and don’t come back. I was an exception, I returned.

He used to come by, call in almost every day, then after a while, his visits became less and less frequent. When he came he was short of breath. He was noticeably getting old. When he didn’t appear for days on end. I asked Molly about him. She said that some mornings he just wouldn’t get up. There was nothing wrong with him, he said, but he just wouldn’t get up. On other days he was again bright as ever. He would set out on his walk, but really, Molly thought, he was not well.

Then one day, Doris McGregor found him collapsed on the pavement in front of her house. By the time the ambulance arrived it was too late, he was gone. Molly arranged the burial. She was like that, a kind-hearted woman, capable, who always knew what was the right thing to do. Some of his neighbours turned up at the funeral. ‘He was a nice old chap’ they said. There was not much else that they knew about him.

His belongings were at Molly’s place. He had few possessions, but among those there was a suitcase full of documents and his writing. Molly didn’t know what to do with it. She gave it to me for safekeeping. I found his passport among his papers, his naturalisation certificate and his change of name by deed poll. There was also a page photocopied from the Encyclopedia of East-European Literature, that shed light on who Joe was It was an account of a writer called Jozsef Suba:

SUBA, JOZSEF, b. Ujpest 1919, d. Budapest 1945, poet and essayist, noted for the simple, vivid language of his poetry, which deals predominantly with poverty. His poem “Soup”, made up of a sequence of rhyming quatrains, was widely anthologized. It describes the soups served in a soup kitchen, which give strength and fresh hope to those who are fortunate to get it.

Illegitimate son of a girl of peasant origin and an army deserter who fled the battlefield towards the end of World War I, Jozsef Suba was largely self-educated. He was befriended and often fed and sheltered by some of the best known members of the cultural elite, and was considered to be the outstanding voice of the dispossessed under-class. He was associated with a group of socialist writers who met regularly at the Café Metropolitan. Although he regarded himself as an anarchist, hw took no active part in politics.

He was killed in January 1945, together with a number of other socialists and communist sympathizers, who were rounded up by the fascist militia in the final days before the Soviet conquest of Budapest.

If Joe, whom I got to know, who rested at my place during his long walks and regaled my with his stories and conversation was this long forgotten poet, his accidental survival was not noted. As far as the world knew, he was murdered at the end of the war. As Joe said, the Angel of Death had an appointment with him at that time, but failed to turn up.

I was very aware of the responsibility that caring for Joe’s work and memory entailed. I took the suitcase full of his papers to the city library. It was a reasonable sized, good enough library. But Doug Harrison, the librarian, was a dead loss. ‘Who reads all this junk’ he said, sweeping his arm, pointing in the general direction of the bookshelves. ‘We have to get rid of all these books, fill the place up with what people want. A case full of writing is just what I need, with the council on my back, with not enough shelves, not enough space, not enough money, and not enough staff. I could fill this whole library with the scribblings of everybody’s old uncle and aunt.’ Not much chance of Doug Harrison knowing anything about East-European poetry. The papers of a stranger who passed through here were of no interest to him.

I showed Joe’s writing to Alistair Miller; supercilious, pedantic, cynical, and bitter, Alistair, Doctor Miller, Doctor of Philosophy, bow tie, check waistcoat, suede jacket, an unappreciated scholar. He taught a course on literature for the WEA adult education program. ‘European poetry, forget it’ he said. ‘All that dark angst, the melancholic brooding of Eastern European writers! And the languages you can’t get your tongue around. Barbarian tongues, barbarian thoughts! They can’t be translated into a civilized language like English. Dump it all! Books should be about the here and now, real people, real life that you see all around you. Forget Europe; forget the old country! Writing should be about the new world, the mountains, the rivers, and the blokes on the land.

Joe’s suitcase gathered dust in a corner of the library’s stack room under a pile of damaged, discarded books, reports, and council papers. It gradually disintegrated under the weight of things dumped on top of it. Silverfish, worms, mice feasted on Joe’s words; damp and mildew crumbled the papers into dust. The Encyclopedia of East-European Literature was long out of print, its worn, damaged copy was thrown out with other obsolete reference books. When time came to renovate and refurbish the library all the accumulated papers, old books and other rubbish were removed to be recycled. Joe would have appreciated it, written about it from the point of view of the worm, the silverfish. For them his papers provided warmth and sustenance. I may be the only one in the whole world who remembers Joe, Suba Jozsef.

I planted a tree, a beautiful purple rhododendron tree in my garden, near the fence, where Joe used to stop to catch his breath, on the side of the path, opposite the one my mother planted many years ago. Every year when the rhododendrons are in bloom I think of this tree as Joe’s tree.

Bookseller, publisher’s representative, teacher and occasional writer of both fiction and non-fiction.