The drive out to Grandad’s farm is a peaceful one. Across the Canterbury plains, past Christchurch prison, hidden behind rows of pine trees, through small satellite towns with their pubs, pie shops and dairies. His farm is about an hour’s drive west from Christchurch.
As a family we would go out to the farm for holidays. Away from the coast and the city, the days had a dry heat and the nights an eerie silence. Summer days were spent in a water hole Grandad called the “Devil’s Elbow”, after a large rock that emerged out of the deepest part of the Selwyn River.
Grandad also spent his childhood along that river and in the surrounding valleys and hills. Although those were the bleak days of the 1930’s Depression, the stories of his childhood held for me the mystery and adventure of Treasure Island and Robin Hood. With his brother Gavin, he would build huts and poach fish. They would climb trees to steal birds’ eggs, putting them in old baking powder tins filled with sawdust. Attached to a parachute they would throw the eggs from a tree, letting them float to the ground, and then fry them by the river.
At night Grandad often talked about the War. He showed me a photo of himself and two other men in uniform. He told me he was the only one who made it back. Often I’d ask to see the handgun he smuggled home from the War. It was small and fit easily into the palm of his hand. Sometimes I’d be allowed to hold it; it was far heavier than it looked.
The story he’d tell most often was about how he once saved a man's life. The man had two broken legs and couldn’t get himself into the safety of the tank. Grandad held him to the side of the tank as they were being shelled getting to safety. That story always left me with a mixture of pride and awe.
It’s just past midday, but it feels later. Two old clocks fill the room with an empty sound; one ticks as the other tocks. We take our cups of tea out onto his deck. The conversation starts and as usual finds its way to the War. I don’t think he enjoys talking about it, but the subject is hard to avoid.
“A dead man had a peculiar smell about him.” He tells me. “Blokes would want to go have a look at him, to see the expression on his face. Sometimes they’d go look for money, wash the blood off and hang it up to dry.” He finishes the sentence and takes a deep breath. An uneasy silence falls over the deck. He’s wearing his dark sunglasses and looks forward. His breaths are heavy, yet steady. We sit out there for a long five minutes, then he gets up and goes back into the kitchen. I get up and follow him.
As the day wears on, his feet begin to drag. They catch on something. He stumbles, but steadies himself. My heart sinks. “The mind’s willing, but the flesh is weak” he tells me.
I ask him if he’s afraid of dying. “One of these days they’ll find me out in the paddock there sitting on my bum, gazing at the stars and I’ll be gone. Then you can drag me home, put me in a cardboard box and incinerate me. Then bring the ashes up here and chuck me on the paddock you found me in.”
I ease my foot off the clutch and say goodbye. Grandad gives me
a smile and starts walking back to the house. I honk as I start down the driveway. I see him in the rear vision mirror. He doesn’t turn around, just raises his hand.
The photos in this book were taken between 2007-2015. During this time I photographed my Grandad living and working on his farm. With these photos I aim to show my Grandad’s search for peace near the end of his life, his attachment to his place and the solace that he found there.
My Grandad passed away on the 5th of May 2015 having remained on his farm up until two days before his death. While going through his belongings over the following days we came across a handwritten note. It was in my Grandad’s rough cursive handwriting and was hard to make out at first, but after a few more attempts we discovered that it was a draft application to be a conscientious objector. Grandad had always said that he admired conscientious objectors for standing up for what they believed in, but I’d never known that he’d considered it himself. Knowing how much of an impact the War had on his life, I wonder how different it would have been if he’d completed the letter.