We lived in an old rented house on Nixon Street in Hamilton East up until I was the age of five. The walls were decorated with stuffed and mounted deer heads and my earliest memories are of their sad, haunted eyes gazing down at me.
My grandmother was from a big Danish family that settled in Dannevirke and had lost one of her brothers in WW1. The story goes that an angel visited her at the moment of his death on the far side of the world and she told the family weeks before the letter arrived. I was very close to my nana and stayed with her and poppa sometimes in the spare room of their house on Wellington Street. I used to dream about the angel and I thought I caught a glimpse of it there one time. I was petrified of that creature – I was sure it was going to tell me someone was dead.
Leading up to Xmas one department store on Victoria Street would erect this huge
clown manikin on strings that moved and winked and totally freaked me out. Mum was very patient with me as she tried to get her Xmas shopping done.
One day as mum got off a bus, the driver didn’t see me and shut the door and I was left stranded and gibbering as he started to drive on. A passenger told him to stop and let me off a little way up the road. I was feeling pretty fragile and walking back towards mum a little white dog came bounding up and had a go at me as if sensing my fear and that encounter haunted me for years and totally put me off dogs.
It was mainly visual things that frightened me and I loved the music I heard on mum’s radio and would try to sing along. One favourite family story has me in church with mum (I was scared of Sunday school) and during a silent moment I started belting out Multiplication by Bobby Darrin to a mortified congregation – the Reverend Hogg was not best pleased apparently.
By the time I was five and getting ready to start school, dad had built our house in Hillcrest and I had lightened up though I still was a bit scared of dogs and dad – he never hit us nor was he mean but his word was law.
We had not long moved in and dad was building a shed out the back on the weekends – he told me not to play near the foundations and not to use any of his tools when he wasn’t there. So of course I had great fun running and jumping all over the floor joists until I lost my footing and fell mouth-first into one of them – blood everywhere and mum had to take me to the doctor to get the right side of my lip sewn up. I got a big telling off when dad got home but to this day whenever I need to tell left from right my tongue goes straight to that scar on the inside of my mouth.
A few weeks later I was digging down the gully behind our house with dad’s spade and nearly chopped off two of my toes. Once again mum took me to the doc and he cleaned it up and dressed it with a big bandage. When dad came home and everyone was sitting round in the lounge, I stood behind the couch so he wouldn’t see my sore toes and have to admit to using his spade.
Years later I wrote a line that went…
Fear is just a name – it feeds on itself
The Ghost of Electricity – War Stories by Jon McLeary is a new initiative at Off The Tracks, a series of stories and reflections from painter, writer and musician Jon McLeary