David Bussau: Facing the World Head-on

Chapter 1
A Grim Existence

Eight-year-old David Williams ran alongside the train as it rattled on the tracks. When he had matched his speed to the train’s, he leaped up onto the side of a car that hauled coal, grabbed a metal bar, and quickly pulled his bare feet up until they came to rest on a ledge on the side of the coal car. He laughed as he did this; he loved the excitement of playing on a moving train. David’s friend Wocky was already on the coal car and making his way along the side of it. David followed him.

“This is so much fun,” David called out.

“Yeah,” Wocky agreed. “But be careful. You know what happened to Billy.”

David nodded. Billy was a year older than David. Three months before, he had slipped while leaping up onto one of the freight cars, had fallen underneath it, and was killed as the car’s metal wheels rolled over him. David was not going to let that happen to him. He made sure that his feet were firmly planted on the ledge, and he squeezed tight on the metal bar until his knuckles turned white.

When they reached the end of the coal car, the two boys slipped in between it and the boxcar behind. They clambered up onto the roof of the boxcar and crawled along. David felt the wind in his face as he watched Wocky make his way to the edge of the car and peer over. With his right hand, Wocky gave a thumbs-up signal. The door to the boxcar was open. Wocky disappeared over the edge of the boxcar as he swung himself in through the door. Moments later David plopped into the car beside him. Exhilarated, the two boys laughed aloud, their laughter echoing throughout the empty boxcar.

Suddenly the train lurched to a stop and then lurched again as it began heading in the opposite direction. As it moved back down the line, David walked over and poked his head out of the boxcar. His six-year-old brother Bruce was still standing beside the railway line. Then there was a loud clanging, and the train jerked violently as it connected to more freight cars. The jolt sent David sprawling to the floor as Wocky guffawed.

As the train came to a halt and prepared to head back the other way, Wocky said, “I have to go. It’s time for dinner.” With that he scrambled from the momentarily stationary train. David followed him.

The boys ran along the railway line, Bruce trailing in the distance, passing the black engine that belched steam and smoke. David heard the engineer yelling at him and Wocky. He couldn’t actually make out the engineer’s words, but he knew what they would be: “Don’t you know that this is a dangerous place to play? And besides, unauthorized people are not supposed to be inside the railway yard, especially when an engine is shunting.” But David didn’t care. Playing on the shunting trains was about the most exciting thing there was to do in Moera, where David lived.

Moera was a tough, working-class neighborhood located in the Hutt Valley, just north of Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. Many of Moera’s residents lived in uninviting, identical, government-supplied housing, like the three-bedroom house David lived in on York Street, which backed up onto the railway yard.

David’s weatherboard house was grim from the outside, and life on the inside of it was even grimmer. David’s mother, Marjorie, and three of his older siblings—sisters Margaret and Louise and brother John—lived in the house, along with his younger brother Bruce. David’s father, Lewis Williams, had abandoned the family when David was very young, and David had no memory of the man. Yet he was aware of the fact that in the house there was often little to eat at mealtimes, and he usually went to bed feeling hungry. As well, the house brimmed with extra people, either visiting or staying for indefinite periods of time. And one of the things his mother and the extra people liked to do was sit around for hours on end, talking and drinking alcohol.

By now David had come to realize that when these people drank, things often got out of hand. Arguments would erupt that quickly turned violent. For their protection, David and his brother Bruce would often be hustled off to a bedroom by their mother or an older sister. The boys would hear yelling and screaming, and fists would soon fly. It was not uncommon for David to hear someone scrambling into the kitchen, searching for a carving knife with which to defend himself or herself or to attack someone else. David and Bruce would huddle together in the bedroom, sometimes for hours, until it was safe to come out again.

It was at times like these that David envied Wocky. For almost three years now Wocky had been living at the Anglican Boys’ Home in the nearby town of Lower Hutt. He came home only during school vacations to stay with his grandmother, as he was doing now, spending the two-week May school holiday at home. At the boys’ home, Wocky told David, there was always food to eat at mealtimes, and there were adults around who took an active interest in his life.

As Wocky talked, David thought about his experience at the Otaki Health Camp two summers ago. Otaki was located on the coast of New Zealand’s North Island, about fifty miles north of his home. One of the purposes of the camp was to provide good nutrition to undernourished children. David had spent that summer gobbling down three healthy and plentiful meals a day and playing on the beach. But the thing that impressed him during his stay in Otaki was the fact that he was surrounded by adults who seemed to genuinely care about him. And the thing he secretly liked most was the new toothbrush he had been given when he arrived at the camp. Every time his housemother asked him if he’d brushed his teeth, David felt like he belonged somewhere at last. Back home in Moera he could go a week without using a toothbrush, or soap for that matter, and no one would notice.

David imagined that the boys’ home, where Wocky lived most of the time, was a lot like the health camp, only it ran all year long. It sounded to him like a good life, especially since Wocky got to play all kinds of sports at the home and at school. David loved any kind of sport. He and Wocky would play endless games of cricket with the neighborhood boys on the empty lot beside Wocky’s grandmother’s house.

Much to David’s disappointment, after two weeks at home, Wocky returned to the Anglican Boys’ Home for the start of the winter term.

David also returned to school, and although he didn’t much care for schoolwork, being at school meant escaping from the yelling at home. And during the lunch hour, some sort of sports game that he could join was always being played—be it rugby, soccer, cricket, or softball. Each morning David set out for school in bare feet, even on frosty mornings when the ground was crusted over with ice. His brother Bruce would trail along behind.

Then on Sunday, August 6, 1949, three months before David’s ninth birthday on November 10, something happened that would change his life forever. It started out like most other Sundays, with David scrambling around in the kitchen looking for something to eat while the adults in the house slept off their hangovers. But around ten o’clock his mother got up and wordlessly went to the closet. She pulled out an old leather suitcase and headed for David and Bruce’s bedroom. David followed her as she emptied the contents of their drawers into the suitcase. She then snapped the suitcase shut and told David to call Bruce and have them both put on their shoes. David was puzzled. Were they going somewhere? His mother wasn’t dressed to go out, and she hadn’t packed her own bag. Was someone else taking them on a holiday? He quickly dismissed the idea because his family never went away anywhere. But neither was it the right time of year for summer health camp. So where were they going?

When the suitcase was packed, David’s mother told the two boys to follow her. Without saying a word, she led them to the nearby bus stop. David longed to ask his mother what was happening, but her look told him to keep his mouth shut.

The brothers waited with their mother at the bus stop for several minutes until an old bus rumbled to a halt in front of them. David’s mother pushed the boys onto the bus and stepped onto the vehicle. She set the leather suitcase down beside David and turned to speak to the driver. “Drop these two off at the Anglican Boys’ Home on High Street,” she said as she handed over the fare. Without looking back, she stepped off the bus, which then pulled away from the stop. David looked over at Bruce. The two brothers sat staring at each other, unable to process what was happening to them.

As the bus made repeated stops to pick up and let off passengers, David tried to piece the situation together in his mind. Finally he concluded that the same social workers who had decided he should attend Otaki Health Camp had now decided that he and Bruce should live at the Anglican Boys’ Home. But rather than being sad about this turn of events, David found himself getting excited as the bus made its way along. Wocky would be waiting for him, and every turn of the bus wheels was taking him farther away from the one place he hated most—home.

At last the bus hissed to a stop on High Street. “That’s the boys’ home there,” the driver said, pointing to a large, old wooden house with a veranda on the front and a circular driveway.

David climbed down from the bus, lugging the leather suitcase with him. Bruce trailed behind. The bus pulled away from the curb, leaving the two boys in a belch of oily smoke.

“There’s always something going on here. It’s never boring. That’s what Wocky reckons,” David encouraged Bruce as they began to trudge up the gravel driveway.

As the boys approached the house, a heavyset, fearsome-looking woman who had short-cropped hair and was wearing an apron stepped onto the veranda. “And who might you two be?” she asked, with her hands on her hips.

“I’m David Williams, and this is my brother Bruce,” David sputtered, unsure of the woman. Wocky had never told him that there was such a scary person at the boys’ home.

“Ah, the Williams boys. We’ve been expecting you. I’m Miss Menzies, the matron of the home. Now come along inside.”

David climbed the steps to the veranda and followed Miss Menzies inside, with Bruce close behind. The two boys soon found themselves standing in a long corridor with high ceilings that ran the length of the house, from which various doors opened to several rooms. The floor was so highly polished that David could see his reflection in it. An aroma wafted in through a side door. David sniffed deeply. Smells like stew, he told himself. Stew and mashed potatoes. This place won’t be so bad after all.

Miss Menzies escorted the two boys to a nearby room. Neatly made bunk beds lined the walls. “This will be your room, Bruce,” she said. “You stay here while I show your brother to his room.”

David followed Miss Menzies on down the corridor, peering into doorways as he went. Each room had one purpose: one room was filled with concrete bathtubs, another with rows of toilets, and a third with only washbasins. David smiled to himself; cleanliness seemed to be important around here. Finally, at the rear of the house, Miss Menzies turned left into a large room with ten metal beds.

“This is where the older boys sleep,” Miss Menzies said. “You can have that bed there.” She pointed to a bed with two folded grey woolen blankets and a pillow stacked at the end. “Make your bed, put your things away in that locker, and then you can have a look around the place. The dinner bell rings at six o’clock. Don’t be late. We do not accept tardiness here. Understand?”

“Yes,” David said sheepishly as Miss Menzies turned and marched out of the room.

David pulled the blankets up over the hard kapok mattress and arranged the pillow, thinking about the day’s turn of events. He wasn’t sure whether he was lucky or unlucky to be at the boys’ home. Yes, he was no longer around the volatile situation at home in Moera, but although Miss Menzies had been polite to him and Bruce, David could already tell that she was going to be a hard taskmaster.