Reflections on an incident that happened when I was growing up
|One afternoon, back in the 1970s I was walking down our street with a classmate called Billy, when he suddenly stopped, crouched down and picked up a two dollar note that someone had dropped in the gutter. Evoking the laws of “Finders-Keepers” we agreed to split the ill-gotten gains between us.
Back then $2.00 was a reasonably useful sum of money to obtain; our school tuckshop sold pies for 20 cents, hotdogs for 10 cents and if you were to walk into a dairy and ask for a fifty cent mixture of lollies, man would you’d get a lot of sweets. A bus fare was about 10 cents and the movies at the time were still just over $1.00; so finding $2.00 was nothing to sneeze at.
A couple of days later we were both walking down the street together again, this time going door to door selling raffle tickets and taking turns to do the talking to the potential ticket buyers. Now three quarters of the way down our street lived Mrs Ruby Delany, a family friend who’d known my brother and I since we were knee high to a grasshopper and for the sakes of respect we were in the habit of referring to her as “Aunty Ruby”. She was a very affectionate woman in her mid-fifties, with a rather largish girth and loud voice that had become raspy from smoking too many cigarettes.
As nice as it was to have a caring individual that was always pleased to see you and affectionate in her demeanour, when you’re a kid the last thing you need is someone like that embarrassing you in front of your friends and I knew that as soon as she answered the bell she’d embrace me and give me a big kiss with her huge lips and call me “Jockey” – an affectionate pet name she had bestowed upon me because I was fairly short for my age.
"Jockey" My gods! – I knew if that pet name ever got back to the other kids I went to school with they’d tease the hell out of me. I mean I was already suffering enough torment at the hands of those cruel wannabe Guantanamo Bay Wardens. It would be like tying steak to someone in the midst of a den of lions.
Included in our alternate door knock agreement was a helpful clause that if someone did not answer then whose ever turn it was would have another turn with the following house. This randomised the possibility that I would be lumbered with having the knock on Aunt Ruby’s door. However I still ended up having to be the knocker when we arrived at her address.
I opened the gate and walked silently up the zigzag pathway with Billy close behind, wondering how I was going to get out of the inevitable embarrassment, hoping like hell she would be out but knowing deep down that she was always home this time of day, no doubt cooking dinner for her husband Gavin.
We got to the top of the path, climbed three or four steps up to the veranda and pressed the doorbell. A chime similar to that of Big Ben’s sounded as I waited beside Billy, trying my best to conceal my apprehension. Time passed and there was no response so I pressed the bell again. Same result.
I was going to call it quits but Billy said that perhaps she might be in the back yard. Not really having any argument to contradict this assumption I agreed and checked the rear garden with him but there was no sign of her there. We tried one last attempt by knocking on the rapper of the side door entrance and heard the sound of barking coming from within.
A couple of feet to the left of the door, there was a window that had been left open ajar and I could just hear the sound of the radio above the barking and caught a whiff of something cooking from within. Everything pointed to the fact that someone was home, yet as we stood there waiting not a hint of movement (save the dogs) could we detect.
Something was not quite right but I did not really concern myself too much with the logistics of the situation and pressed Billy to move on as we still had quite a number of houses in the street to visit. My misplaced confidence that I had dodged a bullet (so to speak) was short lived. Just as we were heading down the first zig (or want of a better word) of the pathway we bumped into Gavin, who was just returning home.
“What are you doing here?” he snarled, staring suspiciously at Billy and me.
“We are selling raffle tickets for our school,” I affirmed showing him the tickets.
“We tried your door but no one was home.” added Billy.
“Did you two go into my house?”
“No sir,” we both answered.
“Ruby’s gone to Christchurch to stay with relations for a few weeks,” he explained in a gruff tone of voice then turned to a woman who was walking behind him and said “This is Loretta, Ruby’s sister. She’s staying here for a while. “
“Hello dears,” said the woman and we in turn politely introduced ourselves to her.
Growing up I had always been gullible, that is to say I tended to believe what adults told me because I had a trusting nature and could not bring myself to believe any of them would lie to me. However there were times when even the most vivid of imaginations must enter into regions of doubt and I thought to myself that if Loretta is Ruby’s sister then I’m a monkey’s uncle (an expression I had picked up from my parents).
“Would you like to buy some raffle tickets then?” I asked her, hoping from the kindly look on her face that she would buy one just to be nice.
“No sorry boys I haven’t got any spare change at the moment.” She replied.
“Okay, well it was nice to meet you.” I said then continued down the pathway happy to have got away from being embarrassed by my so called Aunt Ruby.
After doing the rest of the street and some of Billy’s (he lived in the next street, which could be accessed from the bottom of ours), we went our separate ways. That night, during dinner, I told my mother about meeting up with Loretta, and how Aunt Ruby had travelled down south to Christchurch. This news seemed to come as somewhat of a surprise to her.
You see, despite the street being fairly long it was broken into several close knit communities and everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business. The likelihood that Ruby could have gone away on holiday without at least one of the neighbours being aware of it seemed highly unlikely.
After dinner my Mother phoned up the all local gossipmongers but none of them knew anything about Ruby’s trip, and because of the negative feedback, my anecdote quickly lost authenticity. Thus the matter was shelved and life went on.
There was a far more important matter to address. Before setting out on our door knocking chores we had been given two small carrier bags to keep the raffle tickets and money we had collected in. I had somehow misplaced the plastic bags, containing the docket stubs and most of the money. It must have fallen out of my pocket, or may left behind at one of the houses. To make matters worse the proceeds were earmarked for an approaching school trip.
My parents, though far from happy, bailed me out of the financial side of things by re-reimbursing the money I’d lost but it was left up to me to confess my transgression to the teacher and take care of the raffle tickets that had gone missing.
The school I was attending at the time was fairly entrenched in a regime of strict discipline. Pupils were regularly chastised with rulers and belts and caned across the fingertips by the headmaster, so it was with some trepidation that I confessed my careless misplacing of the money to the teacher.
Mrs Davenport was surprisingly understanding and was willing to spare punishment on the condition that I went back to all the houses that I’d sold tickets to and got a copy of the ticket numbers so that the school would know who had bought what ticket; should the stub be drawn. She also agreed not to announce my carelessness to the rest of the class.
I confided by transgression to Billy and he offered to assist me with the recollection of names and tickets etc. This was a great help because it alleviated some of the embarrassing stress associated with telling the neighbours that I had lost their ticket stubs.
Most of them were forgiving and sympathetic but there was the odd one that made a federal case about it. Having still a few spare tickets left over from the day before I thought it would be an idea to retry the Delany house again. The accusation that I had been dishonest regarding the previous day’s visit, had been working on my mind and I wanted to ask Loretta or even Gavin to visit or ring my parents and set the record straight.
We trudged back up the zigzag path and Billy insisted on ringing the front door bell as he was quite taken to the jingle. So he pressed it and we waited for a few minutes before he pressed it again. He stayed at the front door whilst I once checked the backyard and rapped on the side door. Finally we had to concede defeat and left as before though without bumping into Gavin or Loretta.
Then as we were walking up the street I spied something sitting in gutter. Something whitish and. my mind raced back to the $2.00 that Billy had found a few day prior Hoping my friend had not seen it, I hastened my step and then crouched but Billy stopped me just before I could touch it.
What lay at my feet wasn’t money; It was in fact false teeth; opaque and rather filthy with slight traces of blood at the top of them. I am pretty sure they were in a state of disrepair but time has a way of erasing certain details. On reflection though I am pretty sure one or more teeth were missing.
Now about the same-time my brother and I had a board game called Barnabas Collins in which you had to construct a skeleton. The game came with a set of fangs that the player could wear whilst playing, pretending to be a vampire. Since there was only one set of fangs there was a constant disagreement between us as to which of us should wear them. It occurred to me that if I was to wash and clean these false teeth then we could fashion them into fangs and both of us could be vampires at the same time.
Billy looked at me as if I had lost my mind when I told him about my intentions to take the teeth home and strongly advised me against such actions. At first I stubbornly insisted that it was a good plan but eventually the rational side of my mind took over. I was in enough trouble as it was with my parents for losing the money and other assorted misdemeanours, without bringing home a set of fifty blood-smeared false teeth I’d found in the gutter, and even if I had somehow figured out a way to sterilize them I doubt they would have allowed me to put them in my mouth or keep something that did not belong to me. Thus we left them where they sat and went on our way.
Three nights later, whilst I lay in bed, there was a rapid banging at our door and a man introduced himself to my parents as Detective Inspector Alexander Bakersfield. He explained that Ruby was missing and had not been seen for about a week and how in difference to Gavin’s assertions she had not turned up in Christchurch or had any known relations down there.
My parents did not want to wake me at the time, as it was reasonably late at night and felt I needed the sleep but that weekend I was interviewed by a policewoman about what I had heard and saw the two afternoons Billy and I had visited the Delany household. I told her about the barking dog, Gavin’s gruffness as well as how he had been interested to know if we had been inside his house and of course all about Loretta, and she said I had been most helpful, though in hindsight I think she was just being polite.
The gossipmongers seemed to revel in Ruby’s mysterious disappearance. Most alleging foul play; citing incidences the numerous times she had mentioned that Gavin (who among other things used to euthanize stray cats) had built some-sort death chamber in the basement of his house and how she had alleged he would one day use it on her.
Several weeks prior to the day the detective had alleged she’d flown down south my mother and I met her in a local café and had lunch with her. I clearly remember this because she was sporting a black-eye at the time and was quite distressed, so it also occurred to me that Gavin was not the mild mannered neighbour I’d previously assumed him to be and perhaps the gossipers were not too far wrong. Still it was all speculation and hearsay.
Investigations continued and one morning a sizeable collection of police-cars lined our street. By that evening they announced on television that Ruby’s body had been found buried beneath an apple-tree in the backyard of the Delany household.