Jimmy the Needle - Part 2

Elizabeth Brooke-Carr
Elizabeth Brooke-Carr. Photo: ODT

The fierce bargaining that accompanied the Bishop’s first crossing of the Waitaki with Jimmy the Needle, had left all parties looking forward to the sequel. Elizabeth Brooke-Carr takes up the story.


Part 2: The river claims its own Jimmy the Needle

Mary Fricker thought that the Bishop looked uncommonly pleased with himself, as if he'd lost a shilling and found a sovereign. She watched him lay his knife and fork together on the side of his empty plate and wipe his moustache with her best damask napkin. Not every traveller was given the privilege of using her finest table linen.

"Tasty bit of mutton, that,'' he said, leaning back in his chair. "God's bounty is great, even in this wild and empty land, is it not Ma'am?''

Not one to openly disagree with her customers, Mary nodded at the man of the cloth as he folded his hands across his belly. Above them, his silver fob chain spread in a lop-sided smile from vest pocket to buttonhole. It was all very well to give the credit to God, but she had half a mind to tell his Lordship that she'd had a fair hand in preparing this meal, herself. Instead she said, "There's bread and butter pudding in the oven, if you'd care for some.''

The Bishop did not reply directly. Mrs Fricker's accommodation house and her generous table had bestowed upon him a certain languor after the trials of the day. Southern hospitality was, after all, as unstinting as its reputation. Of course, that lanky ferryman, with his inflated prices and terse bargaining, had struck a sour note until they'd managed to get the business of the fare sorted out. He laughed aloud thinking about it, "Thank God for His grace in delivering me safely to this place.'' He lifted his hands to the walls of Mary Fricker's dining room, and slapped them back on the table, palms downwards. He shifted in his chair, "That's a fearsome stretch of water to cross, and your ferryman is none too merciful, if I might say so.''

"Indeed, you might,'' said Mary, her face taut as new fence wire. She swung from the sideboard, leaned to the table and removed the Bishop's plate. Perhaps the gentleman, for all his civility, had much to learn about survival in the south. She paused, the rim of his plate pressed to her apron, and sniffed, "But, Jimmy the Needle 'as his ways. And round these parts we give 'im his dues. He knows that river like a ewe knows her own lamb. An' he loves it too.''

The Bishop chuckled, feeling less chastised than amused at Mary Fricker standing her ground. Loyalty was a virtue, after all. "Yes, Ma'am,'' he said, "I can see that your ferryman is well acquainted with the river and how to handle a boat; there is no denying that. But his charges must soon see him out of business, if you ask me.''

Mary Fricker sniffed again, a quick, starchy sound like the rustle of her apron. If His Lordship had so much insight surely he must see also that trade flows as erratically as the river along the boundary of this province. And a man has to make a living. "Pudding, then?'' she asked.

Illustration: Mat Patchett
Illustration: Mat Patchett

It was past sunset on a late November evening when the Bishop returned. After his journey south, and a few weeks in Dunedin, he was back at Mrs Fricker's accommodation house, amiable as ever, asking where he might find Jimmy the Needle. The Bishop was anxious to get home to Christchurch as soon as possible. If the weather held up and he could persuade the ferryman to leave early in the morning, he and his valet might be home by the weekend.

"There'll be no need for bargaining,'' laughed the Bishop. "I know the deal this time. With God's good grace and a bit of extra tobacco your ferryman will get me across by mid-morning, I'm sure.''

Mary hesitated. This was going to be more difficult than she had imagined. Everyone knew that the Bishop and Jimmy had had a bit of a set-to, the community had buzzed with the gossip for a day or so after His Lordship had gone south. Jimmy's side of the story had taken a swipe at the Bishop's pomposity; and the Bishop's had pointed a finger at the ferryman's ethics. But they'd parted on friendly terms. Everyone knew that, too. And now she couldn't find the words to tell him what had happened.

Mary swallowed, looked hard at the Bishop who beamed back at her expectantly. He was in fine fettle, she thought, confident of a happy reunion with his ferryman. "I'll make a pot of tea,'' she said, disappearing into the kitchen.

The Bishop sensed that Mary was not herself. But, in the face of his own mounting anxiety, he let it pass. His fingers strummed the tabletop, marking out the metre of Forward! be our watchword, while he waited. He really must get hold of the ferryman tonight if they were to make an early start tomorrow.

Mary returned with tea and mutton sandwiches. She cleared her throat, "I'm sorry,'' she said, pushing the plate towards the Bishop. "Very sorry, to have to tell you this. But you'll not be making the crossing with Jimmy the Needle ...''

"But we've settled our differences. I thought ...''

"No. No. It's nothing like that,'' said Mary. She moved to the other side of the table. "There's been an accident. A dreadful accident. And Jimmy ... Jimmy the Needle was drowned.''

The Bishop stared at her. "The ferryman? Drowned?'' But he saw the pain in her face and he glanced away, towards the window.

Mary slid into the seat across from the Bishop and gripped her hands around her teacup, finding some comfort in the warmth of its curve.

"Drowned?'' said the Bishop again, as if he doubted his own ears.

"They say,'' she murmured, "that if you cross the Waitaki often enough it will get you in the end.''

"This is grim news, indeed,'' said the Bishop. "Who would have thought it? Jimmy the Needle. Drowned.'' His jovial features melted into the heaviness of the room. He looked back at her. "And he must have known every current and eddy in that river.''

"Oh 'e did,'' said Mary. "But it makes no difference in the end. The river always claims its own.'' Her teacup trembled in its saucer.

"But how?'' The Bishop shook his head as the irony of the ferryman's fate sank in. "How could something like this happen to such a hearty fellow?''

"It's a sad story,'' said Mary. "Te Rina, his wahine, had gone into labour early and things weren't going well. So Jimmy sets out for the doctor. They were ridin' back in the dark, Jimmy behind the doctor as they crossed a side stream, an' even though it was clear moonlight, the 'orse slipped and threw him. Happen he hit 'is head on a stone as he went into the water, and the current swept 'im downstream. Drowned before the doctor could do a thing to save 'im.''

"God rest his soul,'' murmured the Bishop. He stared at his hands for a full minute before he raised his head. "And his w ... Te Rina? Did she ...?''

Mary met his gaze and nodded. "She gave birth to a healthy little son. It was a long labour and she was done in, but the women at the pa had 'im all bundled up and tucked in with her by the time the doctor arrived. She was happy though, kept asking for her Jimmy and wouldn't rest until he came. So they 'ad to tell her. Poor girl. They say she hasn't spoken much since his tangi. He's up there now, 'longside my Ted and our wee Bessie.'' Mary jerked her head in the direction of the cemetery. "Te Rina's a plucky girl. She'll come right.''

Then, abruptly, Mary pushed back her chair. "No use tryin' to get hold a anyone tonight. There'll be someone over at the pa, them Maoris are real good with the mokihi. One of 'em 'll come and git you in the morning. You'd best turn in for the night.''

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