Jimmy the Needle - Part 3

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

Following the news of Jimmy’s untimely death, the Bishop has a surprise visitor, with an unexpected request, in the final part of Elizabeth Brooke-Carr’s short story. 

Part 3: Bargaining and baptism

Dust motes danced in the long shaft of sunlight slanting across the mahogany table in Mary Fricker's dining room. Water in the glass jug sparkled, and shards of silver light flicked around the room from the Bishop's busy knife and fork. He frowned as he picked a fine fish bone from his tongue and laid it with great delicacy on the rim of his plate. It's a pity that he wouldn't be making the river crossing with Jimmy the Needle. Quite a character, he was. The Bishop smiled as he recalled the ferryman's bargaining. His loss would be keenly felt in the river community.

When he had finished eating, Bishop Harper set his knife and fork alongside the cleanly picked bones of his breakfast flounder. He pressed a white napkin to his lips, perusing the pattern of shadows from the fish skeleton cast like a fine net on to Mary's Royal Doulton plate. And he stifled a little burp.

Mary bustled into the room, pink cheeked from leaning over the stove and smelling faintly of fish. "She's in the parlour now, y'r Lordship. I said as 'ow you'd almost finished and she said she'd wait.''

The Bishop wiped his fingers on the napkin and laid it beside his plate. His brow wrinkled. "I don't recall ...?''

Mary blushed. "Beggin' your pardon, sir, it's Te Rina. She came by a few minutes ago hopin' to speak with you before you left. She said as 'ow it's important, so I showed her to the parlour.''

"I see. Yes, of course.'' The Bishop rose, pushed his chair back, puzzled by the urgency. He would not have left without calling on her. That was the least a man of God could do in this unhappy situation.

"I'll make a fresh pot of tea and bring it to the parlour.''

Te Rina sat in one of the large armchairs beside the tapestry fire screen, her feet on the fender, crooning softly to her baby. She stopped when the Bishop entered and pushed the door to behind him. But she made no attempt to rise. "Ma'am,'' he said, "I am sorry to hear about your terrible loss. May God's blessing be with you and your little son.''

Te Rina blinked and swallowed but said nothing. She fiddled with the baby's blanket, tucked it back around his feet. The bishop stepped back and sat in the chair opposite. Above their heads, on the mantelpiece, a clock ticked steadily. A tall vase of toe-toe reflected in the over-mantel mirror, dipped its feathery fronds into the space between them, shivering a little from the movement in the room. From somewhere in the house came the sound of voices and the irregular clatter of dishes being scraped and stacked and washed.

The baby snuffled. Te Rina looked into his sleeping face then up at the Bishop. "Seeing as you won't be doing our wedding,'' she said, "I wondered if you'd do a ... baptism?'' She lowered her eyes, and traced around the arc of her baby's cheek with a curved finger. His lips searched for her knuckle. "It's what Jimmy wanted you to do. When you came back.''

"A baptism?''

"Yes, sir. Our wedding. And our baby baptised. It's what he said again before he went for the doctor.'' She thought it best not to add that Jimmy had reasoned it was fair enough, and a damned good bargain for the man of God. "If I gotta work hard for a living I don't see why His Lordship shouldn't do the same.'' Then he'd kissed her and headed out into the darkness.

Illustration: Mat Patchett
Illustration: Mat Patchett

Bishop Harper shifted his hands in his lap, pressed his finger tips together and studied them so intensely he might have been examining characters in an ancient text. Loss could be a terrifying and lonely experience; and this young woman sitting across from him seemed a pathetic and solitary figure, even as she held her baby close. He shifted his gaze to the child's head and his face creased into a smile as the tiny mouth seized her knuckle, suckled and dozed, twitched awake and dozed again. Then he rose, stepped forward, and stooping slightly, brushed his hand over the soft fuzz of reddish-gold hair on the baby's head. "Yes, Ma'am,'' he said. "Perhaps this is God's will too.''

Down at the riverside, an hour or so later, Te Rina stood rocking her baby slowly back and forth. Some half-sung, half-whispered lyrics that Jimmy used to holler, caught like sobs in her throat, "The white man loved the Maori maid, Way-ay you rolling river! ... A-way we're bound away, 'cross the wide Waitaki''.

Nearby, on the upturned hull of Jimmy the Needle's mokihi, a white cloth embroidered at the corners with doves carrying olive branches had been spread. On it lay the Book of Common Prayer and a crystal bowl, borrowed from Mary's sideboard, filled with newly consecrated water from the river. It's sun-dimpled surface danced spangles across Te Rina's face. Bishop Harper in his white alb and Mary Fricker in her Sunday best black bombazine with the lace collar she had tatted herself, came to stand with Te Rina, and her song trailed to a stop.

"Are we ready then?'' smiled the Bishop. He spread his arms to include the shy women from the pa. They stepped closer. With soft glances at Te Rina they began to sing, hips swaying gracefully, voices blending the Maori words and lyrical harmonies of their waiata with smooth gliding arm movements and hands that seemed to carve the air. Drawn into the flowing rhythm, the Bishop closed his eyes. The hem of his alb swayed back and forth above the stony ground as a censer, swung gently, oscillates above the tiled floor of a great cathedral. Ah, he thought, this was melody to inspire deep calm and serenity, music to rival the timeless, hypnotic plainchant of his own tradition: an introit of great tranquillity.

As the cadences ebbed away the Bishop opened his eyes.

His brief homily on the saving grace of Christian baptism was delivered with robust and solemn dignity, the kind reserved for the most holy ecclesiastical occasions, and vigorous enough, he hoped, to find the ferryman's ears wherever he was. When Bishop Harper reached for the baby a great tenderness shone on his face. With Jimmy the Needle's son in the crook of one arm, he tilted forward, holding the downy head over the crystal font and dipped his free hand into the water. From the cup of his palm he trickled it over the infant's crown. The river water ran like a trill of musical notes back into the bowl. At once the baby began to howl.

With moistened fingers the Bishop drew the sign of the cross on the baby's forehead. "Henry James,'' he declared, "I baptise thee in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.''

Young Harry continued to bawl lustily even after the Bishop had handed him to his godmother. Mary thought the little one's voice was shaping up to be as rousing as his father's. She laid him over her shoulder and patted his back, shushing softly. Harry worked himself into a state of agitation during the concluding prayer, his face contorted and red with exertion. But the Bishop was not deflected from his purpose. "May this child grow in grace and holiness and come eventually to share in God's eternal kingdom ...'' Harry bawled on, a rowdy counterpoint to the Bishop's benediction. Mary jiggled Harry on her shoulder until the final amen. Then turning him to face her she murmured in response, "Amen''.

Harry burped and stopped crying. A trickle of curdled milk ran from his mouth down the pin tucks of her bombazine-covered breast. She kissed his cheek and passed him back to his mother.

With the nor'west breeze soughing down the valley the day had warmed rapidly. Mary felt uncomfortably hot. Bishop Harper, preparing to leave, removed his alb and tucked it with the prayer book and white cloth into his valise. Kapa waited at the water's edge keeping an eye on the sky. They would be OK if they set out now, but the wind was growing stronger, building up to a big blow by the look of the streaky clouds stretching back over the mountains. He held Jimmy the Needle's mokihi steady as the valet handed in the Bishop and slid in himself. Soon they were settled and pulling away from the bank.

Mary paused from dabbing her handkerchief at the damp patch on her breast, to flutter the lace edged square above her head. "Godspeed, y'r Lordship,'' she called. She could have sworn she heard Jimmy's husky voice, messing with the words of his favourite sea shanty and bellowing off-key, keeping time with the movement of the oars. "Oh Wai-ta-ha, I loved your daughter, Way-ay you rolling river, Across that wide and rolling river, A-way I'm bound a-way, 'cross the wide Wai-taki!''

"Haere ra,'' breathed Te Rina, at Mary's shoulder.

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