Sarah Myles grandfather, Frank Christmas, died in the Erebus Disaster. Forty years on, she faces the past.
There are moments I will remember for the rest of my life. The beach at Worser Bay on a hot summer's day. The rock concerts I went to at Athletic Park. The morning my father moved out. The day I married my best friend. The births of my daughters. The petals I scattered on my grandparents' graves. A bungy jump. A car crash. The Eiffel Tower. These moments are comforting and painful and delicate and mighty. I replay them and pause them and put them away, keeping them safe like trinkets or jewels. So many moments to catalogue and remember—apart from one.
This memory I will never forget because it is my first. I am standing in my grandmother's kitchen, enjoying a biscuit. Maybe I just woke up; maybe I am waiting for bed. Either way, no one will meet my eye. A commanding knock echoes through the room, and the air around me begins to hum. My father takes charge and crosses the kitchen floor. He turns the door handle. Two Big Blue Men walk into the room.
I am on the periphery, small and quiet. The Big Blue Men pass me by. They follow my father into the lounge and my grandmother trails behind them. My memory turns hazy for a moment—my father's arm, my mother's tears. Then someone herds me out of the kitchen and into the darkened hallway. The door is closed behind me.
My biscuit is soggy. The shagpile carpet, usually warm and comforting, is itchy and hot against my toes. Something is up. I want my mother.
I bang on the hallway door. "Hey! Let me out!"
A shaft of light grows warm and strong beside me. It is coming from my grandfather's makeshift office, banished to the unused entranceway of the house. We are forbidden to enter his office, but I still know what is inside. The old front door is barricaded with a draughtsman's desk, while row upon row of shelving gently cradles the tools of my grandfather's craft: pencils, paperwork, tax records. The office door is always closed, but the faint traces of cigarettes and Old Spice waft through to the hallway.
The wavy glass in the door distorts the light, which grows stronger, and soon the office door is glowing. I momentarily forget the dark hallway and my itchy toes. The light is tinged with a stark blue hue—not the close-woven fabric of the Big Blue Men, but the tightly rolled blueprints my grandfather so carefully crafted. The hallways and bedrooms of other people's lives.
When I am much older, I will learn that this is not the first visit the Big Blue Men have paid to my grandparents' house. They have already interviewed my grandmother. They have already recorded her statement.
Private school helping 70 students battle vaping addictions
'Meditative experience': U2's Adam Clayton on Auckland concerts
They have already taken my grandfather's personal items.
"'Go and get his brush and comb."
They already have his dental records.
"Someone call Blue Wallace. He only took Frank's teeth out a few months ago."
They have already lifted his fingerprints.
"He put a new battery in the kitchen clock right before he left. Would that help?" They have already asked about his war wounds, his jewellery, and his scars.
But right now, I know none of this. Right now, I am in the hallway and the Big Blue Men are in the lounge and they are handing my grandmother three photographs. One shows a tie, another a shirt and the third a pair of trousers. "Mrs Christmas, do you recognise any of these items?" "The shirt and tie look like the ones he was wearing, yes. He bought the shirt in Singapore last Christmas, and that tie was Austrian." Her tears fall, but the Big Blue Men press on.
"Mrs Christmas, is there anything else you have that might help to identify the body of your husband?"
Eileen swallows her pain and finds the strength to stand. On unsteady legs, she walks towards her glory box, then kneels before it. She opens the lid and pulls out her sewing kit. Hands shaking, she removes two pieces of matching fabric: the offcuts of Frank's trouser legs she had shortened in preparation for his flight. She turns to the Big Blue Men, and their breathing quickens. The fabric matches the trousers in the photograph perfectly.
But my grandmother isn't quite ready to hand over this last piece of her Frank. She takes a moment to say goodbye, her fingers gently caressing the weave of the cloth, pulling at the frayed ends.
"Mrs Christmas . . ."
My grandmother unfurls her fingers. She releases the fabric to the Big Blue Men.
They attach it to a file labelled 15.3 / 2 / 4. Their work is almost done.
"Mrs Christmas, we just need a JP to witness your signature, and then we'll be on our way. Is there someone we could call?"
"Someone . . . someone go and get Stan Florence from up the road."
Stan knows why he's been summoned. He and Frank and Eileen go way back. He finds it hard to meet her gaze.
"'Okay, Eileen, let's have a look." He scans the photographs and the deposition, and his body stiffens. His jaw begins to quiver, but he catches himself and clears his throat. He has a job to do.
Stan watches as Eileen initials each photograph, confirming the clothing belongs to her husband. She reads the deposition and signs her name. Then Stan takes the pen and writes: Deposition witnessed by me and sworn at New Plymouth this 17th day of December, 1979. Stanley Florence, Justice of the Peace of New Zealand. He passes the forms back to the Big Blue Men.
No one speaks.
Stan squeezes Eileen's shoulder as he makes to leave. "All right, Chrissy?"
He uses her nickname in an attempt to suppress the answer no one wants to hear. She nods her head, saving him from the awkwardness of the truth.
Then the Big Blue Men stand, their uniforms uncomfortable and itchy in the heat.
The family isn't ready for them to leave.
"It's been almost a month. Why has it taken so long?"
"The newspapers said the others from New Plymouth have already been identified."
"'Will he be home in time for Christmas?"
Someone is banging on the hallway door. The children are growing restless.
"We'll be in touch, Mrs Christmas," the Big Blue Men say. "Thank you for your time."
Extract from Towards the Mountain: A story of grief and hope forty years on from Erebus, by Sarah Myles (Allen & Unwin NZ, $40). The book marks the 40th anniversary of the Erebus disaster when, on November 28, 1979, an Air New Zealand plane on a sightseeing flight to Antarctica crashed into Mt Erebus killing all 237 passengers and 20 crew on board.