Steve Braunias tells the tale of meeting Trevor Brown outside a KFC, and their investigation into the possible meaning of the old saying, "I would give my right arm".
Probably the one place in all of the world where I spend the most time is the Pt Chevalier bus stop outside KFC. To be precisely and truly boring I often take a bus in from town as far as Pt Chevalier, which acts as a kind of terminus for westward public transport, and wait for the 132 over the water to my home on the Te Atatu peninsula.
Sometimes I wait inside the Colonel's chicken shack and watch music videos while gnawing on a wing; at night, standing on the pavement, a strong, smoky scent of burned meat wafts from the restaurant next door, Chargrilled Lamb Shoulder BBQ.
Yes, how dynamic, it's all go I tell you, and the other day I stood there minding my own business when a man walked up to me and said, "Are you the writer?"
He looked to be in his 60s or 70s and had blue eyes set in a square face. He was about my height, and moved with a restless energy, a zest; his manner was really quite avid and forthright. The sun was behind him. The afternoon was very bright. I looked him in the eye but sensed there was some kind of blurriness to his outline, something askew.
I asked him for his name and he said it was Trevor Brown. Neither of us made any attempt to shake hands, and he said, "You've been on my mind a lot, actually. I read everything you write and I've been wanting to get hold of you but wasn't sure how to go about it. And here you are! It's fate."
"It's the 132 bus, but okay," I said.
This was off-hand and I regretted it because it's always nice to meet someone who likes my writing. I also worry I'll be disappointing and say bland things, and usually try to get away as quickly as possible, but I had nowhere to go, and we continued facing each other on the pavement in bright late autumn sunshine.
"There's been something on my mind that I have to tell you about," he said.
Every journalist knows the agony of having to put up with strangers wanting their story told. Newsrooms are chambers of suspense – you never know who's going to be on the phone when it rings, and you never know if it's going to be a promising lead or a complete waste of time.
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Most calls are a complete waste of time. They routinely phone to moan, or brag, or gossip. It's not news, it's not interesting, it's not anything anyone needs to know. The caller persists; the journalist holds the phone at arm's distance, wonders why they do this for a living and for how much longer. It's a terrible exchange, a shocking imbalance of power – a stranger calls for help, but it's rejected.
The caller is left to stew with their untold story. The journalist is left to ponder their authority as a gatekeeper in the tower of story. So many buried and unwanted stories, extinguished like points of light.
In person it's worse. I have never once followed up any story suggestion from someone who approaches me on the street. It happens quite a lot, and always begins when the stranger pays me a compliment about my writing. Flattery gets them everywhere. They have an audience. I stand there and listen to some passionate, baffling, pointless story and long for the moment I can lope off and leave.
"I have a title for you," said Trevor. "I Would Give My Right Arm".
I had held his gaze but now I turned my eyes to look at that blurry outline, and noticed that he did not appear to have a right arm.
Six days later I turned up at his house for an interview.
The best journalists have a contact book. It's hard currency, it's solid gold. It's an insider's compendium of the movers and shakers, the reliable sources, the whistleblowers. Calls are made and calls are taken. There might be a rendezvous in an out of town cafe. Nationally important stories are broken, shocking injustices are addressed. I don't have a contact book. I keep a few names and numbers in my phone but they really only function as souvenirs or mementos from interviews. No one ever phones, no one ever writes.
I took the 132 bus from Te Atatu over the water to Pt Chevalier, and walked along Great North Rd. It's an old stamping ground. It was where our daughter came home to after she was born – it was a difficult birth, they kept her at ICU, to finally bring her home was a considerable triumph.
She learned to walk in Pt Chevalier. She went to a daycare in Pt Chevalier. We took her in the pushchair to the zoo and around the lake at Western Park; she ran on the lawns in front of the Horticultural Hall, and ate finger buns from Baker's Delight.
Every family has their own private archive of stories. We sit around on summer evenings and share fond memories of our shared history, remembering small moments, little adventures, beautiful intimacies. The years in Pt Chevalier form the foundation myths of the family I made with Emily and Minka.
They matter to no one except to ourselves, although there were intersections with the lives of others – friends, family, and neighbours, such as the woman who lived four houses down. I mowed her lawns. She foraged the neighbourhood for food. Her curtains and blinds were always drawn. She talked a little bit about her life, but it remained a mystery, was as closed as her curtains. What was her story? It fascinated me and I also felt deeply for her, missed her when we moved to Te Atatu, worried about her lawns – she was too frail to cut them.
A few years later Jacinda Ardern moved into the street. I retrieved a phone number from my souvenirs as a journalist and texted her one Christmas, and asked if she would drop off some kind of gift hamper at the woman's front step. She said she would be only pleased to. It's nice to think of that small, gentle woman opening the door at Christmas to find a parcel of food left for her by the Prime Minister.
Private acts, untold stories. Trevor Brown lived around the corner all that time and I would have walked past his house a million times; I knew that house, as do countless Auckland motorists travelling up and down that busy stretch of Great North Rd, alerted to the red neon OPEN sign in the front window and a sandwich board on the pavement advertising it as Agnes Brown jewelry repairs.
Trevor sat on the front porch in the sun. It was a nice spot, shaded by a bottle-brush tree and the thick leaves of a banana plant, except that all of Auckland drove past and I couldn't hear a word he said. We headed around the back. The house next door had firewood stacked inside a sunroom.
Isaid, "What happened?"
He said, "It's something I never really thought a great deal about. It's just more recent times – that title, 'I would give my right arm'. And reading you, and thinking I should tell you."
He spoke continually like that, disconnected sentences, non-sequiturs, the logic all there but in pieces.
I said, "Okay. But what happened? Let's see if we can find a beginning."
He said, "I was born in Surrey Crescent." He meant the street in Grey Lynn, lined with plane trees. And then he described how he was born to Lou and Mary Read in 1941, but adopted out at six weeks to Trevor and Edith Brown. "They couldn't have a child. What they did in those days they looked in the Herald for adoption."
I said, "In the classifieds? Firewood, ovens, babies?"
"That's right," he said. "I've found the one for my sister on microfilm. She was also adopted, in - I also found our adoption certificates. When I was 40 and started the quest to look for my birth parents, my father said, 'Edith, do you think he's old enough to handle the information?' Mum said I was, so he showed it to me. It said, 'Hereby Brian Stanley Read shall now be known as Trevor Ross Brown.'
"And so – but when I was 18, my younger sister and I had a disagreement one weekend, and in anger she turned around to me and said, 'They're your parents. They're not my parents. I'm adopted.'
"I thought that was a pretty harsh thing to say. That night, dad came home from work. We played the piano in the lounge in the evenings; everybody did back then. If I ever had a thing to discuss, I'd lean over the back of the piano. So I said to him, 'Raewyn said something unusual today.' I told them what she said, and dad leaned back and roared with laughter. Then he straightened up, and said, 'So are you.' and that's how I learned I was adopted."
Later, after I left, I thought: Trevor had a story for every occasion. It was the way he communicated, his natural setting; ask him for the time, he'd submit to the urge to tell a story about the nature or essence of time.
He talked about tagging along with his parents throughout the North Island during the war, when his father mapped out defence fortifications on either coast to repel enemy invasion. "I lived in 13 different locations before I went to school. They travelled in military trucks and wore uniforms. I remember Ohope Beach. I remember parties. They photographed me with a cigarette in my mouth."
The family settled in Te Kuiti. They adopted Raewyn, his younger sister, and then his mother gave birth to two more children. "That very often happens," Trevor said. "There was seven years between me and Rodney. We're very close, he's a good brother, and then they had Rhonda."
Raewyn, Rodney, Rhonda, and Trevor was known then as Ross. The family were raised 7th Day Adventist. "We couldn't play footy on the Saturday because that was the Sabbath." Te Kuiti was quiet, his childhood was happy, rural, secure. "Church on every corner, and two picture theatres, which we were never allowed to go to of course. Rode a bike to school. And then at the age of 14, during the May school holidays ..."
He had arrived at the central story of his life. I asked again, "What happened?"
Trevor and Agnes, his partner, keep caged birds. Two budgies and two parakeets whistled and squawked in the laundry next to the little workroom by the back door where our interview took place. And so the soundtrack to Trevor's harrowing story was a warbling, merry kind of chatter, punctuated by the occasional blood-curdling and agonised scream.
He couldn't remember the date but knew it was a Sunday in May, 1956.
He said, "It was the beginning of winter. A sunny day. It happened in the afternoon. We'd had lunch. A funny thing is that the events that happened earlier that day are as clear as if they happened yesterday. I looked across form where we lived and there were some kids trying to get on this pony. I thought, 'I'll go over and show them how to do it.' So I did, and it bucked me off! I went back home and sat on the veranda and ate an apple. Then I sauntered around the back where Dad was doing the sawing, and I said, 'Can I have a go?'"
His father wanted to cut up a stand of old fruit trees to lay in firewood for the winter. A portable sawmill had been delivered on the back of a trailer.
One of the birds whistled sweetly in its cage in the laundry. Trevor said, "It was a sliding bench saw powered by a petrol motor. It's got a channel that you lay the log across. We were felling all these trees and cutting them up for firewood. There was one particular tree that was quite big, a nectarine tree. I was working at the saw, and Dad was behind me, probably about 10 metres away, and had started chipping away at the trunk of this tree with an axe, ready to bring it down, so we could saw that.
"Working on the saw, it's very, very noisy, and there was no protective gear in those days. I just remember working at the saw and the next thing I heard an almighty bash from behind. Wham. I never saw it coming. I felt this big bump on the back of my head. An almighty bam. The next thing I know I was on the ground.
"The tree had hit me, and pushed me into the blade. My arm was across my body. There was blood everywhere. It was a circular saw. I felt the bump on my head, but I don't remember hitting the blade. It hit my chest and shoulder. Nicked one rib. And then up through the upper arm. It cut through that like an apple. It cut it in half, and came out the back. All of that fell open. It just opened up.
"I reached across and felt the sliminess of the bones. My arm was being held on by my armpit. Just the armpit."
One of the birds screamed. I said, "Were you lying on your back on the ground?"
Trevor said, "Dad came over and I remember looking up and seeing him. Her still had his axe in his hand and I thought, 'Oh, he's going to finish me off like a wounded animal.'"
I asked whether he could remember his father's face as he loomed over him. Trevor said, "He looked fearful. Very, very serious. He was a tall man; he claimed to be the fittest man in New Zealand, because as a surveyor he did a lot of walking. He had brown eyes. I used to query how come my mum and dad both have brown eyes, and my and Raewyn both had blue eyes."
The noise of the saw, the silhouette of his father and the axe; the house out on the town boundary, in farmland – the great New Zealand poet Alistair Campbell was referring to Te Kuiti when he wrote the lines, "the streets are cleared/ the township holds its breath".
Trevor continued with his story. "I was doing human biology at school, and I knew what arteries were. My radial artery, which goes through your arm, had been severed, and there was blood splashing everywhere. I'd learned you will bleed to death in 12 minutes if you cut through the radial artery. So I'm thinking, 'Well, this is curtains.'
"I can remember seeing Dad standing there and saying, 'Oh my God, what am I doing to do?' And do you know what I said? I'm not a religious person. But I thought, 'You cant do anything. The hospital's a long way away. It's a Sunday. I don't know if there is an ambulance in Te Kuiti.' And Dad's standing there going, 'What am I going to do?', and he's still holding the axe. And I said: 'Pray for me.' From a 14-year-old boy! I just thought, 'This is it. Pray for me.'
"So anyway the sawmill was still going, so he turned it off and then he disappeared. He must have gone and got mum to ring Dr Mandanow. He was out mowing his lawn, and his wife came out, and said, 'Turn it off! Quick!' My brother recalls Dr Mandanow arriving in his Morris Minor, and he jumped out while it was still going, and the handbrake was off, and the car went into the vegetable garden. He shot around the back and put a tourniquet on."
I said, "Do you remember seeing him?"
He nodded, and said, "I remember being very pleased to see somebody who might be able to do something. They got an old mattress and got me onto it and carried me – we had an old Dodge, and they pulled me into the back seat and took me to Te Kuiti hospital. I had relief that there was a chance something could be done."
A bird screamed. I near leaped out of my skin; Trevor calmly continued, "I was in the operating theatre, there's a nurse cutting my trousers off, Dr Mandanow was there, he's all scrubbed up, and he said, 'You're going to go into theatre soon, Ross. And when you regain consciousness, you may not have your right arm.'
"When I came out, two things happened. The nurse was there with her mask on. I remember her beautiful blue eyes. And she said, 'Trevor, can you hear me?' And I thought, 'They've got my name right at last!' And I was known as Trevor from then on. I wasn't going to have Ross anymore.
"And the other thing – just as I was going into theatre, another doctor in the town was arriving home from the holidays. Te Kuiti being a small town, the neighbours let him know there'd been this horrific accident. This was Dr Hopkirk, who was specialising in orthopaedics. So he jumped in his car and got to the hospital and said to Mandanow, 'Would you like me to take over?' And Mandanow said, 'Thank God, would you please?'
"So it was Dr Hopkirk who actually took over and saved it. He saved the arm."
This came as a shock: I thought he'd lost the arm. When we stood on the pavement in front of KFC, his right arm looked like a prosthetic; he wore a kind of golfing glove, and a plastic structure was evident beneath the top of his shirtsleeve. I assumed my interview was with a one-armed man. When I listen back to the tape recording of our interview, I sound disappointed. almost affronted, when I asked, "You kept your arm?"
He said, "That's right. It hasn't come completely off. I can show you. Will that help?"
Our chance encounter at a bus stop outside KFC was like the first piece in a puzzle. I went ahead with our interview partly out of that most basic quality at the heart of all journalism – curiousity – but suspected there was something else leading me to his door, something more than just an appointment with someone who appeared to be an amputee. "It's fate," Trevor had said.
The story wasn't topical, pointed to no particular social issue, couldn't be described as a commitment to seeking the truth to serve the wider public interest. It wasn't any of those things and in fact the kind of journalism I practise seldom is, which might explain the empty contacts book. Even so, there's usually some journalistic aspect to the stories I write, something which makes it news of a kind.
But the story of Trevor didn't have any reason to exist. All that led up to it was that I'd met a man on the street. I hadn't just left the scene and loped off when Trevor made his appeal; I'd followed through, and found myself in a small jewellery repair workroom by the back door – there were cases of bracelets and necklaces, rings on a dummy's severed hand – listening to a gothic and amazingly detailed memoir of a terrible accident. It was a specific event from a specific time and place: the circular saw, the nectarine tree, his father looming over him with an axe like some character from an Oedipal fantasy, the back yard of a King Country town on a winter's day more than 60 years past. There was nothing more to it than that. It was an isolated incident - and yet I had a sense even before I arrived and heard his story that it would be a kind of reckoning.
When I did arrive, and duly heard his story, it was like listening to all the interviews I had ever conducted with thousands of people. This would have made it quite crowded in the small workroom. It was already very noisy. The birds whistled and squawked in the laundry, mocking my entire career, an absurd soundtrack to all the years I had spent examining private lives and extracting stories. Trevor's story, isolated from topicality or public interest, struck me as a beautifully told model of all the stories I'd collected. It was an archetype, a strange quintessence.
Journalism is the practise of asking personal questions of complete strangers. A few object, but many people invite it, welcome it, give it all up willingly and generously. The need to share a story is profound. The need for a journalist to blunder in and trample all over the story is just as profound. Here I was prompting Trevor to tell his story (calmly asking him to remember a gory and traumatic injury when he was a boy of 14: "Were you lying on your back?") with no real idea of what I was going to do with it, if anything, and secretly wondering if it might be a waste of time. There's a lot of fine talk from journalists, usually advertised on social media, that it's a "privilege" to tell the personal story of someone who they've interviewed. I don't go in for this talk. An interview is a complicated exchange.
Certainly I was in awe of Trevor's story, or stories. He made everything sound so ancient. His preamble about the adoption notices in the classified section, and his Dad travelling from coast to coast in an army uniform during the war, were reports from a distant past, and his setting, too, in Te Kuiti, with the Dodge and the Morris Minor, was like a scene from a provincial 1950s novel. He had the gift of close and unusually vivid recall – jumping on and falling off the pony, and sitting on a veranda to eat an apple, were the last two meaningful acts he ever carried out with his right hand.
All interviews are a kind of strip-tease, a removal of layers to get to the truth or something resembling the truth. Trevor was so adept at story telling that he volunteered to strip. "I can show you," he said, and took off his shirt.
It was like no arm I'd ever seen before, something grotesque, askew, wrong, also ingenious and remarkable, a work of art. The arm had been saved. The arm had been put back on. The arm, sawed off and hanging on only by the armpit, had been realigned, stitched up, and bone taken from his shin had gone into making a shoulder which was like no shoulder I'd ever seen before. I asked, "What does the arm do?" He said, "It fills in my shirt." The lower part of his arm is numb, his hand virtually has no feeling at all. He wears a plastic cap over his shoulder to protect it from bumping into things; the pain is otherwise intolerable.
"Aaaargh!", screamed one of the birds.
Trevor stood there unselfconsciously, calmly pointing out bone transplants and scar tissue. He did it without much interest and there was something formal about it. He went about it like an act of courtesy. Whenever he was tied down to facts and information, he disappeared a little; what animated him, gave him force, was story telling. He flickered back into life when he said, "When I came to in the recovery room, I thought, 'I'm alive. I've still got my arm. I've got my name back.' And then the nurse brought in big glass of ice cubes and said, 'You can't have a drink but you can suck on an icecube.' She left it on the table and it melted so I drank it anyway.
"After three or four days they decided I was well enough to travel up to Waikato Hospital. That was an ordeal. I was in a ward full of guys who had come back from Korea with legs blown off. I was in and out of theatre nearly every day and they would open it all up and do repair work. I was on morphine very 3 hours. I know what morphine dreams are. They are very good value. But the pain was terrific. I remember one of the patients saying, 'Someone shut him up.' It was agony. Agony. They were opening it all up and disturbing everything and this went on for weeks. They finally let me go home at Christmas.
"My dad had a disappointment. I went back to school and there was end of year celebrations in the hall. The principal and the mayor were there and they gave out awards. It came to the award for the person who had overcome the greatest difficulty or handicap in the last year. My dad thought I'd be a shoo-in. But it went to an asthmatic."
The miracle of it was that he was alive to tell the tale, or tales. I said, "Why is it you didn't bleed to death?"
He said, "They talk about a piece of wood, like a stick, or a branch, being lodged, being lodged into the injury, and it helped staunch the bleeding. I've never investigated what – in fact I've never ever until recent times wanted to talk about any of it.
"I'm coming more out of myself in recent times. Last Christmas we went out to Gulf Harbour to my brother Rodney's place. I said to him , 'I'd like to ask you a personal question. It's about my accident.'
"He's a practising 7th Day Adventist, he and his wife. Lovely people. And he said, 'What do you need to know?'
"I said, 'How did dad cope with it?'
"He said, 'Ross, he never recovered.'
"Dad helped me get a driver's license after the injury. Helped me with things that might make life easier for me. It was his way of showing – it was like he was saying, 'I don't really want to talk about this but I can help you by doing things.'
"And I recall when I was in hospital being given a notebook to learn to write left handed. I wrote a letter to my Dad. It was just, 'I've been asked to write to you using my left hand, what do you think of my new style?' And I understand that he kept it. He kept all the notes from the orthopaedic people, like the one that said we've decided we are going to amputate. He kept all those things."
He looked into the distance, reflecting on his father; it was a sensitive moment, and I duly trampled all over it. I said, "The accident – do you think your dad was reckless?"
"Gaaaah!", screamed one of the birds. I wanted very badly to wring its neck.
"Oh he knew it was reckless," Trevor said. "He knew it was a stupid thing to do. He always accepted he was to blame. Because he really was."
And then he told a strange story about a man in town who bought the family Dodge, and gave Trevor a lift one day after the accident. "I remarked on how well he'd restored the paintwork and how well it as running. We got to my house, and he said, 'Don't get out just yet. I want to talk to you.'
"He started talking about forces from outer space and things destined in the stars that are going to happen. And then he said, 'You know that accident you had? It really wasn't an accident.'
"I said 'Oh what do you mean?'
"He said it was destined it was going to happen, and that someone was going to perpetrate it, and make it happen. I said, 'Well, thanks very much for the lift. I'd better go.'"
The small town, the big American car, drama and suspense around every corner – these lines are also from Alistair Campbell's Te Kuiti poem: "The shadows stand with flattened palms/ against the walls of buildings."
So he was in a terrible accident. So he survived. He got on with it. He trained as a teacher, rose to the position of principal. He got married, and had a daughter. He stayed close to the central North Island and then he came to Auckland, buying a home barely five minutes drive from where he was born in Surrey Crescent, Grey Lynn. But the incident at the sawmill remained a constant fact; he was marked for life.
"There have been times when I've wanted to turn back the clock," he said. "Because that title, those words, 'I would give my right arm', has become more – it's just - I've felt – I've worked twice as hard as the average person to get the little I have. But there's no going back. You can't put the clock back."
His disjointed speech circled around that title, approached it from an angle, backed off. He kept coming back to it all throughout our interview. It was his own piece of the puzzle.
The reckoning that led me to interview Trevor was that I knew at some level I would have to concede my entire career – at its essence, its very nature - had come down to sitting inside a small room with a 77-year-old man who took off his shirt to reveal a shattered arm. I hadn't exposed corruption or righted social wrongs. I never broke a story or led the news hour.
But this wasn't any cause for regret. I was perfectly content that 39 years of writing had come down to sitting inside a small room with a 77-year-old man who took off his shirt to reveal a shattered arm. I have always regarded the kind of journalism I conduct as a really interesting pastime. I even thought of it as meaningful.
Trevor seemed to have an intuition of that grandiose belief. He was on a search for meaning. "It's fate," he said, of our casual encounter at a bus-stop outside KFC, and I began to wonder that he might have had a point, that we were destined to meet for a kind of show-down, a mutual reckoning. Our interview provided an opportunity for me to see my career in a clear light. For Trevor, it was a chance to approach a riddle, maybe even solve it.
The riddle was that title, the old saying, "I would give my right arm." He repeated it over and over throughout the interview, as if were a spell, but he didn't know what it actually cast. Trevor said he'd seldom talked about the accident. I asked how he felt talking about it now, at length, in detail. He said, "I feel that with you – it had been on my mind that somebody I respected, who has a bit of an attitude about knowing the Kiwi way of life – I've liked the way you've handled this type of saga. There's so many I can't isolate them.
"I can relate to some of your writings about family. I felt for your brother who passed away. I read that in an anthology [Death and Dying in New Zealand]. I got it out of the library to read your piece. I think us Kiwis, who are educated and fairly well read, aspire to write like Steve Braunias. I think you can take a topic - or a story title, or a book title - and spin it on its head. The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road – I keep getting that out of the library, because I think I've missed something. And your crime book [The Scene of the Crime], I want to read that again because I know there'll be things I've missed. "But the point that I've been thinking about with your involvement, in any shape or form, is the saying. 'I've give my right arm for that.' And the implications of that. Do you know what you're really saying when you say that? It's like taking the Lord's name in vain. Because I'll take you up on it. If anyone wants to give up their right arm, I'll take one, because I could use one.
"The ramifications of that title, the meaning of that saying – 'I'd give my right arm' – I'm more sensitive than most people to what it could mean. And that's why I've been thinking, 'I want to talk to Steve about this and see what he makes of it.' And there you were, and here we are."
And away we went, Trevor inspecting his piece of the puzzle from various angles, turning it over, holding it up to the light. The title or saying had a gleam to it, like a shimmering light. He was drawn to it. I would give my right arm. He said, "I'm eccentric about symmetry. Looking at you, I see you've got shoulders that go into two arms. There's symmetry there. I can't bear to continue looking at something on television that's perfect symmetry and I haven't got it. I keep that to myself and I deal with it."
One of the birds set up a merry whistle.
He said, "I've had to accept it's not going to get any better. I've got to do what I can with it. When I've gone to a new school, as principal, one of the first things I do is draw a picture of myself on the blackboard without a head. And I show the class where the injury occurred and why. I took it upon myself to do that. And I found – human nature responds to it, rather than for there to be a shadow of a doubt." I would give my right arm.
But perhaps the point of his search for meaning was the search itself. He was never going to solve the riddle, find the answer, achieve any kind of closure; the bright, gleaming title was like a metaphor for his entire life. So much about Trevor was disjointed. His speech was disjointed. He was born and given up for adoption. He found out the truth when he stood behind a piano and asked his father. His father felled a tree which bashed his son into the path of a circular saw. The arm was put back together with bone from his shin and hip. When he entered teaching and rose to principal, he made a speciality of taking on positions as acting principal at schools that were between full-time appointments; he was a kind of wandering principal, a trouble-shooter. Marriages collapsed. He recently decided he would never drive a car again. All about him in the small workroom were rings, necklaces, strings of pearls, bits and pieces of bright things gleaming in the sun.
His stories – one after another, with an almost manic desire to tell them – were disjointed. He said he'd worked as acting principal at Atiamuri, the small settlement which was the scene of a horrific car crash in April, killing eight people; he said, "I vacated it for the guy who got the permanent position. He came in with a wife and two children. In the first or second week of arriving they went shopping. He said to his wife, 'You drive the ute with the children and I'll take my motorbike. I want to get it serviced in Tokoroa. So you go ahead and I'll follow you.'
"There must have been a distraction, one of the kids dropped a toy or something, and she reached down and drove straight into a logging truck and he witnessed the whole thing. His wife and two children killed instantly."
We sat in silence for a little while. I asked, "Did he stay on?"
"From what I understand, yes, he did. You pick up the pieces and move on, don't you."
I said, "That's what you've done. You literally picked up the pieces. You held onto the pieces, cradled your arm that had been cut in half like an apple."
The wretched bird screamed again.
Trevor said, "I just think, Steve, it's that saying, that title – it keeps bugging me. The ramifications of that title are enormous!
"But most people will not be able to visit them because they haven't been there. This hand and arm can do so many things. Ask Elton John! He's got two of them and look want he does! It's amazing. And if we've got one – when I was in plaster at one stage in Te Kuiti, a friend of the family was a builder, and he said, 'Would you like a job while you're not doing anything?'
"I said yes. He said, 'I'm renovating a house up the hill and I want someone to do some painting for me.' He said, 'You can do it. You've got one good arm.'
"So on the Friday we were washing up, getting ready for the weekend, and he was around the corner of the building, and I heard him shout, 'Help! Trevor, help! Help!'
"And I went around the corner, and – okay – so - he only had one eye. He was a builder with one ye. A one-eyed builder, and he'd been cleaning his brushes and he got turpentine into his good eye. And he couldn't see. He couldn't find the hose to rinse it out, so I helped him."
The one-armed boy and the one-eyed builder. We sat there in silence, but not in horror this time; I had no idea what the story meant or why he had told it. Trevor continued, "Where do you draw the line on certain things? With incapacity – put it this way." He hauled out another story. "When I was a kid, I trod on a rusty nail, and it went into my foot. I went limping inside and said to Mum, 'I've trodden on a nail.'
"She said, 'You're lucky you've got two legs. You've got a spare one.'
"I think I feel very vulnerable. If anything happened to this arm," he said, touching his left arm, "I don't want to live. I'd be at a very dark place. If you know what I mean. It's a bit scary, some of the risks we take; but we kind of go in our subconscious, 'Oh its alright; I've got 10 fingers, if I lose one, I've still got nine.' Or, 'I've got two arms; I've still got one.'
"But without that one, what are you? Just a ... I wouldn't want to go down that road."
I steered the conversation away from that road. He made coffee and brought out a plate of biscuits. We made small talk, nothing to do with puzzles or spliced arms but there was one piece of unfinished business that was bothering me and I decided to bring it out into the open. I said I felt bad that we never shook hands when we met at the bus-stop. Trevor said he felt the same, that he wanted to, but was self-conscious. I said, "We should do something about that."
He put out his left hand and it was one of the best handshakes I've ever received – firm, confident, all there.