50 Years of NZ Book Awards: Peter Wells

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Book Awards in New Zealand. Our national prize has had different sponsors and incarnations over the years: it’s now the Ockham NZ Book Awards, held each May on the Tuesday of the Auckland Writers Festival.

Over the years many of our brightest and best writers, and classic books, have been recognised in the awards. Many of these authors are part of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. We’re celebrating their work this year by publishing excerpts from one of their award-winning books, along with notes from the authors on writing those books. Here’s to fifty more years of great books and our constellation of writers.


 

Long Loop Home: A Memoir by Peter Wells (Penguin)

Montana Book Award 2002

Peter Wells writes:

Every book has its own kaupapa, its own way of being realised. Long Loop Home became my first piece of extended nonfiction or creative nonfiction and to a degree I found myself at home in this new terrain. To win a prize for such a new endeavour was deeply gratifying. I knew I was working in an area new to NZ writing, and its content, for its time, was challenging. Yet the curious thing is the thread has been picked up in my most recent book, Dear Oliver and is extended even further in my forthcoming book, Hello Darkness. So what was new then has become my way of talking.

 


Extract from Long Loop Home: A Memoir (Penguin, 2001 )

 

A Backward Look, Towards a Primitive Terror[1]

On one level New Zealand is this free-and-easy, open society where people are all pleasant to one another, we’re egalitarian, we lend each other a helping hand. Everyone has that special quality of openness to experience, history and the future. On the other hand, where a phobically secretive society: uptight, tacitly racist. We’re the incestuous little village in which everyone knows something nasty has happened but nobody’s going to speak up about it first.
……….Of course we’re somewhere between the two, slipping from the margins of either. Think of the elation after New Zealand retained the America’s Cup, and think of the depression when New Zealand lost the Rugby World Cup. By turns, ebullient and tortured, overconfident and neurotically insecure, New Zealand – and I think Australia – tends to swing between the two poles with all the gymnastic élan of a manic depressive.
……….This makes New Zealand, it seems to me, a peculiarly different terrain in which to speak out. The secretive little village is in our genes. We are, after all, a very small society, numerically, and when you write in New Zealand you know perfectly well someone is going to know your aunt, or someone who lived over the back fence – or worse still, someone who knew you before you were a formed human being.
……….You write, in this sense, with a set of glowering faces around you. Most often they are saying: don’t do it, stop right there, don’t you have any sense? So how do you engineer a path between these two extremes? How do you manage to ensure that people you know and love are not damaged by the process of speaking out when the communal ownership of truths – and falsehoods – is so powerful in the fetid small town that is New Zealand? Or is this simply not an issue when set beside the grave, great mask of truth?
……….‘The need to face up to prospective oblivion’ is what Walter Benjamin says is at the heart of all writing. Certainly I feel this when I come to look at an event in my life that was both central and somehow tangential, traumatic even though it happened at a remove. The strange thing is that for me even to mention it is to break a primal confidence. So much energy has been invested in forgetting, in covering over, in rendering it down into the smallest particles of dust – the white chalk of oblivion – that for me to place it into the hard black form of word on page, print on paper, is to risk placing myself in a dangerous position. It is to risk placing in danger people I love and honour. Worse still, it is to risk animating the trauma itself.

Scandal is a strange beast whose power lies in its volatility. It grows from something small, some single action, which, for whatever reason, makes contact with the anxieties of a wider society, and before you know it, almost with an audible roar of a fire taking hold, intermingled with the yells of the gathering crowd, a dreadful event – a scandal – is born. The people involved are stripped naked. They are forced to re-live, again and again, for the entertainment of the people gathered, the action at the core of the scandal. Onlookers, enjoying themselves, take sides. Those people with the most vociferous opinion are usually those with the least interest in finding out the truth. Moral stands are taken, and people feel elevated by the degree of the disgust they express.
……….All scandals have at their heart a form of emotional cheapness. The Germans have a word for it: schadenfreude. Scandal is really a kind of entertainment, but hypocrisy prevents people from acknowledging this. This is partly because real savagery is involved, almost a form of cannibalism. The individuals at the core of the scandal are ritualistically devoured, stripped to the very bone, then their marrow is drained: and as quickly as the scandal began, so the scandal, finding nothing left to feed it, dies down with an astonishing speed. The crowd dissipates, feeling a kind of human shame at what they have been part of. In the sudden darkness that falls, those who have been left behind – those who were attached by blood or affection to the sacrificed beings – drag themselves off into the quietest corner. They have one profound wish: that this scandal may never be re-animated. In the long night of silence, they pray for the event to move out into the calmed sea, so it slips away, a small barque of misery and despair, grief and shame, out into a darkness beyond recall.

I’ve talked of scandal here in an abstract sense because the strange thing is once scandals collapse, they seem, retrospectively, ludicrous. It is hard to work out quite why people were so animated. Yet at the time of the explosion – or implosion, since scandal has a way of collapsing in on itself – it isn’t unusual for entire front pages to be given over to the event. ‘Real’ political events are overtaken by that strangely volatile, animated cloud of unknowing, which is scandal. Personally I think scandal is a political event in another guise. Andrea Kennedy, in Eve Was Framed, Women and British Justice, posits the idea that when women kill, the scandal that attaches itself almost inevitably to the case is a reflection of social anxieties of the time – about women, the role of women, the potential (for good or ill) of women freed to act in whatever way they want.
……….I know I myself buried the scandal I’m about to speak of so successfully that I forgot all about it. Or rather, I tried to forget the central effect it had on my growing up.

The flat landscape of paddocks and country roads near a military base echoed with the sounds of people dancing, talking and drinking. It was an August night and I was sixteen. A new intake of nurses had arrived at the base that afternoon for a tour of duty. As the day dimmed down into dusk, the young nurses had changed, put on fresh makeup and gone over to the officers’ mess for a few drinks.
……….But if the base had the slightly odd sense of being a holiday camp, the larger fact was the Vietnam War was raging, and New Zealand was a participant. Before long news came through of a potential crisis and the nursing staff were put on standby. In the meantime, they had to sit around and wait.
……….The timing was not good for a twenty-nine-year-old nurse, Anne Padgett. She was visiting from a neighbouring base a few miles away. As the subsequent trial was later to reveal, she had been undergoing a period of severe mental stress. A colleague later said in evidence: ‘Sometimes (Anne) would be just sitting in her office with the door shut … I would find her with her head in her hands and she would just be looking down at the desk.’ A week earlier, she had been stood down with two days’ sick leave.

Even at the depositions, staff members acknowledged the rumours that were the source of the stress. They had to do with the relationship between Anne Padgett and thirty-nine-year-old matron Lorraine (Laurie) Cooper. They had met seven months before and had struck up a friendship that quickly became intense. A fellow nurse would later allege in court that on one occasion she had found Anne lying asleep in the nurses’ sitting room, awaiting Laurie’s coming off duty. However when Laurie came in, she asked the nurse to tell Anne that she should return to her own base. The nurse could recall Anne banging on Laurie’s locked bedroom door, begging to be let in.
……….The nurse who occupied the bedroom next door to Laurie told the court later how she had overheard the two women during the night. ‘I felt rather disgusted,’ she said at the depositions hearing. She had overheard ‘a disgusting conversation’. Anne ‘came over practically every night … and my reaction was that I was deeply concerned and as a result I saw my senior officer and asked his permission to ring Matron East’. It was Matron East’s job to oversee problems to do with nursing personnel. She lived in a different city and the case was judged sufficiently important for Matron East to visit the base and make enquiries.
……….The officer in charge of Laurie’s base appeared to wish to let the matter lie. Anne and Laurie were highly efficient and popular nursing sisters. There is a definite sense in the evidence given at the depositions and Supreme Court that Laurie’s superiors knew what Laurie was, and they chose to disregard this, judging her a worthwhile member of the armed forces. (As the officer in charge said later in court on another matter, ‘One’s whole instinct is to protect one’s sisters.’) Perhaps because of this they sought what in their mind was the least damaging process, and one calculated, possibly, to minimise any potential for scandal. The two women would be separated.
……….‘The whole situation was considered carefully,’ Matron East later said in court, ‘and it so happened there was a service posting coming up.’ Sister Anne Padgett would be sent back to the South Island, while Matron Laurie Cooper would be temporarily posted overseas.
……….On Anne Padgett’s own evidence to the Supreme Court the following year, the two women by this stage had become involved in an intense lesbian relationship. Just before the above incident, Anne had gone overseas, trying to cool the affair.
……….On her return, Laurie had handed Anne a forty-three page hand-written confessional letter in which she outlined her journey towards finding a woman she could love. This included details of an earlier love affair, which had ended unhappily. Laurie had attempted to commit suicide. (All this was revealed in the Supreme Court where the forty-three page letter was used as a prime piece of evidence.) For Laurie, an older woman who had had a difficult earlier life, trying to find lasting relationships in an intensely homophobic period (with its concomitant internalised self-hatred), the letter suggested she felt she had at long last found her ideal lover. ‘You are so different to anyone I have ever met. To me there will never be another you,’ part of her letter read.
……….The two women exchanged love letters and photos, both of which would be used as evidence in the trial. Inside Anne’s wallet was a photo of Laurie on which Laurie had written: ‘To Anne, my dearest dark haired little monster, yours with my very sincerest love, forever.’ Another photo of Laurie had these words written on the bottom: ‘Found at last and mine to keep forever, M.(y) D.(ark) H.(aired) L.(ittle) M.(onster).’ A letter from Anne to Laurie quoted later in court read: ‘Please don’t ever deceive, darling, in any way at all.’
……….Anne Padgett had a gamine kind of charm. Five-foot three-inches tall, with dark hair and an olive complexion, the court records note that she herself had ‘a scar inside her right wrist’. Her hair was cropped short, and photos from the period appear to show a woman adopting the look of a relatively stylish, if boyish, young woman of the 1960s. But if Anne looked like the less mature of the two, court documents reveal that she was the one resisting most intensely their enforced separation. She approached the head of her base and tried to argue him out of it. When this didn’t work, she made it known that she would, if the worst came to the worst, leave the force and get a job at a hospital in Laurie’s home town.
……….Up till that point, Anne had been happy in the force, and she was going to sign on for another term of duty. But the fact was, as her lawyer revealed in court, she had had an unhappy period before arriving at the base. Earlier she had been in a different branch of the armed services and had become pregnant to a married man. She had had the baby at the beginning of the year and come up to Auckland to settle into a new life. This became a key piece of evidence used by the defence to attest to Anne’s heterosexuality.
……….During the year Anne often came out to visit Laurie’s sister in Point Chevalier. Laurie was Aunty Nola’s adopted sister and sometimes as a threesome, Laurie, her niece Frankie and Anne would go off and do things together. They had a lot in common, after all Frankie was also training to be a nurse. Anne had also stayed with Laurie’s mother, and in fact, in court later, Anne would say, rather improbably given the dates, that it was in Laurie’s mother’s house that she and Laurie first had sex.

It isn’t difficult to think how troubling that August night must have been for Anne Padgett and Laurie Cooper. The following day Laurie would be going to Singapore, and then, with her safely out of the way, Anne would be flown back to her home town – where the father of her illegitimate child still lived. Together they must have talked over and over what they could do to get out of what seemed a looming a nightmarish situation. But it is significant in view of subsequent events that Laurie seems to have done nothing to resolve the situation. There is no evidence that she tried to get the separation plan changed. She didn’t talk to her superiors at all about it, although, as court documents reveal, her superiors did talk to Laurie about Anne’s stress levels and the baffling fall-off in the quality of her work.
……….Anne was clearly the more disturbed about the coming break. Just that morning, in what seems a frantic search for a solution, Anne had asked her medical superior how she could institute final leave from the force. She had been told it would take time. There were proceedings that needed to be gone through, and there was no way that the separation – now only hours away – would not take place. ‘Her demeanour,’ he said in court later, ‘was very excited and distressed.’
……….Trapped within an otiose institutional setting that had exercised its power in order to separate the two women – in a small and isolated village atmosphere buzzing with the gossip of the hour – Anne was forced to accept, on that August night, that there was no way out.

Into this tense situation, and perhaps fortunately largely oblivious to it, came a new flock of nurses. They arrived during the day at odd hours, and settled into the old-fashioned nursing quarters. These had been left over from World War II. They were meant to be temporary but, like a lot of such buildings, they stayed in existence simply because they fulfilled a purpose. Basically they were a series of single rooms off long corridors. Only recently they had been upgraded to afford minimal privacy, with things like lining that went up to the ceiling and locking doors. Some rather gay curtaining had been added but nothing much could hide the fact they were brutally utilitarian military quarters. The nurses’ wing had a communal sitting-room-cum-kitchen with a telephone.
……….Anne had arrived earlier in the evening in response to a phone call from Laurie asking her over. She was dressed in brown slacks, a pink cardigan, with moccasins she had bought in Canada and white socks. She had driven over in Laurie’s car, her own having been recently caught in a minor accident. She brought in a flagon of beer, and Laurie, Anne and some of the nurses sat round chatting in a desultory manner. At one point a male officer came in and asked one of the pretty young nurses over to the bar for a drink.
……….It wasn’t until after 9pm that the emergency was averted and Laurie was stood down for the evening.

What happened over the next few hours is a matter of conjecture. At approximately 11.30pm the young nurse returned to her room, accompanied by the officer. She had had two bacardis, he had had several beers. AS they came down the corridor, the young nurse noted Laurie’s door was shut, the window above her door illuminated. They went into the nurse’s room. The time they spent in this room would remain a point of important disparity. The male officer said, in his evidence, they were in there momentarily, for ‘about two minutes or so’. The young nurse maintained they were in there for five minutes. The reason the officer had come into her bedroom was to accompany her while she ‘dropped her handbag off’, he later said in evidence. Regardless of his reason, he was breaking military ordinances by being inside her room.
……….This in effect offered the defence a golden opportunity to pick their testimonies apart, since the officer, a married man, was at pains to minimise the amount of time he had spent in the young nurse’s room. After about five minutes, according to the nurse, she walked towards her door, noting the light was out in Laurie’s room. It was then that she heard scuffling, and what sounded like a bare foot pounding the floor. A woman’s voice – Laurie’s – cried out, ‘Help me! Help me!’ and ‘Open the door and come in and help me!’. The young nurse and the officer tried the door of Laurie’s room, and, finding it locked, ran outside to Laurie’s window.
……….Sitting out in their car, another nurse with a male companion respectively noted the young nurse and officer alternatively run or walk (another useful disparity of evidence for the defence) round the back of the building, to the window.
……….Once they got there, the young nurse noted that the latch window was open a few inches and she put her hand into the darkened room, desperately scrabbling to find the light cord. Unfortunately, and in one of those little tricks of history that alter for ever the way things turn out, the cord was on the opposite side of the window to the cord in her own room.
……….Meanwhile, the sounds in the room were falling away, ‘subsiding rather than stopping’. At this point, according to the young nurse’s evidence, Anne Padgett’s face appeared behind the glass. She was a mere ten inches away from the young nurse’s face and appeared to be in a leaning position, with her shoulders forward. By this time the room was silent. The young nurse said in evidence that Anne’s voice was ‘cool and calm’. Anne allegedly said, ‘Everything is all right, it’s all under control.’ (The officer recalled her saying, ‘It’s all right, she be all right soon,’ another useful disparity.)

‘It’s all under control’ or ‘She’ll be all right soon.’
……….Faced with this unusual situation, the young nurse and officer went back inside. For whatever reason, they sat around for another two hours, talking. Since Laurie and Anne ‘were the best of friends’, they reasoned that Laurie may have over-indulged, leading to a momentary disturbance between the two women. The officer thought Laurie might have been having a nightmare.
……….Later, still in the car, the other couple broke off their own marathon conversation and saw Anne emerge from the side of the building, run towards her car and drive off.
……….The security man at her base would later see Anne drive by. He raised his hand in recognition. She parked her car and went up into her room. She locked herself in.

The following morning, the phone rang at about 8.30am at the nurses’ quarters at Laurie’s base. Amid the torpid air of an off-duty Saturday morning, with people a little hungover, nobody initially went to answer it. Finally a sister answered the phone and an orderly asked if either Laurie or Anne were there. After more phone calls, the young nurse from the room opposite revealed her concerns about the night before. She and a colleague knocked on Laurie’s door. Receiving no answer and finding it locked, one of them got a chair, stood on it and looked in the fanlight. Laurie appeared to be in a deep sleep, her face ‘bloodless’. At this point the nurses used a ploy they often employed when they had locked themselves out of their rooms. They got the tail-end of a comb and pushed the key out of the lock, having first taken the precaution of placing a newspaper on the floor under the door.
……….The door was opened.
……….Either two or three nurses now entered the room. The first thing the charge sister noticed was the smell: it was blood. ‘I went to the right side of the bed and then I looked at Sister Cooper and I noticed a faint blood line just around her ear, the counterpane was stained … there was … blood on the floor.’ It was clear Laurie was dead. The duty doctor was called immediately.
……….On pulling back the covers, he saw Laurie had been laid out quite carefully, her hands almost clasped. Around her neck was a blood-drenched towel placed there to staunch the blood flow. When he took it all away he saw a huge gaping wound. Her neck had been cut wide open with what looked like a medical scalpel.

From here there are confused reports, either the normal sort of confusion of any scene of violent death, or, alternatively, as is alleged in the memoirs of the defence lawyer: ‘These government employees sprang into action and arranged an operation for which they had the least training but the greatest aptitude – a cover up.’ For the force, one could say the worst of all possible resolutions to separating the two women had come to pass. The distant rumble of an oncoming scandal, ominous as a storm, could be heard.

A detective inspector from the CIB arrived at the scene two hours after the discovery of the body. He sent a local policeman and the duty doctor to look for Anne at her base. Finding Anne’s door locked, the policeman broke in the window. They found Anne Padgett lying in bed, dressed in a night-gown. She was slumped down. In her right hand lay a blood-stained scalpel. What would turn out to be Laurie’s blood was plashed on her clothes – her right-hand moccasin, and around the sleeves of her pink cardigan. Around her neck, in the same neat fashion as the towel placed around Laurie’s slashed neck, was a towel, presumably to mop up a possible flow of blood. There was a small nick on Anne’s neck. A bottle of Tiurnal lay in the wastepaper basket, alongside an empty bottle of DB lager.
……….Anne was technically dead of an overdose. At one point, the scalpel fell out of Anne’s fingers and automatically, the doctor picked it up, without thinking, and placed it on the table. While the policeman investigated the room, Anne made a sound that intimated she was still alive. She was rushed to hospital and revived. Technically she had been dead for up to five minutes.

Initially it could well have appeared to the detectives who had looked at the crime scene a clear and straightforward case of murder – a particularly horrendous murder – followed by a bungled suicide attempt. The pathologist who looked at Laurie’s body presented a compelling picture: the inside of Laurie’s mouth showed bruises that were consistent with someone holding her head to one side (possibly with a pillow over her face). This had forced a brace on her teeth onto the side of her mouth. A pillow was found on Laurie’s knees: the implication, advanced by the prosecution, was that Anne was in this leaning position while allegedly saying to the young nurse, ‘Everything is under control,’ (or ‘She’s all right now,’).
……….Whatever the situation, a scalpel had gone into Laurie’s neck, beginning at the left side of the mid line at the back of her neck, continuing round the left side of the neck, to finish just right of the centre, at the front of the neck. The slash was three-quarters of an inch wide, and one-and-a-half to two inches deep in places. ‘I consider it impossible for the deceased to have inflicted the wound herself,’ said the only qualified pathologist to actually inspect the body in situ. (This was contested by other pathologists brought in by the defence.)
……….A subsequent search for scalpels among hospital supplies revealed that two were missing from the base where Anne worked. A ballpoint pen had been substituted for a missing scalpel in one case. Inside Sister Anne Padgett’s kit was a broken test tube, such as the blade of a scalpel could be carried in. (The defence offered an alternative explanation for this: a thermometer could also be carried in a test tube.)
……….Anne Padgett was released to a psychiatric ward. Once it was ascertained that she was capable of holding ‘a rational conversation’, she was visited by the police. At 4.50pm, 12 September ‘the accused was arrested and charged with the murder of Lorraine Paula Cooper’.

At the initial depositions held at the lower court, there seemed to be uncertainty on the part of the defence about Anne’s alleged involvement in a lesbian relationship. Efforts were made to curtail the evidence on the grounds it was immaterial. But three months later, by the time of the Supreme Court trial, the relationship became the core of the trial. Here the defence deployed for the first time the image of a house. The point was that, to understand a house you had to go inside.
……….By this, the defence meant: you had to enter into the psychology of Laurie and Anne’s relationship. And the way to do this was to read the dead woman’s letters, talk to ‘experts’ on homosexuality, and to put Anne in the dock as chief witness.
……….The Laurie that emerged was unrecognisable to people who had known her. Anne portrayed herself as an unwilling sexual accomplice slowly worn away into a state of rapt subjugation by a strangely mannish seducer. Laurie’s intimate and confessional letters, meant for Anne’s eyes only and marked ‘private’, were presented as evidence of a neurotic person. Rather than a lover involved in a consensual affair, Laurie became ‘a hunter lesbian’ deploying drugs to subjugate her heterosexual victim – a young woman disturbed by the recent birth of her illegitimate baby. The word ‘maniac’ was used by the defence to describe the dead woman. And Anne Padgett described herself as desperate – not to stay with Laurie at all costs, even unto death – but to escape a lesbian menace.

One has to, perhaps, put oneself into the mind-space of this woman charged with murdering another woman alleged to have been her lover. Anne had tried to kill herself, been brought round from something closely approximating death, and woken up to find herself in the dock, accused of the most serious crime in the land.
……….There was little public knowledge at the time about lesbianism. Male homosexuality was illegal in New Zealand – and would remain so for another twenty years. Understanding of homosexuality and lesbianism was still predicated on it being a medically classified disease and a highly stigmatised form of behaviour. Most people in New Zealand probably got their ideas of lesbian behaviour from, significantly enough, newspaper reports of an earlier sensational murder case: the Parker Hulme trial where murder had been precipitated by the threatened separation of two allegedly lesbian girls. It was in this context of ignorance and prejudice the trial took place.

When I took up researching the case, in my fiftieth year (seeking to comprehend a case that had been of such sombre importance most of my life, baleful, a darkling force), I was astonished at the small amount of press it initially got in the newspapers. The tabloid paper of the time provided most coverage, and, interestingly enough, included some of the text of Laurie’s love letter. Possibly because the alleged murder involved the armed forces, and hence the security of the nation at a time when New Zealand was technically at war, the newspapers may have attempted to play the case down.
……….Another way of looking at it is the disquiet felt about the little explained nature of lesbianism itself. One newspaper, for example, provided coverage of the case but placed it in the sports pages, suggesting only male readers would be able to cope with information that would be ‘too disturbing’ – too contagious? – for women. But day by day, as the Supreme Court trial continued, the coverage grew, and the case, like an eerie image floating ever closer and clearer in the public consciousness, began to work its way towards the front pages until the final jury decision burst out, in headlines (‘NIGHTMARE ORDEAL OVER’ screamed the tabloid) on front pages across the nation.

 

[1] In this account, names, dates and places have been changed to protect the privacy of people involved.

 

 

© Peter Wells, 2001, published in Long Loop Home: A Memoir, Penguin.

'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell

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