Ockham Shortlist 2019: ‘This Mortal Boy’ by Fiona Kidman
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About the writer:
Fiona Kidman has published over 30 books, including novels, poetry, non-fiction and a play. She has worked as a librarian, radio producer and critic, and as a scriptwriter for radio, television and film. The New Zealand Listener wrote: ‘In her craft and her storytelling and in her compassionate gutsy tough expression of female experience, she is the best we have.’
She has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships; in more recent years The Captive Wife was runner-up for the Deutz Medal for Fiction and was joint-winner of the Readers’ Choice Award in the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and her short story collection The Trouble with Fire was shortlisted for both the NZ Post Book Awards and the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.
She was created a Dame (DNZM) in 1998 in recognition of her contribution to literature, and more recently a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour. ‘We cannot talk about writing in New Zealand without acknowledging her,’ wrote New Zealand Books. ‘Kidman’s accessible prose and the way she shows (mainly) women grappling to escape from restricting social pressures has guaranteed her a permanent place in our fiction.’
About the book:
Albert Black, known as the ‘jukebox killer’, was only twenty when he was convicted of murdering another young man in a fight at a milk bar in Auckland on 26 July 1955. His crime fuelled growing moral panic about teenagers, and he was to hang less than five months later, the second-to-last person to be executed in New Zealand.
But what really happened? Was this a love crime, was it a sign of juvenile delinquency? Or was this dark episode in our recent history more about our society’s reaction to outsiders?
Black’s final words, as the hangman covered his head, were, ‘I wish you all a merry Christmas, gentlemen, and a prosperous New Year.’ This is his story.
‘Kidman delivers rich characterisation, not just from the viewpoint of Paddy Black, but of many others associated with his short life and sudden end. . . . This Mortal Boy doesn’t just take us into the courtroom, or recreate the main events that led to two deaths, but goes much broader and deeper. Kidman gives us a textured, holistic view on a life that was more than a symbol, or an entry in a history book. . . . While we’re taken through varying times and perspectives, Kidman keeps everything flowing beautifully. It never feels ‘jumpy’ or disjointed, instead it’s a story that builds in depth and texture. A harrowing and haunting tale that is full of humanity. . . . This is an exquisitely written novel from a master storyteller; an important and fascinating read.’
(From a review for Kiwi Crime blog by Craig Sisterson, July 2018)
1955. The lawyer for the prosecution is a sleek, fair man named Gerald Timms. He isn’t tall, but he has a way of balancing forward on the arched balls of his feet and pushing his head up and down so that he appears to occupy the space of a much larger man. Beneath his gown he is dressed in a charcoal-grey suit with a snow-white handkerchief in his breast pocket. It is October, just two years since Albert Black came to live in New Zealand, almost to the day.
……..A girl stands in the witness box. She is wearing a black suit and a black beret slanted over dark and lustrous hair tumbling past her shoulders. She glances briefly at the man in the dock; their eyes lock for an instant, then she drops hers, straightening herself.
……..‘Miss Zilich,’ Timms began. ‘Will you please tell us your name, address and occupation.’
……..‘My name is Rita Zilich,’she begins. ‘I’m sixteen years old. I live with my parents in Anglesea Street, Ponsonby. I’m a shorthand typist. I passed my exams with top marks in School Certificate, you know. At my school, that is.’ She turns to a youth seated in the gallery and gives a little wave. He’s dressed in tight black trousers and a red windbreaker that is unzipped all the way down the front, showing a white tee-shirt. He waggles one finger at her.
……..‘Miss Zilich,’ the judge says sharply.
……..‘Oh sorry,’ she murmurs, and composes her face into the semblance of great attention.
……..‘Yes, thank you, Miss Zilich,’ Timms says. ‘That’s very good. If you could just tell us about what happened on the night of Monday, July twenty-fifth of this year, it would be a help. You knew the accused?’
……..‘Oh yes, you couldn’t help but notice him. He’s pretty goodlooking, if you go in for those kind of looks.’ In spite of herself, she throws a cool appraising glance in the direction of Albert.
……..Timms breathes deeply and makes a steeple with his fingers. ‘Very good. I’d like you to tell the court in your own words what happened. How long you knew him, whether you knew the deceased, what occurred on the night in question.’
……..‘I’ve written it all down in shorthand.’
……..‘Just tell the story, Miss Zilich, never mind the notes.’
……..Rita flicks her mane of hair back from where it has encroached across her shoulder, and launches into her account, the witness box becoming her stage. ‘I knew the accused for about three months before the twenty-fifth of July. I knew him as Paddy, that was the only name I’d heard. I knew the other guy too, Alan Jacques, only of course that’s not what we called him. He was Johnny McBride. But I’d only known him about, oh, maybe two weeks. I wasn’t keeping company with either of them. Actually, I’d been to the pictures on the night in question. I’d been to see Calamity Jane, you know the one where Doris Day sings “My Secret Love”, it’s an amazing picture. And I’m crazy about the song.’
……..‘Yes, of course. We appreciate your good taste, Miss Zilich. But you went to Ye Olde Barn cafe after you’d been to the pictures?’
……..‘Yes, this was about seven thirty, I suppose. I didn’t mean to, it was just that I was walking past, planning to go home, and there was a crowd there. Somebody called out, I don’t know whether it was Paddy or Johnny, but I think it was one of them, and said come on over. So I went over, and Paddy said come on up to the house, we’re having a party tonight. I knew where he meant, it was at 105 Wellesley Street. I’d been to a party there before. Well, I thought, why not? I hadn’t arranged to meet Paddy or anything like that, but it sounded like a bit of fun. Actually, Paddy’s girlfriend was in the cafe, now I come to think of it. Bessie Marsh, that is, so obviously I didn’t mean to meet Paddy. I shouldn’t think she’s his girlfriend now, not now he’s gone and stabbed Johnny. He wouldn’t be mine, I can tell you that.’
……..‘So you went on to the party instead of going home?’
……..‘Well. Not exactly.’
……..‘Why not exactly?’
……..‘I’d told my parents I’d be home. Well, they’re not so keen on me going to parties. So I went home, and when they’d gone to bed I hopped out the window and went back to town. This was about quarter past ten.’
……..‘So what happened at the party?’
……..‘Well, Johnny and Paddy were both there, and Bessie, and one of my girlfriends called Stella, and a whole bunch of others, I guess about ten altogether at that stage, mostly guys, you know. Someone was playing a guitar, everything seemed normal. A normal party, that is. You know?’
……..‘We’re happy that you’re enlightening us, Miss Zilich. Please go on.’
……..‘Well, Paddy was sober. And Johnny was sober, is about what I’d say. Then Bessie said she had to go home because she had exams or something early the next day. She’s a student of some kind, I think. She’d gone off to the library after I first saw her. I think Paddy went and collected her later on while I was off seeing my parents.’ ……..‘Misleading them?’
……..‘Never mind.’ Timms appears annoyed with himself.
……..‘Myself, I don’t have to be at work until nine, I’m a secretary at the Council, they have very regular hours. I mean, I wouldn’t start at eight unless I had to, but with my qualifications I can pick and choose. I got eighty-five per cent for typing, you know.’
……..‘Indeed.’ Timms was tapping his fingers on a folder, his eyes willing her to get to the point.
……..‘Well then, I think Paddy must have walked Bessie home, or to a taxi, I don’t really know, but he was gone a while, and when he came back he asked me to sleep with him that night. At first I said no, but then he asked me again, and I said I’d think about it. I was just putting him off, of course, trying to be polite.’
……..‘But he thought you meant it?’
……..Rita hesitates, pushing a strand of hair away from her face as it escapes from under the beret. ‘I didn’t want to give offence. I said it in a nice way.’
……..‘And you say the defendant was sober?’
……..‘I’d say so. Well, I didn’t know what he was like when he was drunk.’
© Fiona Kidman, 2018, published in This Mortal Boy, Penguin Random House.
'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