"Riddell’s great strength is his positive view of human existence."
- Capital Times

Ron Riddell

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Ron Riddell's First Novel PDF Print E-mail

The Greek Letter by Ron Riddellgreek-letter

The first novel by Ron to be published.
A man loses his memory on an Auckland bus. His father goes missing-in-action during the Battle of Crete. A quest for lost identity begins - of the son and of the father. How do their roads converge?
The mystery of the Greek letter holds a key, to the discovery of these identities, to reconciliation, to new bonds of love and hope.

"As a memoir of a lost identity and a new ground of being to come home to, The Greek Letter is a thoughtful book. It is a story where heart and head thrash out the story that is the making of the personal myth; that in the end says who
we are going to be. On another level it is also a story that makes observations and asks questions of the political psyche of a society of which it is part. That said, it is foremost a story which remains faithful to the art of storytelling and
the inherent fascination of fictions. There is an openness of feeling, an integrity of vision..., as well as some very sharp evocations of place, that make The Greek Letter a good, fascinating read."

- Michael Harlow

ISBN 978-0-9582801-0-5

$NZ 30.00

 

 

  I

Ground Zero

I woke with a start as the bus shuddered to a halt. A pale, watery light drifted down to the shops on either side of the street. I looked at them in wonder. Where could I be? There was a cautionary sign above the driver's seat: On no account should passengers converse with the driver while this vehicle is in motion. I hesitated, stumbling forward as the bus drove away from the lights.

"Excuse me, driver. Could you tell me where I am?"

"Great North Road, mate."

"Oh, right... thanks," I stammered, and retreated to my seat.

The words "Great North Road" echoed blankly through my mind. "Great North Road?" Where could this be? Where did it lead? The road north. But which way was that? I gripped the metal frame of the seat in front of me. My head throbbed with pain and confusion. Thoughts came and went: senseless, random. "Get off at the next stop," an inner voice commanded.

I tugged at the exit-rope and waited for the bus to stop. We had travelled some distance from the place called Great North Road. This in itself did not bother me. If I had lost my bearings there, maybe it would be the place in which to rediscover them? Something there, some sign, some clue, shining in the light of a window or street lamp, would perhaps be able to help me. Darkness enveloped me as I stepped down from the bus. I watched as it pulled away up the street. I noticed the eyes of the passengers and their auras of domestic certainty. Their bus sailed on, like a brightly-lighted ship through the dimming western skies.

Overhead, streaks of crimson were splashed against a slate of deep ultramarine. The stars appeared one by one. All was quiet. I looked up and down the street. Not a sign of life. The street lamps stood like sentinels; guarding the rows of wooden bungalows that ran each side of the road. After the stuffiness of the bus, I was grateful for the cool night air; its bitter-sweet taste of eucalyptus, jasmine and wattle. I pointed myself in the direction of the shops on Great North Road, the lights of which I could still see glowing in the distance.

I had not gone fifty yards when I was brought to a sudden halt. A fury of barking erupted from the other side of a white picket fence. Wild eyes and snapping teeth lightened the dark. My heart jerked into my mouth.

"Sh - sh – shhh. Sh – sh – sh – sh - sh..."

"Settle down, boy. Take it easy. Everything's fine."

But the dog was not appeased. If anything, his barking was louder than before; as he wheeled in great somersaults; twisting, turning, and frothing at the mouth. I hastened to escape his wrath. However, as I turned to cross the street, I noticed the beast had shed his leash. With lightning speed, he was scaling a section of rock wall that ran down the eastern boundary of the property. I froze in my tracks. In a few brief bounds the snarling creature was upon me. I turned to face him, standing my ground as best as I could, while scanning the stretch of road close by for something with which to defend myself. The rottweiller had stopped two paces away from me. He was a huge, muscular beast; heavy-jowled, thick-set and his fury was monstrous. I concentrated on keeping calm; on staying in one piece. I even considered extending my hand in friendship. On reflection, that did not seem like a good idea. His teeth were coming closer and his breath was bad. And then miraculously, I heard a shrill voice calling:

"Butch! Butch!" "Get back, here, at once, you naughty dog! Butch! Do you hear me!"

The dog cowered and backed away, salivating heavily, a look of disappointment burning his eyes. I breathed again, as he disappeared behind the garden gate. Crossing to the other side of the street, I collapsed on a grassy verge. There I lay, gazing up at sky. By now a multitude of stars had assembled; the Southern Cross and Milky Way, throbbed above the outlines of eucalypts, pines and factory chimneys. Gradually, my pulse steadied and the wild thumping in my chest subsided. On the night air lingered the smell of burned dinners and the sound of children coming in from play. Hunger led me on. Beyond the footpath was a fence; beyond the fence a clay pit and a huddle of derelict buildings. I eased my way through the hoops of barbed wire. An eerie quiet had settled, the sky a vast serenity. In the east, a harvest moon was rising through the trees. It was a night of wild beauty; of thorns, of wildest thicket. Even the stars seemed thorn-like: jagged points of light, bristling with the menace of the unknown. 

In the distance I caught the sound of a train; a long, low rumbling clatter. As it drew closer, it let out a loud, piercing cry. Then came the rat-tat-tat-tat of carriage wheels and a clanging of bells as it passed the level-crossing. Where did it come from? Where was it going? It made a sound I could not fathom; like something hollow, deathly. A ghost train perhaps? Any notion of jumping it was quickly jettisoned. I watched the blur of metal go by. I waited for the ground to stop shaking – until the racket had dwindled to a distant echo. 

There was a strange sense of comfort in my new surroundings - a measure of bland sanctuary. Sure, it would have been nice to know who I was and what I was doing but for the time being I had found respite. Once I got back to the Great North Road, I was sure to find somebody who would help me. If not, too bad. I proceeded with caution. The moon had disappeared in a mass of low-flying cloud; the brickyard was poorly lit and the ground was heavy with clay. It oozed up in thick, gluggy puddles. I slid between them, effecting the most inelegant and unintended of pirouettes as I went.

Rounding a stack of drainage pipes, I saw a light slanting across the yard from the door of a watchman's hut. My spirits lifted for a moment. Hope was at hand. Or was it? I was unsure whether to approach the hut or not. I was a trespasser, no doubt; a trespasser without good cause, without a name, without identity. These were not good credentials, in the best of times, in the best of places. Instinct told me, it would be better to avoid the watchman's hut and head instead for the railway tracks, beyond which lay the town. I kept to the shadows, giving the hut a wide birth but I had not reckoned with the diligence of the watchman. Presently his searchlight found me out.

"Hey, you there! What the hell do you think you are doing?"

I froze like a possum, blinded by the beam of his torch. I stammered something unintelligible; much too frazzled to make even a little bit of sense. He was a large man, wearing a dark green bush shirt. As he swaggered towards me, I weighed up my options. There were not many. I took off at break-neck speed toward the railway tracks.

"Stop!" he wailed.

"You won't get away with this! Just you wait and see!"

Get away with what? My life? My limbs? My shirt? My....? My scrotum shrivelled into a cold, tight knot; my feet sloshed and slithered in the clay. Terror gripped my heart anew. I was a fugitive, an outlaw but what had I done wrong? What crime had I committed? I had not the slightest idea - nor why I should be running. Why should this man not want to help me? Perhaps he thought I was robbing the brickyard? Drainage pipes were obviously valuable. He had every right to pursue me. He had a job to do, after all.

After a breathless hundred-metre dash, I made the cover of a stand of macrocarpas. Between the branches I could see the watchman returning to his hut, waving his arms and cursing the ground. As I stepped through the trees toward the rail tracks, I felt lighter; as if a weight had lifted from my shoulders. I could afford myself the luxury of a smile.

My smile faded as I looked up and down the length of the road. Not a soul in sight. All the shops were shut. Although the buildings were not decrepit, the place possessed an air of abandonment. My body gave out an involuntary shudder. Reality check. Bruised, bloodied, my clothes were torn and muddied; my throat was dry, my stomach empty. I was bushed, up the creek. Or was I passed over? Was this purgatory, hell or heaven? Surely it wasn't heaven? Possibly it was one of the other two?

As I came round a bend, I was met by a brightly-glowing neon sign, which read: Food Bar. I stood on the threshold of the shop, dizzy with hunger. Looking up at the price list above the simmering vats, I reminded myself gently that I had nothing in my pockets. Frantically I rummaged through my mud-caked clothing. As if by magic, from the inside pocket of my sports coat, I extracted a crusty florin. Behind the counter, stood a pale-faced youth. He looked as though he had been confined to a place of fat and fish all his life. His face was white and pimply and he eyed me with suspicion as he took my coin and handed me a warm paper bundle. Outside, I sat on a bench under a streetlamp and burned my mouth on the hot, fatty chips.

I turned slowly, back to the street. It was colder now. I guessed it must have been autumn – a time of year when the days were warm but cold as soon as night descended. A wind sprang up. Pieces of rubbish danced in the street. My thoughts turned to shelter, warmth: a hot bath, clean sheets and rest. I did not like the idea of spending a night out in the open. But what were the options?

Suddenly, the shrill wailing of a police siren hit the chill night air. A horde of ghosts raced through me. My hair stood on end. What if the night watchman had informed on me? My thoughts ran wild. What was going to happen now? I could see a gun-metal police car proceeding in my direction, its blue-red roof light assaulting the gloom.

I made a run for it. Not a great idea. A more sensible approach would have been to stay put and plead my case. But I wasn't thinking straight. I was not running straight either. I zig-zagged down an alleyway, into the large, open courtyard of a bus terminal. Two policemen were close behind me. The ground shook with the pounding of their boots. Within seconds, I was spread-eagled, in a low, hard, tackle. The sign on the shelter where I fell read: Outer Suburbs.

The two young constables who landed on top of me were well-built and very agile. I tried to play dead, as the tall one bounced up and down on my chest. The other, a squat, tank-like man trussed my hands above my head. They hauled me to my feet and marched me to the patrol car. I was under arrest. Now we were going back to the station for further questioning. They were none too impressed when I told them I knew neither my name, occupation, nor address.

"Smarten up your act, cobber! Otherwise you'll really land up the creek!"

I told them I had done nothing wrong, at which they laughed.

"That's an old one, that is!" quipped the first.

"Who you trying to kid, Mac? Wilful damage. Trespass. Resisting Arrest. That's enough to start with!" snarled the second.

The short, thick officer then asked me if I was "from the other side of the creek." I did not know what he meant by this. When I asked him what creek he was referring to, he became angry. The colour of his pinkish, freckled face deepened to a blazing red. I was relieved when we reached the station and I was delivered into the hands of the duty sergeant.

To be honest, it was all very awkward for the police. They did not know what to do with me. There I was, straight off the street, with no clue as to who I was, where I was or what I was doing. For a while they locked me up. Meanwhile, the sergeant looked up the Missing Persons File. He rubbed his hands together in confident anticipation. Not a sausage. I was led into a small, dark room where the sergeant asked me some more questions.

"And you've got nothing on you, no papers, receipts, anything that might help us to establish your identity?"

I could see his mouth opening, his lips parting and coming together again. Doubtless words were coming out but I could hear none of them. As if I was deaf. Clearly they were baffled, as baffled as I was. The matter was beyond their ken.

"There's nothing else for it," proclaimed the sergeant. "We'll have to call in the doctor."

I nodded dumbly, resuming my seat in the interviewing room, a cheerless place, decorated in shades of battleship grey. In one corner stood a small formica table which was bolted to the floor. On the table was a plastic vase, which held a bunch of plastic carnations. On the wall opposite, Her Majesty the Queen looked on impassively. I looked upon the Crown, the table and I waited.

Presently, a rotund, jovial man came bustling through the doors. I was ushered into an examination room, stark white, bare, but for a surgical bed, a small desk and two plastic chairs.

"Good evening. Been having a bit of a rough time, eh?"

He smiled, rubbing his hands together with unctuous vigour.

"Never mind! We'll soon sort you out," he quipped, as he rummaged through his bag of instruments. Momentarily, I was buoyed by his confidence. He seemed a genuinely kind, compassionate man. Somehow, the walls were not so bleak and the smell of detergent not so rank, as in his presence. He poked and prodded, hummed and hahhed.

"The good news is that your physical injuries appeared are none too serious. However your memory-loss is another matter. In the circumstances, we'll need to tuck you up in hospital for a wee while, for further tests and a period of recuperation. We'll also need to make public statement to the media regarding your unfortunate predicament – in the hope that a relative or loved one might come forward," he smiled.

"Thank you, doctor," I rasped. Then everything went blank.