My father fought in the First World War that used to be called ‘Great’ until the truth of its greatness was questioned and the denial of its greatness accepted. My father came home from the war with a piece of shrapnel in his back, remnants of gas in his lungs, a soldier’s pay book, an identity disc, a gas mask, and a very important document which gave details of my father’s debt to the King and his promise before witnesses to repay the King the fifty pounds borrowed to buy furniture: a bed to sleep in with his new wife, a dining table to dine at, linoleum and a hearthrug to lay on the floor, two fireside chairs for man and wife to sit in when he wasn’t working and she wasn’t polishing the King’s linoleum and shaking the King’s hearthrug free of dust; and a wooden fireside kerb to protect the hearthrug, the linoleum and my father and his wife from sparks when they sat by the fire. All this furniture, the document said, cost fifty pounds, which had to be paid to the King in agreed installments.
I found this document the other day, and the accompanying note of discharge from debt; and it was the first time I had known of my father’s dreadful responsibility. For besides promising to repay the loan he had sworn to keep the bed and mattress and fireside kerb and hearthrug and linoleum and dining table and chairs and fireside chairs in good order and on no account sell or exchange them and to be prepared at any time to allow the King’s Representative to inspect them.
If only I had known!
In our conscienceless childhood days we ripped the backs from the kitchen chairs and made sledges from them; we drove nails into the wooden kerb — the King’s Kerb! We pencilled and crayoned the dining table, scuffed the linoleum, bounced on the bed, split open and explored the mattress and the two fireside chairs, looking for money. Finally, the tomcat peed on and permanently impaired the hearthrug. And all this was the King’s property on gracious loan to my father and we never knew!
It is all so far away now. I have no means of discovering what my parents thought or talked about when they lay in the King’s bed and ate at his table and sat in his chairs and walked on his linoleum. When a knock sounded on the door did my father glance quickly around at the fifty pounds’ worth to make sure it was in good condition in case the King’s Representative happened to be passing?
‘I’m the King’s Representative. I happened to be passing through Richardson Street, Dunedin, and I thought I’d inspect your bed and mattress and chairs and linoleum and hearthrug and wooden fireside kerb.’
‘Do come in,’ I imagined my mother saying rather timidly.
And with my father leading the way and my mother following they conducted the King’s Representative on a tour of the far-flung colonial furniture. My mother nervously explained that there were young children in the house, and babies, and a certain amount of wear and tear . . .
‘Yes yes, of course,’ the King’s Representative said, taking out his notebook and writing, for example: wooden kerb, two dents in; linoleum, brown stain on; while my mother’s apprehension grew and my father looked more worried and when the Representative left my mother burst into tears.
Or so I imagined.
‘He’ll go straight to the King. I know he will!’
My father tried to comfort her. He glanced with hate at the King’s furniture. He wished he had never borrowed the fifty pounds.
And then perhaps he had one of his bright ideas and that evening as he and my mother sat in the King’s armchairs with their feet on the King’s cat-stained hearthrug and protected from sparks by the King’s wooden kerb, my father took out his own small notebook and pencil and carefully studying the Great War in all its Greatness and himself in it with his fellow soldiers in the trenches, he wrote, inspecting deeply the life and the death and the time and the torture,
Back, shrapnel in; lungs, remains of gas in; nights, nightmares in; days, memories in.
Dear King, the corresponding dents and stains and wear and tear in my life surely atone for the wear and tear of your precious kerb and hearthrug etc. Please wipe out the debt of fifty pounds or passing by Buckingham Palace I shall drop in to inspect you and claim settlement for your debt to me.