(Anne Frandi-Coory’s brother Kevin wrote this true story when he was a teenager).
Standing in the centre of the Wellington railway station foyer she stood searching the faces of people rushing by. Like a solitary rock in a fast flowing river, unnoticed by the torrent of human turmoil that buffeted around her. The boy sitting on a bench to the side of the foyer watched forlornly as his mother screened each face that passed by, hoping to glimpse someone she knew.
After an hour or so she gave up and made her way to the train platform. The boy followed a few paces behind. Boarding the carriage she crumpled into a seat and rested her head against the window. The boy did the same in a seat across the aisle two seats behind her. The train filled with passengers and began its journey. The boy watched as the guard shuffled from seat to seat clicking tickets in the swaying carriage edging ever closer to the listless woman. The guard reached out expecting to be handed a ticket, clippers at the ready.
‘Tickets please. Tickets please,’ he repeated, annoyed.
The woman lifted her head and stared at the guard for what seemed like an endless time.
‘I don’t have a ticket, or the money to pay for one,’ she said, glaring at the guard, arms folded in defiance. ‘Nor does my son,’ she said, pointing behind her to the boy.
The boy closed his eyes blocking out the silent travellers craning to hear but pretending to show no interest. The clacking of the train wheels became deafening in the silence.
‘Well you’d better give me your name and address,’ he said, policeman-like, pulling a pencil and pad from his pocket.
At Petone mother and son alighted from the train, the boy acutely aware of the incredulous stares that followed their departure as they slowly made their way along the platform to the street. A cold blustery wind blew in from the harbour as the pair, the boy a few paces behind, wearily began the long walk to Days Bay in the falling dusk.
She stood for a long moment outside the church in Jackson Street, her shoulders bent under the weight of the long and exhausting day. Her auburn hair shone brightly between the beret pulled down over her head and the wide collar of her coat in stark contrast to the haggard face and pasty complexion. She moved with a shrug to continue the journey then glanced over her shoulder to the boy. He was staring at the ground, unmoving, oblivious to her concern. His coat, much too large for him, hung in folds belted around the waist, one sock up, one down, cap askew atop the mop of untidy hair. He hadn’t spoken since meeting her after school at the station. He had just followed her without complaint or question, isolated in a cocoon of silence.
Pushing the loose fringe under her beret, she straightened her shoulders as much as the aching would allow and strode towards the building beside the church. The housekeeper finally opened the door after repeated knocking by the woman.
‘Can I help?’
‘I want to see the priest please.’
‘He’s just going to have dinner, is it urgent, could you not come back tomorrow when it’s a little more convenient?’
‘Not really, I have to see him now. Please ask him to see me. Please.’
‘Well alright, come and wait in here,’ she said, pointing towards a small room off the passage. ‘Whom shall I say is calling?’
The waiting room of the Presbytery was sparse and devoid of smells, except for the faint odour of incense. A picture of the ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus’ hung on the wall; a candle glowed softly on a small altar beneath the frame. The boy dragging his school bag shuffled to the wooden pew beside the altar and slumped onto the seat. Closing his eyes, his chin fell to his chest. Fatigue engulfed his body in a blanket of exhausted sleep. Through a numb haze he began to comprehend murmurings in the room.
‘You’ll have to go to your own Parish and ask for help, I can’t give you money,’ said a gravelly embarrassed voice.
‘But it is too far away and I have no way of getting there, I only need 10 shillings till I get paid tomorrow so I can feed the boy, he hasn’t eaten today. I don’t have food in the house and we still have to get home,’ pleaded the woman.
The boy struggled to open his eyes, the lids were stuck closed. The light burned into his pupils as the lids slowly prised themselves apart watering the vision of the two figures standing in the centre of the room. The priest dressed in a black suit had his hands thrust deep inside the jacket pockets, the buttons tearing at the fabric that stretched around the girth of his fat belly. The boy noticed his shiny bald head and thick rimless glasses that pressed into a puffy red nose. His pudgy face glowed crimson at the audacity of the unkempt woman.
‘But I don’t know you, are you a Catholic?’
His mother renewed her request, without emotion it seemed, her voice a monotone, not a plea, just a statement of fact.
‘I was a novitiate at the Home of Compassion before I had a breakdown and was forced to leave, I’ve never asked for money before, but surely in the name of Jesus you can—’
‘No!’ He interrupted, agitated, his face glowing. ‘I don’t know you; the church just can’t give out money to anyone who comes to the door. You should go to your family for help!’
The housekeeper in an apron wiping her hands on a tea towel strode into the room and in an impatient tone, said, ‘Father, your dinner is getting cold.’
She glanced momentarily towards the woman, then to the priest and then finally to the boy. Within that imperceptible time her demeanour had changed from anger at this bedraggled woman, to confusion at the flustered priest, to sympathy at the obvious distress of the child. Her tone changed.
‘I am sorry Father,’ she said, ‘when you’re ready, I’ll … whatever.’ She left.
A silent whimper only noticed by the boy escaped the resolve of the woman as she stared at the floor. Her shoulders slumped slightly as she turned towards the door. The look of despair in his mother’s eyes embedded itself into his memory. It was the look of dispassionate despair when the emotions have exhausted the gauntlet of feelings and the ability of the senses to register pain. All that is left is robotic numbness.
In the late hours of the night they reached the old house embedded into the side of a hill overlooking Days Bay. It was overhung with trees which blocked out the sunlight. The ground surrounding the house was continually wet and muddy from the water that leached from the clay bank. There was no electricity in the house except for one naked light in the sitting room. In one corner a sewing machine sat on a table cluttered with dirty dishes, unfinished dressmaking and newspapers. The wooden floor was an untidy mess of unpacked boxes, unwashed clothes and bits of furniture. In the centre of the room a tattered armchair sat close to an old kerosene heater that doubled as a stove to cook on. An ashtray overflowing with ash and cigarette butts perched on one side of the chair, on the other, bits of notepaper and letters.
The woman slumped into the chair and pulled her coat around her shoulders. The boy sat shivering on the floor hugging his knees to his chest to keep warm. She picked up a box of matches from the floor and leaning forward tried to light the heater. Again and again she struck a match putting the flame to the dry wick till she had used all the matches. He knew there was no kerosene in the heater. The useless attempt to create warmth just seemed to epitomise her hopelessness. She folded her arms and rested her elbows on her knees and rocked slowly back and forth staring blankly at the cold lifeless heater. The boy watched his mother sink into depression, the silence the only dialogue between them. After a while he rose quietly and felt his way along the dark passage to his bedroom. The room had a dank odour from the moss growing on the walls. He crawled under the damp blankets without taking off his clothes, and curling up into the foetal position pulled the covers over his head to block out the smell of rotting wallpaper. When he woke in the morning his mother had gone. He wasn’t worried; he knew she was walking to work in Wellington.
Such a staunchly Catholic Lebanese family where all children are not born equal!
Our mother, Doreen Frandi, met Phillip Coory around the time the above photo was taken.
Phillip Coory was Kevin’s biological father, although Phillip never acknowledged this. Joseph Coory, Phillip’s older brother, adopted Kevin following his marriage to Doreen Frandi. Two and a half years later I was born. Eventually, Joseph also abandoned Kevin.
- Our parents, Doreen Frandi and Joseph Coory, on their wedding day.
- Our mother was a Catholic nun
- Whatever Happened To Ishtar?; A Passionate Quest To Find Answers For Generations Of Defeated Mothers