Authors: James Mcneish
TO BERNARD BROWN
The man who sleeps in peace has no tale to tell.
— ESTHER SALAMAN
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
TO BEGIN AT the beginning, or rather the end. For if the case of Hugh Dunstan, or Huey as I came to know him, had not turned out as it did, I might be enjoying my retirement travelling in Greece or India, instead of trying to put together from memory this tale, this enigma, this—I might as well be frank and quote the trial judge—“this unspeakable crime”. In the mind of the judge it all began with a young man wielding a poker, but from my perspective it began with a dream. I dreamed that Huey’s father appeared to me in the rain and offered me his hand. That’s all.
It’s a recurring dream. Sometimes the father appears to me on a marae or some other public place, and sometimes he is standing outside Lawrence’s chambers in Cornford.
The dream varies, but invariably it is raining and the end of the dream is always the same: he offers me his wet little hand like a monkey’s paw, as a keepsake. Like a talisman. It’s as simple as that, although Joseph Conrad, a writer whom I admire, would have disapproved. Conrad mistrusted dreams. Nothing was that simple, he said. He believed that the truth was foliated; the more you stripped away, the harder it was to reach the kernel. In the end all was paradox.
So, dream or paradox?
I met Huey about fifteen years ago. The dream came later. I am one of those people who believe in dreams. Dreams can tell you about the past but also the future. My wife Lisbeth says I am superstitious. I think it is true of most blind people. I’m a psychologist by trade. Joseph Conrad said you can never know another person intimately and I believe that too, but I also believe that it may be given to some of us through the power of dreams to know people more intimately than we know ourselves. Conrad, when he was a sea captain, visited New Zealand from Sydney, I’m told. I share with him a love of the English language. Like me, he had to struggle with his English. English is my native tongue but I still have difficulty writing it, although I love to write. That’s another paradox.
Being sightless, I am dictating this. I write by talking. I love talking. I lost my central vision permanently when I was in my forties and have been dictating my thoughts for so long, almost another forty years, it isn’t really a handicap. Blindness doesn’t stop me travelling. I went to Poland once,
which reminds me of something else Conrad and I have in common: a love of novel experiences. Joseph Conrad of course grew up in Poland. I sometimes envy him, not just for his powers of expression but for the privileged childhood he must have had growing up in Poland the son of an aristocrat. I was born on the London docks. You can’t have everything.
How do I describe Huey?
You will have to work it out for yourself. According to Lawrence, who I suppose got it from the mother, as a toddler he made a small whistling sound through his teeth, as if he was imitating a train engine. It sounded like
. His sister called him Huey and the name stuck.
Lawrence introduced us. He took me down to the holding cell and then went out. I heard the door close. I heard Lawrence outside the door talking to one of the guards, explaining that I didn’t want any special attention. When you are blind, it’s important to keep control of the situation. If you appear hesitant, or stumble, the staff will be all over you trying to help. Being solicitous. I hate that.
I said to him, Hello Huey.
There was someone going into the cell alongside, or being let out. I heard a door bang, then further along another door. We were in one of the holding cells off the sally port below the courtroom. Huey’s trial was then in its fourth day. A Thursday. Lawrence had persuaded the judge to grant an adjournment so I could meet his client.
“Hello Huey.” I gave him my full name and said I was sorry we had to meet under such circumstances. “I hear the prosecutor gave you a bad time yesterday,” I said. “Your lawyer says you did very well.”
I waited a moment trying to read his mood. At least he wasn’t crooning or muttering to himself, the way some do. A lot of killers are affable. Most killers I’ve interviewed have been very affable, less so if the interview has been close to the event. Huey’s “event” had taken place ten months earlier. I had expected him to be rather quiet.
I said, “Huey, would you mind telling me where you are sitting? I’m blind. Thanks.” He muttered something. “No, don’t move. I’ll sit over here.”
There was no table, thank God. There is a tradition in the Justice Department that you have one guy on one side of the table and one on the other, but I try to avoid the interview room set-up. I won’t have a barrier between me and someone I’m talking to. I sat down on the bench but not directly alongside him, after making sure I wasn’t between him and the door, just in case he decided to bolt. (It happens. I was once caught like that and knocked flat.)
I allowed a comfortable distance between us. I knew it wouldn’t be easy.
My notes, as dictated later to Lawrence’s clerk, read:
Interview by Prof. Chesney in cells below court, 15.35 p.m., 4 November, during adjournment: Subject in denial. Slow low muttery speech. V. suspicious of me. Described the killing. Kept nothing back but no further explanation of why he did it. Said, “The man smiled at me.” I said, “Did he touch you?” He said the man reached for the poker, leaning across in front of him where he was stoking the fire and smiled at him. Said, “It was the smile, the look on his face.” Said he couldn’t help himself. Said he snapped. “I lost control and began hitting”, repeating what he had said in court. Said the smile brought back memories of punishment as a child when he was put in a caravan and beaten. Beaten? I asked what he meant by beaten. “Do you mean whipped?” I said. No further explanation. Kept saying he snapped and thought he was hitting “the other man”…
I remember saying to him in the cell, “There’s more to it, Huey. It doesn’t add up.” Nothing.
He was silent. I could hear him breathing. His head was down. I got a whiff of sweat, a cold clammy smell, and
guessed he was hanging his head as he struggled to master his emotions.
“Sometimes, Huey, we take on burdens that are too horrible to talk about,” I said. “But it may help you to talk about it.” Nothing.
Normally in this situation there would have been quite a bit of patter beforehand. I would have spent twenty minutes or so encouraging him to talk about his background and so on. I knew about the family of course from the file, but that’s not the same as hearing it from the person with whom you are trying to establish a relationship.
“Huey. In a moment I have to go up there and give an opinion on your behalf. You haven’t given me a lot to go on. This man you say who punished you when you were seven or eight, in a caravan you said. You told the prosecutor it was in a caravan, and his name was Glen.”
“No, I told the lawyer that. The prosecutor didn’t believe me.”
“All right. But I believe you.”
He added, “Shoot.”
“Does this man have another name?”
“Glen. Is all I know. I think he moved away somewhere.”
“Do you know where?”
“Could be anywhere.” Did I detect a tone of relief in his voice?
Huey said, “It’s something I have to deal with myself.”
He won’t tell me, I thought. “You’re not going to tell me, are you, Huey. You’d rather keep me in the dark.”
“You must be used to that, professor, if you’re blind.” It came so quickly I blinked. I wasn’t prepared for the retort. He giggled. Then to my surprise he apologised.
“Pardon,” he said. He added, “You’re blind as, eh, prof.”
“It’s all right,” I said. He had begun to shift on the bench, making a sound with his fists. He was bunching his fists, hitting the knuckles together. It was something he did when he was under stress. He had done it the day before in the witness box, Lawrence said. The Crown prosecutor had questioned him for over two hours. He was still hitting his knuckles together when I went out.
It was the apology that I remembered. I say that for two reasons, the first more obvious than the second. One, because it was unexpected. An apology isn’t what you expect from a youth who has battered a defenceless old man to death “in a cold and calculating manner”, to quote the Crown prosecutor. Two, because no apology was needed. The remark about my being blind was said in a way that wasn’t unkind. It wasn’t a sneer or a jibe. There was no sarcasm in the voice. It was a raw observation, instinctive, candid and, yes, even understanding. (I was not to know— how should I?—that Huey’s sister Amy was blind in one eye. That was something else I would discover Huey had on his conscience.) “Understanding” may sound far-fetched,
but it isn’t to someone who is unaware of seeing. Blindness has been described as an absence, something you can feel at the back of your head, an emptiness. That’s one way of looking at it. (Pardon the pun.) But for me what’s important is the
. I didn’t go blind, totally blind, until my mid-forties. It was a gradual process which started after I left England and came to New Zealand as a young man. That’s another story. The point is that I have the benefit of memory, I remember what the world looked like before I lost my central vision. Blindness to me is a nuisance, but only a nuisance. Even though I knew that I would one day lose my sight, that my condition was inoperable, blindness when it finally came was a shock. It was fearful. I was frightened to go out. Strange streets terrified me. But that passed. As I adjusted to the world of not seeing, of not using my eyes, I became aware of a new landscape. My perceptions changed—after all, I still had four of my five senses—and I began to notice things that hadn’t been there before. A tone of voice, let’s say. Where before someone’s voice had been just a blip on my radar screen, now it filled the screen with information. A person’s voice gives a huge amount of information, as with Huey. And later, when I met her, Huey’s mother. The day I walked into the mother’s house I knew when she opened the door that she had forgotten to put her teeth in. When I’m interviewing someone, it’s not as if I am listening to a voice that is disembodied; the voice will be totally bodied because I am picking up things like smells and twitches and general nervousness. When I first
met Huey I couldn’t tell you what he looked like, white or black, thin or fat, tall or puny, but I could tell when he was anxious or tense. He smelled faintly of vinegar. I knew when he was sitting back or was hunched forward with his head hanging down. When someone is hunched over like that I start to worry. The voice is different. I know when someone is sweating. Anxiety. The cold sweat of fear, that’s terrible. That’s dangerous. I have taught myself to take account of anxiety when you can smell the fear. If I smell fear, I take the person very very seriously.
When I said to Huey “Did he touch you?” I heard his voice change, it went brittle. As if I was getting a bit close. I caught a brittle stringiness that hadn’t been there before, just for a second.
So being blind far from being a loss is for me a big gain. Everything is enhanced. I live through my senses, smelling, hearing, touching, tasting, and one other which is important in my trade and enables me sometimes to see into the future, your sixth sense (my fifth). Call it intuition, but it’s more than that; it belongs to the paranormal. It’s what the Chinese fox has, foreknowledge. But I don’t mention this in my lectures. Whenever I am asked to give a talk about blindness, I say it’s my hobby. I talk about the hobby of blindness. That may sound weird but it isn’t, because the more you work at it the better it gets. It’s like golf, or fishing. I don’t play golf but I’m a mad keen fisherman. I love fishing. So take it from me. Seeing in my view is vastly overrated.
If I’d had another half-hour with Huey in that cell, I think he might have begun to relax. I might have learned something that would have helped Lawrence to argue his case and defend him. As it was, I learned very little. I felt a sham going into the witness box.