William Beecham was a writer of some little renown. He had been published twice in the national newspaper, in the poetry section at the back, next to the crosswords and brain teasers. The poetry section was mostly used as a sort of visual white noise for the crossword crowd during the moments between eurekas, and yet William treasured his publications. He had them cut out and glued into a scrapbook of literary achievements – never as full as he’d like it to be, but always full enough to talk about. He would stomp up and down along the port, grimacing at tourists and local malcontents, believing his sensitive soul and poetic mind to neatly counter-balance his gruff exterior. He knew that some fifty years in the future, graduate students would be door-knocking all up and down the coast, searching for elderly residents who had personal experience of this jewel of the southern sea. William Beecham scowled at a mother dragging her child across a crosswalk. Yes, she’d remember that.
Some years later, William had died, and two grad students were indeed traipsing up and down the coast looking for his literary remains. They were aspiring scholars of New Zealand literature, scratching at the itch of local poets and writers. Their supervisor had advised them to deal with established figures, or to tackle the metaphysics of national identity (‘but what is New Zealand literature?’, he had asked). They had ignored him, and gone spelunking through the local collection of oddballs and dilettantes. They had followed trails of gossip and tall stories from increasingly disheveled men in pubs – men who wore trenchcoats but no shoes, men who refused a drink and stared morosely, men who knew everyone and were involved in everything but never appeared in the historical record. Their search had brought them to the port, where a man was said to have buried himself with his complete literary works. Seven boxes, they said. Notes, journals, correspondence, three unpublished manuscripts – two novels and a book of poetry. Buried treasure.
The first student had gone to Beecham’s home, a little cottage with a rickety pathway up a steep incline above the sea. ‘They’ve got to be in his garden,’ she had said. ‘There’s no way he snuck seven boxes of papers into a cemetery without somebody noticing.’ The second student had a darker turn of mind, and took two shovels in a hatchback to the local graveyard. She went first to Beecham’s grave. William Beecham, it said, 1949 – 2015. Departed but not gone. It sat along the cemetery wall, all crumbling red brick that sort of toppled against itself, as if it was drunk or caught by a wave. ‘Right,’ said the student. She put on a fluorescent vest and went around to the outside of the wall, peering over to make sure she was in the right spot. Then she dug. Council regulations stated that the top of a coffin only needed to be some three feet below ground, but she went to six feet anyway. Beecham was a poet, not a policy wonk. She dug out a rectangle of dirt and topsoil reaching to the edge of Beecham’s plot on either side. Nothing. Expected, she thought. Beecham wouldn’t have taken the easy option. She left the pile of soil next to the hole and drank some water. Then she put out a couple of road cones to stop anyone falling in.
A second inspection of the cemetery path up and down either side of Beecham’s grave was not instructive. The plots on either side of Beecham were not occupied, or rather were not marked, which the student recognised was not the same thing. More cones, then, at the junctions leading towards Beecham’s plot, with extendable cone bars looped between them. She had come prepared. The grassy top layer she removed intact, in slices like lasagna. Clumps of wet dirt came away easily enough. Then, as she dug in her spade, about four feet down, the clunk of metal on metal. A gleam of gray shone through the dirt – the first box. She dug around it, cleared space, made room for her excavation, and eventually hoisted the box out of its spot and into the clear summer light. It was some sort of aluminum, gray, with a big red ‘7’ painted on the lid. A simple latch hung on the side. The student was fairly coated in a sheen of sweat and crumbs of dirt, and yet she couldn’t help taking a peek. She flipped the latch open and pulled up the lid. A sealed liner lay underneath, keeping out the moisture. She zipped that open, and revealed her treasure. The box was not bursting with contents. There were two red journals, and a sheaf of papers cleanly clipped together. Letters, by the looks of them. They would have to wait: covered in mud and sweat, she didn’t dare touch them. She re-zipped the liner and closed the lid, tracing the number with her finger. She blinked a little, as if realising that she was sitting at the bottom of a hole in a graveyard with a dead man’s buried (stolen?) treasure. She stood up, and lugged the box out of the hole and over to the hatchback. ‘Seven’, she said to herself absently, slamming the boot down. Seven implied six, and five four three two and one. Those adjacent graves were looking attractive. Empty or occupied – hopefully occupied in the way she desired, and not in the other way. She’d know all about William Beecham, soon enough. Yes, she’d know him well.
Bravo. A gripping read. One can imagine the life WB led was filled with mystery. Perhaps this grad student’s life is about to change for ever… or perhaps the mystery is as hollow as the grave. Wonderful to have created that beautiful binary in such a short work.