Hautapu Cemetery.

What do I remember about Hilary? I remember that she wore red boots that were once described to me by someone who should have known better as ‘Frankenstein boots’, big solid things with steel frames attached to support her frail calf muscles. One of her legs may have been longer the longer than the other and the boots designed to compensate but I am not sure but I do remember that she used crutches.

I remember that she wore a catheter and had to endure regular enemas because her bowels were improperly formed and suffered multiple operations on her spine and legs but those events are only a whisper to me. I was farmed out to my maternal grandparents through much those years so my parents could focus on the difficult task that had been thrust upon them and as they struggled to come to terms with their new situation in life I was at large the dreamtime of childhood, apart and mostly unaware of the main event.


I remember that we are lying in her bed with the covers up over our heads listening to children’s stories on the radio, laughing, acting out and having fun. It is a warm and innocent moment where there is no disability, just two siblings lost in revelry. I imagine that she of had lived we would have been very close, a feeling reinforced by other stories about us passed onto me by our mother.

There was a spare ten months between us, a fact that (in my mind at least) almost made us almost twins. We shared a similar sensibility and intellect and I wonder how different things might have been had I had her in my life, the usual kind of questions that haunt those left behind to deal with the complexities of living.

A few years after her death my mother described her to me as intelligent and wilful, the latter a quality she needed in spades to navigate the world carrying with her the burdens she did. Halfway through her ninth year she used that wilfulness to successfully lobby for a radical change in circumstance. Hilary was determined to be ‘like the other kids’ and instead of being taken to school in the car asked if she could take the bus. After much soul searching our mother agreed.

Along with our neighbours she was collected from outside our house and after school deposited a few hundred metres down the way where they would disembark and would walk around the front of the bus and wait for the driver to wave them safely across the road. This done he would put it into gear and move off. On this day everything went as normal but Hilary new to the system was struggling with crutches and schoolbag failed to keep up. She was still in front of the bus when it roared into life.

I wonder at her last moments? Perhaps there was a startled panic as she realised what was happening? I hope it was quick. It was certainly horrifying for the witnesses one of whom ran to our house yelling that a girl had been run over and to call the police. My mother knew straight away. I was already home and I will never forget her scream, a heart rendering wail of grief that ripped the guts out of everyone present. For Dad it was even worse. He was milking the cows and someone had run to cowshed requesting a tractor to help move the bus off the body. He did what was required only to find the crushed body of his second born lying under a tyre.


As for me, that day is coloured by a strange conclusion that for many years after shaped the way I perceived the world. My school reports from that time observe that I preferred to work alone and alone is how I often felt. It was not an uncomfortable state but part of me wondered at the activities of the other children and asked if I was not missing out on something important.

This need for social acceptance become something of an obsession and I had begun to aspire to be something I wasn’t. On the fateful day I got my wish and there I was throwing a ball back and fourth with another boy howling with laughter and revelling in the joy of connection. I have no idea how this came about but I clearly remember going back to class at the end of the lunch break thinking that ‘today had been the best day ever’. It turned out to be quite the opposite and I concluded that great tragedy follows on the heels of great joy. It was a long time before I felt safe enough to be happy again.

I remember the day of her funeral and the dreamlike journey from house to church to graveside. I remember looking at the small delicately padded white coffin and remember thinking that if I willed it hard enough it would open and she would rise out of it and return to us. It did not happen and by the time the vessel was lowered into the earth at the cemetery I was exhausted.


Where do you go from here? Nowhere it turns out, you just endure it, a dreamlike state of disbelief, a hundred pressing questions and a morbid state of waking confusion. You live and you endure and eventually you heal, or at least you think you do. Some wounds cut so deep that there is no proper recovery, just the semblance of one.

I look back on these memories and wonder at their accuracy gathered as they were by a child adrift in the most tragic event any family should expect to endure. A wash of images and sensations, reflections of people coming and going, awkward words, strained silences, moments of forgetting followed by the anguish of remembering. I may have gotten some of the details wrong but this is how it lives in me.

Dad is now in his mid-eighties still visits her gravesite every Sunday, his devotion a living act of love. My mother celebrates her birthday with that same unwavering fidelity. Her name was Hilary Ann Johnstone. She had a freckled face, brown hair and carried her bits and pieces about in a little blue case with a brown handle. She died aged nine and a half, 02/10/1972.


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One Response to “Hilary.”

  1. Colin Plaw Says:

    Memory is an odd thing. I remembered Hillary again today and after some searching found this page.

    I remember that day. I was on that bus when the accident happened and it’s not something I’ll forget.

    Hillary had gotten off the bus but because of her walking difficulties stayed on the road beside the bus. There wasn’t much room there. This was a rural road without any footpath and she must have felt unable to walk through the long grass and rough ground.

    I’m sure it was quick, it was the rear wheels after she fell. We screamed to the driver to stop but there was nothing anyone could do.

    There’s not a lot about Hillary I remember, I was only 7 at the time. The boots and leg braces for sure. The unkind teasing that kids of that age do to anyone different. A lingering sense of things unsaid as she stepped off the bus.

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