Mount Victoria Tunnel, Wellington. Photo: Newsbie Pix / Flickr CC-BY-2.0

From A Shadow Grave: The ghost story based on a real-life Wellington murder

Crime week: In 1931, 17 year-old Phyllis Avis Symons was buried alive by her partner in the fill from construction of Mount Victoria Tunnel. The man who killed her was hanged. The case was a sensation, and is the focus of Andi C. Buchanan’s new novel, extracted here. 

You know how the story will go, when you find out, and there’s some comfort in that. You would tell him, in the story, and he would panic and ask if you could have made a mistake, but then he would calm down and say, well, what’s done is done, we’ll get married then.

Your mother would sew you a dress and Aunt Gina would bake a cake, and everyone would know why you married so quickly but all of them would pretend not to know, and when you announced your pregnancy a little later they would congratulate you and maybe give you some old clothes or toys their own children have outgrown.

You hadn’t expected it to happen so soon, but even though you’re scared, it has the comfort of a well-worn tale, and so taking energy from that you swing open the window and get rags and a bucket from downstairs and scrub grime from the walls, even singing softly as you wash your bedsheets and George’s work shirts. The autumn sky is blue and clear, the wind gentle, and you feel for the first time in a long time a sense of hope. This has come a little soon, but perhaps you are blessed to have found love so young.

With the clothes on the line across the little yard, you head over to the tunnel and pull George away on his lunch break. You think it’s the best time; you don’t want to cause him bother before work, and if he’s upset with you he’ll have plenty of time to calm down before seeing you in the evening. You could stay at a friend’s house that night if you needed to. Everything will be fine, you tell yourself, everything will be fine.

As soon as you get the words out you look at him pleadingly, just wanting to hear words of reassurance. You don’t see his fist swing until it hits you, and then you stumble back, barely keeping your balance. You raise your hand to your face instinctively, and it’s instantly red with blood.

“Stupid whore,” he says, turning away already. “You should have been more careful.”

You stand numb and bleeding, not sure whether to run after him or far away, not sure whether to yell back or to apologise, beg him for his forgiveness. The old mantras start repeating in your head: lazy, worthless, stupid; you dig your fingernails into the palm of your hand to try to stop them.

From A Shadow Grave focuses on the murder of Phyllis Symons, buried alive by her partner in 1931. Image of Phyllis: With confidence and pride: policing the Wellington region, 1840-1992, by Claire Bibby, Sherwood Young and the Wellington Police Trust.

Back in the boarding house, you hold a cloth soaked in cold water to your face, hoping the swelling will go down and that people will believe you when you tell them you fell, or got too close to the digging and were hit by a spade, and you try not to cry. He comes home as usual and you feel your heart freeze when you hear him turn the handle. But he doesn’t look angry, just tired, very tired, his face smeared with sweat and soil.

He says nothing at first, just gets out of his work clothes and into an old shirt, wipes his face and his arms over the small basin in the corner of the room. Then he sits on the bed and motions for you to sit beside him. You do even though you’re reluctant, and he says he is sorry, that he just panicked, and can you forgive him? He says he thinks you should get married, and that you’re a beautiful girl, and though it’s not what either of you had planned, he would be proud to call you his wife.

You say of course you can forgive him, and relief floods through you. You can call this just one bad event in your life, an aberration that would soon be forgotten as motherhood approached. But you don’t feel love when you look at him anymore, only revulsion. He was once the bright spot in the darkness of your mind, and now it’s overgrown with weeds and thorns, blotting out any sunlit hope for the future.

“I can’t do it,” he says. Tears roll down his cheeks and you look at him in horror; you don’t think you’ve ever seen a man cry. You find him one of his handkerchiefs and pass it to him. “I can’t bring another child into this world when I have six already I can’t support. You understand, right? I love you and want to marry you and have children with you, but I need to take care of the children I already have first.”

You nod, silently. There’s not much to say.

“We can have children in the future, even if you don’t have this one, is what I’m saying.”

The colour drains from your face. You nod silently, choking back tears. You don’t feel you have a choice.

“Where will we find the money?” is all you can ask.

“I’ll ask around,” he says. “Now, why don’t you dry your eyes and make us some dinner?”

The stew you make is mostly water, with some remnants of the lamb you’ve stretched out over three days, potatoes, and carrots. Even though hunger is gnawing at you, you struggle to get the food down, fear swelling in your throat. You had never intended to become one of those girls.

On Saturday, George heads out without telling you where he’s going. The next you hear of him is a message from one of his friends, saying he’s being held on charges of trying to procure an abortion. You think first of money; if he’s not getting relief pay, you’ll lose the room. Worse, his arrest is in tomorrow’s newspaper and your brother comes to the boarding house and bangs on the door until someone lets him in and shows him to your room. He kicks open the door, bursting the lock. Your brother has always been gentle, you don’t think you’ve ever had a fight with him, but now he’s towering over you, yelling about how you’ve brought shame on the family and that your mother won’t be able to show her face in public again thanks to you.

You want to tell him you’re sorry. That you’re sorry for everything you’ve caused, but you were lost and unhappy, so unhappy without reason that you wanted to die, and that you’ve been that way ever since you can remember. Crushingly, desperately unhappy, and as a child you could hide it but now you can’t anymore, so can he please forgive you, can you please come home now, please?

The words stick in your throat. You stare at him, only able to blink.

“You have nothing to say for yourself?” he asks. “You’re a disgrace, Phyllis Avis Symons. Well, don’t you come running to us for help with that baby. Leave it for someone responsible to adopt and get the hell out of our lives!”

You only stare at the drab, damp walls. Your dress has been washed until it’s so thin it’s barely there at all. As soon as he leaves, you cry until it feels as though you can never stop.

George gets out a week later. Trial date to be determined. In that time, you’ve cleaned not only the room, but the common areas of the boarding house as well. You hoped that it might earn you some respite when, even with finding extra housekeeping jobs in the last week, you could only make half the rent.

You’re careful not to argue with him. This is your fault after all. Instead you make him a decent cup of tea and unlace his shoes. He says little to you that week. Later, he asks you if you want to go for a walk, and you think this might be the end of this horribleness, that perhaps you can regain your love for him, and that love will rise above everything.  You head up past the works, up the trails through the bush. You’re determined to be good. You don’t speak out of turn to George.

He’s silent. He has a lot on his mind.

Below, the shovels are silent and still. Tufts of grass are regrowing in the spoil. Soon the tunnel will be cut right through, the hillside scarred.

Suddenly, you realise that things are terribly wrong, but that realisation only lasts a moment before it’s replaced with pain. The shovel hits you on the back of your head and you fall, you fall down and down, tumbling down the cut-off hillside. You black out, and when you begin to come to, there is something raining down on you like heavy spring rain, over your body, over your face, and it’s constant and raising your hands does nothing to shelter you from it. You hear the sound of a spade. It’s not raining. It’s soil being shovelled over you.

You struggle against the heavy soil, hands clawing upwards even as you drift into semi-consciousness. Part of you is telling yourself that you need to move, you need to keep fighting, but the other part of you is tired, so tired, and knows you have no chance, that it was always meant to come to this, that you’ve never made anything of your short, pointless, little life. That you’re stupid like the teachers said, lazy like your mother said, and you probably deserve for things to end like this.

It’s a self-absorbed thought to be your last, but then again, you are still only seventeen.

Searching the site at Hataitai where tunnel fill was dumped. Phyllis was found on 12 July. Image: With confidence and pride: policing the Wellington region, 1840-1992, by Claire Bibby, Sherwood Young and the Wellington Police Trust.

The searchers find your hand first, where you had almost but not quite broken the surface in your desperation. There’s a cry, and then others arrive with shovels.

It’s a strange thing to watch your own body dug up from beneath the soil. You don’t understand what’s happening at first, whether you’re alive or dead, whether you’re above ground or below. You want to yell at them that you’re here, not there, but you also want to hide from all of them, very quiet and very small. Your face looks pale beneath the soil, and your hair is muddy and matted. It’s a terrible thought, but you can’t help wondering if anyone could ever call you beautiful now.

*

You are no longer whole. You have been broken in two; victim and villain, vulnerable child and wild young woman. You are tethered to this hill, and yet you are being taken into town for examination. Cold hands and instruments and peering eyes and verdicts, until finally, you are being taken up to Karori and buried properly in a corner of the cemetery among the drifting petals of old roses.

You’re too far away from Karori. Like most ghosts, you’re tied to the location of your death, cursed to keep reliving it. Your spirit is on one hill, and your body lies deep within another. Your mother visits the Karori Cemetery every Sunday after church for a year, but she never visits Mount Victoria. She visits your body, but she never visits you.

You try, sometimes, to visit her, to move from this place, but you always end up moving in a circle. There’s nothing solid to hold you, but at the same time escape is impossible. It is a lingering pain, the final insult, an endless cage. Sometimes you’ve longed for death, real death, and you’ve thought, couldn’t he just have killed me properly?

But perhaps it is also a resistance, the last piece of you refusing to die, clinging on out of stubbornness, out of spite. Clinging on even as George is tried and hanged at Mount Crawford Jail, and after, on through the decades.

You haunt this hillside through the lingering Depression, and into another war. The tunnel opens, and the sound of picks against rock is replaced by endless motors. You haunt the hillside as the troop ships leave and return emptier, or don’t return at all. Fortifications are built on other hills for an invasion that never comes.

You feel the shudders of every earthquake, and wonder each time if the earth has finally come to swallow you up. You wish for a peaceful grave but are strangely relieved each time to find yourself still able to rise above the soil and rock and mud. You watch out over the harbour after the war, as the lights and the city grow, and you cannot grow at all.

*

You don’t remember when you first realised that the noise of car horns through the tunnel was directed at you. At first, you thought they were sounds of greeting or of anger, anger at each other as the roads packed ever tighter with cars.

You realise now, that it is you they are scared of.

You weren’t good, in the early days, at controlling your visibility. You’re not sure, even now, how you do it, but with enough practice it comes to you as naturally as speaking or swallowing once did. In the early days you were seen floating around the tunnel, semi-translucent in your old dress, and was your hair brushed neatly, or tangled and bloodied? You’re not sure.

You’d like to take their fear of you as power, to rise above it all. To know that they all fear you now, those who once looked down on you, the rich people and important people, the clever people, and they can do nothing to harm you. But you cannot. The car horns do not scare you away, as they like to think, but they make you feel forlorn, rejected, and despised in death as well as in life.

You are, after all, still only seventeen.

Over the decades, you watch buildings being constructed and demolished, the city rising and the cars changing, the girls heading up to school, how the fashions evolve each year. You can see only part of the city, tethered to this hillside as you are, but you know it has changed, that so many of the places where you spent your time are gone.

Every year, there are fewer and fewer people who remember you at all.

*

People will say that you are just a ghost story. They remember you only as a haunt, a presence that unnerves them, unnatural and perhaps malevolent. Something that needs to be sent away. You’re a memory of memories they’d rather forget.

They name you not with your name, but with the site of your murder. They don’t remember any of your other stories. To them, you will never be a lonely, angry, confused teenager, who liked to go to the movies and hoped she was in love, who fought with her siblings and always had a tune in her head. You’re a ghost story, and all other stories of you have been told and ended.

You deserve more stories than you get.

From a Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan (Paper Road Press, $25) is available from Unity Books


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