*Editor’s note. This article had to be removed from Newsroom last week due a Coroner’s Court suppression ruling over the Loafers Lodge tragedy.  Elements of the suppression have now lapsed so this amended piece is now reinstated.

An author pays tribute to a kind and gentle man

1970 something and my husband Robert is playing rugby for Massey University. We’re newly married but in the team are older cooler players. One is Hank Hockings. He’s married to the amazing Rosemary, who’s pretty much like one of the Redgraves. Well, Vanessa. I’m hoping to have a baby, and I get pregnant, but I miscarry. And she has Liam.

Something goes wrong in the hospital. Her little baby picks up some bug, and it tries to kill him. It doesn’t succeed.

Hank and Rosemary move to New Plymouth. By then we have Benedict and Gemma. We go to visit them. They have Liam, about 5, and he’s unusual, and they also have Lucy. She is about 4 and she is the most amazing person Benedict, around 3, has ever seen. They have a huge bath and he gets into it with Lucy and his sister and her brother and he is truly in love.

Time passes. We hear that Hank and Rosemary have separated. More time passes and we hear that breast cancer has taken Rosemary. I know Rosemary’s mother is still alive and it hurts so much, as it always does, that a mother has outlived her daughter.

Only two or so years ago, we hear that Hank has died. He had long ago married again. We become sentimental, the old rugby team eh, who’d’ve thought it? So we look up the details online and find out where the funeral is, and we drive up to New Plymouth.

At the funeral we learn that Hank, on his lifestyle block, has died on his farm bike. No one knows if he died from the fall, or fell for another reason, already dead. It seems a good enough death to us. I don’t know his new wife – well, it’s been decades – I just want to talk to his kids. I’ve seen Lucy on television. She is as glamorous as her late mother, who died when she was so young. She is Lucy Hockings, who talks about politics and the world on BBC.

She has come all the way from London for her father’s funeral and is gracious as I muddle around telling her our son loved her when young. “Where is he now?”, she says with exemplary witty courtesy.

Then it’s Liam. He comes towards us and says oh my god oh my god he’s always wanted to meet his absolute hero, and I stand to one side as I’m used to people feeling like that about Robert, an ex-All Black, but he’s saying No, no! It’s you! I love everything you’ve ever written! He’s a writer too, he says. I laugh and thank him and he says he lives in Wellington and we say so do we! We say, See you round!

We do see him around. We keep running into him in town, and we stop and talk, although sometimes I see him and avoid him, because to talk to him takes time. When we do stop and talk one day, properly, he says how he’s trained as a journalist, but it’s difficult, as people don’t really want to give you a job when you’re a bit different. I ask him where he lives. He says, well it’s better than nothing, but it’s pretty bloody awful. It’s a hostel, he says. Pretty much on his own. But – it could be worse.

We live in the middle of the city now, and we love it. It was amazing that we didn’t hear the sirens when the cruelly named Loafers Lodge, only a kilometre or two away from us, burned down. We wake to the sort of news that makes friends and family from overseas email to see if we’re all right. There are five dead, but said to be many missing. Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says it turns out that he knows one of them. Of course he does – Liam never missed a chance to make a contact. So we know one of them too. That guileless, smart, lonely man.

Staff at Countdown across the road say that he daily brought them joy, always leaving a can of something for the Sally Army, even if he came in several times a day. So kind. So in need of friendship.

One of the survivors is interviewed. He says he ran down the corridor yelling to everybody to get out. He also says another guy lay on the floor holding the door open so others could get out. I’m totally betting that was Liam.

They’re already looking for blame for that fire. Someone is surely really responsible. ACT wants answers. The Greens want answers. I crossed the road sometimes because talking to Liam took time. Oh for God’s sake. It’s pretty bloody obvious. Who’s responsible? I’m responsible. We all are.

Linda Burgess is a Wellington writer and the author of an acclaimed collection of essays, Someone' Wife (Allen & Unwin, 2019).

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