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Real Life

Why I slept with a knife under my pillow

The brave 88-year-old Hutt Valley resident cheated death three times, but she is still haunted by two unsolved violent crimes.

Vilma Brooking loves to have a laugh and enjoy life as best she can. You might recognise her as the cheeky rest home resident who gave former Labour leader David Cunliffe a bit of stick on his 2014 campaign trail, grabbing him in a bear hug and posing for a selfie.
“Usually I’m loud and noisy. I don’t suffer fools gladly or snide remarks,“ Vilma declares. “Somebody once said to me, ’You haven’t had much of a life, have you?’ Well, I can’t say I’ve ever looked at it like that."
Vilma certainly has had quite a life. The 88-year-old has been married twice, lost all her possessions in a fire and survived breast cancer after having a mastectomy at the age of 82.
But it’s her memories of two bizarre and horrific unsolved mysteries from more than 70 years ago that keep her awake at night.
In 1945, she was almost poisoned and just a few months later, she survived a violent home invasion.
“Sometimes, I get up in the night and go and sit on a swing outside in the garden to think about it," Vilma tells from her home in Lower Hutt. “I never have my door unlocked and I slept with a knife under my pillow for many years. I don’t now, but I’m not good at night or with people coming up behind me.“
Vilma also won’t eat any wrapped sweets because the very thought of it makes her shudder. It takes her back to a time when she was offered a chocolate, but did not accept it. The man who ate them was poisoned and died.
“I get lots of chocolates given to me at Christmas and I give them all away,“ Vilma tells. “People ask me why I won’t eat one and I say, ’Because my hand just won’t put it in my mouth'."
Vilma’s story starts in the middle of 1945.
She was in the early stages of pregnancy with her first son Kris and was visiting her husband Ted’s family in Christchurch. While Vilma can’t remember names and locations, she recalls vividly what happened the day they stopped off at a female relative’s home.
“She insisted we stay for dinner and she made this gorgeous strawberry shortcake for dessert – I used that recipe for years," Vilma recalls.
But as Vilma and her husband chatted to the couple, there was a knock at the door and a package arrived for another house guest. It was put on the mantelpiece until the man it was addressed to came in. He opened it to find chocolates.
“I remember we were all discussing the odd box because it had been cut to fit the four chocolates in it. That man went to hand them around, when our hostess came in and said, 'Don’t you beggars dare touch those. It’s dinner time!'"
Rather than eating the chocolates, everyone sat down to enjoy the strawberry shortcake. It wasn’t until the young couple were back home in the Wairarapa town of Pahiatua that they heard the horrifying news.
“We read about it in the newspaper and then we all got a call to confirm it. The man had eaten those chocolates and died! I’ll never forget the shock we got," remembers Vilma.
No-one was ever arrested for the bizarre murder and it played on Vilma’s mind for some time. But just when she thought that was enough for a pregnant woman’s nerves, she came close to death only a few months later.
This time, it was a savage attack that left her husband fighting for his life. Vilma was seven months pregnant and had stayed up late to sew a gown for her unborn child in their remote farm cottage on the night of the home invasion.
She went to bed, but was woken by her husband at around 1am.
“My husband dug me in the ribs and got up, saying, 'I think it’s your father coming in the door,’” Vilma recalls. “I was bending down to get my dressing gown, when I saw this flash of light, then I heard this noise I’ll never forget. It was like a funny big squish.
"They think that’s when Ted was hit on the head with the handle of a pick axe."
Without any electricity in the house, Vilma ran to get the gas lamp, which sat on the mantel in the living room. She lit it and ran to the kitchen where she found the man on top of her husband.
“I swung the lamp at the stranger’s head like a bloody fool because, of course, when hit him, the lamp went out," Vilma tells.
Young and heavily pregnant, she ran through the passage and down the steep steps outside, where she fell and slid across the wet grass and hid underneath an old wooden deck truck.
“I could hear the man yelling, 'Come out, I can see you,’ as I crouched up near the engine. “When he ran straight towards the truck, I thought, 'I’m dead'. But he didn’t look under the truck, he shone the torch inside it, then jumped our gate."
Vilma had a broken wrist and mashed gums from falling down the steps. Ted, however, was much worse. As she lifted him up, blood poured from the arms of his pyjamas. But she managed to drag him onto the back of the truck and drive him to the doctor’s in Pahiatua.
“All the way down the hill, I was frightened Ted would wake up and fall off the truck. I remember parking in the middle of the road and knocking on the door of this big two-storeyed house. The doctor’s son answered the door and yelled out, ‘Dad, there’s a lady here. She had a car accident, she’s all bloody'."
Ted spent a month in Palmerston North Hospital with a fractured skull and suffered chronic headaches all his life after the attack. The ordeal also sent Vilma into premature labour and a short time later, her son Kris was born.
“We moved in with my parents but when Mum went shopping and the men were at work, I would sit in the house too petrified to move,” she remembers. “There have been many nights where I’d just sit with my back hard up against the backboard of the bed, waiting for every crack and creak to produce an intruder. Of course, it never did."
Vilma believes the intruder was a local man who worked on the bridge with her husband. But her theory that he did it to steal the wage packets that were due to arrive at their home didn’t fly with the local constable, who went to church with the suspect’s family.
“The bloke was young, about 21 and started coming over to see if there had been any progress made in the case, and he gave my brothers and sisters a puppy. I couldn’t stand him, but I couldn’t show it. It’s stayed with me.”
Vilma heard the man died in an accident many years later.
She and Ted went on to have another son, Bruce (67), as well as daughter, Veronica (57), but they separated after 18 years of marriage. She wed second husband Stewart in 1955 and they had Renée (52).
Unfortunately, he suffered from Alzheimer’s and died of testicular cancer in 1997.
While the two mysteries remain with Vilma, she counts herself lucky – after nearly being poisoned, bashed and surviving breast cancer.
“All I can think is third time lucky," she laughs.
Words: Anastasia Hedge
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