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The Narrator, Melissa Farrell

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As he dresses for work, Harry wonders just how long his parents-in-law will be staying. They have exchanged their life in the suburbs for one on the road, selling their house and buying a large motorhome with plans to travel the country. So far they have only managed to travel the twelve kilometres across town from their previous home to his. Their monstrosity of a vehicle is parked in his driveway and has been for the past three weeks, leaching his electricity and guzzling his water. His in-laws, who sleep and shower in their motorhome, spend the rest of their time lounging about in his home.

Harry cannot abide their company, but there has always been that sweet sense of release at the completion of any engagement with them. Now he is cornered in his own home, snared by these wretched people. His mother-in-law, Thelma, is an impetuous woman, all urge and impulse, a mess of emotion. She cries or laughs at the slightest provocation, in a frantic sort of way that sounds as if she is in some sort of distress, confusing Harry so that he is never quite sure whether she is actually crying or laughing. This unrestrained disposition flows through all facets of her behaviour from the way she speaks, without any censoring, right down to her eating habits, the way she attacks her food in a vulgar bustle of gnawing and gnashing until her plate is empty. Her husband, Gary, is an arduous bore who is incapable of conversation, preferring to pontificate, or to tell stories which he stretches to tediousness. With winter setting in, Harry suspects that Thelma and Gary may be and hunkering down for the season.

Harry’s wife, Sherry, is behaving strangely. Since her parent’s arrival she has indulged in a childish energy that Harry finds irritating. She is laughing wildly at all of Gary’s predictable jokes, calling him ‘Daddy,’ and is constantly referring to him for answers. ‘What do you think about the situation in Afghanistan, Daddy?’ Or ‘why does the moon seem closer when it rises, Daddy?’ When Harry had pointed this out to her, she had behaved like a petulant child, sulking for the rest of that day. She is also encouraging her mother to do most of the cooking. Thelma’s bland concoctions of tasteless grey meat and mushy boiled vegetables make Harry squeamish. He misses his wife’s cooking. He misses his ordered life and his orderly wife.

Harry looks in the mirror and straightens his tie. It is emblazoned with the

‘Harry’s Hardware’ logo. The only place he feels any sense of composure at present is in the dominion of his hardware store. He lingers for longer hours amongst the neat rows of screws, glues, tools, paints, rattraps, hatchets, and buckets. He inherited the store from his father who had left instructions for Harry to sell it and to continue with his studies in journalism. Harry, determined not to let his domineering father dictate his life from the grave, discontinued his studies and kept the store. Finding it in a careless disarray of random stock and messy financial records, he had systematised the whole affair. From the shelves up and had slowly shaped the store into the methodical and productive business it is today. He has sedulously trained two employees to ensure that everything is performed to his design. He takes great pride  in knowing that his store is the most efficient in town. And amongst the tidy aisles of the fluorescent world of the hardware store, he is at peace. A psychoanalyst might tell him that his need for order and control stems from his parent’s marital problems and their subsequent lack of attention to him during his period of toilet training.

‘Who’s there,’ says Harry. He pushes open the window and looks out into the garden below. The other thing that has been bothering Harry is that he sometimes hears someone talking, seemingly about him, but he has been unable to find its source.

‘Where are you?’ says Harry as he begins prancing around like a territorial rooster, looking back and forth, up and down as if searching for someone. ‘I don’t know who you are, or where you are, but you’d better bugger off,’ he demands. Anyone observing this scene could believe that Harry had gone quite mad as he seemingly addresses some invisible interloper.

The bedroom door opens and his wife, Sherry, comes in. ‘What’s all the shouting about? Is someone here?’ she asks as she glances about the room.

‘Someone’s here alright,’ Harry tells her.

‘Who?’

‘I can’t find him.’

‘Who are you talking about?’

Harry stands quite still and listens. He takes Sherry by the shoulders. ‘Can’t you hear that voice?’

‘What voice?’

‘The one speaking just now.’

‘Are you feeling alright?’ Sherry puts her hand to Harry’s forehead.

‘Didn’t you hear that? He just said ‘Sherry puts her hand to Harry’s forehead’.’

‘I can’t hear anyone,’ says Sherry looking at Harry with concern.

‘Shh, listen carefully,’ Harry whispers. ‘Don’t you hear him? He just said ‘Harry whispers’.’

‘I don’t hear anything. I think you should sit down,’ she says as she eases him towards the bed.

‘I don’t need to sit down. I’m late for work.’ He takes one last anxious look about the room before pushing past Sherry and slamming the door behind him.

 

Arriving at work, a flustered Harry heads straight to the restroom. Locking the door behind him, he stares into the mirror. ‘Who are you?’ he asks. ‘Are you in my mind? Am I going crazy?’ Leaning closer to the mirror, he stares deeply into his blue eyes as if some answer lay buried there. ‘Ah ha,’ says Harry. ‘My eyes are grey, not blue. I would never call them blue. You’re not me… then who are you?’ Harry waits for an answer. There is a knock on the door. ‘Won’t be a minute,’ calls Harry. He splashes his face with cold water, adjusts his tie, and takes one last look at his reflection before opening the door to his working day.

There are a few customers waiting at the counter as Harry approaches. He notices one of his employees check his watch. Harry is never late. Just ignore him, Harry tells himself as he makes his way to the counter. With effort, he stretches his mouth into a smile and addresses an elderly woman waiting to be served.

‘What can I help you with today?’

‘I’m after paint for an outdoor wooden table.’

Harry knows just the one for the job. It is a waterproof paint compatible with wood.

‘You think so?’ says Harry.

‘Ah… yes.’

‘Sorry… what I mean is, I think you should go with a hard wearing paint. It’s not waterproof,’ Harry says smiling smugly towards the ceiling, ‘but it will last longer.’

‘Oh… if you say so. I was thinking of a muted colour, perhaps a beige.’ Perfect thinks Harry, who likes the colour beige very much.

‘Aubergine would be a good choice,’ suggests Harry. ‘I think aubergine goes nicely on any surface. It’s one of those versatile colours.’

‘Oh… well okay then… if you think so.’

Harry does not think so. He hates aubergine, but he strolls over to the paint counter and proceeds to mix a vile combination of black, grey and purple.

After sending the uncertain customer on her way, Harry looks towards the ceiling. ‘You think that I’m some sort of puppet, that you can read my thoughts and predict my actions? Think again,’ he says to nobody in particular, before spending the rest of his day second guessing himself and leaving many dissatisfied customers in his wake.

 

The following morning when Harry wakes, he lies quite still, listening for a few moments. ‘You’re still here,’ he sighs.

‘Where else would I be?’ asks Sherry.

‘I’m not talking to you.’

‘Harry, what’s going on? You’re scaring me.’

‘Can’t you hear that voice?’

‘What voice?’

‘The one speaking right now.’

‘Harry, maybe you should see a doctor.’

‘I don’t need a doctor,’ insists Harry. ‘Leave me alone,’ he shouts to the room.

‘Harry please…’

‘Shut up. Shut up the both of you!’

Sherry pulls the covers over her head and sobs.

 

At dinner that evening, Harry sits silently while Gary tells a protracted story about a holiday that they took to the coast when Sherry was a child. Although Harry is preoccupied with listening for a voice that only he can hear, he feels a trickle of jealousy at the story. His own childhood had held none of the adventure of his wife’s. After Harry’s father had left, just getting through each day’s routine was an overwhelming affair for his mother. Their house had reflected the disarray of their lives, everything out of place and out of order. His mother was oblivious to this, living largely within the narrow world of her own mind. Harry would fantasise that he was adopted and that his birth parents, who were organised and tidy people, were searching for him and would rush through the door at any moment to rescue him into a happy family life.

‘How would you bloody know?’ Harry snaps. ‘For your information, I was a very content child!’ Harry is in self-denial about the way he felt as a boy. At his outburst, Gary had stopped in mid-sentence and they all sit staring at Harry now, waiting for some sort of explanation.

‘Harry, what’s wrong?’ asks Sherry

‘Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s bloody terrific.’ Tears begin to well in Sherry’s eyes.

‘Tears begin to well’. ‘Is that the best you can do? Talk about hackneyed! Maybe it’s time you found something else to do with your time,’ laughs Harry.

‘Maybe it’s time we all went to bed,’ Gary says signalling for Thelma and Sherry to rise. The three of them hurry out leaving Harry alone.

Feeling as flat as a nail head, Harry leans back in his chair. ‘Oh, that’s clever, ‘Harry says sarcastically’. The similes are from my world perspective,’ he says to the empty room. ‘I’m not talking to the empty room and you know it. Come on, it’s just the two of us here. Admit that you exist and tell me what this is all about.’ Harry sits in silence as if he is waiting for some concealed presence to answer. Finally he shakes his head and says, ‘okay, if that’s the way you want to play it.’ He stands and opens the refrigerator, reaching for a bottle of beer. ‘You’d be mistaken,’ he says with conceit, pulling a bottle of chardonnay from the shelf. Harry does not like wine but he pours himself a large glass anyway. ‘Cheers,’ he says and takes a deep gulp. He fights the urge to balk at the flavour and continues to drink.

 

The following morning, dealing with an intense hangover, Harry watches Thelma’s tacky lipstick coated mouth move to the discordant tones of her voice. It cuts through his consciousness in an unintelligible babble. Sherry and Gary have gone to the supermarket and as it is his day off, Harry has nowhere else he needs to be. Thelma has just devoured a plate of bacon and eggs and Harry can see bits of bacon dangling from between her yellowed teeth. She is a truly repugnant woman, thinks Harry. ‘You think you know me and you can read my thoughts?’ he demands.

‘Well, Harry, I suppose I don’t really know you terribly well…’

‘I’m not talking to you,’ he says in an aggressive way that alarms Thelma making her jump. Harry laughs at her reaction and stands to leave.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ he says. ‘Now what?’

‘Why don’t you sit down,’ suggests a confused Thelma.

Harry continues to stand, glaring obstinately into the room. After a few moments, he begins to feel foolish.

‘I am not foolish,’ Harry shouts.

‘Oh Harry, I’ve never thought you were foolish. A little droll at times, but never  –’

‘Take this,’ he says grabbing the back of Thelma’s head and plunging his mouth to hers in a kiss that tastes of eggs. ‘How’s that for repugnance?’ he shouts.

‘Oh Harry,’ exclaims Thelma, ‘I’ve always felt that there was something between us.’

She moans as her greedy mouth finds his again. He pulls away to make his escape from the loathsome woman. ‘Is that right?’ he challenges before pulling her up and sweeping her along the hallway to the bedroom. Tossing her onto the bed, he pulls his trousers down and leaps onto her, raking her nightgown aside.

‘Oh Harry,’ she swoons as he pushes into her.

‘How’s this for aversion?’ he calls to the ceiling.

Harry is momentarily surprised at his level of sexual performance before he finds himself flying backwards through the air and landing on the floor with his trousers around his ankles.

‘What’s going on?’ bellows Gary, standing over him, fists held high.

‘He pulled me in here and forced himself on me,’ Thelma shrieks.

Harry stumbles to his feet, pulling his trousers up as he rushes for the door, pushing past Sherry who is wailing uncontrollably. He feels a momentary surge of compassion for her. ‘Shut up!’ he shouts as he pushes Sherry against the door with his hands around her neck. ‘How’s this for compassion?’ he cries. Sherry is struggling to take a breath. Gary grabs him from behind and throws him to the floor.

‘Hold him down,’ Gary shouts to Thelma, who throws her naked body on top of Harry, pinning his arms down with her thick thighs.

‘You think you’re in charge, that you can read my life with such confidence? You have no idea and your narration is so clichéd,’ Harry laughs. ‘Come on, ‘surge of compassion’, I’ve heard it all before. You’re so banal. And why the formal language? Throw in a few contractions, mate.’

‘Shut up, Harry,’ yells Gary as he tries to console a bawling Sherry who is slumped against the door. ‘Make him shut up, Thelma.’ She presses her bacon- scented hands over Harry’s laughing mouth, which makes Harry laugh even harder.

Harry is still laughing when the police arrive. As he is handcuffed and pushed out to the patrol car, their words wash over him: rape, attempted murder, hears voices, yells at people who’re not there.

Harry tries to explain to the police about the voice he hears. Nobody seems to understand, until they send in a psychiatrist who asks him all sorts of questions and believes that he can indeed hear a voice. Harry is relieved until the psychiatrist testifies in the court, calling Harry a paranoid schizophrenic. Harry shouts out that it is not true and he calls to Sherry and her parents to help him, but they will not look in his direction. He is dragged from the courtroom, yelling profanities at the ceiling.

Harry is committed to an institution for the criminally insane. The doctors will try many medications, but none will prove successful. He will spend the next seven years trying to convince them of his sanity until the fine thread that holds him together snaps. His mind will close down and he will simply stare into space for the rest of his days, never to utter another word.

 

Sherry does not visit Harry after he is institutionalised. She just wants to put her life with him, which was unsatisfying even before his mental health issues, behind her.

She files for divorce and once it is finalised, she sells the hardware store and begins an affair with the real estate agent, Barry. Sherry experiences lust for the first time and a year later they wed and continue to live in the home that she once shared with Harry. Sherry’s parents continue their stay in the driveway.

Sitting in their mobile home that is yet to travel very far, Thelma and Gary discuss how they much prefer their daughter’s new husband to her previous one. As Gary watches Thelma, he wonders if he will ever be able to nullify the vision of her in bed with Harry, of her calves wrapped around his skinny white buttocks.

‘Did you hear someone?’ Gary asks as he looks about.

‘Oh Gary, that’s so funny. No Gary… or should I say Harry, I didn’t hear anyone.’ Thelma laughs in that frantic way of hers. Gary hesitantly joins in and Thelma does not notice his furtive glance towards the ceiling.

And so you see, life goes on and nobody misses Harry… not even me.

 

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Taras’ Parthenians, Claire Catacouzinos

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They would have their revenge one day, these bastard children, sons of bitches and Helot slaves, they were filthy mutts, unworthy of Spartan rights and citizenship. Their Spartiate fathers had disowned them after the First Messenian war, their Helot mothers tried to protect their puny sons, but they were better off to be thrown over Mount Taygetos, down into the chasm of the Apothetae. They were named, the Parthenians, the sons of virgins, born out of wedlock, and wherever they went, they were attacked with cacophonous insults from the Spartans, that scathed their hearts. For they were inferiors, half-bloods; but they would have their rancorous vengeance, oh yes they would, for the gods themselves willed it.

 

Amyklai, Lakonia, 706. B. C. E.

 

In the month of Hekatombaion, Neophytos the Parthenian was at the Amyklaion sanctuary celebrating the Hyakinthia festival among the Spartans, Periokoi and Helots. It was the second day of the festival. Neophytos was lined up behind other men on the right side of Apollo’s temple, waiting for the sausage contest to begin. There were six older men in front of him, wearing the red cloaks of Spartan men. He looked above them and gazed at the almighty, towering statue of Apollo; he wore the Corinthian helmet, held a bow in his left hand and a spear in his right that pointed down towards the entrance of his rectangular temple. Neophytos could see through the marble columns the priestess offering a chiton the women had sewn for the festival, and watched as she placed it down on the pedestal shaped as an altar that the statue was built on; a gift to Apollo, rejoicing in honour of him and his lover Hyakinthos. May they be blessed, he thought, looking away and staring at the cooked pieces of pig intestines filled with pork mince in front of him, hanging on the wall. Each sausage was pierced with a spear to keep it in place – by the gods, they looked delicious to eat. Neophytos licked his lips as he heard someone laugh beside him.

‘You look hungry Neo, I can see you desire to test your tongue.’

‘All in good time Timaios,’ he said, laughing with his friend. ‘But I will win the eating contest today.’ Of course he would, his stomach was grumbling for food, he could eat four pigs like Dionysos feasting, and then drink it all down with diluted wine; he could salivate on the tenderness of each meat – ah, he wished the damn contest would start already.

‘I am not so sure, Apollo standing before you is on my side today, have you not seen the hyacinth flower I wear?’

Neophytos looked down and saw the red flower attached to Timaios’s belt. The bastard, Apollo would favour him today. ‘Where did you get that?’

‘From your averter of unlawful desires.’

‘My Oreithyia?’

‘Yes, she entered the sanctuary moments ago with the other dancers, they are handing the flowers around for good fortune. It seems I am in more luck.’

Neophytos turned away from his friend, looking for his beloved – where was she? More men joined the two lines for the contest. Neophytos looked over their heads, searching for the girl who doted him with her honey-sweet love. When was the last time he had seen her, four days ago? She had been preparing with the other girls for the procession dances for their three-day Hyakinthia festival.

People were scattered everywhere: other Spartan men were near the lounging statues of couples who lay on marble recliners shaped as lions feet, children raced each other to the left of the sanctuary near the marble buildings, and outside of the precinct chariot races would be starting soon, after the parades of carts decorated with Spartan girls and women finished going around. Then to his right, on the other side of the temple, were four rows of choir boys and girls already competing amongst themselves, playing the kitharas and aulos, and singing the celebration song to Apollo; Oh great Apollo, hail! God of the golden bow and the creator of the hyacinth flower. Oh great Apollo, hail!

People everywhere wore crimson tunics: the women wore short chitons, Spartan men were draped with their red cloaks, and they all wore grassy wreaths – except for the Helots, Neophytos’s mother amongst them. They stood out like deer, waiting for their predators to strike them down. They wore the symbol of their social class; dog-skin caps, that shielded their faces from Helios’ rays. Why could they not have a day off from wearing them? Neophytos thought.

He turned away from the groups of Helots and saw a couple of women walking around with baskets filled with hyacinths in their arms, their long, violet chitons lapping and fluttering in the wind like Pegasus’s wings; their veils covering their braided hair. One of the girls, Oreithyia, bent down and handed a child a red flower. She smiled at the little boy and Neophytos felt an overwhelming feeling of love that swelled his heart and made him smile. Ah, my Oreithyia, he thought.

He watched the little boy, a couple of metres in front of him, place the flower amongst the many others that rested against the circular altar. Neophytos remembered how he had gone to the altar yesterday with his mother and half-siblings, and placed their own red flowers amongst the rivers of red and purple flora. It had been the sorrowful day, the first day of the Hyakinthia festival where everyone mourned with Apollo for the loss of his lover, Hyakinthos. The hyacinth flowers spilled along the circular altar like the spilled blood of Hyakinthos when he had been killed by a discus. Neophytos could not imagine losing Oreithyia. How long had it been now since their secret union when they had first tasted each other’s lips? He watched her rise from the ground and place the basket on her head, the flowers complementing her rosy lips and tanned skin. May Apollo bless her, she looked like a sun-light Hesperides, rich and luscious like the golden apples they were entrusted to care for. If only he could hold her in front of everyone like they did every night when her betrothed, Dexios, was away, fighting in battle with the other Spartans. He watched her compose herself, and when she was ready to walk away from the altar, she looked up, and Neophytos and her locked eyes on each other, and without being aware that Neophytos had been watching her, thinking about their relationship and her beauty, she stood there and smiled at him, Neophytos the Parthenian, the man she truly loved, and she wondered if they would ever be together, to hold hands in public. However, she would be ridiculed if she married him by the ever-watchful Spartan women, whose eyes were all-seeing like Argos-Panoptes; but she could not help thinking that if only Neophytos was a full-blooded Spartan like Dexios, they would be able to wed and create their own family. Yet, Neophytos had lost that right once he was born a half-blood, he had been dishonoured by the community to remain wifeless like the rest of the Parthenians. She did not know how their love affair was going to end, and when, and if Dexios returned, she could go through with marrying her betrothed. She looked away and bent down to give a little girl a flower – may her fate be different to her own.

Neophytos turned back to Timaios who had been watching him stare at Oreithyia. He was the only man who knew of their affair, but he had told them, their secret was safe with him. Just as Neophytos was about to talk about Oreithyia with Timaios, an old man shouted behind him, ‘Move, you dirty Parthenians.’

Timaios elbowed Neophytos, but he ignored his friend.

‘Are you deaf, boy? Move out of the way, you bastard child!’

Neophytos folded his arms, ‘Wait your turn, you old brute, there is plenty for all.’

Move.’

The Spartan men in front of him now turned around. ‘Let him through, show some respect to your elders,’ one said.

‘Did your mother teach you any manners?’

‘With this one, how could she when she is bending over like a dog,’ another said, who wore wristbands.

Neophytos clenched his fists while his arms were still folded; he tightened his jaw, wishing he could put these men in their place.

‘I bet ten drachmas a Helot is breathing hot desire into her bosoms and thighs,’ the man with wristbands continued.

‘Shut up, you cock-sucking swine,’ Neophytos yelled.

‘Come at me, boy. I will rip your balls off; there is no use for them in our city.’

‘You dare make war upon me, I scorn the threats you vomit forth.’ Neophytos lunged at the man in front of him, but the old man, who had tried to push through, knocked him in the ribs. He let out a breath full of air as the old man grabbed his arms behind his back.

No sound echoed throughout the sanctuary anymore; the choirs of girls and boys stopped competing. All eyes watched the men in front of the temple of Apollo.

‘Let him go!’ Timaios yelled.

‘Silence him,’ the man with wristbands yelled. Another Spartan punched Timaios and he fell to the ground.

‘Do you know who you are speaking to, boy?’ the man asked Neophytos. He did not care; he was a pig-headed brute, just like the rest of the Spartans. He did not answer him, but fumed out his anger.

‘Hold him steady, I want to admire the craftsmanship my son did to this Parthenian years ago.’ He pulled down the tunic from Neophytos’s chest and exposed the scar of the letter P above his left breast.

‘You are Dexios’s father?’

‘Yes, I am Doriskos.’

Neophytos remembered that day like any other when he had been bashed and ambushed by the Spartan boys, before they went to the barracks and trained in the agoge. Two boys had held him down while Dexios straddled him and carved the letter into his skin, branding him as a Parthenian forever. Someone had yelled for him to stop, Neophytos had thought the torture would end, but once the man approached them, he had said, ‘keep going, son, you need to carve deeper than into the flesh.’

Neophytos clenched his jaw as Doriskos’s face was so close to his own. This was enough, there had to be a change, he had to be respected, to be an equal. He head-butted Doriskos and watched the man fall back to the ground. The men stood still, shocked with what he had done. Neophytos was able to loosen his hands from the old man’s grip and punched him in the face. He grabbed Timaios’s hand and yanked him up. ‘Victory for the Parthenians!’ he chanted.

Spartan men now lunged for them, throwing punches to stop them, but other Parthenians around joined in – this was not about a misunderstanding.

Women yanked their children away and ran out of the sanctuary, screaming. Dirt lifted into the air as people rushed away over the precinct wall and down the hill of the sanctuary into the bushes.

‘The gods will have their heads,’ someone screamed.

Neophytos punched another man to the ground with Timaios beside him. He looked around the rushing crowd but could not see the purple figure of his beloved. He was about to run to the circular altar to look for her when someone pushed him into the marble wall of the temple. The pork sausages fell to the ground, some hit Neophytos’s head. He saw a wristband coming at him and he was punched in the face. He shook his head, drool falling to the ground, and took a swing at the man, punching him in the face. He jumped up, grabbed hold of Doriskos’s shoulders and kneed him in the genitals – now who would not be able to use his balls? Neophytos thought. With his hands full of Doriskos’s hair, he bashed and bashed his head against the temple wall – more sacrificial blood for Apollo. The man fell to the ground, blood frothed from his mouth, dyeing his beard the colour of wine. Neophytos with one knee, knelt down on Doriskos’s chest. Timaios approached him from behind, blood smeared on his cheek and mouth, a sword in hand, and gave it to Neophytos.

He smiled down at the man, shouts and screams drilled into his hears, but he let them fade away; this was his sanguinary time. ‘Tell your son you were defeated by Neophytos the Parthenian.’ He hoisted the sword and took his strike. A croaked yelp, spurted blood, hacked bone, an annihilated arm – ah, the smell of victory.

Timaios smacked Neophytos on the back, ‘That will teach them; we will bring death upon the enemy.’

‘Let this one live,’ Neo said, ‘his son can see the mark I have left behind for him.’ He wiped the sweat dripping from his face, noting that he needed to change his headband once he got home, and turned around. He could see red cloaks twirling in dirt, and ripped crimson tunics moving side to side like snakes. He felt like a suppressed dog that had been suffocated by a leash, had finally bit back and ripped its teeth into its master’s arm, puncturing the skin; the blood oozing, the bitter taste and smell reassuring the dog of its freedom.

Neophytos noticed that amongst the blood and tunics, there were scattered hyacinth flowers around the circular altar. Had Oreithyia escaped? He was about to run over to the altar when he saw an arm appear with bangles, leaning on the ground, and a purple figure revealed herself closer to the flowers, bent down on her knees and looking around the sanctuary. Her veil had fallen from her head; parts of her hair had fallen out of her braid. Oreithyia looked up and Neophytos caught her eye. They stared at each other – if only he could take her to safety, but she could take care of herself, she had been doing it for a long time since her mother had died, when she was younger. Oreithyia stared back at Neophytos; blood soaked his hair, his hands covered in it. When would the fighting end, she thought, when would all of this frightening end?

‘Neo, come help me,’ Timaios called, fighting two Spartans.

He took one last look at Oreithyia and motioned his head to the right – go, run, he thought. He took a bronze dagger from a body on the ground and hurled it at one of the Spartans. It hit the man in the chest and he fell to the ground. Neophytos ran towards Timaios, snatched a sword from another body and struck another man down in his way. He followed Timaios away from the temple and jumped on top of one of the reclining couples statues, and fought another Spartan. The man’s sword cut into Neophytos’s arm, but he ignored the pain and thrust his sword into the man’s stomach. He thought he was in a bloody bath as he watched the blood purge out of the man once he withdrew his sword.

‘Stop this madness,’ someone yelled.

Neophytos looked up, still mantled on the statue, and saw his friend, Phalanthos, on the steps of the temple, holding a spear like the statue of Apollo above his head, but with blistered hands, and an index finger missing.

‘Heed yourselves.’

‘They must be put in place,’ Neophytos yelled, jumping off the statue and walking towards Phalanthos. He kicked a flinching hand on the ground that tried to grab a sword.

‘You are all fools, they will gather more Spartans and they will come find us and kills us.’

‘Not if we take the upper hand,’ Timaios yelled, stepping closer to Neophytos.

‘They will come, they will kill our families, we must go, now.

Neophytos looked at Timaios, perhaps if they killed the two Spartan kings they would not have to leave the city. They needed more weapons, they could fight them off?

‘We must go, leave the dead; the women will return and bury them.’ Neophytos watched as Phalanthos hurried down the stone steps, his long blonde braid swishing side to side as he walked right up to him. ‘Follow me; they will drive us out of the city.’

‘The gods will ensure us victory if we stay.’

‘Hold your tongue, Apollo will smite us for this treachery. We have spilt blood on a day of celebration. Gather your belongings from Messoa and we shall meet at Therapne,’ he turned away from Neophytos. ‘Hurry, men.’

Neophytos clenched his jaw, but listened to Phalanthos’s wise words – he was always right. He was the first Parthenian to train and educate the other Parthenians to be strong and fearless warriors, when all the Spartan boys at the age of seven left to go live in the barracks and train. Phalanthos would take them to the Plantanistas, a secret place that was surrounded by plane-tree groves, a couple of metres south of the tribe of Messoa. Two groups of Spartan boys would brawl with each other there for a couple of months, biting and gouging each others’ eyes out until one group won. Neophytos had learned how to fight with his fists and legs. The first time he had trained with daggers was the day he had been attacked by Dexios in the marketplace at night. If Phalanthos had not found him with Timaios, he would have not been able to take his spiteful revenge.

Timaios turned to him, ‘We could still raise an attack.’

‘I think Phalanthos is right, we are not able to control this.’

They followed the Parthenians down the sanctuary hill. It was going to take a good hour heading north on foot to get to Messoa and far away from Amyklai. Neophytos then noticed that Timaios’s hyacinth flower under his belt had missing petals, a couple still held on, but they were ripped and damaged – discoloured, just like Neophytos’s own heart.

 

Neophytos was beating down a sheet of bronze material later on that night, when the blacksmith’s workshop door slammed open.

‘They are going to kill you; they are sending the krypteia out tonight!’

‘Let them come,’ he said, looking up, ‘I will cut their throats.’

‘Why must you shed more blood to be heard?’ Oreithyia took a step closer to him, her golden bangles jingling. He liked the sound of them, how they reminded him of her and when they had first kissed. It had been the Karneia festival and he had been watching her dance, her bangles and anklets clinking together with every precise twist and flick she made with her hands, her body whirling in the ring dance with four other chosen girls who were unmarried; he had become enchanted by her like Aphrodite herself, and that day, he had talked her into watching him during an athletic race. They had kissed afterwards behind one of the tents set up for the festival. She had revealed she had always been filled with pothos, passionate longing for him, since that day in the marketplace when he had given her food to take home. It had been raining, and it was the dreadful time she had lost her mother to childbirth. How things were changing now, he knew she did not want him to fight for his cause.

‘They will kill you; you will leave me and go to Hades.’

‘My rightful place is to be honoured, to be respected as an equal.’

‘Do not let your pride suffocate you.’

‘How can I when they have taken my right to marry, am I to remain wifeless because I was born a Parthenian?’

‘They are going to kill you.’

‘I am leaving with the others.’

‘What about me, are you going to leave me all on my own?’

Beads of sweat travelled down Neophytos’s face, his olive skin was alight by the fire in the corner that was illuminating the dark room. He ignored her and kept bashing down the bronze material, he needed to finish this, he had to get it right, it would be his last job as a blacksmith.

‘Do I mean anything to you?’

He stopped. His hand unclasped the hammer and he leaned forward on the stone bench, his weight pushed on his arms, his head bent down. She had to come with him, he could not leave her with Dexios; he could not leave her here. He clenched his jaw, wiped his face with his arm and stood up. Their eyes interlocked and they stared at each other.

‘You will come with me.’

‘I will not die for your cause.’

‘I am waiting for Phalanthos’s orders’ we are planning on leaving the city.’

‘But I thought – ’

They heard a noise outside. Neophytos walked in front of Oreithyia – Zeus forbid, had the krypteia been sent out already? He grabbed his sword from the wooden stool where he had left it and watched the door pull open. He raised his sword, ready to strike.

‘I have word,’ Timaios said, taking in deep breaths, leaning forward.

Neophytos withdrew, and threw his sword on the stone bench. ‘What is the news?’

‘Phalanthos has returned, there is word going around that they are attacking us tonight.’

‘We must go.’ Neophytos grabbed his sword and the bronze armour he had been beating down to fit him. ‘Oreithyia, you must come with us.’

‘I cannot leave my family.’

‘If you want a life with Dexios and to bear his children, stay, but if you want to be with me, to be free of these people, come with us, we will marry, I will be able to marry you.’

They left the blacksmith’s workshop, Neophytos holding Oreithyia’s hand, his woollen cloak flapping in the wind, Timaios behind them. They travelled south to Neophytos’s family home and once they were in, his mother, Krateia, stood up from the hearth she had been sitting near.

‘Where have you been, I thought you were killed?’ she hugged her son, and Neophytos let go of Oreithyia’s hand.

‘We are leaving the city with the other Parthenians.’ He told her of their plan and the Spartan’s attack tonight. ‘You must stay indoors; they could kill Blathyllos and Elatreus if they see them.’

His mother called his half-brothers over to sit at the hearth where his half-sisters, Kydilla and Limnoreia were slurping down their broth soups in wooden bowls. ‘Will we not see you again, my boy?’

‘Boethus will take care of you all, I will send a messenger if our plans have been a success, but if you do not hear from me in a couple of years, you must find peace.’

He saw his step-father, Boethus, another helot, carving into wood, making a figurine. He did not move. His mother looked at Oreithyia behind him and Timaios, and she smiled. She looked up at her boy for the last time and cupped his face, ‘May the gods be with you all, my son.’ She kissed him twice on both cheeks and he hugged his siblings goodbye.

His step-father finally stepped forward, ‘Your mother will be fine with us,’ and handed him the figurine he had been carving.

They left the house and saw a snake of light approaching Messoa from the citadel of Sparta. The enemy was coming. They climbed onto their horses and travelled south to Therapne and met up with the other Parthenians and Phalanthos. Before Neophytos left, he looked down at the wooden figurine in his hand, and saw that it was Zeus Tropaios – he who turns to flight.

The Parthenians would find a new fate with order and law, by their own making, for the gods themselves willed it.

 

Glossary

Agoge                                    Spartan system of education and military training

Apothetae                             deposits

Aulos                                      an ancient wind instrument like a pipe

Argos-Panoptes                   a one hundred-eyed giant

Drachmas                              ancient coinage/currency

Hekatombaion                     July/August Summer

Helot                                      captured Greeks of Messenia and turned into slaves for Spartans, they were subjugated and carried out domestic duties and farming

Hesperides                            nymphs who attend a blissful garden

Kithara                                  an ancient musical instrument – a lyre and similar to a modern harp and guitar

Spartiate                               Spartan men of equal status and known as peers

 

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A White Arm, Hiroki Kosuge

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My mum has gone to the universe. That’s true. Because I saw her off to the station. She seemed to be a bit tired then. Just before she got into the train, she gave me a cake as a Christmas present. There went the starting bell. When I waved the hand through the window, she had already started drinking and was looking at her phone. Then, as Dad told me that she had been chosen, I felt a bit proud of her although I worried about whether drunken astronauts could go home safely.

My mum used to drink a lot while Dad was absent. She used to drink sake, as if she drinks tea, and would sometimes hit me during drinking. I tried drinking a few times, while nobody was watching, to know why the liquid makes Mum mad. But, last summer, I was carried into the hospital for that. I often heard my parents quarrel out of the hospital room while I was in the bed. I felt very sorry for that because it was my fault. Finally, they divorced last December. (Dad said, divorce means Mum goes far away. I asked, ‘How far?’ He said, ‘It’s too far to see.’ So, I thought divorce would mean Mum goes to the universe. Dad liked the idea, though Mum looked a bit sad when she heard of this.) Dad and I started a new life here from this January. I still can’t get used to the strong provincial accent here.

Now, dad and I are in the hall at school since there is a graduation ceremony today. The ceremony isn’t for me. We, the pupils and parents, have been brought together to sing a song for graduates. Dad standing among mothers seems to be a bit embarrassed because he is the only male. Ken, a friend of mine, said earlier, ‘Where’s your mum?’ I just said, ‘She’s gone to the universe.’ Ken said, ‘You liar’. When I tried to say no, the floor shook and some people fell down like chessmen on a chessboard. The siren blew and dad rushed to me. We, dad and I, bent our bodies and waited for the tremors of the earthquake to stop. After the long shaking, somebody screamed, ‘Tsunami comes!’

 

School teachers guided us to the rooftop. The level of the water rose little by little. I could see burning water cover the field in front of the school. Muddy water walls grew slowly. I could hear the sound of a cage made of mud swallowing the world, and realised that the world was made of sugar, otherwise it couldn’t be broken like this. Looking at the ground, which was about to be fully covered by muddy water, I shouted, ‘A grape is running!’ Dad looked at me briefly and said, ‘Shut up’ quietly. Then, I found that I was still wearing the shoes for gym. I wanted to go to the lower floor to get the shoes for outside, but dad didn’t allow me to go. We were looking at the destroyed houses which came floating down the river. Again, I yelled out, ‘A GRAPE IS RUNNING!’ At the moment, he scolded me severely. I was so astonished I burst into tears because Dad rarely shouts. Dad’s hands were shaking. A group of people running on the street looked like an apple, lizard, and then, grape again. I didn’t intend to make dad angry, but smile as he would. Everything on the surface of the water was spinning slowly. People around us kept on screaming, ‘Up,Up,Up Uuuuuuuuuuuuuup!’ I wondered if I should scream with them, but finally didn’t. Because Dad had been silent.

It grew dark, and we ended up spending the night on the top of the roof. I’d decided not to speak until my dad spoke to me. I lowered my body into the big bed made of parents ’coats and slept like that, and found that I’d lost my voice the next morning. I couldn’t say anything even if Dad asked me to say something with his sad look.

 

After the Tsunami confusion, it’s been decided that I go to see a doctor once a week. It takes nearly three hours from my ‘temporary house’ (Dad taught me to call it so). Since dad has given up his job in order to take care of me and buy a digger, he seems to be busier with his new part-time jobs, but also looked happy with this weekly outing with me. I like to go to the hospital too, despite the fact that Dr Kaneko plunges a silver spatula into my throat and asks some strange questions, because Dad buys me an ice cream. Angelato, the ice cream shop, is located on the ground floor of the hospital. The floor is filled with the scent of the elderly who smell like burnt bread. I suspect something is burning in their bodies, something important.

I am in the habit of ordering a double: green tea and brown sugar. Dad always makes fun of me for choosing such flavours like an old man. A shop assistant at Angelato made it triple as a free gift today. I bowed carefully in order not to drop the vanilla on the top and ran up to Dad. He was reading a magazine for boys. He loves manga comics in spite of being an adult. He glanced at me and said, ‘Gimme the vanilla.’ I shook my head and bit into it.

Dr Kaneko is a beautiful, unlikable woman. When I first met her, as she introduced herself in the standard language, which is unusual in this region, I wondered if she was angry about having ‘a conversation’ with me. Her beautiful smile made me all the more confused. Dr Kaneko, today, asked me ‘What is there in your hometown?’

I wrote. ‘A steel tower.’

She said, smiling beautifully, ‘Anything else?’

I wrote.  ‘A chimney.’

She spoke in superlatives. ‘Well done! How about the mountains, rivers or rice fields?’

I wondered for a while and found myself at a loss, and then wrote. ‘There were.’

Mrs Kato, a dad’s friend, arrived on a rainy Sunday. She was fat and short, like a small shrine. As she said, ‘Hello,’ I bowed carefully. She took out a robot toy, which I didn’t like the look of, from her double-layered plastic bag and gave it to me. She asked if I liked it, so I nodded. Since my mum had gone, I didn’t know how to conduct myself in front of a woman of her age.

We didn’t have anything to do while waiting for Dad. Mrs Kato was sitting politely on the square floor cushion, and I was pretending to play with the robot and was disappointed with the movable region of its arms.

When Dad arrived, it was already dark outside. He apologised for being late and Mrs Kato responded politely. Dad glanced at the robot in my hand and asked if I had said thank you to her, so I nodded. They talked quietly for a while in the stuffy room. Mrs Kato talked while covering her eyes and mouth, one after another, with a handkerchief. I happened to hear that her husband was carried away by tidal waves. I had known I shouldn’t laugh, at the moment like this, no matter how incredible it was. Mrs Kato, in the middle of their conversation, handed Dad money and he immediately returned it. After their conversation, as Dad asked if I would come with them next Sunday, I nodded twice. It is the sign I made to tell my feeling, after I have lost my voice, which means I am with you, always.

It was fine weather on Sunday. But a drive from our temporary house to Mrs Kato’s was not enjoyable because of a traffic jam. Dad said these cars were bringing relief supplies and volunteers. I thought, we are neither of them.

After I finished my second peeing on the road and came back to the car with Mrs Kato, she began to talk bit by bit. She told how she had been searching with her bare hands but she had had no success, and all her hope was now on the digger. She talked with a worried face, like the one who forgot to buy the meat for curry. Dad had been listening to her while chiming in with a remark occasionally.

 

We arrived at Mrs Kato’s house finding ourselves three hours behind time. Mrs Kato said we could cancel today, but Dad responded that we had better get the work done as soon as possible, and climbed into the digger. While he was digging, Mrs Kato showed me around her house. We walked hand in hand lest I slip and fall down. She said there used to be a field of dandelions. Her hand was soft and a bit sweaty. I just wondered why she didn’t smell like sake. The ground which used to be a yellow carpet of dandelions was covered by slime now. The area was filled with the mixed smell of the slime, seaweeds and something burnt. The dead bodies of sturgeons were scattered near a piano lying upside down. I could see the end of the road we were on was blocked by a huge ship.

We, Mrs Kato and I, took a rest by a mountain of rubble. The sludge on the fusuma attached to the broken walls reminded me of a friend’s drawing at the school. Strange, messy and blackly green. He always ends up drawing such pictures since he mixes all his pigments.

Then, I heard Dad calling Mrs Kato behind the broken walls. She seized my shoulder and told me not to come. Her wet eyes with large irises were shining like gentle gems. I didn’t say yes, but nodded twice. When I looked down the ground, I found the fragments of a broken mirror reflecting a flaming sunset.

I could hear Dad was saying something from behind the broken walls. I walked toward the voice, and then stopped. All I could hear was the roar of strong wind. I peeped from a crack of a wall. Mrs Kato was hanging onto a white arm jutted out from the ground. Dad wasn’t crying but joined his hands in prayer and then bowed. It was a beautiful bow, beautiful and cold.

 

Mrs Kato was asked to cremate her son within the day by a man from a municipal office. The man, who looked quite tired, said it was ordained by law. We went to a crematorium. Mrs Kato politely took off her son’s clothes and one shoe and put them in her shoulder bag. She kept on murmuring, ‘Sorry, I’m so sorry,’ while squeezing her son’s fingerless hand. After holding onto his white hand repeatedly, she saw her son disappearing into an incinerator.

It took approximately 20 minutes. I heard someone in the room talking in an undertone. ‘Children can be quickly burnt.’ I wanted to escape from the room, but didn’t want to be alone either. There was only the tick of the second. I felt it like forever.

When the bones, like a fluorescent hard chalk, appeared on the black plank, Mrs Kato cried loudly, as of animals, and then she faced the remains, which used be a part of her, and put a piece of them into her mouth.

 

On the way back to the temporary house, Mrs Kato wearing a dirty shirt, asked if I wanted to eat something since I hadn’t eaten anything since that morning. Dad said no thanks, but as she insisted, we three stopped at a restaurant facing the sea. The radio was on the air in the restaurant.  An idol group was singing about dreams, love and peace. I wondered why they didn’t sing about muddy school bags or torn-off electric wire.

I ordered a Japanese set meal. Dad didn’t make fun of my choice, but just said no. As Mrs Kato, however, told me to order the set, I did so. Dad and Mrs Kato neither ordered nor touched their water.

Mrs Kato, when we were about to leave to pay, said in a murmur. ‘It’s been good.’ As she suddenly said so and burst into tears, the restaurant stuff at the cash resister seemed to be startled. Dad didn’t say anything, but was just looking at his hands sadly as if it’s all his fault.

 

It’s 4:00am now. Dad has given up on driving us home and has decided to take a nap in the car. I couldn’t sleep at all. The night sky was pitch-dark. Dad seemed to be sleeping. Mrs Kato was hugging her son in the tiny white box and just shutting her eyes. I got out of the car silently in order not to wake dad up, and told Mrs Kato that I would go to the toilet. The sky was getting gloomy, but the azaleas along the road were still enduring in order not to melt into the darkness. I stepped onto the observation platform overlooking the sea. I inhaled the chilly air, and then it instantly bloomed in my stomach. I opened my mouth to fill it with the light of the coming morning dawn. However, the silence of the darkness still covered the area.

Suddenly, a bright moonbeam broke through the clouds. The pale moonlight and silent black sea reminded me of the white arm jutting out of the ground. Where did the arm go? WHERE COULD HAVE IT GONE? I got scared, but realised that I couldn’t do anything for that. I watched my trembling arm. It was dimly lit by the moonlight. I prayed. I prayed that my arms wouldn’t become whiter anymore, but the cruel particle of light didn’t seem to stop bleaching my arms. I prayed. I kept on praying until the desperate wish became hoarse cries.

 

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Falling, Willo Drummond

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The chimney is leaking again. Clara stands in front of the slow combustion stove, watching the tiny drips roll down the outside of the flue. This must have been happening for a day and a half now, each drip hitting the stove top and sending a spray of moist ash, like fine dark diamonds, against the wall. How could she be so blind? It was the flash of one of these sprays that had finally caught her attention.  Now that she’s piled the base high with tea-towels (flannels, half the contents of the linen closet) she stands slightly out of breath, wondering what to do.

Just what was happening up there on the roof? If only she could see for herself. She’d only had the thing fixed last month (‘fixed’, she now saw, had been something of an overstatement) by a little man. Little men:  She calls them this still, picked up from Essie all those years ago. It had both scandalised and amused her before getting under her skin and into her vernacular. She feels the familiar thrill at her use of the term now (once these things take, one can never seem to shake them) and hears that liquid-clear voice as though Essie were in the next room.

We’ll have to get a little man in, she’d announce, whenever there was a problem.

Clara never did confirm if irony was intended on Essie’s part, or if it was simply an unconscious hangover from her upbringing (patrician, so very different to Clara’s own) and in fact (she knew this now), that had been part of the thrill. Somehow Essie’s breezy tone, her slight wave of the hand would always settle the matter.  Clara’s throat tightens a little. Essie: Always so practical, in motion, weekends punctuated with household chores, the thrum of endless loads of laundry, tidying piles of the week’s papers, books, scarves; the substance of life that Clara insisted on leaving around. (Too busy dreaming! Her mother would have said, Essie too, although their meaning couldn’t have been more different.)

As Essie bustled from room to room, always so much to do! trailed over her shoulder like silk.

Clara thinks of that tone often these days, rattling around as she does in the cottage. It sings in the still, solitary air. Sometimes she thinks she can actually glimpse the vibrations, against a vase, a curtain. Some days it’s these vibrations alone that get her into motion, moving through her schedule as she knows she’s supposed to do.

She surveys the lounge room now. The old carpet needs replacing. This section near the fireplace in particular, is brittle against her toes. The orange paint they’d chosen for the walls soon after they’d moved in (the painting almost killed them!) is still holding up, however. It blazes down the hallway to the front room where the wallpaper remains defiantly modern. It’s remarkable how these aesthetic choices have come back into vogue. They’d lived a good life together here, the two of them.

Splayed open on the old tea chest that serves as a coffee table in front of her, is the poetry collection she’d been browsing as the glittering spray of ash caught her eye. She’d been struck by a line and had begun to copy it into her notebook before the interruption: ‘Our bodies are breakable…’°

Indeed, she thinks now, considering the fragment, amazed once more by the silver multiplicity of meaning.

 

Clara can’t remember when it had arrived, her fear of heights (she’d been a gymnast as a child, flying on the uneven bars, balancing still and sure on the beam). One day she’d woken up and there it was, about a month or so after they’d bought this place, a paralysing fear, not of heights so much as of falling. Of meeting some shock, or, she supposed more precisely (with familiar resignation), of becoming unbalanced. These days she can’t even stand on top of a ladder to pop her head through the manhole. There is simply no possibility that she’ll be able to get up on the roof to see what’s happening with the blasted chimney. There could be high winds at this time of year, sudden, possessive gusts. Who knows what might happen?  Losing her footing could cast her clear off the pitched roof of the cottage. She could stumble, slide, take a nose-dive. She might plummet, plunge, hit-the-dirt. Lose her grip altogether.

The roof had been entirely Essie’s domain. This was surprising of course (in true Essie style), as she was actually afraid of so many things one would associate with roofs (spiders, snakes poised to strike from the downpipe!) yet, Essie would climb on up there as sure as breathing. Clean the gutters, brave the baking steel in summer, sleeves rolled up like some kind of 1950’s mechanic. Clara had more than once expected her to re-appear from a foray on the roof with a packet of Marlboro tucked under her shirtsleeve, her own little James Dean.

Clara turns back to the mass of tea-towels (a futile defence, now almost entirely soaked through) at the base of the flue. It’s a public holiday. There simply won’t be a little man available at such short notice. Think Clara, think.

 

The first time Clara saw Essie she was playing the banjo-mandolin in a third generation bluegrass band (although Clara knew none of these labels at the time) in a run-down inner-city dive. The only female in the outfit, she played hillbilly music to ruffle her family’s feathers. The violin-like tuning of the instrument made it an easy transition for a classically trained aristocratic punk, and Essie never did like to muck about. Clara had stumbled into the gig after a less than memorable evening with a colleague, something of a date.  He was a nice enough fellow, shy, hair slightly thinning already at 30, but the most remarkable thing about him (the only thing she can really recall) was the way he managed to have a small ink mark on the breast of each and every shirt, although Clara never once saw him with a pen in his pocket. A fellow mathematics teacher, Clara had been out with him a few times, but could never shake the vague feeling of frustration at this mysterious cliché of a stain (as though its mere presence had the power to bring them all down, their whole maths teaching breed). This small stain, along with his frustratingly limited views on mathematics (Clara was much more interested in the poetry of numbers), had made things… difficult. They’d met for a drink in a crowded city bar full of suits pressed shoulder to shoulder, jostling amongst the enduring one-upmanship of men. They’d soon argued over something inconsequential (or so it seemed now) and agreed to call it a night. Clara had been grateful to get out of there, but it was still quite early. She decided to walk the 40 minutes or so to the other side of the city, to gather her thoughts in the cool night air, before taking the train home to the familiarity and comfort of the suburbs.

At some stage she walked past a small old pub, with wild music clattering out onto the street. She can’t quite recall what made her stop and step inside. In fact, Clara barely remembers anything about that evening other than what happened next. Logic tells her the venue was full, pulsing with art students and punks, appropriately enraged and alcohol fuelled. But to Clara these steaming, pressing bodies remain ghosts. As Clara crossed the threshold that evening she was aware only of a singular image:  A boyish girl on a cramped corner stage, with hooded dark eyes, all straight lines, braces and boots. A white cotton shirt and tan linen pants gave nothing away of the woman underneath, but her hands, her small, capable hands sent a shock through Clara with each and every strum. She was transfixed by those hands. The world dropped away. All was distilled to this image, those hands and the sound of the banjo-mandolin.

The woman was entirely focussed on her task, intense, serious. Her concentration was somehow at odds with the loose, frenetic vibe of the music but at the same time completely appropriate. Very occasionally she broke focus, looked up and laughed or said something to the other musicians, and at those times she seemed joyous, entirely free. She seemed the perfect mystery, exciting and dangerous and Clara knew that she must find out what lay beneath.

 

In contrast to that first evening, Clara remembers with visceral precision the early days of their life together. An anxiety unlike anything she’d felt before. She remembers the violence of her heart flailing against her breastplate and how she felt she might expire at any moment. To cease to be without having the chance to see Essie one more time seemed an end horrible beyond imagining. It compelled her breathless-self off trains and buses, through crowded city streets to the promise offered by the front door of Essie’s inner-city flat. All the hope and possibility that was held by the click of that door: It was a meeting of minds, of spirit, the likes of which she’d never known. (And there she was, supposedly a grown woman!)  She felt fragile, exposed as an infant. The possibility that she might lose hold of that glittering, singular knowing was simply too much to bear.

They’d spent long days in Essie’s flat, playing records, talking in marathons of intensity, tumbling ideas and the fierce embrace of understanding. Occasionally, every 30 hours or so (she still blushes to remember) they’d emerge from their bubble to get supplies, to take the air on the main street (petrol fumes and spices) and to test the hub of the world against newly formed skins.

 

As Clara moves from the lounge through to the small kitchen she sees the old photograph of Essie – yellowed now – attached to the fridge. A magnet advertising a removals company pins it there and it vibrates slightly as the compressor struggles to negotiate the too few items contained within. How could she possibly still have this magnet? In the early years they’d moved frequently, almost every six months (it was traumatic! Clara can still hear Essie’s hyperbole on the matter), but once they’d found the cottage, once they’d found this place, they knew they’d found home.  

Over the years, Clara has rarely looked at this photograph. She fingers its soft frayed edge now. Essie’s hands are wrapped around a paper cup containing hot chocolate, a roll-your-own cigarette perched between her right fingers just near the rim. She’s leaning against a black wrought iron railing, behind which you can see the stone work of Notre Dame de Paris. Essie peers at the camera from under the peak of her grey cap, her dark eyes as always, both a challenge and an invitation.

Clara remembers they’d purchased the hot chocolates that day simply to keep warm. The year they went to Paris had been one of the coldest European winters on record.  Across the street is the red awning of the cafe where they’d purchased the beverages, and at the edge of the picture, just entering the frame, is an old man on a bicycle. The sky is clear except for a single smear of cloud.  It’s this smear, and what it represents for Clara, that makes the image so hard to look at. In this tiny frame, this imprint of light on fraying paper, the world is going about its business. Cafes sell hot chocolate on the street and old men cycle toward their destinations. Her Essie, bold and defiant, leans against a railing by a cathedral, lost in the pleasures of a warm drink and a cigarette. But all Clara remembers of this trip (after Essie’s family had cut her off, they’d scrimped and saved so hard for the holiday it seemed as though they’d dreamed it into existence), was how the assault of that fierce cold air was a reprieve from the vice like grip of her own frozen spirit. There they were in the City of Light and all Clara could feel was a newly pressing darkness. She felt out of time, out of alignment. Unable to enjoy the pleasures in abundance around her and unable – most shamefully – to meet Essie’s romantic ideal of their holiday.

Each day Clara put on layers of clothing: Tights, jeans, cardigan, jacket – one scarf for her neck and another to hold her hat over her ears – and traipsed out to some monument or other, made awkward attempts to dine in a multitude of quaint cafes. But she was numb and she was tired. Tired of looking (and of being looked at) amongst all this perfection, the weight of a northern history an unwelcome rod against her Antipodean spine.  She longed for a glimpse of the real, took to scouring the footpath for a protrusion of weed, a glimpse of life. The icy air, slicing as it did at her cheeks and searing her lungs, was sensation at least, she thought. Some indication that she was alive.

After the trip, these darknesses came and went. Unannounced, they rolled in and out like the mist, marked out their years together in the cottage. Clara became fascinated by the thresholds of madness, carrying within herself as she did a constant fear of following in her father’s footsteps: That one day the mist would roll in for good.  At first Essie had fussed over her, convinced that Clara’s darkness was to do with her writing, but later they came to see how much more pervasive her depressions became without it. At least Clara’s writing (her ‘scribblings’, as she called them) provided a vessel into which she might pour that un-distilled part of herself that she couldn’t share with Essie. She couldn’t bear to lean on Essie too much; Essie had enough on her plate with her work at the local youth centre (she’d reconciled with her family by then, but could never bring herself to follow in their footsteps).  Clara still marvels at how Essie stood by her during those years, allowed for her, offered acceptance, if not always understanding.

 

In the days and months following Essie’s aneurism (so cruelly shy of her fiftieth birthday), Clara’s scribblings were all she had. As she slowly learned to renegotiate the space that had been theirs – lounge, hall, study – she scribbled herself into existence. To her astonishment her first novel, Etchings, won a local literary prize and her subsequent work has taken her to festivals and conferences. She has spoken on panels, and occasionally given lectures at the local University. Yet absurdly, here she stands, a woman unable to get up on a roof.

It’s cool outside today, but nothing like that European winter. The rain has stopped now and the mist is rolling in, bringing with it that clean, mossy smell. Clara moves from the fridge and opens the back door, lets the moist air wash over her skin.

Alive, she thinks, these cloaks of low cloud, rolling through unannounced. They’re both mysterious and familiar (like a long lost lover reflecting back your own gesture) and intrinsically, astonishingly, alive. Passing though, the mists obscure everything, and somehow in that same act remake each and every tree, blade of grass, the very fabric of time.

Clara knows the ladder sits just under her feet, in the storage area below the house. For the briefest moment she recalls rolled up sleeves and a sound like silk.

It’s not impossible, she thinks. When this mist passes through, the air will be clear and cool, and there’s hardly any breeze. It’s simply a case of unfolding the thing and propping it against the front of the house. Five, six, seven steps and I’ll be up. It’s really quite simple Clara. In fact, it’s sure as breathing.

 *

Works cited

° Malouf, David. “Flights, 3”. Typewriter Music. St Lucia: UQP, 2007. p17

 

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The Great Roaring Noise, Bruce Naylor

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This is sort of a kid’s story. Not that I believe in kid’s stories… I am currently expanding it into a novella, which is turning out to be rather macabre, so perhaps it’s more of a nightmare than a story. However, this is the short story where it all began….

 

‘But what was it like Da?’ whispered Seamus in the gloom. ‘Tell us about the Great Roaring Noise.’

Da chuckled, ‘I keep forgetting that you kids are all too young to have heard the Great Roaring Noise.’

Nine little sets of eyes blinked in the dark, eagerly waiting for him to go on. It was one of their favourite games to pass the time. They would give him no peace now, badgering and pestering him, until at last he would sigh, and then in his slow and dreamy voice, begin to talk of the life that had been before.

Before the Dark.

‘Go on Da,’ Seamus pleaded, his tiny high voice penetrating the silence, ‘Tell us what was it like.’

‘Keep your voice down,’ hissed Da, ‘or you’ll wake him, and then you’ll have nothing to worry about except which one of you he’s going to eat for lunch.’

They all froze, hardly daring to breathe, hoping that he wouldn’t hear them. He was over there in the other corner, nestled amongst the trash. Occasionally, in the soft dusty dark, they might hear an antenna twitch, but Old Man Cockroach had barely moved since he ate their brother, Blod, yesterday.

After a long while, the one they called Ten, simply because he was the last one of them born, and Da had run out of names after the first nine, grabbed Da by the leg.

‘Please Da.’

Da sighed and settled back into the dust. With his front legs he slowly cleaned the dust off his palps before beginning in a slow whisper, ‘Well, you couldn’t really call it a noise…’

‘What do you mean,’ whispered Buck into the frightened hush, his outsized fang that gave him his name, glinting in the gloom.

‘Well, it’s not like the sort of noise you might hear. Like when Old Man Cockroach gets hungry and comes looking for us, or even a scream like Blod made when he was being eaten,’ and here, Da’s voice fell away.

None of them would ever forget the terror of that moment, as Blod was swallowed, piece by awful piece.

‘No, it’s more like the sort of noise that you feel first. And it’s only later, when it’s all over, and you realise you’re still alive, that you might think about what it sounded like. It’s like, I don’t know, like…like the sound that the walls might make if they fell down, like the sound you might hear inside your head if it was being crushed by the jaws of a cockroach.’

Ten whimpered with fright when Da said this, but Da didn’t seem to notice, he was in the grip of a powerful memory.

‘It was like the sound of a thousand spiders screaming as they’re being boiled in hot water. Except it wasn’t the sound I heard first, but the wind.’ Da paused for effect. ‘It was the wind that really frightened me. I had never seen a wind like that before. I remember that day so clearly. I was in my corner working the web early. We’d had a good harvest the night before, with the flying ants just throwing themselves at us. Our webs were groaning with food. I was so stuffed! Couldn’t have possibly eaten another one. I’d been up most of the night, wrapping and storing the harvest for a rainy day, but still I woke up early before all the others, to repair the tears, to check the tension. Our family have always been like that. We’ve worked that corner for generations.

You have to understand that in the old days, on the Outside, you didn’t have Old Man Cockroach to worry about. They stayed down there on the floor where they belonged, and we had the skies. Things had an order then. We all had our place, not like now, not like this topsy-turvy time.’

Da was on a roll now, his voice soft with longing. This was what the children loved. Tales of the old world – when a spider wasn’t too scared to move, lest he be eaten.

‘And the light,’ Da went on, ‘Oh the light, it was so bright, like nothing you ever get here. With light like that, you could see the flying things clear across the room. You could set your web up just right, catch ‘em on the updraft. No spider ever went hungry in those days.’

‘No hunger!’ squeaked Pip. Not one of them could remember a day when they had not been hungry.

‘So anyways, when this wind started up, I did what we’d always done. I called the alarm to tell all my brothers that something was up. I grabbed the web just like you’re supposed to, and shook it with all my might, so they could all see, so they could run and take cover, and to frighten whatever it was, to warn it off, but it wasn’t frightened at all. It just kept coming, up the edge of the roof, and heading straight for me.’

‘What’d it look like?’ whispered Ten, in the faintest of voices.

‘It was huge, like some silver beam of light, and on the end is this black mouth as wide as five spiders, and that’s where the terrible great roaring noise is coming from. And it’s hungry, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Not even like Old Man Cockroach over there,’ said Da, gesturing with his head towards the other corner. ‘He just comes over ‘cause he’s a little bit hungry and fancies a bit of young spider for afternoon tea. This thing was different. It was insatiable. It sucked up everything in sight. Whole webs, whole families that had worked the north roof for countless generations, back to the dawn of time, gone in the shake of a leg. It was terrible,’ Da shook his head, lost in grief. After a long moment, he raised his great shiny head, his eight eyes glinting in the dark. ‘Now, where was I?’

‘The Great Roaring Noise,’ they all said together.

‘Ah yes, The Great Roaring Noise. Well, it came straight for me. I see the edge of the web start to lift off the wall, and I run. Just in time too. I just made it back to the corner, as the whole web was sucked straight off the wall. All the ants I had so carefully wrapped and hung from the roof for a midnight snack – gone. My three brothers who were working the west wing – gone. Your grandfather, your grandmother, my sister, all gone. But still, the beast wants more, and the faster I run, the faster it follows me. It’s then that I realise, that it’s after me. Every time I duck and dive it changes direction. And it’s gaining on me. I can feel it’s cold breath on the back of my neck. Finally, I make a desperate dive for the Crack.

‘The Crack,’ breathed Max.

‘Tell us about the Crack,’ continued Jax, finishing Max’s sentences as he always did.

‘My family,’ said Da, before pausing to correct himself, ‘your family, have used the Crack for hundreds of lives. It had never failed us before. I just make it inside the Crack, before it gets to me, and that terrible noise passes over the top of me, and moves on up the wall. I don’t mind telling you kids that at that moment, I’m crying, I’m sobbing like a baby, I’m panting with rage and screaming at the top of my voice. But finally I get a grip on myself. I have a look around me and I notice that there is no one else in the crack. I’m the only one who made it back. That Roaring Noise got everything. My whole family, all our supplies,’ and here, Da’s voice wavers a little, and he pauses before continuing, ‘at least I’m alive, I tell myself, I’m safe, here in the Crack, it can’t possibly get me. The Great Roaring Noise is still out there, but for the moment, it moves on and leaves me alone. Nevertheless, I wedge myself in tight at the back of the Crack, get all my eight legs in close, and push against the walls.’

‘It came back didn’t it?’ squeaked Pip.

‘Yes, my little one,’ said Da, gathering Pip under his foreleg, ‘it came back. But this time it comes right up to the Crack, sucking and pulling. The pressure was incredible. The wind was so great. It felt like my insides were being sucked out my mouth. There was nothing I could do, so I let go.’

Nine little gasps of astonishment punctured the dusty dark.

‘Then what happened?’ breathed Bobbin. He had a raspy nasal voice that sounded like he had a permanent cold. Da said that he was probably allergic to house dust in the Belly of the Roaring Noise.

‘Well, I remember flying through the dark like I was falling down into a great pit, and then nothing.’ Da looked slowly around at his children. ‘When I came to my senses, I was here. Oh, those first few moments were horrible. I’m feeling around me in the dark, and the dust is so thick that I feel like I’m breathing nothing but dirt. All around me I hear screaming. There are spiders everywhere. Your family, and all the other great families of the North Roof.  All the different ones too, even the big black ones, all mixed together. Most of them with missing legs, and some of them, poor souls, have been turned inside out like a sock by the Great Noise. Then I hear my sister,’ and here Da’s voice fell so quiet that they all had to lean in to catch the next bit, ‘Your dear mother. She’s lying right here in this corner where we are now, and I can see at once that she’s hurt bad. She whispers to me to come near. “I’m done for,” she croaks. I hold her close and say, “No way, you’ll make it Mildred –” but she shakes her wise old head. “You know what to do,” she says. And I do, but I don’t want to. “It’s for the children,” she says, “Do it for the children.” And I’m weeping and wailing, but I have to, so I take my teeth, and tear open her abdomen. Then, with a great cry, she dies, and in that moment, you all tumble from out of her, and that’s when I take each one of you, each a tiny, but already fertilised egg, and I tuck you in the dust, away from the other spiders, and all the terrible things that live down here, and as I do so, I name each and every one of you.’

Da looked around at all their little faces, so intent, so serious. He had never told them the whole story before, and none would move a muscle in case he stopped. They didn’t want to hear it, but at the same time, each of them wanted to know their history, their whole history, for the first time in their short lives. With his foreleg, Da indicated each of the assembled spiders in turn.

‘You Seamus, you were first born and brave, you have always been. Fastest and strongest of all your brothers and sisters, then Blod of course, the sweetest and gentlest of you all, then Nero, and you, Grace, tangled up together in each other’s legs, inseparable at birth as you have been ever since. Bobbin was next. What can I say, he tumbled out like a jack in the box ready for action, and hasn’t stopped since!’ Da gently cuffed him about the head. ‘And you, Buck, always ready to eat anything and everything. I’ll never forget that day you tried to eat that marble and broke one of your fangs.’ A little ripple of mirth passed around the group, their abdomens shaking as they giggled at one of the family’s most cherished stories. ‘And of course, not forgetting Pip, though I swear that squeak will be the death of us all, and Max and Jax, always fighting. You two,’ said Da sternly. ‘Just remember that family don’t eat family, no matter what! You hear me?’

They both solemnly nodded, remembering that day, in the depths of a terrible hunger, when Max had chewed off Jax’s back leg. Max hadn’t been able to sit down for a week after Da had finished with him. They all smiled at the memory.

‘Except for Mother,’’ piped up Ten.

‘Yes,’ replied Da, gruffly, ‘well, that was different. She would have wanted it that way. I don’t think I would have made it through those dark times without your mother’s ample body to feed you all. Particularly you, Ten, you were so small, I used to mistake you for a speck of dust in those days.’

They all laughed. Despite having a ferocious appetite, Ten was still the smallest of them all, by far.

‘Now listen up, all of you, and listen carefully. Never forget that you are descended from one of the great families, and you must stick together, even when I am gone.’

At this mention of a life without Da, Pip gave a little sob.

‘None of that now Pip, you have to be strong. That is what makes us different from him over there,’ said Da in a hoarse whisper. ‘I’ll never forget those early days. They had no mercy for each other, because you understand, he wasn’t the only cockroach in the belly of this beast.’

‘There were more of them?’ said Bobbin.

‘Oh yes, there were small ones and big ones and skinny ones and fat ones. But when they got hungry, they turned on each other, the filthy animals.’ And here Da lowered his voice as if he didn’t want the cockroach to hear, and whispered, ‘They even ate their own children!’ They all gasped in horror at the thought.

Da shook his head solemnly. ‘Old Man Cockroach over there, he’s just the last cockroach standing!’ Da spat a long thin stream of venom into the dust to underline just what he thought of that. ‘They have no sense of family, they are nothing but the scum of the earth, and maybe one day, when we find a way out of here, once more when we rule the sky,’ said Da, his voice thick with emotion, ‘we’ll be free of them forever!’

‘There must be a way out of here,’ said Seamus, fiercely.

‘Maybe there is son, maybe there isn’t,’ replied Da, slowly, weighing his words carefully. ‘I haven’t had much time, what with looking out for you all, to turn my thoughts to that. I feel in my waters that there is, and if there’s anyone who can find a way out of the Belly of the Great Roaring Noise, it’s…’

But they never did hear what their beloved Da would have said next. It all happened so fast. In flash, Old Man Cockroach was upon them.

‘Run children,’ screamed Da, ‘Run to the ten corners of the earth! I’ll hold him off.’

With a great war cry, Da threw himself at the cockroach. The old warrior was taken by surprise for a second; he had never seen a spider move so nimbly. As the children ran to hide themselves amongst the dust piles and the collected bric a brac of lost thimbles and scrunched up tissues, wads of chewing gum and safety pins, bread bag ties and lost 5c pieces, Da climbed on the back of the cockroach and bravely sank his fangs into the cockroach’s back. But the Old Man hadn’t outlasted every other cockroach in the Belly of the Beast to be taken by surprise by a simple spider, and with a flick of his ragged wings, he threw Da from his back. Turning with the speed of a boxer, his legs working in opposite directions like a well-oiled tank, armour flexing as he did so, the cockroach pinned Da to the ground with one of his legs. His hideous mouth hovered over Da, mandibles slicing the air like knives.

But the Old Man hesitated for a moment. The truth was, that cockroaches didn’t really like spider too much. That’s why he had left them to last. They were too bitter for his taste. But he had no choice anymore, he was starving, and besides, they were so arrogant, they deserved to die.

Fighting back the urge to vomit, he got a firm grip on the spider’s skull with his jaws, taking care to avoid those fangs, because despite being so feeble, spiders were also quite poisonous. He bit down gently, feeling Da’s skull flex in his mouth. The cockroach thought he might just carefully rip off the spider’s head, where the poisonous glands were, before sitting down to a nice nibble on those legs. They were more to his taste.

Da screamed in agony, and nine other voices echoed him, as his charges watched in horror from their hiding places. They screamed, and the screams got louder and louder until the noise filled the air, and in that moment, a sort of miracle happened. A great wind picked Old Man Cockroach up, and slammed him against the back wall of the Beast. His wings; crippled and chewed and broken from his many battles, were his undoing. The wind had got underneath them and they opened out like an old umbrella in a storm, lifting the old cockroach up in the air, slamming him against the back wall. For what seemed like an eternity, the Roaring Noise screamed through the belly as more and more dust piled on top of dust. All the children were safe though. Da had been training them from birth to run and hide themselves in the soft piles of dust, upon his command. When he had cried, ‘Run to the Ten Corners of the Earth’ they had instinctively obeyed him, just as he had drilled it into them, time and time again. Somehow, he must’ve known that this day would come. But Old Man Cockroach did not fare so well. His wings were twisted backward by the force of the wind, his nose ground into the dust, his body pelted with the rubbish of the screaming void. Then they heard, above the wind, a strange rattling noise coming towards them.

Then complete silence.

‘Shit!’

A voice from outside.

‘Bugger.’

Then a clicking noise, and from where Seamus crouched, safely nestled in the house dust, he saw a giant round window open in the roof of the Belly. The most dazzling light he had ever seen, shone down from above in a golden shaft, burning his eyes, but he couldn’t look away. Then an eye as big as three spiders, like a watery globe, pressed against the giant window.

‘Oh for god’s sake, Dave, have you got the tongs? The bloody vacuum cleaner’s sucked up my tweezers.’

As Seamus’s eyes adjusted to this rich and wonderful light, he couldn’t help but follow the shaft of light as it cut through the thick cloud of dust that had been stirred up by the Noise, and there, against the back wall, where the heavenly shaft of light illuminated a small circle of the dust on the back wall of the Belly of the Beast, lay the most ghastly spectacle.

Old Man Cockroach, his body twisted and broken, was skewered to the ground by a shiny pair of steel tweezers piercing his vile belly, and in his jaws, firmly gripped between his mandibles was their beloved Da’s head.

Without knowing where it came from, and without even thinking, Seamus lifted his voice, the sum of all Da’s patient lessons coursing through his body, and cried, ‘Run my children, to the air, to the air!’ and without hesitation, the nine sons and daughters of Da, ran up the sides of the Belly, and out through the light drenched window in the roof of the Great Roaring beast, and down its shiny sides. They fled for the cracks in the walls, and for the high places where the gentle night breezes blow:  the breeze, that to this day, still guides the delicious flying things of the air into their skilfully woven webs.

And all the children of Da, through their countless generations since, have been taught from birth, to fear the Great Roaring Noise.

No more do they shake their webs in vain attempts to frighten the thing away. Now they know better. As soon as the Voice of the Beast is heard, they flee for the Deepest of the Cracks, behind the ceiling boards, where they have learnt that they will be safe, free from the Terrible Breath of the Great Roaring Noise.

 

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Angel, Jamie Derkenne

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Lots of people had theories on how to catch those silver perch swimming in the water holes where the Nambucca snaked round Bowraville, but not many people ever seen any theory work.

Ray Glossip freely gave advice to any passing tourist or local, whether asked to or not. He’d swear a small hook with a tiny pinch of mullet was the only way. The time of day was crucial, had to be just before dawn, or just after sunset, and cool but not frosty. Neglected to mention been fishing for years, no luck. Percy Callinan, who caught one about thirty years previous, but had to throw it back because it was too small, reckoned silver perch were slippery bastards related to eels. His head cocked to one side, he’d show you a small, faded photo showing nothing, and opine you had to use a swivelled hook, and you needed a net. Andy Murray from the South Arm reckoned he caught them all the time, no big deal. ‘Just need the right ‘quipment,’’ he’d say, but never said what he had in mind. Also reckoned they weren’t good eating unless made into fish cakes.

Kev Shillingsworth, who was as close as most in town ever got to talking to someone traditional, often got asked questions like, ‘What you fellas do to catch perch in them olden days?’ To which he would reply, mysteriously tapping his nose with his forefinger, ‘We had our ways.’ But if Kev had ever known of the ways, he’d long had most of them whipped out of him, and suspected the ones he did know weren’t so traditional anyway. Once lifting up some lino with Percy, he’d come across some old yellow pages from the Bowraville Guardian, including a small story concerning the court appearance of two long-gone great uncles from the 1930s. The paper said they’d been caught fishing for silver perch near Lane’s Bridge, which wasn’t so much a crime even for them, although there would’ve been people who would have liked to make it one. The crime – fined five pounds each – was they were fishing with dynamite. Which explained why Andy Murray, who was into blowing things up, thought they were an easy catch.

Kev could understand this, because with dynamite, you could catch a lot of fish, and fish was good. ‘He was a fisher of men,’ old Father Finbarr Ewels would say from the pulpit of St Mary’s, pointing his bony finger to those up the back. He would growl about the heathens, because that’s what they were, their faces dark with sin. Women were the worst, sometimes wearing those white Jesus dresses like old mish girls, so poor, Finbarr would get confused bout what decade he was in. Some of them probably started thinking that if they ate a lot of fish then maybe they wouldn’t have to stand in the stalls any more at that Bowraville Theatre. Kev had been a Kinchela boy, so would eat anything so long as it wasn’t hay. He’d have fish on Fridays, and many other days besides.

Kev had taken his son Saucepan, river fishing a couple of times, but on each occasion they had soon given up, preferring to eat the cobra worms hiding in the sunken logs. Tastier, and a lot less hassle than if they had caught a fish, which would have meant building a fire, and scaling and gutting the catch.

Not that Saucepan ever gave up on the idea on catching some of the perch. You could see them glide just below the surface. Mostly small fish, but occasionally one of the big ones would rise up from the depths of the water hole. You could make a proper meal out of one of those, if only you knew how.

Which is how Saucepan stumbled on a secret. It’s not like he invented anything or the like, being Saucepan, it’s just that once, by the river, with his Marley music and earplugs, he built himself a small fire out of some wattle twigs, in the hope of making just the right amount of smoke to keep mozzies away. The wood burnt keenly, so to make a bit more smoke, he grabbed some smartweed and making a small tight bundle, put that on the fire as well. Sat watching the river, nodding his head to the music, not hearing or seeing the pale pink Martins on the other side of the bridge yelling at him. After a while, he put the fire out by throwing the burning sticks and bundle of weed, one by one, into the water. Watched them fizzle as the water soaked up the small yellow flames, got up and started walking back home. Was almost halfway back over the paddock to the road before realising he’d left a Burnin’ cover on the bank. So he walked all the way back, and as he was picking up the cassette cover, looked over the water and saw about twelve small fish on the surface, gulping air, which was doing them no good at all.

Saucepan stood staring for a minute or two, trying to work out what was going on. The fish hadn’t been dying when he’d left the first time. Had someone come along and poisoned them? He waded in and without any difficulty picked up the biggest. It rested limply in his hands. He smelt it; but he couldn’t smell any chemical. He tossed it back into the water. He scooped up some water in his palm and tasted it. River water has its own particular taste, and this didn’t taste any different, just faintly of the ashes from his fire. Shrugging, he picked up his belongings and went home.

It took Saucepan, being Saucepan, nearly a month to work it out. One day Kev was showing him old photos, including one of his Grandma, called Aunty Rose by everyone, the one who was Grandpa Jacko’s wife. The photo was a bit bigger than the small four-by-two jobs, so you could see some of the details of her face. An old woman when the photo was taken, but shy of the camera. Was giggling, and had her left hand over her face to hide a smile. Most of her little finger was missing.

‘How come she got no finger?’

‘In them olden days if you were a girl who wanted some lucky fishing you’d get most of your little finger chopped off. Women’s business. Tradition. Dunno why.’

‘Any good at fishing?’

Kev laughed. ‘Was she any good at fishing? My mum said she was the best. She knew some lingo she’d call out to the fish. She’d call them softly so they would come to the surface just hoping she’d pick them up, and when they floated up within reach, she’d just wade out there and pick up them grateful fish.’ Kev made it sound like his history, but being Kinchela, most of it was history he scraped together long afterwards.

Saucepan got to thinking. Maybe it was the wattle, maybe the smartweed. Maybe he’d accidentally poisoned the fish. One way of finding out.

He got himself back down to Lane’s Bridge early one morning, cool but not frosty, plucked up some smart weed, chucked it in the water, sat down, lit a bong, and waited. Waited a long time, staring at the water, sometimes thinking he could see ripples, though on the kind of Ganja Saucepan was toking, you could end up seeing anything. Saucepan had bought it at the mish, but like almost everyone else, believed it had been grown by those Thumb Creek boys, who, legend had it, would rather shoot than let you stumble across one of the crops. Sat and toked for twenty minutes, waiting, then gave up.

Saucepan was halfway up the bank thinking nothing ever worked, when he heard a loud smack on the water. He paused, thinking should he check it out or not? Finally figured he had nothing to lose, and carefully, being toked up, went back to the river bank.

In the middle of the pond weren’t any silver perch. They had probably figured someone was messing big time with their pond and had gone away. Nope, no silver perch, but the biggest freshwater bass he’d ever seen. A granddaddy of a beast, more than two foot long, lying on its side, and sucking air the same way Angus Noble sucked schooners at the Royal.

Saucepan waded out and picked it up. As soon as it was out of the water, the silvery rainbows of its scales became dull grey. The fish looked at him, its mouth opening and shutting like someone trying to get you to understand what they are saying in a mosh pit.

‘Bless you, bless you,’ the fish seemed to say, over and over, carefully, yet silently articulating each word.

‘Fuck that,’ Saucepan thought, and taking it to the bank, gutted it on the spot.

Now you might think that Saucepan’s dad, Kev, being the closest most in town got to talking to someone traditional, lived down the mish, but he and Saucepan lived on the Macksville Road, several miles past the races. Kev owned a hundred long there, and even had a job working as a lollipop for the Shire road crew. How he scored that caused a lot of scalp scratching. Someone reckoned it was because he had a degree in sociology which some people, Andy Murray included, said just proved learning wasn’t worth a rat’s arse these days if they were learning the likes of Kev Shillingsworth.

So this Saucepan, with a bong hidden in his red, yellow, and green beanie in one hand, and a great big dead bass in the other, found himself walking the long walk back to his house. Was daydreaming as he walked along, a dopey sort of dream, that his dad might be mazed with him catching a whopper with  bare hands and all. Saucepan had an uneasy time with his dad. Saucepan thought Kev was maybe coconut like most of the mish said. Hundred acres, job and all, maybe he was in with the Thumb Creek boys. It did Saucepan’s head in trying to work out his dad. Kev thought Saucepan was growing up to be a waste of space.

So lost was he in his little dream about him and his dad sharing a fish meal, that he jerked in fright when he heard Billy Wells’ voice softly in his ear. Billy Wells was in the habit of unintentionally sneaking up on people along the roadside, so much so that come dusk, or dawn, most drivers kept a sharp look out for roos, stray cattle, and that Billy Wells.

‘You shouldna oughta done that,’ Billy song sang, walking  beside him, his hessian bag slung casually over one shoulder. Saucepan exhaled slowly, relaxing himself, and muttering something bout the weeping Christ.

‘Shouldna oughta done what?’

Billy nodded towards the fish tucked under Saucepan’s arm. Saucepan swapped the fish and the beanie. The fish was getting to be a bit of a burden. It had stiffened up quite a bit in the sun, but seemed like it was made of lead. Was a big fish, after all.

‘That there is an old man fish. Probably thirty years to grow like that. And you come long and caught it. Shouldna oughta.’ As he walked, Billy shifted the sack from shoulder to shoulder. There was something solid in it, like a rock.

Saucepan opened his mouth to say something, that if Mrs Ringland heard, would have had him expelled from school, again, but instead said, ‘Me and my dad we’re gonna eat this fish. This is good eating, this fish, so don’t you go telling me what I can and can’t eat. Free country innit.’

Billy held up his palm in apology, and the two walked some distance in silence. A few bush flies also joined the procession.

‘Jesus this fish. I swear he’s getting heavier,’ Saucepan said. ‘I gotta stop a minute, give the arms a rest.’ Saucepan sat down, and placed the fish carefully on a tussock of grass. Saucepan sat down, rubbing his arms. Billy sat beside him.

Billy looked at the fish thoughtfully. It had quite a few flies on it now, and its river water smell was getting just a little bit stronger.

‘Fish like that, you should eat it right away. You live next door to Jesus and Mary right? That’s a long long way to walk a dead fish.’

Saucepan knew, rightly, Billy wasn’t talking about Father Finbarr’s Jesus, but Mexican Jesus, who was a neighbour to his dad and him, who would never eat fish if there was some muck called frijoles in the offing.

Saucepan looked at the fish and thought. Few banana leaves, a small fire, he could have nice steamed fish in next to no time. And he was hungry. Tokin all the morning does that. But what about having a nice meal with his dad? He could tell his dad all about how he sussed out how Aunty Rose had done it. Would make his dad proud, that.

‘Yeah, okay. Let’s cook the fish. You go get some leaves,’ Saucepan said, standing up, and looking around for some sticks.

Billy grinned so his whole face crinkled, and pushed a lank strand of hair  out of his eyes. ‘You’re boss.’

Saucepan built a small fire, scaled the fish, and carefully wrapped it in several layers of leaves. He put the parcel to one side, waiting for the fire to go down to hot embers.

Saucepan watched Billy as he squatted on the ground, observing the fish on the embers. The old man was still agile, and had no trouble sitting on his haunches. Billy brushed a strand of hair from his face again, and using a stick, poked the embers. Saucepan reasoned maybe the hair was long that way to hide a patch of thinness in the middle of the scalp. As Saucepan watched, he couldn’t help but feel he’d seen a younger, more curly-haired version of Billy, something from an old painting. Not that he’d ever seen an old painting, only the small black and white prints of heavenly consorts, saints and philosophers in Miss Ringland’s well-thumbed History of Art. Well-thumbed not because of any artistic appreciation amongst the class, but because Jesse Owen, who had an eye for such things, found several pictures by some bro called Corbet that were real interesting.

Billy kept staring at the fire and as he was staring idly, reached under his coat and gave his back a good scratch. He half-closed his eyes as he was scratching, like a dog does when scratched behind the ears. Although his hand was hidden under the threadbare coat, it seemed he was concentrating on scratching the space between the shoulder blades. He scratched delicately in the one spot, the sort of scratch that is needed to remove a pimple or small wart. Eventually, his black-nailed hand came out again, holding a small white feather that was decidedly worse for wear, its vanes tangled with grit, and the shaft bent at an odd angle. Billy adjusted his haunches and stared intently at the feather in his hand for a few seconds, before holding it over the embers and dropping it. But instead of falling, the feather soared upward from the heat, see-sawing ever higher. Both Saucepan and Billy watched it disappear gently into the sky, becoming one with the blue.

‘I’ll be damned,’ Billy said.

Soon Saucepan had the fish steaming in the embers. It takes just two or three minutes for a fish to cook that way, and using banana leaves as plates, the two of them made a good meal out of the bass. Saucepan ate in silence, listening to Billy prattle on. Billy was good at prattling on, especially when he had scored a free meal or a free drink. He called it philosophising.

‘Have always liked fish. A noble meal. The kind of meal even Jesus would approve of,’ Billy said, while delicately sucking on the bones. He licked his fingers and wiped then carefully on his jeans. He burped, and lay down on his back, looking at the scuttling clouds.

‘A blessed meal, a blessed meal,’ he said, letting out a fart and started softly humming to himself. After only half a minute, he started snoring.

Saucepan thought for a while that this might be a good time to see what was in Billy’s hessian bag. A lot of people had theories, but no-one had ever gotten to the truth. The sack was in a heap in front of Billy, and definitely had something small in it. He started to stretch his arm over to grab it, but he checked Billy first and stopped, because Billy was sleeping, there was no doubt bout that, but sleeping with one eye open, looking at Saucepan. Saucepan raised a hand and waved it in front of the half closed eye. The pupil sluggishly followed the hand.

Saucepan sighed, grabbed a stick, and sat on his haunches, flicking dirt onto what was left of the fire to put it out. He felt cheated. Having just caught the biggest fish he’d ever seen from the upriver Nambucca, he had nought to show but old Billy Wells’ farting and snoring on the side of the road. Saucepan always thought his luck turned bad in the end. It was like everyone else was living under the Grace of God, but all he had for a guardian angel was the likes of Billy Wells. What was he going to say to the old man about the fish now? ‘I caught a big fish, but Billy ate it.’ He had been so close to making an impression, and now all he had was a story. Two stories, because he had also accidentally discovered Auntie Rose’s secret method of fishing. Maybe he could tell that to Kev, being traditional stuff and all.

 

Glossary

Frijoles                                    a traditional Mexican dish of cooked and mashed beans

 

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Backyard Ink, Ramona Hester

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Your naval medals commemorate

 

twenty years of undetected crime

that’s the salty term

your sun wrecked mates throw ‘round

inked like youngsters.

 

Caught on the web between your thumb and forefinger

a butterfly

in Hong Kong backyard ink

a coloured Emperor

a sailor’s papillon

seafaring homage to the wing.

In the 70’s it flew for your children

with a father’s magic

barely resting and so hard to catch.

 

The rest –

the full seascape – began with Keith

as his health sank

you began to court the blue needle

in an effort to feel your own pain

and perhaps

through the barrel

to suck some away from him

 

You taught your willing flesh Greek

four lines across the heart:

greater love

has no man but this

that one should lay down his life

for his friends

the truth sits warmly beneath your gulf medals

 

There will be no mistaking you at the morgue

 

how blue those pictures will be

against porcelain skin

when quiet flesh rests on a bed

of stainless steel, you take a breath

Jesus rises on the cross, chest expanding

nightmare ending

 

just about where I would place an ECG lead

ancient serpent disappears beneath Greek

burrows into your ribcage

slips between pericardium and chest wall

comes up for air at the fifth rib then,

snaking hipwards

is crudely arrested

by a sword through the head

unnatural iconographic end! – the promise was to crush

swords not preferred ‘til mediaeval rush

of tangled crusade push

and tempered steel

subvert the real

the naked heel of God deemed

insufficient.

surely man’s own implement

could not bring about this promised Word

and yet

every pirate needs a sword.

you told me

gold ring wobbling

on mature cartilage your

earring was commemorative

every sailor who rounds the Cape

has his ear pierced I believed you

then called you a bastard call me

anything you like you said after

twenty full years in the navy I’ve

heard every swearword going

so I asked you to elaborate

and it was true

you  h

a

v

e

 

you have below your navel

an ellipsis of un-inked flesh

from flank to flank

carrying a different

skillful mark where

,

tattoo postponed —-

a doctor reworked your insides

hid art’s Dacron mesh secret

 

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Black and White, Tianqi Li

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In my grandma’s eyes, the world is clearly divided into black and white. Life should follow one right and light trail, beyond which there are only dark, cold forests. Every day, we should follow a scientific and healthy daily schedule; for every stage of life, we should do what is supposed to be done, and do it right. Study hard, get in a good university, find a great job, work diligently, contribute to society, get married and have children, and live happily ever after. Even now, at 26 years of age, when I go back to our home in Beijing, I have to stick to her 6 p.m. curfew. Even now, married for 54 years and 81 years of age, my grandpa still has to get up before 8:30, because otherwise it’d be too late. Five minutes late, my grandma would be sitting on the sofa worried and mad at me, or starting a racket with spoons and plates in the kitchen to serve as an alarm clock. ‘Everybody else is doing it.’ That’s her reason for doing anything, in a tone declaring that the Earth is round.

In my grandma’s eyes, if something is printed in black and white, it must be true. ‘Why else would they print it? It’s the newspaper!’ she exclaims when I try to point out that the self-contradicting ‘health tips’ might as well be misleading or purely made-up. Of the seven children in her family, she was the only one that went to university and thus lived in a big and modern city, so it is only natural that she follows the religion of knowledge. Knowledge comes from printed words compiled by scholars and experts, who are as powerful as Chairman Mao in his Little Red Book.

In my grandma’s eyes, any derailing from the normal and right course is inexcusable, unreasonable, and just outright inexplicable. There was a saying in the Cultural Revolution: walk in the middle, not in front nor behind; follow the crowd, not left nor right. In the chaotic ten years that destroyed people’s trust in human goodness and brought out the darkest side of humanity, the Chinese ‘Doctrine of the Mean’ was testified to be the only way to survive, and my grandma has no doubt taken it as the motto for living. ‘I want you to be normal just like other kids,’ she told me of her parenting principle, as she was the one that brought me up. ‘I don’t want you to be different. If you were, that’d be my fault.’

And that is why I will never tell her I have a same-sex partner, not until her death.

In a lot of ways, the Cultural Revolution to China’s modern history was very similar to my dad’s divorce to my family; no one saw it coming, and no one would talk about it in the following decades. Yet they were always there, the bloody elephant in the room, silent and staring. The Cultural Revolution is never mentioned in history textbooks and is often filtered out or banned in online forums, just as the word ‘mother’ is thoroughly avoided in my presence. I have always been curious of both events, because they are so confusing and mysterious, refusing to be reconstructed and disclosed in full, as if they hold the ultimate answers to humanity and the universe.

Like any other family, our personal history is intertwined with and wrapped by the history of modern China, like a wave in the sea, a gust in a tornado, a raindrop in a storm: on the exact day of my grandpa’s fifth birthday, the Sino-Japanese war broke out on the Marco Polo Bridge west of Beijing. My dad was born in 1959, the start of the three-year Great China Famine, while the Cultural Revolution started right after my uncle’s birth. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, my dad came to Australia.

My family tree is short and concise, as my great-grandfather was an orphan, and there are only four generations to comb. If there is anything that can be said to be a family trait, that’d be the tendency to go on long journeys. My great-grandfather was a ship engineer, and he went on a seven-year-long voyage as early as 1938. My grandpa must have been deeply impressed by his father’s adventure, since he always encouraged the rest of us to dive into the outside world. And we all did.

My grandpa’s own overseas trip happened in 1981, when he went to Iraq to improve his English. He and my grandma were Russian teachers, and when China had a falling-out with the Soviet Union, the Russian department transformed into the English faculty. ‘Iraq was still peaceful then,’ my grandpa said and smiled, ‘and I ate too much chicken, since it was the cheapest.’ He never talked too much about his own experiences, as it was all ‘boring’ and ‘not worth mentioning’. No matter how hard or unbelievable it sounds – learning a new language at the age of 50, or selling ice on the street at the age of six to support the family while his dad was at sea – he sounds like it was nothing, adding even more flavour to the heroic father figure in my eyes.

In comparison, my dad feels like a distant relative. No matter how hard he tried, he was absent in the major part of my life, and it is not something that you can ever make up for. Because of the irretrievable distance, and because I don’t really care what he thinks, I didn’t hesitate in telling him about my same-sex relationship. He was calm and accepting at first, but later became more and more doubtful and opposing as he had time to reflect. ‘Fortunately you are a girl,’ he said, ‘otherwise I’d never allow this.’

I did not know him enough. I did not know that he would blame himself for my choice, or that he had such strong opinions on gender roles. Ever since my partner has come to Australia with me and lived together with my dad, I have been discovering new things about him, and he has been saying things that amaze me. ‘I wanted a wife, not a female doctor,’ he complained of my step-mum, who has a doctorate and was too busy to do house chores. He sent me links to articles titled ‘Women should look fantastic, otherwise men would leave’, to encourage me to lose weight. ‘What’s so good about her that turned you into a lesbian? Is it because she can cook?’ he asked of my partner, a little sarcastically. ‘So you’re playing the boy role,’ he concluded after seeing me consoling her. I did not bother to explain how wrong that idea was.

If there is a need to blame somebody, then I am just as guilty for his marriage breakdown as it is responsible for who I am. If I were a boy, everything would be different, at least temporarily.

The winter of Beijing in 1990 was smoky and grey, but the night sky was still dark blue filled with stars, not the foggy blanket tinted by lights as yellow as a smoker’s teeth. The temperature was still low enough to have snow thick enough to bury one’s foot, and people stored piles of cabbages for their daily dishes. It was the end of a golden era, when most people were still simple-minded and trustworthy, and the streets were still safe and quiet. Beijing was the ancient city full of cultural treasures, not the faceless metropolis buried under shining skyscrapers.

In 1990, divorce was as rare as a panda, and was seen as a huge embarrassment to the whole family. It did not help that my mum sued my dad in court, and the reason she used was that my dad masturbated while watching porn. Nobody told me this­ – of course they wouldn’t. It was in 2010 when I finally saw their divorce papers, when my dad went back to Beijing for the spring festival. He was sitting on the bed, reading a novel. I sat down at the desk, and caught a glimpse of the suspicious faded papers. Like the daily newspaper that my grandma never forgot to read, the typewriter font was black and white. My dad must have known I was reading, but he did not say anything, continuing to read the book in his hand. I did not know if it was put there intentionally for me to see, nor did I ask him if it was true.

It is not hard to imagine how shocked, betrayed and infuriated my family must have felt. My grandparents, my dad and my uncle; they all had different reasons to hate that pretty woman, the evil bitch, because she refused to breastfeed me in order to keep her body shape, because she did not want me after the divorce, because she took money and valuable things, because she cheated, because she lied. Because my dad really loved her, and nobody ever imagined the happy marriage would not last.

Therefore, in our family tree, I do not have the maternal side to track. I do not know if her family had any history of disease, what her blood type is, or how many times she remarried. Nor do I know if she loved my dad or me. But I do know that part of the reason was that I wasn’t a boy, and the Chinese government had published the one-child policy. My mum is the youngest of three sisters, who all had daughters. I was her family’s last shot at having a boy, a ‘real’ descendant to inherit the family name.

‘It’s time to find someone now,’ my grandma said in our weekly phone call, and then added, half jokingly; ‘Don’t become a ‘left-over woman’.’

I wasn’t surprised that she would bring up this topic, but I was surprised at her use of ‘left-over woman’. I was even more surprised when I found out that this phrase was actually coined by the central TV station, a representative of the Chinese government, who also said that the male/female ratio has become severely disproportioned in many cities as a result of valuing boys over girls for decades.

Another piece of news followed up a week later. In a campaign for the drama The Vagina Monologues, a group of female university students published a series of photos, in which each held a sign declaring sexual freedom and their ownership of their own body. The public’s response was outrageous, calling them cheap whores and ugly bitches. Finally, I have realised that China has not even started a real feminist movement, let alone achieved certain results. I could have so many things to say from the things I’ve learned in the feminist class, but I had no idea how to make my grandma understand. ‘Left-over woman’ was from the central TV station, the majority, the mainstream, and the authority. As always, the world in her eyes is black and white, and I do not have the courage nor the patience to tell her that’s not the case.

I could only change the topic and lie. I could only hide the truth in protection of myself and of them: I am happy. I am happy being myself, being in a same-sex relationship, and being in a grey zone without a clear identity. I am happy to be the last one in my family – Li is the biggest family name in China, so there is no danger of extinction – and I am happy to be out of the torrent of Chinese history.

After all, this is my life and my happiness, and ultimately that’s what they would wish me to be.

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From Didus Ineptus, Cassandra Cochrane

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Edward came home with a parcel under his arm.

‘Mother, Doodles,’  he said, taking the parcel to the table and unwrapping it.  A leg of lamb. Granny took one look at it and burst into tears.

What was he thinking? Nothing got past Granny. Of course a leg of lamb was the kind of extravagant offering that dreams might be made of on nights when trudging up to bed after an unsatisfying Antarctica[1]supper. But Clem, being naturally suspicious, did not squeal with delight. For when Edward walked through the door with that Trojan lamb up his sleeve, the look on his face had not been a celebratory one. The gift of lamb was indeed an offering of some kind – Clem had an intuition for these things, and an expensive treat, minus the usual whooping that should accompany a celebration, could only mean one thing. Doom.

Granny, weeping, carted the lamb out to the kitchen. In spite of herself, she lit the agar and got to work rubbing oil into its skin. Delicious smells emanated from the kitchen as she stuffed it with garlic cloves and rosemary sprigs. She emerged from the kitchen with a pan of potatoes for Clem to peel, and glared at Edward.

‘It’s all arranged.  Royal Engineers,’ said Edward in an almost preternaturally cheerful way, and then he went upstairs to pack a small bag. Clem noticed that he also took a few of Taffy’s old beef bones, which he wrapped in calico, and he had a selection of tools packed into a soft leather wrap. ‘Something to while away the lonely nights,’ he said when he caught Clem looking at the bone fragments. ‘I can whittle away my boredom with a bit of scrimshaw. Like the sailors of old.’

Her father’s face told her the things he wasn’t saying.  He stopped mid sentence, and the buoyant elation of a moment ago, vanished. ‘I’m sorry Doodles.’ He held his hand at arm’s length from Clem; his fingers curled around an item in his hand; his fingers fitted its shape, as though the object itself were somehow part of his own body; a small branch of himself, which in a way, it was.  Clem could see a shimmer of bright metal through his curled fingers, and she knew what it was. The key. It was the key to his workshop.

He pressed the key into her hand. ‘Trust your old Pa.’

Truth and trust were Edward’s sometime companions; chaps he purported to know more intimately than he actually did, mere acquaintances, really. Clem’s definitions of truth and trust therefore, were Edwardised definitions. When he said ‘Trust your old Pa’ (a phrase she’d heard countless times since birth) her association with the phrase was one of comfort.  But ‘trust your old Pa’ was only words, only a mouthful of sounds.  He was leaving.

They ate the lamb, and then Edward emerged from his room dressed in a smart wool uniform. He looked important. Granny peered at him over her half glasses.

‘Never seen such clean fingernails.’

Edward squeezed Clem so hard she thought he might wring the life from her, but she buried her face in his scratchy jacket, and remembered what he smelt like. He had kept it from them, just like that.

Clem felt her breath all fluttery in her chest. She put her hand over her lips so that Granny wouldn’t see her lips wobble. Granny leaned into the street, balancing on her stick, straining her head from under the bulky collar of her two sizes, too big nutria skin coat that Edward had picked up at an estate clearance some months before. She looked like a long necked turtle. They waited until the last bits of Edward disappeared over the rise of the hill. Clem stepped quickly inside, but Granny stood there a moment. Clem heard her say ‘idiot.’

All the young men went to war. It is a strange thing, let me tell you, if you have not known such a time, to find a manless village, and yet, Dawlish was a town devoid of its lads, who had formerly filled the pubs, worked the fields, and swung like a rusty farm gate in rows of three and four, link-armed of a Friday night, drunk, along the cobbled roads home after a night on the tiles. Clem had become used to the sight of them staggering along the road or foreshore, or sitting around beach bonfires singing their songs at night, some kind of harmless drunkard’s lullaby that mewled up to her through the shuttered windows, that sent her off to sleep, settling, in its own discordant way.

The new silence brought on by the mass exodus of the town’s boys was unsettling.  Clem missed them, for all their rowdiness, and the young women of Dawlish missed them, and the old grandfathers worried for them, and the pubs were empty and the streets silent at night.

You may think that Edward’s absence leaves a huge gap in the story – rather like a hole in a jumper that glares out annoyingly, but you’d be wrong.  He went to war, and he fought. Personally I can’t tell you about what went on in France and Salonika because I wasn’t there. You may think that without him the story should come to a staggering halt, because like most men who fought in the Great War, he was away for AGES. Three years in fact. But life goes on, even in the face of downtimes and dull moments. And in their thickskinned Devonian way, Granny and Clem sucked up their loss and rode roughshod over the dull moments. Though to be honest, there weren’t so many of those, and I’ll tell you why.

Edward clearly hadn’t as he put it: ‘Planned for ages.’ To go to war.  If he had planned it for ages, he would have tied up his dealings, but he clearly had not.

The Key sat for a long time on Clem’s bedside table. She could not bring herself to visit her father’s workshop. It was sure to be cold and dusty without his presence. Every pot or label, every chisel mark on every carpented object or note written in his hand, cut his absence deeper. Without him she felt like a trespasser.

How normal things look, she thought, when they are not normal at all. The darkening sky, not quite black but a deep Prussian blue, was incredibly pretty, as it always was. And the moon, a bright sliver of fingernail – or a smile – Clem shifted her head on the pillow – not a smile, a sad face. What if he did not come back?

By the second week of his absence, the first of his letters arrived:  It was written on the thinnest onion skin paper and headed: Church Army Recreation Hut: on Active Service with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. This heading was accompanied by a printed illustration in red, of two soldiers firing a canon (with smoke coming out of it.)  It looked frighteningly official. It said:

 

Dearest Doodles,

It is searingly hot here by day & freezing at night & mosquitoes intolerable. As for food, Antarctica would be nectar of the gods compared with the godforsaken slop they call sustenance here. Did you get P.O. from WHS for adzes? Hunt through workshop (I think cabinet RHS of front door) for 1. Kaka Parrot Perch – Skinner will be interested in that & in same drawer should find a very fine Tiki and pair of adzes. Send on to Skinner – small amount of duty (note price in book) pack carefully in straw & box up send on to address as per his last letter.  I shall write telling him to expect them & asking price: Parrot perch £4.10, Tiki £8. Adzes £2.10 the pair – Under present circumstances will take best offer. Sorry for uninspired note, war is no picnic – (as if he thought it was going to be!)

All my love

Pa

 

This was the type of letter Clem received weekly. Being wartime, she was often forced to write to Edward telling him she had received no news from clients at all. In one or two cases word came from the post office telling her that ships had been sunk and parcels lost. There was no security in running a mail order business during war.

Clem held off going up to the workshop for as long as possible, but in the end it was an intriguing letter that forced her up there, and this is what it said:

 

December 5, 1916

Miss. C. Little, for Edward J. Little, Dealer of Curios.

 

Dear Miss Little,

I enclose postal order for sum of £3.50 towards the purchase of six adzes, and promise to pay the balance in one month’s time. Your father has recently written to me of a DODO skeleton in his possession– one of only three in existence. He says he will send it to me on his return. I have written to inform him of my great interest in this item.

I do hope this letter finds your family well during these turbulent times and that your father is shortly to be returned home to you safely.

I remain,

Yours Truly,

William H Skinner

Surveyor of Lands, Blenheim, New Zealand.

 

Clem read this letter with great curiosity:  DODO?  She had never heard of a dodo in Edward’s possession. Indeed, if he had had a dodo, she felt sure she would have heard about it, as she was well aware of the rarity of such a thing.

She marched up to the workshop that morning with the specific intention of hunting down that dodo, but was distracted from her task. What she found in fact, was a not a what, but a who.  She found Jock Macleod. Or rather, bits of him.

Don’t panic, this is not a murder mystery. Edward was not capable of cold blooded killing (not even as it turned out, during war.)  Though Clem had a terrible fright and for one awful minute thought she’d stumbled across a real dead body! She was distracted from her dodo-hunt, by a shadowy rack, hanging at the back of the workshop. At first glance it looked like a collection of Warbridge family uniforms, but on closer inspection it turned out to be an archive of eclectic antique clothing. Every conceivable costume lurked there. It was fascinating: Eighteenth century dresses with tiny bodices, huge silk skirts with jewel encrusted decoration, all covered with black baize cloths to protect them from dust, and it was just as she slipped a dust cloth from a hanger that she looked up – and spotted Jock Macleod.

Clem leapt backwards into Edward’s workbench. Partially winded, she cowered on the ground, half expecting the gruff Scotsman to make some snide comment– as he was wont to do. But he just hung there. A queasy sweat began to spread over her– had he KILLED HIMSELF? But when she lifted her eyes, she saw it wasn’t Jock himself pinned to the rail, but a dishevelled red wig, topped with a deerstalker hat, attached to the hanger; a tweed jacket, checked shirt, wool trousers and lined up underneath, Jock’s polished chestnut brogues. Everything fastidiously laid out as though by a costume designer for a character in a play. Even the smallest detail had been thought of.  Pinned to the lapel of the jacket was a hairy ginger caterpillar: Jock’s moustache.

The relief of not finding the real Jock either alive or dead, was immense, if strange.  Clem remembered why she’d come to the workshop in the first place, to hunt for the dodo, but though there were other bird skeletons up there, including a tin labelled ‘bones; pheasant, partridge, turkey etc.’ and another tin labelled ‘bones misc.’ and another labelled ‘bones; mutton, lamb etc.,’ there was no box labelled ‘dodo etc.’

She had seen a dodo in the British Museum during their trip to London. There had been an enormous crowd gathered around its cabinet. She had sketched its skeleton at the time. A label on the cabinet read: Skeleton of Didus Ineptus (DODO) bird, now extinct:  One of only three complete skeletons in existence.

Imagine the clamour from the world’s top museums, if there was another complete skeleton up for grabs? Edward might name his price.

Clem felt the same growing sense of panic she’d experienced when Edward arrived home with the leg of lamb: Doom. Not to put too fine a point on it. She raced home from the workshop and opened the tin trunk at the end of her bed, which contained mainly old lacework of Elsie’s, but also some of Clem’s baby things, a few early scribbles and school reports and collections of drawings, etcetera. She had put her dodo sketch in there. In fact, she and Edward had looked through her drawings only a few weeks before he went away. The dodo was in a large notebook with a blue cloth cover, but to Clem’s surprise on leafing through the book, she discovered that several pages had been removed. Her dodo was nowhere to be seen.

 

Dear Father, (Clem wrote in her weekly letter)

What is all this about the DODO??

I found Jock Macleod. You cut pictures out of my drawing book.

Yours,

D

 

Clem was beginning to see things she had previously tried to ignore.  She had put all those other evidences aside, because Edward was so clever and generous.  It is easy to excuse our loved ones of their petty failings. Little things (excuse the pun) can be easily overlooked but it is not nearly so easy to excuse big things like whole people (Jock Macleod) who turn out to be not who you imagine them to be. The bone fragments were adding up too, to form a skeletal outline of Edward’s intentions for them; E.g. The night she caught Edward with Taffy’s mutton bones, and those tins of misc chicken, partridge etc. bones at the workshop…and now these larger than life promises to his clients of an extremely rare extinct bird. Not only did she feel as though she existed in some surreality; because who in their right mind would believe that a lowly, part time curio dealer, could have got his hands on one of the rarest things in the world?  She began to worry for Edward’s sanity.

A week went by. Clem received no letter from her father.  She got a receipt from WHS, and one from Captain Fuller. Final payments of monies owed. She wrote to Skinner:

 

Tue 23rd  

To Mr W H Skinner

 

Dear Sir,

I must thank you for money order received £4. Thank you yes my father is keeping well when I heard from him two weeks ago. Will tell him I have heard from you he will be glad. This war is terrible, shall be glad when it is over.

Thanking for this

Truly,

Clementine Little

P.S. I find no trace of Dodo skeleton you mention in his workshop. I would not pin hopes to it.

She wrote (again) to her father:

 

 

Pa,

There is no Dodo in the workshop; just a few tins of animal bones. I said as much to Mr Skinner when I wrote to thank him for the £4 outstanding which he sent.

Your loving,

D

 

The letter had the desired result.

 

Pioneer E Little

270 Company

Royal Engineers

British Forces, Salonika

 

Dearest Doodles,

Do not tell me you wrote to Skinner to say I had no Dodo. I do have a Dodo. I don’t keep him at the workshop because it is not safe. He is in a lockup in London if you must know. I can’t believe you doubted me.  & with regard to Jock, it is rather unjust of you to leap to conclusions simply because you found items in my workshop which might at first glance look suspicious. Poor Jock was proud of his once ample crop of hair but suffered terrible alopecia. I did not realise this at first, it was not until I met with him here that I discovered it: he approached me one day in Salonika & I failed to recognise him without hair or eyebrows. It all fell out he said at age 22. When he was conscripted the army refused to let him bring his wig, which is why no doubt you found it with his things in the workshop. I believe he also left some make-up with his things (he told me) & admitted he was vain & proud of his rugged appearance. In fact I have sad news: I have witnessed with my own two eyes tragic circumstances regarding Jock:  He has lost more than just eyebrows as he was trapped under Zeppelin fuselage when it crashed on the Vadar swamp. Tragic: My loss & Scotland’s, for though he had his failings, he was essentially a loyal chum.

Oh Doodles. In another time this place might be quite the holiday destination but it is far from that at present.

I hope this answer satisfies.

Yours,

Pa



* Antarctica like tripe and onions, leek and potato soup or bread and dripping, is the meal you have when you haven’t the money to afford anything better. It is a meal made to stretch over a matter of days, or a meal made of bits of other meals. Antarctica, in the Littles’ house, was a thin stew of bones of whatever animal was available: cow, sheep, pig (if you found any meat on them you were lucky) a carrot or onion or two, a bit of left over boiled potato from previous evenings, and lumps of weevilly, tasteless dumplings (the icebergs) hence, it had been christened ‘Antarctica’ in an effort to glamorise it. It was not glamorous. It was stale dumpling, and bare bones. Even Taffy turned up his nose at it.

 

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Our Anzac Special, Emma Dorreen

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My grandfather was irresistible to children. For me – eldest grandchild – there was always a secret treat, lavish toy or £5 note. He was the master of the corny joke. He was naughty and you could join him in cahoots against other adults. Once, he rolled up his sleeve – to shock us – and showed us numbers, etched in rough digits on the inside of his arm; 28481/13. He had been a prisoner of war in Germany.

I knew little about my grandfather’s war except that it had been a long one. He shipped out to North Africa in 1941, missing the birth of my father. He disappeared for a time in 1942, listed as a battle casualty. But he turned up alive, enduring the rest of the war in POW camps. It was August 1945 before he was repatriated to New Zealand and introduced to his son. I have always wanted to fill in that gap, to find out what he did, what his life was like then.

This seems the right moment for me to investigate his war. I have the unsettling feeling, just recently, of moving up a generation. Even after all this time, certain things are still too raw for my parents; doing my grandfather’s story justice is my responsibility. It’s up to me.

I am fortunate to have access to a cache of family documents. There are letters, newspaper clippings, intriguing photographs. There is also a diary; ‘A Wartime Log for British Prisoners’. A small, linen-covered book, the pages filled during my grandfather’s long incarceration in Germany. It begins in his distinctive voice:

This book belongs to: J M Dorreen and don’t bloody pinch it!

Then, on page 9:

Anzac Special (long drink)

1 tot gin

2 tbspns Fr Ver

2 tbspns It Ver

Dash Cherry Brandy

Dash Angostura Bitters

Orange Bitters

Grenadine

Soda

1 dessertspn Icing Sugar

Crushed Ice

 

Why does my grandfather’s war diary begin with a cocktail recipe? The ANZAC Special is followed by recipes for Bavarian Cup, Barbados Swizzle, Queen’s Park Hotel Super Cocktail, Mint Julep. There are recipes for Grilled Steak Stuffed with Oysters; Bahama fish Chowder; angels on horseback. It goes on. Jugged hare. Beef stroganoff. Zabaglione.

Were Allied prisoners recipe swapping? Was it code? Was he half-starved, fantasising of gourmet pleasures? Names and addresses appear between pages of notes on the science of petroleum geology. A diary of events of the War begins on 10 September, 1944, squeezed in almost by-the-by.

It all makes sense to me. James – Jimmy – loved to live well. He mixed a good Piña Colada. He loved a joke, practical or otherwise. He was ambitious, curious. He did become a petroleum geologist, of considerable note, and wealthy. But that was much later.

I should start at the beginning, with the photograph of my grandparents on their wedding day. If I’m certain of anything, it’s that my grandmother would have loved a big wedding with a full cathedral gown to lord it over her single friends. But not in wartime. James Moore Dorreen and Ruth Mildred Sinclair were married on 9 November 1939. Ruth is lovely in a knee-length chiffon dress and jaunty straw hat. They had four months living as husband and wife before a month of officer training for Jimmy, and embarkation as a 25-year-old Second Lieutenant with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Jimmy’s military portrait shows him young, attractive, eyes ready for fun. He was far more interested in the world around him, than his ‘job’, which he found a disappointment. A letter, dated 17 May, 1941, sketches his life in Egypt, where ‘somehow’ he would take every opportunity to abscond. ‘Next to you,’ he writes to Ruth, ‘I want a geologist’s hammer and the open field and a sticky problem in the age and structure of some tertiary beds.’ He gets one of his wishes, exploring Fayoum, famous for its nummalite fossils:

Somehow we found ourselves up in those cliffs, and in the stone, but easily extractable were the most gigantic forams [marine fossils]… We were accompanied by a tiny wog of about 11 who kept chattering like a monkey and was everywhere – above us, below us and on both sides of us. I know just enough Arabic now to carry on a crude conversation and when I explained exactly what I wanted he was a great help. At the conclusion I said “Anna mamsoon lak (I am very much obliged to you). Tafadell sigara (I leave take a cigarette). Ma el salama (good bye)”. He soon was happily puffing a cigarette and we went away, I with many blessings from Allah.

Light-hearted, crafted to entertain Ruth, nevertheless the letter was written in an agony of expectation, awaiting news of the birth of his first child and accompanied with a great sense of ennui, of wasting his time and talents in tedious occupation. I don’t know what his ‘job’ was at this time, though the NZ Engineers – the ‘sappers’ – undertook many projects; constructing bridges and airfields, the railway from Mersa Matruh to Tobruk, as well as ‘exploits with mines and bulldozers’.

His son, my father, was eventually born on 20 May, and Jimmy had news 22 days later by telegram. No leave, alas.

 

JIMMY’S RIDGE

The war was about to become more dramatic. In 1942, Rommel was moving across North Africa, overrunning Tobruk and in June he was on his way to reaching the Alamein Line – last hurdle before Cairo. New Zealand troops were mobilised and ordered to capture Ruweisat Ridge, an unpromising piece of stony desert slightly elevated above the rest of it.

Promoted by now to Lieutenant, Jimmy was part of 6 Field Company, and the sappers were busy taking up and laying minefields, as the ground operations moved to new positions. Jimmy was in the thick of it. Major H.M. Reid, in his memoir of 1944, called 25 June, a ‘long and disastrous’ day. The sappers were working by themselves in the dark, laying mines right by the enemy – the stress of which told on some of the men, with the result that a couple of the trucks were blown up with their own mines. Then, a major incident:

Sixth Field Company was making ready to leave when a truck loaded with 350 mines blew up. Two sappers on the truck were killed instantly and six others wounded, including Lieutenant Wheeler who was over 100 yards away. While waiting for the ambulances it was found that there was still a gap on the Indian sector as they had run out of mines. The upshot was that Lieutenants Dorreen and Chapman and a party of sappers had to stay and finish the job.

There he is, laying mines through the night. His nerves must have been on edge, with the enemy so close and your own truck having blown up with two of your men. That was life as a sapper in North Africa in 1942.

The wounding of Lt Wheeler meant Reid was now Jimmy’s immediate CO. He recorded the events of 14 July, as 1,500 New Zealand infantry closed on Ruweisat Ridge. Jimmy’s company was in two trucks loaded with mines. They had a ‘very nasty time’, under enemy fire in the dark. Once at the ridge, their vehicles had to be abandoned as there was no navigable gap in the barbed wire. Exposed, but on their objective, the enemy was nevertheless ‘more a nuisance than a menace’ as they waited for the British support tanks to appear just after daylight. Unfortunately, they never arrived. Instead, the 8th Panzer Regiment launched a counter attack and Reid decided to ‘retire due east’:

‘We thought we had covered all our area, but a little later I noticed Lieutenant J.M. Dorreen was missing.’

His own men escaped, but he did not. Had Jimmy taken himself off for a good look around? Was he helping retrieve some wounded men? Looking for the tanks that were never coming?

The New Zealanders suffered heavy casualties. Over 1,800 men were captured and Jimmy was listed as ‘Missing, Presumed POW’. Imagine receiving that cable. Ruth always insisted that she never believed Jimmy had been killed, though she had to wait for two whole months to receive confirmation of his capture. Those weeks must have been long, anxious and lonely. This was the start of the real waiting game.

 

IN THE BAG

Most men – and that certainly included Jimmy – did not want to be captured (go ‘in the bag’). Most of them hadn’t considered this turn of events and were dumbstruck. I have the recollections of another Kiwi officer, Lt Bruce Robertson, who records feelings of shock and dismay:

With swimming heads and numbed senses we sat upon the edges of holes, dropped our weapons and lit a much-needed cigarette. …It was a miracle that there were 600-odd of us left to stand up and walk slowly towards the future, and what it held in store for us.

Robertson’s memoir details a forced march, without food or water, men despondent. Then a disorganised, jarring, health-sapping journey across a week of desert to Benghazi. Prisoners slept in their clothes on the cold ground. Sores festered. Security was lax, as the weakened prisoners were no match for the hundreds of miles of desert between them and Allied lines.

Then the transit camps were brutalising; overcrowded, unsanitary, they were little more than holding pens. Reaching Campo PG47 in Modena, Northern Italy, must have seemed a deliverance of sorts, with hot food, sanitation, medical care. There would have been little of use to occupy these men, though, and life must have seemed impotent. But then came this:

8 September 1943, BBC

Italy has signed an unconditional armistice with the Allies, General Dwight D Eisenhower has announced.

Ruth thought she’d spend Christmas with Jimmy. It was not to be. There were more than 70,000 Commonwealth POWs in Italy, ordered to stay put and await liberation. Most did, though some ignored orders and took their chances with their new liberty. But the Germans got to the camps before the Allies. About 3,200 New Zealand prisoners were taken in the camps and transported to Germany, including Jimmy. His letter of 20 October recalls the armistice:

There was terrific excitement in Italy and we saw ourselves free men again. During our ‘free’ period there was great indecision in knowing what to do and then this [recapture] came as the crowning blow.

He returns often to the subject: ‘You know the cruelest thing about the Italian show was the realisation that after so long in the bag the majority of us had lost the power of being able to make up our own minds. We had half an hour in which to do so and all we did was to stand ‘round and argue like a woman’s afternoon tea party.’ He calls his recapture ‘the biggest disappointment of my life’, and ‘a failure for which I shall never forgive myself. Yet at the time a thousand other officers and I thought we were doing the right thing in staying. In fact some who went were declared deserters.’

There would still be another two years to wait.

 

WEINSBERG OFLAG 5A

I have 27 letters from Germany, written on aerogrammes stamped with Hitler’s proud portrait, kept safely by my grandmother through many moves to many countries. At first, I felt intrusive, reading her private letters. Then I realised, they would have been censored, and then probably passed from hand to hand, for a thorough examination by all the family.

The letters have their limitations. Some took so long to reach their destination and receive a reply that over eight months had passed. The content had to satisfy the censors, and had to maintain a fragile optimism for my grandmother. We don’t hear what living conditions were like ‘in the bag’ or anything about the progress of war. There was the censor, and Ruth’s sensibilities to think about.

For Jimmy, the main themes are his love for Ruth, longing for home, fervent plans for their future – and an overwhelming sense of frustration, at a young and ambitious life put on hold. Thinking on it, another reason his diary may have been so loaded with ‘trivia’, is that it must have seemed unthinkable that he’d have time to fill it. So as time ground on, the pages became more crowded, space at a premium.

Then, as the ‘local’ war began to heat up, Jimmy began his cramped diarisation, detailing bombing raids, the destruction of the nearby town of Heilbronn and the mobilisation of the prisoners. The contrast between the diary entries and censored letters is revealing.

 

Diary: Sunday 10 Sept 1944

Flights of 20-30 planes were moving across to the East looking like shinning bubbles. By 11:15 between 300-400 planes had passed about 5 miles north of camp… Following flight released bombs just off NW corner of camp. Saw and heard them coming. About 1,000 or 2,000 feet above ground all bombs burst with noise and red flash scattering incendiaries. Intensive bombing of Rhine area, and in as far as Stuttgart – Munich started on 8 Sept. Since then average two raids a day.

Wed 27 September

Previous night (Tuesday 26) alarms and excursions all night – four warnings blew. Tonight at 10:20pm lights suddenly flickered and a few seconds later came a loud crash which broke windows.

Sat 30 September

Heilbronn Harry heard overhead at 9:30pm. All our perimeter lights on. Suddenly guards outside started to yell and then came whistle of bomb and loud crash about two miles away.

 

Bombings are routine, some even strike the camp, and he notes 52 raids for the first half of October. There are no bombs in his letters:

 

Letter, 28.09.44

There is only one thing in the world I want darling and that is to be with you again. However I’m too realistic to believe we can live on love, so I am planning quite a bit about my job.

Letter, 7.10.44

Do you realise it’s just over five years since we met and almost five since we got married? Let’s hope the sixth year brings a bit of peace and normality into the world… You say you have an old age complex – you needn’t have, dear, because I now have old age without the complex. [Ruth would have been about to turn 30 and must have been grumbling about it.]

 

The prisoners had good information about the war, via the BBC on a hidden radio, and now they could see and hear it too. Able-bodied camp guards began to disappear to the battlefront, to be replaced by ‘old men, cripples and youths’. Then, on December 4, 1944, the nearby town of Heilbronn was destroyed. Jimmy’s diary brings the scene to life:

The whole countryside was like day, the heavens were a mass of smoke puffs, flares and parachutes. Scattered bombs started whistling down and bursting with ear-splitting crumps. Gradually the noise increased in volume until there was a continuous roar of planes overhead, whistling of bombs and reverberation of crashes, all in a brilliantly-lit scene. Overhead, low down, could be seen the great black shapes of the wheeling planes as they banked around to ride in on their target – huge predacious birds of death. Sound waves chased and collided across the sky.

Heilbronn was decimated by the intensity of the fire and 7,000 civilians perished there.

Time grinds on; ‘Christmas looms up – about my hundredth in the bag if I recollect properly.’ Then New Year 1945; ‘This passing of time appalls me. I have seen so many New Years in the bag that I begin to wonder if they’ll ever cease and enter normally once more… One thing this bag life has taught me is to appreciate simple things and regard as important only major issues.’ Bombings continue: windows ‘shook like pond ripples’; ‘shrapnel was found in camp’; ‘noise of strafing, light ack ack and bombs all mixed up.’

By February 1945, the Allies were crossing the Rhine and Dresden was about to be incinerated. Jimmy had been promoted to Captain and would have had an important role in camp leadership, though this is not mentioned in letters or diary. Wednesday, 14 February, was warm and sunny, with ‘some strafing in afternoon’. This is his last letter to Ruth.

It does seem out of character that an independent thinker like Jimmy would
be a passive prisoner for three years. In fact, he did make several escape attempts. After all, it was expected of the officers – and what else was there to do to pass the time? I know for certain that he escaped in Italy; my grandmother recalled meeting, quite by chance, some lovely Italian people who had sheltered him. Germany was a very difficult country to successfully make a ‘home run’ in – the countryside was heavily policed and the locals unsympathetic – and punishments could be harsh. Bruce Robertson makes note, on 31 October 1944, of a bungalow commander going to ‘civil gaol’ for three months ‘for damage done to his bungalow roof by the storage of soil from a tunnel.’ This was not Jimmy, though perhaps he was involved. I would like to think so.

 

MOVING OUT

Towards the end of the war, chaos began to overtake German organisation, as the Allies crossed the Rhine. In Weinsberg, the prison guards were now all members of the Volkssturm (the German national militia), and the prisoners were to be moved by rail – much to their dismay; railway lines and trains were prime bombing targets. From 23 March 1945, several diary entries record the effects of bombing on the nearby rail yard, despite which, and after several false starts, they do all move out on 31 March, in a train of ‘60 cattle trucks marked with British flags and POW signs’.

They made steady progress, crossing the Danube. They passed through Munich and witnessed extensive damage and destruction. They arrived at their destination on 3 April: Moosburg. The largest POW camp in Germany, it held by this time at least 80,000 prisoners. Conditions were squalid, crowded. Edgy. Jimmy and the 1,200 Weinsburg POWs were accommodated in four bungalows in ‘cramped space and appalling conditions’. Specifically, this meant 300 men per water tap, human waste everywhere, prisoners sleeping on bungalow floors, with a blanket if they had one. Dysentery was a major problem.

Then, finally, on Tuesday 24 April came great excitement: ‘BBC news flash announces agreement between Britain, USA, Russia and Reich that PsOW will remain in their present camps until overrun.’ Moosburg was liberated on Sunday, 29 April. Jimmy records hearing gunfire, sees wounded men in camp, a Spitfire doing a roll right overhead:

At 12:00 hours an American tank and some jeeps came into the camp which was surrendered by the Goons at 12:04…Greatest thrill of war when up on rooftops at 13:30 saw Stars and Stripes being hoisted over Moosburg. Soon flags of all nationalities were flying over the camp.

The tone is jubilant, though muted. Perhaps it was hard to really believe it. And it was cold, still cramped and squalid, still dangerous and, of course, Jimmy couldn’t leave straight away. He’s ‘thoroughly browned off’. He wants out. By 7 May, he was moving, though spent the day at Landshut aerodrome watching planes taking off without him. On VE Day, 8 May, after witnessing a loaded Dakota crash into five other planes on the runway, he finally left Germany for Reims.

May 10, 1945, is his last diary entry. Up at 4am after three hours sleep, he catches a Lancaster to Britain and makes this auspicious entry: ‘landed at Aylesbury at 12:05. Went straight to Aylesbury Hospital with diarrhea.’

The wait was over. Almost.

My grandfather’s service record notes that on his return home, he weighed 9st 9lbs and had somehow lost two inches off his six feet in height. Camp conditions, particularly in Moosburg, must have taken a toll, especially considering this weigh-in was three months after liberation.

But he received a ‘One’ rating from the Medical Board, which notes no psychiatric ‘disability’. I cannot say why Jimmy adjusted relatively well, while others did not, though he always seems to have had a great enthusiasm for life and its possibilities. Perhaps this helped. In fact, war may have sharpened his determination to make the most of things.

An important discovery for me was the record of Jimmy’s journey home. He wasted no time getting organised. From his first letter from Weinsberg, years earlier, he outlined his plans for independent travel home via the US. He managed to swing it – stopping by the US office of the NZ Petroleum Company to secure a job, traversing the continent and arriving home on 11 August 1945, well in advance of the rest of the bunch. Ruth and Jimmy were reunited, and my father met his father. The trio began to adjust to life as a family.

Jimmy had planned it all, done his own thing, restarted his career, wasted no time. He’d learned a lesson in Italy. The army was left in knots over who was to pay for his train fare, and what category of leave he’d taken while in America. In September 1945, just weeks after arriving home, the small family left for Peru, Jimmy to prospect for oil with his geologist’s hammer, the beginning of an expatriate life that took them all over the world. No time to waste.

 

Medals for Captain James Moore Dorreen:

1939-45 Star

The Africa Star

The War Medal 1939-45

The NZ Service Medal

 

SOURCES

Private letters, photographs, telegrams and war diary,

James Moore Dorreen and Ruth Dorreen.

Cody, J.F. New Zealand Engineers, Middle East (1961)

Reid, Lt Col H. Murray. The Turning Point (1944)

Robertson, Bruce, ed Robertson, Rosanne. For the Duration; 2NZEF Officer Bruce Robertson on Active Duty and ‘In the Bag’ (2010).

NZDF Archives, Medals Office.

NZDF Archives, full service record, Captain James Moore Dorreen.

Newspaper cuttings, Gisborne, uncaptioned.

New Zealand History online.

http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/the-north-african-campaign

http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/second-world-war/prisoners-of-war

Download a pdf of Our Anzac Special

James and Ruth on their wedding day, 9 November 1939. Ruth’s parents are in the background.

James and Ruth on their wedding day, 9 November 1939. Ruth’s parents are in the background.

Caption reads: ‘All familiar faces  including the jocular old gentleman beside me – I had just cracked  a joke about his seat on a camel.’

Caption reads: ‘All familiar faces including the jocular old gentleman beside me – I had just cracked a joke about his seat on a camel.’

Ruth’s first letter from Germany, dated  20 October 1943, but not received until 24 February 1944.

Ruth’s first letter from Germany, dated 20 October 1943, but not received until 24 February 1944.

No caption, but the photograph was taken in Kent,  meaning this must be Jimmy after liberation, and after  hospital treatment in Aylesbury. He has three pips on  his epaulettes; now it’s Captain James Moore Dorreen.

No caption, but the photograph was taken in Kent, meaning this must be Jimmy after liberation, and after hospital treatment in Aylesbury. He has three pips on his epaulettes; now it’s Captain James Moore Dorreen.

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