Tag Archives: history

We all fall down, Catrin Shaw

‘He tried to eat his family.’

‘Did not.’

‘Did too. When the porters came to collect the bodies, his parents had bite marks on their arms and legs. His father even had a chunk of flesh missing from his thigh.’

‘You’re lying.’

‘Am not. It does that to you. Turns you mad.’ He leant forward over the counter, his lip curling upwards.

Maggie gripped her little sister’s hand and attempted to steer her towards the door, but Anabel was adamant.

‘No it doesn’t. I’ll bet you haven’t even seen an infected person.’ Anabel pouted, cocking her chin upwards.

‘Have too seen one,’ he called out after the sisters as they left the bakery.

Maggie tucked the loaf of bread under her arm. The baker’s son had dug it out of the waste barrel for them and the bread was heavy, the crust burnt and blackened, but it was the only food they had managed to find.

On Saturday mornings the town square was usually filled with market stalls, the air warm and woody with the smell of roasted chestnuts. The shop fronts would hum as people pushed past one another, silver coins clutched in outstretched fists as merchants bottled ounces of milk, counted out apples and weighed slabs of meat. But today, most of the shops had been boarded up and the stalls abandoned, the meat just left out on hooks to rot, swarms of maggots tunnelling their way through the browning flesh.

The rest of town wasn’t much different. Doors had been sealed shut and marked with crosses, the gloopy paint drying to the colour of blackened blood. On one door, someone had scrawled something above the cross. Maggie looked up at the writing as they walked past: ‘Lord have mercy upon us,’ the letters bleeding tears of red that had dripped and hardened on the wood.
Around the corner, Maggie and Anabel passed someone huddled in the shadows, their body encased in a pile of blankets, a single square of cloth tied over their mouth. Anabel stopped, staring down at the hunched over body.

‘Don’t look.’ Maggie wrapped her arm around her sister’s shoulders and led her down the adjoining laneway.

‘They don’t really eat people, do they?’ Anabel asked. Her earlier confidence had disappeared, reminding Maggie of just how young her sister really was.

‘He was just trying to scare you, making up silly stories like he always does.’

Anabel scrunched up her face, trying to hold back tears. ‘But what if I get sick and-’

Maggie stopped and knelt down in front of Anabel, her hands gripping onto her sister’s arms just above her elbows.

‘Stop this,’ Maggie said, her voice cracking. ‘You’re going to be fine, you hear me?’

Anabel nodded, a thin trail of snot bubbling from her nose.

Maggie sighed and grabbed the small knife that she always kept in her pinafore. At the next house they passed, Maggie hoisted herself over the front gate while Anabel watched wide-eyed from the laneway. Maggie ducked across the front garden, rummaging through the undergrowth until she spotted half a dozen carnations growing beneath the boxwood. Their stems had drooped but the flowers were still intact, the white petals threaded with pink. Maggie gathered the flowers in her fist, slicing them off just below the blossoms with her knife. She then pulled the ribbon from her hair and knotted the frayed satin around the flowers, holding them together in a bunch.

‘Maggie?’

Maggie emerged from behind the bushes and clambered back over the gate, her pinafore freckled with splotches of dirt.

‘Here.’ Maggie bent down and tucked the carnations into the front pocket of her sister’s dress.

Anabel frowned and reached into her pocket, her fingers closing around the bunch of flowers. ‘What are these for?’

‘Make sure you keep them with you,’ Maggie said as they continued walking. ‘I remember mother saying how the smell of flowers can help ward off the sickness. It’ll keep you safe.’

 

That evening, Maggie and Anabel split the bread between them on the floor of their bedroom. Beneath the burnt crust, the innards of the loaf were tough with grit, but Maggie didn’t care. She demolished her portion while Anabel picked and prodded at hers, pulling off tiny pillows of bread and letting them dissolve on her tongue.

A rat scurried across the windowsill, its whiskers twitching as its nose darted backwards and forwards, sniffing at the air. Anabel smiled and pulled off a chunk of her bread, crossing the room and holding it out in her hand. The rat sniffed at the bread timidly before grabbing it in its claws. Anabel giggled as she watched the rat eat, its front teeth gnawing away hungrily at the crust.

The sound of retching echoed through the house and Anabel froze, her breath hitching in her throat as the rat hurried outside through a gap in the windowpane. Maggie got up off the floor and walked out into the kitchen. She pressed her ear against the adjacent door and listened. Through the cracks in the wood, she could hear a rattling cough, the wheezes thick and tacky with phlegm.

‘Should we give her some?’

Maggie turned around to see Anabel standing behind her in the kitchen. Her hand was outstretched, the remainder of the bread sitting on her palm.

Maggie shook her head. ‘She’s fine. Come on.’

‘But she hasn’t eaten all day.’ Anabel moved closer to the door, her hand reaching out towards the doorknob.

‘I said she’s fine, ok.’ Maggie smacked Anabel’s hand away and grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her sister back inside the bedroom. She slammed the door behind them and Anabel ran to her bed, her back to Maggie as she buried her face in her pillow.

Maggie sighed, leaning her head against the wall as she watched Anabel’s shoulders shake and tremble.

‘Anabel-’ Maggie began but she couldn’t think of anything to say. After a minute of silence, she opened her mouth to speak again, but decided there wasn’t anything she wanted to say anyway.

 

Anabel’s muffled crying eventually stopped, her sobs levelling out into deep even breaths as she fell asleep. Maggie lay awake on the other side of the room, her eyes fixated on the ceiling. Their mother was getting worse. Every so often, she would heave and splutter from her bedroom and Maggie would glance at Anabel, praying that the sound wouldn’t wake her.

Maggie lifted her head and peered down at the foot of her bed where a small leather suitcase lay half packed, an assortment of clothes spilling over the edges and out onto the floor. Maggie didn’t know how the sickness spread but she knew that it spread fast and once you got it, you didn’t have long left. Within the week, half of the town was sick while the other half were too scared to leave their homes, and not just because of the sickness. At night, Maggie had watched from her bedroom window as gangs of men moved through the streets of the town. Mainly peasants from outside the town walls, they rioted and plundered as they pleased, breaking open cells in the local gaols and setting fire to the homes of the town officials. Maggie knew the streets weren’t safe at night, but she could no longer be sure that they would be safe inside either.

Maggie got up and stripped the moth-eaten blanket off her bed, bundling it up and tossing it on top of the pile of clothes. She then grabbed a handful of candles from the table by her bed, along with a fire striker, and slipped them into the suitcase before clasping it shut. Maggie felt her chest tighten as she glanced over to Anabel’s bed. She was still fast asleep, a string of drool running from her mouth, glistening and bubbling down her chin.

‘Anabel.’ Maggie shook her sister to wake her.

Anabel rolled over and blinked, her eyes heavy with sleep. ‘What is it?’

‘Come on, get up.’ Maggie pulled back the covers and Anabel sat up, squinting as she looked out the window.

‘What are you doing? It’s still dark out.’

‘We have to leave.’ Maggie grabbed Anabel’s hand, helping her up off the bed. Maggie handed her sister a cardigan before bending down to slip her feet into her boots.

‘Why? What’s happening?’

Maggie steered Anabel outside of their bedroom, stopping briefly in the kitchen to check they had everything they would need.

‘Maggie? Where are we going?’

‘We should have left yesterday,’ Maggie said as she fumbled with her bag. ‘It was stupid of us to stay, we can’t risk staying in the same building as someone who’s infected when we don’t know how it’s spread.’

‘But Maggie, that’s Mama.’

‘She’s dying Anabel, how can you not see that? And if we stay, we might die too. And I’ll be damned if I let that happen.’

Anabel stared at Maggie blankly for a moment before shaking her head as she took a step back towards the bedroom. ‘We can’t leave Mama, Maggie.’

Maggie turned away from her sister, pushing her nails deep into the flesh of her palms. Without warning, she slammed her fist against the wall of the kitchen. Anabel flinched as one of the wood panels cracked, the pots and pans from above the grate knocking against one another from the force.

‘Fine,’ Maggie spat, flexing the fingers on her now aching hand as she took her coat off the hook by the door. ‘Stay with her if you want. I’m going.’

Maggie swung the front door open. As she stepped outside, she stopped herself and looked back into the kitchen to see Anabel still standing there by the grate.

‘You coming or not?’ Maggie sighed, her voice softening.

Anabel nodded tentatively and with a glance at her mother’s bedroom door she followed her sister outside. Just as Maggie began to pull the door shut, Anabel turned back around.

‘Hold on,’ Anabel said as she disappeared back inside the house.

‘Anabel, come back. We don’t have time.’ Maggie spun around to look down the street, her eyes scanning the shadows for any sign of movement.

Anabel re-emerged a few minutes later, her cheeks wet with tears.

‘What was that for?’

Anabel stared at her feet, her arms folded protectively across her chest.

Not wanting to loiter on the street any longer, Maggie decided not to press for an answer. She brushed her hand across Anabel’s cheeks, her thumb catching the last of her sister’s tears as she locked the front door and slipped the key into her pinafore. The sisters hurried down the street, ducking down the narrow laneway that bordered their house. As they walked, Anabel slid her hand into the now empty pocket of her dress, her fingers toying with a single flower petal that had fallen from the posy.

 

Maggie made sure to stick to the shadows as she and Anabel wound their way through the labyrinth of cobblestone alleyways. Once they reached the town square, they stayed away from the open centre, instead moving from stall to stall, careful to keep themselves hidden. As they passed the stonemasons tent, Maggie thought she heard the distinct sound of metal on metal, followed by the patter of footsteps. She glanced back over her shoulder, glimpsing what looked like a shadow disappearing behind the alehouse. Maggie grabbed her little sister’s hand and, linking their fingers together, they slipped away behind a nearby house, following the path that ran between the buildings. As they neared the end of the next street, Maggie heard the footsteps again, the sound closely followed by the echo of muffled voices.

‘In here.’ Maggie ducked across the street towards the church. The door at the back of the building hung limp on its hinges and she pulled it open easily, hurrying Anabel inside before securing the door with a table that she pushed across from the nave.

The church had been pillaged, just like the rest of the town. Everything of value had been taken, the altar stripped bare of its ornaments and the stained glass windows splintered with jagged edges where they had been smashed in.

Maggie rested her hand on Anabel’s shoulder as they walked down the aisle and towards the door by the altar. Upon reaching the door, Maggie removed the knife from her pinafore, carefully slotting the blade into the gap by the lock and prying the door open.

‘Come on.’ Maggie bent down, letting her sister climb up onto her back. With Anabel’s arms wrapped securely around her neck, Maggie climbed up the narrow staircase towards the loft.

Just like the nave, the loft had also been raided, the room bare but for two white clerical robes that hung limply from hooks behind the door. Letting Anabel down, Maggie flicked open the clasp on her suitcase, rummaging through the tangle of clothes before pulling out her blanket and handing it to her sister.

‘Try and get some more sleep. We’ll be safe here for the rest of the night.’

Anabel nodded as she took the blanket from her sister.

‘You understand now, don’t you,’ Maggie said as she bunched a selection of clothes into a makeshift pillow for herself. ‘You understand why we had to leave?’

Anabel’s brow furrowed as she nodded. ‘I think so.’

Maggie gave her sister a small smile. She couldn’t expect her to understand everything, she could barely comprehend it all herself. But as long as Anabel knew she was trying, that was all Maggie needed her sister to know.

While Anabel burrowed herself beneath the blanket, Maggie lit a candle, pooling the hot wax on the ground and standing the candle upright, the fabric of the clerical robes casting ghost-like shadows across the walls in the newfound pool of light. She sat down next to Anabel, brushing a strand of strawberry blonde hair off her sister’s face as she drew the blanket up to beneath Anabel’s chin.

As Maggie lay down, she rolled over onto her side, wrapping her arms around her legs and drawing them to her chest. She closed her eyes but instead of black she saw her mother, lying alone in her bed, her skin masked with puss-filled boils. Her eyes had sunk, the bloodshot whites barely visible beneath the swollen lids. As she blinked, a drop of blood oozed through the slit, dripping through her lashes before pooling in the hollow beneath her eye. Maggie could hear her voice as she called out for her daughters through the empty house, her voice growing weaker and weaker with each cry.

‘I’m sorry,’ Maggie murmured against her skin as she felt her arm grow wet with tears. ‘I didn’t know what to do.’

 

As their mother took her final breath, the smoke began to filter through the floorboards of the loft. The rioters had lit the fire in the nave, tossing scraps of alcohol-soaked cloth through the empty windows of the church. The pews caught alight as the flames travelled down the carpeted floor, adding fuel to the already growing fire. Within minutes the flames were licking at the walls, the rafters collapsing as the fire hollowed through the wood, engulfing the church in a single blaze. As the sun rose and the fire died to glowing embers, the girls’ bodies were barely visible, buried beneath a blanket of smouldering rubble. They were still lying next to one another, Anabel’s arm linked through Maggie’s, entwined even in death.

 

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Dasvidaniya, Claudia Frazer

I was taught to be brave. To hold my head up. To keep smiling. Some days it was hard, especially towards the end. My feet were tired from running, then walking, limping, then holding my aching body up and dragging it across the ground. The shawl I had stolen from a farming couple’s laundry along the way slipped from my shoulders, the rough material grazed my neck, tempting my fingers to lean back and scratch. Instead, as I half ran half staggered, my fingers combed through my now tangled red locks. With each step a fresh shot of pain raced up my leg. I walked until I couldn’t take the throbbing in my leg anymore, my breath coming out in staccato gasps as I gripped myself, mentally trying to overcome the pain of my escape.

Frantically looking to my left and my right then both behind and in front of me, even above and below in case someone was to crawl out from the ground or jump on top of me from one of the tall overhanging trees, I looked to see if I was followed. Pausing a moment I held my ragged breath so that I might listen for the tell-tale signs of an intruder. After a moment when there was no sound of foot fall I let out a tiny gasp of relief and hobbled over to some nearby shade. Collapsing beneath the entangled limbs of a giant tree, I leaned my head back and shut my eyes. Curling a small tendril of hair about my finger, I tried to process what had happened. Silent tears trundled down my cheeks as I fell into an uneven slumber.

*

‘Come quickly!’

The little girl gripped her mother’s hand, her red curls bouncing against her back as they followed after her four older siblings, her father and her younger brother. They continued to walk until they stood before a short older man whom introduced himself as Yakov Yurovsky.

Head held high, her father looked Yakov in the eyes as Yakov spat that, as the Tsar, her father was to be put on trial for his handling of the workers strike, now known as Bloody Sunday. The Bolsheviks wanted him to be present for his trial, but he was not permitted to wear any epaulettes, they would not give him that honour.

The older two girls gasped. The eldest, Tatiana, went to say something but was silenced by her father with a stare. The little girl bit her lip as she reached for her hair, tangling a single strand around her finger, she watched in silence as her father won the unspoken battle between himself and her older siblings.

‘I would ask that-’

‘You dare ask for anything?’ Yakov raged. ‘After everything you have done to this country! For Bloody Sunday. For the war! For listening to that snivelling svoloch, Rasputin! You have done enough for this once great nation.’ Motioning to the guards he demanded they take them from his sight.

*

Unable to fitfully sleep, I picked the lining on my dress. The thread barely giving as the dirt clumped the strands together, making it difficult to get to the tiny fragments hidden beneath. Hints and glimmers of emerald, rustic traces of ruby and small suggestions of diamond could be made out through the grime beneath the fragments of thread I was tugging at. They were sewn into pouches beneath the lining of my dress created by myself and my sisters to conceal the jewels whereabouts. It felt like only days before that Mama sent a telegram telling me to hide the family medicine. My eldest sister was unsure of the coded message, but it was written for me, why hide medicine after all? I gathered the family jewels and made my sisters aware of the meaning behind Mama’s simple scrawl. It took us days to successfully sew the jewels into their hiding spots. It all seemed like a pointless waste of time.

My nails wedged dirt into the crack beneath my nail bed as I scraped the thread, my concentration focused solely on my task to remove the precious gems I had sewn into the lining merely days before. The more I scraped, the more frustrated I began to get. The pattern of removing the jewels now reminiscent of when my sisters and I had first hidden them. My lip began to quiver as I mentally urged it to stop. A sob escaped my unsteady lips as I tried to hold myself together. Tears fell freely, drawing paths through the dirt on my face. A mix of homesickness and pain from the throbbing wound beginning a fresh batch of tears. Drawing myself into a ball, I could see that the base of the boots I was wearing had started to crack. Head throbbing in time with my heart I cried until I was raw.

With an unsteady breath, I gathered my skirts and eased myself back onto my feet. A shot of pain rushed up my leg as I unsteadily regained a standing position. Throat parched, every muscle in my body begged me to stop, lie down, to rest. I wondered how far I had walked, if I had made it out of Yekaterinburg and if the bullet that tore through my upper calf would get infected. Pausing against a thick barked tree, I swiped my blood soaked dress from my legs and prodded the wound. Tiny stabs of pain prickled where I touched. Drawing my head closer for a better inspection, the clumps of dirt, drying and still liquid blood, and the oozing bits of yellow ignited a strong queasy feeling within my stomach. Dropping my dress, I leaned over my shoulder and heaved everything left in my stomach onto the drying clumps of grass behind me.

*

The little girl, who was now almost a woman, could hear the whispered voices from down the hall as they slowly got closer to where she was hidden. Her hair, darkened to a burnt red with age, was tied back in a style more fitting for a Tsar’s daughter than the loose curls she had adorned before. She held her breath, knowing full well the repercussions if she was to be discovered this far from her assigned quarters. The footsteps stopped a couple feet from her hiding place.

‘We cannot let the white army get them.’

‘What shall we do?’

The thunderclap of a pair of steel capped boots pounded the tiles and the imposing voice of Yakov broke the silence. ‘Gather the Tsar, the Tsarina and her children, take them to the cellar. Tell them it is for their own protection.’

*

I would not be moving from this spot for some time. Wincing slightly, I tugged at the thread and watched the first jewel fall from its hidden spot. Finally. Rubbing the small gem between my thumb and index finger a silent tear rolled down my cheek as I recalled Mama. Her smile would lighten up the ballroom as the nobility, the Dvoryanstvo, would beg for a single dance. Falling elegantly at her hips, her dress, an off-white colour, would stand out in the court as so many others opted for bold hues. Smiling, I recalled the soft ruffles as they embraced her torso, my father smiling sweetly as her hand lay in the crook of his arm.

I pulled another thread and another gem, this time a ruby, fell into my palm. This one had been hit by one of the many bullets. It was broken into a thousand fragmented pieces, the jagged edges getting caught on the material. Bits of the disintegrated jewel blew in the breeze and clung to and around my open wound. Shiny hints of red now seen intermingled with the drying darkened clumps of blood. A soft breeze rustled my hair as I inspected the jewels, wisps of red grazed my vision as I lent closer to inspect. Tucking the loose strands behind my ears, I threw the broken pieces of gem in frustration. They hit the bark of a tree a few feet from me. I must not let it get to me. I was taught to be brave. To be strong.

*

The young woman ran back to her assigned quarters. She regaled Tatiana and Olga, her older sisters, what she had just over heard.

A look of understanding passed Tatiana’s eyes. Her long brown hair contained small traces of Romanov red when she stood in direct light. Rushing to the closet, she threw two dresses upon the bed. ‘Get dressed,’ she urged her younger sibling, ‘quickly.’

‘What is to happen to us?’

In response Tatiana threw the beautiful brocade the sisters had earlier modified with hidden gems towards both her sisters. Instructing them to adorn them silently and quickly. Once dressed, she asked her younger siblings if they were able to move freely.

‘Yes, if need be. What is it, Tatiana? You’re scaring me,’ the young woman whispered as she tangled a strand of red around her finger.

Tatiana opened her mouth then shut it quickly, a guarded look replacing her features. She marched towards the door then paused at the threshold, her delicate hand resting on the handle. With a quick glance at her younger sibling, she instructed her to remain alert and be ready before passing through the still open door.

*

Carried on the next gust of wind, I could hear a faint chanting. Someone was approaching! My heart thudded against my chest as the voices hit a crescendo. The pattering of boots against the ground drummed against the dirt in a rhythm parallel to my heartbeat. It must be quite a large group! The rumbling of a horde of boots vibrated the earth. Panicking I began to fear the worst.

*

Shoving and butting their rifles, the soldiers prodded the young woman and her family, directing them towards the cellar. The soldiers lined them up against the back wall under the directive of Yakov. The oldest two girls clasping the younger two’s hands. Their mother and father stepping forward to protect the children. That’s when the firing began.

The loud crackle of ignited gunpowder echoed in their ears as they fired first at the Tsar, then moving swiftly on to his wife, and then their children.

The Tsarina was barely given a chance as she rushed to push her body in front of her offspring. Her only thoughts were of the lives of her children. Stumbling back she fell next to her husband. Each child slowly falling after hers. Their bodies convulsing with each bullet tearing its way through their flesh and blood spraying with every impact of metal to busted flesh.

The pelting of the bullets lessened as the soldiers slowly ran out of ammunition. The soldiers then began stepping over the fallen bodies as they waded their way through the room. They prodded the bleeding corpses avoiding the blood and bits of flesh cascaded across the floor as the gun smoke slowly settled about the room.

*

Attempting to stand, I pushed myself up against the tree, using the firm structure as a wall. My leg throbbed where the wound was located and my legs gave out as I collapsed back against the tree, letting out a faint strangled cry. The footsteps were coming closer. Tugging the dress, another couple of broken gems tumbled to the ground. I kicked them away, as they would only prove my identity. Wide holes now replaced the rubies location in such a way that I could now hide other items if need be. Wrapping the shawl about myself, I arranged it in such a way that it would cover the most of my bloodied dress. I dangled it across my shoulders and positioned it in such a way that it hid the tops of my legs, hiding the still bleeding wound from sight.

The beating rhythm of soldier’s boots slowly hit its crescendo until they were nearly upon me. Before they made it past the copse of trees and would be able to see me, I grabbed handfuls of dirt and rubbed it vigorously through my locks to dim the vibrancy of the red. Smearing leftover smidgeons of dirt across my face, I hoped to conceal my face. I scrubbed with an intensity yet unbeknownst to me, with a strength I did not believe I had left. Tucking the edges of my skirt into the bottoms of my boots, I tarnished over the blood spots until they too were invisible. Pushing the majority of my skirts in between my legs, I hoped to conceal any trace of blood upon my dress that might still be visible lest I forgot any small smidgeon. With a small gulp, I looked towards my fate.

*

Blood trickled down the young woman’s leg and dripped from the base of her shoulder as she slowly lifted her head. Bodies were strewn haphazardly, limbs entangled every which way as blood smeared every crevice. An indiscernible mess.

Soldiers stepped carefully, their guns held at eye level and extended towards the closest body to them. Some were fearful, others showed no emotion, each remained alert.

‘This one’s not quite dead, her body lattice seems to be working as some sort of armour, komandir!’ A tall soldier shouted above the din. The young woman made him out to be closest to his mother. Soft whimpering could be heard. She prayed they would spare whichever poor soul it was that made such a mournful noise.

‘Shoot her again then! This time, aim for her head,’ Yakov spat.

The young woman kept silent. A single boom ricocheted off the walls. She fought to gain control over her quivering lip and shudders before the soldiers made their way towards her. She willed her shoulders to stop shaking and her breath to even out enough so as to make it unnoticeable. Words she longed to scream would fester and burn inside her. If she was to release them, they would sear anyone who heard them. Instead she remained quiet, hoping to be overlooked, to be spared.

*

I could see a couple of soldiers making their way towards me. They were dressed in the dark green colours of the red army. I tried to quieten my quivering heart, fearful that they could hear it pounding from my chest. One was shorter and stockier than the other; they must’ve lost the bet to check on me as they both looked upon me with upturned noses.

The closest turned to his companion upon sight of me. Arms crossing against his chest he exclaimed, ‘Pah! Tis but a krest’yanin, a lowly peasant girl.’

Without a second glance, they turned their backs to me. As I watched them walking back to their group, I could hear small snippets of conversation on the wind, ‘we must keep searching…. he believes her still alive…’

They were almost out of hearing range when the shorter companion’s response set my nerves alight once more, ‘the Romanov’s might be all dead, though one daughter may be still alive.’

 

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Ring a Rosies, Lucy Ross

Ann ran, clutching the bouquet to her chest. Every so often she would bring it up to her face and nearly crush it against her nose to smell the sweet flowers. But she dared not smell it too often, lest she take away its power. She had lost the little boy that was chasing her, sent by his Father to try and catch her. No doubt he would be beaten for losing her and the precious posies. She would have bought them, but her family could not afford it and her Ma was dying.

On the Outskirts of London, on the other side of the stone wall, where the little moat was filled with the dead that had yet to be carted away, was Ann’s house. Amongst the slums the streets were quiet, filled instead with heavy air, bodies and rats. Ann crept along the streets, trying to watch all the rats at once before finally reaching home. She quietly pushed her front door open, trying to sneak in before her Grandma caught her and threw her back out. Grandma always caught her. Sure enough there was a frail hand round her wrist in moments, tighter than usual.

‘You shouldn’t be here child.’ Her Grandma’s voice was raspier than it had been this morning.

Ann held up the bouquet as high as she could for Grandma to see, ‘For Ma.’

Grandma looked at the bouquet, before pulling Ann in tight.

‘I want to see Ma. When is she getting better?’

Grandma knelt, holding Ann by the shoulders, ‘My sweet child. Your Ma isn’t ever getting better.’

Ann frowned, ‘The men said the flowers will make her better.’ She continued, determined, ‘If you give Ma the flowers then she’ll get better.’

‘Oh Ann.’ She led Ann over to a corner, putting a small, old backpack over her shoulders and putting the flowers inside the backpack, hidden away, ‘Ma is no longer with us.’

*

Ann walked behind the cart filled with bodies. The final trip of the day to the mass grave. She recognised the familiar black lumps all too well. The Black Death was upon them again. In one hand, she gripped a small black pouch that hung from a rope around her neck. The pouch felt heavy. She remembered the last time…and the Bricking. Oh dear God she should have to Brick again. Ann made the sign of the cross rapidly.

*

Ann screamed and kicked, reaching out for her Ma. Her Grandma holding her back, ‘Listen to me!’ she croaked. Ann kicked, falling over under the weight of the backpack, before reaching where her mother lay in bed. Her skin still warm, puss and blood still oozing from sores.

‘Ma!’ She wailed; dirty, clumpy hair sticking to her face. She slumped. For three days she had watched her Ma fight the disease, her Grandma keeping her away for her own safety. Even now she felt her Grandma’s bony hand grab the scruff her shirt and haul her away from the body. Outside she kicked and screamed until her Grandma hit her. In silence she let her wrap a scarf round her head and face, covering her mouth and nose.

Holding her hand, her Grandma led her away from the house. Ann struggled against her, trying to pull the scarf away with one hand but it was tied too tightly. Down the other end of the street, she could see people starting to brick up houses that had sick people in it. She could hear their cries for help and mercy.

*

With her free hand, Ann pulled her scarf up to cover her face. The scarf was old and stained, but it kept death out of her mouth. The two donkey’s struggled under the weight of the bodies, it was a heavy cart.

‘This is gonna be a good pay,’ John said from beneath his scarf, rubbing his hands together. ‘Three hundred bodies in one day, and at least another three hundred tomorrow with no other Collectors in sight.’ He tried to chuckle but it caught in his throat.

Ann looked away from the cart. It would be a good pay. They would head back to the next town, which was half empty, and pre spend some of that pay on good mead and food, after they had been blessed by the priest and had a strange smelling plant rubbed over them. The townsfolk insisted it stopped the spread of disease.

*

Ann ran, dragged along by her Grandma. Thirty years old and she could still run. The streets in this area were abandoned.

‘Why are we running?’ Ann asked.

Her Grandma stopped on a street corner, panting heavily, clutching her chest.

*

Across the street, a child looked at them wide eyed and ran away.

‘Why do people run from us?’ A young girl- no more than ten- asked. She led the donkeys.

‘They run from Death. We work closely with death, and so they run from us.’ Boss answered. The young girl looked at him.

‘Why would you run from Death? Death always catches you.’ Her eyes were too empty for a ten year old. Ann looked away; she had been younger when Boss had picked her up. She and her Grandma had tried to run. But Death always catches you.

*

Ann ran away from her Grandma after she had managed to escape her grip, running back towards her house. Her Ma can’t be dead. She heard her Grandma call after her desperately, but she pretended not to hear. She knocked a barrel of apples over, stumbled over a chicken and ran past bodies that lay in the streets, back the way she had come. One of the Brickers working in her street tried to grab her but she just slipped past.

At the house, someone had already carved a cross on their door, which she pushed open. The air seemed suddenly heavy. Ann hesitated at the door, unsure that this is what she wanted to see. From the door she could see the sunken skin, pulled tight. Crooked fingers stiff, as if reaching out to grab something.

Ann felt someone grab her bag.

*

Outside the man held her up, like a rat, peering at her from beneath the scarf wrapped around his head. Three others peered at her, including a young boy.

‘She don’t look sick.’

‘Then don’t brick her.’

She heard her Grandma’s voice, ‘Put her down!’ She was panting heavily when she reached them, ‘Please…we’re trying to leave…and get…to safety.

One of the men poked Grandma with a stick. ‘You have lumps on you. You aren’t going anywhere.’

The third folded his arms, looking Grandma up and down. ‘The girl comes with us. Granny gets Bricked.’

‘As you say, Boss.’

It was only when Grandma let out a wail that she comprehended what being ‘bricked’ meant. Ann kicked and screamed, but the man just held her higher. He was kind enough to turn her away so she wouldn’t see her Grandma pushed into the house.

*

Half an hour later Ann put a hand on the new brick wall, cement and dirt already drying. Ann tried to claw at the wall and push it over, but it wouldn’t budge.

‘Grandma?’

‘Ann. You need to leave.’

‘I’m sorry for running away Grandma.’

Saying sorry always made things better.

Ann sat back and looked at the brick wall covering her old front door. From this angle it looked as if it stretched to the sky.

*

The following night, all the bodies had been dumped into a mass grave just outside of the now desolate town. Back in the next village though, an outbreak had occurred. Ann stood outside the house with a cross carved into the front door. A family shouted at onlookers from within, who stood along the street with pitchforks, ready to kill anyone who tried to break free from the house.

‘Brick ‘em,’ Boss turned away from the house and looked at Ann.

‘You’re the only one in my crew who was old enough to remember the last time. Is this the same? I don’t want to believe it’s the same.’

Ann spat, ‘You might as well Brick up the whole country.’ She turned away, clutching the pouch around her neck and did her best not to run away. Not that she could get far, she had been so tired lately, unused to all this extra work.

*

Grandma’s cries had quieted down when the man called Boss knelt down next to her.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Ann.’

‘You should leave this part of the City. It’s not safe here. You’ll get sick.’

‘And then you’ll have to Brick me?’

Boss didn’t say anything.

‘I won’t get sick, I have these.’ She took her backpack off and pulled out the posies, which were already damaged.

Boss smiled, and gently took them off her, ‘What pretty flowers.’ He took off a small pouch that was hanging around his neck and took a ring out of it, which he slipped on his finger. He created the flowers in his dirty hands, and ever so careful put the flowers into the pouch, which he then hung around Ann’s neck.

‘You’ll grow into it. And they’ll do a better job there.’ He stood and held out his hand, ‘Come on.’ Ann looked up at him, afraid. ‘You have no where else to go child. You will die here.’

‘Leave her alone!’ She heard her Grandma throw herself against the door.

Boss picked Ann up, holding her head close to his neck while Anne started shouting for her Grandma. ‘Hush,’ he cooed, ‘It will be alright. Pretend you can’t hear her.’ Back down the street, at the cart one of the men stopped working.

‘Another worker Boss?’

‘Aye. Another worker.’ He held onto Ann while she cried.

Ann could hear her Grandma calling her name from behind the brick wall. She did her best to not hear, like the kind, scary man said.

Boss held her for three days and nights.

*

‘Where’s Boss?’ John asked, putting another brick on the wall.

Ann frowned and looked over her shoulder. She eventually found him slummed behind some shack, fresh alcohol stains covering his clothing.

‘Come on.’ He shrugged her off and muttered something indecipherable. She pulled him to his feet but he pushed her away.

‘Do not touch me!’ He clutched his head as he stumbled on the spot.

‘I don’t want to brick no more.’ He cried before falling down.

‘You gotta brick. Someone has too. We have to save those we can,’ Ann said with little sympathy.

‘I couldn’t save my family.’

Ann looked away; it was never pretty when he got like this.

‘Bricked my wife and eldest daughter, to save my two youngest. They still died. What kinda of Bricker am I? What kinda of father and husband bricks his own family!’

Ann wiped sweat off her forehead and brought the pouch up to her lips

*

‘Wait!’

The family were being herded into the house after a brief escape attempt. It was the third family that had fallen ill in as many days. Ann grabbed the youngest boy away from them while the crowd looked on, hands over their mouth. She adjusted her scarf to be more secure for checking his eyes and inside his mouth and under his shirt for lumps.

‘Do you feel ill?’

He shook his head.

‘This one doesn’t need to be bricked.’

His mother let out a sob as they were pushed into the house, ‘James! James!’

Ann picked up the boy and walked away with him as the others started laying bricks. She held his head into her neck as he cried. ‘Hush James, you’ll be safe with us….pretend…pretend you don’t hear them.’

‘Ma.’ She heard him whisper. Ann held him tighter. It was more than she had given her Grandma. If James survived, maybe it would make up for her abandoning her Grandma.

For a week, James slept next to her.

*

‘I don’t wanna Brick.’ She cried. She had been with the crew for two weeks, and Boss had finally decided to make her help with the walls, rather than trying to place bodies in another cart.

‘You gotta brick. Someone has too. We have to save those we can.’
Inside the family cried and coughed and begged.

‘Bricking saved you Ann. Your grandma was sick, she would have infected you. You would be dead by now,’ Boss said, with little sympathy.

Ann quietly picked up another brick, dipped it in the bucket of cement that Mo constantly mixed, and placed it next to the other, wondering who this wall will save.

*

Ann sat atop the cart of bricks. It was her usual spot, up high where she could see everyone around her. Her hands were calloused and scratched but were clean from being washed whenever she could. Boss enforced good hygiene. She looked around at the towns folk who stayed away from the cart she guarded. They looked an all too familiar ill. And ill of fear, grief and genuine sickness. It was the Flu before the black lumps appeared. She could look at people and know when they would sneeze and fall down. Most will be dead by the time the year was out. But some of them good be saved, saved by the cruel work they did. Next to her was the young boy she saved two months ago. He had bricked his first house today, and had finally stopped crying. She put an arm round him.

‘We save a lot of lives doing this.’

‘But we take away more.’ James responded

She removed her arm from him, uncomfortable. Bricking saves enough lives to be justifiable, she told herself, bringing her pouch up to her lips. It had too, otherwise she was just a murderer trying to comfort her own loss.

Ann coughed, hard, and dropped her pouch back against her chest. She cleared her throat and smiled at James who looked at her wide-eyed. She hacked again and didn’t stop while James ran off, screaming for Boss. Ann grasped her pouch, and breathed deeply. When the coughing subsided, she looked at the pouch for a moment, noticing a tear along the seam.

Desperately, Ann pulled it off her neck, coughing again. Opening it, she prayed that the flowers were there, at least in some form. She had never opened it to check. But it was empty; her precious posies were gone. Atop the cart, she looked up to see Boss staring at her and barely heard him say tell the workers to Brick her, along with James, who she had coughed all over.

 

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Golden Drachmas, Claire Catacouzinos

Thasians wrestle with malleable metals. They mine, smelt, mint, and tend to hot furnaces, wrought with much toil. They are iron-willed smiths like Hephastios, forger of the three-forked thunderbolts. They should be equal to other Hellenic cities; but why has Athens seized their markets and a gold mine at Thrace? Why do the Athenians’ believe they can rule them? Thasos is the golden island, caved with quarries of gold, marble, lead, and iron. For they are masters of hammers, strikers that can crumble empires, not sooty anvils that tolerate threats.

 

Limenas, Thasos, 463 B.C.E

 

Sixteen year old Nesaea, an orphaned Abderan now living at Thasos, grabs a silver blank disk inside the minting workshop, and places it in between two blocks of iron, the dies that have carved designs. She raises her hammer, tightening her grip, and strikes down on the first die; the punch made. Yes, she thinks, as she takes the disk out, another great coin for today. She stares at one side, touching its edges, checking that the image of four tiny squares is smooth. Perfect, she thinks, as she then flips the coin to the other side, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the sight of the bald-headed, bearded satyr, kneeling to his right as he carries a struggling nymph. She imagines her master, Aglaophon, that four-plumed monster, carrying her to bed like he does with the slave girls at night. Thank sweet Demeter he does not know about her disguise.

She tosses the new coin to the pile of forty-nine drachmas that she has made on the marble table, listening to slaves outside smelting metal. Out the window, she sees sweating faces, men’s short tunics damp, their skin tanned just like her own, and their callused hands with disjointed and purple-bruised fingers holding metal clamps. They pour the molten metal into circular, shallow pits that are narrow at the bottom, and wait for them to cool.

Turning away, she stares at her messy nest of coins. If only these were hers, every piece for her to keep, to help her start a new life away from Thasos. She suddenly feels wetness in her loincloth. She knots her eyebrows, thinking it can only mean one thing. She holds in her breath, her skin tight against her ribs like leather stretched to make a tympanon, a hand drum, and touches the dampness in between her thighs. The god Deimos creeps upon her when she realises with dread what it is. Damn the gods, she thinks, my gorgon has escaped her case.

She hears her friend returning to the workshop and she knows she needs to get back to her master’s house and grab a linen rag. Why did she not remember to wear extra rags today? Last night she tried to count on her fingers, to remember the last time her blood flowed, but her mind was empty like her clay cup beside her bed. It has been months, she thinks, so many months since my body has done this.

Wiping her hand on the inside of her brown chlamys, she pins her cloak to her right shoulder, snatches a few drachma coins, hides them in her breast-band, and runs out of the mint workshop.

‘Where are you going, Nireus?’ her friend asks as she passes by.

‘I will be back,’ she says.

‘You cannot leave,’ he says, grabbing her arm, ‘the official will cut your throat!’

She yanks his arm away. ‘I will return in an hour, just cover for me until I get back.’

‘The things I do for you, Nireus. Just think, one day it will be us shitting on the golden hills!’

Yes, she thinks, one day we will be living on solid mountains of gold in our own houses…one day.

She hurries past the three minting workshops and peeps behind the stone wall. She sees her red girdled supervisor with his pot-belly, his long hair tied back in a ponytail, a leather whip in his hand. For a moment she wishes she had her long hair again, braided to the side by her mother’s milk-skinned hands; but once she hears the loud crack of a whip, she’s glad she hacked it off. There is no work for her as a slave girl, besides selling herself at brothels, having older men’s oily and hairy bodies upon her. She remembers what her mother told her that day the Athenians ransacked her home, two years ago, ‘You run, you hear me, Nesaea, you run and take care of yourself.’

She sneaks past the slaves blistering in the heat, and runs out of the back entrance of the metalworking precinct on the west side of the agora, the market place. She passes Thasians ambling near their struggling slaves, and dodges the fresh-smelling stalls of bakers, but it is when she sees a young couple, holding hands, the woman’s stomach swollen, and the man’s hand caressing her belly, that she slows down. Her heart still racing, she watches the woman and touches her own stomach, feeling its hollowness, her body not ripe. One day, she thinks, staring at the woman, rubbing her belly, one day soon enough, I will be like you, with my own husband beside me.

When she sneaks into her master’s house, and hides behind a marble column, both hands touching the cold frame, she sees Aristophon, her dear friend, one of her master’s sons, painting on a wooden board in the garden courtyard, with its cream and brown pebbled mosaic floor. Aristophon, the man whose name she whispers at night in her sleep, wishing to share her bed with him, to feel his hands on her breasts, hands that are stained with pigments and powder that are mixed with egg yolk inside an oyster shell, to bind the colourful paints. How she yearns, longing to tell him every day of her true identity, to have him look at her with those cerulean eyes, like he does with the Thasian maidens at festivals that dine with him, who are dressed in silk, one sash fastened to their waist, another under their plump breasts, their heads adorned with wreaths, their bangles and gemstones shining.

Oh how Nesaea wishes to dress like a girl again, wearing these expensive dresses, and her body, oh how lovely and thick and round it will be, plumped with fine slices of fish that are salted with thyme in fig leaves, and sesame-cakes. Aristophon likes wealthy girls, not scrawny girls that bind their breasts with linen, smelling like foul, muddied swines, and diseased pigeons.

I wish you knew, she thinks, then I could kiss you.

She turns away from the column and sneaks past him, entering the slave quarters. None of them are in sight and the room is crammed with four beds, all the coverlets bedraggled. She hurries to her bed, bends down on her knees and searches through Satorneila’s wooden chest. They have to be in here, she thinks, they just have to. As soon as she lifts up a black, tattered dress, she finds the linen rags. Thank you, merciful Zeus, she thinks, standing up and wiping herself clean. She changes into a fresh loincloth and places a rag inside. The bloodied rags are still in her hand.

‘Satorneila!’ someone calls.

Nesaea slams the chest shut. By the gods, no, she thinks, looking around the room to hide herself. But there is no time. Damn the gods, what is she going to do?

‘Satorneila, have you made my oxtail soup?’

The door opens and Nesaea does not move, her body feeling heavy like the stout iron block the slaves hammer metal on.

‘Nireus, what are you doing home so early?’ Aristophon asks, his hand still on the door handle.

I can lie, she thinks, or I can tell him the truth. Perhaps it is time he knew, but what of the master, what will he do? Will Aristophon tell his father; surely he would not do that to me?

‘I…I,’ she says, looking down at the rags in her hand, ‘I had an accident at the workshop.’ She sits down on the bed, touching her chest. Yes, that will have to do.

‘You’re hurt,’ he says, running over to her and bending down on one knee.

Their eyes lock. Nesaea’s heart beats faster, her palms damp. All she wants to do is tell him the truth.

‘Where are you hurt?’ he asks, touching her shoulder, looking at her legs, her hands, her arms, her neck, and her face. ‘Where are you bleeding?

It’s his eyes that torture her, those blue depths weakening her heart. ‘Ari,’ she says, smiling inside, thinking about that sweet name she calls him, and drops the rags and grabs his hand, ‘I need you to listen.’ He squeezes her hand. Please, she thinks, please do not hate me.

‘Did someone at the workshop hurt you,’ he asks, shaking her hand, ‘I will have them removed from the place.’

‘No, no,’ she says, taking his other hand as well, ‘it’s not that.’ She looks down at both of his hands, rubbing her callused thumbs against his smooth skin, her back hunched over like a wilted flower, its petals browned, shrivelled and soft. ‘I…I need to tell you something,’ she chokes. Tucking a short strand of hair behind her ear, she holds both of his hands again in her lap, bringing them close to her mouth to kiss. He smells like olive oil, she thinks, mixed with lemons and yellow yolk. When she looks up, teary, and stares into his eyes, her cheeks reddened, his eyebrows are knotted, his mouth agape. It’s her teary eyes that make him see; she is a girl.

He blinks four times, and jerks away.

‘You lied to me,’ he mutters, letting go of her hands and stepping away from her. He holds his mouth shut and turns away.

‘No, Ari, you need to listen to me,’ she pleads, getting up and grabbing his arm, ‘you need to listen to me.’

He moves away from her, and she clasps both hands to her mouth, sucking in a deep breath. He walks sideways, touching his forehead now as he stares at the ground.

‘You are always keeping secrets from me,’ he says, turning around and looking at her.

Nesaea feels like a wooden spinning top that the gods have unwound, her life unstrung, staggering to its last turnings of hope. She squeezes her eyes shut and prays — please, Hera, oh please, help me.

She opens her eyes, still holding her hands together, and rests them under her chin. ‘I need to protect myself,’ she says, looking at him.

‘You always say that!’

‘I know, Ari, I know, but I did not want to die on the streets.’

‘You should have told me,’ he says, ‘I thought we were like brothers.’

‘How can I be that close to you when I was bought by your father?’ she asks, her eyes tearing again. She thinks about his father hitting her over and over again on the head when she drops a tray of fruit.

Silence. The goddess Hesykhia forbids the branches to sway outside, the birds from warbling, and Nesaea’s mouth to move.

Aristophon clenches his fist. ‘Who are you then? Are you really someone from Abdera?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then what is your name?’

Shaking her head, she closes her eyes, her clasped hands in front of her lips now. I want to tell you, she thinks, oh how every night I want to tell you; but you know now. Nothing good will come from this. Nothing.

She opens her eyes and she can see the pain on his face, just like Achilles when he lost his beloved friend, Patroklus. ‘I cannot,’ she says, shaking her head, ‘I cannot tell you.’ She flees from the room and runs into the courtyard.

‘Come back!’ Aristophon shouts.

She ignores him and sprints out of the lion-sized door, never looking back, never wanting to see the pain in Ari’s eyes.

‘Stop!’ he yells, ‘Nireus, come back!’

I cannot, she thinks. Your father will have his way with me now. She keeps running, past the chunky trinketed Thasians, and thin, short-haired slaves holding amphorae and sacks of food. Past the stalls selling corn, wheat, leather and rowlock thongs, jars, and nets of garlic and olives and onions, until she is one in the midst of the sweating crowd at the temple of the god of war, Ares.

Looking around the area, she tries to find a gap to escape through, when she hears a man say, ‘This sacrifice will scare those Athenians away!’

‘Nireus!’ Aristophon calls.

Go away, she wants to yell. She pushes past the Thasians, and trips. Wincing, she looks down at her skidded knees, grimy and bloodied. When she looks up, Aristophon sees her. Damn the gods. Her heart pounding, she runs faster and faster, hearing the pan-pipes and reed pipes pierce her ears as people chant to Ares — hail to the spear-wielder! She sees strangers’ blurry faces of toothy grins, bushy eyebrows, and black-pigmented eyes staring at her. She passes cracked buildings and stalls opened with fresh caught tunnies, codfish, and mackerel. Following the cobblestone footpath, she heads to the docks, listening to the shouts and commands by the boatswains, the sounds of sailors hammering in dowels.

‘Nireus, wait!’

She sprints east to the iron mines that she first worked at disguised as a boy, when she was fourteen, before Aristophon found her.

She pants now, each step thudding with the beat in her ears. Twelve fishing boats at the dock are swaying in the breeze. Once she’s in front of the hollow cave, she touches the bronzed and red-tinged edges of the entrance, her eyes catching sight of the layers of smoky iron rocks with their dark raspberry and ebony spirals at the foot of the entrance. Looking over her shoulder, Aristophon’s running, his cheeks reddened, his eyes determined like a foot runner returning home with an important message from an enemy. The sky above him is turning grey and cloudy by the Nephelai nymphs; they will soon pour water from their pitchers, casting rain across the land and sea.

Nesaea scurries into the iron mine, her feet slugging through the damp dirt, her legs splotched with mud. There are no oil lamps. If she stays quiet, hidden, Ari will not see her.

Further into the mine, she raises her hands to help her move around, going deeper and deeper into the tunnel. When she can walk no longer, scared of losing the light from outside, she turns around and sits down on the ground, the cold dirt freezing her skin. A tiny drop of water drips in the distance. As she huddles her legs and wraps her arms around them, she rests her chin on her knees, staring at the opening of the cave; she listens to the pounding of her heart.

A figure nears the entrance; please go away. Biting down on her lip, she waits. The figure draws near. The body of a man appears, the light from outside framing him.

‘Nireus!’ Aristophon calls.

She squeezes her eyes shut, tightening her grip around her legs. A cold breeze blows her hair away from her face, a gasp decamps her lips. Opening her eyes, she watches him.

‘Please come out so we can talk,’ he says, holding the side of his waist, leaning down and panting.

‘I do not want to,’ she says.

‘You can trust me, you know you can. How many times have I helped you?’

Too many times, she thinks. Even when she bought the wrong grapes one day for her master, he went with her back to the agora and showed her the dark purple ones that were prized by his father.

‘Can you at least tell me your real name?’

But that will mean I will never be able to hide again, she thinks. My name is all I have left from my home.

Aristophon leans against the cave entrance. ‘I am not going anywhere until you come out.’

‘I will be cold by sundown,’ she says, letting go of her legs and rubbing her arms now.

‘Well, my dear little friend, that will be your choice,’ he says, folding his arms.

She knows she has to decide whether to tell him the truth, or to get out of the mine and run. But am I done hiding? What is there stopping me?

She leans forward and sees Ari at the entrance smooth back his brown hair from his face and wait. If he has come all this way, she thinks, then he must want to help me. He must care for me.

She stands up now, taking slow steps towards him. She can see it now. Back to the first day she met him. Here. At the iron mines, deep in the tunnels, when he offered her water, that rich, delicate water that quenched her thirst. ‘I am Aristophon,’ he had said.

Out in the open where the wind makes her shiver, he turns and looks at her. This is it.

‘My name is Nesaea,’ she says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

He ushers for her to come closer, and puts his arm around her. ‘A name of a nymph,’ he says, kissing her forehead, ‘I do not know what I will do without you.’

His words swell her heart, but she sees in the distance a trireme ship sailing towards them with its huge white sails and daunting eyes and its nose slicing through the water. Who are they? How many men are on that ship?

She keeps looking beyond Ari in front of her, her hand on his chest. ‘Can you see them?’ she asks.

‘I see you and only you.’

Thunder cracks in the sky; the rustling breeze is bringing the rain. He needs to look, he needs to see what is approaching us, she thinks.

‘Nesaea, speak to me, my girl of golden hope.’

She looks back at him. ‘My girl of golden hope,’ he called her. I am his golden girl, she thinks.

‘I want to be with you,’ she says.

‘And I want to be with you.’ He touches her hand on his chest. ‘You are special to me like Aphrodite loving Adonis.’

‘What are we going to do? What will your family think of us?’

‘We will leave!’ he says, ‘but I cannot leave the island empty-handed, we must return home.’

‘What if we get caught?’

‘How can we when I have you?’

Men chant nearby and Ari turns around.

In one moment, they see the trireme ship with one-hundred and seventy bronzed armoured men row past them on the rocky hill in front of the iron mine, curving west towards the hub of the city. In one moment, one man raises a shield to the sky, the crest of Medusa with her serpent coiled hair, lolling tongue and sharp fangs stare at them; the Athenians. In one moment, Ari rises from his seat, and that’s when Nesaea sees an archer, pulling his bowstring.

‘Holy Hera, no!’ she shouts, pushing Ari out of the way. The arrow pierces her flesh, blood trickles down her arm. No no no, this cannot be!

‘Hail to Athena!’ the soldiers chant.

Four arrows hit Aristophon in the chest, one after the other; he gasps, grabbing one near his heart. ‘Run!’ Ari shouts, pulling the arrow out, ‘run, Nesaea!’

Her eyes frightened, she’s frozen, staring at him as he pulls the other arrows out. You cannot die, she thinks as the rain begins to fall. ‘I cannot leave you,’ she weeps, touching his shoulder. I cannot abandon you, she thinks. ‘You have to let me help you.’

Blood froths from his mouth. She wipes the sanguine smear from his lips, holding his chin. He clutches her wrist, ‘You run,’ he says, ‘you hear me, you run and live your life.’

More arrows are fired at them and Ari embraces her in his arms, protecting her as the sharp-pointed arrows puncture his legs and arms and back and neck and skull.

You are my girl of golden hope, he had said.

Nesaea holds in her breath, thinking, please do not leave me too, as he stirs in her arms.

 

You came and I was crazy for you, and you cooled my mind that burned with longing. We live, the opposite [lives], daring. Loves new.

— Sappho of Lesvos, Fragments 48, 24A & 59

 

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Pioneers, Natascha Wiegand

 

A russet plume of dust chases my old car along a typical Queensland country road. An old wound cut through the dense scrub and scattered stand of blanched gums. I slow at a wider stretch of dirt and gravel opposite the aged, colonial-style metal gate that serves as a carpark. I doubt if little more is ever needed. Here to greet you are the no-nonsense, resolute letters, ‘Pioneer Memorial’ welded along the top section of the gate. Above this, a white wooden arch—the type you see posted over the cattle grids of outback stations— serves as the support for weathered, bold-black letters, ‘Howard Remembrance Park’ further reassures you of your location. Tan-brown supporting brickwork, fades out to white fence posts, strung together with cheap paddock wire. The ‘Kill Rust’ industrial mud-brown paint on the gate has cracked, peeled and, in many sections, parted ways from the spiralled metal. What remains are years of layers slapped on by thick, heavy brushes, wielded by hands and hearts that never cared. A small brass plaque is screwed into the brickwork: ‘These Gates Dedicated to the Glory of God and to the Sacred Memory of the Pioneers of the Burrum District’. Well someone cared… once.

I lift the latch, releasing a small groan, then a squeal, as if to signal that the battle is over. The sound dominates the flat rectangle cut out of the desiccated Queensland bush. For the first time I notice how quiet and still the air is. Half-a-dozen thin, dust-choked Norfolk Pines line each side of the entrance; a driveway of tyre tracks pushed down into the short, desiccated grass.

The number of plots is reputed to be almost 1700, but after a quick scan, I settle on a number closer to 200. How many unmarked graves must lie before me? About a dozen sculpted monuments tower over the mostly brown and grey speckled granite headstones. Standing guard in the Primitive Methodist section—the first to establish a church in Howard in 1887—a few obligatory angels carry baskets of flowers, while others stand posed praying for those beneath their cold alabaster feet. Almost everything that was once white, is now encrusted with a patina of yellowish-grey lichen and black mould. All the angels have at least one arm missing—a sadder version of the Venus de Milo. Are these monuments victims of time and faulty workmanship, or the defenceless prey of amoral creatures?

Impressive ornate crosses, some with Celtic patterns woven into the cold white marble, dominate the Roman Catholic section. Running from the west to east fence, the grounds are divided into Presbyterian, Anglican, Catholic, Primitive Methodist and Baptist sections. I notice that a lone Mason was welcomed into the Presbyterian domain. The cemetery was laid out in 1882, and follows the Christian tradition of placing the headstones facing the eastern horizon. According to Matthew 24:27, ‘For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’ The faithful of Howard’s century past await the second coming of Christ. I’ve had too many years of Catholic schooling to be swayed by the Bible; but to each, his own. I’m not buoyed, constrained or channelled by any particular faith, but I am comfortable with my lack of it. Do I believe in an all-powerful being that created the ground on which we stand; the stars in the heavens above us and all that lies beneath it?

Five years ago my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She never wanted to make a fuss and ignored symptoms for so long that she managed the terminal trifecta—bowel as the primary, with liver and lung as secondaries. They say that this is the test. When struck with such disastrous news, do you plea-bargain with an imaginary entity for the safety of a loved one? Did I seek refuge in the belief that it was ‘God’s will’, find any consolation that after being tortured by an eight-month battle of operations, pain and disease, mum—always the rock in our family—would somehow be rewarded in Heaven? I am one who accepts that horrible things happen to good people, and that the morally bankrupt are often extremely fortunate. I accept that there are no reasons or a great plan; life simply is what it is, and I’ve discovered that this philosophy is liberating. I watched my father torment himself, frozen in time grasping for some ever-elusive ‘reason’. I believe in the most basic principle of kindness, because as social creatures this is how we accommodate each other. This is how we evolve and, dare I say it, become enlightened, both as individuals and as a species.

I can understand the desperate search for the helping hand of a benevolent, supernatural being. Had I existed in a time and place where the only consolation of half your children never reaching adulthood, was the hand of a friend on your shoulder as they supported you above an open wound in the earth and whispered, ‘It’s God’s Plan. Your baby is with him now’. I am willing to admit, that my faith’s pedigree may have been very different.

A wooden plank bench, neglected for decades, stands as the only invitation for the living to linger a while. Its journey through time has not been kind. Decades of Queensland summers have stripped it back to bare wood; a scattering of mustard-tinted paint flakes desperately cling to the splintered wood and the simple lines of its supporting steel frame. When the moon is full and silver light dances across the smooth, cold headstones, I can easily imagine the spirits gathering here, and reminiscing on times, long since past.

One memorial statue in particular calls to me. Life-sized figures of a young man and woman, draped in classical Greek-style robes stand facing each other; behind them, a broken column—symbolic of a life cut-short. Their downcast eyes focus on their joined hands. I surmise that it’s the final resting place of a young couple, but when I read the inscription on the pedestal, it reads:

In Sorrowful and Everlasting Memory

of our only Darling Child Noel Olgar Power Starr,

who died of Diphtheria  Oct. 30th 1908 aged 6 years and 2 months.

The Pride of our Hearts & Home.

Six years & 2 months of Earth’s Best Love Lies Buried Here.

Good-Bye Darling! Our own true love.

Love shall always live with us.

 

Diphtheria—a disease we attribute to third world counties, where life is all too often short, cruel and difficult. These were was also the conditions of that time and place.

Coal was the reason for this region’s Genesis. This was not a land of massive man-made craters, where Jurassic-sized machines tear away at the earth, but of ninety-four barely human-sized rabbit warrens, which branched out a hundred metres below the roots of gnarled ghost gums. Here, thirteen year-old boys followed their fathers down into the long, dark tunnels, and for twelve hours a day, the tiny open flames on their helmets were their guiding lights. With bare backs, slippery and wet with coal dust and sweat, the miners contended with collapsing tunnels, poorly managed detonations, methane gas explosions, inadequate wages and, for the sake of a livelihood, picked away one fist- sized lump of coal at a time. How many of the region’s 400 coal miners were slowly strangled by black lung and ushered into an early grave, is anybody’s guess.

I wander among the resting places encircled by rings of brittle, poisoned grass. There are the lucky few who managed to reach into their seventies, eighties and even nineties, but so many more failed to come close to this:

Charles Neilsen Schmidt… aged 1 year 3 months

Donald McLeod… aged 2 years

H. Smith Hamilton… aged 7 weeks

Samuel Gongram Warren… aged 3 years 6 months

and the roll call continues…

Seeing so many graves of children is difficult—even for me. I’ve never been a parent, so cannot know… only imagine the devastation such a loss would have on the parents. There are many plots that bear witness to such a tragedy occurring multiple times in the same family. All that promise, held in life so young, never to reach its potential.

I hear the telltale sound of stones lashing metal, and a car soon comes into view. It’s a Sunday morning and I’m curious to see if any of the scattering of recent internees actually receive a visitor. The entire ground is devoid of fresh flowers, though a few colour-stripped, tattered plastic imposters lie scattered amongst the headstones. A small silver hatchback slows at the ‘car park’, and momentarily hesitates before making a quick u-turn and escapes back into the dusty curtain of eucalypt. Either I’ve been mistaken for a spectre, or walking amongst the dead wasn’t what they had in mind. I’ve reached the stage in life where there are now more days behind than hoped for ahead. My mother was cremated—she disliked the thought of worms feeding on her, though I’m confident embalming fluid would keep the most persistent of grubs away. Some of her ashes were scattered on the calm, clear waters of the river which meanders behind her house. She would take a small amount of time from work each day, to walk and swim her dogs there. The only ‘personal time’ that she really had. She didn’t wish to be forgotten in a cemetery, and I agree that I can’t see the attraction. For the religious who feel that they need to be buried in sacred ground, fair enough; for myself, raise a glass, be kind to each other and scatter my dust to the winds.

 

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The Sideboard, Patrick Pearson

 

The past is not gone. We carry it about with us, in our genes, or in our characters, or in our faces, or in those secret places within our souls where the present is denied access. And sometimes we carry the past quite literally as baggage. In the corner of my lounge, or lounge-room as it’s called here in Australia, an old item of furniture stands eloquently mute, taunting me to unravel even a little of its knotted and unwritten history, to decipher some of the code which has been willed into my life. It should really be in the dining-room, because it’s a sideboard, but it’s been pretty banged about in the one hundred years it’s been around, and I’ve decided to give it a break from its dining-room duties.

For all the dents and scars on its surface, it’s a remarkable piece nonetheless. It stands almost a metre high, its dimensions cut deliberately to the golden mean, so that it’s over a metre and a half wide and half a metre deep, drawn in simple lines, with no showiness or flourishes at all. The polished wood on the outside is a deep walnut colour, and there are lighter reddish shades visible in the grain even after years of either vigorous polishing or benign neglect. Inside, the wood has never been polished or varnished, and it’s lighter than its outside flank. This is where the wood of the sideboard can be coaxed to reveal its identity, its provenance.

Scratch it just a little, sand it briefly in a hidden spot, and its scent rises rich to one’s nostrils and throat, so that a wine merchant would say it was redolent of cinnamon, with low notes of black pepper and subtle tones of dark cherry. This sideboard, on light duties in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, is made of a distinctive African wood from a tree which has become rare. Ocotea bullata is a tree species which thrived for hundreds of millions of years in the high Afromontane forests, but now it’s officially endangered and seems destined for extinction. Its English name is ‘black stinkwood’, because when the timber is new-felled and raw, its scent is headily rich – so strong that the first Dutch settlers into the southern African interior called the trees stinkhout – ‘smelly wood’.

In a convoluted way, it’s partly because of these Dutch settlers that I have this sideboard at all. The Dutch settlers didn’t call themselves, ‘settlers’ – they called themselves trekboers, which means literally, ‘itinerant farmers’. The British called them trouble, and were glad to see them leaving the Cape Colony, round about 1830. One of the regions they moved to was where my sideboard grew, or rather where the stinkwood tree which became my sideboard grew, before it was felled. When the trekboers started arriving, the reigning great chief of the Basotho people was named Moshoeshoe, pronounced ‘Mo-shwee-shwee’. Initially he believed the trekboers that they were itinerant. They weren’t, really, and he spent the rest of his life preventing their complete appropriation of his territory. Once they had been allowed to grow a crop to feed their stock, which Moshoeshoe argued was natural hospitality, the trekboers argued that the land was now theirs, and they were willing to fight and die – and kill – for it. And if they did uproot themselves to move further into the interior, they sold their farm to new arrivals and then hastily whipped up their oxen to draw their wagons northwards, leaving the newcomers nastily surprised when the Basotho wanted the land back. Land is like time: it’s a tricky thing to own. Perhaps it even possesses us for a while, until we move off or are pushed off, or are lowered under it. In fact, the land the trekboers wanted and claimed hadn’t always been Basotho territory, either. It had belonged to the San Bushmen, hunter-gatherers who had wandered the region for at least forty thousand years, making their strange clicking sounds and telling their Creation myths to each other as they followed the game from water-hole to water-hole, owning almost nothing but the instant of their being.

Then, probably round the time Macbeth was killing his cousin in Scotland, the Basotho people started moving in, and the Bushmen were killed or assimilated – or else driven westward into drier lands. Land is only yours for as long as you are able to defend it, unless your society is unusually prosperous and peaceful – and that’s always an aberration in history. Land is a resource rather than a possession, and in the brutal war for resources, you can’t always will the rights to your land to your children. Sideboards are a different matter: they can be owned, sold, given away – or willed to the next generation.

 

After my mother died, three pain-wracked years after my father’s sudden death by heart-attack, our family sat reading their will. My father’s flowing hand divested them in death of their possessions, item by item. The sideboard was to come to me, and my first thought was that my father must have written the will before I’d emigrated with my wife and children to Australia. Surely he wouldn’t have left me a

sideboard to take halfway across the world? There were no manufacturer’s marks on it as clues to where it had been made, though my mother had told me once that the sideboard had been her father’s, and that it had travelled by ox-wagon to her parents‟ home.

I was puzzling how to transport the sideboard in my Honda when my eldest brother offered to help me move it. ‘It folds up,’ he said. ‘Look.’ He opened one of its doors wide, and lifted the door gently. It popped out of its hinges and came away in

his hands. ‘Try the other one,’ he said. I opened it so that it was at right angles to the sideboard’s length, pulled it upwards and it slid up to meet me.

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘Will we need a screwdriver?’ I hadn’t ever helped my parents move house; I’d been the first child to move away from our home town at twenty-one.

Before that we’d lived in the same house for ten years, so it was a revelation to me that the sideboard came apart.

‘No screwdriver – just hands.’ My brother pulled out one of the draws. ‘Look at this,’ he said, and he slid the bottom of a draw carefully out of its grooves, then folded the draw’s hinged sides inwards so that it tucked flat. I did the same for the other draw, compressing it gently together like the sides of a wooden accordion.

The shelves inside the sideboard lifted out easily, and were stacked in the little pile next to us. The rest of it looked pretty solid still. ‘What now?’ I asked.

‘Hold that side,’ he said, and he unhooked two diagonal iron strips which crossed the back of the sideboard, then he used finger and thumb to pluck out four small hand-carved pegs which had been hidden along the back. ‘Now pull,’ he instructed, and I did. The backplate fell away, but the sideboard stayed upright. ‘It was designed so that one person could take it apart, or put it together,’ he said. ‘Tug the bit in front.’

I did, and it glided easily toward me. As it came away in my hand, the whole superstructure of the sideboard swayed, unmoored from its rigidity but not collapsing under its own weight. ‘Now we just lift it,’ said my brother. We flipped it onto its top, and its two sides folded softly into each other so that its bulk had disappeared. What a moment before had reached to my waist was now stacked flat, its entirety about twenty centimetres high. ‘There,’ said my brother. ‘I moved that a few times.’

 

I believe that my sideboard started life on a mountainside in what was one day to become the kingdom of Lesotho. It may already have been a sapling when Columbus sailed westwards, and it certainly would have been a magnificent and mature tree by the Napoleonic wars – a green force towering thirty to forty metres tall in its mountain fortress in ‘Basutoland’ as the British had begun calling the area. Perhaps its bubbled leaves were fluttering in the wind in 1833, when Moshoeshoe realised that he needed to fight trekboer fire with gunfire rather than spears. In that year he requested a white missionary for his territory, suspecting correctly that missionaries would gain him access to guns, and he got three missionaries instead of one. One of those was to become a lifelong friend of his, passionate about protecting Basotho lands from both trekboer and rapacious British officials. That friend was the French missionary Eugene Casalis, and his connection to my sideboard and to me runs in an almost straight line: Casalis’s daughter Adéle would be born in Basutoland, and she would marry the young Swiss missionary Adolphe Mabille – and he was a close friend of my great-great-grandfather Paul Germond.

 

It wasn’t my great-great-grandfather who felled the five-hundred-year-old tree that became the sideboard. If my detective work is right, it was his grandson, Theodore. Yet indirectly and genetically, I suppose, he had a hand in it. Where does any chain of responsibility or causation begin, I wonder? In this matter of the tree, Mabille was also a link in the chain, and of course his wife Adéle: as missionaries they moved to Basutoland because she spoke fluent SeSotho as well as French and English – and it was their enthusiasm which persuaded my great-great-grandfather to go too. By his calling on the missionaries in the first place, even Moshoeshoe himself is linked to the felling of the tree and the building of the sideboard. And of course the trekboers, for invading Basotho lands and precipitating Moshoeshoe’s need for guns. The roots of causality run deep, like those of responsibility, and they’re hidden in the tunnels of their subterraneality, so who’s to know? At that time the black stinkwood trees were as plentiful on the mountainsides as passenger pigeons had been on the North American plains; the result of a connected series of events, though, is that here in my lounge is a stinkwood sideboard, cut, dried and polished, while its few still- surviving cousins reel under an ongoing arboreal genocide.

 

My great-great-grandfather Paul and his wife Lucie launched their mission school at Thabana Morena in Basutoland in 1861; by this time they had two sons, a two-year-old and an infant who’d been born on the way. That infant, Louis Germond, was my great-grandfather – who almost didn’t make it to fatherhood. On a visit

‘home’ to Switzerland it was discovered he had consumption and wasn’t expected to survive. Louis returned to Basutoland with his parents in the hope that a drier climate would keep him alive a few more years; had he stayed in Switzerland, I suppose there would be no sideboard in my lounge and perhaps no me at all, only a Swiss grave marked ‘Jacques-Louis Germond, n. 1861, m. 1885’ – or thereabout.

Louis did survive, and married when he turned thirty. Between 1891 and 1906 he and his wife Nelly poured out nine children. I surmise that it was one of those – Theodore – who cut the black stinkwood and sawed its planks, then planed and sanded them into the sideboard I have now. My grandfather Paul Germond was born in 1894, a year after Theo, but my grandpa Paul wouldn’t have been the one to cut down the great stinkwood tree and fashion the sideboard. When I was a boy I used to visit Grandpa on the occasional trip with my parents, and in his shed were spades and ploughshares and harrows, and seed-fiddles and barley-hummellers and potato- shovels and corn flails and scythes – but no great saws or planes, no wood-clamps or spokeshaves. My grandpa wasn’t a woodworker; he was a sower and a planter of seeds, crops, berries, vines, fruit trees – anything edible. His chief aim was to teach people how to farm and feed themselves.

 

I have a photo of the second generation Germond family in front of a grass- roofed building on their mission in 1906. Louis is standing proudly to the side of his brood of children, and my grandpa Paul is squatting solidly on the ground right at the front, earthy and open and looking at twelve much like he did at eighty. On his right is his gentle brother Theodore, ‘Gift of God’, the child family journals say was sensitive and kind and obedient. He is slim compared to my grandpa, his eyes are darker, and even at thirteen he looks like a saint. Everyone knew Theo was going to be a missionary, even then. The other Germonds are scattered about in the photograph, my mother’s paternal uncles and aunts whom I never met, not one of them, and my adult self wonders why not.

 

I’m certain it was Theo who cut down the tree and built the sideboard. It would be impossible to prove in a court of law, but logic dictates that it must have been Theo. He was intent on becoming a missionary, but his younger brother Roby dreamed of becoming a doctor, and Theo realised that their father wouldn’t be able to afford Roby’s medical studies in Europe. So, because he was clever with his hands and loved carpentry, self-sacrificing Theo became a woodwork teacher and saved all his salary for Roby’s studies. In 1917, he and Roby headed to Europe, where Roby qualified as a doctor before returning to practise in Basutoland. Theo, the sensitive carpenter who went to Paris to study missionary work, the young man who worshipped both God and wood, was felled at the age of twenty-five by the great flu epidemic in 1918.

In that same year my grandpa was appointed to the faculty of agriculture at a startup college, a college which became Nelson Mandela’s first university. Grandpa’s appointment involved a five-hundred kilometre journey to the tiny town of Alice, where he would live until he died at eighty-two. From Basutoland went all his worldly goods and he travelled the mountainous roads the only way he could – by ox-wagon.

Grandpa Paul would have needed furniture for his new home, and I know, just know, that his dead brother Theo would have wanted him to have the sideboard, so lovingly crafted from the rich, dark, fragranced wood of the black stinkwood tree, crafted so that a tiny spark of Theo lives again each time the disparate parts of the golden mean glide and slide and fold outwards for travel. Here the sideboard stands, in my lounge in the mountains of Australia, or my lounge room as I’m learning to say.

 

References:

  • de Clark, S. G. ‘The Encounter between the Basotho and the Missionaries of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society, 1833–1933: Some Perspectives.’ Kleio 32, no. 1 (2000/01/01 2000): 5-22.
  • du Plessis, S. A. C. ‘Moshweshwe of the Basotho.’ Kleio 8, no. 1-2 (1976/06/01 1976): 68-72.
  • Germond, Robert C., ed. Chronicles of Basutoland: a Running Commentary on the Events of the Years 1830-1902. Morija: Sesuto Book Depot, 1967.
  • Rorke, Fleur. The Call. Westville: Osborne Porter Literary Services, 2011.
  • Rosenberg, Scott. ‘The Justice of Queen Victoria’: Boer Oppression, and the Emergence of a National Identity in Lesotho.’ National Identities 3, no. 2 (2001): 133-153.
  • Thompson, Leonard Monteath. Survival in two worlds: Moshoeshoe of Lesotho, 1786-1870. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

 

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Taras’ Parthenians, Claire Catacouzinos

 

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

 

Download a pdf of Taras’ Parthenians

 

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Pervasive Poetry, Amanda Midlam

 

Memory Poem, Watching Life Go By On Twofold Bay, and a Suite of Three Poems: Quondola, Flotsam, and Community Soup

 
 

 QUONDOLA

 

It begins for me with the news

of a body found floating off Quondola

an ending for someone else.

The police say there are no suspicious circumstances

which means an accident

or suicide.

The body is unidentified

and uninhabited

dressed in jeans, belt and boots.

It waits for someone to claim it

not the rightful owner of course

but someone else.

In rough seas fishermen are swept off rocks

and drown

but the sea has been calm.

Uneasiness flows through the streets of our small town

was it a stranger, or one of our own?

No-one knows.

It is several days before

identification is made

and waves of grief drench the town.

 

FLOTSAM 

 

He drifted into Eden down the highway

and floated out of town

five years later on the tide

if Reece looking for humpback whales

hadn’t found him

would we have ever known

he hadn’t hitch-hiked off again

to try his luck elsewhere?

No-one knows why

speculation rises and ebbs

like the sea and waves

of rumours water the community garden

where he worked

and where he ran the monthly market

where people sold goods

and swapped gossip.

But no-one knew his story

and as speculation eddies

 his face floats haunting behind my eyes.

 

COMMUNITY SOUP

 

The market is cancelled this month

and all work has stopped in the garden.

But the community lunch must go on.

Some people, like June and Phil, rely on it

and others may not have heard the word

            Now that Greg has gone.

Peter and Pam can’t be there

and Glenda has gone to ground

Community service has been suspended

so there are no workers to oversee

until there is time to think what to do

            Now that Greg has gone.

But Monday lunch must go on,

the door needs to be open, says Pam.

Old Kenny may need a feed.

And others may turn up

We don’t know what to do.

            Now that Greg has gone.

I offer to open the door and make community soup

In the hall Pam has left a loaf of homemade bread.

Alan brings apple crumble, Shannon makes pasta

and Suz brings fruit

Nine adults and two children arrive for a feed

            Janice washes up now that Greg is gone.

 

 

MEMORY POEM 

 

Mud and mire as I patter down the path

the more the mud, the more the mire,

the more my hopes go soaring higher

then I awake

and ponder how mud can hold so much pleasure

when honestly I hate the stuff

and why my waking spirits stay so high

but the answer flees as my muddled mind awakes

and shakes off the memory of this dream place.

 

But on another night I find that other world

and my feet skip and slip happily down that muddy track

There’s a road nearby but the mud is quicker

and I am in a hurry and my feet slither-slather

in mud, anticipation, joy and hope.

Then I awake.  Where was I going?

 

I try to remember details but they flee my waking mind

sleep images crumble into cornflakes

muddy path into highway as I drive my car to work

but feelings work their way into my city-cluttered day

I can’t help feeling concrete constructions block my way

 

Shreds of dream shroud my pillows and lie in wait

taking me back at night to the twists and turns

and the descent of the narrow muddy path,

the ragged edge of my long dress drags in the mire

but I don’t care about mud on my clothes

because I am going to see them all again!

Then I awake.

 

During the day I dream of this other realm

the smell of mud and horse manure and salt from a not distant sea

the feel of my rough dress, the leafy greenery along the path

at night my feet fly faster trying to reach the end before I awake.

And one night I make it.

I am there in the open glen and it is market day and everyone is there.

Then I awake.

 

I have discovered how to take myself there, to find myself on the path,

the mud and the mire, sweet harbingers of home,

I come to the glen where the market is held,

where people come from far and wide

and I look and remember and recognise each face.

Then one night they see me too and clamour in surprise

Sarah! When did you get back?  We didn’t think we’d see you again.

 

Then I awake.

 

I remember the horses and carts and old market stalls.

My name is not Sarah, not in my waking world

but I search the family tree and find seven generations past

Sarah, aged sixteen, stealer of silver spoons, sent to Sydney in 1792,

She survived as a washer woman purging clothes of their past.

And never went home.  Not in the flesh.

But at night Sarah and I go down the muddy path.

We come to the open glen in glee, it is market day and everyone is here.

 

 

WATCHING LIFE GO BY ON TWOFOLD BAY

 

Sleepy-headed, coffee-handed

on Cat Balou as mooring slips

and catamaran slides

on glassy sea

fur seals on end of breakwater wall

fat-bodied, flat-flippered, sleek-headed,

slumbering cumbersome clumsy on land

then one slides silkily into the sea and

sylph-like glides away

while another, face like a wet dog, pops up

beside us and beckons us to play.

 

We chug on towards the further shore

dolphins hear the chug, chug, chug

and answer the catamaran’s call

the game is on

I lean down and see through the sea

dolphins racing in the boat’s bows

three, four, five, six, seven

shining silver bodies thrilling me

we hear a shout, we see a splash,

a white explosion in the blue

a whale is breaching, belly to the sun

splashing back down

in a crash of water

then a smaller one hurtles from the sea

and reaches for the sky

mum and baby humpbacks

on the humpback highway heading south

to Antarctica.

 

Gordon cuts the engine

he’s not allowed to get too close

but whales don’t know the rules

and surround the boat and spy hop

standing upright

behemoth heads rear from the sea

whale eyes regard us

as we hold our breath

then pahhhh the blow from a spout

casts a rainbow

as water from whale lungs

shimmers in the sun.

 

A black ribbon of mutton birds

threads through the sky

migrating from Siberia to Tasmania,

an albatross soars

there’s a bait ball ahead

dolphins circling

seals sharing and whales wallowing

as gannets rain like  arrows

from a mackerel sky

diving for fish.

 

At Snug Cove passengers go ashore,

to lunch on fish and chips

assisted by sea gulls

while pelicans glide overhead

with pterodactyl beaks

feathered bodies full of air,

light enough to float,

graceful in flight, clumsy on ground,

best of all coming in to land

webbed feet tucked behind

then pushed out suddenly in front

aquaplaning with a swoosh

nearby more pelicans squat on lamp posts

growling deep-throated at my yapping dogs

flapping their wings in warning

others jostle with gulls in shallow water

below the tables where fish are cleaned

and scraps are thrown

but a seal decides he wants the scraps

and birds flap and scatter.

 

A pied cormorant and a shag on a rock,

feathers-in-law,

hang out their wings to dry

the winners of bird world

able to fly, dive and swim

watch as a snake bird swims by,

with such skinny head and neck,

I once mistook one for the snorkel

of a friend

and swam after it out to sea.

 

Time to go home up the hill where

pink and grey galahs crop the nature strip,

a slow way to get the mowing done

but they eat the weed seeds

(then redistribute them)

while most birds hop, galahs prefer to walk

waddling like ducks left, right, left

while they graze, tiny feathered cows

and overhead crested pigeons

coo on the power lines

and one pair have a budgerigar friend,

a feather-bed menage-a-trois

and beyond the front fence the bird life changes

but the border doesn’t stop the immigrants

and a fat-bodied cuckoo from New Guinea

perches in the mulberry tree

watching the wattle birds

watching and waiting,

waiting to lay an egg in their nest

as mud larks lark in the bird bath

minding their own business.

 

Time to take the dogs for a walk,

they missed their morning stroll

and we amble across the road

and down  the track to the cliff

a white-bellied sea eagle soars

in thermals, corkscrewing in the sky

a masked lapwing, one tenth its size,

follows its flight and nips with beak

a sea eagle feather floats from the sky

another lapwing squawks as we walk by

because they lay their eggs in scrapes

on the ground then panic

and dive bomb anyone walking near,

the yellow spurs on their wings

inflicting pain and fear

I realise the sea eagle must have spied

eggs or chicks and the assailant lapwing

screams another feather falls

the sea eagle soars off as

we walk on to the pine trees

where yellow-tailed black cockatoos feed

their tough beaks tearing pine cones apart

hungrier now their forests in Victoria

have burned to ash.

 

Home again and time for evening wine

I raise a glass in the sunroom

lorikeets with tongues like brushes

lick nectar from the bottle brushes

on the other side of the pane

soon as pissed as parrots

on nectar that has fermented

hanging upside down

from branches flying low chattering

laughing as a cacophony of cockatoos

scream through the sky

sulphur-crested sulphur-tempered

destruction-tempted big white cockies

bosses of the birds or they think they are

but the lorikeets don’t care.

 

Darkness falls, dogs and I fall into dreams

and possums fall from trees onto the roof.

Ready for the night shift.

 

Download of pdf of Pervasive Poetry

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Our Anzac Special, Emma Dorreen

 

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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The Officeworks Footy, Ellen A. Williams

Newcastle, 2012

‘Reckon we should chuck that footy out?’

Red, waterlogged emu egg. More a garden ornament than a toy. It’s quite a good imitation of an Aussie Rules Sherrin football and I feel a little guilty for having never kicked it, hoping the kid it belonged to didn’t go back looking for it in Throsby Creek where we found it long before footy season had even started.

‘Yeah’– James’s confirmation after he carefully finishes the last of his hamburger. I’m already onto my next train of thought, of how you don’t usually get all the salads on a chicken schnitzel burger. I thread back to my question. James licks the redness dripping down his fingers. I know with that kind of certainty that comes after five years that he won’t wipe the glob on his chin. I smile to myself. I’ll give him two minutes.

The footy waits in a triangular patch of sun, its orbit around our little square of backyard decided by an arbitrary toss during mowing. The brilliant red foam and blue Officeworks logo are foreign beneath the cavernous trees, lurid against the native honeysuckle’s white brush of spikes. Flick, kick, thwack. Rainwater shoots out against the sun chair’s mesh. James wipes his bare feet on the grass and grins.

 

Sydney, 2008-9

Two years of weekends in Sydney. James travels south from The Coast to visit me instead of north to Newcastle. Two years of parks. The names will be lost but the images will remain. Luscious greens against the exciting sparkles of the harbour or leafy Inner West substitute backyards. A picnic blanket and Triple J on the transistor radio. Canoodling like tiny plasticine park-goers in a Jeannie Baker book. And a footy, always a footy. James practises handballing, I fail miserably at drop kicking. We take more of an interest in each other’s code of footy.

Two years of parks; moments of relaxation in the busyness of the city and life as a beginning teacher. But it will never be home.

‘You’ve got sauce on your chin.’

 ‘Of course I do. I’m such a loser.’ The usual self-deprecation.

 ‘You’re such a victim,’ I continue the joke.

HOOOOG. You could easily forget that the harbour is just four hundred odd metres away. Not me, not when you’ve grown up in the western suburbs.

Two long horn blasts followed by one short. ‘What’s that mean?’

‘It’s overtaking on the starboard side,’ James answers, self-conscious pride in his recent maritime education flashed in his direct look. I recall the same look, the one that listened intently above the pre-band din of the Northern Star five years earlier; the look that stuck around despite months of my refusal to have a boyfriend; my refusal to have someone to miss wherever post-university 2008 took me.

 I think of James coming home to this cosy inner-city suburb, to the house we own, not borrow, hints of salt and grease in his tousled curls from a day skippering tugboats. But for now, we continue to mull over a working holiday in Canada– a ‘Got to do it before it’s too late’. Thirty lingers unreasonably close with a sense of foreboding; that it is more than just the cut-off age for youth work permits. We are in the twilight of backpacking years, Settling Down is knocking. We know the horror of starting again, living at home broke and unemployed still sharp in our memory. On this day though, burgers in the backyard, we are unaware that ‘our’ house is to be sold. The Canada possibility will become a reality.

 

Salzburg, Austria, 2010.

A Munich-sized hangover, one of only a handful we will suffer in our ambitious thirteen-week traverse of Europe, smothers our brains like the clouds that hide the mountains we came to see. In our hostel, Stella, fifteen years younger than she looks as a result of a horrific life, shouts us dinner, a ‘gift from the Victims of Crime agency’. Wiener schnitzel. We gratefully eat the veal, a nice change from salami and cheese sandwiches. Later, I’ll be glad to have eaten at least one local dish. And thankful for my safe childhood.

I collect the dropped toppings of my chicken schnitzel burger onto the white paper bag. ‘Sn’ distinguishes it from the hamburger. I laugh.

 ‘What?’

‘That’s not how you spell schnitzel.’ I recall the uptight Viennese we had encountered. No doubt they would be insulted by the misspelling. It occurs to me that the American hotdog franchise Wienerschnitzel is much more offensive than the phonetic spelling born of a takeaway shop on Hannell Street.

James pretends to hurl the footy at me quarterback style then tosses it underarm instead. The gigantic stress ball lands at my feet like a soggy Newcastle Herald. Ironically, it hadn’t been waterlogged the night we found it bobbing against the breakwall. The night of the storm. A Monday night. I was tingling with wine and appreciation of my life as a no-longer-permanent teacher. Dinner was moved onto the deck to escape the heat of a February kitchen. As the flashes behind the wattle screen intensified we grabbed the red and ran out into the electricity. The barnacled stairs leading into the harbour tributary provided a front seat to the lightning show. For awhile anyway, until our sense of adventure was swallowed by fear of electrocution on the metal stairs. We had left with a wine bottle and returned with a football.

I wonder where it came from. Had it washed across from the housing commission townhouses? Was its owner a kid escaping the recognisable uniformity of burnt brick and sick-coloured weatherboard? Or was it a casualty of the wind and a wayward kick on this side of Throsby Creek? A kick from a child on the opposite end of the socio-economic slide, their backyard the waterfront park skirting the artfully distinct terraces of the Linwood Precinct. Had the football come from Officeworks itself, or perhaps a junior Black Diamond Aussie Rules game? It had been a surprising find– any Sherrin, actual or imitated is uncommon in Newcastle, rugby league heartland.

 I squeeze the remaining wetness from the cheap foam and think about the children who were discovered hand-sewing Sherrin footballs in Indian slums. Blue flecks of the Officeworks logo catch under my nail. On the reverse side a maze of cracks widen as I squeeze. ‘Probably from sitting in the wet grass,’ James tips.

‘Got to be the sun,’ I argue. The irregular islands in the splitting foam are identical to those of blistered land in the far west. Down the cracks, the foam continues its same tomato sauce redness. Artists call it cadmium scarlet. I would call it fire engine red or postbox red. The colour schoolchildren use for my hair in drawings. The eye-burning guernsey of the Sydney Swans, or ‘Bloods’ as you call them if they’re having a good season and you want to pretend you followed them in their previous incarnation, South Melbourne.

 

Sydney Cricket Ground, 1997

A glorious Sunday afternoon in winter and a swollen crowd to watch last year’s grand finalists, the Sydney Swans. My brother, fourteen and myself, twelve. Mum or Dad, depending on whose weekend it is. My sister is older, eighteen and absent. She’s not a sports kind of person. We’ve caught the 6:30am train to nab the best seats in general admission. We still have to crane our heads though, to see the replays of Plugger’s marks. Later in the season we’ll be with Dad (luckily) when Plugger kicks his hundredth goal for the year. Dad will let us rush the field with everyone else. I’ll discover the Minties in my pocket gone when I am back on the spectator side of the advertising.

We’ve been enticed to the SCG with Swanslink tickets: return train travel and entry for a few dollars per child. My brother has been playing in the NAFL (Newcastle Australian Football League). Our family has jumped ship, burnt from the politics of Super League in the rugby league.

The V neck collar of my prized new Swans guernsey scratches around my neck. Beneath the leg of my jeans, a daringly large red love heart is drawn in permanent marker on newly shaved skin. It prickles into goosebumps as the ghostly ‘Syd-ney’ chant swims around the grandstands. Jarrod Simpson will never know of this adornment above my ankle. I have not and will not ever speak to my brother’s teammate.

The permanent marker will outlive the infatuation. Red Artline chisel point– the family ‘good texta’. Squashed but not destroyed under the sole of my sister’s Doc Martens in what became an unusual all-children-present activity– the construction of our own goalposts in the backyard. Two long, two short. Narrow treated pine from BBC Hardware, before it was swallowed by the all-consuming Wesfarmers in the guise of Bunnings Warehouse. The goalposts will be a short-lived enjoyment for me as the two-year age gap between brother and sister becomes a merciless outmatching of strength and patience.

 

Sydney Cricket Ground, 1999.

We are on the waiting list to become Sydney Swans members. We’ll be accepted next year then leave in disgust nine years later after a hundred dollar price hike. For now, we make the most of the failed attempt to relocate North Melbourne Kangaroos to Sydney. My brother is a heated North Melbourne fan and infamous bad sport. I’m glad they’re not playing Sydney.

Wet weather and apathy for the relocation has left the illuminated SCG largely empty. This thrilling clash against St Kilda will become famous in our family’s lexicon for our appearances on the VHS recording. After two Quarters of rain, Mum stays under cover while my brother and I venture to the boundary. His giant foam hand, all but the middle finger tucked down, will be easily spotted by Channel 7 cameras in the rain-abandoned concourse.

A tackle in the wet grass transfers the fifty-metre line to the seat of a player’s white shorts. ‘Stick a plug in it, ya girl!’ a peer-influenced shout comes from behind us. My fourteen year-old ears burn scarlet in embarrassment, shame, indignation. I don’t dare look at my brother. I try to forget my inability to use tampons.

‘Wanna go and kick the footy?’ James handpasses the ball to himself, striking the base with his fist.

‘I don’t think my back’s up to it.’ I try not to feel sorry for myself or unfairly young to have back problems.

‘How about a walk then?’ he asks without disappointment.

 We walk against the one-way traffic of our street, smiling politely at the resident longneck drinker leaning over his low fence. His intense stare makes him look creepy. He’s probably just lonely. And short-sighted.

We wait for the lights at Hannell Street. The busy dual-lane entry into Newcastle is set to incorporate the aptly named Industrial Drive under a new name, James Hannell Drive, to celebrate one hundred and fifty years of local government. We cross the divide into rich Maryville. ‘Rich’ would suggest the other side is conversely poor. Many of the blocks are small and the miner’s cottages peeling but the renovators are well on their way to gentrifying this mixed zoned suburb. Perhaps we have crossed into ‘richer’ Maryville. James Hannell, philanthropist and Newcastle’s first mayor, would be appalled that his namesake now splits his beloved Maryville into two distinct classes.

 

1944

Woolsheds instead of terraced houses along Woolshed Place. Wool, five bales high, sits patiently, waiting for the war to end. The grounds of James Hannell’s Mary Ville are a fraction of its former twenty-one acres. The once dominant Moreton Bay Figs are long since demolished, for the sake of the tramline. The trams will be gone in a few years, along with the grand two-storey Hannell residence; generations of memories reduced to a pile of bricks that will be used as foundations for the new petrol station.

We consider stopping for a Slurpee at the 7-Eleven. Maybe on the way home. Instead we cross through the landscaped terraces and onto the cycleway that follows decontaminated Throsby Creek to the marina. The afternoon breeze creases corrugations in the gentle water. Salty air settles in the back of my throat.

A tinny rattle of mudguards approaches from behind. A retro fixie bike ridden by a suitably retro woman overtakes us. Somewhere along the row of terraces a screen door quivers open and snaps shut. The rider approaches the bridge to Carrington. Climp-clomp, climp-clomp. Her tyres pucker over the wooden underpass. Below, barnacles cling to the support stumps like a rock caught in an emu’s throat. She weaves through the maze of fishing lines and their beer-toting owners and disappears towards town.

Historical information signs dot the waterfront. We stop to reread one a few metres from where we found the Officeworks footy. I’ve never seen anyone read them. Perhaps they already have, or don’t want to break their run. Maybe they just aren’t interested in the history of the place they use so often.

 

The Coquun, less than 250 years ago.

Awabakal people dive for lobster and gather shellfish. Along the sandy shore, possums and wallabies are hunted amongst the honeysuckle. Not too far from the river mouth, Yohaaba, this sheltered position brings Awabakal and Worimi people together for corroborees.

 Shattering events are yet to unfold for the unsuspecting groups. In three generations many will have died, the rest living out marginal lives subjected to assault and discrimination under strict government controls. But before that, Muloobinba is to be claimed as King’s Town and used as a second penal colony for reoffending convicts. Many will try to escape. Some will live with Worimi people who believe them to be reincarnations of deceased family. Others will be caught and traded for blankets and tobacco.

Later, Muloobinba will be reclaimed as Newcastle in a hopeful bid to discover coal like its namesake in England. Much later, Australia’s largest KFC will sit, gratuitously red, over evidence of the oldest human settlement in Newcastle.

I look to the retaining rock wall where we’d found the football and imagine it washed up on the sandy bank prior to 1804; a precisely shaped emu egg, soft but firm. A colour brighter than the reddest ochre traded from the Kimberley, deeper than any flickered watja light. Would it have been kicked and played with? Perhaps the Awabakal people too sewed possum skins into egg shapes to play Marn-Grook like in the south.

We wander further to the thin strip of sand (and shells, shoes, beer cans) exposed by the low tide. A couple sit on the edge of the path and watch their dog dig in the sand.

‘If we were back in the Manc, they’d be sunbaking.’

 James laughs. There’s a sniff of warmth in the air; the perfect temperature for bare-chested Mancunians who, in Piccadilly Gardens, laid deathly still as though if they moved, the sun would miss their pasty skin. ‘The Pod’, our space-age apartment in Manchester was the first place we lived together. I check myself for the homesickness I felt for it on our return home. A whiff of fish guts floats over from the boat ramp. In the distance, twin white cranes straddle the Forgacs floating dock, my symbol of Newcastle. Home.

 

 

A summer’s night

The cycleway is all but empty. Schhhhh. Tyres grip and turn over the pebblecrete. Televisions glow behind glass. A plop from an unseen fish echoes across the still black. Beyond the twisting mangroves, orange lights outline the coal loaders. They glow in the salt air; friendly, mysterious.

We streak through the night; patches of yellow, patches of shadow, patches of yellow, patches of shadow. The dim lighting could be dangerous on foot. But we are pedalling fast, not our leisurely daytime pace. It’s not spoken between us, we just know– in the dark, we own the night.

Bright red taillight flashes are left in our wake. We have helmets and the necessary lights but schooners of Old fuel our adrenalin. The cycleway is our path home– from the bowling club over the bridge that sent hand-written letters begging for patronage; or from a harbour side pub at the other end of the Honeysuckle redevelopment.

My faint headlight projects enlarged diamonds of my basket mesh. James’s LED is much brighter; he should be in front. But that’s not how it ever ends up. Later, when we make it to our empty, darkened street, I’ll stand up like a kid on a bike with no gears, riding as fast as I can to our miner’s cottage. The real threat of a car from a side street will be lost in the rhythm of tyres. Puffing, exhilarated in the disco blink of taillights, I’ll apologise for taking off. James will grin. ‘That’s OK, I was riding in your slipstream.’

 

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