Tag Archives: war

Phantom, Rabeah Zafrullah

08/09/15

CARNEGIE POLICE DEPARTMENT

PART 2 OF AUDIO RECORDED INTERVIEW

 

ADAMS: Am I a suspect?

POLICE: The body was found in your apartment, Mr. Adams. We need to know why.

ADAMS: So I am a suspect. [laughs] People keep telling me that the police are getting duller, but shit man, I didn’t believe them ‘til now. Your parents must be so proud.

POLICE: Mr. Adams, I’m going to ask you to remain civil and answer the question.

ADAMS: Right. No, of course! Please continue, I’d hate to stand in the way of justice.

POLICE: Can you explain why Eric Compton was at your residence on the night of the fifth?

ADAMS: Never heard of him.

POLICE: Can you explain why your phone records show that you called him twenty-six times on the day he was strangled? Choked to death in your very room?

ADAMS: What can I say? I’m clingy.

POLICE: So you do know Eric Compton?

ADAMS: Eric Compton the drug dealer? I’ve never heard of him. I’m a model citizen.

POLICE: Mr. Adams, the more you cooperate, the faster you can leave.

ADAMS: I can leave when I want. No handcuffs, see?

POLICE: Alright. Let’s go back to the beginning, Mr. Adams. Can you tell us how you lost your arms?

 

They say war changes you, and I have to agree. There’s just something about getting your arms blown to hell and having surgery in a bloody tent that makes you see things differently. Really changes your perspective – although that might just be because I’m practically blind in my left eye and can’t see for shit. And then there’s the damn morphine. Now that changes you. They like playing God with it, giving it and taking it away. They wean you off it like as if you won’t remember how good it feels to not be in constant agony. You get prescribed other shit, but God, nothing does it. So you bet your ass I was buying it wherever I could find it. I wasn’t an addict or anything, I could live without the drugs. I just didn’t see why I should. But it was getting harder to get the good stuff, even after I pawned off my medal for cash. The monthly allowances barely staved off my hunger, and the pain wasn’t getting any better. They call it phantom pain. You think your wrist itches and you go to scratch it, but then you realise that you don’t have a wrist anymore or anything to scratch it with. But God, the itch doesn’t give a shit about whether it’s supposed to exist or not. It just keeps on existing, starting off small – you could almost ignore it. Then it just grows and grows until it’s a clenched uncontrollable mass of scorching muscle that twists in on itself. It drives you crazy. Panadol just doesn’t kick it.

I’m going to be honest, before I was in the army, I was a bit of a thief. Shocker right? Me – the morally upstanding citizen with the medal of ‘bravery’ in one non-existent hand and a hypodermic needle in the other. It was mostly petty though, nothing too serious, but you start to miss that extra cash. I was good with my hands, could get a wallet from a man while he was still walking. It was easy living. You can’t really do that with a prosthetic. Can’t really do shit with a prosthetic except drop things. I could have gone my whole life living on that money alone, maybe get a crap job somewhere if I had to. I don’t know why I joined the army. I guess I thought I needed direction in my life. Instead I got a bloody IED. I still have the scars from the shrapnel. It’s been six years, and they don’t look like they’ll fade any time soon. Arms don’t show any sign of re-growing either, but you can always hope.

Listen, before I get to the bit about my arms, my real arms, you should know that I didn’t kill anyone. Not even in the army. Call me a thieving druggie, sure, but I’m no murderer. I’m practically a pacifist. Sure, Eric was my dealer and he was a piece of shit, but he’s the one who got the drugs in me. I wouldn’t kill him. I wouldn’t kill anyone, I swear.

*

‘Just one prosthetic arm? You couldn’t afford two?’

‘The army didn’t think I needed another.’

‘I see. Mr. Adams, you were taken in for petty theft before you joined. Have you attempted any other such crimes since then? Theft? Drugs? Murder?’

‘Of course not. I’m armless.’

‘Where did you get the money to purchase drugs from? Did you have someone steal it for you? Or did you owe Eric Compton a lot of money? Is that why you killed him?’

I didn’t kill Eric.’ ‘Then who was it?’

*

I think it was quite early on. I remember Eric had come in to shoot me up and he had brought a friend with him, a guy called Boxer who looked 85% steroids, 14% beard and 1% brain – and that was being generous. Arms like he had stuck balloons under his skin. I think he had come along to have a laugh at the poor tin soldier, but I was too far gone to give a crap about them. Anyway, that was the first time I noticed it. I was in this beautifully tempered bliss, no pain, no nothing. I’d started thinking I’d got my arms back and I was lifting them up and marvelling at the creases and joints. They looked so real I was convinced they’d grown right back. Drugs will do that to you. Stay in school kids.

Boxer and Eric were leaving, either trying to get out before the cleaner came or because they were bored of watching me look like I was about to drop off. Even disability loses its charm sometimes. Boxer had been amusing himself by throwing shit at me all day and yelling ‘think fast’ or ‘catch’, and then just as he was leaving, he tossed the keys right at me – straight for my face. Out of pure instinct I put my hands up, and of course that shouldn’t have made a damn difference, but it did. I swear the keys hit my hands instead of my face and I felt them hit my hands as well. It wasn’t a phantom feeling, God no. It was real.

For a moment, I thought my arms had actually grown back and I was whole again. That was probably the happiest moment in my entire life. It didn’t last. I tried touching my face, but it didn’t work. Later on, I told myself it was the drugs and the keys had really hit my face. I started to believe that was true, but then it happened again and I hadn’t even taken a chewy vitamin. I was at the checkout and the lady was giving me my change when a coin dropped, and instead of going for it with my prosthetic, I went for it with a hand that didn’t even exist. Except I actually caught the damn coin, and it bloody well hovered in mid-air for a couple of seconds. Doesn’t sound like much, but it felt like forever. I checked the cashier’s face to see if she was as shocked as me, but people don’t like to look at you when you don’t have arms, like amputation can be ocularly transmitted or something. But I really had caught the coin and I had actually used my arms – the ones that didn’t even exist. Holy shit, right?

Well, I was psyched. I was convinced that my arms were slowly going to become more and more physical until everyone would be amazed at how I actually regrew my arms. It was the power of love, I’d tell them. I even tried telling my therapist, but she went on about PTSD and hallucinations. Couldn’t prove I was right could I? I had no control over when my arms would work and when they wouldn’t, but they would work sometimes, usually when I wasn’t thinking about it – instinct you know? Impulses and stuff. That’s when I could catch things from the air. I used to pretend that I could see my arms back when they first got blown off and my imagination was never really up to scratch, but now I could actually see them, every single wrinkle and hair. It was mostly through my half blind eye, so they looked kind of fuzzy and vague, but sometimes they’d clear up – those were usually the times when I could use them as well. Sometimes I’d forget I didn’t have my prosthetic on and I’d be using my real arms to do things instead. Of course, the moment I’d realise, it would all fall apart. But it was happening more often and I was getting better at it, not very quickly, but I really was. Soon I could use it consciously. I practised as much as I could, only when there wasn’t anyone around, but the whole thing was exhausting. Lifting a paper was like lifting at the gym when a pretty girl was watching how many weights you put on. Hell, I was getting pretty ripped. It was a damn shame that no one could check out my mad biceps.

Here’s the thing though, my arms were great when I was controlling them, but when I wasn’t, the pain was ten times worse. I’d be staring at my arms and they’d be blurring in and out of focus, mottled red things with the veins squirming like worms and the fingers blackened with oozing gashes, bits of metal shrapnel sticking out everywhere. I’d be screaming like a mad man and I was convinced that somehow my left eye was showing me what my arms looked like before they were cut off by the doctors. My arms started working normally more often, which was great, but I couldn’t stand the God damn pain anymore. Eric and Boxer were over a lot more often. Sometimes Boxer came alone and then afterwards Eric would show up bruised like a bad apple. I didn’t ask questions.

I only had so much money though, and Eric and Boxer were burning through all my emergency savings. I was barely eating once a day, and I still couldn’t really afford groceries after I got my shots and the more shots I got, the less they worked. I needed money badly and I had no way of getting more. And then I had a stroke of sheer brilliance. You remember how I said I was a great pickpocket? Never got caught in my life and I had bet that I’d have an even better record with my hidden arms. What kind of cop was going to arrest a man for stealing when he doesn’t have any hands to steal with? I figured it out on the train one day. This lady’s phone started ringing from inside her bag. So she opens the giant thing, fishes the damn phone out then starts yammering away at it without closing her purse, so it’s just wide open and I can see her wallet right at the top. And I thought, if I can pick up all those other things with my hands, what’s stopping me from picking people’s pockets? It was genius, and even though I wasn’t nearly as good as I was with my old arms, this job had its own perks. Sometimes, you’d get people who noticed what was going on you know, felt something moving in their pockets, and they’d turn around to glare – but I was a freaking disabled man, and they weren’t about to stare at me for more than a second. They’d actually feel bad for suspecting me! It was better than being invisible. It was like I was the Pope. No one thought I was capable of crime. Sometimes I’d take to wearing my camo and I bought a little veteran’s badge type of thing. God, the way they’d blush when they saw me like that. I was a freaking saint, and they were criminals for suspecting me. I started to regret selling off my medal. People would have shit their pants.

The money was rolling in, and you can bet that I got the morphine as quick as Eric could give it. On the days that he couldn’t commit, the pain was incredible. It was almost like it increased according to how much I used my arms. My fingers would be twitching like an electrocuted chicken, and I’d be feeling my heart throb in my arms instead of my chest. Boxer was showing up more often and sometimes he’d watch me screaming for five minutes before he did anything. He liked watching people suffer.

*

‘So you’re saying Boxer killed Eric.’

‘I’m saying I didn’t kill Eric.’

The officer scribbled something down, and I took a deep breath. It had been three days since my last dose and I could feel myself losing control, and this idiot with his questions wasn’t helping.

‘So what happened the night of the murder?’

*

I had started promising Eric ridiculous amounts of money for the morphine, but something was up with his suppliers. I had been in control for the last three days, the longest I’d ever gone, and I knew I couldn’t keep it up much longer. When the pain came, it was all-consuming.

I was on the floor when he got to me, damn insane with how bad it was. My arms were on fire, they just wouldn’t stop clenching and unclenching, making jazz hands at the ceiling then ready for a fist fight. Anyone could see that I needed some damn help, but Eric, bless his soul, just stood there and laughed for a moment. Not an all-out laugh, more like an audible acknowledgement of something funny. And me on the ground, with my hands playing an invisible game of peek-a-boo, faster now that he had laughed, like my arms were glad there was an audience.

*

‘Was Boxer there that night?’

He was looking up at me expectantly now, but I couldn’t afford to lose focus by talking. I couldn’t let my arms take over again. I was breathing faster now, practically hyperventilating. What if I couldn’t stop it?

*

Eric was smiling down at me. If I could have moved my hands I would have punched him. But then again, he also took the time to inject things into my ass, so he couldn’t be that bad. A part of me wondered if Boxer was with him, ready to make me wait five minutes. Eric knelt down and leaned over me, and suddenly my arms stilled, falling to my sides.

*

The officer was leaning over me now, concerned, and my arms were becoming mutilated before my eyes, twitching and clenching. They were turning red now, red and blue and black and now here was the metal, growing out of the dappled skin like pea plants. I couldn’t control them anymore. God, they were shaking. I couldn’t stop it. The pain was snaking up, and my hands were curling in for a clench – shit! Was that blood in my nails? I knocked over a glass of water, and the officer’s eyes widened.

‘Did you do that?’

‘No! No, it wasn’t me!’

They were going spastic now, and the pain, oh God, the pain. And then, with one last clench, they stilled and settled on the table. Oh God, not again. Not again, please no. The officer was too close and he reached for his radio but my arm got to him first, grabbing on to his, I couldn’t control it, I swear, and then, while he was looking at me with those God damn wide eyes, just like Eric’s, my other arm reached inside his chest. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t control it. But God, I could feel my hand squeezing. One hand clutching his heart and the other twisting my face to look at his, look at those eyes that went wide then blank like Eric’s.

 

When the others rushed in, it was too late. The cop was on the floor, leaking blood like a faulty tap. They were looking at me, but I was looking at my hands. Still red and black, still uncontrollable but no longer clenching. Instead they were drumming on the table. Impatient almost.

 

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The Emperor’s Path, Nicholas Wasiliev

Thirty days have September,
April, June and November
February is alright,
It only rains from morning till night,
All the rest have thirty one,
Without a single day of sun
And if any month had thirty two,
They’d be bloody raining too!
- Anonymous, Kundasang War Memorial, Sabah, Malaysia

We are forgotten.

Alfie and Howard call out. Think they’re being pushed somewhere.

‘Keep it up Harvey!’

‘Don’t let that cage get to ya mate!’

So fucking good to hear them. I put my eye to the widest slit between the bars of bamboo. Can only see the outline of the same Jungle Pine that I saw yesterday.

Fucking bamboo. Every fucking sturdy building here is made from it. The locals make use of it in bloody everything. Wish the Japs designed this cage so I could stretch my legs without crushing my neck.

Think it has been three days in here. It’s hard telling the time when you can barely see the sun. The heat and humidity helps: it’s midday when the heat gets to you; after that it’s afternoon. And at night you’d freeze, of course.

You know it’s morning when you hear our fellas walking on their way down to make repairs to the airfield that we built back three years gone, when we got here after Singapore. You never hear them coming back; Japs make sure we work.

Mornings are the best. Just hearing those boys going past, particularly Alfie and Howard. Reminds me of where I am, cause sometimes this cage does things to you.

We’re members of 2/15th Regiment, and have been since we joined up in 1940. Alfie is a Queenslander, a league boy like me. He signed up because he wanted to check out his mother’s roots. She was a Scottish girl before she emigrated and had him, so Alfie figured that because Europe was where the war was, he could go ‘home’ whenever we got leave.

Howie’s a Victorian, his father played in the VFL for Collingwood. He signed up for the same reason I did; both our fathers had served in the Great War, our grandfathers the Boer War before that. So we got on pretty quickly.

We did basic together in Singapore; that’s when Pearl Harbour happened. So when we were told that we were at war with Japan, we thought it would be a walk in the park. Then Singapore happened.

As guests of the emperor, we were put on a ship to Sandakan, this little hidden pocket of nowhere, to build an airstrip. We quickly found out how hospitable Japs were.

Those fuckers remove any honour we have; they just try to break us. They even started making up rumours that Australia was being invaded.

Three days back one high’n’mighty little Jap came by the mess hall while Alfie and I were sharing the most heavenly cig that we’d exchanged with a Sandakan fella. So this Jap started sounding off about our cities being bombed. One bloke asked about Sydney.

‘Sydney yes!’ came the answer, ‘boom, boom, boom!’

‘Brisbane?’ Alfie asked.

‘Yes, Brisbane! Up in flames! Boom!’

‘Bullshit?’ I asked.

‘Yes, Bullshit, boom, boom, boom!’

Our blokes couldn’t stop laughing. So, after a typical beating that yellow-stained shit throws me in this cage for being a smart arse. Speak for himself!

We never believe their crap. The locals had come by our camp a few months back and exchanged a broken radio with Howie for two of his gold teeth. We got it working and found that the Yanks had turned the war.

We spread the news, telling our blokes ‘…what the kingfisher was telling us’, so the Japs had no fucking clue that we knew they were losing. Made us think that maybe one day, our fighting lads will come save us.

It’s easy to get carried away thinking like that. I did it myself last night!

As always, the Japs checked the cages as always to see who was dead. Then they gave me my first drink in three days.

But the Japs are no problem. It’s the silence, when it’s not broken by the occasional shot. Only sounds are the jungle: soaking rain that comes down in the afternoon and doesn’t stop till the next morning, and the heat that sticks, rips and rots the seams of whatever is left of your uniform and boots.

The silence makes you listen for our boys. You hear them coming, flying in like angels, raining hell on these gits, then taking us far away from this hell-hole.

I hate waking up after that dream. See what I mean?! This cage does things to you. Hope. My best friend and worst enemy—

A Jap unbolts the lock, and flings the cage door open. ‘Speedo, Speedo,’ he barks.

The light fucking blinds me. The Jap grabs my arm in his fist and I fly into the mud. I look for some sort of landmark, and see that lifesaving Jungle Pine. Eyes on it, I get myself to stand up. It’s helping my eyes adjust.

The Jap pulls out another bloke from the cage next door. He’s got ulcers on his ankle larger than a 50p piece. And I see his fucking bone. Looks like he has the runnies too. Must be cholera. Half the boys have it.

The Jap beats him to get him up. He isn’t moving. So the Jap shoots him in the head.

He pulls more of us from all the cages, one-by-one, putting a bullet in anyone who doesn’t get up. Doesn’t matter whether they’re sick or injured.

Another Jap makes us walk. Fucking hurts to put one foot in front of the other, but it’s good to be out of the bloody box. The view down this path stretches out to an open muddy space outside the mess hall.

This view always reminds me of the view from my veranda back home, with the huge paddock of brown grass, and old pine trees lining the driveway. My brother and I used to call them pines ‘carrot trees’, cause they looked like giant green carrots sticking up out of the ground. Was peaceful there too, apart from the sounds of Dad shooting rabbits—

There’s a couple hundred of us outside the mess hall, all shunted in here like beef cattle. I see Howie and Alfie.

‘You little bastard! Nice of you to join us for our little gathering,’ Alfie laughs.

Howie offers me a cigarette. ‘You have to suck the Jap’s cock to let you out?’

‘Nup, just used charm. Bet you would’ve done that.’ I missed these buggers.

A Jap shouts at us to move into two lines, taking my cig before I can light it. ‘No smoking!’

We all squeeze up; they start walking us, out of the camp towards the jungle.

I remember seeing some of our guys being led out like this a month or so ago. Apparently the Japs want to move us inland somewhere, to some place called Ranau. Probably cause our air force boys are getting ready to kick the shit out of them. Well, sorry Japs, but marching us a few kilometres inland ain’t gonna do much when you’re flying in a fucking plane.

I hate jungle. Of all bastard places, this is the greatest bastard. It’s always raining, and on the rare occasions it isn’t, the humidity makes you wish it might as well be. The scrub sticks into you more effectively than barbed wire – any cuts from that always get infected. That and the mozzies that eat you alive, and you can barely see due to how thick the canopy is. Jungle works better than any fence; we knew if we ever escaped in our malnourished state we’d be dead within a day. That was if we weren’t caught first.

We’re being led up a steep path, looks like it has been recently cut. The mozzies feast on us as we all climb; humidity crawls its way into us through our breathing and weighs us down. We’re weak, tired, injured, and sick. How do they expect us to climb this?

We march a few hours. How we do that, I don’t know.

Then there’s a foot in my periphery. A bloke has collapsed, his body wrapped in beri-beri by the looks of it. A few boys try help him up, but a Jap pushes us on ahead.

A few minutes later we hear piercing echoes from behind us cut through the trees. Soon, that same Jap walks past us, his gun sizzling from falling water droplets. He looks down and wipes bits of brain off his lapel, then grabs a dirty white handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his face.

If I ever get outta this, I’m gonna put thirty bullets through that fuckers forehead.

He walks on ahead. I see above him through the canopy a mountain, towering above the rest of the hills we’re travelling over. We know this mountain. The local fellas praise it like no tomorrow, cause some mountain spirit is there. Its slopes are steep and monoliths of rock strut out on its summit, like a crown of thorns.

I fucking hate this mountain. Feels like it’s looking down at us, contempt little toy soldiers! Fuck you!

I see Howie; his eyes are to the ground, breathing hard.

‘You see Alfie?’ I ask between breaths.

‘Haven’t seen him since we left. He’s probably behind us,’ Howie spits in the mud. He’s struggling.

‘Keep it up mate. Think about your girls Double-Ds, that’ll put a spring in your step.’

‘Fuck you.’ Howie shakes his head.

Howie had a missus for close to two years. He’d been planning to marry her before the war got in the way. He didn’t like it when Alfie and I try to get him to talk about her; he liked to keep her for himself. Lucky bastard.

I’ve never been with a girl. Not even a smooch. Mother told me I had to be a gentleman to women when I moved from home to the city. First girl I’d spoken to properly was a girl who watched my first Manly Colts game. Her brother was the captain. We didn’t talk about much outside of what happened on the field.

Eventually, after a few more mountains, the night arrives quietly, but with it the rain. We stop for a break, which is a blessing. Howie collapses. Come on you!

I steady him on a stump next to me, before falling against a tree myself. I listen, hoping to maybe hear our fighter planes. Fucking silence makes you think like that. I drift out quickly.

I’m back home. Dad is showing me how to use his old sniper from the Great War. Think this was from a few years back. He likes shooting rabbits to stop them eating his beef cattle’s grass. Those gunshots across the farm are such comfort, means Dad is home; making rabbits drop like flies. He never misses.

Mother doesn’t like him showing us how to use his sniper; she said he spent more time polishing it than he did with her. But we still love him. At dusk everyday he’d march back home, rifle over his right shoulder, with half-a-dozen rabbits for that nights stew. We marched behind him; playing toy soldiers. At night, we’d eat with Mother inside, but Dad sits out on the front porch, eating by himself. He’d be there all night. We’d always drift off to sounds of him wiping his nose with his old handkerchief. He always sniffled at night—

The jungle welcomes me back. A Jap is beating everyone awake to be on their feet.

I’m alive? I genuinely thought I would not wake up. How unbelievable. I look over at Howie on the stump next to me, his body deathly still.

I poke him to get him up. Doesn’t move.

‘Howie?’ I poke him a few more times.

Then I get it. I’m not bullshitting myself.

I’m glad he didn’t have to wake up to this again.

We start walking in lines, going past the lucky ones who didn’t wake up. I don’t know how I’m still going. I’m just walking. One foot. Then the other.

All Japs are bastards, especially their emperor. Suppose this is how they do it in Japan, make a path just to watch how many of us drop. It’s probably some cultural thing. I remember in basic training when they talked about the psychology of the Jap, how they all had the mentalities of dark-age warriors. I almost feel sorry for these Japs around me, they probably did not even know what a gun was till the war.

There’s a mist coming down. I hear shouting up ahead. There’s a boy leaning on a bamboo tree. His eyes are staring into the canopy, dunno what he is looking at.

A bunch of boys are trying to get him to stand up. You can do it mate. Come on! Why aren’t you getting up?!

Two Japs shout at him. He keeps staring. So they bayonet him a dozen times. His eyes are still looking in the same place.

I’m just walking.

A few hours later the man in front of me collapses, so a Jap blows him away through the back of the neck. He gasps, air escaping from his lungs as he desperately tries to take a few last breaths.

One foot, then the other.

This fucking mist. The fucking trees. The fucking rain! More mud and more fucking rain. I’m just walking.

Minutes go by…

Hours go by…

I’m just walking…

Hours…

Hours…

No one’s coming for us. No one will ever come. They’ve left us here. Alone.

Are we nothing? Just absolutely fucking nothing?! I guess to you we are.

I feel a bit dizzy; there’s mud… around my knees, I think. I’m just looking through the mist, looking… For something.

Is that…?

I think I can hear engines. It’s our boys! There’s a Jap shouting at me, but he doesn’t matter. It’s over for him.

I’m saved! I can’t wait to see home – Dad and Mother will be waiting for me. I’ll be with my brother. We’ll see Dad’s face at the sight of his sons in uniform marching up the hill towards him. No toy soldiers anymore, now we are real men. They’ll sit us down to a beautiful roast chicken, with pumpkin, onions, and boiled potatoes. And Dad won’t be out on the veranda anymore. He’s with us. We’ll sit and eat as a family.

There’s something cold touching the back of my neck. A sound pops my eardrums. I feel a sudden need to grab the back of my head, I have to stop something flowing—

It stopped.

‘When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today’
- Australian Kundasang War Memorial, Sabah, Malaysia

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Engines in Space, Peter Dickison

It is the cold hour before dawn. I’m wedged into a deep rock crevice, high up the side of a cliff in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, and Gilly is whispering into my ear like a second comms channel.

‘They’re coming,’ he says.

The crevice opens out onto a gorge, steep cliffs rising above a pale river that churns and tumbles. The air around me is heavy with the smells of stone and dust. I’m hunched in a sitting position, sniper rifle across my knees, scanning the cliffs opposite, but I can see little in the darkness: a strip of sky with its glimmer of stars, the silhouettes of mountains. I’ve got dust in my eyes, blink rapidly to clear them, and squint through the Night Vision scope. The cave entrance springs into view in sparkling green illumination. I see no movement, hear nothing beyond the distant roar of the river, but I trust Gilly’s instincts and continue watching. The minutes crawl by.

‘They’re here,’ says Gilly.

As if summoned by his words, stealthy figures emerge from the dark entrance, materialising like ghosts, drifting out onto the narrow ledge that serves as a path. They wear loose tribal clothing, flat woollen Pashtun caps, and carry a mix of Russian assault rifles, RPK and PKM machine guns. Pale motes of digital static seem to flicker across their clothing. Their bearded faces are obscure against the black cliff-face.

I whisper into my throat microphone: ‘You see what I see, Sierra Two?’

My earpiece buzzes: ‘Can you get an ID, Sierra One? I can’t see shit.’ I hear cursing drifting down from the ledge twenty metres above me, and picture Haddo wrestling with his NV goggles.

‘Wait one,’ I reply. I rotate the eyepiece of the scope, increasing the magnification to 12x. The six on the path enlarge into a pair, and then into a single figure that fills my vision. My heart beats faster, making the crosshairs twitch rhythmically. ‘Sierra Two: target confirmed. Just like the photo. Still limping from that drone strike.’

‘What’s happening, Sierra One?’

‘They’re moving—moving along the ledge.’

‘Acknowledged. Let ‘em get well clear of the cave. Boys up top can’t get eyes-on with that overhang. Niner says we’re to engage. Target first—then the others. You initiate.’

‘Yep. Got it. Sierra One out.’ I lean into the rifle, my left hand pulling the weapon tight against my shoulder and cheek, right hand working the safety before taking hold of the grip. The world around me fades: the rock walls, the cliffs, the cold, the night, the roar of the river, the empty hours of waiting—all seem to slip away to a place beyond my senses.

I feel calm press in upon me, as if the surrounding air has grown thicker. Gilly says something, though the words seem to come at one remove and I don’t catch them. I am listening to something altogether different, tuning into a subconscious mantra of checklists that play inside my head

‘Use the Force,’ Gilly whispers, his voice close to my ear.

My body relaxes. I’m barely aware I’m breathing: slow, even breaths—each one making the red-glowing crosshairs descend and climb the target. The bubble of perception within which I exist shrinks further, until it excludes even the awareness of my limbs.

And then I am alone. Alone within a sphere that contains only my consciousness and the circle of my scope—alone within a long, slow exhalation, the breath held half-out—alone inside this pause inside a world inside a point where two glowing lines cross, while everything on the outside stretches into infinite space.

And this—all of this—happens in seconds.

*

They are seconds that begin hours earlier, when our patrol reaches the cliff-tops above the gorge. We cast around in the darkness, searching for our entry point: a near-vertical rock chimney spotted the week before by a ScanEagle UAV. A low whistle in the dark signals its discovery, and several of us assemble at the edge, preparing gear, eyeing the abyss. At the top, it is a wide crevice that cuts twenty metres in from the cliff-edge, the inside a series of rock ledges dropping into blackness, the side facing the gorge a tight fissure. We secure our ropes at the top and cast the coils into the void, listening to the whupping sound as they unravel.

I fit and adjust my NV goggles. My ragged breath in the cold mountain air fogs the glass and I wipe a gloved finger across the lenses, fumble for the on-switch and twist it. Then darkness dissolves and the shadow-world is stripped from the naked outlines of mountains and tumbled rock, from a sky that is suddenly clear and brittle, where light-intensified stars form a glittering dome above a monochrome green landscape.

The head harness is tight and I ease the straps until the goggles sit comfortably.

The shaft is an obstacle course of fallen boulders and ever-narrowing space, and we descend methodically, alternating between rope and braced limbs, passing or lowering equipment from boulder to boulder, ledge to ledge. The walls close in as we descend until every sound we make—every scrape of our equipment, every dislodged pebble that clatters away into the darkness, even our hard breathing—returns to us in a flat echo. We pause occasionally, listening, but the night is dark and silent, the only sound beyond that of our exertions is the swelling roar of the river.

I leave Haddo on a ledge about twenty metres from the bottom of the shaft, my last sight of him in the darkness the twin, green haloes around his rubber eyepieces. The shaft bottoms out about halfway down the cliff, blocked by an angled slab of rock. Braced between the walls, I tie-off the rope and test the floor carefully, adding my weight one foot at a time until I’m satisfied it’s solid.

I locate the fissure by the feel of the wind and a glimpse of stars above the cliffs. I kneel, leaning forward, holding on to an outcrop, turning my head left and right. Far below me, the river sweeps through the gorge, running pale over the rapids, dark in its swirling pools. And then I see it, an arched shape in the cliff opposite, so close I feel I could almost reach through the darkness and brush the dust from its ancient stones: the low-walled entrance to a cave.

There is a silent displacement of air and I feel Gilly appear behind me in the blackness. One moment, I’m alone, the next, his familiar presence fills the narrow space. A cold draught seeps through the fissure: night air down from the distant snows. I wait.

His voice, when it finally comes, is a whisper that floats above the noise of the river: ‘What a hole.’

‘Why don’t you say what you really think,’ I reply, keeping my voice low.

‘All right then—it’s an arse-crack. You’ve outdone yourself.’

I ignore him, and quietly lower myself until I am seated at an angle across the cliff-side opening, my back against one wall, feet against the other, knees bent. I flip up the NV goggles, and the world once more turns to shadow. Working mostly by feel, I unstrap from my pack a long padded case, from which I draw a scoped sniper rifle. The long descent from the cliff-top has worked up a sweat, and it begins to cool on my body. In the blackness behind me, I can hear the sound of breathing. I suppress an involuntary shiver and hunch into position behind the rifle.

I activate the scope illumination and the Night Vision adaptor. The cave entrance leaps into view, quartered by the red-glowing lines of the reticle. My back shifts against the rock-face as I begin to test and adjust my body position. I squirm a few centimetres sideways and sight through the scope, repeating the process until the rifle aligns without effort. I check the safety, check the magazine, cycle the bolt to chamber a round, check the safety again.

Minutes pass, then an hour. The draught ebbs away until a stillness hangs in the air and the noise of the river invades the night. I focus on breathing exercises, on rehearsing the shot: a slow, repetitive process where I exhale, pause, visualise the sight picture while my hand squeezes down on the trigger and I imagine the crosshairs jumping and settling. More time passes. I force myself to keep still, despite the cold creeping into me. I watch the stars wheel across the narrow strip of sky. I wait.

*

‘You ever use the Force?’ Gilly asks from somewhere behind my right shoulder.

‘What—?’

Star Wars, Episode IV. Death Star trench. Luke making the shot,’ Gilly continues, speaking softly in the dark. ‘You ever use the Force when you make the shot? You know, get all zen-like and zoned out, feel the Force flowing—where you don’t even realise you’ve pulled the trigger.’

‘You tell me. You were a sniper,’ I remind him.

‘Yeah, but not like you. How many you got now, thirty-eight? Thirty-nine? And that shot you pulled off in Chora, what was that, 1800? 1900 metres?’

I say nothing.

Gilly starts reeling off dialogue from the film: ‘Luke, you’ve switched off your targeting computer, what’s wrong?—Nothing. I’m all right.’ A hollow chuckle reaches my ears.

‘Thought you only liked UFC and porn?’ I say.

‘I do. Just wanted to put the question in nerd-language, so you’d understand,’ says Gilly. ‘Still waiting for an answer…’ He begins to hum the movie’s theme.

‘We talking Star Wars, the book, or Star Wars the film?’ I ask him, trying to ignore the humming.

‘There’s a book?’

I sigh. ‘For those who can actually read, yeah, there’s a book. Lucas even wrote it. In the book Luke says “Nothing…nothing”, not “Nothing…I’m all right”. You were quoting the film.’

There is a long silence.

‘Nobody likes a smartarse,’ says Gilly, at length.

I lower my voice: ‘In the film, when Luke shuts off his targeting computer and uses the Force, he only closes his eyes—no indication he isn’t conscious of pulling the trigger—while the book says Luke “couldn’t remember touching the firing stud”. Anyway, this,’ and I wave my hand toward the opening in the wall and the darkness beyond it, ‘this isn’t Star Wars.’

‘You got that right,’ says Gilly. ‘This is way better.’

Better?’

‘More truthful.’

‘What do you mean, more truthful?’

Gilly does not reply. A cold draught brushes the back of my neck. I shiver.

‘You only have to look at the engines,’ says Gilly from the shadows.

‘What engines?’

‘The engines in Star Wars. Given that sound doesn’t exist in a vacuum, tell me, genius, if Star Wars is so truthful, then how come in the movie you can hear the sound of the engines—in space? And how about the guns—’

‘Blasters,’ I say, without thinking.

‘Yeah, those too,’ he says. ‘All that zapping and whooshing and shit? That’s screwed-up. Impossible physics.’

‘Artistic license.’

‘Impossible,’ comes the smug reply.

‘Story truth versus literal truth.’

‘Impossible.’

‘It’s true for the reality that exists in the film.’

‘Im-fucking-possible.’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake, you’re impossible!’ I snap. ‘You’re not even here—you can’t be here…I watched…I saw you…’ I turn sharply to look behind me—at the empty shaft and its empty shadows—and my anger burns itself out like a match.

Gilly’s voice comes at me from the dark, flat and without echo: ‘True,’ he says. ‘You did. Now that was one hell of an explosion, wasn’t it? BOOM!’

I try to block the memories behind his words. I think about the last time I saw Star Wars. Tarin Kowt? Definitely TK. A freezing hanger steeped in evening shadows and unwashed bodies, the Death Star erupting into motes of light that expand across the screen of a dusty Sony LCD, while Gilly laughs and fires orange plastic pellets at the TV from a toy pistol he’d stolen from a Dutch pilot.

BOOM!

I try to hold the image in my mind: the TV, those stupid pellets pinging off the screen.

BOOM!

I feel my heart thudding against my chest, a dizziness. I’m struggling to breathe and finally manage to draw breath—a breath full of cold and dust that sends me into a coughing fit. I shove my gloved fist into my mouth to muffle the sound, realise my hand is shaking and my earpiece is buzzing.

‘Sierra One, you’re making a shitload of noise down there, what’s going on?’ says Haddo.

I concentrate on sucking in oxygen. ‘Nothing,’ I tell him. ‘Nothing.’

I take another slow, deep breath. I look up, but all I can see are the cold stars gleaming above the cliffs, the spaces between them devoid of starships. My temples ache.

‘They’re coming,’ says Gilly.

*

The echoes of the shots roll away up the gorge and the bodies that haven’t been swallowed by the abyss lie like shapeless bundles on the ledge. The unbroken sound of the river returns. I sit for a long time, tense, watching for any movement on the path while the avenue of sky overhead takes on a pale cast as dawn approaches. A fresh wind blows up the gorge, sends a draught slipping through the fissure to skin my cheek with cold. Finally, limbs heavy, I release my grip on the rifle and lean back, tilting my head upward to stare at the sky and the strip of fading stars running between the cliffs. I cover my face with my hands, then close my eyes to the growing light that creeps between my fingers.

‘Gilly?’ I call, the word echoing off the walls like a slap. My voice seems alien to me, the voice of a stranger. ‘Gilly—Gilly, you there?’ There is no answer. I press the heels of my hands into my eye sockets—I press hard, until it hurts, until my vision becomes red motes that flicker like stars against the blackness, and the blackness becomes a darkened theatre, where the sound of the audience is only white noise beating against the bubble of silence within which I sit, alone and untouchable.

‘This is not Star Wars,’ I whisper.

And I sit like this for a long time. A long time. Until the grim twilight beyond my hands becomes the fantasy, and the roar of the river becomes the impossible roar of engines in space.

 

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To Live in the Memory, Lynda A. Calder

‘It is better to live in the memory of two or three than to be mourned & forgotten by all the world. Remembrance is a golden chain time tries to break.’

— Recorded in the back of Illuminated Scripture Text Book
belonging to Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell)

 

At the front of a sandstone Gothic church in Newtown named for St Stephen, the first Martyr of Christianity, is an ornately carved wooden Roll of Honour: ‘To the glory of God and the perpetual memory of the following men who made the supreme sacrifice at the call of duty in the Great War.’ It is framed by two aging flags, the Australian flag on the left and the Union Jack on the right. Almost in the centre of this Roll, on a shiny brass plate, is the name ‘H. Mitchell’. The parishioners of St Stephens are researching the names on this Roll of Honour and, as the centenary of ANZAC approaches, I can imagine many churches, villages and families are also researching their links to the Great War. I am no different. I have been sent the spreadsheet of their research and next to the name ‘H. Mitchell’ it reads ‘Can’t find him’. Only a week before, I would have said the same because I had no idea that H. Mitchell was a member of my family tree. Learning the identity of H. Mitchell was a journey of surprise discoveries and remembrance of forgotten relatives.

In 2005, for the commemoration of the ninetieth anniversary of ANZAC, I was writing a short, one-hundred word piece, for a local newspaper’s competition. I used my father’s maternal grandfather’s war diary as source material. Albert Joseph Hancock had been a Sapper in the 5th and 59th Broadgauge Railway Operating Company. His diary was a small, thin, black affair, with yellowing pages filled with pencil scrawl recording the daily weather, ‘Fritz’ dropping bombs nearby from their ‘Taubes’, some close calls with shrapnel and shells, the ‘big push’ (my research at the time revealed this was in Ypres, since Joseph never elaborated on locations), a visit to the King of Belgium’s country residence and, towards the end, whether or not he had a ‘good night’ or not with the continual bombardment. On the last two pages there are double entries for certain days. My Dad always maintained that this showed signs of shell-shock, especially since he had been ‘gassed’. This was the reason Joseph had given his family for being discharged ‘medically unfit’. In 2005 I discovered the Australian War Memorial’s online war service records and learnt that he was admitted to the Syphilis ward. He had never been ‘gassed’. No one knew.

What an ignominious link to the ‘war to end all wars’ and, at that time, our family’s only known link to World War One. No other family member had served in the armed forces until World War Two when my paternal grandfather, Alfred Frederick Mitchell, enlisted into the Army and then transferred to the Air Force.

Grandpa died in 1987 and all his papers were bundled into a box then stowed and forgotten under Mum and Dad’s house. In the intervening ten years my Dad has been through these papers. Why it took Dad so long to go through them I doubt even he knows, but it was probably prompted by Mum’s ‘clean under the house drive’ to farm out all the boxes of stuff belonging to my brother and me — both of us married and no longer living at home. The clutter under there had become a nest for cockroaches and mice and a potential fire hazard.

Among Grandpa’s papers, Dad found a folder of tantalising letters, which had belonged to my great grandfather’s cousin: Ada May Mitchell. There were two sets of letters: one from Servicemen at the end of World War 1, sending thanks to Ada and ‘The Girls of the St Stephen’s Patriotic Club Newtown’, and the other set were personal letters from Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey, who signs off as ‘Lock’. All are written by hand, some in ink, some in pencil, and all on fragile sheets of paper. Most of the paper is plain and faintly lined, but a letter from Private Cecil Rhodes MM comes on stationery from The Salvation Army, especially prepared for servicemen ‘With the Australian Expeditionary Forces’. Some thank you notes come from Newtown local boys. Some are short, expressing heartfelt thanks for care packages that finally arrived, but others go for a few pages describing how the packages were appreciated and how they were looking forward to coming home. Lock’s letters, however, are crammed between the lines of ruled note paper and onto note cards recounting his war exploits, injuries, and giving replies to Ada’s many letters.

Dad handed these letters over to me, the family historian and an author. ‘You should write their stories, if you have nothing else to do.’

I identified all the servicemen using the Australian War Memorial’s Record Search. Some had received the Military Medal, many had been punished for turning up to muster late. The citations for the Military Medals are harrowing such as this one for Private Atal Norman Spencer Elphinston.

On the 3rd October, 1918, during the attack on the BEAUREVOIR SYSTEM, near the village of BEAUREVOIR, East of PERONNE, when his Platoon was held up by a strong enemy machine gun post, Private ELPHINSTONE worked round the position, bombed it, jumped in and killed five of the enemy and took 1 Sergeant Major and 10 other Ranks prisoners. This enabled the platoon to come up into line with the remainder of the advancing Company. Later under extremely heavy machine gun fire this soldier worked untiringly for three hours bringing in wounded from in front on our position when the Battalion had withdrawn to a defensive position.

It makes me wonder what extraordinary feats were worthy of the more prestigious Victorian Cross.

And then there was Lock. Why were there so many letters back and forth between Ada and this man? Had they been in love? Yet Ada remained unmarried. Had Lock been killed in action, then? No, his service record showed a safe return to Australia. Was this a forgotten relative?

Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey signs off from his first few letters as ‘Your old friend Lock’. The first letter is dated 16th March 1917 and Lock is sending a ‘short note’ to let Ada know his change of address because he is ‘going back to France for another go’. Lock Hailey was in ‘C’ company of the 20th Infantry Battalion. After enlisting in August of 1915, he found himself in Alexandria and then on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 11th November 1915. His Battalion was involved with the effective retreat from Gallipoli. On 19th and 20th December troops moved from Gallipoli to Mudros maintaining the appearance of normality to fool the enemy into thinking the trenches continued at full strength. There was to be no lights and no smoking. Orders were given in undertones and the word ‘retire’ could not be used. Socks were drawn over boots, bayonets were removed and rifles carried ‘on the trail or over the shoulder’ but ‘not sloped’ so as not to show over the trench tops. Mess tins and other equipment had to be arranged so there was ‘no rattling or shining surfaces’. Reportedly the retreat resulted in only one casualty.

Lock’s first deployment to France, in 1916, was during the Battle of the Somme and the Pozieres Offensive and during his second deployment he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and then Lieutenant. Lock’s letters give a stark insight into the life lived by many soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front and also their confusion at the lack of support from home.

 

12th November, 1917

Had a very rough time during the last few months and what with continual small doses of gas and continual wettings and exposure fairly flattened me. I left the front trenches or rather shell holes on the night of the 5th instant after four days toil without food or sleep. I had a rough time as the Germans kept coming over on to our line and as I was second in command of my company I had to take out fighting patrols all night to keep them from finding out where we were situated. And I can confidently assure you crawling about in no mans [sic] land in the shells full of mud & water looking for fight for a sick man was no bon. After doing four lovely days of this I was relieved just when I got to the “couldn’t stand” stage and taken out & hunted before the doctor who gave me a terrific gravelling for not reporting before and sent me right off.

 

2nd February 1918

One gets use to hard knocks & bruises and I can assure you they take it very well. One of our Officers was shot through the thigh and kept going thinking he was the only Officer left. Until one the Sergts said to him “You had better go out as old Hailey’s bound to be all right” and at that minute I came on him. One of my lads had just blown a German’s brains out all over me & of course I was covered with gore & dirt. When I came on the scene the chaps & the wounded officer actually laughed, as they made sure I was hit at last’…’I tell you when I see my men lying all round I see red.

 

26th December 1917

What do you think of the Referendum regular fall through was it not and I expect the next thing we will all be attached to British Regiments as we have no men and no chance of getting any more for quite a long time.

 24th Feb 1918

I wonder why the Catholics are so against conscription, they must surely see we must all go down together if we do not win.

Lock talks much about his ‘debility’, convalescence in Scotland, a trip to London, Medical Board after Medical Board to determine if he was fit for service and his work at Camp Weymouth to return injured serviceman ‘with arms and legs off and every other ailment’ to Australia.

Lock returned to Melbourne in June 1918 and his last letter is sent on 17th July, 1918 from his home town, Yarra, just south of Goulburn (New South Wales): ‘No doubt you will wonder what has become of me these days but the fact is I am giving up single blessedness on 23rd July.’

Henry Lachlan Cyrus Hailey married Sarah Jane Ward in Goulburn on that date. The ‘matrimonial rush’ was because he could be sent back into action.

Goulburn is certainly the link between Lock and Ada, but as friends, not relatives. Ada had many Mitchell Aunts, Uncles and cousins. All of them originated in Goulburn where her Uncle, Alfred Arthur Mitchell, was a respected member of the community and Grand Master of the Manchester United Oddfellows Lodge. There is a large and imposing black obelisk in the Goulburn general cemetery that marks Alfred’s grave.

There was a small clue in Lock’s letter dated 18th April 1918 that furthered my journey of discovery. Lock writes, ‘Have not had the good fortune to run against Harry Nott so far and there are very few of the old Goulburn boys left.’ Nott was a familiar family surname and Harry, or Henry William Nott, was one of Ada’s many cousins, son of her Aunt Esther (nee Mitchell). All we knew of Henry was his birthday – 16th April, 1889 – and date of death – 22nd August, 1918. Why had we not connected this date to World War One?

Henry Nott was in the 55th Battalion which advanced on Albert in the Somme late in the night on 21st August. Henry Nott was killed in action on 22nd August 1918, aged twenty-nine years; one of five from his Battalion who died at the height of the battle to retake Albert. Henry is now buried in Plot I, Row A, Grave Number 341 in French soil at Cerisy-Gailly Military Cemetery.

I delved more into the life of Ada May Mitchell hoping to find more clues. She had been named after her aunt, Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell), known as Aunt Sis. Ada May remained a spinster who lived her whole life with her parents and likely cared for them into old age. She died alone in 1978 in her family home from atrial fibrillation suffering from senility. Only two black and white photos survive of Ada May. One shows a chubby faced cherub of, presumably, four years old in a white pinafore arranged for a formal photograph standing with legs crossed, an elbow leaning on a book with her other hand holding a little bouquet of ferns and flowers. Her shoulder length hair and short fringe has been curled in rags. Her face is wide. She has the distinctive Mitchell button nose and thick Mitchell bottom lip which shows the hint of a smile. The other photo is from a street photographer. Cut down the middle, it removes the person standing to her right. Ada May is on the left edge of the photo, grim-faced, caught unaware, older, maybe in her 50s or 60s. She is dressed in all black: black dress, a small necklace and something pinned to her left breast, a jacket draped over the hand carrying a handbag, and a stylish brimmed black hat with veiling. She still has the broad face, button nose and thick bottom lip but now carries the marks of age around her neck and jowls.

There is no one left who knew Ada. My Dad may have met her when he was young, but he doesn’t remember. We do know she served over fifty years on staff as a Clerk at Grace Bros and carried herself with ‘dignity and aplomb’. Dad has the impression that she was possibly like Mrs Slocombe from the British TV comedy Are You Being Served with a severe personality, tinted hair and finding solace in a cat or two. Ada and her parents lived at 3 King Street, Newtown, next door to modern day Moore Theological College and, later, 50 Wemyss Street, Newtown. Both are not far from St Stephen’s Anglican Church in Newtown where she attended and was Secretary of the St Stephens Patriotic Club during World War One. The Patriotic Clubs raised funds to support the war effort and sent care packages to local boys serving at the front. So, I contacted St Stephens in Newtown. Did they have any records of parishioners or the Patriotic Club? An answer was slow in arriving but would arrive eventually, but not yet.

During this period of research my Dad found a small blue notebook with gold embossed writing on the cover: ‘The Illuminated Scripture Text Book for every day — 365 coloured illustrations with interleaved memoranda’. The spine is held together with aging sticky-tape, the cover is barely holding onto its contents and the pages are yellowing and rigid with age. The front inscription, in hardly legible ink script, reads:

“Love your Enemies”
To Ada Mitchell
With best love & ??? wishes
From E. ??Thompson??
St Saviours Finishing School
April 1879

Ada May Mitchell was born in 1891, therefore this notebook had to belong to Aunt Sis, Ada Bladwell (nee Mitchell). Inside she has recorded the birth dates of friends and relatives, her wedding anniversary and the death of her husband, William Henry Bladwell. Also noted was the death ‘killed at war’ of Harry Nott on 22nd August 1918 and another name, an unfamiliar name, that had no place, yet, on the family tree: ‘Harry G Mitchell killed at war 29th May 1917’.

Another discovery. Although, on reflection, I recall walking along the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in 2012 past the M’s and noting the name Henry George Mitchell. Both Henry and George are common family Christian names (although, likely common in the Victorian era). I was almost certain this person could be a relative. I always read Rolls of Honour on church walls and obelisks in country towns; I wonder if there is not some long lost relative listed there.

Henry George Mitchell came up on the war records search; Service Number 159. On his enlistment attestation, Henry recorded his mother’s name as Mrs Will Mitchell, with ‘Will’ crossed out and ‘Martha Edith Lily’ written above it. On another copy of this attestation his father’s name was written in red ink: W.M. Mitchell. The family tree held William Milton Mitchell, brother to Ada Bladwell and Uncle to Ada May Mitchell. His wife was Martha Edith Lily Morgan but the names of his children were unknown and listed only as Child One, Child Two, Child Three, Child Four, Child Five, Child Six.

Henry George Mitchell had been in the 25th Battalion and likely died in the trenches in France during a ‘quiet period’. His Battalion has no War Diary on record for the period he served and the 35th did not even enter its first major battle, at Messines, until early June 1917. He died on 29th May, 1917, and is buried in Belgium: Plot I, Row D, Grave Number 11, Strand Military Cemetery, Ploegsteert.

Finally I received an answer from St Stephens in Newtown. They had never heard of the Patriotic Club and had no parishioner records from the early 1900s but they mentioned the Roll of Honour and sent me the spreadsheet of their research. Could my Henry George Mitchell be the H. Mitchell on the St Stephens Rolls of Honour?

Henry joined the 35th Battalion (Newcastle’s Own) in Islington Newcastle. In Henry’s service record is a letter from his father reporting the family’s move from Newcastle to 42 Bucknell Street, Newtown; not far from Ada Mitchell and her parents. It would be safe to assume the families attended church together at St Stephens and, therefore, not a great leap to link H. Mitchell with Henry George Mitchell.

Family tree research is like having the pieces of a larger jigsaw and working out where they fit in the greater whole without the help of the picture on the box. I have consequently discovered many other relatives and more who served in World War One: Henry Mitchell’s brother William Leslie who also enlisted in the 35th battalion at only age seventeen; Arthur Edwin Bladwell, Ada Bladwell’s nephew, who received the Military Medal for gallant service in May 1915; John Digby Nott (Harry Nott’s brother) who has a plaque commemorating his life on a wall at Lithgow Hospital in the Blue Mountains and Eric Henry Mitchell, son of Uncle Edward Mitchell, who was gassed and returned to Australia.

One hundred years ago, these men and women did their small part in that greater conflict. As a nation we remember the World War One every ANZAC Day, but it is up to families to remember the individuals who died or returned injured, ill or safe, or served from home. Yet, those who had no children, like Henry, Harry and Ada, where the golden chain of remembrance has been broken, become forgotten Uncles and Aunts. I wonder if anyone has sat by the grave of Henry William Nott in France or Henry George Mitchell in Belgium to consider their service, sacrifice and the circumstances of their deaths. I wonder if anyone else has thought about the contribution Ada May Mitchell and the girls of the Patriotic Club made to the war effort from home. I found Ada’s grave in Rookwood Cemetery in Lidcombe and was moved to tears to find her buried with both parents: Ernest Henry and Harriet Mitchell.

H. Mitchell is listed on the St Stephens Roll of Honour and he will be remembered and spoken about as tours are conducted to mark the centenary of his ultimate sacrifice. But now, with the centenary of ANZAC the Mitchell family will be able to remember their contribution to World War I with greater pride and personal interest. Sacrifices and lives will live on in the memory of two or three (or more) and not be forgotten by time.

 

L.Calder_Image11

 

Download a pdf of ‘To Live in the Memory’.

 

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Poppy, Jessica Sheridan

Anthony was awake before the alarm. The volume was set to maximum, or so his grandson told him. But he could never quite catch the sound; just a muted buzz like a mosquito above his head. Sometimes it was louder when he forgot to take his hearing-aid out before bed. That had happened more and more lately. Above him the ceiling fan whirred, around and around. His thoughts spun with it, as far off memories appeared like flashes in the darkness; bright, burning flashes that hurt his eyes.

He sat up with an automatic moan, feeling the strain on his lower back as he pulled himself out of bed. The sky was still dark outside and the whole world seemed to be sleeping. He squinted at the red light in the face of his clock, and thought he could make out the time: 0400. The strain made his tired eyes sting and he reached up to rub them. Behind the blotchy darkness of his eyelids, the shadows still fought to be seen, memories refusing to clear.

Beside him, Margaret snored. It was probably louder than what he could hear, because it never woke him. Softly he rose from the mattress, being careful not to wake her. Even though she wasn’t joining him, she’d laid out his favourite olive-green suit, freshly ironed with razor-sharp edges down the sleeves. Quietly he dressed, and opened the wardrobe door to look at himself in the mirror. The jacket was the last piece of his once-a-year uniform. He slid it over his shoulders, shrugging a few times until it sat properly on his back. The medals pinned to his chest clanged together as he straightened up.

Before leaving, Anthony moved to the other side of the bed and tried to lean down to kiss Margaret, but the strain made his back ache. Feeling deflated he turned to leave, but saw her hand was peeking out from beneath the covers. He gave it a gentle squeeze. Her hand felt fragile and soft; delicate despite the lines that wrinkled them. Not like his own hands. They were coarse and covered with the hard streaks of age. Thick skin coated his fingers and the white scars of callouses were like craters in his palms. He couldn’t remember a time when he had soft hands.

~          ~          ~

‘Put your back into it, boys!’ The ground is like gum. Hard, over-chewed gum with a seal of slime on top just thick enough to cause your feet to slide apart if you aren’t careful. Tony brings his shovel down again into the clay, watching it barely break the earth. The rain is growing heavier, and the sergeant is pissed. Nobody expected the ranks to stretch so far north towards the coast. But the assault is endless. Tony knows it. Bill knows it. Hell, even the Germans across no-man’s land know it. The war is going nowhere fast, so all they can do is extend the line.

Tony lifts his leg to step on the shovel, stomping down with all his weight behind it. Again the ground yields next to nothing, spitting out a crumble of dirt as he lifts the spade away. Despite the freezing rain whipping at his face he can feel sweat pooling in his armpits and under his helmet. He looks up and squints through the mist. Some men have abandoned their packs, leaving them to soak in the mud. Tony knows better. Still the weight is heavy and his back is screaming as he digs the shovel in again.

But it’s nothing like his hands. He’s only a foot or so down into the gunk and clay and already his hands are bleeding. For all the crap they issue as standard, they forgot gloves. Blisters that broke weeks ago have started afresh. His hands burn against the grain of the shovel. The spot at the base of his thumb is grinding along the handle and carving away the flesh. A crevice of callouses works its way along his palms and the skin on his knuckles cracks and bleeds. When he lets go of the shovel he can see his hands shaking in the rain.

~          ~          ~

Anthony skipped breakfast. He could never eat this early in the morning. Besides, he was already so full of memory. On his way to the door he stopped by the kitchen to collect his keys and wallet. He pocketed both, but as he turned to leave he caught a splash of colour beside the phone. He stopped for a moment to look at it; blood red petals spilling out around a heart that left black pollen on the bench, like ash. He swallowed hard.

‘Poppy?’ Anthony turned to find little Lucy shuffling towards him, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. ‘Don’t forget your flower.’

Anthony smiled. ‘What are you doing up kiddo? It’s too early for you. Nan will be cranky.’

‘I wanted to say goodbye.’

Anthony ruffled her chocolate-brown hair. ‘I’ll be back around lunchtime. You’ll barely notice I’m gone. Get back to bed.’

Lucy stood for a few moments frowning with puffy, tired eyes. She was missing a sock and her hair was tangled like a bird’s nest. ‘Will you be ok by yourself? Won’t you be lonely?’

‘Darlin’ I’ll be fine.’ He squeezed her shoulders. ‘She’ll be right. Besides, I’ll have my flower. Back to bed with ya, then.’ Gently he spun her around and nudged her back towards the hallway.

Once she was gone, Anthony turned back to the blood red poppy by the phone. It waited for him silently on the bench, and he knew he had to take it. Gently he picked it up, twirling it a few times between his fingers before sliding it into place among his medals where it belonged. Anthony angled it so the red face stared out at the world, the petals curled over like eyelashes. He patted his chest before finally walking out the door.

Outside the air was brisk and the streetlights were still glowing overhead. He could barely see the stars past their light. Once in the car Anthony strapped himself in, being careful not to crush the flower. He reached up to adjust the rear-view mirror and found his reflection looking back. His face was criss-crossed with age, etched into his skin like scars. Creases pulled down his cheeks and there were lines like crow’s feet in the corner of his eyes. They scratched away at his youth, making him look angry and frustrated. The man was a stranger to him. ‘She’ll be right,’ he said softly, watching his reflection say it with him before turning over the key.

~          ~          ~

Tony watches the officer scribble his loopy signature onto the form. A spring breeze ruffles a pile of other applications towering on the fold-down table. A single paper weight shaped like the globe sits atop the papers from almost every man in town. Tony realises he is fidgeting and moves his hands to his sides, curling them into fists. The officer raises a brow at the paper in front of him. ‘You’re writing is a bit shaky there, son,’ He points out.

Tony stares ahead and lifts his chin. He can feel the eyes of his mates watching him from near the oval’s old fence line to his left. He thinks he can hear Bill laughing.

‘Especially around this part where you’ve put your date of birth…’ His voice trails off and Tony knows that the officer has figured it out. The jig is up. He forces himself not to look across at his mates.

Tony swallows hard and tries to sound confident, but his voice still breaks like a child when he speaks. ‘I don’t know what you mean, Sir?’

The officer puts down his pen and lifts the tiny globe to file Tony’s application with the others. ‘Welcome to the army, son. Next!’

Tony clenches his fists to keep his composure as he turns away from the table. But his eyes meet Bill and his goofy face perched on the wooden fence and Tony can’t help but smile. He tries to walk but ends up running towards the boys with two thumbs up. They welcome him in with congratulations and pats to the back.

‘You looked like a bloody guilt-ridden criminal when you handed in your form, though,’ Bill chortles, holding his hands up and pretending to tremble in fear. Tom and Clancy laugh.

‘I thought he was gonna catch me out.’ Tony can feel his cheeks flushing red with embarrassment. ‘I was nervous.’

Bill rolls his eyes. ‘Yeah but you didn’t have to seem so obvious about it. Sam and his brother made it in no worries, and they’re even younger than you.’

Tony shrugs, reaching up to scratch the back of his head. He looks down at his feet. ‘I know, but I’m pretty sure that officer knew I wasn’t eighteen. Asked about my birthday and everything.’ Tony frowns. He didn’t even know what would happen to someone caught lying about their age to the army.

Bill slides down off the fence, landing steadily on his feet before smacking Tony across the back. ‘Get a grip, mate. She’ll be right.’

~          ~          ~

The road was long and the sky was black and he’d lied. Anthony was lonely. He didn’t know why, but he always went alone on this annual pilgrimage. He’d never let Margaret join him, and for some reason she understood even though he didn’t. The drive just felt like it should be made in solitude. Even the highway was empty. He flicked on the radio, but it was droning away with pre-breakfast talkback featuring lonely hearts, truck drivers and bakers.

Anthony caught the poppy looking at him in the rear-view mirror. Its face was wide open now, like it was watching the world pass by as he drove. It sat so comfortably across his heart that for a fleeting moment he lost his loneliness and let himself remember.

He pulled into the carpark at 0520. After turning a few laps he found a spot, but it was at the far end. He checked himself one last time in the mirror, straightening the red companion on his chest before swinging open the car door and stepping out into the brisk air.

As he shifted his weight onto his left leg he felt that familiar twang of pain in his calf, and sank back into the car to rub the cramp out. He could feel the old injury that drew its way down the back of his leg, from his knee to his heel. The white scar was barely visible anymore, but to touch it was different. Anthony could always feel that line of tissue, just a subtle bump on the skin that would never fade.

~          ~          ~

The metal is hot but the pain is searing. Tony had promised himself he would never shed a tear on the battlefield, but he has broken his promise. His lungs explode with screaming as the jagged piece of shell begins to cool deep in the flesh of his leg. He can feel tears running down his face, mixing with the rain and the dirt and the sweat. Somewhere behind him, another mortar makes its mark on the ranks.

‘Tony!’ A familiar voice is calling out to him. Dust still falls from the air. He can’t see anybody. Another shell flies overhead, whistling through the sky. Blood is drizzling from the hole in his calf, where the metal sticks out like a shark’s fin. He can’t stand, he can’t breathe. Tony lifts his arms, trying desperately to reach down to his leg. Suddenly Bill catches him by the elbow and grips him tightly. Tony clutches him back, digging his nails in as the pain begins to poison his body.

‘Tony?’ He tries to keep his eyes on his friend as Bill pulls him away from the rubble. His toes are beginning to grow numb and he starts to feel his mind wash away with the blood and rain. Someone passes Bill a cloth and he tries to stifle the bleeding, but it just pushes the metal deeper.

‘We’ve got you, Tony. Don’t worry mate, you’re gonna be fine – get a stretcher, get him out of here!’ Tony can sense movement all around him now, as men climb over each other in the narrow crack of the trench. Some offer dirty bandages and ripped uniforms, but Tony is losing consciousness. The last thing he can remember is being propped up in the elbow of his best mate. ‘She’ll be right, Tony. Just hang on.’

Somewhere in the distance, foreign rifles begin their fire.

~          ~          ~

 ‘Would you like a poppy sir?’

Anthony stopped abruptly. He was almost through the gate when a young woman with a basket of freshly cut flowers spoke to him with a smile. He blinked at her, his thoughts still far away.

Her eyes travelled to his chest where the string of badges crossed his heart. ‘Oh, you’ve already got one I see.’ The girl pulled back her hand awkwardly, the blood-red flower dancing between her fingers. Her face softened as she looked back up at his face. ‘Thank you.’

Anthony felt uncomfortable, but smiled in reply.

At last he passed into the courtyard. Here it was silent, like the darkness. Even the birds stopped their usual morning calls. A few light-poles lit the area, revealing the many tired faces that had risen before the sun to be here. Babes slept in the arms of mothers and fathers, old men stood in groups wearing suits and polished shoes, grandchildren clutched their parent’s hand and stared about with wide eyes that fought sleep. Hundreds of faces standing with him, and still he felt left behind.

A flash upon the stone wall caught his eye, and Anthony turned to see a large photo of familiar faces standing in a trench, covered in dirt and sweat and fighting grins. The image melted away to form another; men training in Egypt and laughing at a camel. Somewhere behind the crowd the projector changed again, and this time the image of men lying in beds covered in bandages illuminated the wall. Picture after picture of people, all in black and white, and all more familiar to him than anything else.

Anthony touched the poppy at his chest, angling it towards the photos.

At 0530 the lamps slowly dimmed and the black dawn swept across the courtyard. The slideshow of memories upon the wall ended with the words ‘Lest We Forget’ and even the children grew sombre. Anthony looked to the head of the memorial, standing alone within the crowd.

Somewhere, a bugle sounded.

 

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The Belle of Belfast City, Elizabeth Mead

‘LUCINDA ELIZABETH MARGARET O’CONNOR!’

Her mother burst into the room, Baby Mary in one hand and a bowl of ‘Special K’ in the other.

‘What, in God’s name, do you think you are doing? Mass starts in five minutes and you’re not dressed.’

In one swift motion, the cereal bowl was on the desk and the covers were upturned. Lucy was dragged from her bed and shoved into the corner, where her mother thrust her Sunday Best into her chest.

‘You have two minutes to get in that dress, brush your hair and get out the front or I will give you a bowl-cut. You hear me?’

Lucy definitely heard her. Samuel, the third youngest and in his first year of school, had been given a bowl haircut last month for refusing to eat dinner. He was tormented at school for weeks and it still hadn’t grown back. Imagine how much worse it would be for a girl. No way. No sleep-in was worth losing hair over. Lucy put the dress on and headed downstairs. She hated dresses. Particularly this one. It was powder blue and lacy, falling to an awkward length just below her knees. When she was younger, her mother had made her wear white, kitten-heeled Communion shoes with the dress, and a big, blue bow tied around her head. But, hitting teenager-hood meant Lucy could ditch the childish shoes and wear flats instead.

The house was chaotic and cluttered as usual. Lucy had to dodge several strange flying objects, most probably clothes and toys, clean up a large chocolate milk spill and judge some sort of gymnastics competition going on in the front room. By the time she made it to the sad, brownish-looking front lawn, however, the whole family seemed to be there, looking decent and ready to go.

The Church of St Vincent De Paul stood at the end of their street. The families from neighbouring households were trudging down the footpaths on either side of the road – mothers tugging on their son’s ties and tidying their daughter’s ribbons; fathers shuffling alongside their wives, hands in pockets. Mr O’Connor, Lucy’s father, walked in front of their pack. He had caught up to Mr Nelson, who lived next door, whilst Deidre, his wife, was gossiping at the back of the pack with Lucy’s mother. When they reached the church moments later, the family had split up entirely and Mrs O’Connor was left to scurry about, rounding up the troops before they headed inside and sat in a pew close to the altar. A slither of sunlight was flickering through one of the stained-glass windows, sending coloured light dancing across the parishioners. The arched ceilings made the church echo with the loud, fast-talking voices of the Irish Catholics. People filled the pews and aisles, chatting and laughing while waiting for Mass to start. As the organ sounded, the congregation stood in staggered succession and began to sing the opening hymn. Lucy’s mother pinched her on the arm, mouthing ‘Sing’, before joining in the chorus so loud that the parishioners in front turned around in fright.

Lucy rolled her eyes and whispered along to the hymn. She scanned the crowd. She knew every face. Everyone lived nearby. Many families had kids that went to her school. The McKay twins, five pews in front, were in her year. Sixteen, and had already slept with half the boys in their grade. In dresses of a decent length and no eye make-up, they almost looked innocent – before one noticed the matching skull tattoos on their ankles. Two pews ahead of them, on the other side, Mr Nelson, Deidre and their two kids sat quietly. They went to the integrated school a couple of suburbs away. Most of the people who lived in this area were Catholics through-and-through. They only knew Catholics, only spoke to Catholics and rarely ventured across to the Protestant suburbs of Belfast. That made the Nelsons outcasts. Their daughter, Claire, had a Protestant boyfriend, Jack, who lost all his friends by going out with her. He had to move to the integrated school to escape them. While much of the conflict between the two sectors had subsided, tension still clung to the suburbs that surrounded the wall which separated the Catholic and Protestant sides of the city.

Lucy was no longer listening to the Priest, who had finished reading the gospel and had just begun what would undoubtedly be a lengthy homily. She thought about closing her eyes when there was a sudden communal gasp. The window above the altar shattered and a large rock landed on the steps leading down to the central aisle. The priest looked up at the gaping hole in the stained glass above him. Shards of orange and purple were scattered over the carpet and several of the altar boys had gone dashing for cover under the pews reserved for the choir. Horrified chatter began as a few parishioners ran up to the altar to check if the Priest was alright.

‘By God, that could’ve killed someone,’ Mrs O’Connor muttered, leaning over to join the shocked murmurs of the women in the pew in front.

From her seat next to the aisle, Lucy could see the rock. It was large and dark grey, with a flat side that had white writing scrawled across it. Lucy squinted to read the words written in white-out.

‘Claire and Jack = SCUM.’

Lucy put out her arms to lean on the pew in front. She was trembling. She knew instantly who was behind this little stunt.

Lucy looked over at Claire Nelson, who held her head in her hands while her mother rubbed her back. The priest returned to the gospel stand and continued with his speech, as if nothing had happened, while a group of elderly women cleared away the glass shards with dust-pans and brooms.

After Mass, the congregation gathered outside for morning tea. There were general mutterings of anger and shock. The Nelsons were nowhere to be seen, fleeing the Church after Communion. The O’Connor kids, like all the other children, rushed to the food spread, devouring several cupcakes in seconds.

Lucy sat on the fence and looked across the street. Darcy had been lingering behind a tree for a few minutes now, looking over at her at steady intervals. Quickly glancing around to make sure no one was watching, Lucy crossed the road and turned into a connecting street, sitting behind a wall with a large mural on it. He came and sat down beside her, putting his hand on her knee and letting it slide up her skirt to rest on her inner thigh.

‘I just wanted to check that you’re okay…not hurt or anything,’ he said.

Lucy was quiet. She didn’t want to look at him. Instead, she fiddled with her hands, picking at the red polish that was chipping off her fingernails.

‘Rick just got home. He, uh, was talking to Dad about the rock and I overheard. I came straight here.’

Lucy looked up at Darcy. His dark hair flopped to one side and the buttons on his shirt had been done up wrong. He did look like he had rushed to get there. His eyes narrowed with concern.

‘Your brother is a good-for-nothing twat. You know that, right?’ she sighed. ‘You should have seen Claire. She was – ‘

‘Upset, angry, of course – ‘

‘Mortified. She was mortified. The rock nearly hit the priest, for God’s sake.’

Darcy went quiet.

‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured sheepishly. ‘Rick and his mates are idiots.’

He leaned in to kiss her but she moved her head to the side and his lips barely brushed her cheek.

‘I just wonder what he’d do if he found out about us.’

They were both quiet then. Rick was a thug. He and Jack had been best friends before Jack and Claire started going out. Mr McKinnon, Darcy and Rick’s father, was a thick-blooded Protestant who had been on the frontline of the Belfast riots in the seventies. Rick somehow felt the need to keep his father’s anti-Catholic legacy alive. It was a wonder how Darcy didn’t end up like his trouble-causing bastard of a brother.

Lucy moved to rest her head on Darcy’s shoulder, lingering in the shadow of the old riot mural for a minute longer.

***

‘Where the fuck ‘ave you been then, son?’

Mr McKinnon was leaning against the kitchen sink while Rick sat at the breakfast bench, scoffing down a bacon and egg roll.

‘Went and saw a mate. School stuff.’

Darcy sat down opposite Rick. His large, tattooed arms sat heavily on the bench. He stared over at Darcy with beady eyes through thick, greasy hair. He was smirking behind the roll.

‘A mate, eh?’

Mr McKinnon moved over to the bench and leaned in to face Darcy, his yellow-tinged teeth gritted an inch away from Darcy’s chin.

‘Well, Rick saw you at the fucking Catholic Church with your arms around a fucking Catholic girl!’

Rick laughed out loud. A nasty laugh. Darcy stared at his father who was now shaking, the vein down the side of his neck pulsing beneath thick skin. Mr McKinnon pinned Darcy against the back of the chair and pushed his face so close that their noses were touching. With a clenched fist, he punched Darcy square in the stomach, winding him so badly that he collapsed and passed out on the floor.

***

‘They’ve gone! They’ve just left. I, I found the note on Claire’s bed. She didn’t even say where they were going –’

Deidre Nelson was sobbing on a stool in the kitchen. Through the crack in the door, Lucy could just make out her mother, standing behind, patting Deidre’s shoulder.

‘They’ll be tryin’ to get out of Northern Ireland, I s’pose. Get away from all this nonsense,’ Mrs O’Connor sighed. ‘Don’t worry – Jack’s a smart boy, he’ll take care of her.’

Jack had been mugged on his way to work at the local milk bar. Lucy hadn’t heard from Darcy since this morning – it was now close to dinner. A pot of spaghetti was gurgling on the stove in the kitchen.

‘Lucy?’

Mrs O’Connor had opened the kitchen door and was looking down at her, sitting in the doorway with her mobile held to her chest.

‘Be a darl and go get us a carton of milk and some chocolate. Deidre here needs a cuppa tea, I think.’

She thrust several pounds into Lucy’s hand and gave her a gentle push towards the front door.

‘Hurry back now,’ she said, turning back into the kitchen.

Lucy ran down the street towards the wall. She pressed her phone to her ear, urging Darcy to pick up.

‘Where are you?’ she muttered to herself.

The wall was partly lit up by the street lights across the road. Thousands of messages of peace from all over the world were scrawled across it in permanent marker – tourists sending messages of confusion and sadness that such a divide still exists in the new millennium.

‘Life is short. Forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly – James Dean.’

If only it were that easy, Lucy thought. Although the wall was called the ‘Wall of peace’, the fact that it still remained as a barrier between them meant it was not so. Lucy rushed along the wall towards the gate, stumbling into the caretaker as she turned the corner.

‘The gate’s closed. Sorry,’ he mumbled.

Lucy looked at the large, black gates, padlocked shut.

‘Hoist me over then, please?’ Lucy pleaded, holding out the several pounds her mother had given her. The caretaker took them without saying a word.

***

The Church stood, dark and tall, beneath the cloudy night sky. Rick and his cronies held drums of petrol in each hand. Darcy was out in front holding the torch as Rick kicked the back of his knees every few paces, forcing him onwards.

‘Right then. Boys? Get to it,’ Rick called.

He opened one of the drums and began pouring it on the wooden entrance to the Church.

‘Oi!’

Darcy had dropped the torch and was doubled over, still in pain from his father’s punch. As Rick and the boys huddled outside the front door, Darcy stumbled over to the fence and leant wearily against the bars.

‘Darcy?’

Lucy’s face was badly bruised on one side. Her lip had split and her dress was ripped at the hem. Darcy reached out his hand and pulled her towards him, embracing her for a moment before the pain of standing upright got too much. Lucy held him by the waist and lowered him to sit at the bottom of the fence.

‘The caretaker of the gates must be one of Rick’s mates,’ she said dryly, gesturing to the bruises on her face.

Darcy didn’t seem to hear her – or if he did, he didn’t show it. His face was creased around the edges. He was holding his stomach like a child holds a puppy, squeezing it hard.

‘What the hell has happened to you?’ she asked, leaning so close that Darcy could smell the perfume on her neck.

Darcy winced, nodding towards the huddled pack standing about ten metres away at the Church entrance.

Lucy saw Rick and his friends. She saw the petrol cans in their hands. She saw the Church, the grand oak doors, the lighter sticking out of Rick’s back pocket. In a second, it all made sense. As if only just realising Darcy had disappeared, Rick turned to see him and Lucy, hands entwined.

‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ he screamed.

Rick didn’t move. He stood, still, while his friends gathered around him. Lucy was silent. She had no doubt that Rick would kill her if she gave him the chance. He reached into his back pocket and took out the lighter. Flicking it on, off, on, off, he walked over and stood in front of the wooden door he had so artfully glossed in petrol. He turned and smirked, tossing the lighter over his shoulder.

Lucy watched as the tip of the flame touched the puddle of petrol and created a ring of fire around the front of the Church. The fire began to gain height, climbing up the door and engulfing it before it exploded in a waterfall of orange and ash. The flames began to lick the walls, moving upwards and into the Church where the door had once been.

Rick, smiling smugly, had not turned around. He stood, in the same spot from which he’d thrown the lighter, looking at Darcy and Lucy. The heat of the fire behind sent beads of sweat dripping from his hairline into his eyes. It almost looked like he was crying. His friends were laughing, chucking the drums of petrol to each other and pointing at how high the flames had climbed. One of them dropped the can, spilling petrol over Rick’s boots. Rick shoved his friend angrily. As he began to walk towards Darcy, a falling ember dropped onto his boot, causing his feet and jeans to catch fire. He screamed in pain as the flames crept upwards, surging up his pant-legs and over his back. His friends danced around him like children. A few of them fled. Lucy watched Darcy leap towards Rick. For a moment, they were brothers again.

‘GET WATER,’ he screamed.

Darcy tore the jacket from his shoulders and threw it on Rick in an attempt to put out the flames crawling up his body. Lucy had moved to be close to Darcy. She could see the sticky flesh on Rick’s legs as his jeans disintegrated. It smelt like a chicken roast at Sunday dinner.

One of Rick’s mates returned with watering can from the Church garden and began to drench Rick from top to toe. Rick continued to roll around in the soot and ash that had once been his clothes.

Lucy wrapped her arms around Darcy and led him away. He was crying – thick, wet gulps. Mucus from his nose dripped down her dress. She could feel her own tears stinging the corners of her eyes. Lucy turned to look over her shoulder at the Church that had disappeared behind a blood-orange blaze and smoke. Rick lay on the lawn alone.

Darcy and Lucy shuffled away, eventually collapsing behind the shadows of the peace wall. There, they lay for a moment beneath the Northern sky and the peaceful messages of millions.

 

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