So long as mum roughly knew my whereabouts and I was back for dinner, she didn’t seem to care for details. Way to go, mum. Perfect for a sixteen year old boy who begun to be drawn to and appreciate the curvature of the opposite sex. The girl more alluring than any other was Anne. Not just because her breast brushed against my chest once, well that did help, but it was her smile and friendly persona that just made me feel the same, sort of like contagious laughter. Out of the blue, I found myself daydreaming of Anne, or was it fantasying? I can’t clear up that blurry line. Even while engrossed in reading, my favourite pastime, images of Anne overwhelmed the words I read. And then there was dad’s nagging rhetorical question, have you got a girlfriend yet? Girls were beginning to make some sort of sense, their being grow in significance.
On New Year’s Day, Dad’s snoring penetrated all rooms of the house; any louder and his sound waves could of forced open the flyscreen door. I was glad to escape before he woke, wanting to go fishing again – boring. As I said bye to mum, I remembered the night before and how Anne and I managed to dodge our parents and kiss twice behind the boat shed. I’m sure Anne’s mum never trusted me and was glad we only saw each other over the summer holidays. That was going to change big time when I got my driver’s licence. I planned to drive the four hours to Bright and take Anne out. Anne said her mum would have to let me stay the night. Can you believe, Anne even heard her mum, tell my mum, that Anne and I were too young? I’m glad mum just laughed and took nobody’s side.
An eerie calm accompanied my walk down Cove Avenue towards the entrance of Point Nepean. I could still smell fireworks in the sprinkling mist but the noise and spectacle of the night before were long gone. I wanted to run but held back and walked as fast as I could. I had to appear calm, not in a hurry, and definitely not like one of those goofy walkers that call themselves athletes. I knew Anne would be waiting for me near the visitor centre. She always got there first. I saw her behind the bike rack, leaning against the straggly trunk of a tea tree. Of course she’d already seen me – she smiled. All of a sudden an excited nervousness overwhelmed me and I too couldn’t help but smile. I wanted to kiss but we didn’t touch, just in case somebody watched. We already knew our plan
‘Hi,’ I said and fixed my eyes on hers.
‘About time,’ she said and stared back.
Her tease had no effect on me. My eyes were not about to shift their gaze. She could even have called me a dropkick and I wouldn’t have cared. I felt like we were trapped in a timeless spell, gawking at each other.
‘Come on,’ Anne finally said, ‘let’s go.’
We began our walk towards the old fort.
‘I’m going to miss you,’ she said.
‘Chill out.’ I laughed. ‘We’ve still got today – and tonight.’
‘I know but I want these holidays to last forever.’
‘Will your mum let us kiss goodbye?’ I couldn’t help but joke.
‘Shut your face.’ Anne frowned in a nice way and grabbed my hand.
The mist vanished and the sun began to sting. Anne’s auburn hair radiated like fresh honey. Her dimple like shoulders barely held up her singlet straps as we walked. I even imagined the straps to fall down completely or not be there at all. I was glad when we veered off the main path and took the back way through the tea trees. Nobody could see us there and being alone excited me even more. I held Anne’s hand a little tighter. I’m not sure if it was Anne’s presence or the steep incline to the observation tower that got me panting more. The tower was fenced off but I suppose if you scaled the fence and broke in, its first floor windows overlooking the old shooting range would offer a vantage point, enabling us to spot somebody coming at us before they saw us. Something felt weird then. The smell of gunpowder intensified as if fireworks had just been let off, like New Years Eve had left only a moment ago. We walked past the tombstone like targets that stood solid despite obvious dents into their faces and chunks missing from their edges.
‘Look at this,’ I said and picked up a handful of shattered stone. ‘They’re fresh.’
‘Ha, ha, ha,’ Anne laughed mockingly and pulled me along. ‘Are you trying to scare me?’
I dropped the pieces and thought nothing more of them; Anne made sure of that by kissing my cheek. At the end of the range we came to a sign Enchanted Forest. Not very original, I know, but some big kid, I mean adult, really had put up the sign.
‘Let’s not go all the way to the fort,’ Anne said and kissed my lips. ‘I can’t wait any longer.’
Enchanted or not, it was my turn to lead. We walked along Banksia tree stump pavers large enough for four feet and into the forest, around a few bends and off the track to where I was sure nobody would bother us. I kissed Anne. We pressed hard against each other, pressed more. Her singlet straps fell; she didn’t seem to bother moving them back up. One of her nipples rubbed along the inner of my bicep. Her chest was so taught, nothing like mum’s saggers – sorry mum. I motioned to grab Anne’s chest but she pulled my hand away. I was under a wanting spell and tried again with the same result. We took some time to catch our breaths.
‘Not yet,’ she gasped. ‘I’m not ready to go further.’
‘No sweat,’ I said as its irony tricked from my pores.
Anne pulled her straps up and drank from her water bottle before offering, ‘drink?’
I had a mouthful and was glad one of us remembered a drink. I looked at her, of course I smiled. We sat down.
‘You know,’ she said. ‘I’ve never been kissed before.’
‘Promise to kiss nobody else while we’re apart?’
‘No.’ Anne leant towards me. ‘Promise, I want you to say promise.’
She kissed me on the cheek and asked, ‘How’s It coming along?’
‘Finished it off, just after you left.’
‘What do think?’
‘It’s all over the place at the start, like when dad tries to pull start the lawnmower. When it gets going though, Stephen King, like my dad does an awesome job. I’m fascinated how a monster can take the form of whatever you fear.’ I kissed Anne on the cheek.’ Do you dare to read it?’
‘No.’ Anne kissed me back. ‘I’ll stick with The Thorn Birds and leave Stevie to you.’
‘Your mum wouldn’t let you read it, anyway.’
‘Shut your face,’ Anne said and hugged me.
We laughed and kissed again until Anne stopped abruptly. She gasped and I sensed she wanted to tell me something but instead raised her eyebrows in the way she wanted me to look. I turned around to see a barefooted old man in a dirty khaki shirt and shorts too big for his thin frame, making him appear more anorexic than he already was. His shady limbs looked like salami casings hanging on strings and wobbled unsteadily as if they had been shaken and would never settle. Somehow, he held a rifle in one hand and a frayed hessian bag in the other.
‘You’d better move on,’ he said. ‘The Japs have landed.’
Puzzled, frightened, I looked at Anne, she at me. I wanted to run but was unsure where, how. I wanted to get up but felt paralysed and focused on the old man again. He seemed to be looking for something but kept his eye warily on us. In his bag that seemed to be falling apart, I could make out the tip of a bullet, a pencil and a ruffled up pack of gum, juicy fruit, the ones mum likes.
‘Go on,’ he said, raising his voice. ‘I’d use the path you came in on, if I were you.’
‘Alright,’ I said, somehow managing to squeeze a word out my contracting throat. ‘Just don’t hurt us.’
I grabbed Anne’s hand and pulled her up. We backed slowly away. I could hear my heart thump the inside of my t-shirt as I watched the old man. There was no way I was going to turn my back until we were around a bend. It seemed like ages to we lost sight of him. That’s exactly when we started running. Out of the Enchanted Forest and past the targets to the tower we ran, no breath taken until,
‘hang on.’ Anne puffed.
‘No.’ I also puffed but wanted to be further away. ‘Keep going.’
We ran down the hill and through the tea tree until Anne said,’ stop, that’s enough.’
I bowed slightly and Anne rested her weight on my shoulders. I puffed like an overexcited pet dog that despite exhaustion after chasing ball for hours, still wanted its owner to throw more. Unlike a dog though, no more running for me.
‘What a psycho,’ I said when my breath eventually returned.
‘Yeah.’ Anne still puffed. ‘I wanted to laugh at his over baked chicken legs.’
‘Me too,’ I burst into laughter. ‘I’m never going to forget that kiss.’
Anne shook her head. ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ she said. ‘And we should keep moving – like out of here.’
A little further along the track, I noticed a piece of Juicy fruit and two bullets lying near the edge of the path.
‘He came through here,’ I said and bent down but wasn’t game to pick anything up.
Anne kneeled next to me and pointed. ‘What about that?’
I looked a little further off the path to where a book lay. Its shiny gold plated button and unblemished black leather indicated it hadn’t been there long. I pushed the button and it opened smoothly like a roof opening on a Ferrari convertible, just on a smaller scale though. Inside, the pages were bright white and weighty, obviously of some quality. The first page was blank.
‘What’s in it?’ Anne asked.
I turned to the second page and said,’ could be a diary of sorts, a memoir.’
‘Do you think it’s the old man’s?’ Anne grabbed my wrist.
‘If it is, I sure as hell am not finding him to give it back.’
‘Just leave it here.’ Anne shook my wrist. ‘Come on.’
‘Wait,’ I said curiously. ‘Let’s check it out while we can.’
The second page was not blank and oddly the writing was in grey lead, very neat though with the first capital I, imaginatively surrounded by twirls and knots as if it were not a letter but a tree trunk. I read aloud. ‘I do not write to justify myself or give a reason for my actions. I write solely to tell my story.’
‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this?’ Anne said.
‘Why would anybody write and not want to be read?’ I gazed at Anne.
‘Well, I have a diary and don’t want anybody peeking at it.’
‘After we’ve finished this, I’ll have to find that diary.’
‘No way, sunshine.’
‘I bet there’s something about me in you diary.’ I smirked.
‘Get lost.’ Anne said and tried to give me a bear hug.
I pulled her up, somehow keeping the book in hand. I then lead her away from the track till we came to a small clearing, far enough away from the track not to be spotted but close enough to see people approaching.
‘Are you reading with me or not?’ I asked.
‘Alright then,’ Anne huffed. ‘I’m turning the pages though.’
On the 19th February 1942 around 10am the sky hummed and the ground shook like a giant walked upon it. Air sirens rang belatedly. A swarm of huge gleaming dragonflies with eyes of red circles on their wings and sides approached. The White siris tree shook Vera and me from its branches. I was still seeing stars when mum screamed at us to get inside. I ran towards the back door and into the comfort of her arms.
‘Vera,’ mum shouted.
I turned to see Vera on the ground, not moving. Patch, our Blue Healer licked at her face. The giant’s footsteps closed in on us. Then it was as if the giant stamped his foot into a muddy puddle, except the puddle was not made of mud but dirt that splayed everywhere. The force pushed mum and me to the ground. I blacked out, for how long, I’m not sure.
‘Wait here,’ was the next thing I remember. With her nursing costume in tatters, mum walked around the crater that now occupied our back yard and to Vera who was turned on her side with Patch still beside her. They were both motionless. The smell of freshly dug dirt hovered in the air. The giant’s steps had become like distant thunder. ‘Vera,’ mum howled as she put her fingers on Vera’s throat, then near her wrists. She kissed her and brushed her wavy black hair to the side. She picked up Vera’s limp body and carried her past me into the bathroom. She removed her dirty dress and ran the water. ‘Vera, my girl,’ mum cried as she washed Vera’s hands and forehead, cleaning the blood from her mouth. A rusty stream trickled vein like along the bath and down the plug hole. My sister never moved. ‘Those bastards,’ mum whined. For the next half hour mum hugged me as she held Vera’s hand. We sobbed in a painful duet. The Japs had bombed Darwin and Vera and Patch paid with their lives.
I waited for mum on the front porch, watching soldiers and trucks pass to and by, most were heading away from Darwin.
‘You’d better get out of here, boy,’ one of the soldiers shouted at me. ‘The Japs are coming.’
I didn’t answer. I hadn’t spoken since telling Vera that dad was taking me tracking again once he’d sorted out a deal with the Nackeroos. Dad told me I wasn’t to tell Vera anything as it was supposed to be top secret but Vera promised not to tell. And after all, twins always share everything.
Mum dressed Vera in her best dress and carried her piggy back. The police station was just around the corner on the Esplanade and as we walked I expected dad to run into us as he came to see if we were safe. I helped mum by holding Vera’s legs up; she felt cooler than me. Her lightly framed nine year old body seemed so heavy. I coughed on the black smoke that lingered in front of the post office that had become rubble. We seemed to be heading against a torrent of saddened and desperate people. The further we walked the louder their sobs and confusion became.
‘George,’ mum shouted as we approached where the police station once stood. Bricks lay scattered like the discards of a building site, forgotten and covered in dust. If ever there was a fireplace then it lay strewn as well. ‘Where are you?’ mum pleaded into the dirty vapour the flowed thick from the burning ships on the wharf ahead.
‘You can’t go any further, luv,’ a soldiers voice commanded mum.
‘But my husband’s here,’ mum pleaded.
‘Just over there.’ The soldier pointed to a row of dark grey blankets on the other side of a huge crater.
From one side of the blankets I could see boots of various sizes, some lying straight and others splayed out. There were a few sets of trouser cuffs and white flesh showing, depending on the height of the deceased. An officer came up to the soldier. We started walking but were halted again.
‘No darkies,’ the soldier said. ‘Leave the body and the boy here.’
‘Hang on, private,’ the officer said in an American accent. ‘We’re all in this together.’ He came up close to mum and said, ‘pass me the girl. I’ll carry her.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ mum said.
‘What’s your name, boy?’ the officer asked and patted my head.
I didn’t answer but sensed the officer was a good man.
‘This is my son Albert,’ mum answered for me.
‘Well, there were two other men killed in front of the police station. Part of a secret operation, I believe.’
As soon as the officer said secret, I knew one of those men was dad. Mum and I followed the officer back up the Esplanade to an abandoned area were my uncles used to gather. A pair of soldiers placed dad on a stretcher and began to walk away from us.
‘Stop,’ mum shouted, ‘that’s my husband.’
I wanted to run to dad but at the same time was afraid of his blood, just like Vera’s. Would he never move again? I followed mum in her seemingly surreal walk, imagining we were walking with broad smiles to the front door, to greet dad after he had finished work. His bloody and bruised body soon brought back reality. Mum collapsed to her knees and then onto dad. I thought no tears were left within me after Vera and Patch but when I rested my ear on dad’s sunken chest and heard nothing, my eyes filled with tears and I wept from a pair of overflowing little wells.
‘Where are you taking him?’ mum sobbed.
‘To the hospital morgue as ordered, miss,’ one of the soldiers said.
‘Wait,’ mum snarled and snatched Vera from the officer. She placed her beside dad, wrapping her under one of his limp arms. ‘Please take his daughter with him.’
‘Yes, miss,’ the soldier said and saluted the officer.
The soldiers carried the stretcher off, beyond the smoke. The last I saw of dad and Vera were their white soles. Although they never wore shoes, I imagined shoes being taken off their feet to reveal those white soles, just as if the boots had been taken off all the dead soldiers. Underneath – everybody is the same.
‘No wonder the old man is freaked,’ I said and wiped sweat from my forehead.
‘Shush,’ Anne said.’ I’ve a few more lines to read.’
I looked towards the path, hoping the old man hadn’t decided to trace his steps back. The bullets openly glinted. I thought about kicking them and the piece of Juicy fruit further away from the path, out of anybody’s sight, otherwise the old man would surely stop and look around; spot us. But what if he was already on the path and saw me up to something – that would be even worse. Best to just sit tight.
I waited for Anne to turn the page before asking. ‘Do you still want to leave it?’
‘Let’s just read a bit more before that old codger with the gun comes to mind again.’ She shook her shoulders in readiness and took a deep breath.
The flies had gathered in numbers around Patch. Mum pulled him into the crater and then we pushed and shovelled dirt until he disappeared. It was then I heard the sky in the distance hum again. Mum and I packed an overnight bag each, mostly of mum’s stuff. All I ever wore were shorts and a shirt. I wanted the buzz to go away, get softer but it grew in intensity. I wasn’t ready for those giant’s steps again. Couldn’t someone slay the giant or even trip him over, stalling him at least till we were far enough away.
Air sirens rang and we joined the mass exodus along the dusty road out of Darwin.
‘The Japs are invading.’ A soldier yelled before he pushed his way ahead.
‘Run for you lives.’ A woman screamed as she seemed to scuttle without complex in a torn dress; dirty blood clinging to her elbows.
‘Stay close,’ mum said but I was being pushed along by the mob.
Soldiers and civilians alike jostled for position amongst the rising dust. A stampede ensued and I had become an unwilling participant. Continually forward the rowdy mob pushed and prodded me; made me run when I wanted to walk until I tumbled and the dust took my breath away. I got to my knees and coughed once before being knocked down again. Even with my cheek pressed against the dirt road and the rowdiness of the mob I heard those giant footsteps closing in. I rose on my knees for a moment to see people diving into the ditch either side of the road. I then scrambled down and onto a stranger, a plump terrified man.
‘Get off me, you bastard,’ he shouted and heaved me away.
I clasped my ears with both hands and lay motionless, listening to the muted thuds in the distance, waiting for them to take the ground away in front of me again. The giant kept his distance this time; must have been distracted by somebody else. The thuds eventually petered out.
With the dust settled, people got out of the ditch and started on the road again. If you didn’t know what had just happened the day could have been like any other except for the dark gloomy clouds formed over Darwin that would never shed rain. The smell of the wet season did hover in the air though, despite the big wet still being months away. Several kangaroos watched us from a distance and conversation could be heard again. Although most people were in shock, the running had stopped and a walking with purpose became the norm. I was covered in dust that reminded me of dad when he wiped himself in magic dust ready for ceremonial dance. Mum never let me dance though – where was she? I looked in front of me through the crowd and to the side. I also turned backwards keeping my step as I did. Most the crowd were men as the women had been evacuated with their children long ago except for essential ones like mum. She should have been easy to spot, long black her in a pony tail and wearing a nurses’ dress. The further I walked, the heavier my heart pounded. Questions regurgitated. What if she hadn’t got out of the ditch? What if she was hurt? What if I never saw her again? I had to keep walking; couldn’t turn back. I figured we couldn’t walk forever and wherever we were headed the road would eventually end and everybody would have to stop. I’d find her there. Still, I felt uneasy. I kept walking, looking, knowing the only way was out of Darwin.
In the distance an army truck had pulled over near the ditch. As I got within earshot, a scruffy voice sounded. ‘We can’t wait any longer, miss. Get in or walk.’
‘There he is,’ mum shouted with delight as she walked around from the side of the truck.
Mum, I tried to yell but no sound came from my mouth.
‘He’ll have to ride on the running board,’ the soldier said as mum grabbed my arm.
‘God look at you.’ Mum wiped the dust off my shoulders as she tried to straighten out my shirt. ‘We’ve got a ride to Adelaide River.’ She gave me some water which dissolved the dust in my throat. There were no introductions and before I knew it, I was on the passenger side running board of the Chevy, holding onto a side mirror with dust coating the inside of my throat again. A soldier on the driver’s side running board offered his own advice.
‘Let go and you’re dead meat, boy.’
At first the truck seemed to be going so fast. I struggled to see as my hair kept getting in my eyes. Every time I got the nerve to let go of the mirror and flick my hair away, it flapped back like seaweed after a passing wave. I just had to bare it but in a way my hair protected my eyes from the dust. I sensed the driver wanted to go even faster but was always slowed down by the civilians and soldiers who slowly made their way to the side of the road despite the horn that sounded like ten sheep baaing in unison.
After a while I got comfortable, if you can call it that, and managed to wipe a circle of dust way from the passenger’s window and see mum. She sat in the back, sardined between two soldiers who seemed to be in high spirits. Mum also seemed gay but I could tell she was faking. Her real smile she always reserved for dad. I even heard dad say to her once that he could look into her beautiful brown eyes and stoke her wavy black hair forever. I didn’t know the word then but I know now she must have been a real humdinger.
Just as my grip on the side mirror waned to the point of no return, we caught up to a troop carrying truck that forced us to dawdle. I stood up straight and flexed my back. One arm at a time I dangled and shook, then my feet. I looked across to the soldier on the other side.
‘I’m surprised you’re still here.’ He laughed, coughed then spitted.
There was no overtaking on this track supposedly called a highway. I turned my head and squinted, watched with narrow vision the trail of dust twirl aimlessly away, not able to see it settle, left to wonder where we had been.
Andrew Mansell, March 2014.
Hope you enjoyed the beginning chapters of my draft?
If you want more, let me know?