Tobruk

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Elizabeth was up before the sun.

Our apartment was bathed in the golden glow from the lamps that she had strategically placed around the room when we were setting up house together. It was only a few months ago, but it could have been years.

I have to get up in the dark — sparrows fart, my dad used to call it. The building industry starts early and is packed up by four, which works out well because the pubs shut at six — on the dot. The ‘wowzers’ rule this town.

A stray hair had fallen across her face as she cooked me eggs. She’d given up on brushing the hair away — too much effort.

“You don’t mind if I go back to bed when you go do you, Michael?”

“Of course not. I would if I could. Oh, and I’ll be a bit late tonight. I’m meeting Philip at the pub. I’m going to tell him what we’re planning. He could come in handy.”

Elizabeth didn’t answer. I don’t think she’s sure of Philip. I understand why she’s wary. If I didn’t know him he’d worry me too. He’s been through a lot and every bit of it shows on his face. He came apart at the stitching after Tobruk. They stuck him in this godawful hospital full of blokes who had lost touch with the real world.

They discharged him from the army once the Japs packed it in and told him he was cured.

He has trouble holding down a job.

He gets flashes.

He remembers stuff and his reaction scares the shit out of people.

I want to look out for him, but there is only so much I can do.

“Don’t drink too much. Remember we are going out dancing tonight — our new life,” says Elizabeth.

“Can you collect my dinner suit for me?”

“I’ll do it before I clock on at work,” said a very sleepy Elizabeth as she placed perfect scrambled eggs in front of me. I pulled my chair in closer, grabbed my knife and fork and dove right in.

In the army, you eat when you can and you develop the habit of gulping it down with one eye on your rifle. There are no guns in our apartment, but my habits are still echoing where I’ve been.

“Top tucker kid. Shakespeare would be proud of your eggs,” I said.

Elizabeth looked at me through dreamy eyes.

“What’s Shakespeare got to do with my eggs?”

“Apparently, he loved scrambled eggs. Wrote some of his best work on a stomach of Mrs Shakespeare’s eggs.”

“My head hurts. Put your dishes in the sink when you go. I’ll do them later.”

I finished my breakfast, picked up my jacket — it’s supposed to rain later in the day, and went into the bedroom. Elizabeth was fast asleep, rolled onto her right side facing away from my approach. I slipped my hand under the covers and leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Her hair fell across her face.

“If you keep your hand there you are going to be late for work,” she said.

I wiggled my fingers and she jiggled her whole body.

“Until tonight then,” I said and I removed the intruding fingers. She turned her head and smiled at me. I love that smile. I could fall into that smile and never be seen again.

I walked, rather uncomfortably, out of our apartment and down the stairs, making sure that the front door was locked leaving my sleeping bride safely inside.

I didn’t notice how hard the work was that day. My mind was firmly in the future.

I arrived at the pub a long time before Phillip which was very unusual for me, I’m always late.

Running on ‘Arab Time’ someone once called it, and it’s true, I like to take my time, I don’t like to be rushed, so I sat and had a ‘small beer’. When the bartender asked me what I wanted I asked for a Melbourne Bitter.

I saw him go for the big glass, but I knew it was going to be a long night, and I also knew that Phillip could drink, so I said, “Just a little one thanks, mate.”

He hesitated, and I thought that was because no one ever asks for a small beer. He found a small glass and filled it, looked up at me and said, “You did mean the beer didn’t you mate, you weren’t referring to me?”

I honestly had not noticed that this bloke was barely five foot three.

Without hesitation, I said, “No, mate. I assumed I was standing on a box.”

He smiled.

I think he was just winding me up, but for a second I noticed that he had an Irish accent, and I knew that this encounter could have gone an entirely different way.

My quick and casual response probably defused what might have become ugly, and I was amazed at how relaxed and loquacious I was considering the roaring headache that was developing into a migraine.

My guardian angel must have been paying attention.

“When were you demobbed?” he said.

“How do you know I was in the army?” I said.

“In this job you get to read people. The eyes mostly.”

Now that he mentioned it, I knew what he meant. My mate Philip has it written in large letters across his face, but most blokes try to hide what they have seen — it inevitably shows in their eyes.

“Did you see much action?” said the barman.

“Kokoda, Tobruk, Palestine and a couple of other buggered up places.”

“I was at Tobruk. I thought I recognised a fellow ‘Rat’.”

“I wasn’t sure I’d get out of that one,” I said. I’d never said that to anyone, but a bloke who was there would understand.

The barman nodded and continued to polish glasses.

“Don’t take this the wrong way digger, but how did you get into the army? I had fuzz between my toes and they almost didn’t take me.”

“I lied about my height,” he said and we both laughed.

“Good luck digger,” I said and I meant it.

“You too mate, cheers.”

I sat quietly in a corner looking out the window and enjoying the passing parade. It was late in the afternoon and those workers who chose to start very early in the morning were now starting their journey towards home or beer or whatever they had been looking forward to all day.

The migraine I had been gestating showed itself in what has become known as ‘the light show’. Wiggly lights that trace a path across my line of vision.

The build-up is unpleasant but once it gets going things settle down quickly as long as I avoid intense light  — working in the sun doesn’t help. If I get my hydration up I’m fine—- hence the small beer. Don’t laugh, beer is one of those unusual substances that can cause or cure almost anything.

For a small beer, it lasted quite a long time and when it was almost gone Phillip appeared behind me and off to my left. My peripheral vision is pretty good even on a bad day, so I could see him standing there looking at me for several minutes. When I eventually turned and looked at him he laughed.

“Never could sneak up on you, you wary bugger,” he said.

I stood up and we hugged each other the way that blokes who have been through something together will do.

“Did you come from work?” I said.

“No. Got the sack. The mad buggers kept looking at me.”

“Mate, you need a job and blokes are always going to look at you if you explode at the slightest thing. Did you hit anyone?”

“Just a little bit.”
“How do you hit someone ‘a little bit’? One of these days someone is going to call the cops and being a returned soldier will only get you so far. Every second fucker is a returned soldier these days.”

“I know, but they shouldn’t look at me.”

“Wear a funny hat. That way they really will have something to look at,” I said and he laughed and for a moment I saw the Phil that I used to know, before the battles, before the hospitals. The bloke who rescued the kitten during ‘basic’. Kept it hidden from the Sergeant. Gave it to a little girl who lived in the Milk Bar near the camp when we got our marching order. I remember that bloke and I wonder if he is still in there.

“I’ve got a crazy idea of how we can get ahead — make something worthwhile after all the destruction. Are you interested?”

“You, me and Elizabeth?”

“Yes. All three of us.”

“I’m in,” he said and I hadn’t told him the plan yet. That was typical of Phil. He had followed me into far worse than nightclubs and movers and shakers.

“Just tell me what you need me to do,” he said.

“First up, you need a shave and a haircut and you need to get your nails done,” I said and Phil looked at me like I had asked him to stand up and sing the national anthem naked with a rose between his teeth.

“Can you get your hands on a dinner suit, a good one?” I said.

“Me dad still has his. I think it’ll fit me.”

“Good. Can you get your hands on a couple of service revolvers and some ammo?”

“Now you’re talking my language. Who we gonna shoot?”

“Take it easy. I’m just thinking ahead. They might come in handy one day. Never know what trouble we might find ourselves in. Best to be prepared,” I said and Philip nodded in agreement. I knew that he would wear a gun more easily than a good suit. But he would have to learn, otherwise, he would stick out like a sore thumb.

Phil bought another round and I told him to shout the tiny barman, “Tobruk,” I said and he knew what I meant.

With the frost forming on our beer glasses I told Phil of my plan. It sounded a bit thin in the telling, but it was richer and more fleshed out in my head.

Elizabeth, Philip and I had one thing in common, we were all good at seeing opportunities and rolling with the punches. Not that anyone had ever punched Elizabeth, but you know what I mean.

My dinner plate was on the stove resting on top of a pot of hot water.

“I got hungry,” said Elizabeth, “so I’ve eaten. Your’s should be okay. Nice and hot.”

I wrapped a tea towel around my hand and moved the hot plate to the table — chops, potatoes and peas, yum.

Elizabeth was at the table cradling a cup of coffee. I could smell it over the aroma of my meal.

“Philip is in, even though I don’t think he has the slightest idea what he is getting himself into. It will be interesting to see how he scrubs up in his dad’s dinner suit.”

“He scares me a little bit, Michael. He’s changed so much.”

“I know he does, but he adores you — would do anything for you.”

“That’s one of the things that scares me,” said Elizabeth.

I laughed.

When I finished my meal we did the dishes together.

“Now that suggestion you made this morning, the morse code you tapped out with your fingers? Do you think we have time before we go out? Before we launch our new career?” said Elizabeth.

“The night doesn’t really get going until eleven,” I said as I grabbed her. She kissed me and I kissed her back and afterwards we fell asleep until the alarm went off and our night’s work began.

Elizabeth looked like a woman born to wealth and I felt like we could take on the world as we stepped through the door.

The old lady from 315 stepped into the hall and let her cat out.

“Good evening Mr and Mrs Styles. Off out for the night, are we?”

“No. We’re off to conquer the world, Mrs Nunn.”

Mrs Nunn and her bemused smile stayed with us all the way to the Hotel Menzies ballroom.

The Protest of Romance Against the Commonplace of Life

 

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As far back as anyone can remember, there was the three of us.

Of course, there were others — friends, relatives, enemies, confederates, liars and parasites. But through it all, we remained untouched, unsullied and unconcerned.

My main job was to not favour one over the other — a clear course to disaster.

They both wanted me, and the feeling was mutual, but to fall in love with one more than the other would pull our world apart.

I’d loved them both — not at the same time, we were too young to be that creative or that unselfish. Our carnal adventures were played out over the raging fire of adolescence. We could not; would not see any further than our triumvirate.

I’m younger in years but older and wiser. I put a gentle stop to our naked activities, and it has been that way ever since — not an easy feat.

We are closer than family, fiercely loyal and dangerous to cross, as certain people have found out.

There are ‘sticks and stones’ to deal with from time to time, but we’ve heard all the jealous jibes, and they roll off us before they even make contact.

The concept of ‘friends forever’ seems to be a belief of the young. Life pulls friendships apart, but our goal is to be the exception.

Small cracks are beginning to show as our careers begin to accelerate and war looms, but for now, we are here together, and the sun is shining, and the breeze is cool.

If yesterday is a foreign land then tomorrow is a promise never fulfilled — give me today every time. 

Solitude.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy very talented friend John built this little retreat at the bottom of his garden. He lives on an ordinary suburban block but he has transformed it into a wonderland. This is one tiny part of that wonderland, and it is my favourite. I have not visited for a couple of years and I’ll bet that there are new wonders to behold. John is one of those blokes —– always on the go. His house is just as amazing as his garden and it is a place to renew your soul.

This photo includes my talented son before he grew his beard

The Devil Went Down To Brunswick Street.

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This story is now published as part of the anthology ‘Loyal and True’.

I never wanted to go to my grandma’s on Christmas night but I always had fun when I got there.
Mum said that all the time, “You’ll have fun when you get there”.
She was right most of the time but it still cheesed me off whenever she said it.

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My grandma lived in a large old Italianate Victorian house on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy.

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It stood out then as it does today because it has two concrete fountains in the front yard [you don’t see that everyday] and because it is the only house in a long row of old double story shops.
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When you are a kid you don’t want to be dragged away from your new toys even if there is the promise of a party or other kids [mostly cousins] to play with and some serious cakes.
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My aunties would all try and outdo each other when it came to heart stopping cream cakes.
My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
My mum was an excellent cook but my aunties were not far behind and one aunty in particular enjoyed that I complimented her on her cakes. She saw it as a victory over my mum and I saw it as a chance to get more cakes! A bit of flattery went a long way with my aunties and in my day cream cakes were a luxury only to be seen at Christmas, birthdays and the occasional other special occasion, so I was not going to miss out.
As I said, my grandma’s house was huge with a long hallway running down the centre of the house. The backyard was not huge but it did have it’s own bluestone stables, as well as back gates that led to a side street!
All of these things spelled ‘kid heaven’.
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I had heaps of cousins about half of which were a few years older and the rest were around my age. We all got on reasonably well so there was always fun to be had.
My grandma was pretty old and I don’t think she knew what a vacuum cleaner was so once us kids got going the house looked and smelled like a speakeasy, only with us it was dust not smoke.
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Even now if I go into a dusty room it takes me back instantly to that house.
My cousin Phil and I were about eight months apart in age and we got on well so I looked forward to seeing him. Unfortunately he suffered from asthma and all the running around combined with the dust was too much for Phil.
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My mum suggested that I sit with him somewhere quiet out of the mayhem. I didn’t mind, I liked the guy and I felt for him partly because in those days asthma was seen as a wimpy disease; at least amongst us kids it was.
It happened every Christmas and it got to the point that I would learn a few stories [mostly provided by my dad] so I had something to take Phil’s mind off the fact that he might not be able to take another breath.
It hadn’t happened yet but one of my aunties and one of my cousins would die suddenly from this affliction and my dad’s life was significantly shortened by asthma and the panoply of experimental drugs they gave him over the years.
I tried to come up with new stories each year but Phil would always ask for one particular story.
It involved the devil.
I doubt that it was the way I told it, although I had plenty of practice, but he loved this story.
We were at different Catholic schools and it was the early 1960s so the devil got plenty of ink in our little world.
The story went a bit like this.
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The Devil and the Drover.
Once upon a time there was a drover who had a big heard of cattle that he had to drive across the outback. They needed to be at a certain town by a certain time but he was not worried because he had done this run many, many times.
As he was slowly moving his herd across the outback he met a strange man. The drover wondered how this man had arrived out here in the desert.
The ‘man’ introduced himself as ‘the devil’.
The drover thought he was kidding but it might explain why he did not seem to mind the heat.
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The devil told the drover that he could have anything he wanted and all he had to do was to give him his soul.
The drover thought about it [who wouldn’t?] but eventually he said no thanks.
The devil was very angry and stole several of the drover’s cattle and took them down a big hole which presumably, led to hell.
As you can imagine the drover was not very happy, in fact he was pissed!
The devil thought he had the best of him but he didn’t count on how tough and resourceful a drover can be.
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The drover rode to the nearest town and spent all the money he had on a wagon filled with blocks of ice. He drove the wagon back to where the devil had stolen his cattle and he parked the wagon on the edge of the hole and started to unload the ice.
They were big blocks and the drover threw them one by one into the hole.
When the wagon was about half empty the devil popped up out of the hole that led to Hell and started to shout at the drover.
“Stop dropping ice into that hole, you are putting the fire out!”
“Give me back my cattle”, the drover replied with passion of his own.
The devil refused so the drover went back to emptying the contents of the wagon into the hole which led directly to hell.
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The devil was furious but he had to give in as it was very difficult to restart the fires of hell once they had gone out.
The drover got his cattle back and he made it to market just in time to collect his fee.
The next time the drover did that run he took the long way around.
No sense tempting fate.

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My cousin recently sent me this photo. This is my grandma’s house as it looked in the 1950s. This is approximately when this story is set. It has not changed very much.

‘for toys and small offenses’

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This story is now published as part of the anthology ‘Loyal and True’.

Somewhere along the line there was a falling out. 

Reyes Polio, Darren Sylvest, Robert Zadrozny and Gavin Fernadez were friends since kindergarten.

No one was sure if it was money or a fight over a girl but either way they had not spoken for more than a decade.

It was a remarkable friendship that had lasted through many disasters so there was always hope.

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Elizebeth Reedholm, who knew all four men decided to do something about the situation.

After a lot of cajoling she managed to arrange a get together at a local outdoor cafe.

You could feel the tension as the four men arrived. There were signs of reconciliation, but it was not to last.

Someone said something about someone and the old wounds opened up.

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All four men left in a huff.

The empty table and chairs; a testament to pride and ill chosen words.

“Old friends become bitter enemies on a sudden for toys and small offenses.”

Robert Burton

 

The People You Meet and the Books You Read.

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“You are who you are today because of the people you meet and the books you read”

Charlie Jones

 

Being able to get out and about is one of the great delights of home schooling. You are not restricted by the walls of a classroom and the restrictions placed on you by our modern obsession with ‘health and safety’.

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Photo credit: http://incertain2.wordpress.com

Our home schooling journey included many excursions, some special and ‘one off’ and others normal and ‘every day’. Life is for living and children are interested in the everyday life of their adult parents. I have mentioned elsewhere that we turned our weekly supermarket shopping trips into an investigation of prices and value for money in our local area. This was practical maths in action not to mention all the work that went into deciding which foods should be included in the survey. This project led on to a discussion of which goods are made in Australia and which companies are Australian owned. This led to an investigation into what goes into our processed foods and what affects these ingredients have on us. The boys got quite good at understanding what the various codes on the containers meant.

One of our regular journeys took us to Knox City Shopping Centre. Now, I’m not a big fan of shopping centres, and I never have been but this was where Dymocks book stores had a branch which stocked an extensive range of Star Trek books and our boys were avid readers in general and specifically of this series.

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The staff and the owners got to know us very well and would often stock certain titles because they knew the boys would be interested.

Money was always tight at our house and being on one income didn’t help but we somehow found the money for books. We were so pleased that the boys enjoyed reading and we wanted to encourage them.

After a very pleasant time at Dymocks1 we would wander over to the food court for a sandwich and a drink.

Our favourite place was Cafe Navona where we were often served by an older waiter named Chris. Our boys named him ‘Farouk’ because he reminded them of a character from the movie “The Castle”.

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Chris was always friendly and would spend some time talking to the boys and it got to the point that we would all look forward to seeing him and disappointment would set in if we turned up on his day off.

As the boys grew older and began their working lives we stopped visiting Knox City, or should I say that when we did go there we got in and out as fast as possible.

Amazingly the café is still there after all these years though the bookshop has gone (the ABC shop is the only bookshop left at Knox City). Naturally we were pleased to see that one of our old haunts was still in business so my wife and I stopped for refreshment. I spoke to the young lady who served us and tried to describe Chris to her and asked what had happened to him. She said that he had passed away a few years earlier.

I was surprised by how upset I was at hearing this news. Chris was only one story in our long adventure but I felt sad to think that he was no longer out there doing his thing.

I sent a message to Andrew and Matt letting them know that Chris had died but we have not had time to discuss him since. I’m not sure what their reaction was but I know that I am sad.

Chris was an important part of our journey and I would like to think that he is up there somewhere serving delicious sandwiches and teaching young people the value of gentle conversation.

Thanks Chris, you are remembered.

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Terry Barca is the author of ‘SCHOOME: An Adventure in Home Schooling’ http://www.schoome.net