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.”
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.
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.
“I work until 1 pm on Saturdays,” she wouldn’t tell me where “I can meet you at Gibbys on Collins Street at 2 pm. You know where that is?”
“I grew up in Melbourne. Everyone knows where Gibbys Coffee Lounge is.”
She smiled at me. Not too big a smile and definitely not a come-hither smile, she was too classy for that.
We had danced together since I walked into the hall.
Fitzroy Town Council had allowed a women’s auxiliary to put on a dance to entertain the soldiers who were home on leave. I’ll bet the councillors believed it was better to have the servicemen all in one place instead of roaming around looking for an excuse to defile their daughters.
During our second dance (I had to give the glare to some Army sergeant to get him from cutting in) I told her that I only had a couple of days leave before I was due back in England.
My dark blue uniform and the gold wings on my breast pocket didn’t hurt my chances with the ladies. All girls love a uniform, but she wasn’t a girl, and I think that she looked past the uniform, which made me nervous — I don’t reveal myself to people easily, especially not women.
She was a few years older than most of the young women at the dance. I could see it in her eyes.
Before the War, there were groups of men and women who would come early to a dance because they wanted the floor to themselves. They came to dance, and anything else that might happen was secondary.
Molly was an unofficial member of this unofficial association of lovers of dance.
The hall was beginning to get crowded, and Molly’s friends were tugging at her sleeve.
“Come on Mont; it’s getting past that time.”
I must have looked quizzical because she said to me, “Friends call me Mont. My little brother couldn’t pronounce Molly, and it stuck.”
“I don’t care what they call you as long as you meet me tomorrow. Don’t forget that I’m due back at the front.” I placed my hand over my heart in an exaggerated silent movie pose. She smiled again — just a little one. She understood my World War One reference. A beautiful face, not frightened to smile, well dressed on a shop girl’s wages and she has a sense of humour. I’m going to enjoy this leave.
During our brief encounter, I did manage to find out that she worked in a ‘Sweets Shop’ somewhere in the City, but when I pressed her, she said, “The details are boring. A person needs to eat so a person works. It’s better than working in a Knitting Mill and not as good as working as a nanny, but it pays the bills. Well, half of the bills. My sister pays the other half.”
Her friends whisked her away, and they were soon absorbed by the ever increasing crowd, and I was left to ponder how I was going to fill in the rest of my evening.
I wandered around looking for a drink and maybe a little trouble, but in the end, my heart wasn’t in it. I found a place that was selling sly grog, but other than that, trouble wasn’t looking for me. I didn’t really mind. My senses were still reeling. I could hear her voice, and I could smell her perfume. She had style and taste. Her perfume must have cost more than a week’s wages.
The RAAF had me billeted at a small hotel on Lt Collins Street. I could have travelled to Ferntree Gully and caught a bus to Belgrave, but I knew how my mother would react. She’d have invited all the neighbours and any relatives within a hundred mile radius. I couldn’t face the fuss. I’ll visit them on Friday and be on my flight on Saturday night. This is precious time, and I don’t want to spend it travelling around. One day of having my father look at me with those sad eyes is about all I can take. He was in the trenches during The First World War, and he saw what happened to flyers. He’s convinced that the same thing is going to happen to me.
I’m strongly ambivalent about death — my own that is. On the other hand, I have to stay alive, or my crew don’t make it home. Bombers don’t fly themselves, and every time we go up, they expect the crazy Australian to bring them back alive.
The other crews are starting to look at us strangely.
We have never had a crew member injured, let alone killed. We refused to paint a naked woman on the side of our ship and we didn’t give her a name.
Half of the other crews think we are crazy and will not come home one day and the other half are beginning to believe that we are charmed.
I don’t know what I think, and just now, all I’m interested in is getting to see that well-proportioned woman with the dark wavy hair and the great legs.
I grabbed a few hours sleep, walked around the city and down by the Yarra River.
I caught a number 12 tram up the Collins Street hill and sat on the Parliament steps until just before 2 pm. I enjoyed savouring these few moments before I saw her again. Gibby’s is only a short walk from my place of solitude.
I can find solitude in the midst of bustle — chaos even. In the briefing room where other pilots would moan when the night’s targets were read out — in the air with flak bursting all around us. On a good day, I can even find solitude under the clocks at Flinders Street Station.
This was a good day, but I was looking forward to more than solitude. A woman in the depth of her beauty and me just back from a place where beauty was hard to find. She could never understand and neither would I want her to. My father knew that — he never spoke of his War, never marched on Anzac day except for that one time. I’ve never met any of his Army mates, and I asked him once — only once, and he said that most of his mates lay in foreign lands and the ones who did come back with him dispersed themselves to all points of the compass. None of them wanted to remember, and now I know why. Who would want to remember constant terror — constant responsibility.
She was sitting at the table by the window.
Gibbys isn’t a large shop; there’s room for about six tables, and the store counter is toward the back of the shop. A glass fronted display case is filled with cakes. The back wall has glass shelves displaying coffee pots of various sizes and ground coffee in discretely marked packets. There seemed to be only one staff member, and she was young, bored and surprisingly efficient. The decor was simple with only two paintings on the walls — a scene from Paris painted by someone who had never been there and a country scene with lots of Gum trees and a river.
I got the feeling that she chose the seat by the window so that I could see her as I walked along the street.
The top end of Collins Street is leafy and high class. Lots of doctor’s rooms and exclusive clothing shops; the type that only have one dress in the window without a price tag and you go in if you can afford not to ask “how much is that green dress in the window?” The shop girl would never say it, but she would be thinking, “If you have to ask, you cannot afford it,” and she’d be right.
Molly was sitting quietly reading a book.
She wasn’t sitting in the window when I went past on the tram, but that was almost forty minutes ago. However long she had been there she looked like she belonged. If I owned the shop I would pay her to sit there — she gave the place a sense of style.
A simple white hat sat on the chair next to her, and her matching white gloves lay on the edge of the table. She wasn’t wearing a watch, but she was wearing an antique brooch. White and green stones, not precious stones but tasteful and old, probably from a time when people took pride it what they made, and others took pride in what they wore. Her dress was white with green flowers, definitely not what a shop girl would wear so she had gone home to change, wherever home was it was close by. More importantly, she wasn’t wearing a ring. She was just as pretty as I remembered her. As I entered the shop, she looked up from her book and smiled at me while removing her reading glasses. She has green eyes, how could I have not noticed last night.
“Captain,” she held out her hand, and I took it gently, “you came.”
“Did you doubt that I would?” She smiled, and there was a lot behind that smile.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Eventually. I did a bit of walking around before sleep found me. You?”
“No. I tossed and turned, and my sister complained because she has to be up even earlier than I do.”
“Was it me that kept you awake?”
“You think a lot of yourself, Captain.”
“Not really. I just thought that the question might make you smile. I like it when you smile.” She tried not to, but her face betrayed her. In the midst of that suppressed smile, I saw a look that said she wasn’t a woman to be taken lightly.
“What would you like to do this afternoon Miss ….?”
“Holmyard. Molly Maria Holmyard.”
“The Molly Maria sounds Irish, but the Holmyard doesn’t.”
“Irish on one side and Spanish and Danish on the other,” she said.
“I thought we could go for a walk through the Treasury Gardens and maybe find somewhere to eat in the city when it gets dark?”
“I would love to walk with you Captain, but I can’t keep calling you Captain.”
“William — William Smith, but you can call me Bill.”
“Well, William, I would love to go walking with you, but I’d like to finish my tea first.” This was a gentle hint. I’d sat down and started talking and had forgotten to order.
“Will they let us drink tea in a coffee shop?”
“I think they will if you ask them nicely.”
I asked the girl behind the counter for two teas and a couple of sticky buns, and I did it nicely as my mother had taught me and as befits an officer in the RAAF.
We talked about nothing until the teas arrived, which did not take very long.
The shop was half full and mostly with couples like us. A corporal with his girl who hung on to his arm as though she feared he might suddenly bolt for the door. Two civilian couples. The bloke in the blue suit had that look in his eyes that I’ve seen a hundred times. When they got up to leave, he took his girl’s hand and no matter how hard he tried he still walked with a limp. He gave me the nod as he walked by and I gave him the nod right back. It’s a funny thing that — the nod that men give each other when they recognise a fellow traveller.
“Do you have anyone in uniform? I asked.
“If I did, I would not be sitting here with you.” She wasn’t mad, but she was firm.
“I’m sorry, that was rude, but in my defence, I only have four days before I’m on a transport heading back to Blighty. I don’t want to be treading on anyone’s toes, and I don’t want to be wasting my leave.”
“I’m not spoken for, I don’t have a boyfriend, I’ve never been married, and I have all my own teeth, at least for now.”
“How did you get this leave? However short it may be.”
“I have no idea. It’s rare to get leave to come back to Australia. Local weekend leave is hard enough to get.” I sipped my tea which was hot and strong and took a bite of my bun.
“My crew don’t mind because they don’t have to fly until I get back. Maybe the brass believes that we have been pushing our luck. We are the only crew that hasn’t had a fatality. We are kind of a good luck charm for the squadron. They pulled me into the CO’s office after our last mission. We lost almost half our group that day, and we were all exhausted. I thought I had done something to annoy someone important, but I was told that our aircraft was being pulled out of service for a few days for major servicing and I was required for a special mission. My co-pilot and navigator as well. They told me that I could say no, but there was eight days leave and a return flight to Australia if I agreed. No one asks your permission in the RAF they tell you what to do and you do it. This was genuinely strange, and when I asked if my crew were to receive leave as well, they said yes, so I said okay and what did they want us to do.”
“It must have been a dangerous mission for them to have asked you and given you so much time away from action?” She was staring into my eyes, probably trying to imagine what this all felt like.
“I was told that I’d be flying a Dakota to France at night. Landing behind the lines on a small field that was just long enough to land on. We had a passenger. A very young woman –some sort of spy. She was so young and innocent, and I thought to myself for the first time, that the Allies were in real trouble if we had to resort to dropping young women behind the lines.”
“Did you land safely?”
“My navigator earned his money that night. They had chosen a moonless night, and we only had a few seconds of a bonfire to guide us in. When we got to where the field was supposed to be there was no bonfire.”
“What did you do?”
“I asked my navigator if we were in the right place and he said that he was sure we were. I flew over the field once and hoped that we would see the signal, but none came. Dakotas make a hell of a noise, and if we went by again, there was a good chance that there would be a hostile reception committee waiting for us. So, I called the young woman up to the cockpit and asked her what she wanted me to do. She seemed determined to go ahead with her mission so I turned and dropped through the trees. I swear that the propellers were in danger of cutting off a few branches. We touched down, and as we got to the end of the field, I had to turn her around before we had washed off enough speed. The Dakota tipped up on one wheel, and I thought we were in trouble, but the propeller only grazed the grass, and I was very happy to be facing in the right direction and in an upright position.”
“That’s what I said, but I used slightly more colourful language. Our navigator made me promise that we would never volunteer to do anything like this again. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t sure we had enough space on this field to take off. We would be slightly lighter, but the young woman and her tiny suitcase weighed about as much as a large cat.”
“Did anyone shoot at you?”
“No, and I’m pretty sure that whoever was supposed to be there to meet her wasn’t there either. My co-pilot and I put our feet down as hard as we could on the wheel brakes, and I opened the throttle as wide as it would go and the plane started to skid along the grass with the wheels locked. After that, I released the brakes and held on until the last possible moment when we pulled back on the stick as hard as we could. It didn’t take a genius to work out that we were not going to make the trees at the end of the field. I didn’t pull the gear up because I hoped that it might help to slow us down if we crashed. We clipped the treetops, and for a moment I felt the plane hesitate, as though she was insulted by being flown into trees, but then she started to climb, and everyone took a breath.”
When I finished my tale, she sat for a moment and looked at me. I could see her visualising what I had just told her.
Her sticky bun had disappeared very quickly, and it crossed my mind that she might be hungry.
“Have you had lunch? Can I buy you anything else to eat?”
She hesitated before saying, “No, it’s okay, I’m fine.”
She gathered her hat and her gloves, and I took this as a sign that she was ready to leave. When I looked at my watch, I saw that an hour had gone by, but it felt like only a few moments.
I stood back to let her walk by. I paid the girl behind the counter, and she looked disinterested when I thanked her.
I opened the door, and we stepped onto Collins Street.
I reached out and took her gloved hand, and she didn’t pull away.