Fly away peter, p.5
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       Fly Away Peter, p.5

           David Malouf
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  Once he realized this, and had passed his own test, he could relax and enjoy the sensation of just being there. It was exciting. Especially the rush of air.

  But what came to him most clearly was how the map in his own head, which he had tested and found accurate, might be related to the one the birds carried in theirs, which allowed them to find their way – by landmarks, was it? – halfway across the world. It was the wonder of that, rather than the achievement of men in learning how to precipitate themselves into the air at sixty miles an hour, that he brought away from the occasion. And the heads so small!

  So it did give him a new view after all.

  ‘I believe you been up in one a’ them machines,’ his father taunted. ‘I don’t s’pose you seen any white feathers flyin’ about up there. If you did I’d ask you where you reckon they might’v come from. An’ I wasn’t thinkin’ v’ angels. Nor Mrs ‘Arvey’s chooks neither.’

  It was a time immediately after news had come of the landings at Gallipoli and the slaughter of the following weeks. People’s attitude to the war was changing. Even his father, who hadn’t been concerned at first, was suddenly fiercely patriotic and keen for battle. A new seriousness had entered their lives, which was measured by the numbers of the dead they suddenly knew, the fact that history was being made and that the names it threw up this time were their own. Neighbours had lost sons. Some of them were fellows Jim had been at school with. And his father felt, Jim thought, that his son ought to be lost as well. His father was bitter. Jim was depriving him of his chance to reach out and touch a unique thing, to feel that he too had dug into the new century and would not be repulsed.

  ‘I’d go meself,’ he insisted, ‘if I wasn’t so long in the tooth. To be with them lads! I’d give me right arm t’ go!’ And he punched hard at his open fist.

  Only he wouldn’t, Jim thought. He wouldn’t be able to lift his left arm quick enough to keep up with his thirst.

  Jim felt the ground tilting, as he had felt it that first day in Brisbane, to the place where the war was, and felt the drag upon him of all those deaths. The time would come when he wouldn’t be able any longer to resist. He would slide with the rest. Down into the pit.

  Later he was to think of that view from Bert’s plane as his last vision of the world he knew, and of their momentarily losing sight of it when they turned to come down as the moment when he knew, quite certainly, that he would go. He didn’t discuss it with anyone. But two weeks later, after having a few drinks in the pub and playing a slow game of pool, he rode up to Brisbane on the back of a fellow’s motorbike – he didn’t know the man, they had met only an hour before – and they both joined up.

  If he didn’t go, he had decided, he would never understand, when it was over, why his life and everything he had known were so changed, and nobody would be able to tell him. He would spend his whole life wondering what had happened to him and looking into the eyes of others to find out.

  He strolled up to the house next morning and told Ashley Crowther. He didn’t bother to tell his father.

  Ashley nodded. They were sitting on their heels at the edge of the verandah, Jim chewing a match and Ashley, his eyes narrowed, gazing out over the paddocks, which glittered in the early morning chill. Now that the lower paddock had been ploughed and replanted, the Monuments could be seen, standing like ruined columns among the new shoots.

  They didn’t speak about Jim’s work. It was left unstated that the job would be there for him when he got back. The birds could wait. The timespan for them was more or less infinite.

  Miss Harcourt was not so easy. She seemed angry, but cheered up a little after they’d had tea.

  ‘I’ll hold the fort,’ she said, making it sound the more heroic option.

  He went the next day, and it was Miss Harcourt who rode up to the siding with him and waited to see him aboard. He stood looking at her out of the grimy window, her square grey figure among the coarse grass, with the smuts flying back in a cloud towards her as she swiftly receded. She was holding her bonnet on against the wind and clutching at it whenever she tried to raise her hand to wave.

  Jim closed the window, already almost a soldier, and watched the beaten land go flat.

  His father had got sentimental at the last. He had given Jim five quid and tried, as if he were still a child, to put his hand on the back of his neck, which was newly raw from the barber. It had made Jim, for a moment, see things differently, as if a line had been drawn between the past and what was to come, the two parts of his life, and he could look at all that other side clearly now that he was about to leave it. He still felt the weight of the old man’s hand, its dry warmth, there on his neck and saw that his father would be alone now, maybe for good, and knew it. ‘Agh!’ he had said fiercely, ‘you’re the lucky one. To be goin’!’

  Three months later, when his son was safely born, Ashley Crowther went as well, but as an officer, and in another division.


  THE WORLD JIM found himself in was unlike anything he had ever known or imagined. It was as if he had taken a wrong turning in his sleep, arrived at the dark side of his head, and got stuck there.

  Others were involved. Many thousands. And they were ordinary enough fellows like himself. They came from places back home with comfortable names like Samford and Bundaberg and Lismore over the border, and had obviously known similar lives since they spoke the same way he did and liked the same jokes and tunes. They were called Nobby Clarke, Blue Cotton, Jock McLaren, Cec Cope, Clem Battersby, and one of them was a stocky, curly-headed fellow called Clancy Parkett, who was always in trouble. He had first got into trouble on the induction course at Enoggera, then on the boat coming over, and had been in trouble ever since – he had slipped out with another bloke, on one of their first nights in France, and come back with two strangled chooks still flapping under his tunic. He knew some of the best stories Jim had ever heard, ran a poker school, and could down ten pints at a single session. Clancy teased Jim because Jim wanted, in his cautious way, to put every step down firmly and in the right place. Clancy was just the opposite. In real life, in Australia, he was an electrician.

  Coming over on the Borda, and at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain while they were being trained and held back, there had been time enough to get to know one another and for every sort of hostility and friendship to develop. Jim made no close friends in the platoon, nobody special that is; but he thought of Clancy as someone he wouldn’t want to be without. He might have been there always.

  A lot of the men had wives and children and Jim had, over the months, seen their photographs and learned their names. Clancy had a List: addresses as well as names, which he flashed but never let you read. He also had stories about each of the women on his List – for a while he had done project jobs all over the southern part of the state – and Jim heard a good deal about a fisherman’s wife up at the Passage, called Muriel, and others, a Pearl, a Maureen, at places like Warwick and Esk. It was the names of the places, as much as Clancy’s ribald accounts of peace time philandering, that Jim liked to hear. It did him good, it kept the old life real; and he had no stories of his own to relate.

  It was the same later when he and Bobby Cleese, after a trench raid, had spent a whole day and night together in a shell-hole in front of the lines, so close to the enemy out there that they could hear the striking of matches in the trenches up ahead and one man endlessly snuffling with a headcold. It was early February and the weather was freezing.

  Bobby had talked of the Bay, in a low voiceless whisper that itself created mystery and made the familiar seem strange, as if dangerous or forbidden. He talked about fishing off Peel Island where the lepers were.

  ‘Whiting now. that’s a nice fish. Sweet. You can eat pounds of it if it’s softly boiled with a white sauce and a bit of onion an’ parsley in it. Bony, but. I saw a bloke choke once. It was horrible. The best place for whiting is over towards Redcliffe or round the point in Deception Bay. You ever been to Redcliffe, Jim? It’
s got a pier’.

  Bobby’s voice, white-breathed in the cold, evoked the whole blaze of the bay, faintly steaming (it would be summer there) in the heat before dawn, and Jim could see it, almost feel the warmth in his own bones, smell the dirty bilgewater in the bottom of the dinghy and feel fishscales drying and sticking to his feet. It was there, the Bay. It was daylight there. Even as they talked now, far out in no-man’s land under the dangerous moon, it was dazzling with sunlight, or maybe building up to a storm that would only break in the late afternoon. Men would be out exercising greyhounds, and a milkcart with three metal cans might be starting on its rounds. Whiting, thousands of them, were swarming under the blue surface of Bob Cleese’s eyes.

  Jim would have liked then to speak of the swamp and the big seas that would be running at this time of year, king tides they were called, all along the beaches, threatening to wash them away.

  ‘Golly but I’m cold!’ is what he muttered instead. The mud round the edge of the hole they were in was frozen solid. It had a razor-edge of dirty grey where the moon touched it. Ice. They were in mud to their knees and crouching.

  ‘Tell us again, Bobby. About that bloke ’n the fishbone. Deception.’

  But more reassuring than all this – the places, the stories of a life that was continuous elsewhere – a kind of private reassurance for himself alone, was the presence of the birds, that allowed Jim to make a map in his head of how the parts of his life were connected, there and here, and to find his way back at times to a natural cycle of things that the birds still followed undisturbed.

  Out on Salisbury Plain in the late summer and autumn there had been thousands of birds. And earlier in the year, when they first crossed the Channel, at le Havre, after the long train-trip from Marseilles, he had seen from the side of the ship a whole flock of sandpipers with their odd down-turned wings flying low over the greasy water, and among them, clearly distinguishable because so much bigger, knots, that would have been down from the arctic, their bodies reddish in that season – the same grey-crowned knots he might have seen along the coastal sandflats at home, arriving in spring and departing at the commencement of autumn, just as they did here. It was comforting to see the familiar creatures, who might come and go all that way across the globe in the natural course of their lives, and to see that they were barely touched by the activity around them: the ferries pouring out smoke, the big ironclads unloading, the cries, the blowing of whistles, the men marching down the gangplanks and forming up on the quay, the revving of lorries, panicky horses being winched down, rearing and neighing, the skirl of Highland bagpipes. He noted the cry of these local sandpipers: kitty wiper, kitty wiper, which was new, and below them the cry of the knot, so familiar that he felt his heart turn over and might have been back in the warm dunes, barefoot, and in sight of a long fold of surf. Thu thu it went, a soft whistling. Then, more quietly, wut. Very low, though his ears caught it.

  Still eager in those first days, he jotted all this down to be described later to Miss Harcourt. ‘I have seen the dunlin’ he was able to tell her. He had had no notion, from their single specimen, what they would look like in numbers. ‘A great flock,’ he wrote, ‘twisting this way and that, all at once, very precise, with all the undersides flashing white on the turn.’

  Back again at le Havre – it was winter now and they were camped on a greasy plain outside the port – Jim had been ‘picked’ by a big fellow from another company whose name was Wizzer Green.

  He had never seen the man before. He didn’t know what he had done, maybe he had done nothing at all, but something in him offended Wizzer, and while they were still wrought up after the crossing and tired after being marched up, there had been a bit of a fracas in which Wizzer tripped Jim and then accused him of deliberately getting in the way. In a moment they were eye to eye and preparing to fight.

  There were no heated words. Wizzer’s contemptuous challenge hadn’t been heard by anyone else. But he and Jim had, at first sight almost, got to the bottom of one another. It could happen, it seemed. Jim had found himself defending whatever it was in him that Wizzer rejected, and discovered that he needed this sudden, unexpected confrontation to see who he was and what he had to defend. Enemies, like friends, told you who you were. They faced one another with murder in their eyes and Jim was surprised by the black anger he was possessed by and the dull savagery he sensed in the other man, whose square clenched brows and fiercely grinding jaw reminded Jim of his father – reminded him because he came closer to his father’s nature at that moment than he had ever thought possible.

  It was Clancy who stepped between them, and before Jim knew quite what had happened it was Wizzer and Clancy who were slogging it out, but in a different spirit. Their violence was ordinary. They exchanged blows and insults and did and said all that was appropriate to such encounters, while other men gathered in a ring and cheered, but the occasion was not murderous as the earlier one had been. The others – all but Clancy – had backed away from that, recognizing a situation for which there were no rules.

  The odd thing was that Wizzer seemed as relieved as Jim to have the moment defused.

  Clancy, who ended up merely clowning, got a black eye out of it and for days after he teased Jim and refused to let the matter drop.

  ‘I’m wearing Jim Saddler’s black eye,’ he told people. But in no way suggested that Jim had ducked the issue; and nobody thought that. He had been ready enough to fight, ready even to kill.

  Jim wondered about himself. When, afterwards, he left a wide circle round Wizzer Green, it wasn’t out of timidity but from a wish not to be confronted with some depth in himself, and in the other man, that frightened him and which he did not understand.


  THEY WENT UP to Bailleul in cattle trucks, forty to a car. Eight horses or forty men the notice proclaimed. It seemed, even for the army, a rough equation and you wondered who had made it.

  The loading took hours as the various companies were assembled beside their packs and then urged up into the wagons, the last men pushing in. It was cold at first, then hot, and the cars stank. Even after they had hung their packs up from hooks in the roof there wasn’t enough room for them all to sit or sprawl. Many had to stand, pressed in hard against the walls.

  These wagons had once taken cattle up to slaughter-houses. The old smell of the animals was still there in the wooden slats of the walls and in the scarred and trampled floor. They had gone up to the shambles in dumb terror. It was different with the men. After all those months in England, and the days in a holding camp at Ooostersteene, where they had been given gas-masks and taught to use them, they were impatient. Just to be moving was in itself something – that, and the knowledge that you were going to arrive at last at the war. One fellow played a mouth-organ and they had a sing-song. But as the hours passed, twenty, twenty-four, and their limbs began to cramp, and they dried out with the sweating, and were slaked with thirst, it too became intolerable, this next stage, and they longed to get down, it didn’t matter where.

  Still, it wasn’t all bad. You could slide the door open once you had found a place to settle, and if you didn’t mind the cold, and see what sort of country you were moving into. There were roads off in the distance, some of them newly made, each with its own traffic, horses, guns with a carriage and limber, motor-lorries, occasionally a tractor, and columns of men marching in both directions, with officers on horseback ranging between.

  The train slowed many times and jolted to a halt, its wheels grinding, and there was silence for a bit before the men began to curse. Some of them climbed down to piss beside the line; their piss steamed. One or two ran off into the snow and squatted, there seemed to be loads of time; and had to be hauled up again when the train, unpredictably, moved off. Clancy Parkett decided to get some hot water for tea, and while the wagons were still rolling slowly forward, he and Jim, leaving their rifles, jumped down and jogged along the whole length of the train till they came to the engine. They were racing it. Running
easily in the soft French snow. Fellows leaned out of the wagons cheering. When they got there at last, Clancy, who was a bit on the heavy side, was too breathless to speak. It was Jim, as they still jogged alongside, who told the driver what they wanted and showed the billy.

  He was a big fellow with goggles and a moustache, in a blue boiler-suit. A Scot. He thought it very comic to see them jogging along and Clancy so breathless. He called the fireman out to look at them. The fireman, all stripped and sweatily begrimed, laughed out of his blackened face.

  But they got the water, took it, all steaming as it was, on the run, then waited beside the track for their wagon and its familiar faces to re-appear. Jim held up the billy as if it were some sort of trophy, and as each wagon rolled by the men in it chiacked or cheered.

  Jim would never have done any of it alone; but with Clancy it seemed like an adventure, a time out of all this that he would remember and maybe tell: the time I raced the train up to Bailleul with Clancy Parkett – his breathless conversation with the engine driver, the moment of simply standing all aglow in the cold, a spectator, while the faces of the whole battalion passed before them, and the land behind dipping away, foreign, mysterious, in snowy folds, crossed by black highways and tracks but empty of habitation. The tea when they gulped it down in sweet, steamy mouthfuls was especially good.

  They were approaching the front. It was a new landscape now, newly developed for the promotion of the war. There were emergency roads everywhere, cutting across what must once have been vineyards or beet-fields, metalled for motor vehicles and guns, cobbled or packed with dirt for the men, and they were all in use, with men on foot or on horseback moving in dense columns, mules, horsed wagons, guns. Everywhere along the way there were blacksmith shops and dumps for ammunition, guarded enclosures containing spools of cable and great wheels of barbed wire, duckboards, sandbags, planking, solid beech-slabs for the new-style all-weather roads they were laying further up. Tramtracks ran between the roads, and telegraph-cables criss-crossed the earth or were being prepared for with deep slits. It was all in a state of intense activity. Things were being organized, you saw, on a large scale and with impressive expertise, as in the interests of an ambitious commercial project, the result of progress, efficiency and the increased potential of the age.

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