Authors: Ray Clift
Also by Ray Clift
The Journey of Hamlyn Baylis Wells
Always In Denial
Maybe Blue Ghosts
It's a Fine Line
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My everlasting thanks goes to my family: Ann, who gives me the space, feeds me and is always there; my daughters Kerry and Jo and their partners for their continual support; and all our grandchildren.
Smithy climbed the few stairs, passing by old Ted the black Labrador, deaf and happy with his frequent naps and snores. He straightened his front legs, stretching and wagging his tail slightly, yet would not respond to the urgings of his master to climb the stairs. He sat with his chin resting on his front paws, his eyes were wide open, unblinking and starey with a look of fear on his features.
âYou've seen things a dog shouldn't see â haven't you, mate?'
Ted whimpered in reply.
Smithy saw the moonlight with its cascade flittering down the curtains which were hand-made by Joan many years ago. The pleats still hung firm and straight along with the hems all proudly sewn in a time when happiness and adventure held pride of place in their lives.
He looked at Ted before entering the master bedroom. âI wish you'd met her, Ted.'
The dog groaned in response as if he had picked up the vibration of his master's voice, yet he still refused to look up.
Smithy stood in front of the mirrored robes and gazed at the figure which sent a message to him of long ago when he was an SAS trooper in the Australian Army. The mirror replied without any sound being heard, âSlack soldier,' and the reflection spoke back, âI agree.'
The neighbours would have heard the vigorous teeth-brushing ritual with the tap being turned on and off: the ceaseless water
hammer replying each time until the ritual was finished. David Alexander Smith hated wasting water. Gargling sounds would have also been heard and clocks would have been set at 1800 hours by the folk next door â signifying the nightly news was about to commence. He wiped his face on the unwashed lavender hue hand towel which was kept inside Joan's glory box and brought out after the wedding in 1969. He gazed at the towel and knew she would have hated his neglect of her treasured gift.
The 1800 news held no interest for Dave. He entered the robes and tossed his clothes on top of the expanding pile of crumpled food-stained articles, discarded, ignored and hovering parallel with the plimsoll line. He squatted in the small space which he had cleared, enabling his slender hindquarters to fit comfortably just like he did when he made hides in South Vietnam. He found a comfort within his space in the wardrobe and he was able to dwell on the musty smells, some having a residue of camphor flakes. Those odours revealed evocative moments of long ago when he was vigorous and buoyant.
His frozen smile remained when he remembered how they jived together and the dance hall clapped
Edward Smith, usually called Ted (Smithy named his dog Ted in honour of the patriarch of the family), would never have gone off the rails like his son. Smithy knew his father had a life which was preordained. It was as if a parchment had fallen from great heights without damage, with a mission inscribed.
The parchment had acquired creases with age, built up red dust from the Mallee farming country. Some microdots of spillage might have faded the parchment rules yet the mission remained intact like an unmovable granite boulder.
Edward walked out each day at the same time and mounted the giant tractor with his two dogs already in the cabin, tails wagging and yelping in excitement. He was armed with sandwiches
lovingly made the night before by his wife Maud. Beef and pickles one day, cheese and chutney the next. An apple munched later to clean his teeth and great swigs from his screw-top bottle of black tea, no sugar, no milk. Off they would roam all day over the vast broad acres of wheat, barley and oats She would welcome him home at dusk and the family ate together. Sleep would prevail after he counted the stars blinking through the skylight, shining the bedroom. What wonderful times, he mused
There came a time after Maud died when he missed the years of stability. However, Ted still worked the land with Smithy's brother Adam. Smithy loved to reflect on those times.
He thought about the walking frame they bought for Ted. It slowed his pace and his injuries from his time as an army engineer in World War II did not help. Although it made him appear brittle, the power in the man was obvious. When he spoke anywhere about anything, people stopped and listened, as if Moses had returned with an addendum.
âWhat would he think of me now?' Dave grimaced, thinking of the enemies he had killed in battle from his hidden spots.
The killing outside of the military caused him some nightmares, however, and he struggled putting the thoughts aside in the way he usually did â in separate folders, as if his mind was a computer.
He rose to his feet and threw a yellowed robe with his initials emblazoned in bold green and walked to the mirror.
âAm I searching for my real self? There's a double marching alongside me. Is it taking over?' And those thoughts flooded his dreams in the cupboard, the lounge and the bed. âWill I be forgiven?' was a thought which remained in focus during waking hours and in sleep.
I was born in 1947. The war had ended and the broad-acre family farm in the Wimmera district in the Mallee country of Victoria had returned to a version of normal in the two years after hostilities had concluded, though some rationing had continued.
A handle was delivered to me when I was a baby and it stuck. My Uncle Ron was a blacksmith and a sapper in the Engineers, fighting alongside Edward, my father. Ron spotted my red face and legs and proclaimed in his loud voice (developed above the hammer blows and to counter his slight deafness), âGonna be another blacksmith? Another Smithy?'
My older brother Adam was about seven years of age when I was born and my grandparents and he busied themselves with all the chores until Dad marched in the door just before the war ended. Adam was, and still is, a role model of how to be a great older brother, gentle yet tough, and those big hands put many a bully on his back. I guess he and Dad were always my heroes. They taught me how to watch the signs in the sky, the movement of clouds, flocks of birds, ants, and how to fashion metal in our old ramshackle blacksmith shop stuck idly between two sheds years ago, so that the old roof could be joined without further beams. Very economical, versatile and ingenious.
Such trivial lessons formed the foundations of focus, confidence and appreciation of stillness and silence which I would need to become a sniper.
Maud married Dad before the war. She was a country girl, a good
basketballer. The other teams got out of her way when those legs of power thundered down the court, carefully shouldering opponents out of the way. She was also the greatest cook anyone could find and a woman of endurance. Life was easy in her estimation and she never sought higher glory. Her bulk never changed yet she dressed in a fashion which suited the bulk and always covered up her hairy upper lip. She was rarely angry but when her hackles did rise, signified by clenching fists and twitchy fingers, we all made ourselves scarce, including Dad and the grandparents. If you were in her space when her head went down and those dark brown eyes looked up under her eyebrows, it was too late because she could reach over and deliver a sharp slap on the side of the face.
Dad never did the smacking, it was left to Mum, though it was infrequent. Dad was wise yet I knew Mum had hidden knowledge not often revealed and I heard some of it later in life when her Country Women's Association friends visited. I used to move about quietly (and still do) and stood stock still when Mum answered a question about marriage.
âRelationships are like falling over a waterfall together: one may be stuck on a rock while the other makes a clean breast of the landing.' And then her favourite: âRelationships can start off all gold and glitter yet in time they can become tarnished. That's why most of us settle for the next stage of gilded, dressed up for the sake of appearance. Relationships are like water, remaining fresh only by flowing.'
Jean, who was her best friend, leaned over and addressed the group. âI told you all she has many parts.'
The group nodded and Mum's face flushed, I presume because of the compliment delivered by the assembled group.
Ted was like the coxswain on a boat and steered us in the right direction. Apart from some drunken trips on Anzac Day â and he was a gentle drunk â he rarely fell off the perch. He was, however,
pinched for drunken driving after an RSL reunion and lost his licence for six months, which meant he had to employ an extra hand to drive him around. Adam had joined the navy for three years and was in training.
Mum's hairy lip bristled like a shoebrush, in spite of her daily applications of Veet hair removal, and it grew until Dad's licence was restored.
I excelled at sports and in the army cadets. My life was full, like those of the country kids at my school. We sledged each other and played jokes, at times we fought and the cane was applied, yet my marks were good.
My friend Blackie the kelpie always sat in my room and watched when I played my war games inside the giant cardboard box which I rescued from the flames of the incinerator and adorned with cut-outs from
magazines depicting battles. There was headroom when I sat in the box. In my unguarded moments Blackie snatched the Sherman tank and could be heard under the bed chewing, growling and rolling it over, refusing all attempts from me to retrieve it.
Once, we were out together roaming around when he spotted a large red-bellied snake. He chased after it. I called out to him and ran towards the small hill and looked down. He lay prone, his hind legs convulsing, and foam came out of his mouth. I looked at his throat and saw two puncture wounds and some blood. He closed his eyes and died right then, in front of me.
I saw the snake slithering away. Without thought I caught its tail. As it tried to swing back at my head, I spun it around like cranking an engine over with a crank handle, faster and faster, and I jumped near the big red gum tree, bashing the head of my enemy repeatedly, over and over till it was still. I yanked out my knife and cut it to pieces and the tears flowed. I yelled out, âI've got him, Blackie. I've got him,' and then I sat down.
I staggered back home with his body in my arms and my tears were stuck to my face with the red dust which was blowing from the north. I must have looked to my parents like an Aboriginal warrior coming back after a battle.
âGive him to me, son.'
Reluctantly I handed him over to Dad and I saw tears welling in his eyes. The tough old farmer and soldier loved all the dogs.
âWe'll bury him by the dam. He loved that spot,' and off we walked later in the night when it was cool.
I helped with the digging. Blackie was wrapped in a clean hessian bag. I placed his Sherman tank and the bits of the snake in the hole. Mum, Dad and I said a little prayer (they believed in God and attended the Catholic church).