Authors: CM Lance
First published in 2014
Copyright © C.M. Lance 2014
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Arena Books, an imprint of
Allen & Unwin
Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, London
Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available from the National Library of Australia
ISBN 978 1 76011 074 1
eISBN 978 1 74343 813 8
Typeset by Midland Typesetters, Australia
To my family
The beach at Tidal River curves far away, a golden boundary between the mountains and the sea. On Little Oberon there are boulders half a hill wide, lifting like shoulders through the grey-green scrub. I could never put a colour to those rocks and still can’t. Tarnished ash, rusted granite, melted bronze?
I know it must be a beautiful sight. I remember a time when the morning light on those mountains would bring me to a halt with joy, but today I feel nothing at all.
‘Look, darling, it’s spectacular,’ says the post-doc’s wife. He’s staring out to sea and I expect he’s pondering some engineering problem. They’re a nice couple but I haven’t had much to do with them while he’s been in the department: we work in different areas.
I’ve reluctantly taken on the task of bringing them here to famous Wilsons Promontory before they return to London because no one else is free these holidays. But I don’t mind the department owing me a favour, and in my long habit of numbness since Marion’s death I don’t expect this place to move me. Not now.
The woman turns to me. ‘I heard you were here during the war.’
To myself I curse the department’s gossipy secretary. ‘Yes.’
‘Has it changed much since then?’
I laugh shortly. ‘The beach hasn’t. The people have.’
Two good-looking youngsters walk past us with a bag and towels. The girl smiles at us.
‘So soldiers actually trained here? Extraordinary.’
‘Commandos. We’d swim off this beach –’
Commandos? Children. I look at the water and see naked bodies, splashing and chiacking in the surf, back from a ten-mile hike. I see Johnny and Alan lying on the sand. Dark-haired Alan face down, a book beside him; golden Johnny, grinning, sprawled on his back, shameless as a god.
I notice the youngsters shaking out their towels. The girl’s blonde hair swings around her shoulders and I feel a pang of memory.
‘Don’t forget the bus leaves at five,’ says the post-doc. ‘How long from here to Foster is it?’
‘About an hour. Let’s go.’
We walk back beside Tidal River, with its tea-brown waters that ebb and flow with the moon. Near the car park the couple divert to have a closer look at the commando memorial. I skirted around it earlier but there’s no avoiding it now. The double-diamond and dagger shape on top looks
like a TV aerial. Then I see the dark blue colour patch up high. Must be made of enamel not to fade, I think, trying to ignore the thump in my gut.
I hang back but can’t help hearing the woman read aloud, ‘“During 1941 and 1942 the 1st to 8th Independent Companies, the colour patches of which appear hereon and two New Zealand Units, were formed and trained in the Darby and Tidal River areas.”’
‘That’s appalling,’ the post-doc says. ‘Doesn’t anyone know how to use commas nowadays?’
His wife turns to me. ‘Was your company one of those?’
‘Ah, the 4th.’
‘Which colour were they?’
‘I don’t remember. Look, we’ve got to get a move on or we’ll be late.’ I set off abruptly for the car. My throat is tight and I wish they weren’t here.
I take the high road between Fish Creek and Foster to show them the panorama from that spot where the grass is worn away from everyone else stopping, like us, to stare. There’s Wilsons Promontory, mountain after indigo mountain, to the right. To the left, rolling green Strzelecki Hills. Before us, fields dotted with sleek cows, and beyond, wide blue Corner Inlet. As it ever was.
My passengers are going on a tour for a week before returning home. Their bus is waiting near the park in Foster, engine rumbling softly. They thank me for taking them to see the Prom and the post-doc says how much he enjoyed his time in the department and we shake hands.
I say, ‘I must go, I’d like to be back on the road to Melbourne before dark, it’s a few hours from here.’ I wave goodbye and get into the car.
Then I surprise myself by driving down the street and booking in for the night.
I try the Exchange in the middle of town first but the barman says they don’t do rooms anymore, so I go to a nearby motel instead. The walls look as if they haven’t been painted in twenty years, but the bed is comfortable. I hear the occasional car passing outside as the light fades and cool air drifts through the half-open window. I get up, shut the window, put on my jacket and walk over to the Exchange for a meal.
The steak isn’t bad, nor the beer. Better than back then, anyway. The fire’s a pleasure too, and I have another beer so I can watch the flames through it. I realise the girl serving at the bar is the one I saw at the beach this afternoon. That’s not surprising, Foster’s a very small place. She reminds me a little of Helen. But not really.
The toilets are inside now, not out in the yard. I suppose the old ones are long since demolished, along with the letters I carved in the wall with a pocket knife that night before leaving for the Prom.
. My fingertips tingle with memory.
I don’t expect to sleep well but I do. Still, I’m alert at first light and lie snug in the warm, hearing the sweet gurgle of magpies in the dawn outside. What will I do today?
It’s the holidays – Easter 1982 – no reason to rush back to Melbourne. The children have their own lives. Terry’s a teacher, two kids and a nice wife. Sue’s a vet, never married, lives with her friend Gail. The situation was always clear to me but it used to worry Marion. She said
a mother shouldn’t ask but, I expect, after everything, she didn’t want to know.
The bathroom is cold but the shower’s warm and my shoulder gradually loosens up. The face in the mirror, all auburn stubble and rust-grey hair, doesn’t much gladden the heart, but at least I’m still lean. If I squint – a lot – I can almost see the tall young man who used to swim at Tidal River.
I keep a small bag of essentials in the car so I’ve got the means to civilise myself: that’s what my dad Danny used to say, shaving with his open razor in our humid bathroom in Broome, on the other side of the country. Dad, with the same green eyes as me, dead these ten years now.
I pay for the room at the desk and buy some apples at a shop. I get into the car and head back to the Prom.
I’m enjoying the drive, the views from the hills and the low Yanakie fields, looking forward to the rising switchback past Darby River and that breathtaking moment at the top when you come round the corner and there’s Bass Strait right in front of you, with all those rounded rocky islands like the Prom’s baby mountains. I wonder for an instant why I’ve stayed away for so long, but then I remember why.
I’m almost at the Darby Saddle when I see a car by the side of the road, the rear tyre flat and a girl in jeans looking into the open boot. I pull over, get out and ask if I can help.
Unsurprised, I realise she’s the girl behind the bar who’d reminded me of Helen: this really is a small place. She looks at me with gratitude, then recognition.
‘You were in the Exchange last night,’ she says. ‘Thanks so much. The spare’s flat as well, damn it, I meant to fill it up the other week.’
‘That’s no good,’ I say. ‘Can’t use my spare either.’ My car’s one of those little Japanese things – used to be my wife’s – but this is a big old Holden.
‘Can you give me a lift to Tidal River? They’ve got a public phone and I can ring my boyfriend.’
She takes her bag from the front seat and we settle into my car. I’m a little surprised she’s so trusting, but then remember that’s how it is in this part of the country.
‘I’m Mike Whalen, by the way,’ I say.
‘Lena Erikssen. This is great, you coming along. There’s so little traffic out this way in the mornings. I wanted to grab a swim, won’t be many nice days now before it’s too cold.’ She considers me. ‘Weren’t you at the beach yesterday too?’
‘I was showing a couple of tourists around. Thought I’d have a quiet look at the place again today by myself.’
Her hair is wavy and reddish blonde, I see now, and her eyes turquoise; not the same as Helen’s thick gold hair and sea-blue eyes. But she still looks familiar.
‘I used to know an Erikssen family here, oh, forty years ago now,’ I say. ‘Not related to John Erikssen by any chance?’
‘He was my grandfather. He died in the war.’
‘Good God. You’re
At that moment we get to the point in the road where you come round the corner and there in front of you, like a revelation, is the teal of the water and the high soft clouds and the round silvery islands. But this time I see gold, not silver. Just gold and blue.
‘So your grandmother … Helen? Is she –?’
‘You know my nana?’ Lena says. ‘She’s great. I’m named after her. Well, sort of.’
Of course. I pull over to look at the view. A pain I cannot believe possible twists my heart for a moment.
‘I never get used to the sight either,’ she says, glancing at me.
We go back onto the road and ten minutes later we’re driving into Tidal River. I point to Mount Oberon rising steeply to the left.
‘We had to run up there when we started training. If you couldn’t make it they sent you home.’
‘You and my grandfather?’
‘Yeah.’ I smile at the thought of Johnny, glorious Johnny, being called a grandfather. But no, he was never a grandfather. He barely got to see his son, let alone this nice young woman.
I drive slowly along the narrow road past the few blocks left from the war. They took the huts away after they moved the training school to the tropics in 1943. Some bright spark realised, yeah, this place was usefully brutal as hell, but maybe stinking hot and wet, not freezing cold and wet, might better prepare men for island war.
Stupid idea. Nothing could have prepared us for that.
Lena rings her boyfriend from the public phone and tells me he’ll be at her car in an hour with a new tyre, then he’ll come and pick her up.
‘Sounds like a nice bloke,’ I say. We’re eating apples and walking along the track to the beach.
‘Pete? He’s fine. But I’m not in any hurry to settle down, I want to travel first. And I’m doing uni – second-year physics.’
‘Physics?’ I’m impressed. ‘Which uni?’
‘You’re kidding. I lecture in engineering there.’
‘What, you’re a real professor?’ she asks teasingly.
‘You’d better believe it, young lady,’ I say with mock dignity.
We’re walking over the sand towards the water. A few people are scattered around but the only sounds come from the hissing surf and the seagulls.
‘Nana’s pleased about uni. She hopes I’ll end up teaching at the local high school, but she knows I’m off to see the world first!’ She laughs and suddenly I see her dimples, like Helen’s. She gets her towel from her bag.
‘Can you mind my stuff, Mike? I really want a swim.’
Lena takes off her jeans and T-shirt. Beneath she’s wearing a one-piece blue swimsuit. She walks away towards the water, completely at ease in her youth and beauty. For a moment she’s so much like Helen my eyes sting.