In honour of Anzac Day, and how the tragedies of war shape all our histories, entangling our stories for generations, here’s an edited excerpt from The House at Evelyn’s Pond: a scene on a European bus tour in the 1960’s. The book and its characters are fiction, but the war stories – including the toes falling off – are from men that I interviewed.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were no more war stories to tell? Until then, we need to honour the people who suffered and died.
|Drawing by ex-POW interviewed for The House at Evelyn’s Pond
For Ian, Gallipoli was a complicated mixture of dutiful nationalism – ‘I’m an Australian,’ he’d said when they voted on the bus route, ‘how could I miss Gallipoli?’ – and inherited resentment that this site had captured his country’s imagination so much more thoroughly than the slimy trenches of Fromelles. Sand and sea are more romantic than mud, though his own father would have been equally bereft if Grandfather Ralston had died on a celebrated beach.
For Jane, Gallipoli was where she’d first realised that she would marry Ian.
Walking hand in hand down from the windswept hill to the beach as Ian related the Anzac history, she had an image of his passing the same story on to children, embellished by this act of walking on the very grains of sand that had soaked up the young invaders’ blood.
As the bus left Gallipoli, Ian extended the story to his own father’s war. ‘He says the worst thing about being a POW was that you never knew what was going on in the rest of the world; he felt like a fool at the end of the war when he hadn’t heard of D-Day or the Kokoda Trail, and he was going to make up for it; same with the First War – never got to meet his father, so he at least wanted to learn something about what he went through.’
Jane explained the World War One deaths that had led to her father’s birth and by extension, her own. Ian couldn’t decide whether it would be romantic or crass to say what a good thing that had been, so continued with his theme.
‘That’s why I voted for Troy too, to get some photos for Dad. He didn’t get very far in school and he doesn’t read much, but what he doesn’t know about the Iliad and the Odyssey wouldn’t be worth knowing.’ He hurried on in case Jane happened to know more than the names, which was as much as Ian had absorbed himself. ‘They wouldn’t have had a book in the house when he was a kid; they did it tough even after his mum married again.’
Fred, younger than Ian was now, torn between duty to country and wife, the appearance of valour versus grimmer reality, had been determined not to leave a child fatherless as he had been left; if his wife was to be a widow, he’d told adult Ian, she should have a chance to live again. Dulcie – Ian was unsure of his mother’s age now or then, but certainly no older than Jane – may have been equally determined that if her man was killed she’d have something to remember him by. She never told her side of the story, at least not to her son, but what is certain is that Ian had been conceived on Fred’s last leave. Or it could have been simple, unbridled passion, but parents and passion are never easy concepts to put in conjunction.
Jane and Ian’s own lives were dwarfed momentarily by the magnitude of these decisions. Unimaginable, the dilemma of going off to face death, of leaving a girl – a wife – either with seed implanted or free to love another, luckier, man. (His mind said girl, wife in generic terms, but the face was Jane’s and the body too, and leaving was a startlingly clear image of her sated in a rumpled white bed – because of course it was themselves they were discussing, obliquely parrying and fencing around the question of how their futures would be shaped, and whether those shapes would be entwined.)
He dragged his mind back to his father, a safer image for a crowded bus. ‘I don’t know how long Dad’s going to be able to go on dairying – it’s hard work, and he has trouble with his ankles and knees; back too, sometimes, from playing football during the war. Cold mornings he can hardly walk.’
Ian was twenty-seven and the story was older than he was, a joke almost, his father coming through the war with nothing but sporting injuries to bother him. It was only now, hearing himself tell it for the first time, that he doubted: of the myriad football accidents he’d witnessed, he could not think of any combination that would injure two ankles, knees and spine.
‘I was three and a half the first time I saw my dad. Went off to meet the ship excited as anything – and then I chucked a wobbly because Mum was hugging this strange man. Poor bloke, what a welcome after all those years in Changi Prison and the Burma Railway – you know, the film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’. That’s the most he’s ever said about it all – reckoned the film was a load of bull, with the bloke working to help the Japs. But I don’t think he ever saw it.’
‘My dad couldn’t watch ‘A Bridge Too Far’, the one about the English losing a big battle in Holland,’ said Jane, ‘though the only war stories he ever told us were funny, like when he thought he’d had his toe shot off, but when he took his boot off the bullet rolled out and the toe was fine.’
‘Dad’s story was that he took his boot off and the toe rolled out! ‘
Jane laughed in shock and felt ashamed.
‘He reckoned it was so cold when he was working in the Japanese mines that when he dropped a rock on his foot, the toe broke off, but he didn’t notice till he took off his boot that night… poor bloke must have wondered what was going to drop off next.’
In this first, overwhelming stage of love, they felt no compunction at carving family history into succulent shock-and-share morsels, or at viewing coincidences as omens, as if the universe had been unable to resist these small parallel connections en route to the inevitable entanglement of their lives.
‘Do you think he got those other injuries when he was there?’ Jane asked. ‘But why wouldn’t he say?’
‘Doesn’t want to upset us, I reckon.’
‘My mother,’ Jane offered ‘never told us, until a few years ago, that she was adopted.’ (She didn’t add, ‘and even then she told my boyfriend first, to win an argument,’ because that still hurt.) ‘She acts as if she’s ashamed of it, which is stupid, because it wasn’t anything she did.’
‘My dad acts like he’s ashamed of being a POW,’ Ian said slowly, ‘and he didn’t have much more say in that than your mum did about being adopted. He said once that his war ended in 1942 – as if he’d packed up and gone home for a spell. I didn’t know even know about Java and Changi and all that till I was thirteen. Then this car just pulled up in the driveway one day, a bloke he’d been through the war with. Dad cried. You know what kids are like at that age – my father and this other man hugging each other, tears in their eyes – I couldn’t stand it; I took off. All I can remember about the visit is sitting down for tea: Dad asked if rice would do. The bloke looked crook for a second: ‘Are you dinkum, mate?’ Dad said, ‘Not bloody likely,’ – and they both burst out laughing. It was one of those things that stick in your mind because you haven’t got a clue what’s going on: Dad saying bloody at the table and talking about rice – we always had meat and three veg; it was like a religion with Mum. I never even tasted rice till I left home – I never thought it might be because of Dad being a POW.’