Anna Spargo-Ryan is a writer and digital strategist from Melbourne. She has written for Overland, Kill Your Darlings, The Guardian, The Wheeler Centre, Mindfood, GRAM, and various other places. She was a panellist in the 2014 Digital Writers’ Festival. Her first novel will be published by Picador in 2015.
This story appears in Issue Nine of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and buy a copy today.
Four months after Lieutenant Colonel Abner was hacked to pieces in the jungle, six hundred men were demobilised. Under the liquid sun they packed their bags to board the boat, and in September they set foot once again in their arid land.
Through the New South Wales hinterland and into the Victorian greenery, Archie Keneally’s train beat a regular drum. He was one of two hundred returned men and women, young and old, heading home to their dogs and their children and their armchairs. They travelled through the night, and he slept and woke to the familiar sound of other breaths.
Perhaps he had imagined a different kind of homecoming—a lucid and beaming father with his smile wide, a bright mother with her worries over. But there was just a cloudy morning and the clang of the trams, and the young man standing alone on the footpath with his pack by his side, and the buildings tall and close together, a different kind of jungle.
Late in the afternoon he boarded his beach-side train. Children stared at him with their lily faces. You should say thank you to that man, said the parents, and some of them did. A girl with a blue hat moved to the seat by his, showed him a feather she had found by the river. The scenery moved, and it was familiar and foreign all at once. Houses he knew, but only because he had seen them on a postcard or read about them in a book. Surely he hadn’t lived here, surely he hadn’t smelled that air before. He gave the girl a piece of chewing gum. She touched his hand.
In Sandringham he disembarked, knees stiff where he’d taken shrapnel meant for the man next to him, the one who had fallen with his face in the mud.
Archie’s father was a short man with a firm handshake, and he greeted his son from behind the fly-wire door. The older man’s hair had receded right over his crown, and he stared back at the soldier with his grey eyes.
“Archie,” he said.
“Yes,” said Archie.
George Keneally fried a piece of bread and an egg in butter, and the two men ate together on the verandah.
“You got a dog,” said Archie. “You must have been lonely.”
The older man said nothing.
“What’s its name?”
“Mac.” He wiped his hands on his pants and took the plates inside.
Archie unpacked his. He had drawers for socks and for pants, but there was nothing to tell him where to hang his helmet.
When the sun clung to the tips of the sky, Archie took the dog through the scrub land behind the sea. Women watched their children play in the shallows, hands on hips, and somewhere farther back a man in a khaki hat nursed a stump that had been an arm. He tried to piece them together, but his head swam with other beaches, and the cold and the black.
“Where have you been?” said the elder Keneally man. The door banged in the wind.
“At the beach,” said Archie.
“How was it?”
They ate together at the vinyl table under the heavy-handed ticking of the clock, their plates half-full of sausages and peas. Finally Archie said, “When are the others due back?” and his father stared at him.
“They’re not,” he said.
The peas were soggy like spit-balls.
In the evenings he took up one particular corner in his local public house, and he watched. Some of the men he might have recognised from the jungle or the boat or the hospital, or maybe he didn’t. Their faces all looked somehow the same—low eyes, lined cheeks, but then so did his; he noticed it each time he bothered to shave, which wasn’t every day.
He nursed his drink for hours. The nights smelled of whiskey and women with ivory mouths. They peered out from behind their hands and sometimes he took one home, and other times he left them for some other bastard. His father never mentioned them, though he must have heard the pounding of Archie’s heart as he rolled down their stockings. He buried his face in them and smelled Wau, the wet and throbbing jungle air.
“Did you see Hitler?” The women loved to ask about Hitler, worlds away, just a man with a silly moustache.
“No,” Archie said. “I was in Borneo.”
They pitched their heads to the side. “Where on earth is that?” And he took them again into the shadows, pushed against the toilet stalls with their knees bent.
From time to time he woke with a face staring back at him. Blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes; they all stared the same, like he had saved the world. “I’ll make you some toast,” he said, and stood in the kitchen with Mac around his legs until Mary or Edith or June came out in his shirt like she owned it, and didn’t even notice the blood on the sleeve.
“Jam?” he said.
“If that’s what you like,” said Mary, or Edith, or June.
At night he lay on his back in the bed he’d had since he was six. After two weeks he stopped pretending that he would sleep, and stared at the ceiling instead, and he dropped back in to the jungle, to the roar and the quake of choppers and the burning smell of gunfire. They were all trapped there, under the monsoon rain, under the fear of the invisible men, men flung into the canopy to wait for the crack of a branch underfoot. Alex McCrae’s hot breath on Archie’s back. Men in trees. Night after night the impact tossed McCrae like a doll, and how do you comfort someone whose legs have been blown off and his hair caught alight, maybe, just for a moment until the humidity dampened it and Archie could hear nothing but the piercing of his ear drums and the pounding of his heart.
He blinked in the darkness.
Mac the dog came to church, tied to a post outside and fixated on the doors. Reverend Petersham spoke in a soft tenor—“Let us give thanks for the loved ones God has returned safely to us.”—but everyone knew his son had fallen in the sunken fields in France, and not just because his eyes were wet. The collection tray went around and Archie gave what he could, which was not even enough to buy a newspaper, and his back ached against the hard wood of the pews. If they raised enough money, a memorial would be installed on the bay road: Francis Petersham; Elizabeth Gordon; Giancarlo Abelli; Norman and John and Henry Pearce.
His brothers were older. Norman the oldest, married with two sons of his own. He had joined the army at eighteen, shaved and pressed and upright, and every day his wife kissed the photo on their mantelpiece and crossed herself. They were safe, tucked inside their belief that joining early meant staying out of the front line.
John had a black moustache and, if asked, the scar was from a bar fight and not a slip on a kerbside. You’re a baby, he told Archie from around his cigarette, What would you know about war? They had been stationed together in Townsville, and in the breathtakingly cold mornings Archie would look across the parade grounds and John would pretend to fire at him, and then the sun was in their eyes.
Bonjour, mon amour! John learned enough French to get by, he said. Faisons l’amour? and he rolled with laughter and sweat dripped from Archie’s nose.
He imagined John in Paris, guts spilling into the cobbled street, wondering why he had never learned Je meurs but maybe no one was there to listen anyway.
His father tapped his foot, put a pound note into the hat.
Henry was missing in action, they said. So many were, that was the trouble. Locked in POW camps, or deserters with thick Russian wives, or buried under the dirt without their names. They would probably never know.
After the service, Miriam Callaghan slipped into step beside him, but when he looked at her face he couldn’t make out the features. “Are you going to the dance?” she said, at a distance. “Archie?” He walked home in the rain, carrying the weight of his brothers so his father didn’t have to.
Some part of him felt envious of them, lying in a field and never walking in the corridor with ghosts.
On Saturday afternoon he took himself to see a film. The train shook like a snickering old woman, and he watched the bay flashing by in its grey peaks. He looked at a woman in a felt hat. He touched his fingers to the window.
In the cinema foyer he saw old friends: Leo Grantham with flat feet; Nancy Tindall, coiffed and teased in a brown dress; Emily Barrington, soft and ruddy as autumn.
“Keneally,” Leo said, “you’re home.”
“That’s what they tell me,” he said.
Emily invited him to sit next to her in the cinema, and she touched his elbow with her hand while they watched A Matter of Life and Death in Technicolor.
“So, how was it?” Leo said. He had a smooth, round face pale as paper, and eyes that seemed inked on.
“That David Niven did a fine job,” said Archie.
“Not the film, Keneally!” Leo laughed. “The war. How was it?”
The day Leo had been excused from conscription, the two of them had sat on the beach and compared their sand-covered feet. Archie’s, appropriately arched. Leo’s, not suitable for Army issue boots.
“I watched a man cut off a girl’s hands and let her bleed to death in the street,” said Archie.
“Sounds exciting,” said Leo, and he was smiling. “Two whiskeys.” Emily hung close to Archie’s arm, like a medal.
When the bar closed and he sensed the woman had grown tired of listening to Leo’s gloating, Archie offered to take Emily home. She guided him along the beachfront, where the water kissed the sand and then abandoned it.
“You’re limping,” she said.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
“My Pa had a sore back, after the last war.” She had skin like pulled silk. “He said swimming helped.”
“Can’t hurt, can it?” Her hand moved past his. “Maybe I could come with you.” She slipped inside her brick house.
On the Wednesday he took Emily to dinner, and his ears were still ringing with gunfire. They ate pea and ham soup and she wanted to go dancing, but he hadn’t worn the right shoes so they went walking instead. The night was warm. On her suggestion they stepped heavily across the sand and to the end of the jetty, where they looked at the moon slung low in the sky. Sea birds slipped long and slow across the surface of the water, plucking at unlucky fish before disappearing on a hollow wind.
“I like it here,” she said.
“I do too,” he said, and he wasn’t at all surprised when her lips tasted of salt. She didn’t flinch, but pulled his hand to her collarbone. “It seems I am quite fortunate to have you in one piece, then.”
He kissed her again on her moonlit mouth.
George Keneally was not the type of man to entertain guests, but he had spread out a gingham tablecloth and rubbed his handkerchief around the wine glasses. Emily arrived on time at quarter-to-six, and the three of them sat in the front room, where the light had begun to dip away behind the water.
The clock tick-clacked away in the hall until the oven timer rang. Archie had stuffed a sorry looking chook and boiled some limp carrots, but the cutlery gleamed under the naked bulb, and so did Emily. He couldn’t say whether it tasted any good, transfixed as he was by the way her mouth smiled while she ate; the way she made eye contact while his father talked about the bank; the burning heat where his own ankle rested against hers.
After dinner they did the dishes together, and Archie stared straight ahead and her shoulders moved so close to his skin, her collarbone and her shoulder blade and the softest skin around her neck and he stared straight ahead and dried the dishes with his left hand.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said.
“I like to help,” she said.
It wasn’t even as if there were many dishes, really. Just the three plates and cutlery, and the brown roasting pan. But an hour had passed, maybe, or at least it felt to Archie as though it had been an hour, once he managed to pull himself away from staring straight ahead, once he managed to look Emily in the eye and thank her for her help. Her eyes, brown as coffee, brown as chocolate, eyelashes like crowns, and Emily just looking out of them without realising.
“Tea?” she said.
They used the blue and white china, the ones with bamboo and women sitting in gardens. She had her tea with milk and two sugars, and he had his tea with no milk and no sugars, and his father just had water. Tick-clack. George took out the old Chinese checkers set, and the three of them played into the night—Emily winning, and then George winning, then Emily, and Archie barely finishing a single game because how could he, with her fingers moving across the board, lithe dancers, and her laughter like a bell.
The hall clock chimed ten, and his father said, “I’m going to turn in.” and maybe he winked as the corridor swallowed him. “You probably want to get home, too,” Archie said. He knew just the way her skin would feel against his skin.
“Could you drive me?”
He took the keys from the hook. The smell of her, flowers and apricots and a northerly wind. The night had the chill of early winter, crisp at the edges. She drew up next to him on the bench seat, slipped her arm inside his arm.
“It’s so cold tonight,” she said.
“That’s the trouble.” She looked to him with eyes full of stars and he nodded, no longer understanding the language at all.
He watched her in the kitchen, round as buttons, cutting carrots around their child with her arms barely reaching. The flat had seemed so big, once, with its separate living room. It had seemed infinitely large enough, with space for two lounges and Emily’s mother’s dining table. But it was minuscule now. Emily cried out as she crashed from one counter to the other, her belly more enormous than even she realised.
He stopped in at the bakery on his way home from the bank and bought her everything he could think of: lemon cakes dripping with tart icing; a sponge cake rolled in sugar and cinnamon; a cream bun. They ate it all together and listened to the football on the radio and the rain on the window. She declared the baby to be a St Kilda supporter, and it kicked her hand and Archie declared it to be a Melbourne supporter. And she smelled the way she always had, like a summer day with the back door open, like people walking hand in hand.
Late the next afternoon she retired to the couch and stayed there. She said. “The baby is enormous.” and she laughed as it rolled under her hands. “Arch, come and feel this!” He drew his fingers across her pulled skin, along the tear of inelasticity and the brown smudge from bellybutton to pubic bone, and the whole lot moved with all the grace of an elephant. But her laughter. “Isn’t it incredible?” she said, and he watched the roundness of her laughter and it was incredible.
She had the baby in the Mercy Hospital with three doctors looking on, and he waited in the hall with the other would-be fathers, and they shook each other’s hands and nodded and said, “Oh boy!” a lot. One of them bought a round of drinks, and another handed out cigars wrapped in plastic. The women cried behind the walls: “I hate you!” and “I can’t do it!” and the men paced along the linoleum corridor.
When the three doctors emerged from Room L4A (Maternity), they rolled up their sleeves and took away the cigar, and sat Archie down in a plastic chair.
“You can’t go in there,” they said. And they kept saying it until Tuesday, when he had to bring Emily’s pink cardigan, and ask her how to make the pork sausages because Mac would be expecting them.
They had taken the baby by then. Just a white-walled room with a tiny woman in its centre, and she wore a lilac nightgown and she turned her head down as far as it would go.
“Emily?” he said.
“You can’t be in here,” the room said.
“Emily, I brought your pink cardigan,” he said.
“She doesn’t want it,” the room said.
He sat in the corridor for three days, listening to Emily breathing on the other side. On Friday, he took her home and tucked her in to bed, and didn’t even mention that it was spaghetti and meatballs night.
When Joseph was born the following spring, Archie smoked a cigar in the hall and the other men whooped and cheered. He had forgotten the baby’s name. Carol. Susanne. Helen. That much was unsurprising; the birth certificate had come in the post and Emily had torn it to pieces.
The home was out east somewhere, near the hills. Maybe he would go there one day, if he could remember who to ask for.