The War Hero Christine Betts
Merle stood motionless at the window. She pulled aside the tattered curtain, just far enough to see but not far enough to be seen. The children ran down the street laughing, not looking back, just happy to know they’d caused some grief. Cries of ‘witchy poo’, like an echo in her head.
“I’ll have to go out”, she mumbled to Henry.
She waited a few minutes, staring at her own reflection in the dusty window, trying not to think how much easier it would be if Henry could go out and do whatever it was that would need doing. Shaking her head, she pushed resentment down and, gathering her strength, she made her way slowly to the door. She would have to go out to the garden and fix whatever it was they had broken or pick up whatever it was they had thrown, but she had to be sure no one was watching, and she had to lock the door behind her, to make sure no one went inside. And she had to check the back door was locked, even though she never opened it and the stairs had long since given way to time and termites. Life had become very complicated.
“I’ll only be a minute” she assured him, assured herself, and checked the door again, leaning against it until she was sure all the children were well and truly gone. Waiting, she mumbled about the state of the world and about how it was in her day, doing her best impression of a cranky old biddy. The world had changed; she told Henry so every day, and anyone else who’d listen. She’d become one of those funny old ladies.
The world used to be so simple. There were memories in the back of her mind, of things she’d rather forget, but those things had happened a world away from mango trees and year-round summer nights. In 1939, you knew what was going to kill you, now it was anyone’s guess.
A jet went over and she smiled the same smile she always used for the memory of the days when the international airport had been a tin shed, and that was only 15 years ago. She remembered when there were no houses perched on the hill behind her, and the trams still ran, back when Carina was a new suburb and newly-weds wanted a little cottage, not a mansion. People today are idiots, she thought. She would tell Henry that later. Idiots. But not in a bad way, most of them, just in a way that was sad. They were stupid but they didn’t realise it. And that was sad. They wouldn’t know how to cope if they had to ration their butter or petrol and they certainly wouldn’t cope with digging the trenches they’d probably be buried in. People today were weak and spoiled. She would tell Henry that, too.
She thought again about the trenches. She grimaced the way she always did when she had that thought. And as always she remembered next the rows of graves in northern France. Shivering. Then she remembered the year they’d put in the Jacarandas to honour those who fought for crown and king and then thought she remembered when people were kind. The days when she knew the doctor, the butcher and the baker, and the girl in the chemist shop didn’t have a plug in her ear and a ring through her nose, not even the nostril part anymore, but the middle part, like a prize bull. She smiled at that thought. A real smile, because that was a new one. She looked forward to telling her husband that one. The girl at the Amcal with the black plug in her ear. She had no idea why, but it had to have been fashion. She wasn’t an idiot. Just young and she would realise her mistakes and take the plug out. Merle wondered what would happen to her ear when the plug was pulled out, as it invariably would be, because a woman could not grow older and become a mother with a plug in her ear and a ring through the middle of her septum.
“I’m going out now, out into the garden’, she called again to Henry and he said something back but she didn’t know what and she couldn’t be bothered asking him to repeat it. He’d gotten a little stroppy the last time. She turned the lock and carefully opened the door. Pulling her threadbare hat over her eyes she checked the key was in her hand, compulsively, as she let the door click shut behind her. God knows what she would do if she locked herself out. God knew Henry wouldn’t know what to do.
There were only three stairs ahead of her, but they were broken and littered with fallen leaves and purple blossoms and newspapers faded to white. She’d talk to Henry again about getting the gardener back, she thought, and made a note to really hammer home her point. She warily surveyed the street and using her cane, made her way down the stairs, glancing up again at each successful step, silently celebrating each descent. Reaching the cracked concrete path, she shuffled as quickly as she dared to the new mail box, the only new thing she’d bought for the house in quite a few years, but found only catalogues and real estate flyers. The bin was kept beside the gate for just this reason. There were small mercies. The Richards guy hopped out and put her bin out every other week. He was the grandson of the nurse at Greenslopes but he didn’t have to do it. There were still good people in Brisbane, she reminded herself. (He had earrings in both ears, and he was nice. She’d tell Henry that.) Merle hoped he never left the job. It was a bugger of a thing to get that bin out onto the street and the council lady was sympathetic but said they really couldn’t leave it out all week as it was a hazard, and she didn’t want someone to sue them. Merle couldn’t help adding another thing to her list of things that were better in the 30’s.
She tucked the catalogues under her arm and let the flyers fall into the over-grown garden. Mulch, she said to herself. It was then that she noticed the little pile of carefully wrapped sandwiches and biscuits, half eaten fruit and a muesli bar. She allowed herself a chuckle. The little kids had dumped their lovingly-prepared school lunches in her yard. It was a small act of defiance that really did no harm to anyone, except the poor mums making the lunches that don’t get eaten.
“That’s just kids”, Merle said, as if to somebody. But little kids get bigger, and it was the big kids you had to watch; the ones that smash up letter boxes and throw eggs.
“Does no one wonder what’s up when 15 year olds buy 2 dozen eggs at the supermarket?” Surely no-one thinks they’re making Pavlova, she thought ruefully. Henry had enjoyed that one last time she’d said it.
She poked at the little pile with her cane and with one last glance along the empty street turned and made her way back to the stairs. She stopped at the bottom step and surveyed the house. The once proud and elegant home was now in ruins, really. No wonder the kids thought it was haunted, but she’d left the spider webs as a kind of deterrent. Every week some smooth salesman or woman would come bashing on the door and tell her about all the buyers who wanted her house. Bugger them, she’d said.
Born at home in Wynnum, a post-Great War baby, she’d left home to go nursing 3 years before World War II was declared. Wynnum still felt a bit like old Brisbane, but her parents’ house, the house, next door to the one she had been born in, was now a fish and chip shop. It was a shame, about fish and chip fryers filling the old sitting room, but it had been a brothel during the 70’s, so Merle supposed that the neighbours preferred the fish and chip customers to the other lot.
Her parents had rented number 20 and then bought number 22 when she’d gone nursing. She’d sent money home, and a lodger had helped pay the 3000 pound mortgage and when they went into the village they’d sold it for $100,000. Not bad money and it paid for their little unit with a garden just behind the high-school, with money left over for a trip back to Scotland and mum’s weekly bingo addiction. They didn’t know that the house had been bought by a local ‘businessman’ who ran it very successfully, frequented by politicians and police.
Merle remembered the strange feeling she’d had when she’d visited one night to deliver a baby, in what had been her mother’s bedroom. The young prostitute wouldn’t look at her screaming healthy boy, telling us to take him away for adoption. He’d gone to a nice family over in Hamilton and probably grew up to be a doctor, never knowing what could’ve been his lot. Merle was as professional as always, and bundled the baby off to the waiting arms of his new mother. The wailing of the young prostitute as Merle walked down what had been her parents’ hallway with a now sleeping baby had little effect on her. She’d seen much worse during the war.
Back in the present, Merle inhaled deeply, catching the scent of gardenias. The huge bush was all that remained of next door’s beautiful old garden. The house had already been shipped out to Nanango in the dead of night. The noise of the truck hadn’t woken Merle, but the huge lights had made it seem like midday. Now the ground was being prepared for a new slab, a very large slab. Merle hoped it wouldn’t be some ugly bloody replica Queenslander, but either way the new owners wouldn’t hang around long. 6-month-and-1-day-ers. They’d build and sell and make a nice little profit and provide a nice little commission for one of those sleazy real estate agents. She pitied them with their fancy cars and charming smiles and all their promises. Empty, false and fake, with nothing to drive them but greed. Bugger them, she thought again. Worse than lawyers. Always banging on the front door at the worst of times. Nice at first, she had taken to telling them to go away through the door. Some of them had been very rude; one had pushed his way into her home. He’d tried to make friends with her and had spoken to her like she was a child so she’d hit him with the laundry basket. It was wicker and made quite a red mark on his face. The police had visited; a lovely young couple, neat and earnest in their uniforms. They went away laughing. An eighty-five year old war veteran assaulted a trespasser. Good on her! He’d wanted to press charges but the officers convinced him it wasn’t in his best interests. He probably thought he could somehow get the house as a settlement. More fool him!
Merle looked up at her home. Those clever estate agents were attracted to its huge bay windows and art deco style. Her sister’s grandkids would get it when she was gone and they probably wouldn’t say no to selling it. She’d thought about selling, had talked to Henry about it. Maybe selling was the best scenario; sell and go into a ‘village’. Donate the money left over to the RSL. Learn to enjoy bingo and perhaps even come to enjoy the company of old people. Bill had made that joke. It was a good one.
Making one last inspection of the street she made her way back up the stairs to make tea. Henry always said he’d starve rather than cook.
“We’ll never sell”, she said out loud as if reminding herself and anyone else who might have been listening, as she pushed open the leadlight door. No. She was adamant that no agent would get the better of her.
Nathan and Bill will know what to do when the time comes. They didn’t visit very often, mainly Christmas or to do yard work or to knock mangoes down off the tree, but it was all in the will and they were good men. Nathan had done the will but when he’d found out he and Bill were getting the house when she was gone, he’d refused to write the will himself and had a colleague do it. She’d thought he was another bloody real-estate agent with his fancy car and suit and she’d told him to piss off through the door, but he’d persevered and they’d all had a good laugh about it later.
Nathan had had an office in the city, busy, always going to Melbourne and such for meetings with mining companies and property developers. He and Janice had had a nice house in Clayfield and all the trimmings, but when he and Janny split, he’d trimmed the fat, so to speak. He lived in one of those new apartments over in Teneriffe now and got the ferry to work. He didn’t even own a car. His boys were both living it up in London, a world away, but proudly told their dad they went to church every Sunday. Think we came down in the last shower. Think we were never young.
Nathan was an out-going man with lots of friends, and girl-friends, but Bill was quieter and thoughtful. He was named for his grandpa and was a doctor, like his Aunty. He made sure meals on wheels turned up and did the check-ups and prescriptions himself, if it was too hard to get to Greenslopes. Bill had never married, but there was time, Merle always told him. There was always time for men. Time had got away from her, and even becoming a doctor at the ripe old age of 55 hadn’t filled the space that a child would have. Margaret had been so blessed with three lovely daughters and 2 grandsons. The girls were all gone now; Jean, Nathan and Bill’s beautiful mother, and Pauline, with Breast Cancer, and Carole with Bowel Cancer. Rotten, cruel stuff. Merle had nursed Jean and Carole, but Pauline had tried the natural way, and she’d had a few more years, but it still got her. That’s what people died from now, she thought wearily. All their husbands remarried. Men do that. Carole’s husband even had a family with the second wife, a pleasure that had been denied Carole. There was always time for men.
Marg would have been ninety last month. She’d been given a beautiful family and then they were taken away one-by-one. Not in the horrible mess of war, but by diseases and crushing depression. Her Bill had been a mechanic and almost blind in one eye so he didn’t go and fight. Couldn’t, but he’d wanted to. He’d gone all over, instead, fixing planes so that other young men could, and he’d tormented himself into an early grave. Margie’s girls were only little when Her Bill, well, did what he did, and they’d moved into Merle and Henry’s big house. The girls went to the state school up the road and then to Somerville House. Merle had been as proud as punch when those girls graduated; like they were her own, and they’d loved her like her own, and they’d guessed very early on that Aunty Merle was paying for school, new clothes and ballet and all the rest. Merle had given them away at their weddings and she’d held each of their hands as they’d died. She’d held their mother’s hand and her mother’s hand.
“Just me”, she called over the sound of the news coming on. Merle hated telly but Henry loved to watch the news so she put up with it between 6 and 6:30, while she cooked tea. She hated cooking and hated cleaning. She’d never really been a home-body and never been much chop as a house-wife. She’d been a cracker-jack nurse though, Henry said. And a clever doctor. Henry said she scared people into getting better.
Nursing had suited her well, and medicine came easily after that. Being busy was always good. She had been prepared for a life as a career woman, but the war came along and pushed her headlong into it. She’d always known she would be a nurse, but she never thought the best days of her life would be spent fixing broken soldiers. The war was horrific, but she’d loved Europe, even with the life bombed out of it, and she and Henry had enjoyed the odd stolen weekend together, once in Weymouth and another down in Dinard, where she knew she’d fallen pregnant. After the war she’d stayed on in London and did her bit patching up the men whose bodies had come homes but whose minds were still lost somewhere in Egypt or France. She’d met the young princess who became the Queen and had worked along-side famous surgeons, but she’d come home when her mum had the fall in Bay Street in all that rain in ‘74. Mum was never the same and Merle knew she didn’t have long to go. Margaret had the girls to care for and Bill had, well, done what he did. Merle had wanted to tell someone, Mum or Marg, anyone really, everything, about the terrible bombing raids and nursing broken men and holding the hands of those who would never see Australian soil again, not even to have it piled in over their coffins. Merle had been on the verge of telling her mum about the man and the baby that now both seemed like a dream she’d had once, maybe as a child, tucked up in bed next door to a house that had been a brothel and was now a fish and chip shop. She’d held her mum’s limp hand for an hour after she’d passed, looking out the huge plate glass windows of the PA, high over a stinking hot December day, while everyone shopped for Christmas. Dad had only lasted 8 months after Mum went. He’d waited to see his first Great Grandchild, Bill junior, and then gave in to the strokes that had been stalking him like prey.
Reality washed back over Merle like Bondii waves. The empty house. Grief. She stumbled and grabbed at the china cabinet to steady herself. So she’d made some bad decisions? Hadn’t she done a lot of good, too? Why had life chosen to be so cruel to her? She’d done her bit. A war hero they’d said. A stirling career. The George Medal in ‘43. Standing there in King George Square, proud of her achievements but ashamed of who she was. People said, a little wistfully, that she’d never had time for kids, but the truth was that time had run out for her. Time had let her down. She’d never had time for kids. Yes that’s what it was. She hadn’t time for that baby and she’d really had no choice in the matter. A quick procedure and she walked out and no-one was any wiser. Henry had never known, never even known she was even pregnant. There would be more babies later, when they had time, when the world wasn’t so crazy. But time had run out and she had no time for kids and her punishment was to spend the rest of her life mending other people’s kids, holding their heads while they vomited, holding their hands as the last of life seeped out of them. She had taken the life of her own child even though she’d convinced herself otherwise at the time. Then she frowned the way she did when she remembered that Henry was gone too. She felt the bile rise and she thought she’d be sick but she steadied herself enough to make it to the sink but nothing came. She looked out over the bare patch of dirt and down the hill to the cemetery. She’d never seen it from that window until they’d moved the house and it seemed like an omen. She hoped it wouldn’t be long. Those who hang around long after everyone has left the party always wonder when they’ll be asked to leave.
She ate her dinner in the dim early evening, in the kitchen, with no light on. Reality was easier to face in the dark. Cheese on toast with a cup of tea. Weeks had passed since she’d cooked a meal. A song edged its way into her head but she’d long forgotten the words. Humming seemed like a happy thing to do so she stopped and washed plate and fork in stony silence, angry at herself, but only God knew why. Check the doors, and off to bed. Another Anzac Day over and bloody done with. Another bloody day of standing there remembering all horror of it.
She stopped, as she did every night to say goodnight to her beloved Henry, her husband of less than a year. The man who had called her Lily because she’d loved Lily of the Valleys, and carried them the day they’d married. The man who had so many dreams but gave his life for his country. Just one of the men who didn’t come home from France 60 years ago. She kissed his faded cheek and lightly touched the row of medals she’d had mounted in a wooden frame, two for him and three for her. She tried not to think about the past, but that was all she had. What were medals and memories, when you had no-one to share them with?
Bill would get the medals. It seemed to Merle that he would appreciate them more and maybe he would hang them in his office, the office that had been her office over in Windsor. A huge fat tear rolled down Merle’s cheek and it seemed to startle her. Bill had taken over her practice when she’d retired and now had 9 doctors working there. He was a remarkable man and a wonderful doctor but she ached for him to marry a lovely young woman and have a family, to escape the loneliness and emptiness that no-one else for two generations had managed to escape. Her parents had been happy, she thought. They loved each other deeply even after more than 50 years of marriage, at least that was how it had seemed everyone else and both had had a hundred people at their funerals. They’d had hard lives, there was no mistaking that. Dad had come out on a boat in 1904 and Uncle Vic had been born at sea. Merle and Marg had loved that story growing up. Mum had come out 3 years later and they’d met at Cannon Hill State School. Dad had worked for Golden Circle and they’d married just before Dad had gone off to fight in the Great War. Mum had Marg while he was away and then he came back and they’d had Merle. There had been a brother but he’d died minutes after being christened, at least that’s what they’d told mum. Dad was a Mason and had worked on the new lodge. They’d been mostly untouched by the depression themselves, leaving them free to help where they could. Life had been hard, but it seemed more predictable then. Everyone new life would be hard and didn’t expect too much more. After all, the photos seemed to show happy healthy young people, proudly holding babies or wedding bouquets. Merle had no photos of her own wedding day, holding her Lilly of the Valley bouquet over her belly in case someone could tell, but she had held a wedding bouquet and a baby; she had been happy once. They’d met at a dance and she’d let him chase her and they’d kissed as he left to go back to the barracks. A passionate kiss of a man and woman. They met for lunch and talked for hours. They’d danced at Cloudland and made love on a blanket under the stars. She’d never done anything the right way, not like Margie who’d married and had kids the proper way. If Merle had been punished for not doing things the right way, what had Marg done to deserve 3 daughters in Dutton Park and Bill in the lawn cemetery in Wynnum?
Merle switched off the light and lay on the bed, hoping to dream of him, or of the baby she’d had no time for, 60 years ago. She knew it wouldn’t be long although she’d long given up praying for her own death. She wasn’t sure who she was praying to but she prayed for the little children lost to war, or sickness or neglect, and little child rejected by her mother before she could even take a breath. Tears came again and surprised her again. She cried great heaving sobs and then suddenly she was quiet. Spent. Holding tight to the faded picture of the long dead husband she still spoke to everyday, she felt the thin glass shatter. “Henry, can you hear me?” she whispered, his loud clear reply startling her in the dark silence.
My (unsuccessful) entry for the 2007 One Brisbane One Book competition.
Feedback/comment/critique most welcome! :)