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.
Gallipoli was where she’d first realised that she would marry Ian.
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.’
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.
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
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.’
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.)
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.'
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.’
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! ‘
laughed in shock and felt ashamed.
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.’
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.
think he got those other injuries when he was there?’ Jane asked. ‘But why
wouldn’t he say?’
want to upset us, I reckon.’
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.’
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.’
Labels: Anzac Day, Burma Railway, Changi prison, family saga, prisoner of war, The House at Evelyn's Pond, tragedy of war, war story