HOW MANY, HOW MUCH?
A collection of stories by Anne McCosker
"I wouldn't have come if I'd known I was expected to pay." There was no shade in that small courtyard and the sun was very hot. The words melted into sticky silence. For a few seconds only the heat seemed alive.
Then with obvious anger the one woman in the group turned and stepped back into the utility slamming the door behind her. From the window she smiled at the driver and nodded to the owner of the utility who in his spare time ran a small tourist business. She had no quarrel with them. Neither were from this area, she had only met them a few days before. They had organized the trip as best they could. The driver had been good on the difficult roads and that tangle of track and had remained cheerful and courteous. No, it was not their fault. It was a pity though no one she had talked to over the past week - in any position to help - knew much, or anything, about the road. They neither knew or cared it seemed. She wondered if they even knew they didn't know! Was it always like this - for any one returning to a place important in their past? Last time she'd been here the knowledge, thoughts and to some extent memory of those around her was similar to those of her own. Now? As far as most of the Europeans were concerned she might have come from some unmarked grave. Yet she Martha, was not dead, not yet a ghost, had not even reached the biblical three score years and ten!
Martha leant back and rested her head on the metal door side. There were ghosts a plenty around here though even if she was not one of them, yet. . . Did not the Europeans living here feel them? Surely many of the locals did. Just how many had there been?
"I would not have come if I'd known I was expected to pay". Martha closed her eyes behind brightly framed sun glasses. Yes, that was what she said. And the way he'd said it! So resentful, arrogant, contemptuous and yes angry. What had HE to be angry about? He had paid very little so far, goodness knows how much he earned a year in that multi national company he worked for. Now he was questioning the cost of even this trip...... Just how many had there been?
There was movement around, the woman opened her tired eyes. At last! The others were moving towards the utility. Get back to the hotel, that was all there was left to do - for the present. It had been a long day.
There was nothing to say, what could one say in reply to that young fool's outburst? So much had happened in this town, and its vicinity, and on that road. So many footsteps; booted, sanded, shoed, bare, had walked, run, crawled even, along that way. That day there had been the vehicles; cars, trucks Jeeps abandoned by the road. Yes it had been good enough THEN for cars, pre WWII cars. Before that war, women, babies, children, old folk from so many different communities as well as their men, were alwaystravelling backwards and forwards to town, the capital of this Territory.
On that day, how many of those trucks, army trucks, and cars had run out of petrol, their owners forgetting in the general confusion to fill up when they left town, how many? Or had the occupants been killed by enemy action. She knew planes had swooped low and machine gunned anything that moved those first few days.
Martha fumbled in her bag, found a 'Wet Ones' tissue, brushed aside a flop of greying brown hair and gratefully mopped her face. Just how many lives THEN had been destroyed by events along that road? The men themselves, their families, their friends, even those whose stupidity caused all the chaos in the first place might have occasionally, afterwards, suffered with guilty consciences. Just how many were there, dozens, hundreds perhaps? And now today? She was one of very few who knew anything about that road, where it went to, who had travelled on it, what a tragic part it had played in Australian history.
Graham of course climbing into the front seat beside the driver knew. What must he be thinking and feeling. His thin face with its slow, sad smile turned to her for a second. What could she say to him? What had really happened then? And, now, today, they had been forced to stop. That road which by the standards of its day had been good, was now a nothing track, almost impassable in places, between jostling, pushing kunai grass, scrub - and mud. They were lucky the utility had not stuck. All that thick tropical undergrowth almost touching the vehicle, what was behind it, who had been watching them? No wonder the driver had grown increasingly uneasy, as she had. It had been right to turn back TODAY. There had been enough tragedy on that path 60 years ago.
There had really been no point going on even after the confusion over routes was sorted out. No point at all trying to get to the river. Ignorance played a crucial role THEN and ignorance was the main reason why today they had not reached the river, been able to cross it and find transport waiting for them on the other side.
And that young man was angry because he was expected to pay his share of the cost. Only a few dollars! What did, could one say, to someone like that at the end of this day of all days.
He of all people should not have been so ignorant. Or was he so selfish he just did not care? Martha fumbled again in her bag, took out her water thermos, poured some of the liquid into its topped cup and took a few long sips.
She moved a fraction so as to get a thin strip of shadow from the window onto her perspiring face and shut her eyes again. How hot it was. There was no breeze anywhere. It had been a long day.
Who would have imagined this day developing as it had? But who could have imagined what happened then? Martha’slips twitched slightly. She could see the irony of it. History certainly could if not repeat itself, play a variety on the original!
The two older men, both over sixty, in this group of four Australians were settled back in their places in the utility. Both felt as unable to speak as the woman. There was no more point their saying anything than there was standing sweating in that torrid sun, no point at all. What could they say or do?
The driver was talking quietly to the boss. He nodded and smiled then walked round the utility to the far door and his seat. He climbed in. He was ready to drive the Australians back to their hotel.
It had been a long day. The roads, one a nothing track, had been dreadful to drive on. He'd never been on that track down by the sea before, had no idea where they were heading, never heard of the place before. But then it had all happened a long time ago, long before he was born. He'd have liked to get there though. Find out about it all. He looked at the man sitting beside him, then through the rear vision mirror at the other two. They all looked washed out, exhausted, angry. At least they were sitting down. He wished the young bloke would get in.
The driver saw his boss drifting away from the Australian still standing in the sun towards the shade of a mango tree - and his front door. He was obviously not going to remain in that courtyard any longer. Too hot, too dusty, no breeze. Sad about the failed excursion, the driver knew the boss was upset, the boss liked to please. How motionless, still, the three old ones were. He hoped they were all right.
The young Australian, a stocky figure in smart tropical kit, did not move from that breathless courtyard. He glanced towards the utility. Why were they just sitting there? Why had they left him like this, not replied to him? He had not said anything wrong. It was quite true he would not have come with these silly old fogies if he'd known he was supposed to contribute to the cost. Why should he? What was that track to him. He'd never even met the two in the back seat till a few days ago. What a farce. They had not even got to where they wanted to!
Somewhere from the harbour a siren wailed, a ship was either pulling in or out of a wharf. The man sitting in the back seat beside the woman wiped his face with a limp hanky. How damp, tired he felt. He longed for a shower. He pushed stiff fingers through a retreating hairline and tried to stretch an aching back. It was becoming increasingly cramped in this confined space. It had been a long day. He looked again at the woman beside him.
He knew as well as felt that Martha was very upset as well as angry. She had every right to be. No wonder she had swiftly returned to the car leaving them to sweat in the courtyard. If only they had really listened to her. Could he have done more?
This trip today had meant so much to her, her whole life had been bound up in that road, that track, they had taken today. Home, work, career, all belonged to that track and its place in this country's history. What could he do about it? Nothing now. And what on earth was Graham thinking. He hardly dare even wonder. Simon took his water bottle and thankfully drank.
Martha took off her glasses and turning her grey eyes stinging with heat and pain towards him, smiled wanly. She then slumped back into the seat, replaced the glasses and shut her eyes. There was nothing to say - to anyone.
Ignorance, yes ignorance and a lack of any desire to want to KNOW had made this bathos. Only a couple of the oldest members of the Europeans community she'd talked to had any idea of her background or the role her family had played in this country's history. There had been so little help for her - or Graham.
Had no one really believed her? How many in the town, the whole country really knew about that road, a track now in many places?. How many? Few appeared to have had any idea, about life, roads, anything, outside the capital. And few THEN, most particularly in the garrison had known about that easy route south. So many had headed inland towards the wild mountainous interior - the way they had started going today until she had stopped them!
Yes, ignorance had much to answer for. That road that they has started on today, itself not much more than a rough track compared to the old main road, built through virgin tropical rain forest only a few years before, struggled across rough mountainous terrain some distance from the sea. And that was the road most of those she had spoken to in town imagined she was talking about! Things had not changed much since 1942!
Martha fiddled with the window handle. How could they then or now not know, how could they not know about that road, that strategic road going south and west, close to and parallel to the coast for much of its length. It was a flattish road running at first through some of the most famous, oldest, and richest plantations and villages in the Islands. How could any one not know?
How many, just how many men HAD died along that road, because of that road. The womann could almost see those men: civilians, soldiers - privates, officers - old men, young men. Some were walking with purpose, determination on their faces, some walking slowly with bewilderment in their eyes. Others were just sitting by the side of the road, then there had been a wide verge - now, today, it was just a tangle of vines, grass and tough bushes - too exhausted to go further, shivering perhaps with the onset of malaria. And by the river, when the more active reached it what then? They were faced with a swift flowing river, swollen from heavy rain falling in the mountains. It must have seemed impassable to some. How many were caught there because there was no bridge. How many?
Yes it happened over 60 years ago, but it HAD happened and within the life time of many people still alive. It had happened in her, Martha's life. It was not ancient history belonging to some primaeval past, in spite of what that ignorant man still standing out there in the sun said - or thought.
And today? They like some of the men, as Graham was surely now remembering, had not even reached the river! Martha took another sip of water. And for those who had? That road now an overgrown track fighting for light and life against the relentless invasion of tropical bush led then, as now, to a bridgeless river. And what faced those men who made it to the river and managed to cross its crocodile infested waters? For then, as today, there was no truck, no car, no vehicle of any sort waiting for them on the other side.
Martha clutched the hat in her lap. Just how many, how many, had walked, struggled along that road, that road now a dirt rutted thread between neglected coconut palm and cocoa trees. Just how many men had walked into captivity - and death along it, just how many?
The young man standing alone in the courtyard spun round. Where was the owner of this crummy joint? He looked back at the people in the utility. They were staring either at him or, it seemed into nothing. Must all be mad. He moved towards them. He'd ask those three old fools again just how much he was expected to pay, make them answer him.
Martha saw him walking round the back of the utility. Perhaps he would apologise once he got back in. Was he an example of universal tertiary education for all? Did this education now teach students that any one, any thing, older than themselves was to be regarded as meaningless. Surely her generation had not been so callow. They certainly had had a greater respect for their elders - at least in their presence.
The woman picked up her hat and slowly began fanning herself. Nowadays it seemed there was a cult of youth, yet people were living longer! How soon these days did an individual's past become, even to one's close relations, irrelevant? In earlier times marriage, career advancement, even safety, largely depended on ties with one's kin. Knowledge of one's close relations was essential. Martha had no illusion about the ‘goodness’ of family relationships but perhaps it was better to have knowledge, warts and all, of one's close kin than no knowledge.
The ship's siren wailed again from somewhere in the harbour, Martha fanned herself with more vigour. Every one's personality, behaviour, experience of life was formed, altered, and influenced by parents, grandparents, siblings. Not knowing, not wanting to know, rejecting, as that young man was, his own past showed an extraordinary ignorance.
Apart from the obvious danger to themselves, physically, mentally, emotionally and perhaps most of all spirituality, did the younger generation not realise if this, their attitude to history continued, if even the present became more and more a forgotten past, the next generation, their own children, would be the PAST, at birth! Nothing then would mean anything. Was that the way European civilization was going? Was human living to be confined into a vacuum of ignorance, plaything of some monstrous tyrant?
Martha stopped fanning herself. Where had HE got to. Why did he not get into the utility? It had been such a long day. She was exhausted. Yet the journey they had tried to take should have led through and to some of the most beautiful country in the Islands, glorious places set beside sparkling blue waters and white, white, coral beaches. It had once and still should have been, a fascinating, intoxicating drive through well run and loved plantations set in some of the best coconuts and cocoa producing areas in the world. It had been THEN a safe road for residents and visitors alike, a great tourist drive. She presumed those marvellous views over water and palms to the distant mountains had not changed, what could change them? They were as much the ‘present’ as anything else including that young Australian hovering about now in the blazing heat. He had not, would now probably never see, that sweep of sky, sea, mountain and palm passionately loved by those who had known it. To him they were the Past, a void of nothingness in which Europeans were supposed to be ashamed. Beauty, that living, creative being of the NOW which Everyman could worship, had been lost in ignorance and lies.
"Why would any one want to go on that track? It didn't lead anywhere. I've just wasted the day, could have done so many other things. How much did you say I had to pay?" The young man slammed the door behind him, and settled heavily in the seat behind the driver. "How much did you say I am expected to pay?" he repeated.
The three older Australians stiffened. Then Martha with some effort placed her hand gently on the shoulder of the man sitting in front of her. Graham half turned his thinning head of hair glistening with sweat to acknowledge her gesture, his faded blue eyes screwed up, his mouth taut. Martha’s heart cried with pain. He looked so much older than his years.
He, Graham, certainly knew details about that road now mostly just a track. Along that one road, that once so important road, now, today such an overgrown track they could not even get this modern four-wheel drive vehicle over it, how many European men and some of their loyal local native followers had been caught, perhaps tortured and killed? How many had been murdered on the track or by the side of it? Just how many? No one would ever know. The Japanese left few witnesses to so many of their crimes.
Yet this so important part of a young nation's history, Australia’s own history, no other nation was involved in that unnecessary walking, hurrying debacle that ended in so many deaths was still almost unknown. And now, his son, had not the least interest in finding out more about it, even though he had just driven over some of it, actually seen the place. Graham's body stiffened. He sat tensely upright, looked straight ahead.
He had tried to speak about it. But he had seen so little of the boy after the divorce. Thought this trip might give the lad a chance to understand. He himself had never got over it, of course he hadn't. It had affected his marriage, played a part in his divorce. It had affected his son. He thought he’d told the boy about this track and the many men caught along its length? Had his son not been listening?
Martha's hand moved from her companion and tightened on her hat. Simon moved a little closer, away from the clammy, irritable young man sitting once more by him. He flicked sweat from his grey eyebrows. Oh for a shower, for peace from this prattling idiot he thought. They had been trying to reach Martha's old home, beyond the river. He'd seen pictures of it. By any standards it was then, and would almost certainly still be, beautiful. In some parts of the world people would pay a great deal to see views like that, get a sense of the place. And as for Graham, that track, his father.
The utility was hot, airless, silent. Then the voice came again resentful, demanding, angry. "Just how much did you say I am expected to pay?"
Did that young man have no interest, no interest at all in finding out about anything, understanding even a little me past, their past, his own past?
Martha spoke. "Don't bother. Your father Graham, his father – don’t you realise that is your grandfather - paid for you today with his life. He was trying to get to our plantation, escape. He disappeared, probably murdered on this track”.
© Anne McCosker 2009