A collection of stories by Anne McCosker
George jerked himself upright. An emaciated body tensed for the next lash. Spirit tried to forget flesh. No movement. Silence. The man slowly opened one eye, flinching his head back and to one side as he did so. For several seconds the scarred old face remained in this position. Then carefully a hand touched his face. Feeling no blood it drifted down onto the bed. George looked around, contorted features gradually relaxing.
From outside, from far away came a screech. The old man tensed again, anger flickering in watery eyes. The sound was repeated, close by, near the window. The figure relaxed a little and thin, colourless lips almost smiled. A lorikeet! George, well past middle age, turned slightly and carefully smoothed the well laundered snowy white pillow case. Legs and arms moved though stiff angles. He was lying down again, lying now in clean sheets. Oh God would he ever forget. Of course he couldn't, shouldn't.
He was so old now, yet still they clung to him, even after all this time, clung to him with such determination. What did they want, expect him to do? He had enough trouble staying alive himself, easier now than then of course, but increasingly difficult. He would just have to fight on, until the end.
A few miles away Meg Macintosh was watching a river. Wide and muscular, it flowed swiftly past her as it bent and curved towards the sea. Stubby mangroves bristling up from the mud, looking not unlike a man's unshaven chin, crowded the nearer shore line while a crow croaked and pecked and clawed near an abandoned twist of barbed wire.
Meg’s deep blue eyes turned mid stream. No reflections there. Brown after the latest heavy rain fall further north, the heart of the river was busying itself carrying debris seaward. Were the rivers her uncle had worked beside a little like this? Perhaps today, with so much flotsam swirling and turning around it was not totally dissimilar. Had any of the men escaped down river to the sea and freedom?
The woman's head jerked. She looked around. No, of course there was no one there, no one behind her or in the unit. Only a faint lapping of water on the retaining wall broke the stillness of a hot afternoon. And yet she had felt that touch on her shoulder. And had she HEARD something just then, a faint sound like a shiver of breath? Were they now trying to talk to her?
Meg's hand fiddled with a palm leaf. Most people would say she must have been dreaming. But this was not the first time she'd felt that gentle touch, and it was happening more often, with ever growing intensity .... and now speech?
The woman hunched her shoulders over the iron balcony rail, long arms hanging limp. Suddenly her body thrust back and her right arm straightened. Was that blood, there near the wrist? Oh no, only a patch of sun beating down through the red and yellow striped canvas awning. Meg did not relax on realising this but turning her head sharply upwards and to the left. No body there. In profile, Meg, with her blonde-white hair, cut very short, could have been a man. She'd had her hair cut last week, easier to clean. Some of the men had no hair now, disease had seen to that.
Meg jerked her head down again, a deep frown scarring her brow. This was getting scary. Why had she thought that about her hair? And why indeed had she cut it so short last week. Should she make another attempt to see her uncle, try and talk to him? Would it do any good? Had made everything much worse last time she tried.
Who else could help him? She had tried explaining to various members of her family and a few friends. They had looked embarrassed, mumbled a few platitudes, changed the subject. Hadn't they believed her? Meg thought it all quite rational, unusual perhaps, but not she imagined so very unusual in these circumstances. Any one at all aware of a world beyond the physical, any 'primitive' would understand. Perhaps she had not explained it very well. Should she try again?
The woman stood up. In her late thirties she looked much older as her tall, thin figure limped slowly from the balcony into the lounge.
"What are you doing here?" George asked politely but tersely.
"I was asked to come and see you by your niece, Meg Macintosh," the Reverent Samuel Bulmer replied carefully. "I believe she is also your- goddaughter."
"Why did she want you to come and see me?" came the guarded response.
"She thought you might like to have a chat with me".
"Er, she thought, she thought you, you might want help".
The old man stared at the smooth face in front of him with its uninteresting brow. He noted the smart cut of the suit, the general air of well being. Early middle age, not much experience he decided. George leant back in his chair. He was going to enjoy this.
"Yes, I have been worried about my niece" he said softly, his faded green eyes watching the minister.
"Oh have you" Samuel Bulmer replied slowly. He was silent for a few seconds, looking at the dignified old man opposite him. Meg Macintosh had seemed a rather intense woman, her request a bit strange.
"She thought YOU needed help" the minister continued a little uncertainly.
George snorted. "Why should I need help?" "Something to do with the war"
George's body threw itself forward in a swift action that almost denied his age. "If I survived those camps" came the savage reply "I most certainly do not want any help now from my niece - or you ".
"No, no, of course not", the minister answered deferentially.
George relaxed back into his chair. "Would you like a drink? It's over there. Have to get it yourself. Not easy for me to get up. Bashed a lot. "
"Of course, I'm sorry. Thank you I will".
George looked keenly as the minister pour himself a sherry. Likes the stuff he thought.
"I have been very worried about my niece" he stated clearly to the man's back. "So have other members of the family." He paused a second before adding, "And Mrs Maldon, my nurse.
"Oh dear me. I did not know". The Reverent Samuel Bulmer returned to his chair and sipped his sherry. How well fed he looked George thought.
Now Samuel Bulmer was finishing his third sherry. There had been pleasant conversation on the weather, the rise in suicides, especially among women, and the sad decline in church goers. "Yes, we have, all of us, been trying to help my niece. She is imagining things." George's green eyes blinking back tears.
The minister's face showed concern. "What would you like me to do?"
"Write to her," George replied firmly "Tell her you have seen me and I am well."
"Yes, I'll do that." Bulmer nodded with relief. "That seems the best thing to do".
"I do not want you to see my niece again," the old man commanded. "Would you be so kind as to get that letter from my table."
He showed the address on the top of the page to Bulmer. "This is Meg Mackintosh's cousin's address. She is concerned too. Mrs Maldon, my nurse, is a friend of hers."
Slowly, stiffly, George rose, his stooping, frail figure leaning heavily on the chair back. Faded green eyes glared though with furious intensity at the reverent gentleman busy writing down the address. "Write to Meg." he repeated waving one arm in the direction of the door. "There is nothing wrong with me. I am a survivor".
The interview now obviously over, the Reverent Samuel Bulmer gave a slight bow. "Oh yes I will. Thank you for seeing me. I am so sorry to have troubled you". He stepped quickly to the door closing it carefully and quietly behind him. The old man staggered towards his bed and collapsed onto it.
George lay there like a corpse for a long time, eyes closed, mind in turmoil. Around him figures crawled, limped, choked and staggered. Blood everywhere. It was dark when he moved again.
Meg watched the river slip almost unseen through a city, only sudden flashes of light from houses and streets betraying its presence. Sounds came to her but were they sounds from this river? Did they belong to the present or the past. Sitting in the dark, alone on her balcony it was hard to tell. The affinity between her and her uncle and godfather was growing stronger regardless of outward events. Meg herself did not find it strange that one human spirit could feel and even at times become part of another human spirit's trauma, even trauma from the past. This, to her, was even more understandable if there was a close blood relationship between two spirits.
Although only in the last few years had she seen very much of her uncle, he, as her godfather had been at her christening, held her in his arms, prayed with the congregation. Their two identities, their two spirit wills, would have been joined then. And soon afterwards George was captured.
In and out of light the water ran, and in and out of light dying men stumbled with glazed eyes, living skeletons bending from hell, begging for release. Nothing was 'the past' until it had been healed, washed clean by truthful love.
Was her uncle watching the river tonight too or was he looking at the ceiling as she sensed he often did these days, waiting for skinny forms to crawl up the walls, up to and over the ceiling.
Meg pulled at a potted palm leaf until it fell in shreds about the balcony floor. If only she could find some one else to whom it made sense - and she could trust. The woman took the crumpled letter from her pocket. Bulmer had certainly been useless, worse then useless. Confidentiality obviously meant nothing to that minister! Such a pointless letter too, made her angry though. Was he just a bad judge of character, a fool? Perhaps he didn't care. Or, the woman kicked the balcony railing, was something else going on.
These last weeks she felt as if surrounded by enemies. There, of course, it had been much, much worse, THERE had been unimaginable torture, physical, mental, spiritual torture, and endless death. But even THERE the tormentors were of another race, culture, religion. They were the official enemies. One knew who they were could face them. Here though it now seemed to Meg as if her own family and 'friends', whisperers known and yet unknown to her were attacking her. An enemy whose cover was kinship and goodness - superficial conforming 'goodness'.
"I can give you the name of an excellent clinic” the voice had announced over the phone, a charming, cultured voice. It was Joanna, her cousin, second cousin really... “I got it from Susan Malden," the voice had continued, with a faint, but ever so elegant snigger, "you can have a rest there. Be looked after. It's in lovely grounds. The Reverent Samuel Bulmer asked me to get in touch with you, give you the clinic's name. I suggest, as does Susan and of course your Uncle George, that you do go there."
Oh yes that fool Bulmer had got in touch with her second cousin and that particular cousin was playing a very old game; suggesting an enemy was not quite 'all there'. That gave an excuse to tuck the victim away in some remote clinic. Joanna had a good reason for attempting this, she had always been jealous of Meg, jealous and greedy. George had money. Was that also the nurse Maldon's motives? Perhaps even Samuel Bulmer's?
But her uncle himself! Surely he knew Meg was trying to help. He must be aware of those forms around him, all those men, his mates. 'Oh he must be' Meg said aloud. Unless, of course...
A tug boat horn blasted into the night, sturdy, confident. Meg watched as its familiar outline passed her, such small boats and yet with so much power. If only people were as independent as a tug boat and its crew had to be.
Perhaps her uncle was so close to those dead men after all their intense suffering together that now in extreme old age, and with so much physical pain fought by spirit, he was beginning to mix up death and life, did not realise they were dead and he alive. Meg gazed for a few seconds into a deep sky of stars and sighed. But it was for this reason she had asked the minister to help. He should have been able to counsel her uncle, and then suggest he saw some one experienced in such matters. Meg knew the churches had Spiritual Healing ministries. Should she try herself for contact?
There it was again that now familiar touch on her shoulder, the woman hardly turned her head. She knew she would not see any one, she did not need eye sight to feel the pain around her. Could no one else though feel, understand, what was happening? What was she to do with all those forms and features pleading to her, all those desperate souls needing release? Perhaps if nothing happened, if they grew ever more dense around her, she would indeed need that clinic. Meg stood up and leant over the balcony. The neighbour's cat was starting on his nightly rounds. He paused for a second, looked up at her then continued stalked carefully through the night, tail ever so slightly waving.
It had not surprised Meg that these figures, the prisoners, had sought her out. Her uncle had talked so often to her about his years in the Japanese camps and how his best mates, and so many others, had died. He, an intelligent man with determined personality much older that most of the soldiers, probably provided some sort of father figure for those suffering, dying, prisoners. Decades after the camps were burnt into memory, George, one of the oldest POWs still living, might well became a focus for their spiritual unease.
Within the darkness on that river balcony George's face appeared, strong jaw with its tight lips tensed into an expression of exhausted watchfulness and patience despair. "No one was interested when we came back. No one wanted to know ", she heard him say, "I might have written a book if I’d had some one like you to talk to, then. Don't need help though now from any one. I am fine."
Meg turned her head towards light faintly visible through dark limbed trees. Had all their conversations about the camps indeed been of no use after all, had they come too late. Who cared then, who cared now? How many of even the surviving men had been mentally and emotionally released from all that horror? How many POWs had talked to any one about it all when they returned home? George hadn't until he talked to her. And the men who never came home?
The woman's features contorted, she sat down sharply. Was her uncle turning skills honed in death camps against her? Were they encouraging him, Joanna, that nurse, Samuel Bulmer, family and friends - all of them, encouraging an old disturbed man to believe she was the enemy?
Had those people any idea what they were involved in? Had they not seen that haunting, haunted look on his face or understand even a little of what lay behind it. Or had they seen only a very old, vulnerable man, who needing help could, by them, be used.
George had fought death with spirit, seen life going about its work, in spite of the dying all around. He knew the power of spirit. What havoc once aroused could such a will cause.
Meg slumped back in her chair and shut her eyes. How much was George really aware of as he lay looking at that ceiling. What if her uncle, trapped now in those screams from that past was watching, watching, watching for the enemy? The enemy he had to fight... the enemy that gave no quarter and could expect none.
Who now was his enemy? Which enemy would win? Prisoners everywhere.
The men were marching, marching, marching, marching down Adelaide Street. Drums and pipes shouted and heaved in tune. Children waved flags brilliant with cross and stars. Marching marching. The men were marching. George, alone in his room watched intently. They looked fit. A few were even smiling. Some men could do that, sometimes until almost the end. He was not one of them. Was that Bert? Not sure. Hard to see. The TV picture was not clear. Oh yes there he was, they were walking close beside each other, George carrying the doctor's bag. Helped a lot that had. The old man leant forward for a second, letting his arms droop down by his sides. It helped.
One, two, three, four. On and on they marched, marched, marched. Legs up and down up and down, count the steps. One mate down, dying. Have lost count. Start again. One, two, three... Sometimes helped, helped, help. George spun round. Oh yes I know. He nodded into nothingness then turned back to watch the screen. A few stragglers near the corner of the screen looked intently at him. One chap was leaning against a post. Quick, move quickly. Too late. Here comes the kick, on the ground, boot kicking fleshless back.
They were coming to the Cenotaph. Now for the salute, did he have the strength? Must find it from somewhere. The old man sniffed, his eyes darting everywhere. Blood somewhere. The men were coming closer. Another man down. Oh Christ how much further. He would have to get himself into hospital once they got back to camp. Would he get back, of course he would, must. Some hospital! Nothing but filth and men dying but at least if he got there he could have a rest, he must rest, lie down.
Oh yes there was Bert. Bert was talking to him. George grinned. His mate looked like a skeleton. George waved, Bert grinned. Meg was watching the Anzac Day Parade. She had wanted to be with her uncle, wanted them to watch it together. He had just laughed at her over the phone. "Why don't you take the minister's advice. You sent him to me. He told me he gave you the address of a good clinic. Talk to your cousin or my nurse."
Prisoners everywhere. Which enemy would win?
The woman adjusted her set, it seemed a bit shadowy today, was there interference somewhere, glanced out the window, then sat down again and tried to concentrate on the parade. The main body of the marchers was now passing the City Hall. How hot it had suddenly became. She stood up again, walked to the balcony and opened the other side of the French door. Ah, that was better. Wiping the sweat from her face she settled back once more.
Meg with a curious start leant forward. That man looked like her uncle. George could not possibly be marching. Weeks before Meg had suggested he go to the parade thinking it might help the situation. He'd not gone for years. "It would be so easy for you in one of the RSL cars. I could help you ".
"If I could walk over Burma and Thailand, I can easily walk about Brisbane", the old man had coldly replied.
He was a prisoner still. Which enemy would win?
George struggled from the chair and half crawling, half walking staggered towards the marching figures. Must get away, must get away, must get to them, get help. Release.
The old man on his hands and knees, jerked his head, and held it there... Bert looked at him. Must have had a bad beating. How hungry he was, his mouth was full of blood. Forms rose about him. His body twisted, his head went back. The room grew crowded. The carpet was covered with flesh.
Meg jumped up. She ran to the phone. No need to look up the number. 'Breee breee, bree bree'. Her eyes tightened, she bit her lip. Oh please God make him answer the phone. 'Bree bree, bree bree'. She turned her head towards the T.V. Old men were passing Anzac Square, saluting as they stumbled past. In the last row a few were half holding, half dragging along one of their mates. They turned towards the Cenotaph and saluted. She recognised some of the features. Had she not sensed them standing behind her, tapped her shoulder.
A face turned towards her. She looked into her uncle's eyes. 'Bree bree, bree, bree'. The phone stopped dead.
© Anne McCosker 2004