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Home from the War

 article about Home from the War

 


 


The stars shone on a clear night as Bill walked down the main street of Clare. Many times, he had gazed at the stars in the Northern Hemisphere and now he felt at home again as he picked out the Southern Cross and the night skies seemed to be welcoming him home. He paused at the door of The Globe Coffee Palace, it was March 1943, and it was almost five months since the war stopped for him at El Alamein. He wondered if they were still up at ten o'clock at night. He slipped his bag from his shoulder as he gazed at the door. He was home, he had made it, he wondered how and he wanted to savour the moment. It was just an ordinary full panel door with flecks of paint peeling. It meant so much more to Bill, it was the symbol of his family who he thought many times he had lost. With his heart quickening in anticipation, he lifted his arm and rapped on the door.


 


It took him a few seconds to recognise Elaine, they stood staring, then she screamed, 'Bill, Bill. Mum it's Bill,' and flew into his arms. Kate ran to the door followed by Eddy. Through screams and kisses, Bill picked up his bag and made his way to the kitchen table.


 


'I was afraid I'd never see you again,' said Kate, tears showing on her cheeks, 'you look all right. How are you? How are your wounds? Did they heal? How long can you stay?'


 


'I'm fine Mum. I can stay three weeks.'


 


'Good, there's plenty of room here. Peter's coming from Maknapinna station and David will be here tomorrow.'


 


'Have you got a cuppa Mum?'


 


'Of course, are you hungry?'


 


                                                     * * *               


 


It had been years since he had spent a night in his mother's house and when Bill awoke in the morning, he lay savouring the feeling of being home. The sunbeams were catching the dust and it appeared as if the room was streaked with beams. He was fascinated by the sight and tried to catch the reflections on the wall. There was a boy watching from the doorway. 'Sean! Gee you've grown, come and talk to me.' Bill's army gear was spread around the room and Sean picked up some of the kit and examined it. The boy was tall for his age, dressed in a soiled shirt and shorts held up by braces. There was snot under his nose. 'Do you have a handkerchief?' asked Bill.


 


'No,' said Sean.


 


Bill reached into his kit and pulled out a clean folded khaki handkerchief. He handed it to Sean, 'Can you blow your nose yourself?'


 


'Yeah,' said Sean as he blew hard into the handkerchief clearing his nose and proffering the result to Bill.


 


'No, you keep it. You now have a real army handkerchief. Do you like that?'


 


Sean smiled as he stuffed it in his pocket. 'Yeah,' he said.


 


'Come on, sit on the bed and talk to me.'


 


The boy jumped up onto Bill's bed. Bill reached over, picked up his slouch hat and placed it on Sean's head. 'You can't keep that, but you can wear it,' he said.


 


'Did you kill anyone in the war?' Sean asked.


 


Bill ignored the question, 'What are you doing today?'


 


'Watching the horses at the Blacksmith's.'


 


'Will you show me?'


 


'If you like.'


 


'Tell Mum I'm comin' down for breakfast. After that, you can show me the horses.' Sean hurried from the room.


 


Bill stepped onto the footpath with Sean excitedly showing the way. It was like there was another world in this child's mind and Bill felt privileged to be entering it. Kate had told him she was worried about how Sean was coping with the shift from Muddy River to the town. He had made up a world of his own and he was welcoming Bill to share it. Clare had a narrow main street with all sorts of vehicles parked on both sides making the street even narrower. With petrol rationing, there were many horse drawn vehicles such as drays, sulkies with small and large horses pulling them. Bicycles, motorbikes, cars and trucks also were meandering down the street or were parked at the curb. Bill was interested in the weird smelly contraptions attached to some cars to allow them to run on fuels other than petrol. A convoy of Army trucks was threading its way through the town on their way north to Darwin or places in between. No wonder Sean liked to watch the traffic, it was a passing parade of humanity and man's strange vehicles.


 


With more people using horses because of the petrol shortage, the blacksmith shop was a hive of activity. The smithy built up the flame in his fire much to the fascination of Sean. Some of the horses he was shoeing were difficult to handle and the owners or handlers tried to control them. Sometimes, the horses would rear and jump, frightening those around the shop. As Bill and Sean approached, a prancing horse reared and lashed out. The horse came down and kicked the blacksmith, sending him sprawling, then it bolted down Main Street with the owner in pursuit. The blacksmith had a bruised leg, but carried on shoeing the next horse. Bill could see how impressed Sean was at how the smithy made the shoe just the right size, then plunged it into the water with a loud hiss as the sizzling steam rose. The blacksmith moved to the horse and shod it quickly by hammering the nails into the horses hoof until they protruded out the side then bent the nails over and cut them off.


 


'G'day Sean, you want to work the bellows?' the Smithy inquired. Sean skipped away from Bill and was soon pumping at the bellows. 'G'day Digger, you'd be Bill, wouldn't cha?'


 


'Yeah. How'd y' know?'


 


'Sean loves to tell me about his big brother in the war. Sounds like yer winning it on yer own. He's a terrific kid, comes here all the time. He babbles on about yer.'


 


Bill stayed and watched the activity around the blacksmith shop for about an hour, occasionally, helping with a horse while Sean worked the bellows. When it was time to go, the smithy gave Sean two-bob. He smiled, showed to it Bill then put it in his pocket.


 


Sean showed Bill how to get into the house the back way and he noticed an old beat up motorbike in the yard. Kate and Elaine were bandaging David, Bill's younger brother, as he sat at the kitchen table. 'What happened?' asked Bill.


 


'He fell off his motorbike,' said Kate.


 


David tried to get up. Kate pushed him down again. 'Don't move,' Kate said.


 


'I was comin' back to see y'. I was goin' down the dirt road from Farrell Flat and I saw a snake crossin' the road. I didn't want to run over it cause it might come up and bite me, so I tried to go round it. The bike slid down and I hit the road in a cloud o' dust. I'm OK. Jus' lost some skin. It looks worser than it is.'


 


'How's the bike?' asked Bill.


 


'She's right. Just scratched the tank.'


 


'How old are you?'


 


'Fifteen,' said David.


 


'I thought you couldn't get a licence until you were sixteen.'


 


"I told 'em I was sixteen,' said David. Bill just shook his head.


 


Peter Kelly, another brother, entered the kitchen, he was twenty years old, not as tall as Bill, but he had the same rugged handsome appearance with fair hair combed back from his eyes and his sleeve folded back from his missing right arm, severed after a train accident when he was a child. He grabbed Bill excitedly. 'Bill,' he shouted.


 


'Pete.'


 


'Got ya a beer,' said Peter as he handed his brother the bottle. 'Knock the top off so you'll know you're home to a decent drop,' Bill gulped the beer straight from the bottle.


                                                                      



 


 


Bill thought David's old motorbike would shake his bones out as he slowed for the turnoff just after Gladstone. He had borrowed the Norton to visit Steve Nason's parents. Steve was Bill's best mate and had been killed at El Alamein. Accelerating towards the farmhouse, he knew this task would be unpleasant. Steve had warned him about his father. The house was at least fifty years old with a veranda running all the way round it similar to many farmhouses in this part of the country. The Norton was making a terrible racket and he was surprised it was necessary to knock on the door. A woman slowly opened the door, 'Yes?' she said.


 


'Missus Nason, my name's Bill Kelly I was a friend of Steve's. We had an arrangement to visit each other's families if we didn't make it home. I was on leave and I thought I'd come and see you.'


 


A man appeared and opened the door wider. He was about the same height as Bill but a lifetime of hard work had given him enormous shoulders. 'What good do you think you can do? The boy's dead. I needed him here to work the farm. He went gallivanting off in the army.'


 


'I don't know really. Perhaps I can help you.'


 


'I don't see what good you can do here.'


 


'I'm trying to honour my promise to Steve. He was the best mate a man could ever have. I can tell you things you won't hear from anyone else.'


 


Missus Nason slipped passed her husband. 'Come in, please. I'll make you a cup of tea and we can talk.'


 


Before he had arrived, he had settled on a strategy of going through their time in the army in an effort to direct them away from thinking about Steve's death. It worked because Bill spent most of the time telling her about her son and the good times they had. Towards the end, she cried when he described Steve's death. It took him two hours before he was able to kick the Norton into life and ride out the farm gate. Steve's father had refused to speak to him, but he hoped Missus Nason would be able to explain Steve's time in the Army to his father. Steve's mother showed Bill a letter from the Army. The letter said that Steve had been awarded the Military Medal. She said Tom was going to shove it down their throats if they came out here with a medal. He had never seen bitterness and anger like that before; it seemed to intrude on everything to do with the man. No wonder Steve had left.


 


                                                  * * *


 


Cliff Nunn's farm seemed to be much the same as he rode the motorbike over the sheep grid at the main gate and headed for the house. Bill's heart was pounding as he wondered what his reception would be. The last time he was here Cliff had threatened Bill with a shotgun when he wanted to see the children he had fathered after an affair with Cliff's wife. Three dogs joined him on the trip up the dirt track and aggressively barked at the bike. One dog nipped at the tyre and the sound of the old motorbike and barking dogs signaled his arrival at the house.


 


Bill switched off the engine, a loud voice called the dogs off and approached Bill sitting astride the bike. 'Gees Digger, that thing makes racket. Don't drive past any cemeteries you'll wake all the buggers up.' The man was dressed in bib and brace overalls with a wide straw hat. He was tall, thin and sun tanned, Bill thought he could be in his fifties.


 


'Sorry about the racket, the bike's my young brother's. I was looking for Cliff Nunn.'


 


'He's dead mate. He died about five year back. I bought the farm off the widow. She shot through with the kids. Anyhow she's not livin' aroun' here, I would've seen her.'


 


'I used to trap rabbits here when he had the farm. I was going past so I thought I'd drop in and say hello. You've no idea where his wife went?'


 


'Nar, as soon as we did all the signin' an' shit, she shot through like a Bondi tram. I've still got plenty of bloody rabbits mate if ya want to 'ave a go at 'em.'


 


'No thanks, it's a mugs game.'


 


'Can't get trappers now. They're either in the Army or workin' in one o' them factories in Adelaide.'


 


'Thank's for your help. If you can keep the dogs quiet I'll get going.'


 


'Shit, where's me manners, do you want to come in for a drink?'


 


'No thanks; I'd better get going. I have to get back to Clare. I think I'll ask around town, someone might know where she went with the kids.'


 


'Ok, come back again Digger. We'll sit down an' 'ave a beer.'


 


Bill kicked the motorbike into life and this time the dogs stayed quiet as he headed back towards the road. He spotted the shearer's quarters and for a while, he was fifteen again learning about sex as he thought about one of the happiest times of his life. He rode to Brinkworth and spotted the feed merchant as he pulled up and switched off the bike. The same man whom he spoke to in 1931 came up to him. 'G'day mate.' said Bill, 'don't s'pose you remember me. I used to sell you rabbit skins.'


 


'Sort of, you look a bit familiar, that uniform changes people a bit.'


 


'I used to trap out on Cliff Nunn's farm. I thought I'd drop in and see them but they're not there. The bloke said Cliff was dead.'


 


'Yeah. His war wounds caught up with him. There was some sort of complication.'


 


'Why didn't she keep the farm?'


 


'Couldn't. Sid hit the booze a fair bit and liked to play the gig gees. Heard it was hocked up to the eyeballs, she had to get out.'


 


'Where is she?'


 


'Last I heard she'd hooked up with some bloke and was livin' in Adelaide with the kids.'


 


'Any idea where?'


 


'Nar. Why are you so interested?'


 


'I'd just like to say hello. They were good to me and she was friendly.'


 


'I heard she could be very friendly. Was she real friendly to you mate? That boy didn't look like Cliff.'


 


'No, she helped me when I needed it that's all. What's this bloke's name?'


 


'Jimmy Long. He worked a few casual hours here. Tall skinny bastard, real good with the sheilas, a bit of a drifter.'


 


As he road towards Clare Bill didn't know what to think. He wished he had investigated the farm sooner; maybe he could have helped her with the kids. His trip to Brinkworth had turned out much different than he had expected. Now he was very anxious to find his children. He didn't like the sound of Jimmy Long. He had expected to find good old solid Cliff still running the farm with the children helping. He was surprised to find that they weren't there anymore. He was prepared for a confrontation with Cliff and his wife about seeing his children. All he wanted was to make sure the kids were okay. Now he wondered. How old were they? The boy would be about eleven and the girl nine or ten. They would be still at school. He had to find them, but how?


                                              * * *


 


Bill and his brothers, Peter and David had been drinking all day and were affected by the liquor as they approached the Clare Town Hall where the Saturday night dance was in full swing. Elaine was already there after refusing to go with her brothers while they were drunk. 'Take it easy,' said Bill. 'If they think you're drunk they won't let us in.'


 


'There's lotsa sheilas here,' said David.


 


They paid their money at the ticket box and entered the hall. Couples were dancing to the music of a three-piece band. It was obvious there were more girls then men because some of women were dancing together. The Kelly boys wasted no time asking girls to dance.


 


After about an hour, they began to sober up and Bill enjoyed the company of women after so much time with men. Elaine introduced him to a woman he thought was about the same age as he was; they danced and chatted the night away. David got into a fight, Peter and Bill had to rescue him and take him home where they continued drinking until they fell asleep.


 


                                            * * *


 


The crowds cheered wildly and church bells rang out as Bill marched down King William Street with the South Australian members of the Ninth Division. A crowd of two hundred thousand lined the route; Bill could feel the jubilation in the crowd as he marched with a feeling of immense pride to be a part of the famous Division. They were six abreast and marching with fixed bayonets from the Torrens Parade Ground in the City of Adelaide, to the Daws Road Camp south of the city, a distance of over six miles. The cheers overwhelmed the men who had not known the depth of emotion of the Australian people. Their fighting had been so far away and they had wondered about the real passion of the people they were fighting for. Now, for the first time, they felt appreciated.


 


Next day, reveille sounded at 03:00 hours and they were on the way again.


 



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