Lest we forget

I don’t know how Great Uncle Roy died, only that he was lost on April 4, 1918, as the Australian Army scrambled to resist the final German offensive which included attempting to capture Villers-Bretonneux. And that his body was never found.

So I’ve imagined what might have happened, and I’m sharing it with you to mark Remembrance Day 2019. It’s from my yet-unpublished novel, Shot. Was it his final moment in my fictionalised story? You’ll have to read it to discover.

Lest we forget.

101 years, World War One, WW1, Remebrance Day
Roy

Waiting until he heard a heavy burst of fire, probably directed at Dickson and Tuite, Roy clambered out of the drainage pit that was their temporary refuge and threw himself down onto the sharp rocks of the railway siding. Taking a couple of deeps breaths he then crawled over the tracks as fast as he had ever moved, banging knees and elbows on the steel and wood, the smell of coal and diesel filling his nostrils. All of this failed to register in his conscious mind with his awareness instead focused on the shrill fact that, for a few seconds, he was visible to the enemy, if they should look his way. But these men who someone had decided should kill him and his, were preoccupied with keeping other parts of the Australian line pinned down, and so his almost comical scramble across the tracks went unnoticed and he rolled down into the ditch he had hoped would be there, with its promise of life-giving cover.

There was no time to rest and he crawled on his belly along the ditch, panting from the exertion, until he found the spot about 60 yards along where the lower corner of a paddock dipped towards the drain. He could see now the soil was black and damp and obviously a low spot where water gathered and the grass grew more thickly. He remembered the fields at home and the undulations – gilgai – that defied farmers’ efforts to sow them which meant they survived like little oases of ancient Australia surrounded by the grainy signs of progress.

Drawing on all his bushman’s skills he chose a path up into the paddock and the longish grass, trying to avoid disturbing it and alerting the Germans to his presence. Still on his belly, he made his way to the thickest part until the smell of crushed grass and clay soil enveloped him. As he rolled onto his back to rest, for a moment he could almost have been a boy again on the banks of the Hunter, contemplating a swim, a speckled sky above.

He wondered at how he had got here, how life had conspired somehow to bring him so close to death and with not one person at his side. What had driven him to this place? What had driven him always to the hopeless cause? He suddenly had a piercing memory of himself as a young boy reaching for the barrel of a gun and saying no. No to the unruly, stubborn brokenness of the world. And here he was, again grabbing at the barrel of a gun, mercy thick in his throat, and tears forming in his eyes. The scar on his foot seemed to throb in remembrance.

But the battle alertness that had carried him this far re-asserted itself and he knew there could only be a few moments before the counter fire of his mates would light up and his chance would come to make a run at the machine gun post. In fading light, he made sure of his gear, circling his fingers around one of his grenades, hoping he would have the presence of mind to deliver it with devastating effect against the Bosch who were targeting his friends. Lifting his head slightly to look back at the Australian line, he could just see Dickson and Tuite, still behind the excuse for a mound, holding each other now to make the most of their cover. There was little movement from them and he hoped he wasn’t too late. He could not see Ewings and the others from this position but then a racket started up from their way and he knew the time had come.

With his mates firing and yelling and carrying on as if they were launching a major attack, Roy got onto all fours, steeling himself for the run and then, the whole world seemed to move into that place between times. As Roy leapt up and made his run towards the machine gun pit, he felt the grimace on his face and the roar of his voice as if it was someone else. He saw the flash of fire from his enemy with perfect clarity, directed to his left, intended for the men he had left behind.

He made out four German soldiers who as yet had not seen him, busy feeding and firing their weapon against the noisy Australians who were apparently attacking from near the railway line. And then one of them turned and his eyes locked for a moment with Roy’s  in mutual understanding. It seemed to Roy that in some kind of frozen motion, the man’s arm then flung out in his direction, pointing, his face contorting with a fearful scream and then all heads snapping towards this slicing silhouette that bore down on them.

Still moving fast, Roy drew back his arm and threw the grenade with all his strength. Even as he was doing this, the machine gun was whipping around towards him, shooting without break, delivering a curling arc of fire. Roy was now desperately seeking the ground but felt a tearing across his body just before he landed heavily. The explosion of the grenade ripped across his ears, a shock wave buffeting him. He held his breath and waited but the dreaded gun was quiet and had been replaced by the dying groans of men.

Only then did Roy begin to wonder if he had been hit but the chaos of war was not finished with him. A large explosion rumbled through the ground on which he was pressed and he propped himself up on an elbow in time to see brown dirt and dust resettling in massive proportion where Ewing and the others had been. He turned further left just in time to notice Dickson hoisting Tuite on his shoulder and making a run for it, no doubt oblivious as to what had been done to save their lives.

He lay back down and realised that two men would live at least a few moments more but a dozen had just perished and the sense of it was momentarily lost to him. Sliding his fingers down his side he felt the warm gush of his own blood, and a spasm of shock went through him.

‘It’s all right Roy, just a flesh wound,’ he told himself out loud and then curled up and covered his ears as more explosions filled the air. It occurred to him that there was no one left who knew where he was. How long could he lie here losing blood? Could he move himself back towards the Australian line?

The moaning from the German machine gun pit had stopped and he decided that he might still have a chance to make his return, but his legs stubbornly refused to respond. He lay there, trying to calm his breathing, wishing that Yirra was with him, knowing his friend would have seen him home safely. Soon enough they’d come back, he thought, remembering the determination of the Australian forces not to lose Villers-Bretennoux.

Then the whistle that was so familiar came louder than ever and it was if a hand  reached down and picked him up, flinging him around like some plaything until he could not tell where he was, and it was silent. He lay still waiting, then opened his eyes and noticed a droplet on the lashes of his left eye, no doubt dew from the grass in which he had been lying, except he could no longer feel any comforting grass.

The faces of loved ones moved before him, Faith lying quietly in a hospital bed, a faint smile on cracked lips. Yirra prone in the back of a lorry, his hand moving to hold his side as the vehicle bumped its way into a prison camp, a nervous soldier guarding him with care. His father bending low over the hoof of a horse he was shoeing, frowning with concentration as he whispered quietly to calm the beast. His mother staring, sadly, through a kitchen window he did not recognise, the bustle of family behind her. Finally on older, quieter Wal, walking hand in hand with a young woman, down a familiar Singleton street, under a golden sun. And he knew somehow that he had done his job. Then there was a boy’s feet, toes wiggling, both scar free and pink with life.

© Peter Hallett 2019. All rights reserved.

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Sydney cityscape in 2000

Poem, poetry, Sydney, Year 2000, millennium, Olympics

I found this scrawl of a poem in the front of a year 2000 diary, which, yes, I still have.

I was only two years into Sydney’s public transport at the time. I’m slightly more accomplished 19 years on, but only slightly.

Perhaps the most interesting verses were written in the picturesque margin and I could only decipher these with the aid of a magnifying glass… 19 years on. Here’s the poem:

Timetable requires scientific calculator
Bus requires x-ray eyes
Legs need reminding
Ticket needs exact change
After an inexact queue.

(Asian man smokes
An old white man says
‘Send him back to Asia’
Unrepentant smoker says
‘So where do you come from?

Asian girls look at me to see
if there is conspiracy
in my eyes. I faintly smile,
silently confessing my mind
was on the ticket machine.)

The moment of arrival
Is greeted by the Holy word
But to catch the train requires
100 in 9.8
To be expected in Sydney 2000.

Our wait requires
Dirty looks and muttering
The test of course is to remember
Life in other places
And to take your seat, thankfully.

Stress into solutions

Stress, solutions, serving

Working on a complex, time-sensitive writing project, I hit some challenges and could feel stress developing in my mind and body.

For a moment it began to feel heavy and unwieldy, not the way I want to carry this work.

I put it aside to spend some time serving someone else in our household, preparing a simple meal for them.

As I moved through the task, my mind found itself thinking through a solution and by the time I’d finished preparing the meal, I knew how to proceed with my writing project.

‘Stress to solution through service’ I said to myself, and I recognised a principle I had long valued but had rarely summarised so succinctly.

I’m not suggesting you can live by formulas, but if serving another helps turn stress into a solution, well, I’m thinking ‘win win’.

And then I realised a scattering of bloggers

When I started my first WordPress blog on April 29, 2009 I couldn’t find anyone else I knew personally among the millions of WordPress bloggers.

Today as I read through some of the writing or reflective blogs I follow, I realised they were mostly by people I know in the real world and all offer something unique and encouraging.

So here they are, mostly on WordPress, why not check them out:

Chrissy Guinery, author of Falling Upstairs, reminds you why life is living large.

Bronte Sawtell, is 19 and thinking and has fallen in love with Newcastle.

Josiah Hallett is tossing out the pros and finds hope in the midst of angst.

Stephen Baxter is an old mate from Alive and On Being days and is keeping the heaven2earth connection going.

Rachael Stevens is a talented young writer (The Skeleton Diaries) and influencer and has a great website and blog which I daresay is designed by husband Tom.

I’m thinking there is groundswell of (Christian) writing evident here of which the sites I’ve listed are just a small sample.

Share your own favourites in comments (below).

PH

‘It is nothing’ – the assassination of Franz Ferdinand

To mark 100 years today since the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinaz of Austria and his wife Sophie, here’s a chapter from my unpublished WW1 novel, Shot: a great war story, that among other things retells the events of that day.

 

June 28, 1914

‘One comes here for a visit and is received with bombs…. It is outrageous!’

Franz had never felt so furious. How could this be, how could they let this happen? To think that his life and that of his Sophie had been in mortal danger from the actions of some fool in the crowd.

He saw again the slow loop of the explosive as it headed towards them, first bouncing off the bonnet of the car, before he had instinctively swatted at it, knocking it away. Then only to learn that Eric and the Count had been badly wounded in the car behind. And now this simpleton of a mayor is intent on giving a welcoming as if nothing has happened.

The scorn of his uncle and the Imperial court over this debacle would be insufferable, Franz thought, when he felt Sophie take his hand. She was standing by his side at the top of the town hall steps, where they were supposed to be basking in the warmth of an official welcome and the appreciation of the people, and where a stunned mayor stood fingering his notes.

What point is there after what has happened? Franz thought. Someone has tried to kill us! The realisation of how naïve he had been, how unrealistic, began to dawn on him. He turned to Sophie, feeling her trembling, seeing her lip quiver, and reached to wipe a tear, then noticing a slight graze on her cheek.

‘Sophel, oh my dear wife, I see you have been injured in the blast. My God, how close we have come to tragedy!’

She flinched from his touch, produced a handkerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at the graze.

‘I am all right, Franz, do not fuss. We must not be overcome by this. Look, the people do really love you,’ Sophie said,  whispering in his ear.Read More »

I finished a novel and didn’t notice

I’ve been stealing moments to write my first novel for so long now that when I wrote the last scene I was caught unawares.

Tidying up some spelling and rushed typing I saved the file and then noticed that the pressure to go on, to finish, had gone.

Then I realised. That was it. The place I had always planned to end had been reached. It was over.

So I immediately began re-reading and re-writing….

While the breadth of the novel is complete, the depth and dimension no doubt will require some work.

And in the end, who knows if anyone but me will read it.

Not to worry, I don’t care.

Still, I did submit it to a publisher today.

If you are interested to know more, leave a comment, I could be enticed to share a few details from my secret life of writing.

I’d say 100 comments might be enticing enough….

Central Railway Pedestrian Tunnel #2

‘Get your copy of the Big Issue’.
[Sees me]
‘C’mon big fella,
We’re looking for a good
second rower…
Just five dollars
All proceeds to help the disadvantaged’.
[Nervous laugh – mine]
Girl to girl, ‘You don’t want too?’
Voice in the air, ‘See ya dude!’
[Exit up the stairs]
Pool of thick, red substance near the bus stop
And two reddened tissues
Could be blood
But seriously looks like the remains of a jam donut
[Second rower? What was he thinking!]

Central Railway Pedestrian Tunnel # 1

Murmur of walking feet
Warm, very warm
‘He’s a great vocalist, but he’s just not pulling his weight’
Two Asian girls standing in a sea of walkers
‘And she’s consulting him
Two nuns, one speaking, Canadian, flourish of the arm
‘It’s good karma’
Young, white, with long dark hair, and not a clue about Hinduism
Cool near the end of the tunnel
Murmur of walking feet

Speechless of late

I know I’ve been speechless of late
Without utterance
It’s what happens when your ears are full
Your mouth is empty
And your heart is silence overflowing

I still see things and wonder and create
Small chains of ideas
But the energy to bother has been cruelled
Slipping through cracks
And running down the dirty city gutter

It occurred to me as a small example –
Our life addiction
How we settle for many impoverishings
Because we at least
Are alive to breath and remember

Or to notice the man with maddened hair
Dark tanned cracked face
Sitting on a shady step on hot King St
Counting his coins
Black eyes catch mine before we separate

Or to feel tears swell when crackly speakers
Come to life and bid
Us all stand and silently remember
I saw just a boy’s name
And recalled the worth of two quiet minutes

Here’s to all the dreamers and lovers and stealers
For the ‘sparks soul’
Where ‘love is the only art’; so mention
It again to yourself
And open wide your flailing utterance

Walking at the precise speed of menace

We were all just waiting for the bus, of no great stature or intent. He came prowling down the footpath, walking at the precise speed of menace and power. Black shoes and trousers, dark brown leather jacket and impenetrable sunglasses. Tanned face and pony-tail, probably taut muscles beneath his impeccable attire. He put the cigarette to his mouth with his fingers making a crooked V across his lip, and paused, as if the whole world depended on his inhaling. He stalked through the bus mortals, studiously ignoring our existence, not even props on his stage. The bus arrived and I clambered on board, watching him appreciate his reflection in the window. As the 438 pulled away, I caught a glimpse of him turn sharply and shout. Despite his glory, he’d missed the bus.

‘Are you there yet?’

She only asked if she could go home once, and was quickly distracted by a passing motorbike.

‘Are you there yet,’ she asked often, as if her presence was barely of note.

A song came on, and I sang along quietly, ‘better than a hallelujah’. A stillness joined us, and a deeper Presence.

‘You’re a champion I said,’ when we arrived. And her smile of acceptance was worth the journey.

Suffer into Freshness

I wrote this poem on my phone, hence the short lines and meter. Clearly some angst on this particular day…

Suffer into Freshness

Is there a faith that is safe
From fading vacuous jargon
And well-intentioned simpletons
Who trample through the garden?

The further I remove myself
From religious ways of thinking
The more I notice emptiness
And sentiment that’s sinking.

Is this a sign of my decline
Into a heart that’s hardened?
Or a clearing of my sight
To metamorphing pardon.Read More »

Kill the church but go easy on the gurus…

As a wobbly sounding plane flies over head through the cloud and light rain of an early Leichhardt morning, I consider another staple of inner west life, the Inner West Courier.

It has thrown up a spiritual conundrum, a coded message of religious reality in our time. Actually, it’s just demonstrating the bleeding obvious…

On page 12 of the August 31 edition, a story celebrates the awarding of the Australian Writers Guild Kit Denton Fellowship Award to Petersham resident George Casti for his script I Want to be Slim.

Great, I think. Good to see some local talent being rewarded and $30,000 can make all the difference as a writer seeks to stave off poverty and establish their craft.

I read on to see what his script is about: ‘…award judged on courage and excellence… Catsi’s “anti-Hillsong” script won… religion is a very polarised area… satirical script is about the Rev Slim Limits and his performance in getting the masses to follow his evangelical ways.’

Mmm, so George gets $30,000 to perfect his script, poking fun, in a courageous and excellent way, at a section of society that, obviously, it is perfectly appropriate to ridicule. The Courier report is matter-of-fact, as if we shouldn’t be surprised that a local church is award-winning, satire material.Read More »

Utterance passes 10,000 visits this year

Oh, I just noticed Utterance has clocked over 10,000 visits. Nice. It all started with a New Year’s Resolution to blog every day, something I haven’t managed to do, but almost.

My best effort was seven posts in one day, including three audio posts via mobile phone, all while participating in the 14km City to Surf. Have you ever tried to jog and type on Nokia E71 keyboard…

Anyway, we have a way to go in the year and lately I’ve been thinking of a little book of Utterance, maybe available around Christmas time. Some of the best of Utterance in a nice little real-book package… What do you think?

And some Utterance trivia, I posted a story about Masterchef and the seven deadly sins back in July and it continues to be one of my most popular postings. To date, more than 350 people have visited it directly, many in the past couple of weeks. Is it a fascination with Masterchef or sin? Not sure… If you missed it, check it out.

Masterchef’s seven sins; God’s endless forgiveness

Relentless, restless reading confessions

People with blogs often tell other people, with or without blogs, about what they are reading. This may be to come across as a clever, readerish type or out of a genuine attempt to stimulate reading and discussion.

In my case I’m going to tell you what I’ve been reading because the litter of books next to my bed could be ignored no longer. I suddenly noticed it one day and thought, mmmm.

Anyway, here’s what I’m reading and feel free to use the comment facility with this post to inflict on me what you are reading. No, seriously, I’m generally interested! By the way, this reading does not include the portions of novels I am required to read for the publishing and editing courses I am doing which so far has included Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, James Bradley’s The Resurrectionist and Brett Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park (and that’s just the first week…). And then there is the constant noting of books other people are recommending in my lectures so that I now have a list of about 37 books that simply must be read…

But back to the leaf-litter around my bed:

Read More »

Gretel, Gillard and ‘god’ in an age of convenient Christianity

Gretel Killeen is now a columnist for The Sun-Herald and, I believe, we did the same communications degree too long ago to remember. Known to most as the host of Big Brother for many years, she is actually an acclaimed author in various genres and did time as a stand up comic.

She counts her most important achievement as being a single mother to her two children and apparently believes in a small ‘g’ god, whatever that means.

Gretel made a fairly intelligent contribution in Sunday’s column to the commentary on Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s declaration of non-faith:

‘And despite the fact I do believe in a god, I’d like to give praise… to Prime Minister Julia Gillard for declaring her atheism last week. In a hypocritical world, it’s not uncommon for allegedly God-fearing politicians to treat the Ten Commandments as though they were a smorgasbord rather than a set meal, choosing their own custom-made combinations to both impress others and serve themselves. It’s therefore thrilling in this age of convenient Christianity to hear someone tell the truth on an issue that could actually lose them votes.’

If she was seen wearing sackcloth and ash and saying some of those things, especially ‘Ten Commandments as… smorgasbord’ and ‘impress others and serve themselves’ we might easily mistake her for Joan the Baptist.

It is possible (and not mutually exclusive) to respect the honesty of a Prime Minister and the measure of faith of a newspaper columnist while still earnestly praying that they would both encounter the living Jesus. PH

God purposefully stringing me along

God had me on a string today, I thought. Everywhere I went, seemingly by chance, I met people, seemingly on purpose. I arrived at Lunch just in time for the Young Woman to ask me about her mental health. ‘I don’t want to be kicked out on the streets or get locked up. How do I seem to you?’ My answer was sweet and sour like the steaming bowl of food before me. ‘You have been more unwell than this but you were right to say the best thing is to see your doctor as you are not quite yourself.’ She was reassured and I left Lunch just in time to see the Old Woman exit the building opposite, heading for the bus. I walked up beside her and gave her the gift that was tucked away in my bag. She kissed me with delight and yelled thank you as we parted. After eight kilometres walking with Tall Boy in misty rain around Blackwattle Bay, I considered my next move and headed for a hair cut. Crossing the road I saw the Owner, who I had just been thinking off. He spotted me and came over with friendly smile and clipped accent. We chatted and he offered me a job and I said for us both, ‘It’s in God’s hands.’ Young Man appeared as we continued talking in the street, also heading for a haircut, which he beat me too. It has been some time and at least we locked eyes and I was able to find him in the barber’s seat and grip his shoulders. The Iranian was all smiles and curls and pleased to see me. I said I would return tomorrow and headed for the bus. Waiting at the lights before the River of Traffic, I spotted the Older Man, on the other side. We waved across the rapidly moving, and I let my green man go as Older Man crossed over. We shook hands, and affirmed friendship and there was more deep eye contact, much-needed assurance. As we spoke, Woman Carrying Box appeared next to us and so as the green man appeared again, we farewelled Older Man, and I switched conversations once more. ‘Growing in confidence’ I thought, as we talked at the bus stop, with women looking on it seemed. She asked a question or two and the red 10 arrived to deliver me from the enjoyable relay-conversation in which I had just featured, all on a city corner. Later, having left Something, I was driving back when I missed Someone’s call. I was not surprised (considering the day) upon reaching my destination to see him parking too, as if we’d planed a rendezvous. We talked in hushed tones and found the Walker sitting cross-legged on the floor, but that is one story too many. As I prepared to leave, having intended to ‘slip under the radar’, Woman of Art arrived but I left with a wave, thinking that if this piece of string continued, I would never get home. But I did.

What drives you – plot, character or both?

In literature, stories are said to be either plot-driven or character driven, but what about life?

Some novels are all about the plot – the unfolding of action and drama – while the development of character is less important. A Matthew Reilly novel would be an example – we don’t really need to know his characters other than have a vague sympathy or antipathy for them, as long as something blows up every few paragraphs.

Some novels are character driven – the characters are highly developed and the plot flows out of who they are. Jane Austen meticulously crafts her characters and we watch and see how they negotiate the life that unfolds from the authentic decisions they make.

Of course no story can be one or the other – plot requires people and unless we replace them with plankton, some degree of characterisation is required. People do things and have pleasures and problems and so a plot will develop. If all we had were just endless descriptions of people, we might prefer they were plankton.

For me it is the issue of starting point, of emphasis. One emphasises things happening more than the people to whom they happen. The other wants us to see inside people more fully as things happen.

I can’t help but draw a line to real life, our lives. Is our life more about plot – what’s happening next – or more about character – who we are as things happen?Read More »