Loading...
Menu

Whisky Tango Foxtrot...copy?

Whisky Tango Foxtrot John Regan 226

h3={color:#000;}.

h3={color:#000;}.

h3={color:#000;}.

h3={color:#000;}.

h3={color:#000;}.

WHISKY TANGO FOXTROT

John Regan

h3={color:#000;}.

h3={color:#000;}.

h3={color:#000;}.

h3={color:#000;}.

h3={color:#000;}.

h3={color:#000;}.

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Regan

PO Box 40

Bundaberg 4670

tel 0417078257

https://johnregan.info

Chapter 1

In the summer of 1964, Jim Price and his mate Charlie Krantz found themselves aboard the Daring class destroyer HMAS Voyager somewhere off Jervis Bay on a beautiful, clear moonlit night. Jim had achieved his boyhood dream of sailing in fast ships and Voyager hammered along at full speed ahead, better than 30 knots, in company with the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. Their task that night was to give flyboys practice landing their Gannet aircraft on Melbourne’s flight deck, about the size of two football fields.

As Engine Room Artificers Fourth Class in the rank of acting petty officer it was their job to operate the twin chrome-plated throttles that admitted superheated steam to the turbines driving the ship through the water. The price Jim had paid for the thrill of a fast ship was to be condemned to the engine room, the nearest that humans had yet come to creating Dante’s Inferno on Earth. Generators roared, steam-driven pumps went kapunk, kapunk, kapunk, turbines screamed, the steel checker-plates under his feet rattled and his head reverberated with the cacophony while his body streamed with sweat. For the last couple of hours it had been stop and go; half ahead both, full ahead, stop, and even slow ahead port with slow astern starboard.

“What the fuck are they doing up there?” Charlie wanted to know, to which Jim had no answer. They had played football together; got drunk together, peed over the same fences, fought over the same girls and nearly killed themselves driving fast cars, so comments like this required no response. Jim had no more idea than Charlie what was happening on deck except by guesswork from the engine orders. That was the worst part. Right now the telegraph indicated full ahead and the ship was flat strap, probably shifting station from Melbourne’s quarter to somewhere further ahead. With all the machinery working overtime, Jim was trying to concentrate on his job.

Then the telegraph rang straight through from full ahead to full astern. For an instant, he could hardly believe it. You can’t go from full ahead to full astern in a car and you can’t do it in a ship. He glanced at Charlie, beside him, staring at the telegraph in disbelief. It resembled a clock face and, definitely, the brass pointer had swung right around the dial from full ahead to full astern. They both turned to look at The Baron, the engineer officer in his white overalls standing behind them on the manoeuvring platform high above the generators, turbines and pumps. The Baron had earned his nickname because he seemed to think he was a member of royalty, with a habit of looking down his nose at you but the full astern order obviously gave him a shock. For a moment he seemed undecided, but then he said, “Just do it, but watch the steam.”

Jim and Charlie began winding back on the throttles, keeping an eye on the steam pressure gauges. Too fast and they could destroy the turbine blades or black out the boilers. Too slow and the emergency that called for the full astern order, whatever it was, could also become a disaster.

Then everything went haywire. An explosion tossed Jim through the air. He screamed, and his arms flailed like a windmill. He grabbed at a stanchion to save himself from going over the edge but lost his grip and fell, hit a diesel generator, bounced off and landed on a catwalk. He screamed again when pain shot up his left leg as if from a red hot knife. He clutched another stanchion to keep from falling down further, into the oily bilge, the bowels of the ship. Voyager seemed to have stabilised but heeled over at a steep angle. Dazed and dizzy, he hung on to keep from sliding down the slope. He strained to look at his leg, wondering why his foot was sticking out sideways. Blood soaked the leg of his overalls and puddled on the catwalk. He had to stop the bleeding. It was a gigantic task, requiring all his concentration. Hanging on with one hand, he rolled up the trouser leg to the break below the knee and made a bundle of it to soak up the blood. He tore his sweat rag into strips and tied the pad in place over the wound. The exertion nearly exhausted him. He shut his eyes and felt his hands trembling uncontrollably, his mind a blank.

Then Charlie appeared, clambering along the tilted catwalk hand over hand on the guardrail. Blood ran down his cheek from a cut on his forehead but otherwise he looked unharmed. Charlie to the rescue, Jim thought with relief. It wouldn’t be the first time Charlie had got him out of trouble, but it worked both ways. Jim had saved Charlie’s pickle once or twice. That’s what mates are for.

“You okay, mate?” Charlie looked worried, which worried Jim. Maybe the leg was worse than he thought.

“Leg’s buggered,” Jim said, and added stupidly, “I put a bandage on it.”

Charlie squatted to look at it but did not touch. “Yes, I see you’ve put a bandage on it. How’s your other leg?”

“I think it’s okay, but I wouldn’t know.”

“Well, we’ve got to get you out of here. I’ll give you a lift.”

He grabbed Jim under the armpits and hoisted him up on to one leg, careful not to damage the other further. With one of Jim’s arms over his shoulder he headed back along the catwalk gripping the hand rail. They reached the ladder and both clung to it, with Jim panting from the pain. No way was he going to be able to climb that ladder.

“Hang on,” Charlie said. “I’ll go and get a rope. You’ll be right, mate.”

He climbed the ladder, crossed the platform to the workshop and came back with a length of rope. He tied it around Jim’s chest under the armpits and then climbed back up to the platform.

“Ready? I’m going to pull you up.”

Jim was having another dizzy spell and everything looked fuzzy. He grabbed the rope, his only lifeline.

“Yeah. Go ahead.”

Charlie took the line around his back and over his shoulder like a mountaineer and heaved. Jim assisted by hauling himself up on the rungs. His left leg dangled uselessly and bumped against the ladder and he shouted with the pain.

Charlie got him up to the platform and they both collapsed on the plates, exhausted. One of the generators shut down, probably on low oil, Jim thought, because the ship was still heeling more and also going down forward. The lights were growing dim and alarm bells were ringing. It was becoming hard even to stay in place.

“Jesus Christ, what’s happened?” Jim said. “Have we run aground or what?”

Just then the ship gave another lurch.

“No,” Charlie said. “She’s still moving.”

Someone down below screamed.

“That’s The Baron,” Jim said.

“Stiff shit. We’ve got to get out of here, mate. This ship’s buggered.”

Charlie lifted him upright again and Jim clung to his back like a baby koala while Charlie mounted the ladder leading up to the main deck. It was supposed to be vertical but the list pressed Charlie against the rungs and he struggled to make progress. The ship must be over about fifteen or twenty degrees. When he could, Jim grabbed a rung with one hand and hauled on it, trying to ignore the knifelike pain gouging his leg. The Baron screamed again. Maybe he was hurt too, Jim thought, but nothing could be done. At the top, the problem was to get up over the coaming, the little wall around the hatch.

“You hang on,” Charlie said. “I’m gonna get your bum on my shoulder.”

Charlie backed down the ladder, got his shoulder under and heaved up like an earthquake. Jim was ejected out over the coaming into the main passageway with more excruciating pain. Except for the fireflies of battery light it was as dark as a bat’s cave, with men scrambling, shouting, crying, kicking, punching and fighting for the exit while emergency klaxons hooted over the PA.

Charlie got Jim up on his back again and staggered along the passageway, supporting himself with a hand against the bulkhead. The hordes pushed past them out on to the quarterdeck where the chief coxswain waved them through, broke them up into two streams, left and right, uphill and downhill, trying to impose order upon the rabble.

Out in the cool fresh air, Jim caught the scent of ozone and knew he was lucky to be alive. He felt sorry for the Baron, still down below, but nothing could be done for him now.

“Settle down,” the chief coxswain yelled. “Get yourselves in line. This is not a rehearsal. Anyone without a lifejacket, get it on now. Let’s have a bit of order here.”

Sailors in a panic jostled and shoved, fear written on their faces, but the chief was a beacon of sanity in this madness. He stared them down and the line held.

“Now, who’s wounded?”

“Jim Price, Swain,” Charlie said.

“Get him into the boat. The rest of you, stand back. Anyone else? Who’s next?”

Hopping along with Charlie for a crutch, Jim headed for the downhill boat, already nearly full, hanging in the davits. He turned around and a couple of blokes grabbed him under the armpits and hauled him backwards into the boat. Jim let out a howl when his sore leg smacked against the side.

“Come on, mate,” Jim said. “There’s room for you.”

Charlie mopped the blood off his forehead with the sleeve of his overalls. He raised his hand in a kind of half-salute. “I’m going back for The Baron.”

What? You stupid prick, get into the boat.”

Charlie turned and shoved his way back through the mob. Jim could hardly believe it. Where did he think he was going? This ship doesn’t have long to live. Charlie was famous for mad hatter escapades but this was just plain stupid.

“Charlie. Come back!”

The boat dropped with a jerk and Jim nearly fell out. Someone started the engine and they let go the falls and motored away from the doomed ship, picking up sailors out of the water until the boat was nearly gunwales under and they could take no more.

Sweet Jesus, it looked like she’d been chopped clean in half. The stern was right out of the water and the propellers silhouetted by starlight. What a beautiful night: stars and moonlight, smooth sea, light breeze. If he’d had a woman it would have been romantic. It was surreal. It was a dream. It wasn’t really happening.

The aircraft carrier, Melbourne, had stopped about a mile away. Voyager had been her guard ship, keeping station nearby while she launched and landed aircraft. It was Voyager’s duty to pick up aircrew from any plane that ditched but somehow Voyager had become the casualty. There was no land in sight, so she hadn’t run aground. The only other possibility, the unthinkable one, was that she had been rammed by Melbourne. Jim struggled without success to get his head around this idea.

Choppers lifted off Melbourne’s deck and choppered over the sea, dropping bundles that ballooned and blossomed into life rafts. A fleet of boats headed for the sinking ship. Jim was trying to find a comfortable place for his leg in the overcrowded boat. It was still bleeding. The trouser leg was soaked with blood and he had nothing else to bandage it with. One of the blokes ripped a sleeve off his shirt and wrapped it around the leg. Jim nearly screamed again, but managed, “Thanks, mate.” A few more shirt sleeves got ripped off to patch up some of the other wounded.

Approaching the carrier, he saw a great chunk chopped out of her bow so it looked like the gaping jaws of a shark. It must have been a T-bone collision. How in the name of hell does an aircraft carrier run right over a destroyer on a night like this?

The lifeboat hooked on to the carrier’s winch and was hoisted out of the water. They ascended the grey steel cliff that was the carrier’s side. Melbourne’s sailors peered over guard rails, standing by to help. Arriving at the boat deck, survivors scrambled out of the boat and boarded Melbourne. Two sailors lifted Jim out and picked him up in a firemen’s carry, but just then Voyager let out a huge white cloud and the roar of escaping steam.

The survivors watched, agape and silent, as the bow section disappeared amidst bubbles like bursting balloons spewing out debris. The aft section remained afloat but only just. It was nearly standing on end now, with the propellers right out of the water, jerking as if bumping down stairs. If he hadn’t managed to escape, Charlie was still in the stern section. Maybe he still had time. Why did the stupid bastard go back?

‘Come on, get your arse out of there for Chrissake,’ Jim muttered to himself, but knew it was already too late. He had nothing more to say, even to himself. He was numb, empty, bewildered, desolate and exhausted. If only he could sleep forever. Charlie was gone. Fuck.

Chapter 2

Nurse Robinson pulled back the curtains and flooded the room with morning sunlight and the picture postcard view across Middle Harbour.

“Right then, let’s have you up and about.” She wasn’t just a nurse; she was head honcho, or matron, like a chief coxswain of nurses. She stripped the sheet off and stood back with her hands on her hips, waiting for him to spring out of bed, which he had no intention of doing.

“I’m going to get you some crutches,” she said. “I want to see you up and dressed when I get back.”

After three weeks lying on his back, Jim had no inclination to go anywhere. He would rather stay here. Most expensive piece of real estate in Sydney with three meals a day, harbour views and bossy women. What more could he want? Three weeks’ leave with a plaster cast on his leg was not high on the list. The oldies had only bothered to come and visit once. The old man kept gazing out the window at the view and the old lady dried up after about ten minutes of repeating, “Oh, what a terrible thing,” plus the stuff she had read in the papers. Jim was half-expecting the old man to say ‘I told you so.’ Way back when, at the age of 15, Jim presented him with forms to sign he’d said, “Fucking Navy? What do you want to join the navy for? Bunch of poofters in the Navy.”

Jim didn’t really know why he wanted to join the Navy. All he knew was that he did not want to be a pig farmer. His only nautical experience was paddling a canoe on the river. Along with a bunch of school mates he built the canoe from a sheet of corrugated roofing iron and plugged the nail holes with tar dug up from the road on hot summer days. Shooting the rapids, they spent more time dragging it ashore to bail it out than paddling it. He didn’t know why he wanted to join the Navy. It just seemed the right thing to do.

“I dunno. Get to go on fast ships. Sail around the world.”

“Rum, sodomy and the lash. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

The old man scowled as he signed the forms and it seemed to Jim he had never forgiven his only son for not taking over the farm. Jim felt somehow guilty for the Voyager disaster and was thankful the old man did not gloat.

It could have been worse. Eighty-two men died but a couple of hundred got out. Twenty or thirty were injured. The finger of fate was a mysterious thing indeed. Lying on his back staring at his bandaged leg suspended from a frame over the foot of his bed, Jim puzzled over that. Why them and not me? Why Charlie and not me? It could have been Charlie who broke his leg. Why did he go back? Charlie’s final silliness seemed like wilful self-destruction, which Jim could never understand. Charlie was a larrikin, a practical joker, a big puppy dog of a man, not the hero type. What a waste.

Chook Fowler and a few other injured survivors hobbled in and gathered around his bed; one on crutches, another in a wheelchair, one with a walking stick.

“We heard they’re letting you out today, mate,” Chook said.

“Yeah, the Dragon Lady has gone to get me some crutches. I’m supposed to get out of bed.”

Chook was well named: as scrawny as a plucked chook, with a prominent Adam’s Apple and a voice like a rooster’s, which he was not shy about using. His left arm had been mangled in the collision. The doctors had operated several times trying to reconstruct it, a process that Chook regarded with detachment as if it was someone else’s arm. He kept Jim informed of progress.

“Have you seen the paper today?” He opened his newspaper to a cartoon of a navy captain with a bottle of rum in his hand and a parrot on his shoulder over the caption ‘Arrh, matey, shiver me timbers.’

Jim had a chuckle over the cartoon although there wasn’t much humour in it for him.

“I’d like to shiver his timbers,” Chook said with a scowl. He obviously didn’t find the cartoon very funny either. “The papers are on his case, at least.”

Voyager’s Captain Stevens was better known in the Navy as Drunken Duncan for his legendary consumption of alcohol. He was said to have drunk a bottle of brandy in one forenoon watch. It appeared some journalist had sniffed out his reputation.

“Says here they’re going to hold an enquiry,” Chook said. “A Royal Commission.”

“Well, we need some answers, don’t we?”

“Bloody lot of use that will be, I don’t think,” said Ernie Forrest, a PO radar plotter who had been one of the last to get out of the ship, barely alive. “How many enquiries have they had into cock-ups like Vendetta ramming the dock gates in Williamstown and nothing ever comes of them. The best one was the submarine Tabard that submerged with two blokes out on the casing. ‘Shit, sorry boys; we forgot you were still outside.’ The skipper of the submarine got promoted. Bastard should have been flogged.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” said another, “but at least it’s a Royal Commission so we won’t have Pussers pigs investigating Pussers pigs. That’s about as much use as police investigating police.”

Just then, Robinson returned with an armful of crutches.

“All right, you lot. Clear out. Petty Officer Price is being discharged today. If he ever gets around to getting dressed, that is.”

She glared at Jim’s visitors and they retreated without a whimper.

Three weeks of unwanted liberty seemed almost like a punishment, just when he had got used to the routine of meals, bedpans and blood tests. The only thing left to him since his ship disappeared beneath the waves was the ragged, blood-soaked blue overalls he had been wearing. The Navy had magnanimously issued him with a new outfit of uniforms in a khaki kitbag. He chose the schooner rig; navy blue trousers (not bellbottoms), and white, short-sleeved shirt with a petty officer’s crossed anchors in blue on the sleeve. Bell bottoms would have been easier to get over the plaster. It would have to do until he got some civvies with flares. He’d had one payday in hospital so he had a little cash but the kitbag at the foot of his bed was the first real problem.

Robinson fitted him up with the crutches, detailed instructions concerning his leg, his hours of rest and his intake of alcohol. As far as possible, he was to keep the leg horizontal.

“Yes, ma’am,” Jim said. “What am I supposed to do with that kit bag? I can’t carry it.”

“We’ll send it on when you get your next posting. Meanwhile, you’re on leave. Enjoy!” She actually smiled, and Jim was astounded. The only time he ever saw her smile was when she was getting rid of him.

“Whoopdedoo,” he said, just kidding.

He wanted to collect his car from his parents’ place but before that there was another chore he did not relish. Charlie had married a girl called Big Red about a year before. They only got married because she was up the duff but then Charlie kind of settled into the idea, especially when the kid came along. Big Red was a regular at the Friday night dances, with crimson hair done up in a pompadour so stiff with hair spray it was like wire wool. Jim had touched it once and it gave off sparks of static electricity. She was a star performer at the Friday night dances but now he owed it to Charlie to say something and had no idea what. Nothing was going to bring him back. It was not as if the ship had been lost in some heroic sea battle or overwhelmed by a cyclone. As far as Jim could figure it out, 82 men had lost their lives through carelessness. His father had been right.

It was only a short hobble on crutches from the hospital to the ferry wharf but he worried about having to ride across the harbour by ferry. Something had fundamentally changed over the last three weeks lying on his back, seeing Voyager go down again and again in his mind’s eye, wondering what Charlie’s last minutes had been like, when all the lights failed and he could hear the water rushing in.

If he had any sense he would never get in a boat again. The ferry came alongside the jetty with water churning under the stern and a toot on the whistle. The deckhand neatly dropped a line on a bollard, and ran out a rattly gangway. Jim held back while three or four other passengers walked aboard. He wasn’t too sure about the idea of hobbling along that gangway.

“Are you coming or not, mate?” the deckhand called, impatient at the delay.

“Yes, I’m coming.” I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming.

“Do you need a hand on your crutches?”

“No. I can manage.” I’m coming. I’m coming.

The first step was the hardest. He mounted the gangway, which wobbled. He froze for a minute and then took another step. One after the other. Maybe ten steps. He stepped off the end of it and took a seat on the after deck. The deckhand flipped the mooring line off the bollard, water churned under the ferry’s stern and she pulled away from the wharf. So far, so good.

Normally, he would have climbed to the upper deck but the lower deck was safer. It was midmorning in late summer. The commuters had already gone to work and apart from a few sailboats making slow progress in a light breeze, the harbour was like a daydream, with the sun sparkling on the water. Seagulls squabbled over scraps and schoolboys on an outing skylarked on the upper deck. All perfectly normal.

It’s okay, he told himself. It’s okay.

All the same, later on the train, he found it necessary to scrutinise his fellow passengers while huddling in a corner of his seat, sensing they were somehow different from him, or he was different from them, whichever way you wanted to look at it. At the Happy Valley station he took a taxi to the Navy ghetto: boxes made of ticky tacky with identical picket fences for non-commissioned officers. The junior rates’ married accommodation farther up the road lacked picket fences. Something to do with class distinction, he assumed.

Hanging on his crutches, Jim rang the bell but it wasn’t Big Red who appeared and for a moment he was confused. Had he got the wrong address? This person was blonde, not redhead, and she had big brown eyes that looked at him quizzically. Maybe she’d been expecting Seventh Day Adventists.

“Oh. I thought this was the Krantz residence. I’m looking for Nola.”

She gave him a little smile of encouragement. “Yes, you have the right place. Nola will be pleased to see you. You’re Jim Price, aren’t you?”

“How do you know that?”

The smile broadened into a cheeky grin. “Detective work. We heard you had a broken leg and you’re on crutches with a plaster cast. Dead give-away. I’m Jenny, by the way.”

She held the door open for him and waved him inside to a living room in gloom, with curtains drawn, and a stale smell. Nola, lying on the couch in her dressing gown, didn’t look too pleased about anything. The cottage combined living with dining room and had a tiny kitchen off to the side. It looked like she slept on the couch permanently, with the baby sleeping in a cot alongside. Nola obviously couldn’t be bothered to get dressed. Her pompadour had collapsed into a sorry looking mop and she looked tired with dull eyes. She seemed to have shrunk since the last time he saw her.

“Gidday, Red. How you going?”

“Well, look what the cat dragged in. If it isn’t Shagger Price.”

“Just thought I’d drop in and say hello.”

As he said it he realised how measly it was. He hadn’t just dropped in to say hello. He was here to ease the guilt over having destroyed her man and his own mate. He was here on behalf of the other 80 who had gone down, not counting Drunken Duncan. He was here haunted by the silhouette of that ship by moonlight with its propellers sticking up in the air and men floundering in the water. In his mind he saw it as a tombstone on their watery grave. He was not just dropping by to say hello; he was here for absolution and only Big Red could give it.

“Siddown,” she said. “Take the weight off your mind.”

He sat in an easy chair with his leg stuck out and laid his crutches on the floor. He knew he should say something but had no idea what. He was not equipped for this. What do you say to a woman whose man will never come home? Charlie had been his mate but they had both abhorred anything resembling sentimentality. Charlie would have been tongue-tied in this situation too.

“Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?” Jenny asked, and he was grateful for this distraction.

“Yes thanks. Coffee. No milk. One sugar.”

He watched her walk the few steps to the kitchen as if on stepping stones, the pony tail swaying across her shoulders. It was enough to loosen up his tongue.

“You okay for money?” he asked Nola.

“Yeah. I guess I’ll get the pension now. Mum and Dad help out. But the Navy says I have to get out of the house at the end of the month.”

What?”

“The Navy says I have to get out of the house.”

“I heard you. I just didn’t believe it. They’re going to kick you out?”

Nola shrugged, reached down under the settee and pulled out a bottle of Johnny Walker. She splashed a good slug into a coffee cup. “Want a snort for your coffee?”

“Okay.”

She handed him the bottle.

“What will you do?” Jim asked.

“Dunno. I might go back to Melbourne and stay with Mum and Dad.”

Jim shifted uneasily in his chair, stretching out his good leg as the silence lengthened.

“They say there’s going to be an enquiry,” he offered by way of distraction from the main issue. “A Royal Commission.”

“Yes, I heard that. Will it do any good?”

“I don’t know, but we need some answers. You can’t just write off 82 men.”

“Can’t you?” Big Red’s eyes implored him to say it was true – you can’t just write off 82 men including her man but, come to think of it, maybe the Navy could. He wasn’t going to say that to Nola. Her bottom lip trembled and he knew he was on shaky ground. Last thing he wanted was her turning on the waterworks. He wanted to tell her how Charlie had saved his life but couldn’t handle that – he couldn’t get his tongue around those words. It was too melodramatic, and he blamed Charlie for it. If someone saves your life you are in debt to them forever. Bugger him. Charlie shouldn’t have done it. Shouldn’t have gone back for the Baron. He had a wife and a baby to think of. Charlie was irresponsible; always had been, but Jim wasn’t going to say that either.

Jenny brought in the coffee and one for herself and sat in the other easy chair. She gave Jim a sad little smile as if commiserating while he topped up the coffee from the whisky bottle. No doubt she had heard the conversation from the kitchen.

“You were Charlie’s friend, weren’t you?”

“No, he was my mate. That’s different. We joined up together as mobis.”

“What’s mobis?”

“Most objectionable bastards imaginable.”

She looked at him quizzically, as if wondering whether he was pulling her leg.

“Fifteen years old,” Jim said. “Didn’t know any better.”

Jim would never admit it but Charlie and the rest of the mobis were the nearest thing to family he ever knew, having no brothers or sisters.

“It must have been terrible,” Jenny said.

“What, joining up? You could say that.”

“No, I mean the ship sinking.”

“It didn’t just sink. It got run over by an aircraft carrier. That’s not supposed to happen, you know.”

He hoped she wasn’t going to go on about it. There was plenty of stuff in the papers she could read if she wanted to know about it, or maybe she should wait for the report by the Royal Commission. Jim was not about to give her a commentary. He took a sip of coffee, concentrating on the cup; not looking at her.

Fortunately, the baby started crying and Nola got up and lifted him out of the cot, patted his back on her shoulder and walked up and down.

“They were a pair of scallywags, Jenny,” she said. “Always in trouble.”

“Not true,” Jim said. Undetected crime was one of the rites of passage and Big Red didn’t know the half of it, but he was glad she was now talking about something else.

“What about when you got done for smuggling booze for the Friday night dance?”

“That was Charlie’s fault.”

“They used to get the grog off the train, Jenny; the Richmond Rocket. They cut a hole in the fence to smuggle it in and sell it to the mobis and girls at the dance. What a hoot! They got caught by Big Jim, the commander, and had to do seven days’ chooks.”

“All lies,” Jim said; not exactly one hundred per cent truthfully.

“What’s chooks?” Jenny said.

“Double around the parade ground with a three-o-three rifle over your head and the chief screaming at you.”

“Bizarre,” Jenny said with a grin, enjoying the story or hardly believing it.

“Pussers is bizarre,” Jim said with a shrug.

“What’s Pussers?”

“Pussers is the Navy, or anything to do with the Navy. They say it comes from the word purser but I think it’s actually from the word pus as in blood or pus or pus and guts.”

“You mean it’s like an infection or inflammation?”

“Exactly. What do you do, anyway?”

“I’m a nurse at Royal North Shore.”

“Nurse. Bullies in my experience. Take advantage of a man when he’s down.”

Jenny laughed, but this time the eyes followed suit. “I bet you were a terrible patient.”

“They kept me in there for three weeks, and I had this Dragon Lady for a nurse. How long do you take to do a broken leg?”

“Depends how serious it is. Usually a day or two, but the Navy’s different.”

“Bloody oath. Do you want to sign my plaster? I haven’t got any signatures yet.”

“Okay.”

She got a pen out of a handbag on the sideboard while he rolled his trouser leg up, feeling curiously excited by the prospect of having his leg written upon by a pretty girl.

“What shall I say?”

“Up to you, but keep it clean.”

She gazed out the window for inspiration and then wrote, ‘tomorrow is better,’ and signed it Jenny.

“Tomorrow is better,” Jim said. “Sure about that?”

“Oh yes.”

The baby stopped crying and Big Red said, “Are you sure about that?”

“Oh yes,” Jenny said. “Tomorrow is better. You have to believe it.”

 

After he left, Nola put the sleeping baby back in his cot and resumed her position on the couch in reach of the Johnny Walker.

“He’s not a bad bloke, Jenny, but a bit wild. We used to call him Shagger. We reckoned he was trying to shag all the regular girls at the dance.”

“And did he succeed?”

“Well, he’s a nice hunk of man but I doubt it.”

Jenny wouldn’t describe him as most objectionable bastard imaginable but there was a hunted look in his eyes. He was obviously suffering and she tried to imagine what it must be like to go through such an experience. All she knew about boats was her father’s cruiser, which was nothing like a Navy destroyer or aircraft carrier. In her work she often had to care for traumatised people but it never came easy and Nola, her current project, was a challenge although not physically harmed.

 

Chapter 3

The only reason Jim was heading for his parents’ home was that his VW was parked in their garage. He usually left it there when he went away to sea or couldn’t leave it in the car park at Garden Island Dockyard. He wondered how he was going to drive the thing with his leg in plaster. He took the train again but it was a long walk on crutches from the station, past Kelly’s supermarket, which reminded him of the time he had fought Matt Kelly up and down Main Street with half the kids from school cheering and dogs barking. Now he couldn’t even remember what it was about but it didn’t matter because Matt got himself killed on a motorbike a few years later.

He turned along the river road past the spot where the old man had saved him from drowning at the age of nine or ten. In later years, Jim began to wonder why he had bothered. Once it became clear Jim had no intention of carrying on the family farm, his father became more remote. Perhaps the near death from drowning should have put him off becoming a sailor, but just the opposite. A new generation of kids had made a rope swing on the weeping willow and he wondered if they were still shooting the rapids. The river still drew them in: the power of water.

As far back as he could remember he wanted to be a sailor like Captain Cook or Captain Bligh or Ferdinand Magellan. He never particularly wanted to be an engineer but he could get into the Navy at the age of 15 as an apprentice artificer. Later on, he did the diver’s course and found a whole new world with endless possibilities far beyond the river. Charlie and he became bubblies together; adept at searching ships’ bottoms for limpet mines. The cold underwater silence held more intrigue than the screaming machinery in the sauna bath of a ship’s engine room. Down there in the green sea was like flying, not swimming; like back inside your mother’s womb. But then, the sea is the womb of the whole human race and now the grave for another 82 of them. It’s not ashes to ashes as the holy rollers say; it’s plankton to plankton. Those old prophets were not sailors except for Noah, and look at him. Ran aground on a mountain. That takes talent.

As for Drunken Duncan, the main thing Jim felt about him was disappointment. Duncan had let down the side of illustrious sailors all the way back to Jason and the Argonauts; Ulysses strapping himself to the mast to resist the temptation of the sirens, Captain Ahab on his mad quest for vengeance and even Lord Jim (no relation) expunging his own guilt. Drunken Duncan could never take his place in that pantheon but Jim wanted to see what the Royal Commission came up with. Until he had an official report he didn’t really know what he thought about it.

His ancestral home needed paint and weeds had invaded the old lady’s geraniums but Rex came bounding out as he turned in through the gate. Jim had grown up with Rex. They had gone swimming together, fishing together, raided McCormack’s orchard together. Fifteen years old, half blind and suffering from rheumatism, he was still able to get up on his hind legs to give him a lick, and there was nothing wrong with his waggy tail. It was a joy to see Rex again, and Jim gave him a hug.

He peeked in the garage to make sure his VW was there beside the old man’s Holden and then hobbled up the porch steps to the back door. He found his mother in the kitchen, which was the vision of her that he would carry to the grave: straggly hair, tired eyes, wearing a print apron of daisies and geraniums, stirring a pot or kneading a cake mix, lamenting the fact that she no longer had anyone to bake a cake for.

“Oh Jim, why didn’t you say you were coming?” She wiped her hands on a tea towel and gave him an awkward hug around his crutches.

“They only told me this morning. I want to pick up my beetle.”

“You can’t drive with your leg like that.”

“Yes I can.”

He wasn’t sure about that. There was no pain any more but the plaster made it heavy and clumsy. Anyway, the point of the exercise was to get back in control of his life.

“There’s a letter for you. From the Navy.”

“From the Navy? Why are they sending letters here?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps they thought you were on leave.”

“Well, I am, but only as of this morning.”

She took it down from the mantel where she kept the pepper and salt, preservatives, beans and chillies from the garden. He tore open the envelope and glanced through the letter.

“Holy shit.”

“Language, Jim!”

“Remember I told you I put in the application to become a pig?”

“Officer, Jim. Show some respect.”

“I have to go for an interview. Selection board. Navy headquarters, Garden Island.”

“Oh Jim, that‘s wonderful. Congratulations.” She smiled and gave him another hug.

With recent events, he had almost forgotten about it. While still an apprentice at Nirimba, he had volunteered as an upper yardman, partly because his mother nagged him into it. Along with a dozen or so other apprentices, he had taken on extra schooling for the Higher Education Test.

The title of upper yardman or topman dated back to the days of sail in the British Navy. They were the elite sailors, the fittest and strongest, sent to the top of the mast to furl the topsails and royals but were generally short-lived due to frequent falls from aloft. In the second half of the twentieth century, operating aircraft carriers and guided missile destroyers with nary a topgallant yard in sight, the Navy still referred to its favourites as topmen and upper yardmen. Officers still wore swords on parade and loved dressing up in fancy uniforms. Jim regarded all that as quaint rather than sinister, although his recent experience with Drunken Duncan put a new complexion on the matter. Certainly, it would be nice to get around in a uniform with gold stripes on the sleeve – shit, the glamour! – but he wasn’t all that impressed with what he had seen of Pussers pigs. However, girls go for men in uniform, he knew, and the more gold braid the better.

The old man appeared from the front of the house with his spectacles pushed up on his forehead and a newspaper in his hand. He was bent with rheumatism, like Rex, and seemed to have a perpetual scowl on his face.

“Oh, it’s you. So that’s what the noise is.”

“I’m glad you’re so happy to see me.”

The old man had no power over him any more. Jim had been away from home too long. If he wanted to get physical, Jim was quite prepared to take him on. He relished the prospect of revenge for all the times the old man had laid into him with his belt for failing to chop the firewood or raiding McCracken’s orchard or, once, wagging school. The only punishments Jim remembered were those he didn’t deserve and the same applied to his punishments in the Navy. Doubling around the parade ground with a .303 rifle above his head and the Chief Gunnery Instructor screaming at him was fair cop as long as he was actually guilty of the crime as alleged. The only punishments that still nurtured resentment were those that were unjust. His father would never again get away with thrashing him with his belt, crutches or no crutches. Jim was bigger than him now.

“George, Jim’s going to become an officer,” his mother said, full of pride.

“Zat right? Never had much time for officers, meself. You’ll have to change your name to Drunken Duncan. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.”

He laughed. He thought it was funny.

“That was Long John Silver,” Jim said. “Different novel. Different century.”

“Sez here they’re going to have a Royal Commission.” He tapped the newspaper to support his claim. “Prime Minister says, ‘I intend to get to the bottom of this’. Ha! The ship’s already on the bottom. Navy’s worse than the bloody Army. Rum, sodomy and the lash. I told you, you were a fool to join the Navy.”

“Yeah, right; along with another 81 men who are now on the bottom of the ocean.” Jim found it almost unbelievable the old man could joke about that.

“I hope you two are not going to be fighting,” his mother said, edging between them as she had done countless times in the past. “You’re staying for dinner aren’t you, Jim? Your room is all made up for you.”

“I s’pose. It’s a bit late to head back to town now.”

The conversation at dinner was mostly about McCracken’s pigs, which had broken out of their pen and run rampage. It was the same kind of conversation he’d heard throughout the years of his childhood but he had no patience with it any more. As an only child, his only real companion and confider in secrets had been Rex.

Jim excused himself from the TV-watching and went to bed early but lay awake while Rex slept restlessly on the mat. A possum scrabbled around in the roof and, when he eventually dozed off, Jim was wakened by figures from his childhood dancing behind his eyelids. A mopoke sang a dirge somewhere out there in the night. These were sounds from a previous existence, a foreign country now, and filled him with sadness; almost grief. It seemed very far away. He dozed off again but awoke with a cry that disturbed Rex. This time his dream was of a ship by moonlight, broken in halves and Charlie’s disembodied voice saying, like the true larrikin he was, “She’ll be right, mate.”

Rex was whining, sharing his dream, his legs twitching with some palsy.

“It’s okay, boy,” Jim told him and patted him on the head. “Go back to sleep.”

Why was he calling him ‘boy’ when he was fifteen years old; a centenarian in dog time. Should be calling him ‘old fella’.

 

With only one foot available to operate clutch, brake and accelerator, Jim adopted a defensive driving strategy next morning, which was out of character for him. He had packed a jacket, a few shirts and a couple of pairs of trousers so he didn’t have to get around in uniform. It was a relief to get away from the ghosts of his childhood but he still couldn’t shake off the blues.

Luckily it was his left leg in plaster. He parked it on the passenger seat with his trouser leg rolled up and occasionally glanced at the legend written there ‘tomorrow is better,’ thinking about Jenny’s lopsided grin that somehow went with her cheeky pony tail. She had been the only bright spot in a dismal afternoon.

Happy Valley was only a slight detour off the highway and he decided to drop in on Big Red again. He rang the doorbell and waited for Jenny to open it but it was Big Red who called, “Door’s open. Don’t hang around out there.”

She hadn’t moved off the couch and the floor beside her was littered with wrappings, food scraps, an overflowing ashtray and half a bottle of whisky. He wondered if it was the one from yesterday or whether she had started a new one. The baby smelled as if he had shit himself. Evidently, Jenny wasn’t here. She must have cleaned the place up yesterday. Jim thought he would humour Big Red but wondered if she’d be offended if he offered to clean up the mess. He wasn’t going to change the baby’s nappy, however. There is a limit.

“How you going today, Nola?”

“All right. Want a snort?” She looked and smelled as if she’d already had a few and her tone was defiant, as if challenging him somehow.

“No thanks, I’m driving.”

“Since when did that stop you?”

“Since when I’ve only got one leg to drive with.”

“Well, get yourself a coffee if you want.”

While he was in the cubbyhole of a kitchen she called, “You going to the church service?”

“What church service?”

“For the Voyager. Big church service at the cathedral. Politicians and all.” She started laughing but it ended in a smoker’s hacking cough.

“Might give it a miss,” Jim said, preoccupied with trying to carry a cup of coffee on crutches. He didn’t see anything to laugh about. “Chapel was compulsory at Nirimba, but I don’t have to do that shit any more. Are you going?”

“Don’t think so.”

“By the way,” Jim said, trying to sound off-handed as he sat in the easy chair, “where did you meet Jenny?”

Nola laughed. “I was waiting for you to get around to that.”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“I saw the way you were looking at her.”

“Cat can look at a queen.”

“Got the hots, have ya?

“Not the hots. Warms, maybe.”

“You treat her right. She’s a nice girl.”

“I might need medical attention. Could be complications in my leg. I might have to go to North Shore Hospital.”

“Be easier to ring her up. I can give you her phone number.”

She swung her legs over the side of the couch and gave him an impish look. This was turning into a conspiracy.

“I can’t just ring her up,” Jim said.

“Look at him! He’s gone all bashful. Not blushing are you, Jim Price?”

“That’ll be the day.”

She walked across to the sideboard, fossicked in a handbag and passed him a scrap of paper with a number on it. Her eyes lingered on a little ornament on the sideboard.

“Tell you what. See that statue?”

“Lu Xing, God of luck. Charlie brought it back from Up Top.”

“That’s right. You can give it to Jenny as a thank-you present from me.”

“Are you sure you want to give it away?”

“She’s been good to me over the last couple of weeks. I think she’d like it.”

She fetched an old pizza carton from the kitchen and built a box out of it to take the little porcelain statue that looked like the fat Buddha. She wrapped it in party paper from a cupboard and finished it off with sticky tape.

“There you are. That’s just to say ‘thank you.’”

As she handed it over, her bottom lip began to tremble.

“But Charlie gave it to you for good luck,” Jim said.

“I know he did. But now my luck’s run out, hasn’t it?

Her face crumpled and she burst into tears with her hands to her cheeks and her chest heaving. It took him off guard, tongue-tied, and his own eyes began watering.

“Oh shit, Red. Now you’ve got me going too.”

He reached out but did not touch. He mopped his eyes with a handkerchief, walked to the kitchen and brought her back a glass of water. He stood there holding it stupidly while she continued sobbing. He thought he should put an arm around her shoulder but was incapable of doing so and did not understand why. Nola was in a place where he dare not venture.

“He was a good man, Red.”

That was the nearest he could come to the truth of the matter. She did not stop crying and he couldn’t stand it any more. His attempt at consolation seemed to have the opposite effect. He had to get out of there. He was suffocating.

“Red, I have to go. I’ll see you later.”

He left the glass of water on the sideboard and stumbled out to the car but sat in the driver’s seat a long time before feeling capable of driving. He needed to get himself under control before he could drive. Then he proceeded at slow speed, muttering to himself, ‘Fuck you, Charlie. Look at the mess you’ve made.’

Manoeuvring through the city traffic in his one-footed condition was a challenge and he concentrated on it. His destination was Johnnies, AKA Royal Naval House, in Barrack Street. It was a kind of YMCA for Pussers, modelled on the British Navy’s Far East Club in Hong Kong. For a very reasonable price you could drink yourself stupid in the Snake Pit and collapse in a dormitory of snoring sailors. They used to have hammocks but switched to double-deck bunks because too many drunken sailors were falling out of the hammocks and injuring themselves. They were open 24/7.

He required two stiff shots of rum and several rehearsals before tackling the phone call.

“Hello, Jenny. It’s Jim Price. Remember me? I’ve got a present for you.”

“Yes, I remember you, Jim. What sort of present?”

“It’s kind of confidential. As a matter of fact, it’s nearly secret. For your eyes only.”

“Sounds mysterious.”

“I’m not too sure of the consequences of handing this present over. Could lead anywhere. Unpredictable.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Well, that’s hard to say. I mean, it won’t explode or anything. And it’s not poison. Doesn’t smell. Not too heavy; you can hold it in one hand. Doesn’t rattle. It’s not an animal. Definitely not a snake.”

“I give up. What is it?”

“I’m not at liberty to disclose that information over the telephone. Never know who might be listening. This present can only be delivered in person at the Cappuccino Spaghetti Bar along with a bottle of Chianti.”

“More and more mysterious.”

“So, I invite you to the Cappuccino Spaghetti Bar at a time convenient for yourself. Do you like spaghetti?”

“I just love spaghetti.”

“That’s all right, then.”

“Where is the Cappuccino Spaghetti Bar?”

“Right in the middle of Sin City, King’s Cross. Rosslyn Lane.”

“Lucky I’m on day shift this week.”

“Seven o’clock?”

“Seven o’clock.”

Seven o’clock seemed like eternity but he knew he had to stay away from the Snake Pit. He didn’t want to turn up pissed for their first date. He spent the rest of the afternoon hobbling briskly around Hyde Park, like an athlete in training.

When she walked in the door, he felt a kind of tremor. He had chosen a table in a corner so he could park his crutches against the wall and stretch out his leg without blocking the aisle. Also, no one could come up behind him. At Jim’s request, the Maitre de had placed a vase of carnations on the table but, alas, candles were not permitted due to fire regulations. Jenny wore a low-cut yellow dress giving a nice hint of cleavage and showcasing the curve of her shoulders and neck, exposed by her pony tail. He waved to catch her attention and watched every step she took towards him.

“Excuse me if I don’t stand up,” he said. “It’s a bit clumsy.”

He had to say one thing for the Navy. In addition to the enlightened policy of the Friday night dances, which were intended to teach apprentices how to behave properly in the presence of the gentler sex, they had been taught manners. More observed in the breach, no doubt, but Jim knew he was supposed to stand up to invite a lady to join his table. Here there were extenuating circumstances.

“That’s all right,” she said.

She smiled, and radiance burst upon the scene. With one smile she dragged him out of despondency. He poured her a glass of wine and topped up his own.

“How’s the leg?” she asked.

“Okay. I’d like to get the plaster off, though.”

“These things take time. You don’t want to rush it.”

He told her about nurse Robinson, the Dragon Lady bossing him around. She laughed.

“Sounds like one of the old school, but I’m sure she means well. I gather you don’t like being bossed around.”

“I’ve had years of it in Pussers. I suppose you get used to it.”

Except Jim hadn’t, really. He had no problem with ‘Yassah, nosah, three bags full sah,’ which was just an automatic formula and therefore meaningless, but there had been occasions when some officer’s sneer of superiority really got under his skin. The idea of unquestioning obedience, which was the Navy’s foundation principle, seemed to Jim not only obsolete in the 20th century but downright dangerous. Now he was about to go up for an interview to become a Pussers pig himself. He was in two minds about that, at a time when he was not too impressed with the performance of a certain Captain Stevens, aka Drunken Duncan.

They were halfway through the Chianti before he extracted the package from under his jacket.

“Now, I want you to promise me you’ll use this gift responsibly. As I said, it won’t explode or anything but in the wrong hands it could produce unintended consequences. Or, properly handled, it could ensure that tomorrow is better.

“I still have no idea what it can be.”

“Then you’ll have to find out for yourself.”

He handed it over and watched while she peeled away the layers of wrapping paper until the squat little Chinese god emerged.

“It’s the god of luck. Charlie brought it back from China. Big Red says thanks for looking after her. It broke her up giving it away but she wants you to have it. His name is Lu Xing.”

“Isn’t that sweet. A gift of luck.”

“I’m not sure I believe in luck. It didn’t work for Charlie and hasn’t worked for her. Hard to see if Charlie had any hand in his bad luck. There was room in the boat. He could have saved himself but he chose not to.”

“What do you mean, he chose not to?”

“As I said, there was room in the boat. He could have got in but he went back to rescue someone else.”

“He was a hero.”

“He was a fool.”

“Perhaps his bad luck was being in the ship in the first place.”

“Exactly right. With a captain called Drunken Duncan. Was it bad luck that we had a drunk for a captain or bad management? If it was bad management, who is to blame?”

“They’re having a Royal Commission aren’t they? That’s supposed to find out those things.”

“Don’t hold your breath. They’re also having a church service, which is about as much use. I don’t see any politicians saying this must never be allowed to happen again.”

“Don’t be bitter, Jim.”

She looked at him with concern.

“Sure. Tomorrow is better. Just forget yesterday. Is that what we do?”

“I’m worried about Nola. She’s not coping very well.”

“So, what can we do?”

“Bring Charlie back to life.”

“Yeah, right. The minister for the Navy needs to go to jail, but that’s not much of a deal anyway: one politician for 82 sailors.”

“That won’t help Nola.”

“No, but it might help the baby if he’s silly enough to join the Navy. If they ever get their shit sorted out.”

He was hoping they might be able snuggle up after dinner but it turned out she didn’t have a bachelor flat and didn’t even live in bulk storage, the nurses’ home. Obviously, he couldn’t take her back to Royal Naval House, even though it no longer had hammocks. She lived at home with her mother and brother. He’d had to deal with that kind of situation before and it had rarely been satisfactory. Friday night dance girls could be smuggled out of the cinema-cum-dance-hall down to his cabin under the very nose of Big Jim, the commander. It first had to be cleared of his cabin mates by means of various incentives. They couldn’t be trusted not to perve and this generally made the girls nervous, leading to subdued performances. For some reason, girls don’t like to think someone is watching them fornicate.

Lacking a suitable nest, he had been driven to copulate under the cricket pavilion, in the back seat of cars (the VW beetle was a challenge) and once in a dinghy that capsized at the critical moment, literally putting a dampener on the affair. Jim keenly felt the injustice of young lovers forced into such ruses for a perfectly normal, healthy physical activity. Just because he had chosen to place himself in harm’s way in the service of his country he was denied the fundamental human right to privacy.

He wouldn’t dream of putting the hard word on her tonight. Old-fashioned, maybe, but he knew this was no one-night stand. Besides, he needed to get the plaster off his leg first. Maybe she could facilitate that. There was now urgency about getting the plaster off. The rest of his body was firing on all cylinders.

As he pulled up outside her apartment block in Double Bay, Jim was struggling with mixed emotions. On the one hand there was no doubt that this was definitely the real thing, but on the other was the frustration of being unable to make it so. He would not subject her to the acrobatics required in the little VW, especially with his leg in plaster. He wanted it to be beautiful the first time. Strengthened by the nobility of this thought, he kissed her gently, resisting the urge to thrust his tongue into her mouth. He didn’t want to scare the horses.

“Good night,” she said. “And thank you for the present.”

“Good luck,” he said. “Don’t thank me; thank Nola. I don’t believe in luck and I don’t believe in acts of God. Someone is responsible.”

 

It was a triumph to see the plaster cast cut off with a buzz saw two days later, after considerable nagging of nurse Robinson, but Jim did not revel in it. He smiled at the Dragon Lady and said thank you very much. She did not reply. Instead she handed him his new orders. Evidently, Pussers had discovered where he was after he had left. He was posted to the shore establishment HMAS Watson additional to complement pending his attendance at the upper yardman selection board and also to update his diving qualification. This was perfect, and Jim rejoiced. Watson was the radar and sonar school only about ten minutes drive from Double Bay, the domicile of the divine one.

With his kitbag of new uniforms, he drove around to HMAS Watson and found the mess president, a petty officer (radar) who assigned him a room in the accommodation block and gave him a bar tab. He looked at Jim as if he were a curiosity, if not a ghost.

“You’re off the Voyager, are you?”

“Yeah.”

“I sailed with Drunken Duncan once. Wouldn’t want to do it again. How the hell did he get across Melbourne’s bows?”

“That’s what I want to know. But you won’t have to sail with him again anyway.”

“No, that’s true, thank Christ.”

The talk around the bar at lunch time was all about Voyager. Jim had less to say than any of them but he soaked up the tales they had to tell and somehow it made him feel stronger. What was amazing was that these blokes, who were not even there, had such firm opinions about the cause of the disaster. “The carrier should have sounded five short blasts on the whistle,” said one. “It’s the international signal meaning ‘What are your intentions?’” Another suggested the carrier should have hoisted the flag signal Romeo Yankee, meaning proceed at slow speed, or red, white, red light meaning restricted in ability to manoeuvre.

“Not much point hoisting flag signals in the middle of the night with the ships on blackout,” Jim said. “That’s like Nelson putting his telescope up to his blind eye. And they’re not going to proceed at slow speed while flying off aircraft, are they? It’s full ahead into the wind for flying off aircraft. Question is, why did Voyager go full astern? It was obviously too late. Why did she get into that position in the first place? That’s the question.”

There were many questions that had to be answered by the Royal Commission and Jim would not be satisfied until they were. The more he thought about it, the more outrageous it became.

 

Jenny worked shift work and after a few days on afternoon shift, which was the worst one, she went on to day shift, which was more civilised. She finished work at four o’clock and Jim was waiting with a view of the main hospital entrance. He waved as she emerged and he watched her coming through the car park with her special walk as if on stepping stones.

“You’ve got your plaster off, Jim,” she said, giving him a hug. “Congratulations.”

The leg was a bit shrivelled and still had a bandage on it but would no longer interfere.

“Wasn’t easy. I had to deal with the Dragon Lady. I thought we might be able to do something to celebrate. Fancy a spaghetti?”

“I can’t, Jim. I’m sorry. We have a small crisis at home.”

“What sort of crisis?”

“It’s my brother, Paul.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing wrong with him. It’s just that he’s got a letter to say he has to register for national service. He won’t do it. He doesn’t want to do it and Mum won’t let him do it anyway.”

“So what’s next?”

“I don’t know. That’s what we have to try and work out. I mean, it’s just so wrong. He’s half-way through university. If he has to join the Army his whole life could be destroyed. I’m sorry, Jim. I don’t mean to drag you into our family problems. Mum’s upset and Paul’s not much better. I really need to be there.”

“But we can still have a glass of wine or something?”

“Of course.”

She kissed him on the cheek. It was small consolation. He had something more intimate in mind, but would just have to be patient. She had a favourite place down by the beach in Double Bay and they ordered a couple of beers and looked out over the harbour with a sea-breeze rippling the water. The waterfront and the harbour defined this city; ferries and sailboats, tankers and cruise liners, Navy ships in mothballs over by the zoo at Taronga Park. He found himself relaxing for the first time since that disastrous night and felt a bit guilty about that.

Jim’s first experience under sail had been in a whaler identical to the one sailed by Captain Bligh from Tahiti to Timor after the mutiny on the Bounty. On day one they had managed to collide with the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney, sister ship to the Melbourne. They couldn’t have picked a bigger target. She was now laid up among the ships in reserve, being re-commissioned as a troop carrier for the Vietnam run. Boys like Jenny’s brother were getting notices to register for national service.

Jim had no particular view about that. The Vietnam War had nothing to do with him and it wasn’t even a declared war anyway. Being a sailor was all about Friday night dances, sailing on the harbour, picking up girls and, oh yes, the occasional catastrophic collision.

“Would you like to come and meet Paul and my mother?” Jenny said, out of the blue.

“Oh,” Jim said. Actually, he probably wouldn’t. His interest was in the nubile member of the family. Evidently, there was no father on the scene, which could be viewed from different perspectives. Lack of a father could be due to carelessness or it could indicate a turbulent history of which Jim wanted no part. He had been brought to tears only the other day at Big Red’s place and had no desire to engage in further emotional turmoil. He’d had enough of that lately.

“Okay,” his mouth said, quite out of control.

They lived on the ninth floor, nearly right up to the top. It smelled of money and the view was fabulous. He could see beyond North Head to Manly and Mona Vale and up to the Gladesville Bridge in the other direction. He was looking down upon ships in the harbour and now, just on sunset, everything had a golden glow. It could have been a conspiracy to make him feel good.

Mrs Sanders, with her fingers festooned with rings and her earlobes with dangling pearls, shook his hand with a firm grip. Wearing a flowing white dress gathered at the waist, she was remarkably well preserved for a woman in her forties. She was unflustered by the unexpected dinner guest.

“Jennifer tells me you’re about to become an officer,” she said with an expectant little smile that reminded him of captains and admirals when they stop to chat while inspecting the troops.

“Maybe. I’m going up before the selection board anyway.”

“Well, good luck. My husband always said you can’t keep a good man down.”

He didn’t understand the relevance of that comment but let it pass, although he did note that she referred to her husband in the past tense. He noticed the little statue of Lu Xing on the mantel over the imitation fireplace. Jenny had given it a prominent position. Why would you install an imitation fireplace in an apartment on the ninth floor without even a chimney? he wondered. And what are they going to do if they have a fire or the lift breaks down? Voyager needed life jackets but this place needed parachutes for an emergency escape.

Jenny introduced her brother, Paul, a few years younger than herself, with hair bleached from the sun and his face deeply tanned, peppered with moles. He shook hands limply and failed to look Jim in the eye. The shy, retiring type, Jim decided.

Mrs Sanders offered drinks from a well-stocked liquor cabinet. “Being a nautical man, James, you would probably like rum?”

“Yo ho ho,” Jim said.

She took her vodka on the rocks but Paul and Jenny ordered beer.

“Of course, I read all about the Voyager in the papers,” Shirley said. “A terrible thing. You were lucky to get out alive.”

“Yes, ma’am.” It wasn’t luck, it was Charlie, but he wasn’t going to go into that story here.

Mrs Sanders laid an extra place and made a point of serving Jim first, carving the topside roast at the table, adding baked potato and peas.

The conversation came around to Paul’s impending sacrifice upon the altar of imperialism; clearly a topic on which she felt deeply.

“My husband would never have stood for it and I won’t stand for it. This is all about politicians big-noting themselves. If the politicians want people to fight their wars they need to convince us that’s what we ought to do, not force our sons into the Army by threatening them with jail.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Now, you’re in the Navy but I gather you volunteered out of patriotism, out of a desire to serve your country, out of a sense of social responsibility. That’s very admirable.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Jim said, although he had experienced no such desire. He just wanted to be a sailor.

“That’s quite different from forcing boys into situations where they might get killed and their talents, their contributions to society, are lost.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“If this war is justified then the politicians should be able to find enough men to fight it without forcing them into it. In World War One they held two referendums on conscription and both were defeated. All the same, Australia lost about five per cent of its manhood fighting a European war. That war was none of our business and neither is this one. This government has not even bothered to hold a referendum. This is not even a proper war. It’s just some politician’s hobby.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“We must resist. We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing grounds; we shall fight them in the fields and in the streets.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Another rum?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Apparently, this was Jim’s month for bossy women, a certain party excepted. He found himself more or less in agreement with Mrs Sanders’ views, although he would not have expressed them in quite the same way. Politicians might be the scum of the Earth, as everyone knows, but it could be said, in a sense, they were paying his wages. Throughout his mother’s exposition, Paul said nothing but Jim noticed his habit of chewing his fingernails between courses.

Mrs Sanders was in the process of setting up an organisation she called SOS, or Save Our Sons, to protest against young men being drafted to fight unjust and possibly internationally illegal wars, not to mention just plain stupid. Jim felt in no mood to present the case for the opposition. He feared the daughter might inherit the aggressive qualities of the mother but a glance in Jenny’s direction convinced him of the basic decency and gentleness behind that superb visage.

After dinner, they retired out on to the balcony to look at the fairy-land of lights over the city. As the night progressed, Jim found more and more common ground with the mother of his loved one. All banking executives were criminals, the police were all corrupt, taxi drivers consistently overcharged and you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee anywhere in the city.

“Another rum?”

“Yes, ma’am. Don’t bother going to the Cappuccino Bar. They only do spaghetti.”

Paul retired early to play his guitar in his bedroom. Around midnight, Jenny announced she was going to bed. She had to work next day.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough to drink, Jim?

“She’ll be right. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. We haven’t finished the bottle yet. Navy’s a hard-drinking service, you know. Rum, sodomy and the lash is the Navy’s motto.”

“I hope you don’t do sodomy, James,” Mrs Sanders said.

“’Course not.” He burst into song: “All the nice girls love a sailor; all the nice girls love a tar…”

“Well, don’t overdo it, Jim,” Jenny said. “Good night.”

“Good night. Sleep tight.”

It was about 3AM before Jim finished exposing some of the worst excesses of Drunken Duncan during their cruise Up Top. In Yokohama, he had drunk himself into oblivion so the Executive Officer had to take command of Voyager just when they ran foul of Typhoon Rose.

“You ever been through a typhoon, Shirley?” he asked, by now on familiar terms.

“Well, no. It must have been awful.”

“Too right. Waves as big as Mount Everest. Crashed all over the ship. Smashed the seaboats. Carried away everything on deck. And the captain’s pissed out of his mind in his cabin. The curse of the demon drink, Shirley. It’s a terrible thing.”

“You poor boy, you must have been terrified.”

“Bloody oath.”

“That’s what I mean, you see? Someone must be made to take responsibility. Someone must pay. Our ship needs a proper captain.”

“You’re a man after my own heart, Shirley,” Jim said, although he was finding it hard to focus, and then her elegant image faded as he curled up on the couch and closed his eyes, tired and emotional.

Chapter 4

Jim was about an hour early for his selection board three days later. The dockyard police on the gate wouldn’t let him bring his car in so he parked it up the hill in Potts Point hoping he wouldn’t find the tyres slashed when he came back.

He had sent his whites to the laundry to get them properly starched and ironed and devoted a good hour to whiting his shoes, so he was a picture of nautical elegance as he marched through the dockyard past the workshops, cranes, stacks of steel plate and pipes and workmen in blue overalls on leisurely strolls through the grounds.

The aircraft carrier, Melbourne, was undergoing major surgery in the drydock. Her bows were so badly damaged that she had steamed astern all the way from Jervis Bay, not to put too much strain on the collision bulkhead. Diesel generators, coils of cable and stacks of steel plate littered the flight deck with forklifts shifting it all around. Down in the dock was a lightning storm of welding flashes and the thunder of hammers on steel.

What could you say about it? It wasn’t the Titanic; wasn’t the Lusitania, not the Graf Spee or the Hood; not the result of some momentous battle or heroic conflict; it was just a stupid mistake. It would not be glorified in the history books or retold by ageing sailors but, on the contrary, would be swept under the carpet and the 82 dead would be forgotten as soon as decently possible, not to mention their women. Only Drunken Duncan would achieve his 15 minutes of fame or infamy in history, which left Jim feeling very depressed.

He did not need this confronting scene just before his appearance at the board. He had to tear his eyes away from it, mesmerised as if by a deadly snake, as evil as a cobra. It was merely 20,000 tons of steel but was possessed by malevolent spirits. Ships certainly do have personalities. There are good ships and bad ships, lucky ships and unlucky ships, happy ships and angry ships. Voyager had been a happy ship despite Drunken Duncan or perhaps because of him. What makes a happy ship? Mainly just being part of the team, realising you are all in the same boat together, so to speak.

His preparations for the board, his preening in the immaculate uniform and his rehearsal of answers to imagined questions all fell by the wayside as he walked past Melbourne in the drydock and he felt not much better than he had in the lifeboat.

Three other candidates sat on a wooden bench in the hallway outside the office of FOCAF – Flag Officer Commanding the Australian Fleet. They all looked as glum as Jim felt, or perhaps apprehensive. One of them was Willy the Wombat, who had been a term behind him at Nirimba.

“Gidday, Willy. How you going? Didn’t know you were up for it.”

“Yeah, mate. I thought you were in the Voyager?”

“I was.”

“Well, you got out of it all right.”

“Broken leg, that’s all.”

“A few of our blokes copped it. There was Harrison, McIntyre, Krantz, Andrews.”

“I know,” Jim said. “Thing is, it could have been any of us. That’s the queer part. Some but not others.”

Jim wanted a reason, and that’s where his problem lay. Drunken Duncan was not a reason; he was just part of the chaos. Charlie’s decision to go back for The Baron was also part of the chaos, an aberration, a departure from the natural way of things. Chaos was looming in Jim’s mind as the enemy. Was he responsible for Charlie’s death? He resented Charlie going back for The Baron. Why did he do that? It was a kind of betrayal. He had a wife and child to live for. Why would he put them at risk for any Pussers pig?

The previous candidate emerged from the board-room looking dejected and Willy was called up next.

“Good luck, mate,” Jim said, and Willy gave him a thumbs up as he marched in for his interview. Then Jim remembered he didn’t believe in good luck or bad luck but it was too late to withdraw the blessing.

The other two didn’t look very conversational and Jim settled down to wait, wishing he had brought a book with him and wondering why he had said good luck. What does luck have to do with it – the little Chinese god sitting on the mantel at the Sanders’ residence? All he could think of now was how stupid he had been the other night.

He had certainly blotted his copybook but blamed Shirley for plying him with rum. She matched him drink for drink with vodka and showed no effect except a slight slurring of her words. Jim had been able to drink Charlie under the table but not Shirley. He had met his match. He still smarted from the look of disgust on Jenny’s face when she woke him in the morning. Had he blown his chances? What was he supposed to do to make it up?

The whole evening was weird. He never thought he would hear Marxist/Leninist theory spouted in a penthouse in Double Bay. Shirley was another chief coxswain-type woman, although your average chief coxswain is not necessarily a Marxist/Leninist. The situation concerning Paul had not been resolved. The threat of conscription still hung over his head although he seemed resigned to his fate. He’d hardly said a dozen words all night. From what Jim could work out he was browbeaten by his mother and coddled by his sister. It was an unhealthy environment for a man in Jim’s view. Paul’s habit of chewing his fingernails was evidence of that.

When Jim’s turn came he marched into the board-room festooned with photographs and portraits of former admirals, clicked his heels, saluted and stood to attention. One captain and two commanders sat at a huge polished table inspecting him leisurely while glancing through folders that presumably held his personal details. Jim had been given no inkling of what a selection board was going to select. What qualities were they looking for in a candidate for officer training? Arrogance would obviously be the main one but also, curiously enough, its converse, servility.

Jim had made a study of the chain of command idea of unquestioning obedience, which could be simply summarised as arse-licking upwards and arse-kicking downwards. He liked to compare the transmission of orders down through the hierarchy to a train shunted in a railway yard. The engine backs up and shunts carriage number one (first lieutenant or executive officer), who shunts carriage number two (officer of the watch), who shunts the chief or petty officer of the watch who shunts the leading seaman who shunts the ordinary seaman or deck boy overboard. This form of administration probably originated with Jason and the Argonauts and it worked fine until you got a captain like Drunken Duncan or Adolf Hitler. Jim’s dilemma was whether to evince the arse-licking or arse-kicking aspect of naval discipline for the benefit of board members. For every arse-kicker there has to be an arse-licker, usually the same officer.

With a long tradition of rum, sodomy and the lash, the Navy embraced alcohol, although its excessive use was frowned upon. A teetotal candidate would obviously be at a disadvantage. Fortunately, Jim did not suffer from that impediment and, as far as he knew, there were no living witnesses to his occasional excesses. He was confident there were no data in his file on this issue.

On the question of sodomy, Jim would have to seek the board’s indulgence. He had never engaged in sodomy in his life and had no intention of ever doing so. Lord Nelson and other heroes of the British Navy, having been inducted into the service at the age of seven, were no doubt brought up to the practice from an early age, culminating in Nelson’s last words, “Kiss me, Hardy.” Maybe that’s why they got involved in the final battle anyway: Nelson and Hardy, the pair of poofters, were down below having it off while the French sneaked up on them. You wouldn’t find that on the French ships. “Alors, les Anglais pédales!” The French go for women rather than young boys, and this is the real lesson from the Battle of Trafalgar. The French had no women aboard but the English had their sexual gratification at hand. Victory goes to the sexually satisfied. The admirals should note that and take steps if they want victory at sea, Jim believed. More apple-cheeked deck boys were needed.

The lash was another area in which Jim’s résumé was weak. He had certainly never inflicted the lash on anyone but did have experience on the receiving end of naval discipline, especially chooks – punishment number nine. Punishments all had numbers from one (death) up to twenty-four or five, which was merely a slap on the wrist. Men under punishment were required to wear white gaiters to indicate their pariah status. They were called an hour before the rest and manned the garbage truck collecting refuse from Nirimba’s several galleys. They had three sessions a day of doubling with rifles at the high port, which was actually good training for football.

Sexual deviants in the Navy over a long period had obviously put a lot of thought into devising fiendish punishments, like keel-hauling. Fortunately, even though the Navy clung to titles like topman and upper yardman from the age of sail, the cat-o-nine tails and flogging grate had been retired. Readiness with the lash was no longer one of the selection criteria but, clearly, the dead weight of history was like a growth of barnacles on the Navy’s keel. Jim was uncertain what was expected of a good little naval officer and was taken off-guard when the president of the board asked, “What sort of music do you listen to, Price?”

What? Music? Must be a trick question. What could he possibly be getting at? Am I going to go Beethoven? Peter-Paul-and Mary? Bill Haley and the Comets? Elvis Presley?

“Beethoven, sir. Fifth symphony. Ba ba ba boom. Ba ba ba boom. V for victory in the Morse Code.”

“You play Beethoven in the Morse code, do you, Price?”

“No sir. I do not play any musical instrument. I only listen.”

“What sort of books do you read?”

Another trick question. Shakespeare? That’s a bit over the top. Wilbur Smith? They probably don’t want to hear Superman comics.

“Joseph Conrad, sir. My favourite is Lord Jim. No relation.”

“Nautical tales, is it?”

“Yassah. Definitely, sah.”

And so it went on. They kept asking these trick questions.

“Suppose you were cast adrift in a whaler, like Captain Bligh, for example, and you were running out of food. Would you agree to drawing lots for one crew member to be killed and eaten to save the lives of the rest?”

Oh shit, what kind of question is that?

“Well, I know Captain Bligh was very strict about dividing whatever food they had in equal portions, sir, including himself. If they eventually ran out of food it’s only fair that everyone should take an equal chance, including Bligh, although that is democracy. I think my answer is yes.”

“Luck of the draw, in other words?”

“Yes, sir. Lu Xing is the god of luck.”

“Chinese?”

“I don’t think luck depends on race or nationality, sir. It’s international. So is the lack of it.”

He came out of there in a sweat, not knowing whether he had impressed the board or not, but understanding that Captain Bligh was a better man than Captain Stevens despite his other shortcomings. No one is perfect, not even Jim Price. He headed for the nearest pub in Woolloomooloo and tossed back a neat rum. Bundaberg; not your Jamaican crap.

 

It was another five days before the captain of Watson called him into his office and informed him he had passed and would be included in the next intake to the naval college as a cadet midshipman. In the meantime, he would be posted to HMAS Stuart, an antisubmarine frigate, in the rank of engine room artificer fourth class, but before that he needed to report to HMAS Rushcutter to update his diving qualification.

“Aye, aye, sah,” Jim said, the very model of a budding officer.

He was strangely underwhelmed, however, but felt this was surly on his part. He should be grateful to the Navy for granting him this privilege, but he wasn’t. All he could think about was 82 dead men and another couple of hundred traumatised, not to mention their women and kids. Also, it was about a week since he had seen Jenny. Should he call and grovel now or maybe wait a little longer? There was a hole in his life where Jenny should be. Should he confront her in person instead of calling? Wrestling with these options, he eventually called her home number and, to his relief, it was Paul who answered, not Shirley.

“Hello Paul. I wonder if I could speak to Jenny.”

“She’s not here.”

“At work, is she?”

“She doesn’t live here any more.”

What? Where is she?”

“I can’t say.”

“What do you mean, can’t say? Can’t say or won’t say?”

Paul hung up.

The little bugger’s keeping secrets, Jim thought. He didn’t know the hospital’s rules about private phone calls but decided to try anyway. He didn’t know which department she worked in but reception told him she was unavailable.

“Do you mean she’s not there or do you mean she’s there but I can’t talk to her?”

“She’s not rostered on today. Not here.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

He was starting to get worried. Had she gone into hiding, or what? He was certainly not proud of his performance, which was in fact quite rare, but it was the first chance he’d had to really unload that stuff in his head. He couldn’t remember now what he’d said to Shirley but he did remember shedding tears at one stage. He couldn’t dump all that stuff on Jenny, and certainly not on Big Red, but Shirley seemed like one of the boys.

He was making this call from Watson’s petty officers’ mess. He called Paul back and delivered the phone number of HMAS Rushcutter, where he was going to be for the next couple of weeks.

“Give her that phone number if she calls,” he said, “and tell her I’m sorry for being an arsehole.”

Chapter 5

HMAS Rushcutter was a foreshore establishment just down the road from the Cruising Yacht Club with its marina full of fancy boats. It was the poor cousin in the leafy street, with weatherboard sheds painted battleship grey. Maybe the Navy thought it needed camouflage or perhaps they were just disposing of old paint. One of those sheds was the Navy’s sailing club, of which Jim was a paid-up member. He got to sail a dinghy on Sydney Harbour, which he regarded as one of life’s great privileges.

On this occasion he headed for the diving store, where he found Chief Petty Officer Wilkins, the diving instructor universally known as Bubbles. He was almost lost amongst rows and rows of scuba tanks, wetsuits, fins and facemasks. Jim had done his initial training with Bubbles and also a couple of refresher courses.

“Ah, Pricey. How have you been?”

“Well, I had a little fun and games in the Voyager, Chief. The leg’s a bit bung and there’s always woman problems but otherwise I’m pretty shipshape.”

“You were aboard when she went down, were you?”

“Yeah.”

“You would have got a bit of swimming time, then.”

“No. Didn’t even get my feet wet.”

“Well, get yourself aboard the tender. I’ve put you in bunk number four on the port side.”

“Right, chief.”

Jim knew what to expect from Bubbles, and it wasn’t a picnic. The tender was an oversized workboat tied up alongside the pier, with a couple of compressors on the aft deck. Five or six divers had already arrived and it was introductions all round. Jim got his gear stowed away in his locker, which was about the size of a bread box. Although his leg was scarred it felt all right now and should be up to it. Salt water might do it good.

Bubbles delivered his welcome speech while they sat on a hatch.

“Most of you blokes aren’t going to complete this course,” he said. “Most of you haven’t got the balls for it. I’m proud of having the highest failure rate of divers in Pussers. After a few days, most of you are going to start blubbering for your mothers. Well, your mother’s not here and I’m not Mary Poppins. Dig mud!”

The ten of them went over the side fully clothed and swam for the bottom. Jim didn’t make it and came up empty-handed.

“Dig mud!” the chief screamed and Jim went down again.

On the third attempt he came up with two handfuls of mud, by which time he was gasping and wheezing and spitting out seawater.

“Now take your mud up the top of the mast and don’t drop it. Last one up gets his arse kicked.”

Workdays usually began before dawn, when the chief playfully tossed a thunder flash down into the mess deck where they slept and screamed, “Dig mud!” He would invite them to dig mud at any time, even while sitting studiously on the hatch with notebooks and pencils receiving a lecture on how to sink a ship with plastic explosive or how to dispose of an enemy diver encountered in the water. Piano wire with a toggle in each end was the preferred method; no noise, no blood and it never runs out of ammunition, as the chief pointed out.

Jim renewed his acquaintance with all the junk on the bottom of Sydney Harbour – supermarket trolleys, sunken boats, skeletons of cars. It wouldn’t have surprised him to find a dead body or two. The wharves of Woolloomooloo were famous for the piles of crockery and cutlery dumped overboard from cruise ships by stewards too lazy to do the washing up. The physical activity was good for his mind as well as his body. He was proud of the gold diver’s badge on his sleeve and promised himself to keep up the diving hours necessary to retain the qualification.

His other problem, however, was tougher. Somehow, he had to repair the fences. Paul could not be relied upon to deliver his grovelling apology. He decided the best way was to write Jenny a letter and he composed the words in his mind during the few brief breaks from Bubbles’ relentless training program. Words on paper were easier than spoken words when she was looking at him with that lopsided smile that made her seem vulnerable and wise at the same time. He put his heart into it and rewrote it several times until he felt sure she would understand. He slipped ashore to find a post box after work one day.

Came the last day of the course and Bubbles added his stamp in the successful candidates’ log books, which was the only reward for two weeks of pain and exhaustion. Bubbles must have gone soft because six out of the ten finished the course and he even shook their hands. Jim was never going to be one of the dropouts and now it was over, he had to decide how to get back in touch with Jenny. Of course, there had been no reply to his letter.

He was just about to walk out the gate when Bubbles re-emerged from his office and said, “Price. Phone call.”

“Phone call?” Could it possibly be…?

“Yes, phone call. You know; those things you hold up to your ear and talk into the other end.”

Maybe it is, he thought. He picked up the phone and said “hello” but hardly recognised the torrent of frantic words that came out of the earpiece.

“Jim, it’s Jenny. Thank God I’ve caught you. Something terrible has happened. You must come immediately.”

“What? What is it?”

“Just drop everything. I don’t care what you’re doing. Drop everything and come to Nola’s place right now.”

“Shit,” Jim said.

He fired up the Volkswagen and drove dangerously to Happy Valley, filled with trepidation. There was real panic in Jenny’s voice and he feared a calamity. Turning into Nola’s street he saw a police car and an ambulance with flashing lights and a crowd peering over the picket fence, motionless like rail passengers waiting for a train.

Drawing closer, he saw a police woman guarding the gate. He pushed through the crowd of spectators but the police officer blocked his path.

“You can’t go in there, sir. It’s a crime scene.”

The crowd now focused their attention on Jim, as if he were the next performer in this entertainment.

“I’ve got to go in there. What’s happened?”

“Are you a member of Nola Jean Krantz’s family.”

No. Uh, yes. She’s the wife of my mate, who went down in the Voyager. What’s wrong? I’ve got to go in.”

“Are you acquainted with Nola Jean Krantz?”

Police only ever use three names when they are talking about criminals. Jim knew that. Conversely, anyone identified by three names was obviously a criminal. There was something serious going on. Who is the criminal?

“Yes. I just told you that. Let me go in.”

Jenny appeared on the doorstep and called, “Officer, that’s Jim Price. He’s a friend of the family. Please let him pass.”

The officer looked him up and down before waving him through. Jenny ran down the path and threw her arms around him. Her face was puffed and swollen and her eyes red with tears.

“Jim, it’s terrible. I can’t believe it.”

He clutched her to him and held her tight. “What is it?”

He could not imagine what had brought her to this state. She pulled away and bit her lip. She tried to speak and failed and hugged him all the harder.

“Thank you for coming and thank you for your letter.”

She mopped her eyes with a tissue and they headed into the house. Two cops prowled around, inspecting everything and taking notes. One of them took down his name and asked when he had last seen Nola Jean Krantz.

“About three weeks ago.”

“What was your relationship with Nola Jean Krantz?”

Was? Was? “She’s the wife of my mate, who went down in the Voyager.

“We may require you for further questioning. Just don’t touch anything.”

The house looked normal, with the baby asleep in his cot despite the activity. Then they entered the bathroom. Big Red had done a professional job of it. Jim remembered seeing a movie once that explained if you’re going to top yourself by slashing your wrists then you have to do it in the bath, otherwise the blood clots and it doesn’t work. It had worked this time. The bath was full of blood and her naked body was red all over, with her hair floating on the water like seaweed.

“I came back from work and found this,” Jenny said, fighting back tears. “I’ve been afraid of this all along. That’s why I came to stay. I thought I could help her through it. I thought I could get her over it, but it didn’t work, did it?”

Jim felt the air going out of him as he stared and grappled with the image before his eyes. In a strange moment, he was not seeing Nola, he was seeing Charlie with blood on his forehead saying, ‘I’m going back for The Baron.’ But Jenny was the one in trouble here.

“Jenny, it’s not your fault. You did what you could. Don’t blame yourself.”

All the while he was thinking, ‘Who am I to give advice?’ He understood exactly how she felt, and still felt the same way anyway. As the more experienced member of this dismal couple he was responsible for her.

“We can add this to Duncan’s tab.”

“What do you mean?”

“Duncan killed her just as surely as he killed Charlie. He was the captain; he was responsible. You don’t have to feel responsible. We don’t have to feel responsible. And it has nothing to do with Lu Xing.”

“Jim, you have to let go of that or it will destroy you.”

Curiously, they were now both in the same situation.

She sobbed on his shoulder with his arms around her, and from this he drew strength. Her warmth and softness against him was a shield from the whole world.

The police required them to make a statement. They sat them down together on the couch and pulled up chairs from the kitchen. The female constable took notes and one of the male officers continued prowling around the house while the other asked the questions.

Jim didn’t have much to say. He hadn’t seen Nola for three weeks. No, they hadn’t quarrelled. She was an old friend. She wasn’t very happy then but he could never have imagined anything like this.

“What, exactly was your relationship with the deceased?”

“I’ve known her for years. She used to come to the dances at Nirimba. She was the wife of my mate, Charlie.”

“The husband is also deceased, I understand.”

“Well and truly. He brought her a good luck charm from China and now they are both dead.”

Jenny’s evidence was also brief. They were old friends and she’d been dropping by to help out ever since the ship sank. She had become concerned about Nola’s mental health a couple of weeks ago and moved in to keep a watch on her. When she arrived today she found Nola in a bathtub full of blood and a note on the sideboard.

The senior constable had taken possession of the note. He showed it to Jenny. “Is this the note?”

“Yes.”

“What does it say?”

“It says, ‘I’m sorry to cause so much trouble. Please look after little Charlie until my parents arrive from Melbourne.’ It also says she wants her ashes scattered on the sea.”

The police concluded their investigation and two paramedics, who had been waiting outside, arrived with a stretcher to collect the body. Before she left, the female constable gave them both a pat on the back and said, “I’m so sorry.

Charlie junior had slept through all the activity but now woke up when the house fell silent. Jim received his first lesson in the care and feeding of infants, including changing dirty nappies. What lay ahead for baby Charlie? The ghosts were multiplying and he felt like an intruder, inhabiting Charlie’s house. Jenny was in no better shape. They were thrust together by grief and held apart by sorrow. Wanting to take her in his arms again, Jim wondered if he dare touch her; she seemed so fragile.

Jenny raided Nola’s fridge and cooked their dinner in the little kitchen – bangers and mash – and Jim washed the dishes, calling upon his childhood experience. There was a tension in the air between them, which was crying out for someone to switch on the television for diversion with daily news trivia, until Jim asked, “Are you okay?”

“No,” she said. “Not okay.” The lopsided smile was now just wistful.

“Need a hug?”

“Yes please.”

They made love for the first time slowly that night, in sorrow. That was not how he wanted it to be. He had wanted it to be joyful and fun but instead it seemed like penance; like worship instead of celebration, but in the end perhaps it was more reverent that way. Charlie’s ghost was everywhere and Jim awoke two or three times in the night to discover the warm body in his arms was Jenny, but now he had a further obligation on his soul: Nola as well as Charlie.

 

Next day, Jim, Jenny and baby Charlie went to pick up Nola’s parents from the airport. Jenny had made a sign out of a weeties packet reading ‘Wilson Family’ and Jim held it aloft as the passengers from flight T713 streamed through the turnstiles. Jim picked Nola’s parents before they had even claimed their luggage. There was something about a couple whose daughter had committed suicide that set them apart from the business passengers and cricket fans. Mr Wilson was headmaster of some Melbourne school. He looked as if he hadn’t slept for days but his grey suit looked as if it had been slept in it for days. His wife was overweight, wearing excess lipstick and a print frock featuring big yellow flowers. She looked more or less bewildered.

Jenny had brought the baby along and she held him in her arms like a mother. After the introductions, Mrs Wilson relieved her of the burden and swayed back and forth with Charlie junior, making cooing noises in the busy airline terminal.

“I do want to thank you for your kindness to our daughter,” Mr Wilson said to Jenny. “She was very appreciative.”

“A pity I couldn’t have been a bit more attentive,” Jenny said with a touch of bitterness. “This is Jim Price. He was Charlie’s mate in the Voyager. He also knew Nola from wayback.”

“What a terrible business that Voyager was,” Mr Wilson said.

Jim was getting tired of that sort of comment, but let it pass. As time went by it became a mere statistic. Eventually it would become history and the truth forgotten. The little VW was filled to capacity and Jim remained silent on the drive back to Happy Valley while Jenny filled in the details for them. Mrs Wilson said the body should be taken back to Melbourne for burial but Jenny mentioned Nola had requested her ashes be spread upon the sea.

“She should go in the vault with her grandpa and grandma,” Mrs Wilson said. “Where you and I will be laid to rest, Peter.”

“I think we should respect her wishes, dear,” Peter Wilson said.

This squabbling over graves sounded ghoulish to Jim. When Mrs Wilson mentioned a vault he imagined a marble edifice with a cross on top and wilting flowers around the base. What does it matter where the bones end up? Voyager’s only tombstone was Jim’s recurring nightmare of the silhouette of the ship with its propellers obscenely up in the air.

Apart from Voyager and Matt Kelly, who killed himself on his motor bike, Jim’s only contact with death had been his grandma Emily. She had been despatched with a full Irish-Catholic wake and the old man singing Danny Boy with tears streaming down his cheeks. That was the thing about Voyager going down: 82 men sunk without even a glass of whisky raised in their memory and who knows how many babies wondering where their daddy was. A service in the cathedral with politicians and admirals seeking photo opportunities was just blasphemous in Jim’s view. Big Red deserved a better send off.

The Wilsons planned to stay as long as it took to tidy up affairs. Mr Wilson wondered how long it would be before the Department of Defence Housing reclaimed the Navy house and they would have to vacate. Nola had said it was the end of the month and that was nearly up. Maybe that’s why she topped herself, Jim thought.

“If you need transport I can run you around,” Jim said. “It’s only a Volkswagen but it’s okay.”

“Thanks, Jim. That might be helpful.”

It was late when he dropped Jenny off at Double Bay. She was going to have to move back in with her Mum. Jim hadn’t figured out exactly what that relationship was.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.

“No, I’m not okay, but so what?”

“Tomorrow is better.”

“It would want to be, wouldn’t it?”

“It will be,” Jim said with more conviction than he felt, and kissed her.

 

He still had a couple of weeks before he had to join his new ship. Much of it was spent helping the Wilsons deal with the paperwork. Jim was amazed by how much bureaucracy was involved in death. Charlie junior at least diverted them from some of their worries. Big Red’s note had been full of apologies for inconveniencing everyone, especially Jenny. Mr Wilson talked his wife around to accepting Nola’s last wish and after the funeral Jim suggested they should do it off Jervis Bay near where Voyager went down. They drove down the coast road, even though it was longer than the highway, because you could see the sea smashing on rocks and smell the ozone in the air. No one said more than a dozen words on the three-hour trip; each taking refuge in private memories.

On the cliffs of Point Perpendicular under the lighthouse, with the wind clutching at their clothes and the sea roaring below like an angry lion, Nola’s father attempted a kind of sermon although he was no more religious than Jim. With his arm around his wife’s shoulders, he made a wish that Nola and Charlie might meet up again somewhere, and released her ashes to blow away across the Pacific Ocean where Voyager lay at a depth of about half a mile.

Watching Nola’s remains drift away like dust, Jim could still not bring himself to believe in luck. After all, this is what we all come to: dust in the wind.

Chapter 6

A few days later, Jim reported aboard his new ship, HMAS Stuart, at the Garden Island dockyard. She was the latest addition to the fleet – a frigate, smaller than Voyager. Jim marched aboard with his kitbag, saluted at the top of the gangway and went to find the chief coxswain, who inhabited an office about the size of a broom cupboard on 2 deck. He wore a diver’s badge just like Jim’s above the three brass buttons on his sleeve. He was lean and fit, with close-cropped grey hair.

“Welcome aboard. We can use another diver on the team.”

“Thanks, Chief.”

“I see you’re an ex-Voyager man. How was it?”

“Pretty bad. Lost a few mates.”

He found it amazing that people seemed to expect him to summarise the experience in a few words. A whole novel would hardly be enough.

“I was in the Tobruk when she got shelled by the Anzac,” the swain said. “That was a piece of bullshit too. Friendly fire, they call it. Anyway, as you can see, we’re in work-up mode. We have the new weapon to trial. I expect you’ll get some diving hours.”

“Good.”

“If you haven’t heard about it, it’s called the Ikara missile system for antisubmarine work. You’ll be in three delta PO’s mess. We have a good ship here. Don’t fuck it up, please.”

“I’ll try not to, Chief.”

The swain’s mention of Tobruk and Anzac, or Toby and Zac, jolted Jim’s memory. The event had made headline news a few years before when a gunnery exercise went wrong and Tobruk was so badly damaged she had to be scrapped. Jim had been an apprentice at Nirimba and all he knew about it was what he read in the papers, which had made the most of the story. Pussers, of course, made no comment but the papers made it sound like an adventure.

He humped his seabag down to three Delta, which had bunks in tiers three high and light glinting on stainless steel lockers, like some kind of torture chamber where they never turn the lights off. There were no portholes. This was progress. The first time he went to sea was for a few weeks in sixth term in the training ship Swan. It didn’t even have bunks and they slept in hammocks that hung from bars on the deckhead and swayed with the roll of the ship or pounded with the pitching motion caused by a head sea. It must have been the last ship in the world with hammocks. Up up up up she went. At the top of the wave she paused, he shut his eyes and gritted his teeth, and then the world fell away from beneath and he plummeted through space. The ship hit the trough with a noise like KAAWHOOOMPH and shuddered as if she’d run into a rock. His spine, bent into a banana curve, felt as if it was being driven down through the hammock. In the fetid dark there were groans of agony and more retching as someone groped for the sick bucket, and missed.

He was an old hand now and had no such worries. The mess president was Slings Brady, who looked even older than the swain. He had an outcrop of whiskers on each cheekbone like those of the recently retired Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Sir Hastings Harrington, who had taken the salute at one of Nirimba’s passing out parades. He wore a badge of crossed gun barrels on his sleeve, indicating he was a gunnery hand, a boom boom boy.

“Ah shit, fuckin mobi are you?”

“Yeah. You have a problem with that?”

“Not if you toe the line.”

“What line?”

“The line in the sand, mate.”

“No sand here.”

“That’s the point.”

He laughed. He obviously thought he was clever.

Slings obviously didn’t understand that mobis were actually proud of the title. A mobi could not be insulted by calling him most objectionable bastard imaginable. It was a compliment.

“I find any gear sculling around and it goes in the scran bag, right? Any gear that goes in the scran bag costs you two bob to get it out, right?”

“Yeah, right.”

“And don’t get clever with me, right?”

“Yeah, right.”

“Right,” Slings said, and left him to get his gear stowed away in the locker.

Next, he reported to the engineer officer, Paddles, who occupied a cabin slightly bigger than the swain’s, equally crammed with manuals, box files and folders, one of which was Jim’s service record. He was dressed in spotless white overalls like an advertisement for soap powder. Pigs wear white overalls; sailors wear blue ones. It’s all about class distinction. Pigs think they are not the same as ordinary sailors. Do they really think white overalls make them superior? They might be more useful if they actually got their overalls and their finger nails dirty.

“I see you have been selected for the Naval College, Price. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“However, you will still need to pull your weight here, of course.”

“Of course, sir.”

“See the chief ERA and he will sort out your work profile.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

Jim’s heart wasn’t really in it. He was just killing time before taking up his new career as a Pussers pig. Then he might get to wear white overalls instead of blue ones. Whoopdedoo.

The first person he met in the engineers’ office was Chook Fowler, with his injured arm in a frame that enabled him to operate his fingers to some degree. Chook was an electrical artificer. He’d been a couple of terms ahead of Jim at Nirimba as well as a shipmate aboard Voyager. An advantage of having a relatively small navy was that you often bumped into old mates.

“They finally fixed up your arm, did they?” Jim said.

“More or less. It’s a bit of a claw but I’m fighting fit again. How’s your leg?”

“I’m okay, but Drunken Duncan has struck again from beyond the grave.”

“How do mean?”

“Charlie’s wife topped herself a couple of weeks ago. Did you ever meet Nola?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Big Red from the Friday night dances. You must remember her.”

“Oh yeah, I remember Big Red. She’s gone? Didn’t they have a kid?”

“Yeah. The grandparents are looking after him.”

“Jesus Christ, mate. This shit just makes my blood boil. This is the biggest piece of bullshit I’ve ever seen in my life. Someone has to pay for this.”

“You’re not wrong,” Jim said. “I’m with you there. Maybe we’ll get some sense out of this Royal Commission they’re talking about.”

Chook just laughed; a single explosive Ha!

Another old acquaintance was the Sunshine Kid, who had been a few terms ahead of him at Nirimba. He was a chief petty officer at the age of twenty-three, a symbol of the new technological Navy. The Sunshine Kid was a legend, having had a distinguished career spanning most of his four years at Nirimba. Jim admired him as a pioneer, a visionary; the first to realise that the Richmond Rocket, the four-carriage rail motor that ran between Blacktown and Richmond, could be used to bypass the crushers on Nirimba’s main gate. Big Red’s accusation that Jim and Charlie had cut the hole in the fence was wrong. They were merely following in the Sunshine Kid’s footsteps. The perimeter fence ran beside the railway line and at that stage it had not been electrified. The Sunshine Kid cut a flap in it and on payday nights and Friday dance nights he would appear in the dongas with a carton of booze under each arm. He had an accomplice in Blacktown who loaded the booze on the Richmond Rocket for him and he unloaded during the Rocket’s brief stop at Quakers Hill station. The Sunshine Kid was Nirimba’s Godfather.

His main workplace aboard Stuart was the operations room, and Jim got him to give him a guided tour. When he became a pig, Jim had no intention of returning to the engine room. His part of ship would be the bridge and operations room, the mysterious nerve centre of combat operations. It was kept in semi darkness and filled with radar displays, cathode ray oscilloscopes and other instruments that went beep. A couple of boffins from CSIRO had come aboard to coach Stuart’s ordnance department in missile guidance systems. The Sunshine Kid began explaining megabytes, bauds, real time, ROM or RAM and more stuff that sounded to Jim like science fiction.

“Look, it’s total simplicity,” he said. “A computer can only do two things. It can only say yes or no and from that everything else follows. It’s a whole new number system with only two digits. That’s what makes it so beautiful.”

“That’s really great,” Jim said.

“One of these days you’ll find everyone has a computer in their own homes.”

“What, to work out their own private missile trajectories?”

“To work out their tax, their household bills; when the next service is due on the car. This is just the beginning, mate. You wait and see. One day there won’t even be warships any more. We’ll be sending nuclear weapons down from satellites or space stations, everything controlled by computers.”

“That’s really great,” Jim said.

The Sunshine Kid stopped short of calling it a great new advance in civilisation, but if he was right Jim could find himself unemployed towards the end of his career. He could find himself blasted to atoms, for that matter, along with the rest of the human race. Maybe he would even get to push the final button himself and bring down the curtain on the world. Wouldn’t his dad be proud of him then!

 

One advantage of a ship in work-up mode was the convenient address at Garden Island, not far from the CBD and not far from Double Bay. Having liberty most nights, and even some weekends like a normal person, meant he was able to take Jenny out to dinner; they could go to the beach or the movies and he took her sailing one Saturday. She loved it, especially when the dinghy capsized and she had to swim. She decided it was time to normalise Jim’s relationship with Shirley. She actually used that word, normalise. As far as Jim was aware, his only normalised relationship ever had been with Rex. How many normalised relationships can a person have?

Shirley was in an exuberant mood that night, wearing a flowing flimsy gown, and if she had any reservations about his previous behaviour they were not evident to Jim. Over dinner, she was full of news about her organisation, SOS, intended to protect our sons, or specifically her own son, from the politicians.

“We already have dozens of members and many more enquiries. I’m sure there are thousands of mothers who don’t want their sons sent to some stupid war. This is just a beat-up by the politicians and we need to stand up to them. This war has nothing to do with Australia, and this conscription law is just criminal.

“Yes, ma’am,” Jim said, dutifully normalising the relationship.

“Do you know the thing that’s wrong with this country, James? It’s the politicians. As a nation, we are distinguished by the brilliance of our scientists and the mediocrity of our politicians. We never had a Disraeli, a Winston Churchill, a George Washington, a Roosevelt or a Mao tse tung.”

“Mao tse tung?” Jim said, a little shocked.

“Yes, Mao tse tung. Whatever else you might say about him, he has fought like a tiger for his country. And that’s what politicians are supposed to do.”

As a member of his country’s defence force, Jim was uneasy with this line of talk. A new word had recently entered the English or at least American language: Chicoms, meaning Chinese Communists or baddies as distinct from goodies; black hats as distinct from white hats, which was the code employed both in Hollywood and Washington DC. From what Jim knew about Mao tse tung, he was not backward in conscripting people into the army and not particularly tolerant of the kind of insurgence that Shirley advocated. She seemed to Jim to have gotten her arguments a little tangled.

“But I am prepared to fight like a tiger for my son, as any mother should,” she said. “Paul knows that. Don’t you, Paul?”

Paul was still staring at his untouched meal but he looked up in surprise at being included in the conversation, which rarely happened.

“Yes, Mum,” he said and hurriedly took a spoonful of soup.

“I’m flying down to Melbourne tomorrow. I could be away for a week or two. I think it might be a good idea if you were to go and visit your father, Paul. The Army has this address for you, but they don’t know your father’s address. I’d hate to think they might come and kidnap you while I was away.”

So the father was not dead, as Jim had assumed. He was just a part of some dark family history, perhaps.

“Me too,” Paul said.

By the time dessert came, the conversation had moved on to the more convivial topic of the test cricket and annihilation of the Poms at the hands of a couple of good leg spinners. Drinks on the balcony afterwards rounded off the evening, although Jim was determined not to repeat his past sins. Paul again slipped away to play his guitar in his bedroom.

“Bed time,” Jenny announced, suppressing a yawn. “I have to work tomorrow. By the way, Mum; Jim’s staying with me tonight.”

“What? Yes, all right, but do please take precautions, Jennifer.”

So that’s what Jenny meant by ‘normalising relationships.’ It all came clear to Jim. What a devious piece of work this woman was. He was quite thrilled.

“Yes, I might toddle off to bed too,” he said. “Goodnight, Shirley.”

“Goodnight James. Goodnight Jennifer. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“Mum, there’s nothing you wouldn’t do.”

In bed, Jim gently probed into the father’s history.

“So, where does he live? Where is Paul actually going?”

“Not far away. Point Piper. Only the next suburb.”

“You never talk about him.”

“There isn’t much to say except he pays the bills. Mum and Dad are not really on speaking terms. Paul and I go and visit sometimes.”

“No skeletons in the closet?”

“Not that I know of. I think he walked out because Mum was having an affair. Sorry to disappoint you.”

“You don’t disappoint me.”

He nibbled her ear. No, she definitely didn’t disappoint him.

After an early breakfast next morning, Shirley left on her speaking tour to recruit SOS members, leaving the Double Bay flat to Jim and Jenny for a while. She looked business-like in a blue suit and a hat with a feather in it, carrying a brief case as well as a small portmanteau.

“Jennifer, you can open any official-looking mail and I’ll call every couple of days to see if there’s anything important.”

“Yes, Mum.”

“Paul, your father may or may not be at home. Who knows where he might be gallivanting? In that case you should go and stay with your grandma, but I believe it’s not safe for you to stay here any more. The Army could be coming for you any day.”

“Yes, Mum.”

“Jennifer, if the Army do come looking for him, you don’t know where he is, do you?”

“Of course not, Mum,”

“And, James, you do understand these matters are entirely confidential.”

“Of course, Shirley.”

The three of them waved goodbye as the lift arrived on the ninth floor, although Jim felt they should probably be saluting. He noticed there was still no provision of parachutes in case of emergency. The building failed safety standards in his view.

 

Stuart sailed on trials of the new missile system. Jim was not directly involved, being part of the black gang, and returning to an operational engine room was something he had to grapple with. The noises were the same, the screaming of turbines, the thundering of generators and the steam-driven reciprocating pumps going kapunk, kapunk, kapunk but the worst part was he had no idea what was happening on deck except through the engine orders. He half-expected Melbourne’s bow to come crashing through the ship’s side, although Melbourne was not part of this exercise. If you fall off a horse you are supposed to get straight back on again, but it took all his determination to report for duty in the engine room, which was a hell-hole at the best of times.

The ship steamed northwards to the Great Barrier Reef where the Navy, Army and Air Force had bombing ranges. The Army bombed Shoalwater Bay, the Air Force bombed Halifax Island and the Navy targeted various coral atolls. One was close to the tourist destination of Lady Musgrave Island, which shut down for the duration of exercises. Some areas were permanently closed to civilian access because they were littered with high explosives, like a war zone. Jim wondered how the Great Barrier Reef got turned into a war zone when there had never been a war on Australian soil except the war against the aborigines, and they only had spears and boomerangs.

It was the first time he had visited the Great Barrier Reef and he was astounded. Chook, who seemed to live in a permanent state of indignation, was especially forthcoming on the topic.

“Welcome to the Great Barrier Reef, mate,” he said. “Just be careful you don’t step on a bomb. What a load of horse-shit. If the fucking politicians can bomb the Great Barrier Reef, what else will they destroy?”

Firing the prototype missile was a drawn-out process with a long count-down. The rocket launcher squatted on the quarterdeck like a fat little robot. As the count-down progressed, a pair of claws picked up the rocket from the magazine and trundled it out to the launcher on a gantry, the idea being that no human being need be exposed to nuclear radiation. Jim was reminded of the meccano set he used to play with as a kid. As the gunnery director searched for the target, the launcher rotated and the missile elevated and depressed. Once locked on to the target, the missile fired and took off with a roar, leaving behind a cloud of white smoke and the cheers of everyone involved in the launch.

Jim’s role in the exercise, along with other ship’s divers, was to retrieve the spent rocket so the boffins could examine it. And that was his other astounding experience on the Great Barrier Reef. Tourists paid a lot of money to go diving here but Jim actually received a bonus on his pay for the privilege of swimming in this underwater wonderland. He could have spent hours down there, poking into crannies, tickling a fish’s belly, thrilled by the sleekness and beauty of a shark, the brilliant colours of exotic fish, the sinister look of a moray eel. Nobody knew about this whole world under the sea and the politicians were dropping bombs on it. What ignorant arseholes.

In the evenings, after the day’s work, the ship came to anchor in the lagoon. It was all hands to fishing stations and they brought in a good catch of coral trout. Apart from the noisy rockets, it seemed like a holiday to Jim.

After a couple of weeks, news came through that the Royal Commission into the Voyager sinking had at last begun in Canberra. Commercial radio reception was patchy and the Navy’s news teletype, which Jim did not trust or believe, delivered the information on a toilet roll streaming out of the radio room. Chook Fowler brought a print-out into the petty officers’ mess and thrust it under Jim’s nose. “Jesus Christ, look at this,” he said.

“What is it?”

“They’ve got a judge named Spicer, who used to be the Attorney General under this Prime Minister. And guess what; Drunken Duncan’s father also used to work for the Prime Minister. Special adviser, no less.”

“What does Duncan’s father have to do with it?”

“Major General Sir Jack Stevens to you. When he retired from the Army, he became a bureaucrat in the Prime Minister’s department. And the government is paying his legal expenses to look after the interests of young Duncan.”

“How do you know this?”

“I saw this coming a mile off, mate, so I’ve done a bit of research. Also, I’ve got an uncle who’s a lawyer. He knows all about this shit. He reckons the Minister for the Navy should be prosecuted for criminal negligence. I’ll tell you another thing. The lawyer representing Stevens is someone named Osborne. He’s another ex-minister under this Prime Minister and just happens to be secretary of the Liberal Party, which is the Prime Minister’s party. So you could say he’s the Prime Minister’s boss. The whole thing is a set up. It’s going to be another whitewash, like the so-called enquiry when the Anzac nearly sank the Tobruk and no one was ever punished. No one went to jail. What you’re going to see is an expensive exercise of the Minister for the Navy and the Prime Minister covering their arses.”

“Shit,” Jim said. “Have they got lawyers for the blokes who died, like Charlie? And his wife?”

Chook gave a hollow laugh. “Don’t be so wet, mate.”

Chapter 7

Upon arrival back in Sydney Jim was on watch in the engine room. It was an hour or so before he was able to get ashore. He showered and changed, flicked his onboard/ashore tag to ‘ashore’ and clattered down the gangway. Halfway through the dockyard, he began hearing a noise like a procession outside the gate. As he drew closer, a crowd came into view parading up and down, waving banners, brandishing placards, singing Bob Dylan songs off-key and chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” while a platoon of police looked on from Cowper Wharf Roadway

SAVE OUR SONS, the placards read. NO CONSCRIPTION. LEAVE OUR BOYS ALONE

‘Come off it,’ Jim said to himself, ‘we’ve just come back from the Great Barrier Reef, not Vietnam.’

A platoon of dockyard police was mustering around the gatehouse preparing for trouble.

“Watch yourself, PO,” said the sergeant in charge. “They could turn nasty.”

“I just want to go ashore,” Jim said.

“You might want to change into civvies. Make yourself less conspicuous.”

“How long have they been doing this?”

“About an hour or so. They’ll get tired of it eventually, but who knows how long.”

Jim worried he could be attacked just for wearing his uniform, which was fairly bizarre. He decided not to take the chance. He returned to the ship and changed into a pair of slacks and a grey windcheater.

“Don’t bother trying to go ashore just yet,” he announced to three or four blokes watching TV in the mess. “There’s a bunch of ratbags holding a demo outside the gate.”

The crowd had thinned a little when he returned to the gatehouse but he still wasn’t sure about getting caught amongst them. It was a narrow space between sandstone cliffs on one side and the sheds and godowns of the Woolloomooloo docks on the other. Cars were backing up in the blocked road and he expected the police would move in before long.

“Can I use your phone?” he asked the sergeant.

“Sure. Help yourself.”

Dockyard police were mostly retired sailors who were easy to get along with. He called Jenny at home from the gatehouse. The phone rang four or five times and he was about to hang up when she answered.

“It’s me. We’re back, but I’m going to be a bit late,” he told her. “There’s some kind of demo outside the dockyard.”

“Can you see Mum?”

“Oh no; she’s not here is she?”

“I think so. She said she was going to a demo but she didn’t say where.”

“Just a minute.”

He stepped out of the gatehouse and scanned the crowd. A diverse segment of humanity; not just the young and foolish but also old and foolish, seemed intent on creating as much noise and distraction as possible. Beatnik types, scruffy and bearded, mingled with grandmas with blue rinse hair and cotton print frocks. Maybe that’s why the police were patiently tapping their batons into open palms. It wouldn’t be a good look if the coppers started bashing grannies. At least one TV camera was recording events.

“I can’t see her,” he told Jenny, “but that doesn’t mean she’s not here.”

“Well, see if you can find her and bring her home, for God’s sake. I mean, she’s out of control.”

In more ways than one, Jim thought, but did not say so.

He waited about half an hour, hanging around the gatehouse with a growing crowd of irritated sailors wanting to get out. Seven years in pussers had taught him that, however much you might despise authority, you don’t go head to head. He was prepared to wait.

As the crowd thinned, Shirley was revealed in an enclave of protesters. She wore a tartan skirt that looked like a kilt but with a wide leather belt instead of a sporran, and a white blouse that she filled in all the right places. She was definitely in good shape for her vintage. She was handing out pamphlets from a big leather sack like a bookmaker at the races handing out betting cards. Jim left the sanctuary of the gatehouse but before he reached Shirley the police descended upon her, having cunningly waited to find the ringleader. Words were exchanged. Shirley turned her back on the senior constable and walked away.

“Just one moment, madam,” said the copper, taking her by the arm.

“Unhand me, constable!” Shirley said, pulled her arm away and began striding up Wylde Street. She didn’t get very far before she found herself in handcuffs, being led away to the paddy wagon.

Oh shit, Jim thought. Should I intervene? Another thing Pussers had taught him was not to get mixed up in other people’s quarrels, but this was the mother of his loved one. He trailed along behind and, keeping a cowardly distance in the background, watched her incarceration in the paddy wagon, which was an education in itself. A cop opened the wire mesh tailgate and went to help her up the steps. She jerked her handcuffed arms free and said, “I can manage quite well myself, thank you very much.”

She climbed into the cage like a queen ascending her throne; the gate was slammed shut and the paddy wagon bore her away.

Jim realised he was out of his depth here. A little way up the road he found a public phone in a red box.

“Jenny, I’m afraid we have a bit of a problem.”

“What problem?’

“Well, actually, Shirley has been arrested.”

Arrested? What for?”

“I don’t know. They took her away in a paddy wagon.”

“Where did they take her?”

“I don’t know.”

“Omigod, what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Stop saying ‘I don’t know.’”

Long silence. All Jim could hear was her breathing. He wondered what was going on in her mind.

“Well, we have to find her,” she finally said.

“Yes.”

That was fairly obvious.

“Where do we start? And don’t you dare say, ‘I don’t know.”

“Kings Cross,” Jim said.

“Can you pick me up?” She was sounding a bit frantic.

“No. My beetle’s at the oldies’ place.”

“I’ll get a taxi. I’ll meet you at the fountain.”

He walked uphill in the same direction as the paddy wagon. Stands to reason they would probably take her to the nearest police station, which was not far from the Cappuccino Spaghetti Bar and not far from the El Alamein fountain.

The El Alamein fountain held a prominent place in the Price family, being the focus of Anzac Day celebrations every year for as long as Jim could remember. Once a year, the old man brushed off his suit and his ridiculous white tie with a big red rose on it and dug out his medals from a bottom drawer. Although there were local celebrations he always wanted to travel to the city for the service at the El Alamein fountain. He had been one of the Rats of Tobruk, and fought at El Alamein and had a string of medals on his chest to prove it. On Anzac Day as a kid, Jim got to march wearing the old man’s slouch hat. Waiting there for Jenny, he could just imagine his response to today’s demo at the dockyard, and to its organiser, the mother of his loved one. He would be outraged to learn that Jim had to change out of his country’s uniform to avoid a mob of protesters. “What’s the world coming to?” he would rant.

Jenny arrived in a rush and threw her arms around him and gave him a good strong hug.

“I’m glad you’re back. I just knew she was going to get into trouble. I have a delinquent for a mother. She’s over the top.”

“We can try the police station,” Jim said. “If she’s not there they can probably tell us where she is.”

“I hope she hasn’t done anything stupid.”

Demonstrating outside the dockyard is pretty stupid, Jim thought. She was only ever going to wind up in a paddy wagon.

It amused him to see Jenny had become the mother and Shirley the misbehaving child. It was a short walk by the park to the shabby, grey-looking building with shabby, grey-looking people loitering on the steps or in the vicinity and seated on benches around the walls inside. The constable on the desk, typing some report by the seek and peck method, looked up with irritation on his face.

“We’re looking for a lady named Shirley Sanders who was arrested a little while ago,” Jim said.

“What was the charge?”

“Don’t know.”

The constable gave a long-suffering sigh.

“Where was she arrested?”

“Just outside the dockyard gates.”

“Oh, her. Yes, she’s here.” Shirley had obviously made an impression upon him. “Ordinance 418 plus Obscene Language plus Resisting Arrest.”

“What’s ordinance 418?” Jim asked.

“Ordinance 418 makes it an offence for any person to distribute printed matter on a public thoroughfare. Your friend was handing out printed pamphlets in a public place.”

“So what?”

“It’s against the law.”

“What law?”

“Ordinance 418, like I said.”

“Bullshit. Where does that law come from?”

“Actually,” and here the constable leaned across the desk in a conspiratorial manner, “it comes from England about a hundred years ago, when the British government was worried about the Luddites. They went around the countryside handing out pamphlets against new machinery, so the politicians passed a law to stop it.”

“What the fuck has that got to do with anything? There are still plenty of Luddites around now. They are probably the majority.”

“Language please. I warn you to refrain from foul language in police premises.”

“So, when can Shirley go home?”

“It shouldn’t be too long. There’s no provision for bail for this offence.”

“I should hope not. Can we see her?’

“You can have her. And good riddance.”

He disappeared down a dark corridor where, presumably, they kept the murderers, rapists, child molesters, bank executives, Catholic priests and politicians.

They heard Shirley berating the policeman even before she appeared. “You can be sure my solicitors will be in touch. I have every intention of pursuing this matter to the full extent of the law. I have been treated outrageously.”

“Yes, yes, yes…” the constable said. “Your friends are here to take you home.”

“Mum, let’s just go home before you get into more trouble.” Jenny said.

“Oh, James. Jennifer. You won’t believe what I’ve been through. In all my days I’ve never been so humiliated. The very idea! The total absurdity! Did you know it’s against the law to hand out printed pamphlets on a public thoroughfare? Evidently, you can give out handwritten pamphlets but not printed ones.”

“Yes, I knew that,” Jim said smugly. “It goes back to an English law about a hundred years ago. You were probably suspected of being a Luddite.”

“Ridiculous! Let’s do the Salvation Army for handing out bibles. Let’s do the politicians for handing out how to vote cards on Election Day.”

“Not a bad idea,” Jim said, believing it was probably best to let her rant. He squeezed Jenny’s hand and she squeezed back.

Shirley didn’t stop talking as Jim steered them towards the nearest waterhole. They arrived at the Gazebo Hotel and found seats on the balcony overlooking Elizabeth Bay. Jim bought a round of drinks and carried them back to the table: rum for himself, vodka for Shirley and light beer for Jenny.

Shirley was still ranting. She had a master plan. If the police thought she was going to be intimidated by this harassment they had another think coming. SOS would be going nationwide. She now had networks in Victoria and Queensland and next step was to expand across the Nullarbor.

“I see a new force in our society: Mumpower; A force for humanity, for compassion, for sanity. We need to pull these politicians into line. Nearly one hundred per cent geriatric white males. Probably can’t even get it up, any of them.”

“Is that relevant, Mum?”

“Of course it’s relevant. They’re past their use by date. Obsolete. Instead of drafting 18-year-old boys we should be drafting 50-year-old politicians. They are the ones who are expendable, not our sons. Leave the 18-year-olds at home to perform valuable service.”

“Where is Paul now, by the way?” Jim asked.

“In a safe place. His father has bought him a small property where he should be safe from the Army.”

“Having a good time, is he?”

“I expect so. He’s doing a lot of surfing, which he loves. Gardening. Plays music. Keeping up with his studies as far as possible. He’s a good boy but the politicians are prepared to destroy his future by destroying his education.”

She waxed enthusiastic about her plans for radical matriarchy – not the same as the feminism being preached by certain women these days. Although prepared to enlist them in her cause, Shirley had no truck with feminists or lesbians. A dildo was no replacement for a man in her view. A woman’s duty was to her sons, not even to her daughters, and a man’s purpose in life was to provide a woman with sons. Her tragedy was that she had only one son, whose father was a pig.

Shirley and Chook were on similar missions and Jim respected both of them for their convictions while lacking the motivation to involve himself. Jenny was in the same kind of situation. She certainly supported the principle of Save Our Sons but was reluctant to get involved. Maybe it was all just too hard. Sitting on the balcony of the Gazebo Hotel and watching night fall over the harbour, he felt a creeping desolation, even with Jenny beside him. Always nagging at the back of his mind was the unresolved matter of the Voyager sinking, but a string of accidents indicated there was something very wrong with this man’s navy. While the Ikara missile they had just trialled on the Great Barrier Reef was only an antisubmarine weapon and not an intercontinental missile, the Sunshine Kid’s exposition in Stuart’s operations room had raised disturbing questions. If the Navy couldn’t get a night flying exercise right, or a gunnery exercise between two destroyers, could they be trusted with nuclear weapons on space stations operated by computers controlled by maniac politicians? Just at this turning point in his career, Jim was beginning to have doubts. Shirley’s demonstration that day had reinforced them. Maybe in the future it wouldn’t be Save Our Sons but Save Our Planet. If the politicians can bomb the Great Barrier Reef, what else will they destroy? Maybe Paul was just the canary in the coal mine. Like shooting the rapids in his corrugated iron canoe, Jim felt he was in the grip of powerful forces and his only lifejacket was Jenny.

Making love that night was almost supernatural; deliberately slow motion, exploring one another’s bodies with tender touch and stretching out the ecstasy. She moaned with pleasure and he with thanksgiving and Jim slept with no nightmares at all.

 

The Voyager Royal Commission opened in Canberra under Justice Sir John Spicer, as Chook had warned. Speeches were made in Parliament and newspapers carried editorials obviously written by people who knew nothing about the Navy, but there was a comment by someone who did know what he was talking about. A British admiral named Hinkling took an interest in the case and published a book entitled One Minute of Time. Based on interviews with some of Voyager’s surviving officers, including the executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Cabban, and with Melbourne’s Captain Robertson, Hinkling concluded that blame for the collision lay squarely with Captain Stevens. The book could hardly be called a best-seller but a few copies appeared aboard Stuart and re-opened the lunchtime debate in the petty officers’ mess.

Chook Fowler became agitated over this. “Jesus, mate, what a farce. They need to get this admiral up as an expert witness before the Royal Commission.”

There appeared no likelihood of that, however. Jim felt a sense of foreboding over this investigation that was supposed to provide answers but seemed designed to conceal facts. Jim gave his copy of the book to Jenny to read.

“Omigod,” was her comment. “I had no idea. Why don’t they do something about it?”

“Good question. Let me know if you get an answer.”

The Royal Commission received wide coverage in the papers and a couple of debates in Parliament, but progress was slow.

 

Jenny announced she would like to go and visit Paul. Paul’s hideaway had been pretty much a secret but Shirley eventually revealed that his father had installed him in a town on the north coast, far away from the tentacles of the law. Shirley had torn up two more draft notices from the Army, who were apparently searching for him. Although not on speaking terms, Paul’s parents conspired to protect him from the draft.

“Of course it’s no skin off his nose,” Shirley said over breakfast as they prepared to leave. “It’s just one of his real estate deals. I mean, he’s not a real father at all. The only thing he’s interested in is money.”

“Yes, Mum,” Jenny said in a tired voice. “Do you have a message for Paul? Is there anything you want us to take?”

“Yes, he’s put in a request for a G string for his guitar, wax for his surfboard and a bag of fertiliser.”

“Fertiliser?”

“Yes, he has a garden, apparently. If he’s growing veggies, you can bring me back a lettuce or something.”

“Yes, Mum.”

On the road in the Volkswagen it felt like freedom at last, getting away from the city. They stopped a couple of times to stretch their legs and arrived in the late afternoon. It was your average country town with a pub, a newsagency, a general store and church on Main Street but also an estate of manicured properties called Ocean Shores amidst a palm grove by the beach.

“Nice,” Jim said. “Your father has done him proud.”

Paul’s bungalow overlooked the surf. As Jim pulled into the driveway, Paul came out to greet them, hugged Jenny and shook Jim’s hand. He seemed relaxed for a fugitive from justice, although Jim noticed he was still chewing his fingernails, bitten down to the quick. He wore a colourful sarong, a scruffy blond beard and nothing else.

“Mum told me you were coming. She’s not with you, is she?”

“No, Paul,” Jenny said. “She’s busy organising rallies, but we come bearing gifts.”

She presented him with the guitar string, the wax and the fertiliser. “Where’s your garden?”

“I’ll show you tomorrow. I assume you’re staying the night. Come and take a seat.”

They sat in wicker chairs on the veranda, looking out over the sea.

“Well, how have you been, Paul?” Jenny asked.

“Good. I live simply here.”

He waved a hand over the landscape like a tourist guide. “I have birds, the river and the sea. We have a national park just behind us, full of all sorts of creatures. I’ve never spent much time in the bush before.”

“Sounds ideal,” Jim said. “Better than the Army.”

“I know what you must be thinking but I didn’t bring on this quarrel. Your name gets drawn out of a barrel; it’s just bad luck.”

“Ah, luck. It’s a mysterious thing, luck. Maybe the bad luck was getting your name put in the barrel in the first place; but that wasn’t really luck, was it?”

“It depends on your date of birth. Maybe the bad luck is having the wrong birthday.”

“That’s really bad luck. Can’t do much about that. Blame your father.”

“It’s hardly his fault.”

“Relax; I’m joking. It’s been a long drive. You wouldn’t have a drop of the good stuff in this establishment would you?”

“Well, no, but I have something else that might take your mind off things.”

The sarong had a pocket, from which he extracted a tobacco pouch and a packet of cigarette papers. He stuck a cigarette paper to his bottom lip as Jim’s father used to do, and created a neat little cylinder of weed. He handed the first one to Jenny, the second to Jim and struck a match to ignite them with the dignity of a geisha at a Japanese tea ceremony.

In all his innocence, this was Jim’s first experience of the illegal substance. He took a puff, breathed in the smoke and went into a coughing spasm. He had never even smoked tobacco and was shocked to see Jenny puffing away on the joint. This woman had deeper currents than he thought. What other secrets did she have?

Paul took them on a tour of his estate next day, up into the national park. As he had said, it was full of all sorts of creatures. Amazing call of the whip bird – wheeeeepit. Goanna running up a tree. Wombat snuffling along to his hole. Kookaburra laughing insanely. Koala grunting like a pig. Deadly red belly black snake.

The river was magnificent, with waterfalls tumbling over rocks into placid pools where perch awaited their prey. Paul was at home here and Jim could understand that. Paul’s pride was his plantation. He had brought the bag of superphosphate with him and now they saw why. He spread it over his crop under the overburden of giant trees where it could not be seen by nosy helicopters. Jim wondered if Shirley knew what the superphosphate was really for.

On the drive back home, Jenny was quiet. She hunched down in the passenger seat and paid no attention to the landscape slipping by.

“What’s up?” Jim said. “Penny for your thoughts.”

“Paul.”

“You’re a worrier, aren’t you?”

“Someone has to worry. I mean, Mum’s off the planet and Paul’s not much better. The police are probably out searching for him and he’s playing with fire. Boys are going to jail.”

Jenny grimaced as if she had a bad taste in her mouth.

“In the United States they’re running away to Canada to dodge the draft,” Jim said.

“Well, there’s no point in our boys running away to New Zealand. I think they’ve got the same stupid laws.”

“Exactly. The problem is the law. As someone once said, the law is an ass. Or an arse, depending on your accent.”

Chapter 8

The next stage in Jim’s career began at Central Station on an overcast and drizzly day. He wasn’t there to catch a train but a bus. It was drawn up under the grimy colonnades with a crowd of boys milling about and three officers in white shorts and stockings marking off names on clipboards– the ubiquitous symbol of authority in Pussers.

“Yes, Petty Officer?”

“Name’s Price,” Jim said. “I’m with this bunch.”

“I think you must be mistaken, Petty Officer. This is the new intake of cadets for the college.”

“That’s right. Have a look at your list.”

He was a fresh-faced kid about the same age as Paul, but he wasn’t a real officer, only a piglet. Instead of an officer’s shoulder straps he wore a gold chevron on each sleeve. He obviously wasn’t expecting a petty officer as a new entry cadet midshipman. He ran a pencil point down the list on his clipboard till he came to Jim’s name.

“Well, first year, your first lesson is you must address me and all cadet captains as ‘sir’.”

Why, you little pipsqueak punk, Jim thought, you need your nose rubbed in the dirt. Instead he said, “Yes, sir.”

“The bus leaves in 15 minutes. Your seat is number, let me see, 19.”

“I just have to say goodbye to someone if you don’t mind, sir.”

“Make it snappy.”

“Yes, sir.”

He walked back to where Jenny waited under the grimy colonnades of Central Station. She wore a cream linen dress with a low front that shimmered against the honey brown of her suntan and it made him ache just to look at her. She was suntanned all over, he knew, and so was he.

“Fifteen minutes,” he said.

“Jim, how long before I see you again?”

“Dunno. I think we get leave after a couple of months.”

He hadn’t wanted her to come and see him off. It was just dragging out the pain. Better to have carried away the image of her sleepy in bed or splashing in the sea or laughing with her big brown eyes.

“Who’d be a sailor’s wife? Now you’re going away again.”

“Wait till I’m an admiral. I’ll get a cushy job in Navy office.”

“And I’ll push you there in your wheelchair.”

Then she was in his arms feeling so good.

“Time’s up, Price,” said the cadet captain, tapping him on the shoulder. “In the bus.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Jim said and, with a last kiss, disengaged from Jenny.

The bus pulled out from under the colonnades and he watched her standing there with a scattering of other girlfriends and a few parents, her hand raised as if she meant to wave and had then forgotten.

The bus negotiated the dreary suburbs to the south and then opened out on the highway with tyres whining on wet tarmac. There were showers in the first part of the trip and the civilian driver kept fiddling with his wipers. Jim looked around at his fellow passengers and thought of a train ride a long time ago when all this began. These kids could have been Sharkfin or Turtleneck or Willy the Wombat or any of those, with the same appearance of not quite fitting their clothes properly, the same shy eagerness and excitement. They were the same clay, which Pussers planned to mould into different pottery.

Inevitably, his mind drifted back to his own first day. He had welcomed his 15th birthday because he was then old enough to join the Navy and found himself aboard the Richmond Rocket winding through the cow paddocks of western Sydney with an occasional farmhouse visible through the trees. Jim climbed down at the single-platform station of Quaker’s Hill along with about a dozen other boys who milled about glancing sideways at one another, wondering if it was safe to make eye contact. One had his possessions in a string shopping bag, another looked like he had borrowed his young brother’s school uniform and all were filled with trepidation just like Jim.

“Do you think they’ll come and get us?” one boy asked no one in particular.

A few had drifted down to the road and one called back, “Here’s a signpost. We have to go this way.”

HMAS Nirimba was named for an aboriginal word that meant ‘feeding place of pelicans.’ There were no pelicans any more, only a great expanse of asphalt airstrip left over from World War II and rows of corrugated iron sheds painted grey to make them look naval.

They set off up the road, watched by dolorous cows chewing their cuds who must have seen this kind of procession a hundred times before. Following another sign that said Royal Australian Navy Apprentice Training Establishment, they turned off towards a boom gate with a sentry-house and two sailors wearing webbing belts and gaiters and stern looks on their faces. A chief petty officer emerged from the sentry-house and watched as they approached. His big black beard was the most intimidating thing Jim had ever seen in his life.

“Ullo, ullo, ullo. What have we got ’ere? What’s this shower of shit, then?”

“We’ve come to join the Navy, sir,” one boy said.

This was clearly an uproarious joke because the chief’s eyes twinkled and the two sailors on the boom gate nearly fell about laughing.

“Joined the Navy, have you?” the chief boomed. “Well the first thing you better learn is you do not call me sir. I am Chief Petty Officer Caldwell and you call me chief. Izzat clear?”

“Yessir. I mean Chief.”

“And I’m not a Red Indian either but sometimes I go on the warpath. Now get yourselves fell in, tallest on the right, shortest on the left. Move it! Know what you are? Most objectionable bastards imaginable, that’s what you are. Fucking mobis, and I’m going to make you proud of it.”

CPO Caldwell marched them off to the sick bay, halted the squad on the road outside and proceeded to demonstrate how to take off your shirt, Navy style.

“At the order one,” he roared, “raise the right hand to the top button of the shirt and undo it. At the order two, release button number two. At the order three, release button number three. When all the buttons are undone, you will be given the order ‘Off shirt!’ Izzat clear?”

One boy wearing a T-shirt put up his hand as if in school and said, “Please sir, I haven’t got any buttons.”

“Do not call me sir. I am Chief Petty Officer Caldwell and you are going to learn to hate me. You will ignore orders one, two, three and four and execute on the order ‘Off shirt!’”

They got their shirts off and were then attacked by sick-berth attendants who stabbed syringes into their arms, left and right. The rest of that day was a tumult and by the end of it Jim was exhausted, sore from squeaky new boots as well as from the vaccinations; bewildered, lonely and afraid. This was looking like a terrible mistake. He should have listened to his father.

At the end of week one, the older apprentices trickled back in groups that coincided with a toot on the whistle from the Richmond Rocket, which trundled through the cow paddocks beyond the perimeter fence. New boys had been brought in a week before the rest and by the time the old hands arrived had learned how to hump a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle around the parade ground, how to do body jerks every morning and, of course, how to salute.

The senior boys struck in a coordinated assault on the Sunday night. They stormed through the donga, tipping over bunks and lockers and then turned fire hoses in through the windows. As new boys fled outdoors they were taken prisoner, thrown to the ground, dacks stripped off and a liberal coating of black boot polish applied to the genitals. At this point, Jim learned his correct name was sprog.

The punishment continued for several days but, within a couple of weeks, sprogs had begun to fight back. A bunch of scrawny kids from all over the country found a common identity. It did not take long for CPO Caldwell to achieve his aim of making them proud of being Most Objectionable Bastards Imaginable and it did not take Jim long to work out that the chief was just a louder version of his father.

On the bus to Jervis Bay, however, the new boys seemed more subdued, or maybe just tired. Looking back, Jim could not help but feel a little sorry for these suckers. The kid across the aisle leaned over and said, “Excuse me, you’re a petty officer aren’t you? Are you one of us?”

“Yes, I think I’m one of you,” Jim said.

He was a kid of about 15, scrawny and pimply, wearing a school blazer that he was probably proud of.

“My name’s Simon Peters. I recognised your uniform because I was in the sea cadets.”

“Good for you. So was I. Rammed the Sydney in a whaler. Here, read the paper.”

Jim had nothing against the kid; he just didn’t feel like talking. He handed him the paper so he could catch up on the recently released report of the Voyager Royal Commission, receiving considerable comment in the press. The paper also carried a list of awards for gallantry during Voyager’s last hours. The chief coxswain posthumously received the George Cross for his devotion to duty in helping men trapped below to make their escape.

Apparently, after Jim left the ship, the chief had gone back below to look after those who could not escape and led them in prayer and a hymn. Jim found it hard to imagine the chief coxswain in such a role. Chief coxswains thrive on bluster, which is mostly bullshit and often funny. Chief coxswain as padre was not a familiar image. They were trapped in the cafeteria in the fore part of the ship but, mercifully, their anguish was brief. Charlie had gone back to the engine room in the stern section, which took a few hours to sink. Surely he could have got out in that time. Why couldn’t he have got out? What happened to stop him getting out? Why didn’t the silly bastard get out? Fuck him.

Duncan’s personal steward, Hyland, revealed the most important piece of evidence. He had served the captain with a triple brandy an hour and a half before the collision. Even Jim would not have expected a destroyer captain to be sucking the grog just before night flying exercises. Jim had never been invited into the captain’s cabin but it was common knowledge aboard Voyager that he had his own liquor cabinet. He didn’t need Steward Hyland to serve his drinks. If Jim had been in the court room he would have wanted to find out how many drinks Duncan had taken without the services of the steward, but this question was apparently never raised.

The Royal Commissioners evidently didn’t see things in the same way as Jim. The ruling handed down by His Honour, Justice Sir John Spicer, was that the cause of the collision was Voyager’s failure to keep out of Melbourne’s way.

Fucking brilliant, Jim thought. His Honour required a law degree, a career of several years at the bar and service as the nation’s top judicial officer, attorney general, to state the bleeding obvious known to any ordinary seaman. Apparently, His Honour had not read the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. He certainly hadn’t read Admiral Hinkling’s book, One Minute of Time. In many discussions aboard Stuart and elsewhere, Voyager’s last hours had been repeatedly analysed. Voyager was the overtaking vessel coming up from a station on Melbourne’s quarter at full speed ahead. Rule 13 of the International Regulations states,’ Notwithstanding anything contained elsewhere in these Rules, an overtaking vessel shall keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken until she is finally past and clear.’

Notwithstanding anything contained in the Rules, Drunken Duncan was guilty of criminal negligence. He deserved punishment number one in Jim’s view, but unfortunately, or fortunately, he was already dead. The Commission’s verdict was obviously not the finding of Sir John Spicer but of Sir Jack Stevens, Duncan’s daddy, and above him, the Prime Minister was pulling the strings. The transcript of the proceedings amounted to more than 3,000 pages, which no one would ever read. Horseshit piled upon bullshit. The person ultimately responsible for this crap was the captain of the ship of state, the Prime Minister.

 

Coming in to Jervis Bay from the high ground Jim saw the clock tower first, thrusting above red roofs among a plantation of pines, and he felt a glow of relief. ‘So here I am at last.’ He always knew he could do it. The line of demarcation between these stately trees and the jumble of native eucalypts marked the limit of the college grounds. Two orange and yellow crash boats were moored in the boat harbour together with a few whalers and workboats and an ocean-going yacht. In the late afternoon, as they arrived with the sun beyond the mountains, shadows fell upon the sand around the shores of Jervis Bay and the water in the shallows was a deep emerald. A ship lay at anchor – it could have been Parramatta – and beyond it were the cliffs of Point Perpendicular with a lighthouse on top, where they had scattered Big Red’s ashes to the wind. About twenty miles beyond that, on the bottom of the sea, was Charlie’s skeleton, probably picked clean by crabs.

The bus pulled up before a mess hall and a bell tower, like the winch house on a well that stood between two two-storey accommodation blocks. The clock tower was mounted on the roof of the gym, on the other side of the grass quarterdeck, which was about the size of a football field.

This time around, Jim knew what to expect and was waiting for the equivalent of CPO Caldwell with his clipboard, his black beard and glinting eye, but at the naval college it never happened. Piglets called the roll and sent the new boys off to their accommodation. First year cadets occupied cabins on the ground floor – no dormitories – with hibiscus growing in through the veranda rail outside the door. Jim’s cabin was small, with two pairs of double deck bunks, four chests of drawers and one wardrobe. Unlike at Nirimba, he had already been measured for uniforms and they were the right size. They were waiting, neatly folded in a sea chest, not a bag, and with everything marked with his name on woven tags. Jim had received a new official number, prefixed O for officer instead of R for rating, thus completing his transmogrification from rating to officer. He was no longer R41357 but O16792. Some invisible servant had delivered his sea chest and, as he stood there wondering whether to begin stowing the kit, his cabin mate came in, a smooth-skinned, dark-haired boy named Gary Johnson who introduced himself with a smile and a firm handshake.

“You’re the PO aren’t you? I heard about you.”

“Did you.”

“Well,” he said, looking around and seeing only the two chests. “It looks like we’ll have the place to ourselves. Good. I can’t stand living in public and it’s lucky I’m in with you. They’ll go easy on you, I expect.”

“Will they.”

“You’re not exactly a chatterbox are you? Do you think we should start putting our clothes away?”

“Yes.”

Before they had finished, the cadet captain arrived – it was the piglet who had taken his name on the bus – to explain that shirts had to be folded eight inches wide, shoes nested in one another and stowed on their sides in the bottom till, which was the college name for a drawer. Socks had to be rolled and stowed sunny side up in the top till. And so forth. Then he said, “Strip.”

Ullo, ullo, ullo, Jim thought. A bit of sodomy at the naval college.

“Strip, I said! You’ll have to learn to obey orders instantly. Strip out of those clothes and muster at the bell tower wearing towels.”

They joined the other first years in front of the bell tower wearing towels.

“Twelve!” yelled the chief cadet captain and they ran for the cabin stripping off the towels along the way. Johnson got there first.

“What’s twelves for God’s sake?”

“How the hell would I know?”

“I think it’s cricket gear. White trousers, white sweater, shirt and cravat.”

“Cravat?”

“No, wait a minute, that’s twenty one. I know; it’s the grey trousers, blazer and tie.”

Jim didn’t know if he was right but had no better ideas. They scrambled into this gear and sprinted back to the bell tower. Too late. Take yourself around the quarterdeck at the double. Not only that, but twelves were in fact the mess rig with the bow tie and bum freezer jacket.

They got back to the bell tower and the chief cadet captain shouted seventeen and they ran for the cabin to find the piglet tipping everything out of the tills on to the floor.

“You left this cabin like a pig sty. It’s disgusting. The object of quick shifts is to teach you tidiness. Take yourselves around the quarterdeck.”

They took themselves around the quarterdeck again and then the chief cadet captain shouted six. They sprinted back to the cabin and shifted (one didn’t change uniforms; one shifted uniforms) into number sixes and presented themselves at the bell tower correctly dressed with shoelaces tied in a double bow, trouser creases straight and hair combed all within two minutes as measured by the clock on the far side of the quarterdeck.

This clock, or actually four clocks, one on each side of the square tower with its red-tiled roof, held absolute dominance over life at the college. It chimed the watches like a ship’s bell in the days of sail and they got out of bed at five bells, had lunch at eight bells, dinner at four bells and turned out the lights at four bells of the first watch.

Every morning they swam two laps of the shark-proof enclosure. After breakfast but before colours they had jobs: sweep the veranda, clean the bathrooms and gunrooms. There was no mess hall patrol – that was done by stewards — and civilians manned the gash truck. Then they stood to attention with caps in hand while the cadet captain searched for any speck of dust or drop of water they may have missed. He inevitably found something wrong and they took themselves around the quarterdeck for punishment At any given time there was always one and usually half a dozen first years pounding along the asphalt road. They had jobs at night too, and rounds conducted by the cadet captain, and if shirts were not folded exactly eight inches wide they took themselves around the quarterdeck.

One morning Jim discovered Simon Peters huddled inside the broom closet under the stairs.

“What are you doing in there, mate?” he said.

I must stop using that word ‘mate,’ Jim told himself. It’s not part of an officer’s vocabulary. Officers don’t have mates. Peters looked up with red-rimmed eyes, his breath coming in great whoops, and he didn’t need to say what he was doing. Jim knew a kid at school with asthma and every spring when the wattle bloomed he nearly choked.

“Don’t tell anyone will you?” Peters sprayed his throat with a mist from a plastic bottle.

“No, I won’t tell anyone. How did you get past the medical with asthma?”

He grinned, with a wicked glint in his eye. “I lied.”

The spray seemed to work and he began breathing normally. If he could keep it under control Jim thought he could probably get away with it. He went past Peters a few times over the next few days as he took himself around the quarterdeck and Peters was chuffing like a steam train with tears streaming from his eyes.

“Come on, mate,” Jim said. “You can do better than that.”

Peters threw him a look, rolling his eyeballs as if to say, “I’d answer you if I could but I can’t.”

At the end of week one the senior boys returned from leave and climbed down from a convoy of coaches that pulled up outside the mess hall. They bustled into cabins that had so far lain silent and the gloomy corridors of the old weatherboard building shook to the sound of doubling boots, slamming doors and harsh, raucous laughter. A senior cadet leaned over the banister on the upper deck and shouted down the stairwell, “One first year, report to me.”

Any first year who failed to obey this summons received automatic punishment, so Jim doubled up the stairs, stood to attention and removed his cap.

“Report to the canteen and purchase one ice cream. Here’s the money.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you who? To whom do you think you’re speaking?”

“I think I’m speaking to you.”

“You’re insolent. What’s my name? Find out. Take yourself around the quarterdeck and report back to me in ten minutes.”

Jim took himself around the quarterdeck and then canvassed the other first years for his name, the ten minutes having long since expired. A pool of names had been established and Jim soon learned the one with bandy legs was Mr Barrett, the one with braces on his teeth was Mr Walsh and the one with acne Mr Hatcher. The one with the thirst for ice creams was Mr Dickens, a cunning little devil who usually hid so he couldn’t be found within the ten minutes.

The aficionado of the sneer was a senior year named Mr Beelsby. Without moving his eyes he’d turn his head and tilt it back so that he looked down and sideways at his victim. His top lip moved less than a millimetre like a tiny snake as the words slithered out, “You will stand properly to attention when you address me. Brace your elbows in. Chin up! Now, what’s my name?”

“Mr Beelsby, Mr Beelsby.”

“And what must you do when I wish to walk through a door?”

“I must stand to attention and remove my cap and wait for you to go through first, Mr Beelsby.”

“Therefore why have you neglected to do so, Price?”

“I didn’t see you coming, Mr Beelsby.”

“Did you pass the eyesight test in the medical examination?”

“I did, Mr Beelsby.”

“And yet you claim not to be able to see me coming. Am I invisible?”

“No, Mr Beelsby.”

“Do I move faster than the speed of light?”

“No, Mr Beelsby, only faster than a speeding bullet.”

“How dare you make facetious remarks to me, Price! Take yourself around the quarterdeck.”

It was worth it just to see the look on his face and Jim took himself around the quarterdeck cackling with laughter, returning just in time to join the first years standing to attention on the mess hall veranda while senior cadets filed in and stood behind their chairs. The chief cadet captain took his place behind a high-backed carved wooden chair like a medieval throne. Then first years were allowed to enter and stood behind their chairs near the foot of each table.

The chief cadet captain said grace, “For what we are about to receive, thank God.”

He sat, then senior year, third year and second year in turn, flapping out the starched white napkins and spreading them in their laps. First years remained standing until told to sit by the senior cadet at the head of the table. At Jim’s table, Mr Beelsby forgot and they remained standing while second and third years tucked into the food, which passed down the table in silver tureens. Simon Peters coughed.

“Sore throat, Peters?” Mr Beelsby asked.

Peters had two choices. If he said yes, Mr Beelsby would say, “Best cure for sore throat is exercise. Take yourself around the quarterdeck.” Or if he said no, Mr Beelsby would say, “I fear you have one coming on. Better take yourself around the quarterdeck.”

Hungry Peters hurtled out of the mess hall to pound the well-trodden path around the quarterdeck.

“First years may sit,” Mr Beelsby said graciously.

Jim sat with his back straight eight inches from the back of the chair and waited for the tureens to make the slow and tortuous voyage towards the foot of the table. Simon Peters returned and stood behind his chair, gasping for air and making noises like a chainsaw.

“Better now, Peters?” Mr Beelsby asked.

“Yes, Mr Beelsby.”

“Worked up an appetite have you?”

“Yes, Mr Beelsby.”

“Better sit down. We can’t have you fading away can we?”

“Thank you, Mr Beelsby.”

Peters pulled out his chair and sat with his back straight while he ladled cold soup into his bowl and began catching up to the rest of the table, who were already on to dessert.

“Peters,” Mr Beelsby said, “You’re using your dessert spoon for the soup, you little barbarian. Take yourself around the quarterdeck.”

Peters hurtled out of the mess hall and took himself around the quarterdeck and when he came back the chainsaw had revved up. He stood gasping behind his chair while the others polished off the dessert. When the tureens were empty, Mr Beelsby said, “You may sit, Peters.”

“Thank you, Mr Beelsby.”

Peters lifted a tureen above his head and held it there until a steward came to replenish it. Jim gave him a wink and he winked back, so he was okay.

 

After about a month, Jim’s divisional officer called him into his office for the second interview since joining the college. The first had been merely to connect Jim’s face with the name on his list and Jim had seen little of him or any other pig since. He was a two-and-a-half with a flyboy badge on his sleeve and, like many flyboys, his nerves were shot. His hands were never still, playing with a pencil, plucking at the buttons on his uniform or brushing the thinning hair back from his forehead.

“S..s..settling in all right, Mr Price?” he said when Jim sat down at the other side of his desk.

“Yes, sir.”

“N..not giving you t.t.too hard a t.t.time are they? Boys can be little d.d.devils you know. P.p.pull the wings off b.b.butterflies.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Of course you realise the S.s.system’s out of date but there you are. I think we’ll put you into third year next week.”

“Sir?”

“I s.s.say I think we’ll put you into third year. D.d.done long enough in first year and you can s.s.skip s.s.second year altogether.”

Wow, this is really moving, Jim thought as he left the office. Two years in one month. I will have to adjust my clock.

Suddenly, Mr Barrett, Mr Hatcher and Mr Dickens became Barrett, Hatcher and Dickens and had to stand to attention with their caps off when they addressed him. Mr Allen, Mr Munro and Mr White became Tom, Bill and Jack although Mr Beelsby was still Mr Beelsby, being a year ahead.

Jim moved into a cabin with Dave, who had been back-classed from Mr Beelsby’s year for failing exams. Dave’s gear was scattered around the cabin, a towel hanging from the light and his jock strap on the end of Jim’s bunk. He was into music and liked it loud. He had a stereo tape deck with a speaker in each corner of the cabin. Jim put up with it for three days and then jacked up when he played it during study time at night. He said, “Listen, if you want to play that crap, put your headphones on.”

Now Dave sat at his desk with his headphones on, bobbing and weaving to the rhythm while he worked on some assignment. Jim wondered if it improved his mathematics and decided probably not.

Third years had a gunroom with a trophy case, overstuffed leather armchairs and rows of class photographs dating back to the college’s beginning, when cadets were inducted into the Navy at thirteen. It was like an old boys’ reunion, although Jim felt little affection for these spectres from the past. Big Jim was there, Arch Harrington, The Baron and many others that he knew and it was hard to reconcile the angelic boys’ faces with the men they later became although, even at thirteen, Arch had the same cruel mouth.

This cabin opened on to the upper veranda with a view past the gym and clock tower to the bay. Third years had to double on the upper veranda, which was the precinct of senior years, so as Jim stepped out of the cabin he had to double about ten paces until he reached the passageway, where he was permitted to march.

One day they got Simon Peters doubling on the spot on the veranda with his cap in his hand while they stood around in a ring firing questions at him.

“Describe flag golf, Peters.”

“It’s a green and white, no a blue and white, no a blue and yellow…”

“Take yourself around the quarterdeck and report back here immediately.”

He returned and resumed doubling on the spot while they continued the quiz. After about five minutes the chainsaw was going again, after ten minutes tears streamed from his eyes and at about minute twenty he croaked, burst out of the ring and fled.

“Peters! Peters! Come back here,” they cried but to no avail.

“Peters, you’ll run the gauntlet tonight,” Mr Beelsby shouted down the stairwell at the receding footsteps but there was no reply.

That night, when the college fell dark and silent, senior cadets crept from their cabins, collecting Jim’s cabin mate Dave, who bridged the gulf of time that normally separated third from senior year. He invited Jim along to watch the fun.

“Bring your towel,” he said.

“What?”

“Bring your towel.”

“Are we going for a swim?”

“Just bring your towel.”

Silent shadows moved out of the accommodation blocks and across the quarterdeck towards the waterfront, joined in a few minutes by a kicking Simon Peters carried by four senior years, his cries muffled by a towel stuffed in his mouth. Down the steps to the boatshed they went and then held him down, stripped him naked and slathered him with grease, which someone procured as if by magic.

“Give me your towel,” Dave said.

He grabbed it from Jim’s hand, took it and wet it under a tap against the boatshed. Others did the same, and then lined up in two rows, one on each side of the steps. Simon Peters was released and kneeled on all fours, panting.

“Now, Peters,” Mr Beelsby said, “you were insubordinate this afternoon weren’t you? Hmm? Answer me.”

He nudged Peters’ ribs with his shoe and Peters went sprawling as if he’d been kneeling on ice. He did not speak.

“Silent contempt is it? We have ways of curing contempt. See that lamp post at the top of the steps? Eh? Do you see that lamp post? I said.”

Peters mumbled something indistinguishable.

“Your task is to climb that lamp post. Understand? Now move!”

At the order move, Mr Beelsby slashed him across the buttocks with his wet, knotted towel. Peters jerked forward. Two paces later he collapsed. He got to his knees and then stood, his breath going into his body in long, drawn out greedy sucks and out in short sharp gasps. He darted forward and mounted the first three steps while cadets rained blows on his back and buttocks. He pitched on his face. He lay there gasping and wheezing before scrambling to his knees; then to his feet. He struggled forwards and upwards with one hand clutching his throat.

He made it up three more steps and fell again, the lamp-light glinting on his grease-coated skinny white body so that he looked like a fish slithering up the steps or like a lemming wriggling to its own destruction. He got to his feet more slowly and his eyes, fixed on his goal, the lamp post at the top of the steps with its crossbar supporting dim lights, streamed tears. No cry came, no plea, nothing but animal-like grunts. Air wheezed into his lungs. Out. Ribs worked like pumps. He fell down the concrete steps and fetched up at the bottom. He turned on his back and clutched his throat with both hands as if to strangle himself. His legs kicked madly like the last nervous spasms of a decapitated chook. He shat.

“What’s wrong with him?” said Mr Connelly.

“Lift up his feet. Let the blood run to his head,” said Mr Mackay.

“He’s got asthma,” Jim said, struggling to understand what was happening before his eyes. He had never seen behaviour like this before. Not at Nirimba, not aboard Voyager, not even at school.

“He’s got asthma.”

The spasms grew feebler. They lifted and carried him to level ground and laid him on his face. Mr Mackay commenced artificial respiration, squatting beside the body, lifting the arms and depressing the chest. Others crowded around to advise.

“Well, how did the little deadshit get in the Navy with asthma anyway?” Mr Beelsby said.

“Shut up, Ralph,” Mr Connelly said. “He’s dead.”

Silence for a time and then someone whispered, “Oh, shit.”

“God, what are we going to do?” Mr Mackay said.

“Get him cleaned up and put his clothes back on,” Mr Richardson said.

They wiped off the greasy shit with towels, pulled his trousers over his dead legs and buttoned his shirt, put on his shoes and tied the laces.

“Now listen,” Mr Beelsby said. “He must have been out roaming around. He must have been skulking the study period. Yes that’s it. He was skulking the study period and fell down the steps.”

“What about his cabin mates?” Mr Mackay said.

“We’ll keep those deadshits from talking. He must have fallen down the steps and bumped his head, right?”

“Except there isn’t a bump on his head. Not a big one, anyway.”

“Well, I know. He must have drowned. He fell off the end of the jetty and drowned. Come on, let’s put him in the water. The sharks will get him.”

“I don’t like it,” Mr Connelly said. “I think we should just own up.”

“Don’t be stupid. What good will that do? He’s dead isn’t he? Come on, out along the jetty and into the water.”

With a touch of sullenness they lifted and carried him along the jetty. Jim watched from the shadows of the boatshed as the convoy of dark figures tottered along the bleached wooden decking that gleamed in the moonlight like the sand around the shores of Jervis Bay. They paused at the end of the jetty with more discussion, more argument, and Mr Beelsby’s voice in the still air, then a splash.

You fucking arseholes, Jim said to himself. He was remembering the lifeboat pulling away from Voyager with its cargo of desperate men, including himself, only now it was like a movie in black and white. He saw himself with a broken leg and someone ripping off his shirt-sleeve to bandage it. These piglets were a different species. This is how they train Pussers pigs. If it had been Charlie trapped below, would The Baron have gone back to rescue him? Don’t be so wet, mate, as Chook would say, in his inimitable fashion.

Jim untied the knot from his towel and climbed the steps alone. He reached the roadway just as the clock chimed seven bells. He hadn’t realised it was so late. Seven bells. Nearly midnight. It was Simon Peters for whom the bell tolled.

He slept little that night but pretended to be asleep when Dave came back in the early hours and asked, “Jim, are you awake?” He heard him climb into bed but doubted if he slept either. The cold morning swim was a welcome shock and the rigid routine of college life a prop that removed the need to think. That’s what it was designed to do. Returning from his shower and getting dressed, Jim said, “So what are you going to do about Peters?”

Dave was already dressed in the rig of the day, number eights, and paused while combing his hair before the mirror on the wall. “What do you mean?”

“Just that. What are you going to do about Peters? The kid’s dead. What are you going to do about it?”

“We’re going to remain silent, and so are you.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Unless you want to be charged with killing him you will say you know nothing about it. Peters was obviously deserting from the college because we discovered he had asthma. So he must have lied to the medical board. Ten of us saw you flog him with a wet towel. It’s your word against ten of ours.”

Jim eased himself down on to his bunk and stared at his cabin mate. This was unprecedented in his experience. Dave appeared frozen with the comb in his hand; thin-lipped and white-faced, and Jim could appreciate he was feeling under threat. He had no pity for Dave’s predicament, however. “You arseholes,” Jim said.

At breakfast, the players in last night’s episode seemed mightily interested in their cereal bowls. Mealtimes rarely featured much chatter but, that morning, the mess hall was nearly silent. Gary Johnson, Jim’s initial cabin mate, noticed Peters’ empty chair.

“Excuse me, Mr Beelsby. Peters seems to be absent.”

“How observant of you, Johnson,” Mr Beelsby said, and continued with his cereal.

Jim was waiting for something to happen. Something must happen. What would they do? Who would break ranks? Was there a whistle-blower amongst them? Certainly not Mr Beelsby. Perhaps Mr Mackay. But any whistle-blower would have nine witnesses against him. Any one of them, or all of them, could be responsible for the fatal flogging. If the truth came out it would be the end of eleven naval careers, including his own.

Morning colours parade went on as usual and cadets marched off to their classrooms. This was complicated because the new intake consisted of two streams. The 13-year-old entry had been abolished and the current senior years were the last of that cohort to pass through the college. First year comprised what was called normal entry, 15 years old, and matriculation entry, who were 17 or 18 except for Jim, the oldest cadet midshipman in history, a grand old man of 23.

First year matriculation entry sat in class with senior years, academically equal but socially inferior. Mr Beelsby and his pals needed to watch their language because their class mates were Simon Peters’ year mates. Jim was stranded somewhere in the middle of this maze of social status, being neither first year nor senior year but third year; academically equal but older than any of them and therefore the most senior in the strict meaning of the word.

At the morning break, Mr Beelsby, Mr Richardson and others broke away from the rest of the class sitting on the lawn or on park benches looking out over the bay and held a spirited discussion around the back of the school block. Was the solidarity beginning to crumble? Gary Johnson asked him: “What’s that all about; do you know?”

Of course, Jim was now a third year cadet and Johnson languished in first year and should be standing to attention when addressing him and should be calling him Mr Price. Jim let this pass, however.

“Dunno,” he said. That was not a lie. He could guess what they were talking about but had no certain knowledge.

The bigger question was, what was Jim going to do about it? He despised these boys but realised they could not really be blamed. They were living the traditions of the Navy going back centuries with illustrious names like Captain Cook, Nelson and Bligh: all of them handy with the lash. Rum, sodomy and the lash was not a joke.

Peters was reported missing by the mathematics master when he failed to attend class. His cabin mates testified to their divisional officer and then to the captain that he left the cabin after lights out and had not come back. They repeated this story to the sergeant of police, who had an office in the establishment and a house in the pig farm, the colony of officers’ houses up by the pine grove. This officer was a member of the Federal Police, since the college stood on federal territory. His main function was to maintain order in the aboriginal reserve nearby.

For three days no more was heard the affair, it apparently being assumed Peters had deserted, and silence fell upon the events of that night as if they had never happened. Even had he wanted to discuss the matter, and he didn’t, Jim could not think of a single person to engage. He took Beelsby’s threat, conveyed by Dave, seriously. All communication with Dave had ceased although they continued to occupy the same cabin. Peters’ death by moonlight became a fictional event in his mind.

He heard about the body being found through the main source of gossip at the college, the old, bald barber whom they visited on the same basis as the one at Nirimba; four strokes of the electric shears every fortnight. The body, mauled by sharks, was discovered by a family camped at the Hole In The Wall, a popular fishing spot named for a special rock formation like a cave. The shit-rain didn’t start for another week, when the autopsy showed the cause of death was heart failure, not drowning, and that the mauling had occurred after death. Traces of grease had been found.

In the wake of the Voyager Royal Commission this was a bonanza for the papers. FURTHER NAVY OUTRAGE shouted one. BIZARRE HAPPENINGS screamed another. The college swarmed with seedy looking men with notebooks and cameras rushing between the captain’s office, the waterfront and the Hole In The Wall till they were banned from the establishment and had to be satisfied with press statements from Navy Office pending an official inquiry. Detectives interviewed Simon Peters’ cabin mates and learned he’d suffered from asthma. His parents, owners of a grocery shop in Brisbane, confirmed it.

Pussers ordered a full enquiry, and over the next few weeks almost every cadet was called before the board convened in the captain’s office. It started with first year and worked up and each night Mr Beelsby, Mr Connelly, Mr Mackay and Mr Richardson made the rounds of those who’d be called next day. The night before Jim’s turn, Mr Beelsby came into the cabin just before lights out. Jim stood as he entered, but he motioned him to sit.

“You’ll be called before the inquiry tomorrow, Price. What do you intend to say?”

“Nothing.”

“They won’t accept silence. What will you say when they ask about the last time you saw Peters?”

“I’ll say I saw him here on the upper veranda in the afternoon.”

“And what will you say if they ask about the grease?”

“I know nothing.”

“Yes,” he said, relaxing slightly. “Luckily it was the first gauntlet this year and the first years know nothing about it. I don’t think they’ll get on to the grease.”

Dave, who was sitting at his desk with his books open before him, like Jim, said, “You don’t have to worry about him, Ralph. He’s all right.”

“I hope so, Price. We can make things very unpleasant for you, don’t forget.”

“I won’t forget, Mr Beelsby.”

He was not intimidated by Mr Beelsby and considered blowing the whistle just to spite him but couldn’t manage to take the first step. He was learning to live with the bad taste in his mouth. He was called out of class next day, marched into the captain’s office, saluted, and stood at ease when told. The two officers, a commander and a lieutenant, had a mountain of papers on the desk before them and were obviously tired of asking the same questions over and over.

“Now, Mr Price,” the commander said, “there’s something here I can’t quite work out. You in fact joined the college in the matriculation entry only this year but are already in third year. How is this?”

“I received accelerated promotion, sir.”

“So you wouldn’t really have got to know Mr Peters very well?”

“No, sir.”

“Were you aware he suffered from asthma?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Didn’t you think to wonder about that? After all, I see you have some experience and you must know people with asthma don’t get into the Navy.”

“He told me he lied in his application, sir.”

“He actually told you that? He admitted it himself?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well,” said the commander, turning with a thin smile to the lieutenant. He turned back to Jim. “Did you ever see Mr Peters in a state of distress caused by his asthma?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Under what circumstances?”

“Every time he ran a quarterdeck, sir. Also on the upper veranda, doubling on the spot.”

“Normal college activities?”

Well, yes, Jim thought. The gauntlet was a normal college activity. Is that what they were referring to? The point was, these investigators probably knew about the gauntlet from their own time at the college. If he was going to blow the whistle on Beelsby, this was the time to do it, but he lacked the gumption, deeply distrustful of any Pussers pig but especially this pair.

“Yes, sir. Normal college activities.”

“You would say then, would you, that Mr Peters’ asthma rendered him unable to cope with the college routine?”

“Yes, sir.”

“One more thing. Was Mr Peters given to roaming around the college grounds after lights out to your knowledge?”

“Not to my knowledge, sir.”

“All right, I think that’s all. Thank you, Mr Price. You’ve been very helpful.”

Jim was not normally given to self-loathing but there was a certain element of that as he marched back to his classroom.

When the report was released to the press it said the board found Cadet Midshipman Peters had died of heart failure, probably brought on by an attack of asthma while running along the beach attempting to desert the college. The traces of petroleum on skin and hair were probably from an oil slick on the water. In view of the fact Cadet Midshipman Peters had deceived the examining medical board, strict new medical standards were to be introduced for all candidates for officer training.

 

As the senior years rehearsed for their graduation parade, the shouted orders, the rattle of swords and rifles and the dull thud of marching feet on the quarterdeck penetrated the classroom. Jim thought it quite inferior to the crunch of boots on a proper bullring. With the blast of music from the band his fingers began drumming on the desk and his feet tapping the floor.

On the big day, a strong wind blew off the sea and senior years preening themselves on the upper veranda expressed concern about the danger of their caps blowing off on parade. Pigs’ caps do not have chinstraps like sailors’. Getting shifted for divisions was always a community effort for senior years, with a pair of socks borrowed here, a collar stud there and a last minute hunt for a clean shirt, although laundry was collected twice a week and there was no excuse for this. At Nirimba, apprentices washed their gear with an instrument called a pogo stick, which was an inverted cone on a broomstick. One had to put the dirty clothes in a bucket, add hot water and soap powder and pound up and down with the pogo stick.

Spectators sat on a grandstand erected in front of the cricket pavilion the day before. Women clutched at their dresses with one hand and their hats with the other. The brilliant panoply of officers from the three services and the cadets on parade tilted their heads into the wind like seagulls.

The Governor General arrived in a black Rolls Royce and emerged from the cavernous interior with his ADC and the captain of the college. This was Lord Casey, first Australian to take his seat in the British House of Lords. He was a thin, stooped man wearing grey striped trousers and a swallow-tailed coat like a character out of a Dickens novel. As the band played God Save the Queen he stood to attention with his top hat hiding his heart. Because of the strong wind, he hurried the inspection, stopping only once or twice to chat. He took the salute with his top hat on his heart once more, his wispy hair streaming in the wind as the guard and divisions marched past. Every now and then a cap took off, fluttered through the air like a bird and then bowled along the ground.

The Australian Navy had recently gained its own ensign, having flown the British from the start. The new flag was still white but featured the Southern Cross in blue with the British union jack at the tack. The graduation parade had the same poetic symbolism as the one at Nirimba. Handing over the colours to the next senior year passed authority down through the generations in an unbroken chain.

Prize-giving was held in the gym, just like at Nirimba, and again the stage was draped with flags. The graduating year sat in front, then officers and wives and then the rabble at the rear. The Governor General entered when the gym was full, and all stood as he mounted the dais.

His speech was on the theme of the importance of being thorough. Never leave a job half done was the thrust of his message. Throughout a long career in politics he’d always found it helpful to carry a notebook and pencil, a precaution that he urged on the graduating year. Next, he handed out the prizes, the sword for best all round cadet going to Mr Connelly and a sextant (a Plath – the best) to Mr Beelsby.

His only other duty, and indeed it was a pleasant one, was to name the cadet captains to succeed those today going forth. The new chief cadet captain, who would assume the mantle of authority in the college, was Mr Wilson.

Clapping and some cheering as Mr Wilson picked his way through the crowd, climbed the steps to the dais and then made his way back to his seat.

“And the new cadet captain of Cook Division, I’m pleased to announce, is Mr Price.”

Shit a brick, Jim thought.

The biggest astonishment was the outburst of cheering and whistling from cadets who now climbed the wall bars. Hands patted him on the back as he stumbled over legs to get out to the aisle. The Governor General noticed it too, and as he handed Jim his sword he smiled and said, “It sounds like a popular decision, Mr Price.”

Jim realised that someone of his advanced age must have seemed like a visitor from another planet to those boys but was nevertheless bewildered, face to face with the highest Authority in the land. It did not escape his notice that the Governor General was a mere mortal. He had a dandruff problem and the rims of his irises were milky with age.

The wind was up when they came out from the prize-giving with black clouds rolling in from the sea. It looked like a southerly buster was on the way. Women struggled with both hands to keep their dresses down and lost their hats in the process. As was now his right and privilege, Jim marched across the quarterdeck instead of having to go around. When he stepped off at the other side Dickens and Hatcher came up and shook his hand.

“Fancy receiving your sword from a real lord,” Dickens said. “Congratulations, sir.”

It was the first time anyone ever called him sir. He was well on the way to becoming a pig. The sword hung on a hook in his cabin, burnished each week by first years on jobs. It had a long, slender curved blade with an etched design of curlicues and flowers, possibly lilies, and gold tassels on the hilt. It was much more handsome than the cutlass used by ratings. Someone had given a lot of thought to making it as pretty as possible. Grooves down the blade would release the air and blood so it didn’t get stuck when you stabbed someone. To make a salute with a sword, as a mark of respect to Authority, one kisses the hilt.

Chapter 9

Jim had a couple of weeks leave after the graduation parade but arrived in Sydney on the coach about midday and, wouldn’t you know it, Jenny was on day shift. Bugger. He decided to take the train out to the oldies’ place and collect his beetle so he could pick Jenny up after work. Rex bounded out through the gate and gave him a lick, and he found the old lady in the kitchen, as usual. It was a mystery why she spent so much time there. She would be expecting him today because he had warned her, and her face lit up when he walked in.

“Oh Jim, it’s lovely to see you again.” she threw her arms around him. “How is it at the naval college? Are you doing well?”

Depends how you look at it, Jim thought. She may have read about Simon Peters in the paper, and he really didn’t want to go into that subject.

“Yeah. I’m a cadet captain now. I have my own sword.”

“Why would you want a sword?”

“I might have to fight pirates off, you know.”

“What pirates? Where are the pirates?” She glanced over her shoulder as if expecting them to come in the door.

“Mum, I’m just kidding.” He gave her a squeeze and regretted teasing her.

“You’ll be home now for a couple of weeks. Is that right?”

“Well, I’ll be on leave for a couple of weeks, but I have to pick up Jenny from work this afternoon.”

The crestfallen look was immediate. “Oh, I thought we might have you home for a while. When are you going to introduce us to this Jenny? You’ve been going together for quite a while now.”

“She’s a nurse. She works all sorts of strange hours. It’s a pain in the arse, actually.”

“So you’re going to rush away? Your father will be sorry he missed you.”

“Yeah, right.” That was hard to believe. The old man seemed to become more distant every time they met. It seemed to Jim he was holding some kind of grudge and it was hardly worth the effort to sort it out. His mother really had baked a cake this time and he felt bad about accepting it, but knew he had to. He felt guilty about short-changing her with his time but he wanted to be there when Jenny finished work.

He parked in the usual spot and waited for her to come out. Sitting on the beetle’s mudguard he watched her walk across the parking lot with that special sway to her hips as if she were walking on stepping stones. She was looking great and he was glad she wore a skirt instead of jeans. It made her walk seem like a dance.

“Hello, sailor,” she said, with her lopsided grin. “Waiting for someone?”

He gave her a big bear hug. “I’ve been waiting for someone all my life.”

She kissed him on the nose.

“My Mum baked a cake,” Jim said, “and she said you were to have half of it.”

“That’s nice.”

Shirley was away on one of her business trips, so they had the Double Bay flat to themselves for a while. On the drive to the leafy suburbs she quizzed him on life at the naval college. “How is it, Jim? Is it hard?”

“No, it’s kind of weird. What they do is get a bunch of kids straight from school and turn them into little 19th century Englishmen. It’s just a factory for Pussers pigs. It’s like Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and most of them are like Flashman, the school bully. Except now I’m a school bully myself. I’m a cadet captain.”

“Don’t let it go to your head.”

“I’ll try not to. They have to call me sir, and I also have my own sword.”

“Why would you want a sword?

“That’s what Mum asked. I said I had to fight off pirates. She was worried about that.”

Jenny laughed.

Why would I want a sword? he asked himself. So I can make believe I’m living in the 19th century under Queen Victoria, the heyday of the British Empire.

It was a nice homecoming and he was glad to see Lu Xing still squatting on the mantel. Home is not a place; it’s a state of mind and different from a house. Jim was losing his grip on the idea of home. When he was a kid, home was related to the landscape and his dog, Rex, but that didn’t apply any more. Obviously, no warship could ever be called home unless you were mental. The Navy was full of homeless people, with no roots in the landscape or reality, and Jim was just one of them. Jenny was the only thing that kept him from being homeless or vagrant, but he was still in a quest for home. A home with Jenny in it.

Royal North Shore Hospital placed demands on her time, which Jim resented, but when she finally got a day off he took her sailing in a skiff from the sailing club. She loved it, swinging out on the trapeze, her hair streaming in the wind and her laughter music to his ears. These were glorious days, precious days, entirely divorced from his other life.

Jim was enjoying a quiet rum on the balcony when Shirley came home and stormed into the place like a Spanish galleon under full sail.

“Oh James; it’s you,” she said, showing only mild surprise at the intruder in her home, obviously preoccupied with something.

“It is indeed me, ma’am, in the flesh.”

She flung her handbag on the couch and headed for the liquor cabinet, then for the refrigerator for the ice, and then joined him on the balcony.

“It’s a pleasure to see you again, James. However these are dark times. My son has been incarcerated by an evil regime. I thought I had him safe but apparently one of the locals dobbed him in. Oh, the spitefulness of people.”

“What happened?”

“The police happened. Someone told them about his garden in the national park. Quite harmless. I don’t understand why they need to interfere. It wasn’t hurting them in any way at all.”

“It happens to be against the law.”

“So what? It wasn’t doing any harm. Millions of people smoke cigarettes. Why aren’t they illegal?”

“Probably because the tobacco companies pay a lot of tax to the politicians.”

“Anyway, we now have this other stupid law to deal with. I have just come from my solicitor and he paints a bleak picture.”

“Where’s Paul?”

“In the police lockup. Utterly degrading. My solicitor is arranging bail. I’m just so furious.”

Jim was tempted to put an arm around her shoulder but prudence prevailed.

“Can I get you another vodka?”

“Yes, thank you, James. You’re a comfort to me. If only his father were half a man I could lean on him for support.”

He was determined not to let this session on the balcony go the way of the other one, and kept her talking, which was not a hard task.

“Jim, I’m very encouraged by the support we’re getting. We have campaigns planned in three states to try and bring the politicians to their senses. Brave young men are burning their registration notices. I take my hat off to them. It takes courage to stand up for what you believe in. Four boys so far have gone to jail rather than submit, but it’s just outrageous that it should come to this. And now Paul is under threat.”

“That’s for growing dope, isn’t it?”

“It’s all part of the same thing. The law turned him into a fugitive, and the law is to blame. It’s the symbolism that counts. We must show a united, defiant front.”

“Yes ma’am. As I recollect, someone once said the law is an ass.”

“How true that is, James; how true. And where do laws come from? Out of the mouths of politicians. And it’s the back end of the ass, not the front end.”

He was relieved when Jenny came home and diverted some of Shirley’s energy away from him. This mother-daughter relationship seemed volatile to Jim. Although he had never actually seen them quarrel, there were certainly periods of tension. This new crisis facing Paul seemed to bring them together as they discussed the possibilities for dealing with the problem.

The TV news that night showed an SOS demonstration in Brisbane, with a brass band parading a couple of floats along George Street to the Queensland Parliament. Shirley and Jenny both applauded. Jim was still trying to make up his mind what he thought about it all. His reason for joining the Navy had nothing to do with conscription or fighting wars or British imperialism or American imperialism. He just wanted to be a sailor. In fact, he had more than a little yearning to have been a pirate like Captain Morgan. He would prefer to have been born a couple of hundred years before so he could sail on sailing ships, which were the only proper ships as far as he was concerned. These modern ships with noisy, smelly engine rooms don’t count. He often wondered how he had ended up an engineer.

Jim’s grandfather had enlisted in World War I, the Great War, to fight for king and country, although it was the wrong king and a different country, namely England. Jim’s grandfather was Irish and still he enlisted in the AIF and got himself blown to pieces at Gallipoli under the command of inept English generals. Jim’s grandma, who came to live with them for a couple of years before she died, never stopped complaining about the 900 year persecution of the Irish by the English. She used to explain away anything incongruous or contradictory as ‘Irish.’ She had been a firm supporter of the Irish Republican Army.

 

Paul was scheduled to appear next afternoon at the magistrate’s court in Goulburn Street. Jim found a parking spot not far away and walked back with Shirley, who was dressed for combat in a grey suit, a paisley blouse with a cravat and a hat that reminded him of the Three Musketeers. The courthouse was an old sandstone edifice from a more leisurely era. Peppercorn trees shed their fruit in a courtyard carpeted with berries and the light filtered down through the branches. A small crowd milled about, chatting and smoking. Jenny was already there – she’d said she was taking the afternoon off – talking with a middle aged man casually dressed in slacks and an open-neck shirt.

Shirley stopped dead.

“Oh, no,” she said.

“What’s up?”

“It’s him.”

“Who?”

“My ex. The only time he ever turns up is when there’s trouble.”

“He’s Paul’s father, isn’t he?”

“Yes, but you’d never know it. We are not actually on speaking terms.”

“Could be difficult.”

“Look how he butters Jennifer up. And she’s falling for it too. She always does.”

“Well, he’s her father too, isn’t he?”

“Perhaps.” She gave him a sly grin, hinting at a wicked past.

“Oh, I see,” Jim said, although he didn’t. He definitely didn’t want to get embroiled in Shirley’s history and was thankful she did not elaborate.

“I shall avoid him. Jim, you go and distract him and I’ll sneak in the side door.”

“What side door? There is no side door.”

“Well, I’ll just sneak in.”

Before she could sneak in, Shirley was besieged by a segment of the crowd that looked like some of her protesters from the dockyard, although not quite so noisy.

“You have our full support, Shirley. We’re behind you one hundred per cent,” said one lady old enough to be a grandma.

“Thank you, ladies,” Shirley said, rising to the occasion like a battalion commander. “We have a fight on our hands and it will be easier if we can work together. We must stand up against this infamy.”

A chorus of agreement showed their support and they began moving towards the courthouse steps. They looked pretty formidable to Jim. Who would dare stand up to a bunch of little old ladies?

He joined Jenny and her alleged father under the peppercorn trees. He had only ever heard brief mentions of him and had begun to wonder whether he really existed. How was he to categorise this well-fed person with an easy smile, greying at the temples, relaxed and apparently comfortable in his own skin?

“Jim, I’d like you to meet my father, Richard,” Jenny said.

“Gidday, Richard.

“Ah, you’re the sailor boy. I’ve heard about you.”

“It’s not true,” Jim said. “I didn’t do it.”

“That’s a shame. Then I’ll have to believe you’re not the clever and handsome chap that Jenny described.”

“She said that?”

“More or less. But we have other issues today. I expect you’ve heard about Paul?”

“Dobbed in by the locals, I hear,” Jim said.

“He can get up to two years for evading the draft and the other charge is just as serious. I was just saying to Jenny, it all depends on the magistrate. We have to hope we get a decent one. And Shirley’s not going to make it any easier by the look of things. I thought she was still gallivanting around the countryside. I just hope she can keep her big mouth shut.”

“She got back yesterday,” Jim said.

“I’ve paid for the best legal talent in town. We don’t need Shirley messing it up.”

There was no malice in his voice, only sufferance. Jim could appreciate where he was coming from. Shirley had spoken of her solicitor but Richard seemed to be paying the bills and, no doubt, the bail.

The case was called and they filed inside and Jim faced another dilemma. The rabble occupied half the courthouse, which was devoid of others apart from official-looking types. Shirley sat on a wooden hard-backed bench with her subversive friends on the right hand side near the front. Richard chose to sit on the left hand side farther back. Jim was just tagging along with Jenny. Would she choose left or right; front or back? She chose her father and Jim followed.

A dejected-looking Paul was brought in and seated in the dock. He had shaved off his untidy beard and discarded his sarong in favour of a pair of grey slacks and a shirt respectable enough to wear to church. Someone must have been coaching him; the solicitor, no doubt. Shirley gave him a wave from her seat and Paul smiled bleakly but the magistrate looked about ready to bang his gavel.

The case for the prosecution was clear-cut. Paul Aloysius Sanders had been apprehended cultivating a crop of the declared substance cannabis indica in a national park, being government property, while a fugitive from the provisions of the National Service Act.

The Crown was prepared to call expert witnesses to testify as to the nature of the substance and the identity of the accused as the person responsible for its cultivation and ownership. As to the offence under the National Service Act, no further evidence was required other than the failure of the accused to respond to the lawful demands made upon him by the Department of Defence.

Jim felt an almost overwhelming urge to stand up and shout, ‘What about Drunken Duncan, who killed eighty one men? Why isn’t he on trial?’ A moment’s reflection told him it was totally irrational but he wasn’t withdrawing the sentiment. This was the first time he had ever been in a courtroom. It was quite different from fronting up on Pussers defaulters parade, of which he did have some experience.

Counsel for the defence did not deny the charges. His client admitted having cultivated the said substance but questions why it should be a declared substance in the first place. His client admits ignoring the directive from the Department of Defence but questions the constitutional right of the government to discriminate against persons on the basis of their age and/or gender, any more than their right to discriminate against any person on the basis of their race and/or religion. Not in this country. Not in this day and age.

“Your Worship, this is a constitutional matter that needs to be taken to the High Court. The Federal Government may have the right to demand national service from the populace under the Act but it has no right to discriminate on the basis of age or gender. Your Worship, I call your attention to a socially active organisation called Save Our Sons, which is devoted to this principle.”

The rabble erupted into cheers and shouts, led by Shirley, who stood and cried “Hear, hear.” Even her estranged husband managed a less boisterous “Hear, hear,” and the magistrate banged his gavel in fury. With a grin, Jenny grabbed Jim’s thigh and gave it a squeeze. When order was restored, the magistrate adjourned the case for sentencing and Paul was released on bail already lodged with the bailiff by the defence. Jim was surprised that the whole proceedings took less than half an hour.

Richard made haste to leave before Shirley and her entourage. As they emerged into the leafy courtyard, he said, “Well, it’s a breathing space. I guess it’s all we can hope for.”

“Is the solicitor really going to take it to the High Court?” Jim asked.

“There’s a lot of talk about it but these bloody lawyers do waffle on. Obviously, the longer they can spin out a case the more money they make. I’ve been self-employed since I was twelve years old, when I started selling newspapers, but I obviously missed my mark. I should have been a lawyer. You must have heard the old joke, ‘How do you know when a lawyer is telling lies? Answer: his lips are moving.”

Jenny said, “Jim I’m going to stay with Dad and Paul for a while, and you’re welcome to come too.”

“What about Shirley? I drove her here so I better take her home.”

“She can get a taxi.”

“You really hate your mother, don’t you?”

“No. Let’s just say we have a robust relationship.”

“Besides, I’ll have to go back and pick up my toothbrush.”

“All right. Then I’ll come too.”

“Go ahead, Jenny,” Richard said. “I’ll wait for Paul. And, Jim, you’re welcome.”

Shirley was commiserating with her operatives on the courthouse steps. Jim expected tantrums but when Jenny drew her aside and informed her that she was moving out to stay with her father for a while, she said, “Very well, Jennifer, if that’s your decision. I have spent my whole life caring for you and Paul but of course you’re free to turn your back on that.”

“Mum, you’re the one who set him up to grow cannabis in the national park.”

“I certainly did not. He took that upon himself.

“Well, you supplied the fertiliser.”

“Mind you, I don’t blame him for it. It’s much less dangerous than getting shot at in Vietnam.”

Jim didn’t quite follow the logic of the comparison but let it pass.

Richard and Paul drove away in a blue Jaguar while Jim took Jenny and Shirley back to Double Bay in the red Volkswagen. It was a silent journey and Jim felt the hairs on the back of his neck burning under Shirley’s stare from the back seat. He was beginning to feel like a traitor.

While Jim and Jenny packed up their gear, Shirley found urgent work in the living room; dusting the sideboard and window sills, adjusting the two Gauguin prints that stared at one another across the room, polishing the crystal goblets from the liquor cabinet. As they were about to leave, she presented Jenny with Lu Xing.

“Don’t forget this. Your father might need it if some of the stories I hear about him turn out to be true.”

“What stories?” Jenny asmked.

“Far be it from me to go telling tales out of school. I just hope you’ll be happy in the decision you’ve made, Jennifer. And as for you, James, I wish you all the best.”

“Mum, we’re only going a couple of miles up the road,” Jenny said.

“The distance is not measured in miles. It’s measured in heartbreak.”

Jenny gave her mother a peck on the cheek.

“Cheer up, Mum. It’s not forever. Only until we get Paul sorted out.”

“You think I failed him, don’t you? All I can say is, I’ve done my best and will continue to do so, whether it’s appreciated or not.”

“If you take my advice, you’ll get a parachute up here, like a life jacket,” Jim said.

“Yes, James. Thank you for that advice.”

It seemed to take an age for the lift to arrive, with Shirley watching from the door of the apartment.

“Whew, I’m glad that’s over,” Jenny said as the automatic doors closed and they began to descend. “But she’ll get over it.”

From one skyscraper to another, Jim was getting used to the high life. Richard met them at the door of his penthouse apartment with a smile.

“You managed to escape, I see. Welcome. Welcome.”

“Don’t be cruel, Dad,” Jenny said. “She’s upset. She thinks she’s let Paul down.”

“She probably has, although she tries hard. I have to say that for her. Question is what’s best for Paul? Not necessarily an overbearing mother sleeping around with every available man.”

“Yes, Dad,” Jenny said unconvincingly.

Richard’s taste in interior decoration was bizarre. One wall was deep green, another orange, the carpet bright red, the ceiling and furniture flat black and lighting was by a theatrical arrangement of spotlights aimed in random directions. It could have been a basement jazz club instead of a penthouse. Paul emerged from a bedroom and hesitated before coming forward looking miserable; his eyes averted.

“Thanks for coming, Sis. You were always around when I was in trouble.”

“You never looked like becoming a jailbird before.”

“Enough of that talk,” Richard said. “He’s not going to jail. We need a strategy, beginning with beers all round. By the way, we have three bedrooms here. What are your sleeping arrangements, Jenny?”

“We cohabit,” Jenny said, putting an arm around Jim.

“Good; then I won’t have to sleep on the couch, but I hope you’re taking precautions.”

“That’s what Mum said.”

Jim noticed that Richard’s penthouse also lacked parachutes. This was looking like a serious policy failure in the area of building safety.

“Why don’t the politicians make a law requiring parachutes in these tall buildings instead of stupid laws like Ordinance 418? I mean, how are you going to get out of here if you have a fire and the lift doesn’t work? It’s a long way down the fire escape. Everyone needs a life jacket, don’t they?”

“A good point, Jim; I’m glad you brought it up. I might mention it at the next meeting of the Master Builders Association.”

Richard threw an arm around his son’s shoulders and walked him out to the balcony.

“Don’t worry, young fella, we’ll get you out of this.”

Richard had a plan, or at least a strategy, which he explained over drinks.

“In my experience, you don’t go head-on against obstacles; you work your way around them. You can usually find an ear to piss in. We might have to look further afield this time. State politics is my stamping ground but my old mate, Bob Askin, won’t be much help in this case. This is a Federal matter. We need to tread carefully, especially with a new Prime Minister.”

Jim was feeling uneasy about his use of the word ‘we’ but perhaps he meant it in the same sense as doctors and nurses use it. Paul was notably silent, playing with the moisture rings from his beer can. Jim noticed again his habit of gnawing his fingernails. As a matter of fact, Jim had never heard him utter more than a few dozen words and wondered what private demons Paul was wrestling with.

“I’ll put out some feelers and see if we can’t strike a bargain somewhere. Meanwhile, young fella, let’s have a bit of a session and cheer you up. Go and get your guitar.”

Guitar and tenor sax was an interesting combination but Paul and Richard managed to make it work somehow. With a repertoire of pop and folk they played their blues away, with vocals from Jim and Jenny, not necessarily in key. The concert played to Jim’s favourite diversion: watching the sun go down over Sydney Harbour.

That night, lying beside Jenny in bed, Jim asked where Richard got his money from. He obviously had plenty of it.

“He makes his money knocking down old buildings and redeveloping them. He started out as a carpenter on a building site and within a few years he owned the whole site. He just went on from there.

“That explains why he’s in the business of bribing politicians.”

“Unlike most rich people, he’s actually quite generous. He pays for Mum’s place and he pays for SOS.”

“And they still can’t get back together.”

“No. It’s a pity. They’re both nice people. They don’t actually hate one another; they just can’t get it together.”

 

Richard owned a magnificent twin screw cruiser named Alcyone with plenty of varnish work and a real wooden helm with spokes. He kept it at the Cruising Yacht Club, just down the road from HMAS Rushcutter. On Saturday morning he drove them all to the marina in his Jaguar and took them aboard and proudly showed Jim around.

“What do you think, Jim?”

“She’s a beautiful boat. Beautiful. Better than an admiral’s barge.”

“Two big caterpillars. She’ll do twenty knots. Jenny tells me you’re an engineer.”

“I was, but I’m doing a career change.” Jim refrained from mentioning that a ship’s engine room in his opinion was just one stop before hell.

They were all up on the flying bridge as Richard backed her out of the pen and then headed down the harbour, but Jim wasn’t too sure whether he liked this idea. Despite his time in Stuart, he was still a bit raw. Jenny noticed it, and put an arm around him.

“Are you okay, Jim?”

“Yes, I’m okay. Of course I’m okay.”

“Of course he’s okay,” Richard said. “And I’m okay, and you’re okay and Paul’s okay. Here Jim, why don’t you take the wheel?”

What?”

“Take the wheel. Take her for a spin.”

Jim had experience driving Navy workboats and diving tenders but this vessel was probably worth at least a million dollars and the Navy wouldn’t be picking up the bill for any disaster

“I’d rather not.”

“Come on. Take the wheel. Don’t be a pussy cat.”

“Well, okay.”

He took the wheel and eased the throttle forward. The caterpillars responded with a rumble and the boat squatted her stern down in the water. That seemed to work all right so he gave her a bit more juice. Up there on the flying bridge with Jenny beside him he opened her up. She lifted on to the plane with a rooster tail behind and the wind in his hair and the smell of ozone. Richard slapped him on the back and said, “Go boy, go!”

“Drunken Duncan, eat your heart out. I can go faster than you! Oh, that’s right; you’re dead aren’t you? And good riddance.”

Jenny was grinning and Paul chortling as they roared past Double Bay and gave the unseen Shirley a wave. Out through the Heads she punched into a swell throwing back spray right up to the bridge. Jim licked the salt water off his lips.

“Next stop, New Zealand. Whooohoooo!

Richard slapped him on the back again. He was a great back-slapper. “If you ever want to leave the Navy, Jim, I can give you a job.”

 

Paul’s solicitor came for dinner on the Sunday night. Richard made no claims to be a cook and called in a catering firm, with a white-coated steward serving the meal from a trolley. The balcony was the apartment’s de facto dining room and the steaming dishes were delivered there.

“The High Court action will certainly go ahead,” said the lawyer, whose name was Peter Smythe, not Smith, as he was careful to make them understand. Probably on the wrong side of fifty, his plump, pink face showed signs of a life of over-indulgence. Richard had made no secret of his low opinion of the man but thought he might be able to make use of him.

“There are a number of constitutional lawyers keen to test the case,” Mr Smythe said, “so Paul, you could become a celebrity. It’s an interesting point of law regarding jurisdiction.”

“I don’t particularly want to be a celebrity,” Paul said. “I just want to be left alone.”

“There are thousands of boys who could be affected by this decision. Justice must not only be done but seen to be done. The other matter, the cannabis thing, is quite different, of course.”

“Come off it, mate,” Richard said. “What you cowboys do is not justice. I think there are just as many crooked lawyers as crooked pollies. The pollies are mostly ex-lawyers anyway. Who do you know in Canberra?”

“There has been a bit of a shake-up with the new Prime Minister coming in. The normal lines are blurred temporarily. It will take a while for the dust to settle.”

“All right, if we can’t find the honourable member for kickbacks, what about a bureaucrat or a judge?”

“I didn’t say we couldn’t find a politician; I only said we need to tread carefully. I can’t speak for the bureaucrats and I don’t think they have much traction in the conscription issue anyway. They might be useful in the other case. You know, evidence can go missing; that sort of thing, although lately there have been cases of corrupted evidence, which is probably easier to manage. I would be wary about approaching judges of the High Court. They are a close-knit little club.”

“Evidence going missing? That would be the coppers, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, and in this case it’s the Lismore police who made the arrest. The Lismore police have form, as you probably know. We could possibly allege corruption of the evidence due to mishandling by constable plod. They really don’t have much of a clue up there in Lismore.”

“Okay, so if we can’t finger any particular bunny we can still buy the political party. What about, say, half a million for the Liberal Party slush fund?”

“Half a million?”

“Yes, half a million. This is my boy we’re talking about.”

“The difficulty is, it’s just that. A slush fund. There is no guarantee you’ll get the desired outcome for your investment. And obviously, there would be no written contract.”

“So, what’s the answer? We just roll over and let these fuckwit politicians send my boy off to become cannon fodder?”

“I think your best option is to support the High Court action. As I said, there is a group of constitutional lawyers challenging the validity of the law. They are working pro bono. If you have half a million to spend you could do worse than support them.”

Richard laughed so hard he nearly fell off his chair. But then he stood up and kicked Mr Smythe’s chair out from under him.

“All you fucking lawyers are a bunch of fucking arseholes. Piss off. Get out of my fucking house.”

Mr Smythe picked himself up off the floor and scuttled for the front door looking back over his shoulder. The catering steward followed him in a rush with his trolley shedding plates and spoons. And he hadn’t even served dessert yet.

“Jesus Christ,” Richard said, with steam coming out of his ears. “What kind of a world do we live in? I’ve been dealing with bludgers like that all my life.”

He emptied his whisky glass in a gulp, marched into his bedroom and came back with his saxophone sounding a long, wailing note, which soon turned into a blues number with swing. Paul fetched his guitar and the rest of the evening was a jam session that evolved into serious rock. As far as Jim could see, this didn’t get them any closer to a resolution of Paul’s problem but at least they were having fun.

Chapter 10

As a senior year, not to mention cadet captain, it was Jim’s right and privilege to own a car. He drove the Volkswagen down the coast road, which he always preferred to the highway. He moved out of the cabin he occupied with Dave because it was now his right and privilege to live alone. He shifted to the cadet captain’s cabin in Cook Division. From there he could look out across the bay to the lighthouse on Point Perpendicular, the view no longer obstructed by the clock tower.

Now his name shimmered in gold leaf on the roll of honour in the mess hall along with those of Arch Harrington and a dozen other admirals. Now he was the one who sat at the head of the table with first years awaiting his pleasure; he was the one who dismissed them after the meal with a mere wave of his hand, and he was the one who strode through doorways while they waited, trembling, with their caps in their hands. It gave him neither pleasure nor any sense of importance. It just seemed silly.

In the first week of the new term, the captain invited cadet captains to dinner. They shifted into bum freezer jackets and patent leather shoes (you don’t have to spit polish them to get a mirror shine) and arrived at 1930 for 2000. It was a two-storey house in the pine grove and the captain and his family could walk down their front steps on to the beach that curved around past the Hole In The Wall to Bowen Island; breeding ground for the sharks that infested the beautiful bay.

The captain was an artist of some repute who held painting classes for cadets on Sunday afternoons, the only vacant spot in the training calendar, and they were moderately well attended. Jim sometimes saw him in old corduroy trousers and a paint-spattered sweater humping his easel around the grounds and there were many studies of boats in the harbour, of the college and the bay. The colour of the water in the shallows over pure white sand seemed to fascinate him. He was rumoured to have a daughter away at boarding school but, as far as Jim knew, cadets had never sighted her. Holding elegant little sherry glasses the cadet captains viewed the paintings and made intelligent remarks.

Promptly at twenty hundred, Mrs Captain ushered them into the dining room and they sat at a polished table with lace place mats, two stewards noiselessly serving French onion soup and vol au vent followed by rare roast beef. The array of cutlery no longer held terrors for Jim. Over dinner, Mrs Captain spoke about some of her activities. With a steward to look after the house and a cook to handle catering she thought it absolutely vital to occupy her time, the college being so isolated. She took an active interest in the welfare of the Aborigines in the nearby reserve and often had Cook prepare hampers, which she delivered in person. She usually took Nurse from sickbay to examine the children, who tended to suffer from rickets. She found it very satisfying work.

Eventually, the conversation came around to Simon Peters and the unfair publicity the Navy had received.

“What I don’t understand,” the captain said, “is how the body managed to drift to the Hole In The Wall. If he was deserting the college I’d have thought he’d run the other way, towards Huskisson. Unless the sharks dragged him all that way.”

“What an awful subject,” said Mrs Captain. “Can’t we talk about something more cheerful?”

“Yes, dear, but terrible things like that can’t be allowed to happen again. I look to you cadet captains to make sure of it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Of course, he should never have been in the Navy in the first place but I daresay there was a bit of fagging going on.”

“Probably, sir.”

“George, will you stop talking shop?” Mrs Captain said. “The boys might like to hear some music.”

“Yes, dear. Let’s go into the other room.”

When they left, Jim lagged behind the others and drifted down to the beach, took off his shoes and rolled up his trousers. He waded into the shallows, not too deep because of sharks, and found the water warmer than the sand. He watched the moon rise out of the sea in the gap between Point Perpendicular and Bowen Island. The lighthouse across the bay made three flashes every fifteen seconds. They were not really flashes but beams of light cast by a three-sided prism that rotated once every fifteen seconds. He had sailed a dinghy over there one Sunday afternoon and climbed up to look.

He was no great scholar but was determined not to fail exams and could reasonably expect to graduate and enter what was clearly an honourable profession. The Governor General himself, only one step down from the Queen of England, had taken the salute. You can’t get more top drawer than that. All the same, something was nagging at his soul.

 

Spring came; exotic flowers bloomed in the garden by the lower veranda and the air was heavy with scent. For cadets, the time was notable for approaching exams. Boys who had slacked all year now hit the books. Mathematics was Jim’s worst subject and he had to slog at it hard. It always seemed illogical to him. Since learning to count, he had studied mathematics for 18 years but, in this service where they were all numbers, no one had ever yet explained to him what a number is. ‘What is the meaning of number O16792?’ he wondered. ‘How does it differ from number R41357? Jim had once encountered a survivor from the Nazi holocaust who had a number tattooed on his arm.

“What’s that number for?” Jim had asked in all innocence.

“That’s my death warrant,” the man said, and grinned.

But when people become numbers, everyone is zero.

Jim did pass, somewhere near the middle of the class, and one day received a summons from the captain’s office. Apart from divisions, it was the first time he’d seen him since that dinner.

“Mr Price, I’ve been corresponding with the Naval Board about your case,” the captain said.

“Sah?”

After all this time, Jim had begun to understand CPO Caldwell at Nirimba, who was a consummate survivor in this circus. All you had to do was answer Yassah, Nosah, Threebagsfullsah, and you would achieve a kind of invulnerability. You began to dominate the dominator by turning the System into a protective shield or a piece of manifest nonsense. It was not real human intercourse but a charade played according to certain rules, and the winner was the one who observed the rules most meticulously. It just made you sound like a clown.

“I must say I think you’ve performed quite well,” the captain said. “The System isn’t designed for a man with your background. It must have been very trying.”

“Sah.”

“I’m happy to say the Naval Board has approved my request to grant you accelerated promotion.”

“Sah.”

“This will present you with a considerable challenge, Mr Price, but I’m confident you can meet it. You will graduate at the end of this year and join up with the previous class. You will go to Dartmouth next year.”

“Yassah.”

“I must say you take the news coolly. To the best of my knowledge this honour is unique in the history of the college.”

“Thank you, sah.”

He supposed he should feel some sense of gratitude or even excitement, but he didn’t. At the end-of-term parade on the quarterdeck, with cadets turned out in long white uniforms and black jackboots, Jim had his own private graduation ceremony when the captain called him up to the saluting dais to receive his diploma.

“Congratulations, Mr Price,” he said, with a smile and a handshake.

“Thank you, sah.”

But the big event as far as Jim was concerned was the end of term dance. The college being so isolated, it was not practical to hold dances every Friday night as at Nirimba. Once a term, girls were shipped in from the Church of England Girls’ School in Mittagong, 100 kilometres away, to partner cadets who may be lacking a girl friend in this monastic environment. They arrived by bus and were accommodated overnight in homes of married officers or masters. Presumably, precautions were taken to ensure the propriety of such arrangements but Jim was unaware of the details. They arrived by bus in mid-afternoon and, after settling in, could be seen strolling around the college grounds attracting cadets like honey pots.

Jenny arrived by bus from Sydney and Jim was waiting for her by the bell tower. He hustled her off through the pine grove to the home of the mathematics master, O’Halloran, between the house of the assistant physics master and the applied mathematics master. (O’Halloran was pure maths.) and only gave her time to be introduced and change her clothes, then took her back through the pines where there was no underbrush but only tree trunks rising abruptly and with astonishing cleanliness out of the ground.

The sun was nearly over the hills and beams slanted through the branches as they crossed the quarterdeck while perverts on the upper veranda ignored what they had been told about not ogling another man’s girl, especially not a cadet captain’s. Three or four couples were swimming in the shark-proof enclosure and others lay on towels on the diving tower or the little beach below.

Jenny walked out along the diving board in a white bikini that made Jim catch his breath (not the swimsuit but what was in it) and stood there a few moments inhaling. She launched herself off the diving board, flew in a long smooth curve into the water and laughed as she broke surface, with her hair plastered down on her head, which always seemed a little too small for the statuesque beauty of her body. Jim dived in and raced her across the pool and allowed her to win by a smidgen. It was good, clean open air fun: all the boys with hair cut short back and sides and the girls looking demure.

He took her back through the pines. Jim had inherited an idea about girls not wanting to get their hair wet before a dance but Mrs O’Halloran lent Jenny her hair dryer and banished him until the dance. He shifted into the bum freezer mess jacket, black bow tie and patent leather shoes and returned, but of course, she wasn’t ready. He waited in O’Halloran’s living room sipping sweet sherry and discovering that mathematics masters are not necessarily the ogres they appear in the classroom, at least when exams are over. O’Halloran drove them to the wardroom with Jenny wearing a white sheath dress and a pearl necklace. Jim introduced her to the captain, who congratulated Jim again on his accelerated promotion, and she almost squealed with joy and kissed him on the cheek. He had been saving the news to tell her himself. He took her and danced with her, and along towards the end of the evening he was in danger of becoming delirious.

When he got around to taking her back to her hosts, the college grounds were silent and the pale blue of street lights fell in isolated cones to the ground. O’Hallorans had left the hall light on and they tiptoed across the veranda.

“Jesus,” Jim said, “it’s over three hours since the bloody dance finished.”

“Sssh,” she hushed. “Don’t swear.”

“Who’s graduating from this bloody naval college? I’m not asking you to swear, am I?”

“You’ll wake the O’Hallorans. They’ve been very sweet.”

“He teaches maths.”

“I must send them a card or some flowers.”

“Give us a kiss.”

“No.”

“You’ve got grass stains on your beautiful white dress.”

“Oh, I haven’t have I? Dammit.”

“Which is your bedroom?”

“I’m not going to tell you. Go to bed. You’ll start a scandal.”

“Who cares? I’m leaving. I graduated today.”

“I’ll see you in the morning.”

“It’s already morning.”

Chapter 11

The legal system had given Paul a choice between two years in the Army and two years in jail. Some choice! Paul chose the Army. Jenny filled in a few details for Jim on the drive back to Sydney.

“Dad said he could hide him away – get him a new passport and even a new birth certificate but Paul said no. He said he wanted to face up to it. He didn’t want to be a fugitive for the rest of his life. Mum and Dad were both at him but he stood up to them for the first time ever. I was quite proud of him.”

“So, where is he now?” Jim asked.

“He’s finished his basic training and he’s gone to Canungra, in Queensland, for jungle training. Vietnam is all jungle. I do hope he’ll be all right.”

With the prospect of three weeks leave and Jenny with holidays too, Jim would not allow such news to get him down. For the time being he could even push out of his mind the fact that his next posting, in three weeks time, was the fucking Melbourne.

When they returned from a couple of weeks sailing and swimming, sunburned and giggling over silly jokes, Shirley said, “There’s a letter for you, James. From the Navy.”

“Not another letter from the Navy.”

Letters from the Navy had to be regarded with caution. He scowled as he tore it open but it wasn’t actually from the Navy; they had just redirected it. It was from Chook Fowler, his ex-mobi shipmate from Voyager and Stuart.

‘Hey Jim,’ it said. ‘A bunch of us blokes are pissed off by that Royal Commission and we are going to take legal action against Pussers and the government. If we can get enough blokes to support it we can do what they call a class action. That means we get a lawyer to claim damages from the government. We don’t have to put any money up front but the lawyer takes 25 per cent of any money he squeezes out of the bastards. If you are in, just drop me a line at the above address. You don’t have to do anything else for now. If you are not in, you are an arsehole. Cheers, mate.’

“Shit,” Jim said.

“What is it, Jim?

He handed Jenny the letter. It was a private address in Melbourne, Chook’s home town.

“Chook’s up to something. I don’t know if he’s on leave or if he has got out of Pussers. If he’s still in Pussers, this is probably mutiny. I never heard of sailors taking the Navy or the government to court before.”

“Don’t you think politicians should be accountable under the law, like anyone else?” Shirley said.

“Of course I do. And admirals too. But tell that to Lord Nelson with his telescope up to his blind eye.”

“So, are you going to sign up?” Jenny had an almost mocking smile on her face. She was daring him. Did he have balls, like Shirley, like Richard and even like Paul in the end?

“Yes, I will sign up. I’ll even put my official number on it. Both of them. R41357 and O16792. Someone can sort out which one is actually me; the one they have to send to prison for mutiny. Won’t the lawyers have a field day arguing whether it’s R41357 or O16792 who’s guilty. Jim Price doesn’t get a mention. Jim Price is not a number. Jim Price is a person. Jim Price is innocent of everything.”

He wrote a reply to Chook that evening, not sure what he was letting himself in for. Suing the government. What a hoot!

With all his labours Jim had managed to elevate himself from mobi to snotty, the correct name for a midshipman. As he marched through the Garden Island dockyard a few days later with a suitcase, not a seabag, a couple of sailors saluted him. They didn’t even know a midshipman is not entitled to a salute. The origin of the salute was to demonstrate you did not have a weapon in your hand. Chimpanzees and other species have similar signals of submission. Dogs put their tails between their legs. Rex, when he was being chastised, would crawl along on his belly. Jim Price was never going to crawl on his belly to any Pussers pig.

Melbourne was berthed out on the point past the graving dock with compressors and generating sets on the flight deck and welding leads trailing all over the place. Dockyard workers swarmed over the ship like ants. The damage from the collision with Voyager had long since been repaired and this must be a normal operational refit, he thought.

There were two gangways, one for pigs and one for sailors, and he had to stop and think. ‘Ah yes, I’m a pig now.’ He marched aboard and saluted the officer of the day, a lieutenant pacing back and forth on the quarterdeck with a telescope tucked under his arm.

‘Why does he need a telescope?’ Jim wondered. If he actually wanted to see something, a pair of binoculars would be more useful. He realised the telescope was not to enhance the officer of the day’s vision but only his sense of importance. What a curious idea. They seemed to think old fashioned things like swords, telescopes, swallow-tailed coats and top hats imparted dignity.

“Not another one,” the officer of the day said. “The ship’s overrun with snotties already. You’ll find snotties’ nurse in the chartroom, most likely.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Do you play bridge?”

“No, sir. Mah Jongg.”

After Crown and Anchor, Mah Jongg was the game of choice on the lower deck.

“Carry on.”

Jim left his suitcase in the main passageway, which ran the length of the ship on 4 deck, and climbed about nine decks to the bridge. Snotties nurse, or training officer, Lieutenant Leckie, was making chart corrections in purple ink in the chartroom, a curtained-off area at the rear of the bridge. Jim introduced himself and he extracted Jim’s service record from a filing cabinet.

“I see you have an engineering background,” he said, after perusing it. “Also a diving qualification. So I think we’ll start you off under the Mate of the Upper Deck.”

“Yassah.”

He handed Jim a midshipman’s journal, a leather-bound tome in which an essay had to be written each week.

“You’ll find instructions for writing your articles inside the front cover; however, there’s nothing to prevent you mentioning your appreciation of the guidance given by your training officer. That’s me. Should you choose to mention my name remember it’s spelled with an e, not an a.”

“Yassah.”

“Keep in mind that your journal will be inspected by the captain every week and occasionally even by the admiral.

“Yassah.”

“Well, get on with it, mid. No time to waste. You’ll find we run a taut ship here. That’s to say taut, not fraught. Never mind, you’ll get used to my little witticisms.”

“Yassah.”

“Well, get on with it, mid. You’ve got a heavy program in front of you. Just one more thing.”

“Sah?”

“I’ll be keeping an eye on your bar bill. The chief steward has instructions to report any midshipman whose bill exceeds ten dollars a week. Can’t have snotties roaming around pissed, you know.”

Never mind snotties roaming around pissed; Jim wondered about the captain, which was more to the point. Was he a pisshead like Drunken Duncan? It was a different captain from the one at the time of the collision. Who keeps a check on his bar bill? Does he even have a bar bill or his own secret liquor locker?

“Yassah,” Jim said.

“Well, get on with it, mid. No time to waste. Chop chop.”

The midshipmen’s bunkroom on 4 deck was fitted out with double-deck bunks, some of them currently occupied during the lunch break. This was the class who had been ahead of Jim at the college but were now his equals. He recognised Connolly and Mackay and a few more but there were others he didn’t know. Probably Supplementary List officers on short term commissions, he supposed. Beelsby’s head appeared over the side of an upper tier bunk.

“Ah, Price,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

Beelsby was probably Jim’s least favourite person ever. Sharing a cabin with him was not a pleasant prospect but, unfortunately, there was no choice.

“Wash your mouth out, Ralph. You have to call me Jim.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I have been elevated to your exalted rank.”

“You mean you have joined our class? Well, congratulations, Jim.”

Beelsby’s head disappeared and Jim began stowing his gear in a locker and making up his bunk, concentrating on getting the hospital corners just right. Beelsby again peered over the edge of his bunk and said, “You don’t have to do that, Jim. We have stewards for that sort of thing.”

“Is that right, Mr Beelsby? I think I’ll do it anyway. I’m a dab hand at hospital corners.”

Jim tracked down the Mate of the Upper Deck and the interview proceeded at a brisk pace along passageways and up ladders with MUD talking at him over his shoulder. He had knock-knees and big feet, wearing baggy shorts of the type known as Bombay bloomers. As Jim later learned, he was known as the Road Runner from his habit of sprinting along the main passageway on urgent business.

“A taut ship is a smart ship, mid,” he said, with a look that challenged Jim to contradict this fundamental truth, and set off at a gallop with Jim following at a fast trot.

“Yassah.”

“On the other hand, a smart ship is a taut ship.”

“Yassah.”

“But what we’re aiming for here is both a taut smart ship and a smart taut ship. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

“Yassah.”

MUD halted long enough to detail his requirements for diligence and punctuality and warned Jim against slacking.

Next, Jim introduced himself to the diving officer, Lieutenant Williams, and got himself assigned to the diving team. This was one activity he was looking forward to.

There was no early morning swim here but snotties did body jerks on the flight deck every morning, followed by communications exercises. The chief signals yeoman flashed a message in Morse Code by Aldis lamp and snotties translated it into plain text. Jim was wishing he could get hold of the Aldis lamp. He would flash dit dit dit dah dah dah dit dit dit, meaning SOS, in the direction of Double Bay. Shirley could just about see it from here. SOS also means, Save Our Souls, not just Save Our Sons. Or perhaps that is the same thing.

Most pigs hadn’t enough to do in harbour and for much of the day could be seen in the officers’ bar in leather armchairs with one leg across the other knee, reading the paper. The officers’ bar was across the passageway from the wardroom, with a fishnet draped from the deckhead and studded with green glass fishing floats, plastic fish and synthetic seaweed – a gentlemen’s club. All it lacked was music and dancing girls.

The main drinking session was at lunchtime and the preferred drink for senior officers was pink gin, which is gin coloured with angostura bitters and not the product of the pink juniper tree as mistakenly believed in some quarters. Beer was served in pint pots known as handles and Jim was enthralled by the posture of officers relaxing with a drink. One hand, usually the left, was placed on the waist while the other held the handle down at full stretch and the pig rocked back on one leg as he disclaimed upon his favourite topic. For some reason, this spectacle conjured up images of senators in ancient Rome in Jim’s fevered mind. It was now two years since Drunken Duncan’s performance but it seemed to have made no impression upon Melbourne’s pigs. Why should it? There had been no serious casualties aboard Melbourne from the collision and the Royal Commission’s report had made no mention of alcohol, ignoring the evidence of Steward Hyland.

 

One lunchtime, the Commander, who was president of the officers’ mess, banged a handle on the bar and called for silence.

“Your attention, please, gentlemen. The captain has an important announcement.”

The captain did not belong to the officers’ mess and only entered the wardroom or the bar by invitation. He’d been waiting outside the door and at a nod from the Commander he stepped over the coaming.

“I trust you all realise,” he said, “that, following the statement by the Prime Minister, this country will be increasing its effort in support of United States action in Vietnam. The Prime Minister has said ‘All the way with LBJ’ and it’s all the way with LBJ we shall go. We shall deploy in the theatre with Perth as our consort. Any questions?”

No one had any questions – everyone had read the newspaper – and after the captain marched out there was a rush of orders at the bar. Even Beelsby broke his customary abstinence.

Jim met Jenny that evening at a Greek restaurant they sometimes patronised. It wasn’t for a celebration – quite the opposite – but he wanted her to himself to break the news. He had now discovered she didn’t actually like spaghetti. She wore a fawn skirt and a loose poncho that enticed the imagination. He handed her a bunch of red carnations as a kind of camouflage for what he had to tell her. These few weeks, and the holiday before, they had been living an almost normal life, whatever that was. Normal was what other people did, not Jim Price, and Jenny in her quiet way was an independent person. Marriage was an idea that floated around on the updraft of Shirley’s hints but which they had never actually discussed.

“Mmm, flowers,” she said. “That’s nice. It’s not my birthday. It’s the first time you’ve ever given me flowers.”

Clearly, she smelled a rat. Saying goodbye was part of a sailor’s life but that didn’t make it easy. They sat at a table with a blue and white chequered cloth and ordered souvlaki and retsina. The waiter put the carnations in a vase on the table.

“Now then,” she demanded, “Come clean.”

“Did you know the Fifth Battalion sails for Vietnam next week?”

“Yes, we’ve known that for a while. Mum spent all last week on the phone discovering she doesn’t have any friends left in Canberra. Dad’s doing some kind of wheeling and dealing I don’t understand but it doesn’t seem to get anywhere. He actually went down to Canberra last week.”

“Did you know Melbourne’s going to Vietnam too?”

She looked shocked, although it had always been on the cards. She stretched across the table and put her hand on his arm, staring into his eyes seeking denial.

“When?”

“When we finish the refit. Two or three weeks.”

“It had to happen, I suppose. I guess I always knew it had to happen.”

“All the way with LBJ, that’s what Mr Holt says.”

“It won’t be dangerous will it, Jim? I mean, it’s a big aircraft carrier and they don’t even have a navy in Vietnam.”

“No. Safe as houses. Probably just boring patrols.”

In fact, he had no idea what the ship’s role would be, or his own. No point in scaring Jenny.

When the battalion embarked the following week, Jim climbed up to the monkey bridge and watched through binoculars as a convoy of trucks full of soldiers crawled through a crowd shouting, singing and waving placards on Cowper Wharf Road and up the hill past the admiral’s office. He knew Shirley and Jenny would be there somewhere but he couldn’t see them. SOS seemed to be gathering strength and it was the biggest demonstration he had seen so far. Police dragged protesters out of the road and shoved them into paddy wagons. A line of police vehicles waited in Wylde Street, ready to supply reinforcements.

The convoy rolled in through the dockyard gate while protesters hurled missiles at the canvas canopies and MPs and dockyard police manned the barricades to keep them out. The boom gate closed behind the trucks. Soldiers in slouch hats climbed down and fell in on the dockside in three ranks, with the Army equivalent of chief petty officers herding them into shape. Jim scanned their faces through the binoculars and what he saw was just a bunch of ordinary kids in spite of the Army’s attempts to turn them into military statistics.

HMAS Sydney was moored astern of Melbourne – two aircraft carriers, one behind the other. The soldiers got themselves organised and marched up the gangway in single file with kitbags and rifles over their shoulders. Jim caught a glimpse of Paul, with a good suntan and his hair still bleached from sunshine and surf, although Jim doubted he got much time for surfing around Canungra, which was a jungle.

It was another couple of hours before Sydney let go and began the first stage of the voyage to Vietnam. Antiwar protesters cut dangerously across her bows in runabouts as she picked up speed and steamed down the harbour in bright sunshine with a band playing on the flight deck as if embarking on a pleasure cruise instead of a war. Outside the dockyard, the protestors set up a howl, whether of rage or despair Jim could not say, but he expected Jenny was in tears by now and Shirley raging against what she called the Evil Regime.

Jim was surprised by the size of the demonstration and its violence – so many people so passionate about this topic. In a sense he was a demonstrator himself, being part of a court action against the government, but he was careful not to mention that aboard Melbourne. He wondered if Chook was making any progress.

He wasn’t able to get ashore until late afternoon, anxious to know how the women were coping. It was a sombre meal at the Double Bay flat that night. Jenny was still tearful and Shirley fuming, while Jim just felt disgust. How many of those boys had been conscripts, like Paul, and how many would not come home?

“Do you have any information about how many politicians’ sons have been drafted?” he asked Shirley.

“No, unfortunately, and it’s not for want of trying. You can be sure the politicians will keep that information quiet.”

“All we can do is keep our fingers crossed,” Jenny said.

“No, we must keep fighting,” Shirley said. “We might have lost the battle but we haven’t lost the war. I mean, this is just so disgusting.

“And now Jim’s going too, Jenny said. “Is it worth it? Why do we have to do this?”

“Our fearless leaders tell us so,” Jim said. “All the way with LBJ.”

“Our fearless leaders!” Shirley said. “I don’t see any of them out front leading the battle. That’s the worst part: the hypocrisy, the lies and the cowardice. Why should we sacrifice our sons while these cowards cringe in Canberra? Why doesn’t the Prime Minister lead the first regiment into battle? ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.’ Harold Holt is no King Henry, is he? Who was the last king, president or prime minister to lead troops into battle? That’s a quiz question for you, James.”

“I don’t know,” Jim said. “Napoleon, maybe.”

“Mao tse tung. Don’t talk to me about our fearless leaders.”

“Just joking,” Jim said, but Shirley had a point.

 

As the refit drew towards an end, compressors and welding machines were taken away and the Mate of the Upper Deck, MUD, redoubled his efforts to create a smart taut ship or a taut smart ship. A convoy of trucks drove on to the dockside and cranes lifted stores aboard. Ammunition lighters came alongside and the entire ships company, including pigs, turned out and formed a human chain from the upper deck, along passageways and down ladders to the magazines deep in the bowels of the ship. Shells, rockets and bombs came out of the lighters and passed through the thousand hands of the human chain working like the feet of a monstrous caterpillar.

Stewards spent a whole day setting up trestle tables and a portable bar in A hangar, a compartment as big as a cathedral, which would eventually house the squadrons. Snotties were detailed off as ushers. On the night before sailing day they waited at the head of the gangway for distinguished guests and led them along carpet runners fenced off with velvet ropes to be greeted by the admiral in his long whites and medals. The guests arrived by limousine, dressed in evening clothes, the women wearing jewels and furs even though this was summer and beads of sweat stood out on their top lips. It could have been a night at the opera, Jim thought. They came accompanied by their own society columnist, Nola Dekyvere, who featured in the Sunday papers.

Jenny arrived early, with no fur coat and a plain black choker around her neck. She was easily the most beautiful woman there. In a black gown and high-heeled shoes she stepped off the gangway with a feminine awkwardness that had every officer on the quarterdeck staring at her and Jim had to elbow three snotties aside, snarling, “Hands off. She’s mine.”

He took her by the elbow and ushered her to the hangar and introduced her to the admiral. “Miss Jennifer Sanders, sir. Medical attaché from the Hanoi government.”

“What?”

Jenny gave him a jab in the ribs.

“I believe she’s a spy, sir. She’s my prisoner.”

“Ho ho, I see, it’s a joke,” said the admiral. “Welcome aboard, Miss Sanders. We certainly intend to make a dent in the Hanoi government. We’re not going to let those blighters get away with it.”

They moved into the hangar, where society matrons sipped cocktails as they chatted with officers in long white uniforms and the band on a dais played military music softly, with swing. One or two brave couples were already dancing.

“Jim, you can’t leave me alone among all these people. It looks like half of Sydney’s hobnobs are here.”

“Of course. War’s a social event, hadn’t you realised?”

Truth was, he hadn’t realised it himself until now. A silly persistent song was playing in his head, competing with the band music: ‘When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah,’ and they hadn’t even left yet. “Johnny we hardly knew you.’

There were no protesters here as there had been at the embarkation of the troops. This was the other end of town. Some midshipmen had invited girls, who clustered near the tables laid out with savouries. Beelsby didn’t have a girl, which was a worry. Jim took Jenny over and introduced her to Mackay and his girlfriend and then returned to his ushering duties, leading socialites up the gangway to the admiral.

By the time Jim was released from his duties, Beelsby had moved in on Jenny, plying her with pink gin. Jenny swayed like a sapling, peering with glazed eyes into Beelsby’s face. Jim elbowed his way between them.

“Thanks for looking after Jenny, Mr Beelsby,” he said. “I’ll take over now. Why don’t you go and talk to Nola Dekyvere? You might get your name in her social column.”

Beelsby opened his mouth to say something, changed his mind and said instead, “Yes, I might just do that.” He wandered off with his glass, which Jim knew contained soda water instead of gin.

Jenny peered one-eyed into her glass as if through the wrong end of a telescope.

“Did you know pink gin is made from the berries of the pink juniper tree? I never knew that before. Isn’t that amazing? I think that’s truly amazing. I never knew there were pink juniper trees.”

“You should have stuck to Coca Cola. Come on, let’s go up on deck.”

They negotiated ladders with his arm around her waist and emerged on to the flight deck, where three or four other couples promenaded in the moonlight. He walked her up and down, feeling her soft beside him, more vulnerable than she had ever been. A void had opened before him, destroying the slim certainties he had begun to clutch. He heard faintly the music from down below but it was still overpowered by the annoying jingle in his head: ‘Johnny, we hardly knew you.’

“It’s not fair. First my brother and now my man. This is a rotten war.”

“Is there any such thing as a good one?”

“Can’t you refuse to go? Can’t you ask for a transfer or something?”

“Nuh.”

“Hold me. Please hold me.”

He held her and squeezed her and kissed her through the salty tears.

“When I was little I thought I’d marry a teacher or a dentist or someone. Why did I have to get mixed up with you?”

“Just luck, I guess.”

“Yes,” she said, and snuggled up to his chest. “Just luck.”

Chapter 12

Next day Melbourne sailed from Garden Island with flags flying, the ships company in ranks on the flight deck and the band parading up and down. A noisy crowd on the wharf, mainly women and children, waved placards that said things like, ‘Come back soon, Daddy.’ As the ship pulled away from the wharf, Jim caught a glimpse of Jenny, waving both arms above her head and trying not to cry. Outside the dockyard gates another crowd, barely held in check by police, waved placards that said things like ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh,’ and ‘Stop The War, I Want To Get Off.’ Shirley was probably behind that.

The ship arrived off Jervis Bay next morning and, near the place where Voyager went down, Melbourne turned into the wind and wound up to speed, rattling and shaking. From the naval air station, HMAS Albatross, not far from the naval college, the fixed wing aircraft hove into view and circled the ship like angry hornets. One by one they peeled out of formation and came down from the sky with hooks in their tails, bumped on deck with a screech of tyres and the sigh of hydraulic rams as the arrester wires dragged each plane to a halt. If the pilot missed the wires with his hook, a nylon barrier stretched across the flight deck would keep him from hurtling over the bows. If he missed the net, the guard ship on station off Melbourne’s quarter was waiting to pick him up. On this day it was Duchess, a Daring class destroyer on loan from the British Navy as a replacement for Voyager. If the guard ship missed him the pilot was probably doomed.

The Trackers folded their wings like the legs of grasshoppers and went down on the lift to the hangar. Then the choppers came like a plague of locusts from over the land and descended to the deck in a hurricane of whirlwinds and the smell of avgas. The crews climbed out in their green flying suits with white silk cravats and one of them, Jim was delighted to see, was Harry van Gelder.

“Hey, Harry, you ugly bastard,” Jim called as he walked across the flight deck. “When did they let you out?”

Harry had been an upper yardman with Jim, a big lad with blond hair and often with a vague look in his eyes as if gazing at the far horizon – a shy and modest chap you would have thought until you saw him do the dance of the flaming arseholes in the lounge bar of the Town Hall Hotel. In the dance of the flaming arseholes one inserts a rolled-up sheet of newspaper into the rectum and sets fire to it, the object being to see who can burn it down to the shortest stump. Harry van was responsible for painting above the training officer’s door the legend, ‘Live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse,’ a crime for which he was nearly expelled from the upper yardman program. He’d gone to flying school when Jim went to the college. He looked almost debonair walking across the flight deck in his flying suit and cravat, dangling his helmet.

“Howyergoin, Jim?” he said.

“Orright.”

“Mosquito repellent.”

“What?”

“Mosquito repellent. Keep your eye on it, mate. In the drums with the orange stripes.”

“What are you talking about, Harry?”

“See those orange drums coming off the choppers?”

“Yes.”

“They told us it was mosquito repellent. All I know is you don’t want to get it on your boots. Look.”

Jim looked down and saw Harry’s big toe waggling out of the destroyed upper of his flying boot.

“Shit,” he said. “What’s in those other drums, then?”

“Oh, that’s only napalm.”

To welcome the squadrons, Melbourne anchored in Jervis Bay near the college and pigs reported to the bar at 1930 for 2000 dressed in bum freezer jackets, patent leather shoes and cummerbunds. Jim talked to Harry for a while but snotties were required to socialise and then he was talked at by MUD.

“I must say I wasn’t particularly impressed with your effort in Sydney, mid.”

This was the kind of comment Jim had come to expect from MUD and it didn’t faze him too much.

“Sorry, sir. I will try harder in future.”

“Once upon a time quarterdecks were treated with respect. A quarterdeck is a symbol, you understand. Nelson spilled his life’s blood on the quarterdeck.”

“How did they clean that up, sir?”

“With salt, I expect. Washing soda is also useful. And of course you can’t beat the holystone for a good finish to a quarterdeck. But these days the Americans are building ships that don’t even have a wooden quarterdeck. Scandalous. No sense of tradition.”

“No, sir,” Jim said. After a century and a half, the Navy’s hero was still Lord Nelson. When will they discover the 20th century? he wondered.

They entered the wardroom in order of rank and plucked napkins from a rack inside the door. The starched white linen was rolled in a cylinder and stuffed in a silver ring stamped with a number allocated by rank. Jim’s number was 317, the bottom of the pecking order. He skipped the soup because he happened to know the stewards used to piss in it and he wasn’t too sure about the crayfish either, so he ate the flesh and left the Mornay sauce. Decanters of sherry and port circulated the tables. The rule was that one had to re-stopper the sherry before unplugging the port. Offences in this case were punished by a fine added to one’s bill.

MUD gave the Loyal Toast at Jim’s table. The Navy was allowed to sit for the Loyal Toast, a custom from the age of sail when you’d bump your head if you got up. Army officers had to be erect to toast the Queen. They didn’t have to sing the British national anthem, however; only had to say, “The Queen.”

The commander announced boat races and officers sat on the deck, one behind the other like the crew of a racing eight. Glasses were charged and, at the order go, the first member of each team began drinking in the manner known as chug-a-lug, which is to say, pouring beer down his throat as fast as he could. When the first member finished the second began, and so on down the line. The winning team was the first with all its members sitting upright with their glasses, preferably empty, upside down on top of their heads. Jim’s table did not perform well at boat races due to Beelsby upturning his glass on top of his head while it was still half full, for which a penalty was awarded. The team consisting of the four commanders and the heads of department convincingly won boat races.

Boat races were followed by a game called Moriarty Says, in which pigs who failed to answer quiz questions correctly were beaten on the head with a rolled up newspaper. Then MUD began arguing with the pig on his left about the correct ceremonial for the second in charge of a friendly government and then with the pig on his right about the formula for the hull speed of a yacht. Eventually the talk came around to the protesters at the dockyard gates.

“Communists, the lot of ’em. Ought to toss ’em all in a cell. Am I right, mid?”

Beelsby gave Jim a nudge.

“Jim, the mate of the upper deck is speaking to you.”

“Snotty, I’m speaking to you. I said am I right?”

“I wouldn’t know, sir,” Jim said.

“You wouldn’t know wouldn’t you? Get up on your chair and let’s see what you do know.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

“I said get up on your chair. Are you deaf as well as stupid?”

Jim climbed onto his chair and all the pigs swivelled around to look.

“Now then, snotty, let’s have a song from you.”

“I don’t know any songs, sir.”

MUD slammed his fist on the table.

“Don’t lie to me, mid. Sing! Sing!”

The only song in his head was the mobis’ song, sung so many times on football trips or under the shower that it was buried in his mind like the times tables. The faces in the wardroom were a blur, but after two bars he found his voice and they became irrelevant.

 

We’re a bunch of mobis

bastards are we,

we’re from Nirimba

the arsehole of this

Godforsaken universe.

Weee’re a bunch of mobis,

bastards are weeeee;

we’d rather

fuck

than fight

for liiiiberteeee.

 

Silence fell upon the wardroom and pigs stared with puzzled, anxious expressions as they struggled to identify this alien creature in their midst.

“What sort of a song is that, mid?” MUD said. “That’s a lower deck song isn’t it?”

Jim jumped down from the chair and marched from the wardroom as if on a parade ground; head up, arms swinging and heels clacking on the tiled deck as a means of controlling the shaking of his hands, the trembling of his legs and the shout, ‘Get fucked’ that threatened to burst from his lips. He sought refuge in a sponson, a platform off the side of the flight deck that carried an anti-aircraft gun, one of the few places it was possible to find solitude in that ship. It was a calm, clear night much like the night Voyager went down. Charlie wasn’t far away from here.

 

Jim was inclined to skip breakfast next morning but decided he was being foolish. He picked up his napkin number 317 from its pigeon hole. The four commanders – heads of department – had their own table but lesser mortals were seated more or less indiscriminately and Jim headed for an empty table, spread his napkin in his lap and waited for a steward to serve him.

Officers entered the wardroom by ones and twos and then MUD came in.

“Good morning, mid. Got over our little tantrum from last night, have we?”

“I don’t know about you, sir.”

“Listen, mid. Let me give you some advice. Bolshy behaviour will not be tolerated. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

“Perfectly, sir.”

Jim rolled up his napkin, stuffed it into the silver ring and walked out of the wardroom.

The fleet air arm, the fly boys, had their own gunroom adjacent to the wardroom. Jim knocked on the bulkhead beside the doorway and then pulled the curtain aside and stepped in. Three sub-lieutenant pilots were just starting on their breakfast cereal but Harry Van was teetering back in his chair with his feet on the table tossing darts at a dartboard.

“Harry, I’d like to apply to become a member of the gunroom mess.” Jim said.

“What’s the matter? Can’t you handle the wardroom? Don’t want to play with the big boys any more?”

“Mate, they’re just a bunch of wankers, full of their own shit.”

“As your superior officer, I hereby appoint you an honorary flyboy. You will observe the mess rules. Rule one: all officers will observe rule two. Rule two: all officers will observe rule one.”

“Sounds fair. By the way, you want to tell your messman to get the soup from the galley before the stewards piss in it.”

“Piss in it, do they?”

“Yeah. It’s not so bad in the minestrone but it makes the chicken soup taste foul.”

“That’s a joke, mate,” Harry said. “Chicken soup tastes fowl. Good one.”

“It’s no joke eating soup that’s been pissed in. God knows what they do to the chocolate ice cream.”

Jim had now realised he simply despised Pussers pigs: despised their arrogance, their pretentiousness, their affectations, their pomposity and their foreignness. The word ‘sir’ stuck in his throat. They weren’t even Aussies; they were half-baked Pommies. In fact, a number of them were actual Pommies on exchange from the British Navy, with a sneer in their voice for anything Australian. Whingeing Poms had long been identified in Australian society but in this ship they held positions of authority. Hello. The colonial age is ended. The British Empire finished with the Japanese liberation of Singapore and the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse.

Over the following days, no one but the other midshipmen noticed that he chose to take his meals in the gunroom instead of the wardroom. If he could have got away with it, he would have preferred to take his meals in the petty officers’ mess, but knew he would be unwelcome there. He was adrift in the no-man’s-land of the English caste system. Why isn’t there one cafeteria for everyone on board, including the captain, so we can get him out of his ivory tower and see if he’s a pisshead?

 

Melbourne, as mother ship, steamed northwards with a brood of destroyers trailing behind like ducklings and the ship’s company settled into sea routine. The ship had no air conditioning, installed in newer ships not for the comfort of the crew but so air could be recirculated in nuclear fallout. Approaching the tropics, men moved out of crowded mess decks and slung hammocks in passageways and flats to catch a breath of breeze in the steamy nights. As the grey flotilla advanced across the mirror sea, the bosun’s mate moved among them with a shaded torch to call the watch and men stumbled sleepily to their place of work.

Melbourne and her destroyer escort, now reduced to two, anchored in a harbour off Manus Island littered with half-sunk landing barges from World War II, their rusting skeletons sinking into the mud with the bones of the Japanese, Americans and Australians who had fought out their politicians’ differences in the steamy heat. Jim wondered what the local Stone Age cannibals had thought of it all. Had they watched the carnage with bones through their noses, bedecked in bird of paradise plumes, clutching bows and arrows? Now, in ragged dungarees from the trading post, a few gathered on the mangrove shore and stared in silence at the aircraft carrier and her guided missile destroyers. Among the pigs there was talk of the tribesmen giving a war dance for entertainment but it never came off. Melbourne’s war dance was the reception in Sydney.

That night, barefoot and wet-suited, with fins and facemasks tucked under arms, the diving team mustered under the seaboats on 3 deck.

“The object of tonight’s exercise,” said the diving officer, known as Plum for some unknown reason, “is to give you some experience in ship’s bottom searches at night. We shall soon be entering a war zone and the diving team will be on high alert. Mr Price, you’ll take the starboard side and I’ll take port. Any questions?”

Jim had been looking forward to this dive. The silent world down there is another universe where the rules are very simple: big fish eat little fish. Under floodlights rigged along the ship’s side, the sea was so clear he could see flashes of silver, red and green as big fish chased little fish, re-enacting the history of the world.

He marked off the names of his diving team: Johnson, Hendry, Polinski and others. They had dived together several times and Jim knew they were tough, fit men at the peak of their form and full of the sense of their own invincibility. These boys thought they were bullet proof as, no doubt, did their fathers from the last generation, buried in the mud over there. They loaded gear into one of the boats, swung out at deck level, and harnessed up with weight belts and lanyards, demand valves going off with a hiss of pressurised air.

The cutter descended to the water as they clipped lanyards together, one arm-span in length, creating one unit, one six-headed underwater creature like nothing ever seen in the deep before, a twenty-four-limbed octopus. Jim gave the thumbs up and they went over backwards into the blood-warm sea so green and so clear that the cutter seemed to float in the air above it.

He felt the old exhilaration straight away, a sense of flying not diving, a belief that you possess the gracefulness of the ray, the power of the groper, the swiftness of the eel, the sleekness and beauty of the shark. An archerfish pecked at his facemask and he brushed him aside. They went down, right under the ship, losing the light, and swept along its bottom in search of hypothetical limpet mines, then through the propellers, swimming between the huge blades among their own bubbles as if in a grotto, and finally ascended to the surface in the magical green water.

“Snakes!” Polinski shouted, unclipped his lanyard, heaved himself out of the water and over the side into the cutter. They came in a swarm, attracted by the light, bobbing and weaving in a graceful ballet– yellow-banded sea snakes, one of the most venomous of all reptiles. Jim comforted himself in the knowledge they have a small mouth and their fangs can’t usually penetrate a wet suit. The only place they can get you is on the hand, face or ankle and, like most creatures, will not attack unless threatened. Humans are an exception to this rule; the only species that kills for pleasure. Nevertheless, divers unclipped their lanyards and scrambled into the cutter.

The cutter was hoisted from the water and ascended to deck level. Harrison, one of the divers from the other team, came sprinting out of the dark beyond the floodlights, leaned over the guardrail and shouted, “Hurry up, you blokes. We need a lift up to the sick bay. Plum’s got stung.”

They had laid Plum out on the deck on the port side of the ship and opened up his wetsuit jacket to pummel his heart. Then, with a couple of men on each limb, they manhandled him up the ladder to the sick bay on the deck above, a pointless exercise as it turned out because he died a few hours later, proving the rule by the exception: every once in a while a little fish strikes back. He was put into deep freeze with the ice cream, pending an autopsy at the next port, which caused Harry van to strike ice cream off the gunroom’s menu. Polinski had a similar anxiety over Plum’s end because when Jim told him about it he said, “I suppose you’re our new diving officer, then.”

“I suppose I am.”

Polinski thought this over for a while and then he said, “Hey boss, what’s the difference between a vanilla split and a plum?”

“I don’t know. What?”

“Shit, we won’t send you for the ice cream.”

 

Many destroyers and three American aircraft carriers lay at anchor in Subic Bay, including USS Enterprise, the biggest warship in history, more massive than the pyramids, probably with enough firepower to destroy the planet. As Melbourne’s anchor went down with a roar of chain in the hawse pipe it began to dawn on Jim that this was a real war and not just another exercise.

The boats were lowered almost immediately and impatient liberty men jostled one another as Jim manoeuvred the cutter under the varnished companion ladder. First one down was Harry van, wearing a green suit with wide lapels and flares, and two other flyboys, Wings Wainwright and The Whirlibird. “Shorewards, James,” Harry commanded, pointing as if with a sabre at the teeming city by the bay, where billboards and neon signs proclaimed girls, girls, girls and San Miguel beer amidst the uproar from motorcycles and psychedelic jeepneys and the pale blue smoke of their exhausts.

Melbourne’s cutters had no rudders but instead a pair of buckets known as Kitchener gear around the propeller. It took practice but once you got the hang of it you could make those boats go sideways, but you could never make them go fast, especially not with a full load of liberty men. As Jim headed inshore, one of the Big E’s liberty boats came powering by – a landing barge that carried a hundred men, pushing a bow wave that slopped aboard, wetting Harry’s fancy suit and nearly swamping the cutter.

“Hey you guys,” the American coxswain called as he roared past, “get that li’l ole boat outta the way or Goddamn, I’ll run right over ya.”

“Watch where you’re going, you stupid bloody Yank,” Harry van shouted back at him.

The American coxswain gave him the finger and the landing barge roared off towards the Big E.

“Bloody Yanks think they own the world,” Harry muttered.

Jim berthed the cutter alongside a run-down stone jetty and the liberty men climbed ashore. Jeepney drivers surrounded them, tugging at their sleeves and offering the best girls, the coldest beer and cheapest prices.

“Have one for me, Harry,” Jim said as he stepped on to the wharf.

“Give us the money, then.”

Jim took turns with Connelly running the boat for the rest of the day as the flow of liberty men gradually reversed and they began bringing back the drunken travesties of those they had taken ashore. Two nationalities of shore patrol were kept busy sorting Melbourne’s drunks from the Big E’s drunks and getting them into their respective liberty boats. As Jim loaded up to go back to the ship, one sailor stumbled around with his shirt ripped in half and hanging off his back in tatters, grabbing sailors by the shirt front and peering into their faces.

“Squizzy? Squizzy? Where are you Squizzy, you stupid bastard?”

“Come on lad, get into the boat,” said the master at arms, standing by with his patrolmen.

“I’m looking for me mate, Master. Have you seen him? His name’s Squizzy.”

“No I haven’t seen him. Get into the boat.”

“Just a couple of minutes, Master. He was here a while ago, the stupid prick.”

“Don’t worry about your mate. He’ll turn up. Come on, get into the boat.”

“I’m not goin without me mate,” said the sailor, and took off up the road at a good fast clip considering how drunk he was.

Two patrolmen took off after him and brought him down and then manhandled him back to the jetty and into the boat with him kicking and screaming, “You rotten bastards I ain’t goin’ anywhere without me fuckin mate.”

He kept it up all the way back to the ship and the patrolmen had to sit on him to stop him jumping overboard but no one was listening any more, only Jim, the loneliest man in the world. They found his mate next day on the road to Alongapo, the frontier town populated by cutthroats and prostitutes outside the gates of the US Navy base. His head had been cut off and his testicles stuffed in his mouth.

Harry van, Wings and The Whirlibird just managed to catch the last boat at midnight, loudly singing rugby songs. Jim grabbed them by the arm one by one to help them aboard and prevent them falling over the side.

Harry had been deeply hurt by the rude gesture of that American coxswain and gained no joy from the fleshpots of Alongapo. With Wings and the Whirlibird, he’d returned to the Navy base and demanded entry into the officers’ club. They were required to show ID before anyone would believe they were officers, a point on which Harry was most indignant, but that was just the first humiliation. They had been forcibly ejected from the officers’ club after performing the dance of the flaming arseholes on the bar.

“No sense of humour, these Yanks, mate,” Harry said.

Chapter 13

Through the binoculars Jim saw the mansions of the former French colonists on Cap St Jacques, the Riviera of South East Asia. They were now half demolished and, beyond them, palls of smoke rose from the jungles of Vietnam. The destroyer escort, HMAS Perth, sent in a barrage of four-inch artillery then a flight of missiles leaving vapour trails in the air. The choppers lifted off over a calm sea too bright to look at in the early morning sunshine. The rotors caught the sun and sent back flashing light signals until the whap whap, whap gradually faded.

The only sound now was the flapping of the flags and the wheezing of the chief signals yeoman, a roly-poly man who had trouble climbing the ladder to the flying bridge, the highest point in the ship, which was Jim’s special sea duty station. Up here he could see everything. Below was the navigating bridge and below that the admiral’s bridge, with the admiral prowling around on a catwalk. Sweat poured off bodies and whites stuck to their backs.

“There they go,” said the chief, staring through the big binoculars.

The choppers were now only dots in the distance but a pillar of flame and smoke rose into the air.

“Can you see the enemy?” Jim asked.

“Oh you won’t see the enemy from here, young sir. Skulk through the jungle like rats they do. Not like the last war when they’d come out in the open and fight like men.”

“Then what’s Perth shooting at?”

“I don’t think I can tell you that, young sir. Classified.”

Hang on a minute, Jim said to himself. Perth just sent off a couple of tons of artillery into the jungle at a range of about five thousand yards, which would probably scatter over a square mile in this densely populated country. What are they shooting at? Turkeys?

“I can tell you our choppers are under the US hundred and thirty fifth airborne,” the chief yeoman said.

When the choppers returned, the flyboys traipsed across the flight deck dangling their helmets and, after debriefing, headed for the gunroom and shut the door. Not even the commander dared open it to investigate the raucous laughter, the shouts and loud singing of rugby songs. A bleary eyed bunch of flyboys took off for the early morning mission, having first attended divine service to receive the blessing of the padre. There was only one chapel, next to the pilots’ briefing room, and Catholics and Protestants had to take turns. According to Harry, the sermons of both sides were pretty much the same, featuring the idea: ‘Now go out there and kill them gooks in the name of the Lord.” There was no mosque and no synagogue on board. Melbourne was a Christian ship, inhabited mainly by atheists but no Buddhists, which was the main religion of Vietnam. Harry’s main preoccupation was with the mosquito repellent.

“It’s bloody good mosquito repellent, mate,” he said one day. “You should see the monkeys die.”

Jim had done a little research on the subject and he said, “It’s not mosquito repellent, Harry. It’s called Agent Orange. It’s meant to kill trees so the Viet Cong can’t hide in the bushes. It also destroys their rice crop.”

“It’ll do that, all right. This place will be a desert by the time we’re finished.”

Beelsby had also apparently been doing research; at least he’d read Time magazine, and one day Jim said, “Mr Beelsby, straighten me out on this Domino Theory, will you? I don’t think I’ve got it clear in my mind. I mean, how come we have to steam five thousand miles away from home to defend our country from the Forces of Evil?”

“What the theory says is that, given one Communist takeover in any of these countries the next country will fall and then the next and so on, like a set of dominoes.”

“I see. It’s a red peril combined with the old yellow peril. I get it, it’s an orange peril. That’s why we have to use Agent Orange.”

“There’s no cause to be flippant.”

Flippant was hardly the word to describe Jim’s reaction to the long-range artillery bombardment of peasants in bamboo villages.

“You’re trying to tell me the most powerful nation on earth is under threat from one of the poorest, which is clear across the other side of the Pacific Ocean. It doesn’t add up to me, Mr Beelsby. I never played dominoes in my life, by the way. We used to play Mah Jongg on the lower deck.”

“Dominoes is just an allegory for the way these Asiatic nations will fall to Communism one after the other.”

“Know what they told me when I first joined Pussers, Mr Beelsby? You’re not paid to think, lad, you’re paid to do what you’re told. I don’t think I buy that crap any more. The Nuremburg Defence is out of favour.”

“Nuremburg Defence?”

“The Nuremburg Defence is based on the idea that politicians are superior to God; that it’s okay to kill people as long as you’re just obeying the orders of superior officers or politicians. Unfortunately, the Nuremburg Defence didn’t work for Himmler, Goebbels or Goering. The judgement of the court was that you are responsible for your own actions despite what you are ordered by superior officers. But, you never know, the Nuremburg Defence might work for you, Mr Beelsby.”

Beelsby had an expression Jim could only describe as horror, although he had purposely refrained from mentioning Simon Peters.

“Why do you keep calling me Mr Beelsby instead of Ralph?”

“You wouldn’t want me getting familiar would you, Mr Beelsby?”

One day, Jim received a message to report to the commander on the bridge and began the long climb up the ladders thinking, Ullo, ullo, ullo, what’s this turnup, then? The commander waited for him, with a sheaf of papers under his arm, and motioned him into the chart room at the rear of the bridge. The captain was leaning over a chart on the big table and nodded as they entered.

“Price, the Jeparit is arriving in Vung Tau next week, and I want you to take a diving team ashore. You’ll be responsible for ship’s bottom searches during her stay. How many divers will you need?”

“How big is the Jeparit, sir?”

“She’s a converted merchantman, about two thousand tons deadweight.”

“About half a dozen divers should do, sir.”

“Very well. You’ll report to a Lieutenant Colonel Collins at Vung Tau Army station. You will be temporarily attached to C Company of the Fifth Battalion.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

A bit of action at last, Jim thought. Better than sitting out here watching pillars of smoke rise out of the jungle. The domino theory had nothing to do with it; it was more a question of ‘What the fuck am I doing here anyway?’ He went down to the diving store on 3 deck and said to Leading Seaman Bluey Johnson, the most experienced of the divers, who was servicing regulators, “We’ve got a job on, Leader, and I want you to round up the team. Looks like you’re going to get a run ashore after all.”

“What is it, boss?”

“The Army’s supply ship is coming in to land its cargo and we’ll be on standby for underwater security. The Army has all the explosives we’ll need, and I believe they also have a compressor. We’ll need six divers all up. Maybe a changeover if it goes on too long.”

Johnson was turning a regulator over in his hands, gazing at it almost lovingly.

“When are we leaving?”

“As soon as I can organise the transport. Count on being ashore for a couple of weeks.”

In the gunroom, he found Harry van arm-wrestling the Whirlibird on the mess room table, a look of intense concentration on his face.

“Harry, if you can tear yourself away I want to talk to you.”

“As your superior officer, I order you to stop interrupting serious matters.”

“I’ve got to go ashore. You want to give me a ride?”

The Whirlibird flattened Harry’s arm to the table but Harry’s face lit up with a grin and Jim realised he had made an error in choosing Harry. Harry said, “I’ll give you a ride all right, mate. You stick with me. I’ll just have to square it with the boss.”

Johnson had already mustered the team on the flight deck by the time Jim walked across to Harry’s chopper. They looked like kids about to go on a football trip. Hendry and Weller were big lads, the brawn of the outfit, while they sometimes called Polinski the Show Pony. They had been working together for a long time and were as close to a smoothly functioning machine as you were ever likely to see. They stowed the tanks in the tail of the chopper and the rest of the gear behind the canvas bench seats in the cabin. They climbed in and Harry gave Jim a headset microphone. The engine fired with a noise like a mewing cat and they lifted into the clear blue sky.

Jim peered down at the aircraft carrier and her ducklings, toy ships on a painted sea. Ahead were the jungles of Vietnam interspersed with paddy fields in neat squares or terraced rows on hillsides. The silver ribbon of the Mekong and its delta meandered through the landscape and he saw ships in the harbour of Vung Tau, near Cap St Jacques. Swathes of countryside had been converted to wasteland, as Harry had said, and black smoke snaked into the air marking the most recent devastations.

“Those hills are called the Dandenongs,” Harry said through the headset and pointed to a couple of low hills devoid of vegetation. “Used to be a lot of nogs there till they got hit with mosquito repellent. Over there is Nui Dat, which is Aussie headquarters.”

“I don’t want to go there, Harry. I want to go to Vung Tau.”

“Just thought I’d show you something first, mate.”

Harry came down to just above the treetops and skimmed past bamboo villages where people scurried for the jungle when they heard the chopper coming, women with babies on their backs and old men shaking their fists. Buffaloes grazed in cleared fields. They came to a clearing where Harry hovered for a view of smouldering ruins where people picked their way among charred bundles on the ground, so far gone in their grief that they ignored the hovering helicopter.

“That’s the town we blew the shit out of yesterday,” Harry said. “No Viet Cong left there, I bet.”

There was no hint of triumph in Harry’s voice. How would he know who was Viet Cong and who wasn’t? The enemy didn’t advertise himself by wearing uniforms. The enemy was anyone with slanty eyes, male or female. They moved on and he pointed out a couple more villages like that and then he buzzed the Australian Army camp at Nui Dat, which was no more than a couple of rows of tents among rubber trees. A few soldiers waved when they identified the kangaroo on the side of the chopper. It might have been the first kangaroo ever in Vietnam. What graphic designer had dreamed up the kangaroo as a logo of war? Other countries adorn their battle shields with eagles, lions, tigers, even snakes but Australia had Skippy the kangaroo.

“Harry, I think I’ve had enough of this Cook’s tour. Can we get on to Vung Tau?”

The chopper turned back towards the coast just above the treetops but before they had gone very far the air exploded like a Chinese firecracker and Jim looked down to see flashes of fire in the jungle.

“Shit, Harry, they’re shooting at us.”

“She’ll be right, mate. Those nogs can’t shoot worth a shit.”

But about ten seconds later a neat round hole appeared in one side of the fuselage and a great cavity in the other. The chopper lurched and Jim grabbed hold of his seat to keep from falling out the hatch.

“Shit, that was an RPG,” Harry said. “Those nogs are improving.”

“Take the bloody thing up,” Jim screamed into the mike, and the chopper rose into the air with explosive going off all around.

Another hole blasted through the fuselage and the top of Hendry’s head disappeared, leaving what looked like a cauliflower spurting fountains of blood. Hendry toppled over in his seat and rested the remains of his head on Polinski’s shoulder. Polinski screamed and scrabbled at the buckle of his seat belt, clawing to get out of the seat, pushing Hendry away from him as if he was a man-eating squid. The helicopter went into a mad spiral and crashed into the treetops, lifted once and then crashed through the trees to the ground.

It was a blood bath in the cabin and Polinski and Johnson scrambled over one another, clawing their way out. Harry, in the pilot’s seat, was calling on the radio: “Nui Dat, Nui Dat, this is Melbourne chopper.” Jim got his seat belt undone and crawled out, relieved to find his body seemed to be functioning properly. He sprinted for the horizon in the wake of Polinski, Johnson, Weller and Green. At a healthy distance, he stopped and got behind a tree in case the chopper blew up. They had ditched in dense jungle and he could see no more than several metres. He heard the squawk of the radio, so Harry must have made contact.

“Harry,” he shouted. “Aw shit, Harry.”

Jim walked carefully back towards the chopper, ready to drop in case it exploded. Polinski was hunched over, vomiting on the ground and the others held on to him to prevent him collapsing in the mud.

Reaching the chopper, Jim found Harry twisted up in the wreckage with the mike of the VHF radio in one hand.

“Harry; you all right?”

“Yeah. I got a message out on two four three.”

“Where are we?”

“Up shit creek.”

“Is someone coming for us?”

“Yeah. I got the coordinates out. All we have to do is wait.”

“As long as the nogs don’t find us first. We haven’t even got any weapons.”

“You’ve got your bare hands haven’t you?”

“Well, come on. Get out before the bloody thing goes up in flames.”

“There’s a bit of a problem. My leg seems to be stuck.”

“Let me look.”

His leg was tangled in the wreckage with a section of the fuselage hooked into it like a claw. Jim reached into the cockpit but could not move either the leg or the jagged piece of fuselage.

“Push your leg forward. It’s just hooked up.”

Harry strained with the effort but stopped with a scream of agony.

“No good, mate.”

“Harry, you’ve got to get out of here. I can smell avgas. This fucking thing’s going to blow up before long.”

Harry’s face scrunched up with pain as he struggled to free his leg.

“Can’t move it.

Jim tried dragging him out until Harry screamed. Then he put his shoulder to the fuselage and tried to roll the wreckage off him but couldn’t shift it.

“It’s stuck, mate,” Harry said. “You might have to cut my leg off.”

“I’m not going to cut your leg off. I’ve got no way of doing it anyway.

Just then the radio squawked.

“Victor Hotel Foxtrot three zero five, this is Nui Dat. Nui Dat. Copy.”

Don’t answer it.”

But he was too late. Harry had already pressed the TR button and said “Nui Dat…” which is when the chopper burst into flames with a whoomph and Jim was flung backwards, landing on his back in the mud. Pursued by fire-breathing dragons, he rolled over and scrambled on hands and knees, keeping his head down until he found what he thought was sanctuary among the rubber trees and cycads. He turned around and stared at the inferno, so recently an operational unit of Her Majesty’s Australian Navy.

With an arm shielding his face from the heat, Leading Seaman Johnson crawled across to him and said, “You okay, boss?”

“I think so, but Harry’s fucked.”

Flames licked into the air with intense heat, even at this distance. Johnson averted his eyes, refusing to face this truth. Weller and Green stared in silent fascination. Everything seemed to Jim frozen in time and he knew this image was etched on his mind for the rest of his life, however long that might be. Maybe as long as tomorrow. At least, the surrounding jungle was moist from perennial showers and the fire was not likely to spread. It would just burn down and leave a heap of twisted, molten metal and no human remains at all.

“Harry said he got the coordinates out,” Jim said. “Nui Dat knows where we are. They should be coming for us.”

“They should be able to find us,” Johnson said. “Bloody big smoke signal.” He indicated the pall of smoke rising above the jungle.

“The nogs can see it too. They can’t be far away.” Jim said.

“Shit, why did you have to say that?”

“Only the truth.”

“Fuck the truth.”

Polinski had stopped vomiting but staggered around like a mad drunk, and then he took off through the trees at a crouching run. He exploded and bits of him flew through the air and splattered back down to earth. His torso plopped into the mud. Jim froze.

“Don’t anyone move,” he said. “Jesus Christ, we’ve ditched in a minefield.”

He sat down again in the same spot, put his head between his knees, shut his eyes and breathed slowly and deeply, pumping oxygen into his lungs.

“Okay, no walking around. They’ve got things called jumping jacks here. If you hear something go click you want to shit your pants.”

Suddenly it rained and the mud turned to squelch. A rivulet undermined Polinski’s dismembered torso, which toppled over with one eye staring at Jim. He turned away but couldn’t stop looking. Each time he looked back the eye was still staring. He picked up a stick and threw it at the head to try and stop the eye staring. Then he threw another, and another, taking careful aim. He hit the head once but it didn’t stop the eye staring. Then he started throwing handfuls of mud at it, whimpering like a two-year-old in a tantrum. Johnson grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.

“Settle down, boss,” he said. “Settle down.”

“Polinski’s staring. Look at him staring. The bugger’s supposed to be dead.”

Johnson stood up, took a few paces through the mud and gave the torso a kick that sent it into the bushes where Jim couldn’t see it any more. The rain kept coming down and he put out his tongue to catch the stream running off the end of his nose. His mouth was as dry as a desert. He went cross-eyed trying to see the end of his nose. Then he closed his eyes because he didn’t want to see anything any more. He may have slept for a while, or passed out.

Bluey Johnson woke him and said, “Hey boss, I can hear something.”

“What?”

“Listen.”

It was the whap, whap whap of a helicopter. Jim was no expert on helicopters but the Army’s were different from the Navy’s. They all make a noise like approaching doom; galloping horsemen of the Apocalypse.

“Okay, nobody move. No prancing around. They’re just going to have to find us.”

Despite the rain, which had extinguished the fire, a column of black smoke still rose from the wreckage of the chopper – a beacon like a lighthouse. The Army chopper arrived and hovered over the little clearing. A corporal in the hatchway beckoned them.

“How are we going to get on the chopper without stepping on a mine?” Johnson wanted to know.

“I don’t know. Just be careful where you put your feet.”

It was all soft mud, so maybe the mines would be exposed. Walking like stiff-legged robots, they approached the chopper and the corporal hauled them aboard.

“Here’s a bag for the dead one,” the corporal said, and tossed it down to Weller and Green.

They gathered up Polinski’s remains and stuffed them in the body bag, trying not to look at the mangled mess.

“There’s another one,” Jim said, “but I don’t think there’s much of him left. He’s burnt up in the chopper ”

“You should pick up what you can and get his dog tags.”

“We don’t have dog tags in Pussers. And I don’t think there’s anything to pick up.”

“You blokes Pussers are you? What are you doing here?”

“Buggered if I know.”

The corporal took in the body bag and then hauled Weller and Green aboard the hovering chopper. “Don’t worry, before they send the body home the medics make up the weight with sandbags so the rellies think they’ve got a full body.”

They strapped themselves in seats and the chopper lifted into the sky like magic. Only then did it occur to Jim that they still hadn’t seen the enemy. They could be anywhere in the bushes; impossible to see.

“Can you tell the pilot we don’t want to go to Nui Dat; we want to go to Vung Tau. We have to meet up with a Lieutenant Colonel Collins.”

“Collins is Small Ships Branch.”

“Yeah, that’s probably right. Do you know a bloke named Paul Sanders?”

Paulie? Yeah. He’s down at Vungers on R and C just now.”

“What’s R and C?”

“Rooting and copulating.”

Jim’s eyes were shut most of the way. There was nothing he wanted to see. There was nothing he wanted to hear either but the whap, whap, whap, of the Apocalypse and occasional squawk of the radio could not be escaped.

 

Vung Tau was a town with houses of cream stucco and tiled roofs set back among groves of trees and surrounded by iron picket fences. The houses had once belonged to French plantation owners. Now they were pockmarked by artillery and the gardens were overgrown with weeds. The chopper sat down in one of the gardens. The corporal said there was no actual Army base in Vung Tau but the best place to find anyone was the Grand Hotel. He pointed it out, and also the President’s summer palace on Cap St Jacques. “That’s Bondi Beach over there.”

They walked through a weedy garden and up shallow stairs to a flagstone veranda with tall white pillars. Johnson and the other two hadn’t spoken since they came out of the jungle. They looked the way Jim felt: completely desolate. The main thing he wanted to do was sleep and shut out the vision of Hendry’s head spurting blood like a volcano throwing out lava and the vision of Harry van getting incinerated. But he still had work to do. He felt like his guts were empty.

“You hang on here and I’ll see if I can find someone.”

Johnson nodded but Weller and Green simply stared.

In the hotel lobby, a brass band played what sounded like Chinese opera until Jim recognised the tune of Clementine. Bored bar girls in tight dresses sat in a row of cinema seats as if waiting for a train. As he walked in, three of them made a rush for him.

“You buy me Saigon tea? I give you a good time. Very clean.”

“Piss off.”

She stuck her tongue out.

“You want gonorrhoea, you want syphilis, you go somewhere else.”

Three American soldiers sat on the wide staircase that curved up to the mezzanine, watching a football game on a portable television. Farther up the stairs, another GI cradled a bottle of bourbon in his arms like a baby and quietly wept.

“Wouldn’t happen to know where I could find a Lieutenant Colonel Collins, Australian Army, would you?”

“Hell, man, I cain’t even find my own asshole ’lessen my sergeant tells me.” His cheeks were wet with tears.

“Bunch of Aussies in there,” said another, jerking his thumb at a doorway.

“Thanks.”

Through the doorway was a room with tile floors, metal throwaway chairs and tables and a lot of drunks, both American and Australian. He didn’t find Lieutenant Colonel Collins but he did find Paul, sitting alone at one of the tables. He looked almost frightened to encounter Jim but he stood up and put out his hand for a shake as if handling a snake. It was a struggle for him to look Jim in the eye.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Jim said.

“I didn’t expect to see you either.”

Since the last time he’d seen him, Paul had had a regulation Army haircut. He now looked like a soldier instead of a hippy but he still didn’t look happy. No one here looked happy. He had always seemed to Jim vague and almost effeminate. Not your warrior type at all. He wondered if the other chockos were giving him a hard time.

“Not a poofter is he?” he had once asked Jenny. “Overbearing mother and all.”

“I don’t think so. He’s just a quiet boy. I think one day he’ll find himself and we’ll all be surprised.”

Jim was surprised now but for the wrong reason.

“I’m looking for a Lieutenant Colonel Collins,” he said.

“He’s around somewhere but you won’t find him here.”

“I need a drink first. Do they take Aussie money at the bar?”

“Yes.’

“What are you drinking?”

“Rum.”

“Good on you.”

Jim came back with two rums; not Bundaberg but some inferior brand. His hands weren’t exactly trembling but his head felt as if it had expanded like a balloon. None of what he saw was real and would soon go away and he would be walking through the bush with Rex chasing lizards and barking at birds. He wondered what Jenny was doing right now. He was already rehearsing how he was going to describe the events of the last few hours but perhaps it would not be necessary. Perhaps it would all go away before it became necessary to explain anything to anyone. Paul was no substitute for Jenny. He was under no obligation to explain anything to Paul, but he was under an obligation to explain everything to Jenny some time and knew he was incapable of doing so. He couldn’t even explain it to himself. Explain? What does that mean? Does it mean finding some kind of logical process by which he had arrived at this point in his life? If so, the task was impossible. Here was Paul, a gentle person as Jenny had said, now dressed up as a soldier. What horrors had he seen so far?

Jim’s first recollection of Paul was him walking into the flat at Double Bay in floral board shorts, barefoot and suntanned, cream on his nose, hair bleached, and throwing himself into an easy chair as if he owned the world. His doting mother poured him a glass of beer. Now there was another aspect of Paul: a bundle of nervous energy who seemed to be forever glancing over his shoulder and speaking as if confiding secrets. Maybe that was just normal for a soldier in Vietnam. Paul looked as if he had aged at least ten years.

“Well, I better get moving,” Jim said when he finished his rum. “I’ve got my boys waiting.”

“If you want to find Collins, I can show you where he is.”

“Okay.”

A girl of ten or twelve in a ragged dress had been going the rounds of the tables and came to theirs as they stood. Jim thought she was probably selling either herself or her sister but instead she had a small plastic container with white powder in it.

“You want smack?” she asked.

“Piss off,” Paul said, and gave her a whack to the side of the head, which almost knocked her down; an outbreak of savagery that shocked Jim.

“She cuts it down to about five per cent. You can’t trust these nogs as far as you can kick ’em.”

The divers were still sitting on the veranda but they had a bar girl each and a beer in their hands. Jim said, “You might as well stay here till I find Collins. I’ll have to organise accommodation.”

It was dark as they went out into the street and every few paces were propositioned by whores.

“That’s gonorrhoea gulch over there,” Paul said, pointing down a side street. “You want to stay clear of it. They’ve got strains of the jack in this town not known to medical science.”

At a gate in a wrought iron fence around a run-down house, he jerked his thumb.

“You’ll find him in there,” he said.

“Okay. Thanks. See you around.”

“No you won’t. I’m going back up country tomorrow.”

Paul turned and trudged back towards the Grand Hotel and Jim was left disturbed by this encounter, not to mention his own shit. He walked through the weedy garden and knocked at the door. A girl in a cheong sam showed him in. Five or six Army officers sprawled in easy chairs with girls on their laps and beers in their hands. Lieutenant Colonel Collins was a short man with a sandy moustache stained by nicotine. He wore a service revolver in a holster on his belt.

“Ah yes, where have you been?” he said when Jim introduced himself. “We were expecting you this morning.”

“Lost our chopper and three men.”

“That was you was it? I heard about that. How many men have you got now?”

“Four now, including myself, sir.”

“Is that enough?”

“Not really. We lost all our gear too. So we need two divers and six sets of tanks and diving gear from Melbourne.”

“This is Captain Willoughby. He’ll be your liaison officer. You can arrange all that through him. Now, relax. Help yourself to a girl. Liquor is on a cash basis, I’m afraid.”

“I need to get my divers settled in, sir.”

“Tom, you’ll look after that won’t you?” he said to Willoughby.

Jim went out with Willoughby to find the divers and organise accommodation for them.

“That’s where the whole thing started fifteen years ago,” Willoughby said as they walked back to the Grand Hotel. “Used to be a high class brothel for senior French Army officers but one night when they were all on the job the harlots blew out their brains with their own service revolvers. What a way to go.”

“You seem to be well set up yourselves in that department.”

“Don’t touch the sluts used by the ranks, whatever you do. Ours are pretty clean.”

It was going to be a few days before Jeparit arrived and Willoughby set them up in a kind of boarding house run by a Chinese couple, Mr and Mrs Ong. Mrs Ong fussed around worse than his mother, but the beds were soft and the meals adequate.

 

Next day, Willoughby took Jim down to the docks and they inspected the place where Jeparit would berth to discharge her cargo. Patrol boats and cargo ships crowded the harbour and an old T2 tanker alongside the jetty served as a power station. On every ship a soldier was dropping scare charges into the water but even so, Willoughby said, enemy divers had managed to blow off the propeller of an American supply ship.

“They’ll have to stop the charges while we dive,” Jim said, “or we’ll end up with burst eardrums.”

“Sure.” He pointed to a container ship discharging cargo at the wharf. “See that Lady Line ship there? Know who owns them?”

“No.”

“Ladybird Johnson, the President’s wife. Got the contract with the War Department. For Ladybird, it’s all the way to the bank with LBJ, Sealand Trucking and Tiger Airlines.”

“Christ, you mean Ladybird and LBJ are running this war as a business?”

“Billion dollar business, mate. Lady Line is named after Ladybird Johnson. I think they have about ten ships.”

“You’re having me on.”

“Check it out,” said Willoughby with a shrug meaning he didn’t care whether Jim believed it or not, so in the end he thought he probably did. Why was it not a surprise that the US President’s wife was running the Vietnam war as a business, like Baron von Krupp for the Nazis? Paul’s father had opened Jim’s eyes to the rottenness of politicians. Didn’t matter if they were American or Australian. Politicians are politicians, aren’t they? All as bad as one another.

They were waiting on the wharf when Jeparit came alongside two days later and moved aboard for the duration. She was a general cargo merchant ship requisitioned by the Navy. She had civilian officers and Navy crew because the Seamen’s Union of Australia, with a Communist secretary named Elliot, refused to man her in protest at the Vietnam War. Evidently, the officers’ union was of a different political persuasion. The red, white and blue funnel of the Australian National Line had been painted grey. She had a full deck cargo of trucks and field guns and a platoon of soldiers swarmed aboard to take off the lashings and man the deck cranes.

Before the first truck went ashore, Jim took the diving team over the side for a bottom search. The two replacement divers, Dempsey and McIntosh, had arrived with the gear from Melbourne. They slotted into the team with no problem since all had been training together since leaving Sydney. The water was dirty, with a strong current, difficult diving, and they rigged bottom lines under the ship to act as underwater guide ropes. From now on, non-stop for the next three days, they ran a bottom search every couple of hours. They slept on board and ate with the crew. The skin on Jim’s hands and feet turned white and wrinkly and his head felt as if it was floating above his shoulders. The divers went about their work without complaint but Jim knew they felt as desolate as he.

 

After three days, with more than half the cargo discharged, the ship cast off from the wharf and headed up the Mekong River with a South Vietnamese river pilot and a gunboat. A platoon of soldiers patrolled the deck and another pair manned the machine guns mounted behind sandbags on the bridge wings. Willoughby maintained radio contact with someone on a hand-held VHF, reporting progress as the ship penetrated enemy territory.

Actually, as Willoughby had explained, the problem in Vietnam was that there were no battle lines as in previous wars; certainly no dugout trenches as in World War I and no Eastern Front and Western Front as in World War II. The whole country was enemy territory, which is to say, Australian and American troops were the enemy throughout the country they had invaded. The locals often didn’t bother dressing up in uniforms and probably about one third of combatants were females. Pretty girls might just have a Kalashnikov concealed under their shawls. It was a new style of warfare that Mao tse tung had described in a nutshell: the people are the ocean and the Army the fish.

The river wound through alluvial plains between banks devoid of foliage. Heat haze rose from the steamy ground and helicopters as numerous as mosquitoes threaded through the palls of smoke from destroyed villages, the whap whap whap of their rotors full of menace. Jim was frequently waking up in the middle of the night with whap, whap, whap in his ears, and had come to dread helicopters.

Beyond Nha Bhé, green foliage lined the water’s edge and farmers worked in paddy fields, stooping over rice crops. Pigs and buffaloes grazed lush pastures. From frail canoes, people fished the mighty Mekong, lifeblood of three nations, now poisoned with Agent Orange. A Roman Catholic church of yellow stone with a red-tiled roof and a graveyard with white headstones stood as a memento of the French occupation. A boy wearing a coolie hat sat backwards on a buffalo, smiling and waving as the ship went past. He was the only person in Vietnam Jim ever saw smile, except for the whores in Vung Tau.

The river branched off to Saigon past Nha Bhé but Jeparit continued on to a US Army and Navy camp at Xom Cat Lai. Evidently some of the cargo was for them. On the opposite shore a village nestled among the trees. The stream was fast and dirty and it was necessary to secure the ship to a pair of buoys with four mooring lines and a bight of wire. GIs came out from the shore in barges and the ship’s cranes began loading them with cargo. The jungle was too close for comfort to Jim’s way of thinking and he imagined crocodiles, murderous Viet Cong and Loch Ness monsters lurking in the shadows.

The current was strong and visibility nil. They rigged bottom lines again and the lanyards linking the members of the team were shortened to make sure no patch of the underwater hull was missed. The propeller, being a favourite target, received special attention. As Jim swam aft from forward he saw a blur of movement in the muddy water. Seconds later, Bluey Johnson tugged at his arm and guided his hand to a lump on a propeller blade. Semtex. Jim spat out the hookah mouthpiece, unclipped his lanyard and took off downstream, leaving the team to dispose of the explosive. They knew what to do.

He broke surface just in time to see a head bob back underwater and put on a spurt, reaching for the toggles in his weight belt, the outsize Navy fins driving him along. Next time the enemy surfaced he was closer but nearer the shore and Jim adjusted course. Next time he came up he could almost reach him and went under after him, powering away with the fins. He reached out and grabbed a foot and took him down, down, his lungs full of pain. They thrashed around like a pair of crocodiles. Jim let go of his foot and lashed out with the wire.

One of the advantages of the garrotte is the victim’s reaction is to try and get it off. Both hands go up to his throat and, although he might kick, you don’t have to worry about his hands. As they broke surface his kicks grew feeble and eventually ceased and Jim felt him go soft in his arms like a rubber manikin. He turned him around to look at him. He was a kid of about 14, with olive-coloured skin, ears as pointed as a pixie’s and now, in death, the eyes seemed to stare right through Jim at some glory far away. Jim’s hands went limp. The body slipped from his grasp and swirled away in the muddy water. That kid had no diving gear. He was just doing it on a deep breath. Shit, what are we doing in this fucking country anyway?

Willoughby doubled the patrols on deck and resumed dropping charges over the side but the water was so muddy a diver could remain undiscovered. That night, floodlights illuminated the surface and the bottom searches went on by feel.

Next morning, with the cargo discharged, Jeparit slipped the mooring and headed down-river. Back in Vung Tau, they got the diving gear ashore and stood on the jetty watching Jeparit sail for home, longing to be aboard. They hauled the gear up to the Grand Hotel to wait for a chopper back to Melbourne. Choppers were used like buses and taxis around here. The same GI was still sitting in the same place on the stairs cradling a bottle of bourbon. He was still weeping.

After a while, Willoughby came in to inform him the chopper was on the way.

“By the way, didn’t you mention you knew a digger named Sanders?”

“Paul Sanders. Yes.”

“You want to choose your mates more carefully. They’ve got him under arrest over there.”

“What for?”

“Off his brain on dope. Silly bastard.”

Chapter 14

At last, Melbourne put her stern towards that jungle full of horrors and steamed for Hong Kong, last bastion of the British Empire. The ship laid on a reception in the hangar like the one in Sydney for local dignitaries and expat socialites, mainly British. Snotties were again detailed off as ushers but this time Jim didn’t have to worry about Beelsby grass-cutting Jenny. Beelsby teamed up with some Pommy sheilas from the Colonial Office and spent a couple of weeks’ allowance on pink gin, which the sheilas knocked back as if they were playing boat races, probably not knowing that Beelsby only drank soda water. A man who is a hypocrite, liar and general scumbag probably doesn’t have to be a teetotaller, but it definitely helps.

Jim’s memory of Hong Kong was of Tsu Wai, so feminine, delicate, serious but also happy and laughing gaily sometimes. Jim was cynical when she told him she only worked in the Liberty Bar to extend her school teacher’s salary and to assist her father in supporting his 11 children. “I wish I was a boy,” she would say, “then I could be a flame to my brothers and sisters. But I am only a girl and can only be a candle.”

It was all true and she had shown him the school where she taught classes of fifty or more children. She led him through the stinking settlements where most of them came from: damp concrete single rooms in which whole families ate, slept and copulated, with community washing and bathing facilities. She led him through the streets of Kowloon to tiny restaurants. “It’s not fair,” she would say. “Soon you will go away but I must stay, and every time I see these places I will remember the way you have walked. But you will forget Hong Kong and the things that have happened.”

They had lunch at an open-air cafe called Tiger Gardens in the New Territories, walked to the Peak, the Tiger Balm Gardens and the other tourist attractions. From the Peak, at sunset, the view was breathtaking, but where Jim saw the fairy lights she could only see, or remember, the dirt in narrow streets and the poverty in single rooms. She carried on her university studies by scholarship and was taking exams while Jim was there.

“You have upset me,” she complained. “I cannot study.”

Walking down Nathan Road afterwards, she bought a present for her friend, Miss Yip, who was going back to Taiwan. She also bought a present for Jim: a little statue of Lu Xing, the god of luck. Jim protested, strolling beside the harbour of Kowloon, but eventually capitulated when her bottom lip began to tremble.

“If we are polite to one another, maybe we can buy hotel overnight.”

Lying on the hotel bed, talking, not touching, she cried; and when he left for the last time she would not look; only cried in the pillow. Of course, Jim did not believe in luck and gave Lu Xing to Charlie, who gave it Big Red, who gave it to Jenny, who installed it on the mantel in the Double Bay apartment. Lu Xing had presided over the unluckiest period of his life, except for when he met Jenny. Maybe Lu Xing was retaliating for Jim giving him away. That time in Hong Kong aboard Voyager, Jim had just been a carefree sailor boy. This time, aboard Melbourne, life was more complicated. The whole world was more complicated.

Next port for Melbourne was Singapore, former British colony and second-last bastion of the British Empire. There was no reception in Singapore but, at the officers’ club in HMS Terror, snotties sat around the blue tiled swimming pool and noiseless Chinese stewards served pink gin with Beelsby snapping his fingers for soda water. The British naval base was a park-like estate on the Johore Strait with officers’ bungalows among tropical gardens and rubber trees. A high fence patrolled by guards kept out teeming, chattering Asiatics who, as far as Jim could see, showed no inclination to overrun HMS Terror, but you can’t be too careful. The name had not frightened off the Japanese in World War II. Jim’s father had served in the Japanese prisoner of war camp at Changi, but Jim knew little of his experience because he would never talk about it. These days the prisoner of war camp was an international airport.

The midshipmen’s board, the final examination for snotties, was to be held on arrival back in Australia which, come to think of it, really was the last bastion of the British Empire not yet liberated. Main topic of conversation was their forthcoming training at Dartmouth but Jim had no anxiety over the board. He had originally enlisted for 12 years’ service in the Navy but he’d had enough. He wasn’t sure whether that enlistment still meant anything now that he was a pig, but he had no intention of remaining a pig much longer. Snotties’ nurse had come over anxious when Jim handed him his letter of resignation.

“You can’t resign now. The country is at war and you’re in the Navy.”

“The politicians might be at war but I’m not. Let them fight the war.”

“You will find yourself in deep trouble, mid.”

“When I was at school we had to study a poem called Sohrab and Rustum. Have you read it?”

“No.”

“You should. It’s interesting. Way back in olden times when they went to war, instead of killing thousands of people they would choose a champion from each side. Last one left standing won the war and only one man got killed. That seems to me a pretty smart idea. Let’s get Harold Holt or LB Johnson lined up against Ho Chi Minh with pistols at twenty paces. Last one left standing wins the war. And if neither of them is left standing, that’s all the better. Neat, huh? A few less politicians in the world can’t be a bad thing.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. What do you want me to do with this letter?”

“I don’t know. Send it to some admiral or some bureaucrat or some cunt. I don’t give a shit.”

Yet another reception, in Fremantle, welcomed them home as conquering heroes, with speeches by the mayor. Outside the gates of the Port Authority, demonstrators shouted and chanted and waved anti-war placards. According to the paper next day, five were arrested. Jim didn’t see any mention of SOS and wondered whether Shirley had spread her empire across the Nullarbor, as she had planned. He finally received some mail from Jenny, months old, which made the longing even harder to bear. Not long now.

Across the Bight the weather turned cold and rough and a wandering albatross joined the ship, a magnificent creature soaring on effortless wings, wheeling and swooping among the heaving mountains of the sea. Day after day he followed the ship and Jim watched him for hours in a sponson, heedless of the squalls of sleet and rain. He recited what he could remember of Sohrab and Rustum, which wasn’t much; sang Bob Dylan songs, rehearsed what he was going to say to Jenny and repeated conversations from his childhood. There was no one else to talk to among the thousand men on board.

The midshipmen’s board was held before they arrived home, after disembarking the squadrons off Jervis Bay. On a day when the sea was deep blue flecked with whitecaps, Perth drew alongside from her station astern, a rocket line was sent over, a jackstay passed and a bosun’s chair rigged. Perth was a Charles F. Adams class destroyer, an American design with a greater sheer in her bows than the British classes, which had up to now supplied the Australian Navy. Australia was now a customer for American weapons rather than British – a billion dollar business. Every once in a while she dipped her bows and tossed up a plume of spray like a stallion tossing its mane. Snotties waited in the starboard seaboat space on three deck. Some clutched their midshipmen’s journals or records of training, and one or two had an Admiralty manual of seamanship or navigation, which they scanned for last minute clues.

One by one they swooped along the wire stretched between the ships, landed on the destroyer’s deck and presented before the midshipmen’s board in Perth’s wardroom. The board consisted of the captain of Perth and three commanders, who took turns shooting questions.

“How many guns are fired in the salute for the second in charge of a friendly government, mid?”

“Nineteen, sir,” Jim said. Preferably up the arse, he added under his breath.

“What is the meaning of flag golf?”

“Fore, sir.”

“In what way is saturated steam converted into superheated steam?”

“That question’s a bit hard, sir. Engineering is my weak subject.”

“What information is recorded in a sailor’s service record?”

“When he’s recommended for upper yardman training, sir.”

“What else?”

“Can’t think of anything else just now, sir.”

The president of the board told him to wait outside and he leaned over the guard rail while the other snotties went in with worried expressions on their faces and came out radiant. They all passed. Then Jim was called back in.

“Mid, I see you received a year’s advancement from the college, which has reduced your training period as midshipman. The board feels you have been unable to cope with the pressure of the work and therefore recommends you revert to your original class. This means, of course, you’ll go to Dartmouth next year.”

“Yes, sir,” Jim said, but as he walked out, he thought, ‘another year as a snotty? In a pig’s arse.’ Whether his resignation was accepted or not, Jim was getting out of here.

Chapter 15

On the big day Jenny was dithering, wondering what to wear. Jim always preferred her in skirts rather than pants and he liked her hair in a pony tail. He said it made her look younger. She didn’t want to look too tarty but she chose a yellow off-the-shoulder top and she’d bought new sexy underwear especially for today but that would be for later, of course.

“Aren’t you ready yet, Jennifer?” Shirley called from the main bedroom. “I’m late already.”

“You go ahead, Mum. I’ll catch up later.”

“Very well. We are assembling in the Domain.”

Actually, Jenny thought she would give the demo a miss. The ship was due about midday according to the Navy and she had obtained a pass to allow her into the dockyard. Shirley’s event was starting hours before that. She’d heard all the speeches before and didn’t need to hear them again. She decided to wait here on the balcony and see the ship come in through the heads and take some photographs. There would still be plenty of time to get to the dockyard. The Navy had been sparse with information and some of her letters to Jim were returned. She didn’t understand that. Anyway, he would soon be home and could tell her all about Vietnam.

From the balcony it was a great view of the ship steaming up the harbour with sailors on parade on the flight deck, a brass band playing and flags flying in bright sunlight. Of course, she couldn’t see Jim from this far away. She got a taxi to the dockyard and, despite having to force her way through the demonstrators, arrived in time to see the huge grey ship pushed alongside the wharf by tugs.

The crowd on the dockside were family groups with kids waving placards reading ‘Welcome home Daddy’ and wives waving and cheering, except for a few mopping their eyes with handkerchiefs. So this is what it would mean to be a sailor’s wife: weeks or months without seeing him and then this turmoil of emotion, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Once the ship was tied up, the sailors were released from their parade on deck and crowded the guard rails searching for their wives and kids. It all seemed chaotic to Jenny but she supposed there was method in it. They would have things to do to tidy the ship up before they could come ashore, but why was it taking so long?

She didn’t spot him until he was nearly at the bottom of the gangway. She waved and called but he didn’t see her. She had to squirm through the crowd and was nearly within arm’s length before he responded, but not in the way she had expected. There were tears rolling down his cheeks, and that’s why he had failed to see her.

“Jim, are you okay? Jim, what’s wrong?

He groped towards her like a blind man, threw his arms around her and squeezed so hard it hurt.

“Jim, what is it? Jim, please speak to me.”

He made a gurgling noise, cleared his throat and tried again. “I love you.”

It sounded like a growl. She could barely understand the words. What had happened to her man? She had never seen him like this before. She fished a tissue out of her handbag and began mopping his eyes. It didn’t seem right to see him like this. Jim Price was a strong man, physically and mentally. Who was this person?

Eventually, he snuffled and attempted a smile, took the tissue and wiped his own eyes.

“Sorry,” he said. “So stupid.”

“Not stupid, Jim, but something’s troubling you.”

“I’m okay. I’m okay. Don’t fuss.”

“Well, are you off the ship? Can you come home?

“Yes, I’m off the ship. Forever.”

“What do you mean, forever?

“I’m not going back.”

“Are you going to another ship?”

“No. No more ships.”

She had now taken a step back and was able to get him into view. He looked almost furtive and would not meet her eyes. It was a strange expression.

“I don’t understand.” Her forehead creased in puzzlement. “What do you mean, no more ships? Your whole life is ships.”

“Not any more.”

Has he quit the Navy? She wondered. That seemed impossible for a boy who was paddling a canoe before he could ride a bike.

“Have you left the Navy?”

He nodded; unable to say it aloud. A hundred questions crowded Jenny’s mind but only one was important: “What are you going to do?”

Wrong question. No answer. Jim stared at her with a blank look while the crowd jostled them as sailors were re-united with their families.

“Well, let’s go home,” she said, and then realised the worst lay ahead. She could hear the demonstrators outside the dockyard gates chanting “Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?” Shirley had marshalled her troops to demonstrate against what she called The Evil Regime. Both Jenny and her mother were quite clear that The Evil Regime was the politicians and not boys conscripted into the Army to do their dirty work. It was also clear that many of Shirley’s followers did not understand that distinction. There had been several cases of soldiers and sailors harassed by mobs.

“Jim, do you have any civilian clothes in your bag there?”

“Yes,” he said, looking surprised. “A pair of trousers and a couple of shirts. Why?”

He was docile as she explained and led him around behind a big stack of steel pipes, where he shifted into plain clothes and dumped his Navy cap, white shirt and shorts in a rubbish bin.

Jenny successfully smuggled him out of the dockyard and took him home in a taxi. She worried about him. He seemed lifeless. She couldn’t get him to talk. Far from telling her all about Vietnam, he would tell her nothing except there was a beach called Bondi and hills called Dandenongs.

By the time Shirley came home exuberant about the apparent success of the demo, Jim had drunk half a bottle of her vodka.

“Welcome back, James,” she said with a sweep of her arm inviting him into her domain as she joined them on the balcony.

Jenny winced and hastened to fill the gap when Jim failed to respond.

“Jim’s leaving the Navy, Mum.”

“Is that right, James? What are you going to do?”

“Kill babies.”

“What? Kill babies? What are you saying?” She made a nervous little smile, not sure if he was joking.

“Kill babies,” he said with his mouth twisted in scorn. “That’s what we do in Vietnam, isn’t it? According to your demo today.”

Shirley looked puzzled for a moment and then light dawned. “Oh that? That’s just a protest group from Sydney University. Probably lesbians. Nothing to do with SOS. Pay no attention.”

Shirley helped herself to some of her own vodka, squinting at the depressed level in the bottle.

As if she didn’t already have enough problems, Jenny was deeply worried about her man. They slept in the same bed that night but the sexy underwear failed to entice him, and that was very much out of character. The worst part was he would not talk. He answered every question in monosyllables and she eventually gave up in frustration, turned her back to him and went to sleep.

She left early next morning to go to work and when she came home in the evening Shirley said Jim had left soon after breakfast.

“Where was he going?”

“He didn’t say.”

He can’t have just vanished, she believed. He can’t just walk away from the times we have had together. How she had been looking forward to his homecoming and now it was shattered. She felt hurt, powerless and distraught, and that was very much out of character for her.

There was also the matter of Paul, who had been medically discharged from the Army and placed in a rehab program at the Concord Rehabilitation Hospital. Jenny visited usually once a week, Shirley visited when she could fit it into her busy schedule and Richard, her father, visited once in a while whenever he got around to it. Jenny often felt she was the only one who cared about the family, such as it was. She had held a not-so-secret hope that Jim might join the family but now he seemed distant, remote, self-absorbed.

After a week went by with no news, she looked up Jim’s parents’ phone number and spoke with his mother, who sounded frail but pleased that Jenny had called.

“Jenny, I’ve been dying to meet you. No, he’s not here. I thought he’d gone back to the Navy without telling us, but he usually leaves his car here when he goes to sea. He was upset because he found Rex had died.”

“Who is Rex?”

“Rex was his Labrador dog that was more like a brother than a dog. He never had any brothers or sisters and I feel a little guilty about that. We should have given him brothers and sisters.”

Jenny realised Jim had not told his mother about leaving the Navy. In fact, she now wondered under what circumstances he had left the Navy. Was he a deserter and had he gone into hiding like Paul evading the draft?

She declined Mrs Price’s invitation to come and visit, at least for the time being, and hung up.

So, where was Jim in his red Volkswagen?

 

Chapter 16

Jim always knew he would have to go back and face the music. Whenever he caught a news item on the radio about the Vietnam demos, it always seemed to include the chant Hey, hey, LBJ; how many kids did you kill today? and he would see again the lifeless eyes and pixie ears of the boy he had murdered in the Mekong River. The whole movie played every time. He saw the body swept away in the muddy stream. He felt the steamy heat, saw the pillars of smoke over the jungle and heard the whap whap whap of helicopters. He saw again that other boy sitting backwards on a buffalo, waving and smiling as the ship went by. If he happened to be driving, he had to pull off the road in the Volkswagen before he crashed it.

He was working on a railway line on the western plains of Queensland; a landscape so flat and featureless it reminded him of the sea except for a few trees, kangaroos and kookaburras and the railway tracks converging to a point in the direction of sunset. Jim was an engineer fettler; his job to maintain a giant machine that picked up the tracks so sleepers could be replaced and the line straightened. The crew lived in an accommodation carriage like a ship on wheels but without a pointy front end. Once a day it had to be pulled into a siding to allow the train to go by and in the evenings the crew relaxed with a barbecue, a few beers and the cackle of kookaburras. Jim had found refuge in this landscape with a horizon nearly as flat and distant as the ocean’s, where the conversations were all about football and cricket. The main thing missing was Jenny’s lopsided smile.

When the radio news reported the massacre by American soldiers of about 500 people in a village called My Lei, it destroyed this precarious peace. He knew he would have to go back. One of the letters waiting for him on return from Vietnam, redirected by the Navy to his parents’ address, had been from Chook Fowler. Chook had informed him the damages claim against the government over the sinking of Voyager had been disallowed by the High Court on the grounds it was not possible for members of the defence force to take legal action against their own government.

Why the fuck not? Jim wondered. In some countries – not Australia, of course – members of the defence force had a habit of bumping off governments they didn’t like and installing themselves in charge. On second thought, Jim recalled from history that Captain Bligh, of mutiny on the Bounty fame, had been deposed as Governor of New South Wales by Major Johnston during the appropriately named Rum Rebellion. Mutiny was no stranger to Australia after all. Given the brutality of the English treatment of convicts in the world’s first gulag it was surprisingly rare, however.

Chook had finished his enlistment and was setting up a business as an electrical contractor in Melbourne. He had located some hotshot lawyer who said the government was not above the law, and he was going to appeal. Unfortunately, he didn’t come cheap and Chook wondered whether Jim could spare 20 dollars for the fighting fund. If the appeal and the court case were successful he would get his money back in spades, according to Chook.

It read like a pamphlet and Jim wondered how many had signed up for the campaign. Twenty dollars was 20 dollars in Jim’s unemployed situation at that time. Over two hundred men had survived the Voyager sinking and 20 dollars a head was better than 4,000 dollars. How many hours of a lawyer’s time did that buy? He thought it over for a day or two and then decided what the hell? He was thankful that Chook was prepared to run with it. Jim had sent off a money order and then thought no more about it.

Also enclosed was a photocopied press clipping from a Melbourne newspaper. A politician named John Jess, on the government side of politics, was calling for a second Royal Commission into the sinking of Voyager. He had made speeches in parliament and gained supporters, including an MP who was a prominent barrister. Maybe there was a bit of firepower there, Jim began to believe, but the new Prime Minister, Harold Holt, had so far resisted the call.

Chook had added a note to say that Jess was his local member in La Trobe and was a relation of Melbourne’s Captain Robertson, who had been criticised by the first Royal Commission. Jim suspected that Chook was a driving force behind Jess. He was a persuasive character and didn’t like bullshit any more than Jim. Now, a couple of months later, things seemed to be moving.

Jim had had many discussions and arguments about the Voyager sinking and no one had ever come up with a plausible case to lay the blame on Melbourne’s Captain Robertson. The finding of Royal Commissioner Sir John Spicer was looking more and more suspicious. There had to be an ulterior motive, such as Duncan’s father, who played some kind of role in that enquiry. Spicer was a stooge of the former Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies. Drunken Duncan had killed more Aussie sailors than the Viet Cong. Who was the fucking enemy? Jim wanted to know, and why hadn’t the enemy been punished?

The sinking of Voyager had little to do with the massacre of 500 people in a Vietnamese village but just as the anti-war demonstrators were chanting Hey, hey, LBJ; how many kids did you kill today? Jim composed a jingle of his own: Ho, ho, Harold Holt; the loss of Voyager is all your fault. Possibly a little unfair, since Holt had been Treasurer at the time of the collision, not Minister for the Navy, but one politician is as bad as another and the Minister for the Navy had never been brought to account, which was now within Holt’s purview. He knew he had to go back.

 

On her next visit to Concord, Jenny was informed that Paul had discharged himself from hospital.

What??” She could hardly believe it. “Why weren’t we told?”

Doctor Wilkins, in charge of the rehab unit, was a kindly old man given to wearing bow ties, with white hair and a soft voice. He invited her to sit down on the other side of his desk.

“He is an adult, mentally competent and not under police restraint. He has every right to discontinue treatment.” The doctor clearly regretted this liberty.

“But you could have let us know.”

“Yes, I agree that would have been a good thing to do. I do apologise.”

“So, he’s not cured; he’s just stopped the methadone?”

“He didn’t complete the full course of treatment. He may well be able break the habit. Some addicts do.”

“Did he leave any address or phone number?”

“Only what was on his admission form.”

“If we find him can we bring him back?”

“Only if he agrees to it. We are not a penal institution, you know. Sometimes I wish we were, for their own good.”

She came out of the hospital feeling weak and drained, walked down to the river and found a park bench under a shady tree. She watched a couple of seagulls squawking and circling one another like boxers in a ring. She felt like a boxer herself, reeling from the punches. This was incredible. The case of the vanishing men in her life.

Shirley had said she was too busy to come to the hospital with her. Too busy!

“I’m sorry, dear, but it’s a very inconvenient time. We’ve been planning this conference for weeks. Delegates are coming from all over Australia. I have to be there.”

Shirley had flown out to Melbourne the night before. To Jenny it was absurd. She was attending a conference of Save Our Sons, too busy to save her own son. She had lost sight of the wood for the trees and Jenny was tired and lonely, watching a pair of squabbling seagulls. She caught a bus and returned to the flat in Double Bay, where she called her father on a construction site somewhere out in the western suburbs.

“So, how did it go, Jen?”

“It didn’t go. Paul has disappeared. I thought we had him safe but the doctor says he’s not cured and could get into trouble.”

“The silly little bugger. So what do we do now?”

“I don’t know,” Jenny said, and gave way to the tears welling up inside.

“Come on, girl. That’s enough of that. Come to my place tonight and I’ll give you a slap-up dinner.”

“All right,” she snuffled. She didn’t want to be in an empty house tonight. “Chicken curry, please.”

Richard was at his most flamboyant that night, in a kaftan like Joseph’s coat of many colours and with a Miles Davis LP on the record player. Jenny never failed to be amused by him. He was just what she needed. She often wondered about his love life but he was clever at revealing nothing. The chicken curry with side dishes had been delivered and a bottle of Riesling cooled in an ice bucket. He pulled out a chair for her at the table as if they were on a date.

“First thing we have to do is find him before he gets into trouble,” he said, spooning, curry on to her plate.

“Obvious, but we can’t report it to the police.”

“No, but we can still make use of them.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Vice Squad.”

“What about the Vice Squad?”

“Jenny, my little darling, nothing happens in this city without the Vice Squad knows about it. To put it around the other way, if you want to know anything in this city, just ask the Vice Squad.”

“What does that have to do with Paul?”

“From what you say, he’s going to be requiring heroin. The heroin headquarters of Australia is King’s Cross, which also happens to be Vice Squad Headquarters. Heroin is one of their main businesses, after prostitution. Therefore, or ergo as they say in academic circles, we probably need to deal with them.”

“Oh, God.”

“God doesn’t come into it, my dear. God is missing in action.”

“So is Paul,” she said and silently added ‘and so is Jim.’

“Exactly.”

 

Wanting nothing to do with the Vice Squad, Jenny ventured into the badlands of Kings Cross a few nights later with Shirley in tow under sufferance. The conference had been a success and SOS was bigger and better, with more members signing up daily. Shirley had taken to wearing blue or grey business suits. Power dressing, she called it. Her dream was to force a referendum on the conscription issue and have it banned. Her frustration was that the politicians had re-introduced conscription despite resounding rejections by two referenda in World War I. She’d had legal advice that the constitution should have been amended to outlaw military conscription 50 years ago. As far as Shirley was concerned, the politicians were breaking the law.

Sydney had recently been invaded by American servicemen on R&R from Vietnam and they filled the footpaths, overflowed from pubs and clubs and made it almost impossible to find a taxi. The Cross was just warming up. Spruikers enticed customers into girly night-clubs, whores cruised up and down in hip-length skirts and knee-high boots and the Salvation Army competed with the Devil for their souls.

Jenny headed for the Wayside Chapel, a terrace house squeezed between tenement blocks in an alley smelling of urine

“Why are we going to this place, Jennifer?”

“When Jesse James was asked why he robbed banks he said, ‘Because that’s where the money is.’”

Shirley was miffed at this answer and went into a sulk but Jenny didn’t care.

Inside, weird-looking people slouched on tattered sofas thumbing through magazines or staring into space. Community notice boards carried emergency phone numbers, such as the Drug Referral Centre, and cries of desperation from lost souls seeking similar. Someone had pinned up a translation of the Rig Veda.

Five or six counsellors absorbed in telephone conversations sat at a huge table at the far end of the room. Judging from their expressions, the talk ranged from the erotic to the psychotic. A skinny girl with long, dirty hair wept as she pleaded with someone on the other end of the line.

Shirley slumped in an old easy chair and stared at the social misfits as if blaming them for her own misfortune, while Jenny remained standing. Eventually one of the volunteers, unshaven, with tattoos all over his arms, hung up and nodded at them. They pulled up chairs across the table from him.

“We’re looking for someone named Paul Sanders,” Jenny said.

“Who are you? Fuzz?”

“No. I’m his sister and this is his mother.”

“Freak, is he?”

“Excuse me?”

“Is he a freak? A head? An addict?”

“Yes.”

“So, what’s the problem? OD?”

“I don’t know about that. He’s disappeared from rehab at Concord.”

“Army type, is he?”

“Yes.”

“Well, if he’s got form you better go and talk to the Rev, out the back.”

Down a dark and dingy corridor in a shoebox of an office, the Reverend Ted Noffs sat behind a desk cluttered with papers, files and styrene coffee cups. He had been in the news in recent months, when the Methodist Church charged him with heresy, and the press had made hay with hints of auto-da-fé. He was a portly man wearing a trendy blue suit with flares, a paisley tie and a yellow shirt with button down collars. He introduced his assistant, Bill Crews, seated at a side table. Crews wore jeans and a tatty T-shirt, more in keeping with the sleazy surroundings.

Jenny did most of the talking, with her mother interrupting from time to time to remind everyone that Paul was really a good boy. Noffs listened with his elbows on the desk, both hands supporting his chin and his eyes flicking over the two of them, taking in every detail.

When Jenny got to the part about Paul walking out of rehab he said, “It’s a dangerous stage, I’m afraid, especially if he’s ex-Army. There are other complications. When they drop out of treatment they sometimes go on a kind of binge.”

“Can you help us?”

“We can certainly try. We have quite a few contacts. We can start by looking through the log books to see if he’s called us.”

Crews took them back into the main room and asked the counsellors if they knew anything of Paul. He went through the logbooks recording the details of every call. They were not allowed to see these books and Shirley sat on the edge of her chair staring at the young pastor as he flicked through the pages. Eventually he came over and put his arm around her shoulders.

“If we hear anything I’ll certainly let you know. I’ll pray for him, and for you. The best thing for you to do is go home and rest.”

Shirley looked awful as they came down the steps from the Wayside Chapel. Evidently, she had just begun to realise what this was all about. Paul’s enemy was no longer The Evil Regime, but himself.

“God knows, I did my best but apparently my best wasn’t good enough. I only hope, Jennifer, that if you ever have children they won’t become a burden and a trial to you.”

“Yes, Mum.”

Jenny took her arm to steady her along the crowded footpath. They waited nearly an hour for a cab, observing the wild life.

 

Jenny was intrigued by the workings of the Wayside Chapel, operating within the Methodist Church. From her glimpse of the proceedings however, she had no confidence they were going to find Paul. It looked chaotic and amateurish compared with Royal North Shore. A week later she went back and offered her services as a counsellor. The Rev and Pastor Bill Crews were only too happy to take her on and put her through a training course and taught her a new vocabulary about freaks, heads, highs and lows, bad trips and ODs. Suicides were common. She was shocked to discover just how common. Far more people died from heroin overdose than soldiers killed in Vietnam. Kings Cross was more dangerous than Phuoc Tuy. As the Rev stressed, talking people down from suicide was her most important task. Keep them talking, keep them talking about almost anything was the technique.

She described Paul to those clients who were capable of absorbing the information and asked if they had seen him. The latest photo she had was taken just before he shipped out to Vietnam, but she soon learned the photo of a soldier in his slouch hat was counter-productive. A few actually recoiled in horror at the sight of a baby-killer in uniform and one or two thought he was a cop. Not too tall, not too short; not too fat, not too skinny; blond hair, brown eyes; no distinguishing marks to speak of; softly spoken, but he chews his fingernails. That’s how you will know him. Oh, and he also plays the guitar. At least, these were the characteristics at the last known sighting. She thought it was probably hopeless.

A fair proportion of clients were American soldiers not much different from Aussies except they talked funny. A few had a genuine drug problem, which she passed on to more experienced counsellors, but she suspected others were playing games with her. Then one of them recognised Paul from his photo and she felt a sudden thrill.

“Yeah, I’ve seen this guy somewhere. Now, lemme recollect. I ain’t too clear on the circumstances; I was kinda high at the time, but I remember this guy chewed his fingernails and I thought to myself why doesn’t he grow up? I mean you’re s’posed to stop chewing your fingernails when you you’re five years old.”

Jenny sat forward, leaning across the table. He wore sunglasses, so she could not see his expression, but a Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned at the top gave a glimpse of hair on his chest. He seemed older than her regular clients; maybe late twenties.

“How long ago was this?”

“Couple weeks, more or less.”

“And where was it?”

“Now you’re asking the hard shit. It was definitely somewhere.”

“Where?”

“Just hold on, lady. Don’t rush me. It’s kind of a big house with steps out the front like in the Bronx.”

“Could you find it again?”

He cackled with laughter. “Shit, I dunno. Maybe, if I was on a good high.”

“If I were to go looking for someone with a habit, where would I look?”

“That’s a no-brainer. Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar. That’s Dope Headquarters, run by the fucking spooks. Man, those fuckers have really got an operation going. You ain’t heard about that?’

“No” Jenny said, and shrank back into her chair. She didn’t need to know about spooks. She was just looking for her little brother.

“Do you think Paul might be there?”

“Hell, I don’t know about that. I only seen him just the once. Listen, lady, I appreciate you have a problem regards your brother but we are getting into dangerous territory here.”

“What’s your name?”

“You can call me Zeb. That will do.”

“Do you have a phone number?”

“Shit, no.”

He stood up, knocking his chair over backwards, and fled from the Crisis Centre, glancing back over his shoulder as if afraid she was going to pursue him. She had no intention of pursuing him. She was stunned. She had turned over a rock and nasty things had come out from under it.

Chapter 17

Jim arrived back in Sydney without a clue what he was going to do. After the job on the railway he had a spell as a deckhand on a fishing trawler out of Townsville, still suffering from malaise. There was no point to anything. It was all stupid. His eyes were opened to the way people lived in the real world, as distinct from the Navy, and he was not impressed. On his travels, he had been sleeping under the Volkswagen in a sleeping bag but obviously now he was going to need a job and a roof over his head. The money wasn’t going to last forever. As for Jenny, he didn’t feel up to it. Did she still regard him as a baby-killer? Nevertheless, when he settled on a place it happened to be in Cremorne, a short bus ride or a lengthy walk from Royal North Shore. Maybe that was just a coincidence but he felt better that she was now close, although still beyond reach. After a week he summoned the courage to call her but Shirley answered the phone and he hung up without speaking. Another time he called her from a public phone box and managed to say ‘Hello Jenny,’ but then couldn’t say any more and stared stupidly at the telephone and dropped it on its spiral cord. He backed out of the phone box with the phone bouncing up and down and her voice coming out of it saying, “Jim, where are you? Don’t walk away from me,” as if she could see him through the telephone. He turned and ran.

The apartment was on the ground floor of a small block in a quiet street near the ferry wharf. A park on the other side of the street gave a view across the harbour to Garden Island. He could watch the comings and goings of Navy ships, including Melbourne, which had been away on a cruise to the USA. It was as if the harbour was a bowl with office blocks and red-roofed houses around its rim. He had no garage for the Volkswagen and had to leave it parked in the street. He hardly used it.

He felt he was preparing himself for something, although he knew not what. Each day was a practice run. Restless with spring a month old, he rode the ferry round and round the harbour paying only one fare. He was admonished for staring at people although he meant no harm. He took long walks through the city, especially at weekends, favouring alleys and dark places. He sought out music. He came across a busker playing a cello with a budgerigar riding on the bow and felt a rare moment of delight. Old streets with cast-iron-lace balconies, brassy, tinny tinsel; a painted grin on a cavernous mask; shop signs squeaking in a harbour breeze; pigeons in fig trees and couples strolling in streets or gardens: none of it seemed to have anything to do with him.

He embarked on a career in the Public Service – the Department of Education. He was serving an internship under Mr Chappelow in the mail room. Mr Chappelow had been in the job for 16 years. He smoked cigarettes from a tin of tobacco that spilled flakes over the mail awaiting assortment. He rolled them carelessly, leaving strands of tobacco hanging from the ends. The cigarette stuck to his bottom lip became stained with nicotine and spittle. His fingers were sienna, his face pallid, his shirt collars were all too big for his neck and he reminded Jim of a hospital outpatient. At lunch time he sat on a stool and read the paper while eating his sandwiches. Jim could not imagine himself in Mr Chappelow’s shoes in 16 years time.

And then Jenny knocked on his door one Saturday morning. He stood there gaping at her and she looked back at him with an expression that was at once miserable, on the verge of tears, but also with just a hint of the lopsided smile.

“Hello Sailor. You do make it hard for a girl to track you down.”

Jim backed up into the room feeling actually afraid of her. Not physically afraid; he was stronger than her, but afraid nonetheless.

“How did you find me?”

“Red Volkswagen parked out front is a dead give-away.”

And so, Jenny didn’t think he was a baby-killer after all. It was just those lesbians from Sydney University, who were never going to have babies anyway. This discovery eased his conscience somewhat, although the exploits of Lieutenant Calley gave some credence to their claim. Jim knew he had just been doing his job when he throttled that boy with pixie ears. He might even get a medal for saving Jeparit from being blown up. That’s what he told himself but found it hard to believe. The nightmares continued and he still woke up screaming, even on the nights when Jenny slept over. Sometimes it was Voyager with her propellers up in the air; sometimes it was Harry Van getting incinerated but usually it was the boy with pixie ears. Once when they were walking back from the supermarket with a bag of groceries a helicopter suddenly appeared from behind tall buildings whap whap whap and Jim dived under a parked car and wouldn’t come out until long after it had gone.

Jenny pleaded with him to come to the hospital where they had people who could help him, but Jim would have none of it.

“That’s all bullshit,” Jim would say. “Fucking headshrinkers.”

Then, one Saturday morning Jenny arrived with Richard, who was dressed up like an admiral in a navy blue reefing jacket, a cap with gold leaf on the peak and regulation dockside boat shoes, probably worth a hundred dollars. At the knock on the door, Jim had opened up and found this work of art on his doorstep.

“Hey, Jim, how’s it going, boy?” Richard said, slapping him on the back.

“Okay.”

“Mind if we come in? Jenny and I have a little proposition you might be interested in.”

“Sure, come in. Just a minute and I’ll clear some stuff away.”

“A proposition?” Jim said. “Sounds mysterious.”

Jenny looked as if she was enjoying some joke when she gave him a peck on the cheek. He shifted a pile of laundry off the settee, dumped it in the bedroom and relocated a stack of books into a corner so they had room to sit down.

“Do you want coffee?”

“That would be great, Jim, but don’t put yourself out. We’re just here on a quick visit to see if you can help us out.”

“Help you out? Sure, if I can.”

He put the coffee pot on the gas stove and lit a fire under it while they settled on the settee. Richard threw one leg across the other knee and spread himself out while Jenny was smiling for no apparent reason. Something was going on here, Jim thought.

“You know I have this boat tied up at the Cruising Yacht Club, Jim?” Richard said.

Alcyone. Yes, I remember. Nice boat.”

“It’s costing me a lot of money, just sitting there most of the time. I only ever use it at weekends to take business associates on a harbour cruise. Softens them up, you know. So, our Jenny comes up with the idea that we now have all these Yankee soldiers infesting the town with their pockets full of money and nowhere to go, so, why don’t we introduce them to the beauties of Sydney Harbour?”

“Why not?”

“But a ship needs a captain.”

“That’s the truth.”

“So, how about it, Jim?”

Jim nearly spilled the coffee.

“Is that a job offer? Skipper of Alcyone? Really?

“Yes, really,” Richard said.

Jim’s jaw dropped open and then he said, “Richard, you smooth talker; you talked me into it.”

Jenny burst out laughing. “Jim, you should see your face. Like a cat that’s into the cream. Congratulations, skipper.”

Richard drove them to the Cruising Yacht Club, explaining along the way that today’s passengers were not Yankee soldiers but Robert Askin, Premier of New South Wales, soon to become Sir Robert Askin if the rumours were to be believed, and one of his ministers.

“This is a business trip, Jim, and it’s strictly confidential. I don’t want you talking about this trip to anyone. Do I have your word on that?”

“Sure.”

“The Premier and I have a deal under way. I’m interested in a piece of real estate that needs planning approval and the Premier likes a waterfront property of mine up in Middle Harbour. It’s a straight barter deal. No cash will change hands. There will be no bank deposits or brown paper bags. Today I just want to give him a view of the property from the water and while he’s on board we’ll soften him up with a nice drop of Grange Hermitage and whatever else his heart desires.”

“I understand,” Jim said. “A bit of lubrication on the wheels of democracy.”

“Exactly,” Richard said.

Arriving at the Cruising Yacht Club, Richard unlocked Alcyone and said with a sweep of his hand, “Okay, skipper, she’s all yours.”

What a beautiful little ship she was, although it did not escape him that Alcyone in the legend committed suicide in grief over her husband’s death. She was set up for pleasure, with deck chairs on the quarterdeck and a minibar in the saloon. Plenty of varnish work and shiny brass which, Jim was sure, Richard never polished.

“Do you have a departure checklist?”

“You’ll find it on the bridge. Nice to see a professional in action, Jim. If you need a deckhand, that’s Ordinary Seaman Jenny.”

“Oh, thanks for nothing, Dad,” Jenny said.

Jim had once sworn that he never wanted to see a ship’s engine room again, but this was different. It was music to his ears when the twin caterpillars burst into life, growling like lions. A caterer brought the lunch aboard, set up a table on the quarterdeck and stocked the bar. The two passengers arrived and were greeted with all of Richard’s flair. Askin was a chubby little man, casually dressed for the occasion, with darting eyes that seemed to flick over everything, including the buffet lunch laid out on the table. His Minister for Urban Planning was wearing a suit and tie like any other day at the office.

“Okay, let’s go,” Jim said. “Ordinary Seaman Jenny, let go the headline, let go the stern line and stand by the spring for further orders.”

“Dad, I think you’ve created a monster,” Jenny said as she went about her duties.

With fingertip control on the throttles, Jim backed her out of the pen, out of the marina and set a course down the harbour now coming alive with Saturday sailing. Jenny came and joined him on the flying bridge, having coiled down the mooring lines neatly on deck. Her father had trained her well.

“Happy now, skipper?”

Jim grinned and gave her a hug. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Dad’s wheeling and dealing down there. He said we might go to anchor for lunch and have a swim.”

“Have you heard anything about Paul?’

“No. There was that fellow at the Wayside Chapel that I told you about, but he hasn’t come back. And apparently Dad’s friend in the Vice Squad doesn’t have any news. Paul has just disappeared.”

They motored up Middle Harbour past the Navy hospital and then had to wait for the lifting bridge to open before cruising to the millionaires’ playground of Roseville and Castlecrag. Richard and the Premier climbed up to the bridge and Richard pointed out the real estate in question.

“Just stop for a while, Jim, and we’ll have a look.”

For Askin’s benefit he extolled the virtues of the mansion nestled among palm trees with its own private beach in case the occupants got bored with the swimming pool.

“Guaranteed, gold plate asset, Bob. You’ll be sitting pretty here,” Richard said.

“Nice,” said the Premier. “I’ll think it over. I’m still working on the Victoria Street matter but I expect to have a result before long.”

“Bob, the spanner in the works is the Sydney City Council. I’ve been to New York and they have the same problem; getting rid of those old houses in the Bronx. But they have a progressive attitude there, and you can make a name for yourself by doing away with this council structure and replacing it with an independent planning commission with industry representatives instead of bureaucrats.”

“I agree with you one hundred per cent, Richard, but there’s a lot of public opposition and it could be politically risky.”

“It’s time to move, Bob. The longer we wait the harder it gets. The unions are getting stirred up, especially the Builders Labourers union under that red ragger Jack Mundey. I know the bastard. I used to be a member of the union myself.”

“What do you think, Pat?” Askin asked his minister.

“Richard’s right about the unions, Bob. They are the main worry. But we have a police watch on Jack Mundey. I think we can keep him under control.”

Chapter 18

Consummate businessman that he was, Richard had appointed a booking agent in King’s Cross, the heart of his market, and Jenny advertised Alcyone Harbour Cruises at the Wayside Chapel and promoted it to her fellow counsellors. A cruise on the harbour was probably as good therapy as the clients were likely to get. In the middle of the following week Alcyone took out her first contingent of keen young American soldiers. They were in slightly better condition than the ones Jim had seen in Vung Tau but he was not deceived by the laughter, the smiles and back-slapping meant to conceal the desolation of their souls. Most of it was fuelled by alcohol or drugs, snatching a few days or weeks respite from hell. Jim knew how they felt and commiserated with them.

He soon got into a routine of a run up the river to Gladesville, then back to Middle Harbour, then a stop off a beach somewhere for a swim and a barbecue. Against Jim’s advice, Richard exerted his influence and obtained a full liquor licence and employed a deckhand/cum barman to serve alcohol at exorbitant prices, which had its own complications. Richard also bought him a white uniform with a captain’s epaulettes, which made Jim feel like a wanker. Before long they were doing three cruises a week and that was bound to increase as the word spread.

Much as he enjoyed the work, however, harbour cruises for Yankee soldiers was not a long term career. The war would surely end sometime. Jim found himself looking and listening for Jenny. Coming home, he wanted to find her sitting there, reading or watching TV. Hearing a car pull up outside, he waited for her knock but it was usually just the trumpeter in flat number seven. She sometimes worked twelve-hour shifts at the hospital because they were short-handed, and those were the days she came because Cremorne was closer to North Shore than Double Bay. She worked at the Wayside Chapel a couple of nights a week and Shirley made demands upon her too. Jim was feeling like an intruder in her life and the things they had once dreamed of seemed to have vaporised. This was a strange and alien world he was living in – a packaged world where everything happened in little compartments.

Sydney University opened for enrolments and Jim telephoned for the forms. The lady there said there was no need to hurry but he waited on the post until the package arrived. University was probably his only hope of escape from the fate of the Mr Chappelows of this world but he had no clue what faculty to enrol in. He had many discussions with Jenny about that. He should logically do mechanical engineering but the growl of the caterpillars was enough to satisfy his aspirations in that field. He was a mechanic, not an engineer. He was tempted to enrol in law and make a career out of bringing the Minister for the Navy and Chief of Naval Staff to justice for the death of 82 sailors. He considered that idea for about ten minutes and rejected it. Maybe Chook Fowler had that in hand already. Finally, he settled upon Economics, including Political Science. He was intrigued to know how the system worked or was supposed to work. Where did creatures like Askin fit into the body politic? Highly paid jobs would fall at his feet. He could become a bank manager. He could become a director of large companies. He could become an economics adviser to the Government. He could become a politician. Prime Minister was not beyond the possibilities. Let’s do Economics, the dismal science!

 

Jenny came for a ride in Alcyone one warm, sunny day a few weeks before Christmas. Jim had hardly backed the ship out of the marina when she pointed at one of the passengers, then taking the air on the foredeck, and said, “That’s him.”

“Who?”

“Zeb. The one I told you about. I don’t believe it’s his proper name anyway. He knows Paul. Or at least he said he met him once.”

“Well, are you going to go and talk to him?

“It might be better if you talk to him. He’s already brushed me off once and he’s never been back to the Wayside Chapel.”

During the lunch break, Jim sidled up beside Zeb on the quarterdeck and said, “How’s it going, mate? Everything okay?”

“Just fine, skipper. Just fine. I have to say, you have a nice little ship here.”

“I agree with that. How are you finding life in King’s Cross?”

“It’s a pretty wild town.”

“Bit of a drug problem, I believe.”

“You could say that. Yes, that would be true.”

“Friend of mine ran into a little trouble with the dope.

“Zat right? Damn shame.”

“His name’s Paul. You wouldn’t happen to have run into him sometime, would you?”

Jim now had Zeb’s full attention. He removed his sunglasses and scrutinised Jim’s face with an expression that said, ‘Have I met you before?’

“He’s a Vietnam veteran, like you.”

“I ain’t a veteran. The war ain’t over yet. Maybe I won’t ever get to be a veteran.”

“His sister and his mother are keen to find him. You wouldn’t have a clue where they might look?”

Most of the passengers were grazing at the smorgasbord but a few had taken the plunge and gone for a swim. Zeb obviously had no interest in that. He pointed with his chin and strolled across to the offside guard rail with a beer in his hand. Jim followed.

“That’s your lady is it? I seen her at the Wayside Chapel. She asked me about her brother. Maybe I’ve seen her brother and maybe I ain’t. I seen so many things it all gets mixed up in your head.”

“She just wants to find him. Where should we start looking? His name’s Paul.”

“I already told her that. Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar. That’s where it’s all at. That’s where it happens, man.”

“Where what happens?”

“Why, all the shit. Everything happens at the Bourbon and Beefsteak. You been to the Nam?”

“No, I’ve never been to Vietnam.” Zeb didn’t need to know his history.

“Well, you probably don’t know what kind of shit happens. Your lady said this Paul was in Nam.

“That’s right. That’s where he picked up his habit.”

“Lotta GI’s pick up a habit. Ain’t no fault of theirs. Know what I’m saying?”

“No. What do you mean?”

“So much shit goin on, after a while your head cain’t stand it no more. Some guys eat their gun. Some start shootin up. Some just go crazy. Shootin up is the easy way out.”

“Where do you get the dope?”

“No problem. Nam is full of dope but the high class shit comes in over the border from Laos. Special Delivery.”

“What do you mean, special delivery?”

“You ain’t been to Nam so maybe you ain’t heard of Tiger Airlines? Air America?”

“I’ve heard of Air America. That’s CIA.”

“Right on, man. Special delivery.”

“Are you telling me the CIA is selling dope to their own soldiers?”

“Not officially, and ain’t no one gonna admit it.” Zeb made a humourless laugh and took a swig of his beer.

“Know what CIA stands for?”

“No.”

“Cunts In Action. Know who owns the Bourbon and Beefsteak?”

“No.”

“Spooks.”

“CIA?”

“Correct.”

“Fuck.”

“Bernie Houghton is the manager there. He is a hotshot pilot. He can land an airplane on the back of a buffalo and take off out of a paddy field. You heard of the Golden Triangle?”

“Poppy fields of the world. Sure.”

“Bernie has been workin the Golden Triangle for a couple years buildin up the business for the CIA. Nam ain’t the only country where the Commies are taking over. In Laos there is a Commie outfit called Pathet Lao. You ever hear of them?”

“No.”

“They don’t make the news much. The good guys in Laos are called the Hmong Army, fightin the Pathet Lao, but they are dirt poor, like most slopeheads. Their main crop is poppies but they have to get their product to market. That’s where Bernie Houghton and Air America and the CIA come in. The CIA helps out by buyin their dope and sellin it on the market in the States, mainly in New York, my home town, and now right here in Sydney at the Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar and also the Texas Tavern.”

“Shit,” Jim said eloquently.

“Neat huh?”

“But not very original. Queen Victoria thought of it first.”

“Howzzat?”

“Queen Victoria. The British Empire had a deal like that going between India and China a hundred years ago. There is nothing new under the sun.”

“Hey, man. That’s Ecclesiastes. You Christian?”

“No. I gave it away.”

“I can tell you, the CIA has big plans for Australia. I’ve seen what the dope can do in my home town and I reckon it would be a shame for Sydney to go the same way. I kinda like Sydney, only why don’t you get a proper name for it?”

“How about Fred?”

“I never heard of a city called Fred. We have a city in the States we call LA, which is actually short for Ciudad de los Angeles, the city of angels, only now it’s full of gangsters. Names are important.I’m sorry to hear about your buddy, Paul, but you’re gonna see a lot more dope around town in future. The spooks need cash to pay for their unofficial operations. You’re gonna see the CIA set up their own bank here in Sydney. They already done that in the Bahamas but they got sprung by the IRS, the Internal Revenue Service, because they weren’t payin tax, and ain’t that a fucking joke.

Zeb had a laugh over the idea of the CIA paying tax on their profits but Jim didn’t find it very funny.

“How do you know this stuff, and who are you really?”

“Let’s just say I’m an ordinary Joe with an interest in communications. I’m a radio tech. You’d be surprised what you can find out just by listenin on the air but you have to know the right frequencies.”

“I might take a look at the Bourbon and Beefsteak.”

“Do that. The steak’s good. And by the way, that lady of yours, she’s really some broad.”

“I know. Hands off. Know what I’m saying?”

Chapter 19

Bernie Houghton was a big jovial fellow wearing Texas boots and a cowboy hat even while serving behind the bar. A jazz band with female vocals warmed the customers up amidst a fog of cigarette smoke and a babble of voices. Jim had briefed Richard on his conversation with Zeb and he’d been keen to come along. He had abandoned his nautical fancy dress in favour of jeans with a suede leather jacket. He bought a couple of beers and they sat in a cubicle where they could take the measure of the Bourbon and Beefsteak bar and observe Bernie Houghton in action.

“There’s big money coming into town, Jim,” Richard said. “I can believe what you say about the CIA but I don’t know how that’s going to lead us to Paul. He’s probably bombed out in some hippy commune by now. I checked with Murray a few days ago and he has no information.”

“Who’s Murray?’

“Detective Sergeant Murray Riley. Vice Squad. A tough customer but he has his finger on the pulse of King’s Cross. Want to know about anything happening in the Cross? Just ask Riley.”

“Have you given up on Paul?”

“No, but he’s let us down so many times before. It was a real surprise when he volunteered to join the Army. I could have got him out of the country and we wouldn’t have this problem now.”

“Volunteered is hardly the right word, Richard. For all intents and purposes he was drafted, wasn’t he?”

“I guess so.”

Rich kids and the sons of politicians probably didn’t have to worry about the draft, Jim realised.

For the time being, Richard was content to listen to the jazz and scan the crowd; overwhelmingly young American soldiers with a thread of tarts on the make. If there was any dope-peddling it was not obvious.

Jim wondered aloud whether they might run across Zeb. Then he said, “Come to think of it, they only get two or three weeks leave and Zeb’s been around longer than that.”

“What are you saying?”

“It’s about six or seven weeks since Jenny met him in the Wayside Chapel.”

“Maybe he’s on long service leave or something.”

“Soldiers in Vietnam don’t live long enough for long service leave.”

“So that means he’s gone AWOL, does it?”

“I’d say so. And if so, their military police are probably looking for him. Zeb must be feeling pretty lonely at the moment. I wonder where he sleeps.”

They ordered a meal and when it arrived Richard handed the waiter a message written on a page torn out of a notebook from his breast pocket.

“Would you pass that on to Mr Houghton please? I’m keen to have a conversation with him.”

“Certainly, sir.”

Zeb was right about the steak. It was done to perfection. They lingered over the meal and a bottle of Barossa Valley red with Richard enquiring whether Jim’s intentions towards his daughter were honourable, although not in those exact words.

“You’ve been through a rough patch Jim. Knocked her around there at one stage, didn’t you.?”

This was one topic Jim never wanted to discuss. He had no memory of it but could not deny Jenny’s black eye and her fear of him. That’s why she was still wary about moving in. Where had he been during those black moments? It was just a blank. He came out of it writhing on the floor with her stroking his back, which only added to the horror when he realised what he had done. The most heartbreaking thing she had ever said to him was when he came out of it with her stroking his back and whispering, “It’s okay, Jim, it’s okay, I’m here,” her face all puffy from his blows. There was nothing in his life he was more ashamed of.

“I don’t even remember it. I have no idea how it happened. It’s the last thing in the world I would ever think of doing.”

“Don’t worry; she’s forgiven you, although God knows why. She has a fancy name for it. Neurocirculatory asthenia.”

“What does that mean?”

“I have no idea.”

“I haven’t had a nightmare for a couple of weeks. I’m coming good now.”

“I believe you are, skipper.”

The Bourbon and Beefsteak did not slacken, in fact it ramped up and Bernie Houghton was still busy behind the bar. Jim was about to suggest they call it off when the man himself arrived at their table wearing an absurd little black apron to contrast with his cowboy boots.

“Mr Sanders, is it? I believe you have a business proposition.”

“Maybe, Mr Houghton. Please sit down.”

“Call me Bernie.”

“I’m Richard. This is Jim.”

“What can I do for you, Richard?”

On closer inspection, the joviality he displayed serving customers camouflaged a worn-looking face wrinkled around the eyes. Or maybe he was just tired. He sat sideways on the seat, uncomfortable in the little cubical. It would be useless to ask if he had seen a young fellow named Paul among his hundreds of customers.

“A friend of mine is an investor in your business,” Richard said. “Abe Saffron. He said you might be looking for more equity partners.”

Houghton shot him a look of sudden intensity. “Well, yeah; I know Abe. He said that?”

“Certainly did. ‘Thriving little business,’ he said.”

“If you come recommended by Abe, I would certainly consider doing business with you.”

“Obviously, you’re in the hospitality business, it’s a prime location and you have a unique selling proposition.”

“We’ve only been open a few months and we’re doing very well but, I mean, we have expenses; we have overheads.”

“I understand,” Richard said with an understanding smile. “I believe you might be planning to diversify.”

“I wouldn’t care to comment on that, Richard. You understand, it’s a competitive business. I like to play my hand close to the chest.”

“Of course, but perhaps I could get my solicitor to call on you for due diligence.”

“Happy to, Richard. Here’s my card. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work. As you can see, the joint’s hopping.”

He departed with what seemed to Jim unseemly haste and Richard still had the little smile on his face. Smug, was the word that came to Jim’s mind.

“I didn’t know you were going to buy shares in the place,” Jim said.

“I’ll start by getting a look at his books. They can’t be complete fiction.”

“What about the CIA and the dope? You won’t find that in his accounts.”

“One thing at a time, Jim. One thing at a time. Softly, softly, catchee monkey.”

“And who is Abe Saffron?”

“Just a business associate. He’s a partner in my Victoria Street development.”

 

The silly season over Christmas and New Year was a hard time for Jim. The boys really played up. He broke up a few fist fights and saved a couple from drowning. He blamed it on the demon drink. One of Premier Askin’s achievements during his time in office was to introduce random breath tests for drivers on New South Wales roads. So far the breathalyser had not been applied to boat skippers or Navy captains, but abstinence on board was a rule that Jim applied to himself. Ashore was a different matter, of course.

The good news was that his academic record had been approved by the university and he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship, which paid tuition fees and a living allowance.

“Holy shit,” he said to Jenny. “How about that!” This was better than anything he had expected.

“Well done, Jim. Let’s hope this is the start of a new life for you. No more nightmares.”

No more nightmares. If only.

Sydney University was like the naval college in many respects, which he found hardly surprising. Both institutions were indistinguishable from their English counterparts and both were devoted to turning out a product worthy of English society at the fag end of the decline and fall of the British Empire. The buildings were of pale sandstone around a quadrangle with cloisters, the gardens were neatly bordered beds of roses and geraniums and nary a gum tree spoiled the illusion that this was an enclave somewhere in Kent or Middlesex. Stone tablets in alcoves bore rolls of honour commemorating the dead of previous wars; university staff who had paid the supreme sacrifice as these scrolls put it. Jim read them carefully, every single name, but in the end that’s all they were – names of dead men lost in futile wars.

There was no nuggeting, no gauntlet and not even running quarterdecks as far as he could see. Newbies were not called sprogs or first years but freshers. They crammed the Great Hall for the official welcome. Led by some officer bearing a white stick like a ceremonial sword, academics in gowns and mortarboards, or soft velvet caps in the case of Ph.D.’s filed in to a chorus from the choir. They took their seats on a flag-draped stage while freshers fidgeted in the body of the hall, the rabble. Pageboys in the rafters sounded trumpets to herald the arrival of the chancellor, a wizened ancient. It was just like the Navy, really, except for the singing. No one in Pussers ever sang, at least not officially. Sea shanties were out of date like swords, telescopes, top hats and swallow tail coats.

Later, while freshers sat in groups on the main lawn to eat their sandwiches and read their pamphlets, a man with a beard and long hair stalked up and down a low wall by the flower bed outside the Great Hall. Through a bullhorn he told of wicked Yankee imperialists wreaking genocide upon the innocent peasants of Vietnam. Any student who had received a draft notice should burn it, he said, and then started a chant, which the freshers joined in, “No! No! We won’t go.”

Next speaker was some female wearing a white robe and sandals. The gist of her speech was that male chauvinist pigs had caused the Vietnam War and all women should unite in sisterhood in support of the poor defenceless women of Vietnam. This war and all the wars in history were examples of the need for the oppressive male ego to dominate women, she said. Not until women gain political control of the world will they free themselves of the stifling domination by men, she explained.

Jim waited until she finished and then walked out of the university gates and caught a bus through the city to the ferry wharf. He leaned over a rail staring into the water, watching the seagulls until his ferry came. From mobi to snotty to male chauvinist pig and baby-killer, he had an identity problem. He wanted nothing more to do with the Vietnam War but on that first day began to realise it had not done with him. He was seeing again the vision of that boy with pixie ears and bulging eyeballs: the boy that he had murdered.

At Cremorne Point he jumped ashore before the ferry even docked and ran up the hill, fumbled with the key and shoved the door open.

“Jenny! Jenny!”

Not home. She had more or less moved in but he sensed she might fly the coop unless he was very, very careful. He’d forgotten she was on afternoon shift, just when he needed her. He slumped on the sofa, which still smelled of the previous tenant’s dog, and stared at the three porcelain ducks flying up the wall in bomber formation, heading north for Hanoi, he thought. By the time she came home he’d given the vodka bottle a nudge, not that he usually drank vodka but Jenny had confiscated it from her mother and it seemed a shame to waste it.

“So, how was your first day at university?” she asked, untying the bow at the back of her starched, white nurse’s apron.

“Okay,” he said. “Do you think I’m a male chauvinist pig?”

“Absolutely! An extreme example.”

“Oh. In the Navy, pigs were officers.”

“What makes you ask that suddenly? I mean, you’ve been a male chauvinist pig as long as I’ve known you.”

“And you don’t mind?”

“Well, it’s not your fault, I suppose. It’s probably genetic. I’ll just have to work on it. Come here and I’ll start work on it now.”

He took her in his arms and held her warmth and softness. Mornings, waking with his beautiful Jenny beside him, he lay there watching her chest rise and fall under the sheet, her long blond hair across her face and the shadows of the peppercorn tree outside the window falling on the blind she insisted on pulling down at night. The morning sun shone into the room and she didn’t like being wakened too early after shift work. He generally brought her coffee and toast in bed and teased her a little for a sleepy head, knowing that as soon as they were apart it would begin again, the stalking by monsters. The bad times always came when she wasn’t here.

 

Throughout Orientation Week, the student union organised draft-notice burning ceremonies. Representatives handed out leaflets saying they would assist any student who refused to go to Vietnam. Jim wondered if these kids had taken legal advice because the pamphlets seemed to him in the same class as inciting a mutiny, which could get the organisers into trouble. Did they know about Ordinance 418? He wondered if they were protégés of Shirley but never asked. The pamphlets did not have dit dit dit dah dah dah dit dit dit, so it might be some rival organisation. Antiwar protest was a growth industry. Mass mutiny.

Students occupied the office of the dean of history when the semester began, tossing chairs out through the windows and barricading the doors. The university guards were baffled and the vice chancellor threatened to call in the police, an unprecedented action on these hallowed grounds. After three days the office was surrendered to the dean, considerably damaged, and the papers thundered against student hooligans.

It seemed the whole world was in revolt against the Vietnam War and Jim couldn’t pick up a paper without reading of student riots in America, Europe or England. In Paris, students went on a rampage led by someone called Danny the Red, setting fire to buildings, barricading themselves in the Sorbonne and fighting battles with police. Many were killed. The London School of Economics closed down when students and staff abandoned the academic life to follow a vocation as protesters. Berkeley University, in California, was the scene of military invasions, with troops arriving by helicopter to quell riotous students. The cover of one of Norman Mailer’s books depicted a hippy presenting a flower to a line of hard-faced US Marines who confronted him or her (you couldn’t really tell the sex of a hippy unless they took their pants off) with fixed bayonets. But there was something wrong with that picture: the marines seemed too old. In fact, they would only have been about the same age as the hippy, which was the saddest thing in that vivid image. The war upon the young had turned youth against youth.

For Jim at Sydney University it was a question of survival, although he did get enjoyment from shopping for books. After making his selection he carried them home like treasure, the older and more dilapidated the better. Since they had no bookshelves he stacked them on the floor around the skirting board, convinced that somewhere in those books, or if not those particular ones then somewhere in traditions going back millennia, he would find the answers. Thoreau? J.S. Mill? Tom Paine? Even Plato. Instinctively, he turned to the literature of revolution. The world is not supposed to be like this. Something’s wrong somewhere. Help me. Help me, you dog-eared books scored through and underlined by earnest students. But the passages they had underlined were of no use in his search because they were trying to satisfy examiners and he was trying to satisfy himself.

When the university regiment paraded for inspection Jim kept buried in the crowd. He was sure that CIA, ASIO and assorted other spooks as well as the local coppers would be watching. The university newspaper, Honi Soit, had railed against the existence of the regiment and their parade ground on the other side of City Road had been splattered with paint bombs. Someone in his wisdom had decided the state governor, Sir Roden Cutler, who was some kind of hero from World War II, should inspect the regiment. This male chauvinist pig was a winner of the Victoria Cross.

Student leaders had been exhorting students for days to demonstrate contempt for militarism, imperialism, sexism and a number of other isms and they were out with their bullhorns. A contingent of women waved banners that said ‘The Women of Vietnam are our Sisters,’ and ‘Women of the World Unite.’ Another banner said ‘Abortion is Every Woman’s Right,’ and Jim wondered, ‘Who are the baby-killers?’

The regiment in their slouch hats marched on to the roadway and two sheilas ran out in front of them waving their bras. They struck a match and set fire to them. They must have been soaked in petrol because they went off with a whoomph. The regiment marched around them, halted in front of the Great Hall and turned into ranks to await the arrival of the Governor while hecklers shouted through their bullhorns.

Sir Roden Cutler rolled up in his black Bentley. He was dressed in a colonel’s uniform. He climbed out and was pelted with eggs and tomatoes. VC winner that he was, he stood his ground for several minutes but the barrage did not abate and, prudent soldier that he was, he decided on a tactical withdrawal. He climbed back into the Bentley and was driven hastily away.

Students were again blasted for hooliganism by the papers. One of them carried an interview with the vice chancellor in which he threatened to call in the police if such outrageous conduct was repeated. The same paper carried, in the same edition, the news that President Johnson had ordered an escalation of the carpet-bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. The war was not going well and promises of victory remained unfulfilled. An offensive called Operation Junction City, with 50,000 American troops, had failed. In one week, the Americans suffered over a thousand casualties. A village called Lang Vei was bombed by mistake and 105 Vietnamese civilians were killed, adding to the 500 of My Lei. General William Westmoreland had been granted a further 100,000 men and Prime Minister Holt pledged to increase Australia’s commitment, which was greeted with a howl of outrage in the university.

One difference between Sydney University and the naval college was the large number of students – thousands of them. There was no early morning swim, no morning colour parade, no jobs, no rounds to ensure that shirts were folded eight inches wide and socks rolled sunny side up and one didn’t have to sit in the mess hall with back straight eight inches from the chair. Jim didn’t have to call anyone ‘sir,’ not even his tutor, Terry Carmody, who was more or less equivalent to a divisional officer. It was considered polite to address the Professor of Economics as ‘Professor,’ however.

Lectures took place in the Wallace Theatre, an amphitheatre with the lecturer on a stage. They usually started late because students rampaged up and down the aisles, throwing paper darts and yahooing while the professor stood behind his lectern taking sips of water and wheedling, “People, people. Please take your seats.” Eventually, he started the lecture with no one listening. Jim thought it glorious anarchy, but had to catch up from the lecture notes later.

Carmody was interested to discover that Jim had served in Vietnam, having evaded the draft himself through an accident of birth date. He seemed to Jim like the stereotype academic, with an owlish look and horn-rimmed glasses, although lacking the leather patches on the elbows of his jacket.

“So, I suppose you’ll specialise in the economics of war…” he mused at their first getting-to-know-you tutorial, with about a dozen students sitting around his bookish office in various states of lethargy. There were no females in the class.

“I don’t have to specialise,” Jim said. “That’s what it’s all about. This degree course should be called The Finance of War, not Economics.”

“An interesting comment, Jim. Would you like to flesh that out for us a little?”

“In this war it’s Ladybird Johnson; in the last war it was Baron von Krupp. In any war in history you’ll find someone is making a lot of money, going back to the British East India Company. The stock market was invented by the Dutch to finance their wars in what they called the Far East, which is actually the Near North – Indonesia. War is the tool of capitalism.”

“A dismal picture you paint, Jim. I can see you’ve given some thought to these matters, or perhaps it’s just your unique viewpoint.”

“John Maynard Keynes has no comment as far as I know. Have you heard of a ship called USS Enterprise?”

“No.”

“It’s the biggest warship in history. I don’t know what weapons they have but you can be sure there’s someone on board with his finger hovering over a big red button that could destroy the planet or at least civilisation as we know it. If the captain of USS Enterprise is anything like the captain of HMAS Voyager, you want to shit your pants.”

“A colourful observation, Jim. Thank you for that contribution. Anyone else like to comment?”

He proceeded to discuss the latest lecture and explain points raised by students in a convivial atmosphere that did not seem like a lesson to Jim but just a bit of a chat.

After the tutorial, he asked Jim to wait.

“You obviously have some strong views there, Jim. I’m interested to hear about your experience in Vietnam.”

From the bottom drawer of his desk he took out a bottle of Johnny Walker and a couple of glasses.

“Can I tempt you?”

“Such a smooth talker.”

“As you know, the student union is opposed to the war and, of course, conscription. Perhaps you’d like to take an interest in the campaign?”

“No.”

“Is that a definite ‘no’ or just a maybe?”

“It’s a definite no. And I don’t want to talk about my experience in Vietnam except to say it was all shit.”

“You might be able to save other young men from the same experience. Were you here last year when President Johnson paid us a visit?”

“No, I was in Vietnam.”

“A big demonstration; one of our best. Dozens of people lay down in the road in front of his car. The interesting thing is he was riding in an open car, like President Kennedy when he was assassinated. Lucky for him, there were no snipers around. Premier Askin made a name for himself that day. Apparently, he ordered the driver to ‘run over the bastards.’ Fortunately, the driver disobeyed.”

“So, what did that achieve?”

“Publicity. Consciousness-raising, as we say these days. It probably garnered hundreds of members to our cause.”

“I don’t do politics. These kids don’t understand that everything they are doing is being watched by spooks. With every demonstration, they’re getting themselves branded for the rest of their lives. They might as well get a tattoo on their forehead saying ‘I am a bolshy bastard.’ I happen to believe I have a right to be a bolshy bastard, that’s called democracy, but I’m not going to make a public broadcast about it.”

“Well, you certainly have an original viewpoint, Jim. Sometimes that can be a problem. I would advise caution.”

Chapter 20

His father had not missed an Anzac Day march in 20 years and Jim knew he’d be coming to the city in his only suit with his medals on the left breast and the stupid tie with a big red rose. He was a cranky old bastard but Jim still felt an obligation. Why, he had no idea. Was it some biological imperative or the result of brainwashing as a child that one must respect one’s father? The Navy insisted that one must respect one’s captain simply because he wore four gold stripes on his sleeve, but Jim had discarded that notion. He had no respect for Drunken Duncan. Contempt was an offence under the Naval Discipline Act. Jim could not remember the number of the relevant punishment but he didn’t give a shit anyway. Respect has to be earned in humility, not demanded in arrogance.

On Anzac Day the old man usually got up at four o’clock in the morning to catch the train into the city for the dawn service at the El Alamein fountain, which featured a ball of splashing water. Why they had built it in Kings Cross, amidst the brothels, the night clubs, streetwalkers, drug dealers and crooked cops was a mystery to Jim. If he had been in charge of the project he probably would have put it in the middle of a park somewhere.

He did not attend the dawn service but caught a ferry across to Circular Quay and then walked up the hill to the Domain, where old soldiers mustered in platoons on the grass in the sun under regimental banners. There were no spit polished boots or gleaming brass buckles and the parade ground voice of the RSM was a mere travesty of its former glory. Male chauvinist pigs/baby-killers shuffled into line, self-conscious of the rows of medals on their chests, some pushing the wheelchairs of the veterans of earlier wars. In some cases, the medals were worn by sons, grandsons and granddaughters of male chauvinist pigs who had given their lives.

Jim spotted his father but didn’t feel up to fronting him just yet and lurked behind a Moreton Bay fig tree. With a roll of drums, a blast of bugles and a skirl of bagpipes the procession marched off, not quite in step. The old man marched among the remnants of the Rats of Tobruk, head up, arms swinging and medals swaying against his breast. He looked old and tired but pride held his back straight. From early childhood, Jim had been subjected to an analysis of the relative merits of Rommel and Montgomery, so he had a thorough knowledge of the desert war. For 364 days of the year he was a nobody, but on Anzac Day became a war hero all over again; the confidant of generals and a great military strategist.

The procession wound through city streets with military music reverberating down the canyons. Crowds on the footpaths clapped as their favourite battalions marched into view. Bringing up the rear were the youngest of the veterans, members of the Fifth Battalion, the first time men from Vietnam had ever paraded. The crowd fell silent and then booed and hissed. Some sheila even contrived to spit on one of them.

The Last Post on a bugle had always chewed Jim up and that day before the wreath-bedecked cenotaph, as the wailing notes echoed between the office blocks, he wept. It was the first time he had cried for several weeks but at least in this crowd he wasn’t the only one.

At the going down of the sun,

and in the morning,

we will remember them.

Only, no one remembered Voyager’s 82 dead and the worst thing for Jim was the sight of politicians seeking photo opportunities on Anzac Day for men they or their predecessors had condemned through negligence, incompetence or political opportunism.

The parade reformed and marched off, debouched back into the grassy Domain where the old soldiers began to disperse, heading off to their reunions. For many it was the one day of the year when they caught up with old mates. ‘I guess it’s now or never,’ Jim thought.

His father was standing around with a group of his mates and Jim didn’t want to get sucked into that so he stood back and beckoned. The old man came over.

“Hello, Dad.”

“So there you are. Where the hell have you been?”

“Around.”

He didn’t want to fight with him. All those old battles were over.

“What do you mean around? We haven’t seen you for months. Your mother’s worried about you.”

“I’ll write her a letter.”

“You’re not in the Navy any more, are you?”

“No. I’m at university now.”

“What are you doing at university? You’re one of those poofter Commo demonstrators, are you?”

“No, Dad, I’m not a demonstrator, not a Commo and not a poofter. I’m just trying to get an education.”

“You won’t finish it. You never finish anything. You’re fucking hopeless, boy. You deserted from the Navy in the middle of a war. Fucking traitor.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s right.”

“You’re no son of mine. Piss off.”

There was no point telling him he hadn’t deserted; he had resigned from the Navy and made sure of it by deliberately failing his final midshipman’s exam. He had to make himself appear stupid in order to get out of Pussers, and that was kind of ironic. It also broke his heart.

Jim walked away, down through the Domain where the two up schools were getting started, controlling the urge to slam his fist into a tree. Bemedalled marchers staggered around on the one day of the year when old heroes were tolerated behaving like drunks, the booze the last refuge in which to drown horrors it was impossible to articulate. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum was the last resort of refugees from reality in a crazy world, and heroin was the new rum.

 

A couple of weeks later, the first session of the second Royal Commission into the sinking of Voyager opened in Sydney in the same courthouse where Paul had been convicted of his crimes and sentenced to service in Vietnam. The Prime Minister, Harold Holt, could no longer resist calls from his back bench to reopen the investigation. The MP, John Jess, had tabled a statement in parliament from Lieutenant Commander Cabban, Voyager’s executive officer until a few weeks before the collision, claiming that Stevens had a long history of drunkenness and illness. A front page spread in a Melbourne newspaper: ‘DRUNKEN DUNCAN: Captain and triple brandy,’ seemed to spur the government into action although the comment was not new, having been mentioned at the first Royal Commission.

It was now revealed that three bodies had been retrieved from the sea, those of Captain Stevens, the navigating officer and an able seaman. Autopsies showed a blood alcohol level of .025 per cent in Stevens, .015 in the navigating officer and .005 in the seaman. Publicity in a paper owned by a man named Murdoch seemed to provide the necessary stimulus.

Chook flew up from Melbourne for the event and Jim picked him up at the airport. He almost didn’t recognise him, except for his withered left hand, smartly dressed in a suit and tie and carrying a brief-case; masquerading as a lawyer, maybe. He now had a wife and a couple of young kids: the whole suburban thing. His passion was to achieve justice for Duncan’s victims, whatever that might mean. He was to sleep on Jim’s couch for the duration of the proceedings, which they thought might be three or four days.

There was no shortage of lawyers in the courtroom, which was also packed with press and public, including a few ex-Voyager men, but not as many as Jim had expected. Although the three commissioners were judges, they were not done up in fancy-dress wigs and gowns. In his opening address, Counsel assisting the Commission pointed out this was an inquiry into certain matters raised by Voyager’s former executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Cabban. It was not a lawsuit and Counsel was not appearing in an adversary role. The inquiry’s terms of reference were to establish whether the matters raised by Lieutenant Commander Cabban were of substance and, if so, whether they established that Captain Stevens was unfit for command and, if unfit, did the Naval Board know, or ought they have known, and were they at fault?

On the face of it, Jim was reasonably satisfied with the terms of reference. The Naval Board and, in particular the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Sir Alan McNicoll, should be held responsible. Chook wanted to see the government held liable for compensation and Jim wanted to see McNicoll go to jail for criminal negligence. Jim was no lawyer but he was aware of a recent case where the manager of a coal mine had been convicted of criminal negligence over the death of miners in an underground cave-in. Surely, there was a precedent, he believed.

Cabban was first to take the stand. He had deteriorated since Jim knew him three years before. He had resigned from the Navy, which was the only way he could make his allegations without laying himself open to a charge of mutiny. As he gave his evidence, he appeared nervous, emotional, evasive and seemed to suffer memory lapses. Before answering a question put to him by learned counsel he would gaze into space so Jim wondered whether he was searching his memory or fabricating evidence in his mind. At least, he’d had the gumption to blow the whistle on Stevens but it remained to be seen whether that was mere foolishness.

He had joined the Navy 22 years before at the age of 13. By the time Jim arrived at the naval college the 13 year old entry had been abolished. Mr. Beelsby’s class, the one that he was accelerated into because of his advanced age, were the final cohort of that system and some never matured much beyond the age of 13. This seemed to Jim the root of Cabban’s problems. He was a victim of Tom Brown’s Schooldays brainwashing and still as immature as a pubescent schoolboy, like much of the officer corps of the Australian Navy and every other navy for that matter. The same could probably be said of McNicoll.

The naval witnesses who were called and counsel for the Navy clearly despised Cabban. In him, Jim saw what would have happened to himself had he blown the whistle in regard to the death of Simon Peters. Should he have done so nonetheless? What purpose would it have served? It would be naive to suppose any such action would have had any affect on the Navy’s arrogance. It would require much more than one whistle blower. Chief of Naval Staff going to jail might turn the trick.

Cabban’s problem was he perceived his captain to be unfit for command but the regulations provided no avenue for anyone on board to complain about the captain’s conduct. Correction. The procedure for ratings to make a complaint was to discuss it with their divisional officer and then lodge their request with the master at arms or chief coxswain in the words: ‘Request to see the captain in order to state a complaint.’ In this case, the complaint would be that the captain was a drunkard unfit to command, and it was easy to predict the captain’s response to that. As far as Jim knew, and as far as Cabban was aware, no such procedure was available for pigs to state a complaint.

Cabban feared that if he bypassed Stevens to report him to the admiral he would be guilty of mutiny. The Navy is relentless in pursuit of mutineers. After the mutiny on the Bounty, a vengeful British Admiralty, equivalent to the Naval Board, hunted them down in their South Pacific paradise. They were imprisoned in a cage on the deck of the ship Pandora, which struck a reef on the way home and sank, drowning several prisoners in what came to be known as Pandora’s box. Those who survived were hanged but Voyager’s main problem was the lack of a mutiny. Had there been a mutiny, 82 lives might have been saved.

Although he had been a member of Voyager’s crew during the period covered by Cabban’s statement, Jim had no idea of some of the matters now raised. Of course, everyone knew about Drunken Duncan but it was a bit of a joke. After the lunch break, Cabban told a horror story. What emerged was a picture of a captain so desperate to retain his career prospects that he falsified documents, destroyed evidence, lied and threatened his subordinates. Drinking sessions in port that left him falling down drunk were followed by days in his cabin incapacitated by pain from his ulcer, inflamed by brandy.

Cabban claimed he had to take command of Voyager on several occasions because the captain was too ill but he also believed Stevens only ever drank in harbour and never at sea. Steward Hyland’s evidence to the first Royal Commission, that he had served the captain a triple brandy 90 minutes before the fatal collision, had shattered Cabban’s illusion. There was obviously no record of Stevens’ self-administered intake of alcohol.

Cabban described a birthday party the wardroom laid on for the captain in Singapore. Except on official business, the captain may not enter the wardroom unless invited. This was his birthday party, however, and he burst through the green curtain on the doorway, dropped to his hands and knees and crawled across to the table where dinner was about to be served. First course included corn on the cob but, although Stevens managed to spear his cob with the little forks provided, he was unable to navigate to his mouth, which opened and shut vainly like that of a gold fish. It all proved too hard and he slumped face down into his dinner plate. He had to be carried or dragged to his cabin, where the ship’s doctor attended to him.

To Jim, Cabban’s most interesting revelation was that he then ordered the stewards, who had watched this comedy with glee, that they must not discuss the incident with other ratings. He rewarded or bribed them for their silence with two bottles of beer each. On no account must the emperor be seen to have no clothes on. That’s why, as a mere engine room artificer, Jim had no inkling of the seriousness of Stevens’ condition.

The more he listened to Cabban’s testimony the more appalled he became. If Cabban wanted to expose Stevens’ drunkenness without implicating himself why didn’t he just let the stewards spread the gossip? It would have run around the fleet like the latest dirty joke and eventually come to someone’s ears. But no. At all costs the façade must be maintained and on that night Cabban committed the same crime of which he now accused the Naval Board – a cover up.

Out of Singapore, Voyager took part in exercises with ships of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation, SEATO, which included New Zealand, Singapore, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and UK. Such exercises gave ships practice in replenishments at sea, submarine hunting, aircraft operations and steaming in convoy.

Another purpose of these cruises was called showing the flag and while, for sailors, visits to places like Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila and Yokohama were opportunities to explore bars and brothels, captains and officers were expected to entertain officers of other navies, diplomats, politicians and prominent business people. Cabban described a number of occasions when Duncan disgraced the ship, the Navy and Australia. Cabban had by then learned that Stevens was not only an alcoholic but was also feeding his ulcer with amphetamines, freely available from the ship’s sick bay. According to medical evidence, it was a combination that could produce unpredictable and violent results.

The best indication of Stevens’ mentality was a conversation reported by Cabban from a time when he had become exasperated with his captain’s behaviour.

“Sir, what should I do when you’re drunk?” he’d asked.

“Just say, ‘Sir, you are drunk and must go to bed.’ I will do it, but you must call me sir.”

Such a fragile ego Stevens must have had, Jim thought, like a second year cadet at the college fagging a first year. One of his biggest binges was in Tokyo. He was so ill upon departure that Cabban took command of Voyager for the next five days as the fleet, which included ships of the British Navy, skirted around Typhoon Rose. Cabban seemed to have given up on trying to conceal Stevens’ illness but had been warned not to communicate his condition to anyone outside Voyager. He found one way to legitimately make the situation known. In his capacity as acting captain, he signed official documents such as captain’s night orders and the report on requestmen and defaulters, or punishment returns, as Lieutenant Commander for Captain (Sick).

Stevens recovered and resumed command, diverting the ship to Subic Bay for engineering repairs after an explosion in the boiler room. Jim remembered this period well. One of the boilers had burst a tube and the whole engineering department worked overtime to fix it. During this period Charlie had a big run-in with The Baron over something or other. Jim couldn’t remember what it was but Charlie hated The Baron, which is what made his behaviour on that last night so strange. Jim still couldn’t understand it. Charlie should have left The Baron to drown. Fuck him.

Stevens arose from his bunk and discovered that Cabban had been signing official documents ‘Lieutenant Commander for Captain (Sick).’ He burst into Cabban’s cabin clutching the punishment returns and shouted, “You’re not going to get me like this.”

Stevens had the punishment returns retyped and signed them as officer awarding punishment. He told Cabban to sign in the space for prosecuting officer. If he refused, he would be arrested, charged with mutiny and certified insane by two doctors, the ones who had failed to report Stevens’ medical condition. He would be injected with a tranquilliser and returned home in a strait jacket to the psychiatric ward of the Repatriation Hospital where he would be given electro-convulsive shock treatment until his brain turned to mush.

Cabban signed. Three days later, he said, the chief coxswain approached him in a state of distress. The captain had given him an unlawful order to sign the false documents. Cabban’s response was to order the swain to comply, not only becoming complicit in Stevens’ crime but also committing the same crime independently and again participating in the cover up.

 

At the end of the first day’s hearing, Jim was exhausted and Chook furious. At a pub just down the road from the courthouse, several of the participants gathered with a babble of conversation. Jim ordered beers; they found a corner out of the crowd and clinked glasses for cheers.

“Mate, those arseholes don’t give a fuck about eighty two dead sailors,” Chook said. “All they’re doing is covering their arse.”

“That’s politics,” Jim said.

“Well we need to sort out their ideas for them. This Royal Commission isn’t going to be any better than the last one.”

“Tall order, Chook. What about that politician of yours? Jess.”

“All he’s interested in is getting Robertson’s pension back. It’s his cousin or his uncle or something. No one’s interested in blokes that are fucked up in the head or the wives of blokes that got killed. All we got from Pussers was a couple of weeks leave and sent back to sea with a bandage on if you happened to be hurt. That was the compensation – a free bandage from Pussers. Do you remember a seaman called Bluey Wilmot?”

“No, can’t say I do.”

“Threw himself in front of a train a couple of weeks ago.”

“I read about that. I didn’t know he was a Voyager man.”

“That’s the point. No one knows. No one cares. We have to make them care.”

“Strength to your bow, Chook.”

“I’m going to bite you for another twenty. Fucking lawyers.”

“Welcome.”

Jim was sceptical about Chook’s project but at the same time admired him for what he was doing.

On the second day, the commissioners turned their attention to the medical evidence although Voyager’s medical officer, Lieutenant Tiller, was not available for cross examination, which Jim thought quite remarkable. He had been posted to a position in Australia House in London. If anyone knew about Stevens’ medical condition it was he, but he had been drafted to the other side of the world to remove him from the scene. The Navy certainly knew this Royal Commission was coming up, so posting a vital witness like Tiller to London was clearly designed to derail the enquiry. Secretary of the Department of the Navy, Mr Sam Landau, testified that Doctor Tiller had provided a written statement in response to Cabban’s allegations but had since requested it be withdrawn. It had been shredded in Navy Office. Secretary of the Department of the Navy had shredded vital evidence. Jim had to think hard about that before getting his head around it.

Instead, Landau tabled a document from Sir William Morrow, chairman of the Drug Evaluation Committee and a friend of Sir Jack Stevens. He had examined Stevens about six months before the collision and found him suffering from a duodenal ulcer, as Cabban had claimed, but found no evidence of alcoholism.

Two medical officers had failed to report his condition or else their reports had been destroyed or diverted by Stevens, as Cabban alleged. The medical history was scanty but Counsel assisting tabled two reports from expert witnesses based upon what evidence was available. Doctor John Birrell was Police surgeon for Victoria and Doctor James Rankin an authority on both alcoholism and ulcers. They agreed that Stevens was ‘suffering from alcoholism, there being no reasonable alternative.’

Voyager’s deck log for that period had mysteriously disappeared from Navy Office records, the only one missing. The importance of this point was that it also would have carried the notation Signed by Lieutenant Commander for Captain (Sick). Landau could not explain this, nor why the serial numbers on the punishment returns, now known to have been falsified, were out of sequence.

Chook was so disgusted with this day’s evidence that he decided to skip the rest of the proceedings and head back to Melbourne on an evening flight. This was not an enquiry or investigation but just the opposite. It was withholding and destroying evidence and the Secretary of the Navy should be charged with perverting the course of justice.

“I’m not giving up, mate,” Chook said just before he walked through the turnstile. “We have to fight these bastards. There’s still a couple of hundred of us alive. We can do it.”

“Yeah, we can do it. Good on you, Chook,” Jim said.

Not only could they do it but he believed they had a moral obligation to do it. This evil must not be allowed to flourish. What if it was some serial killer who had killed 82 people? Even Jack the Ripper only killed about a dozen.

Chapter 21

Cabban’s revelations enraged Jim and his mood alternated between anger, frustration and despair – anger at the rottenness at the top of the Navy, frustration that the so-called investigation had gone nowhere and despair that nothing was going to be done to change the culture of an organisation so bogged down in history and tradition that it was a menace to the modern world. The sailing ship mentality was downright dangerous in an age of nuclear weapons, satellites and space stations. What if Duncan had had access to a nuclear warhead while zonked out on brandy and amphetamines? Even more alarming was the turpitude of the entire political process. Hey, hey, LBJ; how many kids did you kill today? seemed to Jim the death-knell of decency but the worst part was he had blood on his own hands.

Mr. Holt and his wife, Zara, had been away on a tour of Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore, steering well clear of dangerous Vietnam. Jim had followed their progress in Zara’s newspaper column syndicated throughout the country. On this tour, it seemed they’d had a lovely time, with a state banquet and dancing laid on by Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia.

They now returned from Asia and Mr Holt set out on a tour of the state capitals. Main objective of the trip was to try and placate angry students but riots developed on the campus of Melbourne University. At Sydney University, the Great Hall filled long before his arrival and the crowd were in no mood to listen to bullshit. They limbered up with foot stamping, whistling, shouting and the odd smoke bomb and when he set foot on stage the roar was deafening.

Political trouper that he was, Holt pressed on as if nothing were out of place, reading from a set speech, but to find out what he said it was necessary to read the papers next day. Students were not interested in being told anything by Mr. Holt. They wanted to tell him something, such as, “No, no, we won’t go.”

In a brief lull someone shouted, “Where’s yer flippers ’Arold?”

This was a reference to Mr. Holt’s spear fishing hobby, which, almost as much as the remark, ‘All the way with LBJ’, had made him famous in the United States. They loved him over there and much was made of the personal friendship between Harold Holt and the American president. A photograph released to the press agencies showed Mr. Holt in a wetsuit emerging from the sea to greet his three luscious step daughters-in-law in bikinis. One American newspaper had dubbed him ‘007, the James Bond of the South.’

From this time forward, Jim made it a rule to read the newspapers every day in the university’s Fisher Library. He also took out a subscription to Women’s Weekly, in which Zara wrote a column. He became an ardent student of everything concerning Mr. Holt, Zara, their grown up family from Zara’s previous marriage to a British Army pig, and especially of Mr. Holt’s spear fishing hobby. His task was made easier by Zara, a blabbermouth, who kept him informed of such details as the colour scheme for the new furnishings in the Lodge, the Prime Minister’s official residence.

One of the Sunday papers ran an interview with a security officer after an incident in Canberra in which demonstrators had mobbed Mr. Holt’s official car and nearly overturned it. This officer bewailed the fact it was almost impossible to maintain guard over the Prime Minister because he kept dismissing his security men. ‘Our Prime Minister requires security men to protect him from the people he is supposed to be representing,’ Jim noted. ‘Perhaps, if he represented them properly, that would not be necessary.’

Mr. Holt’s spear fishing was also the subject of concern, it being thought in some circles too dangerous for such an important man as the Prime Minister. Mr. Holt countered that this is a democracy and he was as entitled as any ordinary citizen to do what he liked in his spare time. ‘Can’t argue with that, can you?’ Jim thought.

Prime Minister Holt was leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party – which was not liberal but conservative – in coalition with the Country Party led by Black Jack McEwen. Together they formed the government, with Black Jack as deputy Prime Minister. Mr. Holt had been asked to hold a referendum on the war. He refused, because he knew he would lose. Mr Holt’s interpretation of ‘democracy’ seemed rather selective. The Labor Party opposed the war and they had a new leader, Gough Whitlam, gaining popularity. He replaced Arthur Calwell, a political liability who had recently survived Australia’s first attempted political assassination. Someone took a pot shot but only winged him. If something were to happen to Mr. Holt, his most likely successor was Mr. McMahon or perhaps Mr. Hasluck, and it seemed likely to Jim that Mr. Whitlam could beat either of them at the next election. If something were to happen to Mr. Holt, he expected a caretaker Liberal Prime Minister for a while and then Gough Whitlam and the Labor Party, which promised to bring the Anzacs home. The Labor Party also promised to end conscription, which, to Jim’s mind, was the most despicable and cowardly of Mr. Holt’s policies. Jenny, Shirley and Richard would surely agree with him on that point.

As a student of Political Science, Jim’s research into Mr Holt’s activities and policies could be seen merely as part of his studies although even Jim admitted to himself that his analysis might be coloured by disappointment in Holt’s leadership regarding the Voyager Royal Commission. Jenny expressed no interest in politics and he did not burden her with his findings or opinions.

 

Jim was only working weekends on Alcyone these days, giving a boost to his scholarship living allowance. For weekdays, Richard had hired a skipper with a US Coastguard marine qualification. Jim wasn’t going to quibble over the fact it was probably illegal unless he had a work visa but he did ask Richard to remind the new skipper that the navigation marks were back to front relative to America’s.

Richard entertained his business contacts on weekends and Jim made the acquaintance of several people whose names he had often read in the papers. Premier Askin, who was now Sir Robert Askin, made a reappearance along with Sir Paul Strasser and Police Commissioner Sir Norman Allan. (Jim’s view on knighthoods was similar to his view on swords, telescopes, sea shanties and Pussers pigs.) On this cruise, Alcyone had a full complement of passengers, including Bernie Houghton, Abe Saffron and a number of members of State Parliament.

The unlikely occasion for the bumper turnout was the passage of a bill into law abolishing the Sydney City Council. After considerable debate, the Parliament had redrawn the boundaries of the City of Sydney, greatly reducing its size and carving off several working class suburbs that consistently voted Labor in Federal elections as well as State. What remained was a rump of solid conservative voters firmly supporting the so-called Liberal Party headed by Sir Robert Askin.

For the lunch break, Jim anchored in Store Cove off a sandy beach near the old quarantine station. As a student of Political Science, he was an avid listener to the speeches celebrating this momentous event. Wearing his pseudo-admiral’s outfit complete with gold braid on the peak of his cap, Richard raised his glass to his colleagues on the quarterdeck.

“Gentlemen, I propose a toast to our Premier, Sir Robert Askin. We owe Sir Robert a deep debt of gratitude. Through his vision and statesmanlike leadership, the democratically elected members of the Parliament have passed this historic reform into law. I’m sure you all appreciate how important this occasion is. Our city can now move forward to a new era of economic prosperity, no longer held back by obsolete laws and outdated attitudes. Gentlemen, three cheers for Sir Robert. Hip, hip; hooray.”

Sir Robert responded modestly to the praise and applause. He was followed by Abe Saffron, who indicated that the new law meant the City of Sydney could now embrace progress. Certain areas hindering progress could be eliminated. As a partner of both Richard Sanders and Sir Paul Strasser, he looked forward to bringing the Victoria Street project to its full potential. Bernie Houghton, as a business owner in the affected area congratulated the Premier on a wise move. Finally, Police Commissioner Allan came forward to assure investors that threats of disruption and obstruction recently aired in the press and other outlets would not be tolerated. This was an oblique reference to the leader of the Builders’ Labourers Union, Jack Mundey, who had threatened to impose work bans on developments in certain areas.

 

Under the new skipper, Alcyone was doing two or three harbour cruises a week but Jim noticed that nothing was entered in the ship’s logbook regarding these trips. He also noticed the other skipper was a little careless with his ship’s husbandry. Unlocking the boat one Saturday morning, he found a black baseball cap on the bridge with a silver metal badge in the form of an eagle with outspread wings. The first time he had seen one of those was in the Grand Hotel in Vung Tau when Air America had flown in.

When Richard arrived in his reefer jacket and admiral’s cap Jim met him on the quarterdeck with the Air America eagle.

“I think the other skipper might have left his cap behind,” Jim said.

It was one of the few times Jim had ever seen Richard flustered; not exactly lost for words – he was never that – but it took him a couple of seconds to come up with a response.

“Well, just leave it there and he can get it when he comes back.”

“That’s not the point, Richard. The point is this is the badge of Air America, the CIA.

“Anyone can wear a cap. Look at me. I wear an admiral’s cap but I don’t claim to be an admiral. Just because he wears a CIA cap doesn’t mean he’s CIA.

“Richard, what’s going on? The fucking CIA have unleashed a heroin epidemic in this city that’s killing more people than the Viet Cong. Your own son is a victim.”

“Now, wait a minute. There’s no evidence to say the CIA is responsible.”

“There’s no evidence because there has been no investigation. It’s like the Voyager Royal Commission.”

Richard took a deep breath, hesitated a moment or two and then said:

“Okay, Jim. I’ll be straight with you. The CIA are around, I admit that, but if they are dealing drugs I have nothing to do with it. It’s not what you think. Bernie Houghton has asked me to invest in a bank.”

“A bank? What bank?”

“Let’s go and sit down. The punters will be arriving soon.”

Richard got himself a can of beer from behind the bar in the saloon but Jim declined the offer. They sat in deck chairs but Jim was far from relaxed.

“I thought I might invest in the Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar,” Richard said, but Bernie came back with another offer. The CIA are planning to set up a bank here in Sydney. As Bernie explains it, they need a financial base to defend against the bad guys.”

“The bad guys,” Jim interrupted. “They really do talk like that, don’t they? And I suppose the CIA are the good guys?”

“The good guys are the friends of the United States, like Australia.”

“That’s handy to know. With friends like America, who needs enemies? With friends like America, we’re going to make enemies in our own back yard. Vietnam is in our own backyard. America is across the other side of the Pacific Ocean. The only thing we have in common with America is the English language, which is alien to both of us. Their navigation marks are back to front and they even drive on the wrong side of the road.”

“Jim, I’m trying to explain. They have their programs which, for security reasons, can’t be made public. Some of those programs are expensive and the CIA needs a source of revenue. They can’t have these things debated in their parliament, their Congress, so they have to get their funds elsewhere. It’s a business, like any other.”

“So, they raise money selling heroin and not even their own government knows about it?”

“No. That has never been mentioned in my hearing. They raise money by acting as agents between governments. Admittedly, they’re in the business of selling weapons, which is a big industry in the United States, but governments at war are going to get their weapons somewhere, anyway. Better to supply weapons to the good guys and keep them away from the bad guys.”

“So it does come down to goodies and baddies like a B-grade Hollywood movie? Black hats and white hats.”

“If you want to put it that way, I suppose that’s right.”

“And you’re going to put money into this bank?”

“Guaranteed return. Better than treasury bonds.”

“War is a pretty solid business, I grant you that. You probably can’t go wrong, financially.”

“By the way, the president of the bank will be a US admiral named Earl Yates, so it will have a nautical touch.”

“Richard, that is so absurd. What does an admiral know about running a bank?”

A CIA bank, no less. Jim was more or less stunned. He hadn’t believed Zeb when he mentioned it but, to a student of Economics, it made sense. He wondered if they were planning to sell weapons to the Viet Cong, which was a big market currently dominated by Russia. The CIA could double their profits by selling weapons to both sides. Jim wondered if they would pay tax on their profit like a good corporate citizen. The Australian Tax Office was probably not as vigilant or powerful as the American Internal Revenue Service, which had shut down their bank in the Bahamas.

Alcyone had only two passengers that day: Abe Saffron and Sir Paul Strasser, who were Richard’s partners in the Victoria Street development. It was a working cruise. Richard unrolled a plan of the City of Sydney on the table with the new zoning boundaries marked on it. The three men spent most of the time huddled over it and Jim dropped the anchor in Store Cove early, since they were so preoccupied anyway.

Victoria Street had been known as the Montmartre of Sydney in the 19th century, when it was a prestigious address. Perched on the edge of a sandstone escarpment, palatial villas in exotic gardens were home to the rich and famous of the day. Gradually, the great estates were broken up and subdivided and magnificent houses were torn down to make way for terraces, hotels and theatres. Victoria Street had now fallen on hard times. Although the wide avenue was still lined with plane trees providing a green canopy, many of the former mansions had fallen into decay and ruin. The previous Sydney City Council had repeatedly refused applications from Richard and other developers to demolish the eyesores and replace them with modern, clean and efficient skyscrapers. Now, Sir Robert Askin had cleared the way for progress, only to be met with street demonstrations, sit-ins and allegations of corruption and bribery. Much of the opposition came from trade unions.

Hovering around the buffet table, Jim eavesdropped on their conversation. Sir Paul was outspoken on the need to take firm action against these subversives. One of the more interesting titbits was that the Police Commissioner, Sir Norman Allan, had put together a task force to deal with the menace.

Chapter 22

Zeb turned up at the Wayside Chapel in such a bad state that Jenny feared for his life. He was emaciated, dirty, bearded, wearing sandals and an expression of great weariness. He seemed agitated but not violent. The Centre had a procedure for dealing with violent clients but she decided it wasn’t necessary in this case. She excused herself from her current client and came out around her desk, approaching him slowly, with a smile, as he stood there trembling and gazing about as if in wonder.

“Hello, Zeb. Nice to see you again.”

He almost jumped with fright and then recognition dawned on his face as if he was just waking up.

“I’ve seen him. Your brother in the photograph.”

Her first reaction as a sister was a tremor of hope. Her first reaction as a nurse was to examine him and try to find the cause of his condition but realised he needed immediate help. Now having some experience of dealing with disturbed clients, she knew she had to tread carefully.

“That’s great Zeb. Can you tell me more? Let’s go and sit down.”

She led him to a couple of vacant easy chairs but he didn’t want to sit. His head swivelled left and right on constant lookout for an attack while he shuffled his feet.

“Can I get you a glass of water or something?” Jenny said.

“I’ve seen him. I’ve seen him again. I know where he is. Your brother.”

“Good, Zeb. Whereabouts?”

“In a house. I told you before, like in the Bronx.”

“I don’t know anything about the Bronx, Zeb. You’ll have to tell me.”

“Big house. He’s in there. I’ve seen him.”

“Where, Zeb? Where?”

Shutters came down on his eyes and they went blank. Then he looked at her with an expression of pain and wonder. He seemed about to cry.

“I don’t know.”

Jenny thought she was about to lose him. “Why don’t you sit down and let me get you a glass of water?”

She marched out the back to the little kitchen, poured him a glass of water and put her head around the door of the Rev’s office. He wasn’t there but Pastor Bill Crews was.

“Bill, I’ve got a tough one. He’s got the shakes and I think he’s lost his memory or something. Also it has to do with my brother, Paul.”

“You have news of your brother? That’s wonderful.”

“Would you come and talk to him, please?”

“Of course.”

The epitome of patience and tact, Crews worked on him for half an hour but gained little further information, although he did learn that Zeb was sleeping rough and had a serious heroin problem. His body was frequently shaken with violent shudders.

“He needs a hospital,” Jenny said.

“Yes. Let’s get him up to St Vincent’s.”

One on each side, with Zeb’s arms over their shoulders, they walked him out to the alley and got him into the back of Bill’s car.

The emergency department at St Vincent’s was crowded, but Jenny confronted the harried triage nurse

“Sorry, but could you take a look at our patient? I’m a nurse and he’s in a bad way.”

“Just a minute, dear, and I’ll do my best.”

She had a bad fracture to deal with and what looked like a gunshot wound but when she came back to Zeb she agreed he needed attention. He was either asleep or unconscious.

“Do you know what he’s on?”

“Probably heroin.’

“I’ll get him in as soon as I can.”

“Big house, sounds like a row of terraces,” Bill said as they waited. “He keeps saying it’s like the Bronx, in New York. I’ve never been to New York, so I wouldn’t know.”

“My father has. And you know what? A row of terraces around here sounds like Victoria Street.”

“Perhaps. Or any number of streets in Redfern, Paddington or Erskineville. It’s not much to go on.”

What she did not reveal to Crews was that her father had been granted planning approval for re-development of Victoria Street and was calling tenders for demolition of the 19th century mansions to be replaced by tall office and apartment blocks, all stainless steel and plate glass. Progress, he called it; a word that to Jenny was synonymous with vandalism. Those old houses were beautiful. They just needed a lick of paint and maybe new plumbing. She fully supported the squatters who had moved in defying the bulldozers.

They lifted Zeb on to a trolley and Crews said a prayer over him as he was wheeled away. Jenny was ashamed that she was unable to participate in this rite, whether it was going to do him any good or not. It probably made Crews feel better.

Although it was late, she took a taxi to her father’s place at Point Piper. Arriving unannounced, she found him relaxing with a man she did not know, the dirty dishes from their dinner still on the dining table and the place reeking of cigar smoke.

“Jenny, I wasn’t expecting you,” he said, but gave her a hug anyway. She often turned up unexpectedly but he had never said that before.

“Sorry. I didn’t know you had company.”

“Just a business dinner, Jen. This is Murray Riley. Detective Sergeant Murray Riley, so make sure you stay within the law.”

He was probably in his late thirties but already with a shiny patch on his scalp, casually dressed and lounging at his ease on the sofa with a glass of wine in one hand and a cigar in the other.

“Pleased to meetcher,” he said, and waved his cigar by way of welcome. The ash fell off and he cursed as he brushed it on to the floor.

“Have a seat, Jenny,” Richard said.

“No, I won’t, Dad, seeing you have company. I just wanted to tell you that Zeb has turned up saying he’s seen Paul lately.”

“Whereabouts?”

“That’s the hard part. He’s in a pretty bad way.”

“But he’s definitely seen Paul?”

“So he says, but I’m not sure we can believe him. He’s talking about a big house, one of a row, which made me think of Victoria Street. There are squatters in some of those houses. One of them could be Paul.”

“Illegal squatters,” Riley said. “Who is this Zeb who has found your brother?”

She opened her mouth to answer the question but some alarm bell rang in the back of her head. She had come here to ask Richard about Victoria Street and the development plans but something told her this was not the time to do it. Detective Riley might be part of the Police Commissioner’s task force to clear out squatters and demonstrators that had received publicity in the press.

“Zeb is an unusual name,” Riley said, filling the silence. “Zebedee Parsons, would that be him?”

“I don’t know his last name. I don’t think he even knows his last name.”

“Where is he now?”

She was certainly not going to give out that information. Far from a threat, Zeb seemed like someone who needed protection. And anyway, the Crisis Centre had strict rules on privacy.

“I think he’s sleeping rough,” she said. “He could be anywhere. Under a bridge, maybe.”

“A missing person case,” Riley said. “Why don’t you come to the station tomorrow and we’ll start the paperwork.”

“I don’t think that’s up to me. It’s probably up to the US Army.”

“They have their own ways and means. Well, if you don’t wish to cooperate, that’s your affair.”

“It’s not a matter of cooperating or not. I don’t know any more than what I’ve told you.”

This was not strictly true, but one of the Rev’s firm rules was that all matters in the Crisis Centre were confidential. She had probably already broken that rule, and regretted it.

“Dad, I just thought you’d be pleased to know that Paul has been sighted, so at least he’s still alive.”

“Of course I am. Thank you, Jenny. You had better tell your mother as well.”

 

She called St Vincent’s Hospital next day and was told Zeb had discharged himself. Oh no, Jenny thought. This was becoming a habit. Although she was not rostered on at the Crisis Centre she reported for duty that evening. The Crisis Centre was her only point of contact with Zeb, for whom she felt responsible. Bill Crews and the Rev warned counsellors not to become too involved with clients. That was a sure way to get burnt out. She was feeling burnt out anyway from dealing with Shirley, who had screeched over the phone when told that Paul had been sighted but could not be found. Shirley had demanded immediate action, although exactly what action she could not say.

Of course, there was no guarantee that Zeb would turn up, but when he did he seemed healthier than the night before. St Vincent’s must have given him a shave and a bath and washed his clothes. He walked up to her desk and just stood there although she was in serious conversation with a young girl threatening suicide.

“Zeb, I’m a little busy at the moment. Can you take a seat? I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”

He scowled at her and for a moment she thought he might walk out, but he took to prowling up and down like a caged lion, muttering to himself. Still, she did not think he posed a danger. The other waiting clients watched him with expressions ranging from amusement to fascination. She had discovered there was a kind of camaraderie among people on the verge of self-destruction, like those on the poop of the Titanic. Jim had told her about the sailors trapped in Voyager as she was sinking, with the chief coxswain leading them in prayer although they were probably atheists. Maybe we all find faith at the last moment, she thought. Zeb’s interruption curiously seemed to calm her suicidal client, who mopped at her tears with a soggy handkerchief.

“Tomorrow is better,” Jenny said.

The girl shot her a startled look. This was a revelation. She even managed a little smile. At least she should be able to get through this night, Jenny thought, and that was all one could hope for in the Crisis Centre.

“Well, Zeb; what are we going to do about you?” Jenny said when he sat in the chair opposite. “You have discharged yourself from hospital, haven’t you?”

“They started asking personal questions. They were asking shit they don’t need to know. I figured the next thing to happen was the spooks turning up. That was time to leave.”

“So, you think the spooks are on to you?”

“Damn right they are, and it ain’t only the spooks. You ain’t heard the half of it. I can tell you that some of your Aussie cops are what we call mules in the trade.”

“What’s a mule?”

“A mule is someone who carries dope in their baggage on an airplane like any ordinary joe. In this example we are talking members of the New South Wales police force named Egan and members of the New South Wales police force named Ryan and members named Riley who are taking dope from Sydney to New York on behalf of the spooks. And when they get to the Big Apple they’ll be welcomed with open arms by the New York Police Department, NYPD. The dope comes from the Golden Triangle courtesy the CIA and ends up in my home town. The CIA is worse than the fucking Cosa Nostra and probably kills more people.”

“Did you say Riley?” Jenny asked.

“Damn right. Riley, Ryan, Egan and a lot more Aussie coppers, working for the spooks. And you know who runs it all? Bernie Houghton.”

Jenny handled this shattering news with difficulty. Her immediate response was to get on the phone to her father and demand an explanation. On second thought, the priority should be Paul. On third thought, she picked up the phone and called Jim at home.

“Jim, will you come to the Chapel, please.”

“What, now? I’m working. I have to finish an essay on the Hanseatic League.”

“Yes, now. It’s important.”

She hung up and asked Zeb, “Have you met this man, Riley?”

“We ain’t been introduced but I’ve seen him in the Bourbon and Beefsteak and also elsewhere.”

“What does he look like?”

“Big guy. Got a gut on him. Thin on top. Smokes cigars.”

There could be little doubt he was describing Detective Sergeant Murray Riley of the NSW Vice Squad, last seen taking his ease in her father’s apartment, and what was she to make of that?

“What’s your real name, Zeb? Your last name?”

“You don’t need to know that. I’m just Zeb.”

“Zebedee Parsons?”

He reacted as if she had slapped his face.

What? How do you know that?

“A little birdy told me. Don’t you think it’s about time you opened up, Zeb? What’s your game?”

His mouth opened and shut as he groped for words. She watched different emotions sweep across his face like wind over a wheat field and eventually settle on misery.

“It ain’t no game, Jenny.” It was the first time he had ever used her name. “It ain’t no game. Started way back in the Bronx with marijuana. Then I got the call-up and shipped out to the Nam. Met a guy called Bernie Houghton who taught me a new trick and pretty soon it weren’t a trick. You know, they call it monkey on your back but it ain’t a monkey on your back, it’s a crab in your guts. And then I come to Australia and what do I find but Bernie Houghton. He’s a big shot in the CIA now and I still have the crab in my guts.”

Addicts had a variety of names for their habit but they all amounted to imprisonment and torture in their own bodies except for the moments of ecstasy.

“Zeb, come along with me, will you?” Jenny said. “I want you to meet someone.”

She stood up and took his hand and led him down the corridor. She felt she was getting in over her head and needed wiser counsel. She introduced him to the Rev, who cleared away some of his mess so they could sit and then assumed his listening post, with his hands supporting his chin and his eyes attentive. How many times had he done that? Jenny wondered.

The story came out by fits and starts. How much of it could be believed? Zeb was a heroin addict and deserter from the US Army alleging conspiracy theories. According to Zeb, Bernie Houghton was a combination Mafia Godfather and evil spy who had corrupted the New South Wales police and government.

The Rev smiled serenely upon that comment. “I don’t think either the police or the government needs much coaching, Zeb. However, you’re in a difficult situation, aren’t you?”

“I ain’t in a difficult situation; I’m fucked.”

“What is it that you most need or desire at this moment?”

“A shot of dope. Man, I’ve got the devil inside me and he don’t let up.”

“We can help you there. We’ve had quite a bit of success, but you have to be willing.”

“You’re talking the rehab thing. Been there, done that. I mean, what it comes down to is, what’s the point? Now, you’re a man of religion and I respect that, only I have to ask you, ‘what’s the fucking point?”

“Tomorrow,” the Rev said.

“Howzzat?”

“Tomorrow is the point. Not yesterday.”

“Shit, I don’t want another yesterday.”

“Exactly. So, how can we avoid a repeat of yesterday?”

Zeb was stumped by that question.

“To ensure that tomorrow is not the same as yesterday we need to change today,” the Rev said with a bright smile as if he had just discovered the idea.

Grappling with this concept, Zeb went almost cross-eyed.

“Zeb, I can see you’re an angry man and maybe rightly so. You want vengeance, don’t you. You want Bernie Houghton to pay for the crab in your guts.”

“Damn right.”

“Our Lord teaches us to love our enemies, Zeb. It confuses them and drives them crazy. What if I were to say to you, ‘Forget it?’ Forget about Bernie Houghton, who has done you wrong and think about Paul Sanders, Jenny’s brother, who is in trouble?’ What about that? You could help Jenny find her brother.”

The Rev sat back in his chair awaiting a response and Jenny held her breath.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Zeb said, “only my head is so fucked up I cain’t even remember where I seen him”

“Victoria Street, Zeb,” Jenny prompted. “Does that ring a bell?”

“Nuh.”

“Big houses. Trees down the footpaths?”

“Well, maybe.”

Just then, Jim arrived looking worried and Jenny was relieved to see him. “Hello Rev,” he said. “Hello Zeb. Jenny, what’s the problem?”

The little office was overcrowded and there was nowhere for him to sit while Jenny brought him up to date on the current state of play. The immediate problem was Zeb’s loss of memory. The subordinate problem, which she did not even mention, was her father’s relationship with a certain Detective Sergeant Riley.

“So, why don’t we just drive around and see if Zeb can recognise the house?” Jim said. “It can’t be too far from here.”

“There you are,” the Rev said with his big smile as if he had solved the problem himself. “All we needed was a fresh viewpoint. It works every time.”

In the red Volkswagen, Jim drove slowly down Victoria Street, a haven of peace and faded gentility only a stone’s throw from the hustle and tinsel of King’s Cross, with Zeb peering out with his nose up against the window. Street lighting struggled through the branches of overarching trees and an occasional cat prowled in the shadows. Jim turned the car around and cruised back the other way. It didn’t really matter it was night because that’s how Zeb had last seen the house. What mattered was that they were all very similar.

“Hey, skipper, can you pull over?” Zeb said.

It was a two story terrace in darkness, with an iron lace balustrade on the upper veranda.

“Is this the one, Zeb?” Jenny asked.

“Maybe.” Zeb opened his door and climbed out. Jim and Jenny followed.

The front gate hung cockeyed on its hinges and a path paved with cracked marble led through a jungle of weeds to a porch of splintered timber. All the windows appeared to be smashed.

“This is the one,” Zeb said with a note of triumph in his voice as if to say ‘I told you so.’

“Jenny, do you have a torch?” Jim said.

“No. Entirely slipped my mind.”

“I don’t suppose the lights are going to work.”

Zeb mounted the steps and carefully, with hands outstretched before him, crossed the veranda, avoiding a broken section. He gained the doorway leading into a tunnel of darkness. Jim and Jenny followed, groping along the corridor.

“Up the stairs,” Zeb said.

The place stank with various pungent odours; urine and mould predominating. It was houses like this that Richard used to justify his development project: eyesores that were home to rats, cats, cockroaches, spiders and probably snakes. On the upper floor, a feeble glow filtered through a dirty window.

“Over there. In the corner,” Zeb said.

Jenny shuffled in the indicated direction, straining her eyes to peer into the shadows. Something emerged from the dark. A bed. Something was on the bed. It was a person; a person with little white things crawling over the face. The full horror hit her suddenly and she screamed again and again. She went down on her knees and felt Jim’s arms go around her as her body shuddered with uncontrollable spasms.

Chapter 23

Jenny took next day off work, unable to face the world. She spent it in a daze staring resentfully at the statue of Lu Xing on their bedside table. It was almost the first thing she woke up to every morning. She felt like flinging it out the window but resisted the urge, telling herself ‘Tomorrow is better,’ as she had told many of her clients. It was those wrecked people who prevented her from flinging Lu Xing out the window. Her brother was just one of many who had run out of luck. The unspeakable horror of his body crawling with maggots seemed a symbol of all the wasted lives that passed through the Wayside Chapel.

In the early afternoon she received a phone call from Bill Crews asking her to come in. The police wanted to ask more questions. At first, Jenny refused. The police had detained them for hours asking questions, taking photographs, taking statements and generally treating them like criminals. She had seen enough TV to know she had the right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions on the grounds she might incriminate herself. She had worried about Jim, starting to get bolshy under the police questioning. That would only have made things worse. The police seemed incapable of understanding they hadn’t seen Paul for months. He was crawling with maggots, for God’s sake. He’d been dead for days or weeks. And when Zeb said he had seen him he meant he had seen his corpse.

“It’s not about your brother, Jenny,” Bill told her. “I think you’d better come in.”

She drove the red Volkswagen over the Bridge to the Cross and parked it in the alley. The Crisis Centre was quiet, with only a couple of clients as she walked through to the back but the Rev’s office was crowded. A fair proportion of the space was occupied by Detective Sergeant Riley, now in uniform with a hand gun in a holster on his belt. He was accompanied by a female officer also packing a gun. Cops always hunt in pairs, she knew. All eyes were upon Jenny as she hesitated in the doorway. Only the Rev’s eyes welcomed her.

“Jenny, we have more bad news, I’m afraid,” he said.

“What is it?” She felt a tremor of fear as she glanced around the other stony faces.

“There has been an incident at the Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar. I had better let Sergeant Riley tell you about it.”

“At ten forty-five this morning, the premises known as Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar were entered by a male person with a lethal weapon. The male person proceeded to attack the proprietor of the premises, Bernard James Houghton, causing grievous bodily harm. The male person was restrained by other patrons of the premises, in the process of which the male person became deceased.”

Riley sounded as if he was reciting items on a grocery list but his gaze was fixed upon Jenny.

“The male person has been identified as Zebedee Parsons, a foreign national. Are you acquainted with Zebedee Parsons?”

“Oh God,” Jenny said and, except for the Rev throwing an arm around her she would have collapsed on the floor. Bill Crews pushed a chair into place behind her and she sat.

“I repeat,” Riley said, “were you acquainted with Zebedee Parsons?”

“Oh shut up,” Jenny said.

“Sergeant, I think Jenny needs a little time to overcome her shock,” the Rev said. “If you wouldn’t mind? You can find coffee and biscuits in the kitchen across the aisle.

Riley and his partner retreated to the kitchen while the Rev took one of Jenny’s hands in both of his and Crews looked on sorrowfully.

“Jenny, you are strong,” the Rev said. “Believe you are strong and it happens.”

She had a little cry but soon became strong as the Rev promised. How ironic that the man accused of being an international drug dealer was badgering her as if she was guilty of something. The worst part was she did feel guilty; guilty of letting both Paul and Zeb down.

Was Riley going to arrest her for something? How ridiculous. Was he going to get away with the crimes revealed by Zeb? How sinister. It was a breakdown of everything sane and civilised about the way we live. She was left feeling bewildered, but not for long. When that passed, she emerged stronger than ever. She stood up and gave the Rev a kiss on the forehead. She was actually taller than he.

“Thanks, Ted. I’m okay now.”

She walked out, scowling at Riley as she passed the kitchen. Riley, of course, was an associate of her father. Or perhaps the word should be accomplice.

 

She drove the Volkswagen out to a construction site in Parramatta, fuming over a whole life laid bare. Looking back, what she remembered was a father who put in an appearance once in a while and told them funny stories and played his saxophone but often forgot their birthdays and then bought expensive presents to compensate. A father living a double life; physically present but emotionally absent. Did he really care about Paul? Did he really care about her? Did he really care about anything but money?

The construction site – a block of brick apartments shrouded in scaffolding – was surrounded by a fence with signs saying No Entry. A billboard read, ‘RJ SANDERS DEVELOPMENTS. A man wearing big boots and a red hard hat stopped her at the gate.

“Yes, miss? Can I help you?”

“I want to speak to my father.”

I’m sorry, girly but you need…”

“Don’t you dare call me girly! I will not tolerate girly. You may address me as Miss Sanders. Miss Richard Sanders.”

“Oh.” The gatekeeper took a step backwards with a look of shock on his face.

“I wish to speak to my father. If he says he’s not available, tell him I’m staying here until he comes out.”

“Yes, miss.” He turned his back and spoke into a walky-talky radio. All she could hear was a crackling sound. He collapsed the antenna, dropped the radio into a breast pocket, unlocked the gate and let her in.

“You have to put on a hard hat, miss. Do you have any other shoes? Those are not suitable.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Then you have to put these on.”

From a shed like a sentry box he extracted a white hard hat and a pair of steel toe-cap boots. She put them on and felt like a deep sea diver with lead boots.

“Come with me, please.”

She followed him through the yard littered with piles of bricks, concrete mixers, stacks of timber and wire mesh to a demountable shed with another billboard reading ‘RJ SANDERS DEVELOPMENTS.’ Her escort opened the door and waved her inside. Richard stood up and came out around his desk with a worried look on his face, placed a hand on each of her shoulders.

“Jen, what is it? What’s happened?”

“Remember your son, Paul?”

“Of course I remember my son. What are you talking about?”

“We found him last night. Looked like he’d been dead for a week or more. There were maggots crawling over his body.”

Richard stared at her; unbelieving, with his forehead creased in puzzlement.

“Is this some kind of weird joke, Jenny?”

“Yes, Dad, and the joke’s on you.”

His mouth opened and shut, like a fish’s.

“What a joke you are, Dad,” Jenny said bitterly.

“I have no idea what this is all about, Jenny. Are you well?”

“No, I’m not well. I’m sick to the stomach of you.”

The wall broke; the floodgates opened and she threw herself into his arms and sobbed her heart out on his shoulder.

“Let’s take that silly hard hat off,” Richard said. He led her to the couch, sat her down, sat beside her with an arm around her shoulder and waited for the storm to blow over.

 

Of course, Richard had heard rumours about crooked cops, he said, but he had investigated Detective Sergeant Riley and found him no more venal than your average cop. It was common knowledge that police were running the abortion racket, the prostitution racket, the bookmaker racket. He also knew that his business partners, Abe Saffron and Sir Paul Strasser were what the press liked to call colourful identities. It would be naive to suppose that anyone could do business in Sydney without a nod in the direction of what the police themselves called The Joke. It would also be naive to suppose the whole edifice was not supported or, indeed, initiated by politicians. It was the chicken and egg riddle. Which came first? Crooked cops or crooked politicians? How could an honest, hardworking, home loving property developer like himself make a go of it without navigating the political landscape? One had to go with the flow, Richard explained, or be left behind.

“Now, Jenny, you’re saying Riley is involved in smuggling heroin from Sydney to New York. I know nothing about that. Your evidence comes from a heroin addict who is a deserter from the US Army and now, from what you say, an attempted murderer. Not the most reliable witness, I’m sure you agree.”

Jenny had dried her tears and Richard had made her a cup of tea and they continued sitting on the couch with all the noises of a busy construction site around them. They were frequently interrupted by the telephone or a call on the walky-talky radio during which Richard conducted his business with his usual affable air.

“Does your mother know about all this?” he asked after concluding a phone call in which he had directed the cement to be pumped into the frame on the south-west corner as previously instructed.

“No,” Jenny said.

“Well, I think you should tell her, shouldn’t you?” Richard said.

This was the last straw for Jenny. “Why should I tell her? Why shouldn’t you tell her?

Your son has been found dead and here you are chatting about a load of cement. No, I’m not going to tell her. You tell her. I’m tired of doing your dirty work for you.”

“What do you mean, ‘dirty work?’”

“Dad, you’ve been missing in action for the last five years. Where were you when Paul came down with pneumonia? Where were you when I graduated RN? Where were you when Mum had her car accident? Where have you been for last five years? And now you’re talking about a load of cement when your son has been found crawling with maggots. Nothing could be more disgusting. No one even knows when he died.”

Jenny’s father had no response. His eyes opened wide with shock at her outburst.

“No. I’m not going to tell Mum. You tell her. It’s your job, not mine. You’re supposed to be a father. You go and tell her that her son has been found riddled with maggots. I won’t do it.”

Chapter 24

They had gathered at Shirley’s place for what would have been a wake in Jim’s Irish/Catholic/Atheist family. The only time Jim ever saw his father cry was when they had buried his grandma Emily and the old man choked on his tears while trying to sing Danny Boy. Shirley and Jenny had cried themselves out, leaving both of them with red-rimmed eyes. Richard was looking solemn in a black suit in his new-found role of husband and father. After an absence of five years he had resumed relations with his wife. It only took the death of his son and a little urging from his daughter to bring about this reconciliation.

Shirley had refused to allow cremation. It seemed to her important that Paul not be turned into dust, recalling to Jim a similar conversation between Big Red’s parents. In this case, cremation could have been urged on grounds of hygiene, considering the maggots, but Jim prudently refrained from raising this point.

It was a pre-funeral breakfast on the balcony overlooking the harbour from where Shirley had watched every departure of HMAS Sydney for Vietnam. On the occasion of her son’s funeral she was more determined than ever to oppose the Evil Regime.

“If anything, we need to increase our efforts,” she said while serving out corn flakes. “We are making headway. Notice the rallies are getting bigger every week. We’re getting time on TV and radio and the politicians are at last beginning to pay attention. Jim, you’re at the heart of it there in the university. You’re in an ideal position to stir up the students to greater activism.”

“Not me, Shirley,” Jim said. “I am a student of Political Science but I don’t do politics.”

“Well you should. I’ve even got Richard on board now.” She smiled proudly at her husband.

“Yes,” Richard said. “I suppose there comes a time in everyone’s life when they realise what’s important and what’s not. Jim, I’m thinking of selling the boat.”

“Oh, bugger, Jim said. “There goes my job.”

“Do you want to buy it?”

“I don’t have that kind of money, Richard.”

“The price is reasonable. Let’s say, fifty dollars.”

Fifty dollars? You’re joking.”

“I can’t actually give it to you. It needs to be a legal contract so I can claim a tax loss.”

“I couldn’t even afford to run it. Those caterpillars are thirsty.”

“You can take the business with it.”

“What, harbour cruises for Yankee soldiers?”

“Don’t scoff. It’s a good little earner. I just want out of it.”

“I don’t know, Richard. I kind of had my heart set on becoming Prime Minister so I could sort this country out Or Treasurer at least.”

Jenny, seated beside him, clasped his thigh and said, “Jim, I thought you said you don’t do politics. I don’t think you’re going to be an economist. Let’s face it.”

“Yes, you’re right. I forgot I don’t do politics.”

“There’s just one other condition,” Richard said.

“Ah, I knew there had to be a catch. Okay, what condition?”

“That you make an honest woman of my daughter. Assuming she is my daughter.”

“You silly bugger,” Shirley said. “Of course she’s your daughter.”

“Excuse me,” Jenny said, “do I get to have a say in this?”

“Well, if you insist,” Richard said. “What do you want to say?”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t that a lovely marriage proposal?” Shirley said.

“I hereby promote you to Leading Seaman,” Jim said.

Jenny had arranged for the Rev to perform the funeral service. He had plenty of experience in that field. They drove out to South Head Cemetery in Richard’s Jaguar and found the Rev and Two of Jenny’s colleagues from the Wayside Chapel beside the open grave amidst acres of headstones on the ocean front, not far from Macquarie lighthouse on South Head. And so we have another dismal duty in the loom of a lighthouse, Jim mused, recalling Big Red’s ashes drifting away on the wind near the lighthouse on Point Perpendicular.

Jenny introduced everyone to everyone else and then drew the Rev aside and whispered something in his ear, some last minute business. Then the Rev in his white surplice began the mournful ceremony with Shirley mopping her eyes with a tissue, Richard looking bleak, Jenny pale and tight-lipped and Jim empty of all feeling. The tragedy of war is that fathers get to bury their sons instead of the other way about. At least Jim had escaped the fate of being buried by his father. There was no family crypt and Paul was lowered into his lonely grave to spend eternity in solitude.

“And now I have one more duty to perform by special request,” the Rev said with a twinkle in his eye as the clods of earth fell upon the coffin. “Just let me put on my other hat. Jim and Jennifer, please come forward.”

Jenny took Jim’s hand and led him forward with him wondering what this was all about.

The Rev made the sign of the cross and said, “The Lord taketh away and the Lord giveth. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Jim, will you have this woman to be your wife, to live together in holy marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honour her, and keep her in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”

‘So that’s what it’s all about,’ Jim realised, with the wind and ghosts swirling around the headstones on an otherwise miserable day. What a devious woman it is.

“I will,” he said.

“And no secrets,” Jenny said, wagging a finger at him.

“No secrets,” Jim said.

Chapter 25

In the university’s Fisher library, Jim discovered by accident a book called The Art of War written more than 2,000 years ago by a man named Sun Tzu. At a time when Greeks and Persians were going head to head and slaughtering one another in huge numbers, Sun Tzu observed:

*
p<>{color:#000;}. One hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skilful.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Subduing the other’s Army without battle is the most skilful.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Never fight on the enemy’s terms.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. In any battle it is essential to know oneself as well as one’s enemy.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. War is the art of deception.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war who can understand the profitable way to carry it out

This book was not for loan from the Fisher Library but Jim was so impressed that he photocopied the whole thirteen chapters. Chapter 13 was devoted entirely to spies. Sun Tzu identified five classes of spy: local, inward, converted, doomed and surviving.

‘When these five kinds of spy are all at work, none can discover the secret system. This is called divine manipulation of the threads. It is the emperor’s most precious faculty. Be subtle. Be subtle, and use your spies for every kind of business.’

The Americans, the new Barbarians, were not going to win this war; of that Jim was certain. Every load of soldiers shipped out in HMAS Sydney was a useless and criminal waste of lives on both sides, which Sun Tzu would have condemned. This war showed 2,000 years of western military strategy to be obsolete, all the way back to the Roman legions. Mao was a winner and Johnson a loser. The most powerful nation on Earth was not going to defeat a tin pot country like Vietnam because they did not understand the art of war. Neither did the French, who had been ejected from their colony in a battle at Dien Bin Phu. That should have been a warning to the United States not to underestimate their foe. The North Vietnamese Army was led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, who had defeated the French – a Vietnamese Napoleon, perhaps, but Jim was one of the few who bothered to find out his name. The Americans ignored the most fundamental rule of war: never fight on the enemy’s terms. To bring themselves up to date on modern warfare practices they needed to study a Chinese document 2,000 years old. Jim recalled the Sunshine Kid aboard HMAS Stuart predicting that one day wars would be fought not with guns and bombs but with computers. That’s more or less what Sun Tzu said, absent the technology. Mao tse tung summed it up: the people are the ocean and the Army the fish. Western armies were still marching around in fancy uniforms blowing bugles and beating drums while the Viet Cong slunk through the jungle laying booby traps.

Air Vice Marshal Ky, Premier of South Vietnam, arrived in Australia for talks with Mr. Holt. Catholic US President J. F. Kennedy had installed a political puppet named Ngo Dinh Diem as Premier of South Vietnam. He was a Catholic in that Buddhist nation and had attended a Catholic seminary in the United States. He was famous for his corruption and despised for his religion. He was assassinated by a cartel of generals who then lurched from coup to coup, and Ky was the present incumbent. The Dragon Lady, Madame Nhu, who earned her nickname by referring to self-immolating monks as ‘barbecues’, had dropped from public view but corruption of government officials was still the main problem in South Vietnam. That was the basic cause of the civil war – corruption of government officials.

Violent demonstrations marked Marshal Ky’s visit from the moment he stepped on to the tarmac at Fairbairn Air Force base. On TV he could hardly be seen for security men. Television was a weapon not available to Sun Tzu, but in the 20th century Jim had the luxury of observing political and military figures from the comfort of his living room with a glass of rum in his hand.

After the formalities in Canberra, the delegation repaired to Portsea, on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne. Mr Holt divided his time among four places: Canberra, his family home in Melbourne, a weekend house at Portsea and a holiday estate at Bingil Bay, near Townsville, in Queensland.

Zara had mentioned in one of her Women’s Weekly columns that they had a lovely house there in Bingil Bay, very isolated, with a lovely beach where Harold loved to go spear fishing among the lovely coral of the Great Barrier Reef.

‘How lovely,’ Jim thought.

In Portsea, Holt had two spear fishing spots; one on the bay side and the other on the ocean side of the narrow peninsula. From memory, when Voyager had visited Melbourne a few times, the bay side had a line of beach houses and yachts and cruisers moored offshore. The great rollers of the Southern Ocean pounded the ocean side and if he went spear fishing there he was off his rocker.

Zara seemed more interested in tennis than spear fishing. They had a lovely house in Portsea with a view over Weeroona Bay near their good friends the Gillespies, with whom they had lovely times playing tennis.

Mr Holt and Air Vice Marshal Ky gave a televised interview in the grounds of the Army’s officer cadet school, which occupied the rest of the peninsula, almost adjacent to the Holt residence. The two leaders declared eternal friendship and mutual support through these difficult times but stopped short of kissing one another.

 

Sun Tzu says, ‘O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we become invisible.’

Not literally invisible, of course, but unseen, like the three porcelain ducks on the wall of Jim’s flat that he walked past every day without noticing. They no longer register in the brain unless attention be called to them. So it is with spies, or agents as they should properly be called. The invisible agent might be the one before your very eyes: a waiter in a restaurant, a taxi driver or skipper of a charter boat on Sydney Harbour.

Sun Tzu defined local spies as inhabitants of a district able to act as guides and provide information about the terrain of potential battle fields, weather conditions and other hazards. Inward spies were those – ideally government or military officials – with knowledge of the enemy’s armaments and defences. Converted spies were former agents of the enemy persuaded or compelled to betray their masters. Doomed spies were given the task of performing acts of deception or releasing false information to be reported to the enemy by their own spies. Surviving spies were those who brought back information from the enemy camp. The name implies that the other classes of spy may have limited life expectancy. Sun Tzu said spies should be liberally rewarded and intimate relations maintained with them. Evidently, Sun Tzu envisaged an Army heavily dependent upon spies, like the CIA or KGB.

Sun Tzu’s most important rule was the one that gave Jim the most trouble: know your enemy and know yourself. Who, exactly, was the enemy? Not that Vietnamese kid he had throttled in the Mekong River. If he had to put a name to it he would have said history. Habit or inertia was the enemy. The fact that Sun Tzu’s Art of War was just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago only meant that politicians had learned nothing in 2,000 years.

Jim called Chook in Melbourne to ask how the court action was proceeding.

“Not proceeding at all, mate,” Chook said. “I don’t know what you have to do to get these fucking lawyers motivated. I’m looking around for another one.”

“Okay, well keep me posted, will you? Only, you’ll have to write me a letter because I’m disconnecting my telephone.”

“Why?”

“We have students going to jail up here just for demonstrating against conscription. Spooks are everywhere. Also, I have a mother-in-law who organises rallies against the government.”

“You have a mother-in-law? You got married?”

“Yes. Her father told me I had to make her an honest woman.”

The other topic of conversation with Chook was the Voyager Royal Commission, which was still dragging on after months. What in hell they found to talk about was a mystery to Jim since they had scuttled the so-called investigation in the first two days, when they failed to interrogate Doctor Tiller. In Chook’s opinion, what they were still rabbiting on about was Captain Robertson’s pension. In any case, as far as Jim was concerned, the Navy and/or government had demonstrated not just criminal negligence but wilful malice towards its own constituents. Jim identified the enemy and it was not the Viet Cong.

Jenny was mystified when he told her he was disconnecting the telephone.

“Jim, you can’t do that. I need the phone. The hospital might call for an emergency. I need to talk to Mum and dad and my friends.”

“Did you know the Navy still uses old-fashioned semaphore and Morse code with an Aldis lamp to communicate between ships?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Reason being, semaphore and Aldis lamp can’t be intercepted by the enemy. There is a branch of ASIO called the Signals Directorate. Probably about one third of the spooks in there are ex-Pussers pigs. Their job is to intercept all kinds of communications. I am disconnecting our telephone. If you want a telephone you connect it in your name, not our married name, with a different number. I will not use your telephone and I will not answer calls. Otherwise, you can learn semaphore and Morse Code.”

In the end, Jenny found it amusing, and probably joked about his and her telephones with her friends. What a kooky man she had married. Semaphore? Morse Code? How ridiculous!

Over the following weeks he began accumulating items that he needed for his mission, spreading his purchases over time and all over the city. The wetsuit was the biggest expense. He bought it from Mick Simmons department store, which was big enough for the sales assistant not to remember him. He purchased the weight belt, fins and facemask separately. The last item in his kit gave him a little trouble. He had to hunt through several disposal stores before turning up an oxygen rebreather, otherwise known as a clammy death. Scuba tanks were unsuitable for his purpose, firstly because they make bubbles and secondly because they are heavy and bulky. The oxygen rebreather was no more than a rubber bag with a charcoal filter. The diver breathes the same air repeatedly, the filter absorbing some of the CO2 and delaying asphyxiation. The process is inefficient and diving time strictly limited, hence the name clammy death. Nevertheless, he did not want to make bubbles and the clammy death would have to do.

This equipment he locked in a storage facility on Military Road. He didn’t want to have to explain it to Jenny and timed his shopping expeditions around her shiftwork, skipping lectures as necessary. No one knew whether he attended lectures or not anyway.

On the occasion of HMAS Sydney’s departure for Vietnam with members of the Seventh Battalion, Shirley summoned her troops for the biggest anti-war demo yet seen. Jim decided to attend not as a participant but an observer. Bus loads arrived from all over the country like football fans for the grand final. They parked along College Street and thousands climbed down and assembled in Hyde Park and the Domain with their banners, placards and slogans. Instead of ‘Go the Tigers,’ or ‘Carna Dragons,’ they chanted in a thousand voices, “Hey, Hey, LBJ; how many kids did you kill today?”

Jim left the Volkswagen at Shirley’s place and travelled by bus to the city with Jenny and her parents. Richard had moved back into the Double Bay residence. He carried a smaller version of Shirley’s bookmakers’ bag full of pamphlets slung over her shoulder in defiance of Ordinance 418.

By the Moreton Bay fig tree where the Rats of Tobruk had begun their march on Anzac Day, Carmody had organised a contingent from the faculties of Arts and Economics. Bullhorns delivered speeches and the crowd was swelling all the time. It was the biggest Jim had ever seen outside a football stadium, ranging in age from infants to grannies, only this was a denunciation of war and not a celebration of its heroes. In place of brass bands, bagpipes and drums; guitars and Bob Dylan songs made it seem like a pop festival.

Carmody was sitting among the labyrinthine above-ground roots of the tree with the professor of Economics, a man with a nose like the beak of a macaw and hands that never stopped pill rolling with Parkinson’s disease. Jim introduced Jenny while Shirley and Richard moved on to join Save Our Sons.

Jim had been skipping lectures but never missed tutorials. He was the oldest member of the class and the only one with military service which, as far as possible, he concealed. He was just as much the odd one out here as he had been at the naval college but it didn’t bother him this time. He had earned a reputation as a loner, which suited him fine.

“Glad you could make it Jim,” Carmody said, “and nice to meet you, Jenny.”

“She had a brother once,” Jim said. “He got drafted into the Army, sent to Vietnam, got hooked on heroin and died of an overdose. Didn’t even get shot.”

Carmody looked puzzled. Why was he being told this?

“We don’t know if it was murder, suicide or carelessness.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Jim.”

“Doesn’t matter, really. It was just collateral damage.”

The procession moved off at a shuffle, in great confusion, singing We Shall Overcome and even Jenny lifted her voice but not Jim. He was more interested in scanning the crowd for CIA spooks and their ASIO stooges, convinced they were all under surveillance. At the first sign of one he’d be off like a minnow in the shallows but how do you tell a CIA goon from a real person?

The mass of humanity shuffled along Castlereagh Street and turned down Park, swelling all the time, spilled into Pitt and halted in front of the Town Hall, with an array of microphones on the steps and no shortage of orators to harangue them with seemingly endless speeches. Labor politicians were prominent, promising to bring the boys home if only they were elected. All the punters had to do was vote Labor and a golden age of enlightenment and peace would ensue. And pigs might fly, Jim thought. There was plenty of cheering and whistling and fists punching the air and “No, no, we won’t go.”

After the speeches, the crowd began breaking up into two main streams. One headed for Martin Place and protesters sat down on the road in front of the cenotaph shouting insults and abuse at the windows of the politicians’ offices on the second floor of the adjacent office block. The other turned back towards where the march had begun, shambling across the grassy Domain in an undisciplined and curiously good-humoured mob, which had such momentum that it seemed as unstoppable as a wave rolling along the shore.

They came over the hill and down the steps by the Mitchell Library, down the paths and grassy embankments to the road past the docks. They headed for Garden Island dockyard, joining other streams of the protest march, which united to form a river filling the roadway and stopping traffic. Inside the dockyard, HMAS Sydney’s superstructure loomed above sheds and workshops and a convoy of drab olive trucks and field guns waited to be loaded aboard.

Outside the dockyard gates, a fleet of paddy wagons and three squads of police confronted a singing, handclapping crowd awaiting the arrival of the Seventh Battalion, leaving to replace the Fighting Fifth. This was the traditional embarkation point for Anzacs and set into the sandstone cliff was a fountain commemorating different occasions when male chauvinist pigs had been sent to fight other people’s wars. Those times they were heroes but this time not. This time they were likely to be spat upon.

Carmody, the professor and Jenny and their group pushed forward through the crowd. Jim grabbed Jenny’s hand and held her back.

“Let’s go home now,” he said. “This is enough.”

“We’re not finished yet.”

“Yes we are. Come on; let’s go home before someone gets hurt. Spook House is just up the road past the admiral’s office. This demo will be crawling with spooks.”

“Leave me alone. You go home if you like.”

“I’m not going without you. Come on!”

She pulled out of his grasp, following Carmody and the others to join the Save Our Sons crowd, waving their banners. Jim could not see Shirley or Richard. To hell with that, he thought. He retreated to the footpath and climbed on a bench at a bus stop to see over heads. Carmody, the professor, Jenny and others formed a circle with the SOS bunch, linking arms. Now the song was We Shall Not Be Moved, which they sang with all the fervour of charismatic Christians at a revival meeting. The police looked on in silence, as inscrutable as statues.

Those at the back of the crowd sent up a roar as three khaki-coloured cattle trucks rolled into sight down Cowper Wharf Road. The protesters blocked their path, linking arms and forming one solid mass. The trucks stopped. Out climbed some Army officer and, through a bullhorn, shouted something that Jim could not understand above the roaring, chanting and singing.

At this end of the crowd, near the dockyard gates, Jenny and the others sat down on the road with their arms linked, singing at the top of their voices. A police inspector with a bullhorn shouted something that sounded like ‘Obstructing traffic.’ The demonstrators were caught between the Army at one end and the police at the other, hemmed in between the wharf sheds on one side of the road and sandstone cliffs on the other. An ambush. Whoever planned this protest was no military tactician and obviously had never read Sun Tzu.

He had to get Jenny out of there. She shouldn’t be doing this kind of stuff. He got down off the seat and burrowed through the crowd with his elbows and knees and emerged in time to hear the police inspector repeat his demand about obstructing traffic.

“The issues here are more important than obstructing traffic,” said the Professor of Economics, and then resumed the protest song although he didn’t seem to know the words.

“Jenny!” Jim shouted. “Come on!”

She definitely heard him because she looked around, but chose to ignore him. A paddy wagon backed up with about a dozen cops who had removed the numbers from their uniforms. The cops gave the protesters one more chance to stop obstructing traffic and then started bundling them into the wagon. The demonstrators knew better than to resist and went limp.

“I do not recognise your authority,” the Professor of Economics said, pill rolling with both hands. “You are wicked men.”

Two cops picked him up, carried him to the wagon and shoved him, but not brutally, inside. Jenny was next but she just carried on singing. Jim buried himself in the crowd once again and peeped at the proceedings over shoulders.

At the other end of the crowd, the soldiers climbed down from their trucks and fell in three deep on the roadway. The Army equivalent of a chief petty officer took charge, and he had a good voice on him too, but it wasn’t until the ranks turned into file that Jim realised what they were going to do.

“By the right, quick march,” roared the chief, or whatever they call them in the Army.

Soon the boots ceased to crunch as they trampled over the soft flesh of demonstrators lying in the road and the squad fell badly out of step. Jim had never had to march on human flesh and could not speak for the difficulty of maintaining step. Squealing and screaming, the protesters scrambled out of the road into the arms of the waiting police, who bundled them into paddy wagons. Another wagon loaded up on SOS members, including Shirley and Richard. Jim faded silently away.

He had no idea where Jenny had been taken and had no intention of strolling into some police station to find out but felt like he had lost an arm and a leg, baffled and deflated. What do I do now? What will the cops do to her? All he could think to do was head back to Double Bay and hope they would soon be released. What if they just disappeared? Such cases were not unknown. The CIA were experts at that. They called it rendition. Jenny could find herself in jail in Guantanamo Bay. They could be buried in a police cell forever or dumped at the bottom of the harbour, all for the crime of obstructing traffic. No one would ever know.

Chapter 26

Jim had no experience with the clammy death. All his diving had been done with tanks or hookah. He wanted to see how long he could stay under but that depended on the diver’s level of activity and, on the day, he anticipated vigorous exercise. The university went into Christmas recess soon after the demo so he could devote time to this task. Jenny, Shirley and Richard spent only a few hours in the lockup and came out even more determined to continue their demonstrations against the government. By arresting them, the government had strengthened their resolve.

Sun Tzu said: The art of war is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account.

(1) The Moral Law: The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

Obviously, the people were not in accord with Johnson and/or his stooge, Harold Holt. The Australian people would not follow them regardless of their lives, as shown by numerous demonstrations and “No, no, we won’t go. Nor were the people undismayed. Therefore, the Moral Law was violated. In other words, the activity was morally unlawful and the Emperor (Prime Minister/President/Dictator/Supreme Leader/Egomaniac) was a moral criminal.

(2) Heaven: Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.

This principle was an echo of the biblical Ecclesiastes: ‘for all things there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.’ It was not only the university going into the Christmas recess but also Federal Parliament. Harold Holt at some stage would abandon his official residence in Canberra in favour of his native Melbourne or Portsea. Or perhaps he was planning a holiday at Bingil Bay, spear fishing among the lovely coral. Staghorn coral is perfect camouflage for a diver. The time was right.

(3) Earth: Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; the chances of life and death. If the enemy is in superior strength, evade him.

The means of travel and transport need to be considered and dangers minimised. By what means should the inevitable confrontation between enemies be brought about? Harold Holt was famous for dismissing his security men. Jim doubted that the enemy would be in superior numbers on the chosen battlefield, namely the sea, but if so, a line of retreat must be maintained.

(4) The Commander: The commander must embody the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness.

Johnson and Holt were both lacking in wisdom, sincerity and courage and were therefore vulnerable to attack. It was not just those individuals who lacked integrity but also their administrators, such as the secretary of the Department of the Navy, Mr Landau. An administration without integrity or honour will eventually destroy itself. The art of war is to minimise the damage until the corrupt administration is eliminated.

(5) Method and discipline: By method and discipline are to be understood the marshalling of the Army in its proper subdivisions. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.

The United States of America had been almost continuously at war throughout its existence. Being a one-man Army, Jim was well aware of the need for method and discipline. He resumed the naval college pastime of the early morning swim followed by a fast jog around the suburban streets. When Jenny asked about this activity, he said, “I just feel like getting back into shape. University turns you into a slob.”

While she was away at work he took the gear around to Little Sirius Cove, adjacent to Taronga Park zoo. A track by the wall of the lions’ den led down to a small, deserted beach. Pushing it to the limit, he nearly killed himself and staggered out of the water, gasping and wheezing, to collapse on the sand. Twenty-seven minutes that time, as measured by his diver’s wristwatch, which was nearly as big as an alarm clock.

Care was needed to shield Jenny from stray information. At some stage, he was going to have to travel to Melbourne and he needed a plausible reason for doing so. It came in the form of a letter from Chook informing him that he had found a new lawyer. Having been burnt by the last two, he planned to interview this one by committee. So far, he had five ex-Voyager men able to attend but would appreciate Jim’s contribution. Jim wrote back accepting the invitation. Chook offered overnight accommodation at his place but Jim declined. He also declined the offer to pay his airfare out of the fighting fund. It was a fair bet that Chook was under surveillance for his subversive activities seeking compensation for Voyager’s survivors and for the families of the 81 relevant dead.

Jim wrote to his granny Maureen, whom he hadn’t seen for about nine years. He told her he was coming to Melbourne on business and thought it would be nice to pay a visit. She wrote back by return post, ‘Jim, that would wonderful. We shall have such a lovely chat.’ He had called from a public telephone to obtain the address from his mother, who was distraught to learn he wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas. He explained to Jenny that he needed to go to Melbourne for the meeting with Chook’s lawyer. No lies were told, and of this Jim was proud.

He made two more purchases before leaving Sydney, a roof rack for the Volkswagen and a surfboard. At that time of year, young people all over the country were on the move in search of good surf and on the road heading south he was just another beach bum on surfari. Over the border through the Snowy Mountains wilderness he entered the state of Victoria. Outside Bairnsdale, he stopped and waited for dark, then nosed into town and swung into the parking lot of a pub off the main street. He waited until a battered, muddy farm truck arrived and its driver climbed down and headed into the public bar. He followed at a distance and peeped through a window. The locals greeted the driver as a mate and collared him into buying a round of beers. He was going to be there a while. Jim removed the number plates from his truck and continued his journey in the Volkswagen.

An hour or so later he pulled off the road down a dirt track into the bush. He removed the New South Wales plates and replaced them with the Victorian ones. He didn’t expect that farmer to miss his plates before morning, when, with any luck, he’d decide they fell off. He concealed the NSW plates wrapped in rags under the spare tyre.

In the morning, he built a fire and cooked up a good sausage breakfast, breathing the scent of wood smoke and barbecued meat in the bright, clear air. It was late afternoon when he pulled into the narrow, crowded streets of Fitzroy. The suburb looked as seedy as the back streets of Kings Cross and it was probably unsafe to leave the car parked in the street but there was no alternative. Granny Maureen lived in one of a row of terrace houses without the luxury of a garage. She greeted him with a big smile while giving him a hug of welcome.

“Well now, and what is it that brings ye to visit after all this time with never a peep out of you even on my birthday?

“I just thought it might be nice to visit my dear old granny.”

“Ye always were full of the blarney, Jimboy, but it’s grand to see you anyway. How long will you be stayin?”

“I don’t know. We’re having a meeting with a lawyer to see about suing the Navy. Then I thought I might catch a bit of surf.”

“Suing the Navy is it, and what will ye be up to next? If you’re planning on Bell’s Beach ye better take that surfboard off the roof of your car or it won’t be there next time you look.”

He stowed the surfboard overnight in the wardrobe in the room that she had prepared for him.

 

The law firm Huntington and Frith had their offices in a multi-story block in Collins Street, central Melbourne. The board room reminded Jim of the one where he had been interviewed by the upper yardman selection board although the portraits around the walls were of venerable partners, retired or deceased, rather than admirals.

Ten Voyager survivors had answered the call, most of whom Jim had not seen since those days. As they gathered in the vestibule it was handshakes and slaps on the back but Jim was shocked by the sight of some of his old shipmates. Furtive, was the best way to describe the way they looked at him, never meeting his eyes, as if suspicious or ashamed. A few were still in the Navy, although not in uniform. Suing the admirals could be regarded as an act of mutiny or at least insubordination and Jim wondered about their legal status. In fact, he wondered about the status of such a law. The Navy was evidently a law unto itself, not part of the general justice system.

Peter Trebilco was the partner who specialised in class action litigation. He had recently represented survivors of a mine explosion and had not only won substantial damages but also criminal prosecutions of management. A dapper man in a houndstooth suit, he gave a spirited delivery illustrated with slide projections and posters describing Huntington and Frith’s eminence in the field and his own successes in similar cases.

“The difficulty we face in this instance is that your employer was the government and hence, technically speaking, the Queen of England through the channel of the Governor General. The fundamental question is whether the Queen of England is subject to the law of the land. Could or should the Queen be prosecuted for war crimes of napalm and Agent Orange? I mention this as a hypothetical situation, of course, but you can be sure we shall meet considerable opposition from politicians, bureaucrats and, of course, the admirals themselves.”

“Nevertheless,” he said, performing a pirouette like a ballet dancer, “justice shall prevail. The truth will out and this shameful episode in the history of our nation will be exposed for what it is: utter contempt by the politicians and the bureaucrats for brave men like you who risk their lives in defence of our great nation.”

“What a wanker,” Chook said later in the pub. “Oughter be a politician himself.”

“Probably will be, mate,” Jim said. “At least half the pollies are lawyers anyway. You know the old saying, ‘How do you know when a lawyer is lying? Answer: his lips are moving.”

Harold Holt, of course, was a lawyer by profession and, what’s even worse, a Melbourne lawyer. Jim wondered if Trebilco had gone to the same law school – Wesley College. They still speak Latin, or mumbo jumbo, for Chrissake, and judges are even older and more obsolescent than admirals. They need to read Sun Tzu to get up to date.

Jim headed not for Bell’s Beach but Portsea, where Melbourne’s white trash had their weekend homes; many of them lawyers, no doubt. With their tennis courts and double garages, they were set back from the streets amidst greenery and all he could see were gravel driveways with maybe a letterbox and a quaint name, like ‘The Cottage.’ And this is what the Vietnam War is all about, he thought there in that precinct of wealth and privilege. Forget the Domino Theory; it’s all about protecting the rich from the poor, the strong from the weak, the arrogant from the meek and the old from the young. Jesus Christ covered this topic a couple of thousand years ago. Obviously a Commo, and look what happened to him.

He drove past Weeroona Estate and came to the gates of the officer cadet school. He made a three-point turn and retraced his track. That glimpse was enough to see a sentry on gate duty and he thought there was bound to be an officer of the day somewhere. The officer cadet school was not the military college. That was in Duntroon, Canberra. Graduates of this school were equivalent to the Navy’s Supplementary List of officers, on short-term commissions. Like SL officers, they were not quite authentic. MUD had found it necessary to apologise to Jim once for mistaking him for a Supplementary List officer but Jim was a fair dinkum College Boy, complete product of the System. What no one knew was that he had missed out on the brainwashing.

He bought a local map from a service station and asked the pump jockey about the good surfing beaches. Back Beach, he said, was one of the best, so Jim drove there and parked in the sand hills overlooking the rollers crashing on the beach and filling the air with spray and salt.

Cheviot Beach was Mr. Holt’s spear fishing spot, a couple of kilometres towards the point. Jim went down the sand hills through ti tree scrub and thorny bushes and walked along the beach where fishermen were casting into breakers and board riders catching waves. It wasn’t a bad ride they were getting but there was a rock ledge out around the second line of breakers and if they didn’t watch out they’d do a Kamikaze.

He walked as far as London Bridge, which was an arch of rock hollowed out by the sea. Everything in this country has the wrong name, he thought. Men in sandshoes and floppy hats fished the rock pools using green weed for bait; probably after bass. A barbed wire entanglement down to the low water mark barred access to the cadet school but he did not intend to touch that wire. ‘I’ll get around it when the time comes,’ he thought.

“How’s the fishing?” he asked an old bloke with a canvas satchel over his shoulder.

“Bloody terrible, mate. Three lumps of kelp and a sandshoe, that’s my score.”

“Spear fishermen cleaned ’em out, have they?”

“Wouldn’t be surprised. Oughter be a law against it.”

“What’s the tide doing?”

“Comin’ in. Get a good current along here with a flood tide.”

“Yeah?”

“Good for snapper. That’s when they feed.”

“Any trouble with sharks?”

“There’s a few around but nothing to speak of.”

“Well, good luck with your fishing, mate.”

“I don’t need luck, mate. I need a stick of dynamite.”

‘That’s enough for one day,’ Jim thought. He drove away from Portsea towards Cape Schank, found a nice concealed spot in the sand hills and parked the Volkswagen in it. He listened to a re-broadcast of Parliamentary Question Time on the car radio and chewed himself up some more. The parliamentary broadcast was meant to be one of the safeguards of democracy but all it did was reveal to the people how stupid the politicians were. The current scandal was politicians using VIP aircraft for their own private purposes. They seemed to think taxpayers provided aircraft for them to take pleasure jaunts around the country. Mr. Holt had been under attack from the Labor Party on this issue but Jim was sure Labor politicians were no better. There weren’t nearly enough politicians going to jail, in Jim’s opinion. We should set an annual quota of politicians going to jail, just to keep them on their toes.

He parked above Back Beach next day and unstrapped the board from the roof rack. A few riders were catching a good set into the shallows. He climbed into his wetsuit and paddled out through the breakers to a big swell offshore and then cruised along the coastline. Scrub-covered sand hills came down to beaches separated by rocky outcrops. It was nearly low water, revealing a rock shelf with the sea breaking on it. He paddled up to Point Nepean, which formed one side of the narrow gateway into Port Phillip. This was the Rip, which had claimed dozens of ships over the years, and wrecks littered the coast. A shipwreck had given Cheviot Beach its name. There was an interesting feature of the Rip, which he thought he might be able to use. Because the huge volume of water in Port Phillip drained in and out of the narrow channel twice a day, there were always two opposite currents flowing through the Rip, one on the surface and one below. The tide was often violent, with eddies and overfalls, but dive and you would find a contrary stream.

He saw no activity in the grounds of the cadet school and then it dawned on him the cadets must have been on leave. It was nearly Christmas. Well, well, well; isn’t that handy? If they were anything like Pussers, there would be only a skeleton staff over the Christmas holidays, mainly concerned with hanging decorations in the officers’ mess. On this day, we celebrate the son sacrificed to give everlasting life but it’s about time that practice came to an end and fathers were sent to fight their own wars. The conscription age should be lifted to forty for both males and females. He believed John Maynard Keynes would have endorsed this policy; rebalancing the economy towards younger consumers and pruning the dead wood. Compulsory retirement for pollies at the age of 40. Eliminate old age pensions. It was nothing but progressive economics.

He caught a wave into Cheviot Beach but baled out before doing a Kamikaze on the rocks and carried the board up the beach, backed by low cliffs and scrubby sand hills. He saw a gun emplacement in the hills and a smaller one on the point and investigated, stripping off the wetsuit before he melted. The one in the hills was a warren, with underground magazines and tunnels, and the old gun mounting was still in place but rusting away. From here, he could see the road through the cadet school to Point Nepean and any traffic on that road would be visible. He guessed the mark would probably drive here in his own car, which was a maroon Pontiac Parisienne. Jim hadn’t been able to discover the registration number but it didn’t matter. There couldn’t be many Parisiennes around here.

At 59, Holt was not especially old for a politician and seemed in fair physical shape. Earlier in the year he had collapsed in Parliament and was treated for some illness but seemed to recover. A few months later he suffered an injury to his shoulder, which interfered with his tennis, but Jim did not doubt there was life in the old dog yet.

The beach was of coarse, golden sand with clumps of kelp and driftwood on it. He sat watching the sea break over a Y- shaped gutter through the rock shelf, the fork towards the shore. A couple of seals basked on rocks. From a distance, they could be men in wetsuits, or conversely, a man in a black wetsuit could be mistaken for a seal, especially if he was wearing fins.

He entered the gutter and the undertow nearly knocked him over. The sea broke on the rock shelf and swept out through the gutter, creating a permanent seaward current. Kelp was as thick as a forest in places, with stalks like trees and fronds waving in the surging sea. If you didn’t watch yourself, you’d get pounded on the rocks. Farther offshore, he discovered why Mr. Holt swam at Cheviot. It was a garden down there, with shells and anemones and crayfish waggling their feelers out of rock crannies. A red snapper eyed him warily. Don’t worry, mate, Jim told him. I’m after bigger fish.

Having checked out the countryside he decided the way to do it was this. Wait for the mark in that searchlight bunker. He should see the car roll up and then, while he’s getting his gear together, Jim slips into the water impersonating a seal and swim around to the mouth of the gutter. He could swim that stretch on the surface, saving clammy death time, because the mark wouldn’t be able to see him from the sand hills. Clinging to the rocks at the mouth of the gutter, he impersonates a clump of kelp, breathing through the snorkel. He shouldn’t have to use the clammy death until ready to strike and from there on he had twenty-seven minutes, maximum, but that seawards current should help. What to do with him then would depend on the state of the tide and the direction of the current.

What about security men? Holt was famous for dismissing his minders and Jim didn’t think he’d have any but, if he did, they wouldn’t be divers. Even if they were, they wouldn’t be Navy men. He thought he didn’t have to worry too much about the goons.

He had enough rations in the Volkswagen to last a month and also a spear gun, so he didn’t need to go anywhere near habitation and could live in the sand hills. He made a point of shifting the Volkswagen every night, passing the days on the surfboard visiting Cheviot Beach, which was nearly always deserted.

 

On Friday, he changed the routine. Holt often flew down from Canberra on Friday nights to spend the weekend in Melbourne or Portsea. Jim wasn’t so worried about leaving the car over the weekend because he expected an influx of beach bums and some would sleep on the beach. The Volkswagen would not be conspicuous with its Victorian number plates despite its red colour. He left the surfboard on the roof rack. He didn’t want it this time.

In the pouch pack, he put enough K rations for the weekend, wrapping them in plastic to try and keep them dry, in addition to the other gear. He entered the water over the rocks where there were no fishermen or board riders and headed off towards Cheviot Beach, swimming easy on his back. At Cheviot Beach, he slithered up the rocks to the searchlight bunker, leaving the pouch belt just above the sea. A fair-sized swell rolled ashore and broke across the reef. It was stinking hot in the wetsuit but he couldn’t take it off. Soon, he had to slither back for a dip in the sea and a drink from his canteen. He hadn’t counted on this and knew he had to go easy on the fresh water. He hadn’t brought much.

Hours ticked slowly by with no activity apart from an Army car driving down to Point Nepean and then returning. By sunset, he decided Holt wasn’t coming and took advantage of the last of the light to get some abalone and scallops from the bottom. He ate them raw between mouthfuls of K rations. After dark, he went on an expedition to Fort Nepean and filled the canteen from a water tank, wary of stumbling around there in the dark because there were probably unexploded shells left over from World War II. He found a soft patch of concrete in the bunker and slept.

Next day he saw more activity on the road to the fort and wondered what the attraction was. According to the radio, British yachtsman Alec Rose, sailing single-handed around the world in his yacht Lively Lady, was expected any day. These people were probably keeping a lookout for him. Not long before, Francis Chichester had sailed in.

Next day was Sunday, the day of the sun. It came out of the sea, a great red ball shining orange through the salt and moisture-laden air with flashes of rainbow. Jim had become mates with a rock crab who lived in a cranny by a pool of anemones. He’d developed a taste for K rations. There was even more activity that day and a small crowd on Point Nepean. Jim wished he had a radio and decided to bring one next weekend if he could find a way to keep it dry.

Then he saw a big maroon car and suddenly wasn’t bored any more. It went down to the point, followed by a white station wagon, and when the people climbed out he talked himself into believing he could see the mark’s silvery hair.

Alec Rose in the Lively Lady was way over on the Queenscliff side of the Rip. The wind had blown up overnight. The sea was rough and Lively Lady seemed to be making good speed. People on the point waved, and then the crowd began breaking up. The mark, Jim was sure it was him, got back into the maroon car. Jim slithered into the water and the car disappeared from view for a moment but then turned down the track to Cheviot Beach.

Beauty ripper, he thought, but the sea was whipping up and he doubted Holt would be spear fishing that day.

The maroon Pontiac and white station wagon parked in the bushes near the top of the track and five people emerged. The mark was definitely one of them but he had no idea who the others were. Not security men anyway. Two were females, not Zara. ‘Don’t tell me our Prime Minister does a bit of philandering on the side. I’m shocked!

He slid into the water and went under the surf, executing his plan. By the time he was in position at the mouth of the gutter with a clump of kelp over his head, the mark and the others were picking their way along the beach. It was nearly high tide and the sand had shrunk to a narrow strip. The mark wore only a black swimsuit, no wetsuit and no spear gun.

Jim was having trouble clinging to the kelp with the sea breaking right over him. He was considering abandoning the project and heading offshore outside the breakers but then he was astonished when Holt waded into the sea.

The silly bugger’s coming in.

He waited until Holt was swimming and then popped in the mouthpiece and departed his toehold on the rocks, going down. In the fierce current, he had to swim hard to stay in position. The mark passed overhead and Jim went up to meet him, garrotte at the ready, coming over his back so he could get a good purchase on his throat. He took him down under the breakers where the sea was calm except for the strong outgoing rip. He was a strong bugger and he was fighting for the surface but he had no fins and his hands were struggling with the wire around his throat. By the time he stopped kicking they were out well beyond the kelp. According to his diver’s watch Jim still had about ten minutes of clammy death time and he used it all up getting as far offshore as possible.

By the time he surfaced, they were far enough out to be lost in the waves. Jim dropped his weight belt for extra buoyancy, popped in the snorkel and took the Prime Minister in tow. Anyone watching from the beach would take him for a seal, a dolphin, a whale or a log.

With the tide on the flood, the current swept westwards towards the Rip. Therefore, he headed east because they’d search downstream first. He figured he had up to an hour before the shit hit the fan. There were no helicopters in the cadet school, he’d looked. The nearest was at HMAS Cerberus, a training establishment on the shores of Westernport Bay. They might get a police helicopter from somewhere but he could see it coming and dive.

After an hour’s hard swimming, he was up near Back Beach and decided it was far enough. He headed inshore, and took the mark down a full five fathoms on a deep breath after hyperventilating. He found a nice cranny and wedged him in, piled a couple of rocks on top, jammed the toggles into a cleft and then shot to the surface with bursting lungs.

If the fish and sharks didn’t finish him off, the crabs and sea lice would and in three days nothing would remain of the Prime Minister but bones. The sea is full of life. Blessed be the name of the sea. Amen. He liked the fact that Holt now shared Charlie’s grave. He also liked the fact that it was nearly Christmas.

You should have sent McNicoll to jail, he silently admonished the PM. I would have been satisfied with that.

By the time he got back to Fitzroy he could hear nothing on the radio but the disappearance of Harold Holt. Planning to spend the night, he unstrapped the surfboard and took it inside.

“Oh Jim, have you heard the news?” Granny Maureen said. “The Prime Minister has gone missing.”

“Yes, I heard it on the radio.”

“What a terrible thing.”

“Yes. Terrible.”

“And did you have a nice time surfing at Bell’s Bay?”

“Yeah, it was great, although a bit rough today.”

“And what about that meeting with your Navy mates?”

“We’ve got a lawyer who says he can get compensation. But it’s too late for some of the blokes.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think half of them are buggered. Reckon they wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, and quite a few have topped themselves. I’m all right, though. I’m lucky. I’ve got Jenny.”

h3={color:#000;}.

Epilogue

Upon his retirement, Vice Admiral Sir Alan McNicoll was appointed ambassador to Turkey instead of going to jail. The last compensation claim by a Voyager survivor was settled in 2009, 45 years after the event. The CIA’s bank was shut down by a Royal Commission after several years of arms and drug trading.

###########################################

91,579 words


Whisky Tango Foxtrot...copy?

What is justice?

  • ISBN: 9781311825742
  • Author: John Regan
  • Published: 2016-05-24 13:00:18
  • Words: 91942
Whisky Tango Foxtrot...copy? Whisky Tango Foxtrot...copy?