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Remembering 1939

I STILL COULDN'T' get my head around landing. Perhaps it was the economics; Australia, after all, had been all but immune to Europe's recent doldrums, to the economic upheaval of much of the world. That was it in part, no one looked quite so desperate. Yes, even here, in the airport terminal, where I found myself after clearing customs, there was an overwhelming sense of affluence.

From a small café I ordered a coffee, and watched it being made with a pained obsession that struck me as ridiculous: this devotion to the roasted bean, these customers waiting so patiently, as though the barista would deliver them their morning Eucharist, and resurrect them! I guess if there's money, you've got to spend it, and torturing yourself over the calibre of your coffee was one way. Still, the espresso was damn good –bang on!

With my coffee in hand, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. I was leaning up against the bar, fooling myself that I was James Dean. I took a look at what I'd taken to be cool attire and shook my head: I looked poor in the dull, muted shades of the northern hemisphere, and, sharp as they were, my shirt and jeans had seen better days. Still, I thought, the boots look good: being old suited them. Nothing here seemed old, however. The airport lacked any of the decay and wear to which I'd bid farewell at Heathrow. And the space – the stretches and the gaps between each person, as if everyone had, and was entitled to, room (room for living in, room for carving out a life), as though everyone had a chance to check themselves before facing whatever it was that fate was handing them. As for me, it was a long time since I'd caught breath.

I couldn't help but feel a hint of anxiety, a stirring of unease, at the prospect of taking the last flight and coming home. I looked at the flight schedule, and saw the plane to Hobart was departing from Gate 22. It was a long time, perhaps a decade, since I'd been back. Perhaps there'd be some relief there? After all, as someone in London had said to me, wasn't Tasmania the poor cousin of Australia? Sooner or later I knew I'd encounter someone from home, probably at the departure gate, even after all these years. For it was always that way, there was always a face you knew, someone from the street, or from the university, or from somewhere in your past, someone who could look right into you.

I was early. The gate was all but empty, and I couldn't see a familiar face, not one. Perhaps I would be lucky.

The lounge was mostly full of young things, hipsters even, coming back from holidays in Melbourne, perhaps from catching a band, or doing the clubs. They didn't look like I'd imagined or remembered. No, they were, like everyone else, the picture of affluence – conservative, comfortable, foreign. I felt uncomfortable, something about being a stranger, about being abroad, alone and isolated. Still, you knew it couldn't last. Something would draw you in – family, relationships, a house, bills, a wife, a child. Transit couldn't last…

And then it happened.

 

HE WAS AN old man, in a blue wool cardigan. Bald with a dry scalp. Thick, wooden rosary beads around his neck. He had hard, beady eyes inside his small, round spectacles; a hand, with big fat veins, leant down onto a walking stick. He was tough as old leather and yet a man with a heart. He must have been over ninety. Brother Sean Higgins. He had taught us boxing at my Christian Brothers school, fighting and faith, doing what was right, prayer and the power of prayer, remembering who we were, facing up to life and doing what had to be done, going down, losing and keeping our chin up.

On this occasion, I couldn't help myself.

I found myself standing and walking across toward him.

I'd always thought at a moment like this, when I crossed the point of being a foreigner and a stranger, that, as I walked toward my memories and my past, to where everything seemed to begin, I would be reduced to the fear and awkwardness I had carried within me as a child, the inadequacy, the sense of hopelessness and of not caring. But I found this wasn't so.

I stood in front of him. He stopped and looked hard at me with those blue eyes. Even after all the years, they still had that same strange mix of force, goodness and vibrancy.

I told him who I was.

The old Christian Brother apologised and said there'd been so many, so many children that he couldn't remember them all.

I felt the need for some recognition, and I struggled for a name. The only boy I'd stayed in contact with was Frank O'Hara. He'd been from a big Hobart family, one of the old clans. I mentioned his name.

The brother paused. He looked away, and the cold blue eyes became distant, almost clouded.

'Frank O'Hara,' he said and crossed himself slowly, 'I remember Frank. He died in the war. 'Nineteen-thirty-nine in Dunkirk.'

What was there to say?

We shook hands and said goodbye.

I went and sat on the other side of the gate, eager to board the plane and get back home.

Frank O'Hara. I'd heard from him perhaps a year ago. He was married now and living somewhere out of Sydney laying bricks and painting pictures. I thought of Frank and I thought of Higgins's memory of the dead soldier, who died in a strange land. I pictured Frank's dark head, his deep eyes. Frank was always a little fearful, always too cautious, but there'd been something about him – backbone, spine, depth...I smiled as I remembered Frank.

I remembered the time one of the big lads from up the road went after him, dead set on giving Frank a hiding. Frank was thin as a rake, and he just stood there, all skin and bone, while the brute bore down on him, and then, very suddenly, picked up a stick and with all his might and frailty, he brought that stick down with a god almighty crack across the boy's head, so hard that the stick snapped and the boy was left with a great gushing cut across his head, and he just lay on the ground screaming, until Frank's brother, Tommy, walked out from the scrub and washed the cut and took that lad home.

 

I LOOKED UP, for I'd felt old Higgins' eye upon me. None of that would have surprised Higgins, he would have expected it. And then I thought about the other Frank, who might as well have been my Frank, though God alone knows what the dead soldier's name had really been, but what he was, both Higgins and I knew well. And I pictured Frank with his stick raised, too afraid to just stand there and die, and too brave to run. I pictured him trying to bring that stick down on Adolf Hitler – who it might as well have been – and I thought of Frank dying in some forgotten patch of foreign land. Frank, my mate, who I stole cigarettes with, and climbed up the big old pine tree, to watch the young mother next door undress, while we smoked and dreamed, and studied her beautiful breasts. And now Frank was somewhere out of Sydney laying bricks, and painting when he could, and probably raising a family himself too. Fucking hell.

Higgins was right, he'd seen a lot, he'd seen it all, he knew who Frank was, knew who he could have been, how he would have acted, what kind of man he was, what kind of man he would become. I looked up once more this time, a little nervously, and as I did, Sean Higgins' eyes bore straight through me, and he brought his worn hands together in a clap that carried across the lounge. He stood and I could see he was intent on making his way towards me. I dared not move, not now that he knew me.


From Griffith Review Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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