A match flares in the dark. It dies a swift, hapless death.
A second, this one shielded by a cupped hand, licks a candlewick until it catches. As a halo of orange illuminates the dugout, a quick, frosty breath snuffs out the match. With strong manicured fingers a man prises open a fob watch, glued shut with grit and sweat: five minutes to five. He slips the watch into his tunic pocket. A second thought. He retrieves it, polishes the casing on his rough woollen sleeve and places it in a small metal trunk on his bed. Every instinct tells him he won’t be needing the watch after this morning. If everything goes as expected, he won’t be needing anything much at all.
The man shuffles around the small bolthole, picking up his meagre personal effects and packing them into the trunk. It surprises him how austere the world of even the most cultured man can become. When life is distilled down to its most basic elements, it’s remarkable how little you really need. Some officers like to confect a home away from home, surrounding themselves with familiar comforts: their favourite cologne, a gramophone, coffee-making utensils, their library. He resists the urge. He never wants his lair has been his home since May, through a dysentery-wracked summer and a wretched autumn. Now a sodden winter is smothering his resolve. It snowed last month and an eighteen-year-old sentry was found frozen at his post in the morning. Not how you expect a man, young or old, to die in war.
He has packed the trunk in this way, the same scant items in the same order, eight times since they landed. He could leave it for someone else. For after. But the packing has become something akin to a rite, a ceremonial declaration. Everything is in order. I am ready for the worst. I dare you.
He flicks the pages of his diary, water stained, muddy and precious. He recalls his first entries, considered and self-conscious, every word a labour. Yesterday’s entry – I woke early. Bitterly cold. Reported to colonel. After seven months of suffering, there’s nothing left to say. He wipes the cover with his hand and drops it into the trunk, then places a family photo on top. In his palm he juggles a closed pinecone like a grenade before putting it, too, inside the chest. His shaving bowl, razor and brush follow. He lifts a woman’s scarf up to his nose, breathing in the scent of his wife. Or the memory of her. Who knows for sure anymore? He wraps it around a sheaf of papers – a letter – then drops them into the trunk and closes the lid.
As he moves to the table where his revolver lies, the flickering candlelight catches his epaulettes and the hilt of the sword strapped to his side. He’s a career officer, a major, a forty-seven-year-old man of quiet resolve. Now weary and taut, he is on the brink of ordering yet another pointless assault on the enemy trenches at Gallipoli. He has done this countless times before. But today, inexplicably, it unsettles him.
He knows this attack may well cost him his life. Which is nothing new. Snipers on both sides routinely target officers, to decapitate the lumbering enemy on the charge. Certainly he knows hundreds of his men will perish in the next thirty minutes for no particularly good reason. Whatever scant centimetres they advance this morning will be stolen back by the enemy tomorrow. With all the to-ing and fro-ing at Lone Pine, the front lines haven’t moved for four months.
There was a time when he was disgusted by the profligate waste of life. Now it just exhausts him.
Light filters through the coarse hessian curtain that acts as his door. He hears a guttural cough, a none-too-subtle reminder from his sergeant. He smiles to himself. Hat on, pistol holstered and sword slapping his leg, the officer pushes back the curtain and steps into the pre-dawn light. A rugged face appears before Major Hasan. It is his staff sergeant, Jemal, a weather-beaten lion of a man and a veteran of too many campaigns. He speaks in Turkish, fog on his breath.
Hasan looks past him and down the muddy Ottoman trench at his ragtag army. Whiskered grandfathers stand beside terrified teenagers, farmers beside bank clerks from Stamboul. Some wear full uniform, others are clad in a motley mismatch of civilian clothes tricked up with military-issue jackets, trousers or belts. The Ottoman Government is still recovering from the Balkan War and is desperately low on uniforms and supplies. Many of these conscripts are standing in the clothes of dead men, blood washed away and bullet holes worn as lucky charms.
Surely lightning can’t strike twice. The fortunate wear boots – often salvaged from the feet of fallen comrades – but the rest have wrapped their bare feet in cloth against the cold.
‘Wait for the sun,’ says Hasan with a nod.
Jemal salutes and the message is relayed quietly along the trench with a whispered word or a gesture. Soldiers shake hands and kiss their comrades, fathers or sons on both cheeks. An imam, bearded and solemn, blesses men as they huddle around a brazier; the heat of the flames does little to disperse the frost of mortal fear.
The bone-chillingingly cold air is still. Silent. Jemal supervises as scaling ladders are raised against the trench wall and men line up at their bases. Their tension is palpable. Teeth chatter, not just from the cold. The acrid smell of urine and the stomach-churning sweet tang of the decaying dead in the ghastly stretch of land between the two front lines pollute the morning air.
Hasan spots a young boy, lost in an oversized tunic, his boots on the bottom rung of his ladder. He is determined to be first over the top. As the major strides towards him the boy looks into the mud, deferring to the senior officer.
‘Soldier, what is your name?’ asks Hasan sternly.
‘Yilmaz,’ the boy replies into the dirt, adding, ‘from, Mardin, sir,’ as an afterthought.
‘Fetch my binoculars, Private Yilmaz from Mardin.
They’re in my dugout.’
‘But Commander, I’ll miss –’
‘Do it,’ demands Hasan, cutting him short.
Reluctantly Yilmaz gives up his place at the front of the line and makes his way along the trench. Major Hasan watches the boy disappear and then steps onto his ladder and chances a look over the top of the sandbags at the enemy line. The grim expanse of no-man’s land is dusted with frost; infinitesimally small crystals reflect the first blush of dawn’s pale light. A distant rifle cracks, shattering the unnatural silence, and Hasan ducks automatically. He composes himself and signals to an old bandleader, who is resplendent in his tattered velvet jacket and meticulously waxed handlebar moustache. A handful of drummers and trumpeters gather in a huddle, and the bandmaster thrusts a flag into the air. A trumpet wails and the band strikes up a discordant anthem, the signal to charge. In a chaotic, adrenaline-fuelled scramble, men surge up the ladders and over the trench wall crying, ‘ Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! ’
Hasan has timed the assault perfectly, using the rising Aegean sun to dazzle the enemy as his troops charge across no-man’s land. Hasan climbs over the sandbags, with Jemal puffing beside him like a swimmer coming up for air. Ottoman soldiers cry out at the top of their lungs around them, expelling their fear and anxiety. Those with guns fire blindly into the dawn light before them. The rest brandish farm imple-ments and handmade pikes, waiting for the man beside them to fall so they can seize his rifle and make it their own.
The Australian front line is barely the length of a tennis court away but the ground is sodden and uneven, and punctuated with craters and bloated corpses that form a gruesome obstacle course for the running men. And soldiers do fall, some tangled at the ankles by coils of razor-sharp wire curling out of the mud, others dropping into shell holes filled with a hideous soup of stagnant water and disarticulated body parts.
In the confusion they can hear guns from the enemy trenches spit and buck. The band is charging across the field in a loose formation, still playing its defiant, dissonant song, but now a few instruments short. The bandleader waves the colours of the 47th Battalion like a red rag to a bull. Revolver in hand, Hasan stumbles across no-man’s land, Jemal at his side. At any moment he expects to feel the searing heat of a bullet and the mud in his hair as he is knocked onto his back. He knows his sergeant will be happy if he can just get his cavalier commander to the enemy trench in one piece. He can almost hear Jemal thinking, Why can’t the major be like most men of his rank and stay behind the line? That’s what binoculars are for.
They have caught the Australians off guard with the early hour. Hasan imagines them still huddled under their khaki coats like street children as the Turkish boots drop down beside them, spraying mud. Bayonets make for a rude awakening. In the last assault Hasan watched as most of his men were mown down by snapping machine-gun fire before they took a step. He lost count of how many fell back into the trench, killed before they even cleared the sandbags. Are the Anzacs just waiting, biding their time, before launching an unholy barrage? Ahead, Hasan can see the first wave of his attack nearly at the enemy line, bayonets raised and bellowing at the Australians, daring them to do their worst. And then, through the December mist, it happens.
Suddenly the raging Turks all stop in unison. The sound of gunfire peters out. The yelling subsides as perplexed soldiers stand in silence and look down into the enemy trench.
Jemal nudges soldiers aside as Hasan makes his way through his troops to the edge of the trench. From high up on a sandbag he looks down in disbelief. There is no one there. Hasan, conditioned to always expect the worst, is suspicious.
‘It’s a trap. It must be.’
Jemal shrugs. ‘If it was, we’d know by now.’
Hasan drops into the Anzac trench and Jemal joins him, both wary of booby-traps. Perplexed and confused, the men of the 47th watch on in silence. A sudden blast from a rifle propped on the edge of the trench, and the men dive for cover. Jemal and Hasan barely flinch. The two men examine the unmanned gun, smoke still spiralling from its barrel. Hasan sees that it’s been set up to shoot at the Ottoman front line automatically. The .303 is fired by a clever system of water-filled tin cans punctured so that they empty gradually, until they pull the trigger. He can’t help but admire the ingenuity. Jemal reloads the rifle and unscrews the stopper on his canteen, about to pour water into one of the cans. He pauses, looking down the barrel at a cluster of soldiers watching at the business end of the rifle, and waves them away.
‘Move or be martyred,’ he bellows.
The men have learned that an order from a man as rash as Jemal is ignored at their peril. They scramble out of the way as he empties his canteen into the can tied to the trigger. The gun fires with a loud crack. Jemal nods, impressed. Hasan continues along the trench, passing a table set for a game of chess; one white pawn pushed two squares towards the enemy line. A note in English sits under the piece and reads, ‘Your move, Abdul.’ Hasan gives a wry smile. Another time, another place, he might have enjoyed meeting this chess player. Strange to think that in the midst of the dehumanising chaos of war, an enemy soldier found solace in such a civilised pastime. Jemal appears, wielding a cricket bat like a club.
‘A weapon?’ asks Hasan.
‘I watched them play this pointless game near the beach, between barrages.’ Jemal holds the bat over his shoulder and swings it through the air before studying it intently.
‘Whatever it was, they took it more seriously than the war.’
They are interrupted by a distant cheer, and peer over the sandbags to see the bandleader waving his flag and dancing. He is pointing out to sea. Hasan climbs a ladder and raises his binoculars to see a white wake cutting through the ink-black Aegean and trails of smoke from the departing Anzac troopships as they make a beeline for Greece.
As Hasan’s men realise what has happened, shocked silence gives way to waves of celebration. Just moments before, they had resigned themselves to the inevitability of sudden and violent death. The release of tension ignites the gathered Ottoman troops like a lit fuse. Some men fall to their knees in silent prayer. Others weep and congratu-late their friends for surviving. But most cheer and shoot their guns into the air, crying, ‘ Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!’
Today, Hasan thinks, after months of being a passive bystander, God truly is great. Hasan sits on a sandbag and leans his head back against the trench wall. He takes in the significance of the moment, and doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. After 238 dreadful days of staring at each other across the ditch, strafing each other with machine guns, picking each other off on the way to the latrines, mining each other’s trenches, listening to each other’s wounded bleed out in no-man’s land, and finally tossing gifts of cigarettes and food from trench to trench, the invaders have skulked away in the night. He knew they must, before the winter floods washed them off the cliffs that they had clung to so tenaciously.
This is a good thing; it is what they have been praying for.
But for a moment he feels bereft – cheated. The enemy has defined him, given him his purpose. But now, to a man, they have suddenly stolen away under cover of darkness without giving him the opportunity to salvage anything positive from this cursed morass.
Yilmaz, the boy soldier, appears, running across no-man’s land, out of breath.
‘Sir, your binoculars. I could not find . . .’ He trails off as he spots them hanging around the major’s neck.
With a half-smile Hasan replies, ‘Private Yilmaz from Mardin, today was not your day to be martyred.’
The band launches into a Turkish folk song as soldiers throw down their guns and start singing and dancing.
A man paces across a vast paddock, under a vaulting indigo-blue sky. He performs an oddly choreographed dance; first striding in one direction, then sidling in another; backtracking slowly before turning. From beneath a dusty brim his eyes scan the rust-red soil. He is blind to the beauty of the sunrise as the first long fingers of rose gold stretch across the Mallee plains, glinting off the strands of parched summer grass.
He stops abruptly, and peers down at his clenched hands like a churchgoer who has forgotten the words. How, he wonders, has he just noticed? Knotted, with skin like bark, they are hands much older than his forty-six years.
In each fist he clasps a short length of brass tubing, polished to a warm patina from years of use. A foot-long length of wire bent into an L-shape protrudes from each tube, like grasshoppers’ feelers. As the man moves, the antennae swivel and scout. He follows their lead, weaving across the paddock and watching for the moment when they converge and cross. It will be right there that he will find it, but he never knows how deep down it will be.
Joshua Connor is as tough and unyielding as the land he calls home. Tanned like hide, he is tall with the broad shoulders and well-muscled chest of a man conditioned to long days labouring under the Australian sun. He has neither the time nor the inclination to place any stock in life’s mysteries. To him, water divining is just something he can do – just as it was something his mother could do, and her father before that. Take it back a few generations and they would have been called water witches. A bit further back in time, and most likely they would have been burned at the stake. But here, today, in the dry and unforgiving Australian outback where water is life or death, Connor’s strange gift is as precious as it is inexplicable. Unyielding and irascible, he is not the most popular man in the district but no one would ever deny that Connor’s baffling ability to sense hidden subterranean water has saved many a local family.
Connor pauses and lets the feelers settle, then veers in an arc to his right. His thick-tailed sheepdog shadows him cautiously; he has long since learned to keep a reasonable distance. Any sudden change in Connor’s direction could earn him a kick in the ribs. Their boot and paw prints snake through the red soil behind them like plaits, tracing this strange ritual right across the paddock.
The man points to a lonely cluster of Mallee trees, bloated at the base with thirst like dead sheep in a drought. He talks to his dog as he would to a smart child.‘It’s here somewhere. Those buggers don’t survive on air alone.’
The dog sits patiently in the dust as the sun scales higher above the horizon, the first sting of its rays burning the dawn chill from the air. Connor wipes a bead of sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. You don’t need any special gifts to know today is going to be a scorcher.
‘Let’s get this over and done with, mate.’
Connor studies the wires as they slowly rotate, swinging one way and then the other. They settle, pointing along parallel paths to an outcrop of rocks. ‘See, soil’s different over there. Rocks close to the surface.’
He heads in the direction the wires indicate, adjusting his path as they sway to and fro. Now he takes smaller steps, barely shuffling, until the wires swivelling in the brass tubes converge and settle in a cross. Funny, he thinks to himself, how a cross can mean treasure, salvation or death – it just depends.
Connor marks the spot with his heel, digging into the earth four times – one for each point of the compass. ‘Right there, boy. Stay.’ The dog settles down on his haunches. He’s in for a wait.
Connor begins the punishing walk back to his horse and cart, squinting his blue eyes against the caustic morning light. There is nothing easy about this land. As the ground warms, a raucous insect orchestra strikes up; Connor strides out in time to its beat as the piercing trills cut through the air.
The mare stands patiently in the shade of a ghost gum, stamping her hooves and flicking her ears to ward off the black tide of flies that rises and falls around her. She knows the routine; it’s been a long time since Connor last had to tie her to a hitching rail. She’s not one to wander off. Wander where, anyway? Dry as a temperance meeting, Connor sips from a canteen, jumps onto the seat and takes up the reins.
‘Time to earn your keep, you old nag.’ He pats her rump affectionately and flicks the reins. As the horse begins to move Connor turns her, swivelling the cart around to face the distant spot where the dog stands guard.
The mare picks up pace, casting a red wake of dust into the clear morning air. Connor enjoys the speed, the cool rush of wind against his face. He looks back – the airborne dust, thick as smoke, obscures their path. The cart clatters and jolts as the contents shift – gnarled branches tied in bundles, heavy ropes, a block and tackle, a square canvas bucket, shovels and a pick.
The dog sees them approaching, shifts nervously. It wouldn’t be the first time he ended up under one of the mare’s hooves. ‘Steady, girl.’ Connor draws the reins up, bringing the cart to a halt. He jumps down and bends to scratch the dog roughly behind the ears.
‘Good boy. No one’ll get past you, will they?’
Connor unloads the cart, carefully placing his equipment in neat piles, stalling. He straddles the marker in the dust and lifts the pickaxe above his head.
‘Let’s hope it’s not too deep this time, eh?’
The dog shifts quickly to the side. Connor brings the iron crashing down into the unyielding ground. The impact jolts him, reverberates up his arms, making his teeth clack together.
Connor lifts the pick again, smashes it down. And again. Begrudgingly the brick-hard earth begins to give; small red clumps shift aside as he drives the pick deeper.
Enough loose soil now for the shovel. Connor plunges the spade into the dirt, ropey muscles along his arms and back tensing as he clears the first bucket of what he knows will be many more. He peers down into the bottom of the shallow hole, anticipating the telltale darkening of the soil, the gradual seep of water into the dust, which he knows will tell him when he’s close. Connor glances at the dog, who sits transfixed as always by his master’s every move.
‘A man can hope, can’t he?’
The sun lifts higher above the endless horizon. Connor feels the rising heat against his skin and the first trail of perspiration running between his shoulder blades, down his back and under his belt.
He bends and lifts the pick again. ‘Best make yourself comfortable. It’s going to be a fight today, mate.’
For Connor the day disappears like a mirage through eyes that sting with salty sweat. Down the hole, he reckons the hours in buckets of dirt, blisters and feet below the surface. One, two, three . . . Each time he emerges from the dark, damp well, blinking like a boobook owl, he tracks the shimmering sun across the sky, sees the shadows lengthening. Fourteen, fifteen . . . Gone is the midday cacophony of parrots and cockatoos as they swoop and soar across the plains. As dusk approaches, Connor is serenaded by the buzz of crickets and the mocking call of a kookaburra perched on a gnarled tree nearby. Night is on the counterattack.
The dog peers down at his master, at work deep beneath the surface now in a neatly excavated hole. The walls of the well are reinforced with a scaffolding of Mallee-scrub branches, interlocked and methodically lashed with rope to hold back the brittle, crumbling earth.
Aching and spent, Connor bends, his large frame restricted by the confines of the well. He winces as he lifts the canvas bucket full of muddy red soil, attaching it to the block and tackle. He climbs up the bracing timbers to the surface and lifts the bucket, hoisting the rope hand over hand, calloused palms raw. Connor empties the cool, damp earth onto the hot dust that still holds the warmth of the sun’s rays.
He pauses, hands on hips, bone tired. Looks down at the dog, now lying on his side, snapping at flies. ‘Don’t want to take over for a spell, do you?’
Connor breathes deeply, clambers back down into the pit. He crouches, feeling the soil between his fingers. It’s wet. No doubt about it. Can’t be far off now. She’s a tease. ‘Time to show it who’s boss,’ he mumbles.
He grabs a long shaft of steel leaning against the wall behind him – almost as long as Connor is tall, and flattened at one end to a chisel-like point. He lifts it above his head and slams it into the mud. The earth yields. A vein of red stone cracks, and water belches out like a busted fountain. Connor raises the steel and strikes again, letting out a conqueror’s roar that is lost on a dog, a horse and a barren and empty landscape. Distracted for a moment, his mind baked, Connor doesn’t notice how quickly the water is rising. Up to his knees already. It never comes this fast.
He grabs for his tools, blind hands fumbling beneath the water. He reaches for the ladder, tossing the shovel, bucket and pick up to the surface. Not far enough – the pick catches on a protruding branch and tumbles back down the shaft into the swirling red water. Could leave it. Should leave it. But how am I going to replace a pick out here in the middle of nowhere? Connor curses and scrambles back down the well. He ducks into the water to retrieve the pick.
As he surfaces again, his eyes stinging with water and silt, Connor stretches, fingers searching for a beam. It doesn’t seem fair that this has happened at the dead end of the day when he is spent. His weary hand grasps a branch and he levers himself upwards. Suddenly the branch shoots clear of the wall, slamming into Connor’s forehead and dazing him. He falls back, grappling desperately for a handhold as the rising water undercuts the scaffolding and the branches tug at him with sirens’ claws.
The dog yaps madly around the collapsing hole. Connor struggles to keep his head above the surging water. White stars exploding in his eyes from the clout to his head, he fights the grey fog that threatens to descend on him. He looks up at a perfect circle of sky, fringed by a ring of twisted branches. As the blood runs from his gouged scalp all he sees is a crown of thorns.
He feels the water cleanse the day’s sweat and dust from his skin. He lets go, a soporific detachment washing over him. He is done fighting. Surrender. He shuts his eyes, accepting the inevitable. And yet. There. The water, rising to the surface, places salvation within reach; the lip of the well is now just above his head. Connor’s survival instinct kicks in. Submission, whether to fate, chance or a higher power, has never come naturally to him. Connor brawls with this mean landscape every day. He reaches out and grabs the edge, hauling himself to safety. He collapses on solid ground with a wet whack. The dog licks his bloodied face, whining, and
Connor shoves him away. ‘Thanks for all your help back there, mate.’
In the early evening light, Connor stands under a make-shift shower in his long johns. From a corrugated-iron tank perched on a stand, a stream of clear, restorative water pours over him. He peels back his sodden underwear and the sun-warmed water turns red as it sluices the dust from his chest and back. He rubs his hair, wincing as his fingers find the jagged wound on his scalp. He picks the dried blood from his hair, not wanting to alarm Eliza.
Behind him a windmill, cobbled together from a cartwheel and flattened kero tins, clanks and murmurs as it pumps water from the deep well below. Connor looks across the yard towards their unassuming home. He built it with the same hands that now struggle to hold a cake of soap and push it round his underarm. He had paced it out, carted the red brick and iron sheeting from Horsham, dug the postholes, split the shingles and papered the walls. He recalls riding all the way to Adelaide to pick out the wood-fired stove. He laboured by day and slept under the stars by night to build this home – all for the family that he had hoped was to come. The home faces north to catch the sun in the depths of winter when chilling winds blow across the plains from the south, and is shielded from the summer sun by a deep verandah.
How many times had Eliza told the boys about the day their father stood back, hands on hips, and judged his work done? He had dressed in his Sunday best, ridden into town and pledged his troth to Eliza, his childhood sweetheart. When she’d seen what he had built her out here in the middle of nowhere, she’d understood how much this hard, bashful man cared for her, and wept. ‘Who . . . Dad?’ the boys laughed.
Connor glances towards the bay window. Eliza stands silhouetted against the lace curtains, backlit by the flickering light of the kerosene lantern, absently picking at tendrils of hair falling around her temples. Connor turns off the shower head, dries himself, and passes along the concrete path past a row of well-tended yellow and red roses. A tyre swing hangs from an ancient peppercorn tree. A colony of boys’ clothing swings in the evening breeze, pegged neatly on the washing line like fruit bats. Shorts, overalls, shirts and socks – some so small it’s impossible to imagine them fitting a human being. Connor tosses his sodden clothes into a copper washtub, grabs a dry outfit off a hook near the flywire door at the back of the house and dresses – slowly and deliberately. He grabs a comb from a chipped enamel mug sitting on the back stoop and runs it through his hair.
There’s a moment of quiet as the day gives way to night, and the water diviner drops his shoulders and exhales for what feels like the first time today. The screen door swings, screeches and slams. ‘Sounds like that hinge could do with some oil. I’ll get onto it tomorrow morning.’
Eliza sits at the table, hunched over and immersed in the job at hand. She tilts her head towards Connor and gives a papery smile. Although she still has the fine complexion and clear green eyes he first fell in love with, the grey streaks in her hair belie her relative youth and signal an advancing frailty. She seems to be disappearing; folding in on herself. The sharp line of her fine nose and dark hollows beneath her jawline become more prominent every day. Where once she had filled her pin-tucked, tightly waisted dresses with womanly curves and soft skin, now she stitches new seams into her clothes to disguise her diminishing frame. When Connor has occasion to embrace her, she feels as insubstantial as an armful of chicken bones. The day is not over for her. She works with brush and cloth to polish a line of schoolboys’ boots to a mirror-like shine, her knuckles stained nugget-brown.
‘Lizzie. . .? Everything all right?’
She doesn’t glance up, trying to avoid his gaze. ‘Dinner’s waiting.’
Connor looks towards the table where a solitary, unin-viting meal sits; cold pressed ox tongue, mustard pickles and some slices of bread. Next to the plate sits a small brown paper–wrapped parcel, opened but face down.
He moves towards the table. ‘Lizzie – what’s this?
Who’s it from?’
Eliza rubs at one small boot and holds it up to the lantern light.
‘For goodness’ sake. Arthur’s worn through the toe of his boot again. What on earth does he do to them?’ Her face softens as she looks up at Connor. ‘The boys are all in bed. They’re waiting for you to read to them.’
‘I’m bone tired, Lizzie.’
‘You mustn’t disappoint them, Joshua. It’s their favourite part of the day. They waited up specially.’
Connor concedes with a resigned nod and drags his waterlogged body down the hall towards the bedroom door. Connor lowers himself carefully onto the end of one of the three single beds. He smiles and takes a small blue leather-bound volume from a bedside table. He opens it and begins to read The Arabian Nights, the boys’ favourite. Prince Hussein called to the man and asked him why the carpet he wished to sell was so expensive, saying, ‘It must be made from something quite extraordinary.’
The Merchant replied, ‘My Prince, your amazement will be all the greater when I tell you that it is enchanted.’
Connor’s voice, honeyed and sure, drifts through the room and down the hall.
‘Whoever sits on this magic carpet and closes his eyes may be transported through the air in an instant to wherever his heart desires to be.’
Connor closes the book and rests his hand on the hollow place in the mattress where his son should lie. Moonlight shines in the window and illuminates the three empty beds, cold and unjumped-on, the white pillows missing sleep-tousled heads, the neatly made starched sheets unrumpled by sweaty slumber. He is alone. After he composes himself Connor slips out of the bedroom, closes the door and makes the desolate walk back to the kitchen table. Eliza sits, arms crossed, her heart burnished raw like the shoes lined up before her. Connor takes the seat opposite, with the small, brown parcel and years of arrested grief perched between them. His dinner sits, untouched, at the other end of the table. Connor has been reading to empty beds now for four years, ever since the first telegram arrived from the army telling them that ‘regrettably’ Henry was missing, presumed dead.
‘Read to him,’ Lizzie beseeched. ‘I’ll close my eyes and imagine him back here safely. He’s just lost. Not dead.’
Connor read to comfort her. It seemed to be the only thing he could do to help. Within a fortnight the second telegram arrived; young Edward had gone missing on the same day as his brother. The message had been lost, sent to a Connor family in Queensland. Connor imagined the relief that family felt when they realised the telegram was not for them. He wanted dearly, desperately to be that Mr Connor of Brisbane. When Lizzie saw the postmaster arriving at the front of the house with a third piece of pink paper clutched solemnly in his hand, she ran out the back door, pulling at Connor’s arm and begging him to hide too.
‘Don’t let him deliver it. If he can’t deliver it it can’t be true.’
All three boys had been lost on the same day. Connor is certain that it was the cruelty of the disjointed arrival of the letters that began to unhinge Lizzie. Each time the couple held one another on the bed. Lizzie wailed until she was hoarse and her eyes were too bruised to cry. He shook uncon-trollably; swallowing his grief and feeling it ricochet through his chest bruising his ribcage from the inside. By the third telegram he was too shell-shocked to grieve properly. He read Arthur’s name with grim resignation, gave one invol-untary guttural cry and waited for the flood of emotion. It did not come. He was cauterised from the inside out. For the next year Lizzie lived in sleepless limbo. ‘I’m presuming they are not dead. That’s what the letters say. Missing. Not dead,’ she would declare whenever he made the mistake of speaking about any of the boys in the past tense.
Initially Connor read to an empty room to offer Lizzie some peace. When he tried to give it away she shrieked at him and accused him of wanting the boys dead. He realised that for her the storytelling had transcended comfort and was now a liturgy, in the same way the shoe polishing had become a ritual. Long after Connor surrendered hope that their sons were still alive, Lizzie maintained her belief. In her troubled mind, to read was a declaration of faith. Connor reaches out, feels the crackle of the wrapping paper and coarse twine and the unmistakable form of a book hidden within. He turns it, glances down and sees the opened end and the all too familiar mark of the Australian Imperial Forces. No. How? Why now after so long? He places it back down on the table, avoiding the subject.
‘So, I hit water at fifteen feet. Bit brackish, but good pressure . . . a bit too much pressure, actually . . .’ Connor looks up, sees tears welling in Eliza’s eyes as she stares at the package.
‘They didn’t even wipe the mud off . . .’
‘Lizzie, it’s been four years . . .’
Her eyes flash. ‘You think you’re so clever. But in the end, it counts for nothing. You find water, but you can’t even find your own children.’
Eliza stands, shoving the chair to one side, toppling it with a crash that echoes through the empty house. ‘Why can’t you find them? You lost them!’
In this forlorn home in the middle of nowhere with the nearest neighbours many miles away, she retreats, sobbing, to the only refuge available to her. The door to their bedroom slams. An all too familiar wave of helplessness washes over Joshua Connor. It’s been a long time since he’s known how to soothe Eliza’s grief. He picks up the parcel on the table and unfolds the paper wrapping. Enclosed within is a muddy, dog-eared diary. Connor gingerly folds back the leather cover and smoothes the brittle pages within. Interleaved between a haphazard collection of handwritten letters, rough sketches, cartoons and maps is a crumpled photograph. A studio shot. Three handsome young men in A.I.F. uniforms, arms proudly draped over each other’s shoulders, smiling broadly. Art, Henry and Ed had been the pride of the district. Tall, long-limbed, blue-eyed, and all handy with a football and a cricket bat. ‘We’re the only three brothers in Australia to score centuries in the same day,’ they boasted, without a skerrick of proof. When challenged Art would retort, ‘Well, I’ve never heard of any others, have you?’ as if that should be verification enough.
In Lizzie’s eyes, her boys died perfect. But Connor prefers to remember them warts and all, and enjoy their imperfections. Arthur, the eldest, would be twenty-five years old now. He inherited his father’s stubbornness and sense of honour along with his mop of brown hair. As his son matured Connor wondered if the boy’s bull- headedness would ever evolve into the kind of perseverance and backbone a Mallee farmer needs. Not that it is of any conse-quence now, but Connor had looked forward to seeing what sort of man Art would become. Henry was two years younger than Art. Sandwiched between his brothers, he’d always fought fiercely for his fair share of attention and approval. More solid and muscular than Art and Edward, Henry was their enforcer on the football field, rushing to his brothers’ defence if they caught a stray elbow or fist from an opponent. He was fearless. Connor would never forget the day he found Henry, aged about twelve, standing on the shed roof preparing to jump down into a dray full of hay. It had to be a twenty-foot drop; at least four times his height.
‘Don’t be a fool,’ Connor yelled. ‘You’ll break something.’
‘No I won’t,’ Henry cried as he launched himself. ‘I’ve already done it four times!’
He knows it is irrational, but Connor runs his fingers over the photograph, imagining the light stubble on his boys’ cheeks and their coarse hair. He recognises the glint in Edward’s eye, the cheeky little bastard. When he enlisted at seventeen he lied about his age. Lizzie threatened to write to the army and report him but he talked her round.
‘Mum, don’t bother. By the time you write to them and send it, and then they write back, I’ll be eighteen anyhow.’
For Connor age means nothing. Seventeen or seventy, Art, Henry and Ed are still his unruly, wilful, larrikin boys who were going to follow in his footsteps and work this farm. That had been the plan, anyway. Until they were shot dead somewhere called Gallipoli. He has become accustomed to feeling their loss as a sharp pain that pierces his gut. It’s too much to bear. Connor slips the photo back into the body of the diary and turns to the front page. He reads the inscription: Arthur Connor: My Grand Tour, 1915. Connor will never forget waving them off, young bulls in spring, like it was a holiday. A restrained hug, a scant few words and Privates Art, Henry and Edward Connor pushed and shouldered each other as they mounted their horses and then raced each other out of sight and over the horizon, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. The early diary entries are detailed, expressive. A letter slips from between the pages along with a small photo of a pretty girl with long brown hair, happy eyes and a bright smile. It is Art’s sweetheart, Edith. On the next page, a pressed gum leaf. Connor flicks to the end of the diary. The entries become briefer; cursory. Going through the motions. The page falls open at the final entry.
5 August. Lone Pine. Hot as Hades but maybe worse.