A fictional story by Robert Smith.
It is 8am and our house is in an uproar. Today my brother leaves for France.
Bob, Charles, Myrtle – shake a bloody leg; the war will be over by the time we get to the railway station.
Mum’s order barks through the house and returns a volley of protest.
Will someone stop the horse eating the geraniums in the driveway!
I can’t find my sock!
Charlie, you bastard; where did you put my kit?
It is spring 1916. Our township in the Waikato is bathed in weak sunshine. Today, volunteer recruits are leaving for an army training camp in Auckland and then on to France.
By 8.30am, brother Bob is standing to attention in front of us, after finding his canvas kit exactly where he had left it the night before.
Charlie, I told you not to muck with my bloody kit!
Stop arguing you two.
Shessus, this uniform is bloody itchy, he moans, tugging at the collar.
You look a treat, a real man, says Aunty Myrtle.
Why are the sleeves so long? asks Mum.
That’s what they gave me.
I can’t remember your father’s uniform with sleeves as long as that.
Dunno Mum, I can’t remember Dad.
Aunty and Mum look at each other.
Dad didn’t come back from the second South African war. Shot through the head at 1000 yards by a Boer sniper. We toast his photo every Christmas. He has a rifle slung over his back and is holding the reins of his horse. Mum and Aunty have run the quarry on their own since.
OK, yells Mum, let’s get this show on the road. Bob, did you hitch the horse to the buggy?
Yes Mum. I told you already.
That’s what I been trying to tell you Queenie, chimes Aunty, the rig has been out there for a darn hour and the horse has eaten half the front garden.
The trip into town is made in silence, except for Aunty’s humming. In her lap a biscuit tin. Bright red.
We arrive in town and ride through the main street in a thudding of hooves and the jingle jangle of bridle chains.
The horse shies when Snowy Coots staggers out of the hotel and limps in front of us, waving his one arm.
Good on yer young Smithy. Give the Hun hell for my boys left rotting up in the Dardanelles.
Get out of the way you drunken fool! yells Mum.
Take no notice of him Robert, says Aunty. The poor soul has lost his mind.
Mum flicks the reins and we fly forward.
And don’t cop one in the guts, Snowy laughs after us. If you do, get a mate to put one in ya head.
The station platform is crowded. Young fresh-faced uniformed boys and anxious relations. Bob disappears into an excited group pushing each other in play.
Mum has bailed up two other mums over aggregate invoices outstanding.
I hardly hear Aunty’s voice above the commotion of excited voices and the rhythmic crashing of shunters in the rail-yards.
A penny for them, Charles.
They are not worth a penny, Aunty. I was thinking of the extra work for me at the quarry before I can sign up.
She touches my shoulder. It’s an unsung burden for those at home. And we need you and the boys in the pit to keep producing. The sand won’t extract itself, and roads and bridges don’t build themselves.
A train chuffs angrily towards the platform. The crowd leans back as the engine scoots past us in a sweet terror of steam and sliding metal.
Mum’s voice makes me jump.
Robert! Don’t stand so close to the edge!
I think I see Bob falter in front of the moving engine, as if he will fall in front of it, knowing he cannot.
Carriage doors are opened. The three of us look at each other and grin helplessly.
Bob takes the initiative and kisses Aunty quickly on her cheek before reaching out to Mum.
They collide and hug, swaying like two drunken dancers after the band has finished.
The shrill of released air brakes prises them apart.
With an arm clutching Mum’s shoulder, Bob extends his free hand.
See you over there, he says.
I shake his hand formally.
Good luck mate, I say weakly.
You stay here boy and keep a keen eye on the quarry. He leans in. And watch those bloody loads leaving the gate. We have been giving too much away.
He walks briskly towards a carriage and never looks back. His face appears briefly at a window amongst a scrum of beaming young faces.
Before the train pulls away, Aunty lets out a scream and disappears behind the crowd.
Bob’s carriage has almost left the platform when she reappears and chases it waving the red biscuit tin in the air like a tambourine.
We sit in the trap behind the station waiting for Aunty Myrtle. She climbs onboard slowly. We drive home in silence, broken by the deep, involuntary breaths of someone who has been crying.
Past the pub we trot, quiet in the shadow of mid morning, past the Boer War memorial, and down a rutted lonely road to our lonely house next to the quarry. The red biscuit tin sits in Aunty’s lap.
It is placed alongside Dad’s framed sepia photo until after the war, along with Bob’s condolence telegram from the King.
I open the lid.
The biscuits are still crisp. There is a letter on top of them with a piece of aggregate in a linen bag.
I know you will open this up before your train gets to Auckland and devour its contents.
I just want you to know my heart and my thoughts will always be with you. If I had a son of my own, I can think of no braver man to wish for.
I have enclosed a pound note so you can splash out in Auckland. Please don’t tell your Mother.
There’s also a piece of fossilized Totara tree from the south face, where you like working the most, with the afternoon sun on your back. Your father gave me this on my 21st birthday. Carry it with you Robert, to remember where you are from, and who you are.
We will be waiting for your letters and your safe return with full hearts.
Your loving Aunty Myrtle.
Copyright retained by the author. Published with permission.
We shall remember them
In September 1915 the Imperial Government requested that New Zealand raise an Engineer Tunnelling Company of three or four hundred men to form one of 25 British and seven Dominion Tunnelling Companies, totalling 25,000 men that would serve in France by late 1916.
The soldiers and officers that made up these Tunnelling Companies were often mining engineers and quarry workers of wide experience.
Pic 1: Members of the World War I New Zealand Tunnelling Company below the ground at La Fosse Farm (pic: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington).