1
Summer


Robert Delucca, lawyer, poet and beachcomber, sat on a rock at the edge of the headland. He’d been there many times in recent months, watching the great ships of a troop convoy pass by fifty years before, yearning to swim out and climb aboard, prevented from doing so by the injustice of time.

Today was different. He was tearing pages from a large notebook into pieces and throwing them into the air. With each handful the firmament glittered as the pieces separated and the sun reflected their whiteness. Then the breeze scattered them, some blowing inland, others descending into the sea below. Some were thrown back into his face.

He was in a whirl of anguish and ecstasy. It was traumatic, destroying his creation; but it was exhilarating, this freedom, this escape. He was dizzy with the euphoria, with a hurt he could not explain, like a soldier who endures many battles only to succumb to a reckless impulse.

If only he’d known how easy it was, how close deliverance was at hand, he would have done this months ago. It was a death of course, but an alluring expiation, such as the drowned might feel. All you had to do was let go, cut yourself off from the story and let it disperse.

‘ You little ripper,’ he shouted, ‘I’m free.’

His was a solitary emancipation. Light headed, he might have attempted something rash had an opportunity presented itself, like kissing a stranger, or speaking in tongues. But no such latitude came his way.

The beaches to his left and right were deserted at this early hour at the end of summer. Even the seagulls ignored him. The light was clear and gentle, the lazy sun slowly hoisting itself over a liquid horizon. And that too was a kind of freedom. He had the world to himself—well, nearly. Down below, hidden in the rocks, two teenagers were screwing. They thought they were free in their nakedness, but Rob knew it didn’t compare to his lightness of heart.

At the south end of the beach Rob saw the old ex-priest out on the rocks, casting repetitively into the troubled sea, catching nothing. The Priest probably reckoned he was free, liberated from dogma and ritual. But it was nothing compared to the shackles Rob had discarded.

The words he’d strung together through the winter and spring and into the summer, growing heavier and longer each day, were gone. His mistake, Rob now realised, was to think he could come to terms with what happened last Easter by writing it down.

But it had not turned out that way. The words had twisted it about, wrenched his gut all day and stole into his sleep at night. Like burglars, tying the victim up while they helped themselves to his thoughts. And how, he demanded, could words on a page confront the unbelief, make sense of all he had passed through, build faith?

Like a rabid dog they had to be put down, shot in the street if necessary. The idea came to him suddenly this morning, after another night of doubt and confused dreams. He’d acted quickly, put it to the sword before the phrases could re-group, plead their innocence while planning a counter attack. Now they were fragments of cellulose again. The words would not be able to find each other, mate and breed as they pleased.

‘ Geronimo,’ he shouted, tossing another handful into the sky, thickening the air white.

It was like snow at the beach. That image shook Rob, reminding him of something. He’d seen snowflakes like these before. Magic, hallucinatory drifts of litter that made you reach out, to touch and hold. And it had a poignant air about it, a sadness. The déjà vu was upon him.

Down on the rocks a short, rotund man, balding, dressed in shorts and singlet, baited up and cast his line. In his youth he’d been described as nuggetty, but he’d put on weight since then. No fish were biting, but he didn’t care. The rhythmic mesmerism of casting and reeling in completely engaged him. The lack of care thrilled him; a freedom stumbled on after years of black suits, stiff collars and other people’s problems.

In the corner of his eye a flash of light exploded. Turning, he saw a wave of glitter up on the headland. It transfixed him, the pearls of light leaping and dancing above a human form, recalling one of the saints in a window at St. Thomas’. Could this be a signal in an omnipotent code?

He’d expected something like this, yearning for and yet fearing it’s coming. It might mean a recall to his parish, or maybe banishment. He concentrated on absorbing whatever revelation came his way. The figure stood up, one arm outstretched, the other holding some form of parchment. Another heavenly shower of light hovered about its head. It was indistinct to his aging eyes, a blaze in the glare of the rising fireball. Then suddenly knowledge of it gripped the Priest. An angel! God had sent an angel.

He fell to his knees on the slippery rocks, lashed by spray, his gaze riveted to this omen. He, who had allowed his faith to cool, trembled before the apparition. How could he decipher the message? Once he’d been an accepting servant, but his belief had waned until he felt compelled to leave God’s house. Now he lacked the confidence to interpret. He thought of Paul on the road to Damascus, feeling unworthy of the comparison.

Not knowing how to respond he fell into a reverie of prayer.

‘ I know,’ he cried to the hilltop, ‘that I’ve failed.’

He stopped, unsure what to say, expecting a thunderous retort, knowing God to be a consuming fire. It drained him, beat him down. Humility percolated through him. It is the way of God’s grace, he thought, an assault followed by calm. When he raised his head, a supplicant ready to receive divine tidings, the apparition had gone. He rubbed his eyes with salt encrusted hands. All he could see was a man up there, hunched over something held in his hands.

‘ Bugger,’ he remonstrated, ‘now I’m seeing visions’.



He took up his rod and reel, wiped the salt from his eyes with an old red handkerchief and again cast into the bubbling unknown.

While the Priest prayed, Rob drifted on a wave of remembering. Nothing was certain upon that sea, least of all memories. He sucked in air, like a diver after sponges. It wasn’t déjà vu—he knew where he’d seen snow and sand together before.

Only a page remained in his grasp, the prologue to his story. He’d been tearing them out of the thick notebook from the back, moving to the front, to where it all began. He felt an impromptu tenderness for this remnant, where moments before he had murdered its brothers and sisters in cold blood. A paradox.

Now he wasn’t sure this had been such a good idea. He’d had to put his whole arm down his throat to get the words out in the first place. It had hurt. He felt it again now, the pain of regurgitating this thing that ached away in him.

Rob knew the text almost by heart, and could have recited it verbatim. In his mind he began to read slowly, methodically, as though searching for some key he’d hidden in among the words and then lost.


Imagine Australia had been sleeping off a hard night at the club for the past fifty years. A whopper hangover. It would wake with a throbbing head, glazed eyes and furry mouth, thinking nothing changed. Life would still be all wool and beer. The only restaurants would be Chinese-Australian where Mum might try a chow mein while Dad played it safe with steak and vegies. There’d be no immigrants to blur the outback digger man we saw in the mirror. No sailing opera house or arty types in the inner suburbs. No Aborigines camped in front of parliament cluttering up the lawn. It’d be anti-communist anti-Asian anti-everything. We’d still be part of an empire on which the sun never set, except that during that long sleep the sun had dropped below the horizon and the world moved on.

That was the Australia I was born into. A hard place. As a boy a bully beat me up on the way home from school. He was known as the Meathead, and once or twice a week he’d ambush me. I tried new routes, walking fast, but somehow he always found me. I didn’t say anything to my mother. It would have upset her, and I didn’t have a father. He was dead, a car accident where a cheap job on the brakes turned out to be not such a bargain.

I became anxious about the Meathead. He wouldn’t let up, but what could I do? Vague plans were half made to run away, to sea maybe on a lugger in the always calm Pacific. Or get a gun and shield myself behind its barrel. Boom! Take that!

Then fate sent me a guardian angel in the form of a complete stranger. He taught me how to fight, dirty if necessary. It was the only way, and it worked. But then I made a big mistake and forgot about the bully, forgot how to fight dirty. Fate didn’t approve of my forgetfulness, and now, as an adult, I’ve had to learn the lesson again. It becomes harder as you get older.

All over Australia boys were fighting on the way home from school. I hated it, longed to be out of it and into a place where there were no Meatheads. Perhaps somewhere in Piccadilly, like the scene on the lid of my watercolour paints, with a red double-decker bus tooting its horn.

For a while, I thought I’d escaped. At university people appeared civilised and didn’t beat you up after classes. We read books, went to pubs, smoked dope and made love, convinced we were making a new Australia. Fate didn’t like that either. It took me a while to realise I was still being beaten about the head.

“ So what’s this about?”, I hear you asking, wondering whether to put this book down or persevere a bit longer. Minutes, seconds are so crucial. You might be missing something on the TV or Internet or even just outside the door. Readers have to be hooked in the first paragraph and then reeled in, or else they’re gone, taking the lure so carefully wound around the hook.

You see I know you. You open the cover and turn the page, thinking “Oh I’ve read this before, seen the movie.” And maybe you have, deep within where a spark of humanity flickers against tides of ego and id, mortgages and ambitions. While all around you the world is ablaze you’ll douse those embers within, consoling yourself in the fallacy you’ve heard it all before.
You won’t believe my story. You won’t allow yourself to believe. “That can’t be right. It couldn’t happen.” You’ll feel better then. The medically inclined among you will diagnose all manner of psychoses; the detectives craving a thriller will be suspicious; the literally minded will point out deficiencies in the narrative focus; the commuter reader will complain about the lack of love and adventure in an easy to follow package. In the noisy discomfort of mind and feelings we crave the simple and straightforward. It explains the trickery and confirms our scepticism. The unwillingness to believe.

Yet all the ingredients are here. There’s romance, but not moonlit kisses and heaving bosoms. There’s violence, but not the good guy punching his way out of trouble and sending the baddies off to justice. There’s adventure and suspense, but not breaking into the nuclear plant to save the world in the nick of time. There’s pain, but not the voyeurism of peeping into another’s tortured soul without committing yourself. There’s joy, but not in the happy ending we all believe to be our due. And, I’m pleased to say, there’s no chase, but then the quickening pace of our soliloquy through the nights may be the most hazardous pursuit.

This is my story. If no one believes it I don’t care. The story is as true to me as I am to it. We’re inseparable now, although it wasn’t always so. You see I didn’t believe either. I didn’t believe in the chance circumstances the cosmos roll our way. I was once like you, full of my career and the importance of a certain lunch meeting. Others were in the picture to colour my presence. My country was in action to facilitate my progress. God existed to make things happen for me.

Now I’m alternatively gentle and hard with myself. I think a lot about my country, of how it’s changed and not changed. An oxymoron you might say, and you’d be right. I’ve found out that I am, at heart, an Australian. The problem is I’m not sure what that means. At various times I seem to be different Australians, with different values. Maybe I’m a hybrid Australian, a cocktail of yesterday and tomorrow.

I seem to have fallen in love with Australia. Not its beaches and plains and mountains, or its timelessness and rough character. I’ll leave those to the national hagiographers. When I think about this place I see Aborigines dreaming through millennia, Burke dying under a tree with cracked lips, explorers wandering off into eternity, Lawson’s women on lonely farms, sunburnt young soldiers in a small boat rowing into an inferno, battlers sweating before the bankers are out of bed. I’m comforted by their low-key magnificence. That’s the stoic, loving me.

But there’s a Kelly in me all afire, pissed off with politicians, lawyers and corporate high rollers treating my land as their personal fiefdom.

Accountants cooking the books while my land’s water is boiling to cool. Where were they when Australia needed them?


That’s my story, the one you won’t believe. No one else has. Doctors, nurses, my mother, friends, priests—everyone urged me to talk through the experience. I did, but none of them believed. Despite the hurt of not being considered sane I don’t care, not for myself anyway. I’m thinking of retiring to a shack down the coast. But before I do, maybe for the sake of my contrary country, I thought I’d set the story down.

I should tell you at the outset that I have proof of my story, in part at least. I still have the diaries Jack gave me, in a shoebox with his other odds and ends. A life in a shoebox. Makes you think.

So now I’m writing this, my diary of sorts, to try and make sense of everything that’s happened. You’ll have to make up your own mind, to believe it or not. You’re anonymous to me. You don’t exist until you become part of the story.

At first I needed to be believed, wanted someone else to write the story, someone credible. The Priest maybe, who’d explain that he’d heard a yarn of grimness and brutality, of camaraderie and godliness. A story so fantastic that even a believer in miracles couldn’t believe it. I would have liked that so much I might write it for him myself, taking pity on his incapacity to believe.

His narrative would of course be different, another perspective on the story. You may have come across books with more than one ending, the writer leaving it to the reader to choose. This story won’t have one or even two conclusions. More likely it will filter out into the future in infinite directions, like a river branching into a delta.

So it should come as no surprise that it has more than one beginning, like a river drawing its sources from a thousand streams. There might be beginnings at the ends, and ends at the beginnings. You have to keep your eyes and ears and mind and heart open all the time.



The Priest was unable to recover the absence of care riding on the crest of every wave. He tried to concentrate on fishing, but oblivion only came when he didn’t think about it. He kept an eye on the figure up on the headland.

Something was happening up there. Something out of the ordinary, something not quite right. A streak of curiosity in him sought logical answers to physical phenomena and spiritual ones to everything else. The vision intrigued and perturbed him. He couldn’t leave it alone, couldn’t stand not knowing. He packed his gear and crossed the sand to where a rough steep track led to the top of the headland. By the time he got there he was puffing and perspiring freely.

‘ So it’s you,’ he said, approaching Rob’s hunched figure. ‘I didn’t recognise you from down below’.

‘ I haven’t changed’.

‘ No. I meant my eyes don’t focus as well as they once did.’

‘ You ought to take it easy, look after yourself.’

‘ Yes. Everyone should.’

The Priest was weary of that advice. An uneasy silence hovered about them.

‘ Catch anything?’ Rob asked, changing the subject.

‘ Ah... no.’

‘ You’re a lousy fisherman.’

‘ I know. What about you?’

‘ Just admiring the view.’

‘ I saw strange lights up here a while ago. Reflections maybe. The sun was just rising. Did you notice anything?’

‘ No. Nothing but seagulls and water. Time rushing past.’

He hesitated, like a fox before a river with a mad pack of hounds yelping behind. The Priest, with years of experience at such games, kept his mouth shut and waited. Within a minute Rob broke.

‘ Yeah! I saw my life torn into little pieces and blown about by the wind. Funny. When it was in one piece all I had were questions. Now that it’s in a thousand pieces, guess what, all I’ve got are questions. Don’t you think that’s funny? The conundrum of life.’



The Priest squinted as he faced into the sun. He knew Rob’s moodiness, sort of understood it, but was never quite sure how to play his hand. Often they’d argue over some trivial point while the big issue, the one that had brought them both here, remained untouched in the shadows.
They had come a long way in recent months, sometimes together and sometimes by their individual paths. Both were still unsure of their relationship. Occasionally it was almost like father and son, solid enough to grab hold of. At other times they were distant, prone to tormenting one another. Which way, the Priest wondered, would their pendulums swing today? He decided on an each way bet.

‘ Buggers of things, questions. They latch on and won’t let go. Mind if I ask you one?’

‘ One more won’t break me.’

‘ I’m curious about those flashes of light. Were they the pieces of your life?’

Again Rob hesitated. Why did the Priest always want to pry shells open? But why should he care?

‘ I’ve torn it up.’

‘ Sorry. I don’t follow.’

‘ Torn it up and thrown it away. The book. You’re the one who suggested I write it all down. Remember. That night last winter.’

‘ Yes, I remember. But why?’

‘ It got too close. I couldn’t disconnect the telling of the story from the living of it.’

The Priest knew enough about experience and explanation to stay clear of both. In his days wearing the collar he would have said some meaningless platitude. But since leaving the safety of that world he’d developed a rashness, a propensity to live dangerously and dive into murky waters.

‘ It was just a handful of words,’ Rob added.

The Priest was unconvinced. He had his own conception of words and hands. At theological college he’d been a stalwart of the Scrabble Club, which held weekly tournaments with a novel twist. A subject, to which all words used in the night’s game must have some relevance, would be drawn from a hat. This resulted in hotly contested evenings revolving around Livy’s History of the War with Carthage, atomic principles, Italian renaissance politics, and pre-war Australian test cricket, to name but some. It taught him that words have a pure side, but other meanings when twisted. He learned about good hands and indifferent faces from long nights at the unofficial Poker Club. Putting on one of his best faces he went straight to the point.

‘ Fighting the same battle twice must be hard.’

‘ It was an outburst,’ Rob replied, caustically, ‘an assault on the reader. I was taking no prisoners. A reader would have to be strong to come on that journey. If they weren’t tough enough I reckoned it better they drop out at the start.’

‘ Sounds as though the reader and you were in a boxing ring,’ the Priest ventured.

‘ Yeah. I figured if I threw enough punches some would make contact. And not just playful jabs. I wanted body blows, gut wrenches to the solar plexus, hooks and uppercuts to the head that’d make them see stars.’
Hooks and uppercuts, thought the Priest, who had once been on close terms with both, knew the pain of receiving and delivering them.

‘ Why?’

‘ Because that is the story. That’s what happened to Jack. That’s the battering I copped. At least the reader’s been warned. That’s more than I got.’

‘ Or more than your mother and I received,’ the Priest retorted. ‘Don’t forget others became enmeshed in this affair. It’s changed all our lives. Is there any more?’

‘ There was. You saw it exploding. The fragments of it lured you up here. Rather like fishing. A fisher of men eh, like you used to be.’

Simultaneously the two men saw a woman in the distance, strolling towards them along the beach, shoes in hand as the incoming waves lapped at her bare feet. Although she was too far away to make out her features they both knew who she was, both welcoming her presence.
Below them the two teenagers sprinted out from the rocks, laughing and teasing, and plunged into the surf. Her bikini top had broken, and was tied in a knot at the back. They hadn’t noticed anything unusual the whole time, their attention focused on one another’s form, the here and now. A part of Rob envied their indifference, a state he could not attain no matter how much paper he shredded. But after all, he reflected, it was summer in Australia, the season of nonchalance.



 

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Easter at Tobruk

fiction

Michael O'Sullivan

 

ISBN 9781876819408

PB 208 pp
AU$30; US$14.95; £10.95