Jon Doust, Return Ticket, Fremantle Press, 2020
Paperback 264 pages, from $25 online
Kindle edition $15.34
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Return Ticket is the third and final instalment of Jon Doust’s trilogy of memoir/novels following the adventures of the hot-headed Jack Muir. It follows the acclaimed Boy on a Wire, where Muir pursues justice for a boy bullied at the boarding school Jack attended. To the Highlands charts Muir as a wild young bank johnnie in Papua New Guinea, his hot-headed and heavy drinking lifestyle a snap-back against the repressive hypocrisy of his school. At the end of To the Highlands, Jack Muir is a damaged drifter.
Return Ticket is set first in South Africa, where Muir encounters laid-back marijuana smokers and the vicious racism of the apartheid regime. In two kibbutzim in Israel, a failed love affair and arduous work begin the task of redeeming the man. Jack Muir’s sense of justice, first kindled by the bullying at his boarding school, is honed by the socialist and utopian vision of the kibbutz.
Muir returns to Western Australia, where he loses the moral compass of the kibbutz and drifts dangerously again. Eventually his mother, despairing of her alcoholic son, gives Jack the money for a return ticket to Israel. There in a different kibbutz, Jack eschews alcohol and drugs and meets a woman who loves him, damaged as he is.
Jack feels he is a grown-up man and returns to Western Australia to mend relationships with his family. His reconciliation with his father on a riverboat on the Blackwood River is a touching episode.
As with the former two books, it is hard to know in The Return Ticket where memoir ends and novel begins. While Jack Muir is fiction, Doust has mined his own life and experience to bring this trilogy to life. The broad outline of Jack Muir’s life has many parallels with Jon Doust’s own life, but the real life is skilfully crafted into a narrative that reveals an arc from damage to restoration.
I have a sliver of insight into the narrow path Doust is treading between memoir and fiction. I was in Jon’s year at boarding school, and I am honoured to continue to call him friend 60 years on.
The books are each self-contained and can be read as separate novels. However, reading the three books reveals the larger themes and triples the reading satisfaction.
The key theme of Return Ticket is that one person’s genuine love for another can draw that person out of the neediness of addiction into responsive love. It is a timely and timeless message.
The writing has about it clarity and beauty. Jon made much of his living since returning to Australia as a comedian. As you would expect, a dry Australian humour permeates the narrative and lightens the serious themes. Buy your Return Ticket to Jack Muir’s story; it is an entertaining and thought-provoking journey.
Highly Commended in the Stringybark Short Story contest 2018, and published in Timber!
The trouble with Western Australia, mused Harry Mason, is the distance that lies between towns.
He held the reins loosely and stared ahead, not really seeing the horse in front of him, as the gelding stepped along the two ruts which passed for a road here, 15 miles west of Katanning, and about 10 miles east of Kojonup on this route. His sulky was reasonably comfortable, and his horse knew its job, so Harry relaxed, drowsy in the afternoon sun.
50 delicious guineas, made up of the Queen’s pennies and shillings and seven nuggets of Kalgoorlie gold with two silver dollars from the wreck of the Rapid were locked in the safe-box snug beneath his seat, safe, he hoped, from any opportunistic thief on the road. This far south of Perth he was unlikely to meet any bushrangers. In fact, he was unlikely to meet anyone, and he desperately needed an accomplice for his next show. Despite the indignity of being driven out of Katanning to the shouts of “Fraud!” he calculated that he could stay ahead of any trouble in Kojonup.
He pushed back his black bowler hat and wiped his forehead with an outsized white handkerchief. His shabby three-piece suit was hot and discommodious. He longed for the cool breezes of evening and a camp near a creek. His stiff stand-up collar and striped frock coat for show-time were neatly folded in a trunk tied behind the seat, but thankfully he wouldn’t be needing those for some days.
The trunk had the words “Harry Mason, World Famous Mesmerist” stencilled in large yellow letters and announcing his profession to anyone coming up behind the sulky. In the heat, he continued his reverie, fantasizing nights playing the big stages in Perth, perhaps even taking the boat to the metropolises of Melbourne and Sydney, nights where people would believe the healings he could perform while audience-members were in a somnambulist state. The ignorant country people of Western Australia had caused him pain: they did not know what was real when they saw the genuine act before them.
The ruts in the road were reducing in size, and the sulky bounced gently on a sandy stretch of track. The rocking motion made the great mesmerist close his eyes and sway with the cart.
“Howdy, Harry Mason, world famous mesmerist!” Harry jerked awake and turned in his seat in the direction of the voice. The sand must have muffled the horse’s footsteps, so the rider had been able to creep up behind him, Harold thought. On a spotted Appaloosa mare sat a man with tan-coloured trousers with leathers sewn on the inside, the side where human flesh gripped horse-flank. He wore a cream shirt without a collar. Over this unconventional outfit sat a black ten-gallon hat with wide brims, and a sun-browned face with a broad open smile.
“G’day,” Harry replied. He slid down from the sulky and allowed the horse to stop at his own pace. “I’ll boil the billy.” The stranger dismounted, and Harry shook his hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Harry Mason, world famous mesmerist. Cassidy Rider at your service,” said the American, “returned from the goldfields.”
The two men were silent as they gathered kindling and boughs for a fire. They didn’t speak until the water had boiled, and each man held one of Harry’s battered enamel pannikins, steam curling up into the leafy branches of a large she-oak.
Harry Mason prided himself on his ability to read a person. In the silence, he inspected his guest. The clothes which seemed to make the American even more of a Yankee had seen many years of hard wear. The leathers had been re-sewn several times onto the trousers, leaving tell-tale marks on the khaki. The shirt was worn, soft and tending to brown. Harry’s eyes looked to the horse: he noted the thickness of new burnished horse-shoes and the Appaloosa’s shining coat, signs of a cherished and tended horse. But the harness was just slightly loose, indicating sagging – old – leather.
“Do well in the goldfields, Mr Rider?” he asked conversationally.
“Middling well, Mr Harry Mason,” the man replied.
“What did you do?”
“A little of this, and then a little of that.”
Harry raised his eyebrows and stayed quiet.
“Some dredgin’ for gold, though them’s not the place for much water, is there? A little riding in the ro-dee-os. A little totin’ for the big miners, carrying bags of gold and bags of legal papers to and fro.”
Harry imagined he would not have come away with much profit from these activities, but did not say so.
“Do you think you might be of use to me, Mr Rider?”
“How so?” Cassidy replied.
“I need someone to help me in my show in Kojonup. It’s vital that no-one there knows who you are.”
“Would this be difficult?”
“Not at all,” said Harry. He leaned across the coals of the small billy fire. “You just volunteer for a bit of dental work on the stage.”
Cassidy jumped. “But sir, I … I don’t need no dental work.”
Harry smiled. He could smell Cassidy’s fear – and his fascination.
“No? Well, everyone in my experience needs a bit of work on their teeth.” Harry continued. “You would still need the dental work after the show, if you see what I mean. But then you’d be able to afford a real dentist with three guineas.”
“Three guineas?” Harry saw the eagerness in Cassidy’s earnest face.
“A guinea each show, Mr Rider; and we might do three shows in Kojonup.”
“Do we have a deal, Mr Rider?”
Cassidy replied by reaching out his hand to Harry and shaking it firmly.
“Tie your horse to my sulky,” Harry commanded, “and sit up front with me.”
Harry Mason, World Famous Mesmerist, languidly flipped the reins and smiled to himself as his gelding plodded across the sand.
The good thing about Western Australia, he thought to himself, is the distance between towns, and the opportunities it brings.
12 Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the midst of the earth.
13 You divided the Indian Ocean by your might;
you broke the heads of the cobbler fish on the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of the crocodile;
you gave him as food for the bungarra of the desert.
15 You split open waterholes and creeks;
you dried up the waters of the Swan River, the Derbal Yiragan. .
16 Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.
17 You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth;
you have made summer and winter.
18 Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
and a foolish people reviles your name.
19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the dingoes;
do not forget the life of your poor forever.
20 Have regard for the covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the memories of violence.
21 Let not the refugees and the homeless turn back in shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
Based on English Standard Version
GRANNY BRIDGEMAN AND THE GREENOUGH FLOOD OF 1888
The people of Greenough, Western Australia, were keenly aware of the heat of the third day of February 1888. Many stayed working under the oppressive sun in their paddocks along the river flats a few miles south of Geraldton on the central coast.
Granny Bridgeman, my father’s great-grandmother, was probably alone in her cottage for much of that day. The Malay servant was in and out, engaged in household tasks, as well as helping the younger Bridgemans and their two children in the summer warmth.
Gray’s Store, brick and two-storeyed, was only a short 300-yard walk from the Bridgeman cottage on the road which ran from the sand dunes along the beach, past the Bridgeman’s and across the flats.
Many people were about that day. Maybe they were reflecting on the generosity of Her Majesty’s Imperial Government that had set aside these small rich lots for pensioned guards and soldiers.
Most were working on the higher ground on the Gray’s Store side of the flats, when the first flood came sweeping down the valley northwards to the sea.
The Bridgeman’s house was high enough up the rise of the sand dune to be safe, at least from the downstream sweep of the flood-waters. The river was then running seawards from an inland tropical storm at the source of the Greenough River.
A mile or so from the Bridgeman’s cottage, the Greenough River runs up against a high and impenetrable sand-bar which separates the sometimes wild sea from the swirling greeny-brown river, but only the sea can breach the bar.
The flood-waters late on 3rd February met the height of this sand wall and were simply turned back, gaining height and speed back upstream all through the night.
Nobody could really have imagined what they saw in the dawn light. The newly running river was now horribly swelled and pushing along the flats in the opposite direction.
Most were safe on the Gray’s Store side or on the east side of the river itself. The store manager, William Moore, set off on horseback to warn the settlers.
His horse was wary of the wild rushing waters and tripped and threw him. Without his horse, he had to swim for his life in the chest-deep river.
According to the reports of the time the Warreners, Bridgeman’s neighbours, rescued Moore from the clothesline to which he was clinging. The loaned him another horse. He rode cautiously higher into the dunes to make his way to the Bridgeman’s cottage.
The Bridgemans had been taken completely by surprise. The sound of running lapping water has wakened them. They acted with the speed of panic. The Malay worker literally used his head to batter a hole in the cottage roof, and the younger family members scrabbled to safety on the rooftop.
Sometime between their waking and the rescue from the roof by William Moore, Granny Bridgeman had opened the door, and was simply gathered up and away in the rush of water. Her body was found days later when the waters receded. Family legend claims she was found in the higher branches of a tree.
Like Granny Bridgeman, the Greenough settlement lost its heart to the flood. Still the richest soil in Western Australia, the Greenough flats are now used for broad acre wheat-cropping.
The Bridgeman cottage is now scattered stones. A remnant of wall holds up a water trough for grazing sheep. The General Store is a ruin being reclaimed by the National Trust.
The dream of small farms to reward fighters for Victoria’s Empire was violently washed away in a few hours.
The heat in the wind stung as it lifted Laura’s long brown hair. Like the devastated landscape she was catching her breath, kneeling in the ashes. The old willow tree, which had sheltered the tennis pavilion, was all that remained of her house.
The clouds were a reddish-brown and swirled behind her. Night would come soon, but for Laura it was already here. It appeared that her beloved Ma and Pa, her Nanna, her two sisters, were all gone in the inferno. The wind picked up a scrap of roof-iron, still red-hot, and swung it dangerously through the air. Laura didn’t duck. It didn’t seem to matter.
She looked down at herself. Her long dress was clean except where her knees pressed it to the whitened soil. Her hands were holding tightly to the neck of her viola, one hand over the top of the other, her chin nearly resting on them. She held the viola primly vertical, its chinrest on the earth in front of her knees. If there had been anyone in the blighted landscape to see her, they might think that this girl, a still brown statue in a burnt orange stage, was at prayer.
There were no tears. They might come later. For now, there was just an emptiness.
If only the 4 o’clock bus had not been delayed by the smoke. Laura had taken the 2 o’clock bus into the town for her weekly viola lesson at the Conservatorium. Her teacher had been pleased with the progress she was making on the Hummel Romanze¸ and had dismissed her 10 minutes early giving Laura lots of time to make the 4 o’clock. When she came out the carved doors of the Con, she saw the smoke off in the east in the direction of their isolated house, and had hurried down to the bus terminal, and settled in impatiently to wait.
At 4:10 the bus was still not there. Laura put the viola and bow down on the seat and began to pace back and forth. The bus pulled in with a squeal of pneumatic brakes. Laura grabbed her viola and sprang up the steps into the bus. The driver apologised, ‘Sorry. I couldn’t get through the smoke.’
The trip home was agonisingly slow. Laura ached to see her Pa in his study and to be held safe in his strong arms. She longed to have her family around her, to skip rope on the grass tennis court with her little sisters, to help Ma and Nanna bake in the large country kitchen.
The driver let Laura out at the nearest point to her house. Laura hurried along the drive peering through thick smoke, looking, looking for her house and family. It was the willow tree that finally convinced the girl that the house was burnt down, and with it, presumably, her dear parents and family.
Somehow, Laura thought as she knelt in the earth, I can feel them here. She closed her eyes. Her breath was shallow. Ashes brushed her cheek.
Far off in the distance, Laura heard trucks and men, probably mopping up after the fire. They seemed to be at the gate far away down the drive. Laura continued to grip the tuning keys of the instrument, tightening the strings. Next time she played the viola would be sharp.
A hand on her shoulder, ‘Laura darling. We’ve been in the trucks.’ It was her Pa’s voice.
She burst into tears. ‘I’ve lost my bow.’
First published in Studio: A Journal of Christians Writing, Issue 142,  Exhibition Award Winning Prose
* * * *
I called him God. I didn’t imagine he was an old man in the sky with a white beard, but he was the one teacher who instilled in me a sense of awe. When we had finished our work on Henry IV or Wordsworth’s poetry, God would tell us little anecdotes of his life and we would piece together some of his life. God was a man of consistency. Every day he wore, as convention and the school demanded, a white shirt and tie. According to God, his tie was ochre-coloured. We thought it had been dipped in a can of tomato soup.
He had competed at least once in the Olympics, because we had heard from the Headmaster how God had won Gold in the hurdles. It was fitting that we learned that not from God, but from the Headmaster, who wanted to hold God up to us boys as an inspiring example. No, what we heard from God was not the crass business of winning but the heavy feel of competing: the determination in the heart, the wind in the hair, the solidity of the wooden hurdles when your running shoe clipped one, and the leaden feel in the shins when you have exhausted the lactose in your muscles, and lie panting for life on the track-side turf.
This is what God talked about, and sharing a room in the Olympic Village with John Landy, and the great miler’s bleak depression after winning the famous race in Melbourne during which Landy had gone back to check on the fallen Ron Clarke. And about Maria, his first wife, whom God met in a Rome night-club during the 1960 Olympics, and brought back to marry in Australia over her father’s strong opposition. God told us, in moments of candour, how happy he and Maria had been together, and even about the grief they felt at not being able to have children. Such intimacies to be shared with teenage boys!
God knew, I think, about our family, my Mum and me living in a cramped caravan on the edge of town. God knew, or suspected, the extent of Mum’s drinking, her total lack of house-work and the days when there was nothing for me to eat. He found me in the library one lunch-time where I had gone to hide rather than open an empty lunch box in front of other boys.
‘It’s alright,’ he said gently, ‘I’ll get you something,’ and five minutes later he returned with a chicken sandwich. I’m sure it was half his lunch. ‘You can’t eat in here,’ he said, ‘Take it outside to the lunch area.’ I turned to ask, or say thanks, or something, but he shooed me out with a wave of his hand.
In Grade 12, I was 17 and living in the squalid caravan mainly on my own. My mother had met a bloke from the eastern wheat-belt, and her interest lay more there than with her son at home. I convinced myself I cared nothing for my mother. She did make sure I had money most weeks (I suspect now it was Brian’s money, not hers), so I budgeted for food, carefully saving any money left over for the weeks when Mum didn’t show up.
I began to take school more seriously. I knew that I would have to pass English, God’s subject: the other subjects not so important, because University entrance that year required English and any four subjects.
Sadly, I didn’t have God for English that year. Miss Peters was a new teacher, and I couldn’t tune into her approach which she called Higher Criticism.
One morning I went to the teachers’ room and asked for God.
‘Mr Cross left some weeks ago, Thackrah.’ The Deputy Headmaster, like most teachers, called me by my last name. He went to close the door. I pushed back on the door.
‘When will he be back?’ I asked.
‘He’s not coming back,’ replied the Deputy.
‘At all?’ I stuttered.
The door closed as I stood there, the chill July wind at my back. I tried to think. How would I get through the year without God?
I knocked again.
‘You again,’ said the same Deputy, irritated.
‘Where – where can I find him?’ I asked, ‘Where did he go?’
The Deputy shrugged, then decided to take me into his confidence.
‘Nobody knows, Thackrah. He failed to come into school three weeks ago. We tried to contact him at his home, but he was missing, gone.’
The Deputy saw the expression on my face.
‘Sorry,’ he said, and shut the door again.
Through the wooden panels, I could hear him laughing merrily at some joke.
I went away stunned. I had counted on God being there. He made the shit world I lived in okay. God gave me a reason to hope, to look forward to making something of my life. Now I felt like I had when Dad died; a sadness, and an emptiness scraping my insides.
I couldn’t face school any more that day. I went back to the cramped caravan. I dug out from my biscuit tin the $50 I had been saving. At the train station, I bought a one-way ticket to Perth.
In Perth, I wandered aimlessly. The first night I slept near the train station on the steps of the G.P.O. They were cold and hard. I think I slept for only half an hour. A guy sleeping nearby offered me a tablet ‘to get through the night’. It helped. The next night I bought another. My $50 was gone. I walked over the Causeway to Victoria Park. I scavenged food from rubbish bins behind the supermarkets. I could just exist on the bread, fruit and vegetables I foraged. I was bashed several times, breaking my upper jaw bone and having my lacerated lips sewn up at Royal Perth Hospital. I lost track of days. I was living day to day like a wild animal. It was frightening, depressing and lonely. I had no reason to go on; and insufficient reason to end it. The tablets, when I could get one, made life almost bearable, but I needed two, then three, to get the same effect.
Then one day – it must have been six months after I arrived in Perth, because it was so hot and dry the bitumen paving crackled – one day when little kids played in the water-feature at Elizabeth Quay and their delighted peals of laughter were the only sign of life in the city, I had my few possessions wrapped in an Anglicare blanket and slung swag-like over my shoulder. My shorts were dirty. My torn T-shirt smelled. My thongs were cracked, but I needed them to protect my feet from the heat of the pavement. I dragged one foot after the other, so weary that my thongs sometimes caught against the cracks in the footpath. I was using all my energy just to walk down Barrack Street towards the river. One foot after the other. No lactose in my muscles. I felt drained and exhausted – every muscle ached. There was no juice in my legs. I wanted to lie down on the grass in the Supreme Court gardens, sleep and never wake. God, I wanted to die.
‘It will be alright, Brett.’
At first, I thought God’s voice was coming from high in a tree, then I saw him. He was standing on ground higher than where I was. He must have recognised me, and his face showed deep concern. He was dressed as for school with white shirt and his orange striped tie. I reached out to touch him, to check he wasn’t a heat mirage. I fell to the ground at his feet. It will be alright, Brett, a voice said in my head. God, missing; but I had re-connected.
Roy found it hard after his wife of 52 years had passed. He had nursed her through years of lung cancer, a slow and difficult death, but with one great blessing: it gave him many months before June died to begin grieving.
But even so, life seemed to be purposeless after the funeral, after the wake, after the kids and their families has gone back to Perth and Sydney.
He got up every morning and walked along the path by the beach. He walked to the beach and turned left and walked by the crashing waves. He didn’t really notice the tides encroaching more and more and the bigger deposits of sea-weeds. Hunched in a coat and hat, he let the wind and the rain wash around him day by day.
He went back each morning to the empty house. The bed was already made. He had already made it before his walk. June wasn’t there, to talk to, to nurse.
He slept a lot. He zoned out in front of cricket, tennis.
Then one morning on his walk, the light shone gold across the waves of the sea, as the clouds scudded chased by a high wind.
‘Is this yours?’ A woman’s voice behind him above the whoosh of the wind. Roy realised that she had spoken two or three times before he had reacted.
‘I am sorry?’ He turned and saw a dark-haired woman proffering his hat which had blown off without him noticing. He stared at her hands holding the tan linen trilby. For a moment, he heard the noise of the market street in Kuta all those years ago, and felt the sticky warmth of the Bali afternoon, and heard the laughing sing-song of the stall-holder, ‘I sell it for twenty-thousand rupiah,’ and his wife’s laughing response, ‘I’ll buy for fifteen,’ and they closed the deal.
Roy now snatched the hat from the stranger’s hand, turned on his heel and walked briskly back to his empty house.
Next morning the rain had gone. Roy noticed that the waves were lapping the beach more gently and he fell into step unthinkingly with their rhythm.
‘Good morning again,’ the woman’s voice took him back with a start to yesterday.
Caught between natural politeness and wanting to be alone, Roy mumbled, ‘Good morning.’
‘The sea’s gorgeous this morning,’ the woman said.
Roy lifted his eyes. The bay stretched out in steps of blue and green, and where the sun touched it, great shards of gold lit the water from far out in the bay into where the waves crashed near where Roy and the woman walked.
Roy grunted in assent. They walked silently listening to the rhythmic crash of the surf. The woman suddenly pointed to fleeting black shapes out under the water, about 100 metres out, and a triangular fin here, and then one there
‘Dolphins,’ she marvelled.
Roy turned on his heel and walked away quickly in the opposite direction. Memories flooded in of June exclaiming joyfully over dolphins in Koombana Bay on that joyous long day in Bunbury when she had agreed to marry him.
Next morning, he walked to the beach, and turned right to begin his walk. A dog – a black collie-labrador – capered towards him and pressed a moist nose to his hand. It looked up to him pleading to be friends. The woman he had seen the past two mornings came running and apologised. ‘He’s friendly,’ she proclaimed, a little redundantly. The dog now licked his hand, rightly sensing possible rapport. Roy fondled the dog’s ears and rubbed the dog’s shoulders. The dog whickered for joy.
‘He loves attention.’ The woman seemed to echo the dog’s joy. ‘It’s his first walk since his big operation.’
Roy smiled and started to walk on. The dog followed as close as possible to Roy’s right heel, giving an occasional low bark and looking up to Roy. He was overjoyed when Roy returned the glance. The woman almost scampered to keep up with her dog and the man. She eventually caught up and installed herself on Roy’s left side.
‘She would have loved a dog, but we never could,’ Roy told her. ‘My wife. We always had to live in small apartments before we came to Busselton, and we never thought it would be fair on a dog.’ He paused, and took a breath. ‘And she died six weeks ago.’
The woman touched his arm. ‘I am sorry.’
‘No, she had cancer. Better she’s not here. Terrible pain.’ Roy found it both hard to talk to this stranger about June and also good to tell someone about her.
‘What was her name?’ the woman asked gently.
‘June,’ she echoed the name. ‘A romantic name.’
Roy chuckled, surprising himself. ‘Yes, the moon in June, and sweet June and all that. What’s yours?’
‘By coincidence, April.’
‘Another month.’ Roy chuckled again, and felt the dog’s paw gently stroking his fore-arm. ‘What do you want?’ he smiled down at the dog.
‘It’s time for his run. Put your arm up horizontally and point forward. See if he’ll obey your signal.’
Roy pointed. Sure enough, the dog sprinted off a hundred metres up the path, came to a skidding halt before turning around and bounding back to Roy.
‘He’s taken a shine to you,’ said April.
‘I’m Roy,’ he told the dog.
‘Roy, meet Dickens,’ laughed April.
As Roy bent down to rub the retriever’s soft ears a gust of wind blew the trilby hat off Roy’s head and straight into the waves. Roy looked up in alarm and ran after it across the beach. He noticed that the seaweed had disappeared, apparently swept away by the tide.
April saw his distress. His run was stopped by a cold foaming wave which soaked his shoes and trousers up to his knees. He looked agonisingly after the linen trilby hat which was now far out beyond the surf. ‘Fetch!’ shouted April. Dickens looked up at both humans and sprinted to the shore. But the dog stopped at the water’s edge, his tail high, his feet braced. He was going no farther.
April burst out laughing as she watched the balking dog, and the little hat bob out to sea. A slow smiled replaced the fear on Roy’s face. He caught April’s eye. ‘Let’s walk every morning,’ His voice was full of wonder.
The eucalyptus was growing darker in colour. Leaves and limbs stood nearly black, giving the tree sharp definition even against the darkening storm-cloud behind. The swirling nimbo-cumulus filled the sky almost down to the horizon where a small sliver of grey light brightened the line of charcoal sea. Smaller trees bent to the will of the winds and the foliage of the big tree was ruffled, as if the tree tried to stay aloof from the coming storm.
The sandy path seemed to lead directly into the surf. Tousle-headed low scrub filled both sides of the path. A few brittle twigs cracked and fell to the ground. The gathering darkness brought with it the heaviness of moisture in the air.
The watching warrior felt within for any signs of life nearby. There were no magpies singing or seagulls squawking. The animal kingdom was silent as if there were not enough breath for voice. They were invisible, too: Bunyitch sensed snakes huddled in holes, possums and birds sheltered under the umbrellas of the eucalypt foliage, wading birds and wallabies pressed into thickets of mallee. The path was evidence of people, but they, along with their fellow creatures, were for now invisible, and silent. Bunyitch could not feel any of his mob with his mind.
The trees, though, knew that such compressed energy would some time be released, and they too waited.
Far off, where the great roiling cloud met the black line of the sea, and where the small sliver of light brightened the world, there was movement; movement contrary to the movement of wind and cloud. It appeared first as a little white dot bobbing westwards along the horizon. It appeared to be skating the line, neither part of the sky nor part of the sea.
As Bunyitch focussed and waited for the seeing to come, as he had been taught, he could make out a shape – a thick black horizontal line surmounted by squares of white. At this distance the shape was smaller than his fingernail.
‘A wadullah canoe,’ he thought, and worried. This was the first one that Bunyitch had seen, and despite his stillness he could feel the worry of the elders almost as clearly as if sitting around the fire and listening to them discuss the coming of the ghosts. The ghosts on board just one of their ships like the one now labouring in the bay numbered more than the total of the handful of family groups that comprised his mob. And they had seen half a dozen of these big canoes in the bay and off the wild sea coast since the last moon.
If these ghosts were allowed to come ashore to stay, none of the elders could tell the impact their arrival would make on the Wardan people; but there would be an impact, and a heavy one. The elders had pointed out to Bunyitch that their canoes were made so large not by magic, but by human skill. His people could use that skill and share their own. The ghosts seemed to have little sight or hearing and could not sense each other across the country. The elders believed these were skills they could fruitfully trade. On the other hand, the Wardan had heard from beyond the far boundaries of Noongar country that where the ghosts had come ashore in other places they had taken women and caused wars.
Bunyitch was indistinguishable from the trunk of the tree next to him, lightly leaning on two spears, his khaki heel pressed against the black skin of the side of his knee. He could stand guard here for ever.
A feeling of alien distress crowded out any sense of friends. Looking out into the bay, Bunyitch watched as the lines of the brigantine resolved themselves. Huge waves were throwing themselves at the ship, some tearing at the great sails. The warrior could see the tiny ghosts running back and forth on the deck, and he felt their cries. Any sound from this distance was drowned out by a large crack, followed by a sheet of white lightning and the deep boom which made the warrior’s thighs tremble.
All seemed to explode as the trees wildly bent and swayed, rain dropped like hard stones, and the cloud turned itself inside and out again. The warrior knew the power of these storms across the bay, but he himself was unmoved. He looked to where the horizon had been a moment before and waited – calmly amongst the agitation of the storm – for his seeing to return.
The boat was now closer and heaving horribly in the huge waves. Bunyitch closed his eyes and felt for the power of the storm. The wind, which had started in the west, now turned savagely south and waves like huge rolls of darkness carried the boat haplessly towards the warrior.
The wadullah canoe seemed to be racing towards him. The ghosts now were screaming, running, kneeling, and grabbing one another and the rigging and stays, their terror hitting against Bunyitch’s calm mind like a white wall. The canoe seemed one moment to be travelling faster than the monster wave following behind it. Next moment, the whole ship had turned at right angles and was barrelling under the curl of the wave like a surfer bent on earning a ten for technique.
The warrior closed his eyes again and felt inward. He made a great effort. When he opened his eyes again, no wadullah canoe was to be seen. It had not broken up in the surf or on the hard beach. It was not among the waves subsiding after the peak of the storm. He had sent it back to where it came from.
When war broke out in August 1914, the recruiting offices set up around Western Australia were rushed with volunteers. These volunteers were all sent to the tents of the Blackboy Hill Camp in the Darling Scarp just east of Perth. The acting commandant was Major A.H. Bridges and he and adjutant Lieutenant J.H. Peck set about providing basic training for the recruits, whose physique and larrikin spirit were noted by many.
Commanding and organising raw recruits from the bush was not an easy task, and the commanders looked for ways to make their life a little more comfortable.
They knew that the group of young men that became “G” Company 11th Battalion needed to be as fit as possible to join the first Australian and New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Plans were already in place to gather troops from all over Australia and send them off in convoy from Princess Harbour in Albany.
They allowed Walter Witham (who had rapidly dropped his middle name ‘Moltke’ at the beginning of the war – it might have been German) and his capable wife Annie to serve scones and fresh milk from their Midland dairy to supplement the army diet.
The two youngest Witham boys, Alex and Roy, were in the habit of roaming freely behind their house in Swan View. They had acres of time to enjoy exploring the expanse of bush on Greenmount Hill.
Three thousand kilometres north-east of Perth, Korvettenkapitän Karl von Müller commander of the light cruiser SMS Emden had orders to disrupt Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean, which was often called the ‘British lake’.
In September 1914, as Mike Carlton reports in First Victory, his account of the hunt for the Emden, the German raider captured seventeen ships and sunk most of them with its 10.5 cm guns. Captain von Müller made a point of being chivalrous in his treatment of the captains and passengers of the ships he captured, and he went out of his way to make sure that every British sailor he captured was treated well and kept safe.
The outbreak of war had made the population of Perth hostile to Germans and fearful of an attack by sea. Had they known of the presence of the Emden so near their fears would have been confirmed.
One day the Witham boys wandering in the Darling Scarp came across a foreign man camped high on the Darling Scarp. Roy and Alex, at 8 and 10, considered themselves to be expert bushmen. They began a daring game of following this man’s every move without ever revealing their presence to him.
Every Monday, they discovered, this stranger would arrive on the Midland train, and tramp up to his campsite, now with Roy and Alex stalking him.
Each Monday afternoon, he set up a piece of equipment the size of a wooden suitcase. The purpose of this brown box was unknown to the boys. The man would spend time intently inspecting it, cranking a small handle to raise a hinged board with a circle of glass set in it.
Each afternoon, he checked this gear. He spent the rest of the day smoking and going for short walks in the bush. In mid-afternoon each Friday, he hid his brown box and disguised his tent with saplings, and set off for Midland rail station.
The boys needed proof that this stranger was as sinister as he appeared, so to begin with, they kept their secret game of stalking to themselves. By October, their parents were even busier at the camp. Large numbers of troops were moving south to Albany, getting ready to leave in the large convoy from Princess Royal Harbour on 1st November.
This extra military activity meant more customers at the Withams’ food tent. It also gave the boys the chance they needed. One night, they sneaked up to the camp, and watched the man operate his equipment. It gave out irregular flashes of light. From the ocean side of Rottnest Island, pulses of light shone back.
For two days, Roy and Alex excitedly argued about what to do with the facts they now had. Others, however, must also have reported the suspicious stranger and the boys tracking him. On or about Friday, 30th October, two mounted Military Police arrived at Greenmount State School at play time. All the children admired the tall sleek horses. The MPs asked the Head Teacher if they could take Alex with them. As the horses walked sedately up the hill away from the school yard, with Alex perched behind a policeman, the kids buzzed around the younger Roy. “What’s ‘e done? Where’s ‘e goin’?” Roy said nothing, although by the sinking feeling in his stomach, he could guess. On Alex’s return three hours later, he could still say nothing, as Alex had been sworn to secrecy. All that Roy ever got out of him was that he showed the MPs the campsite and watched them arrest the foreigner.
The Emden meanwhile on November 9 attacked and destroyed the wireless station on Direction Island, one of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The wireless operators managed to get out a distress signal which was picked up by the convoy. The Sydney, one of the battle cruisers escorting the troop convoy from Albany was sent to engage and destroy the German raider.
Several days later the exciting news came to Perth that the Sydney had sunk and
destroyed the German raider Emden and prevented a landing party from landing on the Cocos Islands.
Officially, the Sydney’s intelligence had come from the distress call from Cocos. Right up to their deaths in the 1980s, however, Alex and Roy believed that their foreigner was a German spy signalling to a colleague out at sea. This spy’s ultimate task was to guide the Emden closer in to Perth. The dates fit. The events fit. They could well be right.
- Ted Witham family (Roy is Ted’s father)
Her small hand looked pale as the sun shone warmly on it into the lounge room. A large diamond glinted in the light. The band looked too big for her finger. Her hand moved along the big glass-fronted cabinet. She watched it closely as if it were someone else’s hand, and once more hated herself for her inability to stop it. The white fingers turned the key and plunged inside. The hand half-grabbed, half-caressed, the neck of the decanter. She realised her right hand, the other hand, had been carrying a large tumbler, a Vegemite glass. She placed the glass on the cabinet shelf and quickly filled it and brought it to her lips.
The rasping self-hatred surfaced again, and she hesitated. But the insistent, astringent aroma of the sherry overcame all her hesitation and she drank deeply. Within seconds, the glass was empty, but the woman was not satisfied.
‘I shouldn’t,’ she thought briefly, but still re-filled the glass and drained it. The wine felt sour in her gullet like reflux, and the emotional pain in her head felt like it was beginning to cloud and soften.
The third glassful went down more slowly, and she thought of the decreased pace as a more civilised way of drinking.
‘It’s OK,’ she said aloud, ‘I’m on top of it.’ There was nobody in the big house to hear her.
With the decanter in one hand and the tumbler in the other, she walked over to the new lounge chair, swaying slightly on her way, and sat heavily in the chair taking exaggerated care not to spill a drop. The wall clock chimed three times, and she began to congratulate herself on waiting so long this day to answer the imperative call of the glass-fronted cabinet.
‘To me!’ she slurred and lifted the glass to her lips.
The decanter was empty when the clock struck four, and Brenda drifted in a fitful sleep.
This was the part of the day she hated – the memory would wake her and prevent her from complete oblivion. Every day it jerked her back to reality.
She was back on the podium in the State Convention Centre, behind the lectern draped with the Fabian Party banner. She could feel the warmth of the hand-picked crowd applauding her speech. A good performance tonight, and chances were she would be the next Premier. She caught her Dad’s eye in the fourth row, and saw there a gleam of pride.
At the back of the crowd, she saw two delegates talking. The first one had the West Australian folded open. ‘What is 4 Across?’ he asked his neighbour, ‘the clue is ‘bizarrely re-prime for first in State’.’
Back at the podium she remember how sharp she was in questions and answers, so the Party minders had agreed to a short session after the speech.
The man was dressed in an open-necked green knit shirt and taupe trousers, contrasting with the uniform suits and power dresses. In her memory now, the man was holding a knife as he slowly approached the floor microphone. She smiled encouragingly, wanting to be in charge.
‘Is it true, Ms Berndale,’ he asked, and she could hear the self-assurance in the familiar Geordie burr, ‘that you and your father were members of the English New Nazi Party?’ A gasp from the Party faithful. The camera closed on the woman’s face and caught that moment of horrified hesitation. In a moment she stuttered, pointed at her father, and said, ‘My father was. Not me. I was never ideologically aligned. He was. But not me.’
But the questioner was well-prepared –he must have had friends in the Party office – and with quiet scorn spoke again in to the microphone. ‘Then you had better watch this. You had all better watch this.’
As they looked to the big screens, the woman’s face dissolved to be replaced by the scene of a noisy crowd, the dark towers of York Minster the backdrop. Another stage, another microphone with a younger Brenda Berndale, hair tightly cropped and shouting, ‘This cowardly Government has failed to keep out these dirty Ottomans!’ This English crowd cheered, but the Party audience watching in the auditorium in Australia was stunned. Then an angry buzz arose from the front seats where her front bench colleagues were seated. They walked as a group to the podium and pushed the woman outside into the darkness. The audience jeered.
Back in her lounge chair the woman was crying. Again. She swore at the empty decanter.
The door-bell sounded; at first far away, but then pressed again, it sounded more insistent. Brenda Berndale was not inclined to stand and respond. But it rang again, and Brenda got to her feet feeling full of confusion and anger and walked slowly to the front door. She peered through the spy-hole. There were two aboriginal kids calling, ‘Mizz Berndale, are you alright?’ Brenda knew she had seen these kids before. They lived in the next street. The other neighbours chased them away, but Brenda had once passed glasses of Coke out to them. It was early in her campaign when she was seeking out every favourable voice she could muster.
Brenda was about to turn away, but on impulse reached out to the snib and opened the door. ‘Are you alright, Mizz?’ the younger child, a boy, asked again. Brenda was aware of their appraising eyes, and looked down at herself, and saw the tumbler still in her hand. ‘Not good drink,’ the boy said flatly, as if from experience of others.
‘No,’ Brenda replied softly, ‘No.’ Tears spilled down her face. The familiar wound in her head throbbed less doggedly. She held out her hand across the threshold. ‘Come in, kids. Can I get you a glass of Coke? Please stay and talk to me.’
Brenda stood aside and watched two little strangers obtrude upon her territory, and she had to admit to herself that it felt good.
First published in Narrator International in June 2012 [http://www.narratorinternational.com/power-drunk-ted-witham/]