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EIGHTH INSTALMENT OF THE "HERALD'S" SECOND PRIZE STORY

YOU CANT SEE ROUND CORNERS

By JON CLEARY

Illustrated by JAMES PHILLIPS

FRANKIE McCOY was an arrogant Paddington larrikin, who earned

his living as a starting-price bookmaker until he was called up for

army service. Now he is a militiaman in a country camp, and hates his   military life. McCoy's great love, aside from himself, is a girl in Sydney, Margie Harris, whom he plans to marry. He plans to desert from the army and steals money from a comrade to help him on his way.

McCOY looked again at his

watch. The illuminated dial told him he would need to hurry. He put on his boots and stepped on to his blankets to deaden their tread as he packed the rest of his gear. He was not taking much: back home, he would not be needing any military

issues.

"What's up, Frankie?"

I might have known it, McCoy thought with resigned annoyance. If I was sitting on top of Kosciusko rolling snowballs Stewart would be there beside me asking questions. He should have known Stewart was not asleep: he.wasn't snoring.

"Nothing. Go to sleep." He put a blunt rudeness into his whisper but Stewart was not to be denied. He sat up, leaning on one elbow.

"You're not going through, are you?"

No, thought McCoy, I'm fully dressed with my hat on, going out- side for a midnight confab with the

stars.

"Look, Snow. Go to sleep. Doze off. You ain't seen me. I was here when you went to sleep, and when you woke up I was gone. Just like the girl in the song. Get it?"

"Yeah, but—how long're you going for?" Stewart was worried: McCoy was his friend here in these alien surroundings; McCoy was walking out into the night and already loneli- ness was coming in, returning, bring- ing with it his shyness.

"I'll see you at the end of the war. So-long, Snow. When you get your medal, send me a photo."

He slung his pack across a shoul- der and as quietly as possible in his heavy boots went out of the hut. He looked back from the door, but in the darkness he could not see Stewart. He made a gesture of farewell and closed the door behind him, and Stewart was someone he had known in the past, someone to be remem- bered at odd times in the future.

HE went down across the wide pad- dock behind the camp, down into the creek bed, jumped the narrow stream of water, climbed the bank, slipping in the loose soil, crossed the railway line, and went up the long hill to the main road. The night was cool,

the coolness reflected from the hard white ice of the stars, and the end of his nose was numb and the air he breathed through his open mouth as he panted up the hill had an edge to it, going down his throat like cold water. He heard the hum of an engine and the swish-swish of tyres, and he saw the light beams go along the road while he was still a hundred yards from it. He cursed; missing that car might mean missing the train.

He climbed through the barbed-

wire fence and was standing by the side of the road. He looked north,  

from where a car or truck would come if he were to get a lift, but there were no lights coming through the dark countryside. He looked back toward the camp, but it was marked only by an occasional light, in an orderly-room or in a guard-room. He was not going back there, even if he had to walk to Sydney. He looked again at his watch; time now was fly- ing, speeding away from him, aban- doning him to this lonely country road on which, it seemed, all traffic had suddenly decided to stop running.

Then, after what seemed an hour but was in reality only twenty minutes, lights appeared some miles away on the road. Distance slowed down the speed of the vehicle; and the lights seemed to be moving so slowly they did not appear to be coming any closer. He slung his pack across his shoulder again and walked out onto the macadam of the road, though the coming car or truck must still be at least a mile away.

He stood there in the darkness, then the light beams had reached him, had gone past him, were lighting the side of the road and banishing the pad- docks beyond into complete blackness, creating a small world of light with him right in the middle of it, and the vehicle had stopped a few yards from him. He walked out of the glare of the lights and saw a big truck. He swung up on the footboard beside the

cabin.

His eyes were still holding the glare of the truck's lights and he could not distinguish the driver's face, only see the shape of him against the opposite window.

"Give us a lift?"

"Sure. Hop in." The voice came from the anonymous head, deep and rough, a voice to go with a man

who drove a truck as big as this.

McCoy pulled open the door and got into the cabin. He slammed the door, shutting out the night, the countryside, the camp, the army. He closed the door of a strange truck and went back to his old life. The driver let in the gears and they moved

off.

"Fizzing off?"

There was a light on the dashboard and now, in the faint glow of it, McCoy saw the other's face. It was big and broad and flat; he looked like an ex-wrestler, a not very good

wrestler.

"Yeah. My mother's sick." There was no point in true confessions: you never knew where the sympa- thies of the other fellow lay toward the army; a sick mother was every

one's object of sympathy.

"Wouldn't they give you leave?" "No. So I just blew." "The b——ds."

The road and the side-fences rushed at them from infinity and as swiftly disappeared; trees leaned drunkcnly against the lights then fell into darkness; a rabbit, a panic-stricken grey dazzle, bolted across the road; the truck rattled, the wind howled and tore at the cabin like a wild beast, and the engine moaned with pain on the hills.

"How far you going?" He felt talk was needed in exchange for the lift; he could not sit there in silence and then get out and just say thanks.

"Right through to Sydney."

This luck was unbelievable. God was on the side of sinners and de- serters. "Mind if I go right through with you?"

"Jeez, no. Glad of your com- pany."

"Thanks. This is a turn-up for

the books."

"Gets b—— lonely on this run. I always look for blokes to pick up when I'm coming past the camp. There's usually someone waiting there every night."

So he wasn't the only one. He felt better. He would not be the only one for whom the provosts would be looking.

The road came at them through the light and was gone beneath the truck, running back to the short life he had left for ever.

PART THREE

'THEY stopped twice during the night

to pick up freight, bags of pota- toes at one place, where a man and his wife gave them tea and thick toasted sandwiches, and cases of oranges at the second stop, and the sun was already coming up above the Harbour Heads when they rolled across the Bridge into the city. The arch of the Bridge loomed above them, rising from the pylons on the south side and falling over their heads to Milson's Point behind them. A train went by in a roll of hollow thunder, and a cab, taking all night revellers home to the North Shore, came toward them and was gone, leaving behind a scrap of song and a woman's high laugh, strange lonely sounds in the early morning

air.

The truck went along York Street and pulled up at Market. McCoy opened the door and swung down.

"Thanks, sport. Much obliged." The driver waved. "Hope you find your mother's all right."

McCoy looked blankly at him, then remembered. "Oh, yeah. Thanks. So-long.

The truck went on and he turned and walked up Market towards Eliza- beth. The streets were empty, and under the awnings his footsteps echoed loudly. He saw a pale re- flection of himself in the glass of a window, dishevelled and "untidy, his hat crumpled from sleeping with his head leant back against the back wall of the truck cabin, a trouser-leg come loose from a gaiter, and looking beyond the reflection, beyond himself walking along the street away from

the army toward home, he saw the models standing in studied effeminate casualness, sleek and smart and colourful in sports attire. That was for him. That was the only way to dress, comfortably and with plenty of colour. And it wouldn't be long now.

He came to Elizabeth Street and looked to the left along toward King. There were no trams in sight, and he stood in the doorway of David Jones's, out of the cool breeze that was blowing from the south. He looked across Hyde Park toward the Cathedral. It stood magnificently against the rising sun, a stately castle devoted to God and the worship of Him; he smiled cynically: beyond it,

down in the hollow that was the 'Loo,| were the slums and poverty. Give to the poor, they preached. He laughed within himself and wanted to spit, to show his superior knowledge; religion was for suckers.

In Hyde Park he could see the dossers waking. The derelicts of the city woke to the day; they gazed

with dull eyes at the sun and folded   up the papers they had used   as covering, unwrapping them- selves from yesterday's news. A soldier was asleep on a seat, his body twisted grotesquely, his arm hanging over the back of the seat: he had been drunk last night and you knew he would be looking for a drink when he awoke. Three girls stood at the tram stop, their cold thin legs show- ing below their cheap short coats, their heads wrapped in scarves. They had a brazen defiant look about them; sex was their only attraction for men and they had adopted it as their weapon, their banner: they saw McCoy looking at them and they stared back at him, insolently, invit- ingly; the next move was his. But he was cold and hungry and tired and he turned away and saw the tram coming along the street. It was good to see girls again, to know it was there if you wanted it, but it could

wait.

He crossed the road and swung up on to the tram. A newsboy looked into the compartment, his raucous voice yelling unintelligibly, and McCoy, coming back from the foreign territory, stepping into the past and seeing it with the clear, sharp, re-

membering eyes of the returning native, seeing the early rising, the hopping on and off trams, the fumb- ling with cold fingers for change, reached back through the years and bought a paper from himself. The newsboy swung on along the foot- board, still calling his strange cry, and McCoy opened the paper.

He glanced at the war headlines, reading the words but not absorbing them: the place-names meant noth- ing, the war was too geographical, too distant. Once, in the early days when the papers gave coloured maps as supplements, he had looked at the war as it stood then, but it had meant nothing: they did not mark Padding- ton on the maps and that was the point from which he measured all distances, all relationship. If they dropped a bomb on Warsaw or we dropped one on Ploesti, did you get the echo in Paddington? He had never heard it. And as for the Japs in New Guinea—well, they hadn't set foot on Australia yet and they'd

been trying hard enough and long enough, hadn't they?

He turned to the back pages and looked at the sport reports. He read them thoroughly then opened the paper at the news pages. There was another strike; he did not look at that column. There was a report on a Parliamentary debate; that, too, could

be missed.

"Fares." He looked up and the conductor was leaning into the com- partment. He felt in his pocket for the penny, found it, and handed it to the outstretched hand. This would be his last trip at the concession rate: to-morrow he would be in civilian clothes and paying full fare. And glad to.

He went back to the paper. A girl had been murdered and outraged in a park at Belmore. He read the item, morbidly curious and yet dis- gusted. Why was there need for murder when sex could be had so easily? He felt a disgusted hate for the murderer; he dreamed up punish- ment of slow strangling. He knew how he would treat any bloke who attempted anything with Margie. He turned with hate; he sat in the tram, riding with labourers, fishermen, newspaper workers, an unshaven

knight sworn to the protection of

women's honour.

The tram came to his stop and he got off. He walked down the street and the old life that he had left such a long long time ago came swirling about him, the tide of the past run- ning back in under the pier of him that had been so high and dry these last two months. Some of the front doors were already open, admitting the freshness of the early morning, but the street was empty of people. He walked on down the hill, his boots clumping heavily on the asphalt, the steel-ringed heels slipping so that he leaned forward, walking on the balls of his feet, and a man came running silently out of the side passage of a house. He pulled up sharply, his hand raised quickly to McCoy's chest, then stepped back and the can he carried swung back against the gate with a metal sound and milk spilled, falling white but turning grey on the

pavement.

"Hello, Frankie!" Les Phillips said.

"On leave?"

You could call it that, McCoy thought. Permanent leave.

"Yeah. Down for a few days."

"Bet you feel like a break. Be seeing you. I'm running late."

Running is right, McCoy thought; he had never yet seen Phillips just walking anywhere. There was a story that he had run up the aisle at his wedding. But he was the happiest man McCoy had ever known, a small cheerful man who had never been known to complain, who had a wave

of the hand for everyone; perhaps, McCoy thought, his running has kept him ahead of trouble. I must keep it in mind in case I'm ever in trouble myself some day.

HE reached the house and turned in.

He closed the iron gate behind him  

and raised his fist and knocked on the door of home and wondered as he knocked. Except in mid-winter or rainy weather, the front door of the house had always been kept open; the open doorway let life into the house, brought air that carried sunshine into the small musty rooms; keep the house closed and in a week it had the smell of a coffin. He knocked again, apprehension a sour fluttering in his stomach, trying to see beyond the closed door into the silent house, then there were footsteps, his mother's, and the door was open and she was standing there, surprise static and prolonged on her face as if she were wearing a mask. Then she re- laxed and gladness came with a warm

flush.

"Frankie!"

"What's the idea of locking the door? Scared the fresh air'll get in?"

She looked up at him and a curtain swung across the gladness in her eyes. "No, just scared." McCoy had the feeling that he had grown while he had been away; she looked smaller. "I missed you and—I don't know why —I used to get scared of being on my own." Then she smiled, pushing loneliness out the door, and turned and walked ahead of him down the pas- sage. "But what're you home for?

You on leave?"

"No." He dropped his kitbag on

the floor and threw his hat on a chair. He sat down, relaxing com- pletely, feeling for the first time his tiredness. "I blew. Went through."

"Went through?" She listened in ignorance; the language was foreign.

He bent down and began to un- lace his boots. "I'm AWL. I don't like the army. Mum, and it don't like me. I'm finished with it."

Trouble came up and looked in the window. She felt the shadow of it and turned from the table to look at him. "Has it finished with you? Won't you get into trouble?"

He had been dodging trouble all his life. This time he'd have to be a bit sharper, that was all. He took off his boots and moved his toes in his socks. God, that felt good. He had been carting those tests of strength too long. His feet felt light and fast, as if they could carry him away from all pursuit, keep him ahead of trouble as Les Phillips had kept ahead of trouble.

"They won't catch me. It'll blow over. I'll get a room up at Flana- gan's for a while." He had returned and already he was talking of leaving again; the one breath had said hail and farewell; she had said good-bye to loneliness too soon. He looked up at her and drew her into the conspiracy, made   an accomplice of her. "If they come here looking for me, you ain't seen me, dunno where I am."

He stood up and took off his over- coat and tunic. His neck was itchy where the tunic had rubbed against it; it would be good to put on a

soft shirt.

His mother moved over to the stove. She lit a jet and put the kettle over it. With her back to him, looking at the bright blue flame of the gas, she said, "Frankie, I wish you hadn't done it. I wish you'd go back."

He hung the tunic and overcoat over the back of the chair. He did it deliberately while he thought of an answer. He did not want to offend her but he did not want her advice. He had finished with advice; he had taken the step and he was the lone wolf again. His mother had nothing to worry about: life outside had not touched her as it had him. She was

here in her own home, mistress of it, and nobody was telling her every minute of the day what to do and what not to do. She was rolling in her own bed of roses and telling him to go back, to the nettles.

"Skip it, Mum. I'm staying. I don't want to go back. I had enough." He saw again the monotonous routine, the resented discipline, the wasted life, and his temper flared; he had difficulty in stopping himself from shouting.   "Just say nothing when the provosts   come asking questions and in a coupla   months they'll've forgotten all about   me. I ain't important to 'em. They  

got plenty of mugs who're willing and able."  

She had lost; he had the stubborn- ness of his father and that had beaten her always. She donned defeat like another garment, she was used to it, but she still remained facing the stove as she said, "All right. What do you want for breakfast?"  

"Anything you got. I'll go up and have a shower while you're getting

it."

Surprise spun her round. "A shower? A cold shower?"

He grinned. "Yeah, I know. But I got used to it in the army. Keith Grayson got me into the habit. I used to tell you about him in my

letters."

"What does he think about you coming home."

"He don't know. He's in hospital." "What's the matter with him?"

"T.B. He looks just about dead." He said the words and they bounced back against his ears, cold and full of doom. It was the first time he had committed his thoughts about Grayson's health to words; suddenly he had condemned Grayson.

"Oh." Death, even of a stranger, always affected her; it was personal, something that touched everyone, like a cold wind; "ashes to ashes and dust to dust" and the dust was a thin film on her hands, reminding her that some day she too would die; she turned from the gas jet, from the fires of eternity, and said, "Is he married?"

"Eh?" He came back out of his thoughts, back from Grayson lying there like a corpse beneath the pitiless electric light. "No. No, he ain't married. He lives with his mother. He's an only son."

"The poor woman." She began to roll minced-meat into balls for ris- soles, sprinkled them with flour, dropped them into a pan. Fat sput- tered and exploded like a firecracker. "It's harder when they're an only

son."

"Yeah."

He picked up his kitbag and went out of the kitchen and upstairs to his room. He sat down on the bed, bouncing himself up and down, feel- ing the soft mattress and the springs beneath him. He looked about him at the depressing ugliness of the room, glad to be back; there was no cheer in the room, but it was his and his alone, not to be shared; he lay back on the bed and home was beneath

him and above him and about him.

He stood up and took off his clothes and stood naked in the middle of the room, and he was out of uni- form, out of the Army, done, with it for good. He wrapped a towel about his loins and went along to the bath- room. He showered, came back to his room, and dressed, donning grey pants, a blue shirt, and a blue cardi- gan. He looked at himself in the

mirror, and the colour pleased him   after the drab khaki of his uniform.

He was tired of looking like a piece  

of dried earth.

( Continued To-morr0w )

Digitisation generously supported by
Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation
Digitisation generously supported by

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