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Third Instalment of the "Herald's" Second Prize Novel.  

YOU CAN'T SEE  

ROUND CORNERS

   

By JON CLEARY

Illustrated by JAMES PHILLIPS

THEY had reached the Park

gates. He took her in his arms, running his hands down over her, pulling her to him. Desire would always be there within him, always stirring at the slightest provocation, and she vaguely realised that for the first few years of their marriage sex would mean a lot to him, that she might fall short of what he wanted. Her innocence came up to haunt her.

"Not now, Frankie. You'll spoil my make-up. Wait till we get home."  

"No, hon. Now. I just can't wait till we get home."  

She smiled knowing this was love and not desire alone, and raised her face. He kissed her and the realisa- tion came home to stay, the undeni-

able truth impressed upon him for ever; he loved her and there was no backing out.

There was a sound a giggling laugh, and they broke apart. Another youth and his girl stood just a few yards down the path from them gaz- ing with interest at the scene, the girl embarrassed, the youth amused.

"Better than the pictures," the youth said, and the girl, her lover's appre- ciative audience, giggled again.

"Want to make something of it?" The challenge was flung out, the knight displaying his courage before his lady . There were no heroics, he had been fighting all his life, and there was no fear of the physical

injury.

The youth broke away from his girl and came toward him; he, too had been brought up on the streets; the brawl settled all arguments re- paid every insult, answered the chal-

lenge.

"Frankie!"  

McCoy had dropped into a fighting stance, ready to give or to take, when Margie suddenly grabbed his right arm, pulling it back. They stood there for a moment, a tableau of aggression and appeasement, then the other youth hit him, pain happening as a blinding jolt quickly followed by another, and he felt his knees fold then darkness fell in on him.

Pain and consciousness came back to him and he sat up to see, dimly, Margie kneeling beside him crying and with her hand on the back of his

neck.

"Oh darling, are you all right?"  

"God Almighty!" She winced at the phrase, but he did not notice. He could notice nothing but the pain and his own ignominy.

He got to his feet and brushed the dust from himself. He looked about for the youth and his girl, but they had gone. Margie dried her eyes and put away her handkerchief.

"Why've you always got to get into   fights Frankie?" Disappointment was with her again, it had come, fall-

ing into her pool of happiness like a stone, and it rested heavy within her.

"Gawd hon, I didn't start that."  

Had she expected him to back down? Didn't she realise that his honour—   though the word was unfamiliar to him—was at stake? "He asked for

it."  

"They're always asking for it." Her   voice was bitter, she felt defeated, as if she knew she would never be able to change him. "But you always seem to be giving it to them."

"I didn't that time." He was an-     gry, but all his anger was directed at the youth who had hit him; he missed the bitterness in her voice. He had forgotten that she had held his arm, had been the cause of his defeat; he only knew another man had knocked him cold and before two girls.

They crossed the road and began to walk down Oxford Street. He put his hand to his eye and could feel it beginning to swell.

"This'll be a beaut in the morning."  

SHE was walking with her arm in his and, not looking at him, she said,   "I wish my mother would let us get married now, darling." Her mother   had asked them to wait till Margie was twenty one, almost another year. He had never pursued the subject with the mother, content to wait, subcon- sciously reluctant to assume responsi- bilities, but he had often idly won- dered why the voting age was con- sidered a good marrying age. So many mothers considered it so; did they think that the full experience of being an adult was not realised by a girl till she was twenty-one? He smiled   at that, if the majority of sheilas to- day didn't know enough by their nine-   teenth birthday, they weren't going to learn afterwards .With his shallow cynicism he branded the modern girl as promiscuous. "Then we could move away from here. So we could live somewhere where you won't   always be fighting."

"I'm sorry, hon." I guess my tem-   per's too quick. He saw suddenly   that she was concerned for him, that his happiness mattered as much as her own and be felt a revival of the warm feeling of half an hour ago. "Where'd you like to live when we're married?''

"I don't know. Would you like Maroubra?"

"Jeez, hon—!''

"Frankie!" Now, in the quiet moments, with no provocation, there was no need for the profanity. That was another lesson he had to learn; her time was certainly going to be full. Mentally, she shrugged her shoulders resignedly.

"Oh. sorry hon. I forgot. But d'you mean you want to live right out there in the bush?"

She laughed and the good warm atmosphere was slowly coming back. "Oh, darling, anything that's more than ten minutes from town is the bush to you. All right. No bush.

How about Randwick?"

"Yeah. Yeah that ain't bad. Nice   and close to the course."  

She had not thought of that. "Oh."  

"What's the matter?"   "Nothing."

"What did you 'oh' for?"

It was better to ignore it. They had reached her front gate and now she stood with her back against it and put her hands on his arms.

"I'm going to miss you, darling."      

"That goes double, hon. I dunno

               

what I'm going to do with myself at night."

"You'll write, won't you?"

"Sure. I'll write you from camp as soon as I get there so's you'll know where to write to."

"I'll write every day."

He put his arms round her and bent his head and kissed her. He had taken off his hat, hanging it on the gate- post, and she ran her hand over his head and down the back of his neck. He could feel the coolness of her fingers then the pressure as they drew his head down.

"Oh, Frankie, I love you." Jealousy, the physical pain, rose within her again. "You will be good for me, won't you, darling?"

She was here in his arms and he did not know any other girls, could not remember them. "Yes, hon. I promise. No girls till I come home."

She strained to him, the claiming of her body stamped like a seal on him, the promise of her body given in exchange for the promise of fidelity. Then she spun out of his arms and was at the front door, her key fumbling in

the lock.

"Good-night, darling." Good-bye

was too hard a word to say; there was too much finality about it.

"Good night, hon."

He put his hat on the back of his head and sauntered down the street, whistling loudly. A dog barked at him, and, laughing to himself, he barked back at it. He was happy and in love, and everything was right with the world. Everything had always been right. Yesterday, to-day, to- morrow . . . He stopped whistling and looked at his watch. To-morrow was one hour away, the day he turned the corner into a new life.

HE stirred in the trough of sleep and heard the voice calling as in a     dream, then he opened his eyes and

knew it was his mother.

"Frankie! Time to get up!"

He rolled over, feeling the warm luxury of bed seeping into him, right through to his bones. He stretched, and opened his mouth, shouting, "All right!" And with his mouth open, his face muscles contorted, he felt the

pam in his eye. He put up his hand and winced as he touched the swollen flesh; it was tender as an open wound. He flung back the clothes and slid out of bed and walked across to the

dressing table. The mirror showed the extent of the damage, the impersonal reflection of his shame. A black eye was a badge of honour only if you

had beaten the other fellow.

" The —!" he said and cursed the youth of last night to eternal

damnation.

He went back to bed. He lit a cigarette and lay looking about the room. He could feel the softness of the mattress under him and the warmth of the clothes over him, and the bed had never had such a claim on him as it had this morning. He had better make the most of it. He had heard that reveille or whatever they called it was somewhere round about six o'clock. Cripes, who wanted to get up that early?

He looked about the room, at the depressing brown walls and the dis- coloured ceiling, the drab background  

to everything else in the room; at the painted paper lampshade, the attempt to soften the bald pitiless glare of the electric light; at the dres-

sing table with its clean worn cover   and the mirror that was blotchy. Like  

a diseased skin where the backing had peeled off; at the heavy old- fashioned wardrobe and at the bed  

with the loose brass knobs on the posts He had been sleeping in this  

room since he was two vears old. In those days there had been a wooden cot, but that had long since been   broken up and burned beneath the   copper downstairs. The bed had come  

when he was eight years old and the rest of the furnishings when he was   thirteen. They were all second-hand,    

bought at a shop up in Oxford Street, all older than he by a good many   years, and now amused by the  

thought, he wondered if some other fellow in the last war had lain like  

this on his last morning at home, really appreciating the furniture for   the first time. The room was dull  

and ugly, but this morning it had its appeal; he knew it looked a damn sight better than any army hut would  

look.

"Frankie!"

With breakfast already cooked, on the stove waiting for him, his mother was becoming impatient. He looked at his watch. Twenty to eight. He had better make a move. The notice said to report to the drill hall at nine  

o'clock. He flung back the clothes   again and got out of bed. Can't keep the army waiting.

He grinned at himself in the mirror. Oh, you're a funny b—d, McCoy. Always good for a laugh. And what have you got to laugh about this morning?

When he got downstairs his mother was putting his plate, piled high with steak and eggs, the condemned man's   last meal, on the table. She looked up as he came into the room and even his own mother had to make a funny remark. There would be many more like her during the rest of the day; a black eye on someone else is the signal for everyone to be

witty.

"Oh Franki! Did you have a fight with Margie?"

"No. I walked into the door when I was coming in last night ."

"I've heard that one too. All right, sit down and have your break- fast. You don't want to be late."  

"They won't stop the war if I am."     She poured herself a cup of tea and sat down at the other end of the table. His table manners were un- couth, he was rather inclined to bolt his food and his grip on his fork and knife was anything but genteel, but the years had made her blind to such habits. His father, the major in- fluence in the house had brought the strength of the labourer to the table and she, though she loved him, was afraid of him and she had never tried

to correct him. When the father had died, it was too late to correct the

son.

None of it mattered now, anyway. This was the farewell, and if he ate with his fingers it would not matter beside the loneliness that was already creeping into the house, even before he had gone, and the fear and worry that would be with her from now on. He sat at the other end of the table and saw his mother stirring a cup of tea and that was all he saw. For so many years she had hidden her emotions from her husband, it was

automatic now.

"I cut you some lunch."

"Thanks. If the army wants me, I don't see why they can't feed me,   though."  

"You'd better take it. You may be hungry by the time they feed you, and it ain't no use cutting off your nose to spite your face."  

He finished his breakfast and went out to the washhouse and cleaned his teeth. His teeth were big and even and strong, and he had always been very careful of them. It was mostly vanity because be knew they were good, probably his best feature, but too he had always felt a revulsion when he saw stained and broken teeth, and there was always with him the dread that some day be would face the mirror and see his own mouth that way.

He went back into the kitchen and picked up the small gladstone bag in which his mother had packed a few necessities for him. It hung from his hand, containing all that he needed to care for his physical self on this first day on the new battleground. All else that he needed was within him, but he was not aware of it; faith and hope and moral courage were words, and he had never felt their

meaning.

"I'll be going. Ta ta. I'll write you from camp."  

"G'bye, Frankie. You sure you'll   go to camp t'day?"

"Pretty sure. When Merv Turner went they sent him off the same day. If I ain't home for tea you'll know     I've gone."    

SHE followed him to the front door. Walking through the house behind  

him, seeing the tallness of him, the high way he carried his head, the confident swagger of the shoulders, seeing beyond him down through the years, the man, the youth, the boy,

the baby, seeing him walking out of the life they had shared for so long, walking out and she knowing, deep and instinctively and without doubt within her that he would never come back, gone forever in death (please God, no!) or marriage or interests elsewhere, she felt a sudden surge within her her blood rising in a wave to engulf them both, and she raised

her arms to embrace him.

But he walked through the open door, across the narrow verandah and the iron gate clanged behind him, between them, and the hollow sound rang in her ears and she knew she had heard loneliness. It would stay with her from this day forward. Laughter and singing were the sounds of happiness; sobbing and iron against

iron were loneliness.

He turned, standing there with the early morning sun just touching his head and shoulders, and looked at her for a moment, and she knew suddenly, with happiness that rose from her breast and trembled in her mouth that he loved her. The years had been worthwhile.

"I'll write you from camp. Look after yourself."

He went up the street. Embar- rassment had again tarnished the mo- ment. He had felt the inadequacy of the farewell, felt that something more was expected, but he had not kissed his mother for more years than he could remember. Emotion was for dark places, alone, or with Margie, but not for your own mother. The dead father was to blame; he had never displayed love for the mother before the boy.  

Coming to the cross-street he turn- ed and waved, and he saw the arm raised, and sensed, without realising what it was, the anguish in the move- ment. As he turned to continue on up the hill the big fat woman came out of the shop.

"Hullo, Frankie. On your way?" " 'Lo, Mrs. Watting. Yeah, the mug's on his way."

"Ah, it won't be too bad when you get used to it."

Yeah, he thought, she'd know. Leaning over her front gate for the last twenty years, talking about who was drunk last night and what girl in the next street is in trouble, and what Mrs. Marsden told her about Mrs. Ryan, she'd know all about the Army.

He came to the drill hall and turn- ed in at the gate. Other young men stood about before the huts, other young men whose bugle call had been a slip of paper addressed personally to them, and he knew some of them.

"Well! Get a load of the black eye! Someone do you over, Frankie?"

"Someone'll do you over if you   don't shut your big mouth."

"All right, all right. Pull your head in. There ain't no need to get shirty about it."

Someone pointed out to him where he had to report, and he handed the paper to a thin, bespectacled young man, a fugitive from a bank teller's cage, whose only claim to being a sol- dier was the uniform that almost en- veloped him; all other similarity was purely coincidental.

Promptly at thirty-five minutes after nine o'clock a sergeant with grey hair and a row of World War One ribbons lying in a splash of faded colour on his chest came out of one of the huts, called them together, and formed them into three ranks. McCoy looked along the line and thought, What a hell of a lot of no-hopers! There were fat ones and thin ones and big ones and little ones, and every one was a mug. Including McCoy.

The sergeant stood back and looked along the line. He stiffened, the parade-ground soldier stepping into his boots, and the command carne as a prolonged bellow and an abrupt

bark:

"Tennnnn-SHUN!"

THE effect was lost. The men, still

civilians, unused to discipline, re- luctant to accept it until there was no other alternative, looked at one another then at the sergeant. At the back of the ranks someone giggled and right at the end someone muttered an indistinct remark that could have been a witticism or a suggested des- tination for the sergeant. Before the sergeant could remark upon the failure of his authority an officer, a small, red-nosed man, whose thick moustache had been grown as part of the conversion to militarism, who had gone from the mercery department to the Middle East, full of patriotism, and had returned full of ulcers, a disability that kept him from service in the Islands, appeared in the door- way of a hut and walked down the steps. He halted on the bottom step, conscious of his short stature, depen- dent upon the carpenter for the extra inches to give him the look of dignity and authority.

"Righto, sergeant. I'll take over now."

The sergeant saluted, a gesture that McCoy, seeing it, felt would be be- yond himself, and the officer faced the small assembly, Caesar's descen- dant looking out upon his legion.

'To-day, men, you are about to enter the army, providing, of course, that you pass the medical test." His voice was deliberate and the words well polished before he uttered them;  

He had visions of himself as an ora- tor. He warmed to his subject; the polite stock words to the customer on the other side of the mercery counter were faint in his memory; these words meant something, and he had com- posed them himself. "The fighting services, to-day, badly need men and that is why you have been called up  

for duty. This country of ours has always been a free country" (the be- spectacled clerk at the table inside the hut had heard it all before and  

he put a hand over one ear as he tried to concentrate on the papers before him) "and though some of   you may object that it cannot be too  

free when a man cannot decide for himself in what way he can best serve his country, we should not look at it in that light." He paused and the impassive faces stared back at him. He felt his confidence beginning to leak out of him but it was too late   to turn back now. "Unless we fight   for this country it won't be a free   country. That, men, is the way we  

should look at it." The men neither accepted nor rejected his suggestion.  

They looked, but only straight at him, blankly and with no display of in-   terest, and with his confidence sud-   denly gone he felt it was time to hurry   to a conclusion. "Now you have  

a choice of the A.I.F., the  

R.A.A.F., or the Militia. The   first two mean that you volun-   teer for service anywhere we want  

to send you. Joining the Militia means you'll be asked to serve only in Australian territories. Those for   the A.I.F. fall out on the right, and  

those for the R.A.A.F. on the left."  

The ranks broke up and when they   finally settled down again only a   dozen men stood in their original posi-  

tions. The three groups stood, eyeing     each other, some curious as to the   others' choice, some with a look of  

contempt

"All right, sergeant." the officer   said. "Take over.''  

Salutes were exchanged and the officer disappeared inside the hut, con-   scious that his oratory had failed,   that these men had made their de-  

cisions before they entered the gates.

(Continued To-morrow)

FRANKIE McCOY, who lives with his mother, is a Paddington

youth, who makes his living as a starting-price bookmaker in Flanagan's hotel. Although he has once evaded his call-up, he at last receives instructions to report for army examination and enlistment. He meets his girl, Margie, at night in the park, where some altercation occurs because of her pride in the fact that he is to be a soldier, but anger is dissipated under the influence

of Margie's genuine love for him.

 

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

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