Fifth Instalment of the "Herald's" Second Prize Novel.
YOU CAN'T SEE
By JON CLEARY
Illustrated by JAMES PHILLIPS
FRANKIE McCOY was an arrognat 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 military camp. Resentful of authority, he has already brushed
with his superiors, in rank. McCoy's great love, aside from him-
self, is a girl in Sydney, Margie Harris, whom he plans to marry. McCOY found a place at a table and sat down. He asked for a slice of bread, and as all the
faces at the table turned toward him he realised he was sitting with the Younger Set. He took the slice of bread that was handed him and began eating. Hunger had blunted the fastidiousness of his palate; whatever had gone into the stew that was in his dish it was fill- ing, and he found himself enjoying it.
One of the kids looked up. "Jeez," he said, speaking to no one in par- ticular, just desirous of his voice being heard, "I'm hungry. I could bite the rump of a bullock on the run."
He looked about him, throwing the words as a challenge, uttering his ex- perience, his toughness and his man- hood, but the words were hollow in the immature voice, ridiculous in the youthful mouth.
That was the signal. The other youngsters at the table broke into vul- garity and McCoy was glad to finish his meal and leave them. The vul-
garity did not offend him; when the occasion prompted him, in anger or in drunkenness, he was often filthy tongued, but he had long ago real- ised that it proved nothing toward one's experience of life, and now he was contemptuous of the kids' cheap loud attempts to be men, to claim years that so far did not belong to them, that would never belong to them till they had lived them.
He washed his dishes in a tub of greasy water and went back to his hut. He smoothed out as best he could the lumps in his palliasse and sat down on it, leaning back against the wall of the hut. He took out a cigarette and felt in his pocket for matches. He slapped all his pockets, trying to remember where he had put them after he had used them this afternoon, then a box landed in his lap.
He looked up. A man, consider- ably older than any of the others in the hut, a neat-looking man, was bitting on the neat bed beside him. smoking a pipe.
McCoy lit his cigarette and tossed the matches back. The neat man deftly caught them.
"Nothing like a smoke after a meal. Doubles the enjoyment." His voice was husky and soft, a tired voice as if it were worn out before it reached his lips. "And what we had to-night needed doubling."
"Yeah. I hope it comes better than that from now on. I like my stomach to be well looked after."
The rest of the men were begin- ning to come back from the mess hut. The youngsters, still in a bunch, came noisily in and went down to the end of the hut. The neat man looked after them.
"Kids, aren't they?" He spoke round his pipe, clamping his teeth on it, speaking through them.
"I didn't think I was so old till I saw them."
"What are you?"
"Twenty-one. But I been around, compared to these kids."
Tbe pipe moved from one side of the mouth to the other while the neat
man looked at McCoy.
"Yes, I can see that." There was no inflection, no implied meaning in the remark. It was a flat statement of the obvious, but McCoy had a feeling of uneasiness. He had the feeling that this man, older than he, looked upon him. too, as a kid. "I must be the old man of the outfit."
"How old are you?"
"Thirty-six." "Jeez, how did you get in this
"This is the third time they've called me up. They knocked me back twice before. My chest isn't as strong as it could be."
"Has it got better since they last saw you?"
"It was a different doctor." The teeth seemed to be clamped tighter, the words came out flatter, but there was no venom or resentment. The words were just underlined; you could draw your own conclusions.
"How d'you like the idea of being in the army?"
"I don't. If I were all right, I'd have joined up long ago. But I'm not all right and I know it. I'll be in hospital within a month."
HE took out his pipe and blew
smoke, watching it wreathe slowly like a climbing diaphanous vine towards the bare electric globe. McCoy looked at him, seeing the heavy look about the eyes and the shadows in the cheeks, the sunken chest and the thin arms, remembering old Harry Masters from his own street who used to stand, leaning against a post, cough- ing a dry cough that seemed to rack him, spitting blood into the gutter, and whom they found one morning dead in bed. This man did not nave the look of old Harry, he was not yet that far gone, but he seemed to have a philosophical expectation that some day it would come.
Later, after lights out, McCoy lay in the unfamiliar itching discomfort of his blankets, aware of the lumpy palliasse beneath him, and smoked a final cigarette before attempting to sleep. Moonlight, coming through the windows, lay in bands across the hut, throwing into relief the inert heaps that were blanketed sleeping men yet could have been so many corpses, so still and lifeless were they. Be- side McCoy, the fair-haired boy was snoring loudly, sleeping with his mouth open, and farther along the hut another adenoidal youth was sleeping anything but quietly.
Suddenly the snoring stopped and the hut was silent. McCoy turned his head, looking along the hut at the sleeping figures, hearing the sil- ence, seeing all these strangers, and with a rush fear came at him, fear of the future, of the days beyond to-morrow that might take him from here to only God knew where, from this safety to what destiny he could only guess at, and he wanted to get
out of his blankets and hurry from, this prison, from these four bare
walls that confined him to the future planned for him. He lay back, trembling, and took a long pull of
the cigarette. Come on, McCoy, snap out of it. You've nv\er been scared before, this ain't the way you've handled the last few years. He lay there, wide awake, looking through the moonlight to the past.
He owed the country nothing. This conscription of his services was not the enforced payment of a debt, he was the creditor, if any. He had left school at fourteen, the year his father was killed, and there was no job, only sympathy, for the son of the dead man. There were jobs ad- vertised, messenger boys and office boys and store assistants, but the em- ployers deemed an Intermediate Cer- tificate necessary as an indication of intelligence and the standard of edu- cation, never prepared to accept their own snap judgment, never interested in how parents kept a boy at school till he did achieve the official seal on his education. Selling newspapers required no intelligence and educa- tion, an enduring easily audible voice and a certain agility, useful for hop- ping on and off moving trams, were all that were required and he went to work as a newsboy.
At eighteen he was still selling newspapers but acutely aware of the fact that there was no future in it and already tentatively branching out into another field. A year later he had his own starting price business, not a big one, but steady and re- liable, catering to the small bettors in his own district, and though he did not have much money in the bank, keeping only a small reserve, he did have money to spend, to spend with- out counting its effect upon his bud- get. He had been independent and he had achieved that without help from the country.
He ground out the cigarette and
settled down in his blankets. A feel- ing of superiority swelled within him, vast confidence came up out of the past; the future could not beat
STEWART began to snore again. In the darkness of his lids, faintly and without meaning, there was a bugle blowing, a distant sound that slowly became clearer and sharper through the confusion of his sleeping mind as he struggled into wakefulness. He opened his eyes and now the bugle call was distinct, peremptory, and having its effect on the other mem- bers of the hut. There was the slight mutter of movement as men turned in their blankets and, looking along the hut, through the dim grey light, McCoy saw a few figures standing, pulling on clothes. He looked back over his head and saw the window as a pale square in the dark wall.
"Hell, what time is it?"
Before anyone could answer him, the door at the end of the hut flew open, swinging round on its hinges to bang loudly against the wall, the lights were switched on, the yellow glare suddenly making everything real, wiping out the unreality of the dim early morning light, and a corporal, a scarf wound round his neck and tucked into his sweater, his cold-pink face looking out from a balaclava helmet, stamped into the hut.
"All right, all right! Off your spine!
Rise an' shine!"
McCoy looked at him over the top of the blankets. This must be the night shift going off. He couldn't be that happy if he's just got up. McCoy pulled the blankets up higher and rolled over. To hell with them.
Suddenly the blankets were wrenched from him and the cold draught of air coming through the open door swept over him in a soft chilling wave.
"Okay, outa there! You heard the bugle!" The corporal dropped the blankets in a bundle on McCoy's feet. "Five minutes to parade!" He stamped on down the hut and was gone, a bounding example of energy and drive, of a good alert soldier, who had made little impression on the
men in the hut.
McCoy looked at his watch. They take this war seriously. Five past six and that mug was tearing round as if it was five minutes to armistice day.
"Come on. Better show a leg." The neat man next him was pulling on his trousers. "Incidentally, my name's Grayson. Keith."
McCoy stood up and began to don his clothes. "Mine's McCoy. Frankie." His fingers, released from the warmth of the blankets and now beginning io be numbed by the cold, fumbled with his trouser buttons.
They joined the crowd filing out on to the parade ground. There were surprised and obscene comments as the cold air that had come down in the night, bringing the chill of high places, bit into the men. They stamped about, swinging their arms,
The corporal and he stared at each other, then the corporal dropped his eyes to the book and went on calling
Back inside the hut after the parade,
McCoy picked up his shaving gear
and a towel.
"Coming over for a shower?" Grayson said.
"Eh? Strewth, what do you think I am? A b— polar bear?"
"Do you good. Come on. It'll warm-you up."
Sleeping between the rough blan- kets and the long train trip yesterday had left McCoy with a stale feeling and, though apprehensive of the effect of the freezing water upon him, he followed Grayson across to the show- ers. They hung their mirrors on nails in the wall and Grayson went away to the kitchen to get hot water for shaving. He came back and poured some into McCoy's cup.
"If you got a weak chest, should vou have a shower on a morning like
"I don't know." Grayson said. "Perhaps not. But I've always reckoned cold water won't hurt any- one if they're used to it. And I've had my morning shower ever since
I was a kid."
They finished shaving. Grayson took off his clothes and moved under the shower. Seeing him there naked, relieved of the camouflage of his clothes, McCoy got a sudden shock. There seemed to be no flesh on Grayson at all. The cage of his ribs showed clearly through the skin stretched over it and his thighs seemed no bigger than McCoy's calves. Mc- Coy turned away before Grayson caught him staring at him. He felt a sudden sickness in the pit of his stomach and he had the queer feeling that he had opened a coffin and looked on a dead man.
He moved across to the shower beside Grayson. Standing there be- side the thinness of Grayson, he felt, for the first time, the strength and life in his own body. He turned on the spray and the water hit him with breath-catching suddenness and cold. His belly contracted, pain leaped across the top of his head, he could feel himself growing numb, then he began to move round under the shower, soaping himself, and in a moment the initial shock passed and he began to feel good. He stood with his face turned up to the water and he could feel the sleep rushing out of him, swept away like sand before the rush of the water, and he was wide awake. Wide awake. That's what I've got to be in the future. Wide awake so they can't put anything over on me.
He began to glow with warmth as he towelled himself. Grayson had almost finished dressing.
"Put your head out a bit this morn- ing, didn't you?"
McCoy looked up from drying his
"When they were calling the roll. You don't want to antagonise them like that. Once they're on to you, you're done. You've got no come- back in the army."
their breath hanging as vapour before their mouths, their speech visible but illegible, consigning the army and its schedule to various suggested destina-
"Three ranks on the marker! Fall in!"
The men lined up, jostling one another like sheep, seeking warmth from the proximity of another's body. That's it, McCoy thought. Sheep. I've been trying to find a name for
A corporal began to call the roll, his voice high and nervous with the
"Massey." There was no answer. The cor- poral looked up and there was a faint stirring in the ranks.
Behind him, McCoy heard a whis- per. "He's gone through. Went last night." Well, he thought, there's one man that was wide awake. It didn't take him long. I should've gone with
The corporal stood in silence for a moment, then he accepted the fact that Massey would not be there that morning, and went on calling the
The corporal looked up again. "Here, sir."
Again the resentment at authority welled within McCoy. Two stripes on their arm and they're a general. Twelve months ago I'll bet he was a pen-pusher and had less in his pocket than I did. And now he likes playing at being boss. All right, but there'll come a day . . .
"Here, sir." McCoy's voice was syrupy sweet, the last word tied with blue bows and handed on a platter.
"I don't like these little upstarts. They got a couple of stripes and they want to stand over you."
Grayson was standing before his mirror, parting his hair. "Don't think I'm preaching, Frankie, but I'm a bit older than you and I've learned a few things." He smiled ruefully at himself in the mirror, his image in reverse, but the mirror's smile had the same regretful quality; a mirror did not reverse your expressions nor what had happened in the past. "Mostly from sad experience. One of my lessons was that there, are a lot of things you don't like that you'll have to take. I don't like castor oil, but I'll take it if it'll do me any good."
McCoy pulled on his sweater over his shirt and trousers. "What good will it get me, saying 'sir' to him?"
"It's not the good it'll get you. It's the trouble it'll save you." He picked up his towel. "Ready?"
There was no anger within McCoy at the advice offered, only surprise at himself that he was prepared to listen to such advice. He could not re- member when he had been prepared to accept the counsel of others; rather, he could remember most clearly with what vehemence he had rejected such gestures. And now, after an ac- quaintance of less than twelve hours, he was listening without anger to this soft-spoken man who was telling him his faults. Not understanding him- self, suspicious even of himself (was he growing soft?), he picked up his towel and shaving gear and followed Grayson across to the hut.
After breakfast he borrowed, paper and a pencil from Grayson and scribbled notes to his mother and Margie. There was no personality in the letters; they were statements of hard facts, couched in short abrupt terms. They were the first he had written; living at home till now, never before separated from the familiars of his life, there had been no occasion for letters. Margie would be dis- appointed in hers; it told of his ar- rival, of his dislike of the place, that he wished he was home, and finished with the anaemic non-committal Lots of Love; even reading between the lines she would find no romance. The mother's note was shorter still but the stock phrase, Your Loving Son, cold and impersonal as a stamp in any other letter, would warm her; for the first time he had qualified the relation- ship between them.
He sealed the envelopes, put stamps, also borrowed from Grayson, on them, and went up to the orderly room to post them.
A whistle blew as he walked back- down the hill to the parade-ground. He joined the others filing out to begin their first day as soldiers.
One hour later, his throat dry with dust, his feet rubbed raw within the heavy unaccustomed boots, his legs stiff and his back aching, he was marching along a country road, his mind dead to all but a hatred of the army and the system that had com- mitted him to this.
AND so the routine began, day fol- lowing day with a monotonous sameness, drowning clear-thinking per- sonality, producing automatic anony- mity, breeding soldiers who would fight with disciplined blank-minded efficiency to protect the freedoms they had just forfeited. The men drilled, learning to move as a body, to obey a command automatically while their minds dreamed of home and rest and beer and love; they attended lectures, imaginatively translating maps from coloured lines into hills and rivers and roads; they dismantled rifles and machine-guns, pulling death apart to see how it worked; they marched and marched and marched, building muscle, developing stamina, singing ribald songs, rhythmic obscenity the antidote to fatigue; and they climbed the local hills.
The men were in groups on the high hill-top. Some lay, tired by the climb, in the long brown-topped grass that covered the hill; others stood and looked on the scene below them.
"I'd never been outside Sydney till I come up here," one man said. He was a small thin man with glasses, red-faced now from the unaccustomed sun of the last week, a troglodyte freed from the caves of a ten-storied build- ing, come from a city canyon, walk- ing now on a high hill. "I didn't know Australia could look as good as this."
"Some view, eh?" Grayson lit his pipe and sat down beside McCoy, who was already lying flat on his back, staring up at the smooth serene sky.
"Don't look as good to me as Pad-
"Still don't like the army?" "Still don't like the army."
"Some day you'll appreciate all
"Yeah. When I'm back home in Paddington. But not here."
"Have you ever seen anything out- side of Sydney? I mean, have you ever been right out in the bush?"
"No. As far as the electric trains went was far enough for me. I didn't have any interest past there."
McCoy lay looking up at the sky. He pulled a blade of grass and ab- sently began to chew it. The ques- tion had nonplussed him; till now he had given no thought to his paroch-
"Hell, I don't know. I suppose I was just satisfied where I was. I was making money and that's all you
"Is it?" Grayson drew on his pipe and blew smoke. It hung grey-blue on the clear air for a moment then the breeze came up the hill and took it away. He had seen money go like that, swiftly, leaving nothing.
"Well, isn't it?"
"I don't think I'd know, Frankie. I've never had enough to worry me."
McCoy had turned his face away from the sky, away from the bright- ness, looking back at the past. "Have you ever had so little it worried you?"
"No. No, I haven't had to worry about where my next meal was com- ing from, if that's what you mean. Have you?"
"B— close to it."