Comments (None yet)

Add New Comment

2 corrections, most recently by JaneM1951 - Show corrections

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

YOU CAN'T SEE  

ROUND CORNERS

By JON CLEARY

Illustrated by JAMES PHILLIPS

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

youth who makes his living as a starting-price bookmaker in Flanagan's hotel. Arrogant in his confidence that he can meet and defeat life, his great love, aside from himself, ¡s a girl, Margie Harris. Although he has once evaded his call-up, he at last

receives instructions to report for army examination and enlist-  

ment. Unwillingly he does so.

THE sergeant called two

younger non-commissioned officers who had been standing just off the parade ground. They came forward, peram- bulating ramrods, anxious to impress the newcomers with their military bearing.

"Sergeant Johnson, you take this     squad for the Air Force. You, Ser- geant Quinn, take the A.I.F. squad. I'll take the others myself."

McCoy was not sure, but he felt a tinge of contempt in the word "others," and he stiffened, resentment rising within him. Let the old b—r mind his own business. It was a free country. They'd said so. He was as good as the blokes in the other squads. He just had his own ideas, that was

all.

The sergeant turned to them.

"Righto. Pick up your gear. Left turn. Quick march."

The small body of men moved off, some marching, some ambling, some trying to keep in step with the man next him, a motley crowd from which to mould soldiers. The sergeant did not envy the drill instructors who would take over these men in the weeks to come.

"Do you always walk like that?"

McCoy turned his head. The ser- geant was walking beside him.

"Me? Yeah. Why, what's wrong with it?"

"You'd better get out of it, son. You won't walk like that long in the army."

"I ain't in the army yet. Maybe I got a weak heart."

The sergeant knew it was wrong, but he could not resist it. "Maybe you have. I noticed it back there on the parade ground."

He called the squad to a halt and walked on beyond them and up steps into a hut. McCoy looked after him. The old b—d thinks he's smart. Making a crack like that then walking off before I can answer him. I ought to pushed his teeth down his throat. Anger was hot in his blood, ready to erupt, but the sergeant had gone and he was stand- ing alone among the staring curious crowd, defeated at his own game of the smart crack, the pungent witticism.

The sergeant reappeared in the doorway with papers in his hand.

"All right. You're now going to go past the doctors. You'll come in here in threes, strip off, and the orderly in here will show you where to go. Righto. Barry, Harris,  

McCoy. In here."

THE room was bare, without even a bench, and when they took off   their clothes they had to fold them and leave them on the floor. The three of them stood there, conscious of their nakedness, cold and affected by it. McCoy looked at the other two. One of them had a scar across his stomach, a puckered gully that ran from his navel to his groin, and the other was a small thin youth whose shoulders came round in a curve, almost as if protecting the weak chest beneath. I'm the luckiest b—d, thought McCoy. Health and strength, that's me. And a sure bet for a uniform.

The man with the sear was called first. He went through a doorway and McCoy and the thin youth were left alone. The youth was conscious of his pitiful physique and he walked to the window and stood looking out, turning his back on any attempt at conversation by McCoy. The latter stood awkwardly in the centre of the room, bereft of pockets and wondering what to do with his hands. He folded his arms but felt the pose was slightly ridiculous and he un- folded them. He walked to a second window, opposite the one at which the youth stood, and leaning his elbows on the sill, looked across a narrow strip of asphalt to an identical hut to the one in which he stood, aware of his nudity, not embarrassed by it, but feeling slightly absurd.

The door opened and the scarred- bellied man came out.

"You beaut!" he said, and walked over to his clothes.

"What happened?" McCoy said.

"They knocked me back. Took one look at my gut and said 'No go.' They going to give me a permanent ex- emption. That'll be a load off the wife's mind. Off mine too."

"Lucky b—r."

The man grinned and began to pull on his trousers. An orderly came to

the door.

"McCoy?"

"Right." McCoy followed the orderly through the doorway and found himself in a long passage. In his bare feet he padded along behind the other, and he smiled to himself as a thought struck him. I'm a b— white abo., that's all. The orderly stopped.  

"In here."

He turned and walked into the room and saw the two doctors, both old men, sitting waiting for him, look- ing at him impersonally like cattle in- spectors, and he knew suddenly that this was the real beginning. From here on there was no escape unless they rejected him. These two old men, their own life behind them, were the first of those who would decide his fate.

Two hours later he knew his future. He put his hand on a Bible and in a flat, mumbling voice, following the words of the sergeant holding the book, swore allegiance to his country for the duration of the war and twelve months thereafter. He, not meaning it, rebellious of it, swore to serve and defend his country. He, Private Francis Michael McCoy and some number he would never remem- ber.

He walked out and stood in the

sun, leaning against the hut. He lit a cigarette and flicked the match savagely away. Well, that was that. Now they had him. Him, and nine others. The thin youth and the man with the scar were the only two who had been rejected. Three cheers for the lucky ones and a wreath for the

bunnies.

The grey-haired sergeant appeared again.  

"Righto, men. Fall in. Three ranks on this man here."

The ranks were formed and they stood waiting. The sergeant scanned the papers in his hand, then looked

up.  

"Private. You with the shiner. Take these papers up to that hut

there."

McCoy knew he was being addressed, but he continued to stare straight ahead, insolently ignoring the sergeant. Nobody was going to talk to him that way and get away with

it.

The sergeant walked over and stood immediately before him.

"Are you deaf, private?"

"No."

"No what?"

"No, I'm not deaf." It was old  

stuff but it was having its effect. McCoy could see that the other was having trouble controlling his temper and he felt pleased. I'll teach the old b—d he ain't Gawd Almighty.

"Look, son." The sergeant was patient. He had seen them before like this, perhaps not as incorrigible as this one, but all with resentment against authority. Maybe it was the parents' fault, doting on a precocious child, or worse still, neglecting it, giving it the freedom of the streets; maybe it was these incorregibles' own misguided sense of independence. But almost without exception they were the same: lacking in education, flashily, if not cheaply, dressed, larri- kins whose failure to make good was self-evident. Maybe that was it; perhaps their resentment came from the knowledge that the world had beaten them, had left them stripped and bleeding, and bowing to authortiy was only rubbing salt into the wounds. "Look, don't try and buck the army.

It doesn't work. Smarter men than you have tried and they all finished up the same way—sadder and wiser. You can't beat it. It will always have the edge on you. Just take the advice of a man who's seen two wars and knows a bit about it. Now take these papers up to that hut and then report back here."

The sergeant's patience paid. McCoy felt the invidious position in which he had been placed; the ser- geant had adopted no domineering attitude as he had expected but had given him advice, no matter how ill- chosen it was. There was nothing to   do but accept things as they stood. He had no aversion to boorishness but he did not want to parade it be- fore the other men who were gazing with intent interest at this encounter between himself and the authority that they all consciously, if silently,

resented.

He took the papers, and without a word left the ranks and went up towards the hut. With a clear flash of understanding he saw beyond this clash between the sergeant and him-

self. The sergeant was right. The army had won its first victory.

When he returned, the men, joined by the A.I.F. volunteers, were board- ing a bus that had driven on to the parade ground in his absence. He picked up his bag and stood at the end of the queue.

"Righto, son," the sergeant said.

"Climb aboard."

"Who pays?"

"The army, son. The army pays

from here on."

PART TWO

HE heard someone say, "There's the camp!" and he sat up and looked  

out the window. He saw the huts, their tin roofs gleaming dully like helmets, stretching in long regimented lines away from the railway track to the low hill that was the southern boundary of the camp; a truck went down the road through the camp, the dust of its own progression chas- ing it, and a motor-cycle, moving fast, came to meet it, passed it, and was gone out of sight round a bend in the road; groups of tiny figures stood and waved, their welcome too distant to be felt; and a band, their brass instruments bright in the sun, sat in rehearsal, playing music no one could hear. The camp went past in silence, shut out by the noise of the train, and he had the impres- sion that he had been looking at a moving picture, so impersonal was everything, so distant and, as yet,

without influence.

The train began to slow and there was confused cramped movement in the carriage as everyone got ready to detrain. The end of the platform went slowly past the window, there were fleeting glimpses of men wait- ing in blank-faced expectancy, then

the train had stopped and a voice was shouting.

"Righto, this is it! All out!"

The signboard on the platform had been pulled down, identification ob- literated, an anonymous town, a relic of the security blackout when inva- sion had been imminent. The men stood in loose ranks on the platform, unsure of themselves, but some had noticed the distance they had come past the camp and the conspicuous absence of transport in the station yard, an omen that there was a march ahead of them, and there was some good-humoured grumbling.

"Where's that b— engine driver? Why didn't he pull up oppo- site the camp?"

"They oughta make the b—d walk back with us."

Some N.C.O.s. carrying themselves with the importance of aldermen, had now marshalled the men into a column and the order was given to march. Still grumbling, the men moved out of thg station yard and

turned into the road that led to the camp. Behind them, the train, now empty, looking as useless as a dis- carded shell, moved out of the station down to a siding.

McCoy was in the middle of the column. His step had automatically fallen to the rhythm of that of the men in front of him and as he walked he looked about him. This was his first time in the country, the real country, beyond the taint of the city, of picnickers and riding schools and bush-gatherers, and despite his show of indifference he was interested. The sky was immense, climbing from smooth green hills through white clouds and falling, in the north, to rugged brown mountains that lay like slumbering lions in the cooling wes- tering sun. A horse, in a paddock beside the road, swerved away as the body of men came near and went galloping up through the short dry grass, his hoofs thudding hollowly, the power in him visible in the move- ment of thick sleek muscles. A mag- pie sat on a rail, a malevolent curious eye turned toward them, then it flapped its wings, a quick flash of black and while colour, and shot

away, beating close to the ground, swift and heavy.

"You got to watch them," said the youngster beside him. "Always ready to have a pick at you."

"Just like women, eh?"

The boy looked at him; come from a country home, at eighteen he was having his first brush with cynicism. "Yeah. I suppose they are."

Now the distance, the walking in light shoes, the thin rising dust, were beginning to have their effect, rubbing raw on the men's tempers. The column had turned in at the main gates of the camp and was now marching down the road that cut through the camp from east to west.

"Righto, this'll do us!"

"Hey, how much farther?"

By the roadside stood groups of men from the last draft, old soldiers of a month, offering encouragement or the time-worn advice of, "You'll be sorry!" The column climbed a long sloping hill and at the top the order to halt was given.

"Jeez, he just got that out in

time!"

"I'll never be any good to the army. I'm b— before I start."

The roll was called, the men were allotted to sleeping quarters, and they went down to the long bare utili-

tarian huts that were to be their homes

for the next few months. This was it, the home from home, to be accepted because there was no alter- native. Come from the intimate room, from the familiar personal sur- roundings, from the comfort and con- venience of bed and furnishings, they stood in the bare tin-walled hut and knew there would have to be a con-

siderable readjustment in their ideas of comfort and privacy.

Half an hour later another parade was called and McCoy found himself in a long line filing through a hut beside the door of which there hung a sign on which there were the letters Q.M.

"What's the initials?" someone asked.

"Dunno. They tell me everything in the army is initials."

Three men stood behind the long counter handing out equipment. One of them, a short fat man with glasses and the proprietary air common to quartermasters, threw him a tunic.

"Try that for size."

McCoy donned the tunic. It hung loosely and long upon him, making him a ridiculous figure.

"Who do I share it with?"

The fat man pursed his lips. "Oh, a funny fellow, eh?"

"I would be if I wore that."

That fat man took the tunic and handed him another. This one was

the reverse of its predecessor: the sleeves finished several inches above his wrists and, feeling the tightness under his arms and across his back, he did not make an attempt to button

it across his chest.

The fat man's face was bland, but McCoy sensed the smirk in his voice.

"Is that better?"

He took off the tunic, folded it, and laid it on the counter. He could feel the men in the line behind him growing restless, but this fat runt was not going to get the better of him. The army had scored one victory to-day; it was not going to score

another.

"Look, Fatty, don't let's get smart. You got to come out from behind that counter some time and when you do I'll smash those specs, of yours into your eyes. Now let's have something that'll fit me."

The fat man looked at him for a moment, unsure of the toughness of this character before him, decided to play safe, and handed McCoy a tunic that, on being donned, proved a com- fortable size. McCoy passed on down the line, pleased with himself. He had exhibited his toughness, had re- habilitated himself after this morn- ing's defeat.

HE came out of the hut, loaded down with equipment, clothing, blankets, eating utensils, and walked down to his sleeping quarters. He dumped his load on the floor and was standing looking at it when a boy across the hut spoke to him.

"You'll get straw for your palliasse in the big hut right across the parade-

ground."

Puzzlcd, he looked al the youth.

"Straw?"

"Yeah. For your palliasse. To sleep on."

"To sleep on? Jeez, what do they

think we are? Mules?"

He picked up the long hessian sack, went across the parade ground, filled the sack with straw, came back, and, after arranging his gear into some semblance of order, lay down on the sack. It was lumpy and uncomfort- able, a poor bed for an easy sleep, but now he was tired and he lay and suffered the discomfort.

He lit a cigarette and lay with one arm supporting his head, looking along the hut at the men who were to share this life with him. Most of them were of his age, some younger, all of them slightly bewildered by this sudden transition. The very young ones, the eighteen-year-olds, were making a brave and noisy attempt to cover their embarrassment, their walk a swagger, their talk full of obscenity. Released from their mother's apron   strings, they were ambitious to prove their manhood. McCoy looked with contempt upon them, gazing down from the empyreal heights of one who had achieved his manhood years be- fore, who carried the evidence with him in the confident poise, the in- difference to excitement, the apt re- mark. These kids had a long way to go, a distance not measured on a calendar, before they would be as

old as he.

"My name's Stewart. Eric Stewart." McCoy looked up. A tall, thin, fair-haired youth was standing beside him, folding a blanket, looking down at him, eager to know and be known, scared of loneliness.

"Hi." McCoy looked up at the kid through the smoke, from his cigar- ette. "Mine's McCoy. Frankie's the

first name."

Stewart was down on one knee now, fixing his bed, pummelling lumps out of his palliasse, arranging his

blankets.

"How d'you reckon you'll like it?"

he said.

"I don't. I'm not cut out for sol- diering. I'm all for peace myself."

Stewart sat down on the half-made bed. "My old man went to the last war. I suppose that's why I'm keen to be in this one. Anyhow, we don't get much excitement up our way. I'm from the country. Nymagee."

The proffered information was superfluous. Bush-boy was written all over him; you looked at him and saw the tilled land, the shocked wheat (his hair was the colour of wheat), the early rising and the early to bed. the schooling by correspondence, the isolation. He belonged beneath a high sky, to the wide emptiness of paddocks, and here in this hut, with twenty-three other men, his life sud- denly thrown into a confined circle of influences, he was awkward and unsure of himself, an alien in his own

country.

"I'm from Paddington. We get plenty of it down our way."

Outside on the parade ground a whistle blew and a voice shouted. "Mess parade!"

McCoy got to his feet, picking up the shining oblong tins they had given him. "Might as well be in it. My belly's just one big hole."

The eighteen-year-olds, who seemed to have formed themselves into a group, seeking confidence in the aggre- gation of their years, rushed past in a yelling mob.

"School's out." McCoy said, but Stewart, young himself, not yet sharp enough for commentaries, missed the point.

The men filed in two lines past the servery tables just within the doors of the mess hut, comment running down the line like an audible current as in- formation of the menu preceded it.

McCoy looked at the brown con- glomeration that had fallen with a dull wet sound from the spoon of the serving orderly into his tin. The or- derly, a permanent member of the camp staff, who hated all newcomers because it meant more work and less time at the two-tip school down by the creek, glared at him.

"What's the matter? Don't you like

it?"

"No. But I just found out why they call it a mess-tin."

The men in the line behind him laughed and he walked on, knowing he had established the basis of a repu- tation as a wit. If he had to stay here he might as well be noticed by those about him; the spotlight could never stay far from him: he appeared in it

and controlled it.

(Continued To-morrow)

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

Zoom

plus
thumb
minus
left
thumb
right
up
thumb
down