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SIXTH INSTALMENT OF THE "HERALD'S" SECOND PRIZE NOVEL.  

YOU CAN'T SEE ROUND CORNERS  

By JON CLEARY

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 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. In camp, however, he has made friends with an older man, Keith

Grayson.

IN retrospect McCoy saw pov-

erty come up the hill, riding darkly on the breeze, cold in the warm sun; he tasted again

the cheap, monotonous diet, felt the thin clothes, walked bare- foot on the wet, cold pavement. "I don't like being broke, Keith. I didn't have much of a time when I was a kid and even when I grew up I used to be broke quite a lot. But I ain't been these last couple of years and I don't intend to be in the future. If staying in Sydney and seeing no- where else means money in my poc- ket, I'll stay."

"I suppose it's just the way you look at it." The bulging purse did not compensate for the weak lung; the bank-book did not balance the medi- cal report. He had joined the army and they had valued his life: six shillings and sixpence for every day he lived. And yet this young man beside him, undiseased, full of vigour and strength, was worth the same. It proved that the value of money was false. Or—and he felt again the cynicism that had come in these last twelve months—was life so cheap that health did not affect its price?

"Yeah, it's just the way you look at it. And everywhere I look I can

see pounds, shillings, and pence—I  

hope."

That night the three of them, Mc- Coy, Grayson, and Stewart, went into the local town to a dance. In the past week Stewart had attached him- self to the others and Grayson had adopted the boy with an almost pater- nal interest. McCoy was indifferent. Stewart's naivete amused him, some- times irritated him, but it was prefer- able to the noisy brash cockiness of the other youngsters in the hut.

McCoy took the girl with whom he had been dancing back to her seat and strolled across the hall to join Grayson, who, with his arms folded, was leaning against the wall, surveying the room with amused

contempt.

"You like the women, don't you,

Frankie?"

"Yeah, I suppose so. But I can't go for these locals."

"Women are the same everywhere. What's the matter with these girls?"

"I dunno. Maybe I'm missing Margie. Anyhow, why don't you go out and try one? You don't seem to be too interested in 'em."

"I'm not. Women in a mass an- noy me. Get more than two women together and their intelligence van- ishes. Women should travel only by themselves and they should be in  

only two places—the bedroom and

the kitchen."

"Well, why don't you get mar-

ried?"

Grayson took out his pipe, remem- bered he was m a hall where smok- ing was not allowed, and put it back in his pocket. "A number of reas- ons. One is this chest of mine. I wouldn't pass that on to any kid. Another is that if I marry I have to get up and cut the lawn or mend the vacuum cleaner or take the kids for a walk. I'm happy the way I am. I don't have to have a woman in my life."

"It ain't that way with me. I been thinking the last week. I want to get married."

"I thought you were smart?'" Gray- son smiled and there was no sting in the jibe.

Without thinking, the answer came, easily, slickly, but it denied his credo. "You can't be smart all the time."

Grayson, looked at him and when he spoke the bantering tone was gone and he posed the two of them there alone in the crowded dance hall, cutting off the panting jiving throng while he repeated the lesson. A trumpet note sailed away, high and clear and compelling, delivered by Gabriel in a cheap dress suit, and Grayson said, "No, you're right there. It's a good thing to remem- ber. You can't be smart all the

time."

Stewart came walking quickly across the floor to them, treading awkwardly in his heavy boots on the polished floor. He walked right into   the lesson, breaking it up, saving   McCoy the necessity of thinking up  

an answer.

"Don't wait for me, fellers, I'm   taking one of the girls home." "Which one?" Grayson said.  

Stewart looked about the room.   "That one." He nodded at a short,  

dark-haired girl in a tight green frock

who was standing against the wall halfway down the hall, conscious of their stare, and preening herself under it. She was pretty in a cheap way, her face over-painted, her bright green frock short and tight, and her wrist carrying an outsize green wooden bangle. "Ain't she a beaut?"

"Yeah. But you be careful.

Snow."

"Oh, I'll be all right," he said. "I can look after myself." .

GOING back to camp in the bus, sit-

ting hunched down in the seat, their greatcoat collars turned up about their ears, their hands deep in their pockets, the cold wind coming through the broken window hitting their faces like an invisible icy wave, they were both thinking of the youngster who was now probably moving towards realisation and disappointment. McCoy was envious: he suddenly wanted to be home with Margie, hold- ing her close to him, having her kiss him.  

Grayson was worried. "We shouldn't have left the kid," he said.

"He'd've only kicked up a shindy if we tried to interfere. He's just feeling young the same as everyone else does. Didn't you when you were his age?"

Grayson slewed the pipe in his mouth: "You're a callous young b—d."

"You get that way when you learn things the hard way."  

The next morning when they arose at reveille the first thing they both noticed was the neatly-folded pile of blankets where Stewart's bed should have been.

"The silly young b—d," Grayson said. "He must have stayed with her all night."

"Or got stranded and couldn't get back." McCoy began pulling on some clothes to go out on the first parade.

"Come on. You'd better answer

for him on parade. Your voice is lighter than mine."

McCoy, lightening his voice to sound as much like Stewart as he

possibly could, answered the roll call and the deception was successful. Stewart was covered now till the next parade at eight-thirty.

He walked into the hut just after McCoy had come back from break- fast. He swaggered in, the cock com- ing home to crow, but McCoy met him with gentle derision, disarming

him.

"G'day, Romeo."

Stewart grinned sheepishly and sat down on the floor, leaning back against his blankets. "Did they miss me on parade?"

"You're Safe. Meet Stewart, for this morning."    

"Thanks, Frankie. I didn't intend staying, but when we got home she told me her people were in Sydney for the week-end." He leaned back

and put his hands behind his head, and revelled in his first conquest.

STEWART, standing above McCoy, made weaving patterns against the   light as he tossed the rifle about his body in unintentional parodies of the drill movements taught him on the parade-ground. McCoy, barefoot, sat on his bed, laboriously darning a sock, and Grayson, his pipe in his mouth, permanent as another feature in his face, lay back against his kitbag and looked up at Stewart.

"You take the prize for awkward- ness," Grayson said.

"Eh?" Stewart turned his head, dis- tracted by the remark, missed his grip on the rifle, and it fell with a thud and clatter, to the floor that was lost almost immediately in an agonised scream from McCoy. He grabbed his foot and rolled back on to his bed, writhing in pain.

"Oh, you —clumsy b—d."

Abjectly contrite, Stewart fell on one knee beside McCoy.

"Jeez, I'm sorry, Frankie. I—Here,

let's look at it."

A red weal that was quickly turn- ing blue lay across the instep.

"Think you'd better see the M.O.?" Grayson, amused by the incident, laughing through his words, said, "Oh, it's not that bad. See how it is in the morning, Frankie."

McCoy sat up, still holding his foot. "Why don't you leave that rifle-sling ing for the parade-ground? Don't you get enough of it out there?"

Stewart picked up his rifle, leaned it against the wall, and sat down on his bed. He began to take off his boots. "I don't know. I suppose so. But I like it." He dropped his head as he struggled with a knot in his bootlace. "I like the feel of a rifle in my hands. I want to be able to handle it so well that when 1 go into action it'll just be part of me."

"If you drop it on my toe again I'll make it part of you. I'll bury it in your skull."  

He was having trouble with the knot in his lace. His head was still bent, closing his throat, and the words came with difficulty. "I've always wanted to be a soldier. My old man was in the last show. He got an M.M. and bar," He placed his father on a pedestal and waited while the other admired. But to McCoy it meant nothing; a decoration was just a medal and a strip of ribbon, and he did not see beyond them; he could not appreciate courage that he had not witnessed. "I've always wanted the chance to be like him."

Grayson, sitting behind McCoy, had

listened in silence. Here was a good kid; here was youth with all its fine ideals and ambitions. He looked back through the years to himself and said, "How old are you, Show?"

"Nineteen in December."

"That's a pity. It means you're stuck in Australia till then. They won't send you up north till you're

nineteen."

"Is that, so bad?" McCoy said. "That he can stay here and be safe?"

And here was youth in another aspect; bitter and cynical and selfish, one of those who had learned, too young. "I don't think you'd under- stand, Frankie."

McCoy was beyond the circle in which Grayson and Stewart moved; they were his friends, but they had something he could never share. He felt bewildered, angry, then he   dragged the past up and wrapped it round him; his shield for now and the future was the years that had   gone. He had needed no one in the past; he needed no one now. He got in to bed and a few minutes later the lights were switched out.

He lit a cigarette and lay looking at the red tip of it in the darkness. There had been another letter from Margie to-day. There had been one every day, sometimes a lengthy one, full of news and her love, other times just two pages with no news but always her love.

They had been going together for seven years' now. They had gradu- ated from Postman's Knock, from kisses in the hall, shy and awkward and with cake crumbs on the lips, from holding hands at the Saturday matinee, from his clumsy brutal attempts at seduction and her tearful panic-stricken refusals, to this solid permanent feeling between them. He had been unfaithful but it was only

his body that had strayed; even with the others there had been the wish that it was Margie lying there with him, calling him darling, satisfying the heat within him. Infidelity had not left its mark on him, but now, remembering his continency of the last few weeks, he felt a pleasurable glow: he had kept his promise. May- be Grayson was right, after all: women weren't necessary all the time. You could do without them. Margie would never know it but absence had

bound thim closer to her, had quietened the desires of his flesh; she had been the spark that had burned him, had sent him to others; and now with no bodily contact, with only the virginal letters to confess her love,

he was satisfied.

But there had been a paragraph in the letter to-day that had upset him. "I love you, Frankie, just as you are, but I somehow think the army will be the making of you and that when you come back I'll love you so much more that I shan't be able to believe that anyone could be so happy. Please try to like the army, darling. . . ."

Like the army! He ground out the cigarette, stubbing it angrily into the floor. Hell, who could like

this imprisonment? . . . "I'll be proud of you in uniform. . . ." Why didn't he become a b——tram-guard and then they'd both been happy?

TIME dragged on. Weeks went painfully by and each day McCoy's   hate for the army grew. He could see the days of his life going down a drain like so much waste water, days he could be living elsewhere, could be enjoying. They were taking his life away from him piece by piece and they were giving him noth- ing in return.

He did not even have Grayson to talk with now. The latter had been coughing more frequently lately and twice had had to drop out when the company was out on a route march, standing there by the side of the road, coughing and spitting into the dust, while the company went swinging by  

in youthful lusty strength. Then yes- terday, when McCoy came into the hut after breakfast, Grayson had been packing his gear.

"Where're you off to?" McCoy

said.

"Hospital." Grayson was kneeling, folding his blankets, and now he looked up and from above his check bones were prominent and his eyes were like dark bubbles. "It's caught up with me."  

"Where're you going, the camp hospital?"

"For the present, anyway. Come over and see me."  

"Too right. Bring you flowers and

fruit."

"Keep the flowers till I'm dead. Just bring the fruit."

So to-night he was going over to see Grayson. He walked into the ward and treading delicately, con- scious of his heavy boots on the bare.

Illustrated by JAMES PHILLIPS

smooth floor, he walked down be- tween the beds, nodding to some of those in the beds whom he knew, aware of the stares of those he did not know (a visitor in the ward was welcome: any stranger relieved the long, dull hours), seeing Grayson right at the end of the ward, seeing even at that distance how sick he was. He had a sudden feeling that it would have been better had he not come; he had never known how to talk to sick people.

"G'day, dig." He tried to be cheer-   ful, transfusing his strength to the other, but it was all hollow; he had whistled at a funeral. He sat down on the edge of the bed, feeling awk- ward and dirty, his khakis grimy and disreputable against the brilliant whiteness of the sheet.

"Hello, Frankie." Grayson looked no stronger than the pillows that propped him up in the bed. Sud- denly, since yesterday, as if all re- sistance had gone with his entry to hospital, he had become very sick. His eyes were tired and pale and beneath the electric light the shadows in his cheeks were so pronounced that the lower half of his face seemed to be hanging from his cheekbones.

"What do you know?" Grayson said.

"Nothing. If I knew anything I wouldn't be in the army."

Grayson smiled, but in the sick face the smile was nothing more than a grimace. "Frankie, it's a pity you didn't have more education. You could have been a wonderful philo- sopher."

"Maybe. But I'm happy." "Well, that's something."

The words hung awkwardly be- tween them, then fell, square words into a round hole of silence. You've put your foot into it again, mug, McCoy thought. You've told a dying man you're happy. Here's the shovel: finish the burial.

"When're you coming out?" he said.

'To-morrow. But I'm not coming. I'm going. They're sending me to Waterfall."

"You mean where the T.B.s go?"

Grayson nodded. "Where the T.B.s go. I said it would happen. It just took a month longer than I thought."

Suddenly he coughed, the sound tearing its way out of him; the lungs were already torn. McCoy picked up the small lidded cup on the table beside the bed and handed it to him. Grayson took it and spat into it and McCoy had a sudden queasiness in the pit of his stomach. He turned his eyes away and looked along to

the end of the ward where the nurse, her red cape a bright splash of colour in the sterile whiteness of the ward, was seated at a table, then down along all the beds, then at the books on the table beside the bed, any- where but at Grayson, coughing and spitting into the cup. Grayson put the cup back on the table and wiped his mouth with a handkerchief.

"It b——rs me completely for the minute." He seemed to have shrunk into the pillows and bright spots burned on his cheeks.

"Sounds pretty bloody."

Grayson picked up a bag from the

table and handed it to McCoy. They were boiled sweets and McCoy took one. He had the taste of sickness in his mouth. Grayson put one into his own mouth.

"What'd you do to-day?" he said.

'The usual. Rifle drill this morn- ing and a map lecture this afternoon. I went to sleep. There's an all-day route march on to-morrer. Gotta get outa that somehow."

"Dodging again? Why must you   always be getting out of things, Frankie?"

"Now, look, Keith. Don't start preaching me. I never did like walk- ing, in the army or out of it."

"Sorry." Grayson leaned his head still further back into the pillows, and they closed round him; the bed had

claimed him and he had given him- self up to it. "I used to like walk- ing. Used to go out nearly every Sunday till a couple of years ago." In his voice there was the regret that there would be no more walking; he spoke of the past, of the irrevocable

past.

"You'll be able to go walking at Waterfall. Ain't that where a lot of the hikers used to go on Sundays?"

"I used to go with them. Every Sun- day, practically. Till my breath started to give out." He laughed, but it was an empty sound, a hollow wind coming through a deserted house. "That's funny."

"What is?"

"I used to go walking at Waterfall for my health. Now I'm going there

to die."

"Oh, God Almighty, Keith!" Death sat on the edge of the bed, an intimate of Grayson's, but McCoy recoiled. "Cut it out. What the hell're you talking about?"

The eyes smiled, tiredly, but the   mouth again made just a grimace. "Sorry, Frankie. I was just being melo- dramatic. It's the actor in me com- ing out."

"You can let anything you like come out, but quit talking about dying."

"All right. No more dying."

They both knew it was a hollow promise. Death could not be denied; the dark wings beat against the hos- pital window. You could steer the conversation away from it, but it was like turning your face away from the bright sun: everywhere you must see

the reflection.

OUTSIDE the hospital, McCoy walk- ed along the hard camp road  

toward the line of huts where the windows burned yellow and bright in the night, and from where there came song strong and harmonious and masculine, clear on the still night air. Over   to the right the dark mass of a hill leaned against the bottom of the sky and car lights, riding the main road, swept along the crest, bright beams shining among the stars. A star fell, going down behind the rim of the world, falling on to eternity, and in- voluntarily he made a wish; the child- hood superstition prompted the re- quest that Grayson would return to

health.

To-night was the first time he had heard anyone speaking of his own death to come. He had never looked that far into the future; death was something distant, something that could not be coupled with time; you could not put your finger on the calendar and say, That day I die. You could, perhaps, if you were a condemned criminal, but he had never known a condemned criminal; he had known criminals but they did not hang you for housebreaking or assault or illegally selling liquor. What had shocked him was the calm acceptance by Grayson of the fact that he would soon be dead. Still, maybe you became that way when you had been thinking about it for a long time. Maybe when you are so weak they have to prop you up in bed with pillows and when you cough it's like someone kicking you in the belly, well, maybe death then has lost its horror. But he, him- self, was not weak, propped up in bed with pillows, and he had no cough that tore its way through his insides. He was young and strong and all he had was a fear of death. He was young and the young were not

meant for death.

Lights blazed into his eyes and he stepped off the road as a vehicle went past. It was an ambulance, going down to the hospital. Another sick person coming in. Or, still thinking of death, perhaps it had come to pick up someone, someone gone beyond

the need of medical care.

He walked on toward the cheery lights of the hut and the ribald singing.

(Continued To-morrow)

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

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