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Authors: Roger McDonald

1915

BOOK: 1915
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PRAISE FOR
1915

‘The book is impressive, with a subtle understanding of human motives and a clear eye on human savagery.'

Rodney Hall,
The Sydney Morning Herald

‘It is difficult to think of another novel that conveys with such disturbing immediacy the smells, tastes, sensations of this war.'

Brian Kiernan,
The Age

‘The interlocking stories of
1915
are deftly assembled by McDonald, who manages to make the infernal din of Gallipoli and the clink of silverware in an Australian dining room seem equally familiar and ominous.'

New Yorker

‘This novel is a major addition to the literature of World War I – an eloquent statement by an Australian writer about love and death, about the destruction of innocence and the dehumanizing lunacy of war.'

Washington Star

‘A powerfully affecting piece of work.'

Newsweek

Also by Roger McDonald

Fiction:

Slipstream

Rough Wallaby

Water Man

The Slap

Mr Darwin's Shooter

The Ballad of Desmond Kale

When Colts Ran

Non-fiction:

Shearers' Motel

The Tree in Changing Light

As editor:

Gone Bush

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including printing, photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

1915: A Novel of Gallipoli

9781742754703

To my wife Sue

A Vintage book
Published by Random House Australia Pty Ltd
Level 3, 100 Pacific Highway, North Sydney, NSW 2060
www.randomhouse.com.au

First published in Australia by University of Queensland Press in 1979
First published by Vintage in 2001
This Vintage edition published in 2009

Copyright © Roger McDonald 1979

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia.

Addresses for companies within the Random House Group can be found at
www.randomhouse.com.au/offices.

National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-Publication Entry

McDonald, Roger, 1941–.
1915 : a novel of Gallipoli.

ISBN 978 1 74166 767 7 (pbk).

World War, 1914–1918 – Fiction.

A823.3

Cover image and design by Jenny Grigg

 

Roger McDonald is the author of seven novels and two works of non-fiction. His first novel,
1915
, won
The Age
Book of the Year award and the South Australian Government Biennial Prize for Literature. His autobiographical
Shearer's Motel
won the 1993 National Book Council Banjo Award for Non-Fiction;
Mr Darwin's Shooter
won the 1999 NSW Premier's Award for Fiction, the 1999 Victorian Premier's Award for Fiction, the 2000 National Fiction Award and the 2000 SA Premier's Literary Award; and
The Ballad of Desmond Kale
won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2006.

 

Come to the stables all men that are able
and give your poor horses some hay and some corn …

Part One
1
After a Fall

It was inconceivable to Walter that a person could be well educated yet morally bad. But in the district hospital he met a woman who was said to be both, a governess from a station on the Condobolin line. People said she had tried to drown herself in a dam.

“The doctor says I need a rest,” she told Walter. “I went for a swim and got into trouble. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“Cripes no, Miss Davis.”

She sat on the end of his bed while he avoided her eye. She discovered his enthusiasm for geology, and for half a day talked of nothing else.

Yet things she said disturbed him.

“It's a cow,” she whined in her English accent. “The way things hang over me.
Or
stralia.”

Nurse Armitage was different. She was rounded and warm as she sat on the bed or leant over him, and he closed his eyes wondering what he might dare.

Then late one night he was woken by a whisper: “
It's Edie Davis
.” She was standing by his bedside, her silk dressing gown smelling of camphor. “Are you awake?”

He leapt upright, his shoulder jarring painfully. For a long time she said nothing. He heard her catch her breath. “What do you want?” he asked. “Will I call the nurse?” His hand groped for the bedside bell and knocked it to the floor.

“I'm sorry.” She was already leaving. “I lost my way in the dark.” She gave a high-pitched laugh that relieved him, because now she sounded happy, and it had all been a mistake.

But in the morning she ignored him. She returned a stack of
Knowledge
magazines by dumping them on the foot of his bed, and he began to believe everything that was said about her. It was the day of his operation. The image of her bitter eyes stayed with him until the last minute, bearing down with the chloroform mask as he slipped into oblivion.

When he regained consciousness, fighting against a nightmare, he found restraining bars on the sides of the bed and the matron holding him. The pain in his arm and shoulder was worse than it had been at the time of his accident, when Coalheap had viciously shied and flung him against a tree. Through the dark doorway of the ward he thought he saw Edie Davis's faintly pockmarked face, but she might have been part of his dream — everything unpleasant and unexplained was mixed up in it. At the end of the dream he had found himself trapped in a stone tomb with no means of escape. Rough walls had pressed on him from all sides. This terrible place was a vision of fate drained of hope. He could imagine nothing worse.

When he tried to tell his parents they smiled:

“The doctor says you'll be all right now.”

“You're ruined for work,” laughed his father.

Billy Mackenzie, the son of their nearest neighbour, was the only visitor to listen to him. In town delivering his father's hay he came in the evening and again the next morning. It was no secret that Billy enjoyed seeing a boastful rider brought low by a fall, but he was affable about it. From now on, Walter decided, they would be friends again.

“I had the same feeling the time you pushed the wheat sacks on me,” said Billy. “Remember? We had our share of fights.”

He stood on the gauzed veranda and smoked, turning to stare at Nurse Armitage whenever she passed.

 

The break in Walter and Billy's friendship had come four years before.

“There's a war,” Walter had said, “and we're scouts.” He and Billy squatted behind a rock at the edge of the rabbit-proof fence. “If we're caught we'll be shot, so keep it quiet.”

“Git going,” said Billy, but as he spoke he leapt up and went first himself, making Walter feel stupid.

When they reached the top of the ridge the homestead could be seen glinting through the greenery far below, its roof a tarnished silver tray. Walter pulled two apples from his haversack and handed one to Billy: “Rations.” After a while one and then the other apple-core flew into the air and spun out of sight over the tops of the trees. “Let's go to the pool,” said Walter, watching Billy flick a caterpillar onto a rock and squash it with his thumb, where it arched, fierce and hairy.

The far side of the ridge fell steeply. Now Billy leapt in places where Walter lowered himself gingerly, and soon he was well ahead. Walter was scratched by sharp branches, and slowing down, maddeningly wedged a boot in a crevice. “Wait on!” he called to Billy.

A hawk glided in circles over the treetops. Down in the gully a wallaby crashed with one noisy leap and was still. And he was sure that Billy was no longer moving either, but crouched somewhere far below. So he decided to stalk him.

Because the game forced him to travel slowly he found the going easier. He dangled down a rock on his belly, finding suction by spreading his arms. He discovered a split in the cliff-face wide enough to fit into, its base jammed with small boulders forming a steep descending staircase.

Suddenly Walter saw water. And just as he was about to let fly with a warlike yell he noticed Billy sitting on a stone near the edge of the creek. Something odd was going on. His boots and trousers were in a pile beside him. His right hand was between his legs moving rapidly up and down. After a moment he leaned forward, moved his hand even more rapidly, slowed it and stopped, examined something in the water, and then glanced around to see if anyone was watching. Then he removed his shirt and lowered himself into the pool. He floated face down, lifting his head now and again to breathe, shaking it from side to side, spluttering like a dog. Walter dropped to the ground and crossed the intervening patch of tussocky grass without being seen. He sat on the rock and glanced at the point where Billy had been peering, but saw only the gritty curve of stone and the gently lapping water.

Billy gave a shout, his round head breaking from the water with slicked-down hair, his eyes, always oddly Chinese, now screwed tight against the glare and his wide-open mouth releasing a cry of alarm.

“How long have you been there?”

“Long enough.”

“How long?”

“I told you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Long enough to put a bullet between your eyes. If we'd had men with us yours would be dead.” Billy
waded unsteadily ashore. The stones at the edge of the pool clacked like billiard balls.

“I'd probably have you confessing by now.”

Billy hauled on his trousers: “Give it a rest.”

“I'd've taken you back to HQ as a prisoner,” insisted Walter. “You'd be shot as a spy.”

Billy sat in the grass lacing his boots. “I'm sick of all these games.”

“What were you doing on the rock?”

“When?”

“Before. I could see you doing something with your cock.” Walter had not meant to say anything, but if Billy was no longer playing, all right, he wouldn't play either, even if it meant fists.

“I was pulling my pud.”

“What's that?”

“You saw, so you ought to know. You play with yourself till something happens.” Now Billy was angry again, on his feet and shouting through the cracks and sudden bullfrog-descents of his voice. “But you wouldn't know,” he yelled. “You can't do nothing properly. I can do anything better than you.”

“You can't!” But it was true, though never something that had bothered him. “You can't!” Walter's voice rose screaming till it hurt.

Billy was now harsh and parental: “Damn you.”

Walter swooped and grabbed a stone, and Billy taunted him: “You couldn't if you tried,” he sneered, at the same time collecting a rock himself and feinting a sudden throwing action. This caused Walter to let his go, but it curved wide and missed. “Right-oh,” shouted Billy, “now get back, go on, get back!” He advanced with threatening jerks of his throwing arm, the stone in his fist as big as a cricket ball. “Get back or I'll
kill you!” Walter retreated to the edge of the water.

“Get in!”

“No.”

“Get in!” Billy's stone sparked on the rock six inches in front of his boots leaving a white streak of powder. He stumbled into the water and waded out.

Billy stood with a pile of stones at his feet and one by one hurled them into the pool.

“Stop it will you! Quit it up!”

When Walter was wet all over and crying and falling down and balancing himself on one hand while shielding his eyes with the other, Billy ran to a pine tree near an overhanging rock, clambered up its branches, and disappeared without a backward glance.

 

Walter was aware of light attempting to penetrate his tightly closed lids, and opened them to find Billy once again standing beside the bed.

“Mum said you'd like these.” He tipped half a dozen oranges from his pockets.

“I was dreaming.” Walter wondered if he had shouted and made a fool of himself.

“Don't get into a sweat.” Billy sat on the bed and peeled an orange. “They say you'll be home soon. Next week?” But before Walter could answer he changed tack: “I never dream interesting things. All I ever get when I'm asleep is the same thing over and over. If I've been ploughing it's the bloody horse and plough stuck up there in front of me. Same with sowing, clearing, going to town, the lot.” He glanced out the door and whispered: “There's only one thing I wish'd come up true to life,” and he winked, accompanying the batted
eye with a click of the tongue. An adult smell of beer and sweat emanated from him, full of the threat of the town, but also a mark of Billy's break from the mistrustful silence between them. They were no longer the same: that was good. His move in a rougher direction allowed space for Walter, and his visits and increasing talkativeness were as good as a handshake.

“I hear your Miss Davis's done a bunk.”

“Mine?” Walter laughed, and Billy smacked a hand on his knee. Edie Davis had walked out of the hospital the night before without saying a word to anyone.

“She's a pal of yours, ain't she?” Billy now sucked his fingers after finishing the orange, wiped them dry on a large handkerchief, took out pipe and tobacco. “I'll tell you something,” he lowered his voice, “I got the drum on her from Eric Waterhouse.”

“Make it quick,” said Walter, who feared that the bright and suspicious Edie Davis might step through the door.

“She was governess for the Keith Fryers out at Windy station, but that's only the start. Eric maintains the minute she set eyes on Fryer it was plain what would happen. First thing when she arrived, she had him in the Royal lapping up port wine like a puppy. Right off the train. His poor bloody wife didn't get a look-in. They were soon at it like a couple of mad things. They seemed to think the place was run by blind men. But it couldn't last. One night there'd been a lot of drinking and it ended with her hitting him around the face with a cane basket. If it had been me,” mused Billy, “I would have given her the boot early on.”

“What did Fryer do?”

“The same as any man. So she went off her cracker
and threw herself in the dam. You know the rest,” he nodded quickly as Nurse Armitage came in, tut-tutting over the unlit lamp. She told Billy to leave the ward at once. “I was just going,” he said, but sat there, knocking out his pipe. “Now?” asked the nurse as she made her final snaps and tucks of the bedcover. “I'm off,” said Billy, and stood, his slit eyes following her movements like a cat's, his smooth skin soapy like a fat child's in the lamplight.

 

Next morning the news came that Edie Davis's body had been found in an abandoned mine shaft at the back of the hospital hill.

When the matron arrived to take Walter's evening details he wriggled away. “I'm all right,” he snapped, hardly aware of his irritation.

When his mother came, urging a prayer, they argued.

“It was no accident,” said Walter.

“Where's the note? I saw myself how she looked better.”

“I know she meant to do it.”

“Those mines are a disgrace. Oh dear, if she suicided she won't be buried with the rest.”

“She shouldn't be,” said Walter with force, and this shocked his mother so much that he wondered himself at the asperity of his judgment. But was he mad at Miss Davis! She was the reason for his bad temper. What business did she have blinking out like that when she had the opportunity to go on? He knew, having surfaced from his fall, that there was something unforgivable about staying down there by choice.

BOOK: 1915
5.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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