by Chalky MacLaan
Pushing through one last dense wall of foliage, Harold reached the edge of the cliff. The escarpment fell away before him, its grey face covered in mildew and moss. He found a comfortable spot in the shade of a frangipani tree and sat.
Taking a long swig of brandy from a battered hip flask, he looked out at the harbour below. He tried to count the ships, but as usual, he lost count after thirty.
Harold sighed and leant against a tree. It was hot. The air was heavy with moisture and walking felt like swimming.
Wiping his brow with a hanky, he thought of home: dry old Adelaide. It was only two months ago that he’d said goodbye to his wife and boy to head north, but it felt like years.
Ever since the war had started, Harold had been desperate to join the army. His was a ‘necessary job’; “Keeping the lines of communication open,” was what the admissions officer kept repeating on his daily visits. When his old boss had told him about the position up in Darwin, he took it on the spot. That way he could be closer to the action, where his countrymen were fighting the Japs like heroes.
Peering out over the precipice, Harold could just see a group of soldiers heading towards the wharf on the road below. He shut his eyes as he felt the mute drumming of guilt in his chest.
Heroes! Harold was definitely no hero. He had been running from things all his life. Twenty-eight years ago he’d run. He’d hid. When he had been needed, he’d hid behind a thin veneer of an excuse: principles, pacifism; pathetic! He’d just been scared. Since then, the tickle of the coward’s white feather had been there to colour every element of his life.
Harold had been sneaking away from the office every morning since the new telegraph supervisor had arrived. He was supposed to be available during the day to fix the equipment if it failed but the new bloke liked to do his own repairs. Periodically, Harold would go back and check in, but he was never needed. Some of the day he spent chatting with the girls but he got the impression that he was getting in the way.
With the sound of bees buzzing in the flowers nearby, Harold looked at his watch. It was almost ten o’clock: time to go and reconfirm his obsolescence back at the office. As he sat up, he snorted out a laugh. He really had thought that coming to Darwin would make him feel better, justified, something. Instead, the uniforms that surrounded him made him ache with rheumatism of the heart. Hell, even his new boss was a veteran.
The bees buzzed louder. Perhaps he had disturbed a hive.
Getting to his feet, Harold looked around to see if he could spot the source of the ever increasing sound. It was coming from the north, beyond the city. The buzz grew to a deep rhythmic thrum and then to a roar that echoed like a thousand thunder cracks.
Harold fell to his backside as a small aeroplane appeared from nowhere and whooshed by, close, overhead. He put his hands up and shielded his eyes as two more planes flew past. They were military aircraft.
The sky filled with planes which fanned off from the main group in all directions. Harold lay back, frozen in wonder, watching.
Then, he heard the drums – Boom! Boom! Boom! – A never ending syncopated rhythm that turned Harold cold and would forevermore fill him with terror every time he heard his own heartbeat.
Sitting up and looking out at the harbour, Harold’s face went pale. Several ships were burning: warships, fishing boats, even one clearly marked with a large red cross. People were running from the wharf, a great wave of bodies spilling out from the rising smoke, when, out of nowhere, a plane dived and the crowd exploded.
Turning away, Harold was sick in the bushes. He stayed bent over for a minute, trying to control his breathing.
A whistling sound woke him from his trance just before he was thrown forward into the foliage. With the cliff face crumbling behind him, Harold ran. He ran through the trees and then ran through the open. “I must get to the shelter,” he repeated to himself as he flew past government house.
Running onto Mitchell Street, he heard cries coming from a burning building to his right, but he kept running.
He could see the post office and the entrance to the air raid shelter. His chest constricted at the thought of safety and he ran even faster. Was that one of the girls waving at him from the door?
Without warning, the road rippled like some great being was shaking the wrinkles out of it and then it melted away. Brightness and heat hurled itself against him and he was thrown, tumbling backwards into a wall. Crying out, Harold rubbed his eyes, trying to clear them. All he could see was red.
Sirens and people wailed; planes and flames roared; and soldiers and bombs shrieked all around him as Harold scrambled to his feet and felt his way along a wall, taking shelter from the heat in an alleyway.
Panting, Harold brought out his hip flask. He drank every last drop and sank to his knees, tears streaming down his filthy face. The image of the girl waving at him, only a minute before, repeated in his mind. Opening his eyes, he squinted at the wall. Objects wavered in and out of focus as his vision started to return.
Maybe the shelter had survived? Maybe the others were safe? Pulling himself up and leaning against the corner, Harold peered out at the post office. Through the dancing flames and the clearing dust he could see nothing but ruins. It was gone; the office, the shelter: all gone. Ghostly remnants of brick walls framed a scene of utter destruction. A small tear meandered down his sooty cheek.
His leg throbbing, he crawled back into the shelter of the alley and hid. Men cried out, screaming, imploring, begging for help. The alleyway amplified and distorted their howls in a great cacophony of torment. His body shuddering, Harold put his arms over his head and blocked his ears with his shoulders. He sank forward, his head hitting against the wall. There he stayed until the silence.
It was done. The plague that had filled the skies was going. The small strip of sunlight in the alley blinked as the last plane passed over.
He had to get out of here. Harold raised himself, his face twisting in pain as he put weight on his injured leg. He limped out of the alleyway, gathering determination with each step.
As he reached the road, he broke into a lopsided jog, pain shooting up his side. Dodging wreckage and debris, Harold headed North-West along Mitchell Street, towards the edge of the city. He kept his head down and tried to keep his pace up, praying that his leg would hold.
Spilling out of doorways on either side of the road, people threw their belongings into cars and onto trucks, shouting to one another. Others joined the growing crowd on foot in their exodus from the city centre, pushing into the flow.
Ahead, near the edge of town, a bombed building had spilled its walls into the street, narrowing the access. Trucks and pedestrians were all crowding to get past.
Harold pushed forward, bumping against a tall man. The man turned, his wrinkled face twisted in anger.
“Watch it mate!” he growled. Harold stumbled sideways and slipped on some loose stones. He scrabbled, trying to stand up, but the crowds pushing past made it impossible to get his footing. He reached out for something solid and pulled himself up onto a piece of wall. Sighing with relief, he turned to watch the crowd shuffle past.
The cry was only faint. Where was it coming from?
Harold looked around. He heard it again. It was coming from the ruins.
Looking between the road and the building, Harold was torn. He wanted to get away, but with his leg, he realised he was not going to be able to get past the crowd and rubble for some time. With a sigh, Harold crawled over the piles of bricks and carefully lowered himself into the room.
“Hello?” he called into the darkness.
His call was answered by a moan. Moving further into the darkness, his eyes started to adjust, the light from the hole in the wall creating a ghostly twilight. He thought he could make out a bar and stools surrounded by a rippling sea of broken glass.
Ahead of him, in the middle of the floor, Harold could just make out a shape. As he approached, the shape started to take form. His chest constricted as he saw the lifeless, grey face of a man, blood seeping through his apron. Harold swallowed.
He could hear heavy breathing now. It was coming from the other side of the bar, under the collapsed section of roof.
“Are you alright?” he croaked, his mouth dry in the swirling dust.
“I’m stuck!” came the reply; the voice sounded foreign.
Moving as quickly as he could, Harold approached the source of the voice. He crouched down and peered into the tangle of iron and wood.
There he was. He was young and dressed in civilian clothes, but his haircut marked him as a soldier.
“Thank God!” he groaned, with an American twang. “Get me out of here!” His eyes were enormous in his pale, frightened face.
Harold squeezed into the confined space and moved next to the man. The American’s left arm and leg were pinned down under a ceiling beam.
Getting a firm grip, Harold braced to lift the beam. A sharp pain from his leg made him pause and then, his face pulled tight, he strained with all his strength and lifted the beam a fraction. The American rolled over and pulled his trapped limbs free. The way the man’s arm moved as he rolled, Harold could tell that it was broken, but the rest of him looked fine.
“Thanks!” said the American, his face twitching. He slid and crawled his way out of the pile toward the hole in the wall.
Anxious to get out as well, Harold started after him. He stopped suddenly as a bolt of pain shot up his leg, temporarily paralysing him. Breathing deeply, trying to rid himself of the pain, Harold tried to move again.
Creak! The pile of rubble above him groaned in expectation.
His heart racing now, Harold lurched backwards, bumping a beam with his elbow.
The pile shuddered and with little more than a scraping sound, fell inward. Harold shut his eyes as he felt the weight pushing down on his body.
Realising that his head was still free, he screamed, hoping the American could hear him. But his cries settled like dust to the floor of the empty pub, unheard and unheeded, as the drumming returned.
This week’s story makes quite a departure from the style and subject matter of the previous weeks’ work. I wanted to write a piece of historical fiction with a complex central character. This, I found quite a challenging task and until Mrs MacLaan read it, I wasn’t even sure it was good enough to publish online. She assured me that it was and I hope you’ll agree.
This story is actually the prologue to a novel that I would like to write one day. It would be mainly set in South Australia during the Second World War and would focus primarily on Harold’s wife and son. Ever since I came up with the idea for the story in the mid-2000s, I have wanted to start the story with the bombing of Darwin.
The events of 19th February 1942 are very important to Australia and its history as it was the “first and the largest single attack mounted by a foreign power on Australia” (Wikipedia, 2014). The bombing was melodramatically portrayed in Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 blockbuster Australia. However, as spectacular as the special effects were, I felt disappointed by the depiction; not least because I planned to show it much more accurately it in my story. For this reason, over the last few years, I have been doing quite a bit of research.
We visited Darwin two years ago and I had the opportunity to tour important sites and visit museums dedicated to the bombings. One photo I had taken at the military museum of a map of the bombing sites was particularly useful to me. During our visit, I was quite taken with the cliffs overlooking the harbour. I had never imagined Darwin to have such striking geography, considering the surrounding countryside is almost entirely flat. When I needed a spectacular location from which my protagonist could witness the destruction, it was foremost in my mind. I hope you will forgive me for keeping my character back from the actual wharf!
I hope my portrayal was as accurate as it could be. I apologise if I have made any mistakes. I particularly want to acknowledge the real postal and telegraph workers who died that day. Many of their relatives are still alive and I have tried to be respectful in my references to them.
I want to thank those who follow this blog and go out of their way each week to read my posts. Hopefully, you are enjoying travelling with me on my writing journey.
Wikipedia, 2014. Bombing of Darwin. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Darwin
[Accessed 6 April 2014].