Man on a Wharf

Man on a Wharf – Story 3

The Drums

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.

“Help!”

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.

 

Author’s Note:

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.

Happy reading!

 

Works Cited:

Wikipedia, 2014. Bombing of Darwin. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Darwin
[Accessed 6 April 2014].

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Man on a Wharf

Man on a Wharf – Story 1

Something in the Air

by Chalky MacLaan

Barnaby Jenkins moved his backside to try and find a more comfortable position, but that only made it worse. It felt like there was a whole brass band marching around his insides.

“Mr Jenkins, do you mind ceasing your acrobatics,” barked Miss Fondley.

Miss Fondley reminded Barnaby of a koala. They’re not actually cute and cuddly; rather, they are pudgy, emit a strange grunting sound and have a nasty temper.

Barnaby’s stomach started to rumble. The sound vibrated through the silent classroom like a small swarm of bees. While everyone’s heads remained down, feigning concentration, twenty seven pairs of eyes rotated in Barnaby’s direction.

A small snigger erupted from behind him. He stole a quick glance and, face reddening, saw Sonya Henley laughing.

Sonya Henley was, quite simply, the most exquisite, splendid, stunning, appealing, dazzling and downright hot creature Barnaby had ever laid eyes on. In her amber eyes flickered a flame so bright it melted Barnaby to the core every time she shoved him out of her way. Her copper coloured hair always fell in cascades down her back as she sashayed away from him with his lunch money.

The giggle spread gradually around the back of the room like some sort of epidemic, and as it did so, Barnaby’s embarrassment turned to anger.

Miss Fondley growled and the giggling ceased.

Why did everyone have to be so mean? Another pang in his gut made him forget his anger. If felt like someone had just switched on an industrial strength mixer down there.

He tried to read the questions in his text book, but nothing could distract him from his stomach’s gurgling.

From somewhere behind him, one of the boys made a squelching sound. Trying to ignore it, Barnaby silently wished that school would finish early so he could be alone with his stomach full of noxious gas.

The mocking squelch resumed. Barnaby had had enough. He turned around sharply and…

The sound was incredible. It started with a small whizzing whine like a mosquito with ADHD and gradually built into a sound like a thousand croaking frogs flying helicopters. It then settled momentarily into a throaty roar and… poof… it was gone.

The room was silent. No one moved. Barnaby held his breath.

Then, Miss Fondley picked up her newspaper, folded it, stuffed it into her little brown bag and marched out the door, grunting, “Class dismissed!”

Without so much as a look in Barnaby’s direction, everyone else followed closely behind, leaving him alone in the room.

Barnaby looked around, not quite believing what had just happened. He sniffed the thick air, a look of disgust only vaguely masking one of pride at the musty funk hanging in the air.

Barnaby sat in his seat staring numbly towards the window. “I got my wish,” he thought.

When, after ten minutes the class hadn’t returned, Barnaby decided to leave too. He started towards the door and suddenly stopped short. “What if…” The idea was too bizarre to consider.

*     *     *

Barnaby sidled up to the crowded bus stop. Not wanting to be too conspicuous, he put his headphones in, turned around and let himself become lost in the beat of his music.

Thump!

Barnaby snapped quickly from his trance as something slammed into his head.

Thump!

He spun around to see another rock come flying. Barnaby dodged and it grazed his cheek. Tony, a tall, red-faced boy with ears like shrivelled lemon quarters and mean eyes snickered from the other side of the bus shelter, fresh dust falling from his palms in little billows.

His head smarting, cheeks blushing and heart pumping, Barnaby did his best to remain calm as he hailed the approaching bus. He climbed aboard, hunting for his ticket.

The doors hissed shut. Barnaby’s stomach lurched as the bus pulled out quickly into traffic. He felt that old tingle deep within. He struggled to  hold back tears.

“Oi, mate,” whined the bus driver, his eyes swinging dangerously away from the road, “show us yer ticket.”

The ticket was gone. “I just wish that something good would happen for a change,” thought Barnaby.

The driver’s eyes shot back to the front as he slammed on the brake. The bus swerved sharply and… urr-tuurr-puurble-urble-weeeeiiiit! Barnaby’s gas escaped in a squeaky stream as he flew sideways against the door like a deflating balloon.

“Hey… Darn’t worry about the ticket, mate,” cawed the driver, looking remarkably calm considering he had almost sent thirty-four unwitting people to their premature deaths, “the roide’s free. Youse have a good day, eh!”

“Thanks,” murmured Barnaby as looked up the aisle to see every seat occupied.

A rotund lady in a red blouse reached out with her wet satiny hands and grabbed Barnaby.

“You can have my seat, love,” she slobbered as she manoeuvred her mass out of the seat. Barnaby tried to refuse, but she moved quickly past him.

The man next to her also sprang up. “Have the whole seat. You’ve had a hard day; I can see,” he reassured as he disappeared into the back of the crowded bus.

Barnaby sat down, flabbergasted. It was as if his wish had come true: Good things had happened to him. He then remembered the wish he made in class that had also come true. Did he have a magic genie-god-mother? Was he magic? Was it all a coincidence? He decided to experiment.

He wished for a drink.

Nothing happened.

This time he wished that the balding man across the aisle would shout out a random phrase in German.

Still, nothing happened.

Another intestinal groan interrupted his thoughts. “That’s it!” he thought as he started lifting the left side of his derriere ever so slightly off the seat. An apprehensive strain flashed across Barnaby’s face as he silently let go.

It dispersed quickly, wafting down the aisle. Barnaby wished whimsically with all his might.

He wished for a fish,
He wished for a dish,
He wished for a tune
and a shiny spoon and…

Immediately, his fellow passengers presented him with a tin of tuna, a plastic bowl, a spoon and a rousing rendition of ‘Somewhere Beyond the Sea’ in four part harmony.

Barnaby’s face froze. Thoughts whizzed into his mind like metal filings to a magnet as he thought of all of the things he could do. He’d never have to eat dried apricots again. He wouldn’t ever have to pick up dog poop off the lawn. He would be able to teach Tony and the rest of the boys in his class a thing or two. And Sonya, well…

Barnaby pressed the ‘stop’ button, jumped out and charged home to consume every tin of baked beans in the house.

*     *     *

It wasn’t the video about seasickness at the maritime museum that had made Barnaby feel ill. Nor was it the hot, summer sun or the colossal volume of baked beans that he had consumed the night before. He was nervous.

He looked ahead along the old cobbled street and caught a glimpse of Sonya sidestepping a bollard with a grace reserved only for angels. Barnaby’s heart beat faster as he jogged to catch up with the rest of the class.

They turned a corner and there it was: the lighthouse; perched on the edge of a river wharf, its bright red paint and spider web of supporting struts captivating in the bright sunlight.

“Jenkins! Hurry up!” snorted Miss Fondley. Everyone turned and stared as he caught up.

“Just two up at a time. Jenkins, you’re first. Who’s going with him?” The birds stopped their twittering and the wind its whistling, it was so quiet. However, for once in his life, this did not bother Barnaby one bit. With a quiet wish and an almost inaudible hiss, Barnaby walked forward.

“I will!” said a voice that sounded like the swish of velvet mixed with the tinkle of wind chimes. Barnaby kept walking as Sonya glided into the lighthouse behind him.

As they ascended the spiralling stairs, the air was a little bit heavier that it might usually have been.

“I like your shirt!” said Sonya, trying to squeeze beside Barnaby on the narrow stair.

“It’s just my school uniform. I wear it every day,” Barnaby replied, a self-satisfied smirk crossing his face.

“I think you have lovely hair. Can I please sit next to you on the way home? You are so smart!” Compliments spilled out of Sonya’s mouth like a waterfall, making him buoyant with confidence.

Arriving at the top, Barnaby stepped gingerly onto the balcony, gripping the guard rail for support and trying not to look down. Sonya joined him, her eyes on Barnaby’s.

Then, he felt it. It happened rapidly this time, his lower body expanding with gas until the point at which he thought he must’ve looked to Sonya like a bloated pear. Those beans were doing their job exceedingly well. He stood on his toes, squeezing tight, trying to hold it in as he made his wish. “I wish she’d kiss me.”

Squinting one eye, he slowly lowered his feet. As he did so, the most amazing, spine-tingling, hair-raising noise came forth from deep within Barnaby. It sang and echoed like whale song. The lighthouse creaked with nostalgia as a deep foghorn element entered the cacophony. And then, it ceased, the last remnants of sound being carried off across the wharf by the breeze.

Sonya moved close to Barnaby. The flame in her eyes burned bright as she moved in for the kiss. Barnaby leaned towards her, not quite knowing what to do. As their lips met, Barnaby was surprised at how wet they felt against his own flaky lips.

They stood there in that manner for what seemed like an eternity, noses squashed into each other’s cheeks, lips locked, when Barnaby noticed Miss Fondley staring at the back of Sonya’s head, her marsupial face twisted with murderous intent.

Miss Fondley pushed Sonya aside and grabbed Barnaby around the back of the neck. Barnaby braced himself and squeezed his eyes shut as Miss Fondley planted a kiss firmly on his mouth. Barnaby twisted out from her grip and started to run around the landing, trying to find a way out.

“Come here, beautiful,” croaked Miss Fondley.

Then, Barnaby noticed a tremor. He looked over the side of the platform and his face froze in horror. Streaming from every direction, women of all shapes and sizes were headed towards the lighthouse. They looked like an army charging a besieged castle, except on their faces was a look of expectant urgency. Barnaby saw one elderly woman, her spectacles crooked and hair wild, jump on a teenage girl and tackle her to the ground.

Suddenly, onto the balcony burst a wave of women, clawing and fighting their way towards Barnaby. He ran, trying to find an escape, when, in front of him, another group emerged. He was surrounded.

The women advanced, their lips pursed, their hands outstretched, grabbing, trying to touch him. He was grabbed by both groups and dragged to the floor.

“No!” he cried out, fighting to free himself. But he was pinned down, fifty jets of warm panting breath making him gag.

He made one desperate movement and managed to flip himself over. In this position, he was able to raise himself slightly and commando crawl out from under the pile of grasping bodies. He hauled himself onto the small ledge above. He fell back, out of sight, panting.

He tried to make a wish, but he was all out of gas.

It was what felt like an hour, but was really only sixty seconds, before he felt the old rumbles in his tum.

Barnaby made his wish, lowered his pants, and hanging his backside out over the railing for maximum effect, he let fly.

Author’s Note:

As you may have gathered, the genre of this piece is tween boy fiction. I realise that it may not be a genre that you have read in a while and that it doesn’t really appeal to the sense of humour of most sophisticated readers. If you have got this far and are still reading, thank you for suspending your disbelief and temporarily becoming a young person. Given that so many young boys don’t want to read (I know – I teach them), I feel that it is important that stories are written in this genre.

I was very excited when I came up with the idea of a boy who could control others with his farts. I felt this would appeal to the target audience and is the kind of premise a tween writer like Andy Griffiths or Paul Jennings might use.

It is a great premise and posed many questions, the most interesting of which, for me, was: ‘If a tween boy was given the power to control others, what would he use it for?’ I decided that he probably wouldn’t use it for world domination or creating a slave race, but rather to solve his immediate tweenage problems: getting out of boring chores, getting revenge on bullies and getting the love of his life to notice him.

I was also inspired by Roald Dahl to include a sense of comic poetic justice in the story. Barnaby doesn’t get away with abusing his power over others, ending up even more isolated than he was before. As they say: ‘With great fart comes great responsibility’.

This idea is one that could be extended and developed extensively, opening up the possibility of a series of novels if people enjoyed this story. What other adventures could Barnaby have? Does he learn to use his powers for good? Do the other members of his family have the power too? What about his evil twin sister, what would she do with the power?

I found the process of writing this story satisfying, but I found the process of editing my own work (one which I have not had much experience before) extremely exciting. When I had finished writing, the story had 2760 words. Through six drafts, I managed to cut this down to 1976 words and the story is so much the better for it. Having a clear idea of audience and purpose made it reasonably easy to cut the story down. Anything unessential to the plot, convoluted and flowery language and many adverbs were removed to make the language more succinct.

I hope you enjoyed my first piece. Now to start the whole process again.

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Other Posts

Welcome to Chalky’s Blackboard

I have wanted to start writing seriously for a while now; however, my old enemies – laziness and procrastination – have been all too willing to hamper my efforts.

So, instead of wasting my free time on pseudo creative but ultimately unsatisfying city-building computer games and other time wasting activities, I am going to attempt to write at least one piece of writing a week.

At my school, we have a new guy in charge of ‘student development’ (read behaviour management). He started off his tenure with an encouragement to the often lackadaisical student body to pursue self-discipline as it is both a biblical idea (I work in a Christian school) and one of the proven factors in being successful in one’s pursuits.

This got me thinking about my own failings in the area of self-discipline. Without some sort of external check, I very rarely get unessential but creatively satisfying things completed. My wife, who is a blogger herself, suggested that to give me some sort of accountability, I should aim to post my practice prose to a blog weekly (and perhaps [but hopefully not too] weakly).

So, here goes…

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