Charlie smacked his lips together and tried to work some moisture back through his mouth. This part of the country was always dry. The yellow land gave way to a piteous blue sky and searing sun that burned just as hot at eight in the morning as at midday or six in the evening. He thrust his spade half-heartedly at the unyielding ground, sending the solid clunk of steel on stone out into the endless drone of cicadas. He looked down into the hole, now about half as deep as it needed to be and roughly rectangular, and decided he deserved a break.
Under a gum tree nearby lay a hessian bag filled with his modest collection of belongings: a battered pack of rolling tobacco, torn and folded photographs of June and the kids back in Brisbane, his swag, and a flask full of water. He twisted the top off the flask and drank, hardly noticing that the water was warmer than bathwater and carried the heavy tang of plastic; to Charlie, at that moment, it tasted as good as his nightly schooner at the Rosevale Hotel. Well, almost. Charlie held the water in his mouth as long as he could, soaking up the dust, then let it slide down his throat. The flask was the only thing the Army had given him that he’d bothered keeping.
When people found out about Charlie they told him he was a coward, or a hero, but he couldn’t see it either way. He was a pragmatist, that was all. He didn’t see how him getting killed in Vietnam would help him or his family. Cowardice? It would have been easier to go to Vietnam than to stay here, living each day with the fear of discovery. Or even worse, the adulation of the peaceniks, who always wanted to take him in, fuel him up on brown rice and acid. Charlie couldn’t stand it. So he was on his own. He couldn’t go home to his wife and kids, so in a way this was his tour of duty.
Charlie screwed the lid back on and put the flask away, then leant back against the tree and looked out over the cemetery. When he’d hitched into town two weeks before he’d headed straight for the pub, partly to settle road dust clinging to the roof of his mouth but mostly to ask about work. There was lots going, what with the war and everything, but Charlie decided to give grave digging a try. The cemetery was somewhere he could keep his head down, and it was a job he could reasonably be expected to do, given the imaginary shrapnel buried deep in his upper thigh. Fred Burroughs, the head gravedigger, was glad of the help – women had taken up a lot of the slack since conscription started, but Burroughs wasn’t keen to take a female on.
“It’s not women’s work,” he’d told Charlie, eyes scanning the form guide as his beer slowly warmed on the bar.
An outdated concept for the time, but the old man felt his views were entitled to be out of date.
“Me ticker’s out of date, me bladder’s out of date – don’t see why I should have to adopt new-fangled ideas just ‘cause a few girls are burnin’ their brassieres.”
Charlie stared at the partially completed grave, ruing his luck. One of the first things Burroughs had taught him was that a grave was never just a hole in the ground. You should find out as much as you could about the person who’s going to be lying in it, without being a stickybeak, and when you’re digging you should ruminate on that individual and what they meant to the community. So Charlie had made a couple of discrete inquiries, and had found that Jack McGuire was a 19-year-old conscript who’d got his legs blown off on patrol in Vung Tau. What were the odds?
A crow, feathers shining deep purple in the sunlight, flapped down beside a gravestone and picked at something on the ground. Charlie let his hand slide off his lap and crawl across the spindly, dry grass, searching for a stone. He hated crows, with their mournful cries and bottomless bellies. Just as happy feasting on newly planted wheat as the corpses of cattle claimed by drought. It occurred to Charlie that they were pragmatists, just like him. Another reason to hate them.
Charlie felt a stone smooth and firm against his palm, warm like a freshly laid egg. He judged the distance. The crow tensed, as if anticipating the attack, fixing Charlie with one beady eye. He let rip, swinging his arm up, propelling the stone through the stillness, tearing apart the illusion of a world where time has frozen. The crow flapped madly, trying to generate enough lift for escape. Then there was a hollow THOK! as the stone connected with the bird’s chest. The crow fell back to earth, stumbled, then regained its footing, flying off into the safety of the blue gums, cawing at the indignity of it all.
“Good shot,” a voice said.
Charlie turned, startled. The man was standing in what passed for the shadows amongst the trees. He stepped closer and Charlie could see he was old. Grey wispy hair poked out from underneath a battered Akubra. A face worn down by hard yakka and burnished by the sun. He was wearing dusty denim and a worn check shirt so, in that respect at least, he was no different to any other man in town. But Charlie sensed there was something unusual about him; it hung around him like the auras the hippies were always on about.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” he said.
Charlie climbed to his feet. “No worries,” he said. “Charlie Bennett.” He offered his hand.
“Jack McGuire,” the old man said. His grip was ironclad and dry. “You’re buryin’ my boy t’morrah.”
And there it was. The aura was death, and grief.
Charlie nodded. “That’s right.”
He looked over at the grave, suddenly ashamed he’d taken a break. In the shed on the far side of the cemetery, near the paint-shy wooden church, there was a simple white cross with ‘John McGuire’ neatly printed on it. Next to it, still in its plastic bag, an Australian flag donated by the local MP, to drape over the plain pine box. The white cross was partly because of military tradition, and partly because it was cheap. The drought and the crows had wiped out the McGuire’s crop. John’s death was the final straw. Mr McGuire and his wife were selling up and moving to Brisbane.
Mr McGuire stared awkwardly out into the graveyard, pretending not to see his boy’s grave. Charlie resisted the urge to apologise. It was a common thing to do when someone told you they’d lost a loved one, but Charlie didn’t agree with it. If anyone should apologise, it was the bastards down in Canberra. The ones at Parliament House yelling ‘All the way with LBJ’. He thought about that day in Brisbane, reading about the draw. A big round drum full of balls, each one with a date printed on it. Like the lottery, except in this draw all you won was the chance to die for the glory of the United States of America.
“I missed Johnny’s passing out parade, at Puckapunyal,” Mr McGuire said, then cocked his head back over his shoulder in the rough direction of his property. “Because of that bloody farm.” He waved a fly away from his mouth, then shook his head. “You don’t forgive y’self for somethin’ like that.”
Charlie nodded. The silence stretched out like warm syrup and Charlie felt guilt gnawing away at his gut. Not because he was alive while John was lying in the town morgue with most of his lower body missing, but because no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t bring himself to wish himself, or any other young man, to Vietnam in place of Mr McGuire’s son. If there were Communist hordes waiting to sweep through south-east Asia then let them come; we’ll fight them when they get here, if we have cause to, but not a day before. Charlie had heard stories about what was going on over there – napalm, Agent Orange, B-52s turning lush farmland into fiery hell. He’d seen pictures of a Vietnamese girl running down the street, invisible flames melting her skin. So he couldn’t bring himself to offer any condolences, because they would be hollow. Instead, he dug out his tobacco pouch and started rolling two thin cigarettes.
“Smoke?” he said.
They lit up, the small clouds of grey hanging in the dead air like smoke signals.
“They reckon it’s gonna rain t’morrah,” Mr McGuire said.
Charlie tried on a grim smile. Weather talk. Life’s white noise. “They’ve been sayin’ that for the past month.”
Silence again. Crows cawed in the trees above. The two men finished their smokes, carefully stubbing the butts out on a tree trunk before grinding them into the dust with their boots. It was a thing city folk didn’t understand, but anyone who’d grown up in the country or lived there long enough had an ingrained fear and respect of fire. Charlie thought again of liquid fire raining down from the sky.
“The thing is,” Mr McGuire said, then paused. “The thing is this. Johnny never sent us a letter. The poor bastard was only away a couple a’ months – most of that was trainin’ up north. Stood on a mine the second week over there. He always was a clumsy bastard. And you know what? Here’s the funny bit…”
Charlie looked up and saw the old man’s eyes watering up – the surreptitious way proud men cry – and knew there was no funny bit.
“…he stood on a bloody Yank mine! They reckon if he’d stood on a Commie mine, he probably would’ve survived.
“Anyway, the lazy bugger couldn’t be bothered writing so we don’t know what it was like out there. We want to know what his last couple a’ weeks would’ve been like. Just to settle our minds. The newspapers don’t say much, but I thought, seein’ as you’ve been there… y’know? What was the tucker like? What did you do on patrols?”
Since that night when he ran off during an Army training exercise at Shoal Water, Charlie had spent many hours rehearsing his lines. What to say when people asked why he wasn’t fighting. What to tell the police if they picked him up. Anti-war arguments for those who abused him. When he found out John McGuire had arrived home from Vietnam for a hometown burial, Charlie felt prepared. He knew exactly what he was going to say. He figured he could bluff his way through a conversation about the war, if it came to that. But when it happened, Charlie just stood there, staring into the old man’s eyes, then shrugged.
Mr McGuire opened his mouth, then closed it again. The air seemed thicker, hotter. The old man took his hat off and peered inside, as if hoping to find an answer there, then slipped it back on his head.
“Oh, I see,” he said.
Mr McGuire coughed into his hand then turned and disappeared back into the shadows. Charlie got up, grabbed the spade, and returned to the grave. He didn’t think about John McGuire, or his dad with the sad eyes and strong handshake. He thought about June, back in Brisbane, putting up with the indignant stares of nosy neighbours, surviving on the pittance he could afford to send her. And he thought about the kids – Sarah and Michael – too young to understand why old men sent the young off to die. Too young to comprehend the full horror of the naked girl running down the road in Vietnam, just knowing that she was sad and that was enough. Too young to understand why their dad wouldn’t fight.
Charlie dug the grave six feet deep with neat edges – Burroughs would’ve been proud of him – then fetched some fake turf to cover the pile of earth. It seemed strange to him, that people could find the sight of bare earth offensive, and then commit a loved one to it for eternity. He rolled it out, pausing once to wipe the sweat off his forehead, as the final rays of sunlight disappeared from the sky.
Charlie walked east that night, heading home. Behind him storm clouds gathered, and thunder rolled across the sky.
“Maybe it’ll rain after all,” he whispered.
The Australian Literature Review