Janine wants me to write it all down. She still doesn’t believe me, despite everything I’ve been through and everything I’ve put her through. She wants me to write it down so then I’ll realise how crazy it sounds. The boat took me back. Right back to New Guinea in 1943. It wasn’t time travel exactly, but it has to be close.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For most of the year I pilot a tourist vessel out on the Great Barrier Reef. I started as a deckhand when I was in my twenties, and I’ve been a Captain now for nearly forty years. This side of Cairns there isn’t any work outside of farming and the ocean, and I never had much time for watching things grow. The ship I run is called ‘Sea Spirit’, an old girl now but still steady. She makes the journey to Agincourt Reef and back without too much trouble. When the Spirit is in dry dock during the wet season I buy up old boats, restore them and sell them on again. It keeps me busy.
The ad in the classifieds didn’t say a lot. It was put out by the trustee and only referred to an ‘old craft’ that needed work. Perfect for the ‘right collector’. When I rang the number, I was put through to an office in Brisbane. The woman didn’t know much, only that the boat had been in storage for years, she didn’t know how long. The man who owned it had died in his nineties, and she’d taken over the client from the trustee before. We arranged a meeting for the next afternoon and I agreed to meet her at the marina.
I’m mainly interested in military vessels, or more specifically vintage military vessels. Vietnam era are the most common, although I have come across a few from Korea and the Second World War. Mostly they’re from the merchant Navy though, barely used and kept on the mainland.
The trustee was a women named Barbara. She was tall with short red hair and dressed in a full grey suit despite the heat. She had bright red lipstick and blush on her cheekbones that made them look even higher than they were. If I’m honest, she intimidated me. We met at the old part of Marlin Marina. The Sea Spirit was around the corner on the A Finger, almost a whole kilometre away. This part of the marina was kept well away from the tourists and it showed. The warehouses were old and peeling paint, the bitumen cracked and potholed all over.
Barbara towered over me and smiled with her mouth closed.
‘John,’ I replied.
‘Thanks for coming, John. It’s in this one over here.’
She pointed to one of the more decrepit buildings, farther from the water than the others. It was once painted green, but all the colour had faded. The roof was made of corrugated iron and the temperature inside was at least ten degrees hotter than outside, which was already stinking.
As soon as I saw it I felt my heart miss a beat. Its full name was Landing Craft Personnel Carrier (Ramp) or LCPR for short, a landing barge used by the Australian and American armies in the Second World War. I had to take a deep breath to stop my reaction from showing, but Barbara must have noticed as she was looking at me kind of hungrily.
‘Do you like it?’
It was more than ‘like.’ This was the kind of boat I’d been looking for my whole life.
‘I, ah, I’m not sure. It’s in a pretty bad way.’ I made my voice sound uncertain even as I poured over the beauty of the thing. It was constructed entirely of wood. The double plank bottom was heavier and darker than the plywood inner and the pine outer layers. Although the sides looked solid enough, the timber wouldn’t stop a bullet and it was little wonder these models were later replaced with an armoured version, made famous by the beach landings at Normandy.
The front of the vessel had a drop ramp, adapted from a Japanese design. Two benches ran along the inside with a raised steering platform at the back. A circular gun pit sat empty to the front and side of the steering wheel. The fact that this was one of the original wooden versions made it all the more special. I could tell from the sheen of the wood that it had been treated fairly recently and I was glad of it. Seventy-year-old timber had a way of warping and cracking, especially in this heat.
‘I’ll need to take a good look at it,’ I made myself say.
‘Take all the time you need. I’ll be over the other side in the café. Meet me there when you’re ready.’
I nodded and waited until she left before I walked over to it. It was raised on a long trailer and I had to reach up to run my hand along its side. The wood was warm to the touch and I was surprised by the static shock that buzzed up my arm. Must have been the trailer.
I studied it closely, walking around it a few times so I could take it all in. I moved around to the engine bay and unhinged it. Most of the engine parts were rusty but they were definitely all there; an original Grey Marine 225 HP diesel engine. The wiring was old but didn’t look in too bad a state, and I made myself trace the lines down to the various parts, checking the joints as I went. As far as I could tell, the engine machinery was all original and I bit back my excitement as I checked it over again.
The people down at Movie World would be all over it. If I could get it working, which I knew I could, I’d make a good chunk of change out of this. I climbed up on the trailer and checked the interior. The bench seats were smooth and well-oiled and the empty gun pit was clean and dry.
Usually, the boat would have been independently assessed to check its authenticity. I’d done a few of those myself, but there was no way of knowing whether Barbara knew that. Or already had one done.
’Twelve thousand,’ she said after I sat down at her table. ‘We need a quick sale, as I’m sure you can appreciate, and the price is more than fair.’
‘I’ll give you ten.’
We shook hands, filled in the paper work and that was it.
I arranged a mate of mine, Barry, to meet me at the marina and the next morning we brought it around.
Janine was livid.
She had the curtains drawn back on the front window of the house. I looked at her quickly as I stepped out of Barry’s ute, standing there in her green Japanese bathrobe, cup of tea in her hands, her eyebrows all tight and arched. We unhinged the trailer and moved the boat onto the front lawn. It took up most of the grass but didn’t back into her roses that she fawned over a lot more than me.
‘What is this?’ she said as I pushed open the front door.
‘It’s WWII vintage, darl’, original condition.’
‘You don’t see boats like this very often. We’ll double our…’
‘How much?’ She slammed her cup down and a bit spilled onto the coffee table.
‘Ten grand! Jesus, John, when are you going to learn? The back patio’s not paid for and we’ve got the bathroom to do. I guess we can forget about Europe next year too.’
She’d been wanting to go to Europe for years. She’d subscribed to a travel website that sent her pictures from Europe and each one made her more insistent about it. Really though, she didn’t ask for much and as I walked through to the kitchen a soggy feeling of guilt begin to slosh around my ankles.
‘It’ll be right in the end. Doesn’t need that much work and the people down in Movie World will go nuts for it. We’ll double our money easy. Then we can actually afford those fancy hotels you want to stay at.’
She let her eyebrows drop and exhaled softly through her nose, her body kind of slumping down on itself. The guilt splashed up around my knees, quickly building into a decent swell and I talked to convince myself as much as her.
‘Look, darl’. It’s a LCPR. The Australian Army used it as their main landing craft after the Kokoda campaign. When they chased the Japs out of the jungle, they had to make amphibious assaults on the Huon peninsula up in New Guinea. The yanks were with them then. Those battles were every bit as important as those on the track, even though most people don’t know about them. This LCPR is a real piece of Australian history and to find one in this condition is as rare as hen’s teeth. The bloody war memorial might even want it. Once it’s restored.’
‘This is about your father.’
I looked at her for a moment and then shook my head before storming out the back. We were too old for arguments and I didn’t have the stomach for it. I sat on a deck chair on our gleaming new patio and waited for the anger to subside. It took me a while to realise she was probably right. My dad had joined the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in 1940 before I was born. The army records were pretty basic and I knew next to nothing about where he’d fought. Mum told me he’d been training when the Kokoda campaign was on, but he’d been deployed to somewhere in New Guinea soon after. He died over there and the service records didn’t give any kind of description, only the letters ‘KIA’ printed in red next to the ‘Status’ box. We never got his body back.
Mum had kept the letter the army sent her and when I was a boy, I used to read it all the time. It referred to the heroic sacrifice my father had made in the defence of Australia and went on to say that his contribution was instrumental in liberating New Guinea from the Empire of Japan.
When I was a teenager, I’d done some research and found an exact copy of dad’s letter, but with a different name on it. Seems they sent the same one. I suppose my interest in military boats did come partly from my father but it wasn’t as though I was looking for any kind of answer.
In the end it found me.
Eventually the tourist season came to a close, and I was even more relieved than usual when the rains came. Janine hates the wet season, says the air sweats, but to me it meant more time on land and the chance to get to work on the LCPR.
I rented a small shed not far from town. It cost too much really, but the owner agreed to rent it out for only the three months I had off and it was close to a boat ramp. When I finally got the LCPR into place on my first day off, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I toyed with the idea of restoring the paint work, just to see the thing a bit spruced up, but I knew it’d be pointless. I’d have a tonne of engine work to do and there was no point inhaling paint fumes until the end.
So I started on the engine. I wasn’t surprised when I heard nothing after pressing the ignition button, but I was surprised when I heard the thing crackle and splutter after I replaced the main battery. I tried it again after changing the oil and cleaning the fuel lines and the bloody thing nearly turned over! I felt like a giddy teenager. I spent the afternoon taking the engine apart and cleaning it all before laying the parts out on a tarpaulin and calling it a day.
I was up before dawn as usual and back there as the sun came up. Janine had packed me a paper-bag breakfast, God love her, and I looked over the array of parts as I finished an egg sandwich and slurped down the last drop of coffee in the thermos cup.
The day was overcast and muggy and already my singlet was sticking to my back. The shed had big windows facing the water, and I had them opened all the way up in the hope of catching a breeze. A giant cockatoo was balanced precariously on the edge of a branch, looking at me from across the road. It cawed and yelled as it clambered around and I couldn’t help but smile at the noisy bugger.
Looking at all the parts, laid out in a line, made me feel ten years younger and I set to it with a sense of purpose I hadn’t felt in years. By the time it was dark the engine was back together. I’d replaced all the minor connecting lines and cleaned everything within an inch of its life, but I didn’t press the ignition button that day. Things like this needed to be savoured.
‘You know the government’s changed the pension rules again,’ Janine said as we sat down to dinner that night. She’d cooked lamb chops and they were done to perfection as usual, served with her creamy mash that I could never get right. ‘We’ll be getting even less when you retire now.’
I nodded and wished she’d change the subject.
‘Jesus, John, would you say something? You might not care about anything besides your bloody boats but one of us has to think about the future.’
‘We’ve got super.’
‘Five years at most, and then what? We’ll have Buckley’s chance of surviving on the pension and it’s not like we can sell this place and make money.’
I spooned a load of mash into my mouth, looking up to see her glaring at me. Despite myself I got angry.
‘What do you want me to do about it, darl’? I’ve got another year or two on the Spirit and all we can do is put away what we can and deal with the rest then.’
She made a spitting sound, blowing the air out of her mouth.
‘No more boats, John. Please.’
Her eyes widened a bit and I could see how worried she was.
‘Ok. No more boats. I’ll get this one up, sell her and that’ll be it. We can still go to Europe and we’ll be right after it. Ok?’
The next month saw a series of financial dramas that couldn’t have come at a worse time. First it was the car, then the fridge and then it was bloody termites again. Turned out that the LCPR needed a new starter motor too, and I had to sneak around Janine until I found the right time to get one. With everything paid for we were pretty skint, with barely enough left to see off the essentials until the season started again.
I began spending more time down at the boat shed. It wasn’t that I was avoiding Janine exactly, but I just didn’t have any answers to the problems she kept throwing at me and there wasn’t any point in arguing all the time. And there was also the progress I was making on the LCPR.
Once I fitted the new starter motor, I knew she was finally ready. No more false starts. I lowered my finger to the ignition button with a heavy sense of trepidation, but when I pressed it the sound blew it all away. The engine fired up like a road train, deep and guttural and after a few seconds, once the burn smoke had dissipated, she was purring like an old lioness; hungry and eager to ounce.
I called Barry outside the shed, while the engine was still running, and he seemed as excited as I was when he heard it. He agreed to bring his ute and trailer around in the morning.
Being flat-bottomed, it was hard to get LCPR into the water, but Barry’s trailer had an adjustable winch system, so we made it work. When the front end slid into the water with a splash, he made a loud whooping noise and I grinned at him like a maniac. I fired up the engine and he whooped again and yelled something I didn’t catch as I slowly moved the boat away from the ramp.
Unless you’ve ever restored something old and mechanical and felt it come back to life, it’s hard to describe the feeling I had as I gripped the wide steering wheel and looked beyond the ramp to the horizon. The ocean seemed to welcome the old girl and it parted in neat silver lines. The engine shook and vibrated beneath my feet, and I looked back at the wake behind me churning white in the murky blue water. Barry was still at the ramp waving at me and I raised my hand before angling out of the bay.
I didn’t want to take her far, but I guess I got caught up in the moment because before long the boat shed was far behind me. I kept her as close to the shore as I could, as the LCPR was not designed for the open ocean. In the relative shallows she glided along effortlessly and I revelled in the wind and sea spray stinging my face.
I’d read somewhere that landing barges like these were designed to hit the shallows at a speed of around 8 knots, so I pushed her up close, just to see if she could make it. The engine clicked into another gear and growled, but the angle of the swell was hitting the prow side-on so I didn’t push it any farther, worried she might flip over.
I slowed down as I came to a small sandy cove and then cut the engine. I waited for a while in the sudden silence, the swell turning the boat slowly until it faced the beach. Maybe it was just for the thrill of it, or maybe it was something else, but when the barge was lined up, the drop ramp looking right at it, I fired up the engine and made a mad charge for the sand. Whole sheets of water leapt over and wet the benches as she bucked and moved, the spray stinging my face like tiny needles. The engine roared, the speedometer moving through 4 knots, 5, 6, 7 and 8.
And then I saw it.
A plane roared overhead, invisible in the cloudy night sky. A boom shook the air behind me, the force moving upwards in high whining sounds. I followed them and watched as the naval artillery hit the land in front, orange and red blooms of fire lighting up the jungle and beach.
‘Fuck me,’ a voice said softly in front of me, and I looked down to see a young soldier with sandy red hair looking down the length of the barge. The benches of the LCPR were packed with soldiers, all of them silent and crouching low.
A piece of chop hit the boat and it lurched upwards. For a second I could see a line of barges like this one racing towards the shore. The gunner at the tip of the boat loaded his machine gun, the metallic scrape of the breach being cleared and loaded, just audible over the roar of the engine and the sound of the waves slapping the hull.
The beach was still far away and the soldiers seemed to know it. Most of them had their heads bowed, holding rifles between their feet. My arms gripped the wide steering wheel as tight as they could, desperate to keep the barge straight and steady. We were entering shallower water now and the stern slid with the swell. I moved my arm higher on the wheel, turning it to keep it level and I saw that I was clothed in the same pale green uniform as the men in the boat, a red T-shaped insignia on my shoulder.
I cut the engine as I knew I should and felt and heard the grating of sand beneath us. The boat caught a small wave and was pushed silently the rest of the way to the beach. A young sergeant stood up and faced the men as a machine gun began firing at us from the jungle. He began to speak but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Light flooded everything and I had to raise my hands to shield my eyes.
I was back.
It was just me in the old LCPR on an empty beach in North Queensland, the sunlight bright and burning overhead. To say I was shocked was an understatement. To be honest I was shitting myself. My first thought was a seizure. I’d never experienced anything like it, but it seemed like the logical explanation. It took me a while to climb out of the boat and when I did I just sat on the sand and stared at the sea, trying to make sense of it. The vision or whatever you call it, was so real. I was there, at some other place, in some other time.
The rational part of my mind spoke up and with it came the very real possibility that I was going insane. People who see things, people who are mad that is, certifiable, don’t realise they’re mad do they? They’re convinced and it’s other people who have the problem.
I’m not sure what happened next. I guess I kind of zoned out and went to sleep because when I came to, the sun was much higher in the sky and the tide had risen. I was stretched out at the water’s edge, my shoes soaked from the waves, skin burning, the LCPR nearly fully buoyant again. I got it going and drove back to the boat shed without incident. Barry was still there, a couple of empty long-necks beside him and I deflected his questions as best I could as we got the boat out of the water and into the shed.
Janine had the book club girls over when I got home. Out on the back patio. I made myself scarce and tried to tidy up the garage a bit, but my heart wasn’t in it. When everyone had gone, we had leftovers for dinner, and I could see Janine was a bit pissed from the champagne they’d been drinking.
‘Betty loved it. Said it was much better than she expected. She loved the wood stain. Said it matched the gum trees perfectly and that’s no small compliment coming from her!’
I popped a cracker with salami and cheese on it in my mouth and smiled with her. I was glad her friends liked the patio and it was good to see her happy.
‘What is it?’ she asked suddenly. ‘Did something happen with the boat?’
She never misses a beat my Janine. She knows me too well and I suppose I was still feeling shaken up from what had happened. I should have told her then. Might have made things easier in the end, but I didn’t have the guts. What would I say anyway?
‘No, all good. I got her on the water today.’
‘Oh that’s great, John,’ she said as she sipped her Champagne. ‘How long until you can sell it?’
I paused for a bit as I thought of what to say. Realistically, I could get her up to scratch in a few weeks, a month at most. The hardest parts had already been done, but even then I knew there was more for me.
‘Not sure, darl’. Engine’s still a bit croaky. Then there’s the appearance. Movie World won’t even look at it unless it’s tip top. Rest of the season at least.’
She nodded but didn’t say anything and I was grateful for that.
I spent the rest of the week sanding off the old paint and preparing the benches for a fresh coat. Really, I was just thinking. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that I wasn’t insane; not cuckoo. Hadn’t lost my marbles. I wasn’t round the twist, because surely I would feel something. Surely I’d have a sense that something wasn’t right, a sense of confusion at least. But I felt totally fine. Somehow the LCPR had wanted me to see those visions, and I knew from somewhere deep inside my gut that there was more it wanted to show me.
It took me the better part of a week to find the right paint. Turns out that particular shade of military green is rare and I had to drive to Mackay to get it. It cost me more than I wanted to pay, but in the end it was worth it. When I laid the final stroke of paint on the bow, I stood back and drank in the look of it. I felt in awe of the thing and I called Barry over to take a look. He brought a couple of longies with him, and we spent the rest of the day chatting and drinking, walking around the boat and admiring it from different angles.
Barry wanted to come with me when I next took it out, but I made an excuse about a weak engine. It’s not that I didn’t want him with me, it was more that I didn’t know what he’d do if we saw the visions again. Or, if I saw the visions and he didn’t. There’d be no denying it then. He’d think I was mad and he’d be right.
I got to the same cove as last time just after nine in the morning. There was another boat there, a small yacht and I had to wait for the young couple to finish their morning swim and sail off before I could get the barge into position.
I was nervous as hell. I waited a good couple of minutes until my heart stopped thudding before I raised the anchor and floored the engine. The speedometer climbed through the numbers 4, 5, 6, 7. A burst of spray leapt at me over the drop ramp and I wiped my eyes hurriedly just as the boat reached 8 knots. The LCPR hit the shallows with a long grating sound and I killed the engine before it stopped at the beach.
I waited. One minute. Two minutes.
It hadn’t worked.
The feeling of disappointment was overwhelming. Actually, I felt like a bloody idiot and I spent the next hour cursing and waiting for the tide to rise. Of course it hadn’t worked. I’d clearly had a seizure last time and seen things that weren’t there because of that. Or, most frightening but also the most obvious, I was losing it.
I thought about Janine’s brother as I drove the thing back to the boat shed. He’d caught the Alzheimer’s early, in his mid-fifties, and before he’d forgotten everyone and everything he reckoned he was seeing all sort of crazy things; people from his past, old TV personalities, you name it. Really, the chance of me having it too was high. Christ, I was old enough.
As I got the boat back into the shed I began making plans to sell it. I’d put the finishing touches on and then contact the movie people as soon as I could.
Even though I’d pretty much dismissed what I saw and made some enquiries with Movie World (we’ll have a look when it’s finished), the images were still crystal clear in my mind. I couldn’t help going over them again and again. The LCPR’s were racing towards a beach in the darkness, and the Navy wouldn’t have been firing at it unless there were enemy positions there. I spent a day at the library; they have a decent section on military history, and when I read about Scarlet Beach, I just knew that was it.
The 9th division of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was tasked with clearing the enemy positions around Scarlet Beach as part of their bid to capture the town of Finschhafen in northern New Guinea. The year was 1943, not long after the Kokoda campaign. The book I read said it was the first amphibious assault on a contested beach since the Gallipoli landings. There were three waves as part of the landings; the first involved LCPR’s like mine, a dozen or so, each packed with thirty men. After that came larger LCI’s with more soldiers and then a group of even larger craft carrying tanks and vehicles in the third wave.
Estimates of the Japanese strength there varied, but there was at least three hundred, very possibly more, set up in makeshift pillboxes made of logs and sandbags along the tree line. The pillboxes were connected to each other by trenches, allowing the Japanese to move from one to another in relative protection. The landings had been a success and the AIF had eventually taken Finschaffen, but not before hard fighting on and around the beaches of Scarlet Beach.
I saw a couple of old photographs of Australian and American soldiers on the beach. The men looked happy but weary and in the back ground were a couple of wrecked LCPR’s and other debris that spoke of the struggle before the photo was taken. In one there was an LCPR with a unit number painted on the side. I decided to copy the sequence, changed a couple of numbers and then painted it on my own LCPR in gun-metal grey. It took me a long time to get the font to look right, but when it was done the whole boat felt different. It was as though it was growing up and getting younger at the same time.
I’m not sure why I did what I did next. Janine would later tell me that was when things ‘got away from me’, but she’s only half right. The truth was time was running out. I only had six weeks left before the season started again and I had to know if the visions I saw were real or the beginnings of some kind of madness. The uncertainty was killing me.
So I took a trip to the military surplus store in town. Freddy ran the place. He was an old kook who’d been running the store for as long as I could remember. Although he sold mostly camping gear, he did have a small range of military clothing that I got him talking about. Most of the trousers and shirts, boots and caps were from more modern times, but he did have some replica WWII uniforms out the back that he was more than happy to sell. The shirt didn’t have the red ‘T’ insignia I’d seen, but Freddy assured me it was the same cut and colour as the AIF had worn in WWII.
I bought two sets.
Barry was thrilled when I asked him. He’d been unemployed for almost a decade, and to be honest anything that got him out of the house was a bonus. I knew he drove his wife mad. I told him to meet me at the boat shed at seven the next morning and when I got there at ten to he was already there. He was sitting on the trailer behind his ute, slurping at a cup of coffee from his thermos.
I made light of dressing up. Told him I just wanted things to feel authentic, to get a better sense for the Movie World people. I have to admit, even though he was wearing thongs, the effect was striking. I guess I looked the same because when I came around the screen in the corner of the shed, all decked out in the gear, he paused for a minute before saluting.
It was a beautiful, still morning. The ocean was glassy and heavy looking, reflecting sunlight in blinding sheets. The LCPR pushed the water aside lazily, the white foam of the wake bulbous and fresh like new cumulus clouds. Barry wanted to talk about the engine. He’d been a mechanic once upon a time, but I couldn’t take my mind off what was coming so I told him to sit at the bow, to even the weight out.
I was thinking about my father. I didn’t know if he’d been at Scarlet Beach, but there had to be a reason I’d seen those things. I made a mental note to look more carefully at the soldiers in the barge this time around – if it did happen again and I wasn’t in fact losing my mind.
We motored around to the cove that held the beach and I was relieved to see it empty. I waited until the swell pushed the barge into position and then asked Barry to take a seat on one of the side benches. He sat at the end, near the drop ramp, but I asked him to move closer to me, remembering where the young soldier (‘fuck me’), had sat.
He didn’t ask any questions, just looked confused as he shuffled into place. I told him to get ready, put the engine into gear and then slam home the accelerator. I saw Barry grab the bench beneath him as the speedometer hit 5 and 6. The boat bucked a bit, but then the drop ramp became level with the trees in front and it levelled out. The speedometer hit 7 and then 8.
Barry would later tell me I went catatonic for a few minutes after the engine was cut. He said I was standing stock still, eyes bulging out of my head as I looked at nothing.
But I was seeing.
The sergeant stood and peered over the men as the boat slowed.
‘Move fast and stay low,’ he yelled and I felt my arm hit the lever that dropped the ramp. The heavy plate landed with a splash, and the sergeant went first, followed by the soldiers, one from each bench, two at a time. The soldiers waded in knee deep water, their forms illuminated for a second as a naval shell exploded in the jungle ahead.
I felt my arms moving the controls of the boat, moving it into reverse. The engine roared but the boat wouldn’t move. A machine gun fired from the darkness ahead and the soldiers on the beach hit the deck. The gunner on the boat replied in kind, and I watched as tracer rounds tore up the palm tree fronds and took chunks out of the sand in front of the tree line.
The gunner finished his belt and then signalled at me and we both jumped over the side and into the shallows. We sloshed along to the shore where a line of soldiers was sheltering behind a sand bank. It was still dark, but the first greys of dawn were spreading around and I made myself scan the faces of the soldiers around me. I moved farther down the line, looking for my father, but none of the men were familiar. All of them wore grim expressions, a mixture of fear and doubt, but underneath it was a thin layer that might have been determination. Or anger.
Two soldiers were dead on the sand beside me, one of them with the back of his head blown off. The sergeant was yelling for the men to get into line, and I scrambled to follow his instructions, grabbing a discarded rifle from the ground. We sheltered behind the small bank created by the receding tide but it wasn’t much and bullets whistled overhead.
A plane roared somewhere above and a final naval salvo followed. Explosions shook the ground, but the pillbox was only fifty metres ahead, untouched and firing at us. I caught a brief glimpse of a muzzle burning red between the log barriers that shielded it. The sergeant yelled something and two soldiers rose in unison and tossed grenades, all of us crouching low and holding our helmets as sand and wood and blood rained down.
‘We need to talk about this, John.’ Janine sipped her tea and then put the cup down on the saucer, looking at me patiently.
‘It’s nothing, darl’. Really. I feel fine.’
‘Barry said it was a seizure. For a couple of minutes he said you were unresponsive. That’s the word he used too, ‘unresponsive’, which is a big word for him.’
I smiled with her, appreciating her attempt to lighten the tone.
‘I feel ok now. Honestly.’
‘You’ll have to see the doctor.’
I nodded and took a sip of my tea, reaching for one of the scotch fingers she’d laid out.
‘I’ll go in tomorrow.’
‘Good. Old Maurice will have a heart attack when he sees you. Been on about wanting to see you for years.’
‘Just what I need. A long catch up with that old fart.’
‘John! He’s nearly the same age as you.’
Turns out the tests were inconclusive, which was medical speak for ‘there’s nothing wrong with you.’ Janine didn’t believe it and rang up old Maurice just to be sure I wasn’t lying.
It wasn’t long after that the credit card bill came through and Janine hit the roof when she saw it. The paint, engine parts and other bits and bobs had come to nearly three grand and she’d gone off her ‘nanna like I hadn’t seen in years. I can’t really blame her. In the end I gave her my card which meant I had no way of moving things on to the next stage.
I’d barely had a chance to think about the second vision, Barry had seen to that, but I knew the story wasn’t over. It seemed the closer I got to recreating the conditions the boat had experienced, the more it wanted to show me. Getting it sea worthy had been the first step, then the unit markings and uniforms. The question now was what else was I supposed to do? I could hardly get a bunch of Japanese soldiers to start shooting at me.
I guess you could say the opportunity just presented itself. Janine would later tell me it was the final straw; the moment I ‘lost touch all touch with reality’, but when I saw the notice, printed on a sheet of A4 paper and tacked to the community board, I knew it was the way forward. The flyer was for a local theatre group run by the YMCA. They were staging a production of Macbeth in six weeks’ time. Printed down the bottom of the sheet, with asterisks at the beginning and end, was the following:
‘Acting troupe available for hire. All film, television and theatre productions considered. Contact 0412 131 945.’
I took down the number and then spent the day at the boat shed, tinkering around with nothing. The boat was ready and sellable, and I knew if I mucked around with it too much I’d only create more work for myself. So I spent the afternoon thinking and walking around the shed. Really musing things over.
I’d never had anything interesting happen in my life. I’d never travelled, not in the real sense, and trips to Cairns and Brisbane and one down to Melbourne when I was young didn’t count as proper travelling. The Great Barrie Reef was a sight to behold, but even its majesty wore thin after a couple of dozen trips out there. This thing that was happening to me, this vision, was quite possibly the most amazing experience I’d had or ever would have and didn’t I deserve to see it play out? I knew Janine would be ropable, but some things are worth the cost. Somehow this boat was letting me see into the past, and even if I didn’t find my father, or learn anything about his death, it was worth going to whatever length I had to.
The person at the other end of the line was called Luke, the theatre group’s manager over at the YMCA. I told him I was interested in shooting a short film and asked him about his rates. He paused for a moment, and then told me it depended on how many actors I required and for how long.
I saw again the packed barge as it headed towards the beach, the soldiers crouching low around their rifles and told him I’d need around a dozen. Then he asked how long the shoot would run for. This time I paused for a bit longer, thinking to myself I’d only need them for as long as it took a fully loaded LCPR to charge towards a beach at a speed of exactly 8 knots.
‘Well, I’m planning on shooting this thing in parts,’ I said. ‘The first scene shouldn’t take long, perhaps only an hour or two?’
‘Have you made many films before Mr Keeley?’
‘Well, you’ll know then it can take a lot longer than that to shoot a scene. How many crew have you got working with you?’
The question threw me. I was beginning to dislike the calm confidence of Luke, theatre manager of the Cairns chapter YMCA.
‘It’s a pretty Spartan crew,’ I said at last. ‘Only the essentials Luke. But we know how to get it done.’
‘Right. We’ll need payment up front for two hours, and then we’ll bill you if it runs over time, which it very possibly will.’
‘Ok, that seems fair. What’s the damage then? I mean, what’ll it cost me for the two hours?’
‘Let’s just see. Hold on a sec.’ He put the phone down and I could hear him punching in the figures on a calculator. ‘Twelve actors at fifty-five an hour for two hours comes to $1320. Will you be providing the catering?’
I had to force myself to remain calm. Fifty-five an hour was almost double what I got paid, and the ‘actors’ were local kids with the YMCA, not a bloody Hollywood agency. Now he was asking about catering?
‘Ah, no. Catering will not be provided.’
‘That’s a shame,’ he said brightly.
‘I suppose it is. So are you keen for the job or not?’
‘I think we can do it. When does the shoot start?’
‘Day after tomorrow?’
‘Mmm, that’s not much notice, but I’m sure I can rustle up the numbers. When will you send the script?’
He was getting excited, but I told him that the first scene was dialogue-free. In the end we agreed on a time and place and I hung up the phone feeling a mixture of guilt, disbelief and anticipation.
Thirteen hundred bucks was no small amount of cash and I’d need to get them uniforms too. I started to panic when I thought about how much all of those uniforms would cost. There was no way I could afford to buy all twelve. In fact, I couldn’t afford the thirteen hundred as it stood.
I went to the surplus store and saw Freddy that afternoon. I told him I was interested in a dozen more WWII uniforms and asked him if he’d hire them. I’d known Freddy for a long time, but this was clearly too much of a stretch, so in the end he agreed to sell them to me for a discounted price with a 50% buy-back rate if they came back in good order.
I did the sums as I drove back to the house. Uniform buy-back aside, I’d still need to fork out well over a grand for the uniforms, and with the cost of the actors I was now close to 2.5K. There was only a couple of hundred left in the savings account, meaning I’d need the credit card if I was going to make this work. I’d given the card to Janine, though, and as much as I loathed the thought, I knew I was going to have to come clean and convince her to give it back to me somehow.
She was out the back on the new patio when I got home, humming John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice’ as she watered the herbs she’d recently planted. I slid the fly screen door across and she turned with a start when she heard it.
‘Jesus, John! Don’t frighten me like that.’
‘Sorry, darl’. Have you got a minute? There’s something I need to run by you.’
‘Ok, just a sec. Need to finish this. Hasn’t the basil come up well? I thought it might be too hot out here but the shade from the gum seems to be doing it wonders.’
‘Looks great love.’
I guess she must have heard something in my voice because she tipped the rest of the water jug out in a hurry and came to sit beside me.
‘What is it? Something with the boat?’
‘Well, yeah it is the boat. But more than that.’
I took a deep breath and began. I told her about the first time I took it out and what I’d seen. Her face started twisting a bit, her eyes becoming more intense, but I pushed on and told her the whole story. When I was done, she was sweating, and her cheeks were bright red.
‘And now you want to spend two thousand dollars to dress up and hire a bunch of kids so you can see the final vision?’
She said the words slowly and clearly, looking at me intently. I didn’t know if she was saying it to clarify it with me or her.
‘That’s it. Look, I know how crazy this sounds, but I’m not losing it. What I saw was real. I was back there, darl’, in New Guinea in 1943. I was looking through another man’s eyes, moving his body, looking at the Japs in their pillbox in front of me!’
Janine stared at me for a long time. And then she started crying.
She bawled for a good fifteen minutes in big wracking sobs I hadn’t seen since her mother died. At first I tried to comfort her by putting my arm around her shoulder, but she shrugged it off quickly and turned her face away. I sat there like a useless fool, not wanting to stare at her but not wanting to move away either. In the end I stood up and put the kettle on and the sound of the boiling water seemed to settle her down some.
When she’d blown her nose a couple of times and taken a sip from the tea I’d made her, she turned to me again.
‘Are you absolutely sure about all of this, John? You’re not feeling a bit confused?’
‘I’m sure Janine. I was there. Looking through the man’s…’
‘Yes, yes you said that already.’ The tone in her voice had changed. She was sitting straighter in her chair and she hurriedly wiped a tear from her face. ‘Jesus, John. You saw what happened to Norman.’
She took a sip of her tea and I took a sip with her as I waited for her to continue.
‘It’s either Alzheimer’s or something worse. You’re going to the hospital. Today.’
She stood and moved quickly to the sink, emptying her tea.
‘Come on then. Don’t just sit there. You’ll need to pack a bag.’
She moved out of the kitchen and down the hallway to the bedroom, speaking louder as she went so I could hear her.
‘You get the toiletries and I’ll pack some clothes.’
‘Janine?’ I called after her, but she didn’t seem to hear.
‘We’ll have to go to Mackay, they have the psychiatrists there that’ll…’
‘What?’ she said as she looked at me down the hallway, an empty travel bag in her hands.
‘I’m not going to the hospital. Not now at least. Look, you don’t need to believe me, but please understand when I tell you I’m fine. I don’t have Alzheimer’s, or anything else. The tourist season is just around the corner, and I have to see this out before I go back to work. I’ve already booked the actors.’
She dropped the bag and charged down the hallway. For a minute I thought she was going to clock me, but she stood in front of me, nose to nose, and yelled instead.
‘Stop it, John! Stop this right now! Would you bloody listen to yourself? You don’t need the actors because the fucking visions aren’t real!’
She was really worked up and I knew there’d be no changing her mind. I took a final look; her face was all pink and hot under her blonde and grey bun, and then she slid the back door open and headed outside. I walked across the deck and down the side stairs, hearing her footsteps behind me. I continued and didn’t turn around until I got to the car.
‘If you don’t come back right now I’m leaving. I swear to God John.’
But I didn’t go back. I went to the boat shed and tinkered with the fuel lines for a bit, and when I got back a few hours later she was gone. There was a note on top of a frozen casserole covered in foil that she’d taken out and left on the bench.
You’re not well, John. I’ve gone to my sister’s for a few days. If you haven’t come to your senses when I get back, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
There was something about that last sentence that really shook me. If she’d said, ‘I’ll leave you’ or ‘I want a divorce’, I’d have taken it on the chin and told myself she’d come around. When you’ve been married to someone as long as we have, you come to recognise the hyperbole. Expect it even. But she hadn’t said any of that. It made me think if I really could live without her, and it took me all of five seconds to realise I couldn’t.
So what to do? The note said she’d be away for a few days and I’d come too far to abandon things now. If I was lucky, I could get this whole thing wrapped up before she came back, and if it meant a few nights in a mental hospital up in Mackay after that, then so be it.
I still didn’t have the credit card though, and Luke had texted through some bank details with the not too subtle reminder that he was ready to proceed ‘if I was’. I thought about selling some tools, but as I ran through a mental inventory of what I had and what they were worth, I knew I’d come up well short.
It was then that I remembered the shares we’d bought a few years ago. Janine had been to a free seminar on investing in the stock market and had come home convinced of the need to buy into it. We’d used a couple of grand from our savings and bought into some companies that Janine had called ‘blue chips’. Apparently they were safe bets and would keep their value.
It took me a while to find the right number. The young bloke at the end of the line spent a few minutes rabbiting on about trends and growth patterns and other rubbish designed to make him and the company he worked for look like geniuses. I made the appropriate sounds before he got to the point.
‘So, what can I do for you today Mr Keeley?’
‘I’d like to sell some shares.’
‘I see,’ he said, sounding faintly offended. ‘How many units would you like to offload?’
‘How much are they worth now?’
‘Well, the initial investment of three thousand dollars was taken and spread out across…’
‘The shortened version if you don’t mind.’
‘Ah, ok. Let’s have a look.’
I heard a few buttons being pressed on a keyboard before he came back to me.
‘The current investment is now at $8500 at current market value.’
‘Struth,’ I said before I could help myself. ‘She was right about the shares then.’
‘Is Mrs Keeley with you now? I’ll need both of your signatures if you want to offload the entire amount.’
‘I, ah. She’s actually at her sisters for a bit and asked me to sort this out.’
‘Right. Well, I can’t go ahead with the sale without her signature.’
I knew something like this would happen. Nothing is ever easy with these people. I took a few deep breaths and tried to compose myself before I replied.
‘What was your name again mate?’
‘That’s right. My apologies. Patrick, I’m actually trying to surprise my wife with a trip to Europe for her birthday. If she finds out I’m selling some shares she’ll get suspicious and I’ll need to ruin the surprise. I don’t need to sell all of the shares, only about half. Say four grand worth. You’d be doing me a big favour.’
Patrick Higgens had to ask his supervisor, but when he came back, he sounded enthusiastic and I knew I’d won him over. He told me he’d go ahead with the partial sale and would transfer the funds after he received the necessary paperwork. I then spent an irritating couple of hours down at the post office sending faxes and waiting to receive them. The young girl at the counter asked if I could just take a photo with my phone and send it to them. She was clearly as uncomfortable as I felt hovering around the desk for so long, but when I told her I didn’t have a mobile she seemed to relax and even seemed a bit sympathetic. When the final document came through with a handwritten note from Patrick saying ‘all done’, she looked as happy as I was. I couldn’t get out of there quick enough.
I had a few hours of daylight left so I went back to the boat shed. The ramp of the LCPR would have to drop smoothly if I was to recreate any kind of landing, so I spent some time oiling the pulley system to make sure it worked properly.
It was dark when I was done, and I headed back to the house and heated up the casserole Janine had left out. As usual it was perfect, and it seemed as though every forkful I ate filled me up with more guilt. If only she believed me. I tried to think of how I’d react if she told me a similar story and realised I’d be just the same. I’d be worried about her.
Sleep didn’t come easy that night. I kept thinking back to the visions. Of the soldiers taking cover behind the low sandbank, machine gunfire spraying all around them. So much attention had been given to Kokoda over the years, and those brave and desperate militia and AIF certainly deserved their acclaim, but what about the others? Didn’t those young men hankering down on Scarlet beach deserve remembering too?
In the long line of history, it’s natural some things stand out. People needed anchors to weigh down their interest. But history isn’t meant to be a highlights reel. The whole gritty truth needs to come out and maybe all of this was some way for me to make a difference. Who knows? Maybe I’d write a book or a short story about it, and those souls who died in northern New Guinea in 1943, Japanese as well as AIF, would get the respect their deaths deserved.
When sleep finally came, I dreamed of my own past.
I must have been around five and mum had sent us to bed early, straight after dinner. We didn’t argue when she spoke like that and my sister and I had gone to our room without a word. Sometime later I’d gone into the kitchen to get a glass of water and saw Mum with her back to me, a photo of dad in his new AIF uniform in her hand. Her body was shaking tightly as she looked at it, and it took me a few seconds to realise she was crying but holding in the sound so we wouldn’t hear her. I watched her for a while until her head slumped into her hands and the photo fell softly to the carpet.
I’ve never needed an alarm clock. I’ve woken at 5.05 a.m., or very close to it, for as long as I’ve been working, but I wished I had one that morning. By the time I pulled myself out of bed, it was nearly 8 a.m., and I was meeting the actor crew by the boat at half past. I fumbled with my clothes, splashed water on my face and made myself sit down and quickly eat some cereal. It was going to be a tough morning, and the last thing the kids needed was a grumpy old bastard with a rumbling stomach.
I tried not to think of how little I knew about film making as I headed out of the door and down to the car. I’d have to act confident. Probably the less I said the better though. Avoid chit-chat. Make them feel a bit intimidated if I could so they wouldn’t ask questions.
I had the car halfway down the driveway before I realised I hadn’t brought the camera with me. I slammed on the handbrake and raced back up the drive, cursing as I saw the pile of boxes in the garage. It wasn’t in the ones on the top, and I had to lift down half a dozen others and root through them before I found it.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I found the bloody thing. Janine and I hadn’t used it for years, but I didn’t remember it looking so old! It was about the size of a shoebox and opened halfway on one side where you put the VCR tape in. The lens cap was missing, and when I pushed the power button nothing lit up. Or course it was out of battery, and of course the power adaptor was nowhere to be seen. There were still a few boxes I hadn’t searched, but it was already half past by then and I needed to keep moving. I had to hope the ‘actors’ would be too busy acting like WWII soldiers to notice that the camera wasn’t working.
I got to the boat shed about twenty minutes late and by then the whole cast had assembled. A dozen teenagers and a slightly older guy who I presumed to be Luke were milling about, talking to each other in animated ways that only actors can manage. They all stopped and looked at me as I pulled up. I got out of the car quickly, and I forced myself to stand straight as I carried the box of uniforms towards them.
Luke ran ahead and took the box off me and I caught the sweet whiff of one of those energy drinks on his breath.
‘I had everyone get here a bit early Mr Keeley,’ he said quickly, his excitement unmistakable.
‘John,’ I said.
‘Ok. John. Everyone’s ready and raring. What’s in the box?’
‘Ah good. I was wondering what we were going to wear. Are the makeup people on their way?’
I ignored the question as we walked into the centre of the group. A rough circle formed around us and Luke moved away a bit, leaving me standing in the middle like a royal turd. I realised they were waiting for me to say something, and I tried to sound confident as I raised my voice to address them.
‘Ah, thanks for coming everyone. We’re shooting an action scene today. Set in WWII. Luke has your costumes, and over there in the boatshed is the landing craft that we’ll be using. Both are as authentic as they come, so if we all work together we might just shoot ourselves a piece of history here.’
I’d overdone it, but they seemed to love it. A few actually ran to get their uniforms and more than one came up to shake my hand and thank me. I moved into the boat shed before they started to ask questions and waited for them to change into their uniforms. Most fitted OK but there were some mishaps. A giant of a kid, must have been six foot five, couldn’t find any pants that fit and his shins were left exposed when he pulled them up. Another one was too fat for the shirt and had to leave a couple of buttons loose to make it work.
Barry arrived on time and he seemed a bit embarrassed when he saw all the kids in their uniforms, but I could see he’d brought his one too. The trousers were laid out neatly behind the backseat window and the shirt was on a coat hanger. I didn’t know what to make of it. He was the one who’d rung Janine and told her I was going loony but, evidently, he’d enjoyed the experience and was coming back for more! I thanked him for coming but didn’t say much else as we got the LCPR on the winch and into the water. He didn’t ask to come with us and I was grateful for that.
I was worried about all the additional weight, but if anything the LCPR was better fully loaded. The keel sat lower and cut a straighter path through the swell as we angled out of the bay. A few of the kids wanted to talk to me but I pretended not to hear them. My mind was filled with a whole host of doubts and fears and I was suddenly struck with how ridiculous the whole situation had become. Here I was, driving an old barge filled with kids from the Cairns YMCA theatre group, dressed in replica army uniforms because I wanted to see visions from the Second World War.
You’re not well, John.
I made myself ignore Janine’s voice as the boat was angling too far out to sea. I corrected the course and slowed down a bit. A few of the actors had their phones out and were taking photos of each other and themselves. Some pulled silly faces while others tried to look tough in their uniforms. I scanned the bunch, from face to face, and all looked a long way from the grim and silent young men I’d seen.
Another cove passed and I slowed down to two knots as the beach came into view. There was no one there this time, and I cut the engine and waited for the boat to stop, adjusting the rudder until the cove was straight ahead. Everyone was quiet and looking at me, the silence broken only by the soft lapping of the water against the bow.
‘This is where we’ll make the landing. I’ll get the boat up to the right speed and then cut the engine just before the sand bank. Then I’ll drop the ramp.’
They were all still looking at me, waiting for more instructions, but I didn’t have anything else to say.
Luke immediately made his way forward, holding onto the shoulders of the others to balance himself. He spoke quietly into my ear.
‘Ah, John. What about directions? Are we running out or walking? Quiet or noisy? And what about the camera, do you have an idea about composition?’
His reference to ‘composition’ annoyed me but I kept my voice level.
‘Ok everyone,’ I said. ‘A few more details. When the ramp drops, you are running out, two at a time. And quietly. No yelling.’
The actors nodded but looked uncertain before they turned their attention to the beach.
I almost put her in gear before I saw the camera lying on its side by my feet. The empty cassette bay flicked open as I picked it up and I pushed it closed quickly and held it to my shoulder.
‘Ready everyone? Action!’ I slammed the boat into gear and hit the throttle.
The speedometer reached 4 as the first chunks of spray flew over the side. A few of the actors grimaced as they got wet, but they didn’t yell or break character and for just a second things felt right. Real even. It wasn’t dark and there were no naval guns firing over us, but the boys in the boat now really weren’t that different to the AIF lads racing towards Scarlet Beach.
Luke raised himself up to peer over the side, and for a moment he looked just like the young sergeant I’d seen. The others looked at him for instruction and reassurance as the speedometer hit six and then seven. I watched as the dial reached eight and then cut the engine. Sand crunched underneath. I dropped the ramp and the actors ran out, two at a time. The boat was soon half empty, the men running towards the beach, and I watched them through the dead plastic eye of the view finder. There were two remaining, and as they splashed their way out into the water and up to the beach, it was just me left in the boat. I waited for a few seconds until the actors began to look back at me.
It hadn’t worked.
I dropped the camera, ignoring the sharp crack of snapping plastic. I let my head fall into my hands, just as my mother had done when looking at my dad’s photo all those years ago. Luke was yelling from the beach, but I ignored him as I walked down the ramp and into the shallows. Water filled my boots as I tried to think of what to say to him. I began to feel dizzy. The stress of it all; arguments with Janine, the empty bank account, the sold shares, Luke and the actors. I sank to my knees. The water began to feel warmer and I felt suddenly sick as the sky above me spun from bright morning into night.
I lifted my head, wondering if I’d passed out.
I tried to focus on what Luke was saying but it wasn’t his voice I was hearing.
The sergeant was yelling at me from the beach, but it was hard to hear him over the sound of gunfire all around. We were sheltering behind the sandbank and crawling farther along the beach, horizontal to the pillbox spitting bullets at us.
The man beside me got to his knees and sprinted to the left, diving behind another sand bank. I followed him, feeling a sharp burst of wind fly by my ear. This bank was higher and gave us a view across the beach. A dozen or so bodies lay in the shallows. A few were being pushed about by the rising tide. Dawn was just around the corner and in the pale light the corpses looked like half alive shadows.
An explosion and a handful of soldiers made a dash for another pillbox. A burst of machine gunfire caught them head on, and they were cut down before they could throw their grenades. Beyond the corpses a curios trio hobbled up the beach. Dressed in Navy uniforms, they dragged a long pole behind them, a series of wires connecting it to a metallic box the size of a suitcase that one of them carried. Seemingly oblivious to the machine gun and rifle fire directed towards them, they set the pole into the sand and fumbled with the box and wires, a red marker light flashing on suddenly. Two were hit as they tried to turn away, their still forms half lit by the eerie red glow of the lamp they’d died for. The third scrambled away and headed for a sand bank, his body jerking suddenly as he fell over it.
A grenade was thrown from somewhere beside me and I tried to follow it as it disappeared into the gloom. A heartbeat later the ground shook and bits of palm tree, sand and glass rained down on us.
‘Forward!’ someone yelled and I was up and running.
The remains of the pillbox was scattered around a crater in the sand, a couple of blackened bodies moving slightly as smoke steamed off them. A soldier to my left fired two quick shots and the figures stopped moving. The pillbox was connected to a trench running parallel to the water line, and I caught a quick flash of dirty khaki turning a corner at the end. The same trench ran the other way, and the sergeant was advancing along it slowly, rifle at the ready, towards another pillbox still firing into the landing craft.
‘This way,’ the young soldier said to me quietly, nodding in the other direction, and I followed him as he crept along the trench. The embankment was barely five feet tall, and we both had to crouch down to remain in cover. The soldier fixed his bayonet as we neared the turn and I reached down to my own, but it wasn’t where it should be. The soldier stepped around the corner and thrust his rifle forward in one precise motion. He disappeared around the corner but was back a moment later, a wry smile on his face. I followed him, expecting to see a Japanese soldier with his guts spilling out, but there was no one there, just a dark trench running to another pillbox at the end.
We moved forward. The darkness was absolute in here. The soldier stopped abruptly as a machine gun in the pillbox opened up, the muzzle flashing orange and red in front of us. In the bursts of light, I could see four Japanese soldiers; one on the machine gun, one loading the belt and two aiming rifles at the beach.
‘Wait for them to reload,’ the soldier whispered to me. ‘Got any grenades?’
I padded my pockets but there was nothing.
‘Shit, me either. We’ll have to rush them. You take the two manning the gun, I’ll get the other two. Got it?’
I nodded and crept off behind him. The machine gun made a sharp ‘tang’ as the belt slipped out and we started sprinting. I crouched low and ran as fast as I could, but the soldier was way ahead of me. The box was dark again without the firing and I opened my eyes wider as I tried to catch up.
A shot fired in front and I watched the soldier go at another one with his bayonet. I heard a scream but didn’t know whose it was because now I was among them too, firing my rifle point-blank. I hit both but one of them was still moving, so I hit him with the butt of my weapon, a wet-cracking sound coming from his head.
It was suddenly quiet. We’d done it.
I followed the gaze of the soldier past the logs and sand bags and out to the red marker light just down the beach. In its glow I could see dozens of soldiers moving up from the south. Their boats must have landed in Siki cove, just around the corner. Dark lumps were barely visible out to sea, heading towards the signal lamp, and I knew they were the lumbering LCI’s coming in to land the second wave.
A bullet ricocheted off the log in front of me but we had no way of knowing who fired it. More came all at once, and I heard a voice screaming at me, as if from far away, even though I knew it was the voice of the young soldier beside me.
‘Keeley, get your head down!’
I felt something bite into my neck, but when I tried to reach it I found that my arms didn’t work. I was on the sand and it felt cool and dry. My skin was hot and wet, though, and more of the stuff was pumping down into my shirt. I felt light-headed, and the stars above me began to move in a dizzying blur until they stopped, resolving into one great ball of light.
‘Mr Keeley! Mr Keeley!’
Luke was staring down at me, his young face strained between panic and confusion. I was lying on my back on the sand, at the water’s edge, the water lapping at my shirt collar. I felt cool from the water even as the sun beat down on me, hot as hell.
‘Mr Keeley, are you alright?’
I struggled to sit up and saw that the lot of them, the finest of the Cairns YMCA acting troupe, were ringed around me, looking at me with that same expression of shock and fear.
‘I’m alright. I’m alright. Just a bit dizzy. Must have been the heat.’
One of them rushed forward with a bottle of water and I drank a few mouthfuls and tipped some over my head. I made myself stand. The crowd backed away a bit, as if they needed to keep their distance.
‘What happened, John?’
‘I told you. Must have been the heat. I’ve never been much good with it.’
‘But you looked so…so still. Your eyes were opened too.’
He paused and I waited for him to say something else.
‘Ah. Ok. As long as you’re feeling better, that’s the main thing. Did you get the scene?’
‘I got it, Luke. Don’t you worry about that. I saw exactly what I needed to.’
Janine was gone for the better part of a fortnight before she phoned me. I’d just arranged the deal with the people at Movie World to buy the LCPR, and I was happy I’d have some good news to give her.
‘I got twenty-two grand for the boat. Europe here we come!’
‘Twenty-two, hey? Well that is good.’
‘It sure is. Look, darl’, I’ve thought about what you said and I’ll go to the hospital. I’ll get my head thoroughly looked at. I’ll stay as long as they want.’
‘Really? You’re not just saying that? What about those, those ‘visions’? Are you done with all that?’
‘The visions have gone, Janine. I’m finished with them.’
She came back the next day, and I can honestly say that I’ve never been so glad to see anyone in my whole life. She looked beautiful, more than usual, and I told myself I’d never do anything to send her away again.
The time in Mackay hospital wasn’t that bad. They kept me there for a week, but I had my own room away from the rest of the crazies. Most of them were young and fit, their whole lives ahead of them, caught in their own worlds of despair. Poor buggers. There was a doctor there by the name of Paul Sorensen. He was a psychiatrist and he had a way of listening that impressed me. He listened with a genuine interest and didn’t interrupt. Didn’t make judgments. I told him the whole thing, but he was mostly interested in how I was feeling. I saw him each day, and after a few sessions of me telling him that I wasn’t seeing things anymore and felt fine, I suppose he came to believe me because he let me go without any fuss.
Janine wanted me to write it all down and now I have. I can’t be sure if the person who died in that pillbox was my father. So many things remain a mystery to me, but my feeling is that it was. I feel like the boat wanted to show me his story. There’s no other reason for the whole thing. Dr Sorensen said that the ‘episode’ could have been brought on by what I’d lost in the death of my father. He said that I’d lost the chance to get to know him and had to live with my mother’s grief in the bargain. There’s no doubt he’s right. My father, along with too many more, had died in the defence of a land so far away from his own, as soldiers time immemorial had done and will continue to do. Such is the cyclical futility of war and loss.
But none of that really matters. I’ve seen what happened to those soldiers and Navy men, AIF and Japanese in New Guinea in 1943 and that’s something worth knowing.