The Spike or Victoria College Review 1946
Flowers of Love
Flowers of Love
In war, service overseas held a small, unreal quality. It was so divorced from the expected that you often felt, at the same time, a total surrender to the present and yet a complete detachment from it. It was this sense of unbelonging which now, so soon after the close of the period, causes you to look back upon those years with astonishment and a secret unease. Then, for many men, life was brutal, primitive and degrading, the days a succession of ugliness and boredom unterrupted only occasionally by activity so febrile that the sharp senses reeled.
Many things were gained by the soldier, but many were his losses too. He lost the gentler way. And absent also was the pain from death come to others. Perhaps it was there with the first shock of the news but an unvoiced gratitude that it was another and not himself, and then the repetition of the event, proved the necessary prophylatic. For a soldier in those early, dark days of the war needed to live, more than any man, in the unbelievable past and the equally impossible future.
At rare moments, a small incident caused a full comprehension of the possible depths ofpage break page break page 25
suffering to flash into a man, and then he was silenced by the intensity of the vision until the bonds of the present again clamped their iron so he might not glimpse too clearly the whole irony-the unintentional results, the jocose cruelty or the barren, double blasphemy.
* * *
The soldier stood in the doorway of the chapel, looking beyond the cemetery to the oval lagoon where the water lay still and warm and blue. Two barges moved languidly, a squadron of the motor torpedo boats were motionless at their shore anchorages and a dozen or more Catalina flying boats lay lopsidedly in dispersal order. The far side of the lagoon ended in a belt of cream sand, edged sharply on the side by the gentle waters and raggedly on the other where the jungle undergrowth introduced the swayed, bare boles of sentinel palms. Beyond the relieving green was the sea again, extending unbroken for miles until the distance-softened sky met and fused with it. A far, slight breeze played mirrors-in the-sun on the sea's surface; the sky was as bright and hard and lonely as the infinity of white upon blue of its base.
He stood motionless in the shade of the chapel for many minutes, as if standing to ease by order with his hands clasped behind his back. He was young, only about twenty or twenty-two, with the body of an athlete-the wide shoulders, deep chest, small waist, flat stomach and flanks and long straight legs. His face was still boyishly smooth, though lined by days of strain and nights of fear, and his eyes were curiously old for his age, or perhaps they were too expressive.
Although his gaze was wandering over the scene he was not examining it consciously, even when he felt the utter dependence of himself compared with the self-sufficiency of his surroundings. And then the loneliness came, flooding through him. It was a social loneliness, a longing for the complementary company of women and for the ordinary pleasures which had once seemed to trite in that distant other world. He had been on too many of these islands and he had lived amongst men for too long. He was tired.
He looked over the rough, unfinished cemetery, glaring whitely under the murderous sun, and felt a loathing for the rows of standardized crosses. Each identical one was at the head of a slight swelling of the ground. Militarily neat, inhumanly neat. He knew some of the graves were make-believe in a sense, for it is not always possible to gather the useless remnants of an explosion, and a burning plane leaves little when it crashes.
In sheer physical distate for the common scene he turned and walked inside the chapel, where the thatched walls and roof shut out the sun making the interior pleasantly dim and giving the illusion of coolness. It was the first time he had been inside and he looked around curiously, admiring the patient industry and the natural artistry that had produced the intricate thatching and the Melenesian deified obscenities carved into the wooden beams, and he laughed as he thought how easily and yet how strangely the old gods had entered into the natives' conception of their new one. They had conquered Christianity as surely as it had converted them.
The altar was still unfinished, with an empty packing case leaning untidily against the side, and the top was littered with wood shavings. There was something else, small and bright, and he picked it up. It was a gaily coloured packet of seeds-the type of packet which has on the outside an extravagant reproduction of how the flowers should appear. These were some popular variety, pictured as a neat riot of colour in a neat suburban garden. He laughed aloud. The incongruity with the present and the youthful memories evoked by the packet! He as a child, digging with his small spade in his own garden plot and planting a wondrous mixture of seeds... .so carefully watering them and impaling the packets so he could name the plants as they appeared... .windows in florists' and nursery-men's shops-cool and restful in hot streets, fragrant with damp, dark moss and gay with fresh flowers to shame a grey city.
But what on earth are they doing here? He asked himself. Here in a native chapel on a tiny Pacific island two thousand miles from anywhere? He looked around slightly amused and then saw an envelope lying in the rubbish beside the altar. It was a plain white envelope bearing only a name and a line of writing. The writing taught many years ago in a more leisured age. It read: 'Please plant these seeds on my dear David's grave.' He stared at it for a while, thinking of the light, modulated voices which circled the world so easily with the news commentaries.
"Allied forces are stated to have to-day landed on another island in the Pacific. Our casualties are believed to have been light." He found himself saying the words over and over to himself, so he put the packet and the envelope on the new altar and went outside.
Men were carrying picks and shovels and a small box into the fifty yard square of hallowed ground. Passively he watched as the page 26 picks thudded into the solid coral until he realized, with a sickening feeling, that they were making a shallow hole to tamp in explosives to blast out another grave. The explosion would tear out a few lumps of coral. That was all. And the hole would be cleared and another charge placed and fired until the hole was hygienically deep. The island was solid coral and the only soil for plant life was the sole property of the jungle and the green jungle guarded, devoured it.
Then with a horror too intense to last for the hallucination to be analysed later, the young soldier could see the gentle identity of the sender of the flower seeds. He felt the numbing shock the telegram brought and he sensed the frozen days and the grief-filled nights, and he experienced the whole grandeur of life and its trivial, awful depths... A sensitive and sorrow-proud mother loving her son and wishing in her quiet way a tangible connexion between their lives when he was her living son at home and his dead body. Thinking in her innocence that the planting of the flowers would be a motherly and a lovely act which in some not understood way would atone for and transmute his violent end, so there would be peace and no blood. No shed blood, but merely a natural rest anticipated through the heeding of scared principles.
One of the working party said in a bored competent tone, "Stand clear," and he started back.
It happens that even a scene of past monotony and danger and loneliness will call with a vivid fascination when the time comes that it must be left behind and will not be seen again in the sane, slow years which lie ahead.
So the young soldier went for a last drive around the island and saw again how the green jungle had been slashed into and rolled back to make room for dusty airstrips and roads and camps. He reached the cemetery and went inside, trying to remember the last time he had been there. Flags of two countries hung limply against twin poles; the sun reflected searing glare from the bare coral and the jungle strained against the inadequate fence. But there was a general air of neatend of the cemetery, just before the steepness about the little place and across the lower slant to the lagoon, was a raised bed of soil that had evidently been carried there. In it were broad-leafed tropical plants, and in the middle, pure red of flame, were dahlia flowers. Forced in growth in the hothouse atmosphere, the plants were rank and grotesquely tall and the blooms were as huge and round crimson bowls.
"Blood-red bowls," the young soldier murmured to himself, not noticing his own words because he was pre-occupied in thinking about the packing he had to do to prepare for the home draft.