The Spike or Victoria College Review 1947
Time Past, Time Future
Time Past, Time Future
They Stood in the roadway, looking at the retreating bus.
'Well,' said Carol, 'To put the obvious into words, we missed it and that means waiting exactly fifty minutes for the next one. What shall we do to fill it in?'
Ritchie shrugged his shoulders. 'I'll let the lady decide', he said.
They were only slightly annoyed. It was a holiday, a fine hot autumn afternoon, and if they were late in starting there was no reason why they shouldn't be late in leaving tennis, provided they were back in time to change and be at the party by nine o'clock. Ritchie offered Carol a cigarette. She shook her head so he lit one for himself and they stood listening to the scraps of conversation left by the people as they eddied past on their way to the parade. 'Father's wearing his new brown suit . . . Irene's baby . . . much colder last night . . .'
'Shall we go along for a while, too?' Carol suggested.
Ritchie nodded. 'May as well. There's a conspiracy to keep us here, so we had better make the most of it.'
They joined in the drifting crowd. 'You know,' he continued, 'Perhaps people aren't supposed to play tennis today, and we are being punished for our crimes against society.'
Carol looked at him and gave a gurgle of laughter.
'In that case, society and my father are of the one mind,' she said. 'When I told him this afternoon that I was going to play tennis he asked me didn't we young people ever think of anything besides our own pleasure.'page 28
'What did you say?'
'Oh, I asked him didn't he and a few million other men fight to make the world safe for just that.'
'Scarcely the answer soothing!'
'I'll say not! Probably he was feeling rather noble after going to the dawn parade this morning. Mother was late in calling him and he didn't have time for any breakfast first. Result—he came home with a soldier-done-his-duty air and a splitting headache, and had to take a couple of aspirins. I had just got up. Oh, I laughed.'
'And how long does this Anzac spirit last, Carol?'
'For a few days yet. Tonight he'll go to a reunion and get gloriously high and then suffer the next day. He does it every year. All these returned soldiers make an excuse out of it, and their wives don't seem to mind. When I was a little kid I saw him come home blotto one Anzac night and I wouldn't kiss him for weeks afterwards.'
Ritchie grinned. 'I hope the tables weren't turned last Saturday night then?' he said.
Carol laughed with a trace of embarrassment. 'No. I'll tell you a secret, Ritchie. Don't tell the crowd, but that stuff of Bobbie's I was drinking must have been stronger than I knew. The only way I could get upstairs was on my hands and knees, and I didn't even try to get undressed! Luckily for me, when Mother came in next morning I had the bedclothes pulled right over me. When she didn't see my evening dress on the floor she actually said that I was becoming tidy at long last! Poor Mother!'
They were close to the roped-off area now. People were jostling and pushing for positions, occasionally with force, but always with good humour.
'It's a holiday crowd,' Ritchie observed.
'They only see this sight once a year and they intend to enjoy it, but decorum prevents their acknowledging pleasure.'
'At the reading of a will you could scarcely jump for joy when you heard you had come in for a couple of thousand pounds. It's the same thing now,' Carol said.
Ritchie gravely patted her head. 'A fine analogy, young lady. I loved him living but I loved him a damned sight more dead!'
'We can't get any further. I wonder if we can see the show from here?'
It was late when they arrived, so they were forced to stay some rows from the front. Ritchie, being tall, was able to see quite well.
The Memorial, from the base of which the service would be conducted, was in a triangle formed by the intersection of three streets now closed to traffic. These streets were thronged with people; others were standing on the roofs of nearby buildings, but perhaps the most popular stand was that provided by the rising banks of some grounds on the North side. These wore a picnic air with families on rugs, couples close together, children playing and being hushed. Cameras were being examined and aimed, and in empty patches the cropped, thick grass was almost hidden by used packets and discarded programmes.
The base of the Memorial was splashed in intricate, patterned colours of the placed wreaths—fresh and beautiful colour-offerings. As they watched more wreaths were placed. As each was laid the name of the donor was announced and Ritchie noticed most were prominent citizens or business establishments. He idly wondered what standing was necessary for the privilege of giving a wreath. Then, too, the different attitudes of those doing the actual laying interested him. He saw a young man scarcely older than himself, in a smooth and perfectly tailored uniform lay an expensive looking wreath with precise, expert movements, snap a salute and step down. Following him, an old lady moved slowly up the steps and handed her wreath to an attendant to place for her. She stood with bowed head for a long minute and went back down the steps like a communicant returning from the altar.
Ritchie became aware of two women behind him. They were talking about the best sorts of meals to give their families. One, with a shrill and domineering voice, was saying loudly: 'Good solid food is what a man needs. I believe in giving my family meat three times a day. I don't hold with these fancy things.' The scorn in her voice was as obvious as Ritchie imagined her overeating to be.
Yes, but ... I only thought that for apage break page break page 29
change . . . might be nice . . .' The other voice trailed off.
'Ritchie,' Carol said, touching his arm,
'You haven't forgotten me have you?'
'Of course not. Why?'
'Nothing, except that I can't see a damn thing. Not a damn thing but rows of heads and collars and shoulders. And I do want to see the wreaths. There are some lovely ones, I know. Stand still a moment.'
She put her hand on his shoulder, jumped up to win a quick look, and flashed him a smile.
'Yes. Looked like the rear end of an elephant—probably a woman laying down a wreath!'
Ritchie burst out laughing, causing some of the people to turn their heads their way. The woman with a shrill voice said loudly,
'Young people these days have no respect or even common decency. Laughing like that here! It was different when we were young, my dear.' The other woman said nothing. Ritchie felt his face go red. I suppose it isn't quite the thing to do,' he said softly to Carol. 'After all, a lot of the people here did lose someone and, well, it must be hard on them.'
Carol said audibly: 'Bloody old cat! Tight corsets and a tighter halo. At home she wears neither! 'She thought for a while and then went on more quietly.' Surely, those who did lose somebody have got over it by now. Even if they haven't they don't want to do their mourning in public. You said before that they come only for the show. Of course they do! This is a break for them today, the same as tennis is for us. It's only once a year they have the chance to see uniforms and watch real military bands and have some parson telling them how brave our boys were. They're always especially pleased with that bit because it is an indirect compliment to them. Think at the reflected thrill they get out of it. I know, my mother is the same. She never met my father until afterwards but I'm sure that now she believes he went away just for her sake, and that she shared in all the anxieties the wives of that time had. But you and I would be hypocrites if we pretended we felt more than just an academic sorrow for those" gallant lads' 'who didn't come back. They were unlucky, that's all, and anyway, it's a long time ago now.'
She drew a deep breath. 'Gosh, that's quite a speech . . . Oh, who is that going past now, Ritchie?'
'The last crowd. Scotties. Look, if I put the racquet case on its side you could stand on that and see what's doing.'
He stood it up. 'Now take my arm. Steady does it.' She put her arm around his shoulders to steady herself and left it there.
'It's lucky you're a lightweight. Can you see?'
'Yes, thanks. I'm conspicuous here though. A bit leggy.'
'Don't pretend that worries you. With your legs!'
She looked down complacently. Carol was nineteen, two years younger than Ritchie. She was small and blonde and pretty, and she knew the brief tennis outfit she wore suited her very well. Ritchie was aware of her breasts beneath her thin shirt. They stood out firmly, almost pushing. He moved a little closer until he could feel her body against him. Her arm automatically tightened around him. He felt the sun hot on his bare head and arms and suddenly a wave of exultation raced through him. He was glad, glad to be young and healthy and free, and he knew himself to be contemptuous of this stolid crowd around him. He knew that it cared as little as he did for the ideals being given lip-service to at this parade, but he and his generation did not have to hide their feelings.
'Look! Carol exclaimed. 'Oh, look at him!'
Before a contingent of men carrying a banner inscribed with an historical legend marched a pipe band, and before the pipe band was the drum-major. He marched some steps ahead of the others, and in the bright sunlight the flamboyant skin he wore, his splendid physique, harsh, craggy head, and above all his isolation, made him one apart and splendid.
The woman with the shrill voice squealed out with delight: 'Isn't he just marvelous!'
'Doesn't he look fierce?' Carol whispered.
'Hello! Have you got it too?' Ritchie page 30 asked. 'I wonder if he looks so good in a natty gent's suit, inexpensively priced?'
Don't say that,' Carol protested. 'You spoil it all.'
Why? Weren't you saying a few minutes ago that this is all just show? And now you want to praise it.'
'I don't. But as a show it is good. And he is so different from all them,' and she gestured towards the body of men his band led.
'They're tired-looking and slow. They aren't young men, they are getting old. I don't like to see them trying to resurrect a life that has been over for twenty years. There is something pitiful about it.'
The men straggled past, more or less in step, as she was talking about them. Some were well-dressed, some shabby; some walked self-consciously, others marched stiffly with swinging arms. Some of the men were drunk and most were sober; one or two had empty sleeves pinned to their coats, and a few limped. They all wore decorations.
A woman called to one. 'Yoo-hoo George!' One of the marchers looked her way, half-smiled and quickly averted his face.
Ritchie felt Carol shaking with suppressed laughter.
'Poor dear! she said. It's rather hard to imagine they did all the things we read and hear about. I suppose they did. Fighting and loving. In days of old when knights were cold! I wonder if the chap who wrote that rather revealing war novel I read a while back is so playful now? His friends here don t look so lively.'
'If they were you would only call them nasty old men.'
'I certainly would if they tried it on me!'
When this last section of men, with some confusion of false halts and turns, was drawn up in place a minister stepped up to the microphone on the Memorial base. The commentator announced the name of the minister who would conduct the service. A gargantuan cough burst from all the speakers, making them jump, and they looked towards the minister who stood patiently waiting for the crowd to settle into quiet. His white, thin fingers were deftly sorting a sheaf of papers. When he finished, he glanced at his wrist watch and began to speak.
We are here today, my brethren, in solemn and proud memory of those kin of ours who, some two decades ago, paid the supreme . . .
Ritchie thought how necessary a stock-in-trade a clerical voice was for a minister, to be pulled out on business days like today and on Sundays. This man's voice was slow and even and practised, with the prolongation of terminal vowels peculiar to his profession.
'... were young men who had not tasted to the full the cup of life when they were called away into the greater Life . . .'
I won't be like that, Ritchie thought. No uniforms and being led off to a war, with all the humiliations and monotony that went with it. No. That's not my lot.
'... duties were heavy and exacting, and they performed them in a way which made their name a glorious one throughout the entire world—a name which will live through the years with ever-increasing glory. They fought and died so we might live the lives denied them, that we might be spared the evil fruits of an ungodly crop they destroyed. We thank thee, O God, that they have not fought in vain. But let us never forget the price of the freedom they bought so dearly is our eternal vigilance, and the exercise of justice and charity. And, most necessary of all, the teaching of the words of Lord Jesus Christ to all races on earth.'
He paused for a while and Ritchie considered what he had said. Yes, he thought, the old boy is right in a general sort of way. Eternally vigilant—that's why we have members of parliament and hold conferences and all that sort of thing. To see we don't go to war again. It's working all right now and 1 don't see why it shouldn't in the future. A war wouldn't really be possible now, anyway, with all the new weapons they have invented. This bit of bother in Europe now—The speaker recommenced. 'This is the day that has been set aside in memory of those husbands and sons and comrades of ours. Therefore let us first join together in the Lord's Prayer.' He bowed his head.
'Let's go before they start, Ritchie' Carol whispered.' It's almost time for the next bus and we must not miss that one.' She jumped off the case and they made their way through the crowd with difficulty, pushing page 31 past people with bowed heads. As they went down the street, the brassy chant of the preacher and the low, harmonizing mutter of many voices accompanying his, grew fainter and fainter until they merged in with the surge of the city that never quite dies out on any day.
Carol danced along beside Ritchie.
'We just got out of there in time,' she observed.' Another minute we would have been caught and singing Onward Christian Soldiers!' She laughed merrily and pointed to a shop window.
'Look at that calendar-they've got the last two numbers around the wrong way!'
Ritchie looked and smiled.
'What year are we in, then?' he asked. '1936 or 1963?'
'Who knows—or cares! Come on, there's the bus.'
And the two very young people jumped in the bus and went to tennis.
By J. O'Hagan