Short stories

The Larrikin
Memories are special things, their personal.
If a picture can tell a story why has this left me with a thousand questions.

I had a wonderful day yesterday. I spent most of it in tears but I found myself so enthralled in what I was doing I didn’t notice for the first two hours.

My day was spent going through old photographs, scanning them in an effort to preserve them and wishing I knew the story behind each one. I’ve done the basic work on just over a hundred so far, I have half that amount again to go through and although I know the general location of the images, the places, the activities and the smiling faces all have stories that I can’t help feel are now lost.

They were my uncle’s. My father’s brother was like a second dad to me and he died fifteen years ago.  I remember how long ago because my youngest son was only six months old and I had him with me when we had to verify my uncle had indeed passed away in the small, two-room flat that he called home. My dad made the call to the police while my baby boy’s cry for food covered my own tears of loss.  My uncle never married and didn’t have children of his own, that we know of anyway, and his passing was as quiet as the life he lived.

In his life, I knew him as a bit of a larrikin, a playful torment and the uncle who knew how to have a good time. He used to get my sisters and I, and himself, in so much trouble with his brother and sister-in-law with some of the antics he encouraged us into. Although my two eldest children were only 7 and 2 when he died, he was well on the way to teaching them his brand of fun bad habits too.

Yesterday was a day of missing him as I started going through a bundle of black and white photos he had kept to remind him of his service with the Australian army during World War Two.

We found the photos in the bottom of an old suitcase that contained many knickknacks and items special to him. What makes things special to one person is very personal and this was true of many of the items in the case.  I convinced my mother to hand the photos over to me a few years ago but only started the process of digitally recording them yesterday. My uncle saw no need to write information on the back of the faded images of his past; he knew what was going on.  Looking at the details in the photos without having details made my imagination take flight and I found myself diligently working with tears silently and slowly leaking from my eyes as the possible stories behind the images filled my head.

There were some details on the back of the odd photo. A few of the faces in small group shots have an initial before a surname but loose lips sink ships so locations and activity were not mentioned. Well, that’s what my imagination suggests could be the one reason for no more details.

Although I don’t know the young men’s names, their faces became familiar as they appeared time and again in the photos. All the images depicted good times and good mates.  Good memories stored away in a safe place.

It took a bit to work out which of the smiling faces was my uncle; at first glance, they pretty much looked alike in the same torn shorts and slouch hats. My uncle’s worse bad habit, his tobacco pipe, gave him away in a photo not much bigger than a postage stamp.  Once I saw him, I spotted him easily in the other photos. From that point on it became personal as I was looking at a part of his life I knew nothing about. I wish I had paid more attention and asked more questions when he told funny stories about that time. In my defense, he never talked about it a lot.

It also became clear where the story of these photos started as over the series I saw pale, water fat young men become tanned, fit and strong but also thin and weary. I could see the toll defending their country was taking on them. That tugged at my heart, especially as the occasional image showed stern grins where toothy smiles had been before.

Lunch from a tin and a dinning like kings. (c) Jillian Carlon 2013
Lunch from a tin and dining like kings. (c) Jillian Carlon 2013

The collection also includes snapshots of the environment they were living in with only a posed glimpse of the reason they were there. The bush camps the gunners of his division called home were rough, dry and obviously hot as the soldiers were bare-chested in all the shots. Showers appear to have been an occasion as there are a few shots of men standing under a suspended container, lathered up with soap, waiting for an owner-less arm from the side of the photo to pull a rope attached to the container. These shots don’t reveal anything they shouldn’t, however, they highlight the dark tanned skin above and below the place that army issue shorts usually cover. It is in these images the soldier’s weight loss is most visible as bony limbs are uncovered.

My uncle’s photo memories from the suitcase include fishing trips off the very beach they were defending, what looks like a sports day with running races, boxing events and what appears to be a donkey race with soldiers as jockeys. There are many shots of a horse race that appeared to have gathered hundreds of people from across all the military services as well as some long-forgotten officials who have been named but I am yet to search out. With my uncle no longer around to help me find out the easy way, I think I now have my life work ahead of me to find out what I can.

It may not be easy as memories are like the special things I mentioned earlier, personal.

There is still one photo I don’t have in my possession to search out an answer for. My mother and father are keeping that one and I’m not allowed to ask anymore. It is a single photo of a women, again unnamed, that was tucked away from the others. Was she someone special to my uncle who broke his heart? Did he break hers? Could she be the reason he never married? Am I just being a slopping romantic with an overactive imagination?

Every picture may tell a story but these have left me with a thousand questions.

Things that whisper in the night.

My subconscious mind is at its most active in the moments before sleep overtakes the rest of my body. Even the exhaustion of a long industrious day does not interfere with the matters it wishes to raise. The things I have pushed to that place where I wish to lock them away and deny their existence.  A storehouse of words I wish was never said, images that once seen can never be unseen, moments lost as well as those the conscious mind could not comprehend or rationally explain and would rather forget. However, the subconscious mind does not.

As the responsibilities of the day and consciousness relax before sleep it goes to work behind closed eyelids, deep inside the mind that has delegated the handling of these matters on to it. The softness of the pillow and the comfort of the warm bed coverings over me are no shield against the processing of its contents.

The settling sounds of the house in the cool night air are not comforting as darkness fills my bedroom and hidden thoughts creep to the front of my mind. My subconscious mind brings the unexplained to my attention and forces me to make contact with it.

My skin not covered by blankets, my face and shoulders,  tingle with erupting goosebumps as my mind hears a voice that my ear does not register.  I realise I am are not alone in an empty room as this soundless voice says hello.

Home is a safe place and this evening had been like any other of the countless nights spent in it since moving here in the early eighties. When I had finished my night-time chores I had been surprised by the lateness of the hour but still managed to turn off my small bedside light at 11.30pm. Before closing my eyes for the night I had been thinking about how life turns around and how independent I had become.  I had pondered the idea of being alone, its benefits and disadvantages and decided, consciously, if that is the way it is meant to be it would not be bad.

Shadows move around the room as cars pass on the street outside and shapes seem to form where none should be. I feel them and hold my breath waiting for them to move again.

One, two, three, four, five, breath in, relax, it’s all in my mind.

Nothing has moved, not even the goosebumps. Why won’t they go away?

Breath in, breath out, breath in, breath out, stop being a big girl. It’s just your active imagination. Breath in, breath out.

A voice assaults my head that I sense more than hear. It sounds almost like a teacher’s final attempt to be heard over a class of rowdy teenagers. Through the ear resting on my pillow a voice shouts hello.

Although covered with blankets I’m frozen in place. I’m not alone.

At this moment, with an unknown voice ringing in my head, a hand to hold would be comforting.

The shadows have not moved. The room is still. The noise of cars on the road outside rise and subsides as they pass by without a second thought for the occupants of the dwellings along their route.

There is no feeling of threat.

Breath in, breath out.

The house creaks and settles. No other noise comes from within its walls.

Breath in, breath out.

Maybe I’m dreaming.  A very vivid dream, I could still feel the aftermath of the voice my mind heard within my left ear, but a dream none the less.  I moved to verify the time that had passed since turning off the light. The clock stands sentinel on the bedside table to the right of the bed,  I roll all the way over to see the fluorescent numbers on its face.  A little dot of light is gleaming next to the pm label and the numbers are  11.50.

Shadows dance as another vehicle with a faceless driver moves closer to its destination.

Breath in, breath out.

Pressure on my shoulder. It feels like someone is patting me?

Breath in, breath out.

Do I feel frightened?

Breath in, breath out.

My ears are again deprived of hearing a sound but my head registers a brief chortle before the pressure lifts off my shoulder. The voice whispers this time and I turn to see who is with me.

Breath in, breath out.

My eyes are rewarded with dancing shadows from passing car headlights.

Deep breath . Hold it. Breath out.

Although it registered as a hushed voice the words loudly echo my thoughts before my body decided to rest.

You don’t have to be alone.

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