In the story Lazy, Sheila and Colin are reunited for their honeymoon in Surfer’s Paradise, and Colin tells Sheila what is was like to fight during the Siege of Tobruk.
Read episode #12 without commentary
Sheila McKechnie felt lazy.
She lay in a big bed with white sheets and a white comforter. A breeze billowed the sheer curtains. Seagulls squawked nearby. She stretched her arms and rolled on her side.
The smell of rich coffee drifted from the table, where Colin sat reading the newspaper.
She stuck her nose in the sheets and breathed deeply. Colin was home. They had married four days earlier in a civil ceremony. A small group of family members had attended: both sets of parents, her brother Tim and his wife, and Colin’s sister. Tom and Hazel and their children had come too.
Colin’s butter knife scraped against toast.
“Come back to bed,” she said. “I want to lounge and sleep all day.”
“We’ll have none of that,” he said. “You promised to teach me to surf. After all, this is Surfers Paradise.”
“The waves will wait till this afternoon. Come back to bed.”
“Your eggs will get cold,” he said.
“Oh, all right.”
She slipped on a robe but didn’t bother to tie it. At the table, she placed a hand on his shoulder. As usual, the headlines were about the war, but she ignored them.
“Look.” She pointed. “Wool prices are climbing again. We’ll make a fortune this year.”
“Wartime pricing,” he said.
The war invaded every aspect of everyone’s life; it was a greedy, insatiable phenomenon.
“Sit,” he said. “This marmalade is the best I’ve ever had.”
She pulled her chair closer to him.
“Coffee?” he asked.
“If you insist.”
“I do. It’s ten o’clock already. No more slouching. You’re in the AWAS, for Pete’s sake.”
“Don’t remind me.”
He had wrangled a ten-day furlough. They spent the first three days organizing the wedding in Brisbane, celebrated with family for a day, and then drove south to the beach for their honeymoon.
After breakfast, they took second cups of coffee out to the balcony. The breeze lifted her hair from the back of her neck. A lone seagull hovered nearby, hoping for a free meal, but he soon wandered elsewhere. From the beach a hundred yards away, the waves crashed and rolled like thunder.
They had tried surfing the prior two days, but the wind had stirred the sea into a frothy mess. She had hardly been able to ride herself, much less teach him, so they walked the beach in the mornings and napped under an umbrella in the afternoon. He was so tired he had slept for hours the previous day. She had watched him breathe, his back moving as his lungs filled. His face had gone slack, but his hands twitched while he slept. It made her uneasy, watching his hands, the jerking fingers. She had wanted to wake him, to hold his hands still, but he needed the rest, so she had watched the sea instead.
Standing on the balcony, he watched the fronds wave from the palm trees. “It’s beautiful here.”
He had wanted to go inland for a few days, but she had convinced him to stay at the beach. If they had gone to Darling Downs, he would have wanted to spend time with Tom and the boys touring the farms, and she was selfish. She wanted him all to herself.
“Maybe we could buy a cottage here after the war,” she said.
“In Brisbane?” he said.
“No, here in Surfers Paradise. Nothing fancy. A small place for holidays. We could come down a couple times a year.”
He touched her cheek. “You miss the sea.”
“I don’t want to live here,” she said, which was not entirely true. She missed sailing and the smell and the constant breeze. An idea had come to her the day before. She could open a surf shop for people on holiday, offer lessons and sell bathing suits and sunglasses.
“Darling Downs is beautiful,” she said, “and I’ll happily work with you on the farms for the rest of our lives, but I also want to visit the sea, and it’s only a couple hours by train.”
“Of course,” he said. “We must buy a place here.”
“And when we have children we can teach them to swim . . . and surf.”
“What?” she asked.
“You always have dreams.”
“A person has to dream. What’s the point of life if you don’t dream?”
He nodded again, silent, a simple man, and she was sorry she had mentioned dreams. He was not a dreamer. Work was all he needed. Thinking through problems and then working to solve them with his muscles and his hands was enough for Colin. She loved him for that. She could dream enough for both of them.
He didn’t object to her dream of buying a cottage at the shore. He might have before the war, in jest, joked with her about being a fish, but he was quieter since returning from the Middle East. After his nap the day before, he had sat and stared at the ocean, not saying anything. Perhaps he hadn’t seen the crashing waves at all. After several minutes, he had closed his eyes, as if he couldn’t stand to watch any longer.
“Tell me about it,” she said.
“The fighting. Tobruk. It must have been awful.”
He shrugged. “Not much to say. A bunch of men playing games with fireworks.”
“No, it’s not,” she said.
He winced. “I don’t like to talk about it.”
She waited for him until the silence lingered into awkwardness; surely, the tough-guy thing would crack.
“Most of the time it’s boring,” he said. He licked his lips, his eyes on the ground below. “You pack your stuff, wait for a ride, wait in line, and unpack your stuff. You work on small tasks, pitch a tent, dig a hole, haul some stuff, and clean your gun. Always clean your gun, they say—no worse way to lose the fight than a jammed gun.”
He spit off the railing. She’d never seen him spit like that, right in the open, but it seemed as if he was no longer there, not with her. He’d slipped away.
“The worst part is waiting for the battle to begin,” he said. “You know they will attack, or you will attack. Everyone knows, but nobody knows when. The minutes pass like hours. Sweat slides into your eyes. You wipe it away and it stings. You blink so you can see. Is someone moving over there? Is that a gun? No.
“You wait and wait and wait. With each minute you grow more afraid until your hands tremble. Don’t show the other guys. Fear spreads like the smell of fire. The officers try to calm the men, but their voices sound shaky, as if they know someone will die today. Everyone knows someone will die. Someone always dies. But you never know who, or how many.”
He gnawed the inside of his mouth. He snorted, his eyes on the dunes.
“That’s the worst part,” he said, “the waiting. But then it starts. When it starts, everything is happening at once—the gunfire, men running, mortar blasts. Instinct takes over, your training. The fear flees—gone in an instant. You move and move and move, fire the gun until it’s empty, reload, sight your target, fire again, watch him fall. Is he dead? No time to think. Move. Move. Fire again. Two guys over there, maybe three. Can I heave my grenade that far? How long to wait? Throw it too soon, and they’ll lob it back. One second, two seconds, oh my God, throw the damn thing. Boom. Fire again. Reload. Move. Stop. God, I’m thirsty. Who’s screaming? Is that Thompson? Someone’s moving out there. They’re retreating. Oh, God. I know what happens now.
“The lieutenant shouted, ‘Move. Move. Move!’
“I’m up. I’m running. A mortar blast to the left. Someone’s ahead, hiding. Fire my gun. Jump for cover. Bullets pinging off the rock. Wait. God, I’m thirsty. Up. Fire again. Keep firing until the gun’s empty. Other guys run up. Jones. Drucker. Thompson. I thought he was hit. Get up and run to the next rock, firing the whole way. They’re retreating again. I see them. Two fall. I shot them. I think I shot them. Or maybe it was Thompson.”
Colin stopped rambling, and she touched his arm. He sniffled.
“It’s loud noises,” he said, “and dust . . . and stuff flying everywhere. The air moves like a solid wall. It knocks you down. And then there’s blood. Everywhere you turn there’s blood. Thompson’s blood. So much of it. More than possible, and then it stops and he’s dead. No way to save him.”
He shook his head, kept jerking it.
“Thompson,” he said. “That day it was Thompson.”
“Shush,” she said. “I’ve heard enough now.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close, pulled him tight. His breath came in gasps. She held his face and kissed his lips, his cheeks, and his tears.
“Come now,” she said. “Back to bed.”
They snuggled on top of the sheets, Colin behind her with his arm curled over her side, their fingers entwined. He brushed against her back, and she flinched. A sharp pain spread from the rope burn to her neck and scalp.
“Sorry,” he said, pulling away. “So stupid . . . I forgot.”
“No, don’t back away. I want you close. Hold me tight. It doesn’t hurt much. We only have a few days left. I want to spend all of our time like this, close together. I want to memorize your smell, the bristle of your beard. I want to know the sight of your face as well as my own. We may be apart for months and months. This moment has to last us a long time.”
Of course, they didn’t spend all their time in bed. Soon their tummies grumbled with hunger, and they went downstairs for lunch. In the afternoon, they tried surfing again, and he began to get the hang of it. She took him out to a shallow flat where the waves rolled long and slow. She pushed the board for him, and he stood, and she watched him ride unsteadily toward the shore.
I’m concerned about the girls. Natalie and April watch me with worried eyes. Of course, they know wars kill. It’s on the news every day—terrorism, regional conflicts—but it’s not personal. They’ve never known anyone who died in a war.
“Thompson,” says Natalie, “the man who was killed. Were he and Colin friends?”
I have no way of knowing. Julie never said anything more about Thompson. I can make this part up.
“No. Colin barely knew him.”
My answer doesn’t help much. April is burrowing, her head pressed against the pillow. She’s squeezing Spot.
“So,” Natalie says, “in the war, the Germans and Japanese are kind of like school bullies. And Colin, and the other soldiers, and Sheila stand up to the bullies, and in the end, they will win.”
My chest fills as I nod my agreement. The back of my neck tingles and tears threaten my eyes. Natalie’s darn smart. She can handle the stories, and with a little assistance from Natalie and me, April can too. But as a measure of caution, I will avoid the war stories for a few nights, circle back to earlier tales with happy endings.
I leave the room with Chris close behind me. She waits until we shut the front door, and then she slaps my shoulder.
“Damn you,” she says.
Her lips tremble. “Why did you start telling these stories? What have you done to me?”
I hold her by the arms. Her eyes wander to the darkness as if something to fear lurks nearby.
Then she says, “That sequence on the hotel balcony, the running, the firing guns, and the death of Thompson. I was there with Sheila. I could see Colin’s face, how torn up he was. Damn you.”
“They’re just stories,” I lie. “They’re not real.” Then I pause and shift back to the truth. “But wars suck, and I’d rather the girls believe my interpretation than someone else’s propaganda.”
I hold Chris. We sit on the sofa. And then we kiss. We lie down and make out. Then I tickle her, and she laughs, and everything is okay again, at least for now.
END OF EPISODE 12
About the Storyteller
Pat lives in Austin. He likes to cook dinner with his wife, listen to any kind of good music, and take long walks in beautiful places.
Pat is the author of four Joe Robbins novels and a college crime story titled Only Yes Means Yes. You can find Pat’s work on Amazon under his author name Patrick Kelly. Learn more about Pat’s writing at his website:
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