Patrick Kelly

INTRODUCING THE SHEILA STORIES

Sheila Stories #14 - Battle of the Beaches

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In the story Battle of the Beaches, the ambulance drivers in Tamworth follow the news closely as Australian and American forces fight the Japanese on the beaches of New Guinea.

Read episode #14 without commentary

Battle of the Beaches

The AWAS drivers kept a map of New Guinea in the motor pool shed. They had drawn a mark along the Kokoda Track through the Owen Stanley Range and down to the sea. The Japanese had retreated to the beaches, and the Australians and Americans were closing in. The newspapers told stories of horrendous battles, snipers, land mines, and hand-to-hand combat. Most of the drivers had a husband, or a brother, or a boyfriend who was fighting in New Guinea.

The locations sounded unfamiliar: Buna, Gona, and Sanananda. Were it not for the war, they might never have studied such a map. The fighting continued into November. Colin’s letters stopped coming, which meant he was on the move again. An article reported the Eighteenth Brigade had moved near the beaches.

She regularly visited the hospital wards. She found the soldiers’ moods varied from one to the next, depending on their health, but she often succeeded in winning a smile.

One patient had been a nightclub comedian before he joined the army. From his bed, he performed for injured comrades and nurses and anyone else who came by. He told brilliant jokes with well-honed delivery, and a visit to his bedside always brightened her mood. One day in late December, after a stop at his ward had reduced her to tears of laughter, she smiled for the entire walk back to the motor pool shed.

Inside the waiting room, it was quiet. No one played cards or joked or studied the map. They all looked at her when she came in: Norma, Jackie, Darlene, and Captain Whitworth, her superior officer.

She felt light. Laughing at the soldier’s jokes had released feel-good bubbles that floated through her body. She opened her mouth to tell the girls about the comic at the hospital, but then Norma edged toward her. Wait. Why was Captain Whitworth here?

Norma’s eyes were flat, her brows drawn together and her lips tight.

“Sheila,” she said.

“What? What is it?” Her heart faltered, skipped a beat. A weight pulled down on her.

“We’ve received a telegram. I mean . . . you’ve received a telegram.”

“What? Where?”

Norma handed her the paper, and she glanced at the others: the captain, Jackie. Darlene had tears in her eyes.

With shaking hands, she tore at the telegram from the Department of the Army.

 

MRS. COLIN MCKECHNIE

THE DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY DEEPLY REGRETS . . . SERGEANT COLIN MCKECHNIE . . . KILLED IN ACTION . . . SINCEREST SYMPATHY . . .

 

“He’s dead,” she said. “My husband . . . Colin . . . he’s dead.” Her knees trembled, and she dropped the telegram.

Norma reached for her, but Sheila couldn’t feel her grip. She collapsed. The captain rushed to her, and they dragged her into a chair.

“He’s dead.”

She saw her hands. They clutched her legs, her knuckles white, but she felt nothing.

“He’s dead.”

A buzzing noise filled the room. It sounded like some kind of machine—a drill, or a saw. Darlene’s mouth moved—so slowly—but her voice was swallowed by the machine.

Colin is dead.

Stop thinking those words. Don’t say those words. The sentence sounded weird, illogical.

Colin is dead.

They had it wrong. She shook her head. Yes, another soldier had died. Not Colin. He was too smart, too quick. He had promised to be careful.

It was bright in the room. Why were there so many lights? Her head ached.

Darlene sat, her face under pressure. Her head tilted.

Someone was crying. Who?

“Sheila,” said the captain, shaking her shoulder. “Sheila!”

“What?” Her voice sounded old and weak.

“Norma and Jackie will take you to the barracks.”

“Why?”

“Go with them. Please. They’ll help you.”

The captain held a piece of paper. The telegram.

Norma reached for her again.

“Come on, I’ve got you.”

Jackie stood beside her and helped her stand. She took a step, her legs so weak now.

They trudged outside. The cheery sunshine was absurd, out of sync with her news. She stared at the ground. The loss closed in like the racing clouds of a storm front, as if a simple telegram could change the weather in her mind.

#

She sat on a bench overlooking a bend in the creek, the hospital building behind her. Untamed woods occupied the land across the gulley. The bubbling water drowned out the sounds of the hospital. A bird sang a lonesome three-note call every few moments, the same pattern, a low note followed by a higher note, and then one in the middle. One-two-three. One-two-three.

On the day the telegram came, everyone had urged her to lie down, as if rest would help, but she wasn’t sleepy. Norma and Sheila had taken a long walk, and Norma asked how she had met Colin. Sheila told stories about him, of their adventures together, and she and Norma wound up on this bench, with Sheila crying, her head on Norma’s shoulder, and Norma not saying anything.

Sheila had returned to sit by the creek every day. She kept thinking about the soldier with malaria; how he had proclaimed himself lucky. He was right. She would gladly take Colin with malaria, or one arm, or one leg, or blind. Anything to have him back.

The day after the telegram arrived, she had asked the captain for a shift. Work would keep her busy, force her mind to think of other things.

“Have you eaten?” the captain had asked.

“Yes, ma’am.” It was only a little lie. She had gone to the dining hall at the recommended time, but the food tasted rotten. She had drunk two cups of tea and thrown the rest away.

Since then, she’d worked long days, driving, performing maintenance on her ambulance, sweeping the motor pool shed, and other busy work.

She kept going to the dining hall, but didn’t feel like eating. The same thoughts kept tumbling through her mind.

How can I eat if he cannot eat?

Why do I breathe when he does not breathe?

What am I supposed to do now?

When not working, she had traversed the hospital grounds in a fog. She could sense her essence retreating, growing smaller. She wanted to interact with her friends, and with the patients in the wards, but she was tiny. She called to them from deep within a cave, a small voice in the darkness.

According to the headlines, the Aussies and Americans were winning the Battle of the Beaches, but she didn’t read the stories. She had already lost the war.

I will never hear his voice again. I will never feel his touch or laugh at his silly jokes. We will never walk hand in hand along the beach, the wind in our hair. We will never drive across the barren miles in search of stray cattle.

Suddenly, she recognized the birdcall.

It wasn’t one-two-three with the high note in the middle. It was I-love-you.

I-love-you.

She smiled. Colin would do that, if he could, send his love through a birdcall. She wiped a tear from her cheek and heard a footstep. Captain Whitworth. Sheila stood.

“No,” said the captain. “I’ll sit with you.”

The captain was in her forties and had thick auburn hair streaked with gray. She was career army and comfortable in her uniform. She sat with her knees together, shoulders straight, hands in her lap.

“It’s beautiful here,” she said.

“Yes, I like the sound of the water and the birdcalls.”

The captain nodded as if she understood.

“Did you forget about your shift today?”

“What? What time is it?”

“Almost six. You were due at four.”

Panic rose in Sheila’s chest. Her neck felt hot. She was never late.

“Oh, no . . . I’m sorry.” She stood. “I’ll run—”

“No. Please sit. I want to talk with you.”

Sheila lowered her weight to the bench again. The noise of the creek receded. The captain was a strict disciplinarian. She tolerated little in the way of slacking off, so why was her face not stern? Her expression resembled a mother gazing at her youngest child.

“How do you feel?” said the captain.

How did she feel? A simple question. How are you? People tossed that question around carelessly, but the captain waited, as if genuinely interested in her answer.

How did she feel? The small essence of her that dwelled deep within the cave had not bothered to consider that question. She took a deep breath of fresh air. Her head ached terribly. Iron tongs squeezed the back of her skull, driving tension into her shoulders and neck. She shook her head, not sure how to answer the captain.

“Sorry about missing the shift,” she said.

“No worries. The others will cover for you. Everyone is concerned. Norma came to see me this morning.”

“Norma?”

“She says you’re not sleeping.”

That was largely true. Each night, she would lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wonder what she should do next. When she tried to relive her honeymoon, the worse possible thing happened: she had difficulty recreating Colin’s face. She could remember what they did, what they ate, and much of what they said, but no matter how she tried, his face remained a blur. After thirty minutes, she’d get up and look at his photograph, study his features—his hair, ears, and nose. Satisfied, she’d get back in bed, but after a while, his face blurred again.

At work, she was exhausted. The day before, she had nodded off standing next to her ambulance; her legs began to buckle, but she caught herself from falling at the last moment.

“You’re still in shock.”

“I’ll be fine. I just need to . . .”

“You need rest and a break from the uniform, away from Tamworth, away from the hospital.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m placing you on indefinite leave.”

“Indefinite?”

“You’re going home to Sydney, to your family.”

None of it made sense. She couldn’t go to Sydney. She hadn’t even told her mother about Colin.

“I’ve already contacted your parents.”

Home. The hills of North Sydney. The towering eucalyptus trees. Her childhood bedroom. She’d been home only three times since leaving eight years earlier. It seemed a lifetime ago. A husband ago. She was little more than a child back then. But to curl her toes in the sand at Manly Beach, to feel the waves splashing over her calves—it seemed as good a destination as any, and certainly more promising than sitting on this bench.

“You have a ticket on tonight’s train,” said the captain. “Your parents will meet you at the station.”

 <><><> 

Only Chris appears to be on the verge of crying. Her hand wipes at her eyes, and she sniffles.

Natalie and April are quiet. Natalie stares straight ahead. April studies me as if trying to discern how she should react. They don’t know Colin, but they know about death.

Natalie says, “What was it like when Mommy died?”

Oh. I should have expected it. They love to talk about Julie. Not about her death so much, but anything to do with her life. They love to hear funny stories about her, silly things she did, and the pranks she played. They like to hear about her adventures: surfing, sporting competitions, and trips.

But the story of Colin’s death has piqued their curiosity about Julie’s passing.

“It was rough,” I say. “I was sad for a long time, but Mommy’s death differed from Colin’s in two significant ways. For one thing, her cancer was incurable, so I knew for several months she was going to die. That gave us time to say goodbye. Sheila never had that time. Secondly, and most importantly, I had you girls. Even though your mother was leaving, I had something to look forward to. You were the bright spots of my life. You helped me survive.”

“Is Sheila going to be all right?”

“Well, I can’t tell you too much without giving away the next story, but I can remind you of this: she never gives up.”

#

When we’re on the porch, which has become our nightly ritual after the stories, Chris lets me have it.

“Yaaa! You bastard.” She shakes me.

I try to touch her, but she backs away.

“I can’t believe that,” she says, “that Colin died. I know you heard the stories from Julie, and you . . . you preserve them in memory of her, but in this case, you should have made an exception. You should have . . . you just . . . .”

“I should have what?”

“You should have let him live. I can’t believe Julie killed him. Why do the good guys have to die in the end?”

“The good guys always die. Everyone dies in the end.”

“But it’s just a story. It can have a happy ending. Hollywood does it all the time.”

“It’s not just a story. It’s not fiction.”

“Sure it is. Julie made them up.”

I shake my head. “Julie told me the stories, but I never said she made them up.”

Her face changes in the dim light from the windows. Lines form on her forehead. She’s breathing fast.

I hold her hands.

“The stories are true,” I say, “at least, Julie thought they were true. Changing them would be like rewriting history, and I won’t do that no matter how hard they are to hear . . . or to tell.”

#

When I open my eyes the next morning, the first thing I see is Julie’s picture on my bedside table. We had come up from the beach to get a cool drink, just another of a thousand couples on the Gold Coast.

Picking up the picture, I scan the contours of her face. She looks different, but I can’t figure out why—her smile is still there, the freckles across the bridge of her nose, her hair drying in the warm breeze.

I don’t know if telling the stories was a good idea, Julie, but at least we’re almost done.

Only much later, when the girls have gone outside to play, and I’m sitting at the table with a second cup of coffee, do I realize I spoke to Julie in my mind, not out loud. Have I done that previously? If so, when did it start? And why?

The heart has limited capacity. You can love more than one person, but when you share your love with a second, there’s not as much left for the first.

Julie is slipping away.

END OF EPISODE 14

Do you love The Sheila Stories? Tell your friends. They can subscribe to the podcast, read the stories here on the website, or find the full collection on Amazon US. For those in Australia, click for Amazon here. Other markets? Go to Amazon and type The Sheila Stories by Patrick Kelly into the search bar.


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:

https://www.patrickkellystories.com/

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