Waiting for war

I have not been so cold since I was a child, or so it seems to me. The drought has broken in many parts of Australia and with it has come a resumption of past weather patterns, the winters of old.

I took out an old yellow lunch box that’s been hidden away in one of the drawers in my study and is full of negatives. I sent them off to be developed. Among the photos that came back I found some surprising treasures.

There is one photo of my father in Indonesia.

Elsewhere there is a photo of my mother in an evening dress. These are the parents I never knew, the parents who existed before I was born, the parents who had not yet travelled to Australia to make a new life with their children.

By 1947 – the calendar on the wall in the photo of my father dates the image – my parents had only two children, two sons and had already lost one daughter.

Elsewhere I have a small photograph wrapped in tissue paper. It has faded with age. The image of my father in the centre is difficult to discern. I use a magnifying glass. My father lounges on top of a bunk bed, a single blanket rolled at its end. He is propped up against the pillow and smokes a cigarette.

Like the photo above this picture was presumably taken by one of his fellow soldiers when my father was stationed in Java, Indonesia.

My mother has told me that only two weeks after Armistice in May 1945 my father was called up for retraining in the army. He then spent two months billeted in the South of Holland in Breda. He came home in June for the birth of his second son then spent another six weeks in Nijmegen in Holland with the expeditionary force preparing to travel to the Dutch East Indies as Indonesia was then called.

My father was caught up in a conflict not of his own making. For nearly three years my mother told me she lived alone while my father took part in what was described as a ‘police action’.

My mother missed the regimental balls she had enjoyed when my father was still an officer training in Holland. She missed his company. Worst of all, she said she hated the silence.

During my father’s absence when he was living on nothing but rice, my mother waited with her two young sons for months ‘in the dark’. There was no mail until the newspapers began to publish the lists of names of those killed in action.

One day, my mother said, my father had led a patrol in which his best sergeant was killed and several soldiers wounded. My father came home unscathed, at least in body. No shell shock. No obvious traumatic effects. Though who is to say?

As a child I pored over the photo albums. The photos of my parents’ life in Holland, the life they led before mine began. A life I could not fathom, especially the war years.

As I have written elsewhere, I spent the best part of my own childhood waiting for world war three or worse still invasion from Indonesia. A childhood fantasy perhaps that the people the Dutch had invaded all those hundreds of years ago would one day turn around and punish us. The fact that my father fought with the Dutch army that opposed Indonesia’s bid for independence has long sat heavily on my shoulders.

In the omnipotent way of small children in my fantasy I see the Indonesian army coming after me and mine for my father’s part in oppressing them. I know it is a fanciful notion and yet it has stayed with me, especially living in Australia so close to Indonesia.

I put it down to my childhood fear of war, which falls like a shadow across my imagination and looms ahead as a future threat.

War

All week long I have dreamed swirling vistas of my past lives set before me in intimate detail, none of which I can hold onto now.

How I hate the way dreams evade me in the morning after I launch into the day.
How I hate the way they slip away, those many and exciting scenes that flew through my mind in the night while I was oblivious, unearthed, without body, merely a visual apparatus in my head that scanned the many scenes my unconscious laid out before me.

Events of the day meld with past events, old characters and new flit in and out, but I cannot hold onto the narrative of these past lives.

If only I could I would write out my dreams all day long. I would write into these fantastical stories to try to find some essence of who I am, of what I see and what I think, rather than feel so bogged down with intellectual artifice as I have felt this morning while trying to write into my father’s grief.

My father’s grief was a visceral thing. He wore it in the wrinkles on his forehead and in the stoop of his back.

He had been a replacement baby. His brother born before him bore the same name but was still born, leven los. No one talked about these things in those days.

What did my paternal grandmother do with her grief at the loss of this her first baby? Within a year she had another, a son, my father, who became her oldest followed closely by three others, one boy and two girls.

In the next generation I was born several years after the conclusion of the second world war on the other side of the world from where that war had been fought, but the legacy of this war leaked into my childhood memories like a religion.

As a child I knew there had been a terrible event called ‘the war’, a time of starvation and of cruelty, a time in which men killed other men, and people starved, a time when work was scarce and people froze.

No firewood for fires. Some tore up their floor boards, or chopped down street trees to make fires in the cold winter nights, until even these sources of fuel ran out.

The war seemed always to exist in my imagination during winter time, never in summer, but it ran on for years and years.

The whole of my first seven years on this earth we could have been at war at the kitchen table in Greensborough first where we lived and later in Camberwell. I was always waiting for a third world war. I still am.

Speak of war and grief seeps in, whether you fought in it or watched from a afar. War has long tentacles that reach far into the future.