The day started out like all others – hot and humid. George woke at 6am, jumped on the community bike Tic Tucker had won from Yanksin a poker game some weeks earlier.
The ride from the Winnellie Barracks to the billabong took about twenty minutes along a bumpy dirt track by the railway line. George stood full height on the pedals, his piston legs pushing hard, his back bent over the handle bars. Each morning he raced his time from the previous day. The faster he rode, the emptier his mind became. No thoughts just sensations, trickles of sweat down his back, legs and arms. Eyes stinging from riding head on into the hot air. Over hills and around bends, he rode, dodging holes in the road and swerving rocks. Eventually, his calves, thighs and buttocks burned hard, a vice-like grip seized his chest. He had to give in. He was spent. The place of surrender was about three hundred yards from the swimming hole. ‘Not bad,’ he thought, ‘Getting better.’ He slumped onto the worn leather bicycle seat and cruised the last bit, breathing hard, his legs dangling either side of the pedals. It was downhill and little effort was needed. He was grateful for the use of the bike and wished he could have witnessed the card game.
George often wondered about the people he had met since leaving Melbourne seven months earlier. Blokes like Tic whose bike he was riding. He was named Tic because the left side of his mouth made a jerking movement. Except for this twitch, he had the classic poker-face. His parents owned a pub in Adelaide and he had been playing cards with the regulars since he was eight. He stumbled across a card game with a bunch of Yanks in the back room of the The Don. The Americans had had a skin-full. Being a publican’s son, Tic didn’t touch the stuff.
‘Mind if I sat in on a hand or two?’
‘Sure buddy. Have ya played five card poker before?’
The Yanks’ bravado increased with every hand. Except for the twitch, Tic’s face didn’t move. His practice was to lose the first five hands until he was nearly skint, drawing the opposition in. On the sixth hand, he began to play his game and in less than two hours had cleaned up the Yanks and walked away with thirty-five quid plus the two-wheeler.
George stopped at the billabong where soldiers bathed and washed their clothes. He leant the two-wheeler against a tree stump in the morning shade, dropped his shorts and y-fronts, kicked off his boots, tied the laces together and looped them across a low-lying branch. He’d seen the damage Darwin’s giant red bull ants could cause when sixteen year old Horrie Anderson left his boots on the ground. Bull ants had bitten his toes, the soles and tops of his feet. The bites lasted for weeks, eventually becoming septic in the tropical air.
The water was mirror-still. George took a few steps in, then duck dived, luxuriating in the cool swoosh over his hot sweaty body. He swam on his own for a time, rolled on his back floating and gazing at the cloudless, china blue sky, forgetting where he was for a moment. His thoughts were of Mary and swimming with her at Eastern Beach before the baby came along. George could see her in the blue swimsuit, the one that matched her blue grey eyes; those eyes, those beautiful eyes. She had worn white shorts over the halter-neck bathers and slid them down her body leaving them concertinaed on the sand. Still wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, she tip-toed into the shoal. Mary couldn’t swim and was nervous around water. Gradually she became more confident and paddled near the sandbars. George swam out further and rode the waves to where she splashed. They moved together in the shallows. Only their heads could be seen as the couple gazed into one another’s eyes. Beneath the surface their arms and legs were entwined.
The other blokes soon joined him. The early morning dip, a welcome relief from the monstrous heat, had become a morning ritual for a group of them. The soldiers fooled around playing the same tricks they had the day before, and the day before that.
Tic Tucker snuck ashore and picked up Snowy Mac’s y-fronts and threw them at their owner. Thwack! They hit Snowy right in the face. He peeled them off and hurled them at one of the other swimmers. Tic picked up abandoned clothes from the bank of the billabong and the surrounding tree branches and lobbed them randomly at anyone in the water. The chiacking continued with muddy clothes flying back and forth.
With the best part of the day behind him and knowing he had to be picked up in less than an hour, George waded out of the water still smiling at the predictable and lame gags. He rescued his clothes from Tic’s grasp, rinsed the mud out of them and before he was dressed and on the bike, was covered in sweat again.
He rode back to Winnellie, ate what had become their staple, a biscuit and bully beef breakfast, washed down with weak black tea. He was part of a team working on the Alice Springs-Darwin Road. Bare-chested soldiers blistered and burnt from the searing heat made roads and laid railway sleepers, building a network of bases, critical to the defence of Darwin. It was hot back breaking work. Furnace like conditions made it difficult to move quickly. George was in a team of about fifteen men. Their job was to break up rocks on the goat track. They worked in the blazing sun. The rust coloured dirt settled in the corners of their eyes, made its way up their noses, seeped into singlets and shorts and the pores of their skin. Dirt and sweat ran down their bodies. Mosquito bites and pestering flies were a constant. Battered tin water bottles hung from soldiers’ belts. One bottle of water per day was the ration. Dehydration was the enemy.
During their morning smoko, the men found shade under large trees with roots hanging from the branches. Brown leaves crumbled under heavy army supply boots. They heard planes coming from the south-west. Hambone Hamilton looked to the sky, using his hand to shield his eyes from the sun’s glare.
‘About bloody time.’
At first it sounded like a line of penny-bangers being lit, but simultaneous to the blasts they saw small explosions of dirt and shattered leaves and branches along the road they’d just cleared.
‘Shit! They’re the Japanese.’
The sound of the bombs and strafing were deafening and confusing. Planes were shooting from what seemed like the north and the south, from the east and the west. Men jumped into the open trucks. Brownie jumped into the driver’s seat and headed towards the wharf. They were two vehicles short because earlier in the morning, two trucks had headed back to Larrimah Barracks to pick up extra men. They piled in close together like sheep on their way to the slaughter yards. Sweaty arms and legs entangled on the floor of the tray. The corrugated road made the ride hellish. Brownie drove at break-neck speed causing bodies to lift off the tray.
‘Fuckin’ hell Brownie, if the Japs don’t kill us you will,’ yelled Hambone.
As the harbour came into sight and the convoy slowed down, men began yelling and jumping off the moving vehicles, some rolling then crawling for cover under bushes, behind fences or stone walls. George rushed towards the wharf where the mortally wounded MV Neptuna on fire and engulfed in black mushroom clouds, was sinking fast. As an explosives’ carrier, with two hundred depth charges on board, it was a prime target for the Japanese. Those on board jumped into the burning water, many of them already on fire. George felt the scorched men’s screams pierce somewhere deep inside him. A five hundred pound bomb dropped close by, then another and another. George jumped into a slit trench with Horrie and Tic. He curled into a ball, put his hands over his head and tried to say the Rosary. He could only remember ‘Hail Mary full of grace. . .’ and repeated those five words in his head over and over until the bombing stopped some thirty minutes later.
He didn’t know how long it was before he realised hell had subsided. George slowly uncurled his hands and crept out of the slit trench. Tic and Horrie followed. They had an hour’s reprieve before Darwin was bombed for the second time.