It was 1944, in North Queensland. A friend handed me a book -
'Do read it. It's a bit of a bombshell, but you'll love it.'
It was a paperback - Australia Limited by A.J. Marshall.
About three pages into it he wrote 'Australians are like broody
hens, clucking complacently, smugly basking in the blazing sunshine
of their self-estimated virtues and importance.' I read on.
It was a small book but almost every sentence carried a hard punch.
Sometimes funny, often caustic, confronting mindless pride, stirring
self-satisfaction to boiling point - it was not easily put out
of mind. This man, I decided, must be interesting, perhaps unpleasant
- definitely brave to have published such derogatory comparisons
with other cultures and criticism of our national myths in the
middle of a war.
The experiences we choose hang on spider-thin threads. A few
weeks later I was given the chance to meet the author and fought
hard not to do so. It was in the month after my twenty-fourth
birthday. I was in the Navy - ciphering and deciphering messages
about the movements of ships at sea (mostly rather dull ones)
at the Naval Operations Headquarters in Townsville. It was spring,
although seasons are almost meaningless in the succession of lambent
days which stretch from the end of summer rain until the beginning
of the next Wet. We were working a four hours on, four hours
off watch system. Life cut into slices. Away from the clacking
teleprinter and figures, figures, figures, we had to fit into
each slice time to sleep, eat, talk, walk the asphalt blocks between
our quarters on the breeze-cool Strand and the fanned atmosphere
of the Operations Room, where we drank tea and brought words out
of numbers. The Coral Sea battles were over. Submarine activity
or a despairing message from some brave coast watcher sending
intelligence reports from the tree-tops in New Guinea made a boring
This day I had the afternoon watch from two until six and agreed
to lunch at the Officers' Club with two friends who were travelling
north. We talked of Sydney and another life before the war.
It was enjoyable, but I was aware, subliminally, of being observed.
Eyes flickering or staring were a commonplace in a community
where men outnumbered women by some mammoth proportion. Inhibited
by social custom, one did not stare back as a child would, exploring
the rest of the person, summing up. There were just eyes, without
past or future. One walked away knowing no more. We finished
lunch. The eyes - distinctively blue - were in the hall. And
in the hall too was a pestiferous army captain whose name I didn't
remember and whose constant advances I was determined to avoid.
I hurried my friends out into the sun. They had a plane to catch
so we parted. Returning to the WRANS quarters I was beckoned
to the phone - 'Captain Marshall ... ' The nameless captain came
instantly to mind. Struggling with talk of a meeting, imagining
certain boredom, I found myself unbelievably losing ground fast.
Finally it was wrung out of me that there were twenty minutes
before I had to go on watch, and if he felt so impelled he could
come to the wardroom. Trapped and furious with myself, I walked
up the path. Jock always said I looked at him like something
dropped from Mars. It was not the bore.
The eyes were instantly recognisable. Isolated in the sandy entrance
I could stare at the person. Astonishing - he seemed to have
escaped from some other age. It was not the clothes. They were
just jungle greens - and rumpled (his batman, Jock recorded, was
once heard to explode 'it doesn't matter what I do for that bastard
he always looks drac'), but they were worn with a swaggering air
that matched the ammunition belt weighting his hips; the battered
cap had a line suggestive of plumes and an old green rucksack
hung on his shoulder in careless disregard of the niceties of
an officer's dress. He was grinning. He had won.
He peeled off the metal trappings, cap and rucksack. We went
inside. I saw he was tall, his fair hair curly. Also I noticed
then - or perhaps at first sight - that he had only one arm.
It seemed unremarkable. We sat down for a brief talk, which could
have been awkward, but it ran with acquaintances in common - perhaps
even a few ideas. At one stage he looked at me hard; 'you seem
to be very intelligent.' The emphasis, I learnt later, was
characteristic - nothing taken for granted.
How had he found me? He said he knew one of the friends with
whom I had lunched and delayed him long enough to discover my
name and whereabouts. He also told me he was married; his marriage
was in limbo (there is clear evidence of this in his diary long
before that afternoon), and they had an adorable baby daughter.
I suppose the comment went through my head - Lord, yet another
married man. I don't really remember, but it must have. We were
vulnerable; young women in a community of men in all stages of
emotional attachment to their homes, women, children, but isolated
from them absolutely except for the delicate, easily broken thread
of letters. We were vexed, amused, hurt, made fools of ourselves
- we learnt to build defences.
I had to go on watch. Jock, who had flown in on a flying boat
from New Guinea that morning, was catching a train going north
to Cairns. His A.I.F. battalion was poised on the Atherton Tableland
to take off - when? - no one knew. We walked into town together.
As we parted he said 'I'll see you again.' He said it positively
- even with a certain presumption. But when or how this could
be neither of us knew. After he left - strangely not before -
I became aware there was something extraordinary about a one-armed
man being in command of a company in an A.I.F. battalion. However,
even if I'd asked there would have been no time for explanation.
And suddenly, with his name and address in my hand, the image
focused: I had been talking to the author of Australia Limited.
It was a strange telescoped encounter; hard to forget. A few
weeks later I had a letter. He was coming south.
Townsville - I have not been back. People tell me it has changed
very much. But the core of the old town lying lethargic on the
coast beside the Ross River - it's mouth then all choked with
grey comings and goings of naval craft - must still be there.
Some of the old lattice-encased houses must still cling on their
stilts to the brown hill behind the town, their gardens dripping
with exaggerated emerald plants and flaming scarlet things that
opened in the sun.
That mixture - the azure that would try the brush of Piero della
Francesco, tawny sand, sound of surf, ants, mouldy leather, tropic
birds, a warmth that lulled the mind; the town, solidly built
yet spacious and palmed, always full of white, khaki, navy-blue
clad crowds, drunks; the railway station - snorting, smoking,
troop-trains crawling in and out spilling a weary load, taking
on another, forever going north and south; the old patterns -
work, leisure, economic ebb and flow of sugar cane, stray dogs,
stray people; all were overlaid. The residents - we really didn't
think about the residents. We thought the place was ours.
We drank tea in the cafes, beer in the pubs, walked the streets
arrogantly as though there were no business of importance but
our own. Perhaps we took over the Strand and the beach. I am
not sure because in my memory the sweep of beach seemed always
deserted. I often swam in the warm, light-splintered sea when
there was no one in sight - always warily, with an eye alert for
the shadow of a shark. One morning I was careless and went for
a long crawl with my head down. As I ran out of energy and lazily
raised watery eyes, I froze. Not a shark but a monster. Grey
like an elephant, tusked but without ears or trunk, it leaned
quietly on two great flippers. We squatted in the shallow water
staring at each other. I thought it had many chins and it's eyes
looked kind. Suddenly it slipped sideways and disappeared. No
one saw us. No one could identify my monster.
When I later told Jock about it as we sat on the same beach, he
laughed - 'you saw a mermaid.' I thought this a rich joke - but
no. 'It's the name sailors gave to the dugong (or sea-cow), order
Sirenia.' Mermaid? Possibly because of the semi-human attitude
of mother and child while the mammal suckled its young with its
fish-like tail trailing behind (anyone who has fronted up to a
sea-cow must find this simile fantastic). Yes, they were grey,
covered in sparse hairs like an elephant, not as large as I described,
but in my fright I probably expanded a large bull male, perhaps
searching in the shallows for sea-weed. A totally harmless fellow
- I was lucky to have seen such a sight. For the first time then
I savoured the pleasure of having almost any creature I might
see explained to me - set in its ecological niche.
For a few days, as the steam of the Wet was beginning to gather
but before it became unpleasant, Jock and I talked ourselves into
each others lives. We sat on the beach beside the sea and talked.
We climbed hills and looked at birds and talked. I became drunk
with talk. I had never met a person who had so much to tell -
about people, family, animals, remote and exotic places. And
he made me laugh. Like his father, he loved his own funny stories,
whether true, apocryphal or just jokes. Sometimes he laughed
so much it was difficult to follow the action. There were many
repetitions over the years but he was a good story-teller; it
was the art of the variations that trapped one in thrall. He
adored outrageous sequences, bubbled and shook as he told them,
with an inimitable choice of words impossible to reproduce.
In those few days I heard a lifetime of tales - outrageous, adventurous,
some anguished. Because he was nine years older than I was he
seemed to me immensely mature. He was thirty-three. He had written
three books, was a scientist, explorer, journalist and now soldier.
This was bound to be intriguing; but I had seen something else
- a man with tenderness and flaws. It was inevitable from the
first day that we would eventually become lovers.
When he caught the train going north again we did not see each other for more than a year. We made no promises, talked of no future. But we did not say goodbye.
There were not many letters. Jock was behind enemy lines, then
in hospital; later angry and frustrated by inactivity. For me
it was a low time. I was transferred to the salt wastes of Flinders
Naval Depot on the southern coast of Victoria - cold, windy formality
of the premier training base in Australia, and an administrative
job I disliked. What was I to make of the future? I knew I hadn't
broken up a marriage. It had already emotionally disintegrated.
But it was still a marriage. The failure of it, the breaking
up of another long-lasting affair (not to be taken lightly either),
the baby daughter and miserable thoughts of leaving her, gnawed
at Jock when he allowed himself to think of it. But, away from
his charismatic presence, I began to think about some of the things
we'd said and, more importantly, those left unsaid in that brief
tropical interlude. There were implications not explored. What
indeed of the future? But instinct told me that if he came back
alive, we would meet again. The question stood as before - when
It turned out to be fleetingly in Melbourne and we said goodbye
again on a railway station. This time it was I who was going
north - to Sydney and another Naval base. The war with Japan
was over and Jock had been demobilized. He had come south briefly
when Lina Bryans dashed off a devastatingly probing portrait of
him, sick but showing both a touch of the fiery energy and much
more the sometimes sad poetic streak that he rarely showed to
anyone; he had stayed with Lina and William Frater and had bought
a painting from William of a lovely bush hillside in sun and shade.
I was shocked by the change in him. He was honed down to a sliver
of the vital creature I had known in Townsville; barely recovered
from amoebic dysentery, malaria sapping more strength, questions
not easily resolved (his marriage, his scientific future - could
he get to Oxford as he'd planned?) circling his mind continually.
He was playing humorous games with his friends to cover all this,
but I found him pale and almost dour.
Sydney - his city and my city - somehow it seemed to restore a
sense of sanity. It was battered. Not in a deeply physical sense
like cities gouged by bombs or wounded by occupation and torture.
The only occupation Sydney suffered was the influx of American
servicemen seeking pleasure, which left a scar of another sort.
But the taken for granted pleasure domes of our growing up -
University balls, artists' haunts, cafes, the "Trocadero"
home of the big bands, the forbidden King's Cross with it's androgynous
excitements pulsing under plane trees, the more respectable pulse
of dancing and dining in plush night clubs or in the stone warehouses
by the harbour - those that hadn't disappeared were dog-eared
and tired. Returning servicemen were in various stages and states
of disillusion, searching for an old pattern, families groping
for readjustment. Some gave in to despair; others saw in the
fluidity of events positive benefits for change in their lives.
When we were discarding our uniforms there was an air of muted
optimism mixed with anxiety.
It was general but it was also personal. Optimism and anxiety
pulled at a love that was still at its beginning despite the year
between, and for reasons that were both within and without ourselves.
Jock still had the same problems gnawing at him - and more were
added. Money was one: paying for a passage to England, a College
at Oxford, a divorce, maintenance. He applied for a grant under
the War Veterans' Scheme for post graduate research and became
a part time feature writer for the Daily Mirror. I began
teaching a design course for the Retail Traders' Association (
I was designing silk fabrics before the war). Long before we
met, each of us had decided to go to England immediately after
the war - Jock to do post graduate studies at Oxford, and I to
study painting. It would be England, by co-incidence of purpose,
that would be our testing ground.
In that immediate post-war period, travelling to the other side of the world was no simple matter of picking up the telephone and making a booking. The ships that were left, after four years of bombing and torpedoing, were in constant demand on every sea lane. Jock had made urgent application at the end of 1945 to be put on a ship which would get him to Oxford before the beginning of the academic year in October of '46. Many months later he was still waiting. In the meantime he discovered his father, Robert Marshall, was seriously ill with cancer of the larynx. Robert was then 79 and the prognosis was not good. Jock felt sad and frustrated. He was firmly resolved to get to Oxford, but hated the thought of leaving his parents at such a time. He and his father were good friends - not intimate in the way of people who can indulge their emotions, but they could talk to each other. There was love and respect. Suddenly, at the beginning of July 1946, he was told he had a ship sailing in two weeks. As though he knew his son was leaving, Robert died on July 8th.