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The events in this story follow immediately after another story, Armistice Day. However, you don't need to read Armistice Day to enjoy this one. It is a 'slow burn' as they say around here, where people take time before jumping into bed with one another. Consequently, usual caveats apply, Prussian Blue is no quickie. But read on if you dare, and if you do, I hope you enjoy this tale!
© 2021 Thefireflies, for Literotica
Outside the carriage window is the land of my dreams; rolling hills and cattle and gum trees, giving way to houses on stumps with long verandas and roofs of iron baking and rusting in the sub-tropics. In the living nightmares of the past few years this is the place I've longed for, wondering if I'd ever return, my valley safe from the horrors of war, my home.
The locomotive huffs and puffs, slowing, out the window a couple of kites swirl and hover in the indifferent blue sky as they hunt beside the tracks. A house here and there is in disrepair, yards overgrown like their owner up and walked away.
When the train stops, the act of grabbing my canvas kit-bag from under my seat and standing provokes an involuntary groan. Following my three fellow passengers, I'm stepping into the bright afternoon light and wall of humidity.
On the platform the station master's instructing a young porter who's manoeuvring an empty cart into position beside the train, and he looks up, our eyes connecting, his hand shooting to his mouth, beads of sweat running down his red face.
"G'day, Mr Forsyth," I say.
"Oh, my, Alfred Graham," he says, his accent thickly Scottish, eyes wide. "Oh, my, laddie, you're back. Your mother and father will be more than pleased."
Swallowing, I say, "I, um, I heard about Walter. I'm sorry."
"Aye," Mr Forsyth says, his eyes downcast.
"By all accounts his bravery saved many of his mates."
"Aye, they gave him a Distinguished Conduct Medal."
Posthumously, of course. What do you say to a father who's lost his son to the war? "He was a mate of mine."
"Aye, I know." Mr Forsyth looks away, ignoring the young porter who's now looking to his boss for instruction.
Walter Forsyth, my fellow opening bowler for the district cricket team, was in a different battalion, but we were in the same battle at a place called Messines, where I'd heard the story from other men, of how Walter silenced a machinegun threatening his platoon, allowing his comrades to storm the enemy trench, where he was fatally shot soon after.
His father's clearly struggling to hide his grief and when I place my hand gently on his shoulder he says, "I s'pose we won so his death wasn't in vain."
I find myself nodding, knowing neither of us believes the sentiment, because the cost in lives has outweighed the victories. "We'll get the lads together and put up a grand memorial for the boys who didn't make it."
"There's more than a few who aren't coming home." His voice is almost a whisper. He turns to his porter, quietly telling the young lad to move the luggage cart up the platform.
Walking through swirling steam coming from the black locomotive, I think how it was four years previously, late in nineteen-fourteen, when I last stood on this very spot. Walter Forsyth wasn't with us then, but his father had spoken to us, having a laugh as was his way while he went about his business running the station.
With a heavy heart I wonder how many other faces are missing. Leaving the station, the Commercial Hotel looms in front of me, like a beacon. In the past I was a boy and prevented from drinking alcohol in a public house by law, and only ever set foot inside the building with my father.
I was barely old enough to go to war and now I'm old enough to drink and I'm tempted, wondering if I were to walk through the door, would my mates be there drinking and laughing as if the past four years were a bad dream?
Would my three cobbers who I'd joined up with be there; Will Eichstaedt and the O'Riordan twins, Mick and Francis? And would old Arthur Coleman be taking the piss out of young Walter Forsyth before getting drunk and telling us we were like sons to him?
Nope, there's only three old cow cockies I don't recognise sitting at tables on the veranda with glasses filled with liquid amber. Shit, I could do with a beer, wanting so badly to share a drink with my mates who will never grow old. Jesus...
"Christ almighty," someone booms from the darkness of the pub's doorway and I reckon I've jumped near three feet in the air. "Who let this stick with a prick back to town?"
The voice must be in my head, a ghost, but sure enough the he steps from the pub into the sunlight, my heart leaping, almost bursting. "Bloody Mick O'Riordan, I was just thinking about you, you bastard, I thought you were dead, this must be a dream!"
"Yer wost bloody nightmare come true more like it," Mick says, limping down the steps in a jiffy and I've stuck out my hand, but the nugget brushes it aside and scoops me up in a hug, squeezing the living daylights out of me before dropping me back on my feet. "How ya goin', cobber, orright?"
Behind his scruffy thick black beard he's grinning from ear to ear, at least he would if he wasn't missing his right ear, the rest of his face covered in scar tissue, including covering his missing right eye, and I might have once gagged at the sight of him but I've seen much worse.
"Matey, I'm orright, how about ya-self."
"Fuckin' brilliant now you're comin' in for a drink and I ain't takin' no for an answer." He's snatched my kit-bag and turned, limping up the stairs. I follow and a few blokes I don't recognise nod. Mick sits at the bar, dropping my bag on the empty stool to his right and he's holding two fingers to the publican, ordering drinks. There's another man to his left, a little bald fella, and I take my kit-bag, dropping it to the floor so I can sit. "They're out of the good whisky because of the fuckin' war, so you'll have to make do with the shit Danny here distils."
The publican frowns, telling Mick, "I've told you watch your language, son, and if you don't pull your head in quick smart you'll be out on your arse quicker than lightning."
"All I'm sayin' is yer whisky ain't as good as the finest drop from Ireland and Scotland." He turns to me, whispering, "Not even close to their worst drop either, but it's all he has for now. Not even close to the sly grog me and Francis used to make down the back paddock."
When Mick mentions his twin I reckon he flinches and I see it in his eyes and he sees it in mine. Francis and Mick, inseparable from the moment of conception, separated forever by a German artillery shell.
Danny the barman nods at me, handing over the glass of clear liquid. "I'll warn ya, Alfred, you and Michael best go easy because he's on his last warning and your old man won't be impressed if I have to give him a call."
"Jesus," Mick's saying, "Alfie here survived more battles than you've seen women's privates and yer already threatening to call his dad to take him away! S'pose his old man were to hear about yer little backyard still?"
"I'm warning you, O'Riordan, you'll be out on your ear if you don't shut it."
Mick mumbles something as the publican glares and moves away to the bald man down the bar from us. We get stuck into the grog, the liquid burning my throat and irritating my airways, sending me into a coughing fit.
"Told ya it's pretty fuckin' bad," Mick says, dryly.
Between coughs, I tell him, "Think I'll stick to beer."
"Normally I'd say wise choice, but this shit's all that keeps me asleep at night, and then not always."
"Nah, he don't visit me and I don't visit him either, much to Father Maloney's disappointment. Reckons I'm goin' ta hell, but I told him I've been there and the devil didn't want me but the bastard took me blessed brother instead...fuck I need another drink."
"Mate, everything alright?"
"Everything's as peachy as it can be, cobber, so don't you worry about me...hey, Danny, another of your rotgut and a beer for Alfie and I'll keep yer little secret, ay."
"You and I'll have words, Michael," Danny says with a frown, but he hands over the drinks, the beer cold from a keg evidently kept on ice.
We clink glasses, Mick saying, "This one's for Francis," and we drain our drinks, my beer refreshing, sliding down quick.
Our next drink is for Will, then another for Walter and another for Arthur. We could go on like this into the evening, naming blokes we knew from our valley here or other's we served with. But my stamina flags and something's bugging me. Looking down at the timber bar, I tell Mick, "I was with Will..."
"Yer what, mate?"
"We'd done a trench raid and a Jerry tried to stick Will with his bayonet, but the blade caught up in Will's respirator. When we got back to our lines he showed us the damage. I guess he never found time to get a new one before they dropped gas on us."
"Will made sure other blokes put their nose bags on...I kept telling him to put his on...he, ah, told me to find Mary and tell her he loves her...and, um, to make sure she and Jack are..."
Bitting my bottom lip, I can't go on, and Mick whispers, "Christ, he knew his time was up didn't he? And what about you?"
"Sucked down my fair share the stuff before I got me mask on. Chlorine, fucked me lungs up, can't run or do other physical shit without it burning and making me cough like a bastard. Cold nights set me off too, like when drinking the shit you call whiskey here. Been in a hospital for the past year in England and just spent a month down in Melbourne."
"Fuck...I didn't know."
"I ain't told anyone. Anyway, I need to see Mary and tell her."
Mick's silent with his head bowed, then says, "Mary's shot through. Dunno where, Brisbane probably. Took little Jack with her of course. Word is she stayed here with Will's parents but began using her maiden name pretty much the entire time. When word came through of Will's death she up and left."
"Are you serious, she dropped her married name then left?"
"Yep. Bloody big changes back here, cobber. You probably heard many families with German names changed to something English sounding like them Pommy Windsor royals did. The Beckers are Bakers and the Müllers from up the valley are now the Millers, the Schmidts are Smiths. The Webers are still Webers, but you know how it is around these parts, half the bloody district have German names. Whole towns have changed names too, like you may have heard bloody Englesburg was renamed Kalbar, which is some Aboriginal word I think. But everyone's trying to be more British than the British, waving their Union Jacks, bloody dickheads. If they think they have it tough they should try being Irish Catholic from since time began and we O-bloody-Riordans never felt the need to change our bloody name. But the politicians stirred people to hate anything German and some take this as permission to be arseholes to their neighbours. Would you believe old Ernie Brown got done by yer Dad for trying to set fire to Eichstaedt's saddlery after two of his boys were killed over there somewhere?"
"Really? Even though Will fought and died and the Eichstaedts have lived here for about thirty years and everyone respects them?"
"Lots of people doing stupid things but the stubborn Eichstaedts won't change their name."
"Ludwig shouldn't have to change his name, he's not the enemy. Will fought and died for all these bastards back here."
Mick grunts in agreement and tells me, "Ava's a nursing sister somewhere too. Joined up as soon as she could, following her big brother to war."
"Ava..." My heart skips a beat at the thought of Will's next younger sister, heat rising to my face. "Do you know where she is?"
Mick's laugh is hearty. "I knew the mention of Ava would stir you up. Two words for ya, cobber, Ethel bloody Wilson."
"I never should've asked Ethel to dance after Ava refused me."
"We all danced with Ethel, my friend," he says with a wink. "Ethel especially liked horizontal dancing and she reckoned I was better and bigger in that department than you, Flash."
"It's true, but she's left town too, married some poor bloke back from the war who took up one of them soldier-settlement deals out west in brigalow country. But yeah, back to Ava, she's doing her bit, and Will's gone like many of the boys from 'round here, but old Ernie thought he'd take his grief out on their family."
"And Mary, you say she went to Brisbane?"
"She did, but dunno where exactly."
"I just came from there, I could've looked her up."
"Like I said, mate, Brisbane's my best guess." His smile is cheeky now. "Reckon yer goin' ta man up for her?"
"Don't be fuckin' stupid, no one could fill Will's shoes."
"Yeah, but you thought of it, right? Blokes all over coming back to shack up with their dead mate's missus. Don't be ashamed, bloody no better lookin' woman on Earth than Mary bloody Hamilton. I know I'd track her down if it weren't for this ugly scarred fuckin' head of mine and I reckon all the blokes in Brisbane will be climbing over Mary given half a chance."
He's grinning, because Mary had a quality about her, something I can't explain but something all men inherently know when they see such a woman. Shamefully I'd thought more than a few times how I'd come back to visit Mary and offer my help in any way she needed, wondering if perhaps she might like me to stick with her.
For the thousandth time I quash this thought as quick as it comes, burning with shame, and I'm not going to admit my folly to anyone, even my cobber Mick here. "I'm not after Will's wife, mate. I only want to pass on his message and see if she's managing. Must be difficult raising young Jack on her own."
Mick looks me in the eye. "If you don't some other bloke will. Reckon Will would rather it be his closest mate. Might be nice to coax her back to the valley so Will's folks can see Jack again too. The boy needs to know what kind of a man his father was."
"Yeah, we'll see."
Mick orders another round of drinks and we don't speak of Mary again. A few blokes say G'day, several buying us more drinks, and before long I'm slurring and Mick's on the verge of picking a fight with Danny, who's telling me to take Mick home.
We're stumbling into the twilight, the aura of the setting sun still glowing over the distant ranges, birds settling to roost in trees and night animals emerging to hunt. A small bat flashes between us and a large black cat saunters down the road, turning to glare at us, and Mick makes the sign of a cross.
"Thought you didn't believe in religious shit anymore?"
"Old habits," he says. "Like walking this road in the dark, pissed as a fart...won't be the first time I spend the night in the lock up."
"Dad's not goin' to arrest you, dickhead."
"The new cunts-table in town's gonna put me away before yer dad can stop him, probably you too."
A dog barks and a man's deep voice calms it, shadows watching us from a house veranda, cigarette flaring in the darkness. Up ahead I can see the police station and court house, both buildings on stumps with wide verandas and iron roofs like most buildings in the district.
"Almost like my second home," Mick mumbles, barely slurring despite the amount of alcohol he's put away.
And there's my real home, the house up the road from the station, where I'd grown up from the time Dad became the local police sergeant, back when I was a wee lad.
"Is it you Michael O'Riordan?" There's a man standing in the light of the police station door and he starts down the steps. "Bringing yourself to the cells this time, saving me the trouble?"
"Is that you Constable...what's yer name again, Carroll...or is Carroll yer first name, I can't recall."
"Hey," I whisper, nudging Mick's arm, "You'll get us arrested."
"You boys can either do this the hard way or the easy way, your choice," the Constable says as he saunters towards us. Even in the dark I can tell he's a solid bloke, rolling up his sleeves. He must've seen my Army issue kit-bag because he says, "I dunno who you are, Digger, but you should consider the company you keep."
For all his faults, Mick's me cobber and I feel something rising within me. "You worry about your business and I'll worry about whose company I keep."
"Oh, you are a dumb shit," he says, stepping forward and I'm gut-punched, doubled-over winded, struggling for breath, coughing uncontrollably, gasping...
I'm aware of the struggle going on next to me, Mick and the Constable grappling, but I can't breathe for the life of me to stop them.
Hurried footsteps on gravel approach and someone's yelling, "What's going on here, bloody stop and let him go...Mick O'Riordan, let Constable Carroll go right this moment, you're in deep enough trouble as it is."
Memories come flooding, a whole heap of them, the voice instantly familiar to me as my own, and I gasp and groan, "Dad..."
Time stops, except I'm on my hands and knees in the gravel, struggling for breath, my lungs on fire, mouth tasting of vomit.
"Alfred...is it really you?" His hands are on me, his voice cracking as he says my name over and over. For a man I've never known to show emotion, his voice is urgent, saying, "Help me, bloody help me get Alfie up, my boy, he's home!"
Hands lift me to my feet, Dad supporting me, walking me up the path, up the steps, calling for help, a blur of light and noise, people, Mum's voice quivering, "Alfie! My dearest, Alfie!"
"G'day, Mum," I croak, aware enough to grin, seeing her with hand on chest, coming forward and grabbing me, holding me with Dad, and she's sobbing. The room's full of excited voices and I hear my name spoken over and over, my sisters Priscilla and Ivy, plus my little brother Reggie, all there. Everyone's dressed up like they've come from church or somewhere fancy, shock written on their faces. With another grin, I say, "Yer all look like ya seen a ghost."
Priscilla steps forward, but not to me, going to the big Constable, making a fuss because his nose is bleeding and has a nasty bruise spreading across his cheek, and I'm vaguely aware he's told her it's nothing to worry about.
My littlest sis, Ivy, who must be fifteen now, stays back, standing beside our piano, hesitant, and Mum tells her to get a damp cloth while Dad instructs Reggie to take my bag and hang two extra mosquito nets in the enclosed section at the end of the veranda. My little brother is a year younger than Ivy, only ten I think when I left for the war and fourteen now, but he's grown into a tall lad, like all of us Grahams. He's hesitated or hasn't heard right, jumping when Dad booms, "Now, Reggie!"
Amidst the hubbub I notice four faces at the door to the dining room; Will's parents Ludwig and Frieda, and their youngest daughters, Martha and Gisela. Like my own family, they're all smartly attired, Ludwig in a fine suit and the three women in matching dark blue dresses.
Their presence startles me, where they are silent, observing our family reunion with a look of confusion or shock, and I catch Martha and Gisela's stare, both pairs of eyes meeting mine; eyes wide and sky blue, identical to their brother's.
Will's eyes meet mine, blue and intense even in the dim lamp light of the dugout, his face grim, but he manages a half-smile, pulling on my belt straps, checking my kit, reaching up and tugging my helmet strap, making sure it's tight. "You ready for this?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," I say, nodding, hefting my Lewis machine gun, the heavy bastard it is, sickness rising in my belly and heart.
He looks around, our mates checking one another's kit to make sure no one forgets their respirator, or closing ammunition pouches and tightening loose helmets. One bloke ties his boots, then unties them, tying them again, then triple checks. There's nervous chatter and the Lieutenant strides by, his face as young and grim as ours, yelling for the riflemen to fix bayonets. His voice is hoarse and seemingly confident but his eyes are as fearful as ours too.