Collateral Damage | Ian C. Smith

Look, there I am when the war, a conflict half a world away that stole my uncles’ lives, was over: a military reserve across the unsealed road from where we lived after emigrating to Australia, one hundred dense acres shielding derelict sheds patrolled by kangaroos, snakes, in the ticking heat of this bluish bush.  I search for my missing pup I shall never see again, almost stepping on a coiled copperhead, smoking, calling his name.  I am thirteen, deeply unhappy.

Years after the regret of my family’s woeful ways in their promised Utopia, after a boyish idea of war’s glamour fed by comics, movies, after first-hand knowledge of army life, I learned of that area’s use during WW2—the housing and treatment of venereally infected soldiers.  Locals believed propaganda about troop movement, training exercises, while the reality was a disease zone, army doctors’ blunt indifference to the plight of shamefully wounded warriors whose beating hearts beat quieter, whose enlisted dreams had plummeted to menial tasks, porridge and penicillin, a caste quarantined.

They huddle sorry-arsed on a railway platform sharing Turf cigarettes, faces above khaki greatcoats, demeanour, old for their years.  Then the train to the end of the line, the myth of medals blessed by sunlight shattered, destination vague, they venture wan jokes yearning for a vanishing point, invent future tales of explanation, watching back yards shunting by, no risk of being blown up now, yet their world askew, heading for the bush opposite where, years later, my little world warped, also askew.

I hope those soldiers left disappointment behind, got on with their lives, caught other trains, slow trains, fast trains, night trains, pursuing post-war happiness.  In the year following my dog’s disappearance I caught the train from that end-of-the-line station to the throbbing city, alone, into the rest of my life.

A eucalyptus breeze stirs those abandoned buildings, disturbs fretted cigarette smoke.  Cardboard flaps forlornly against a shed.  Sunlight reflects from a fingerprinted window as if trapped long ago.  I whistle in vain for my dog, impatiently regret things are never again quite what they once were.

 


Ian C. Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Antipodes, cordite, Poetry New Zealand, Poetry Salzburg Review, Southerly, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

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