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.

We were never going to die | Ian C. Smith

‘Only trouble is interesting’ – Janet Burroway

Cold December.  A rental on the Kentish coast where I unscrew the meter to recycle some 50p coins but we still shiver, hiding ourselves away, my addiction to the magic of being elsewhere waning, Dungeness nuclear power station squatting on the horizon seen from the pebble beach where we walk alone, gulls’ cries forlorn.  Ramshackle tall buildings, perhaps bleak boarding houses, shadow the foreshore skyline staring towards France.  Beyond our rear fence at the edge of Romney Marsh a miniature green passenger train whistles along a single track.  Near the line a tethered billygoat crops weeds, nettles, eyeballing us, stench rank.  The area of marshland across the railway we shortcut to New Romney’s shops, stepping on pebbles like those on the beach, was once ravaged by the Black Death, and rife with malaria.  Smugglers, owlers, for their nocturnal signals, prevailed in dark, dank villages, some now gone forever.

Twice, reminders of what turned out to be those indelible days, alerted my senses: reading Paul Theroux’s account of travelling right around the British coast, his reference to that train rousing memories of its whistle’s echo; and Michael Portillo’s televised rail journeys crisscrossing Britain, also about the train, and the past, when I was both far from home, and yet home, born in England, partly growing up in Australia.

Eighteen months after setting out we moved to the coast, having researched an episode of a TV programme climaxing in my feckless family members’ reunion following an age of separation.  Deceit, tragedy, bad blood, bigamy, and shame enough to blood an Elizabethan play revealed, the deeper we dug the sadder we slumped, genealogical archaeologists mired in misery.  The sun seemed never to shine on those Spartan days, security in havoc, when our wardrobe consisted of whatever could be stuffed into backpacks, yet we were briefly buoyed by our achievements culminating in a frisson of glamour at a London television studio.

I can’t stop wondering how I would fare if I could burst back through time to land in the midst of winter on that beach in the throes of overseas days, Channel wind ruffling my hair, almost broke, collar turned up on my sailor’s pea jacket I wore constantly, an unmoored man on a moor with anchor motifs on his buttons, the brilliant red lining keeping me warm instead of lurking unworn, unseen on a hanger, no more cold wind for that coat now, no gulls’ cries, coat as memento.  Despite humdrum comfort, why these echoes like tinnitus, this unease?


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.