The metal bed frame is cold, pressing into the tops of my thighs. I sit shoulders slumped, one hand curled on my lap, the other holding two sheets of pastel mint writing paper. The letter flutters in my trembling fingers, but it doesn’t matter. The only light, from a bedside lamp, exudes a mustard glow casting the room into a dim burrow with corners shadowed. The faint smell of polished leather, starch, and fuel permeates the air. My eyes blur, and the words on the page dance in enigmatic hieroglyphics. All I can read is her name. He stands shoulders braced, face turned away, looking out the darkened window. Anguish stirs softly in my belly as his words roll across me in rumbling waves of distant thunder.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge has six million rivets which were driven, white -hot, into 53,000 tonnes of steel. My Grandfather told me that when I was just a little girl. He would take me with him on Sundays to marvel at the cherished coat hanger. I loved that time, but not because of the bridge. I loved it because it would be just him and me eating ice-cream as we walked its length, and back again. How I long to go back to such days of innocence and happiness, but of course they are gone.
The steel mesh covering the walkway feels cold against my forehead as I gaze across at the Opera House. I know there is a camera watching me, but at this time of night pedestrians are few and far between. No one is likely to disturb me. I wanted to jump, but they make it impossible with all the barriers. Jumping would make it clean. There would be no mess to clean up in the morning, instead I would be washed away by the sea, maybe eaten by fish or sharks. I am sorry someone will have to find me here, but they shouldn’t make it so impossible.
This place has always reminded me of death. Granddad said six million rivets, one each for the holocaust victims. He laughed with the knowledge that he had no need for a riveted memorial, even one so far from his homeland in Germany. Guilt would then cloud his features and he would mourn his survival.
‘It should have been someone else,’ he said.
‘Then I would not be here,’ I complained selfishly.
Or perhaps I would be here, but I would be different and my parents would be other people. It’s too confusing. What makes us who we are? Is it our ancestry, the number of rivets or our genes, or is it our spirit? Could my spirit have come into being in another genetically derived body? If that had been the case, would my life have been different? Would my husband have stayed with me instead of sleeping with her when he went away to work? He doesn’t know I know. Will he wonder why, I have done what I have done, when he hears the news? Will he feel my loss, or will he be glad I have freed him to do openly, what he now does secretly? I will never know, but I am past caring. I feel light-hearted and rash like the man who stole the opening ceremony of this bridge.
I uncovered that piece of history after Granddad died. I am glad he never knew or we would not have set foot on the bridge. The bridge was never opened by Premier Jack Lang, in 1932 as Granddad told me. It’s a lie. The fascists he hated all his life, stole the opening ceremony. The cutting of the ribbon was to take place at both ends simultaneously with Premier Lang at the southern end, and Alderman Primrose at the Northern end.
Although Primrose succeeded in an incident free event, Jack Lang was pipped at the post by an intruder. Francis de Groot of the New Guard, stole the honour in fury that a Royal was not invited to open the bridge. Dressed in military uniform, he charged upon his horse and slashed the ribbon with his sword, stealing history’s moment. It is interesting that Primrose, unmolested or contested in cutting his ribbon, was also a member of the New Guard.
Granddad would turn in his grave if he knew that this bridge was opened by conservative paramilitary nationalists who avowed support for fascism, and whose heroes were Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. Like all iconic monuments, this one has its believers; those like my granddad who believed in the progressive goodness of man, and those whose beliefs are a testament to bigotry and fanaticism.
It is now my turn to create my own small historical event, stealing the limelight from natures timeline. Centre stage is not a place in which I find comfort or joy, but it is competing beliefs in my life’s continuing value, which leads me to spill the blood from my veins. I hope some of it may seep into the rivets to become indistinguishable; just one of six million lives lost. It will run into the cracks and drip through the bridge to drop singly, plop by plop into the sea below where Granddad’s ashes were scattered. Once more we will be together and perhaps one evening if you squint carefully, you may see us walking side by side along this bridge, licking ice cream.
I don’t understand the British. I am supposed to be one of them, but they have made it clear to me I am not. I stare across the bar counter at the upside-down bottles of alcohol displayed as beacons reflecting in the mirror; an infinity of glowing jewels. Glenfiddich, Dewars (for Mr Siddons who will drink no other), Johnny Walker, Grants; all the usual suspects.
Of course, I know the content of each whisky bottle is Bells. The publican bought a consignment cheap. It’s my job to take the empty bottles out the back and fill them with Bells. We only replace the bottle with the proper brand when the labels begin to look tatty. The publican insists no one can taste the difference. But Mr Siddons knows. Last time I replaced the old bottle with a new bottle of real Dewars he complained that I had substituted the whisky for a cheaper brand. He was right, but it was the cheaper brand he was used to. He didn’t like the Dewars. How could I explain that the whisky he was familiar with was actually Bells?
I hadn’t been in the country for more than a few weeks and was lucky to have a job even though it paid slave wages. It also provided me with a narrow bed in the attic along with a shared bathroom with only a cold tap. I have to carry hot water up three flights of stairs in order to have a bath. I am not sure what the other staff do, but I think they don’t bother bathing every day. There is no shower.
But I digress. I was taking about being British. At least I am British by decent even though I was born in a colony. Both my parents were British and I had assumed we were the same people, although we had been at odds with them politically since our Prime Minister made his unilateral declaration of Independence from Britain in 1965, when I was too young to remember. Anyway old Mr Barnes has just put me straight. I am a foreigner.
I asked him where he worked and he scolded me. ‘You never ask an Englishman what he does for a living,’ he said and then added, ‘you foreigners are all the same.’
For the past few weeks I had chatted to him during my lunch breaks. He always asked questions about me, so I felt it was time I learned more about him. Not that I cared. I was just making small talk. Now I sat on the stool, dumbfounded by his reprimand, and feeling very alien in a strange land.
It was at that moment another bloke came into the bar. He spoke to my colleague behind the counter, and my heart lifted above its dark dealings with Mr Barnes.
‘You’re Rhodesian,’ I blurted.
‘Ja.’ He turned to me and took a slurp from his pint. ‘They never make the beer cold enough in this joint.’
‘Where are you from?’ Mr Barnes was forgotten as I turned on my bar stool to face my fellow countryman with a surge of joy and desperation for my lost home.
‘Ja me too, although I was born in Bulawayo. I went to school in Salisbury. Oh, and Gwelo.’
‘Oh my brothers went to Saints’. The world around me disappeared and once more I was back at home, remembering the warm sun on my face; the highland air, fresh and clean. We talked of the places we went, the Gremlin drive-in café where food was brought by waiters to your car. The night clubs, La Bohème and Brett’s and the Coq D’Or and the pubs, the Blue Room, the Red Fox, the Oasis and many more. We laughed at the amazing stripper who tossed tassels to whirl in opposite directions; such muscle control.
Our eyes glazed as we longed once more to see the first rains of the season moving along the road. We talked about how we would run ahead before it caught up and we were drenched. We remembered the first huge drops that plopped onto the dirt to spurt dust in small funnels about our bare feet, and the smell of it; a smell you could never forget. We talked of the ant-lions we would catch by twirling a straw to tickle the slopes of their burrows. And we talked of friends, people we knew in common, and laughed at teachers he remembered, their names familiar to me from hearing stories from my brothers. I loved their nicknames like Quick Straw.
I said, ‘I remember the worse maths teacher I ever had. She was an absolute dragon who terrified me so much I never learned a thing in her class. I don’t think teachers like that should be allowed near kids.’
‘Oh, what was her name?’ His expression was mild, but curious.
I said her name. How could I ever forget it?
Quietly, sadly, he shook his head. ‘That’s my mother.’
‘No,’ I gasped, my cheeks burning. ‘You’re joking.’
He looked at his feet. ‘She is really a very nice Mother.’
My break was over and I had to go back to work. His beer was finished and he had to get along. I never saw him again, but I have never forgotten, even though it was a long time ago.
The Trouble with Maggie is now available in Paperback through Amazon click here
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Coming soon to paperback, google play, and ibooks.
The Trouble with Maggie is a tale of heroism, hedonism, hankie-panki, and hocus-pocus.
Maggie had everything she wanted; a wonderful husband and two gorgeous kids. Her life was perfect, until the fateful moment she ignored her dead grandmother’s warning and her life changed forever.
The Trouble with Maggie is a romantic comedy with a dark twist. Set in rural Australia, it tells a story about the trials of marriage; secrets, lies, guilt, love and temptation, but most of all, it is a story about Maggie’s journey to redemption
When we first met, I can’t say I was overly impressed. I wasn’t, but he certainly had an impact. In a weird way, I felt fear. Oh, not the terror type of fear, but something akin to a deep understanding of how he might ruin my life.
At the time, my reaction wasn’t as clear as I make it sound, but I recall thinking, keep away, he’s dangerous. A tiny voice buried in my subconscious whispered, that’s ludicrous, and immediately my rational mind leapt into action, drowning out what I now assert was a kind of karmic knowledge. I can’t explain it really, except to say it was like looking at a wolf and knowing you will walk willingly into its jaws.
I get ahead of myself. Let me go back to the beginning when I walked up the stairs from the street and entered the wrong office. The door was open and a man stood behind a desk engrossed in a sheaf of engineering drawings. His knuckles pressed flat against the desk’s wooden surface as he scanned the documents.
He hadn’t heard me enter and remained oblivious to my presence as I watched him. Dark hair streaked with caramel sun-bleached strands flopped forward over his eyes and curled at his neck. He needed a haircut. His shirt sleeves were rolled to below his elbows and fine golden hairs glinted against a deep tan on sinewed forearms.
Had I, for one moment, stopped to think, I would have realised that such a tan does not come from sitting behind a desk. This was a man of the outdoors, not the insurance salesman I had come to see. But of course it didn’t occur to me at the time.
I cleared my throat to get his attention. His chin lifted slowly as if reluctant to break away from the papers, but when his gaze met mine, the silence seemed to suck gravity from the atmosphere. A muscle jumped in his jaw, and his finely sculpted mouth lifted at one corner in appreciation. Lines crinkled about his eyes; eyes that would leave me drowning in turbulent seas.
I could see he liked what he saw, and that was when fear hit me. I twisted my wedding ring and hung back wondering what to do with my limbs, which suddenly seemed too long and gangly. Instead of telling me I was in the wrong office, he indicated I should sit in the chair opposite his desk. I sat on the seat’s edge, my handbag held on my lap in defence, and dropped my gaze under his scrutiny.
It amused him; the cat playing with a canary. ‘Would you like a cup of tea while you wait?’ His voice was educated, but northern in intonation.
‘Wait?’ As soon as the words were out of my mouth I felt gauche, like a school girl. ‘What am I waiting for?’
I assumed you were here to see the insurance agent. He’s not back until five, but we have a game of squash scheduled, so he will call in before he locks his office next door.
I glanced at my watch. It was four thirty.
‘Oh.’ I felt the blood creeping into my cheeks as I glanced up at him. I had mistaken him for the agent. ‘Okay, thanks.’
I should have fled then, but I didn’t. His slow smile drew me into the void and I was lost.
My father was a clean shaven man, who arranged his ginger-grey hair across his bald spot, in wispy strands. He smelled of Imperial Leather soap and was particular about hygiene and grooming.
He became a father late in life, and struggled with the fundamentals of parenting. His privileged, but neglected childhood, left him ill-equipped to manage a family. My practical mother, did all she could to keep us together, but in the end she gave up and divorced him. I was two years old.
When I was about five, we went to visit Dad in Kariba. That time stands out in my memory because it was my first flight in an aeroplane; a heart-stopping adventure gazing at African veldt far below through the blades of a spinning propeller, but this story is not about that. It is about me, and my desperate desire to have my father’s love and attention. After a long absence, I wanted to be reassured that I was still his princess.
On Saturday night we dressed-up to go to the pictures in town; an unusual treat. The movie theatre was a concrete and grass amphitheatre open to the stars. On one side, a screen dominated, on the other, patrons sat on semi-circular steps.
I tagged behind my siblings, in awe at the size of the place, as they found seats in an empty row. People looked up as we passed, and I felt very grown up and important to be up so late. I pushed my way between my older siblings to sit close to my father.
The air was cool; the concrete beneath me hard and cold. The scent of earlier rain lingered on the damp lawn, and stars pierced the obsidian sky in unparalleled display. As we waited for the movie to start, I watched late-comers find their seats.
They brought cushions and spread blankets over their knees. I shivered in my thread-thin cardigan and envied their comforts, as I huddled against my Dad, my hands seeking warmth under his arm. The fragrance of soap from his recent shower, along with the aromas of damp lawn, the African bush, and smoke from distant cooking fires, was comforting and familiar as I waited in anticipation, for the film to begin.
He looked down at me. ‘Are you cold?’
He pulled his cashmere jumper over his head and wrapped it shawl-like around my shoulders. I clutched it close, and glanced at my siblings, feeling singled out for attention. My chest filled with air and I sat up straight. I could have been at the head of a marching band and not felt more proud or more filled with happiness. Then the cartoons began.
The movie was ten minutes in, but my eyes wouldn’t stay open. I yawned and lay down, head resting on my forearms, but I couldn’t get comfortable. My bare legs were freezing, so I sat up again to see how the others fared, but they were immersed in the plot.
I took my Dad’s jumper from around my shoulders, and poked my legs through the arms. Then I hauled the torso up over my body until it stretched to my neck. The grassy path behind the step was more comfortable so I lay down and drifted off to sleep, snug and warm.
The movie ended, and my sister shook me. I didn’t want to wake up and rolled away. She shook me again, and then I heard my Dad roar.
‘Look what you’ve done to my jumper. It’s stretched out of shape. You’ve ruined it. Get up and take it off immediately.’
I jumped up, and pushed the jumper down my body and off my legs. It caught on my shoe buckle, so I sat and unhooked it, fingers fumbling under his impatient gaze. I wished I could be invisible. If only I had stayed awake and been more grown up like the others. If only I had watched the movie and kept the jumper around my shoulders. If only I hadn’t fallen asleep.
With eyes cast down, I handed his jumper back, mud streaked, damp and still warm with my body heat. Tears burn behind my eyes. I was a naughty, selfish girl who ruined my Dad’s best jumper.
As we walked to the Land Rover, I dragged my feet, disgraced. I was cold and lonely and miserable as I hunched in the back, brooding on my failure. I wanted to run away and never face him again. How could I have believed I was special?
Up to 1,250 current and former Australian Defence Force members now have permanent brain injuries as a result of taking anti malarial drugs, according to ABC news. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-04/adf-accused-of-massive-cover-up-over-anti-malarial-drug/7001142
It seems that the Army knows the horrific mental effects these drugs can induce, but they continue to use them. Soldiers who complain are apparently bullied and threatened, according to the news stories.
So, why would anyone do this to our country men and women? Why lie and then try to cover up misdeeds when the media, or others, point out such iniquitous acts? If the decision makers stoped for one minute to ask themselves if they would like it done to them, would they still do it to others? Surely, they could not justify such abhorrent behaviour?
Sadly, it’s not a new phenomenon. Australian history, along with other countries, is littered with stories about how soldiers have been used as guinea pigs, and been lied to, for what is argued to be for the greater good. It’s not just the military, although an army of people trained to obey without question, is a tempting opportunity to exploit.
When I heard this story on the radio as I drove home from work on Friday evening I began thinking about the thought processes of people who make these decisions, and those who protect them by lying to maintain secrecy. I also wondered how other people would view their behaviour.
I have a forty five minute drive home so I had a lot of time to think. I tried to imagine what people would say. Perhaps something like:
‘Only a sociopath, a person with no empathy and no conscience, could make a decision that they knew would place people in such harm!’
‘Oh hang-on, they are soldiers going into war zone, so they are being placed in harm’s way anyway…’
‘But, does that justify giving soldiers’ drugs that cause such lasting damage, without their knowledge or consent?’
Australian soldiers volunteer to go to war for multiple reasons, some for lofty ideals, others to protect their country, and some because they like the job, or the adventure. Their reasons for going, to do their country’s dirty work, doesn’t matter, but they go with a high level of skill and a belief that such skill, along with their mates, will keep them alive. They don’t expect to be harmed, and certainly not by their own hierarchy.
So, back to what motivates the decision makers and how do they justify their decisions?
Could it be they have no morals?
I doubt they would agree with that statement. Lots of our decision makers attend church and consider they are morally upright. Look at the bosses of the Army decision makers, a selection of our recent Prime Ministers, John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, they are all devout Christians.
These Prime Ministers consider themselves righteous men and yet this unconscionable conduct was done under the watch of at least one of them if not more. From the Peace Keepers in East Timor, through to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and perhaps even until this day, our soldiers have been subjected to these particular anti malarial drugs and many are suffering the debilitating mental effects.
I imagine the Prime Minister is kept appraised of what is being done in the name of the country even if they have not made the decisions themselves. So where were our elected representatives and why didn’t they speak out against such a dastardly decision?
I won’t pretend I am naive. Good people make evil decisions which bring harm to those whom they are expected to protect. The question is why? How can they justify such a thing? For, in order to sleep at night, they would need to have some kind of justification; even serial killers justify their evil deeds to themselves.
I can hear the excuses now as, I imagine, can you. It might be something like…the side effects only affect some, and the drug protects the majority from contracting malaria.
Ask the soldiers who have been affected by these drugs, if they are happy with that answer.
Nietzche says the lie is a condition of life, and I guess it is because research by DePaulo et al., shows most of us lie daily, often multiple times. British research shows men lie twice as much as women, and it seems we reserve our biggest lies for our most intimate relationships.
Often these kinds of lies are altruistically motivated because we don’t want to hurt those we love, but sometimes we lie because we don’t want to get into trouble, or because we don’t wish people to think badly of us. Sometimes we lie because we want someone to like us, so we lie in our compliments or our omissions; sometimes we lie to bolster our self esteem.
Whatever the motivation for lying, it is a strange human phenomenon without which, life would be a dull thing. I have watched people lying to me all week with fascination. It’s an experiment of a sort for which I am well trained by my profession, my experience and my fascination with human behaviour.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t usually mind people lying to me, even when it’s obvious. Humans lie. I don’t take it personally. What does interest me is the motivation behind the lie. For it is the motivation, not the lie, that is the upsetting aspect.
It’s not like you can say, ‘please explain your motivation for lying to me.’ Oh boy, that would send a person into a spin. Oh course it would most likely also elicit another lie. ‘I’m not lying, honestly.’ Or perhaps even, ‘what about you? You lied to me about that thing…’ We like to turn the tables when our lies are uncovered.
When we are uncomfortable with our behaviour we often try to allocate blame to someone else. We do it in little ways… ‘I wouldn’t have had to do that if only you had done…’ You get the gist.
So, why do we lie?
I have established that people make immoral decisions which harm other people whom they are supposed to protect, even though they may have empathy, morality and a conscience. On top of such immoral decisions, the decision makers cover up, justify or try to hide their lies. Hmm, now we get closer to the truth.
The people who made the decision to feed poison to our soldiers, can’t be that comfortable with their decisions after all, or they would not have covered it up: cognitive dissonance, anyone?
The moral philosopher, Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning says that humans, as they develop, progress through levels of reasoning when confronted by moral dilemmas. The levels are called pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional.
Without boring everyone with a lecture on reasoning, I will just say that for the purpose of this essay the middle conventional level is where most people stop developing their reasoning skills, around their early adolescent years. The conventional level has reasoning based on doing what is right according to the law or social convention.
In a nut shell, it is concerned with the dos and don’ts in society, and the fear that if we don’t conform, we will be exposed as being outside the social norm. At this level we act to conform to avoid social sanction or our own guilt. If we are doing something of which we think others wouldn’t approve, we hide our actions.
I doubt society would approve of the decision to poison our soldiers so it’s better not to tell anyone about what we are doing – the conventional level.
The third level of Kohlberg’s theory, or the post-conventional level, is concerned with both the social contract and universal principles, where human rights, justice and equality apply to everyone, regardless of rules.
This level of reasoning would ensure that no human, soldier or not, should be subjected, unwittingly, to a poison which may affect their health and mental functioning.
Does this mean that the military decision makers and their bosses, the politicians in this country, have the moral reasoning skills of an adolescent? Do we not deserve better from those whom we place in positions of power? Where is the post-conventional reasoning in our leaders? Where is the evidence of a principled conscience which will stand up for moral right, regardless of social constructs?
I am not an historian so I cannot say I have much knowledge about great military or political decisions. One decision, made with post-conventional reasoning, which does come to mind, is a decision by Abraham Lincoln. Here was a man, who against the wishes of many of his own party, issued the emancipation proclamation in 1863. The decision was made against the social conventions of the times, but freedom for all was a belief he was prepared to stand up for and fight.
It doesn’t matter what the issue is, and it doesn’t matter about the behaviour or motivations of others, what matters in post conventional reasoning is that you have a belief in a social contract and the universal rights of people, all people, and you uphold that belief in the face of opposition, without resorting to cover ups and lies.
We often call it courage.