“The mall was full of people Christmas shopping….” Content warning: contains homophobic language
At six o’clock on the morning of the sixteenth of December, the soldiers of Echo Company woke in Dili, showered, dressed in civilian clothes and made their way to the vehicles that would take them to the plane that would take them home. There was towel-flicking and a shared feeling of excitement and joy. They had packed the night before and their rifles would travel separately. In Darwin they changed planes and boarded an Air New Zealand flight. They laughed at the safety instructions, ate small bags of peanuts and drank complimentary beer. Several air hostesses declined to give their phone numbers. The flight home was noisy; there were jokes and horse-play, head-rubbing and play-fighting. In all the noise a few soldiers looked out the windows at the clouds and felt their eyelids drop.
As the plane flew over Canterbury some of the men shouted out landmarks that became apparent as they continued their descent. From the plane they could see the airport and a large sign saying ‘Christchurch’. They couldn’t see the crowd of family and friends in the arrival area, but they felt it. On the ground, and as the seat- belt sign went off, they felt the weight of the people waiting for them. They disembarked, saying thank you to the air hostesses.
Before the doors through to the arrival area there was a duty free shop. The first off the plane stopped at the shop and the others, one by one, five by five, fell in. Recognisable as soldiers by their short haircuts and tidy jeans, they tried on sunglasses and looked at bottles of spirits. The married soldiers smelled perfume and asked the women behind the counter about them. Three soldiers, almost the last off the plane, stood at the entance of the shop until they saw another soldier looking at a shelf of aftershave. Wyatt, a broad man who wanted to be a chef and was everyone’s first pick for anything needing weight and force, joked that even the most expensive aftershave wouldn’t help the soldier have sex with anything resembling a woman. The others laughed. They started looking at the aftershaves, joking about the names, spraying each other with the testers. Lennon wore his glasses. Knight, the third man, called him “my blind foot soldier” when they were on patrol. Lennon said he was fine unless it was raining or humid which, Wyatt pointed out, was all the time in East Timor. Knight said, “Exactly, a blind assassin—stay in front of me.” The first soldiers stayed as long as possible, then began to disperse into the arrival area. The soldiers left in the duty free shop heard the shouts and cheers and screams of excitement. They looked toward them as the shop fell silent for a moment.
As they walked through, Wyatt was grabbed by his mother and sisters who covered him with kisses and hugs, whoops, small jumps and claps. Knight was met by several women who called themselves his good friends; they hugged and kissed him, except the ones who were in the army as well, these women stood back, shook his hand, then walked into sportsfield hugs. They thought this meant more than thrusting their chests forward and wet- kissing his cheek. Knight didn’t.
Lennon was the last to come through the double doors, his mother was there. His girlfriend ran to him, grabbed his face in both hands and kissed him on the mouth. She looked odd. He’d forgotten about her. He’d seen her name on the letters she sent, called her a couple of times. He’d mentioned her name and had her name mentioned to him in strip bars and mess tents but he’d forgotten about her—the her that stood in front of him now, smiling broadly and wiping tears away like something he was sure she’d seen on television. She was something waiting for him—what could be done with her now? He kept his distance. Lennon wasn’t frightened of anything but he kept his distance, unsure of what she could tell or smell or sense. He smiled at her carefully from beside his mother. Wyatt and Knight came over, said something about a party in the afternoon. Wyatt was going to have breakfast with his family and Knight said he was going to have sex with one, or more, of the women. They left.
Eventually everyone left. Lennon kept saying, I just need to see so-and-so, and ducking off but eventually everyone had left and he was there with them so he said, “Shall we go for some breakfast? I could murder some food.” He would travel with his girlfriend, his mother would come in her own car.
On the way to the restaurant there was a long silence. Lennon put his hand on his girlfriend’s thigh and said, “Good to see you.” She glowed and beamed, “Oh Mike.” He didn’t have to say anything else or touch her again for the rest of the journey.
They talked at breakfast, told him someone had died, someone else had got married and the weather had been warmer than last year. Did he like his mother’s new haircut? It was shorter. Lennon ate and looked at his watch and the clock on the wall behind his girlfriend. He paid the bill and met them in the carpark. His mother said goodbye. He thought he would mess around in town until the party but his girlfriend held out her car keys and asked if he wanted to drive. She meant back to her place, to drop his stuff off, and he realised she expected him to stay there. He was going to crash at the party or catch a lift back to barracks but he didn’t tell her that. It could still turn out that way, but not if he told her. He hadn’t driven for nearly a year. He’d been awake for almost twenty-four hours, traveled hundreds of kilometres and she wanted him to drive, so she could feel like a war-bride. It would get him into town and there wouldn’t be a fight. Concurrent activity, he thought, eating and marching. It was money in the bank, easy money.
At her flat he took another, longer shower and dressed in the humid dampness of the bathroom—blind. She offered to take him to the party and he said no, Wyatt was picking him up. She said okay, and looked out the window. He told her not to start and she said sorry, it’s just that he only just got home. He said just don’t fucking start and she said yeah, she wouldn’t start, she had stuff to do. She had no money. He could tell. She was listed as a dependant on his record. They’d lived together for a year in the housing area. She’d left while he was in Bougainville for a week. She’d taken lots but left more. She took the cat. Weeks later, when they were back together, it had to be put down after it broke a hip. She got another cat. He offered to look after it when she moved into this place. He told her to get a collar on it because they shot cats in barracks and she’d said you have to keep it inside for a couple of weeks. It disappeared within days and she didn’t say anything about it. He suspected she was saving it up and about a month before he went to East Timor he was right. He’d wanted to go out for dinner and a movie with someone and she said she didn’t think it was appropriate for him to go. He said he was going and don’t start, and she said, ‘What about the cat?’ He took forty dollars out of his jeans pocket and left it beside the basin for her. She’d put on weight. Shitloads of weight. Every time he went away she put on weight. When he got back she put on more. She looked fat. One thing about Indonesian women— they weren’t fat.
Wyatt arrived fifteen minutes prior to parade with Knight in the back seat, slightly drunk in the arms of one of the women from the airport; she was also quite drunk. Lennon saw his girlfriend see the woman with Knight and as she opened her mouth to say something he said, “She’s a hooker. It’s only strippers and hookers at the party.” As he jumped in the front seat his girlfriend told him to text her and she’d meet him in town and something else as Wyatt drove him away from her.
In the car Knight said the woman he was with gave good head. She hit him on the arm and sat slightly taller. Wyatt asked how was brunch and he and Lennon laughed, saying, ‘Fuuuuck!’ and shaking their heads. What was up with them, they asked. It was doing Lennon’s head in, he said, and Wyatt agreed it was also doing his head in. Knight said a surf would be good as they passed the beach and Lennon said surfing was a pussy sport and Knight was a pussy. Knight said it was better to be a pussy than pussy-whipped like, for instance, Lennon. Lennon leaned over and slapped him. Knight slapped him back. Lennon told Knight not to make him come over there and turned back to the front of the car. There were people on the golf course, men and women playing golf like it was an ordinary Saturday afternoon. Wyatt pulled into the mall at Shirley so they could all buy alcohol. Knight bought the woman a lollipop. The mall was full of people Christmas shopping. Tinsel and snow hung off everything. The woman with Knight stopped to try on sunglasses and said, “Buy me some sunglasses, Knight.” Lennon said, “Buy me some sunglasses, Knight,” and told Knight to sort it out, for Christ’s sake. Knight said quietly to Lennon that he, Lennon, didn’t understand just how good the head was she gave and handed her a fifty dollar note. The woman kissed Knight on the cheek, took the money and, while the men were in the bottle store, didn’t buy sunglasses.
The party was on Bealey Avenue, a long road with tall trees along the middle of it. It was daylight when they arrived. On the front lawn of the row of flats Kimbell was chasing Wyman and Miles was yelling at Davids. Some other soldiers were sitting in the sun, drinking. Wyatt, Knight and Lennon nodded at the men on the lawn and Knight, with his arm round the woman, tried to catch Wyman as he ran past. Wyman yelled something like ‘pussy’ at him, so Knight joined Kimbell in the chase. The woman who was with Knight stood and laughed and opened one of Knight’s beers and drank it.
Inside the flat the curtains were drawn and the stereo played loud music. There were soldiers in every room; lying on couches, sitting on the floor—all drinking. The host, Doe, was in the kitchen with his hand up his girlfriend’s skirt. When he saw Lennon and Wyatt arrive he smiled and slapped them on the back. His girlfriend pulled down her skirt and emptied a bag of chips into a bowl. Doe led them to the living room where they were welcomed with a volley of hoots. Someone made room for them on the couch and they sat and drank and no one said much to anyone except quotes from Full Metal Jacket and Terminator. When it finally got dark, the lounge was cleared a bit and the strippers arrived. Doe’s girlfriend and the woman with Knight joined in. Lennon was offered several women but said he was home now and everyone said ‘pussy-whipped’ and pretended to be on leashes. Doe’s girlfriend chose one of the strippers and Doe said for everyone to look after themselves for a couple of hours. Someone shouted more like a couple of minutes and Doe emptied the bottle he was drinking from and threw it so it hit the wall and exploded.
Around nine, Lennon’s cellphone rang. It was his girlfriend. He let it ring. He turned and asked if Wyatt wanted to go into town. Wyatt said sure, maybe, in a bit. Lennon stood up and went down the hall to find a quiet room to ring her back. The first one he tried had people in it, and the second, but the third was empty and dark. He closed the door behind him, keeping it dark, and rested his weight on the door. Sudden movement coming toward him startled Lennon. The man, who he couldn’t make out, said, “You came.” Hands pulled Lennon’s face close and kissed him. The hands held his head, his neck, his jaw, pulling him closer and further into the kiss. Then pulled back and pushed Lennon away. Cold rushed in. Lennon’s phone rang green and illuminated but the man was gone. Lennon closed his eyes and felt it all over him, again and again—the stillness of the room. Quiet and alone—it was all he wanted. Someone was calling his name from another room, Wyatt, asking where the fuck he was and had anyone seen Lennon.
Although the rest of the house was only dimly lit, it was blinding. The right thing occurred to Lennon—to run from the room shouting that some faggot tried to kiss him. All eyes were on him, saying, Wyatt’s looking for you and slapping him, shouting ‘pussy-whipped’ and saying she could smell him up to no good. Wyatt was with Knight when Lennon found him, on the front lawn holding his cellphone to his ear. When Lennon saw them he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. It took him like falling—the sensation that hung on him pushed deep inside, filling him, trying to escape out every pore. Wyatt raised his eyes, pushed the phone into Lennon’s chest and told him to fucking sort it out. It was her. She’d tried his phone and couldn’t get through so she’d called the barracks and someone had given her Wyatt’s cellphone number. Lennon looked at the empty sky. He said he’d been trying to call her from a quiet room but she was engaged so he’d stayed there for a bit and tried again and dozed off and way too much. She wanted to meet him in town.
She was out with a few friends. Did he want to meet at this bar? Wyatt was standing beside him drinking his last beer. Lennon asked if he wanted to go to the bar. Wyatt said sure, yeah. Knight said, ‘Don’t fucking humour him, he’s got to sort that bitch out.’ Wyatt said he was out of beer so he needed to go somewhere and Knight could talk—where was his missus? Knight said she wasn’t his missus and he told her to go home when he found her and Doe’s missus having sex with about ten guys watching. Wyatt pissed himself laughing. Knight said he would go to the bar, not because he wanted to but to show Wyatt what a fuckwit he was, and that he, Knight, wouldn’t be alone for long, but Wyatt would be alone forever. Wyatt said he would rather be alone forever than not get invited to his girlfriend’s live sex show. Knight said shut up and for fuck’s sake hurry up, Lennon, if they were going let’s fucking go, for Christ’s sake.
Lennon got off the phone and handed it back to Wyatt without saying anything. They began to walk away from the party when Wyatt said, ‘Where’s your fucking jacket, Lennon?’ Lennon had taken it off inside somewhere. He walked back over the lawn, picking his way over the soldiers who were lying there. On patrol, at night, no one slept until it was their turn and then they slept well. During the day, through the strangle of Indonesian bush, each man watched the one directly in front, never needing to look back or to the side. When the militia opened fire they retreated and hid together in the small spaces they found down low and were quiet. He should find the faggot and tear him apart. Davids and Wyman leant on either side of the door, beers in hand. They nodded and met his eye. There were soldiers everywhere inside. He had to push past to get to the lounge. They were pushing on him, leaning on him, heavy and drunk. He said sort it out a few times and with every push on him his body swam and the margins where his skin stopped broke like shrapnel had opened them. When the shooting stopped several of them were crying. They crawled out of their low places to find Deering missing. Lennon’s body was leaking out his skin and the pushing and the leaning was leaking into him. Washing in like a tide and he was getting fuller and fuller and could feel every pore of the skin on his face.
Miller was on his jacket, a topless woman in a g-string was on Miller. Lennon leaned down to pull his jacket out and his cheek grazed the woman’s breast. He turned and kissed it. She held his head close to her. Someone grabbed his arm; it was Wyatt come to see where he’d got to. Lennon turned quickly. Wyatt looked him in the eye and said, ‘Have you got your jacket?’ Lennon looked around to make sure no one else had seen and pulled his jacket out from under Miller. On the way out Lennon’s girlfriend called Wyatt’s phone again and he told her they were on their way and they would be about half an hour. As he hung up he told her to lose his fucking number. Knight met them outside and asked where the fuck Lennon had got to. Wyatt raised his eyes and said let’s walk to the bar.
They walked and kicked things and jumped over things and hit things but none of them were looking for a fight. Lennon’s phone rang, he didn’t answer it. Wyatt said, “Oh fuck, Lennon, she’ll just call me—for fuck’s sake.” Lennon said, “All right,” told them to go ahead and pretended to answer his phone. Knight said, “I’d do her.” Wyatt looked at him like you’ve got to be joking and Knight said, “She must be fucking amazing for Lennon to put up with all this shit.” They both laughed and Lennon caught up with them.
“Makes you want to go to war,” Wyatt said. Knight laughed and Lennon looked around and said he’d get the drinks. There were dress pants everywhere; men their age with stupid civvie haircuts drinking stupid drinks and chatting up ugly hairdressers and sales assistants. The doorman had said he didn’t want any trouble. Knight said, ‘Mate, there’s only three of us.’ The doorman had let them in, repeating he didn’t want any trouble. It all operated below them—everything that goes on. Broken shoelaces, lost jobs, car insurance. Not by choice. It was just where they lived now—a couple of feet above it all. Lennon’s girlfriend waved at him as he waited at the bar.
Back at her flat, in the dark of her bedroom, Lennon went down on her and she came. Then they fucked and he came. He held her as she got heavier and heavier and then he went to the kitchen to get a drink. He opened the fridge and something fell off the door. It was a magnet he’d sent her from Bali; a carved wooden fish. He turned it over with his foot. The note he’d sent with it was on the floor as well. She’d cut it out like a speech bubble and stuck it to the front of the fish with cellotape. He didn’t need to read it because he knew what it said. A car went past outside on the street and he caught himself in the reflection of the glass door, skinny and naked and spent. He could leave. People left people all the time but he wanted her to go. He tried to make it complicated, but it wasn’t. He picked up his clothes and dressed. The door was deadlocked. His girlfriend walked toward the bathroom, naked and rubbing her face. She looked at Lennon and said, ‘They’re by the phone,’ and closed the bathroom door.
It was a clear night. The sun would be up in a few hours, until then he would walk around. He’d get some breakfast and call Wyatt for a ride out to barracks. It was what he’d wanted from the start. It was all he ever wanted. He walked past houses and pubs and through a cemetery until he came to the river. He sat beside it and watched it move. The air was still and held his face. As the dark water bit at the shore he ran every man’s face through his mind. Trying to match jaws with the one that had touched his. He thought of their hands and then their hands holding their rifles. He eliminated some, shivering in the pre-dawn. He could feel the indent of those hands on the back of his neck. The light had fallen on Deering’s face. It shouldn’t have but after they’d looked and looked, in a place that was previously dull, a light fell on Deering’s calm, still face, where he lay alone and quiet. Knight had said, “For fuck’s sake,” and turned away. Wyatt had vomited, resting his whole body weight on his rifle as he bent over. Out of all of them, Lennon wished it could be Deering. He ran through every man’s torso, their chests. He mixed torsos with faces and hands. Someone’s right hand with another’s left— Deering’s head three feet from the rest of him. Carrying him back to camp, holding his head, his neck, his jaw. He went over it all. Trying to remember every time he had touched or been touched by someone in Echo Company.
When Lennon arrived back at Doe’s flat there were still soldiers everywhere, asleep now. He walked through the house, through room after room of sleeping soldiers until he found the room where it had happened. It was still empty. He closed the door behind him. The first of the dawn broke through the Venetian blinds as he lay on the bed. He teetered on sleep and felt the weight of everything above him—gravity pushing it down on him. That faggot was bound to come back and when he did Lennon would kill him. Something wrong until now slipped and was almost right. Everything rose in him as he remembered. In his mind he heard Deering breathe—in and out. He breathed in what was left of it. He thought about the fish and the note and how much he’d meant it when he wrote it. From the bottom of his heart he’d meant it and for what he imagined was forever.
Taken from the superb anthology A Game of Two Halves edited by Fergus Barrowman (Victoria University Press, $35), featuring the work of Eleanor Catton, Damien Wilkins, Tayi Tibble, Elizabeth Knox and others, available in bookstores nationwide.
Next week: We continue our series of three short stories set at Xmas, with “Christmas Morning” by Antonia Bale.