Academic journal article Hecate

Celluloid War

Academic journal article Hecate

Celluloid War

Article excerpt

Celluloid War

The year of Timor. The Coral Sea. Kokoda and Bougainville are still to come. The shadow is all-encompassing. Fear starts and ends the day, eases its breasts on to the damask tablecloth and peels a limp cigarette from the corner of its mouth. Focussed, parochial, it lurks behind the smiles we all direct towards the head of the table. That is, all except Alfred Crump, who is married to it, has been intimate with its flesh.

God is taking care of Tojo and Hitler; albeit slowly, but Mrs Crump, despising those who cower on the home front, crashes on through our soft underbellies like a centurion tank. `Cossetted in boarding houses. Protected in cushy jobs,' she taunts, serving a wafer of cold mutton. `Begging your pardon dear,' she says to Mrs Teddington.

She emits a bronchial rattle, and attaches the wet end of a roll-your-own to her bread and butter plate. A thin, triumphant sneer snickers across her moon face as she glares at each boarder in turn. Her kind of grace. We wait. Some of us pray, too young or too old to have left God for good; but while she chooses her victim, I drift home to the farm, where curlews wail down along the creek in the darkness. Sheep bleat in the far paddock, and I am sick with longing for my parents who died quite carelessly, of influenza, just before Pearl Harbour. The farm house is empty, and a door, loose on its hinges, swings with a high pitched grinding noise that is Mrs Crump.

`Hair! Hair! she screeches.

Before dinner, she has caught us, my two sisters and me, in flagrante delicto, brushing our hair in the room where, for thirty shillings, we share a bed. Brushing hair is forbidden. Singing is forbidden. Raucous laughter. At night, we put our arms around each other, facing one way like stacked chairs, and drift to sleep dreaming of soldiers on leave.

Mad with rage, Mrs Crump waves aloft the roller from the carpet sweeper. `Filth!' she yells and draws out a long red-gold strand. I close myself up tight, and think a gardenia tucked in my hair would go well with moonlight. My blood courses to the beat of last night's music and the mystery of a strange soldier's thigh against mine in the movies. Somewhere in New Guinea, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer lion roars, and soldiers sing God Save The King, before bombs rain down like fireworks, and airmen with their thumbs up play at dog-fights in the sky.

At the end of the table, the door hinge croaks and screeches, and I cower inside the safety of my head with the curlew cries, the movie, the gardenia, and the soldiers on leave.

Mrs Crump sleeps in the master bedroom across the passageway from our room. Alfred, who made munitions during the first world war, lives in a bungalow in the back yard where he has found his own nirvana. There is just time enough in the day for him to read the sporting pages, the news, the advertisements, the legal notices and the births, deaths and marriages.

But there are times when Mrs Crump needs Alfred badly. On days when her creativity has failed her, she waits until Alfred has placed his Argus beneath the dining chair, and briefly recycles him. `Look at him,' she croaks, and gives a chesty rattle, `silly old fool. Senile. That's his trouble. Senile.' I and my sisters, Mrs Teddington, Mr Arkwright, Doyley and the other boarders look, while Alfred chews impassively on his boiled mutton ration.

`Shut your mouth when you chew, you silly old fool,' she snorts, flesh shuddering.

`And very fine mutton it is too,' Mr Arkwright says, educated, enunciating carefully. Mr Arkwright shares Alfred's bungalow. He wears a three-piece suit of faded navy, and a collar and tie which become disarranged as the day goes by. He sets off for the pub in the mornings; alert, debonair, carrying his fear delicately, like egg-shell china.

In the evenings, Mr Arkwright walks sideways. He has trouble making it from his bungalow across the yard to present himself for dinner. …

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