Pick of the Month
My childhood home at Grafton was built on pylons on the slope of a hill, so underneath the lower side my father had a workbench at which he could stand fully upright, while up below the parlour and the front veranda the floor was so close to the ground that even a ten-year old had to crawl or even slither. It was there that I discovered the treasure chest, left presumably by a previous occupant.
I use the word chest very loosely, for it was in fact an old suitcase- but it was real leather, and very old and scuffed and gaping at the seams. Even more wonderful, it was locked. Thrilled by the possibilities it presented, I was determined that it should remain our secret: that is belonging to me and my brother, two years younger, whom I threatened with terrible consequences if he breathed a word of it to our parents or, worse, to our big sister, Laura, who possessed a thoroughly deserved reputation as a dobber.
Throughout late summer and early autumn, we would sneak to the top end underneath the house, braving red-back spiders and the blue-tongue lizard which hissed at our intrusion. There we would fiddle with the locks and squeeze our fingers in the gaps, hoping that the case would yield its secret. Mum become suspicious that we must be up to something, having observed us from time to time emerging from under the house with dusty knees and elbows and cobwebs clinging to our clothes, and she worried about what that something might be. On one occasion, having guessed we were up under the veranda again, she tried to frighten us into revealing ourselves by calling out, “Brian, Allen, what are you doing down there? You know there might be a snake.” But Allen rose to the occasion magnificently, yelling back, “It’s okay, Mum. The blueys have a nest, so they’ll have eaten any snakes’ eggs.” Mum was not in the slightest mollified by this information, nor impressed with her younger son’s intimate knowledge of the dietary habits of large lizards.
Finally came the afternoon of Laura’s ballet expo, from which Mum had reluctantly been persuaded to excuse Allen and me, leaving us alone in the house for a almost three hours. It was an opportunity too good to be missed.
Once we were certain that Mum and Dad had driven off and were unlikely to return for something Laura had forgotten, I had Allen, as the smaller, slide up and collect the case and bring it down to the work-bench. There we studied it, hoping that examining it in sunlight would reveal some way of breaking into it, but alas could see no means other than either inserting something sharp into one of the gaps and ripping the case open or breaking the locks.
Since the case was a very sturdy one, the second option seemed the better of the two. After quickly preventing Allen from attacking it with one of Dad’s best chisels- a course of action which was likely to get us grounded forever and never trusted at home alone again- I inserted a heavy screw-driver under the latches. The first of them sprang open undamaged after a little pressure but I broke the second.
Reverently, on our knees, we lifted the lid. Disappointment!
All that was to be seen apart from dust was an A5 sized Morocco leather photograph album with a camel embossed on the cover, a small identical box, and a slightly thicker bundle of letters tied with washed out blue ribbon. So this was all there was to the wonderful treasure which had been the object of our fantasies for the previous two months!
Our first impulse was to inspect the box. We recognised the badges instantly: everyone of our generation knew that the rising sun was the emblem of the AIF, the Australian Imperial Forces of the two World Wars, and Allen and I were also familiar with the little bronze Australia badges the troops wore on their shoulders, as our grandfather had retained his amongst his souvenirs of his service in World War II. There was also a swatch of khaki material bearing a green and black colour patch, several metal buttons, and (most exciting to us) a spent shell casing, probably from a rifle bullet.
We then turned our attention to the photo album. All told, it contained just over a dozen photos, brittle and sepia with age, and often under-exposed or in poor focus. All featured the same little group of men: holding up to the camera glasses of beer in a hotel surrounded by date palms, peering up at the face of the Great Sphinx, posing with donkeys in front of a pyramid, lined up on a dock with a troop-ship in the background. I deduced from displays I had seen on Anzac Day that the uniforms they wore were those of the First, not the Second, Word War.
Allen was all for grabbing the letters and opening them, but being in Year 6 and having done research assignments at school, I felt the need for greater system.
Carefully shutting the case as best we could we carried it out into the yard where we emptied its contents into the wheel barrow, and then carefully wiped the case inside and out with a damp cloth and left it to be dried thoroughly by the sun before replacing its contents and carrying it up into the house.
Then we commenced on the letters, with me setting strict rules onto how we would go through them: only one letter at time was to be opened and it was to be then replaced in its envelope, and we would as much as possible seek to place them in chronological order. The latter task proved very easy, as the month and year were written meticulously in the top right hand corner of each envelope.
Actually, reading the letters was more difficult: the writing was of the old-style with lots of loops and flourishes, and very small and crammed all the way to the edges of the paper. I guess they were rationed as to how much paper they could fill.
The first was dated the 20th of January 1916 and commenced,
“Dear Mother and Dad,
“We have arrived in Egypt for final training to prepare us for battle. However, I don’t know when that will be. Gallipoli has been evacuated, so I guess that we will eventually be off to France. It is all very disappointing- we are all ready and eager to prove our mettle against the Hun, but I cannot imagine when that will be. I am afraid that it might be all over before we get our chance.
“In the meantime we have enjoyed ourselves seeing the sights of Cairo, and even were able to take a day trip to the Pyramids. The chaps in the photos are those I chummed up with soon after enlisting. You have already met Snowy Burton but you will not know the others. I have written their names on the back of the photos. I have bought an album in the bazaar at Cairo, real Morocco leather. It is in the bottom of my kit-bag and I will bring it home when it is all over, so that you can paste in any photos or printed stuff to remind you of our great adventure. Or maybe I can post it if I get to London some time. Just imagine it, London!
“Dad, I am sorry your cough has returned. Do you think the time has come for you to stop working underground?”
There was more about the family: enquiries about his sisters, and his cousin who was serving in the navy, and the letter ends with, “Your loving son, Archie”.
Through the chronology of the letters, we traced Archie from Egypt to London and finally to Pozieres in France. There was no Google in my childhood, or even in my young manhood, but we did have a picture history book called Australians at War, which devoted a whole page to Pozieres. In the attempts to take Pozieres Ridge Australian forces experienced the most devastating artillery barrage of their war and suffered the greatest casualties for the smallest gain.
We found reading the old fashioned cursive script tiring. Allen especially, so after the first letter written after Pozieres we took a break, returning the letters to the case which we then stored under my bed. Thereafter Allen took little interest in the letters but I slowly worked my way through them, in the process coming to identify with Archie and see him as a hero. It came then as a shock when they came to an end with two accounts of his death, one from a Captain Peterson who described him a falling with his face to the enemy and another from Snowy Burton who spoke of a shell falling among a group of them and assured his parents that Archie would not have felt a thing. I cried for him when I read them, as even at that age I understood that one, or both, had to be a comforting lie.
© GARY IRELAND September 2021