Boys of Blood and BoneAuthor: David Metzenthen
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The water, green-blue, rose and fell against the rocks as if the sea had the slowest of slow heartbeats. Henry, wet-suited, his mask and snorkel pushed back on his forehead, dragged his flippers on. Nick, as usual, fiddled around, complaining.
'These masks are crap on your hair,' he said. 'But anyway, here goes.' Fish-faced, he nodded toward's the water. 'One in, all in.'
Henry clambered to the edge, bent at the knees then plunged forward, hands up to his mask. For a moment he trod water, cleared his snorkel, then went under, his initial uneasiness disappearing as the bubbles cleared and the world that he was now in came into focus. Specks of mica glittered in the rocks, shells as delicately whorled as fingertips clung, and fringes of brown and green weed swayed in endless chorus lines. He looked around and saw Nick and Marcus, holding a handspear each.
Henry flippered along, occasionally looking out into the sombre curtain of foggy green. He tried not to think of a White Pointer coming through it, mouth wide open in an idiot leer. It was easy, he reckoned, to disregard sharks when you were on dry land, but not so easy when you were paddling around in their backyard.
Henry swam over weed beds that thinned as the water got deeper. There wasn't much to see in the way of fish, although a few Toadies hung around, seemingly confident that their ugliness and inedibility guaranteed their safety. Henry cruised towards the river channel, thinking that he might see some Flathead in the sand, but instead he reared back when a black stingray exploded away.
To calm himself, Henry trod water, seeing Marcus was well out. At the river mouth he noticed a white launch motoring slowly for the open sea. The boat's bows pushed out a small, lazy wave, the skipper taking no chances in the narrow confines of the river – but once the bar was safely negotiated Henry knew he'd hit the gas for the run out – where Marcus was, low in the water like a sodden black log. Henry took off his mask.
'Hey, Marcus!' he yelled. 'Hey!'
Marcus took no notice. For a few seconds, Henry did nothing, then he flung his mask and snorkel out onto the rocks, and started to swim hard for the channel, flippers driving.
Henry was a good swimmer; he hadn't trained for years, but he was fit and tall and already he was moving fast. He stopped to yell again, saw the boat was nearing the sand bar, stuck his head back under and ploughed on, a good thirty metres to go. Fear pushed him, he stroked harder, ignoring pain, dragging his hands back through the water and hoping that Marcus would hear the props of the boat and look up, and start waving. Again Henry pulled up, saw Marcus was still snorkelling, and so he yelled again, the boat planing now as the driver accelerated in deeper water.
'Marcus!' Henry felt something give in his throat. 'Marcus!' There was no time left to swim. Henry, like a Seaworld dolphin, propelled himself as high out of the water as he could, to wave and yell at the launch. 'Hey!' yelled. 'Eh!'
Suddenly, where Marcus had been, Henry saw black and yellow flippers as Marcus duck dived. Henry did the same, kicking and stroking down into the deeper water. He could hear the boat, fear spiralling as it passed, fear diminishing as it moved away. Surfacing, he saw Marcus ten metres away, mask up, his face shiny with water.
'Holy bloody hell,' he said. Wearily he began to swim over. 'Why didn't ya tell me I was in the bloody shipping lane? And I lost Nick's spear as well. And I ain't divin' back down there to get it. No way. Too deep.'
'Me, either.' Henry looked up and down the channel, saw that the only boat in view was the launch, now moving out past the wharf. 'Hey, I was yellin' at you, ya deaf bastard,' he added. 'And loud.'
Marcus flicked water from his eyes. 'Yeah, well, I didn't hear ya until I put me head up, because I thought the bloody boat was a plane going into the airport. So I guess you think I owe you a beer now?'
'They would've missed us anyway.' Henry was reasonably sure about that. 'They turn here to head out deeper.' He pointed vaguely. 'Anyhow, I might go in.' His arms and legs felt heavy, but the sea was supporting him like a big cold couch. 'Comin'?'
'Yeah.' Marcus looked back over his shoulder. 'Pity about the spear, but stuff it. How much d'you reckon they're worth?'
Henry had no idea. 'Don't worry about it. Nick won't. It wasn't his, I don't think.' The sun felt good on his face and in front of him the scrubby cliffs rose out of the sea. He lay back and began to propel himself toward the rocks. Above him there were wisps of cloud edged with rainbow colours. 'Nice day,' he said. 'Couldn't be any better really.'
July 17 1917,
It's an underground world here. Or in the ground anyway. Big dugout we're in, with steps and everything. Getting used to this life. Boys joke around. Homesick for the farm and the horses, but we push on with the job.
Andy sat on his groundsheet on the floor of the dugout, the place unevenly lit by the light of a few hurricane lanterns. Within the smoky smell, he reckoned he could pick out the cold odour of mud, the warmer, more reassuring smell of dirty clothes and bodies, and the ground-dwelling mealy smell of rats. The dugout was large and reinforced, although the walls seemed to waver, less than solid in the waxing, waning, light of the lamps.
'Poor old Boydy,' Bob said, staring up at the timber and tin sheet ceiling. 'Bloody gettin' yer head knocked off first day in. He was a good shot, too. Ripper had him down for sniper duty.'
Darcy examined his hands, dirty from the burial detail.
'Yeah, better get a couple back for him, eh? Gees, the dirt round here's shit.' He picked off scabs of dried earth. 'It's like diggin' friggin' mashed potato, pardon the poetry.'
Andy could still hear the guns, the sound of them like something seeping out of the walls, a far-off heavy booming. He realised he was scared now, all of the time. It didn't affect how he talked or acted, but he could feel it, as if his body had been tightened a few turns, the screws beginning to bite. Just to see the churned dirt, like shit-coloured mashed potato, as Darcy had said, was enough to do it. It was sick ground, all right; it wept blood, rust, gas, shit, wire, steel, poisoned water, and it stunk.
And even now, with hardly a shell coming over, there was an oppressive sense of menace, similar but far worse than that first whiff of bushfire smoke on the hottest day of summer. Andy could feel real fear coiled deep in his flesh, dormant but stirring, and how he would deal with it, or how it would reveal itself, he didn't know.
'Carryin' up to the supports tomorrer night, Rip reckons,' Darcy lit a cigarette that he had botted back. 'Should be a bit of fun. Geez, ya should'a seen poor old Captain Ellery when we put Boydy in this mornin'. Dropped the bloody bible in the hole. Had to fish it out with a shovel. Still, no worse for wear. The Captain that is. The good book was a bit crook, but.' Darcy picked tobacco off his tongue. 'He's a bit shaky, the boss, but he won't let it get to him.'
Suddenly, the loud, idiot clanging of gongs flew into the dugout, swarming like a flock of bats. The boys looked at each other, then dived for their packs, elbows flying as they dragged free their gas masks, pulling them on, the underground shelter becoming a lair for goggle-eyed monsters.
'Gas!' someone was yelling. 'Gas! Bloody gas!'
Andy, mask on, stood with the rest of the boys, waiting and wondering, the lot of them an uneasy herd of freaks with green canvas heads, holding their rifles. The mask stank, Andy's world seeming to have shrunk, becoming darker and more evil as if the horror of what he'd got himself into was being compressed and held against his face. Someone was trying to kill him with poison gas. He could hear the flat 'phut' of the exploding shells and he knew, the thought sliding smoothly into his head, that he would welcome the chance to kill this enemy. It would require physical effort, maybe, but no thought.
'Sorry about the fart, boys.' Darcy's voice was muffled. 'But there's no need to carry on to this degree.'
Andy laughed into the stifling greenish stink. This was the strangest day, he reckoned, that he'd ever lived through.