The soldier’s dream
The soldier is at a racecourse, looking along a row of stables. He sees strollers holding their doubled-over race-books peering at horses, standing talking in lazy fly-swatting groups, stepping carefully, knees up, women leaning on men, over fig-tree roots that uncoil from the ground like pipes of wooden intestine — but he cannot see the horses themselves. At his back, behind the green wall of trees, he hears the nervous stamping of hooves on turf in the saddling paddock. A horse snuffles like a man asleep. Somebody claps mechanically, high up as though perched in the sky: Chock, chock. Chock, chock.
The soldier’s commanding officer and his wife appear. Major Mason wears his Anzac uniform: slouch hat, old shirt, khaki shorts, puttees and boots. Mrs Mason, short like her husband, but elegant, wears white. She spins a blue parasol on her shoulder and laughs as she touches the major on the arm. The soldier watches her movements under the light cotton: a just-visible coming together and disengaging of bones and joints. As she talks, chatters, the major falls back a pace or two. A huge grey horse pokes its head out of its stall (the soldier sees this happen side-on) and clamps the major between its jaws, swinging him off the ground. His arms and legs stick out at awkward angles, like a grasshopper’s. Mrs Mason, still talking, walks on. The major struggles in silence until his hat and boots are the only parts of him visible. Then these too disappear in abrupt, gnawed movements.
The rifle is balanced on his boot, butt down. He spins it, lights a cigarette. The walls of the trench rising on either side are dusty and pale, rough-textured like ancient rubble under pressure. The sniper wears a shearer’s shirt, sleeves torn off at the shoulders, and a pocket knife in a pouch that looks like a fat tanned finger stuck to his waist.
Perhaps his interest lies in keeping score,
In serving an end no larger than this war …
He wears a cap, a slouch hat with its brim sawn off — and suddenly he looks like a foreigner, a watchmaker or a surgeon. His fingers manipulate a rectangle of oiled flannel; his eyes, enlarged behind gold-rimmed spectacles, smile with a secret kindness —
Or is it rage, ironic and intellectual,
Drawing the strength of metal for its fuel?
The war historian’s typewriter
Small enough to lift with one hand and carry at a trot, or hang (a bunch of keys) at the waist. And should the subject finally close in, durable enough to crack on a skull, yet resilient too — ticking nervously into the night, the wind sliced by its thin metal bones refreshing the tired face of the narrator, who falls asleep between full stops, wakes, taps again, shaping chaos into narrative, and dreaming of sense.
A rumble of voices around the green felt table. Overhead (pouring yellow light through ridged eyebrows) the ship’s lamp is swaying: the squeak of brass, and close-by the clink of heavy glass on thin — the steward’s gloved hand pours champagne.
A knuckle raps the table: a toast.
Bubbles rise fiercely to spray like a dream surf from the rim of each glass.
Now the ship’s engine kicks in the distant water like a heavy tail, and around the table, the flame held safe in its sphere over their heads, the wine dancing with ideas, the generals drink.
© Roger McDonald