Flying Free – Part 1
Winmalee, New South Wales
I was fighting in the darkest heart of Vietnam, hunkering down low on my belly. I crawled through the thickets, my boot laces tangling around bulging roots. I took cover in the shade of towering bamboo. The heat was swathing, tropical. And the flies! They were everywhere. A plague sent by God. Sweat rolled down my brow, stinging my eyes. Bullets whizzed past, nicking the ground, flicking up dirt. Patrick Reynolds, a fellow soldier, crawled beside me, his face smudged black. He jolted, the whites of his eyes startling against his smudged skin.
‘Reuben! Look out!’
Up ahead, Viet Cong soldiers thrashed through the thickets, plastered with branches, almost invisible amongst the trees. Patrick took down the first. The soldier jolted, howling as a bullet caught him in the shin. The second bullet silenced his shrieking. He hit the dirt, twitching like a man hooked to a live current. The second “Charlie”, a yellow-skinned brute, lunged for me, slamming down his bayonet. I twisted aside. The blade missed me by an inch, stabbing the dirt. I rolled onto my back, blasting him with my M16, the rifle flaring to the sky as I emptied the round. The beast flailed, gurgling and choking on his own blood. He sunk to his knees, collapsing beside me.
A shadow blotted out the garish glow of the sun. I gasped. A Charlie. A huge one. I was paralysed. The soldier reached down. He pinched me by the ear, pulling me to my feet.
‘Reuben! Stop that!’
Back in the garden, crawling amongst the hydrangeas, I dropped my stick. Mum pinched me by the ear, dragging me out of the mulched garden patch. The swathing heat of Vietnam disappeared.
I tried to pull away. She pinched her fingers tighter. I stopped fighting. She looked me over, grimacing.
‘Look at you!’ she snapped, brushing the dirt from the front of my shirt. ‘Filthy.’ She knelt down, looking me straight in the eyes. She licked her thumb, rubbing a smudge of dirt on my face. Back then, Mum was only young, maybe twenty eight. But she had aged beyond her years. I always thought she looked older because she tied back her dark curls in a bun, like Grandma used to. But really, it was her eyes. They were older, tight with the strain of waiting.
The bitterness slipped away. She pursed her lips, patting down my ruffled hair. Setting her hands square on my shoulders, she held my gaze.
‘Reuben. Please. Not in front of your father,’ she urged, ‘Now go and apologise.’ She nudged me away, returning to the clothesline. Working up the courage, I crossed the treacherous stretches of no man’s land, dodging my mum’s straying eyes from the enemy’s hills hoist. I hesitated at a small paved clearing with rusting, wrought iron seats. My Dad sat beside a small aviary, watching a flock of finches titter anxiously, the tiny birds fluttering and chirping. I joined him there, poking my fingers through the bars. He took a long drag on his cigarette, slouching back in his chair wearily.
‘Hey buddy,’ he sighed, forcing a tight smile. It quickly died on his face.
My real Dad didn’t come home from Vietnam a year ago. Someone else did. Someone cold and distant, a stranger with sunken cheeks and a hollow voice. He carried a limp in his left leg. He’d told me it was a VC’s bayonet that’d carved up his leg, but Mum said it was a bullet. I never found out the true story. No one ever talked about the war anymore. Not at home at least. Not since Ricky Donaldson, the kid next door, called my Dad a baby killer. Or since Dad watched the burning Vietnamese villages and the screaming children on television.
Dad ruffled my hair, leaning in close. He whispered in my ear, as if he had a secret to tell me.
‘Don’t worry about me. Play your games. You’re going on twelve this week. You’re old enough.’ I recoiled, the stench of alcohol strong on his breath. His faded clothes had a fabric memory of exhaust and cigarette smoke, a scent he carried around with him from his day job at the truck depot.
‘But remember, don’t take prisoners,’ he said.
He slipped his hand inside the aviary, cornering a finch and closing his fingers around it like a cage. The finch fluttered madly, beating its tiny wings. He manoeuvred his hand from the cage, latching it shut. Flaunting the bird before me, he watched it with hollow eyes, his lips set in a thin, hard line. ‘Even the cuckoo was meant to fly free.’
An American soldier once told Dad about cuckoos. The Yankee said the birds were like Nazis. They invaded nests and killed baby birds. I thought about this as Dad opened his fingers, releasing the finch. The bird writhed in a curl of feathers, fluttering free. It buffeted on a thermal, rising in a puff of feathers. I watched it disappear against the cold, hard blue of the sky, feeling the weight of my Dad’s hand on my shoulder, cringing as his fingers tightened like iron vices.
I shook the last brightly wrapped box. It was long and thin, finished off with a curled piece of ribbon. Sprawled on the lounge room floor, I ripped open the wrapping of my birthday present. Mum and Dad watched on, exchanging smiles as I struggled to pull the ribbon free. I threw the paper aside, beaming in delight as I discovered a toy rifle, a BB gun, just like the one I’d imagined in my guerrilla missions.
On the lounge, Mum stiffened, throwing Dad a cold, venomous look.
‘Jack. He’s just a boy,’ she muttered, her voice wavering. Dad shrugged.
‘It’s just a game to him. It’s not real. It’s all in his imagination.’
She grimaced, picking a loose thread in the stitching of the corduroy arm rest, pinching it loose and starting on another. She had never liked guns or bombs. She was a freedom fighter. When Dad was in Nui Dat, she had marched in the moratoriums, the anti-war riots.
Jumping to my feet, I tested the trigger. The gun was empty, so it just clicked. The BB gun was solid in my hands, light but sturdy. I aimed at the doorway, imagining a VC soldier barrelling at me, rifle raised, jerking and jolting as I fired.
Dad watched me, his face scrunched up as if he’d swallowed something unpleasant. Mum wasn’t looking at all.
I raced to the far end of the lounge room, dropping to my belly on to the shag rug. I aimed my rifle at a chair across the room.
Back at the lounge, Mum stared hard at the floor. Dad watched her sidelong. Hesitantly, very slowly, he reached for her hand. She flinched from his touch, her fingers tightening into a fist in her lap. Taking a deep, shaky breath, Dad took to his feet. He leant over her, kissing the top of her head gently. She stiffened, her lower lip trembling.
Limping towards a shelf lined with Vinyl records, he fingered through the cardboard sheaths. He paused on one, slipping it out with a smile. He placed the vinyl on the turntable of the record machine. Propping the needle down, the record popped and scratched, pucking as Ben E King’s Stand By Me started up. He limped back to her, offering his hand. He held it there, waiting her out. She hesitated, tears streaking fresh down her cheeks. She sighed, wiping away her tears. She took his hand.
Holding her close, he cradled her, shifting her into a slow dance. Circling with a heavy limp, he leant over, whispering in her ear, muttering secrets again. Mum ran her fingers through his hair, twirling his dark ringlets. They chuckled, smiling for the first time in months. Really smiling. It was a private moment, something special. In that instant, my mother stopped fighting him. She had left her trench, crossing no man’s land to reach him. The distance in his eyes disappeared. I watched them dance, wishing they’d always be this happy.
To be continued this afternoon …