Garrison Town – Part 1
Scenes from the Home Front: Brisbane, October 1942
The Captain drove her home. She refused to go to a hotel. She let him feel under her blouse, but it wasn’t what he wanted. It wasn’t what he’d paid for, but he was too polite to complain. She liked that about the Yanks: so polite, so charming. So generous. The first Yank she’d gone out with, a Lieutenant, had his own car and driver. She still had the little bottle of perfume he gave her. Never pushed a drink on her she didn’t want. Everything was ma’am this and ma’am that.
‘Why ain’t that the prettiest little cottage?’ he says when they pull up at the Beck house. It was early so they took a ride on down the street until they stop in the shadow of the powerhouse. ‘Take a walk, driver,’ the Lieutenant says, and she’s alone with him. He smelt nice, he looked good enough to eat, but she didn’t like it because she felt cheated by all that yes ma’am, no ma’am malarkey.
‘You watch yourself,’ she told him just before he kissed her, ‘I’m not an easy sort of girl.’
‘You just tell me when to stop, honey,’ he says and already his hand is under her skirt and up over her knee. He was good as his word too, but none too happy about it. Even in the dark she could see the smirk on the driver’s face when he got called back so quick. At least she got to keep the bottle of perfume.
She let the Captain escort her up the steps to the front door. Her father’s house, she explained: she was separated from her husband. Pulling him into the dark of the porch, she kissed him hard on the mouth.
‘You want to see me again?’
He didn’t mean it. She was too much trouble for him, when he had so many willing local girls to charm and seduce. She worried that it would get back to Theo. She would never convince him there was nothing to it, just cocktails in Lennon’s, free nylons and smokes and a chaste night at the flicks. The truth was, there had been too many men, already. Too many cashed-up, sex hungry Yanks since that first hands-off date with the Lieutenant. It was not what she intended, leaving Theo. It was the war with its potent coupling of fear and opportunity. Such uncertain times, such unnatural freedom … it surprised her that she fell into it so easily.
The girl was gone when Louis woke. Her name escaped him for the moment. His first thought was to find his pants and check that his wallet was still buttoned inside the back pocket. Rolling off the bed, his toe clipped an empty bottle.
Oh, sweet jivin’ mama … where the heck had he left his guitar …? It was a big old Stella, cost him five bucks in a Jew run music store on Maxwell Street. Hawked it halfway round the world and he loses it in a two-bit whorehouse in some British colonial outpost. Before the war, between jobs, he’d play on street corners like those old bluesmen from South Carolina and Mississippi. Some days his takings equalled his present army pay. He owed that guitar. Dropping his head between his knees, he peered under the bed. Glory Hallelujah! Stored for safekeeping.
Raising his head made the room spin. Leaning gingerly forward, he grabbed his pants from the back of the chair. A reassuring bulge to the back pocket, the button still fastened. Good girl. Black like him, not that it made any difference. Just another sweet talking whore. No more than sixteen, he reckoned, pretty enough still, except for her teeth. He’d noticed that with the Aussie blacks: lousy teeth.
Rose. That was her name. Like some high society girl in one of those English movies. The moment they’re through the door she’s all over him like a monkey.
‘You like black girls?’
‘Black girls better than white girls.’
Would it have shamed him to say no? Right now he wanted no truck with all that black shit white shit. He was just a guy getting some pussy.
Later, she said, ‘You play cowboy songs?’
‘Yeah, I play cowboy songs.’
‘My brothers play cowboy songs,’ she said. ‘Murri cowboy songs.’
‘What’s Murri?’ he asked.
‘We’re Murri. Black people are Murri.’ She put a bottle to his lips and let him take a gulp of warm flat beer. ‘Your people got a black name?’
He wiped his mouth. ‘We’re just niggers,’ he said.
Born a nigger, die a nigger, he reflected. Being a soldier didn’t make a bean of difference. Not to the army. The provos were the worst. Nigger haters to a man, that was Louis’s experience. Beat a man just for stepping over the colour line. For blacks, in this piss ant garrison town, north of the river was no man’s land. Venture over the bridge and you were as good as dead, if the provos caught you. No questions asked, just another dead nigger straying where he had no business.
It was different out of town. Out in the suburbs, at the dances, just walking the streets, a black GI could get treated real nice. Helping white ladies stow their shopping in their automobiles, just smiling and being on your best manners. You weren’t no nigger then. You got asked home to tea by big-boned schoolgirls, busting out of their uniforms, wanting to show you off to their brothers and sisters. Their mommas too. He just had to know his place. Not to step over the line. There was a colour line here, same as the Victoria Bridge, though it wasn’t going to get him shot if he forgot himself. Back stateside, if he’d dared date some nice white lady’s daughter, he could expect to have the dogs set on him.
Rose didn’t stick around to hear him play cowboy songs. Louis must have slept like a babe, not to hear her go. And didn’t lift his wallet, he kind of marvelled at that. He pulled on his shorts and singlet. He noticed it then, what was missing. Why he’d had that feeling of being more naked than naked. He turned the room over, tearing the filthy linen from the bed in a vain search to find it. That damn bitch, that goddamn black bitch whore. Souvenired his dog tags.
For months Dr Simm had been complaining to the authorities about the vacant lot behind his practice on the corner of Brunswick Street and Merthyr Road. It was strewn with rubble from the schoolhouse that had burned down a year ago, overgrown with weeds and infested with vermin. Torn posters from a broken hoarding compounded the eyesore. He was moderately gratified, though somewhat mystified, turning the corner a few minutes after nine that morning, to see a police patrol car parked across the sidewalk. A sergeant beckoned him to approach. The man’s face was familiar, though not especially friendly. At the back of the lot, partly obscured by a vandalised billboard, an American army jeep was parked alongside a black sedan.
‘Mr Penny, isn’t it?’
‘Sergeant Penny, sir.’
Theo observed the scene on the lot. A short distance from the vehicles an American sailor sat slumped against a brick wall, his head in his hands. A uniformed policeman and two marshal provost officers stood over him. ‘What have we here, Sergeant?’
‘Take a look?’
‘Yes,’ Theo said. ‘I think I should.’
The pasty-faced woman slumped forward on the back seat of a black sedan appeared to have choked on her own vomit. There was an empty liquor bottle beside her and a greasy limp prophylactic draped over the dead woman’s shoe. Her knickers were twisted around one ankle.
‘These times …’ Theo murmured, withdrawing his head from the scene. The sergeant was probably right, the girl was a prostitute, but she could just as easily be some soldier’s fiancée or wife. It disturbed him a little that he felt nothing for her. These days he kept his head up and his mind on his job. While the world around him fell to pieces, it seemed. With the American forces came sophistication and mayhem in equal measures, he had observed. It was futile to judge or conjure up fear of the deep abyss they were all about to fall into. The abyss was the war itself.
Before the Japs bombed Darwin some element of sanity prevailed. The threat and the danger was somewhere else. And then, after those bombs fell, everything changed. A macabre demonic circus had come to town. Ministers fulminated from their pulpits, and good luck to them. The denounced sat in Theo’s surgery, waiting for contraceptive advice. Young girls he’d treated for acne and menstrual problems a year or so back, had become garishly painted lounge lizzies, hanging around hotel bars night after night, waiting to be picked up. And as for their mothers …
He watched the senior provost officer approach. The MP drew the sergeant aside, though not out of Theo’s hearing. It seemed, Theo thought, calculated to offend.
‘We’ll take our boy.’
Penny nodded towards the car. ‘What about her?’
‘Your boy anything to say for himself?’
‘He’s intoxicated.’ Penny accompanied Theo back to the sidewalk.
‘Friggin’ Yanks, ’scuse my French.’ Theo smiled. The man’s knowing stare bothered him. He sensed that it had nothing to do with his disdain for Americans.
‘How’s Mrs Simm, Doc?’
‘Mrs Simm …?’
‘You got a new girl. Receptionist. Thought Mrs Simm might be poorly …’
Theo kept his smile. He was grateful for the arrival of a Black Maria. From the lavatory window at the rear of the practice he watched the orderlies remove the prostitute’s body from the American sailor’s hired car.
Louis set out, retracing his steps from the night before. Blue sky, hot and cloudless, the meanest breeze on his face. October: late fall back home, springtime Down Under. He was still having trouble getting his head around that. He proceeded at a steady pace east along Grey Street. This narrow stretch between the rail track and the river was familiar territory. Bars, low rent rooming houses and greasy spoon cafes: reminiscent in no small way of the South Chicago quarter where he mostly grew up. Card games, illicit booze, fly bookmakers, cheap whores … he’d spent more time here on leave since he’d come ashore in July than any place else in the city. Like most US army coloured boys. Some nights, some bars, coloured faces were the only ones you’d see. You’d think you were back down Mississippi way. Everyone carried blades. Louis carried a three blade jack-knife, which he’d had to pull more than a few times. There was always trouble between white boys and coloureds and the coloureds and provosts. Just up the road, in the basement of a big old red brick building, the provosts kept a lock-up, temporary accommodation Louis so far had stayed away from. Losing his dog tags could change that. Army property to the baton-wielding provosts. To Louis it was his beating heart, his mind and soul that had nothing to do with the shape of his face or the colour of his skin. He pressed on, across the street, turning the corner into the narrow filth-strewn lane that led to the wharfs.
To be continued tomorrow …
Bio: Ian Kennedy Williams is the author of three novels and three collections of short stories. His novel REGRET (Penguin Books 2002) has recently been republished as an ebook by Momentum Books (momentumbooks.com.au)