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Beloved and Spearman go shopping at a thrice-yearly military market and talk shared histories.

Scant Heritage

part 23 of Common People

The testosterone thick enough to make your nipples hurt. One might never see so many white Perth men shopping anywhere else in the world. Except maybe on holiday at the nearest tropical, developing nation. But even there, they certainly don't stand about comparing the quality of their berets.

A home just isn't complete without Nazi memorabilia, one salesman says.

I want boots, he says. Tell me if you see any boots that look like my size.

She crows, a dead man's boots. You want to wear a dead man's boots. You know they were looted off a corpse, don't you?

The sound of a hundred old men glaring. Women just do not get it.

A veteran with a cane and a fine wool jacket answers his mobile. He lifts his hand to his ear and up rises the smell of tiger balm, fine now, love, but I'd doped myself up pretty bad last night. Oh, no, terribly bad. Bad, bad, bad. It was bad. Well, I took three Naprosyn, and an antihistamine, and one of those other painkillers, the Fortes? And a sleeping tablet. Gosh it was pretty bad, I was out of it! Whoosh. Nasty. But now I'm good. Yeah. I'm at the market. Oh, guess what? I saw Gary! He sends his best.

Where's my favourite colonel? I said, where's my favourite colonel— Oh, Christ, Brian, turn up your hearing aide, mate! Ah, bloody hell, but it's good to see you again, good to see you, good to see you—

A chair falls backwards. Across a table covered with swords, a withered white hand clutches one still tanned, its owner middle aged instead of ancient. The handshake, tremulous, turns into a clasp. Then it's four hands, all touching. Only the table prevents an embrace.

The younger man is tearing up. The old bastard is still alive, still bloody fucking standing, if barely with that cane, trembling with emotion.

You know I nearly joined the army? Just before I met you. I was twenty one.

You regret you didn't?

Blue eyes flicking desperately, from male encounter to encounter. Air bitter with metallic history. Story after story after story of heroism, sacrifice, massacre, salvation, RAAF, Paras, SAS, Agents, codes, calls, credos, belonging; We Were The Rats, Blood Sweat and Tears, Is It Just Me Or Are We Seriously Knee Deep In Shit Right Now, the best shit is the shared shit, swallowed, digested, sentiment emitted as a dryly sarcastic Aussie drawl. Outside, a carparking lot full of ninety-thousand-dollar cars, and a land full of choices. Sometimes, force enforces.

Spearman hesitates.

Well, they wouldn't let me. Asked me why, and I didn't know why, I just wanted— Something, you know? So the recruitment dude told me to think about it and sent me away.

He looks around. Eyepatches, old scars, the frames, canes, the odd pinned sleeve.

Might've done me a favour, that recruitment officer. He looks at the clutching hands, the fractured, desperate, meaningful smiles. Or, eh, I dunno.

Who knows anything? Beloved says. Oh, Jesus Christ, can you put that down? You are not going to buy a dead man's drinking canteen, seriously.

That bloke in the corner? He's got it in a hardcover. But what are you willing to pay, seriously? No, seriously. Because it's two fifty. Uh huh, you heard me right, mate. I reckon in a hardcover, you've got a pretty damned good deal right there. The 1946 edition. And if you don't bloody buy it, I will! Tell him Brian sent you, from the books right here. Yeah. It's one of a kind, in a hardcover. Yeah mate, no worries. You take it easy.

Hey, look. A heap of camo net. You could buy that.

And what're we going to do with that? Hang it round the bed like curtains—

Never bloody find our way to the bed—

Can't ever find it again—

Sleeping on the sofa for weeks—

Sacrilege. Laughter. Hysteria. The sound of two hundred old men glaring at the pair of them, tear-struck and laughing against each other's shoulders. Young ones just don't get it.

You can have it for three dollars, your father was in the airforce. Three dollars. Go on love, there you go. And I'll see you on ANZAC Day at the parade.

So your grandfather—

Beloved shrugs, screws up her face. Yeah, he was stationed in Japan. But don't ask him about it, hey? He won't say a word except about how horrible it was. Horrible horrible horrible, and he wants to forget it all. Never marches, kills the TV and the radio on Anzac Day, forgets he was in the army except to collect his pension, forbade the lot of us to ever get involved, and that's pretty much it. Or he goes off the rails on his meds and then he tells us lies.

I seem to remember some tale about Pinky.

Oh yeah, Pinky. His Japanese maid. He only tells that crap to piss off Nan.

I've forgotten the story. What'd they used to call him over there?

The Japanese word for Butterfly. Because, right, all the women are flowers, and the soldiers were—

Like butterfly. From flower to flower.

You got it. Oh, and the other thing he says about the army? He threatened to sue the Red Cross or the government for getting him addicted to cigarettes. They used to come in the first aid kits. Gave em something to do out there, I suppose. Which is kind of ironic when you think about it, because my other granddad? The one on the Axis side of the forces? POW'd in an English camp, of all things. In this camp, he used to make cigarette cases instead of smoking. Handetched and everything. He only took up the habit when he got here. Land of the free, getting everyone addicted. Oh, hang on. That's America, innit?

Land of the free to blame the Red Cross for everything and do nothing about it.

Yeah. Now that's Australian.

Who would have thought an Australia this white still existed, bounded within the borrowed walls of a military market. An era out of code, use by dates marked with the top three Australian names of 1925. Or 1952, as it were, because history repeats itself. If you shouted: all the Garys, Marks and Brians to the right side of the room! Only three men would be standing on the left, and two of them are Japanese tourists comparing katana to sabre, and the third is that poor old bloke whose mum had airs, and called the sod Nathaniel.

My Polish grandad was a cook in the Polish army. Then a POW in a German camp. They shot him in the leg so he couldn't run away.

Well, my grandad, being a POW in an English camp — he didn't want to run away. Was better than being in a war he'd never wanted to fight in, anyway. And my other grandad couldn't even speak English when he got to Australia, and they still drafted him and sent him off to war. He flew with the Americans. And said, never again!

Hmm. Didn't like the loop-de-loop?

Something like that. "Never Again!" That was all he said about it. What about your other grandad?

Hey? Oh. The Welsh one.

The redhead?

No, that was the Polish one. The Welsh one was dark. And he definitely didn't fight.

What'd he do then? Evade conscription or something?

Was in prison, I think. In London. But you can't believe a word out of that bastard's mouth, like my dad says. But you can't believe a word out of my dad's mouth, either.

Come on, it's only two fifty. And in hardcover! 1946! A German printing press, you totally know it's genuine.

You are not spending that much of our money on — It's a matter of fucking ethics, alright? You are not handing over money and generating some kind of frikking profit cycle over that shite.

Well, what about—

Oh, wow, that's pretty.

He mimics, It's a dead man's sword, Beloved! You are not seriously spending thirty bucks on a dead man's— hey, it's only thirty bucks. Oh, shit! That's sharp. The fuck are you laughing at?

Time for a tetanus shot, or something. Or you'll get cholera.

Can't get cholera from a sword.

Or dysentery. Or gonorrhoea. Whatever. Wow, it's really pissing out.

I don't feel so—

If you faint in front of a hall full of army dudes, I will never let you live it down.

Not going to—

July 2011

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