Saturday, April 25, 2009

Getting to grips with Gallipoli

At Galli’poli there was no ice. It was stinking hot. The bodies were piled so deep in places they were used like sandbags, and lying there for sometimes weeks in the sun they were bloated and blackened and stunk to the heavens. One day a truce was declared and the men were given eight hours to bury the lot. Word went round that there were five hundred corpses to the acre in no-man’s land.

The stench was one thing, but dragging a rotten body by the arm and finding you’ve left most of it behind was another. It was clear the earth had started claiming the dead and wouldn’t let them go without a fight. The Friar remembered the sucking sound below a sound, like an old lady swallowing tea, the warning creak, and then an unexpected lightness when the arm parted from the body. The horror he felt the first time. The numbness he felt at the end of an hour. Then there was smoko with Ed.

Extract from The Blue [Penguin NZ 2007 ©Mary McCallum]

I didn't expect to write about Gallipoli when I began writing The Blue, but when I settled on 1938 as the date for my novel, I realised some of the male characters would have to have fought there in 1915. And then it became clear to me that I had to take the novel to Gallipoli and write about that place and what happened there because it couldn't be ignored.

The muddle, the horrors and heroism, the comradeship and nascent nationhood that are Gallipoli shaped the life of one of my protagonists, Ed, as it shaped all who served there. Ed is a farmer on isolated Arapawa Island in New Zealand's Tory Channel, but for three months of the year he and other local men become whalers who hunt migrating whales on fast two-man motor launches. In World War I, like many other NZ men, they leave their homes at the 'ends of the earth' to fight in Europe.

Ed also leaves behind a girlfriend, Lilian, who becomes his wife and is one of the protagonists in The Blue, along with Ed's cousin, Owen, known as the Friar.

The extract at the start of this post is part of the larger extract below. The Blue opens in 1938 on the brink of World War II. Here the whalers are pouring over mail and newspapers delivered by the mailboat. The story at this point is told by the Friar. Micky is Ed's son, and Tommy and Gunner are whalers. The Terminus is a Picton pub.

Extract from The Blue [Penguin NZ 2007]


Tommy was the first to speak. ‘Things are getting hot again in Europe.’

Gunner grunted. ‘Yes. Jerry’s up to something. First the Rhineland, and now those troops along the Czech border–’

‘I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them,’ said Tommy.

‘The politicians seem to have it in hand,’ said the Friar.

‘Appeasement is what it’s called,’ said Micky. ‘And it’s exactly what it sounds like. Piss. They should go in and deal with them now before it’s too late.’

The Friar turned towards him, surprised. He wanted to say, ‘What the hell do you know about it?’ But seeing the way Micky's face was clenched, he said, ‘Who have you been talking to?’

‘It’s all those newspapers he gets to read while he’s waiting for the fish to fry,’ said Gunner. ‘It’s given him opinions.’

The Friar coughed, Tommy laughed; Micky stood up, muttered something, kicked the box he was sitting on and walked off.

‘Now listen– ’ started Gunner, but the Friar shook his head. Micky had gone, walking to the rocks at the end of the whale station where he lit a cigarette, tossing the smoke up into the air.

The Friar watched for a moment and then turned back to his paper. There were no two ways about it, the boy unsettled him. How old was Micky now – sixteen, seventeen? Ed hadn’t been much more than that when they’d gone over to Gallipoli, and the Friar ten years older again – still young in anyone’s book. There they were, two cousins who’d lived within a mile of each other on the same island all their lives, vastly excited at going somewhere, anywhere at all, and as green as they come.

Micky talked about showing Jerry the door, but what did he know? Only as much as he’d seen at Anzac Day parades in Picton at that memorial like a kids’ castle. Glorious Dead above the gateway. What did Ed call them once? Leftovers at attention.

Ed had trouble getting along to those parades; he always had some excuse or other. The Friar remembered the boy Micky there, and his mother, and the disappointment in the cut of her mouth. Galli’poli. That’s how Ed used to say it. Like ‘gallop pony’. He used to have a funny way with words that had he’d lost as he’d got older. Iris would tell people how he was so painfully shy he didn’t talk until he was four and then when he did the words had just poured out.

That was a huge exaggeration: words had never poured out of Ed. What did happen, and the Friar was there when it happened, his cousin started talking one day in whole sentences as if he’d been doing it all along. He was looking out of the window and he’d said to the glass in front of him, ‘The weather’s turning, there’s a storm on the horizon.’ It was an odd thing to say for a person who hadn’t said a known word before that moment. His mother stood there as if frozen. She couldn’t speak herself for a matter of minutes (and that was a record for Iris), then she’d made such a fuss you’d have thought she’d just discovered her silent child was a genius.

That first sentence showed Ed had started as he meant to go on. He would only speak when he wanted to, and what he said did not always fit into other people’s idea of a conversation. The Friar remembered arriving at Gallipoli and Ed and him looking at the narrow beach and steep cliffs and the firing going on from the Turks and the men dying front of them.

‘Welcome to Galli’poli,’ said Ed.

‘Give me The Terminus any day,’ said the Friar.

And they both had a laugh, and some of the other diggers joined in. It started up a bit of banter until someone put a stop to it. Ed didn’t banter; he just kept his eye on the beaches. From that moment, he called Galli’poli as he saw it – or heard it – which seemed a vaguely subversive thing to do at the time. What was going on in Ed’s mind when he did that was anybody’s guess.

Then there was that phrase of his: ‘Tootsies up.’ He used it when a fellow was shot in front of them and lying there toes to the heavens. Ed had got it from one of the stretcher bearers who came to treat trench foot. You could hear them calling it up the line so you’d know to remove your boots and socks and wait your turn.

The Friar remembered the boy collecting ice to boil so he could wash their feet. It can’t have been Gallipoli then – it must have been the Somme, which came later. The two boys – no older than Micky – had each carried a tin, one cut down on one side to make a foot bath, the other unmarked.

‘What’s in there?’ said Ed.

‘Smell.’

And both Ed and the Friar had leaned forward together and inhaled at the mouth of the tin.

‘It’s a sweet one,’ said Ed, his eyes closed.

‘Sweet,’ said the Friar.

‘I don’t know about that,’ said the taller of the stretcher bearers. ‘It’s whale oil. The best bloody thing for trench foot aside of getting your feet back home and into slippers beside a roaring fire.’

‘Or up your missus’ nightie,’ said the shorter one.

‘It’s a sweet oil,’ said Ed, irritated, his eyes still shut. ‘It’s made from a newly killed whale and it’s still fresh.’

'I don’t know about that, but it does the trick. Now then, tootsies up.’

Ed had sat quietly while his feet were washed and the whale oil applied. Then it was the Friar’s turn, and still Ed said nothing. Afterwards they’d both sat for a while not looking at each other. When the Friar glanced across at Ed, his face was stricken, and he knew he’d been back home too. It was strange the things that did that to you, and smells were the worst. The whale oil had taken them both back to Fishing Bay at the start of the season: the chug of the boiler, the stink of boiled whale, a creeping breeze, sharing a smoke down by the ramp, a child singing somewhere, Iris bringing scones. All so utterly -- words escaped the Friar -- nothing would do, really. So utterly.

‘Tootsies up’ came later then.


At Galli’poli there was no ice. It was stinking hot. The bodies were piled so deep in places they were used like sandbags, and lying there for sometimes weeks in the sun they were bloated and blackened and stunk to the heavens. One day a truce was declared and the men were given eight hours to bury the lot. Word went round that there were five hundred corpses to the acre in no-man’s land.

The stench was one thing, but dragging a rotten body by the arm and finding you’ve left most of it behind was another. It was clear the earth had started claiming the dead and wouldn’t let them go without a fight. The Friar remembered the sucking sound below a sound, like an old lady swallowing tea, the warning creak, and then an unexpected lightness when the arm parted from the body. The horror he felt the first time. The numbness he felt at the end of an hour. Then there was smoko with Ed.

His cousin had trouble rolling his cigarette, and the Friar, despite the numbness, had felt a small surge of shock. Ed had got the shakes – his hands weren’t steady, and there was a slight tremor in his lips and around his eyes that made the Friar think of their grandfather. At last he licked the thing down and smoked it hard and fast, rolling another one while he finished the first. He was better at it this time. The Friar had no problem filling and lighting his pipe. He held his hands out flat in front of him to see, but there they were as always – as steady as a rock.

They’d said nothing to each other while they smoked, but stood there looking out from the scrubby hills, out from the cross-hatch of trenches and corpses and lines of exhausted men to a distant stretch of sea. The view was not unlike the view from Stony Knob on Arapawa; either way they were at the ends of the earth. In this case, hell was behind them, waiting. At home, well, it was heaven, wasn’t it?

Ed spoke at last. ‘What are we doing here?’

Did his voice shake too? The Friar thought so. That morning he’d watched his cousin stand in front of a sliver of mirror and shave his chin with soap and only a capful of water. The Friar could see a congealed cut on his cheek, and a rash where the skin had been scraped too hard. Ed’s hand had been steady holding the razor, but since his brother had died in Snipers’ Gully he’d had been less resolute somehow, less certain of himself, so he’d shaved the skin three or four times when once would have done. He was barely twenty after all.

The Friar went to put his arm around Ed with the intention of calming him. The gesture was a clumsy one and Ed pushed him away. ‘Piss off.’

The order came down that they should stop trying to move the decomposing bodies but scratch shallow trenches beside them and roll them in instead. Twenty at a time into single graves less than a foot deep. It would be temporary. There’d be reburials. Ed and the Friar tied singlets over their mouths and moved as fast as they could. The Friar made sure Ed stayed close.

Not too long after that, when the area between their trenches and the Turks was littered again, a shell had landed in a body near where Ed was standing. He’d been splattered from head to toe. It was days before he got down to the water to give himself a proper clean. He was a live corpse, he joked. His cheek had started to twitch by then in a manner which made it look as if he were finding the whole thing immensely amusing. It had unsettled the men.

That was the day they’d started calling him Lucky.

There’d be some in Arapawa would still remember that, many who wouldn’t. Only a few knew where it had come from. Not Micky, not the boy’s mother. He doubted Ed had said anything. And now it didn’t matter because the name had quickly fallen into disuse once they’d returned home. The shaking had stopped too, as far as the Friar could see, although Ed still lapsed into what some of the boys called his ‘thousand-yard stare’.

The land they’d cleared during the truce was never taken. The dead came back with the first rains.

The Friar watched Micky walk back towards them. The quality of light and the high polish on the water made him a silhouette. But the Friar knew without seeing the bruised look to his eyes and the way his hands were on the verge of shaking, and he felt a swell of anger towards the lad. He had a family, a mother who cared for him more than she cared for herself, a girl, all of his limbs and a whole life ahead. The Friar wanted to stop him then and there, hold tight to his arm and point to the picture-book day. He wanted to ask the boy what on earth could possibly be as bad as all that. What, on God’s sweet earth.

From The Blue [Penguin NZ 2007 © Mary McCallum]

2 comments:

fleance (aka TK Roxborogh) said...

Sigh
I have JUST read this part this arvo while getting the creeping grey erased from my dark hair.
I had read an extract ages ago but have only just starting reading The Blue proper the other day (gotta love school holidays).

I loved Ken Catran's Letters from the Coffin Trenches and Jacko Moran, sniper both YA set in Gallipoli. Sobering stuff. Mentioned a lot of what you do in The Blue.

Btw *grin* NY agent is loving Banquo's Son!!!

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Tania - and for reminding me re. the YA fiction set in Gallipoli. I am intrigued by Banquo's Son and pleased to hear NY agent is enjoying it! My daughter (12) is a huge Shakespeare fan and played Macduff's child in a local Macbeth production so we must get ourselves a copy.