In Australia, 25 April is ANZAC Day, remembrance of not only the Gallipoli ANZACs and WWI, but many wars since, so I’m posting this part chapter of Playing with Keys. For new followers, Meredith is Sandra’s aunt, and for some time she’s been mystified by Meredith’s never-mentioned absent partner William, after seeing the photo of a handsome man on Meredith’s dressing table. All she knows is that William went to the Korean War.
Now read on as Sandra and Meredith finish hanging Christmas decorations:
Sandra held the ladder for Meredith to reach up to each corner of the picture rails with paper chains and sticky tape.
It was an ideal chance to hear about William’s home-coming, otherwise it would be next year and she may never discover how the story ended. Or if it ever ended!
She waited until Meredith fixed the final chain. ‘You haven’t finished telling me about William,’ she said. ‘Please, while no one’s around?’
Meredith pressed the last piece of sticky tape firmly onto the corner and climbed down the ladder. ‘I thought I came over for the decorating – it looks pretty, doesn’t it? All we need are some candles. If Angela hasn’t got any, I’ll bring some from home.’ Then she added with a smile, ‘There’s really not much more to say. Let’s take some cold drinks and find a shady spot in the garden. I’m so hot, it must be over ninety.’
With glasses of lemonade, they settled on the garden seat under the patchy shade of the peach tree. ‘You got up to when William came home,’ Sandra reminded her. ‘Was he all right?’
‘You’re like a dog with a bone, aren’t you? You’ll be brilliant if you attack your music with the same energy! Ah well, yes, William eventually returned home. He was very, very sad. He escaped serious wounding but he’d got so thin. It wasn’t that he couldn’t talk about those years – when he was home on leave he told me about the beautiful river valleys, how in springtime the hillsides were covered in flowers . . . He also told me how they fought the Chinese, often in pitch dark, the ruined villages and roads choked with poor refugees. He had nightmares, awful dreams, and I couldn’t do anything except hold him until the storm passed. But it never really passed – it was as if a bogeyman, a blackness had seeped into his mind.
‘What sort of dreams?’
‘He would never say. Yet to me, the names of some of those battles sounded like musical notes: Chonju, Maryang San, Kapyong. And I wonder what it was all for, because after the armistice it ended up divided almost the same.’ Meredith ran her fingers along the garden seat, picked at a flaw with a varnished fingernail. ‘I’m sorry, I honestly don’t know why I told you that, it’s got nothing to do with how you met Nick and I met Will…’
‘It’s all part of the story – Nick’s accident, and how William went away – but he came back, so I don’t understand—’
‘All right, but remember you asked me. After Will left the army, he did odd jobs, anything at all. We tried to live a normal life, but he had too much time on his hands – too much time to dwell on the horrors of the war.’
‘Why didn’t you go back to Austinmer, have picnics?’‘Picnics! Oh, Sandra, a picnic wouldn’t solve anything. The joy had gone out of his life. He tried to hide it, but I knew that under his smiles he was deeply disturbed. He was often cranky, so unlike the William I knew.’
‘Were you living in your house then?’
‘Yes, we were in our little home. We painted it, and made it look beautiful. He built the trellis, laid brick paving for our garden chairs . . .’ Meredith’s voice trailed off as she drank her lemonade, until Sandra feared that she wasn’t going to finish before the family arrived home.‘You wanted the end of the story, dear Sandra,’ Meredith said, with affection, ‘and I know you’ll never leave me alone if I don’t tell you.’ She took a deep breath and went on, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not a happy ending. Will didn’t ever get back either his physical strength or his spirit. He took to walking the streets at night, just walking. I went with him a few times, until he asked me not to. He’d come home in the early morning, dog tired, so tired he hardly knew where to put his feet.’
Sandra pictured the dark streets of Bronte, street lights shining at intervals, the lonely figure.
‘Couldn’t he see a doctor, or someone who could help?’
‘He could’ve got help, but William was stubborn . . . he said no one would listen because apart from his frost-bitten ears, he had no obvious injury. He quit the army and that was the end of it . . . out roaming the streets alone. One morning he simply didn’t come home.’
Alarmed, Sandra put her hand on Meredith’s arm. She hadn’t expected this kind of an ending. ‘Did he run away?’‘No. Perhaps that would have been better. The police came to my door. They sat me down on our sofa and told me William had been hit by a tram. He died beside the tramline, and the tram went on its way without the driver, poor man, realising what had happened.’
Sandra was aghast. She could never have imagined anything so shocking – to survive a war, and then get hit by a tram. The ache filled her throat but it was very important not to cry and somehow she managed to stifle it.
Meredith took Sandra’s hand in hers. She wasn’t in tears but her face looked immeasurably sad. ‘You see, Sandra, Will came home in his body, but he never really came home to me.’
It was impossible to speak and Sandra sat beside her aunt, their hands together. Poor Auntie, who always looked so lovely with such a beautiful smile, but all the time hiding the sadness in her heart.
All 3 books are available from bookstores or online. I have a few copies of PWK and book 3, the final book Song for Emilia.