Short Story: Nineteen Steps
Short Story: Nineteen Steps
War veteran Jack is less than happy when city kids invade his quiet country community. But his wife Elsie welcomes the young ones with open arms, causing Jack to think again.
The old dog flinches in his sleep, twitching with every burst of laughter that floats over the fence palings. Under the shade of the verandah, Jack reaches down from his wicker chair and fondles the soft, worn ears. He lets out a long sigh.
“Do ya reckon they know what day it is, fella?”
The dog, sprawled along the boards, thumps his dusty tail. Jack squints into the sharp morning light and contemplates the building across the road, the fresh accent paint of its latest reincarnation still bright against the weathered brick façade. He can see a jumble of bicycles propped against the side wall, helmets dangling from the handlebars, and past the patch of grass, a Hills hoist clothesline festooned with coloured towels.
The raucous noise continues beyond the far fence, probably from the obstacle course Jack had read about in the local rag. He knew something was going on weeks ago, when the old bowling green got carved up, its turf cut into chunks and hauled away.
“Those kids must be playing in there now,” says Jack out loud. “There’s a lot of yahoo-ing going on.”
He’d witnessed some changes in his time for sure. The days of the townsfolk and farmers jostling for a park on the gravel verge and filling the rinks (and later the bar) were long gone. Jack had seen the number of people playing lawn bowls slowly dwindle, observed the remainder drift to the new sports complex across the railway line and heard the clubhouse doors locked for the last time. With sagging gutters and sprouted weeds between the cement pavers, the building appeared to slump back upon itself, faded and forgotten. Several years slid by while he and Elsie sipped their tea on the porch and idly discussed what might come next. Sure enough, one spring afternoon a confident young woman bounced up to their doorstep, Polo shirt emblazoned with a ‘Helping Hands’ logo, and announced the club was about to re-open.
“Not for lawn bowls, though … a Camp Hostel for city kids that need a break in life,” beamed Alison. “Feel free to pop in later and check out the programs we run…”
It became the talk of the town; every person had an opinion on the venture and no-one could escape the gossip in the aisle of the local supermarket or at the fuel bowser.
The next few months were a flurry of activity, as teams of volunteers breathed new life into the abandoned site. There seemed to be clanging and banging for days on end, and then trucks offloading beds and blinds and boxes of goodness knows what. Jack and the dog often retreated to the back shed when it all became too much. Peace was temporarily restored while the final interior jobs were completed, and Jack welcomed the return to normality.
And then they came. Every few weeks a different busload pulled up to the entrance, the doors hissed open and a kaleidoscope of kids would tumble out, wrestling backpacks and staring goggle-eyed at the foreign landscape before them. Elsie loved the hustle and bustle right from the start and had quickly offered her services, donating batches of cookies or cut flowers from their garden. Others also cast aside their initial trepidation and welcomed the camps, supportive yet slightly bemused by the new happenings. Now one camp simply blurred into the next and Jack sometimes rued the loss of their previously quiet end of town. A man used to be able to water the front yard in little else but his old fishing shorts, but not now. Elsie would spot him from the kitchen window and come bursting out of the house.
“For goodness sake, Jack, cover up, you’ll scare the kids.”
She’d just about fall over herself in her haste to chuck him a shirt. Jack couldn’t understand the fuss – from what he could make out, the mob over the road was too busy to notice him anyway. Apart from the odd wave to Alison every now and then, he kept his distance.
The dog nuzzles his hand. Jack starts, quickly checks the watch on his wrist and chides himself for daydreaming. Can’t be late, not today. He scrapes the chair to the side and eases up to standing. The nearby hibiscus shrubs buzz and hum with insects already seeking refuge from the early heat. It’s going to be a hot one, alright. Jack brushes a handful of dozy flies out of the way and levers open the screen door. An authoritative voice (perhaps Alison’s?) cuts through the still air, and a rollcall of names accompanies him inside.
The clothes, carefully placed upon the chenille bedspread, are in order as always. Elsie admonishes from the doorway: “Isn’t it time you wore your new coat?” Jack lifts the jacket from the bed and holds it to him. He runs his hands over the woollen fibres, smoothes down the frayed cuffs.
“These old threads will do another year, Els.” He winks at her reflection in the wardrobe mirror, knowing she is shaking her head behind him.
He sits on the bed, exhales and peels his socks carefully over gnarly toes.
“And don’t forget to polish your shoes.”
Jack couldn’t remember a year when Elsie hadn’t told him that. Lucky for him, he’d gotten the tin and cotton cloth out yesterday and done the job then. He pulls the shoes to him now, admires the gleaming leather creased with age and wedges his feet within.
He glances at his watch again. The dog whines at the door. Jack lets him in, indicates the mat in front of the armchair.
“Don’t let Els see ya…”
Once outside, he takes a deep breath, gives his tie a final tweak and clicks the wooden gate shut.
He treads with purpose along the familiar cracked pavement, past the tractor museum, the boarded-up windows of the old bakery, the second-hand furniture shop and further on to his right, the CWA hall, its picket fence rampant with pink and white bougainvillea. He slows and touches a few escapist sprigs.
‘Needs pruning’, he could just about hear Elsie tut-tutting. Next in line is the local hardware store, glass doors plastered with posters spruiking the latest catalogue specials, and leaning crookedly alongside that, the shuttered Ladies Hair Salon. An unrelenting sun beats down from the cloudless sky. Jack rubs his thinning pate, realises he’s left his hat behind. Damn, too late to fetch it now. Elsie will go butcher’s hook if he comes home with a burnt noggin. The thought catches him out, and he falters in the approach to the marshalling area in front of
the red brick Post Office.
“How’re you getting on there, Jack?”
“G’day Jack, haven’t seen you around lately.”
He nods in reply, feels the sudden sting behind his eyes and falls into line, grateful of
The lone drummer leads the way and they march to command, a straggly yet interesting band of survivors and volunteers. A posse of local Girl Guides round out the rear of the parade, faces flushed and excited, their exuberance tempered by the sombre steps they follow.
The war memorial is new, the product of centenary fervour and a government grant. A semi-circle of original gum trees and newly mulched plants soften the central granite monument, and it rises impressively from the brushed concrete. Behind the cenotaph, Jack studies the polished brass words embellishing the curved limestone wall – Courage, Endurance, Mateship, Sacrifice.
A lump sticks in his throat as the words soak in. Jack reads again, blows his nose. The proceedings get underway and music crackles from the speaker. He’s not one for singing, but others do, haphazardly following the blaring orchestral tune. Invited to sit, the crowd shuffle their chairs and rustle the service sheets. The Australian flag flutters briefly in a rare puff of breeze then droops against the pole, as a testimony is read out by a returned serviceman.
Beads of sweat form on Jack’s forehead, they meld together and trail down his temples. He fumbles once more for his handkerchief, feels the flimsy stitching give way on the lining inside the coat pocket. Directed to stand again, he stumbles, seeks to steady himself against the chair in front of him.
Under the flag, the bugler draws the trumpet up to his lips to sound the Last Post, and the air is thin as Jack tries to straighten up. The final maudlin notes amplify inside his head, reedy and hollow, and he succumbs, suddenly collapsing into darkness.
“Get up, ya silly old bugger,” Elsie’s voice is in his ear, insistent, real. “Come on Jack, get up… ”
The Helping Hands logo swims in front of his eyes.
“Els?” he croaks.
Several sets of arms hoist him onto the plastic seat. Jack hears the service finish, and his peers complete the march-out.
A few well-wishers pat his shoulder on their way past. He clutches the handkerchief and blots his brow, the material clammy in his fist.
“It’s the man who lives opposite the Camp Hostel,” a voice whispers.
“Are you alright, Mr… ?”
Jack blinks, is surprised to see Alison and her concerned charges clustered around him.
“Aah, it’s Jack, please call me Jack.”
“Here, drink this. The heat has become a bit much for you.” Alison presses a small bottle of cold water into his palm.
Jack murmurs his thanks and closes his eyelids. He sips slowly, while his spare hand gingerly traces the growing lump above his ear.
He replaces the lid on the empty container and holds it out.
“Thank you, thank you to all of you … I don’t know what came over me… ”
A solemn-faced boy steps forward and points to Jack’s medals regimented right across his chest.
“You are a very brave man, Sir,” he says, the pronunciations halting, yet clear. The boy thrusts out an arm.
Nonplussed, Jack grasps the proffered hand, the slender brown fingers in stark contrast to his own mottled skin. Alison grins, gestures to the children.
“The kids have been learning about Anzac Day. You could come and talk to them sometime, we’d really like that.”
His lips tremble and nothing comes out. Alison gives him the thumbs-up: “Don’t worry, plenty of time to think about it. See you around, Jack…” She turns and follows the other camp leaders as they steer the energetic swarm back towards the hostel. Most people have sought respite from the sun at the tea and coffee station, where platters of sandwiches and scones have been laid out on trestle tables.
Jack places a china cup beneath the bubbling urn as steam curls and dissipates into the warm air.
At first the black tea scalds his mouth, and he rattles the cup back onto the saucer.
He watches as several people linger near the monument where the floral wreaths are already beginning to wilt, other helpers fold the chairs and stack them onto the tray of a nearby ute.
Jack sits down on a pine bench, notices the scuff marks on his shoes. Soon it will be time for him to join his fellow marchers. They’ll make their way to the pub on the corner and share the traditional pint or two, ageing bones on creaking stools, lost words between them.
The camp kids have disappeared and the far end of the street is empty once more. He thinks of Elsie, mists up a bit, knows she would want him to cross that road to the hostel and give something of himself.
It has been nearly 12 months without her already. She was right, of course, life had to go on. He nods to himself and cracks a half-smile. Maybe he would do it, take those steps. Hey, he might even wear his new coat…
About our Short Story author:
Peta West lives and works on her family property in the wheat belt of Western Australia. She writes prose and poetry and has recently published a memoir, Nicci Was Here (Vivid Publishing). Peta enjoys writing short stories, often exploring themes that she considers quintessentially Australian.
Nineteen Steps is loosely based around happenings in her hometown.