The last thing William wanted to do on a Saturday was play housemaid.
He stood at the entrance of George Wilton’s weathered home. The fly-infested wire screen did more to keep the flies inside than out. William sighed and punched the doorbell with his fist.
The crackling sound of an engine running resonated over the property. Black soot on the rusted tin roof dusted down to meet his bare feet. He coughed.
Nobody knew much about their 80-year-old neighbor, just that his name was George. On the rare occasions where he did show his face in public, he was deemed a cranky ol’ troll who smelled like sour milk and motor oil.
George wobbled through the foyer clinging onto a wooden walking stick. His skeleton-like frame and his wiry blue fingers gripped onto the support. He looked as though he’d been thrown off the back of a horse, his grey track pants torn at the knees and his checkered shirt scuffed unevenly.
He pushed open the screen with two fingers and held it there for a moment, eyeing the boy from top to bottom. He paused to analyse the hairs on William’s toes.
‘Shoes?’ grunted George.
‘Don’t need ‘em.’
George flicked his head back and stood aside.
William entered. The smell of stale tobacco drifted across the foyer and into his nostrils. On the mantel piece, a mahogany clock pulsed tick tock.
‘Didn’t your mother teach you about decency?’ asked George.
‘Nuh. She left years back.’
‘I wonder why.’
William scanned the place, taking note of the coins scattered on a stained coffee table. Above the kitchen sink was a window the size of a doggy door, peering out onto a junkyard of used car parts and welding tools.
William’s eyes gleamed. ‘You beaut, is that a Falcon Phase III? She’s got a lotta grunt.’
George didn’t respond. He focused on wiping the mixture of sweat and oil off his forehead with a tea towel.
* * *
When George got to work on a vehicle it was as though his joints moved robotically, afraid that if he were to stop his body would malfunction. Often, he’d be up till dawn testing out the engines or replacing headlights, blinding both him and the curious possums who kept him company.
But eventually the cars were back to running as though they’d just left the factory floor. George always did a far better job than any of those boys could do down at the servo.
* * *
‘You mind if I have a fag?’ said William.
‘Don’t care as long as you stay outta my way… There’s cleanin’ supplies in the laundry and some ginger snaps on the table, go nuts…’ George hobbled towards the kitchen door which lead onto the yard. ‘And make sure you scrub all the pots under the sink!’
William shoved a ginger snap into his mouth. He squatted before the sink and opened the cupboard doors to find a swamp of moldy pots and pans. He spat the biscuit out, adding to the tip. ‘Oh, for fucks sake.’
* * *
William bounced his head to ‘The Animals’ which blared on the Kingston turntable.He danced around the study wiping piles of dust from bookshelves with a wet sponge. Each time the chorus hit he craned his neck towards the window, keeping an eye on George, who hardly moved from his position beside a tower of rubber tyres.
Surrounding the room were black and white photographs from a past life: a family, a wife, prized cars, footy tournaments, the house during its early years. A pocket-sized photo lay face down on a shelf. William pinched its border and flipped it over. Two innocent boys in army uniforms grinned back at him.
Underneath the photo lay a blue, red and white ribbon. He blew away the dust and clinging to the tricolour was a four-pointed star ensigned with a crown. Etched into the bronze was an oak wreath encompassing a crossed gladius and the date: 1914-15.
This has potential, thought William. A spit shine would bring it back to glory. He slid the medal into his pocket––
His ears pricked. William turned and found George standing in the doorframe, eyes locked on him. The record ran dry. The gulps of the needle reverberated off the paint-crusted walls.
‘Come with me,’ George said and disappeared down the hallway.
In the living room an open fire crackled and hissed. George sank into a mustard velvet recliner. Test cricket on the telly, muted. He cleared his throat with a rumble; a sign for William to face his consequence.
‘All that hard work, you deserve a seat.’ George nodded to the opposite chair, rough enough to splinter thighs.
The teen glanced back at the screen door where exhausted flies continued to throw their bodies at the wire.
‘Don’t make me repeat myself.’
William took a seat, shuffling his body for a few seconds before accepting that no position could create comfort.
‘You fancy my medal, huh?’
‘Dunno what ya talkin’ about.’
‘Probably worth a coupla bucks these days. Trade it in for a new pair of shoes?’
William couldn’t force himself to look the old man in the eye. Instead, he focused on the threads that held the patches of fabric over the holes in his pants.
‘I remember that day very clearly. What I wore, who I spoke too, the feeling of a bullet rip through me… All around us shrapnel pelted from the sky.’
* * *
A chorus of guns and cries. The rhythm of waves sang across the Gallipoli peninsula. George, face pale, eyes a stone-cold blue, crouched on the sand, his puttees and boots absorbing the salty water that bogged him down.
Beside him lay a still figure, a head partially buried in the sand. George nudged the fella’s arm and the head lifted. A grin. ‘Can you believe this mate?’
‘It’s a bloody hailstorm alright.’ George forced a smile.
Russ was his name. Last night, they’d bonded over beef stew aboard the Prince of Wales.
They pointed their bayonets inland and waited for the percussion of gunfire to ease.
‘Colonel said we’ve gotta get up those cliffs,’ said Russ.
George nodded. His hands shook as he tried to steady the rifle between his chin and shoulder. But, before he knew it, Russ was dancing amongst bullets.
A deep breath and George jolted upright chasing the swashbuckler’s khaki coat––
Suddenly, a cry. His leg gave way, no more the vibrant spring that had trotted him into war. Just a bee sting, he thought.
George’s vision blurred. Russ’s steel hat floated in threes before him. That darn bee had sank its way through his flesh and out the other side. Crimson blood tarnished his breeches.
‘Bugger,’ winced George, and collapsed to the ground.
* * *
George twitched his nose. Hell was to smell like barbecue and sulphur, not this: the aroma of cigarette smoke. Taut bandages strapped to his thigh felt coarse against fingertips. His eyes took seconds to adjust to the darkness of the trench. Beside him sat Russ, savouring each hit of nicotine through parched lips.
George tried to sit. He grinded his teeth, willing the pain not to overcome him.
‘You need to stop moving, kid.’ Russ handed him the cigarette.
The last rays of light struck the sandbagged parapet. Russ raised his head, the sun catching frays of hair. George watched him. From the trenches, the sun was a siren diggers knew to avoid. At any moment, a bullet. The rattle of gunfire across the peninsula reminded Russ to lower himself back into the trough.
George couldn’t help but feel content about last moments spent beside a man he hardly knew who’d put his own life on the line trying to save his.
The next morning, George woke to an empty trench. Overhead, an army of swallows replaced the bullets in the sky. Listening to their calls he closed his eyes and drifted into unconsciousness…
The warmth of the fire coated William. He shifted focus from the wooden floorboards to George’s eyes.
But now, George seemed unable to face the boy.
‘Hard to believe my time at Gallipoli came to an end that morning. Russ would go on to stay another three months before a bullet got him in the throat.’ George glanced over at the mantel clock. ‘Teatime. You better get home son. Your dad will be wondering what the ol’ bastard has put you up too.’
William stood to attention, didn’t speak. He bowed his head to George, who stayed seated on the recliner. William showed himself out. He walked home along a gravel road, twirling the medal in his pocket.
Chimney smoke rose to meet the red-hued sky, as across the neighbourhood the clattering of knives and forks against dinner plates invited families in for their evening meals.
* * *
5 am. George woke to the penetrating cry of a welding gun against metal. He grabbed his glasses from the bedside table and placed them onto his nose. His arms strained as they hurled each leg off the bed and slid each foot into a moth-eaten slipper.
The noise led him out to the yard.
The air was crisp. Fog covered his specs. Porch light flickered on. George rubbed away the mist and saw his four-pointed star sitting on the brick ledge.
A scrawny body moved around the Ford Falcon, nodding his head to an imaginary beat. It took George a moment to realise the figure was William, his hair loose and dripping with grease and sweat, sleeves rolled to elbows.
George picked up a spanner and shuffled himself across the lawn. Together, working in unison under the hood.
Caitlin Burns is a Melbourne-based writer and filmmaker. Her work has been featured in various Australian publications and has received numerous awards in the area of screenwriting. She is currently studying a Master of Writing and Literature.