3rd Place Award Winner of the Peter Cowan Writers' Centre Short Story Competition 2017
Judges Report - ANZAC was in the air when I was judging the competition and this story was most timely with its interesting insights into generational difference and cultural heritage. It is a gently unfolding narrative and may need a re-reading to understand the subtlety of its stages and levels. Beautifully modulated. ~ Peter Jeffery OAM
It’s quiet on top of the hill now they no longer come. Adventurers who came without mothers to play wars and make friends. Pretending to be men.
Their stories gather dust like spinifex in the wind.
Parents bring their children to play among the ghosts, watching them, hawks circling, telegraphing their every move, ready to reprimand or rescue.
From my vantage point near the grassy patch, I see the exercise army rising through the gum trees. Never the same battalion. Never the same war. They steer their NASA-designed prams along the path.
One offers a smile.
The others can’t see me under my invisibility cloak of old age.
I watch the mothers drinking coffee in paper cups. Their uniforms, black and tight-fitting. bright-coloured running shoes, too clean to have seen any real action. No mud, no blood. They line up their strollers in formation, releasing the small prisoners from their shackles.
‘Stay where Mummy can see you,’ they sing, as the toddlers run for freedom.
‘What a lovely place,’ remarks a toned and tanned mother with an infant strapped to her chest like a joey in a pouch.
‘So peaceful,’ considers another, before the bellow of a child splits the serenity like the screech of tyres.
The four mothers jump to attention, rushing over to inspect which child is damaged. An ant bite? A prickle? Nobody is sure. They console the child with a kiss and a biscuit and return to their conversation.
‘I heard Joanne, sent Prenda to school with red items in her lunch box .’ A gasp from the group. ‘No,’ they coo collectively.
It’s the scandal of the week.
Mrs Notice Me sports a t-shirt that reads ‘Say No To Camel Toe’ across her gravity-defying breasts.
‘Say no to fake boobs’ would be a wiser campaign, though I keep my opinion to myself.
She pulls a phone from the waistband of her exercise pants and a glimpse of tattoo peeps out. ’Say no to those too.’ I want to say.
‘Where are we again?’
‘Are you checking in?’
‘Selfie! Tag us all in.’
‘It’s Blackboy, something.’
Camel Toe scrolls a glossy red talon up and down the screen. ‘Is it Blackboy Hill Commemorative Site?’
‘What’s it commemorating?’
‘Blackboys, I guess.’
I bow my head. Ashamed of the young. Their ignorance, their righteousness.
‘You can’t call them that now.’ Antbite’s Mum proclaims. ‘They’re Australian Grass Trees.’
The children play nearby sucking on honkey nuts and licking the salty stream of snot trickling from their noses.
What colour is that on the lunchbox chart?
One child finds me curious.
He approaches without trepidation. I hum the Grand Old Duke of York; he charts the lines on my face like tributaries on a geographical map.
‘Tell Mummy,’ I say, ‘The ANZACs trained here.’
Eyes wide, he rests his hands on my knees, fearless. ‘Did they have guns?’
‘Yes, and horses.’
He wants more. I’m high on the scent of his youth.
‘We were called Diggers.’
‘Because we dug the trenches to fight from.’ I grip his warm sticky hands. Delighted to be heard.
Our exchange is over too soon as Camel Toe snatches him up in a one-handed scoop. His palms slip away, as she hisses 'pedophile' like a cobra spitting venom.
In a flurry the women gather the children, scattering like startled doves.
I overhear the boy ask, ’Mummy, is a pedophile like a digger who fought in Gallopoly?’
His question falls upon deaf ears.
The world has stopped listening.