The check out girl waited as the old man fumbled with knotty fingers for his money. She would have been quite pretty with her long, dark hair and blue eyes, but for her bored expression. She let out an audible sigh, obviously irritated by this annoying ‘oldie’. The people in the queue moved restlessly.
‘Sorry, Luv,’ Charlie Spader said. ‘My fingers are cold.’ The girl nodded as, at last, he fumbled a five dollar note into her hand. He took his receipt and change and picked up the bag. The shopping centre was warm. Outside a bitter wind blew. On his way here, walking into the freezing wind, Charlie’s face had been assaulted by sharp spears of ice.
It had been freezing in the boats waiting to cross the channel during the war. He and Jack Bolt were both Aussies, so stuck together; their accents gave them away. The pom soldiers were good to train with, and they too, were suffering. They had waited days for the right conditions to cross the heaving, grey English Channel. Charlie wasn’t scared yet, rather more excited and glad something was about to happen.
Charlie pulled his woollen scarf closer and made sure his old coat was buttoned all the way down. A warm beanie covered his bald head and he drew it down over his ears, before venturing out into the cold. This June in Sydney had seemed the coldest ever. Maybe it was just his age and the wretched arthritis. The wind was behind him as he walked down the street. There were new houses here now. Many built in the past few years. His own house had been built in 1948, when he and Marge were married.
Marge had been the nicest girl he’d ever met. When he bought his first car, a third hand Holden, she ran out of the house wearing a bright yellow sundress. Her blonde hair was blowing in the hot wind of January, and she laughed out loud as she danced around the car, clapping her hands. ‘Oh, Charlie, Charlie,’ she shouted, ‘it’s so wonderful!’
Charlie grinned as he shuffled along. Marge had been a great mate, feisty and argumentative at times, but great. He nodded and a tear ran down his cold wrinkled cheek. At the corner house, Sheila Price was at her letterbox.
‘Hello, Charlie,’ she called, ‘cold today.’ He waved and smiled. He had known Sheila since they were kids. She was still living in her father’s house. The only weather board left on this street. It looked in good nick, though. Sheila and her husband had raised three children and now she was widowed too.
Sheila walked back to her front door. Poor old Charlie, she thought, he looks really decrepit now. He was quite a catch in the old days, well built, with twinkling brown eyes and dark curly hair; a bit of a larrikin though. I never regretted marrying my Bert. She remembered how the two men had met at the pub after the war, Bert had told Charlie of his struggles in New Guinea. Poor Bert never really recovered. She sighed. She blamed the war for Bert’s early death. Now, there was old Charlie, still going. Mind Charlie had told Bert that he had done nothing much in the war. So there you are. He may be decrepit, but he was still here, in 2005. She shook her head at the irony and went inside.
Charlie continued his long walk home.
Sheila had been a bit sweet on him when they were teenagers but he had enlisted at eighteen, keen for adventure. He had joined up in 1943 and after basic training, which was harder than he had expected, he volunteered with a small group, to liaise with the British army. The idea was to learn from the poms as they were working towards a ‘big push’, whatever that was. It had seemed a good idea. He had always wanted to go to England. His mother had often waxed lyrical about the green fields and the historical buildings.
Charlie walked slowly, stopping every now and then to catch his breath. He stopped at the corner of the street where he had been raised. The house was long gone, but funnily enough, when he passed the place where it had been, he still smelled the rabbit stew with dumplings which had been his father’s favourite meal. Of an evening in the Summer, they’d sit on the verandah and auntie May would come over. May and his Mum would have a shandy and his Dad a big glass of beer. They’d sit until the sun went down and a bit of a breeze would blow up, cooling everything. A dung coil or two would be burning to keep the mozzies away. He could smell that too, and hear the annoying buzz of the pesky insects. Dad had passed away on the verandah, one sultry evening during the war, when the coils were burning.
He turned back, towards his house. Eddie Monroe was hobbling towards him, leaning heavily on his stick. Eddie had fought with the Australian army in New Guinea. He nodded to Charlie.
‘Mate,’ he wheezed, ‘too cold to talk eh. Keep on keeping on, Mate.’
Charlie said, ‘Not much else we can do,’ and walked on.
‘Keep on, Mate, keep on, or they’ll get you too,’ said Jack Bolt, lying on the beach beside Charlie. Charlie watched the blood soaking through his mate’s uniform; a bullet straight into his chest. Jack had knelt up, just for a moment, to see what lay ahead.
‘Hang on Jack. I’ll try to get help.’
He looked around, they were under some intermittent fire and everyone was crawling forward. Two blokes came from behind, took in the situation and grabbed Charlie.
‘Come on, son,’ said one, a sergeant, ‘keep crawling forward, hang onto the rifle; there’s not as much resistance as we thought. Your friend’s gone.’ Charlie looked. Jack’s eyes were glassy and still. He gently took his arm from under Jack’s head, and crawled forward with the sergeant.
Charlie was breathing hard as he turned into the driveway of his home. He always expected Marge to be there waiting for him. It was a feeling he could never shake. Marge had died three years before.
‘It’s such a nice day, Charlie,’ Marge whispered. ‘Why not go for a walk. I’ll be fine, dear.’
‘I don’t want to leave you on your own.’
‘Charlie, I’ll be fine. I feel better today.’ Charlie gave her a gentle kiss.
‘I’ve no regrets you know,’ she said, holding his face close.
‘Don’t,’ he said, tears not far away. ‘You wanted kids,’ he said, not knowing why.
‘Years ago, yes, but we’ve had a great life. It might have been nice for you though.’
‘All I ever wanted was to be with you.’
‘Yes,’ she paused. ‘Promise me you will try to keep going. Life really is a gift. Promise you will go on and try to be cheerful, as best you can.’
His eyes misted. He nodded.
‘Good. Now that’s agreed, off you go. You’re always underfoot. Go!’ And she smiled.
He grinned, ‘Oh alright, woman, I’m off.’
Like any ordinary ‘oldie’, Charlie took his time, digging in his pocket for the keys. He unlocked the polished wood door, with the glass panels of coloured flowers. Marge had loved those.