Jimmy is recounting his experiences as a Japanese POW on the Thai-Burma railway. This excerpt gives you an idea of Dapin’s style, which effortlessly blends laconic Aussie humour with horror so that the reader is not overwhelmed by it.
‘One morning we marched off to the line in the pounding bloody rain piping ‘Whistle While You Work’ to the dwarfs. It was the heaviest fall of the season. It dropped curtains of rain over our eyes so we could hardly see where we were going. We had to keep one hand on the shoulder of the man in front, and out feet sank into the mud every time we took a step. It was like walking in weighted boots, the kind they use to teach horses to jump.
‘At the worksite we slipped and slid and bathed in bloody mud. By the end of the day we were all caked in it, then the sun came out and baked it on. We looked like statues made of clay, golems come to life. When we smiled it cracked our faces, and we couldn’t stop laughing, because man comes from dirt and to dirt he will return, and death couldn’t be any worse than this.
‘But when we came back for dinner, the camp had gone – the cookhouse, the hospital, the storehouse, everything. Even the guards’ barracks had been washed away. Everything we had left had disappeared. The earth had moved from under it. Eight men in hospital had died.
‘We searched the soil for dixies, anything. All I came up with was a cap badge. A bloody cap badge. Townsville Jack dug up his tote bag, which he buried two feet under each time we moved. We’d saved our stake money, but we’d lost our last certainty: that the place we left in the morning would still be there in the afternoon. We had to march five miles to the next camp, which was already overcrowded. Most of the blokes there had dysentery, and within a week, there was an outbreak of cholera.
‘One evening I saw Townsville Jack sitting outside our hut, with his head between his knees and his arms hugging his legs, rocking from side to die.
‘ ‘What’s the matter with you?’ I asked.
‘ ‘I don’t know,’ said Townsville Jack. ‘I’m so hungry I can’t think straight. I don’t want to be in the army any more. I don’t want to be in prison any more. I want steak and onions.’
‘ ‘Coming up!’ I said, and handed him a pint of rice.
‘He sniffed the dixie, which smelled of bugger all.
‘ ‘Mmmm,’ he said. ‘Just how I like it.’
‘He took a spoonful of rice and smacked his lips.
‘Bloody good beef, this,’ he said. ‘You can taste the paddock.’
‘I got it sent up from Rockhampton specially,’ I said, ‘because I knew it was your birthday.’
‘And Townsville Jack burst into tears.’
( Spirit House by Mark Dapin, Pan Macmillan, 2011 ISBN: 9781405040181, p 222-3)
The significance of that last line is that Townsville Jack is the indefatigable one. A man of invincible courage and determination.
More later, when I’ve finished reading it.