A parade of ghosts

By Terry Hastings

The kid in the photograph is thin and timid-looking. She clutches nervously at her dress with one hand and shades her eyes with the other as she looks towards the lens. It was probably taken on a very bright day. You know the sort of day when Auntie suggests you come outside for a couple of snaps and you have to run inside afterwards for cold drinks? Photos on those sorts of days are usually terrible. But this picture is different. Although there are a few dark shapes of garden sheds and the photographer’s shadow in the foreground, the subject is clear.

According to a pencilled note on the back it’s Lilian aged twelve. The writing is uneven and indecisive, a bit like print you'd find in a child's diary. Experts reckon it's possible to tell character from handwriting but I think that’s rubbish. My own handwriting varies a lot. Sometimes it’s neat and assured, a credit to any accountant. More often it’s just an indecipherable scrawl. The quality is so unreliable it can’t possibly reveal the real me.

I put the photo on the window ledge and get back to sorting Lil’s jewellery. Cheap trinkets mostly but a bit of good stuff like the gold brooch I’ve just put in my pocket. No sense in letting that go. It’s got a diamond missing and is engraved ‘Lil - love always - Eric’ but it’ll be worth something to someone. Apart from that there’s only shoes and dresses, a couple of dog-eared novels and a boxful of papers. I’m hoping to find a birth certificate but there are only old receipts from pawn shops and piles of yellowed news cuttings. No trouble reading three inch headlines from the Sydney Morning Herald but I need my specs for the articles below. For a while I’m absorbed in reports of New Guinea, Pearl Harbour, Guam and Okinawa.

Later, as I’m rummaging through a big drawer of knickers and bras, I remember these are the intimate things Lil loved. Years ago I was used to touching them but now the fabric is cold under my hands. The satin, muslin and silk are like ice, almost as if the clothes were never warmed by flesh. My fingers tremble when they touch each surface and eventually I can’t stand it any more. I need a smoke. I push everything back, slam the drawer and slump to the edge of the bed.

So this is where it all finished. This grubby little pit. Dark wallpaper, thin rugs over bare boards, a scratched Victorian dresser and the bed where I’m sitting high and springy. In one corner there’s a turquoise enamelled sink installed like a kind of altar to modern plumbing. It’s a late addition to the room because you can see where they’ve bashed holes through the old walls to fit the pipes. The plaster is still white where they slopped it in to fill some gaps. The room is so stuffy that my cigarette smoke barely curls. Strange that someone as luxurious as Lil ended up here.

I remember she once had a room in a better hotel. I’m coming in late, tiptoeing along the corridor so I don’t wake the other guests. When I pass Lil’s room, I see a little wedge of light coming from her door. She’s left it open a chink. I peek in and see Lil lying on the bed face-up. On either side of her are two young blokes, the two I’ve seen earlier in the bar. They’re stroking Lil from head to foot, running their hands slowly over her creamy thighs, her breasts, her face. Lil has her eyes closed. She’s lying there purring like a big Persian cat.

Next day the two travellers are gone and Lil’s behind the bar. She’s dressed in black and there’s not a hair out of place. She pours drinks, chats to customers and yells orders to the kitchen. Her fingers glint with rings as she tilts a glass under the tap to let a beer foam to the brim. She barely wastes a drop, swivelling a fresh glass under as the first one fills. With her spare hand she lines up the lagers even and glistening along the bar. I begin to believe I’m in love with her.

That night the flying squad from Ballarat springs a surprise raid. It’s after six o’clock but Lil is still trading. The blinds are drawn and there’s only a few regulars still there. We’re not making a lot of noise either. Someone’s tipped off the cops: that bastard publican from the Black Oak probably. They burst in led by a fat sergeant whose silver buttons are bristling with importance. Lil is furious. ‘Why don’t you take off your hats in front of a lady?” she screams at the fat sergeant. He doesn’t have an answer for that - just goes red and gasps a bit. It’s a surprise raid all right.

After they’ve finished writing all our names in their little notebooks they clear off. The regulars trudge out like naughty schoolboys. They’re going home to tell their wives some of the usual pathetic excuses. The wives listen patiently, exhausted by the kids and a day’s housework. They’ve heard it all before. Lil looks tired too. Her eyes are swollen with tears and I know she’ll need me tonight. A few bottles from the top shelf and we’ll snuggle ‘til sunrise.

The rollie is burning my fingertips so I drop it on the rug and grind it under my heel. Another mark won’t be noticed amongst the other scorches and liquor stains. Glancing towards the door I spot a cardboard box I hadn’t noticed before. Lil has pushed it right to the back of her hat shelf. There’s an agony of creaking springs when I get up to investigate. The box is full of letters. Originally they were bundled with rubber bands but these have now perished and the envelopes are stuck together with decayed wriggles.

6th September 1943 ... not that I don’t believe you Lil but remember you are still a little girl...

Some quick calculations tell me she was about thirteen.

People think little girls make up stories so I think it’s best to just keep this between ourselves.

But all women make up stories I reckon - not just little girls. Someone, their mothers probably, trains them all from an early age.

When you are a grown woman you will understand.

There’s no signature at the bottom. The letter just ends. It’s difficult to see it as a letter at all really, more of a memo. I flick through the others. Most are still in their envelopes and there’s a lot from the USA. The stamps are a history of American involvement: the defence of Corregidor, raising the US flag on Iwo Jima and troops marching through Paris. Later the war seems forgotten and America has drawn in on itself again . There are commemorative issues for California and Nebraska, pictures of pioneer wagons and log cabins and portraits of American heroes from George Washington Carver to Casey Jones. The correspondence goes on for quite some time. The last letter I find is from Hawaii and postmarked 15.12.1956.

Dear Lil,

Sorry to hear your Momma died . Guess it was something of a relief though. All that suffering now over. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude for a cosy billet during R & R. God knows they were tough times! It was a real comfort for us guys to get a decent home cooked meal and clean sheets I can tell you...

The handwriting slopes awkwardly. It is very like my own.

Sorry I can’t get there for the funeral. Ellen-Jean has organised some flowers and they should arrive in a day or two. We both send our deepest sympathy.

There is some general chit chat about the family then a signature: Neville . He was a pretty busy correspondent this Neville. I reckon there was a letter a fortnight at the start but after a few years he’s writing maybe once every three or four months. By 1950 it’s down to Christmas cards and short notes.

I don’t usually read other people’s letters, they’re none of my business. Give me credit for a few scruples. Phil has handed me a hessian sack to chuck out stuff for burning so I tip the letters into it. Can never understand why people hoard the past. You’ve just got to get on with life I reckon. That’s what I’ve always done anyway: take no enemies, leave no footprints. By the time I finish cleaning out cupboards the sack is nearly full and I drag it to the landing.

Downstairs the television is blaring away uselessly. Kegbelly Phil’s no sportsman so I have to smile when I hear something about British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth. His main exercises are lifting bottles onto the shelves behind the bar and lifting a glass to his pudgy lips. The drift of tuneless humming is Phil’s wife Lois preparing food in the kitchen.

What would they have done if I hadn’t passed through? Helen wouldn’t come down from Queensland. They were lucky to even find her address up north. Just shows that the police can be some bloody use after all. ‘Please send me the jewellery and the family photograph album. You can do what you like with the rest’, she told Phil on the phone. Well there is no bloody album and the jewellery is a few pieces short. Apart from Helen it looks like the Salvos will be the beneficiaries of Lil’s extravagant hoard. There was no will. Now the coroner has finished his little investigation it’s really just a matter of tidying up. Pack, sell, donate, burn. The end.

A single glass-panelled door leads to a wooden balcony outside Lil’s room. From here I can see most of the main street. To the left there are about twenty assorted shops, several banks and a red-brick courthouse. To the right there’s another pub and a small park with a statue of a soldier. A couple of boys are chasing each other around the grass while their mother watches from a park bench.

I’m just about to leave when I notice the photo still propped on the window ledge. Maybe I’m sentimental but I think there is a kind of wisdom, even worldliness in the kid’s eyes. It’s something I could never see in the grown woman. I rip the photograph into fragments and toss them over the balcony where a little gust of wind catches them. Some pieces flutter to the pavement, others spiral upwards and float away to settle on the roofs of nearby shops and houses. One little piece drifts back and falls at my feet. It is part of the face with a child’s eye staring up at me.

(Image by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash)