Do you remember the day we met? You were driving a truck with CWA imprinted on the side. Country Women’s Association. Those do-gooding women doing good by sending a twenty-year-old girl through the long roads of northern New South Wales alone, in the name of supporting the troops. The fact that Sydney had just been bombed made them more determined to be visible, rather than more cautious with you and your life. The troops needed their muesli bars and their socks, and you had a driver’s license. If it were any other woman in that situation I would have said of course, get on with it. But you, with those pale hands clenching the steering wheel, peering down the dark highway while the ghostly bush pressed in on you, straining to sing your favourite songs over the engine just to keep yourself company – you shouldn’t have been there.
Of course, I was familiar with how oppressive the bush is for a woman alone at night. I had been driving for almost three hours myself, in that rusted up deathtrap I’d ‘borrowed’ from the red-faced farmer. I had thought I could make it to the coast before dark but the jangling of the engine turned into an ominous rattle and I had to pull over. It was fine, of course, I’ve slept in plenty of backseats, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.
I heard your truck approaching long before you would have seen me. I kept my head down, presuming whatever country lad was driving would think my car was abandoned and continue past. When your engine stopped I admit I panicked slightly. The silence was absolute once the engine ticked off and I had no idea who was behind the wheel. I kept my head down and listened. You opened the truck door. Cautiously, but softly too. Gently. Like a woman. You probably thought I was reckless, throwing myself out of a broken-down car in the middle of nowhere without knowing who was waiting for me. You had left the headlights on and they blinded me. You were behind the open driver’s door, sheltering in case I was a monster, but something about me kept you standing there. I’m not sure what it was: my dirty white cocktail dress, my bare feet, or maybe just a sense of loyalty to another woman out there alone. Whatever it was, I still remember your voice when you called to me from the darkness.
‘What’s happened to your car?’
You were nothing but a silhouette behind the headlights, but your voice was sweet, concerned, and something else. I had the distinct impression that you would try to fix the car and send me on my way. Already – after only five words – I knew I didn’t want that to happen.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, hopping forward, the tarmac rough on my bare feet. I went straight to the passenger door. The glow of the headlights cast your face into strange shadows, but your features were delicate and your hair was fine gold wisps. ‘Where are you heading?’
‘I’m staying in Byron Bay tonight – ’ you said.
‘Perfect.’ I opened the passenger door. I could see your trained politeness fighting your instinct, or perhaps CWA policy, not to let a stranger inside your vehicle.
‘What about your car?’
‘It’s not mine, darling.’ The affectionate word made you think I was glamorous, the dirtiness of my white cocktail dress an aberration in what must normally be a dazzling life.
I arranged a shawl around my shoulders as I settled into the passenger seat. The cabin smelled musty, but with a sweetness from your perfume. You pulled the door shut behind you, still with that gentleness as though you had to be careful not to hurt the giant metal truck. ‘I’m Bobby,’ I said, and held out my hand.
‘Silvie.’ It was like shaking hands with a child whose bones and muscles have yet to strengthen beneath their skin.
The truck roared as we took off along the highway.
‘Why are you going to Byron?’ you asked. I thought about lying, did you know that? I thought about making myself sound smaller, more stable, a person who would fit in the same world as those fragile hands gripping the steering wheel. But that’s never been my style.
‘My husband lives there.’
You tried to look at me from the corner of your eye and I knew what you were going to ask. I loved that I knew you so well, already.
‘Don’t you live there too, then?’
‘I don’t live anywhere, darling.’
You took a cigarette from a silver case that was propped beside the gearstick. You offered me one and I took it, even though they were too heavy for me. They’re the ones you can get with rations but I have ways of procuring lighter ones. Pre-war cigarettes make life feel normal again.
‘Are you married?’ I asked, when we had both wound down our windows and the truck was full of gushing air.
You picked at something in your front teeth, a scrap of tobacco perhaps.
‘All the men are at war,’ you said. Your hands shifted on the steering wheel and the engine whined as your foot grew heavier on the accelerator.
‘And so you work for the CWA,’ I said. It sounded judgemental, although I swear I didn’t mean it to. Perhaps I had just spent too much time alone.
‘I do. There are socks and muesli bars in the back and the troops need them.’
You nodded. I had guessed there were muesli bars because of the greaseproof paper you had left under the seat, but the socks were news to me. I scrabbled around in the dark behind our seats. I found a pair of long grey socks and pulled them onto my bare feet. They were knitted for a man and the rounded heel stuck out from my ankle like a growth but they were warm.
‘You can’t take those,’ you said.
‘My feet are cold.’
‘But it’s not like the muesli bars, they only get one pair each.’ One of your hands floated off the wheel like you wanted to pull the socks off me.
‘I’ll learn to knit when we get to Byron and I’ll make them fifty more pairs, how about that?’ I stuck my feet up on the dashboard. The wool was scratchy but soft and I knew they looked ridiculous with my dress but I didn’t care. You smiled.
‘The troops are in Sydney, not Byron,’ you said.
‘You’re driving all the way to Sydney?’
‘Yep.’ You straightened your shoulders a little, and I loved how proud of yourself you were.
‘Now that sounds exciting. I’d love a trip to Sydney, even if it is a bloody warzone right now.’ My feet were wiggling on the dashboard but you weren’t paying them any attention.
‘I wanted to join the Red Cross but they wouldn’t let me. I had TB a few years ago. If they had I would have been in Sydney this whole time.’
‘But then you wouldn’t have been available to drive the socks around!’ I lifted my feet to emphasise their vital role in the war effort.
‘It’s an important job, you know.’ You frowned at me and I was sorry for my teasing. ‘Someone has to do it.’
‘I’m sure someone does.’
As the silence stretched between us, I did what I always do: I started singing. You joined in, quietly, but you grew stronger and stronger until your voice carried over the engine. At Last. We sang together and I knew by the waver in your voice that singing on the open road was the most liberated you had ever felt.
The engine was whining louder again as you slowed down and turned off the highway. The headlights picked up a sign that said Welcome to Byron Bay. We meandered through small, dark streets. The nocturnal birds were loud, even over the truck. I wondered what had happened to the birds in Sydney, and if there were any watching over the burning harbour.
‘Where should I leave you?’ you said, and I wanted to say nowhere, let’s keep driving, but instead I said,
‘Oh, anywhere is fine.’
‘But where is your husband? Where are you staying?’ You were heading towards the beach. I didn’t know if you realised that the darkness ahead of us was the Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon.
‘You know, the thing they don’t tell you when you get married is that you don’t actually have to live with your husband.’
‘But don’t you love him?’ There was something about how you said the word, love, that made me realise you had never felt it. It held only the sentiment of novels, a dash of Gone with the Wind, nights spent dreaming alone.
‘I love lots of people, darling.’ I reached over and you let me squeeze your hand where it lay relaxed on the gearstick. You were more comfortable here, in the small streets of a small town, than on the open highway.
‘I’m staying at the CWA hall, it should be down here.’ You peered through the windscreen.
I saw the hall a moment before you did. It was dark. No one had waited up for you, or even left a dimmed lamp on.
You turned off the engine and in the sudden silence you said, ‘I’m leaving early in the morning, but will you bring a pair of socks first thing to replace those ones?’
There was a shout and you jumped as a few figures hurried past on the darkened street. It was a shout of fun though, of mirth not danger.
‘Sure, darling, whatever you’d like.’ Perhaps you believed me, but I suspect not. You surely had me figured out at that point. I’m an open book, unlike you with your pale hands and monstrous truck.
We pulled ourselves from the truck and in the tangy, salty wind I held out my hand.
‘Thanks for the ride, darling.’
‘You could stay here, if you like,’ you said. You kept a grip on my fingers. Your mouth was a black blur in the pale moon of your face. ‘If you’re not staying with your husband, I mean. We could – talk – some more.’
‘Talking isn’t quite what I had in mind for tonight.’ You tried to pull your fingers away as a red flush crept into your cheeks but I held on. ‘You could come with me, if you’re not ready to go to sleep yet.’
Music and voices were drifting over to us from the street where the figures had wandered down. I knew the way. I knew what was waiting for us down there, but you didn’t. You glanced into the darkness, your fingers had turned limp in mine.
‘It’ll be fun,’ I said, keeping my voice soft so as not to startle you.
‘I didn’t know people still had fun.’
My heart broke a little for you then. So young, your adolescence spent in wartime, a country held by fear, driving highways you had no business navigating alone.
‘Oh darling, now you have to come with me! I can’t let you drive into a warzone without a night of wonder.’ I pulled you along and you came willingly. We linked arms and you let us walk slowly as I negotiated the road in my feet, clad only in hand-knitted wool.
The music and voices grew louder. Most of the houses on that street had open doors and windows and there were people, more people than I’m sure you had ever seen at eleven o’clock at night. Women and men in loose clothing with cigarettes dangling from their lips. A familiar voice called to me from a balcony and I called back but didn’t stop. The open doorway beckoned. I knew you would feel better once we were enclosed somewhere safe.
The Blues Shack was the first bar I ever went to, and I wanted to show it to you. I wanted you to experience it the way that I had, as somewhere exciting, oozing joy, and a safe place to experiment with who you might want to be.
The single room was packed with people and the three balconies were open to the night air. The sound of the ocean was a constant thrumming under the crowd. Hands clasped at me as I pulled you through the room, and I smiled and greeted and smiled again but I never let go of your hand, do you remember that? I kept you close to me. The air pressed in on us, thick with musty body odour and sweet alcohol. Jeremiah was thumping hard on the piano, his fingers making the noise of six hands instead of two. He caught my eye and winked. You started coughing from the cigarette smoke hanging over our heads and I wanted to blow it away from you, to let you breathe easier.
‘Will you have a drink?’ I asked, my mouth close to your ear so you could hear me.
‘Sure.’ I couldn’t hear you but I saw your lips make the shape of the word. One of your hands crept up to cover the CWA logo on your chest.
‘What will you drink, darling?’ I asked, tugging at your hand so the world could see the logo.
‘Oh,’ you looked panicked. ‘I don’t know!’ Some people would have faked nonchalance but not you.
A young man was nearby, facing us, and he caught my eye. He was closer to your age than mine, and had red hair. I lay a few fingers on his forearm and drew him closer.
‘Two sidecars, darling. If you wouldn’t mind.’
He watched my teeth as I smiled and then he turned to push his way towards the bar. A man appeared in the parting crowd and winked at me. I felt you looking at him, intrigued, but you became flustered when he winked at you. Your hands flew to your hair as though the wisps needed fixing.
‘Relax,’ I said, taking one of your hands in mine. Jeremiah had started a new song and I clicked along, knowing he had chosen it for me.
‘How do you know so many people if you don’t live here?’ you asked.
‘I visit a lot.’
‘Because of your husband?’
‘Because I like it here.’ I hummed along, hoping you would stop talking.
‘Doesn’t your husband mind you knowing all these other men?’
‘Too many questions, Silvie, just relax.’ It came out harsher than I intended, and I knew using your name instead of darling was an obvious rebuff. I felt guilty and kissed the back of your hand, but that made you look even more uncomfortable, and you pulled away.
‘Here you are!’ The young, red-haired man was at our side with our drinks.
‘You’re an absolute treasure,’ I said.
We cradled our drinks and surveyed the crowd. I saw a white shirt and green bowtie through the mass of bodies and was relieved to be distracted from your discomfort. ‘Gerald!’
There is something about Gerald’s height that means he always makes a good first impression, and that night was no different.
‘Bobby,’ he said, kissing my cheek. ‘You look delightful as always.’ He looked me up and down. ‘I particularly like the socks. And who’s this?’
‘Silvie is my newest friend.’ I took your hand again. ‘She’s driving to Sydney tomorrow and needed a final wild night before heading into battle.’
‘A final wild night?’ Gerald raised his eyebrows, his eyes travelling over your CWA uniform. ‘Or, maybe a first wild night?’
You blushed and stammered something we couldn’t hear, but Gerald laughed anyway.
‘Gerald is my husband,’ I said.
‘It sounds so serious when you say it like that!’ he said.
‘It is serious, darling, haven’t you heard?’
He extricated your hand from mine and held it close to his chest.
‘Ignore her, she takes nothing seriously!’
‘That’s not true at all! Don’t listen to him, Silvie, I take having fun very seriously.’ Gerald and I roared with laughter but you didn’t seem to get the joke. You sipped your drink and looked away.
‘She’s precious,’ Gerald whispered in my ear so that you couldn’t hear him. ‘Don’t ruin her.’
‘As if I would,’ I said, grateful for the heaving noise blanketing our voices. My glass was empty and I tapped at yours to prompt you to finish it. You did, like the good girl I knew you were. Your eyes were on Jeremiah at the piano, who was playing faster, more brash, than ever. A woman slinked onto the stage and whispered in his ear, and in only a moment he had switched to The Way You Look Tonight. Your mouth opened in surprise, in delight.
‘So, what would make Silvie’s night more memorable?’ Gerald asked, dropping an arm around each of us.
‘Let’s see,’ I said. ‘She’s driving alone, for days on end, to deliver hand-knitted socks to troops in Sydney. Those troops will carry those socks to Singapore, or Papua New Guinea, where it will be too hot to wear such carefully crafted wool. What could possibly make her feel better about a situation like that?’ I laughed.
‘That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard!’ Gerald exclaimed. I thought you would be hurt by our words, thought I would need to comfort you, but you grew taller, squared your shoulders as though ready to fight me and I knew your pride was getting in the way of understanding what we were trying to do. I slipped my hand into yours.
‘Imagine Sydney is bombed again while you’re there. What will you wish you’d done?’ I knew even as I said the words that you wouldn’t answer me, but your eyes darted to the stage where that unknown woman was singing. Your eyes gave you away. A loud man stinking of whiskey fell against us but I pulled you away from him. ‘Come with me.’
I led you onto the stage as the song ended and the woman slipped away. You clutched your empty glass like you could hide your nerves behind it.
‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ I called over the crowd, but it only increased the general roaring. ‘My apologies for being out of town but I was scouting the east coast for the most talented singer I could find. And look…I found her!’ I held your hand above your head so everyone could see you. They cheered. ‘She might be disguised as a CWA volunteer, but tonight, for one night only, she’s going to sing for us!’ Your face was frozen. I pulled you around to face me. ‘Tell me you don’t want to and we’ll leave the stage right now,’ I said in your ear. You looked at me so intensely with those pale eyes glinting in the darkness.
‘I’ll do it,’ you said, leaning forward so your cheek almost pressed against mine. ‘But only if you sing with me.’
I hadn’t realised how much I had hoped you would say that. I turned to Jeremiah and whispered the song title to him. He launched straight into it and we were off. At last. Your voice was higher than mine, and sweet, but we melded together. Our voices flew stronger and the crowd became quieter, listening to us. We stood together, my arm around your waist, and we swayed to the music. At the end of each line, the crowd cheered. Most of them had separated into couples, holding onto each other, moving to the music. It was a room of love, or lust. When the song ended you fell into my arms. There was sweat across your forehead, damp wisps of hair stuck to your skin.
Gerald was calling us down from the stage, handing us drinks, pulling us into the crowd where we were cheered and jostled and hugged by warm smiling bodies. Your face shone and your hands held me close to you.
‘Thank you!’ Your breath was hot on my cheek.
‘This doesn’t have to be the end, you know,’ I said.
‘The end of what?’
‘Happiness.’ I didn’t know if you knew what I meant and before I could be sure, Gerald threw his arms around us and we were all dancing. Jeremiah thumped out tune after tune and we sang until our voices grew raspy.
When we left the bar there was a hint of orange over the horizon. We stumbled down to the beach with Gerald, singing in barely-there croaks, your hands warm around my waist. The air was impossibly fresh after the crowded bar. The sand was soft under our feet and we stopped in unison. The easternmost point of Australia, staring into the endless Pacific Ocean, with just a glint of morning sun. You looked like you had never seen anything so perfect.
We walked with our feet in the water, cold from the lingering night, and talked about everything and anything. The lighthouse sent its beam over us in steady beats. I held your hand with my right, Gerald’s with my left. I had walked that sand with Gerald so many times but it felt different with you. Like I could see each grain as it washed over our feet. Like I could feel each particle of salt air that I breathed in.
‘It doesn’t feel like there’s a war on,’ you said.
Gerald stopped, raised his hands to the sky, and yelled, ‘Come and get us!’
You giggled and pulled his hands down. We walked on and he dropped back, splashing in the waves, picking at shells. I looped your arm tightly through mine.
‘It is like another world here, don’t you think?’ you said, so only I could hear.
‘Stick with me, darling, and it’ll be your world forever. No more driving for hours with nothing but socks for company!’ You laughed but I saw a flash of hurt in your eyes so I added, ‘But of course, someone’s got to do it.’ And you squeezed my arm in gratitude.
A scuffling noise came from behind us and Gerald was there, squeezing between us, his arms around our shoulders. ‘South of the border!’ he bellowed. I wished he would go away. ‘Down Sydney way!’ You joined in so I did too. You knew all the words and we danced as we sang and splashed through the incoming tide.
We lay in the sand, curled against Gerald’s side as the sun rose higher. He was snoring lightly and we were growing sleepy but I didn’t want to let go of the night yet.
‘I mean it, you know,’ I said. ‘You should stay. Your talent is wasted with the CWA.’ I took your hand and kissed your cold fingers. Grains of sand stuck to my lips. ‘This could be your life.’
‘Singing in Byron?’
‘Singing everywhere! We could go anywhere. People would love us.’
‘I’ll come back,’ you said it like you really believed it. ‘After taking the truck to Sydney, I’ll come back and we could – ’
I let your hand drop into the sand.
‘I won’t be here anymore, darling. But, do what you think you have to do.’
There were tears in your eyes and I didn’t know what else to say, so I kissed you until you stopped crying.
Pauline told me that you had come by earlier. Pauline, with her terrible CWA haircut and pink lipstick on her teeth, told me that ‘the lovely young lady’ who was supposed to drive the truck to Sydney had come by that morning ‘and she just up and quit!’ Pauline couldn’t believe it. She said you had sat there while she gave you tea and bread with jam, and you’d eaten it all as though you hadn’t eaten in days. When you were finished you stood up, with a glazed look on your face, and said she would have to find someone else to drive ‘those bloody socks’ to Sydney.
Your tantrum was my lifeboat, although you didn’t know it then.
I can guess where you went when you stormed out of the CWA, leaving behind the truck full of responsibilities and the long lonely drive to Sydney. You would have gone back to the beach to see if you could find me. Our slightly tearful farewell would have been playing in your mind, and you would have hurried along the sand looking for the shape of me among the growing throng of morning walkers. But I wasn’t there. How long did you search for me? Did you grow desperate with the need to see me and tell me what you’d done? Were you bursting with pride that you had done something reckless and impulsive, just like I would have done?
Gerald told me that when he saw you, you had a burning light in your eyes. Almost feverish, he said. You were feverish with the need to see me and hold me again.
‘Poor Silvie,’ he said to me. ‘You really did a number on her.’
‘Are you sure?’ Pauline asked. She didn’t trust me, you see, not after you, a much nicer young lady, had already done a runner. Luckily for me, she didn’t have much choice.
‘Absolutely,’ I said. ‘I haven’t been doing my part for the war effort, this is the least I can do.’
‘And you know how to drive a vehicle of this size?’
‘My father’s farm had much larger vehicles and I was driving those when I was thirteen. I’ll be fine.’
‘Okay then,’ she said. She looked relieved as she handed over the keys, and finally rubbed that pink lipstick off her teeth. ‘If you’re sure. Drive safely, but get there as soon as you can. The truck was supposed to be on the road an hour ago.’
‘I won’t let you down,’ I said, as I took the keys. Not like that other young lady, I could have said, but I didn’t. As I climbed into the driver’s seat, her eyes hovered over the now raggedy socks on my feet. A questioning look flickered across her face, but I slammed the door shut before she could ask. The cabin still smelled like your perfume.
I manoeuvred the truck onto the road and pointed it in the direction of Sydney. I wondered if you could see me. I wondered if you were, at that moment, watching me sitting in the driver’s seat. If you knew what was going on or if you were waving at me, running after me, trying to frantically to get my attention. To tell me that you were staying, so we could stay together.
It was a nice thought, of course, us being together in Byron, travelling the east coast, but it would never have lasted. You would have been in tears and clinging to me long before the next bomb hit, and we would have been stuck together. Life and death situations do that, you see, they make people cling to whoever is closest, and not just for a night. Luckily for me, I had known from the way you clasped my hands as we said goodbye, and in the set of your shoulders as you walked away from me, that you weren’t going to drive to Sydney. You would try, because you were a good girl. You’d go to the CWA hall and try to make yourself get in that truck, but I knew you wouldn’t be able to leave me. All I had to do was wait.
I’ve always wanted to go to Sydney, and I knew way back when we were on that highway, driving together through the dark bush, that that was my adventure to live, not yours. My hands gripped the steering wheel and my voice carried easily over the roar of the truck as I drove away.
Image: Wikimedia – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0
Woollen socks (NZ issue 1970) – Sergeant – RNZAMC – ANZUK Singapore Forces – 1971-1974 Belonged to Sgt. Colin Whyte, Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps, 1959-1971