“For the poor souls in purgatory,” I heard my father mutter through clenched teeth. Through the shadows of the upstairs hallway, I could often see my father in my parents’ darkened room, his hands wound around his foot or grasping his knee. He always got ready for work at Sydney harbor in the dark so as not to wake mum. It was his habit to offer the inevitable bumps into furniture for the dead not yet in heaven.
It would be fair to say that mum and my father believed in God.
“Don’t forget to say your prayers, Abe,” my father reminded me each night. He had told me this for as far back as I can remember, bidding me goodnight with a small smile, my mum winking in agreement.
Lying deep in my bed, the covers to my chin, I closed my eyes. All I heard was the drifting sound of my parents mumbling together, praying for guidance, protection, and a happy death.
One morning, the harbor sent my father home as soon as he arrived. No more work-he wasn’t needed.
Dad became quiet. He began to spend the entirety of his days in his bedroom, scores of holy cards lining the mirror. Their creased edges framed the gaunt faces of unsmiling saints. He prayed, and slept, and cried. Finally, he just cried, and then he died.
I was nineteen, he was thirty-eight. The simple inscription on his tombstone expressed our grief: Jerome Smith, born 1876, died 1914.
Mum was left with everything to worry about. She started a job, and would come home from work at night, her face tired and eyes red, her hair no longer smoothed down but wild and frizzed at the sides, and she would pray. But nothing seemed to get better, and the next day, it would all start again.
Early one night, mum came into my bedroom. “Abe,” she whispered, sitting on my bed next to me, placing her hand on my forehead and gently brushing away my hair. I opened my eyes and looked at her. She sat in the shadows, but the light from the hall shone through her tangled hair. “You don’t say your prayers any more, do you?”
“No.” I rolled over, hiding my face. “Go to sleep.”
“God is your true Father.” She spoke strongly. Her words hung in the still air.
My father had killed himself. I squeezed my fists under the covers and said nothing. Why should I pray? It didn’t help her, and it certainly hadn’t helped my father.
She sat for a few quiet minutes, then moved out of the room, and turned off the hall light.
At that time, Britain was at war, and our country was called to help.
In the streets of Sydney were posters urging, “Fight for Britain!” And why not? I thought.
“They killed my father, that’s why not!” my neighbor Mr. Delaney said one day in his garden. “Right in Dublin they did. Right in the feckin’ street. Those bastards. I wouldn’t give ‘em a lick of vinegar if my little life rested on it.” He stuck his chest out and stomped his feet. He said he would go back and kick the Brits out for good if it weren’t for his bloody wife.
She told him, for all the Saints in heaven, to stay away from such talk. He was getting too old for that.
He told her that as long as the British kept the Irish from enjoying independence, revoked their promises, and killed good Irish, he would be ready to fight.
She told him that if he could prove that he could tend a garden, then she’d let him tend Ireland. But no sooner.
“Abraham,” he said to me rattling his hoe into the rich soil. “Tell me you’ll stay here with me. Mother country, my arse. Don’t you believe them, Abe. We’ll take care of ya. If it’s war you want, come with me to Ireland.”
Slightly amused, I shook my head and looked at the ground.
“Abie, tell me why you need to go,” he said, furrowing his thick eyebrows, his hand rubbing his belly like he did when he was concerned.
I told him there was nothing left for me in Sydney and I’d been in the market to buy a rug anyway.
He gave me a bag of carrots from his garden before I left and told me not to feel bad about my dad. That we all get a little crazy sometimes. He shook my hand. “See you soon, Abie.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Delaney.”
Two days later, I said goodbye to mum, and left to join those who would take me far away.
In Anzac Cove near Gallipoli, Turkey, I lived sandwiched with nearly six hundred other men between Johnny Turk and the sea. I never had mates like I did there.
“Hey, we got some water down here!” hollered Charlie, a soldier from Melbourne, from the shore. It had been twenty-nine hours since the last drop of fresh water passed over my lips. I was still steady on my feet, but I wasn’t dying to wait another twenty-nine. I clambored down into the trenches and zig-zagged around piles of supplies, the first aid tents, and crates of rations. I still managed to be last in line.
“Hey, Abe!” Charlie screamed from the water bucket.
“Yeah, princess?” I yelled back from the end of the line.
“Get over here. I have a message for you from Lieutenant Lovejoy.”
I edged past the other soldiers to where Charlie held a bottle of fresh water just for me behind his back. Lieutenant Lovejoy was the codeword for: I have something I bloody well know you want, so you’d better be ready for it.
“Thanks, mate,” I said, pushing away from the soldiers clamoring in the narrow trenches for their drink of fresh water.
“Yeah, yeah, you ungrateful bastard. Say it like you mean it next time,” he called after me, smiling.
I ran into a trench and sat with my knees at my chest and my back against the red earthen wall. I opened the bottle and pressed it to my lips. The bottle was hot and the water was warm, but seemed sweeter than any water I had tasted in Australia. After a long swallow, I closed my eyes and let the salt air fill my nostrils.
Tom, a lanky bloke from Perth, sat beside me. “Abe, I couldn’t find you in the water rush. I thought I’d lost ya.”
“What, and miss all this?” I grinned, holding up the bottle Charlie had saved for me.
“Aw, Abe, I think he likes you,” Tom joked.
Tom and I shared a tent, which isn’t to say we were forced to be mates. We hit it off from the start. When we first landed at Anzac Cove, we stayed up until morning playing poker. “I hope all the boys from Sydney aren’t as bloody good as you, otherwise this may turn into the worst business trip I’ve ever taken,” he had said, after losing five quid.
That was the night I told him about what had happened to my dad. “We all want to be heroes, I think,” Tom had said. “We stick out our necks and hope for recognition, even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.”
“Here, smoke one of these.” Tom sat down next to me and pulled a strange cigarette from his breast pocket, his fingers still wet from the water bottle.
“A Turkish cigarette!” My eyes opened wide. “They look like cigars.” I took it, turned it over, and examined the brown leaf paper and tobacco hanging out of both ends. “Where’d you get them?”
“Charlie said he got them yesterday from some Turks who threw them from their trenches to ours,” Tom said, shrugging.
“They threw him cigarettes?”
“Yeah, pretty nice, eh? Charlie threw them some fresh water in return.”
“That’s not like Charlie. I’m a bit surprised he didn’t throw a bloody bomb.”
“Yeah,” Tom chuckled, the cigarette dangling from his thin lips. “Hey, did you hear them this morning?” He lit my cigarette, and then his own before he blew the match out.
“Hear them what?”
“A Turk. He was singing something.”
“What was it?”
Tom squinted his eyes in the sun as he looked down the long trench. “Well, they have this prayer that they do a lot. I’ve never heard it before. It was really early this morning. It’s like a song . . . hard to explain.”
We sat in the shade of the trench for a bit, smoking our Turkish cigarettes. The sky shone a deep blue against the red of the dirt towering over our heads. I looked at Tom as he pulled the cigarette out of his mouth between his thumb and index finger. That was the way my father used to smoke.
“It’s strange, isn’t it?” I asked.
Tom nodded, extending his long legs out as far as he could before the soles of his black boots hit the other wall.
When we met, I had asked Tom why he came to fight, and he had told me he didn’t come to fight. He came because he heard how beautiful Turkey was from his uncle who had traveled around the world two times before he turned twenty-four. Tom had said that on this continent you could get on a train and in six hours be in a completely different culture. He figured he’d let the government pay for him to get here. “But as soon as this thing is over,” he had said, “I’m off.”
Though he never said it, I knew he missed his family. He kept a picture in his pocket all the time. It wasn’t very old, but it was worn. It showed his five sisters, all blonde like him, his mother, who had a round face and dimples, and his father, who was tall like Tom. The two of them stood in back, both with long faces and big ears, while the women sat in a row in front. I thought of my dad and his hard, grim life. How he gave up and left us without hope.
I didn’t have a picture to show Tom. He asked why. I lied and said I didn’t know.
During the day we had a lot to do: meals, clean-up, drills, every once in a while we would go for a swim, that sort of thing. But the evenings were dull. For the sake of sanity, we spent the evenings with a deck of cards and forty quid collectively that got won and lost between the four of us.
The possibility of going to the front was always there. Some overlooked it; some obsessed over it. Every day we saw the trenches filling with bodies when the wounded and dead were transported to the shore for care or to be buried in the rocky hills. We had never been to the front. But even with the cards, sometimes it was all we could think about.
“Deal faster, would’ja?” Charlie snarled at Jacob. “This war’s gonna be over before I ever get to play a hand.” He cupped his faded cards closer to the fire-the only light we had in the trenches at night. “Hey! You only gave me four cards, you idiot!” he yelled. Charlie had the idea that since Jacob was from New Zealand, he deserved more grief than he gave the rest of us. “Gimme another!”
“I did not. I gave you five. I remember.” Jacob stood his ground, brushing his hair back out of his face.
I sat up and reached around the fire, pulled a card from Charlie’s sweaty sock, and held it up for Jacob to see.
“That’s why you’re wearing socks, you cheater. It’s hot, and you’re wearing socks. I’m not playin’ anymore. Forget it!” Jacob threw his cards down indignantly. Three landed face up: a four of clubs, a three of diamonds, and a ten of hearts. Charlie flipped the other two over: a two of clubs and a jack of spades.
“Nice hand,” he said.
“Shut up,” Jacob said.
“Hey,” Tom nudged my shoulder with a bottle half full of liquor. “I got it from one of the other guys who chanced their way onto it.”
“Oh, that’s smart,” Charlie said to Tom. “Give it to Abe, master of the glass nipple.”
I brought the bottle to my lips and filled my cheeks tight with gin. I squeezed and aimed at Charlie’s face. But I didn’t squeeze hard enough and the entire stream landed on the fire. Yellow flames shot up in balls, roaring.
“Hell, Abe!” cried Charlie. “What are you trying to do?”
“Relax, Charlie.” Tom rolled his eyes. “Quit being so bloody jumpy.”
“I wouldn’t be if he weren’t trying to take off my face.”
I looked into the fire, which still crackled from the gin, more softly than the constant gunfire punctuating the air.
“I wonder what’s going on tonight,” I said to break the silence. “They never tell us.”
“I’m glad they don’t,” Jacob said, wiping his sweaty hands down his undershirt. “I don’t want to know when I’m gonna die. Quick and without warning. That’s how I want it.” He sighed. I looked at his face. There was dust around his forehead and in his limp brown hair. He looked back at me with steady eyes.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Charlie grunted. “Don’t you want to be ready?”
“I’m ready right now.” Jacob moved his stare to Charlie. “My father taught me to always be ready.”
“Then you’ll be ready for the pain,” Tom said to Jacob, leaning his head against the trench wall and staring up at the stars. “You’re ahead of me.”
“Are you all insane?” Charlie stamped his foot. “Of course it’s gonna hurt, ready or not. Look where we are. We’re in the middle of a war. Hand me the bottle, would’ja?”
Quietly, we finished the game and went to bed.
The next morning, as I lay awake in my tent, the sun just rising, I heard a faraway voice singing in a language I couldn’t understand. It was the Turk’s song that Tom had told me about. The strong, steady melody filled my head, and I closed my eyes. I felt like a child again, listening to my parents pray while I lay in bed.
The tent flipped open.
“Abe, it’s us today.” Tom didn’t even bend down to look in. His voice was flat.
I crawled out of the tent and stood up.
“It’s our turn, Abie.” His cheeks were white. His voice cracked.
“Well, you wanna play hooky?” I said, smiling. He smiled back and looked at the ground.
Two hours later we crouched with forty or so other soldiers, our guns in our hands, waiting for the signal. I could only hear my own breath as I fought the urge to vomit. I pressed my fingers hard against my lips and my hot forehead against the coolness of the barrel. Next to me, Tom kissed the photograph of his family and tucked it into his front pocket.
When the whistle sounded hoarsely, I shot desperately to my feet. The barbaric cries of the soldiers strained in my head. I pushed my gun above the sandbags piled above the trench, pulled the trigger once, twice, reloaded, and shot some more. The sounds of gunfire, the scraping of boots and canvas against the dry earth, and the cries of men rose to the blue sky.
I stopped for a moment and looked across the ten meter distance that separated us from Johnny Turk. I saw something long and olive green on the ground a meter in front of me. Confused, I turned to the guy next to me.
“Aren’t we fighting?” I asked. His face was red and his fingers were white like ribbons tied tight around his gun. He couldn’t hear me above the pop of gunfire. I looked over the trench again and saw other forms emerging. I realized that they were bodies.
I had killed a Turk. I sat down, unable to think.
I felt the thrash of something against my leg. A twisted body lay next to me in our trench, another Turk. I looked up and saw Charlie’s face red and contorted, the butt of his gun held up to his cheek. The barrel pointed at the man whose body jumped at each fire. He kept firing, even after the soldier was surely dead.
My mouth filled with tangy and sour vomit. I coughed it out and clutched at my knees. My ears began to ache and I squeezed my eyes shut.
A second whistle sounded to call the ceasefire. The guns were suddenly silent. Slowly, I stood up, my body tight and weak. I fumbled for the wall, the dry dirt sticking thickly to my palms.
Our soldiers began to climb out of the trenches to pull back the bodies of our men. No one said a word above a whisper. Exhausted, I sat down again. Charlie leaned up against me.
“I hope we won, mate.”
I looked at him blankly, forcing myself to nod.
Charlie looked past me. I turned and followed his gaze. At the far end of the trench, a group of soldiers stood in a tight group. Their voices broke the calm. Jacob stood in the middle.
“He’s alive, look at him. Look at him!” Jacob pounded his fists on his knees, his face strained. Some soldiers turned to look over the trench walls.
I stood up and cautiously looked over the sandbags. Tom’s long body lay on its back not far from our front trench. Then his knee slowly lifted off the ground and his torso twisted. His chest pressed hard into the air as we heard him gasp. My throat closed in. I struggled for air.
Dear God, I prayed, please help Tom.
“We can’t get him. It’s too late now,” a soldier tried to convince Jacob.
“He’s out there, and we can’t leave him.” Jacob opened his eyes wide.
“Jacob, we can’t get him now, unless we want to die, too. Okay?” said the soldier.
“He’s not dead,” Jacob whimpered, falling back against the trench wall.
“Look,” said another soldier, suspiciously. “What’re they doing?” A few soldiers looked over to where he pointed, and soon everyone was looking. A Turk on the other side was holding up a stick with a white piece of cloth tied to it.
“Those bastards,” Charlie said. I heard the clink of a gun and saw that he raised his gun to fire. A Turk lifted himself out of his trench. I heard the shuffling of feet as our soldiers prepared to fight again. The Turk lifted his hands to show that they were empty.
He slowly walked over to where Tom lay panting, and he reached down and hoisted him into his arms. Carefully, he walked to our front line and, without looking at any of us, laid Tom slowly into Jacob’s arms.
When the Gallipoli campaign ended months later, I returned to Australia and shared a flat in Perth with Tom, who had been sent home early, minus a leg. Jacob was back in New Zealand. Charlie had died by gunfire.
While in Perth, when the sea wind came up I was constantly reminded of mum. She loved to walk Sydney harbor, letting her scarf snap in the wind. I also thought about the prayer I prayed in the trench as Tom lay dying. Then I thought about the Turk who helped him.
I could hear her tears through the phone.
“Come home, Abe. Come home.”
When I saw her waiting for me on the dock, relief overwhelmed me.
That night we went out for dinner. The next morning, she was off to work early, as usual.
I was grateful for her hope in the midst of despair, and I told her so. She smiled. I finally understood that my father, though filled with love, for a moment simply lost hope.
Now I pray for mum, for Tom, and for my mates. I pray for guidance, protection, and a happy death. But most of all, I pray for my father, and I offer my pains for the poor souls in purgatory.