The Boys of Bullaroo is a collection of six short stories, each set a decade apart, spanning the period from the Great War to the Vietnam conflict.
Linked by an outback Australian town, Bullaroo, the narratives follow the loves, the losses, and the sexual awakenings of men over the course of sixty years.
From the deserts of Egypt and the Light Horse, to prisoner of war camps during the Second World War, and to the flood of American servicemen on R&R during the age of conscription in the 1960s, these tales explore the nature of what it is to love, and to be loved by other men.
Razor gangs, male prostitution, and the immediate post-war flood of emigrants from southern Europe are some of the themes that contribute to the colour and private lives of husbands, brothers, sons, and lovers over the course of the century, told from a unique, Australian perspective.
I awoke in a panic.
There'd been a sudden lurch, a squeal of brakes, the sound of voices, and loud clanging noises outside the train carriage. It wasn't the noise, or the sudden waking from a deep sleep that had me panicked; it was the unwanted memory of a huge explosion, the scream of escaping steam from a ruptured locomotive boiler, and the lurch of the carriage in which we'd been sitting, violently torn to pieces around us as we were flung through the air.
Instinctively, I ran my hand through my hair, trying to remove invisible shards of glass.
But there were none—even though that sudden flash of memory had been my unwelcome, yet frequent visitor for two years now, I still reached for my head and tried to brush away debris that wasn't there.
I'd reserved a compartment to myself—I'd been surprised to learn when I'd come home that a first-class sleeper compartment did not necessarily guarantee sole occupation—unlike most European trains. It depended on when the cabin would be turned down for the night. Oft-times passengers travelling shorter distances, during daylight hours, could be accommodated together. I preferred to travel alone.
I was still nervous of train journeys, and this was my third since returning to Australia earlier that year, and on all of those I'd taken an entire compartment so that I could travel alone. People were still too solicitous of those of us who were of an age to have returned and who were maimed in some way. "At home soldiers" we called the countless men and women who believed they had fought the fight from ten thousand miles away. Politeness was such a fragile thing—I believed it better not to find myself trapped in situations from which there was no escape. Trains were one such hazard to my tightly held, but limited, self-control.
I raised the shutter of the compartment window to see why the train had stopped.
Strathfield? How could that possibly be? I must have nodded off. I checked my pocket watch—it was only fifteen minutes since we'd steamed out of Central station. The lurch of the train had merely been the engine coming to a halt; the loud clattering and sound of voices the normal sounds of a busy railway station at twelve minutes past ten on a weekday morning.
Strathfield was the first major hub in suburban Sydney, and it was from this station that the northern, southern, and western lines peeled off to service all parts of the State of New South Wales. I'd quite forgotten that fact, until reminded by the carriage attendant, when he'd informed me there would be a change of staff at Strathfield. He was due to move to a train heading to the Northern Tablelands, whence I'd arrived myself barely two days ago.
I leaned my head against the carriage window, watching the hustle and bustle not two feet from where I was sitting; all of those people oblivious to the one-armed man whose heart, quite often, seemed overwhelmed with either bitterness or anger—or sometimes, at my most vulnerable, sorrow and loss.
"I'm about to go now, sir," the carriage attendant said, after knocking gently at the compartment door. He was standing in the corridor; I felt that he had been observing me for a few seconds before speaking, waiting for a moment for my face to settle. "Is there anything I can do for you before I leave?"
"No, thank you very much," I replied. "You've been most helpful."
"Very well, sir, then I'll wish you a pleasant journey. The new attendant will be along shortly to say good morning."
"There's no need. I'd rather you pull the blinds to the compartment and tell him I'd like to be left alone. I'll call if I need anything."
"Very good, sir. Good day," the man said.
As I heard the compartment door click shut, I realised I hadn't even looked at him during our brief conversation. I'd been staring at the wheels of a porter's luggage trolley, my eyes roving over the tiny flecks of reflected light from the grains of mica that were embedded over the surface of each wheel to give it traction. Focusing my attention on the minutiae of a physical object was one of the things I did when something shocked me in a public situation—usually flashes of memory brought on by a noise, or a sudden movement, or even a stranger's face. Usually faces that reminded me of lost mates.
A doctor had taught me this method, a way of distracting my attention away from feelings that threatened to overwhelm me. In the early days, I'd drowned in those feelings—constant companions for months during my blackest times in Combermere Barracks. My friends had names: Bitterness, Anger, Sorrow, and Loss.
I snorted softly. All that time in England, in a military hospital at Windsor, and I hadn't even seen the castle—the home of the king.
I closed my eyes and willed the pain to pass.
After the ritual that seemed common to every country in which I'd caught a train—the shout of "all aboard!", followed by the blast of the station master's whistle, and a "toot-toot" from the locomotive—I felt a soft lurch as the Western Plains Express glided from Strathfield station in a cloud of steam, on its twelve-hour journey to parts west, to the great outback of my sunburned, orange land.
The compartment was luxurious, by any standard. The wall of mahogany opposite my seat concealed a wash station and a fold-down bed. The attendant who'd showed me to my seat had taken my overcoat and hung it in the wardrobe section, closest to the compartment door. Between it and the washing area was the bed, which he explained could be turned down in an instant should I wish to sleep, even though my journey would take no longer than five hours.
Sometimes I still found the simplest of tasks the most frustrating fiddle. I managed to open the wash station, one door at a time, and turned on the tap to splash water on my face. The washbasin itself was a fold-down affair, shell-shaped, with a mirror above it, and underneath that a small shelf with a pair of hand towels, neatly folded and embroidered with N.S.W.G.R.—New South Wales Government Railways. But for the life of me, I could find no hand soap. The silver-plate soap dish was empty.
I turned from the wash station and pressed the buzzer to summon the attendant, and then stared at my face in the mirror while I waited for him to arrive. It took only a few moments—but, in those thirty or so seconds, there was enough time to see how much I'd changed in the six years it had been since I'd set off to Egypt, my heart bursting with excitement, and my voice shrieking "Rule Britannia" along with the rest of my friends in the Light Horse, as we sailed for the Middle East in the October of 1914.
Physically, my face still looked the same as then, albeit older. I looked youthful enough—I would be twenty-five in a few months' time. It was the hardness in my eyes and the firm set in my jaw that was the most striking difference; my mother had noticed it immediately and had burst into tears. "Where's my sunny, laughing boy?" she'd wept into her handkerchief, not ten minutes after our reunion.
"How can I help you, sir?" the attendant asked. He'd knocked and I'd heard him open the compartment door, but he was hidden from view by the open half-door of my wash closet.
"There seems to be no hand soap," I said. "Would you be so kind…?"
"Of course, sir, I'll be right back," the man said. I heard the compartment door click shut and returned to the perusal of my face, turning my head from side to side to check I was still in one piece. I'd often daydream that I'd been left disfigured, as so many men had been that I'd met at the end of the war; their faces a ruin—eyes, jaws, noses missing.
"Here you go, sir," the attendant said, after returning less than a minute later. "There's cedar wood, or Ivory soap, if you'd prefer something unscented…are you quite all right, sir?"
I'd turned from the mirror to inspect the small tray of soaps he held before him, waiting for me to choose, then, as I glanced up into his face, I froze.
The shock was physical, as if I'd been punched in the stomach.
"Jack?" I said, my voice a barely audible thread. "Jacky?"
But then my voice caught in my throat and I gasped for air. As I stared into the man's pale grey-green eyes, I realised it was not Jack—it never could have been, I'd held Jack in my arm as he'd died—but the attendant was so similar at first glance that I'd been shocked to the bottom of my soul. I tried to apologise; words would still not come. Something terrible had risen from within me and grabbed my heart, squeezing it so tightly that I sobbed loudly.
"Sir!" I heard the man shout, and then I felt his arms around me as I fell into darkness.