Upon the shrill sounding of the postman’s whistle, William’s leather clad feet rattle down the front stairs and march with military precision to the mailbox at the end of the garden path. Collecting the mail is a ritual that gives purpose to his day and as he eagerly retrieves the single white envelope from the box, the welcoming smile on his face tightens into a frown when he sees the sender’s name typed across the back.
For the most part, Redpath is a quiet little street, a short strip of five houses that face a football field and a grandstand begging to be filled. Then on weekends, the seats fill to the brim, the field is alight with running feet and the air is a song of yelling cheering voices that the sea breeze carries onto the verandah of No. 10.
William prefers weekends when he can truly unwind in his favourite chair as the noise of a game invades his mind. He finds peace in the disturbance. Watching the players battling the ball, back and forth across the field, keeps his own battles at bay.
On this particular day in 1950, there is no game to fill the void in his troubled head. It is a week day and the name scribed on the back of the envelope is that of someone he has not seen nor heard of in almost 30 years.
The canvas sling of the squatter’s chair barely notices William’s weight as he sits back and stretches his trousered legs out onto the extended arms. He peers out between his booted feet, through the gaps in the timber rails, beyond the silver mesh garden fence to the empty football across the street. He longs for the distractions that a weekend brings; anything to delay the task at hand. And, although he is glad to hear from his old friend with whom he initiated the communication a few weeks before, he is still apprehensive about the memories that his friend’s reply will bring.
The battle scars of his seventy-seven years cascade in lines down his thin gaunt face and neck. Despite the advancing years, his past career still reflects in his perfectly trimmed moustache and the crisply ironed creases of his button through shirt. He grabs a kitchen knife from the small table to his side and slices a clean straight line along the top of the envelope he holds between his long thin fingers. Retrieving the folded sheets of paper from their sleeve, he takes a deep breath before casting his eyes down upon the typed words of greetings on the page.
Dear Mr Lyons
Yes your letter came as a pleasant surprise. Do you know that you are dragging me back 42 years, the last time I remember meeting you was perhaps 1923 or 4 on Queen Street, Brisbane. I am very sorry to find that you have not been enjoying the best of health, however I wish you the best health and many more happy years to come……
William reads on cautiously, about the Light Horse men of whom he had enquired. He is saddened to read name after name of those who have died. He gladly listens to his friend’s account of his happy productive life. He takes a minute or two to admire the black and white snaps that had fallen on to his lap. As he looks at the proud fatherly shots of his friend’s sons who are now grown men, a growing sadness begins to overwhelm him. How could I have let so many friendships slip? It has been so long. A lifetime has passed.
With a sigh of resignation, he reads on. Words, sentences and paragraphs pass by. Then one word in particular stands out from the rest. Like the black and white keys on a piano keyboard, it fills his mind with melodious joy, rekindling memories from the very distant past.
His friend has taken him back 50 years to the dark moonlit night in Capetown, South Africa, prior to his departure for home. He laughs out loud as he recalls the four of them, drunk and merry, trying to carry that crate up the narrow gangway. Their relief at reaching the top was short lived as a voice from the dark greeted them with:
“Good evening lads! What have we got here?”
“Officers’ Equipment,” William replied, trying to correct his staggering stance whilst pointing to the words painted across the side of the crate.
“Really? And why are you carrying it aboard at this late hour?”
“To be precise,” William answers. “It is recreation equipment.”
Noticing the guards expression of doubt, he whispered an explanation into his ear, before the dim light on the deck illuminated the sergeants’ stripes on William’s sleeve.
William lets out a roaring burst of laughter as he remembers the young guard’s face, before he finally let them aboard with the crate. Pulling a neatly folded handkerchief out of his shirt pocket, he wipes away the joyful tears that ripple down the creases beneath his eyes and he hungrily savours his friend’s words, reading them over and over.
I hope to be able to call back to your memory a few old stories. One time some soldiers pinched a small piano in South Africa, put it in a case labelled Officers Equipment, got the case aboard the boat for home etc. Were you guilty?
Refolding the letter, he presses it flat with the palm of his hand, before tucking it back in the envelope in which it came. He then peers out through his glistening eyes to the football field beyond, no longer caring that there is no game at play. His thoughts are with that piano, the stowaway! “Whatever happened to that darn thing?” He wonders, allowing himself to be drawn back to times when he was young and carefree. Often he struggles with recollections of the past, but today he is happy to be reminded. He is happy that he has rekindled his friendship with a man who understands; someone whose shares the same past as he.