“Nor the Years Condemn” – an Historical Fiction by Justin Sheedy
“NOR THE YEARS CONDEMN”
Northern France, June 1944.
The young Australian skimmed his Typhoon fighter-bomber over the forest top, 350 miles per hour, ten feet off the trees. The grey gloom of first light was enough to spy the German tanks within the clearing dead ahead. He remembered the words of his instructor…
Lift her a touch, flatten, coax her, nurse her, boy. Make the aircraft do exactly what you want her to. Nose her down a touch now, aim. Perfect.
He squeezed the trigger on the throttle grip – rockets away – eight white smoke trails flew out ahead and down, down, down…
ON target! BLOODY FIREWORKS!!
Pulling up and over them, the young pilot then pressed the control column forward, dropping the fighter-bomber down again to speed away.
Keep it low, keep it LOW, son. The higher you are, the better target you offer to anyone who didn’t die. Use the trees as cover – Stay below their tops and LIVE.
A calm began to flow in the twenty-year-old’s veins. Still fast and low, he beamed behind his goggles. He’d done it: The weeks, the months, the past two years leading up to this moment, he’d done as he was told the whole way and he’d done well. Bloody well. The Typhoon was renowned as a bitch to master and he’d done it.
Then he saw it. The anti-aircraft vehicle, just ahead left, its tracer fire spitting at him – too close to nose down and fire back. He remembered his training once more…
Quick bank left towards it – make him change his aim – now he’s flashing under. Full throttle, keep it together, keep it together, keep the nose flat, Jesus don’t climb with the extra power… Jink right again to put him off, ready for damage if he hits you – can’t bail out under 1000 feet – look for a field to crash land in, pistol ready…
As the young Australian drew his next breath, he knew it was his last.
Too close… He was waiting till I was too close…
The anti-aircraft gunner stayed right with him, fired all the way through the slick manoeuvre. Cannon shells thundered down the fuselage, through the wings, fuel tanks exploding, the Typhoon now a trajectory of separate parts tumbling down into the forest.
A torso was later taken down from a tree.
Tin dog-tags dangled from one of the lower branches.
* * *
An unseasonally hot day for September, the interior of the St. John’s College chapel wasn’t its usual sanctuary of cool, a full house today and getting muggier as the hour wore on. Daniel Quinn felt drowsy, his mind wandering back to the words of the Prime Minister. It seemed a rare soul who hadn’t been round the wireless the night before: Menzies’ big announcement… Germany had just invaded Poland, Britain had declared war on Germany.
…as a result, Australia is also at war…
Of the Mass, Quinn hadn’t registered much. He brooded on a screeching little thug with a stupid moustache. On his rise. And rise. ‘A flash in the pan,’ most people had said. The last one was supposed to have been ‘The War to End All Wars’. As of last night, Quinn reflected, it needed a new name.
His thoughts turned to Mr Reiser. The dear and aged friend of Quinn’s father had never seen anything laughable about Herr Hitler. Together Quinn and the old man had followed the events of the past few years, discussing each as it happened: Germany re-arming, the move into Austria, Munich seemed the end of it, but then they took Czechoslovakia only last March. Mr Reiser had friends there, in Austria too. He’d lost contact with most of them, indeed, the enquiries he’d made at the Austrian Embassy in Neutral Bay were still pending.
Quinn’s stare had settled on the priest’s green vestments, his eyes now lifting to the Gothic arches and multi-colours of the chapel’s stain-glass windows – The heat of the afternoon outside seemed to be straining in through them. It’d be murder at rugby practice.
He felt a nudge in his right arm from McCarthy: The priest was giving the Blessing to the capacity congregation, Father Gorman clearly in good spirits this day – numbers swelled by quite a few blokes Quinn didn’t even know were Catholic. They were on the closing prayers, Quinn’s mouth forming the words automatically.
Holy Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle: Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. Cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits, who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.
In the slow shuffle down the aisle, it struck Quinn that Saint Michael was the Patron Saint of Germany.
* * *
Outside the chapel, Quinn waited near the front of the crowd as the pile of cases was sorted through. Mostly from school days just a year or two behind, with so many of them identical, it might take some minutes.
Tim McCarthy jostled a few places behind him. Yep, there was Quinn – as if by magic, always at the front… Still, Tim admired and respected Daniel Quinn. A lot of people did, and small wonder: He was a nice bloke, successful without being up himself and toughs skulked in doorways when they saw him coming… Tim would never forget his early days at high school, never: First Form, and those long, hot first few months of it when he’d been bullied. Badly. Lynch and McCann. Just as he’d never forget the day, the bell having tolled for that hour of it he most dreaded, lunchtime, when a boy he hardly even knew stopped to talk to him in the hallway. In full view of everyone. Tim was just getting over his initial surprise – the boy was good to talk to, said his name was Quinn, they even had a laugh, Tim’s first in months, for a moment he felt human again – when he caught sight of Lynch coming down the hall. Still a way off as yet but on his daily, inexorable approach. Mustn’t look at him. Mustn’t look at him: the chief reason he’d got smacked last time, Lynch had sworn…
Even now McCarthy didn’t know how or why he’d lifted his eyes to meet Lynch’s oncoming stare that day. Only that he had, that his eyes met Lynch’s, but only for an instant – Lynch’s stare sided, sided to Quinn’s right back at him. And halfway down the crowded hall, Lynch took a left. After which the ear-boxing sessions fell right off, from Lynch anyway. He and McCann used to work as a pair. No longer. McCann tried it on again with Tim a week later, as it turned out, for the last time. The story went around: Strange, no one had imagined Quinn a scrapper… Let alone a hard hitter… But McCann didn’t come back to school for a week.
No, Tim would never forget.
As one bloke in front then another hooked up their cases and departed, he clambered a few steps forward.
‘So, Daniel, joining up then?’
Quinn saw McCarthy, peering over his shoulder for the sight of his own gear.
‘Oh, hi, mate.’ Though Quinn had only known him slightly at school, he’d become pretty decent friends with McCarthy since First Year Law, though Quinn envied his academic medals. ‘…In time, I s’pose.’ He kept one eye on the pile. ‘How about you?’
‘Yep. I’ll see you there.’
‘See me where?’ returned Quinn.
Tim let slip a chuckle. ‘Oh, nothing… Only that the Royal Australian Air Force’ve set up a recruiting desk off the Main Quad… Line goes half way round the cloisters as we speak. You just have to follow this lot. Whaddya reckon?’
‘No, I can’t today. I’ve got practice on.’
‘Yeah, fair enough. …Still,’ McCarthy angled to Quinn, ‘it’s in your best interests…’
‘Well,’ McCarthy turned back to the pile, ‘it’s first in – best dressed, so they say. I mean, now it’s on, every man and his dog’ll want to join the air force and it’s us uni types they’ll want,’ he grinned sideways at Quinn, ‘…plus sportsmen like your illustrious self. As pilots, I mean. But they’re such picky bastards, the thing is to put your name down before the rush. Then at least you’re in the running, and you can always knock ’em back when they give you the chance to. So you may as well.’ He paused, grinning. ‘Come to think of it, Daniel, it’s the bloody sports stars like you who’ll do me out of a place!’
‘Not me, mate,’ smiled Quinn.
McCarthy spied his case, pushed forward and grabbed it, turning back to Quinn. ‘I’d better bolt. Do us a favour, break your leg on the way over, will you?’
With that he was gone.
Seeing his own on the diminishing pile, Quinn retrieved it, and set out across the lawn of St John’s towards Missenden Road.
On the short walk to the car, Quinn found himself alone, the opposite direction to the Main Quad, he reflected. Reaching the open-top MG, he slung the case in the passenger seat, and climbed in.
Though he inserted the key into the ignition, he didn’t turn it.
He sat still.
It had begun.
The war Mr Reiser had said would come. Quinn had long known it would, but now it had, it was clear to him that he was not prepared for the naked reality of it: His neck, his chest, the muscles in his arms were tight with fear.
…His whole life, something in history books, something safely, pleasantly in the realm of talk and literature. Now, due to the year of his birth, he’d be going to it. In what capacity? And when?
A solitary thing was certain.
Not this afternoon.
Quinn loosened his necktie, and looked at his watch. If he didn’t get moving now, he’d be late for practice. And you did not keep the Sydney Uni First XV waiting.
* * *
Quinn called the coach from a public telephone in the Main Quad, his explanation and apology at the ready. He had to admit, McCarthy had a good point: Putting his name down couldn’t hurt. The groundsman answered, old Clarrie’s gruff manner even gruffer than usual…
Practice had been cancelled. Everybody else had already phoned in. And right flamin’ sick he was of picking up the phone all afternoon. Don’t you young idiots know I’ve got pickets to paint?!
Joining the queue, Quinn could see McCarthy way ahead in the distance, plus half the First XV at various points down the cloister. He felt relieved to be in the line: He’d made his decision, he’d be getting his name down for what it was worth. At the same time, he felt on edge: A long-cherished lesson from his father had been never, ever to follow a crowd. At least he wasn’t smoking, he reassured himself, as, almost to a man, the rest were, a veritable cloud of blue wafting out from under the cloister’s length, out over the Quad. All in shirts, ties and jackets, they seemed to have left school – himself included, Quinn reflected – only to swap one uniform for another.
He caught a voice over their laughter and chatter: A few places ahead, it sounded like Cooney who, rumour had it, had already ‘done it’. Yes, it was Cooney alright…
‘Oh, Air Force, definitely! Even Catholic girls put out for a pair of Wings… ’Course, if a bloke bats for the other team, like young Joyce here, the Navy’s just the job. And what are you doing here, Wilson? Didn’t know you liked girls…’
An hour later down the cloister, round the corner, up some stairs and along a corridor, Quinn reached the Royal Australian Air Force desk. Behind it sat an employee of the university, who handed Quinn a form to complete and sign, prerequisite for an ‘Initial Interview and Physical’. The Air Force had his address now, the man said. They would be in touch.
* * *
Quinn liked McCarthy. He had that elevating quality Quinn felt on occasion when a far smarter person spoke to him as if an equal. They sat together on the low sandstone wall of the cloisters, looking across the manicured lawn of the Quad, the late sun on the lilac of the jacaranda tree. A crowd had milled around for a while after signing. Now the pair found themselves alone. The old saying came to Quinn, as it did every year: If the jacaranda’s in bloom and you haven’t started studying, don’t bother.
‘Y’know,’ McCarthy piped up, ‘I never thanked you, Daniel…’
Quinn turned to him. ‘Whatever for?’
McCarthy smiled. ‘You miss out on a lot, don’t ya, mate.’
Quinn now focused acutely on his friend. ‘I’m all ears…’
McCarthy shook his head, sighing. ‘Let’s see then… I suppose you’re unaware of the swooning girls you leave in your wake.’
‘You don’t have their names and addresses, do you?’
‘Ha!’ McCarthy slapped his knee in triumph. ‘That’s your secret! You don’t even notice them.’
‘Is that how it works, is it?’
McCarthy sighed again. ‘Apparently.’
Quinn pondered on the jacaranda tree, the last of the sun on its tops. ‘I s’pose I’ve just been too busy…’ Now with a sideways smirk, ‘Some of us actually have to work for decent marks, you know.’
‘Still,’ McCarthy clasped the handle of his case, ‘it all doesn’t matter for the moment, does it.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘Well, if we pass the interview thing…’
‘Do you think we will?’ put Quinn.
‘Probably… And if you do, well, do you bother enrolling for 4th Year?’
Quinn remained silent.
McCarthy stood, slinging the case over his shoulder. ‘I mean, what’s the point?’
* * *
Sure, he did fine academically – always had. Funny thing though, the girls just didn’t seem to go in for academic medal-winners; they went in for blokes who bolted down sidelines, palmed off the opposition full-back and scored beneath the posts. Yet Tim had never expected anything like the opportunity now before him: The Royal Australian Air Force took in the sports stars for pilot training, certainly. They also took in the academic medal-winners. Finally, here it was for old Tim McCarthy: for once in his life the chance to compete on an even footing with a bloke like Daniel Quinn.
Reaching Manning House, Tim unlocked his bicycle, strapped his case to the rack and, trousers tucked into his socks, clattered off down Manning Road. He coasted right down the middle of it, still smiling; the university campus seemed deserted.
* * *
To read more of Nor the Years Condemn (TO WAR), click HERE