It was winter. Soon the dawn would change the light from black to a soft gray. John increased his pace as the frost soaked through his boots. He stopped momentarily as a few brave magpies began to break the silence with their cries. The sounds reminded him of a stream flowing across smooth pebbles. He walked on with the empty milk pans knocking against his legs. His hands numb, his breath heavy.
Since he was nine John had helped his father on the farm and the constant physical labour made his strong, tall physique clash with his young, innocent face. He barely noticed the thin mist that settled around him. He thought about his father and how quiet he was in his work. He would often go about the farm in silence. When John worked with him they barely spoke to each other. But he was not unkind. He would often smile and nod while John worked and when he was younger his father would call him Johnny. He remembered how his father would lift him high in his arms and how he would let John sit on the back of the plough to give it more weight. John would look up at his father's back admiring his strength and concentration. But that was when he was a boy. John would be eighteen this year and he knew that meant that now he would be behind the plough. He stopped for a moment and looked about the farm. A sluggish weight swept over him. He let go of the milk pans. They hit the ground with a loud metallic clang and rolled a short distance from him. He put his hands to his face and kept his eyes closed for a few minutes. Then John clenched his fists a few times to try and get some circulation back into his hands. He opened his eyes slowly. The morning light had now settled across the farm and he looked toward the horizon where the sun rose. It shone weakly and gave no warmth.
John didn't notice the smell of manure and damp hay from the cowshed any more. He smiled to himself as he recalled how his mother had taken his as a boy to show him how to milk the cows. He had gagged and nearly thrown up his breakfast. But all that seemed such a long time ago. He calmed the cows by speaking softly. He told them they had nothing to complain about as everything was taken care of for them. As he milked he smiled and illustrated how their existence was as carefree as the Queen of England. Why even their manure was cleaned away for them. They were like royalty and he was their slave.
He stopped and repeated it. "I am your slave." He shivered slightly and then picked up the full milk pans. He carefully shuffled back toward the house like he had so many times before.
There was a dull ache in his arms by the time he reached the house. He walked toward a tin basin that stood on a bench outside the back door where he would clean himself. He placed the milk pans to the side cautiously. He took off his boots. Then he pried the lump of soap from the bottom of the basin where it was stuck fast. The soap felt coarse in his hands. His mother had put a bucket of clean water near the basin while he had been milking. A thin layer of ice had formed over the water and he broke it quickly with the soap. Eventually he was able to get some lather from the soap to clean himself with. His fingers were blue. He scrubbed his hands and arms thoroughly. Then he bent over the bucket and swiftly scooped the remaining water up over his face. He cursed the icy water as he shivered. Then John picked up the milk pans and walked into the kitchen where his mother was cooking bacon and eggs. The smell of the bacon and the sound of the grease spitting made his stomach ache. She smiled slightly as he approached her. John put down the pans and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Get changed and then come and have some breakfast.”
John nodded and walked to his bedroom. He put on a clean change of clothes and took the soaked jumper and pants out to the laundry. He dumped them in a bucket and walked back to the kitchen. John sat down at the kitchen table and devoured the two eggs and several strips of bacon. He looked about the kitchen. The only other piece of furniture in the room was a cupboard his father had made by hand. He stood up and wandered about the room. He looked the cupboard up and down and then walked back to his seat. He picked up his plate and the cutlery clattered to the floor. His hands were shaking.
“Are you OK John?” His mother asked.
“Yes...just a bit restless...that's all...”
John was distracted and smiled as his twin brothers came running into the room. They were eight years old and full of energy. His parents had been married when his father was twenty two and his mother twenty years old. John had been born a year later. They had another child, a girl, who died at birth. His parents had told him he would soon have a baby brother or sister when his mother was close to giving birth. Then they stopped talking about it. He kept pestering his parents about the baby. They would turn away and try and distract him by talking about something else. He only realised later how hard it was for them. He remembered crying at night and praying that the baby would come back. Eventually he stopped asking his parents about it. But then the twins were born and his prayers were answered.
The twins sat at the table and began arguing over who would catch the most rabbits. It was only the second time John had taken them to check the rabbit traps and he couldn't help smiling at their excitement. His mother was also smiling but with her back turned so they couldn't see. John looked at them. They were the same in so many ways but he knew them well and could tell them apart quite easily. Even the way they ate showed up their different personalities. Joshua ate slowly and neatly while James devoured his food like it was the last meal he would ever have.
“Maybe I'll catch more rabbits than both of you.” John said.
They both turned to him.
“You always catch the most rabbits.” James said with a mouthful of food.
“Who do you think will catch more? Me or James?” Joshua asked.
“Well we will just have to wait and see...” John answered smiling.
“Now boys eat all your breakfast otherwise neither of you will be checking who has caught the most rabbits,” their mother interjected.
The boys finished their meals. Then they looked at their mother impatiently.
Their mother looked back at them with a wry smile deliberately prolonging their impatience.
“All right. Off you go then boys. Be careful John I don't want them to come back with missing fingers.” She said.
“Don't worry mother we'll be careful.” John replied.
The three of them left the house together. The rain had stopped but the sky was covered with clouds. It looked like it could rain again at any moment. The twins ran ahead and then waited for John to catch up. They walked past the dam which was almost full. The brown, black water lapped at the sides of the muddy bank. There was a breeze with a chilled edge to it. They only had a short distance to go. They reached a cluster of trees where the rabbit warren was located. Joshua and James began to run about checking the traps to see if they had caught anything. They came back with seven dead rabbits. Joshua had four and James had three.
“I win...I've got more.” Joshua shouted.
“Yeah but...” James replied.
“I think it's a draw since James' rabbits are bigger.” John said.
“Oh that's not fair.” Joshua mumbled.
“Well that's the way it is. Now come on let's get back before it starts pouring.” John said.
Then John stopped. He heard a high pitched squealing sound coming from near the trees. He knew what it was and what it meant and he stood for a moment thinking whether the boys should see what he would have to do. If the boys followed that was their choice. After all they couldn't stay wrapped in cotton wool forever. He walked directly toward the noise and the twins followed silently behind him. It took only a few moments to find the rabbit that had been badly injured in the trap. Two crows took flight to the nearest tree. They had been picking at the rabbit and had ripped open the fur and pecked out one of the rabbit's eyes. There were bloody gashes around its face and stomach. It trembled and screamed in fear and pain trying to get free of the trap that had crushed its lower legs. John glanced at the boys who looked pale. Without saying a word John reached down an twisted the rabbits neck sharply. There was a snapping, popping sound and the rabbit lay silent. He brushed the blood off his hands on the grass. Joshua had his hand to his mouth and James was nearly in tears. They stared at the dead rabbit and then John broke the silence.
“Now you know what those rabbits go through sometimes. Remember it. This isn't a game boys.”
Joshua and James nodded silently.
Joshua looked at John and said, “We had to kill it didn't we?”
“Yes I couldn't leave it there to suffer like that.” John replied.
“I feel sick.” James said quietly.
“Come on...we better get back.” John said.
The twins trailed behind John as they made their way back to the house. John arrived at the kitchen first and his mother noticed the concerned look on his face.
“What is it John?” His mother asked.
“I had to break a rabbit's neck and the boys saw it.”
“Oh John...Did you have to do it?”
“There was no other way...It was in terrible pain.”
“Here they come now...Look at them...poor boys...well...they probably won't be able to talk about anything else for the next week...Oh I nearly forgot your father wants you to pick up the paper. You might want to wait for the weather to clear.” His mother said quietly.
John shrugged in response and started to walk toward the neighbouring farm. His family shared the cost of the weekend newspaper with them. He wanted to erase the memory of the morning's events and he hadn't seen his best mate Garry for a while. John had known Garry and his parents since he was a boy and they visited each other regularly. Everyone had been eager to find out the latest news about the war. They were enlisting troops and Garry had been talking about joining up.
John found Garry in their usual meeting place. It was a shed near the boundary fence between the two farms. The shed was no longer used for anything and was propped up with rotting wood and the roof was partially caved in. Garry was seated on a large wooden crate turned upside down and he hadn't noticed John enter the shed. He was smoking a cigarette and mouthing the words of the article he was reading. He kept mumbling to himself and his hands shook slightly as he read. Garry was about the same height as John but he was heavier and broader across the shoulders. John cleared his throat loudly and Garry turned sharply, dropped the paper, and hid the cigarette he had been smoking behind his back.
“Don't sneak up on me like that Johnny. For a minute I thought you were my dad. You know they don't like me smoking. God knows why though...”
“Sorry I thought you heard me.” John said smiling.
“I've been reading the paper. Take a look at this.”
John took the paper and he saw a poster that filled an entire page. It had a picture of soldiers marching and other men looking on from a crowd and across the top of the poster it said: "Come into the ranks and fight for your country - Don't stay in the crowd and stare." It seemed so obvious that he couldn't help but smile and laugh. This was it. He would join up and get a free ticket to see the world. He would leave the farm a boy and come back a man who was part of something great and worthwhile. He folded up the paper and put in under his arm. Garry had been watching him and was grinning.
"So you and me. Will we join up together? I've heard they're recruiting on Sunday and that means we can join up tomorrow."
"Yes...But what about our age? How are we going to get in?"
"Don't worry I'll get hold of the paperwork and you'll just have to copy your Dad's signature. This is it Johnny boy...this is it..."
As Garry emphasised his point he dropped his cigarette. He quickly stamped it out and rolled another one. His hands were still shaking with nervous energy. John felt elated at this chance to get off the farm. John had a quick smoke with Garry and then began to walk back towards the house. As he walked he decided he would tell his father his plans. Even though he knew they would be upset he needed to be honest with them. Surely they would see how important it would be for him to sign up.
When John got back his mother told him that his father needed his help with finishing off the fencing job. John kept quiet about his decision. He decided he would let his father know his plans when they had finished the job. It was late in the afternoon and John and his father were cross-sawing some wood for the fencing. Sawdust flew up in their faces. The sweat made the dust stick to their faces and hands. They had to be careful with this job as they were sawing the straining post. This had to be the strongest and deepest post to take the strain of the fence. Luckily the rain had stopped again but the wind had a chilled edge to it. John summoned his courage.
"Dad...what do you think about this war?"
To his surprise his father straightened up slowly, and looked John in the eye as if he already knew what his son was getting at.
"I don't think it matters what I tell you. You already want to piss off overseas and get your head blow off," said his father spitting into the dirt, to clear his throat and add emphasis to what he was saying.
John looked away. He had not expected such a strong reaction. He had never hear his father swear before and he could sense his father's anger building. He felt embarrassed and then gritted his teeth. He did not want to give in. John turned back and looked straight into his father's eyes.
"Well...I think it's a great opportunity. I could end up in Europe and it's only chance I'll get to really be part of something...", John replied.
"You do what you want. If you want to know about war ask your Uncle Joseph. You know he was in the Boer war. He was the same age as you when he signed up."
John knew that his uncle was an alcoholic and that he was rarely spoken about by John's parents. Every couple of years he would turn up at the farm drunk and ask for money. His father would give him what they could spare, which wasn't much. The last time he came he complained about the arthritis in his leg and how it was getting hard to find work. He had been shot in the leg in the Boer war. John knew all this and yet it only strengthened his decision to enlist. His Uncle's life and his decisions were unfortunate but John knew he could do better. Just before John could reply his father walked away from him. John was left alone. He began to pick up the tools and carried them back to the shed in a wheelbarrow. He put them back in their places and then wandered about the farm. He walked aimlessly until it was almost dark and then he returned to the house.
That night there was hardly any talk between John and his parents as they had their evening meal. John knew that his father had let his mother know about their conversation. The silence between John and his parents continued as John and his father began to heat the water in the copper tub so that each member of the family would be able take a bath to be clean for church the next day. The twins would be first and then John and then his parents. They had to be careful to make sure the water didn't get too hot. John and his father couldn't look each other in the eye and eventually his father spoke.
"Let me know when the water is ready."
"OK." John replied.
Then he left John to watch the water and keep the fire going. Eventually the water was hot enough. John called out to his father and then they carried buckets of hot water from the copper tub in the laundry and poured them into the tin bath in the kitchen. John's mother was standing near the doorway with the twins beside her and she had one hand on each of their shoulders to make sure the children didn't get in the way. When John and his father had finished they were both sweating. Once the twins had their bath John's parents left the room to give him some privacy. John squatted in the tin bath and washed himself quickly. The water was still warm but it had a grimy feel to it. He got out and dried himself and as he walked to his room he called out to his parent's to let them know that he was finished. When he got to his room he lay down on the bed and fell asleep instantly.
It was Sunday. This was always a day of rushed activity as they prepared to get ready for Church. They all had to wear their best clothes which were reserved for Sundays and funerals. After they had dashed about making themselves immaculately clean, they took the buggy into town. The twins and his mother sat inside the buggy. John and his father sat behind the horses. His father looked straight ahead as if John wasn't there. Usually he would be whistling or talking to John about the week ahead. It was one of the few time his father would relax and take a day off from the farm work.
It took over half an hour to get to the church. When they entered the church yard they let the horses graze in a nearby field and pushed the buggy next to the many others that were standing side by side. They were running slightly late and the twins ran toward the church hall for Sunday School. John and his parents went into the church together. His mother sat on the left side of the church with the women and John and his father sat on the right side with the men. John saw Garry a few pews ahead and he winked at John. John smiled. He couldn't wait to hear what news Garry had.
John sang the hymns with gusto. Pastor Schultz prayed at length after his sermon for "Young men to have courage and take up this righteous fight to protect little Belgium and preserve the British empire," John concentrated intently, not wanting to miss a word. The last hymn was Onward Christian Soldiers. John felt more determined than ever to enlist.
When the service finished everyone gathered in the church hall and broke into groups. Everyone was talking about the war and what a moving service it had been. John looked at his father to see if he had changed his mind. His father looked white with anger and strode up to the pastor. John wanted to stop him but it was too late.
"What do you think you're playing at?" His father asked.
"Sorry Henry but what do you mean?" The pastor replied looking confused.
"You! A religious man encouraging blood-shed!" He shouted it so loudly that everyone stopped talking and looked across to see what was going on.
"Well I was just trying to..."
"Can't you see what you're doing? You should be ashamed putting ideas in these young boy's heads. Do you know what war is? What it does to people?" Then John's father strode out of the hall toward the buggy and shouted over his shoulder: "Get the horses ready John and hurry up the rest of you..."
There was nothing John could do but follow him and help him set up the buggy for the long, silent trip home.
That day when they all sat down for their Sunday lunch John's father said grace. The twins began to eat. But then they stopped and everyone looked at the head of the table. Their father had his head in his hands and sighed. When he looked up his eyes were bloodshot and they could see he was holding back tears. His looked worn out and emotionally drained.
John shifted in his chair uncomfortably and looked at his father and then his mother.
"I was thinking that I might join up..." The end of his sentence dissolved into a whisper as his mother cut him off.
"Children go to your rooms. John you stay here."
When it was just the three of them in the room his parents stared at him with a mixture of grief and confusion.
Eventually his mother began speaking. "Why? Why would you even consider enlisting? You're only seventeen and there's no way we are going to sign the paperwork." Her face was twisted into a grimace.
"There's no way you're going and that's final." His father said.
John sat impassively through their pleading and the more they protested the more stubborn he became. He got up and said, "I need to think about it," and walked out of the room.
John walked aimlessly around the farm and eventually made his way across to see if Garry was at their usual meeting spot. Garry greeted him with a shout as John entered the shed. He came running up to John.
"The army has set up a special booth for enlistment in town. I went and saw the officer and he gave me the paperwork we need. I bet they don't even check it. Just scribble your dad's name on it."
John's hand trembled slightly as he signed the form. They decided to wait until it was dark before they went into town so that their parents wouldn't be able to find them. As they waited they smoked nearly all of Garry's tobacco. They talked about how they would soon be training and then be sent overseas to fight. When night fell they walked to the stables and silently took the buggy and horse belonging to Garry's parents.
Once they got into town they stopped next to the recruitment tent. It had posters on the outside. As John got down from the buggy he wandered over to take a look at the posters. One of them caught his attention. The picture on the poster was of a young man who had won the Victoria Cross. He was thin and wiry and held a gun with a fixed bayonet. There were other men in the background. Some were rugby players and some were cricket players but the one that John focused on was the hunter with a gun and a dog. He saw himself in that poster. He wanted to wear the same uniform as the soldier. He wanted to use his skills from hunting on the farm to be put to use for a great cause, a great adventure. The letters below the picture were in red. John read them aloud: "Enlist in the Sportsmen's Thousand...Join together...Train together...Embark together...Fight together...Show the enemy what Australian sporting men can do." He had made up his mind. He walked through the entrance of the tent and for a moment he was enveloped in darkness as his eyes adjusted to the shadows that flickered inside the tent. The officer in charge was lighting a lantern that kept going out. John was silent as he approached the officer. John handed the officer his forged permission slip and the officer took it without even checking it. He could not quite make out the officer's face as John's eyes seemed blurry all of a sudden. He signed the paper and walked out of the tent proudly looking up into the night sky. But there were no stars only the pitch black night.