Listen to the Scottish tune 'Flowers of the Forest'

"The Soldier"

by Eric Carwardine

She folded the tissue-paper around the cane, and gently lowered it into its drawer. She wished she hadn't washed the cane. It was the last thing he had touched in their room. For milliseconds of time it had connected their two bodies. Now his molecules and hers were lost in some watery universe, unable to find each other. He would never hold the cane again.

Before the service she had wondered if it would be like Eric Bogle's song. Would the rifles fire o'er him? Would the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest? The Australian flag had covered his casket. Would he have chosen the Eureka flag? He always said that Australia produced two great flags - the Eureka flag and the Aboriginal flag. That great flags were not born in newspaper competitions. Like great nations, they grew from strife and struggle. He was always slightly amused at the idea of Australia voting to become a republic. Can you imagine the English or the Americans or the French voting to form theirs, he would ask. You respect things won in armed conflict, he would explain gently. Remember the Duke of Wellington, at Waterloo? 'Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.'

She disagreed strongly with almost everything he said. But he was never bellicose about it. He'd just say his piece quietly, and then look away if he upset you. In many ways, she could not understand why he had gone into the Army, so soon after leaving school. The only people he ever talked about were his old teachers. A career in a classroom seemed a natural thing for him to do. But he had chosen the Army instead.

The Army had been very good to her and the three children. They looked to the future, not at what had happened. She understood that. He had died far from home, doing something that other people thought should be kept secret. For now, all they would tell her was that something had gone wrong, but that it was not his fault. His brother was also in the Army. They had asked him to view the remains. He would understand what a dying rotor blade can do to a human body.

She would leave their room as it was, for the time-being. With the cane removed, its innocence was restored. On the table she would leave the two pictures, in their little frames. One was a scene from '55 Days at Peking', during the Boxer rebellion, showing Charlton Heston crouched behind a machine-gun. The other was of two boys, photographed from the rear, as they walked across a paddock. The taller boy had his arm around the shoulders of the other. Her husband would explain that the pictures were the two sides of humanity, and that a successful human being could hold both pictures in their hands. She disagreed, but wondered if that was what had kept him in the Army.

On the table behind the pictures was a compact-disc player, loaded with their favourite song. When the caning was over, she would hear Michael Crawford with 'Love Changes Everything.' When silence returned, he would be gone. That is how they agreed it should be, when he was going away. And in front of the pictures was her white hospital-gown, with tapes at the back. The only thing she wore to her canings.

They had bought a folding step-ladder for their room. In a sale at a sewing shop she had found a wide roll of red cloth. Three lengths machined together side-by-side were draped over the ladder, like a blood-red obelisk. She was a good deal shorter than him, so they had found a large square of thick chip-board. Raised on house-bricks under each corner, and covered with black fabric, it became the dais for her ordeal. When she was ready she would untie the tapes at the back of her gown and rest her hands on the ladder rungs, feeling for them through the red cloth.

She carefully closed the drawer. She had no idea if it would ever be opened again. On her way from the room she let her hand linger on the door knob. His hand had rested there ten days ago. A solitary molecule of his clung to her skin.

The End

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