Stringy Bark Short Story Competition for Australian Writers

Aug 7 2011

Accolades for Elsie this week when she received an honourable mention in this years Stringybark Short Story Competition. Her story was entitled 'At the End of the Day'.
Originally she wrote this piece as an epilogue for the novel she is at present working on entitled, 'Ma's Garden', but it didn't work in with the way the story panned out.
It is based on truth, but has strayed somewhat in the telling. Graeme's grand mother, Ma Johnstone did have three brothers killed in three months in the first world war.
Have a read and see what you think.

At the End of the Day
Elsie Johnstone

Ethel is an old woman, ready to die, wanting to die, waiting to die. She will meet death and welcome it because she has finished living her life. She lies in the hospital bed, not because there is anything wrong with her; she is here because there is no living person who cares enough or is able to look after her. She is like an old clock, slowly, slowly winding down until there is no more tick left in her. Now there is just Ethel and she lies listening to the cries of anguish and regret from her fellow patients in this ‘old age’ ward, at the far wing of the country hospital.
‘Please help me, please help me! I need help,’ a voice in another ward implores. No one comes. The nurses are too busy with the patients who can be made better and sent home.
There is a howl of anguish from the men’s ward. ‘He gets the night horrors,’ explains the older nurse as she fusses about this man, hushing him and adjusting pillows, ‘he thinks he’s still fighting the Japs in the Pacific. He was a prisoner of war on the Burma Railway, you know. Poor man, it follows him and haunts him in the night. You get some sleep and don’t worry about the poor soul. I’ll get him some warm milk.’
She hurries away, only to get waylaid at another task and it may be an hour or two before she returns.
Annie, Ethel’s octogenarian friend in this two-bed ward, sobs quietly to herself.
‘Are you all right Annie?’ says Ethel. ‘Can I do something for you? Do you want me to get the nurse?’
Ethel knows her time has come and that she will die soon; now it is time to reflect on her life and to prepare to be no more.
What comes next? She is not sure. Age has taught her that there are no certainties; amazing, unpredictable things happen for no apparent reason; judgements prove to be flawed and not everything is as it seems or as we were told.
When she was young she was certain that death would be followed by life ever after. That her body would return to the earth and her soul would soar high into the heavens to be re-united with her husband, Christie, as well as her dear mother, her strict father, and her three darling, grown up sons who all died within three months of each other, on foreign shores, fighting for God and Empire.
What waste! What tragedy! What dark times for a mother who implored them not to go, to stay and fulfil their destiny – marry a wife, have a family, work, love and live.
She remembers the total blackness and despair that first time as she watched the young telegram boy lean his bicycle against the front fence, open the wrought iron gate and walk up the path to the front door. It was autumn and the wind was swirling the fallen leaves, leaving them scattered. The last of the roses scented the air. Winter was about to descend but, for now, it was one of those glorious brisk days where the sun shines deceptively pretending to be warm but the air is chilly.
It was ten o’clock in the morning and she was in the bedroom, dusting and cleaning.
‘As soon as I finish here I shall sweep those leaves,’ she thought as she opened the window wide. Then she saw him and, instinctively knowing what that meant, her legs turned to jelly and time stopped still. She knew something had happened to one of her boys. She answered the doorbell but after that, all was a blur.
Christie found her sitting on the cane seat on the front veranda, telegram in hand, hunched over and sobbing; deep, deep sobs that consumed her whole being. The boy who had delivered the news had been frightened by her reaction. He had found Christie in the office next to the house, where he was compiling and printing the local newspaper. He had come immediately. Their youngest son, William, was now lying dead in some distant land where they didn’t even speak his language. Ethel’s baby, only eighteen years old!
Dark, dark day followed dark day.
When the telegram came to tell them that Jack was missing in action, presumed dead, she was working in the garden. Winter was leaving them and the Lilies of the Valley were popping their heads out of the soil to announce that news. The air was full of their heady aroma as she prepared the kitchen garden for spring plantings. There was much to be done because, in her grieving for William, she had neglected it. She knew that she had to pull herself from her despair and return to living. Her garden would help her. As she toiled she grieved and the toiling helped the grieving; it tired her, so she slept.
This time the boy delivered the telegram of death next door, to Christie’s office. She knew immediately when she saw her husband’s face that day that something was wrong. Her legs went from under her and she sat on the ground crushing the Lily of the Valley, releasing their perfume. ‘Please don’t say anything! Please, Chris, please, please!’ she implored. But, to no avail. There was no changing it, their eldest son, Jack was missing, presumed dead. At least this time there was some hope. The gunboat he was aboard had disappeared off the face of the earth. Together they clung desperately to the hope that he had escaped in a lifeboat or had swum ashore and somehow survived. Every Wednesday, she would take a photograph of Jack and catch the train to the city.
‘Do you know this man?’ she would ask of anyone who would stop. ‘Have you seen my son? He was missing in action and he may have lost his memory.’
She would seek solace in the churches; she didn’t care which denomination, she would ask the pastor to pray for her and her son so that he would be found and returned to them. She continued her search every week until three years after the war to end all wars finished.
‘You must stop torturing yourself, Etty,’ Christie counselled, ‘this does no good. Jack is dead. No amount of wishing or praying will bring him back to us. He has died honourably, fighting for his country. You must move on; you must learn to live again.’
Jack’s body was never found.
They rejoiced when the war ended and their remaining son, Jim had survived. He was injured in France but was alive and recuperating in a small private hospital run by two middle aged sisters in Oxford, England. Then cruellest blow of all - the Spanish Flu virus that swept the world in 1919, just after the fighting had finished, took him unexpectedly. Jim never came back.
That dreadful war robbed Ethel of her three boys, her youth, her optimism and her future. She never felt truly light hearted again.
Men and women are different and deal with the challenges that life flings in different ways. Ethel died with her sons, and could see nothing to look forward to – she would never be the mother of men; she would never have grandchildren. How she hated the war and what it had done. There was nothing noble about the nation’s children scared and dying in a foreign land, far from home.
Christie’s heart was broken too, but he was proud that his sons had died for God and country and took comfort in the fact that his boys had done a noble thing. He accepted the admiration of his business colleagues and the townspeople, because his pain and loss, in their eyes, made him a better man. He was the father of heroes and so he walked the streets, sad but proudly proud.
‘Please accept my condolences, Chris,’ one or another of the townsmen would whisper, shaking his hand, ‘such fine young men, so young and handsome and strong, so much promise. Your loss is our loss. To die fighting for one’s country is a truly noble thing to do.’
Kind, but empty words.
Anzac Days that followed were unbearable. Chris would go off early to the Dawn Service, proud that his sons were named on the memorial stone, proud of them and what they had done. Ethel could barely get out of bed so great was her sadness and her loss.
He internalised his sorrow and used it to make himself stronger while she was a broken woman. Life continued without her. Losing her sons had changed her. After that it all seemed so futile.
‘Is it possible that I have lived on for thirty more years?’ she reflects as dawn creeps in under the blind, ‘if I had died then, I really wouldn’t have missed out on much.’