Anzac Day

Published in the 2006 Random House young readers’ anthology, History: Hideous and Hilarious!

The summer we found the boat, Jake turned thirteen.

“Jake’s the head of the family now,” Mum announced.

Then she turned to me. “You have to do what he says.”

I couldn’t see how it made any difference. Jake had been bossing me around since the day I was born.

All the months while Dad was away at the war, and then later, when they said Dad wouldn’t ever come home, Jake was in charge: every morning, he ordered me to bring the cows into the shed; every night, he told me to blow out the lantern, as if I was a halfwit.

But then I found the boat. Someone had hidden it in a pile of scrub at one end of our beach. I pulled the branches away, and underneath was a beautiful, bright red dinghy.

I looked around. The only ship in the cove was One-Eye Pete’s, moored near the headland. But Pete had a dinghy painted glossy black like his ship. This wasn’t his boat. It didn’t belong to anyone. It was mine.

Until Jake found me there, and took over everything.

“You get up to the shed,” he said. “I’ll take care of the Mauretania.”

“How do you know what it’s called?”

“I just named her,” he said.

“It’s only ten feet long,” I argued. “You can’t name it after the biggest ship on earth.”

“She’s my boat now. I can call her anything I like.”

Jake looked like he’d belt me if I argued any more, so I just whispered to myself as we hid Mauretania in the boatshed.

“Bloody stupid name.”

Jake told Mum he’d found the boat washed ashore. He didn’t say that I’d discovered it first.

From then on, every day after we’d finished our farm work, we rowed around the cove, keeping well clear of One-Eye Pete’s black ship. Mum said Pete was a poor chap who needed peace and quiet. He might have tricked Mum and Jake, with his fresh crayfish and his homemade beer, but he couldn’t fool me. Pete rowed to our place every week to buy a can of milk. He had a jagged scar across his face and bit of a limp. He was obviously a spy.

“I don’t have to row,” Jake always said. “I’m the captain.”

So I rowed, until my arms ached and my back hurt and sweat splashed down into the saltwater sloshing around our bare feet. Jake sat in the prow and acted like Captain Cook discovering the island, or Hongi Heke in his waka.

That’s why one day, when Jake was in the shed, and Mum was drinking tea in the kitchen with One-Eye Pete, I crept down to the beach and slipped Mauretania into the water. Just once, I could be captain.

I headed straight across the cove towards the spy ship.

I tied up the Mauretania out of sight of our house, and climbed a rope onto the ship. Two cats lay on a hatch, asleep in the sun. On the deck, the frame of a half-built dinghy stretched between two sawhorses. At the stern, a telescope on a tripod pointed out to sea, towards the shipping lanes.

A spy telescope.

I tip-toed to a door that led below, and put out one hand to push it open.

Someone grabbed me from behind.

“Let go!” I shouted.

“What are you doing poking around?”

Pete’s face was red with anger – or maybe from rowing fast across the cove to catch me.

“Spy!”

I yelled it right into his face like an insult.

He nearly laughed his head off.

“I’ll report you,” I said.

“Who to?” he asked. “Your big scary brother?”

He patted my shoulder.

“Nobody employs one-eyed spies,” he said. “But if I was a spy, you could be my partner in crime.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I have to do the milking.”

He grinned. His scar was pretty shocking up close, but his smile almost made up for it.

“Let’s have afternoon tea instead.” He pulled one of Mum’s fruit cakes out of his satchel, and sat down on the hatch with the cats.

I didn’t know what to do except sit down next to him and have a piece of cake.

“I knew your dad,” he said after we’d had three slices each. “When we were lads.”

My mouth was full so I just nodded.

“Next time I saw him was on the beach at Gallipoli.”

I looked up, straight into his scarred face. My stomach and my heart banged together, but Pete didn’t notice.

“It was late in the day, I remember,” he said. “There was a Turkish machine gun on the cliffs, spraying the beach with bullets.”

He stopped talking long enough to light a pipe.

“I chucked myself behind a sand dune – there were lots of fellas there already. One of them was your dad. ‘Pete,’ he said to me, ‘what fool let you in the army?’ Cheeky bugger.”

I blinked a bit at that. I could imagine Dad’s grin, the way the skin wrinkled around his eyes, the muscles in his brown arms.

“We’d have stayed safe till dark, if we could,” Pete went on. “But we heard fellas shouting, wounded on the beach. ‘Up and at ’em’, says your dad, and so off we went. He was shot not long after.”

Pete paused. “So was I.”

We sat silently for a while. Gulls screeched and circled and fought over a bait bucket.

“I didn’t know he was shot,” I said.

“Didn’t your Mum tell you?”

“She just said he wasn’t coming home.”

“Sorry, lad,” said Pete. “But I reckon he’d want you to know.”

I stood up. Suddenly I felt I had to get home, fast.

“See you,” I said, and jumped into my boat before he could say anything else.

I rowed harder and faster than I’d ever done before, and the Mauretania cut though the water, leaving a milky wake behind that led all the way back to the ship where Pete stood watching.

Then I stopped.

So that’s why Pete was here, moored in our cove in his lonely black ship. That’s why he brought crayfish for Mum. That’s why he’d built a boat just big enough for two boys, and hid it on our beach – because that’s what Dad would have done.

I waved.

Pete waved back.

Jake was waiting grumpily on our beach.

“She’s not called Mauretania any more,” I announced. “Her name is Anzac.”

 

 

 

Header photo: Onetangi, Waiheke Isand 2006

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