I can see everything from here. Every boat, every fish. I watch the mullet boats sail out the Heads in the early mornings, before it’s properly light. They come back, old and heavy, in the dusk.
There are long white passenger liners, big as islands, covered with smoke and flags and full of people waving to nobody. There’s nobody on these cliffs but me, and I’m not waving.
The whales swim north every June. At first just one or two, but then dozens – hundreds, even, in a day. I watch them all. I don’t know where they go. Queensland, I suppose, for the warmth. Like my cousin Mildred.
There weren’t so many whales a few years ago, but they’ve come back. I’ve got field glasses. I can watch them even when they’re way out to sea.
Lately there have been warships in and out every week – great grey beasts stinking of oil and nitrate. Submarines steaming in with water dripping off them. Enormous ships big enough to carry planes on the deck. I’ve never seen the like. Not here, anyway. There’s hospital ships and little patrol boats and every kind of vessel you can imagine. I watch them, and I write it all down. Just this afternoon – I’ll just check my notes, here you go – the hospital ship Oranje went out the Heads at 1600 hours. She’s a beauty. Lovely lines. Used to be a liner, you know, until they took her for the war effort and painted red crosses on the funnel. I’ve seen her before. I watched the Cobargo come in at 1717, Erinna half an hour later. After that it was too dark to see. But I take notes – all the ships, all the whales. Everything.
There’s a war on, you know. Another war.
Someone down in town told me once that Singapore had fallen. I tell them not to listen to that rubbish. Government broadcasts. Propaganda. I hear it on my wireless. They want us to worry; they want us to be scared. Then they can come around and take our motor cars away. Not that I’ve got one. But they’re even after our saucepans and tins now. They collect them to make airplanes. Or that’s what they say. Funny old planes they’d be, made of stuck together frypans.
I’ve buried mine. They won’t find it. Bloody Bob Menzies won’t get his hands on my frypan. No, sir.
It’s bad enough you have to carry papers with you everywhere or they’ll shoot you. On the spot. They don’t admit it, but I know. There was a man in Bondi who forgot his papers one day and his family never saw him again. That’s not the sort of thing you read in the Herald. But still, it happened. Mark my word. And ration books are just as bad. Now they even know what you’re eating.
Not me. I buy everything from a chap down near Manly pier. Cash. No questions. I don’t need much anyway. A few spuds, a bit of flour and salt, a lump of bacon now and then. There are rabbits up top and plenty of fish down below. Oysters and crabs. I live like a king. In a castle.
They don’t even know I’m here.
There are dozens of caves in the cliffs. No reason for them to go poking about. You can hardly see mine, I reckon, from the water, and it’s invisible from up top.
They brought me here in ’33, to build a wall. Special project, it was. They just dreamed stuff up in those days to keep us occupied. Unemployment Relief, they called it. First we built a road in – scenic, they called it, which is another word for bloody awful. All made by hand, then, by pick and shovel and aching backs and spilt fingers and sunburned shoulders. Old diggers digging, we were. You carve out the solid rock, then hump a layer of gravel up the hill and roll it back down, over and over, until you get a road. We lived in tents, which were better than the trenches at least, and there was plenty to eat. Well … enough. That’s when we found the caves in the cliffs – some of the blokes used to stash beer down there.
We had to split and carry the spare rocks, lay a long wall and build a fancy arch to make it into a sort of park. It’s only ti-trees and cliffs. Not much of a park, if you ask me.
They all left, but I kept digging. Nowhere else to go.
I came down here on Christmas Eve, I remember. The cave floor was covered in cigarette stubs and broken bottles. Took days to clear it up. I just chucked all the rubbish off the cliff. Brought my bedding, the tent, and a few empty crates to store stuff. Not that I had much. Lugged some rocks down to cover part of the entrance, and rigged up a door off a wrecked shed out near the Quarantine Station. Nicely set-up now, it is. Water’s the main problem. And now there’s a war on, I have to sneak in and out at night when I need to go in to town. In case they think I’m a spy or something. Because it’s all hush-hush up here now, all very secret.
Almost as soon as we finished that scenic road, they sealed it off. I reckon they always meant to. They only pretended it would be a park to keep the punters happy, to talk us into working on their special project. Then when the road was finished and they had their pretty arch they shut it down. They installed the guns a few years later. Nine-inch guns – huge buggers. Couldn’t work out what the hell they were for, the first few years. But I guess they knew. There’s some that’d say they planned the whole thing. The war and everything. They certainly got those guns ready in plenty of time.
I hate it when they practice. The rock shudders and cracks at every concussion, and little streams of sand pour down onto my bed, my hair, my dinner – everywhere. The first time it happened, I was sitting at my table looking out to sea and I heard the shell fly, just like Amiens, right over my head. I forget where I am, sometimes. I think war’s been declared all over again.
Well, it has now.
I was knackered when we came back from France. We all were, pretty much. I came back earlier than some of the others, before the shooting had finished. They sent me home. Stupid, really. There wasn’t anything here. Went out shooting rabbits and roos on the plains for a while but that’s a hard way to make a quid.
It was easier in the bush. People in the city were a bit odd, at first. They’d stop me on the street and ask me why I wasn’t in the forces. You know, they gave you a badge so people could tell you’ve been on active service, but I was buggered if I was going to wear one of their badges. Shouldn’t have to explain, should you? Nobody’s business, anyway.
One night in the Cross a couple of fellows followed me, called me a conchie. They’d had a few, and who could blame them? Big heroes, they were. Big talkers. All in uniform, never been further than Circular Quay. Beat the living daylights out of me around the back of the park. Nobody came to help. They didn’t care if a conchie got clobbered. I woke up in jail with a broken nose and a sore head, and didn’t come back to the city for years after that.
Tried shearing but I wasn’t any good. The sheep always seemed to get the better of me. I had a factory job once, out west, and worked for the council on the rubbish rounds. Worse than the army, that was. But I’ll do any work that’s going. Maybe not the night-soil, but anything else.
It’s easier now. With all the young fellows away again, the women need a man around the house, just to help out: clearing the gutters, mowing the lawn, building a few shelves here and there. Sometimes they give you a shilling or two, sometimes they feed you. Either way, it’s all right with me. Sometimes the kids smile at you. Sometimes they laugh and run away. Mind you, sometimes the adults do, too. Still, a bloke does what he can. There’s a war on, you know.
I’ve done with wars. When they started this one, I thought – good luck to you. You go to it, lads. But leave me right out of it.
But it’s everywhere you look, this war. It’s close. Closer than the last one. They’ve got nets all around the harbour. They used to be for keeping sharks out, but now they’re for submarines.
I watch the nets. I watch the ocean.
That’s how I know.
Something’s there. Something’s moving under the water – like the whales. There’s a few of them. But they don’t move like whales, they don’t surface and blow. They’re big – too big to be sharks, even Great Whites, maybe even too big to be whales. I saw them.
I’ve kept out of their war so far. But then I saw those shadows in the water, and that hospital ship steaming out the heads. Who’ll protect her, eh? There’s no convoy, nothing. She’s out there, all by herself, in the dark with those shadows. The only protection she’s got is that red cross. That’s all.
I came home on the Karoola, myself. Years ago now. We lived like heroes on that ship, all of us. Pretty nurses and plenty of tucker and sunshine: a sing-along in the evening, for those that could still sing. Safe and sound, we were. At last. I was right as rain by the time we got back to Sydney. Only place that ever felt like home, that ship.
That’s why I’m here, talking to you. You think I jumped the perimeter fence, over all that wire and carry-on, dodged the guards and then banged on the bloomin’ barracks door for a laugh?
No. I’ve been here all the time. Watching. I saw the plane yesterday. Flying low. Half of Sydney saw it. Don’t pretend otherwise. We’re not stupid. It’s not the first Jap plane, I know. But that was a bi-plane, just like the old ones we had in France. You don’t see them much now. It’s too small to have flown here from up north. So where do you think it came from, eh? Out there. That’s where. Out to sea.
You can’t see them now, the shadows. The water’s too choppy. Wind’s come up. But they’re there. If they’re not your submarines they must be some other bugger’s. I only came up here tonight because – well, you should tell them. Tell someone. Send a message. Shoot the bloody things.
You’re staring at me as if I’m crazy. No worries. I’m used to that. I know I look it.
But I’m telling you there are shadows out there, five of them, bigger than whales, lying in the water, watching Sydney Harbour.
Header photo: Cliffs from the air, Australia, 2009