To celebrate its 2014 concerts the Canberra International Music Festival requested a yarn featuring three unique venues:
Fitters’ Workshop + The High Court + Kingston Foreshore
Fred leaned against the stone wall and took a swig of water from his bottle. It tasted sandy.
Then again, everything lately was sandy. His clothes, his hair, even his food.
He swished the water around in his mouth, but even after swallowing it, he still felt thirsty. He was tempted to take another sip, but knew he shouldn’t get carried away drinking what little water he had left. He felt the bottle; it wasn’t as heavy as he would have liked; maybe enough to last till night fall, but not much beyond that. Not in this heat.
‘Psst,’ Jacobs whispered next to him.
Fred looked at him and nodded.
‘Can you hum me some more of that song?’
Fred smiled. Jacobs was one of the few boys in the unit who took an interest in his music. However, he wasn’t sure now was the time to be discussing it.
‘Oi, Private Jacobs, shut your trap,’ whispered Reynolds from further down the path.
‘Sorry sergeant,’ Jacobs replied sheepishly.
Fred stared down at his dust covered shoes; Miller, his Staff Sergeant back at Duntroon, would have been disgusted at their state. There was something different about the sand here; different to the sand at home. Maybe it was Fred’s imagination, but it seemed more orange, less of the bright yellow variety he remembered from Australian beaches. Still, they were a long way from the sea here.
Those Duntroon memories weren’t necessarily good ones. At first, the place had felt like a nightmare. His dreams of serving his country, achieving a career and seeing the world were in tatters.
And then he’d met Murray.
Fred was broken from his thoughts by another round of sporadic gun fire from above. Out of habit, he leaned closer to the stone wall he was crouching against, although he didn’t think the insurgents could hit him from their location. The unit had managed to seek cover in an alcove adjacent to some small buildings on the outskirts of town. From their current position, it seemed the insurgents could only hit the roof of the buildings, pinning Fred’s unit down, but unable to exact further casualties.
‘Corporal Kelly,’ Reynolds barked in a hoarse whisper as the machine gun fire dissipated.
‘Sir?’ Fred replied.
‘What is the status of the Afghan unit?’
Fred already knew the answer, but he turned to look into the road where the two units had been jointly patrolling when they had come under attack. There was no movement or sound coming from the bodies lying there.
‘They’re all down, Sir. I would say no survivors.’
I could have been with them, thought Fred.
If it hadn’t been for Murray. Again.
Reynolds sighed. Fred didn’t envy his position. As the ranking officer, he would have to figure out a way to extricate them from this position. Only a few minutes earlier, the village had seemed secure and safe. But the insurgents had been waiting for them on a hill, just outside of town.
What options was Reynolds contemplating, thought Fred. Making a dash back into town? That would expose them at some point to fire. Calling in air support? That would take time; perhaps too long.
As if on cue, a large groan came from further up the path.
‘How is Murray, sir?’ Fred asked. He had been avoiding the question. He hoped his voice didn’t portray the guilt he was feeling.
Williams answered, who was kneeling down, gently giving him some water.
‘Not good,’ he answered.
Reynolds looked down at Murray and then met Fred’s eyes.
‘Kelly, Murray likes your music doesn’t he?’
Fred wasn’t sure he was ready to look his friend in the eye.
Reynolds face screwed up in frustration.
‘This is no time to be humble Corporal. Does he or doesn’t he?’
Jacobs answered before Fred could reply.
‘He does sir, we all do.’
‘Then come over here and hum some more to him, Corporal.’
Fred collected his rifle and made his way down to Murray, shimming past his colleagues but being careful to keep as close to the stone wall and out of sight as he could. He had just knelt down next to him when another barrage of gun fire rang out, causing a rain of stone and dust to fall from the roof above them on to the road.
‘I wonder how long this building will last that fire,’ Williams commented.
‘Long enough,’ Reynolds responded.
Fred looked down at Murray. He wasn’t in a good way. Williams was applying pressure to a wound on his lower stomach, although his uniform was also stained on his right arm from what looked like fresh blood. Fred didn’t want to think about how Murray’s stomach wound looked under that pressure pack. Fresh blood was still seeping from around the gauze pad.
Now he was closer to him, he realised he was whimpering slightly with each breath and his eyes were closed.
Fred began to softly hum his most recent composition, recalling the notes and sheet music that was sitting back in his quarters at Tarinqot. It was his best yet. In fact, much better than anything else he’d written. He didn’t think he was capable of anything so good. He doubted he would ever do better.
Something about the sand and dust and death in this place had brought out the best in him.
The machine guns fell silent, and for a moment the only sound was his voice. He managed to do the whole thing, although he wasn’t sure he had done it justice. He would have preferred to have his piano.
‘What’s it called Fred?’ Jacobs asked.
There was a lull in conversation, as the men considered the title.
Fred smiled, despite their circumstances.
‘It’s alright guys, I don’t know what it means either. I took it from a festival I went to last year. Sort of inspired me to write that one.’
‘A festival – well, la-di-da,’ Williams scoffed.
‘Where was the festival, Fred?’ Jacobs asked, apparently unaware of Williams’ cynicism.
‘Canberra. I was back for some R and R, to see the family. Happened to be the same time as the International Music Festival.’
‘Is that where all the politicians get together on the top of Parliament House and sing?’ Williams asked. A few of the other men sniggered.
Fred looked at the blonde, burley Lance Corporal Williams and considered not answering. He wasn’t entirely comfortable speaking about this stuff with the lads, and he felt like so far his discussion was only for Jacobs’ benefit.
In many ways, Jacobs was the stereotypical private. Only just starting out on active duty, and still naive and ‘bushy tailed’. Still, he had dealt with the events of the day remarkably well, despite Fred noticing he was averting his eyes as much as possible from Murray’s body.
In contrast, Williams was probably the Australian public’s image of a solider; at least one from Queensland. Big, tanned and opinionated, Williams barely tolerated his superior officers, let alone his fellow soldiers.
Fred glanced down at Murray. He was his best friend in the unit; hell, his best friend in the world. Sure, Jacobs sort of idolised him, which was nice, but that was more in a little brother sort of way. He and Murray had gone through Duntroon together; and been inseparable. The large Murray looking out for the smaller, slightly odd music-loving Kelly. They had seen plenty of action since.
Looking at his wound, tightly closed eyes and pale complexion, Fred feared they wouldn’t see much more together. Then Murray surprised him by speaking.
‘Tell ‘em about the concerts, Freddy,’ he said through gritted teeth.
Fred smiled wryly.
‘I didn’t know you were eavesdropping mate.’
‘I’m still here,’ Murray replied in a hoarse whisper. ‘I reckon the Fitters’ Workshop one was my favourite.’
‘I think you saved me back there. If you hadn’t grabbed me, I would have been hit,’ he whispered.
‘Just looking out for you, buddy. You would have done the same for me,’ Murray replied.
But he hadn’t. That was the point. All this time together, and so many favours to repay.
‘Fitters’ workshop?’ Jacobs asked surprised, again interrupting Fred’s thoughts.
‘You went as well Murray?’ Williams said, a slight mocking tone to his voice.
‘Yeah, this International Festival used some pretty cool venues,’ Murray spoke up as loudly as his injuries would allow.
‘And the theme was good – centenary of the start of World War I and seventy-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War,’ Fred chimed in, suddenly wanting to talk about it, at least to support his wounded friend. ‘So they had a heap of music from ex-soldiers…like us I guess. You know, guys that composed something before fighting and dying in Gallipoli.’
Again, the group fell silent as they considered what Fred had said. At last Jacobs voiced what they were all thinking.
‘Do you think they’ll talk about this battle one day – you know, in the newspapers, or at some concert somewhere?’
‘Only if Kelly lives to write a song about it,’ Reynolds said. It was the first time he had spoken in a while, and Freddy guessed he had been tuned out, calculating their options.
Fred guessed there weren’t many.
‘So, what’s a fitters’ workshop?’ Jacobs asked. ‘Doesn’t sound like a place you play music.’
‘They did wartime piano works there, so I liked it. It was in this big old building from the early twentieth century just next to the Lake. It’s next to an old Powerhouse they’ve turned into a glassworks.’
‘That was a pretty cool venue, but I went to a couple of others that were good. There was this sunset event at the High Court, which is like the highest court in Australia. I thought it kinda neat just having a concert there. It was French and German stuff. That’s the stuff we’re fighting for yeah? So we can keep places like that, and maybe the Afghanis can have ‘em too?’
A couple in the group nodded, but Fred felt he should move on from such talk.
‘And then right on the lake foreshore in Kingston they did a big brass band-style concern, sponsored by the American Embassy.’
Fred suddenly became aware of how much enthusiasm had crept into his voice. He did love talking about this stuff, but he was worried he had embarrassed himself. But when he looked around the group, he saw most of the boys were smiling and nodding along with him.
And then he guiltily remembered Murray.
He glanced down at him, to find his eyes once again closed. It didn’t appear he was conscious.
Fred looked up at Reynolds
‘Sarge, we gotta make a decision here. Murray isn’t gonna make it.’
‘I’m fine,’ Murray grunted.
‘Shut up, you’re not,’ Fred continued. ‘That gunner isn’t going to let up unless we do something.’
It was time for Fred to repay his mate. Not just for today, but for all the days before. This was it. He’d finally written something decent; and now his mate lay dying in front of him. There was no avoiding it.
Fred stood up. He looked over at the exposed road, and estimated where the gunner was.
‘I’ll run across the square to the buildings on the other side, and you guys can retreat back the way we’ve come. I’ll draw the fire.’
He didn’t know he’d made his mind up to do it until the words came out of his mouth. But he meant it. He just hoped Reynolds would let him go before he changed his mind.
‘That’s nuts, you can’t do that,’ Jacobs interjected.
‘Seriously Kelly, that’s suicide,’ Williams added.
Reynolds met Fred’s eyes.
‘You serious, son?’
Fred met his Sergeant’s eyes, noting the wrinkled tan lines around them. He knew under his helmet and flap jacket, Reynolds had a full head of black hair and a decent physique. But Fred didn’t think he’d ever seen him look so old.
‘Yes sir.’ He replied.
‘Sarge, no, you can’t let him do it…’ Jacobs began.
‘Shut up Jacobs,’ Reynolds said, cutting him off. He stood and grabbed his back.
‘Williams, Jacobs, can you carry Murray?’
Williams nodded, but Jacobs was still staring at Reynolds.
‘I asked you a question Private,’ Reynolds said. ‘Answer me. Can you carry your mate?’
Jacobs looked at Fred and then back at Reynolds. For a moment, it looked like he might cry. Then he glanced at Murray, for the first time in the last hour. At last he nodded curtly, and walked over to help Williams.
‘You’re crazy, Freddy,’ Murray mumbled.
Fred leant down to whisper in his mate’s ear
‘I owed you about a hundred mate. See you back in Tarinqot. And Murray,’
‘Yeah,’ he grunted in reply.’
‘I’ve got a bunch of sheet music in my locker,’ Fred said, still whispering. ‘Can you look after it for me mate?’
Murray nodded, but then abruptly let out a cry of pain as Williams and Jacobs pulled him onto a makeshift stretcher they’d made and lifted him up.
‘Right,’ Reynolds began. ‘We’ve only got one chance at this. On my signal, we move out. Kelly you go south across the street, the rest of us head east back towards the village.’
Reynolds walked over Kelly.
‘You’ve a brave man, son. We won’t let this be forgotten.’
‘You can buy me a beer when we’re back home.’
Reynolds smiled. It was the first time Fred could recall seeing his teeth since they’d left Tarinqot.
He walked back towards the remainder of the unit, and stood where all could see him.
‘Three, two one….