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 Hearts and Minds - Collected

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Registration date : 2008-12-13

PostSubject: Hearts and Minds - Collected   Sat Dec 20, 2008 9:22 am

The soldier has a hangover. Too many Bundies the night before and no breakfast. Every time the ancient Toyota hits a rut his guts heave. The old lady with the Magpie beanie stares at him impassively. He could do with a snack from his ration pack but it might be rude to open it in front of these people.

The old man in the front turns around. 'You wan' eat goanna?' He chuckles. 'You white-fellas like bush tucker.'

Great. They're going to stop off and go hunting before they drop him off at camp. 'Don't worry about me,' he says, 'but I need to get back soon.' It isn't exactly true. It's Sunday, his one day off. No one would be missing him yet.

The Toyota lurches off the road into the spinifex. The soldier's teeth rattle as it bounces and swerves. 'Where are we going, bro?' He addresses the heavy-set young man behind the wheel.

The driver turns around. 'Jila on this track, mate. See this big mob of bullaman. They after water.' He thumps his hands on the wheel in time to Slim Dusty.

The soldier sits back. He has no idea what the guy is yabbering about. If only Steve hadn't taken the short cut to town and if only he'd stayed behind in the car with him when they'd hit the steer. But the sight of the writhing animal and all that blood had been too much and he'd taken off alone. Then these people had picked him up in their clapped out Toyota and decided to include him on their crazy family outing.

'You army mob make us new air field.' The old lady scratches her hair.

The soldier nods. He doesn't tell her how much he hates the work. Grinding, relentless in the bloody heat. Hearts and Minds mission. Some Armchair General with a great sense of humour had named it that.

All at once the driver brakes. The old man jumps out and runs through the spinifex, his bandy legs leaping over the spikes with astonishing agility. His son follows him and they disappear into the scrub.

'Goanna.' The old lady smiles. 'Good tucker.'

The soldier swats at flies as the sweat runs in small rivulets down his face. If he opened his ration pack now the old girl mightn't notice. But what if she did? Would he have to offer her something? Better wait.

And it's a long wait in the stinking heat with the red dust swirling around them. Then finally, when the hunters return, the old man is wearing a huge goanna like a bloody necklace.

'For you, soldier.' He chucks the carcass at the soldier's feet. 'Give you plenty muscle.' Blood dribbles from the goanna's mouth and the soldier retches.

The journey continues and, as he fixes his eyes on the shimmering horizon, he loses track of time. No point in referring to his watch any more. They're travelling in a different time zone. It could be minutes or hours before they finally arrive at the river.

The old lady is out of the back door in a flash. 'Plenty barra here,' she calls to the soldier.

He follows her down the track with mud squelching between his toes. She squats at the riverbank. 'You get wood and we make fire,' she orders. Father and son are already out of sight.

There's plenty of wood and, as he drags a huge branch, he feels the hunger pangs return. He drops the branch and pulls out his ration pack. The first thing his fingers find is vegemite. He rips open the plastic bag and stares at the khaki tube.

'Hey, soldier, what you got there?' The woman has seen it.

'Nothing.' He returns the tube to his pocket.

She builds a fire and soon it's roaring. She hurls the goanna on the flames, then opens a sack of flour. 'Make plenty damper. You hungry. Eh?'

The soldier squats in the mud and watches her carry water from the river in a billycan. Then she sets to, kneading and punching. For some strange reason he thinks of his mother. Smartly dressed, always in high heels and lipstick. He's never seen her bake a cake, let alone bread. She's probably the same age as this woman.

After she moulds the damper into rounds, she rakes the fire and sits the loaves among the ashes. Then she stands up. 'You watch fire.' She wanders off with her fishing reel.

Finally alone, the soldier opens his ration pack. He could dump one of his food pouches in the billy and wolf it down before they all return. There's beef Kai Si Ming or spaghetti and meatballs. But somehow they seem out of place here on the banks of this huge brown river with the smoke rising to the heavens and the goanna and dampers slowly baking in the glowing coals. Instead he throws a handful of tea leaves into the billycan and waits.

On the long drive home, the old man insists that the soldier sits in the front. Squeezed between the two men, he watches the father navigate. His hands flutter as he indicates ruts to avoid and new tracks to take. The spinifex is iridescent in the late afternoon light and the distant hills glow red gold. In the back the old lady sleeps.

When they drop him off at the camp, the old man asks his name.

He tells him and the old man repeats it solemnly as they shake hands. The soldier feels embarrassed. He wants to thank his new family for their hospitality. They'd picked him up and fed him damper and baked barramundi and smoky goanna. He'd been so ravenous it had all tasted wonderful.

Then he has an idea. He feels for his ration pack. 'For you.' He passes it to the old lady. 'Army tucker,' he says.

She screws up her face. 'No. You keep.' And she hands it back.
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