Category C: Highly Commended (2020) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Andrew Harbis
Title: Stories of the forgotten
My daily commute to work includes two essential rituals. First comes the morning latte; its seductive aroma fills my nostrils with a comforting familiarity, and the first sip warms me like a nostalgic summer’s day. The second includes an exchange of a friendly smile with an elderly man who sits alone on a park bench along the pristine waters of Albert Park Lake, always feeding a swarm of Pacific Black Ducks and greeting me as I walk by. Today was the first day, however, that I finally stopped to speak with him.
And in hindsight, I’m glad that I did.
“Mind if I take a seat?” I ask, motioning towards the vacant space beside him. He has a surprised look on his face, but an appreciative one, nonetheless.
“Not at all, mate.” His voice is husky, and his breathing is heavy, laboured. He extends a thin quivering hand. “Name’s William Ryan.”
I reply with my name, and return the handshake. He looks back toward the lake with pale, glassy-brown eyes.
As I sip my coffee, I’m unsure of what to say, so I nervously blurt, “The lake must be a beautiful place to live. There’s something special about it.”
“It’s bloody sensational. Always used to ride my bike around here with all mates. I wish I still could, but these eighty-nine-year-old legs are buggered.” He chuckles and I ask if he has any family.
He diverts his gaze away from me before responding. “All my friends and family are gone, most of them have kicked the bucket and the others have lost their marbles. All I have left is my son, and I haven’t seen him in decades.”
“Why is that?”
“Oh, no, no, I don’t want to trouble you,” he says with a wave of his hand. I glance at my watch and my heart leaps a bit, realising I’ll be a few minutes late to work. But when I look at William, I notice an eagerness like he’d been waiting his entire life to tell his story.
“It’s no problem, really, I have time,” I muse.
He smiles and throws another handful of breadcrumbs on the ground, motioning for me to do the same.
He begins. “Righto. Let’s go back to ‘61 when I met the love of my life. I met her while I was pissed one night urinating on the wall outside the Young and Jackson,” he sniggers playfully, a newfound youth in his voice. “We were married after a few months, and we had Nick in ‘62. At the time, I was employed as a pastry chef. I used to walk about an hour and a half to and from work each day, because we couldn’t afford to buy a Holden. It saved us a lot of money, but it was bloody exhausting. Natalie was at home looking after Nick, so I had to find another job to make sure we could afford the rent and put some tucker on the table. I took up a second job on the weekends as a cleaner in Windsor, and sometimes, I’d work both jobs in a day.” He pauses for a moment and takes a deep breath.
“In ‘65, I joined the First Australian Task Force. By April, I was shipped off to Vietnam with my brother, Phil. We served in D-Company of the Sixth Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, the 6RAR, under the directions of the most courageous bloke I’ve ever shared a beer with, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith. Our duty was to help set up a base in Nui Dat to help secure the province of Phuoc Tuy. The only problem is that it was smack-bang in the middle of Viet Cong territory.”
His voice becomes firmer, and his eyes narrow. He continues. “One miserable arvo, the 18th of August, there’s a torrential downpour. We’re on patrol south of The Dat through the mud, soaking from head to toe, and I remember how deathly quiet the jungle was. The fight started when the first gunshots were fired at us late in the afternoon—machine gun fire. Men drop around me like dead flies. ZOOM! Bullet whizzes past my head. BOOM! Explosion from a mortar. The rain was so heavy I was fighting blind, and I couldn’t tell between a crash of thunder and a gunshot.
“We hook into them. I remember seeing blood everywhere. I turn to Phil, and he tells me how scared he is. That’s when I knew we were in trouble. As I’m looking into his wide, brown eyes, I heard what I hoped was thunder. It wasn’t. It was a rifle. A mate helped me up, and I took one last look at Phil before having to leave his body behind. The rest is history,” William stops, and tears well in his eyes.
“Did your brother come home?” I ask.
He nods and points to the lake. “This is where we scattered him.”
He continues. “Don’t be. It wasn’t the worst of it. After Nam, I came home as a broken man. Couldn’t find a bloody job, and I was chain-smoking packets of Winnies and drowning myself in booze. I’d spend most of my days at the Railway Hotel trying to get my mind off it, and it meant that I wasn’t there for my family anymore,” his voice grows distant. “Natalie got sick of me, and one day I came home from the pub to find her in bed with another bloke. It was over. She took Nick away from me, and for years she fed him lies about me, saying I used to beat her up and leech onto her for money so I could blow it on the pokies. None of that was ever true, of course, but Nick’s always hated me for it. My greatest fear is I’ll die alone without him ever having heard my story.” He stops. My latte has turned ice-cold; I’d been so absorbed that I barely even touched it.
“I’m sure that if your son hears your story, he’ll understand all these awful things you’ve been through.”
William shakes his head. “I’ve tried, but he won’t have a bar of it. Anyway, I’ve kept you long enough. Thanks for listening, mate.”
Returning his thanks, I look at my watch and realise how much time has passed. I’m late to work, but I don’t care. The story was worth it.
The next day, I wake up half an hour earlier. I approach the bench and my heart skips a beat. There’s nobody there. I look around from the small playground, to the lake, to the road, to the other benches dotted along the grass, but William is nowhere to be seen. A strange feeling overwhelms me. Maybe he’s found somewhere else to share his story? My heart drops.
What if he’s… the thought crosses my mind.
During morning-break, I head to the staff room and grab a copy of the Herald Sun. I tear through the pages until I find the obituary. While scanning the notices, I see something that makes my heart drop a thousand feet.
The words ‘Vale, William Ryan, 23/8/1931–30/5/2020—died peacefully in his sleep last night. May his memory be eternal’ are written in a little box inconsequentially nestled among the hundreds of other deceased names. I glance at the other death notices and feel the heartbreak of the families erupting from the page. How can a handful of generic words in a tiny section of the daily paper justify William’s entire life story?
I wonder if his son even had a chance to hear his dad’s story.
I spend the afternoon sleuthing the internet for Nick Ryan’s contact details, until eventually I stumble across a senior finance manager at a big bank in the city. I phone the bank directly and ask to speak to him. The lady on the other end tells me he’s busy and to leave a message.
“It’s regarding his deceased father,” I say, leaving my phone number and hanging up. I finally receive a return call from Nick the following evening—after I’d spent most of the afternoon calling him and leaving voicemails, of course.
With a hurried voice, he growls down the phone at me. “Listen here, I’m not interested in my dad, understand? I’m not interested. Please stop calling.” He slams the phone which leaves me with an annoying beep. I chew on my pencil, all the while asking myself how someone could treat a family member like they’re a ghost.
After organising a one-on-one consultation about a phoney house loan, I now find myself standing outside Nick’s office door in Toorak, wondering why I care this much. He opens the door and feigns a polite smile. I can’t help but notice the physical similarities he shares with his father, particularly the rounded nose and prominent widow’s peak. We exchange pleasantries until I reveal my intentions with a nervous breath.
“I don’t know if you’re aware, but your father William Ryan passed away peacefully in his sleep two nights ago.” I can see the realisation sweep across his face, transforming his expression into one of anger.
I continue, “I spoke to your father on Tuesday, the day before he died. Please, Nick, I know you’re really busy, but all I ask is that you give me a moment of your time.”
He leans in, vein bulging from his neck. “Listen, I don’t know who you are, but I haven’t seen my dad in years. Why would I, anyway? He was a pig who used to beat us up. When he left, he left behind a broke, single mother and her child. Look, I don’t want to discuss this.” Years of resentment were etched in his every word.
“That’s not the truth; it’s what your mom wanted you to believe. Give me five minutes of your time, and then you’ll never hear from me again.”
He shakes his head, leaning back in his squeaky office chair before finally agreeing. “Three minutes,” he says.
Without hesitation, I share William’s story. As I do, I feel my heart thumping with adrenaline. “That was William’s final wish. He only wanted you to hear his story,” I conclude. He gazes thoughtfully, hands pressed on his chin.
I turn to leave, and before I’m out the door, he calls out to me, “Just who are you, anyway?”
After learning about the funeral in the local paper earlier in the week, I find myself standing at the back of a packed St. Paul’s Cathedral. Sunlight screams through the colourful stained windows high on the wall, casting the attendees in a kaleidoscopic hue. There’s a sound of military drums, and soldiers enter through the cathedral’s large red doors. Led by Nick, they carry William’s coffin, which is proudly draped by an Australian flag. Goosebumps ripple my skin when a soldier in khaki uniform pulls out a bugle and plays the Last Post. The parish priest presents a sombre reading, and finally, a solemn-faced Nick takes the microphone. He shares William’s story before admitting the regret he’ll forever hold, wishing he took the time to better know his dad. The funeral ends, and I slip out of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was the funeral William thought he’d never have.
My daily commute to work now includes two essential rituals. First, comes my morning latte, its alluring aroma filling my nostrils with that comforting familiarity. The second includes a phone call to my grandparents, asking them to share a new story with me before time one day takes those stories away.
And in hindsight, I’m glad that I do.