Only the dead have seen the end of war. ~ Plato
Daniel stands on the footpath in Lydiard Street in front of The George Hotel. The early morning traffic has eased but the street is still bustling. Every parking space has a car in it, and cars and busses zip along the street in both directions. To the right of him are two women, one pushing a pram. To the left, three men are talking outside the hotel’s main entrance. None appear to be local. Across the street, one woman and two men walk beneath the colonial style balconies spanning the footpath. Smartly dressed, they obviously work in the area. He looks up to the rooftops and scans the top of each building as far as he can see. No movement. No shadows. No snipers.
He’s still on guard, still vigilant, when he turns and heads for the front door. The hotel’s façade hasn’t changed at all since the last time he was here with his mother and father and brother Russell. He and Russell were just kids… He can’t remember why they were there, but he remembers chasing Russell up and down the staircase and the gruff tone in his father’s voice as he warned them to stop running around like galahs. He hesitates to go inside.
He knows he’s got to go in, but asking for help, asking for charity… What kind of man can’t provide for his family? What kind of man can’t put food on his table? Keep the lights on? Pay the mortgage? What kind of man comes cap in hand begging for a handout? God help him if someone sees him here…
He snatches a glance up and down the street before pushing his shoulders back and going inside. His long, measured strides belie the depth of his anxiety as he marches past the restaurant and three shiny white pillars on his way towards reception. When he gets there, the young blonde receptionist greets him with a beaming smile. ‘Hello,’ she chirps, ‘how can I help you?’
The muscles in his brow twitch beneath his skin as he stands there dumbstruck, silent, unable to find his voice as he contemplates turning around and forgetting the whole thing.
The receptionist maintains her smile, only now it’s clearly forced as she asks again, ‘How can I help you today?’
‘I umm…’ Daniel replies, swallowing hard. ‘I’ve got an appointment to see Shirley Price.’
‘And your name?’
‘Shaw. Daniel Shaw.’
‘No worries’, the receptionist says as she picks up the phone. ‘Take a seat and I’ll let her know you’re here.'
Daniel nods and steps away from the desk but he doesn’t take a seat. Instead, he shoves his hands in his pockets and looks around the room. Despite umpteen renovations, every brick reverberates with the building’s illustrious one hundred and fifty-year old history. It’s not the original building, of course. That was The George Inn where miners, furious about the exceedingly expensive mining licence and unjust laws and regulations they were forced to endure, planned their stand against the colonial government at the Eureka Stockade. Resplendent as the building is now, with its off-white walls and antique-looking floor tiles, he can’t help but wonder whose idea it was to make this place a sub-branch of the Returned Serviceman’s League. It seems a little weird. But, nevertheless, here they are providing assistance to serving and ex-serving members of Australian Defence Force, and Daniel in right on time for his appointment with the woman who is hopefully going to help him.
The receptionist hangs up the phone. ‘Shirley will meet you —sta— in the —oom.’
Daniel taps his malfunctioning hearing aid. ‘I’m sorry, where?’
‘—n the boardroom,’ she replies, mouthing her words carefully. ‘Upstairs.’
Daniel gives her a nod and then crosses the hallway to the staircase. He takes the stairs two at a time until he gets to the upstairs landing.
The door to the boardroom is open so, he goes in expecting to see Shirley waiting for him, but there’s no sign of her. He takes a seat at the head of the long dark wood table and looks around. The room is small but the pressed ceiling, painted white, works well with the cream and brown colour scheme to make the space seem larger than it is.
A woman’s voice, bellows as a short rotund woman carrying a very large notebook bustles through the room’s only door.
‘I am sor— to have kept you wait—,’ she puffs as she thrusts her chubby hand toward him.
‘Call me Daniel,’ Daniel says, rising from the black leather chair to give her hand a quick but polite shake.
Shirley’s cheeks balloon as she smiles. ‘I’d prefer Mr Shaw if you don’t mind. It’s more professional, don’t you think?’
‘So,’ Shirley says, closing the door behind her, ‘Shaw? Any relation to Leonard Shaw?’
‘He’s my father,’ Daniel replies, taking his seat.
‘I thought I recognised the name,’ she says, as she squeezes her backside into a chair on the opposite side of the table. ‘We got talking over the Pink Sunrise at the festival. Lovely man. Very knowledg—.’
Daniel stares at her blankly.
‘The Begonia Festival,’ she explains. ‘A coup— of years back.’
Daniel nods as he makes the connection. His father is a keen gardener and attends the Begonia Festival every year.
‘And your mother? I understand she was unwell. She’s made a full recovery, I hope.’
‘She passed away last year. Look, Mrs—’
‘Oh, I am sorry to hear that,’ she says, cutting him off mid-sentence. ‘I’ve no doubt sure she was a lovely woman.’
Daniel nods. Despite passing almost two years ago, the pain of his mother’s death is still raw. The cancer that got her was relentless. It wore out her spirit and wasted her body down to the bone. He was on deployment…
Daniel taps his fingers on the arm of his chair as Shirley flips open her notebook. There’s no trace of the smile that was stuck to her face a minute ago. Now the look in her eyes is as cold and inhospitable as the Afghan mountains in wintertime. ‘So, what can I do for you, Mr Shaw?’
‘I’ve been having trouble sleeping,’ he says. Not that it’s any of your business. ‘So, I’ve missed a few shifts at work. I’ve put in a claim to the DVA but it’s taking forever to process. I understand the R.S.L. can help tide us over for a bit.’
‘I see. And d— you —ork?’
‘Do I work? Not at the moment,’ he replies.
The woman stares at him blankly.
‘I see. Are you mar—, Mr Shaw?’
‘A— your wife, does she work?’
‘She’s a nurse at the hospital.’
Daniel stops tapping the chair and starts tapping his hearing aid instead as Shirley scratches her expensive ball point pen across a pure white page. What the fuck is she writing? Is he on trial here? Being judged? Spilling his guts to stranger, hoping they can help him to pay his bills is degrading. Humiliating. But if he doesn’t go through with it, they’re going to be up shit creek.
‘Wonderful. Any children?’
‘A girl and a boy. Look—’
‘Are you see—anyone about y—problem?’
‘Your sleeping problem.’
‘It’s not really a “problem”, it’s just a bit of trouble sleeping, but yes, I have a Support Officer in Melbourne.’
‘And his name is?’
‘Good,’ she says, writing more notes. ‘How long has it been since your discharge?
‘Almost six months.’
‘And your role and your rank?’
‘Corporal.’ he replies. ‘Special Forces, 2nd Commando Regiment.’
Price lowers her pen and looks at him. ‘Special Forces operatives earn a very good salary, Mr Shaw. Especially when they’re on deployment. As such, your request for financial assistance is unusual.’
Daniel heart sinks. He did earn a good salary. Good enough to help him support his mother and father when his father lost his job and they got into strife with their house payments. And good enough to help support his brother when he went through trade school. Russ was older than most apprentices and wasn’t earning very much, so Daniel helped him out until he qualified as a plumber. More importantly, he had a wife and two kids. Moving all over the country meant Kelly’s wasn’t always able to work. So, yeah, he probably could have done better with his money, but when he was training or on deployment, financial matters took a back seat to doing his job and not getting killed.
‘Okay, look,’ he says, getting up from his chair. ‘I think I’ve made a mistake. I’m sorry for wasting your time.’
The woman looks up, slack jawed and confused. ‘I don’t understand…’
Daniel heads for the door.
Without a word or a hint of hesitation, Daniel walks out leaving Mrs Price to do whatever the fuck it is she does here.
Genre: contemporary fiction/trauma fiction
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