As a child, Evie Wyld adored visiting her vibrant, fun-loving uncle
in Australia. Then when she was 12, she found out about a much darker
time in her beloved uncle's life
5 September 2009
My childhood in London was spent counting the days until it was time
to go back to Australia. The feel of the old wood of the veranda
under bare feet, the sound of the banana tree sweeping its leaves
over the roof of the tractor shed, the smell of sugarcane heating up
in the sun were all things that stayed alive in my memory when I was
away from that place. One of the main reasons I loved going there was
the time I spent with my uncle Tim, my mother's brother, who guided
me and my elder brother through this strange and wild place. He was a
hero, with a thick moustache and a cowboy hat, his skin a dark
pottery brown, and when he smiled the whole of his face pleated into
lines. When we all went camping together, he'd get exasperated by my
aunt and me sitting on the beach and reading. He'd say, "You're in
the most exciting, beautiful place on earth and you want to pretend
to be somewhere else?" and he'd go off exploring, on his own if
neither of us would go with him.
He was unlike the men I knew in England, who seemed delicate in
comparison and thought that children were delicate too. It was my
uncle who let us stand on the back of his pick-up truck with the dogs
as he drove fast along the beach, who showed us how to dig with our
toes in the sand by the shoreline to find clams. He was the one to
poke a piece of dry grass into a trapdoor spider's hatch, and who
barely flinched when she came out fangs bared. He brought home all
kinds of animals: a joey that ended up living on my grandparent's
farm with him like a dog for 16 years, two orphaned goat kids,
endless baby birds. Anything that looked like it was in trouble he
would bring home.
His son, my cousin Ben, was a tough little sod, and my uncle used to
enjoy winding him up about it. I remember seeing my uncle give him a
dead arm when he was a surly 11-year-old. When he complained, my
uncle put a finger to his lips. "It's only pain, mate," he said. I
went into the room I shared with my parents and brother to think
about that with a mixture of horror and awe my cousin had absorbed
the thump, just giving a foul look to my uncle who was chuckling
away. My father would never hit my brother, even as a joke. Could a
thump be a joke?
My cousin was given his first gun the Christmas he was seven, an air
rifle that fired copper balls. He cut his teeth on sparrows and
starlings, and secretly downed the odd chook that had been out of the
pen long enough to call it feral. He used to enjoy scaring me with
stories of the red-bellied black snake that lived under the house,
and the things that lurked in the sugarcane. My cousin dressed in
army fatigues and took his swag and his gun and spent nights alone
out the back with only his dog for company, being tough. It's what
the men of the family did.
When I was 12, this cousin showed me an album with photographs of
dead men in it. They were young and barefoot, bronze streaks of blood
at their mouths. The photographs were neatly spaced, pressed down
carefully. "It happened in Vietnam," he said and I nodded as if I
knew what that meant. I didn't make any connection between my hero
uncle and the pictures. They did not belong in the same universe as
the man who won the local prawn-eating competition by half a kilo.
It wasn't until my late teens when I was about the age he was when
he went to fight in Vietnam that I really started thinking about
the photographs and how someone I loved had done those things, and
had thought to take a photograph of them. I knew very little about
the Vietnam war only that, like all wars, it was a bad thing. Until
the day three years ago, when I spoke to my uncle about it, I don't
think I had ever really connected him with the album. I was in the
middle of writing my first novel and knew I wanted to touch on the
Australian experience in the Vietnam war, and so I brought my tape
recorder and we sat for a day drinking beer in the rock pools that
face the headland at the beach shack where he and my mother spent
time as children.
It was the headland that my uncle and my mother saw as young
children. The same one as the first time my mother brought my father
and he caught flu and there was a plague of fleas. The same one as
when I first remember it, when the deer were so tame they'd put their
heads in through the window and ask for bacon rind.
Listening back to the tapes I recorded that day, I notice how my
uncle stops every now and then to comment on something around us a
sea eagle, a shoal of salmon or a shift in the direction of the wind.
Often these observations meander into stories about times gone by,
when there was still abalone (edible sea snails) on the rocks and
before the national park started to bulldoze the shacks when the
person whose name was on the lease died. These stories come when he
talks about the really bad things, the things that he can't say
without a smile because they don't sound real when you're sitting
down by the sea with the mix of beer and salt on your tongue.
At one point, as he's telling me about the death of his close friend
Grub, he spots a deer over the ridge of the hill and points her out
to me. "They don't come around any more, since the cull," he says.
The cull happened years ago, when the keepers of the national park
decided there were too many. But because the deer were so used to
living with the shack people, the ones that got shot were the tame
ones, those that let you pick leeches off of them in return for the
skin of your fried fish. They all walked towards the people with the
guns, came down to say hello. Since then, the deer that slunk back
into the bush tend to stay there.
His stories of Vietnam are about being conscripted and about the
friends he made in training, the terrible night alone when he fell
asleep and on waking thought he could feel someone's breath on his
face. How the platoon all cried when someone shot the sniffer dog,
even with men falling all around them; and about the forward scout,
his close friend, who was shot through the neck when he leaned
against a tree to eat tinned lima beans. The first boy he killed in
close combat and the pictures in the kid's wallet. Here, he changes
tack to tell me about the time he and four friends were swimming
"just out beyond that point, after the breakers", when a large fin
appeared right next to them. He tells me, laughing, that he and
another bloke had read that to avoid a shark attack you should float,
play dead. The other three all swam in as quickly as possible,
leaving just the two of them for the shark to choose between, and the
shark's circles were getting tighter. They swam in, puzzled that the
shark hadn't behaved as it should. Now we know that sharks especially
like to eat dead stuff.
He tells me how coming back home from the war, he was picked up at
the airport by his parents and they went to the nearest pub to
celebrate his safe return. They were not served, because he was in
uniform. My grandfather was turned away with his family and they all
drove home without the celebratory drink. He talks about going to
find a friend who had gone missing with his discharge payout, coming
across him by the side of the road, half-dead with drink, having
spent all of his money in a week on drink and on the horses.
There is a long pause on the tape. "No bugger looked after us."
We sat by the sea until the sand flies started to bite and then
walked back up to the shack.
That night, I thought about what it must have been like. My uncle,
who worked in the family business all his life. The pie shop in
Parramatta then the small supermarket. Growing up with his sister
before she leaves for England. Then going to war. Coming home and
then moving back in with his parents and all of them moving north to
become farmers, with no clue about how farming worked, growing
sugarcane by the seat of their pants. Tracing around his foot and
using the cutout as writing paper to send to his sister in London.
I wonder when he put the photographs into the album, if he chose
between them, or just put in the whole film. I wonder if he talked
about the war when he was younger. I think of the time my brother was
small and he went to kiss my grandfather's cheek, and Grandpa looked
at him. "Boys shake hands, they don't kiss."
Back in London, there are still questions I want answered. How my
uncle felt about his sister, my mother in London, going on antiwar
rallies. Would he have stayed working with his family all his life if
he hadn't gone to war? What he felt when I went travelling to Vietnam
as a teenager.
I find myself thinking back to that headland that doesn't change, how
when I'm there I see what my grandparents would have seen. My mother
as a child, and my uncle before he went to Vietnam and then later
when he came back. Of course, the headland is not the same; there
will have been erosion from rainwater, the face of the cliff smoothed
by the winds that break against it. But it looks the same to me and
when I'm there, I always sit for a moment and block out the rest of
the landscape with my fingers, so that for a moment everything
I think of the stories told to me that day in the rock pools, stories
told by a man who dressed up as a woman with cantaloupes for breasts,
just for the joy of embarrassing his children when their friends came
over. Who stole lobsters from lobster pots, who sang bawdy songs loud
and forced you to join in, who was funny and kind and smart. Knowing
him as I do, I find it hard to put the two together: the man he was
and the things he has done and seen.
I realise now that it must be impossible for him. This is one of the
brutalities of war, this lost piece of yourself that you can't show
other people. No matter how hard you try to grasp it, there will not
be the words. I wonder if this is why the photographs needed to be
kept, and perhaps why you would stay close by your family your whole
life, why you would revisit the places that you went to as a child,
to remember who you were before you had to take those photographs.
After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld is out now published
by Jonathan Cape, £16.99. To order a copy for £15.99 with free UK
p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846