Gail M Shell was one five writers with disability who received a Write-ability Fellowship in 2015.
The Fellowships, a joint initiative of Writers Victoria and Arts Access Victoria, enabled Gail to work with mentor Lyndel Caffrey.
“I was thrilled to receive a Write-ability Fellowship through Writers Victoria. The hours spent working, side by side, with Lyndel Caffrey were invaluable. With Lyndel’s positive criticism I was able to recognise shortcomings in my writing. Changes were necessary. Changes typified by the inclusion of a Prologue to carry the impact of when soldiers, prepared to fight, heard the word, ‘surrender’.”
Enjoy this extract from Gail’s manuscript – ‘Tom and Annie’s Story’…
On Sunday the 15th February, 1942, in an Australian army camp on the outskirts of Singapore city the morning was strangely different to preceding mornings. From bunks, stretchers and hard packed ground the eyes of battle weary soldiers, rimmed red from lack of sleep, looked to the sky. Above, no drone of winged predators, no wing tips flashing a red disc of sun. No metal parcels to rain death on soldier and civilian alike.
Acting Corporal Thomas Macrae shook off the threads of nightmarish sleep. He groped for his rifle – his companion and weapon: the comforting buck he had felt against his shoulder when attacked by advancing enemy, the rifle he had clutched to his chest as he sheltered in holes with mud up to his knees, the same rifle he’d snatched before he ran from the truck as it exploded in flames. He slid from his stretcher to join the others. They wandered the camp with the same expression of loss on their faces as he wore on his own. The men felt jumpy, and just the single shot of a rifle in the distance sent them nervously diving for cover.
The order went out. No-one was to leave the camp. Tom was only one of the soldiers sent to the perimeters in search of hidden enemy. Nobody was sighted. The day dragged. The slow passage of time was the only enemy they had to fight until further orders were received. The necessities of eating, of polishing and oiling equipment, could only take so many hours. Ammunition belts were painstakingly spread in boxes, ready to grab with less than a minute’s notice.
A growing noise of voices made Tom turn towards the centre of camp. Men had gathered from all directions. They were shouting, arms swinging wildly as if to emphasise their insistence. “It’s bloody rubbish!” one yelled. “We’ve got to bloody fight the bastards!”
“We can’t give up! Nothing stands between Australia and those bloody Nips except us!”
Tom looked on helplessly while the men became more and more enraged. He had no hope of allaying their fear – he felt it too.
Miraculously tempers were calmed. Not by any man but by the roar of a Jeep. Sweat ran down faces and all eyes turned to watch as the driver wrestled with the steering wheel to gain control. The crater on the track left by a bomb was avoided. An arm, streaked with blood from shoulder to wrist snaked from the half opened window and the voice was loud as he drew close.
“We’re done for. It’s finished. It’s over.”
Along the track a chorus of voices erupted.
“I’ll tell you who’s to blame!” one yelled.
An answer came back quick as lightning: “It’s those useless arse-holes at the top.”
In the midst of all the noise Tom’s attention had gone to a figure that was pushing past the flap of a tent set apart from the others. The man’s head was low and his eyes hidden under the brim of his officer’s cap. Measured strides took him to the highest point in the camp where he waited for the voices to quieten whilst the men gathered around him. The paper between his fingers trembled and his pause was brief before he spoke.
“It’s surrender! Effective 20.30 tonight. Weapons to be handed in by morning.”
The late afternoon sun beat down. A breeze played lightly at the flag that drooped against the pole. Husbands, lovers, sons and brothers, whoever they were, stood in shocked silence.
Tom Macrae forgot to breathe. His body filled with anger, shame and disbelief. His lungs suddenly gasped for air. He felt alone in a world of utter disillusionment. His head filled with the memory of row after row of shallow dug graves. Had their sacrifice been for nothing?
He gripped the length of metal and wood that had been an inseparable part of his body for months. He swung it hard against the trunk of the closest tree. Again, and then a third time. A crippling spasm shot up his arm. He sucked in the sultry air and kicked hard at the twisted and useless metal that lay on the ground.
With his weapon destroyed the taste of defeat was bitter, yet his legs and back held straight as he stared ahead. From out of nowhere he saw the face of his sweetheart Annie. He knew she would understand he did not want this to happen. His mouth clamped shut. He would never forget the promise he had made on their last morning together.
‘I’m coming back, Annie,’ he’d said. ‘I promise you. If I’ve got anything to do with it, I’m coming back to you and our girls.’
This commission is supported by Perpetual Trustees.
© Gail M Shell 2016