Friday, April 21, 2006

Jim Hopkins: The unknown soldier chips in over a few cold ones

Flipping heck," said Stu, who'd never been in a newspaper column before and was therefore choosing his words rather more carefully than he usually did at the pub, "these bloomin' petrol prices are killing me."

"Join the club, mate," grunted Reg, morosely wiping a whiskery chin, "when I said I was comin' down tonight, the missus went spare. Said I could ***** ... "

"Careful," said Stu, with a pointed nod in the direction of the readers.

"Sorry," muttered Reg apologetically. "I'd forgotten about them."

"Easy to do," quipped the old soldier beside them. He'd been there when they arrived, insensitively parked right in the middle of their favourite possie.

"B@#%*y hell," Bruce had moaned, "we're goin' t' need some 'Reserved' signs round here!"

But once they'd got a beer and started chewing the fat, Bruce pretty quickly mellowed. "So what did y' missus say," he asked, curious to hear how Reg's interrupted tale actually ended.

"Oh, she just said if I was goin' to the pub I could *** ... damn well walk. No point wasting money on two fluids, she reckoned. So I said, 'Fine. I'll walk to the pub if you walk to the supermarket. We're all in this together'."

"Jeez, that wouldn't've gone down well," chuckled Bruce, secretly wishing he had the courage to be equally brusque. His way of dealing with such confrontations was a non-committal grunt that never gave him anything more than the uncertain comfort of a sullen silence.

"Well, it's true!" continued Reg, "We are all in it together ..."

"I just don't like what we're in," Stu interrupted. "Some days I reckon I've become a bleedin' Northland oyster farm! A joker on the radio the other day reckoned petrol's goin' t' be three bucks by Christmas!"

"It's stuffed Anzac Day for me," Reg said ruefully. "I was going t' turn it into a long weekend but I can't afford to now."

"Somebody should drop a bomb on the b@#%*y oil companies," snorted Bruce, something vaguely approximating heroism coursing through his veins.

"You mean the gummint, don't ya?" snarled Reg. "Those ba ... blighters are raking it in. What with the extra petrol tax and GST, they're laughin' all the way to the tank!!!"

"I wouldn't mind if they spent it on something worthwhile," added Stu, "like cuttin' down the waitin' lists. Eight thousand people dumped off 'em, apparently. Elective surgery, they call it. Huh! Next time I get elective I'm gonna do a bit of surgery!!!"

"Yup," said Reg mournfully. "Things are pretty sick when y' can't look after the sick."

"Mind you, it's a different world now," the old soldier chipped in. "I remember when they started the old National Health system back in the 30s. They only had five diseases and four cures then. They'd discover that many every day now."

"It's not diseases they're discovering," sneered Bruce, "it's stupid ways to spend our money. Like forking out millions to landscape b@#%*y prisons!"

"I'd ship all the b@#%*y crims over to the Solomons," Reg hissed vehemently. "They've got a jail there, haven't they? And jungle. Well, that's landscape, isn't it?"

"It's a bit more than that," said the old soldier quietly.

"Might as well send 'em over," grumbled Bruce, who wasn't listening to the old bloke. "What's left of the Army's there already. They could do something useful and guard 'em, couldn't they?"

"Except they'd bloo ... min' put m' taxes up to pay for it," Stu sniffed contemptuously. "I tell, y' what, in m' next life, I'm comin' back as one of the Rolling Stones. Strewth, $5 million for singing a bunch of 40-year-old songs at the Cake Tin. That's good money in anyone's language!!"

"More than you get for a medal, apparently," the old soldier suggested.

"You mean Charlie's?" inquired Bruce, who'd never actually met the double VC recipient but felt as if he knew him. "Look," he continued, "if his family wanna sell it, then good luck to them. But not to the gummint. I don't see why we should have to pay for it!"

"Speaking of which," Reg chimed in, "whose round is it?"

"Don't look at me," Stu protested. "I got the last one."

"And I got the one before that," said Bruce emphatically.

It took less than a second for the trio to work out whose turn it was. Well, he had occupied their possie. The least he could do was buy them a beer. Reg, Bruce and Stu turned towards their uninvited guest.

"I'm sorry to say this," said the old soldier, "especially after hearing about all these problems, but I can't buy you a beer."

"Why not?" his companions objected.

"Because I'm dead," said the old soldier calmly. "I have been since 1942. There was a bit of a problem with petrol then too, as I recall ... "

"You mean you're ... " gasped Stu.

"Yup," said the old soldier. "I'm a ghost. The ghost of future past. Or life unlived. Take your pick. These are my children," he added, placing a crumpled photo on the bar.

"But ... " whispered Reg.

"That's right," the old soldier nodded. "They were never born. Sorry to hear your Anzac Day's mucked up. Hey, things could be worse." And with that, he disappeared.

Reg, Stu and Bruce sat for what seemed an age till Bruce could bear the silence no longer. "That's easy for him to say," Bruce mumbled. "He doesn't have to live here!!"

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