Excerpts from ‘The Parcels’

FictionIssue Three

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By Amanda Pearson

November 1914

Harold enlisted last week. He made the three-hour journey up to Adelaide by train and joined the army. I bet his father got in his ear, ‘Go be a man. See the world. Get out there and do your bit for King and Country.’

I could kill the both of them.

I don’t want to think about what could happen. I’ve barely slept the last few days. I’ve been hard on the young ones and if I thump this pastry anymore these pasties are going to come out like concrete. The stove’s been ready for half an hour now. The fire will go out before they’re cooked. Arthur won’t have it if they’re hard. Mind you, he might not notice. He’s rarely home at night these days. I don’t ask where he goes. It’s more peaceful without him anyway. Husband of the year is my Arthur.

Harold. My second born. My sweet second child; all music and football and Sunday school teaching; is going off to war. Harold, who fitted neatly between Keith and Roy as they slept on a mattress on top of the kitchen table pressed up into a corner of the house in Burke Street. He’s 21. I can’t stop him. What’s his Belle going to say? They’ve been sweet on each other for a year now. There’s talk of an engagement.

Of my six children, Harold was the last one I could see enlisting.

I really shouldn’t complain. I look at what I have and it’s a lot. Six children born over seventeen years: Keith, Harold, Roy, Reg, Les and young Marge. Six children, three still at school, and a good for nothing husband who spends more time away from home than in it. It’s just what I wanted when I got married all those years ago. What right do I have to moan about my husband? He’s not a drunk. He doesn’t hit me. He just doesn’t want to be here.

Mind you, I like the kitchen here in the new house. We still call it the new house even though we’ve been here three years. At least this house has a wooden floor, two bedrooms and running water. The boys all sleep in one room. Marge is on a mattress at the end our bed. She won’t see or hear anything. All of that stopped when I fell pregnant with her.

We came to Victor Harbor after Arthur was expelled from the police force. That was nearly ten years ago. After going up to stay with my family in the north, my father’s behaviour sent us south, where Arthur thought he could get some work off his family. He’s not kept a job while we’ve been here. He’s off at the boatyard or the lifesaving club most days, or going out with Keith on Vida, the boat they built a few years ago. All of the boys love Vida. She’s like the older sister they never had.

Of course I’ll worry about Harold going off to war. I worry about him in training. It’s not that you don’t worry about your children, but you’d think by 21 most of the dangers would be over. The measles and mumps, the fevers and childhood accidents are all done. I nearly lost Keith a few years ago when a great big shark attacked Vida. That news was reported around the country. You can’t help things like that. But war? You have no control over it.

May 1915

Harold’s last letter said that he was well and that his battalion was going to be mobilised soon. They were heading to some place in Turkey.

I still can’t get my head around it that my son, my sweet boy, is halfway across the world.

I’ve never been out of South Australia.

There was something in the paper about an attack in the Dardanelles. Casualty lists are printed in the Advertiser.

We haven’t seen his name, thank goodness. Besides, how much trouble can a bugler get into?

June 1915

You’re given sons for a reason. I’ve been given five. They’re all different. They’re all special. One day, they will be men.

I just hope they don’t turn out like their father.

Harold’s always been my musical one. He plays the cornet for the Victor Harbor marching band. He’s got a job working in Bell’s Haberdashers at Port Elliot. This is marvelous for me as he brings home notions and buttons which help me keep the prices down when I take in sewing.

Keith, the eldest, he’s forever up to trouble. Working down the docks, he crews with local fishermen. A good boy, on the weekends he helps with the local surf rescue club with his father.

Roy’s my rebel rouser. He’s a trimmer. With a heart of gold, he’s forever out the back fixing something. He’s getting somewhere in the post office now. They’ve moved him from being a telegram boy to learning the Morse code and fixing the wires. He’s a bright lad. It’s a pity he left school. It’s a shame we don’t have the money to let him go further and send him to university.

Reg is my serious one. He’s just started as a telegraph boy at Goolwa. Like his father and brothers he loves his boats and he’s good with the tools. He’s also more into the church than his brothers. He signed the Temperance Book two years ago and gets very upset if his father and brothers return home smelling of drink. I’m not sure if the visit to Parkside Asylum to see his grandfather set him on this path.

Visiting Dad just before he died, he was a cluster of piss and excrement tidied up for his visitors. The drink did him in. Reg came with me to see his grandfather. The others didn’t. Not that the older boys drink to excess, but Reg gets very upset about the drink. The older boys tease him, but I’d rather this than the alternative.

Les is my scallywag. He’s a charmer like his father. He hangs about Keith like a bad smell most of the time.

I’m lucky. They’re all alive. They’re all respectful. They’re all healthy. You can’t ask for much more.

 

We’ve heard from Harold. A letter, in a shaky hand on flimsy paper, came about a week ago. He said that he was well and they were doing their best to beat Johnny Turk back from the bay. His lips are raw from bugling. He doesn’t like the food much and asked if I could send some yo-yo biscuits over in the next care parcel. He’s always had a sweet tooth.

July 1915

Roy came to me the other day, asked me to write a letter to the Military to give him permission to join up. His father was in the room at the time.

What else could I do?

Arthur wants Keith to join up too, said that there are jobs for able-bodied men. The old fool is talking about enlisting as well! For pity’s sake, the old duffer is 46. What would they do with him?

He’s always been on some flight of fancy or another. It’s been worse since Marge came along.

Maybe it’s better if he goes to war. Leave the rest of us in peace.

August 1915

We’ve received word that Harold is in hospital in England. The Army sent a telegram. They can’t say what’s wrong. More news will follow they say.

The house is quieter, what with two of them gone now. Strangely, I don’t worry about Roy so much. He’s like a cat. Great at getting into scraps. He’s even better at getting out of them. He reckons he might be able to transfer into the Signal Corps, away from the guns.

I hate that my boys might be killing people over there, not that I have any say in this.

I really hope they tell us what’s wrong with Harold soon. The worry is enough to send me to Parkside.

October 1915

‘There is a land where summer skies
Are gleaming with a thousand dyes,
Blending in witching harmonies, in harmonies…’

They played that last night. The band struck up a rousing rendition as Arthur and Keith stood with the Mayor and other Victor Harbor dignitaries on the stage of the Town Hall, both remained at attention in their uniforms; both of them putting on their best brave face as the band played on. As the speeches took place, I waited at the back of the hall with Reg, Les and Marge. Marge, happy in her best dress, was falling asleep on my lap. She’s six and doesn’t really understand that they’re going away. We’ve tried to tell her that it’s just like Harold and Roy. They’ll be back. We just don’t know when. Keith’s Betty stayed with her friends. I could hear her snuffles over the music.

They’re leaving in a couple of days, Arthur and Keith. Off to Alexandria, although Arthur says he can’t say any more, but they’re not going for action. Keith will be driving for the Navy. Arthur is happy he’ll be with the Military Police.

Arthur likes that the Army has let him back as a policeman. I know he misses the force, but it’s been 15 years since his disgrace. He should be over it by now. He should get on with looking after his family. ‘Military police keep military secrets,’ he says.

It’s a secret where he’s been for the last few nights. Doing something with somebody, I’m sure. It’s not my role to question that.

All I know is I don’t want to end up like the pock-faced lunatics who were in with my father. The treatment for the pox is worse than disease itself. Sends you mad, it does. Eats your face off. Kills your children.

It’s another reason not to let him near me. I’m getting to old for it anyway. My hot flashes could heat the house in the dead of winter.

I’ve signed two of my boys over to the King. Keith’s his own man. He doesn’t need my permission. Three boys off to the other side of the world is enough. Who knows what they will see and do?

At least Harold is on his way home now. They’ve released him from duty. Rheumatism is what his letter said. Nobody in the family has had that before. The last time we received a letter he said that he was on an island called Lemnos and that I’d hate the smell of the place despite the lemon trees and lavender.

I wonder if Lemnos looks like Granite Island? Greece is so very far away.

It’s all for King and Country.

I wonder if the King’s sons are going to some far shores. Would he let his boys go?

December 1915

What have they done to my sweet boy?

Harold is now home. Back working at Bells, back with his buttons and bows. He’s proposed to Belle. Everything should be back to normal.

It isn’t.

He looks like my Harold, although he’s lost a bit of weight. Any sudden noises and he jumps a mile. He won’t tell me what happened.

We decided it was time to celebrate Harold and Belle’s engagement. Reg bought a leg of lamb from the butcher with his wages. He called it their engagement present. I managed to buy a few more trimmings to help supplement the vegetables from our garden. It was going to be a lovely meal.

‘Harold, can you get the meat from the safe, love? I want to stroke the floor before Belle and her parents get here.’

It seemed like a simple request. My boys have always liked helping around the kitchen, even if their father forbade it.

‘Sure, Ma. And it’s sweep the floor!’

‘I’m Cornish. We stroke the floor, love.’

The boys all love to correct me when I fall into my Mother’s Cornish talk. Hot the kettle. Stroke the floor.

Harold made his way out to the verandah and collected the meat, bringing it back to the kitchen.

‘Unwrap it for me, love.’

‘Sure, Ma.’

His able hands, used to the work of haberdashery, made light work of the parcel, dealing with the newspaper and string with a light touch. He stood looking at the lamb for what seemed an age before he turned green and flew out into the yard. I could hear him being sick into the dunny.

He stayed there for a long time. At first I let him be. Finally, after the vegetables were done, I went out to him.

‘What’s the matter, love?’

Crouched in the washing shed, Harold tried to calm his sobs.

My boys have never cried.

‘I had to play at all the funerals, Ma,’ he gasped. ‘Stand over the graves and play the Last Post as they buried the diggers. Sometimes all they buried were bits of mincemeat. Sometimes they looked like that leg of lamb.’

Ten minutes later he came into the house, taking care to shut the fly wire door.

‘Sorry, Ma.’

‘Don’t be.’

Belle and her parents knocked at the front door. Harold went to let them in the house.

It’s the only time he spoke of his time at the Front.

 

February 1917

I didn’t mean to walk so far.

They were putting the tram horses to bed. The last tram had come back from the island an hour before. I could just hear their whinnies as they were fed, mixing with the shouts of the last revelers of the six-o-clock swill at the Grosvenor.  Reg often takes Marge down to the tram horse shed to give the horses an apple as a treat. Great, gentle Clydesdales, she knows to talk softly to them and keep her hand flat as she presents them with the apple. I find the horses’ acrid smell comforting.

The sun had begun to set behind The Bluff, the water of the Southern Ocean deceptively warm and still. I’m sure somebody noticed that I had hoisted up my skirts and I was carrying my shoes, paddling alone in the cool waters of Encounter Bay, but I didn’t care. I took in the smell of seaweed, sun and sand which always strengthens as night comes. The birds made their way across to Wright Island for the night, their own quiet sanctuary.

We used to bring the boys down here when we first moved in. I can see them now in their knitted bathing costumes padding about, the older boys teaching Reg and Les to swim, while keeping cool on hot summer evenings.

I should have been home.

I try not to think of the sand, which retained its warmth from the heat of the day. I’ve never really liked the beach, because of the sand. And we live in an old whaling station. You can never escape the sand.

Past the rocks, I can see the boys as they buried Keith up to his neck one day, years ago. Boys, why do they always have to play war games?

Keith now lies in a sandy grave in Alexandria. They said they gave him a Christian burial.

Why can’t he rise up and shake the sand off like he did with his brothers all those years ago, laughing at the folly, squinting as he looks towards the sun?

 

March 1917

The washboard felt warped beneath my fingers as I worked the suds over the bloomers soaking in the soapy water. There’s barely a need to hot the copper, the summer heat is suffocating in the laundry shed. I lose myself in the rhythm of the rubbing. Even in the cool of the morning, the air is as dry as a bone. Hopefully autumn will come soon. This summer has been nothing but trouble.

It’s a long way to Tipperary,
It’s a long way to go…’

I need to find another song to scrub to. Keith used to sing this as he made his way to his boat.

Pick up, scrub, rinse, repeat. The pile of Mrs Treloar’s smalls waits in the basket. Mrs Crittenden’s items hang on the line, nearly dry. Marge can take them over to her when she gets back from school. Les’s sheets are in a pile near the door. I’ll get to them later and run them through. He’s had few dry nights since the news. I’m glad his father isn’t home – he’d belt him to kingdom come. He’ll settle. We’ll all settle. At least in this weather, the sheets dry quickly.

The neighbours have been wonderful these last few weeks. The minister’s wife drops by regularly to see how we are. I’ve sent a number of notes to Keswick Barracks, but no answer. It took them long enough to track me down when the news came through. The telegram went to Jenny Jarvis in Encounter Bay first up. It seems the war office have lost my details.

Reg says that they get all sorts of things wrong. He knows. He’s running telegrams at Goolwa at the moment. His pay, pittance that it is, is helping to keep us all fed, along with my sewing and washing money. Arthur’s in Adelaide doing something with the Military Police. He stays in town. We don’t see his wage.

Its a long way to Tipperary,
To the sweetest gal I know
…’

I barely heard the knock at the door. The house was empty with Reg at work, Les and Marge at school.

The telegram boy, barely out of short pants, was holding two brown paper parcels. His hair greasy, skin aflame, I hope Reg looks better turned out than this wretch when he does his rounds. I’d be embarrassed if he were my son, knocking on doors in such a state.

‘Mrs Jarvis. I need you to sign for these, please.’

‘What are they?’

The lad looked at his papers and blanched. ‘It says they’re the personal effects of the late No. 394, Able Bodied Driver, K. Jarvis. First Naval Bridging Train. I’m sorry, M’am.’ He stared at his feet.

I do hope Reg has better manners when he takes out his telegrams and parcels.

‘Well bring them in the kitchen. Come on in.’ I hold the door open for him. He wipes his feet on the mat. At least his mother trained him for that. He followed me down the short hallway to the kitchen and placed the parcels on the table with care.

‘Can you sign this slip please, Mrs Jarvis.’

‘Of course.’ I took the stubby pencil he handed me and signed the consignment note. ‘Here’s your pencil. Thank you for bringing these to me.’

I see the lad to the front door.

‘God bless you, Mrs Jarvis.’

‘You too, son.’

I straighten myself to my full height. At four foot eleven, there isn’t much of me. I walk back out to the laundry shed. Mrs Treloar will want her washing by the evening. It won’t do itself.

 

Later, after tea, after Les and Marge are in bed, after Reg and Harold had gone out for the evening, I took the parcels from the linen press and placed them on the table. I turned the lamps up and the room glowed. The Red Cross has taken care with them, the brown paper corners are folded neatly to a knife edge. The labels are typed and pasted on with glue. The Effects of the late No. 394 A.B.D. Jarvis, K. First Naval Bridging Train.

He’s a number. My son is a number and a unit and a job.

The forces don’t see him as a person. They don’t recognise the boy who ran and swam and looked at each of his brothers as if they were born with a bad smell, only to love them with all his heart within a day. They don’t see him out on his boat, humming as he brings in his cray pots. They don’t know the man who was looking forward to coming home and marrying his sweetheart.

He’s now an inconvenient number.

Using the peeling knife, I cut away the string and carefully undo the packages. I don’t want to know what’s in them, but if I leave them, the young ones will get into them.

I placed each item out on the table carefully.

This is what a life comes to.

My children will be doing this for me one day.

Pencils. An inkpot. Mittens, the ones I knitted him before he went away. His fishing gloves. A pack of cards. A letter from Betty, unopened. His spectacles, that were a chore to get him to buy. ‘What do I need spectacles for, Ma? What are they going to make me read?’ I can hear him now.

It’s all listed on the manifest. Typed out by some pen pusher in Melbourne, all catalogued and copied in triplicate, folded, filed and here I am, receiving a carbon copy of the list. Of course they need the original back in Melbourne.

They’ve got the bloody original in the Suez. Six feet under. Dead.

I retrieved his watch from the box. It’s the one we saved for and gave to him for his twenty-first birthday. Not that he had use for a watch on the boat, but he cherished it. Taking it from its box, it’s still as new. There’s barely a pleat in the leather band. He’s been careful with it.

Bringing the watch to my face, I get a hint of his salty, sweet smell with a touch of Macassar as he gets ready to meet Betty and her parents for Sunday lunch. It’s the smell I remember, as he would crawl into my lap as a boy and snuggle in for a while.

Next, I found the Christmas present we sent him in September, unopened. What was he doing all this time? We had no notice he was sick. How could they not have given him his parcels? They said all mail gets through.

What are we going to do with these buttons and trinkets at the bottom of the box? What should I do with his specs?

The last thing I found was his dentures. They’ve sent back his false teeth!

How! Why?

Couldn’t they bury my beautiful boy with a complete face? Couldn’t they see him to the afterlife intact, handsome and smiling instead of having a face like a twisted boot?

I gave my boy over to these people.

Couldn’t they see him off with a little bit of dignity?

 

 

References:

Primary Sources

Jarvis, Beryl (2000) ‘The Jarvis Family from 1810 – 2000’ (Self-Published, Adelaide).

Laube, A (1992) ‘They Were Trimmers: Memoirs of Walter Buxton Bruce’ , Victor Harbor, Self-Published.

World War One Records courtesy of the National Archives: www.naa.gov.au

Arthur Harold Jarvis (20 November 1868 – 16 September 1946)

Service Number 657 Discharged Regulars 29 September 1916

Enlisted Home Service Intelligence Department 30 September 2016, Keswick

Able Bodied Driver Keith Jarvis No 394 (18 October 1891 – 30 December 1916)

Bugler Harold Arthur Jarvis Service Number 1323 (1 March 1894 – 22 September 1956)

Sergeant Eric Roy Jarvis Service Number 3548 (2 August 1896 – 13 November 1967)

Private Reginald Lancelot Jarvis (13 April 1899 – 3 November 1983)

 

Evans, K, (2014) Secret WWI History of Australian Soldiers with Venereal Disease, Canberra Times, 23 January 2014 viewed 25 July 2015 http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/secret-wwi-history-of-australian-soldiers-with-venereal-disease-20141023-119wan.html

 

Newspaper Articles courtesy of www.trove.nla.gov.au

‘Adventure with a Shark’, Adelaide Chronicle, p.45, 4 July 1908.

‘Late Private Jarvis’, Obituary, The Victor Harbor Times and Encounter Bay and Lower Murray Pilot, 12 January 1917.

‘Victor Harbor, October 25’ Southern Argus, p.3. 28 October 1915.

‘The Late Private K. Jarvis’ Obituary. Adelaide Chronicle, p.44, 20 January 1917.

‘Anzac Day at Victor Harbor’ The Victor Harbor Times and Encounter Bay and Lower Murray Pilot, 27 April 1917.

Lyrics

‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, Judge, J & Williams, H, Chappell & Co, New York (1912).

‘Song of Australia’, Carleton, C (1859).

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Margaret Minnis (Aunty Marg) and Kay Potter (Mum) for sharing their memories and stories of the family.

In loving memory of Eliza Jane Jarvis, nee James (12 June 1867- 23 June 1955).

 

Image by: Gemma Evans