The light was fading by the time Jack made it back to the town square, the unfamiliar shapes of the medieval structures now draped in a romantic glow from the lights of the hotels and restaurants. He stopped to fully appreciate the fairy tale scene. It was incredible to think that everything he saw had been rebuilt since the war. He shivered, and his hands came from his pockets to turn up the collar of his coat in an attempt to keep his neck warm. Spotting the sign of his hotel he headed towards its promise of warmth and food.
The detour to Ypres had been one of the more whimsical things he had ever done, and yet it had seemed fitting that, before embarking on a new adventure with Miss Fisher, he should close the door on the adventure that had been defining him since 1918. And so, stepping off the boat in France he had sent a telegram rather enigmatically referring to a desire to say farewell to old friends and providing a date a week later than his original arrival. He assumed she would realise he was not referring to a bevy of ex-lovers.
He had spent the day searching grassy fields for landmarks, trying to recall the layout of trenches he had once known like the back of his hand… it had been surprisingly unfulfilling and the only thing he had really felt was the cold. Although, even that had not been how he remembered it, lacking as it did mud, stench and the constant sound of gunfire. An hour or so ago it had finally dawned on him that he was wasting his time.
And now, more than ever, he longed to be with her. To have her hold him, make love to him, to share with him the open, honest excitement with which she greeted each day. As he stepped through the door of the hotel to the tinkle of a bell he understood that, though the journey had not given him the ending he had anticipated, it had been an end. Tomorrow morning he would catch the train back to Calais and head on to London; there was nothing here for him. Not here or in any other field in which the remains of so many young friends lay mouldering. Their time was past and he owed it to them to live each day to the full. It was, he thought, time to take his own advice.
He removed his hat and coat, gratefully placing them into the waiting hands of the proprietor, who had bustled up to meet him and was doing double service as welcoming committee and barman for the hotel restaurant. The dark haired, swarthy man in black trousers and waistcoat, with white shirt, gave a wide smile and said something in Flemish which Jack, from his gesticulations, took as an enquiry whether he would be dining. His polite nod resulted in him being led to a square wooden table by the windows. Glancing around, Jack assessed his fellow diners: an elderly couple, a group of four young men that could have been students and another solitary man like himself.
A young dark haired woman, also endowed with a swarthy complexion but a great deal more attractive than the proprietor, minced her way towards him, a bottle of red wine held suggestively in front of her ample bosom. She smiled, flashing even white teeth as her hazel coloured eyes crinkled at the sides. Her voice, when she spoke, was a calm mid tone that he found pleasing, though once again he was required to make an educated guess as to her meaning. The meal of the evening he discerned was pork of some sort, or perhaps chicken; he had been slightly distracted by the need to place his hand over the wine glass to stop her filling it.
She spoke again, no doubt asking what his preferred drink would be. Something in the way he gazed vacantly at her for a moment before recalling that beer was bieres in Flemish resulted in her asking, “Engelse?”
Jack shook his head, “Australian.”
She smiled, “Een momentje alsjeblieft,” and headed back to the bar. A conversation ensued between her and the man Jack thought was likely her father. He heard the word ‘Aussie,’ and saw the man nod, turn to grab a sizable glass and hold it under one of the ornate beer taps. Jack’s mouth moved into a crooked smile.
The woman, who Jack considered to be immensely good at her job, walked back and placed the glass proudly in front of him.
‘Good day, mate,’ she said.
His hand encircled the cold glass. ‘G’day,’ he replied. Stifling a giggle, she withdrew to allow him to enjoy his beverage. His eyes lingered on her retreating form - she was, in Shakespearean terms, ‘a comely wench’ and in other circumstances he may have been tempted to flirt, maybe even take it further if she wanted, but he had never been a man for dalliances once his affections were engaged.
The tinkle of a bell told him another guest had come in from the cold.
‘G’day, Alec, Michelle. Make mine large and cold, mate.’
Jack, sipping from his beer, looked up at the familiar accent to see a tall, broad shouldered man around his own age. He was dressed in a manner that suggested to Jack that he had been in Europe for a very long time. Before Jack could decide whether to make himself known, his identity was disclosed by the proprietor who, holding out a matching glass of amber gold, pointed at him with the accompanying statement of, ‘Aussie.’
The glass was taken possession of and the man leaned back against the bar. A deep sip was taken before the glass was held up in salutation, “G’day,” he said.
Jack gave a nod in acknowledgement.
He looked at the empty chair beside Jack, “Do ya mind?”
Jack tilted his head encouragingly, surprised to find how much he would welcome the company. Before he left the bar the man spoke in fluent Flemish to the young woman, probably arranging his meal, though the way her eyes danced and the sassy manner in which she replied made it clear she would be open to a far more intimate conversation.
When, to her obvious disappointment, the conversation was over, Jack nudged the chair beside him with his foot as further invitation.
“Cheers, mate,” said the man as he sank into it. “So what's the good oil from back home?”
Jack shrugged, “She’s been a long dry summer, Phar Lap went down in the Cup and Collingwood won the Grand Final.”
The man took out a pack of cigarettes, holding them out to Jack, who declined. He shook one free, held the pack to his mouth to catch it, cupping the end with his hand as he lit it, a habit born of years protecting the match from biting wind and snipers. He took a deep draught of the ciggie and, as he exhaled he nodded at Jack, “Melbourne boy, yeah?”
“Born and bred within sight and smell of the Yarra,” Jack responded.
The man snorted, “I ain’t seen that muddy creek since 1914.”
Jack let his breath whistle out through his teeth. “That’s a long time, cobber.”
The man took another drink. “It is. Tell me, how’s Richmond been going in the comp and who hobbled the horse?” And so they sat, drank, ate and spoke sports, as men do the world over.
Michelle ran back and forth, eager to keep their glasses full and their conversation flowing. She appreciated the contrast of the lean attractive stranger with his impeccable suit and hair against the heftier familiarity of the sandy tousled hair of the freckled man and the deep boom of their laughter. Each time she brought them drinks she stayed longer and longer until she finally took the chair they kept offering.
Jack wondered at the relationship between them until, when she went to replenish their drinks again, the man leaned in conspiratorially to say, “She’s a good ‘un, too good for the likes of me but she’s her own woman and I see the looks she's been throwing ya. If you ask, she won't say no.”
Jack shook his head. “There’s a woman. In England. That’s where I’m headed.”
The man cocked his head, “Michelle ain't gonna tell no tales.”
Jack snorted, “That’s not the point.”
“Ah,” said the man, “you’re in love with ‘er. Does she know?”
Jack shook his head, amused at his own foolishness. “I expect the whole of Melbourne knows.”
The man looked serious. “If you haven’t told her, you should. You can’t be sure otherwise. Ain’t nothing to be gained in keeping your feelings secret, it don’t change them.”
Jack nodded. “True. Sounds like you have experience?”
Rather than answer the man stood, slipping his arm round Michelle’s waist as she returned holding two more beers. Jack jumped up to take them from her before they spilt and she smiled her thanks, laughing as she was spun into an impromptu jig.
“Sing us a song, mate?” called out his new friend.
Jack glanced at the piano in the corner. “I can do better than that.” He looked at the barman, who nodded happily, and so he sat at the instrument and began to play.
Another hour passed pleasantly until the man collapsed panting into a chair facing the piano.
“It’s too much, Michelle, take pity on an old man.”
She said something to him in Flemish and kissed him on the cheek as she caressed his face. Jack watched silently; it was clear where the woman’s affections lay, she was making no attempt to hide her love. The man enclosed her hand in his and brought it to his mouth to kiss it gallantly, shaking his head and replying in her own language. She had a sweet, sad smile on her face as she passed Jack, empty glasses in hand.
Jack let his hands idly wander the piano keys, playing snippets from various songs as the fancy took him. It had been fun, but he felt the night was drawing to a natural conclusion. When he glanced up the man was staring at him. Jack stopped, “Sorry, I was miles away.”
The man blinked, “That makes two of us. You reminded me of someone then, he used to play piano whenever he could find one. I hope there’s pianos a plenty where he is now.”
Jack nodded, understanding that he meant his friend was dead. “Was it here?” he asked, as his fingers danced lightly across the keys.
“Yes,” came the reply, “about a mile out of town to the east.”
“Is that why you came back?” Jack focused on the keys. There was silence, which Jack did not disturb, as he moved into a slow rendition of ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
After a while, in a low, unsteady voice, the man said, “You’re breaking my heart, cobber,”
Jack promptly changed to the far more chirpy, ‘Pack up your troubles’ and made an attempt at casual conversation, “What is it you do to pass the time?”
“I paint. I drink. After the war I took to wandering around Europe, fell in with some bohemian artists. Found I had a talent. For both.”
Jack nodded, “Sounds like fun.”
“It was, for a while but this place pulled me back and I didn’t want to spend my life painting fruit or naked women.”
Jack tilted his head, “I don’t know, I always appreciate a well formed apple.”
“Seen one, seen them all.”
Jack transitioned into ‘Keep the home fires burning.’ “You want to tell me what happened?”
“You know what happened, we were running towards the bloody krauts, shells were exploding all around us, one moment he was there right beside me, the next he was gone.”
Jack nodded, “Yes, that happened.”
“The only person who ever loved me disappeared in smoke and a hail of mud, there wasn’t nothing left of him.”
Jack played on.
“I’m not… it wasn’t like that. Ed was a good mate, ‘course I knew how he was, he never tried to hide it or how he felt about me but I had my girl back at home and he never tried it on.”
“But you wish he had?” Jack prompted, keeping his tone free of judgement.
“It would have been something to remember, something real, to even have held hands,” the artist admitted, “and then he would have known that he was more than just another mate, that I felt the same way for him.”
Jack played on... wondering. If the boy hadn’t died would he really have declared his love? More likely he would have gone home to his girl and the life he had expected, and it would have been the other one wandering lost in what might have beens. It was strange how things worked out. “The woman, Michelle? She loves you.”
“She ought to know better.”
“Love doesn’t work that way, you don't always get to choose - this time I’m the one speaking from experience. Let the dead go,” Jack’s voice was low, barely louder than the piano - she was on her way back - “believe me, the living really are much more fun.” He broke out into a medley of popular dance hall tunes.