This is the re-written version of a short story I did for a competition last year, which is based on a one act play I wrote.
Three days of ferocious fighting. Three days of rain and fog. Yet the soldiers from Australia’s 2/ 9th Battalion held fast. They formed a defensive line of trenches, nicknamed The Glue Pits – a dose of dour, Australian humor resulting from the constant highland rain and humidity, which turned the red soil into a sticky, gelatinous paste.
The long, undulating ridge the Australians defended rose from the jungles like an infected green boil that the Japanese 18th Army planned on lancing before December 25th, 1942.
In one of those boggy dugouts held by C Company’s second platoon, two soldiers, Jack and Curly, stared past the lip of their trench. Neither man spoke, nor did they notice the hovering clouds of insects over the bloated and torn bodies of Japanese soldiers.
The Australian soldiers held their gaze to the broken, black-green wall of the jungle, which peppered the battle-plowed clearing. As with much of the Australian Infantry forces sent to fight in the Pacific campaigns, they were ill-equipped and unprepared. Yet, with tenacious resistance, they doggedly survived the savage Japanese assaults, disease, and the unforgiving jungle’s terrain.
Amidst the nearest beige and khaki uniforms of the enemy lay the mismatched green uniforms of those Australian scouts caught by a barrage of mortar shells. Those falling weights of destruction disemboweled the verdant grass meadow to leave blackened craters and churned earth, eviscerating both living and dead.
The two soldiers’ faces were taut. Their hearts were heavy with loss and despair. The recent and fatal wounding of their platoon sergeant, their leader, and their friend cut deeper than all those combined horrors of jungle warfare.
Curly, the older of the two men, lowered his eyes to the crumpled body lying on the wet earth under Jack’s ground sheet. He lifted his slouch hat to wipe away the sweat from his grime-slicked, bald head. Curly felt sure the death of his best friend meant there would be no tomorrow for the platoon.
The middle-aged soldier’s eyes lost focus behind a glaze of sorrow. “I’ll be buggered if he’s dead. He just ain’t. You weren’t in Africa, but I’ll tell you a thing.” He lifted the Sarg’s machine gun from the mud. “There was me with some fuckin’ shrapnel in my leg. And him with his shoulder and gut shot full of Jerry lead. The whole fuckin’ company was dug in like rats getting a right thumping from old Rommel’s mob. But he held us all together. Calm as a nun he was. Strewth, it was a sight to behold.” Curly slapped at a mosquito on his cheek and dragged a finger under his eye. “It took three fuckin’ hours ‘til them useless mongrels from the 7th showed up.” With a gentle reverence, Curly laid the machine gun beside his platoon leader. “Our dugout got strafed by a couple of Jerry MG-38s, just as the old bastard shifted position. I don’t know how, but every bloody bullet missed his vitals, and just left bleeding holes in him.” Curly slumped on an empty munitions crate. “We survived the Fox with his Eyetie and Nazi goons as well as the desert.” Curly lifted his hat and wiped away the accumulating sweat beading on his bald scalp. “I had the chance to pack it in, give ’em back the uniform, and go back to the docks. Instead, like a right royal tosser, I volunteered to follow Bill and fight the bloody Nips.” In a flare of sorrow-filled anger, he threw his hat at his feet. “And for what?” Weariness overcame his rage. “Just get the chop here in this stinking, bloody mud hole.” Curly kicked his foot against a sodden clump of mud. “Christ al-fucking-mighty. What are we gonna do now?”
“We do our bloody jobs, that’s what.” Jack reached over to lift Curly’s slouch hat from the mud, confronted the veteran of Tobruk, and threw the hat at him. “So, pull your bloody head in, and start acting like the soldier you flaming well are.”
The subject of Curly and Jack’s debate awoke under a pale, azure glow. Bent over him, a woman in her early forties lifted back the ground sheet as the light faded.
Confused, the sergeant pushed himself upright. “Who the hell are you?” he barked at the woman who stood in his trench, carrying a briefcase and wearing a pinstripe skirt, matching jacket, and cream blouse.
“You may call me the Magistrate,” the woman replied as she adjusted the fringe of her neat, dark hair.
“Magistrate?” The sergeant scowled suspiciously at the intruding woman. “How the fu–” He tilted his head, pursed his lips, inhaled a sharp breath through his nose, counted to five, and exhaled. “How in blazes did you get in my bloody trench?” The sergeant twisted around to reach for Jack. “Corporal, tell me what the bloody hell is goin’ on here and get this…this over-dressed peahen out of my f-friggin’ trench!”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t allow that.”
“You can’t…” The sergeant’s eyes popped with bewilderment. He stepped forward toward Jack as the Magistrate gently touched his shoulder. “Besides, they can’t hear or see you.”
With her touch, the sergeant found his movements restricted. The air around him filled with invisible treacle suffocating his every move.
Taking advantage of his entrapment, the woman circled him. She turned her nose up at the digger’s torn, dirty, and sweat-stained fatigues. When she completed her study of his combat attire, with an audible “tch, tch” and shake of her head, the Magistrate opened her briefcase. After taking out a leather-bound, rectangular object, she moved over to place the carry bag onto the crumpled ground sheet. She fussed over the case to ensure it stayed upright and didn’t fall into the mud.
Then, almost as an afterthought, she tapped his shoulder again before opening the smaller case. A pale-green glow haloed from the object, giving the Magistrate’s shadowed features a sharp, harder outline.
The sergeant almost stumbled from his sudden freedom. “Bullshit. You can’t–” On regaining his balance, he noticed the object’s glow. “Shit!” He lunged toward the source of light. “Turn that frigging light off. Jesus. It’ll bring the whole bloody Jap army on us.”
The Magistrate swatted his hands away and raised an eyebrow. “No, it won’t.” She shook her head. “As I told you, nobody can see us. Therefore, no one can see this.”
“What the hell does that mean?” The sergeant pointed toward the illuminated piece of glass. “I can see that…thing, and I can bloody well see us too.”
“Ahh,” she consulted her screen, “William, you are one for stating the obvious.”
“It’s Bill or Sarg, but in your case, it’s Mr. Riley.” The Sarg made a move toward the small case again.
“Be still and ignore the light.” She folded the flap to hide the glow. “I told you no one other than you or I can see us.” She crossed her arms. “This will all go along much better if you refrain from any further hysterics.”
Her officious, blunt tone smothered the sergeant’s further outburst. His mind threatened to shut down. He slumped against the dirt side of the trench, and her words echoed from ear to ear. “I’ll tell you what’s flamin’ obvious. I’m either dreaming, or I’ve got the chop.”
“I can assure you, you are not dreaming.”
A sensation of calm ebbed over the sergeant. “Then I’m dead.” He pushed himself upright. “I always figured the door to hell would be full of smoke and fire, and not filled with a blue, glowing light.”
“Oh, William, do cheer up. If it makes any difference, you are not dead.” She pondered her statement. “In truth, you are in a place of resting between life and death.”
“Good-o.” He gave her a short, curt smile. “I feel much better knowing that.”
“Of course, I bloody don’t,” his full parade voice barked. “Strewth. But you are an odd bird.” The sergeant leaned over the Magistrate. “Can you at least tell me what the blue light was? Or is that a bloody riddle too?”
The Magistrate raised herself as straight as her short height would allow. “The blue light,” she replied, “is used as a transitional portal into a zone beyond where we are.”
“You do like your friggin’ riddles.” His anger waned into exasperation.
“The zone we are in is referred to as nether-space.”
The Sarg stabbed a finger at the Magistrate. “All right, Missus. Answer me this.” He waved his arms about. “If we’re invisible in this nether-space, why bloody well freeze me?”
“For their protection. You must understand, in their plain of existence, and with your emotional state, you would be – what is the term – a poltergeist.”
“A poltergeist. What a bunch of malarkey.”
“It most certainly is not malarkey.” She flared. “Such mergers create havoc to everyone concerned, disrupting their lives and plans.” The Magistrate tapped the glowing plate.
“Why call yourself Magistrate?” The Sarg looked toward Jack and Curly and whispered, “Toffee-nosed bitch is more like it.”
“I can be one if you want.”
Bill ignored her jibe. “So, what,” he crossed his arms with a smug expression, “am I in the dock then?”
“In a manner of speaking. You see, my role considers a case when a plan’s juncture brings a person, such as yourself, to nether-space. I then rule if that person moves into a place of peace and harmony, or one of misery and torment. However, on a rare occasion, there have been circumstances to argue a case for the return to their previous continuance.”
Before Bill could respond, the night around them erupted into a firestorm. He stared at the strange woman and her total indifference to the surrounding Japanese assault as she scrolled, tapped, and read her glowing folder. Then the sergeant realized the unfolding attack occurred in deafening silence.
Bewildered, he watched the muted clash in impotent anger as her hand brushed his shoulder. Once again, he couldn’t move, while nearby the Magistrate disappeared into a warm, amber light.
By the end of the failed Japanese offensive, his anger had turned to dread. Is this nether-space what she meant by misery and torment? Although the Sarg could not move his body, he found his fingers curled into painful fists, while the muscles between his shoulder blades tightened into a cramp. He should be there directing his men and supporting his mates. A heavy, single stream of frustration rolled down his stubbled cheek.
Behind the sergeant, the amber light reappeared. A hand touched his shoulder, and he collapsed against the trench wall. He cuffed away the tears, watching the radiant light fade behind the Magistrate’s silhouette. The air smelled of lavender and iron filings. Without considering why, Bill didn’t hesitate to compare the odor with the enigmatic woman: almost pleasant, but with a tang of metallic hardness.
“Where the hell did you nick off to?”
“My apologies. I needed to plead your case.”
“Who with?” Bill crossed his arms. Plead my bloody case. All he wanted was an end to this nightmare of a night, along with its over-dressed woman.
“The Chief Magistrate, of course.”
“The Chief–” Flamin’ bloody hell. “Look, Missus, I’m starting to get a little-pissed off with–”
“Good grief. I can assure you I am not married!” The Magistrate rolled her eyes.
I reckon I know why, too. Bill pushed himself off the mud wall. “What’d you mean by ‘plead my case’?” He peered over her shoulder at the bright screen full of intersecting, multicolored lines and streaming letters. “Is all that frigging gibberish my life’s plan?”
“My, you are a clever boy.” The Magistrate flashed a condescending smile. “I went to plead your case for continuance because your plan, and that belonging to one of your men, appears to have a paradoxical fault…”
“You mean it’s busted?”
Her brief smile confirmed his question.
“Hang about… Did you just say the plan for one of my boys is also stuffed up?”
“Ugh.” The sergeant scratched the back of his neck. “I’ll lay odds it’s Tommy. He’s a good lad and all, but strewth, he near wets himself when a monkey fart’s.”
“I am afraid it is not Tommy–” She noticed the expression on the sergeant’s face. “Oh, do not fret, William. Tommy will live to see the war out.”
“Then who? Curly? Shit, it’d serve the old bastard right.”
“Why would you wish a friend dead?”
“Jesus, you’re dry… It was a bloody joke.” Bill shook his head.
“Well then, who is it?”
“It is Jack.”
“Jack?” The sergeant looked across to see Jack peering into the darkness behind his rifle.
“Yes.” She closed the leather case. “You see, Sergeant, Jack is one of those who is required to be around for the sake of others to guide and help them,” she plucked some lint from her sleeve,
“many of whom will simply be better people because of him.”
“Strewth. You make the bugger out to be a saint.”
“Jack is a good man, but I doubt he is ‘saint’ material.” The Magistrate moved between Jack and Curly. “Jack isn’t destined for greatness as such. But the reasons for his continuance are no less important.”
“Not being dead, keeping Jack alive, and meeting you. Bloody hell. I don’t reckon anyone will believe this yarn.”
“I am sorry. It is doubtful you will recall or remember our encounter.” The Magistrate pointed toward the ground sheet. “Now, lay back down.”
Eager for the return to his men, the sergeant, surrounded by the azure light, lay back onto the damp, tacky soil.
The drab, pale-green walls did little to lift the spirits of the man lying in the hospital bed. With a shaking hand, he brought over the green, plastic cup of water to quench his thirst. His thin fingers resembled jointed wads of dried paper parchment.
The effort of returning the cup to the tray seemed almost exhausting. So, he kept his hand against his chest. “You think they’d give a dying bloke a whiskey.”
His head dropped back on the pillow where he closed his eyes. Images drifted up from the thick, gray cloud of his subconscious. Broken sounds went with the tabloid. Gunfire; cries of fear and anger; dirt and mud. “France…”
Within a blink, he sat in a meadow below rolling green hills dotted with gorse and thistles. Next, to him, a young, redheaded girl pulled up her tartan skirt. What was her name? “Molly… Yes, it was Molly.” He told an empty room.
His dream shifted to hot sands, jokes with his boys, and teasing a young English nurse whose face faded into the jungles of New Guinea: more trenches, mud, and blood. A staccato of images flicked by, only to scatter at the sound of the gravelly voice in his ear.
“Bill. How are you, mate?”
He opened his eyes. “Old and tired, Curly.” With a feeble grip, Bill clasps the hand of his lifelong friend.
“Here, look out, you silly old bugger.” Curly’s warm tone chastised his friend as his own, weather- and time-worn hand caught the cup of water.
Behind Curly, a tall man in an officer’s uniform marched in to greet Bill.
I know this bloke… “Tommy?” Bill uttered with a wheezed laugh. “Christ almighty. You’ve made captain.”
“They’re shipping me off to Townsville next week.” Tommy patted Bill’s shoulder. “I’m to take command of their C Company.”
Bill reached out with a smile and patted the younger man’s arm. “Do them, proud son.”
Following Tommy came a shorter man wearing a doctor’s white coat. His gentle face smiled beneath a thinning head of grey-streaked hair. “All right, you lot. Keep it down.” He picked up Bill’s chart and then went around the bed to check on the drip and monitors. Satisfied with what he saw, he reached out his hand to Curly.
Curly clasped the doctor’s hand. “Long time, Jack.” He flicked a thumb toward Bill who had closed his eyes. “Hope he ain’t been giving you any grief.”
“A little, but I’d expect nothing less.”
A small smile creased Bill’s aged face as the voices of his friends faded. Through his tissue-thin eyelids, an azure glow came and went. A soft hand reached out to brush his cheek.
Bill opened his eyes. He studied the person beside the bed and frowned. “I know you…”
“Yes, William.” Beside the bed, a woman in a suit coat and skirt studied the men nearby and opened a leather case to reveal a soft, green glow. “It’s time now.”
A distant, lost conversation rose from his subconscious. “You were right about Jack. Although, I think he’s helped me more than I helped him.”
“You all helped each other.” She wiped away the single tear on Bill’s cheek.
“So, have I earned that peace and harmony?”
“Indeed, you have, William.” She slipped the leather-bound, glowing plate into her briefcase. “As was always the plan.” With her free hand, she took Bill’s to help him stand, and together they walked toward the growing circle of azure light.