I am fortunate enough to work with a wonderful Senior Editor named Mary. Already I regard her as a mentor – she knows so much! She is a grammar stickler but is in no way, heavy-handed with it. The worst way to edit copy is with the fear of making a mistake. I have worked with several editors like that before and found myself on tenterhooks all day. I made more mistakes than someone would where English was a second language. After six months of that kind of regime I found my brain was addled. I was unable to complete sentences when speaking aloud, reverting to my childhood habit of mumbling, and referred to objects as ‘that thing’ and ‘stuff.’ My mother thought I’d suffered some kind of brain injury.
Mary makes Glenda and I feel at ease. She is 65 and says things like cool and excellent. It is refreshing. We had coffee together this morning sitting outside the office on the grass. It was one of those days that can only be described as immaculate. I work close to where I live in an office that looks onto Blackwattle Bay which is one of the bays that lead off Sydney Harbour. The water this morning was smoky blue shatterproof glass. Gulls glided above it like skaters. Dogs fetched sticks that hovered for a moment, held in place by the deep blue calm before sinking. The air was fresh and new. If I had been standing on a hill the day was so clear I would have been able to see forever just like Barbra Streisand.
As we munched our pastries and cafe lattes Mary grew teary. Her father had died on this day during the second World War. He was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned for three years. “They put bamboo under his fingernails,” she said. He died in the POW camp after a bout of typhoid fever just before the war ended. Mary was 3. She never really knew him but she wears his dog tags to this day.
In a cruel twist of fate Mary’s mother also lost her father during the first World War. He served in the light horse infantry and was killed in Syria in 1918 when the Australians entered Damascus. Mary’s grandmother raised her children alone.
Mary’s mother watched the world with fury after her husband was killed. “If she had the power she would have cursed the men who plunge countries into a state of war”, Mary says. “She always said that presidents and prime ministers play with people’s lives like we are tokens in boardgames. We’ve been fighting one another for thousands of years and we still haven’t learned the simplest of things – how to talk to one another as human beings.”
We sit in the stillness. Heron fly low over the water, searching for perch. A toddler speeds past us on a tricycle, chubby thighs pounding like pistons. What must it be like when your loved one dies for his country and you are left behind to stand wordless and alone looking out at the sky?
Two Australian soldiers – David Pearce and Matthew Locke have recently been killed in Afghanistan. When David Pearce’s body arrived back in Australia there was a picture in the press of his young daughter, pretty in a perfectly pressed summer dress, her face crumpled. Her grief was so great that if I had met her in person I would not have been able to do anything but lower my eyes.
“I yearned for my father for over twenty years,” Mary says. “I wanted to tell him about my life. That I wanted to climb mountains and drink cocktails in the south of France and eat fish caught fresh from the ocean in Vanuatu. I wanted to tell him I liked string beans but not carrots. I wanted to show him I could dance an arabesque like Margot Fonteyn. I wanted him to taste my Belgian chocolate cake. I wanted to tell him that I love him but he was gone.”
As the wind rustles in from the bay and the Moreton Bay Fig leaves shimmer, Mary and I bow our heads and pray for those who have lost loved ones in war. And when we pray for our troops stationed all over the world in unfamiliar terrain and far from home, we realise that political persuasion is irrelevant, what matters is being able to say Thank you to those brave men and women risking their lives for us. And we pray also that they may be granted a safe passage home.