John Biggs was born and educated in Hobart, Tasmania. He spent his professional life as an educational psychologist and teacher educator in several countries, with particular interest in adult development over the life span. John has published four other novels and several award winning short stories. Details of these, and of his academic publications, can be seen at
‘It is my melancholy duty to inform you officially,’ Mr Forsyth, headmaster of Bathurst Central School said, ‘that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.’
He took out a large handkerchief, raised his glasses, dabbed his eyes and continued. ‘Children, this is of course, a solemn moment. It would be inappropriate to continue with classes today, so… er… school dismissed.’ Mr Forsyth turned and walked briskly back to the school building.
Peter Morrison was standing in the line for Sixth Class. A day off school was something to be welcomed, but … war? Peter’s grandfather had fought in the trenches in the Great War and he was deaf and walked with a limp. What if Daddy was sent to war and got shot up or something? Peter wondered. He turned to his mate, Charlie Hawkins, behind him in the line. Charlie shrugged and looked at the ground. He looked like he was crying.
They usually walked part way home together but today, with a subdued ‘See ya later, Charlie,’ Peter wandered out the school gate alone, up towards the top end of Bentinck Street where the elite of Bathurst lived. On their way home, Peter and Charlie passed these elaborate Italianate houses, encased behind high stone walls. The branches of large pepper trees drooped over these walls scattering the footpath with their small leaves and berries. All the kids believed that if you stood under a pepper tree and made a wish, eyes tightly shut, your wish would come true.
Please God… No, that was a prayer, not a wish. Funny how they seemed the same, Peter thought. Try again. I wish the war would stop tomorrow. But as he reckoned that that wasn’t very likely, he wished instead: I wish the war would stop by Christmas. That was more like it. He made this wish under each tree and turned for home. He was looking forward to spending the day with Nipper, his beloved mongrel pup. He thought he would take him for a long walk, maybe to see the new car racing circuit at Mt Panorama.
As he opened the gate, Nipper rushed out to meet him, his tongue seeking Peter’s face. Peter bent towards him. ‘Good boy! Ya didn’t expect me so soon, did you? Come on. Let’s see Mum.’ He hugged his dog more tightly than usual.
Peter went to the kitchen. His mother would be there when he came home from school to prepare his home-from-school cocoa but he was early and she wasn’t there. ‘Mum!’ he called.
‘Peter,’ she replied, ‘I’m in the sitting room.’ Her voice was jerky and a bit sniffly, like she might have been crying.
He crossed the passage and stood at the door of the sitting room, to find her sitting upright in front of the big walnut wireless cabinet. She was listening carefully.
‘Mum…’ he started but she placed a finger on her lips, nodding towards the wireless. Her brown eyes that Peter had inherited were dark and moist. ‘It’s Prime Minister Menzies,’ she whispered as Mr Menzies was finishing: ‘…Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.’
‘Hey, that’s just what Mr Forsyth said,’ Peter exclaimed. ‘He lined us up in the playground and said all that and then he said we could go home early. He said all that before Mr Menzies did.’
Phyllis smiled sadly. ‘No, dear, Mr Menzies declared war yesterday. This is a rebroadcast.’
‘Oh.’ Peter sounded disappointed. ‘Will Daddy go to war?’
‘I don’t know, darling. We’ll have to see if they bring in conscription.’
‘It’s where all men of fighting age have to join up and fight the war, except for priests, doctors and some others. I don’t know about teachers…’ She paused then smiled a little too brightly. ‘We must ask Daddy when he gets home.’
David Morrison was tall and well-built, his horn-rimmed glasses and frank gaze made a firm statement: here be a school teacher. He did not discard his teacher’s uniform even in his own home.
‘Sorry I’m late, my love. War or no war, I wasn’t going to cancel my honours class after school. Those poor kids have their exams in a month or so.’ He sank noisily into a chair. ‘My goodness, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes. Their world collapsing around them as they start out on life.’
Peter had been listening to his favourite wireless serial, The Search for the Golden Boomerang, but his father’s noisy entry into the dining room had drowned it out. He reached over to the brown mantel wireless and turned it up.
‘And you can turn that tripe off, Pete. There’s a time and place for rubbish maybe, but it’s not now.’
‘Aw Dad, that’s right in an exciting bit!’
‘Tomorrow, son. I haven’t taken all this in yet.’ David sighed.
‘Davie, will they bring in conscription, do you think?’ Phyllis asked.
‘Hard to say, my love, but if they do, teachers are a reserved occupation. Of course, I could volunteer, but there’s the organ to think of. The work of The Church has got to go on too. Frankly, Phyllis, I don’t know yet where my duty lies.’ David slowly shook his head.
Feeling the tension, Peter forgave his father for making him miss his serial. He started setting the table without the usual prompt from his mother, who was in the kitchen removing the shepherd’s pie from the oven.
As she returned with the Pyrex baking dish, David said as removed his serviette from its ring and tucked it into his collar: ‘Don’t forget, dear, today’s the first Monday. Lodge night.’
‘Oh, you’d think they’d cancel lodge, today of all days!’ Phyllis replied as she served the pie.
‘On the contrary, my dear. This is exactly the time a man needs spiritual comfort and some fellowship.’
‘Davie, isn’t The Church the place to provide spiritual comfort?’
‘Now, Phyllis…’ Dad flickered a warning with his eyes and looked at Peter.
Peter knew that his mother resented the fact that women could not go to lodge with their husbands. Peter sympathised with her. Anyway, Peter thought, if today was special enough for him to have to miss his wireless serial but not special enough for Dad to miss his precious lodge night, then that wasn’t fair either. He thought he’d add his own two bob’s worth.
‘Dad,’ Peter tried his serious and interested-sounding voice, ‘why is lodge so important? Does going to lodge make bad men good, or something?’
‘No, son, the Craft makes good men better.’ With that smugly unanswerable rejoinder, David dabbed his mouth with his serviette and stood. ‘Well, my dear, no time for pud. Must get on the glad rags.’ He bent and kissed his wife on the forehead. She seized his hand and held it a moment.
‘Never mind, my love. It’ll be worse when I’m Worshipful Master, so cheer up.’ He smiled, as might a schoolmaster to a well-loved but rather slow student, and headed for the bedroom.
Phyllis went to the kitchen and returned with two bowls of apple sponge and custard, Peter’s favourite. Pudding was the highlight of the meal for him. As they ate, Phyllis said quietly to Peter, ‘I suppose you’ll want to be a Mason one day, Peter.’
‘No, I won’t, Mummy.’ He paused, still smarting from his father’s slick rejoinder. ‘Isn’t making people good The Church’s job? Like, you, me and Dad can all go and be together in church. We can’t be together in lodge, so that’s not as fair, is it?’ He grinned. ‘I’ve finished now. Can I go now? I want to see if we can get Martin’s Corner on Charlie’s crystal set.’
‘Of course, Lambkins. But be back before eight. You know how I worry about you after dark.’
At least, Peter thought, she wasn’t a smarty pants.
From Ashes to Ashes tells the story of Peter Morrison, son of a school teacher in rural New South Wales. When Peter’s beloved teacher is pushed to enlist in World War II by his father, his boyhood is fractured by trauma and doubt.