Peter Kay’s novel, Blood, won the 2012 IP Picks Award for Fiction. It also won him a Residency at Varuna, The Writers’ House. Over the past 30 years Peter has written fiction, features, news journalism, academic articles and literary criticism and his work has been published in The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Weekend Australian, Tracks, Overland and The Sunday Tasmanian. He has a BA in Professional Writing from the University of Canberra and a Masters in Creative Writing from CQ University. Born in Canberra, he has lived in Tasmania for the last 25 years.
Excerpt from Chapter 5: You tell me
On the 10th of February 1942, I’d been flown from Adelaide to Alice Springs and was sitting in the ’drome out of the hot wind and hard light, waiting for a ride to Darwin. I thought about Emma and the baby on the way, wondering what we would call him or her, wondering if I would be there for the birth. Being an airforce pilot before the war was one thing. Now, with most of my mates in England fighting the Germans and the Jap raid on Pearl Harbor, it was something else again. Emma, Emma … both of us lonely and scared … love you sweetheart, miss you.
After an hour or so I was approached by an immaculately dressed and groomed young pilot. ‘Teddy Merridew,’ he said, offering his hand. ‘Sorry I’m late Sir, had trouble getting a kite.’
'Teddy. Are we ready to get underway?’ Teddy looked through the heat haze at the strip, where a two-seater Wirraway trainer stood, red with thick streaks of dust.
‘Is that the best they can do?’ I said. ‘I hoped I’d seen my last Wirraway for a while.’
‘They’re all we’ve got,’ said Teddy, defensively. ‘I had to jump through all sorts of hoops to get this one.’
‘Does it have the range to get us there?’
‘It’s had an extra fuel tank fitted.’
‘So I’ve been assigned to a fighter squadron without any fighters?’
‘That’s right. They say we’ll have them soon.’ Heads down, leaning into the wind, we lugged my gear across the strip to the Wirraway, while gusts scooped the loose surface of the land and threw it in our faces. Teddy did his pre-flight checks with meticulous care, and making just the right allowance for the cross-wind, had us up, cruising straight and level as smoothly as you like.
The red desert stretched in drifts below us, seemingly endless: rumpled mountains casting purple shadows, huge rock formations; steep, sweeping escarpments – brown, orange-yellow ochres topped by blue smears of bush or bleached and bald and sharp; winding dry river beds with gum trees growing in them, tessellated orange cliffs, crazy patterns of thousands of dry creeks, stunted purple-green bushes, on and on … At last, rich green mangrove swamps, clinging to the fringes of the great arid distances. Tall palms, ghostly gums and rain trees around Darwin and its harbour, with its soft greens and blues, crowded with shipping. Troops, wharfies, a few Aborigines and white civilians, some bustling, some sauntering or talking on street corners.
Teddy made a sweep over the harbour which was crowded with fighting ships, freighters, tankers, a munitions ship, a hospital ship, tugs, barges …
‘Isn’t that a sight to make you feel safer?’ Teddy’s tone showed he knew better.
‘They’re moored very close together, Ted, and there’s no radar.’
Teddy flew over the army barracks, the hospitals, their red crosses plainly marked, a few scattered coastal gun emplacements, the Court House and Police Station, the Post Office, Government House, the streets of the town.
The RAAF ’drome was in a shocking state. Aircraft and buildings were exposed, huddled together when they should have been dispersed and camouflaged. A couple of American Kittyhawks were being worked on in the open, a Hudson bomber and a few Wirraways stood idle on the strip, but no RAAF fighters.
‘Teddy, who’s in charge of that shemozzle down there?’
‘Wing Commander named Worthington.’
As we passed over the main road, people in ones and twos and small groups, most walking, some in open army trucks, were carrying their belongings south, struggling through the tropical heat.
‘What’s that, Teddy?’
‘They call it a routine evacuation, moving out the civilians, mostly women and children.’
‘So they’re expecting an attack?’
‘You’ve seen the harbour and the RAAF ’drome. You tell me.’
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It’s 1991. Rob Ross, an ad executive, is suffering a moral crisis in his high rise office when his dead father slips through the window to ask Rob to help film an exposé of the Darwin bombing. Rob finds himself catapulted back to 1942…