homecoming: a memoir

Winner of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (NSW Branch) Walter Stone Award for Life Writing in 2016.

Homecoming tells the story of my great-uncle, Thomas Sydney Stott, who enlisted in the Army in 1914 and was posted to Gallipoli, landing on April 25th, 2015. An excerpt is provided below … check back for future publication details.

Tom Stott is in love.

He tells me as much when I visit one day. He is seventeen now and we are sitting on the grassy bank of the stream that runs along the western fringe of their farm. His horse grazes while Tom, gifted a break from digging an irrigation channel, is fishing. He is convinced that there are blackfish resting quietly on the bed below his large feet. So far all he has caught is an eel, about two feet long and coiled in his basket, near-dead although it continues to flicker its tail.

“Look,” says Tom softly, “if I tell you a secret, then you must promise to let no one else know.”

“I promise.”

“Especially my brothers,” he says. His face is flushed. “And not Leila either, because she’ll set out to embarrass me.”

“Tom,” I say earnestly, “I promise.”

He sighs, pulls in the line and winds it to a neat fist-sized circle. Swollen by recent rain, the stream gushes and gurgles. In this place, more halcyon that I’d imagined possible, the light is cross-hatched by willows with fronds that sway like ribbons from a family of maypoles. Sometimes the leaves touch our faces and I think of parents checking that their sleeping children are still tucked safely into their beds.

Tom mumbles, “I met a girl.”

Her name is Gracie. She is new to the Wesley Vale district. Her father, Mr Maud, is the teacher at the school, replacing Blake-obsessed Mr Odenton who was unwell and retired.

“A girl, Tom!”

“Yes.”

“So, tell me! What’s she like?”

He shrugs, opens and closes his lips like the blackfish at the bottom of the stream. It is as if the words have stalled in his mouth, too thickened by the need for honesty to emerge.

“She seems nice,” he says eventually.

“Pretty?”

He nods, close to tears now.

“Is that it? Tom, you must tell me more.”

“No, no …” – but later that afternoon, and on subsequent afternoons, he does allow me to watch from a distance as he and Gracie edge cautiously towards love. She is a shy creature with unusually wavy hair; it falls in uncertain folds like material rescued from the cupboard where it has sat for a long time. Gracie’s eyes are a feature too, very large and upward-looking, as if she is always scanning the tops of branches or shifts in the sky.

Their first actual meeting is in that same place. Impatient to invest more plot into my narrative I have whispered to Tom Stott while he dozed on the bank that Gracie may well visit the stream to walk and pick cornflowers. Oh, I can see to it, of course I can; without the impediments of records or living witnesses their story can be almost entirely my invention. In recognition of the social and religious statutes of the time I will leave her on the other side but if he happened to be quietly fishing, I reason, then a conversation of sorts may ensue …

Of course they see each other and with that first sight comes the recognition of similarity, the potential meeting of straight edges. Gracie is sensitive to mood, she is romantic in that she believes in a loosely woven patchwork of ideals, she has a natural sway towards the quiet, effective happiness that comes to those who seek deeper lodes of respect. If Tom Stott was initially besotted by her tumbledown hair and dark lifting eyes, then the blessedness within her confirms this feeling as the onset of love.

They hedge and dance like summer insects. At their third meeting he stands shin-deep in cold water and says daringly, “There’s a bridge further down, just a log but it is safe. You could cross the stream, if you wanted to.”

Gracie says, “Tom Stott, I walk here every Saturday, I haven’t seen a bridge.”

Tom flushes. He says, “I only put it there this morning,” and Gracie smiles, treads downstream with surprisingly sure feet and then, with Tom’s brawny hand to guide her, uses the log-bridge to cross the water.

Why this? Because I desperately want Sergeant T. S. Stott No. 321 1st AIF to have a sweetheart. The thought of him taking an unfulfilled heart to Gallipoli is untenable. As I told Captain McLean; I have never served, do not know what it is like to do so, but I can imagine that the difficulties must be softened, a little at least, by the invocation of thoughts of a similar, by the whispering presence of love.