A telegram arrived in the evening. Belinda sat on the edge of the faded chintz sofa in her parlour, staring at the envelope on her knees yet keeping her right hand poised above it as if it were a butterfly about to take to the air. She couldn’t bring herself to open it, not straight away. She couldn’t touch it either.
She gazed outside . . . the man who delivered the telegram had left the screen door open and a hot gust of wind was rattling it against the outside wall of the house. It was already dark, and from her lighted parlor she could see nothing through the doorway. Just heat and dark. She finally lowered her hand and picked up the buff envelope with “On His Majesty’s Service” printed across the top. After knocking it twice on its edge against her knee, she tore a thin strip off the top.
Dear Miss McCulloch,
We understand that you are your brother’s next of kin. We regret to inform you that your brother, Daniel McCulloch of the 17th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, was killed in action on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918. Lt. Gen. Archibald Woolsey personally sends his condolences to you at this loss of a hero of the British Armed Services.
At the bottom of the telegram was an addendum:
Your brother left express wishes, in his own hand, that he be buried neither in the European theatre nor in the Home Country. His remains have been cremated and they await your or your appointed representative’s arrival here in Paris to be claimed in person. If no claim is made by Feb. 28, 1919, his ashes, in accordance with his wishes, will be scattered at sea, in the English Channel.
The telegram, dated Nov. 13, 1918, bore no sender’s name, as if it had been dispatched not by an individual, but by an anonymous entity.
Belinda sank deeply into the sofa, clutching the flimsy sheet of paper to her chest. She and Dan had been orphaned when their parents were killed in the dreadful Adelaide-to-Melbourne train crash of 1912. Belinda had only Dan . . . and now she had no one.
Three days later, as if she were some other person in a disquieting dream, Belinda found herself on the deck of a ship. She would sail via Perth, Singapore, Aden and Lisbon to Liverpool.
During the six-week voyage she hardly spoke to anyone: “Life on five words a day,” she thought to herself. Normally she would have found this amusing.
There was a kindly Japanese man named Kurihama on board. He had struck up a conversation with her some days out of Perth . . . “Isn’t it wonderful that the war is over . . . we don’t want to have to go through this sort of thing again, do we . . . ” he’d said in very passable English. Belinda smiled and nodded her head. After Kurihama disembarked at Singapore, she may as well have been on her own on the ship. People passed behind her without so much as a greeting as she leaned against the rail, staring at a drab sea, seeing no features in it, thinking of one thing only — bringing her brother back home to Adelaide and burying him in a plot beside their mother and father.
After arriving in Liverpool, she boarded another ship for the 20-hour voyage to Le Havre in northern France, arriving there in the late morning.
From a distance the city looked utterly peaceful, but as the ship passed the breakwater and entered the port, Belinda was struck to see a mass of soldiers standing on the quayside. Had they suddenly appeared out of nowhere? From further out they’d looked to her a part of the dock, a dark wall, unmoving. Now that the ship was preparing to tie up, she could regard the soldiers one by one, hundreds of them, many without a limb. Some, with eyes bandaged over, were being led slowly by the elbow along the edge of the dock.
Belinda disembarked. She asked one of the wounded soldiers, a man in a British Army uniform who had lost both his arms at the elbow, for directions to the railroad station.
“It’s about two mile that way, Miss,” he said, pointing toward the town with his jaw.
To Belinda, her single carpetbag over her left shoulder, it seemed more like 10 miles than two as she trudged through a light drizzle along the shiny, cobbled road. Finally, she stood at the station’s ticket window. There were no tickets available to Paris for the next fortnight, she was informed without emotion. “Impossible, Madamoiselle.’‘
She didn’t move. Even those two simple French words seemed incomprehensible to her. Suddenly she was shoved aside by two young men, causing her to stumble and nearly fall backward onto the ground. For the first time since receiving the news of her little brother’s death, Belinda cried — for her dead brother, and for herself, too.
She shook her head, telling herself she was glad that her parents had not lived to receive that telegram. She sat on her bag in a corner of the crowded waiting room and was soon asleep.
She must have fallen into a deep slumber, for when she was awakened by a middle-aged gent with a close-cropped beard tapping on her shoulder, she did not know where she was. “Miss, Miss, they are closing this waiting room,” said the man in a lilting French accent. “Someone here has typhus. We must leave.”
Belinda sat bolt upright and looked around, her neck snapping from side to side. What country was this? Which city? What room was this man talking about? She grabbed her carpetbag and rushed out the door, as if going outside would answer her questions.
She stopped short by the station entrance. It was freezing now. The cold brought her to her senses. I have nowhere to go, she thought. I know no one. What am I doing here? Oh yes, this is France — I’ve come to take Dan home.
“Miss, oh Miss.” It was the same bearded gent who had tapped her shoulder in the waiting room. “You seem to be, well, lost. May I . . . “
Belinda started to walk, more than anything to escape from this man. She found herself on a road leading out of the city. It was a moonless night. She looked up at the sky but did not recognize any of the stars. So different from an Australian sky, she thought. Is this the sky that Dan saw the night before he was killed? Did he know where he was?
She had walked for several hours, an automatic mechanism in her knees propelling her, lifting each leg as if it were made of metal or wood. Suddenly she was jolted by the loud honk of an automobile’s klaxon. Her legs locked. She turned her head halfway around, and was blinded by the light of headlamps. The automobile came to a halt beside her, a man with a tight-fitting cap and goggles immediately jumping out. Belinda wanted to escape again, but quite exhausted by now, she couldn’t make her legs move in any direction.
The man slipped off his cap and goggles. It was the bearded gent from the station.
“Madamoiselle, I have no right to presume that you will trust me. But I assure you I mean no harm to you. Where are you heading on this country road? It is past midnight, you know.”
“I want to go to Paris,” said Belinda.
“Well, jolly jolly good,” he said, visibly pleased with his use of this English expression. “That’s precisely where I am destined. Look, Miss, hop into my buggy here and I will have you in Paris before you know it.”
Belinda had never ridden in an automobile before. As tired as she was, though, she couldn’t sleep, no matter how tightly she wrapped herself in the blanket her driver had given her. By the time they arrived in Paris, Belinda and Charles (it turned out his name was Charles Michaud) had told each other their life stories — “not that I’ve had much of a life,” she’d said somewhere along an undulating, rutted road between endless empty fields.
Charles’ brother had been killed in the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, and was buried just outside Paris in the family plot at Villiers-sur- Morin. Charles himself had spent the war years in England, and was now on his way to visit his brother’s grave.
“But look, Miss MuCulloch . . . may I call you Belinda? . . . my brother can wait. Yours can’t. I say let us go and get his ashes first.”
A temporary British War Office for the Repatriation of Service Personnel had been set up in an old church beside the Seine near the Mirabeau Bridge. Belinda and Charley (he had asked her to call him that) had finally been directed there after an age spent going from one office to another in the center of Paris. No one seemed to know or care about the location of Dan’s ashes.
“McCulloch, McCulloch,” said a portly man in a neatly starched uniform. “Yes, here he is. Died just one week before the Armistice, poor chap. No, no, I tell a lie,” he added, barely able to stifle a self-deprecating chuckle. “Not a week before. The very morning of the Armistice, it was. Sign here, please, Miss.”
He handed Belinda a pen.
“Careful, it leaks,” he said, lighting a cigarette and looking around the room at the people waiting in various lines.
“Wait,” she said, “this man is David McCulloch. My brother was Dan. Daniel. Not David.”
“Oh dear, Miss, are you sure?” said the man, chuckling ruefully now and turning the ledger toward himself. “Blimey, if these common names don’t cause more trouble than they’re worth sometimes. You’re quite right, Miss. This man does appear to be someone else.”
“Quit your chuck-ling and find ‘im!” said Charley, bringing his fist down on the table.
“Very well, very well, calm down. Your anger will not bring him back to life, Mon-sieur. Let me see, McClearly, McCloud, Mc . . . Mc . . . No, I’m sorry, there is no Daniel McCulloch here. No Daniel McCulloch died in action in this war. Maybe it’s another war he died in,” said the man, screwing the cap on his pen and peering maniacally at Charley through squinting eyes.
Belinda could see that Charley was about to punch the fellow squarely in the nose. She grabbed his elbow and squeezed it to calm him down, whispering, “It’s all right, Charley. Shhh.”
“Would you mind?” said the man, gesturing with his pen beyond Belinda and Charley to the next person at the head of the long line before his desk.
“He died on the very morning of the Armistice, just an hour or two before the war ended,” said Belinda, placing both palms on the table and leaning forward. “I received a telegram from you about it in Adelaide, Australia.”
“No, Miss. I’m afraid that he did not. If he’s not in this ledger, he just wasn’t there, plain and simple. Good afternoon, now. There are people here who have genuine claims to the dead.”
Belinda moved quickly to grab Charley’s arm as he looked set to throw a punch.
“What am I going to do?” she said to no one in particular. She and Charley found themselves standing amid gravestones dating from the 16th century, some of them marking the graves of children.
“What am I going to do?” she said again, more quietly this time.
“You have the telegram with you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Find the officer mentioned in it. He’s bound to know what happened to your brother. And I’m sorry, Belinda, but I must go now and find my own dear brother. I am expected back in London ‘tomorrow week,’ as they say. I have to reside the buggy on the ship and get there on time. You see, I’m getting married next week, I . . . “
Belinda, oddly affected, could only say that one word.
Charley cranked up his automobile, climbed up into the driver’s seat and, with a wave and a booming “Au revoir,” drove off across the Mirabeau Bridge in the direction of the city.
The next morning Belinda went back into the city in search of Lt. Gen. Archibald Woolsey. She trudged from hotel to hotel wherever she saw British soldiers hanging around the doorway smoking. She asked at stations where they were gathered for repatriation. She must have spoken to at least 100 before she found one who knew him, an Irishman from Liverpool who looked no older than 14.
“Old Ironpants Archy”? Why, sure, Miss, he’s yer man,” he said. “He’ll likely be staying at the Hotel du Nord over near the big vegetable market. That’s where the brass stay, eatin’ their goose livers or wha’ever. Us oiks got to eat an’ sleep in the stations. No rest for the weary, y’know . . . “
Belinda, her carpetbag over her shoulder, walked to the Hotel du Nord. The streets were crammed with people, many of them marching steadily ahead as if in a daze, carrying their possessions with them in a wagon or a handcart, a lifeless parade.
It was early evening when Belinda arrived at the hotel. She realized that she had not eaten all day. She leaned against the wall of the hotel and stood there, eyes closed, for several minutes. Then, when she finally mustered the strength to stand up straight, she entered the hotel, asking, at the reception desk, after Lt. Gen. Archibald Woolsey.
“Za Zheneral is dining, Ma’moiselle. He is . . . no, wait, you must not go in zere!”
Belinda rushed into the elegant dining room. For a moment she stood there bewildered, her dusty carpetbag hanging over her shoulder. She must have looked like a little waif, a beggar girl. She hadn’t changed her clothes in the days that had passed since she first stepped onto the dock in Le Havre. She had, in that time, gone through the motions of living. What was that mechanism propelling her? It was just a line of words going through her head, round and round, over and over: Find Dan and take him home to Australia!
“Excuse me,” she said to an officer at a table by the door, “but would you happen to know Lt. Gen. Woolsey? Archibald Woolsey?”
Her chest was heaving, and she had to wipe her mouth of saliva with the back of her hand.
“Who wants to know?” said the officer without so much as raising his gaze from his dessert.
“I want to know,” she said, shouting out the word “I.”
The officer looked her up and down, and, after a long pause, pointed a finger toward a table in the corner where a British officer in his mid-60s sat alone, vigorously spooning soup into his mouth. Belinda approached the table. She put her carpetbag at her feet.
“Lt. Gen. Woolsey?”
“Yes,” he said, eyeing her suspiciously as he now sipped soup off the side of his spoon. “Who wants to know?”
Once again Belinda was about to shout “I,” but calming herself, she said, “My name is Belinda McCulloch. I received a telegram in Australia in November last year with a message from you about my brother, Daniel. Daniel McCulloch.”
“Never heard of him. Now, please leave me in peace. I am being joined here momentarily.”
“No! You have heard of him! You sent condolences to me. Dan McCulloch. He died here, fighting for you! A few hours later the war was over.”
“Jolly bad luck then, wasn’t it,” said Woolsey, methodically laying down his soup spoon and patting his lips with a linen napkin. “When you say ‘here,’ do you mean France?”
Belinda, perhaps half-crazed from hunger, grabbed a butter knife from the table.
“Well, you jolly well are going to find my brother!”
Just then Belinda felt two arms, like a vice, clamp around her upper body from behind. The butter knife slipped out of her hand and onto the table. She was bundled out of the dining room and pushed forcibly into the street. Seconds later her carpetbag was flung out of the door, nearly striking her on the head.
Realizing it would be useless to try and force her way back inside, she again started to walk. Following what seemed to be a haphazard flow of humanity even at that evening hour, she found herself before long at the cavernous Gare du Nord railway station. Sitting down against a wall, she drew her knees to her chest and looked abstractedly around. There must have been more than 1,000 people sleeping on the cold flagstone floor of the huge vaulted hall.
“Well, well, if it ain’t the lass lookin’ for old Ironpants,” came a voice from above her. It was the young Irish lad from Liverpool who’d told her about the hotel. “Did you find yer man, then, eh? Not the most endearin’ sort, is he?”
Belinda told him what had happened, then asked his name. “Pierre Murphy, Miss. Let me ask around tonight, and we’ll see if we can’t sort this out,” he said. “For sure we’ll have a good crack at finding your brother tomorrow. Now you get some sleep, will ya? Worse places than a train station to sleep, take it from me,” he said in a knowing way far beyond his years.
The next morning, Pierre led Belinda to an office of the French Ministry of War, located in an old stone building in the center of Paris. It turned out that Pierre spoke fluent French. His only allusion to one of his parents being French was, “How d’ya think an Irishman got a name like Pierre then, eh? Suffered plenty for it, too, y’know, from all them Scousers in Liverpool. Joined up in June last year. Spent me war year as a batman, lookin’ after the needs of an officer — ’til he got his bloody head blown off while he was sitting on the crapper. Can’t say I was much saddened by it, y’know. Fact is, I’d ‘av told the Boche what done it ‘Well done, mate!’ if I’d known how to say it in German.”
A very tall man in a French Army uniform came up to them.
“Follow this man,” said Pierre. “He will take you to your brother. Now, me train leaves in less than an hour. I’m on me way back to Liverpool.”
“Getting married, are you?” said Belinda, nodding her head.
“What? Holy Mother, I’m barely 15. Had to lie about me age to get in this war in the first place. What’s this all of a sudden about marriage, eh?”
“Oh, nothing,” said Belinda. “Au revoir, Pierre . . . and goodbye.”
Belinda took him by the shoulders and planted a big kiss on his cheek.
“Holy Mother!” he said, red as a beet. “You Australian girls are forward, en’ ya!”
Before she knew it, Belinda was led by the French official down a long corridor. She was feeling faint from her long journey. She thought to herself, “Oh, God, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stand up when I am handed Dan’s ashes. I can’t go through with this.”
The official stopped in front of a red door. He fumbled with some large rusty keys, then realized that the door was unlocked. Belinda was breathing heavily through her mouth. She wiped sweat off her neck and forehead, drying her fingers on her dress.
“Your brother is in here,” said the official in pleasantly French-accented English as he opened the door.
For a moment, Belinda could not see clearly. It was as if the room had no light in it at all, no air. She blinked over and over again, regaining her sight. The official stood in the doorway, a statue against the light.
“There, in the corner,” he said. “Your brother.”
In the corner of the room sat Dan. He looked up at her, almost not recognizing her for a moment.
“Belinda?” he whispered.
“Dan . . . you’re alive!
This is what Dan told her:
“It was the early morning of the Armistice set for 11 a.m. on November 11. We were given the order to charge the Germans, but none of us wanted to go over the top again. We had all fought hard for God knows how long — but why, we reckoned, should we die now when it’d all be over before you knew it?
“Woolsey ordered me and Frank — remember Frank? Frank Waldheim, from the Barossa? — to advance at the double! Anyway, Frank went right up to Woolsey and yelled at him straight in his flabby red face that he was ‘full of shit.’ It was just the three of us. The other lads had gone and charged, most of them mowed down, dead, just hours before the bloody end.
“Woolsey ordered Frank to turn around . . . and he shot him in the back, right in front of me. Christ, I coulda killed him, an’ I shoulda, ya know. But he said to me, ‘McCulloch, I’m going to let you live. But what you saw, you never saw. Remember, you should have died here, for your King and your Country. So now your mate has died instead of you. Count yourself the lucky one.’ If I saw Woolsey again, I’d kill him for sure. . . . But, Sis, what the hell are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“It’s a long story, Dan. They told me you were dead.”
“I did die once, Sis, for King and Country. On the day the war ended. My name was Frank then.”
Dan’s eyes glazed over. Then suddenly his head drooped down and he clutched his forehead in both hands. Almost whispering, he said as if talking to himself, “I don’t know when it was — a week ago, a month ago? — the French military police picked me up and brought me here. They didn’t seem to know what to do with me. I couldn’t be bothered to explain. They seemed upset I’d lost my papers and was just wandering around, I think.”
“But you didn’t die!” Belinda said firmly, acting the big sister for the first time in nearly four years. “So why did they send me that telegram?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore, Sis. I guess I coulda left France, but . . . I don’t know what it was . . . something was just stopping me from moving, from moving on from here.
“The telegram was probably sent on Woolsey’s personal order. He wanted me dead, and that was his way of killing me off. I suppose he never reckoned that you would make the journey to find me. He knew we blokes had no money. I suppose he thought I would just wander about in Europe for the rest of my life or go back to Australia a living dead man like the rest of them, never being able to really tell anybody what happened.
“I would have been a living dead man, Sis, if it hadn’t been for you. I may not’ve even gone back home. ‘What for?’ I thought. What have I done anything for, Sis?
“Where is home now anyway, eh? I really don’t know. Can you answer me that? Where is home now?”