Sometimes I think I'm going mad. You know, not stark raving mad like those poor fellows they took away from the barracks during basic training. Or that new guy on his first patrol looking for Charlie. Not that kind of mad; just mad.
Sometimes you get so that you just want to lash out at anything. You don't know what, or who. Just lash out. Like you can't think of anything else, your mind just gets full up inside your brain with thoughts; lots of thoughts. And you think you're going mad, and you just want to lash out. Not that you would. They've taught you too much "self-control"; you wait for orders like a good soldier, you wouldn't dare lash out without orders, but sometimes you feel like you want to. Just lash out. Because your mind is full up and you can't think, except that one thought, thinking that you might go mad.
And sometimes it's that cold out here after midnight when you're on guard duty that your brain is too numb with frost to think. And it's too quiet to think. Have you ever noticed that sometimes the quietness late at night is so noisy you can't think properly, can't get your thoughts into a particular order; meticulously correct, precisely correct. Not right or wrong, just, just what? Just specific, exact. Thatís it, not jumbled around like your duffel bag that has been stuffed with all the paraphernalia for a weekend leave, and then simply emptied out on the floor of your cubicle in the cold, heartless barracks after that weekend of escape. Noise and cold. Too cold to think.
It's cold now, freezing. They told me that this was a warm place, but winter nights are chilly. Freezing. Numbing your brain so you can't think. You do your rounds shivering inside your great Army greatcoat, your toes freezing inside your spit-polished combat boots. Your fingers so numb with the middle of the night chill that you can hardly hold your rifle. I'm sick of this.
I'm tired. I want to go to sleep. But I know that if I go back inside the guardhouse, back inside to where it's warm, with the electric heaters glowing all through the night, and try to go to sleep, even at the end of my watch, I won't sleep. I'll toss and turn, then finally doze and then the sergeant will wake me when it's next my watch.. It goes around and around all night: two hours on, two hours off. Two hours trudging around in the freezing black air, your brain numb, so that you can't think, except maybe to think that you might go mad.
Then two hours not quite sleeping, tossing, turning, dog-tired trying to sleep in the warmth of the guardhouse; the warmth that becomes a stifling heat because they keep the electric heaters glowing all night. So hot you can't sleep, you can't think. And they don't let you take off your boots! How can a man sleep, when he can't stretch his toes because they're encased in his spit-polished combat boots.
You're cold when you come inside because you've been out in the midnight ice, so you keep your great-coat wrapped around you, then you get too hot, and you throw it to the floor. But that's all you can take off, because a soldier must always be in a state of readiness when he's on guard duty! So you lay there in your uniform, tossing and twitching. And it's your winter uniform, you know the thick woollen one, with the battle-dress blouse and all. And you sweat, and the fug from the other guys smoking in the guardhouse, and the electric heaters glowing all night, makes you dizzy, and clogs up your brain inside your head, so you can't think.
Sometimes when I'm lying on the bunk between my watches, I think I'll go crazy. But I guess all the guys feel like that when they're on guard duty. It's just so damned noisily cold that sometimes I think I'm going mad.
It really is cold now. I'm half way through my rounds; back and forward past the front gate, round the administration building, and the library. I don't know what books they've got in the library here, maybe books about fighting wars, and tactics, and Battalion histories, and General's stories. I've never seen the library in daylight, but I know every crevice of its walls by moonlight. There's no moon tonight, though. It's dark, and cold. Always cold. I know it's not cold like Siberia or the South Pole, or other places I haven't been, but for me it is cold. Anywhere south of the border is cold for me. Mackay was always warmÖ always.
Here outside the guardhouse, yards away from the guardhouse, beside the towering cold wall of the library it might have been 28 or 29 degrees. I still canít get my head around the new celsius. It felt below freezing, maybe though it was 33 or 34. Whatís that, 1 or 2 degrees Celsius? You can never tell when you're just cold, and shivering, and your mind is full of thoughts, and at the same time numb with the cold and the night noise of the silence. So cold you think you're going mad.
And the noise! The scrape of your spit-polished combat boots on the gravel pathÖ loud, loud in the chill air. Branches of the daytime shade trees screaming in agony as the night wind from the black ocean tortures the straining limbs. The stench of the sea, the salt, the insidious decay of seaweed and fish and other used-to-be-living things draping their aroma over the wind tossed leaves.
Above the cacophony of the chill black night you can hear the sergeant snoring. Little piggy snorts from his little piggy nose. The crash and bang of the match scrapping along the emery of the match box, the explosive burst as it flames into life. The vacuum sucking of a million lungs as you draw the blissful nicotine deep, deep inside you. All noise, all quiet, all cold. All thoughts.
Why here? Why did they send me here after the war in Asia? It was warm there, just like home in Mackay. And then they send us back here to simply spend hours guarding barracks that no one cares about. Maybe itís the army thatís mad. But I guess, I least I came back.. Not like some. No, I wonít think about that.
Why did they take me from the warmth of home in Mackay? Mackay, where the sun shines and the sugar cane grows lush and green in the heat, and the bush and rainforests are like the jungles of Asia, and send me here to the cold to walk around the barracks, and the library, and the administration buildings on a headland between the black icy ocean and the inky chill harbour? Why? If only I could think, maybe I could work it all out.
Maybe I could ask the sergeant. He said that the army would be my family now, and he would be like my father. But my father didn't snort little piggy snorts in the middle of the night, or cuss and swear at me in the day. I could ask my father if he was here, but he isn't here, only the sergeant.
Dad would be sitting on the verandah, looking out over the fields, green waving fields, and there'd be the croak of frogs coming from the creek, and the verandah would sigh in the cool evening air, and Dad would take a gentle puff on his pipe and say, "Son, it's becauseÖ "
I look out past the guardhouse, and over the Officersí Mess towards the inky harbour, the tall silhouettes of the city reaching darkly for the murky curtain of sky, moonless icy dark sky. You feel so alone at night, and yet only a few yards away there's your mates asleep in the guardhouse. And Paul, he's out here somewhere, too. Maybe at the main gates, pacing to and fro, rifle at the ready, defending our company from the irate citizens of this cold place. Or he's around the other side of the library puffing on a cigarette.
Is that Paul I hear? Is that him pushing beneath the wind-swept tea-tree shrubs? Or a cat? A filthy officer cat, loose from the married quarters on a night-time prowl, stalking the terns that nest beneath the shrubbery? I can't tell, it's all just more noise in the noisy black ice night.
I'm going back in now, I've had enough. I know it's not time, but it's cold out here, and I can't think. I'll wake someone else up and they can do the rest of my watch.
I crunch through the deafening gravel, the little pebbles scattering like machine gun fire in the dead chill, ricocheting from the tips of my spit-polished combat boots and flying off into the shadows. Ricocheting like that grenade in basic training when it bounced back off the bunker wall and blew those recruits to bits in the bunker next me. Remember? Bits of concrete and bone and flesh splattering everywhere, and the noise of the bang and the screams. Donít think of that! Itíll remind you of Mike and the dripping red jungle.
In the blackness of the night, night as deep as the grave, the porch light of the guardhouse glows dimly ahead. Warmth, quiet warmth beckons me home. I'm tired, so tired. The exhaustion of a week of broken sleep. Every night, two on, two hours off. So tired, I can hardly think, except to think that sometimes I might be going mad. Mad with the craziness of this noisy cold thing called the army. I'm going inside the guardhouse now, into the stifling heat.
God, it's just as noisy in here. The snores of the sergeant reverberate around the thin plywood walls, the snuffles and coughs of my trying-to-sleep comrades, breathing, loud rasping breathing from a thousand lungs. And the smell! Sweating army bodies in sweating army uniforms fouling the air, mingling the pungent body odour with the fug of the surreptitiously inhaled cigarette smoke that seeps from beneath certain blankets on certain bunks. And the faint dusty burning stench from the glowing electric heaters. They keep the electric heaters glowing all night, you know.
The air is thick like treacle, and it oozes down the back of my throat, gagging me, stopping me from thinking. That's it! That's it! Enough is enough! I need to think. I need quiet! I can feel my finger numb against the cold trigger-guard of my rifle. "7.62 SLR, sir! Magazine on! Safety off!"
My finger is warming in the heat of the guardhouse, it tingles with a thousand pins and needles as it eases onto the trigger. I take a deep draught of the fetid air and pull the trigger. The sound of the shots stops the snuffles and the snores. The rifle bucks and kicks against my shoulder, but I hold it steady, and pull the trigger again... and again... and again. The bark of the rifle is loud, so loud. But strangely it's a bedlam of silence. A din, a crashing that seems to comfort, not demolish. A noisy silence, comforting in the closeness of the overheated guardhouse.
There's a howl of an animal clawing out at me from one of the bunks. The sound of another rifle shot stops the noise. Noise stops noise? A law of physics I should have known before. It's so simple.
And it's now all so quiet.
The dense haze of cordite hangs in the air, the Bonfire Night stink irritating my defrosting nostrils. And through the murk, I can see the red rivulets coursing from the khaki-green bundles on the bunks to puddle near the tips of my spit-polished boots. The sergeant has stopped snoring.
It's quiet. A silent, cold night. But I'm warm here in the guardhouse. As warm as toast, because the electric heaters are glowing. They glow all night you know.
I can hear crunching on the gravel paths now, a million feet scurrying towards the guardhouse. And voices, both raised and muted, ebbing and flowing like the tides, coming nearer, growing louder. The noise of the feet and the voices disturbing my quiet. Smashing the stillness, dashing it to the ground, broken.
You know, sometimes I think I'm going mad. It's when I can't think, when there's noise pushing in on me, hammering my head. I'm so tired. I rest my chin upon my upturned rifle, the hot muzzle sears my skin, but it's not as hot as the guardhouse with its electric heaters that glow all night. There's pain from my burning skin, but it's not as painful as the assault upon my eardrums, and upon my brain inside my head as the avalanche of clatter approaching the guardhouse along the gravel paths grows louder... louder.
It's all noise, just noise!
I stretch my arm right down the barrel of the rifle, and with my outreached finger I caress the trigger.