He sat on the end of the pier. An old man now, he wore a long gabardine overcoat and a red scarf to keep the wind at bay. His black brogues were slightly scuffed. After Gillian died he didn’t see the point in keeping them shiny, a life-long habit broken. Her lingering death from cancer made him challenge everything he stood for. Spit and polish and an ordered life regime had not helped her.
A ship’s horn sounded. He turned his head, his blue eyes watered in the wind. Coming downstream was a sleek grey warship, pennants streaming from its mast. His eyes glazed and his mind wandered back in time.
He remembered another grey ship in another harbour over 20 years before. Then, he was standing tall and proud on the docks as the Sixth Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment sailed out of Sydney Harbour. He saw his son Angus standing to attention on the deck of the carrier. Another McMaster son heading off to war. Angus McMaster was the third generation of his family to march off to war this century. Also, like 10 of his family before him, Angus did not return. He lay dead in a steamy rubber plantation in Phuoc Tuy province.
As Jock McMaster watched his son sail, he knew Angus would not return. It seemed to be the McMaster destiny or curse that the first-born McMaster son would perish in war. The proud man fought back his tears as he remembered the fierce argument he had had with Angus the night before in the Sheraton Hotel.
“I absolutely forbid you to marry her, Angus,” yelled Jock across the hotel room. “But Dad, I love Jane,” replied Angus, the anguish clear in his voice.
“I know, but she’s not right for you.” “You mean she’s Catholic,” accused Angus.
“No I don’t.”
Angus moved out from behind the self-serve bar in the corner. “Oh come on Dad, you know you do, you’re just too damn stubborn to admit it.”
“Do not marry her. I forbid it,” he ordered.
“I’m sorry Dad, I really am, but I have to do it.” Angus picked up his kitbag and strode to the door, his knuckles white as he gripped the door knob.
“Give her up, Angus.”
“No!” yelled Angus as he slammed the door behind him.
Jock waited in the plush hotel room for two hours, silently praying for Angus to come back. Finally, just as he was packing his overnight bag, there was a quiet tap on the door. It must be Angus, he thought as he raced across the room.
In his haste he barked his shin against the low coffee table. “Damn,” he exclaimed as he limped the last few steps. Grabbing the door knob, Jock flung open the door and steadied himself to embrace his son. He would forgive Angus.
His mouth dropped as he stared at the diminutive figure standing nervously in the hall outside the door. It was that woman, she who would steal his son. His temper flared, “You,” he yelled accusingly. “You… what do you want?”
“Mister McMaster, I… I’m sorry,” she said plaintively, edging away from the fierce man, fear showing on her face. “I didn’t mean…” Her sentence faded as her nerve failed. But it was enough. Jock had started to calm down, and began to look carefully at the young woman.
It had been raining and her hair hung down around her face, clinging to her cheeks. Her make-up had run around her eyes, leaving her with a hollow, empty look. The light reflected off a shiny spot on her nose.
Her shoes were very wet and there was a ladder in her stocking, it ran down her left calf. Then there was the dress. Jock gasped. The dress wasn’t anything fancy, just a simple floral pattern in the loose style of the day, but it clung ever so slightly around her middle. She was pregnant.
Jock’s temper faded completely.
“Come in girl, you’re soaked,” he said gently, moving away from the door.
She hesitated for a moment. “Thank you Sir.
”He smiled. “Jock will do nicely. Please sit down”. He waved his arm in the general direction of a lounge chair, but his eyes were firmly fixed on her stomach. She noticed him staring, and tried to cover her tummy with her hands. It made it all the more obvious. In her embarrassment she wrung her hands together and looked out the window. The hotel sign reflected off the building across the road.
For a few moments they sat there quietly, both feeling uneasy, each wanting to say something, but unable to do so.
Jock felt numb, so much had happened tonight. The fight with Angus and now the young girl, carrying his son’s child, Jock’s grandchild. Grandchild. He was going to be a grandfather and Gillian a grandmother. Suddenly it didn’t seem all that bad. A smile started to form on his weather-beaten face.
“You’re smiling Mister Mac… Jock.”
“Why yes, I am.” He leaned forward and beckoned her towards him. Pointing at her tummy, he said with a lilt in his voice, “I’m going to be a grandfather, aren’t I?”
She smiled and looked down, “Yes you are, in about five months.”
“I assume Angus knows?”
“Yes, it’s why he wants to marry me.”
“Does he love you?”
“Yes he does, and I love him.”
No wonder Angus was so insistent, and so angry with me earlier, thought Jock. “Did you see Angus tonight?”
“He came straight over after he’d seen you. He was very upset. Confused. Angry.”
“Where is he now, can I see him?”
“He’s back at the barracks, even I can’t see him until the docks tomorrow.”
“Can I come with you?”
She hesitated. Angus had been very angry with his father, insisting he’d never speak to him again. “I don’t know,You know how stubborn he is.” Jane thought for a moment. “I s’pose you could come down tomorrow”.
“What time are you meeting him?“
Ten o’clock at Garden Island.”
“Good. I’ll be there.” Jock got up and moved towards the door. “Would you be needing a lift home?”
“It’s alright, I’ll get a taxi.”
“I’ll walk down with you.”
By ten o’clock Jock McMaster had arrived at Garden Island dock. There were thousands of people milling about, all focusing their attention on the troop carrier HMAS Sydney, gently bobbing beside the quay. Australian soldiers were slowly making their way up the gangplank. As each soldier got to the top he paused and surveyed the crowd. As he spied his loved ones he waved ruefully, then turned towards the ship and disappeared from view.
Jock frantically searched the crowd looking for Angus and Jane. There were so many people about, he couldn’t get a clear view. As the minutes ticked by and more soldiers boarded, he became frantic. He started yelling for Angus. People stopped and stared at him, but he didn’t stop calling for his son.
About 20 yards away he saw a tall officer, a lieutenant. “Angus, Angus,” he called, but the officer didn’t react. “Angus,” he called again. Another man heard him.
“Who do you want, mate?”
“That officer,” said Jock pointing towards the Lieutenant. The man nodded.
“Hey mate, Lieutenant.” The officer stopped and looked back uncertainly.
“Yes, what is it?” he asked the man calling him. But Jock had already seen it wasn’t Angus.
“Sorry,” he said and moved on through the crowd. The officer and the man looked at each other, shrugged and went on their separate ways.
The PA announced the departure would be in twenty minutes and all troops were to be on board in five. Jock stepped up his search. He was nearly running now, blundering into people. The PA rang out again calling for the crowd to move back from the ship. All soldiers were on board, lining the deck of the former aircraft carrier.
As the gangplanks were withdrawn, Jock cursed his Scottish temper and stubbornness. If only he’d listened longer the night before. A wave of regret flooded through him. His heart heaved and tears welled up in his eyes. The self-control he tried to maintain during the departure dissolved as he broke down, his body racked with heaving sobs.
“Mister McMaster,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
Jock looked up. It was the girl. “I couldn’t find him, I looked but there were too many people,” he said through his tears.
“Angus had to board early, right on ten. I only had a few moments with him.”
“Was he still angry with me?”
“No. I told him about last night, and he seemed pleased.”
This cheered Jock a little.“What will you do?”
“I’m catching the train to Melbourne tonight to stay with my sister.”
“What about your parents?”
“They’re very upset. Strict Catholics.” Jock nodded as if he understood.
“Will you keep in touch? You know you’re welcome in our house?”
“Thank you, but I’ll stay with Marcie.” She looked up at him, kissed him quickly on the cheek and left before the guilt of not telling him about the dawn wedding overcame her.
Jock watched her melt into the crowd. The Sydney’s horn blared, signalling her imminent departure. He turned back towards the ship, scanning the soldiers lined along the deck, until he found his son. Lieutenant Angus McMaster RAR was standing to attention, but his eyes had spotted his father. Brigadier Jock McMaster (Retired) drew himself together, stood tall and proud, then saluted his son. A tear ran down Angus’s face.
* * * *
Jock McMaster had himself sailed to war in a grey warship many years before. In 1939, he’d boarded an old Royal Navy cruiser bound for Alexandria. He was a twenty year old lieutenant in the Scot’s Guards. In his uniform, he stood at six feet two inches, his hair jet black and his eyes a steely blue. He marched proudly and erect, his troops snapping to attention instantly when he bellowed the command. Lieutenant McMaster held the respect of his senior officers, and an awe and devotion from his lads that had not been equalled before or since.
By 1945 Jock had risen to the rank of Brigadier and had been wounded three times, once seriously. The steely blue eyes had seen the joy of victory and the sorrow of defeat. His strong arms had carried the same severely wounded sergeant out of three battles,. His chest carried campaign ribbons North Africa, Greece, Crete, North Africa again, Sicily, Normandy and Germany. His chest also carried the maroon ribbon of the Victoria Cross, and the colours of other auspicious decorations. His heart carried the grief of four dead elder brothers, and two dead cousins. As in the Great War, World War Two had decimated the McMaster clan.
After the War Jock McMaster resigned his commission and migrated to Australia. The old Scottish farm had felt desolate and empty. His mother had stared out over the glens all day long, waiting for her sons. She passed away on Christmas Day 1945, still looking out over the snow. The day she was buried Jock booked his passage. He soon headed for the Tilbury Docks and the P&O ship to Australia.
Jock arrived in Brisbane on a stifling February day. Dressed in a suit and waistcoat he strode down the gangplank and hailed a cab. He was determined to start afresh in a new, young and exciting country. The cab took him to the home of an Australian captain he had met in Cairo. They spend the night reminiscing the War and planning the future. The next day he fronted a stock and station agent. By the end of the day he was on a train to the Darling Downs.
Within a year his property was prospering, but Jock was not happy. He was the only McMaster left and he needed a wife.
Gillian Robinson was the widowed daughter of the Toowoomba solicitor. Her first husband had perished on the Kokoda Trail. Now she was a qualified solicitor, the only woman solicitor in country Queensland, and running her father’s practice. Jock met her when he was arranging the purchase of the property adjoining his. Somehow many legal complications kept arising and he had to make many visits to Toowoomba. After an appropriate interval Jock asked Gillian to accompany him to a dance. For the first time in his life his strong voice failed, the request barely squeaked out of his mouth. Nevertheless, Gillian accepted. They were married soon after. Angus had been born a year later.
* * * *
As the modern frigate slipped quietly past him Jock struggled to his feet, put on his hat and wiped the tears from his eyes. He turned and walked along the dock, his once broad shoulders slightly stooped and his once long stride slightly shorter. The ship had brought back many memories, some glad, others sad. Funny, he hadn’t thought about Jane for many years. She never did stay in contact. Jock and Gillian had tried to find her for years, but as they didn’t even know the girl’s surname every lead was a dead end. He still now persisted with the search because somewhere he had a grandchild. With Gillian gone he needed his family more than ever.
On the deck of HMAS Darwin, Lieutenant Stephen McMaster (RAN) watched the old man shuffle along the pier. As Stephen had not known his father he did not know he was the fourth generation of McMasters to head off to war in the Twentieth Century.
HMAS Darwin sailed out of Moreton Bay and headed north. Its destination? The Persian Gulf. Its mission? To fight Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait.
At that same time a postman delivered a letter to Jock’s house. It was from a firm of solicitors acting on behalf of the late Jane McMaster. Her will requested that her late husband’s relatives be contacted after she died.
No Australian servicemen died in the First Gulf War. Although he didn’t know it Lieutenant Stephen McMaster had broken the McMaster curse.