Hooroo Cobber

Adrienne Johns

[A boy born in the country at Nyngan, Thomas Richard Knight; gentle, shy, known to his confreres as Tommy. Thin but wiry. Used to hard work. A born joker but never mean.

Tommy was swept up in the call to arms from the country districts of NSW to the city where he joined up at Warwick Farm, and became a private, a foot soldier.

He was wounded four times and then gassed badly in 1918.]

Tommy, by geez the bloody Huns have done for us this time after all we’ve been through.
I can’t see anything Tom. I can hear you groaning and spluttering. Don’t give up mate we’ll get over this. I know how they made this fucking stuff but it tastes so foul and ghastly; my eyes are burnin’; my head’s exploding. I wish you would speak to me Tommy. Please try so I can get help for both of us, for both of us.
Everyone around sounds the same – choking, panting, vomiting, screaming; the pain Tommy, the pain. My eyes are on fire and the vomit tastes like all my insides are coming out.
Jesus Tommy. Hold on mate. I’ve got you cobber. You are my own dear cobber please don’t give up now.
Aaargh, Jesus Christ, Aaargh, heheheheh
Flaming hell I’…
Can’t, can’t, heheheheh aargh
Shit, aaargh I’ll die.

Tommy we’ve come to help you.

We’re aaaaaaargh so aargh fucked.

I’ll just cover your…

Aargh don’t touch me. Me and me mates are all the aaaaaargh out of luck.

Piss on this cotton mate and cover your eyes.

Can’t see or feel mate, hear their cries.

Try to keep breathin’; hold onto his coat.

I’ve lost my grasp, but I hear you gasp you scroat.

That’s the way Shortie, hold onto Tommy’s shirt.

Jesus Christ, heheheheheheh I’m down in the dirt.

I’ll help you mate, hang on, not far to go.

Can’t take another breath, dead dead slow.

They bathed Tom’s eyes with milk in France.
But his lungs never more fit for the dance.
His breaths came in gasps, and his sight never far
enough, an horizon of so many scars.

[He was injured by gas, his lungs and eyes took months to heal, that’s no surprise. Took years to heal save they never did. He returned home, his eyes never rid of pain and watering.]

Tommy at last came home, sat in the dark.
Cut off from his mates; just his dog’s bark
to keep him company, to keep his spark
alive; a country life in bush so stark.
His lungs were shot his eyes were dim
but the bush and the family, did they rescue him?

I often thought of Uncle Tom
when we sang that old song,
‘My eyes are dim I cannot see
I have not brought my specs with me.
I have not brought my specs with me.’

Looking back, Tom was my hero. He was a hero to my Grandma as well, and to my brother Peter, who was three years older. Tom saw, in my brother Peter, the son he never had. He admired, loved and nurtured him with his own beautiful soul. This was precious as my father was a violent alcoholic.

Tom was the kindest influence in my life. He would make up mad stories to try and protect me from the harsh gaze of my mother. ‘Bloody Marvellous Jo’ he would say to my mother. ‘Fancy coming second last in her exams. That takes some doing. I think she’s bloody clever. Well done Ade’. Sweeties, crackers or comics – Tom would always try to give us exactly what was missing.

I can’t remember when I first met him but he seemed to have always been there in my childhood. He was gentle, kind, tolerant, thoughtful; a far cry from my abusive father. He had never married as such, but stayed close to my Grandma’s side. He called Grandma either Molly, or Fanny, after Fanny Durack because of her great love of swimming.

He divided his time between Grandma’s one room flat and his sister Myrtle’s home at Guildford. I think Auntie Myrtle thought Grandma was a bad influence on Tom. Her mouth and eyes were always turned down at the corners, and she often seemed more than a bit sad but especially sour when she saw my Grandma. I felt sorry for Auntie Myrtle.

In the second World War Uncle Tom worked at a munitions factory; working for the war effort once more. I don’t think it helped his health or his state of mind. They worked until 10pm at night.

He was not whole.

His breathing was so laboured.

Then in the early 1940s I remember him working in the Manchester Department at McDowell’s in George Street, Sydney. I was four or five. As a special treat from Tom we would go to the cafeteria on the third floor. Tom would always beg off and go and get some rum or whiskey to top himself up and keep his spirit going. I know there was a dreaded floor walker who made my brave Tom miserable.

In the forties he continued to be Grandma’s dearest friend. Even as a young child I was aware of his declining health. His puff puff aah breaths. Every week he caught the train and tram from the city to Concord where we lived and after the evening meal he would fall asleep straight away after dinner. If he was too tired to walk to the tram he would stay the night. Breathing had become more of a struggle. In the 1950s once more darkness gradually consumed his vision, like a thief in the night.

He didn’t complain, he didn’t tell
anyone, that his life was hell.
It got to a point when twilight came
that the world disappeared, he was no longer game.
Wouldn’t step out and try; he gave up the ghost.
Couldn’t see from pillar to post.
He cut his throat, but made sure he did roam
three streets away from his sister’s home.

His sister saw his trial enough; but she
thought only of Tommy’s infantry.
No longer a story of gallantry.
Just backs to the trap no mystery.
Flies, dirt and trenches, and dysentery;
and the rotten gas, no eyes to see;
and no breath left, just invisibility.
Her poor brother, so brave was he.

Tom was mentioned in dispatches for conspicuous bravery. He was awarded the Military Medal on the 14th October 1917, and bar to the Military Medal on the 11th February 1919.