Control Z

Ann Howard

Dear Cousin,

You will probably be surprised to get a letter from me after all this time. I could not believe that you were still at the same address after all these years and I've been turning it over in my mind. I do have a phone but I can't ring out, only receive calls. That way it's free. Especially I couldn't ring you on an overseas call. We have rain and I have lit the paraffin lamp, although it's still afternoon as it is so dark in here. The dogs have hardly moved for hours. The rain thunders and drums on the tin roof and there are three leaks. I don't worry about the leaks. They soon dry up. Usually everything is as dry as a dead dingo's donger, as the vet says.

But I do think about you. I have fond memories of your mother. After the bombing raids, she kept me with her for a long time. You were so young then, you probably don't remember. As we lived in the same road, you had spent a lot of time at our house before the bombings. Your mother got me a free passage to Australia. She hugged me and said I needed to get away. I travelled with 20 orphans from Barnardos, going out to Sydney for a better life. They were supposed to be orphans but several talked about their mothers, which was very sad. I kept in touch with all of them for a long time. They were all OK. I was supposed to go back to Norfolk a week after I reached Australia. That's why I didn't take Pip's photo. Your mother loved Pip too. His photo was safe with her. Then one thing led to another. I met your uncle on the boat and we drifted around, getting farther and farther away from the cities.

I have an old tower pc that someone gave me but I really don't understand how to fix it. Maybe water got into it. It worked for a while. I would love to be able to find things out, and write things down. My writing is so crabbed now with my crooked fingers. A woman told me that if you lose a page, you can hit Control Z and you get it all back again. If life was like that, I could bring back the boys, Stephen and Jim, Alf and Joe and Curly. All of them back and laughing loudly at some joke. Dancing. Especially Pip. It was the time I felt most alive, being in the crowd and laughing with them. Especially Pip.

The iron smell of the rain is good, and the sizzle on the ground. I wonder about the worms. They will be deep under the ground in the dark and they will hear the rain drumming above them.

When I used to do paper rounds on my bike, down our road, at first light, after rain there'd be worms run over, lying stranded in pink ribbons on the road and drowning in gutters and puddles. I used to slip a soft leaf under them or a long piece of grass, wriggle it gently and flip them onto the earth. There were times when I was in a hurry and tried not to see them, but I had to look because my bicycle wheel would run over them. If I spotted one, I'd have to turn back – and then there would be more to rescue. I'd be late for my paper round, with no excuse to offer. Once I rescued so many, I put them in a bucket with some water. They got quite sexy and frothed up. Then I put them in my richest earth I could find.

I always wondered why they ventured onto the bitumen. Charles Darwin said in a book he wrote on worms: 'It has often been said that if the ground is beaten or otherwise made to tremble, worms believe that they are pursued by a mole and leave their burrows.' Maybe the worms think the pounding of the rain is a mole coming. Maybe they can't breathe in waterlogged earth, as they breathe through their skin.

Where my place is at Somewhere Else, at the back of Broken Hill, population 445, it's dry, dry, dry. And red. Sometimes the sky's red too. Hard for you to imagine over in the greenness of King's Lynn. I must be the farthest away from Pip's photo that I could be. I had to move here, on the outskirts of town, the only place with a bit of acreage for my animals that I could afford. I don't waste anything. My hot water bottle had a hole in it and I use it as a kneeler when I'm planting out. It took me a week to think of that. I had a tin bucket with a rusty hole and guess what, upside down it forced the rhubarb!

I was so surprised to get a reply from you. I read it so many times, then folded it up, then unfolded it and read it again. It was at the Post Office in town for a couple of weeks before people told me it was there. They were all talking about the stamp. I don't get into town much. I have a dress, and wear shoes instead of boots, which I need for the snakes here. I wash carefully. My long hair is grey now, not blonde, but still has a nice wave. I tie my hair back. I used to wear a hat, but I pinned it to my dress once, when my arms were too sore to reach up to the hook, then forgot it. I wore the dress to town with the hat pinned on the back. A lady tapped me on the shoulder and whispered to me. She helped me unpin it and put it on.

The animals keep me busy from first light: I have one rescued kitten, (my last), found outside the Post Office in a box, so named Postie. She is an only cat, half wild, with no mate so thankfully there will be no kittens. She thinks she is a dog and copies them, to their annoyance. There are 5 rescued dogs, all healthy, and 25 rescued sheep and lambs. I have an old ram, I call Archie, with Archibald Ormsby-Gore (John Betjeman's teddy bear), in mind. John Betjeman was clutching his teddy when he died. That's so British, isn't it. I keep Archie penned up as I already have too many lambs to care for and I won't allow them to be slaughtered. The things humans eat: whale, horse, dog, grated puffin! They all have souls. SOBs means souls on board – you can't argue with it. The vet is looking to place Archie somewhere else. He says he's too much for me. He is always looking for a blue. Ewegene, one of the oldest sheep comes to the back door and bellows for something to eat. If I go out, the back door is left open for the dogs and some sheep and lambs get into the house and chew things and poo. Lily is now toothless. She used to be really clean, not now. Her friend, Gran, stole an opened tin of beetroot last week, from the kitchen bench, which she shared with Lily. They drank the vinegar and strolled about with bright red lips. The dogs circled guiltily when I came home, so I knew the sheep had been inside. One sheep I named Carmen, after the opera character, but it didn't stick. She just didn't have the personality.

I have a blind black wether. None of the dogs ever chase her – she can't see them and they know. She wanders about bumping into things. I let her lie next to my desk and my bed. Yesterday, Lily had a bellyache. Her ears flopped sideways and she didn't steal Ewegene's food. She drooled. She must have eaten something poisonous. I shouted at her to stick to the grass, but the wind fanned out the red dust in mockery and she just stared at me through the cloud.

No hot water for two months. I'd love a hot shower. Can't afford repairs. The dam has a sticky bottom with a few inches of muddy water in.

On a good day, over 100 magpies call in for breakfast. Honeyeaters, crimson and eastern rosellas, galahs, cockatoos, corelles, tufted pigeons and a goshawk swirl around me, in the middle like a plump St Francis with long, wavy hair and boots on against bitey ants. Two Willy Wagtails are learning to fly from my finger to their nest.

I struggle with bleak, black depression. All the time I slide back to the brave boys who left, not only killed but not given a proper burial. When I got the computer working I found a German list of burial sites, but it was all in German. I hoped the Allies would do what the people in Holland did for the war dead – they made a big effort. The Germans were the enemy but now with so many dead, they are not any more. Just someone's son, brother, husband chum…my boys, the laughing, joking fresh faced boys who joined the RAF, I knew so many. One of them, Pip – well I still catch my breath when I think of him but I was always too shy to do anything but catch his eye and be quietly with him. I'd love to be a writer and rewrite their end. Smashed to bits in the air, and not remembered.

Well I remember them. I wonder if you've had time to look through your mother's things for that photo of Pip. She had all the photos in a brown suitcase tied up with one of your father's belts. She wouldn't have thrown them out, I'm sure. Probably in the attic. The photo is hand coloured. He signed it in the corner, sideways. Pip is looking up and laughing, fair hair tousled, eyes so blue like the sky he disappeared into. The day he had the photo taken, he asked me to go with him. He wore his battle jacket with the sheepskin lapels, although it was a mild day. He was so proud of it and walked with a swagger. I had a new pink dress and he kept saying, 'The dress, eh? We do like the dress!' and I blushed the same colour. We stopped off at a pub and sat on the grass under a tree full of apple blossom, buzzing with bees. He laid my head in his lap and I shivered with happiness looking up under his chin at the blue sky. I wanted that moment to go on for ever. Each time he flew out I died a little and then there was the day he came back with a chipped elbow and great jagged cuts across his lovely face. He had a week off. We looked at each other and I said, 'You're going back, aren't you', and the space between our faces said goodbye.

Would you have a photo of yourself as you are now? I would really love to see how you have grown. You had fair hair and your mother used to pull it back tightly in two big white bows. You said it made your head ache. I don't suppose you remember when I took you for walks to the Tuesday Market Place. Margaret Read, they called a witch, was burnt there in 1590. It is said that as the flames licked the poor old woman's toes, her heart burst from her body and struck the wall, leaving a heart-shape. There's a carving. I held you up to touch the heart. Just a poor old woman.

I have six more sheep to hand shear at the present and am bucketing water around the place. By the time I've done that, I'm sunburnt and quite weak. I've decided to shear the sheep continuously, so hopefully they won't get daggy. It will be cooler for them, too. I have to average two a week. Nobody comes except the vet and a young chap from the council wanting rates. I sheared one merino Christmas Eve, one Christmas Day, one New Year’s Eve and one New Year’s Day. Even my elbows ache. Who was that comedian that said his teeth itched? Tommy something. He always made me laugh.

The house is cooler than outside at night but I can't leave the doors and windows open because of the mozzies. They get in anyway. The dogs snap and snap at them. Postie goes under the sheets and sometimes bites my toes or puts her claws out on my leg and purrs. What can you do?

The good thing about sheep poo is that it holds the water, it's caught and held, so it doesn't run across the red dust. I've put it under the trees, where my animals go when their souls leave their bodies. The pear trees bear very well. I cut up the green ones for the sheep before the rosellas get stuck in. The apricot gets heavy with fruit, but last time the birds got them all except ten. It breaks my heart when a tree dies. I think of your mother's dewy garden with hollyhocks and wallflowers and sweet peas and the small birds chattering. I have geraniums here, redder than the red ground. How I would love some white flowers.

Gran has become very frail. She eats, but walks very slowly like a ninety-year old human. She still has all her teeth but she is exuding frailty. Poor Gran has to avoid the boisterous young 'uns. Sometimes I clear a path so she can totter through. Some days her nose runs and I grab her and blow her nose for her like you do toddlers. Ewegene is very bolshy. She is strong and cunning and gives as good as she gets.

I am now completely vegetarian and just buy mince and bones for the dogs and birds. My brain and body unravelling fast. I suppose I'll be buried by loony Christians. I heard of a couple of unpleasant incidents and I'm careful not to put my address and state of health out. Nobody in town would know, because I always dress. I have some 4711 eau de cologne.

Do you know any males who were in the RAF in WW2? I would love to talk with them. That's probably a silly question, it was such a long time ago.

Wherever I've piled sheep poo, the worms have arrived. Poor little creatures have done it hard in the dry. I found a friendly farmer who let me get under his shearing shed and rescue some. I put chaff bags and old bits of carpet around for them. It's wonderful how they find the shelter. If I find a sick magpie, I kill it but I actually feel very guilty about killing anything.

All of the boys were Ozzies except for three. The eldest was 29, the youngest 19. Six of the seven dead, probably bailed out too late from a plane on fire and about to crash. Alf may have had a damaged parachute and gone down in the early hours over Holland. Or they got caught in fog and could not see the ground. Pip just disappeared.

I'm so hot. I will have two or three days of salad before everything rots. (No fridge) I've opened a tin of beetroot which means Gran and Lily will be very interested.