Churchill called them his Lustreforce and they arrived in Greece marching to Waltzin’ Matilda, slouched hats conquering hearts, bushy-tailed and flushed with recent success against the Axis forces in Africa: two battalions of ANZACs, never reckoning what it meant that hospital ships were already disgorging doctors and nurses into Athens. As soon as they landed, Australian Commander Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Blamey scoured the beaches of southern Greece for the evacuation sites he already knew they would need.
Colonel Katie Best set her nurses to work establishing two hospitals: one in Athens and the other further north at Camp Daphni. It was easier for the nurses to wear their woollen capes in Greece than it had been in Alexandria. The scorching heat of the desert had made the warm capes uncomfortable. Still, every nurse from the colonel to her most junior lieutenant wore her cape every day. They understood well that what was sometimes uncomfortable for them, afforded great comfort to the men.
Every soldier would know that they were there. Waiting. Caring. The girls from home who had come all the way from Australia to nurse the ANZACs. They spoke English and talked about footy, cricket and places back home. Always wearing their red capes in every climate.
The Greek Campaign did not go well for Lustreforce. Heavily outnumbered, ill-equipped and badly beaten, they retreated before the enemy: over Olympus; across the Aliakmon; through shelled village after shelled village. Then the battered, bleeding, hungry remnants of Lustreforce heard the news: in the face of the advancing enemy, the Australian High Command had taken a decision to evacuate the nurses.
Katie Best gave her nurses a vote by secret ballot: when the papers were counted, not one nurse out of seventy-four had voted to leave. As the soldiers limped towards the coast expecting to fend for themselves the familiar flutter of red capes in the hospital compound below sent a thrill through their ranks. The word was passed down the line and their healing started before they were out of the hills.
As they crowded onto the decks of the hospital ships and waited to cross the Mediterranean again, one of her lieutenants pulled the colonel’s sleeve and pointed into the sky. From a mast high above them, some wag had managed to add a very different flag to the regular ones: a nurse’s red cape fluttered in the breeze to salutes, cheers and whistles from the deck.
Across the Li River
High above the Li River in China’s rural south, a chance encounter with a stranger forged one of the most endearing memories I have of her country.
I had marveled at the Great Wall, soaked up the cherry-blossom gardens of Xi’an and watched pilgrims pay homage to Mao in Tiananmen Square. But I still longed to see the China that captured my imagination, the terraced rice fields of the south. My son and daughter-in-law, both teaching in the Xi’an International School, knew exactly where to take me.
Longsheng is famous for its picture-perfect winding rice terraces and the Yao women whose silky black hair is grown up to two metres long and worn in a spiral crown. They dance for the passing tourist trade, unraveling the waterfall of their beautiful hair and spinning it around their bodies.
In the bustling market-place we are swamped by noisy locals eager to sell their wares. Vendors of silver jewellery, silks, art-work and textiles all compete for our attention.
We leave them behind and embark on a narrow path that seems better suited to mountain goats than intrepid grand-mothers – although I notice that the local grand-mothers manage them quite well. Climbing high above villages where bamboo houses balance giddily on cliff edges, we are soon surrounded by the green of rice terraces and the mauvey-blue of misty, round-topped mountains.
Farmers, peddlers, and women with babies on their backs trek up and down the steps in a continual stream. Even heavily laden horses pass us and I press against the walls of stone and timber shacks to make way for them.
I soon need to catch my breath but the others, with the indecent energy of youth, are keen to keep climbing. I send them off and find a friendly wooden bench. Below me the mountain is terraced in row upon row of gently winding rice-fields. Women and men stand in the water with loose trousers rolled up above their knees, their bodies bent in half as they plant each seedling beneath the water. It must be back-breaking work but they do it for hours at a time without rest.
While I watch them, admiring their resilience, a young woman approaches from one of the fragile houses skirting the path. We smile at each other and she sits beside me. She is carrying an exercise-book which she opens and holds out to me.
She has listed numbers from one to one hundred down one side of the page. On the other side she has attempted to write them in English. She has the figures right, but many of the words are wrong. Well, I have nothing else to do and it’s such a beautiful day here on the mountain. I take her pencil.
Since her English seems limited and my Chinese is non-existent, I hover the pencil over the page and raise my eye-brows at her. She nods eagerly and smiles as I begin writing the figures down the left-hand side of a new page: 1, 2, 3…50…75…100. Then I go back and start writing them out in words: One, two, three…
She stands up. ‘Tea?’
I love the idea of drinking tea here, of all places. ‘Thank you.’
She disappears and I lift my head to the terraced fields, breathing the marvelous mountain air. When she returns I am presented with tea, cakes and little round balls of something I don’t recognise but which taste delicious.
Finally I write ‘one hundred’ and flex cramped fingers. She takes the book and thanks me with a lovely bow, the way the Chinese do. When I finish my tea she begins pointing to things around us, inviting me to write the English words for them and she writes what I guess is the Chinese translation beside each word. She giggles at herself as she tries to pronounce new English words and nods politely at what I’m sure must be atrocious attempts at Chinese on my part.
I laugh and shake my head. ‘No, thank you…’ I pat my tummy in keeping with the sign language that has allowed this friendship to thrive. ‘Enough.’
She is so grateful, thanking me again and again as if I have done her great service…yet I know already that I will always remember her as giving me more than tea and cakes.
Another Mother’s Son
‘Are you happy, Mother?’ His arms are extended, his hands resting lightly on my shoulders.
I catch my breath, look up at the young man towering over me, staggered at the generosity that moves him, in his circumstances, to ask if I am happy.
My peripheral vision encompasses the others who hover behind him, surrounding us, waiting their turn. Fine young men all of them, emanating a patient resilience that makes me want to cry.
‘I’d be happy if I could take you…all of you…home with me.’
‘Oh, Little Mother!’ His voice is broken, the title he gives me a tribute to my grey hairs. The others move closer, murmuring, reaching out to hug me goodbye. ‘Will you come back, Mother?’
I force smiles for faces from Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Bangladesh.
The Serco guard moves up and the young men fall away. No sound as heavy, as cold inside me, as the clunk of steel deadlocking doors between us. I blink. No tears in front of this man who holds the next door open and waves me out with such an obsequious pretence of chivalry.
‘Mother,’ my new young friend had called me.
I will come back.
Written after my first visit to the MITA refugee detention centre in MELBOURNE 2014