I think it was Mum who first mentioned it. She called from Canberra to say that Maggie was coming up to Sydney for a memorial service. It was for some army guy she knew. It was on Friday. Mum was pretty dismissive. “I don’t know who he was or how well she knew him. She certainly never mentioned him before... not that she ever tells me anything.” When my sister called me herself she seemed sombre, but her usual self. I guess. She was driving up. The memorial was at some barracks an hour or so from my house. I was still on maternity leave so she probably reckoned I had nothing else to do. “Sure,” I said, aware it would’ve appeared heartless to refuse, “But what about Robbie? He’ll probably sleep through it, but do you think taking a baby would be…?” I was hoping she’d tell me it was a bad idea so I would have an excuse to pike. “It’ll be fine.” She said. “Anyway, Birko adored kids. He would’ve loved Robbie.”
“Birko? His name was Birko?”
“Long story, never mind. Everyone called him Birko.”
I was curious to know how well Maggie knew this guy. Although she was almost thirty, she’d never, to my knowledge had a serious boyfriend. Certainly no one she took home to meet Mum and Dad. Not that my other sister Katy and I did, until we had an engagement to announce or we’d already shacked up. All I’d known of Maggie’s love life were the teary aftermaths. Guys she’d fallen for, slept with and then been dumped by. Usually within the course of a week or two. She certainly knew how to pick ‘em. Then there was the Defence Force Academy incident several years earlier. It even made the local paper. A cadet was busted sneaking a girl into his dorm. Slow news day. She went unnamed, but Katy blabbed to me it had been Maggie. She related the scene around the breakfast table, our mother’s tut-tutting at the article and the slattern involved, blissfully unaware it was documenting the misadventures of her darling youngest sitting across from her. Around that time Maggie had been super keen to join up. She didn’t seem too concerned about whatever reputation she might have acquired after the dorm bust, she was just a bit worried about passing the fitness exam. I don’t think Maggie had done any intentional exercise since year 10 Phys Ed, and it showed. Anyway, for whatever reason, she didn’t end up going to the Academy. I’m not sure whether she just got over it, or failed to get in. She got a job in Defence though. Katy had been working there since she’d finished school. She’d even met her husband Douglas there. He was a divorcee twelve years older and an army man. We had a joke that Katy had always liked guys in uniform. We’d shared a room when we were young and one night the house across the road went up in flames. We sat on the front porch while Katy provided a running commentary on the hot or notness of each attending fire fighter. I told the story at her wedding. Or would have if I could have been arsed. So Maggie now worked in Defence too. I suppose she was hoping to land her own Douglas.
She turned up on Friday morning. Drive up hadn’t been too bad she said. We took my car out to the barracks because of the baby seat. I’d already looked up directions, and was confident we wouldn’t get lost. I was still in the dark about Maggie’s relationship with the dead soldier. It wasn’t the sort of thing I could bring myself to ask her straight out though. We stuck to small talk, family goings on and the other great fall back: movies. Maggie had amassed an unjustifiably large DVD collection. Golden Years of Hollywood and war movies were her thing. Lantern jawed heroes who knew how to wear a suit, dance and fight a war without breaking a sweat. She could discuss them for as a long as you could bear it, which for me was ten minutes tops. Thankfully Robbie provided plenty of distraction before dutifully crashing out. At this point our conversation turned to the memorial. Maggie volunteered that it wasn’t a public event. She’d only found out the details from a work contact. Already uneasy about attending a memorial service for someone I knew nothing about, this made me feel even more like an intruder.
White lettering on a lonely brick wall indicated our arrival. Anxiety hit me. “What do I say to the guy at the gate?”
“That we’re here for the memorial.”
“Is that all?” I asked, picturing having to show ID and justify my very existence. Maggie shrugged. I pulled up at the little guard box. He looked civilian. A security contractor in business shirt and dark tie. I’d expected a rifle and slouch hat. “Memorial?” He asked pretending not to know the answer. I nodded. “Just follow the road round to the right. You’ll see the car park. Then just walk up the slope on the left. Easy.” I began to feel tired and regretted agreeing to this. Maggie seemed in a surprisingly cheery mood for someone in mourning. The carpark was about half full. A smattering of suburban four wheel drives and station wagons. Mine fit right in. A small group of woman, some with strollers were already making their way from the car park up the slope that led to another brick box, this one with a boom gate. Who are they? Wives of the other guys in his unit? A thought hit me. “So Maggie, who are we, you know, if anybody asks?”
“Friends of Birko.” She said, shooting me a Dumb Question look. I unbuckled my sleeping son from his car seat managing to transfer him to the stroller undisturbed. We crunched up the gravel slope. Pretending I knew, and presumably cared about a dead soldier I hadn’t heard of until two days ago irked me. I began to worry about having to explain myself to someone. Somehow the line “I’m just here supporting my pathetic sister, she’s the one who reckons she knew the guy” wasn’t what the occasion called for. So instead I pictured a cabal of army WAGs turning on the insensitive interlopers who dared to crash the memorial for their fallen could-have-been-my-guy.
“So when do they have the funeral?”
“Not until his body’s flown back.”
“Are you going to that?”
She shook her heard. “Nah, it’ll be up north. Where he’s from.”
I knew nothing about military protocols for funerals or memorial services. Only what I’d garnered from the nightly news. My eyes routinely glazed over at reports about another soldier being blown apart in the desert somewhere. It wasn’t something I took much interest in. A flag draped coffin was never going to contain my son, husband or myself, I was sure of that much. “He was described as a devoted husband and father who would have done anything for his family.” The newsreaders always seem to say.
“Yeah, anything except get a job where they’re not going to get shot at.” I’d wittily retort if there was anyone around to listen, who wasn’t my sister and who didn’t work for Defence. I certainly never knew about these barracks services. I had no idea what to expect or who would be in attendance. I just knew I didn’t want to be there.
We reached what I guess they called a parade ground, flanked by two low-lying pebblecrete buildings with tinted glass doors. A large demountable gazebo was set up in the centre keeping the blazing afternoon sun off rows of chairs arranged behind a lectern. They were gradually being populated with sombrely attired civilians and older army men in full regalia. The women with strollers I’d noticed earlier had congregated with others of their kind under the awning of the building to our left. Blokes in fatigues were bringing out plastic chairs for them. I realised that the gazebo chairs were for VIPs. The wives and girlfriends weren’t officially there either. Maggie stopped on a patch of lawn several metres from the women. I nodded towards them. “I guess we head over there yeah?”
“Yeah. We have a while yet though.”
Still jittery, I forced myself to ask. “So, how long since you’d seen him?”
“A couple of years. Two. Funny, I was just thinking about him the other week. I was thinking I should email him…” Tears welled. I was beginning to share our mother’s cynicism about her claim on this relationship. “So...You went out with him?”
Her head shook. “We were just friends.”
Ahh, the regret. I pushed on.
“But there was a chance… you think?”
She inhaled deeply, blinked and nodded.
“I’m sorry Maggie.” I put my arm around her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. She turned around and hugged me, sniffling in my ear. I’d been hoping for something that would validate my being here. At that moment it just felt downright ghoulish.
We decided to join the other ladies so we could at least sit. I kept my gaze low, not wanting to have to talk to anyone. One of the army guys passed around laser printed programs. An unshaven kid in rolled up khaki pants and a singlet grinned at me from the back page. Now I could put a face to the name. Nice to finally meet you, Birko. I’m Maggie’s sister... You know, Maggie Hill... from Canberra? Not to worry. She remembers you though.
I looked up as a ripple of interest passed through the group. VIPs were making their way from the gravel road to the gazebo. I’d often wondered if our PM’s hair was blonde or just grey and I was vaguely disappointed that the colour was indiscernible. Maggie looked at me and half smiled. She’d perked up.
Now that the dignitaries had arrived the service got into full swing. A weathered looking couple sitting front and centre under the gazebo turned out to be Birko’ parents. They both spoke. He loved horses. Had been a typical country boy. Was never allowed to play with guns, so made them out of sticks. Some important army man spoke next. I didn’t recognise his name or face. Four soldiers in slouch hats and rifles surrounded a marble memorial not far in front of the lectern, heads bowed. The Last Post sent a shiver down my spine. A conditioned response I reasoned. Surely I wasn’t getting sucked in by this pomp. Maggie blew her nose. None of the politicians spoke. There was no media, it wasn’t about them.
The man at the lectern invited everyone to join the dignitaries for tea and coffee after the service. The crowd began to disperse. “Do you want to go to the thing?” I asked. Maggie shook her head. Good, we can get going. Robbie was awake. I was happy to see him. At last I had someone other than Maggie to focus on. I was relieved he’d slept through the service and not drawn unwanted attention to us. As I checked in with him to make sure he was happy and comfortable I noticed another baby his size in a stroller close by. I instinctively smiled at the child and then back at Robbie to see if they would interact. The baby’s mother chuckled disarmingly. “How old is yours?” She asked.
“Eight months” I said. She tilted her head and addressed Robbie.
“So you’ll be nearly one when your daddy comes home too!”
A cold wave of panic blindsided me. I’d been mistaken for one of Them. Averting my eyes I nodded mechanically and pushed the stroller past her. Down the hill. Back to the car. Indignant.
“Do I look like an army wife?”
Maggie shrugged and half smiled. “Maybe.”
A cold front had arrived. The late afternoon took on the bleakness of long forgotten sick days off school and a childhood living room floating between the last minutes of grainy daylight and evening illumination. The drive back took less time, or seemed to at least.
“Birko was going to teach me to ride,” Maggie said as though we’d been discussing it. I tried, and finally managed to picture her on a horse being led by the unshaven guy in a singlet. Shafts of sunlight fell on their backs as they picked their way through a pine forest.
Headlights were coming on as I turned into my street.
It was several months before I went down to Canberra for a visit. Maggie was still living at home with Mum and Dad. I’d been there a day or two before I was in her room and saw good old Birko again. Still grinning, now in a silver frame in the centre of her dressing table. If he was feeling out of place amongst bottles of nail polish, a hair straightener and a glass bowl containing small change and hairclips, he didn’t show it.
Cary Grant smirked from the opposite wall in larger-than-life black and white. Tasteful, in a retro chic sort of way, but not enough to transcend the fact it was still a poster of a movie star blu-tacked to the bedroom wall of someone over the age of seventeen.
At a certain angle the dressing table mirror caught Mr Grant’s reflection and there he was, right there behind Birko, or next to him depending on how you looked at it. It occurred to me that they must be pretty good mates by now, nothing to do but stare back at each other across Maggie’s room day in, day out. Those two dead guys.