General Fiction posted May 9, 2015

This work has reached the exceptional level
a story of mateship over time

My Mate, Pete

by mfowler

The Last Post has proclaimed its mournful refrain. Men replace their hats respectfully and families file past the memorial, each with a memory of, or frayed connection to someone listed in gold leaf below the standing soldier.
The speeches done, the memorial dedicated, the people drift away into the bronzed morning. I can't lift my feet, I'm so affected by the service. Pete's face is the countenance of that mute soldier. It's a face that visits me in dreams and on the faces of young men  passing in the street. He's been gone more than ten years now, probably dead and buried somewhere on that barren peninsula along with thousands of others who risked it all at Gallipoli.
Of course, no-one really knows about the details of his demise, as he wasn't called Pete McFadden of Campbelltown by then; he enlisted as Pete Parsons, a wholly fictitious identity that he casually laughed about after the recruiting officer swore him in.
'Whadda ya say, Colin, me boy? Private Peter Parsons. Has a good ring to it, I reckon. The Huns'll know a thing or two by the time Private Parsons has passed by.' He tossed his hat in the air, did a little jig right in the middle of Montacute Road, and caught it on the way down. What a larrikin! Pete always thought he was invincible. No-one, not even the Kaiser could top him if he was on song.
As kids, we were inseparable. People used to say I was his little brother. Truth was, I lived over the back fence from his place in Hectorville. He adopted me as his 'apprentice' when I was five years old and I followed him around marvelling at his exploits. My one goal in life back then was to be just like Pete McFadden.
'You stick with me, boyo,' he'd say, 'and you'll have more fun than a jam jar of tadpoles.' I used to watch tadpoles in Fourth Creek when the winter rains came and they seemed very happy right where they were. But, Pete could make an imprisoned tadpole sound like it wanted to be in a jar.
In fact, Pete's ability to convince people just what they wanted to hear, was his greatest talent. And he knew how to use it. When I was nine, we caught the tram down to Jameson's corner shop in Maylands.
'Not good to muck about on your own patch too much,' he said. 'Now Colin, I want ya to stand near the door. Look real sad. Hold your hat in front of ya and look at yer feet. I'll do the rest and when I say to run, head up the street like a scalded cat. Got that?'
He walked up to the counter with a look on his face that would make a policeman cry. 'Hello, Mister. Could I have twopence worth of gobstoppers, please?'
'What's wrong with your mate?' said Mr Jameson.
'Aw, he's alright. Just got a bit of a kick in the guts, that's all.'
'Have you boys been fighting?'
'No sir, young Johnny's dog got run down by the baker's cart. Happened this morning. I'm tryin' to cheer him up. I thought a gobstopper or two might take his mind off the accident.' I listened to his lies as closely as the shopkeeper did. He was so convincing that I nearly cried. I wouldn't want to lose Rusty.
'Here, sonny. Have the lollies on me. Treat your mate. No kid oughta have to lose his dog.'
Pete kept his sad face on all the way out the door, and then he said ,'Run.'
By the time we got up Devitt Avenue, my heart was beating like it would jump out of my chest. 'Why did we have to run, Pete?' I flopped to the ground.
He produced two sticks of liquorice and an apple from inside his coat. 'This is why.' He grinned like a satisfied cat. 'You get half the gobstoppers and I'll keep these for all me hard work.'
'But, Pete, the shopkeeper only gave you the lollies. How did you...?'
'A little trick, mate. I waited till he turned around to get the gobstoppers out of the jar. That's why I picked them. I snatched what I could before he turned back.'
'Isn't that stealing?" I asked. 'Mum told me stealing would get me locked up. Are you gunna get locked up?'
'Not just me, Colin. You too. You're suckin' on the evidence right now.' I spat the gobstopper out. The taste suddenly turned my stomach.
'Don't be a baby, mate. You want to have fun, be me mate, then you've got show some guts.'
Pete rarely talked about his family, but my father always said the parents were wasters. I wasn't sure what a waster was, but a visit to his house when I was eleven years old gave me an insight into what he meant.
'Stay outside while I get me coat,' said Pete.' I won't be long.' But, he was, and since the day was turning sour I wandered into his house looking for him.
The rooms were cluttered with old newspapers and boxes. Beer bottles were piled like firewood in three rooms. The house stank of something stale and putrid, so I hurried through to the front room which looked warmer. Pete was there, crying. I'd never seen my mate anything but happy and looking for fun. I stayed in the hallway, too frightened to enter the room.
'You're bloody useless,' said his father. 'I send ya to get some t'bacca, and ya come back with nothin'. Does a man have to do everything round this joint?' I could see the red marks of a handprint on Pete's face.
'I, I tried, Dad, but Mr Kelly was watchin' me like a Alsatian with a bone. He kept sayin', "What do ya want, kid?"  So I left.'
'Then you shoulda gone up to the grocer's.'
'That Finnegan fella said if he catches me anywhere near his shop again, he'll call the cops.'
'Ya bloody useless. I taught ya how ta get the five finger discount, I don't know how many times. Find a way to distract them and then grab what ya can.' Pete looked up defiantly.
'I've stolen from them so many times that they don't trust me. All I gotta do is show me face and they get suspicious.' His father launched at Pete with a rolled newspaper, cracking him just below the ear.
'Bloody kid.  Don't know how you'll ever become a real man. Stayin' ahead of the game takes guts. You aint got a thimble full.' With that he staggered off to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of beer.' I left quietly.
'Well, Col, you up for some fishin' ?'Pete said, without showing any sign of what just happened.
Down at the Torrens, the fish were playing hide-and-seek with our lines, so I asked Pete, 'Do you like your old man?'
'Do you like horse dung to eat?'
'Nah, that's disgusting.' He turned back to the business of fishing and that's all he ever said on the subject.
In the summer of 1913, Pete and I became well-known around the Campbelltown district for our magic shows. We would set up a little folding table near busy places like the cricket oval and show people our tricks.
My job was to get people to play the shell game with Pete. I'd stand twenty yards from Pete and call out, 'Meet and try to beat the Incredible Pete.' It worked well and Pete put on a good show.
People would ask him how the game was played and he'd show them how he shuffled three split walnut shells about on the table with a dried pea under one of them. Pete was an entertainer.
'Yes folks, if you can pick where the Incredible Pete has hidden the pea, you can double ya money. For a farthing, you only have to guess right to double up.' Pete's smile and happy personality always attracted strangers to the game.
He was cunning. The strangers nearly always won the first two games and would ask for more. Then Pete would move the walnuts closer to the table edge as he swished them around. The pea would fall into the butcher's apron pocket that he wore. They always tried to win back what he fleeced from them, but he knew when to stop and say his Dad wanted him at home.
One day, down the street from the grocer's, the Doolan boys walked up looking for trouble. 'Ah, Pete,' said Jackie Doolan, 'you owe me twopence from last time. We reckon you're a cheat, matey.'
The Doolans were in Yr 6 with us before they left school to work on their Dad's apricot farm. They always picked on the younger kids, but Pete somehow always managed to talk them round before they could do any damage.
'There, a penny for my twopence,' said Quincy Doolan, 'and if I catch you tryin' anythin' off colour, cobber, you're mincemeat.'
'Now, don't be like that fellas,' said Pete, 'I'll stand yer bet, but the game's as honest as a priest's oath, so no need to do yer block.' The game lasted fifteen minutes. The Doolans lost a zac before they left swearing like pub drunks.
Pete's eyes twinkled with delight just as they always did when he made a killing. 'Fair dinkum, those Doolan galahs fall for it every time. I think it's time I shouted me mate a Coke with some honest earned money.'
We packed up and headed up towards the Glynde corner. As we passed a laneway, the Doolans appeared. 'You're gunna pay for yer scam, yer bludgers,' shouted Quincy.
Jackie grabbed me by the arm and shouted, 'I'll job ya, ya little maggot.' I wet my pants, I was that scared, but Pete flew at Quincy like an angry rooster. He landed a great blow on Quincy's nose and he dropped me like a sack of onions. Jackie joined in the fray but Pete swung a hook that landed him on his backside.
The Doolans ran off down the alley shouting blue murder. 'Geeze, Pete, ya saved me life.'
Pete dusted himself off and picked up his table. 'Cowards.' That's all he said and we headed to the shop for that well earned drink.
Something changed in Pete that day, or maybe it was in me. I always liked Pete; he was my mate, but I knew he was as bent as a right hook, so I never thought much about any other aspect of his personality. That day I saw something courageous, something almost noble in the way he did things.
And, as usual, I knew not to talk about the fight.
By 1914, Pete had finished school and worked a few days a week at McDonald's stables.
'Shovellin' dung aint a man's work,' he complained one afternoon.
'Yeah, mate, but ya get paid honest money for it.'
'The old man takes most of it. Says I owe 'm for bringin' me up so well.'
'How 'bout we go into town on Sat'day?'  Suddenly, his gloom lifted and my enthusiastic mate was back organising my spare time.
'I reckon I could get away if I finish of cuttin' the wood for Dad.'
The city was bristling with activity. A parade of army recruits marched up and down King William Street. They'd been round most of the country towns of South Australia gathering volunteers to fight the Huns. Banners, covered with patriotic calls to arms, flapped enthusiastically in the morning breeze.
'See that,' said  Pete, 'That's a man's job. Fightin' the Kaiser for King and country. A real man oughta be right there with them blokes.' To me, the parade was fun, a bit of excitement, but Pete saw it as a personal calling.
For weeks, he went on about the war and what we all should be doing to help. One afternoon, I was getting sick of his preaching.
'Pete, mate, you're not even fifteen years old yet. Ya gotta be twenty-one to join up. Anyways, we're havin' too much fun.'
'You're a kid, ya wouldn't understand.' Suddenly, I felt alone.
Two weeks later, we went for a stroll down towards the stables. 'Col, I did it. I joined up. Off to camp next week.'
'What? Did what?'
'I joined up. I'm goin' to Europe.'
'But, how?'
'Told them I was eighteen today. They said I needed my parents' permission. I told them they was dead and I worked for a livin'. Simple as that. Meet Private Pete Parsons, your new mate.'
He was as proud as a barnyard cock and his smile seemed wider than the outback.
'I'll miss you, mate,' I said, struggling to avoid tears.
He saluted and did that little jig. That was the last I saw of him.
His parents didn't seem to care when I told them after he'd shipped out. 'Useless little bugger,' said his father. 'Hope he's man enough to give it to the Gerries.'
The opening of that ANZAC memorial in Campbelltown brought back memories I thought were long gone. I've been saying a prayer for Pete Parsons every day since. I'm thankful for his life, his mateship through my childhood.
I sometimes smile inside when I think of that cheeky grin, those terrible cons he pulled to win an advantage. But, I also remember what life dealt him, and that he'd had the guts to give his life fighting for what he believed in. I learnt about courage and loyalty from him, and a little about charming others too, useful qualities for a man entering law. Perhaps, I'll also know a thing or two about a petty criminal if I encounter one.
Yesterday was Anzac Day, 1926. I'm sitting in the tearooms at John Martin's. The Advertiser is full of stories and pictures of celebrations from around the country.  A photo on page three shows a group of veteran Diggers marching down Queen St. in Brisbane. I'm not certain, but there's something familiar about the face of a young man near the rear of the column. I hold the lens of my spectacles close up. The cheeky grin, the sparkling eyes, they're just the same, no mistaking it.
I break into a smile which I don't think will shift for a week. The dirty dog, he's alive. I can only imagine how Pete has thwarted death, and why he's chosen to live in Queensland, far away from his home state.
The one thing I do know though, is that he would have cheated Death out of a living, just like he'd tricked his way into the army in the first place; probably offered the devil double or nothing for his soul.
What a larrikin!



Oz Slang
larrikin: mischievous, wild or carefree person
gobstoppers: long chewing lollies
the five finger discount: theft
anythin' off colour: something suspicious
cobber: Mate, friend, pal
you're mincemeat: You're dead; You're in big trouble
farthing: quarter of a penny
zac: six pennies, or sixpence
do your block: lose your temper
Fair dinkum, those Doolan galahs: Aw heck, those Doolan fools
Gerries, Huns: Germans
Digger: colloquial name given to an Australian soldier; pertains to the digging done in the trenches of Gallipoli in WW1
Gallipoli: A famous campaign from 1915, during which Australian, New Zealand and other forces sustained an eight month campaign on the shores of Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. Ultimately, a losing campaign, the courage shown by our soldiers in the first long, sustained battle of the young country's war history, earned the Diggers the name ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.)
Anzac Day has been celebrated ever since with memorials and parades on the 25 April each year.

Last Post: mournful bugle tune played at memorial services for the military
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