In a moment Jack’s world changed forever. He sat opposite his old friend John Thorne and received the grim news. The cancer that dogged him since the end of the World War 2 had recurred. If he was lucky he would live for eighteen months, maybe two years.
Jack left the surgery with a sense of unreality. It had been a good life but he wasn’t ready for it to end. He didn’t want to go home and face his anxious wife. He needed to talk to people who didn’t know him well, about anything but his health. Maybe he could call round on Hayden and Annie with a couple of bottles of beer.
After calling Enid to say he would be late he took the short walk from his office to the house on 11th Street. As he knocked on the door he remembered Hayden had flown to Sydney again to source more equipment. Oh well, too late to back out now. Maybe he could pick up the diary he had loaned to Hayden.
Annie looked surprised but asked him in and fetched two glasses. She brought out Sao biscuits, cheese and pickled onions and lit the fire which was set ready in the grate.
“I was just reading your diary. I’m up to the time you and a friend discussed the Soldier Settlers Scheme. How did you manage to end up here?”
Glad to tell the familiar story Jack swallowed his beer and lay back in the armchair. “After the war I went home to Castlemaine. It was claustrophobic there after the freedom I had experienced travelling the world. I left for Melbourne to find out more about the Soldier Settlers Scheme. Just outside Flinders Street Station I saw a display of produce from Mildura so went over to have a look. There was a very nice lady called Helen helping at the stand. I told her I was interested in settling up here so she said to look up her father, Ted Elliott, an engineer.
Soon after that I caught the train to Mildura. It was a long tiring journey and when at last the train pulled into the station at 8 o’clock in the morning I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone. You wouldn’t believe it but the person standing just outside the station was someone I knew from the army. He was a bit of a pain so did my best to avoid him. Too late he saw me and wanted to know what I was doing in Mildura, so I quickly said I was there to meet Ted Elliott. Blow me down, he pointed and said, ‘Nothing easier, there he is. Right there.’
Can you imagine how I felt? I had never met this man before so had to do some quick talking to get away from the army buddy. I got invited to Ted’s home. His daughter Enid, who of course was Helen’s sister, had a birthday party with some of her girlfriends planned for later that day. They didn’t seem too keen to have me burst in on their party like that but I got on really well with Enid and decided she was the one for me. I went home, gathered my belongings and in two weeks I was back. The rest is history.”
“I met some nice girls in France, England and even in America where I went after the war but Enid was different. She was very accomplished, played the piano, sang beautifully and I just knew I would become a better person with her by my side,” he said, pouring another glass of beer. “Tell me how you ended up marrying a chap like Hayden.”
“I had never known anyone like Hayden. Up until I met him it was all about survival but suddenly there were new cars and restaurants, race meetings and good times. For the first time in my life I was having fun and had something to look forward to. Of course it has not been a picnic since we were married. We’ve had drought, diseased sheep and hard work with not much to show for it but Hayden has such enthusiasm for every new project it’s hard not to get caught up in it. However, I’m sick of always moving on. That’s why I want to stay here in Mildura.“
“Maybe now you are settled you can start a family. Raising four wonderful children has been the greatest achievement of my life.” Bert looked at Annie with a smile.
She had promised herself never to tell a soul but the beer loosened her tongue and Jack was such a reassuring presence. She recounted the details of her visit to Dr Thorne. Suddenly she looked defeated and covered her face with her hands. “He must never know,” she said. “Men are different to women. They think not being able to father a child makes them less of a man.”
“Do you feel less of a woman because you are not a mother?” asked Jack.
“No, of course not.” She smiled. “Women are made of sterner stuff.” A look of doubt crossed her face. “You won’t say anything?”
“Of course not,” Jack replied. He paused and thought for a moment. “I’ve got a secret too. The doc told me my time here on earth is coming to an end. I won’t make old bones.”
Annie was speechless for a while. “I’m so sorry,” she finally said. “How long…?”
“If I’m careful I may have another two years. Good God, I’m not ready to go yet. There is still so much to do! I have a family and they still need me.”
He looked at Annie thoughtfully. “You know, I don’t believe in an after-life but I do think we are here for a reason. And that reason is to continue the human race. When you think of our ancestors who came here on sailing ships to start a new life in an unknown country, what was it for? They did it for their children and their children’s children. Otherwise, what is the point of life?”
“There is no point,” said Annie. “It’s all about survival and then you die.”
“But a little part of you continues in your descendants,” replied Jack.
“What about those of us who will never have children? I suppose all we can do is live for the moment and try to be good people because in another fifty years we will be just dust and ashes and nothing will remain,” said Annie.
Their eyes met and it was as if the stars had suddenly aligned. A sense of mutual understanding coupled with a sudden unexpected feeling of longing and sadness overwhelmed them both. All thoughts of wives and husbands, responsibilities and obligations, retreated into the darkness and all that remained was the light of the flickering fire and their need for each other.
As Jack made ready to leave later that evening he looked into Annie’s questioning blue eyes.
“As I said, things happen for a reason. Maybe we are just pawns in the game of life. I think what happened tonight was meant to be … but it must never happen again. As the poet Longfellow wrote, ‘we are but ships that pass in the night’. Farewell, my sweet, and may the gods grant you your heart’s desire!”