Read An Extract: War Flower by Mary-Anne O'Connor

"Through her sensitivity, beautiful writing and gift as a storyteller, O'Connor's readers come to know and love her characters." — Weekly Times


Chapter One

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, July 1965

‘Might snow.’

Poppy Flannery gave him a nod, finding an expression that she hoped neither patronised nor encouraged the drunk as he huddled in his blanket on the ground, slurping from something in a brown paper bag.

She would have liked to inform him that she was studying geography as part of her leaving certificate and there was no evi­dence of it ever having snowed in Hornsby, at least as far as she was aware. Then she imagined what it might be like to spend the winter on a railway station and emptied her purse into his beggar’s hat instead.

‘Don’t encourage ’im,’ the station master warned her as he passed by, but he didn’t try to evict the man and she was glad. Perhaps the company of constant, random strangers gave him comfort.

The drunk burst into a merry rendition of ‘Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!’ and the words followed her as she moved along. She half wished it would – at least they’d have something miraculous to cheer them up on this dreary day; it was so cold her fingers were icy little sausages that curled up inside her jumper sleeves. To make matters worse the train was late and now pulling in slowly, clanking and straining in crimson steel which had long earned these models the moniker of ‘red rattlers’.

Poppy dragged her things on board, the smells of dank uni­forms and forgotten lunches at the bottom of school cases filling her nostrils as she collapsed on the vinyl bench seat. It was wet but she was grateful for it, regardless. Most afternoons she was forced to stand, crowded as the carriages always were during the earlier school rush.

Pushing damp strands of blonde from her eyes and under her hat Poppy steadied her cello case as the train lurched forward, trying not to lose control of her other belongings lest they slide across the floor. That achieved, she relaxed somewhat, free now to take in the other passengers. Her eyes passed over the young boy picking at a scab on his hand and the elderly lady reading her book to keep scanning, spying familiar figures chatting beyond the doors: Barbara Rowntree, Judith Bentley and Raeleen Mont­gomery, three particularly vicious ‘cool chicks’ who were probably going home late due to detention. Poppy’s twin sister Rosemary had dubbed them ‘the Dogsquad’ years ago when they first began to bully everyone outside the in-crowd.

The trio had taken off their hats and were now shaking their long, wet plaits free, a calculated risk considering Sister Ignatius often patrolled the trains to ensure uniform rules were being obeyed. Poppy suspected they did it mostly for the benefit of the boy who stood near the door and turned to investigate him herself.

He was quite attractive, tall and fair in his camouflage fatigues with a cadet beret thrown casually on his school bag. Watching him almost with the whites of her eyes lest he notice her stare, she observed that he was unwrapping something bound in milk bar paper. Something that smelt very, very good in the fetid air. This was what the police should use to torture the bad guys into talk­ing, she thought to herself as the scent arrived in force. Then she couldn’t think much further because her salivary glands exploded, flooding her mouth until she almost drooled onto her jumper.

Oh dear God, they’ve added vinegar.

Poppy forgot to hide her stare now as the boy lifted one fried, salty potato scallop in the air and took a big bite, ripping the crispy coating from its white, soft innards. The air around his mouth fogged from the sudden heat in the cold carriage air and his lips were shiny as he chewed, mouth half open, probably from burn­ing his tongue, but he didn’t seem to care. Suddenly she wanted to kiss that mouth even more than she wanted to eat those delicious golden discs, so sensual was his pleasure, so eager his hunger as his mouth devoured that flesh.

Then he did notice her and she felt herself blush as he paused mid-chew. A slightly teasing smile spread across his face, trans­forming him from ‘quite attractive’ to ‘bloody gorgeous’.

Licking his fingers, he offered her the wafting pile. ‘Want some?’

There was something so suggestive about it she could almost imagine he was asking her to share in carnal adventures rather than fried potatoes and her cheeks flamed as the old lady looked up with a disapproving frown, sliding her gaze from the boy to Poppy.

‘I do,’ said a voice heavy with flirtation.

The Dogsquad were on the prowl and Poppy could only watch as they approached, swinging their hair about and grabbing onto poles in predatory fashion. Rosemary predicted they would seduce the richest men they could find after graduation and have more money than any of the ‘dags’, the group she and Poppy were usually considered part of. Unless they got themselves pregnant over summer and stuffed up their North Shore housewife careers, Rosemary had added hopefully.

The train paused at Warrawee Station, sighing into inactivity, and the boy let them take a scallop which the prowlers divided and ate with exaggerated rapture.

‘Mmm,’ Barbara said, smiling at him as she licked her lips. The boy continued to eat, watching them almost expectantly, like he was used to this kind of attack. Then he shifted his gaze back towards Poppy and to her shock gave her a wink.

Contempt soured Barbara’s otherwise pretty face and Poppy tensed, knowing retaliation would be swift and sharp.

‘What are you doing coming home so late, Ploppy? Are you in an oompa loompa band or something?’ she sneered, nodding at the cello. The other two girls laughed and all eyes in the carriage turned Poppy’s way.

‘Just the school band,’ she mumbled, wishing she had the courage to tell Barbara such Bavarian groups were made up of brass musicians, not string, but of course that would just prolong the ridicule and scrutiny. Truth was she loved her cello and was majoring in music, hoping it would be her ticket to ride, as the Beatles would say, straight into university.

‘Maybe she had to go to pirate class,’ Raeleen suggested and Barbara let out a short laugh.

‘Yes, where is that eye-patch these days, freak-show, or is Mummy changing the pattern?’ Poppy felt every part of her body tense up at the mention of her most embarrassing teenage moment: the day her mother covered half her glasses with orange floral wall­paper to hide the gauze and bandaging beneath. Having an eye operation at thirteen was bad enough, having every person she passed stare and laugh at her mother’s attempt to pretty the situa­tion up was social suicide. The eye healed eventually, so well she no longer even had to wear glasses, but the stigma had long remained.

Fortunately the boy didn’t ask any questions, seemingly more intent on finishing his feast, and Barbara moved closer, flirtatious facade back in place.

‘And why are you home late? Or is this your normal time to catch the train?’

Poppy let out a relieved breath, glad to have the focus shifted from her, and listened to the answer. She had been wondering that herself; Poppy knew most of the boys on this train-line after six years of high school – by sight only, for the most part. Staring at his beret and fatigues she figured he probably had cadet training after school.

‘Drills on Thursdays.’ He shrugged. ‘We moved recently. I used to live in Adelaide.’

‘Lucky Adelaide,’ Barbara observed.

The elderly lady made a noise of disgust and Poppy couldn’t have agreed more. Looking at Judith and Raeleen she wondered how they felt about always being in Barbara’s shadow while she did her thing as Queen Bee. Rosemary liked to say they all knew what the ‘B’ stood for.

The boy was starting to look uncomfortable and put on his beret to hide it, something that made Poppy like him even more.

‘My station,’ he said, moving towards the door as the train pulled into Wahroonga.

‘What’s your name?’ Barbara called out as he alighted.

‘Ben,’ he called back, walking off with his back hunched against the rain.

Ben. The name echoed in Poppy’s head as the Dogsquad ran back to their double seats, no doubt to dissect the whole scene and scheme about a way to run into him again. With their aptitude for earning detention, Poppy figured that wouldn’t take long.

The train arrived at Waitara and she clutched both school case and umbrella in one hand, dragging her cello with the other, but the umbrella’s fine material was flimsy defence against this particular afternoon. The wind whipped at her little arc, turn­ing it inside out and flipping her about with it as the rain tapped at her face like a typewriter. Poppy struggled against it almost instinctively, her mind still reeling from the previous assault on her senses.

Ben. Each tiny shock of rain in her eyes reinforced the shock of his impact.

‘Pass,’ the ticket officer ordered and she wriggled to retrieve it from her bag and show it to him. She wished the dratted man would stop asking her every day – surely he recognised her by now. It was difficult to remain inconspicuous carrying a massive instru­ment. But she forgave him as music wafted from the little transis­tor he always carried, the sound of the Ronettes following her down the stairs in a freezing draught of winter. Their voices were filled with longing and she knew that song had just become the soundtrack to many hours of daydreaming about a boy on a train. A boy called Ben who wore camouflage fatigues and tempted her with salt and vinegar.

Then she lost her battle with the wind and watched her umbrella take flight and sail down the street, realising right at that moment that any attempt to ignore the force of that boy would be as futile as fighting the elements this day. The day that he became, to one rain-soaked girl clutching a cello case on the side of a road, her one and only baby.

...

‘For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.’

It was quiet as they commenced eating. Robert Flannery didn’t believe in having the radio on during dinner, let alone the television. He said it distracted them from appreciating how fortunate they were to have a good, solid meal in front of them every night. Besides, it was also an opportunity for everyone to share their news. The girls hated doing that. It was almost as bad as going to Confession, although Father John was far easier to appease than their parents. A few Hail Marys and all spots on the soul were dissolved in that little cubicle. Here in the Flannerys’ kitchen nothing less than lives lived in perfect Catholic schoolgirl servitude would suffice and spots on the soul were considered grave stains.

‘How was school today, Rosemary?’ their mother, Lois, asked, looking at her expectantly.

‘Very satisfying. I managed to get eighty-seven in that Chem­istry exam which wasn’t too bad considering the average was only seventy-two.’

It was a good pitch but Poppy knew her father wouldn’t be satisfied.

‘Thirteen marks short of what you’re capable of though, isn’t it, young lady?’

Rosemary sighed. ‘Yes, sir,’ she mumbled, picking at her peas.

‘And what of you, Poppy?’

She raised her eyes heavenward, looking for inspiration. ‘The recital went down well at practice although it kept me late and the train was –’ filled with the aroma of delicious scallops and an even more delicious boy called Ben, ‘– delayed too.’ Her father looked about to comment and she rushed to add something that would please him. ‘I saw a homeless man drinking from a brown paper bag on the station. He looked so cold, he even said it was going to snow so I…er…gave him my pocket money.’

‘Is that wise, considering what he will most likely spend it on?’ her mother asked, fork pausing mid-air.

‘No, well…perhaps not.’

‘It’s a better idea to give a man like that some food or clothing,’ Robert advised between mouthfuls.

‘Rosemary gave him her sandwich last week,’ Poppy informed them, thinking that might put her sister in the good books.

‘Did you? And why are you giving away my expensive ham?’ her mother asked, unimpressed.

Rosemary’s mouth dropped open as she looked from one par­ent to the other, like those clown heads at the Easter Show, Poppy observed, waiting for a ping pong ball. ‘Well…he just…he looked hungrier than me.’

Their father sat back, observing the twins as they awaited his verdict. ‘Matthew 25:40.’

Both girls quoted at once: ‘Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”’

‘Quite so,’ he said, nodding slowly. ‘Charity should be your way of life, every day. But charity also begins at home. Is it chari­table to give away your mother’s ham after her hard work mak­ing your nutritious lunches each day?’ He looked to them both and they knew he expected no answer. Robert Flannery enjoyed his dinner sermons far too much to tolerate interruption. ‘Then again, if we walk past the least of our brothers without compassion we let the Lord down, do we not?’ He tapped his knife thought­fully on the tablecloth. ‘You need to appreciate the hard work that comes with true charity as opposed to giving what you already easily have. Tomorrow you will both make your own lunches and this man’s as well. To give truly is to put all others first.’

‘And no messing up my kitchen,’ Lois added, frowning, prob­ably at the thought of a single starched tea towel out of place.

‘Yes Mum,’ they agreed.

...

Later that night Poppy stretched herself away from the table where she and Rosemary were studying and walked over to the window to see if the rain had eased.

‘Well would you look at that…’

‘What is it? Saints alive – Mum! Dad!’ Rosemary called, rush­ing to open the front door, a sudden gust of ice invading the heated room.

The family joined her on the porch, each mesmerised by the sight of what appeared to be some kind of miracle. Snow had fallen on their Sydney yard, cloaking gum trees and sleeping hibiscus, transforming the lawn into a silver carpet in the moonlight. It was a wonderland. Like the pictures they’d seen in storybooks from Europe and America, where Santa arrived on a sleigh and children built snowmen that came to life.

The twins rushed out, picking up the powdery stuff and hurling snowballs across the drive, their laughter on the freez­ing air.

‘Careful now,’ Lois called, but their parents didn’t try to stop them having fun for a change and the girls enjoyed that miracle too, pausing in their game to build their very own man of snow.

‘What shall we call him?’ Rosemary said breathlessly as they added two pebbles for eyes and a short stick for a nose.

‘Ben,’ Poppy replied, giggling at her sister’s confused expres­sion. ‘I’ll tell you later,’ she promised.

...

It was quite late by the time Poppy shared her secret with her sister, in an excited whispering that had them looking forward to their dreams, and, as she clutched her pillow and gazed out at the beautiful night, she knew with certainty that her life had changed on this miraculous day.

Yes, let it snow, and let it be a sign that the beautiful night promised her the beautiful boy. That the magic wouldn’t melt away, come tomorrow.


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