Read an Excerpt
The Middle Sea
That was sausage day
on our farm outside Dungog.
There's my father Reinhard Boettcher,
my mother Agnes. There is brother Frank
who died of the brain-burn, meningitis.
There I am having my turn
at the mincer. Cooked meat with parsley and salt
winding out, smooth as gruel, for the weisswurst.
Here's me riding bareback in the sweater
I wore to sea first.
I never learned the old top ropes,
I was always in steam. Less capstan, less climbing,
more re-stowing cargo. Which could be hard and slow
as farming--but to say Why this is Valparaiso!
Or: I'm in Singapore and know my way about
takes a long time to get stale.
My German had got me a job
out of New York on a Hansa freighter, the Opitz.
That's how we came to be cooking alive that August,
in Messina, plumy undertakers' city.
The first I heard that the War had really come
was a black-faced officer with a target and a church
on his cap, directing sailors to rip
our decks up, for the coal below.
I turned out of my hammock
to fight them--and our bos'un chucked me a shovel:
We're coaling that battlecruiser.
There! The English are after her!
It was like one great bushfire of work,
the whole harbour, under smoke and brown dust,
slings, lighters, big crane-buckets slopping
man-killing rocky lumps, before they poured.
I was sent across to the warship. Up on deck
the band was sweating, pumping Oompa and heirassa
to us below, to encourage our mad shovelling.
A man dropped dead beside me. His face hit the bulkhead bong
as he fell. So when the ship's only clean man
came and nodded Enough, with his Higher Matters expression,
a lot of us sprawled asleep, right on the coal.
When I woke up, we were steaming full ahead, at sea.
Later we heard how the one
British admiral sent after us had been wirelessed
to steam the long way around Sicily
and the other one, racing down the Adriatic, had squibbed
facing our big guns. But I was thinking more
about being shot for a spy, if I protested
or explained myself. So I was off the Opitz
would be enough. A colonial, from the South Sea--
All servicemen are like officers now, but the empires
could be pretty approximate, then, with the lower deck.
You're German, said the Chief. I'm short two that dropped dead.
Wear this rig. Come to attention, so! to any officer
and enjoy the Kaiser's dumplings. A warship is a lot less
hard to graft than a freighter. I got used, like the rest,
to being called a sow-lump, a carrion, a waxer,
and soon we were sailing in between dry hills
to a city of bulbs and spikes, Constantinople
where men goose each other and eat off forges in the street.
Soon after, the Kaiser came on board
with crowds of heel-clickers. He wore a resentful snobby look,
electric whiskers in his pink grandpa face, and a helmet like a finial
off a terrace house. We'd to change our caps, he said,
and put on fezes. We were now the Turkish Navy.
Enver Pasha had a haemorrhoid look on him, at that part.
All the women we Turk matlows met we were led to by the touts.
I was ashamed and shy. I was always, round all that:
the tired anger in it, behind the sticky smiles, the contempt
as they stooped over to give you eyefulls.
All I wanted was a girlfriend.
And then, with no Turk orders, our admiral took us to Odessa
and I found myself passing up big silk bags to the gun crews
to make thunderclaps that rang the iron ball the earth's around.
Now Turkey was in, and Russia's last trade lifeline blocked
so she would rot. It was all we'd come to do, I worked out later.
We idled and dressed ship round the City and Black Sea
playing skat, eating goulash.
When Gallipoli came, I thought: I will desert
if I have to fight Australians. But instead
my mates and I, on shore leave up by Trabzon
at last saw women with their faces unwrapped in the open.
They were huddling, terrified, crying.
crossing themselves, in the middle of men all yelling.
Their big loose dresses were sopping. Kerosene, you could smell it.
The men were prancing, feeling them, poking at them to dance--
then pouf! they were alight, the women, dark wicks to great orange flames,
whopping and shrieking. If we'd had rifles there
we'd have massacred those bastards. We had only fists and boots.
One woman did cuddle a man: he went up screaming too.
We would have been killed but for a patrol from the ship.
Back on board, within days I found out I had leprosy.
I just curled up in my hammock, like a burnt thing myself,
and turned my back. The POs couldn't scream me to work:
Sow-fellow, all you've got's Infaulenza! Acute lazyitis.
When the watch officer saw my white numb places, he
got very serious. And discovered I was a stray.
The Chief lost his rank over it. I was put ashore quick.
So the ship rode the Bosphorus like an iron on shined blue cloth
and I drifted into begging, among the wrestlers and porters
and Dardanelles soldiers in their hessian-bag uniforms
with caked brown rag wrapped round the ends of what
had got shot off them. I drifted between mosques' charity kitchens
Ayasofya, Suleimaniye, the Blue Mosque. And I slept
sometimes for whole days, with my only clothes sticking to me
as they get. No one would touch me, nor my food.
It was chilly at night, about like home
but there were always trash fires to sleep near. I'd wake up
and sit around, half there,
with the carts and dogs and arguments criss-crossing
as if not around but through me. I was at the bottom
of wavery air, the birds' sea-floor, my head alight, and notices
in their running writing saying jilliby and poll-willow.
A bad place for a Dungog man, waiting for bits to rot off him.
The only one who'd sit with me was a girl-faced man
who'd never shaved. Alman? he asked, with his finger
poking up off his head, a helmet-spike. I nodded. And he talked
then, for hours. Poured talk over me like water,
nearly all wasted. Versteh' dich nicht, mate: I don't savvy,
but the words tumbled out of him, long words turned up at the ends
as Turkish words are. In between, he taught me the begging words
cuzzamliyim, dokunmayiniz--I'm a leper, don't touch,
sadaka, alms. Allah rizasi icin bir sadaka.
Tesekkur ederim. That's thank you. I learned not to take money,
because I made it unclean, and no one would accept it.
I'd got hold of some lino, for a windbreak. I remember
the karayel, the freezing north west wind, was blowing
and I was in my lino, like a rat in a pipe. I was dying,
I realise now, when my mates from the watch,
Heimo and Lutz and Claasen rolled me out of it:
Come on, shipmate: you're for the Berlin nurses,
they'll warm your carcase. The name on this rail pass, that's you!
As we left, the wrestlers in oiled leather shorts were in holts
and a man on the soles of his hands who ended in a board
was bouncing out of shelter, cracking jokes
with his alms-box round his neck.
The no-shave bloke followed us but wouldn't say a word.
Then I got clean new rig, and off to the white-sky countries.
At Berlin, I was carried on a stretcher from the train
through this terrible hall all full of cripples and crying
and racked up in a green motor until I was stowed
in another huge hall of a hospital iced with mirrors
tingling under the lights. The doctors were buttoned and straight
as bayonets, with their guard moustaches, the nurses tight and pink
and all of us Wounded tucked up so trim and square
we couldn't see what shapes each other were.
I was the one from furthest away. The Pacific,
I told them. The colonies. So a smart nurse called me Grocery
and I had to tell her about the zebras and elephants we ate
in New Pomerania. But I still had no spark in me.
`Tuberculoid leprosy' is a heavy sentence out of bearded
Professor Doctors in frock coats. I thought: while I've got feet,
if I can get away, keep my patches covered over
and get a ship, and get to the Pacific,
somehow I'll be right. And home, if I could get right home,
would cure me. Mad. I got as far as a tram
in Lichterfelde. The police came on it, checking papers
and every man not crippled looked haunted and alone
and showed his bits. I stepped quietly off
arse over head on black ice, showed the pyjamas
under my borrowed topcoat, and the police jumped out
into the pointing crowd, with their swords drawn.
I opened my clothes and showed my islands and countries,
white, with red crust borders. Lepra. You want to catch it from me?
The crowd rolled back like potatoes over a floor
but the two soldier police kept pace with me as I stumbled
on that ice. They whistled up more like themselves
and a droll young officer with a blue cross in his collar
who said: Congratulations. You're holding Berlin hostage.
What are your terms?--I want to go home, I burbled.
Rather a lot do. And more would have, he answered.
But will home be there? Cigarette? No, I won't seize you.
A lifetime of soup and choral singing without lips
does not appeal. I heard no more of his culture
because from round a corner, a big rope net dropped over me.
Roll him up, said the Leutnant. Burn the net then, afterwards.
The nurse who'd called me Groceries, Helga, she was horrified.
She said she'd sneak me out herself, for a walk some Sunday.
For all she knew, she. would have been risking death. Unbelievable!
We never had that walk, though. I was shipped
to a walled-in hole on the flats of the Weser River,
the Kaiserly Leprosarium. It was yellow indoor cemetery:
we were there to stay, and things went on there, very slow,
that happen in the grave. From just like a scratchy photo
to bandaged stubs, and earholes, and half faces--
and not stopped, like on cripples in the world, but continuing.
We had a Hauptmann, brought back from Africa by Zeppelin,
from Lettow-Vorbeck's army, that stung the British for four years.
There were lots of colonials in there: I had to be careful,
but he was a wake-up, and soon tipped me a grin:
You're German enough, Sailor, wherever you're really from,
and you won't spy much in here.
That woke me up, it saved me, it made me think escape again.
One thing I'd learned, being crippled was as good as papers,
or old age; nearly as good as uniform. So I waited my chance
and then slipped ashore. I mean, out where there are two sexes,
and children, and grass. I'd been like a long time at sea.
And this time I'd keep the disease wrapped up. No touching people,
but I'd look as if I could. And I'd keep one arm inside
my clothes. And not stride, but trudge like a local subject.
And it worked. Poor love, I'd been a Kriegsmarine sailor
whenever I got lifts, on carts or canals, towards Holland.
I was in Osnabruck outside the Peace Hall this Spring morning
eyeing a couple of other land-rakers like me
and a pretty girl going by with an attache case,
filling in, I dare say, for some pen-pusher off at the war.
One of the drifters suddenly jumped and tore
the briefcase off her. Really. Because her arm came off too.
I blinked. It was real. She screamed. The veins and muscles
attaching the arm were leather straps. And the thief,
well he was hopeless. He leant his head against the wall
with the case at his feet, still chained to that wooden arm
and the crowd running up--the other bloke had cleared.
The girl was crying, with the sleeve torn off her blouse
and I was the one nearest. I was so stupid-shy,
she was stretching out her hand, her live real hand--
and what do I do but put her wooden arm in it?
If I had got that right, everything would have been different.
She gave me the queerest look, quietly.
And then women were comforting all over her, and police coming,
taking charge, and the robber. I remembered to melt
quick, into the crowd. What's up?--Don't rightly know.--
What's that on your face?--Oh, the war--Poor lad! So, on to Paris, eh?
On to Rotterdam, I went.
A few more nights in the hay, or telling about New Mecklenburg
and dodging the deserter-catchers, and I slipped through the bush
into Holland. When the language on signs changed, I grew an arm.
Two years I'd been trapped in the war. Now I could be Australian!
Or North or South American, to speak German and be neutral. Two years!
First thing I did in the Flying Angel, I wrote
a letter home. And cried as I wrote, and cried after.
Then I stuck a chair under my doorknob--this was before showers--
and had a good body-wash. My numb bits were changing,
stinging like burns, and coming off at the rims.
I was terrified. I was coming apart.
Quicker than ever anyone in the Leprosarium.
I had to get a ship. And I did at last, a Dane,
with a huge flag painted port and starboard, bound for Rio.
I was burning in my clothes, sticking to them and ripping free again
shedding like a gum tree, and having to hide it and work.
What I never expected, when I did stop hurting
I wouldn't feel at all. But that's what happened.
No pain, nor pleasure. Only a ghost of that sense
that tells where the parts of you are, and of needs from inside
so I wouldn't disgrace myself. It seemed I was not to be
a public cripple. And somehow I knew I wouldn't die,
that the leprosy, or whatever it had been, was lifted.
On the other hand, a hatch-coaming dropped on my boot
was supposed to hurt. The blokes were looking at me.
Good, these steel toecaps, I thought to say, feeling nothing.
but hearing bones. I would have to learn quick, and practise
cracking normal, as I call it. It isn't hard to do from memory:
curse when burnt, hunch when you see it's cold, don't hammer fingers
or let your leg bend to the pop! stage. Remember to get tired:
once I worked twenty hours re-stowing a shifted cargo
and then just stopped. Nothing would go. Arms
wouldn't lift, nor tongue lick lips, nor swallow
swallow. I stood there dying. This was later that same year.
I was having all this private life and working my watches too,
not liking to sleep in full dark because of the way
my body, it would fade, and leave me just a self in mid-dark.
Strange to tell that, even now. No one on earth to tell then,
a working man with other men, ashamed of the difference happening me.
I saw men facing worse, though.
We were hove to in the Channel, watching ferries passing
low in the water, with freights of standing men in brown.
You been near that, Sydneyside? the cook asked me.
I said I'd steered clear of it. Best, he said. They going
to camp in the rain in big sewers dug through men.
I knew not to ask where he'd seen this. Backbones in rag like gun belts.
He had a horror-struck, poisoned look. Maggots eat the ground
up there, he said. I thought of each man's agony
and how that death mighn't even hurt me, now,
me only, of all my age. We better on the ships, eh, Sydneyside?
This is me, and Rosie, and Corbeau, down the Boca
in Buenos Aires. If you could see inside
that new peajacket on Rosie, he'd be every bit as blue.
We'd shipped a prize bull from Galveston. He was in its pen
mucking out, when it took a notion to scratch.
He was between it and the bulkhead, so it simply rubbed him up
the steel and down, looking puzzled it was getting no relief,
and us dragging and jobbing it. Don't bust with passion there, Rosie!
The first time I slipped up badly was on that voyage.
We had a deck galley. The cook, a different cook, he was a drunk
and the fire had been doused, in dirty weather. The boy was relighting it
with kerosene, and it blew out and caught his clothes.
He was screaming blind when I reached him, half the galley alight too
and when I got him put out I didn't notice
I had caught, here, all up my calf, you can see it.
They took the boy out, and there I'm tidying up, still burning.
The cook started screaming, I didn't know what at.
One of his blue dragons had come real. I went on burning--
see how deep it goes in? The little silver walls?
The supercargo whopped me out with a soaking jumper
and everybody near was looking. He devil! screams the cook
he walk in fire, not hurt. You stay away, you devil!--
You'd know, I said. But the word I was uncanny made the skipper
get rid of me. Or I might have had a midnight flotation test.
There was no pain in the leg, not burning, not healing. It stank
and I used a farm cure on that: metho, poured on neat and smoky.
By the time it healed up, as much as it ever would, I'd lost
my leprosy-thinking. I was young again, becalmed in port, curious,
scratching up dust a bit. A cafe waitress there noticed
and helped me out. This part is awful to admit.
She had to tell me everything. Oh yes, you're ready, yes,
and Stop, hey, you're finished. I'm flooded. Didn't you feel that?
I couldn't seem to get a ship through Panama
to the Pacific, but late in '17 I got a job on
a freighter out of New Orleans bound for Cape Town:
from there, I thought I'd sure to get home. Also
our flag was Colombian. But the Yanks came into the war
and the U-boats went for everything. We got sunk, and only
the awful sarcastic tongue of our black Brazilian captain,
Joao Teixera de Saint-Adroit, kept any discipline
in the only lifeboat. You believe self-pity to be potable,
Mr Henshaw? No? Then why share it? They hated him so much
it kept them alive, the ones who could feel their misery.
Mine was more of a knowledge: in two more days
I will die of thirst. Or really, It will die of thirst.
It that I am in. When the Alcazar de Toledo,
our ship, had cracked open, the bos'un ran on deck
screaming The Huns! The Huns have scuppered us!