Thursday, June 14, 2012

The 69 Steps by Barry Lowe


Hallam Courteney, respected gentleman of independent means, is among the tens of thousands to welcome the Prince of Wales and his entourage in the Domain but his life takes a turn for the bizarre when a poor young man, Jimi Jenkins, attempts to pick his pocket. Both men have a secret that could land them in jail, especially when they commit an indecent act that is against the law. The deed has been witnessed by a well-dressed stranger who turns up at Hallam’s door, not for blackmail but to  exhort his help against a plot to assassinate the visiting prince.


I can’t say that I was pleased to be back in Sydney. It had changed so little since I left five long years ago, except the streets were now festooned with flags and bunting for the Prince of Wales’s forthcoming visit. The Town Hall and many of the city’s main buildings, including the grand fa├žade of Her Majesty’s Theatre on Market Street, were illuminated in tribute to a fine soldier who was touring the world to thank we Antipodeans for our invaluable help in winning the war.
Only too glad to be part of that help, I had enlisted in 1915, seeing action on the battlefields of a devastated Europe, the final resting place of men of all nations. It took me years to free myself from the guilt of coming through the bloodbath unscathed while so many worthier men lost their lives, their eyesight, their limbs or, more frighteningly, their minds.
Anything would be dull, boring, and commonplace after the experience of war, which is why so many men find it difficult to adjust in what is laughingly referred to as civilisation. While we toiled and killed on the front lines, the men and their supporting women back home lived their lives as before with scant regard for the numbers of dead piling up. We were fighting for their entitlement and they didn’t have the courtesy to even curtail their conspicuous lifestyles while we fed our cold, shivering bodies on bully beef and barbecued rats. If we hadn’t eaten the vermin they would have eaten us.
Sometimes, I could almost believe the anarchists’ cry, ‘Eat the rich.’
Would you consider me so very unpatriotic if I said I missed the Mother Country? It seemed to me that London presently was the very centre of the universe, excitement at its very core from its eating establishments to its night life to…well, time enough for that. It was where I discovered Hallam Courteney is not like other men. To be precise, he’s not like most other men. That much will become obvious as my tale unfolds.
Sydney, much as I loved her, was a parochial backwater in comparison. Not that the people who lived here made much of the two cities’ similarities and differences. No, most people were happy in their own comfortable little garden patch. However, I am not most people.
The only glimmer to my ennui was the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales. By God, that got the blood pumping in my veins. We soldiers liked the man; we liked the cut of his jib, the way he mucked in with the men. We named him the ‘Digger Prince’ for his down-to-earth, no nonsense approach, not like some of the foolishness the snobbish upper classes get up to in England. It helped considerably that the man was fashioned in the image of the angels. It wasn’t just me that thought so.
He was to land at the stone steps in Farm Cove, the small bay surrounded by the trees and shrubs of the city’s spacious grassed Governor’s Domain, adjacent to the exotic blooms of the Sydney Botanic Gardens which had suffered a shortage of workers owing to the call-up for the Great War. It was only now beginning to look its best in tribute, I liked to think, to our future monarch.

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