COO-EE BILL
© Tom McIlveen

Winner, 2015 Eyre Writers Literary Awards Tom Black Memorial Prize, Port Lincoln SA.
      
We had gathered in the barroom of Gilgandra’s Bridge Hotel,
on the Saturday before the march began.
We had come to hear old Billy Hitchin’s final Fare-thee-well,
and to listen to his visionary plan.

He proposed to march to Sydney, with his bunch of volunteers,
who had sworn allegiance to the King and Crown.
They would follow in the footsteps of our early pioneers,
and would cross the mountains through Katoomba Town.

He was keen to join the fighting and contribute to the hunt
for the Germans who’d invaded Northern France.
He was hoping that the allies could control the Western Front,
and repel the Hun, if given half a chance.

Full of patriotic piety and Caribbean rum,
I’d responded to his conscientious plea…
and no sooner had I told him, that I too was keen to come ̶
when another two enlisted after me! 

We’d decided we could do without the endless daily grind
of the tedious reclusion of the farm.
We would leave the drought and dust of old Gilgandra far behind ̶
as a change could hardly do us any harm.

In amongst the wives and family who’d come to see us off,
were at least a hundred relatives and friends;
a reporter from the local Press, and some big city toff,
who had come to shoot us, with a Brownie lens.

We had tossed our swags on top of Billy’s antiquated dray,
and then hitched it to his harnessed sulky mare.
We would march in full formation, down along the Castlereagh
and then cross the bridge beyond the Village Square.

By the time we got to Sydney town, we’d gathered quite a crew,
from the villages and towns along the road.
We had multiplied in numbers, as the snowball grew and grew,
till our baggage dray was sagging with the load.

From the Wool’mooloo to Ultimo, they’d cheered us with a song…
and had waved their flags with unrestricted joy;
as a hundred thousand voices had begun to sing along
to the words of Auld Lang Syne and Danny Boy.

On the battlefields of Northern France, we’d seen the very worst
of atrocities that spoken words could tell.
In the war to end all other wars, we’d found ourselves immersed
in a frozen mire of mud and bloody hell.
                                                          
When we finally return, I wonder…will they cheer us then ̶
or lament for us in prayer on bended knees?
Will they ever justify the loss of sixty thousand men,
who were left behind to moulder overseas?

I had left old Coo-ee Bill as well, and dozens more like him,
who had marched with me through Sydney Town that day.
I had left behind a conscience…and an amputated limb,
in a muddy trench ̶ a million miles away.


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