Honestly, I couldn’t have given a shit if she was wearing undies or not. All I really cared about was trying not to throw up on her sandals. But rather than say so, I smiled and offered a feeble halflaugh.
I had only met Tamika twice before, but she was the fifth person to advise me that evening that the Regimental Sergeant Major’s new girlfriend wasn’t wearing any underpants.
I swallowed, and implored myself not to vomit. That would draw far too much attention. Turning away from the woman in question, and her supposed lack of undergarment, I asked: ‘Can you see your husband out there?’
She squinted through the evening light towards the parade ground, searching amongst the large, perfectly aligned formation of khaki-clad soldiers. ‘Third from the far left, in the front row,’ she giggled. ‘He’s pretty easy to find because he’s one of the tallest.’
I hadn’t the foggiest idea where Dylan was amongst the artfully structured lines of soldiers. Although I’d been trying to spot him, from here, they all looked the same to me — meticulously straight, identical and tiny, like rows of a child’s toy soldiers lined up and ready for battle. Wherever he was, I knew he’d have on his ‘soldier’ face — impassive and masculine, belying the affable mischief underneath.
Maybe I‘m just nervous about having to sign that contract tomorrow.
It was a late September evening in Darwin, and the tropical summer was building fast. Sweat slid in warm beads down the back of my thighs. A mosquito whined around my ear and I swatted it aimlessly, knowing that it was just one of billions scoping the crowd for a feast of human blood. The sky was a heavy, dark belly, hanging low with storm clouds that teased of cooling rain; the air was a thick soup of humidity.
Even my knees and eyelids were sweating — parts of my body that I had only discovered possessed sweat glands since moving here from country Victoria almost four years ago.
I grabbed a tortoiseshell comb from my handbag and twisted my hair into a thick knot, releasing a fresh drift of grassy scent from the henna clay I’d applied yesterday. I sighed as air touched the slick of sweat on the back of my neck. I stood on tiptoe to see over a slouch hat that bobbed past. My favourite purple hemp miniskirt and halter-neck, selected with nervous care in front of the mirror an hour earlier, now seemed like a wildly unwise choice. The handmade vanilla-and-lavender mosquito repellent I loved fought a losing battle under an onslaught of blood-sucking insects, as my generous thighs and calves provided a vascular buffet for a barrage of mosquitoes and sand-flies. I could almost hear their tiny voices shouting: Jackpot! Over here, found us an anti-chemical nut! Go hard!
From the centre of the parade ground, a throaty voice screamed: ‘—EGIMEN! BOI di CENtaaaar, EEEEEECK!’
The drum finished his command, rolling out a pompous prr-rrr-UM, prr-rrr-UM, at the end of which the lines of soldiers marched obediently forward, their rifles shouldered. The ceremonious occasion was to celebrate an anniversary of Dylan’s regiment; over a century ago, the Queen (or was it a King back then?) must have decided Australia deserved a big row of guns. Under steamy twilight at the edge of the central parade ground on the Royal Australian Army’s Robertson Barracks, wives, girlfriends, children and significant others milled to watch their men parade in their employer’s honor.
A twang of nerves pinged in my chest as I scoped the crowd. Even after a few years, I still felt swamped and out of place amongst the air kisses, delighted squeals of recognition and the continuous pomp pomp pomp of the army band on parade. Snatches of banter floated around me, Defence Force acronyms thrown about fast and loose like confetti at a wedding. The scent of liberally applied cheap perfume mingled with the chemical stench of Diethylmetatoluamide — more noxious, though far more effective than my meager vanilla-lavender attempt at protection. I recognised few faces, even fewer lines of conversation. This was my choice, I supposed, for not running with the Army Wife Mob more frequently — for not keeping on top of the Who’s Who and the What’s What and the OMG You’ll Never Guess Who Did What To Whom.
As if my feelings of social inadequacy weren’t enough, today I also felt like crap. My head ached and a queasy feeling of motion sickness lingered under my tongue, and all I wanted to do was lie down on the ground and sleep for a couple of weeks. Tomorrow I was to face my best friend — although right now she felt like my nemesis — and sign away my freedom. What Hannah Hogan had asked of me was like asking the Pope to invite Satan to dinner — it just wasn’t supposed to happen.
Unable to find Dylan, an uneasy sense of exclusion crept up on me. Standing amongst a crowd, I felt both obvious and unimportant, lonely yet terrifyingly noticeable — almost naked — as the person who does not fit. I forced a few awkward smiles at the occasional nod in my direction, fingered the string of Baltic amber beads around my wrist, and slipped my foot from my leather sandal to sink my toes into the cool blades of grass. The feeling of the earth, solid and real, subtly calmed my faint pulse of anxiety. Several soldiers were moving through the audience, carrying enormous trays of insect repellent and packets of disposable earplugs like canapés.
‘Ma’am?’ Despite his imposing camouflage uniform and stoic presence, the baby-faced young boy who approached me looked all of about thirteen. I resisted the urge to feign surprise that I was being addressed by a tree. Instead I took a small bottle of repellent, and looked at him questioningly as my hand hovered over the earplugs.
‘The guns are pretty loud, ma’am,’ he answered. ‘You will be informed by the parade commander when to use them.’
‘Oh. Right.’ Who are they planning on shooting? I stashed the little packet of plugs in my handbag; they looked like a pair of cigarette butts. I spritzed some of the repellent over my legs and ankles, wrinkling my nose at the chemical waft, my free hand modestly kept my skirt in place over my rear.
‘Amy!’ A short, heavy woman with bleached blonde hair and bright red cheeks was approaching me with what looked like significant enthusiasm. Either that, or she really needed to pee.
I tried to recall her name.
‘Oh my god, how hot is it?’ she breathed, fanning herself with her hand.
I agreed, names racketing through my head like a mental Rolodex. Millsy’s Wife. Gwen? Glenn? … Sophie?
‘So,’ she whispered, leaning closer; there were clumps of mascara on her eyelashes and rum and cola on her breath.
‘Have you seen the RSM’s new girlfriend tonight?’
‘No,’ I lied.
‘She’s not wearing any knickers!’
‘No knickers, huh?’ I held up my little bottle of Aerogard.
‘Well, she might want a squirt or two of this on her arse.’