PAPERBACK BOOKS
THE LAST VETERAN

The Last Veteran tells the story of the centenary celebrations of the end of the Second World War in 2045, and the discovery that a veteran of that war is still alive. 

This work of futuristic fiction is an original and humourous read from start to finish. It centres around the life of Michael O’Sullivan, a 121-year-old Second World War veteran.  

The story is narrated by his son Stephen, a retired doctor of doubtful morals. With flashbacks to his time during the war we understand Michael’s hatred of all things military. 

Being the oldest and last veteran he is coerced into leading   military parades until he finds out he has been used for political reasons. There is murder, lies and political intrigue in a story that captures the Anzac spirit while exposing the deceit of those in power. 

This is a quirky easy read that would appeal to the older generations. 

In Store Price: $AU26.95 
Online Price:   $AU25.95

ISBN: 978-1-921406-93-5      
Format: A5 Paperback
Number of pages: 263
Genre: Fiction
 

 

 


Author: Hugo Rée
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2009
Language: English

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AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY


HUGO RÉE
, born in France, educated in England but now resident in Brisbane, Australia, is a retired physician. He has spent a significant part of his professional life working in Third World countries, including Papua New Guinea, where part of the action of The Last Veteran takes place.The author is married with four children.

ONE

I had no idea of the catastrophe that was about to befall me (and others, as you will soon appreciate) when, at about 9 am on a Monday in May 2043 I heard a brisk rapping on the front door: a sharp, peremptory sound that was all the more surprising as I do not have a knocker on the door. Someone was clearly using a heavy object to gain my attention, and I must say I was not amused. I am confident of the day and time, because it is on Monday mornings that I go to the ‘club’ and I usually leave the house about 9:30. I know that I had eaten breakfast, but I was still wrapped in a large, red and white bath-towel; my feet were tucked comfortably into a pair of scuffed black felt slippers, so obviously I was not about to set out immediately. If I tell you that I am eighty-three years old and somewhat corpulent, you may feel that the idea of me in a large bath towel and little else is not very attractive. To add to your disgust, I could tell you that my daughter, who is herself no spring chicken, jokingly offers me her cast-off bras, claiming that my tits are bigger than hers. She too may well be right, but we can’t all be perfect. I am of modest height, have iron-grey hair (I always think iron-grey sounds much better than merely grey) and eyes that are described in my travel and residence documents as hazel, but which I believe are more green. I have a benign but serious persona the result, no doubt, of over fifty-five years working among the sick, the despairing and the disadvantaged. That is all you need to know about me at this point.

The club I mentioned is not a sporting or a boozing club. A group of mainly elderly people meet on Monday mornings in the Greater Brisbane Central Library to discuss spy literature, old and new. We meet in the Lewis Room, a small, comfortable room which has something of the air of an English gentleman’s club, with comfortable leather chairs, and walls lined with old, imitation leather-bound books. The room has only recently been renamed, in old gold paint, in honour of a policeman from times gone by who was jailed for alleged corruption, but, like some of the characters from revolutionary Russia in the early twentieth century, has recently been posthumously rehabilitated. What good it will do him, I do not know, and since few people that I speak to believe in an afterlife any more, it seems a waste of time (and gold paint, though I am not convinced that the paint was genuine).

My particular interest is English spy literature of the twentieth century, starting with Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, and finishing with, in my opinion, the master, John Le Carré. Perhaps I feel a particular fondness for the old boy because one of his heroes, George Smiley, suffers under the burden of a shape that is similar to mine, and I share, I believe, some of his more endearing habits. I hasten to add, however, that the problems he took on in marriage have had no resonance in my own personal life. James Bond, 007[1], I absolutely refuse to consider as part of the genre, being nothing but a legalized gangster. Nevertheless, my friend Bob Tiptaft, who attends our meeting and about whom I hope I will have nothing further to say, has made a particular study of the 007 phenomenon; he has brought some quite interesting ideas to bear on the subject of that oversexed, alcoholic roué.

However, I digress: and this is something that you will have to get used to, for I find, as I grow older, that I digress more and more. It is an aspect of senescence that is irritating to the young, but may occasionally lead to some interesting reflections on life.

There it was again, an even more imperious rapping at the front door. I am not accustomed to such sounds so early in the morning. My children have their own electronic passes to my door; my neighbours, at least those with whom we are on speaking terms, know better than to try to break the door down before at least midday; and though I have been retired from a busy general practice for at least three years, some of my ex-patients still feel the need for a free medical consultation at my house. Not that they put it as bluntly as that: the requests are obliquely framed, often accompanied by the offer of a carrot cake, or, more acceptably, a bottle of wine, though I can still tell them a kilometre off. But they always telephone before trying to see me. I was certainly not expecting one of those.

The front door is solid wood, thick and strong. A steel security grille on the outside, that locks automatically when it is down, enhances the barricade. Such a security system is essential in this day and age. The widening wage gap, even in such an enlightened country as ours, has led to a situation where the top ten percent of the population earns over two hundred times what the bottom ten percent earns. The gap, which widens every year, has been fuelled in part by the exponential increase in computer and robotic use. At first, it was blue-collar workers who lost their jobs as robots replaced them on production lines. Later, clerical and managerial staff found themselves out of work. What is the use, company bosses would ask, of an accountant if a computer can do all his (or her) work faster, more cheaply, without tea breaks and without the risk of corruption? Not that new jobs were not being created: indeed they were, in millions. But the people who were employed in these new jobs were forced to accept lower wages, fewer benefits and longer hours of work. The wage gap, and the social disruption it has generated, has created a dramatic increase in villainy of one sort or another. The murder rate is exceptionally high: wise people stay behind their castle walls and pull up the drawbridge (metaphorically, of course) at night, and keep it up until morning.

The bell and the closed circuit TV at the door have been on the blink for several days. The overweight girl who is supposed to repair the damn things knows that she is worth her excessive weight in gold, and prioritises her jobs not by the client’s needs but by the likely drain on the client’s wallet; clearly, my repairs are relatively simple, so I will have a long wait. All I could see through the peephole was the back of the head of a man, of slightly more than average height, I judged, fair and probably, from his build and posture, of medium age. If he heard me, he made no attempt to turn his face towards me. I had no option but to open the door and see for myself. Had it been dark outside, there is no way that I would have opened the door, but the dawn had come and gone, and the sun, as far as I could tell, was shining. Despite these reassurances, as I slowly unbolted the locks and chains that keep us safe at night I became aware of a modest tightening in the scrotum. My hands were slightly moist as I inched the door open. Through the steel grille, I could see that it was a beautiful day, one of those perfect, mild, autumnal Queensland mornings with bright blue skies, only a few fluffy white clouds and barely a hint of the humidity and haze that makes summer so trying –  especially now that global warming is upon us, with Brisbane now in the tropical zone. The haze, we are told, is caused by the perennial bush fires that drive through far north Queensland’s forests of previously moist woods, now made tinder dry by global warming. I could also see, less happily, the knocker: a tall, well-groomed man of about thirty. As he turned towards me, I could see that this was no epicene creature such as we commonly see strutting the streets these days, androgynous louts most of them, but what could only be described as a man’s man. His rugged good looks were somewhat marred by thin, bloodless lips that were turned down at the corners to such an extent that they resembled the underslung mouth of a bull shark[2]. A trim blondish moustache graced his upper lip. He wore an expensive charcoal grey suit of a rather old-fashioned cut. The only word that could describe his posture is ramrod. Stiff as a rod the man was: shoulders back, tummy tucked tightly in, the perfect image of your old-fashioned soldier. In his white-knuckled right hand he held, exactly parallel with the ground, a heavy, knobbly walking stick with a brass knob at the top; clearly this was what he had pushed through the security grille to bang on my door. His left hand was held at attention; I can think of no other way of describing it. The fingers were tightly coiled; the thumb, which was perfectly aligned with the seams of his well-cut trousers, pointed downwards. He looked at me with some disdain. FiFi, my poodle, of who more later, gently padded up to my side and without a sound, gazed up at this frightening creature. I noted that he raised the cane in his right hand as he saw the dog, as if in preparation for striking something, or perhaps even, someone.

“Mr. O’Sullivan?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. He seemed nonplussed by this sudden end to that enquiry and paused while he tried to fathom a way around the impasse.

“Mr. Michael O’Sullivan?” he asked, only this time rather louder. Perhaps he thought, because I was obviously an elderly gentleman, that I was deaf and was, consequently, unable to catch the pearls that were dropping from his lips. Some pearls, some lips.

“No,” I replied again, only this time more incisively. I could see no very good reason why I should be helpful, especially if there was a possibility, no matter how remote, that the man was an official of some sort. Not that I have any reason to fear officials, but you never really know where you are with them. As more and more Acts are passed by the legislatures to protect our privacy, officials appear to have more and more access to the sort of personal information that should be private. It’s a conundrum that I don’t quite understand, but it explains my attitude towards officials.

“Who are you?” he inquired rudely.

“Who are you?” I returned his inquiry, shifting arthritically from one foot to the other. He stared at me, his cold, contemptuous eyes taking in my corpulence and obvious lack of physical fitness. There seemed nothing more to be said or done, so I started to close the door.

“I’m sorry.” The young man suddenly found his tongue. “Intolerably rude of me. My name is Smiley.” He made a half-hearted attempt at a sort of smile, as though the name and the grimace were, in some obscure way, necessarily associated.

“Any relation of George?” I asked, perhaps a little too sassily. Smiley is by no means a rare name, despite which I had only met one or two people with the surname in a long lifetime of meeting people; I was determined not to lose the opportunity to see if he knew anything about the imaginary character who bore the same name as his.

“Once again, I’m sorry,” Mr. Smiley said, “but I don’t quite understand the question.” He suddenly looked a little lost, as though the wind had been taken out of his sails.

“Are you any relation of George Smiley?” I asked with a little twinkle in my eye, and an easing of the tension in my scrotum. If he knew the books, some of which were still in print seventy years after they were written, then I might be prepared to be a little more helpful and conciliatory. If not, then I would have to wait and see what he was offering.

“Who is George Smiley?” the young man asked.

“Clearly no relation of yours,” I replied sharply, and once again prepared to shut the door.

Seemingly afraid that he was losing whatever opportunities he thought he had, Mr. Smiley repeated his name before adding that he was an investigator with what sounded like ASSIST. Since the end of meaningful Social Security[3] in Australia in the past twenty years, numerous charities have sprung up to deal with the human flotsam and jetsam that these dismal, rationalist and thoroughly inhumane changes have left littered on the beach of life. So many charities, in fact, that the unemployed, the disabled, the sick, are probably better off today than they were under the old system, though that was neither predicted nor expected nor, I daresay, intended. ASSIST sounded like one of these, and I presumed that Mr. Smiley was collecting funds.

As the military forces had shrunk over the years – the result of continuing technical advances in the efficient delivery of various supposedly deterrent horrors and weapons of mass destruction – many of the cast-off officers found work in the charities, where their organizational skills and, I daresay, their ability to frighten the general populace into contributing more than they intended, were much appreciated. ‘Weapons of mass destruction’ is a relatively recent term, about fifty years old I would say, though of course nuclear, biological and chemical weapons have been around for over a hundred years without being called WMD. But then we, the good guys, owned them well, our allies at any rate (they only became WMD when Muslims and/or brown people possessed them). I assumed that Mr. Smiley, who looked, as I said a few moments ago, like an army man, was one such.

“I have my own charities to which I make regular contributions,” I told the man haughtily, “I cannot afford any more now that I am retired.”

Mr. Smiley seemed even more bewildered by the direction the conversation was taking. He took a wallet out of his pocket, opened it, and showed me a warrant card. “AATSIS, sir, AATSIS, do you understand what I am talking about?” He was shouting quite loudly now and articulating slowly, with exaggerated movements of his mouth; he clearly thought I was deaf, stupid or perhaps both. Anyone with an interest in espionage, actual or literary, knows that AATSIS is the Australian Anti-Terrorism, Security and Intelligence Service. Before I had time to respond, I heard my dear wife shouting from upstairs. Actually, shouting is not the right word to describe the euphonious tintinnabulations that tinkled down the stairs, but offhand I cannot find the mot juste.

“Stephen, is everything all right? What’s going on?”

I’ll tell you all about my wife Betty later on since she is, without the slightest shadow of a doubt, a pearl without compare. But Betty had given the game away and like a cobra striking at a rabbit, the accursed Mr. Smiley pounced.

 “You must be Stephen O’Sullivan then,” he said proudly. Clearly AATSIS was recruiting men of sound hearing who were capable of extraordinary, intuitive leaps of deduction. At the same time that the cogs were grinding painfully around the ratchets of his brain cells, I was shouting to Betty that it was the man from the energy company come to read the meter and that there was nothing to worry about. Whether she heard or not, I don’t know, but Mr. Smiley already had a metaphorical foot in the door and he was grinning triumphantly at me.

“Yes, that’s me,” I replied coldly. I now had no option but to open the steel security grille, at which point Mr. Smiley ignored the metaphors and actually placed his foot in the door.

“Why did you say no when I asked if you were Mr. O’Sullivan?” I could see that this ill-begotten descendant of a Spanish Inquisitor was determined to pursue his interrogation with all the tenacity of a castrated terrier.

“Because my name is Doctor O’Sullivan, and my title is important to me. You have not bothered to do me the courtesy of telling me whether you have an honorific, title or rank, so I find myself at a disadvantage.” I should stress that when I became a doctor over fifty years ago, the honorific was much respected. Once dentists, then veterinarians, followed by psychologists, homeopaths and other alternative care providers, nurses with doctorates, politicians ditto, most probably bought from shonky American ‘colleges’, businessmen (and women) seeking to impress their boards, their peers and their competition all started to call themselves ‘doctor’, the title became seriously devalued; but I still hold a sentimental attachment to it.

“Captain Smiley,” he continued placidly, with more than a hint of lofty condescension in his voice. “D’you know what AATSIS is?” He repeated his earlier question. I was about to ask if he found the conjunction of Security with Intelligence to be oxymoronic, but thought it might not be in my best interests.

“Of course,” I replied. “I must confess, however, that I understood that AATSIS had been absorbed by the CIA[4] and operated under that undistinguished service’s name.”

“That is a complete lie; we cooperate, naturally, with our friends in the CIA, but our independence is paramount to us,” Captain Smiley replied, his voice rising sharply while a hint of spittle collected at the corners of his mouth.

“Humph,” I muttered. “Tell me, why is the Security Service interested in me?”

“I hasten to assure you, Doctor, that at present, our service has no interest in you at all,” Smiley replied out of the corner of his mouth, in what I imagine he believed was a conciliatory tone of voice. I found the emphasis on the phrase ‘at present’ more than a trifle threatening. “However, you are the son of Michael O’Sullivan, and it is in your father that my superiors are interested.”

What a lot of interests, I thought to myself; but this time, wisely, I kept my mouth shut and ushered the man into the house. I then firmly shut and locked the front door. My father, I must tell you now, because he is the lead character in this sorry tale, is one hundred and twenty-one years old. Had he been a spy at some stage in the distant past, I considered it unlikely that he could still be perceived as a threat to the security of the country. However, I must add a rider to that. The election of the Kylie Poulsen ‘Liberty’ government with an overwhelming majority, only three years ago, had seen some strange and bewildering changes in the political and social fabric of the country. I am therefore taking the precaution of recording the events surrounding the celebration of the centenary of the end of the Second World War as rapidly as possible. When that is completed, I will give the discs to members of my family, a few friends and a legal crony of mine, with instructions that, in the unlikely event of my unexpected death, they read this account and do with it whatever they think best.

Captain Smiley interrupted my train of thought. “Is your father still alive? And if so, where is he? According to the last census, he was domiciled at this house.”

“I assure you my father is very much alive. Indeed he is in excellent health, mainly, I may add, as a result of the care that I have given him.” I paused for a moment before asking a question. “Do you wish to know any more details?” I was being sarcastic, but I fear that he failed to detect the tone, for he nodded his head and indicated that I was to continue. “When my mother was tragically killed while crossing a busy road” (she had undergone fairly extensive corrective laser surgery to her eyes and failed to appreciate how blurred things would be for her for several days after the surgery), “my father temporarily lost touch with reality, and was admitted to a nursing home. He has been there ever since.”

“Is he still mad?” Captain Smiley tactlessly asked.

“I did not say that he was mad,” I replied coldly, “I merely said that he had temporarily lost touch with reality. They had been married for sixty-six years, and were as happy as it was possible to be. Took him a little while to get over it, but he’s been on the right side of the tracks for some time now.”

“I’m sorry,” Captain Smiley said, in a disagreeably cheerful tone of voice. He seemed to have a lot to be sorry about and if he didn’t get a move on, I was going to be late for my meeting.

“Captain Smiley,” I said, “on Monday mornings I attend an important meeting; the way this discussion is going, it looks as though I risk being late for it. Either you tell me why you came here, or I am getting dressed and leaving the house. Which is it to be?”

“Dr. O’Sullivan,” Captain Smiley replied, totally ignoring my complaint, “I am aware that you meet a few elderly ladies and gentlemen for a literary discussion on Monday mornings. By no stretch of the imagination can it be called an important meeting. There are times when you do not go, and it is rare for a full complement of the members to be there on any Monday morning.”

I was outraged. “How do you know this?” I asked, conscious of a slight tic in the corner of my left eye. I wondered whether the man from AATSIS had noticed this. “Have you been following me?”

He smiled, rather maliciously I thought. He was obviously enjoying my discomfort.

“There are many things I know about you. Indeed, you might well be shocked and embarrassed if you knew how much. As I said a few moments ago, I am looking for Mr. Michael O’Sullivan. You have told me that he is in a nursing home, and I hope that you will give me the name of the place.”

“Captain Smiley, as I have informed you, my father is a hundred and twenty-one years old. I have a right to know what you wish to see him about.”

Compos mentis, is he then?” Smiley asked.

I refuse from now on to even mention his rank, because the man may be an officer, though I have no absolute proof of this, but a gentleman he is certainly not. He is an ignorant boor, and Smiley he will remain for the rest of this account. So unlike George, who was always a perfect gentleman, even when betrayed by his friends.

“Of course he’s compos mentis, takes his progerontogin every day.”

Young people today probably have no idea what this magical substance is, even though in all likelihood, at some time in the future, they will need it or an improved version of the compound, so permit me a few moments to explain what this wonder of molecular manipulation does. I don’t know where the drug companies find the names for their products, but I reckon this one sounds like a drink for a geriatric prostitute! Anyway, this was one of the first breakthroughs that followed the unravelling of the human genome. The drug, miraculously (though perhaps, as a seasoned rationalist, I should not use such words), untangles the plaques that develop in the brain of Alzheimer’s sufferers; taken properly and regularly, it leads to considerable improvement in the quality of life of the unfortunate victims of that sad disease. Not only that: taken as a prophylactic, it has also been shown to prevent the development of the plaques. A hit, a palpable hit, as someone once said.[5]

I have just appreciated that my computer is adding its own footnotes. It does this by scanning the contents as I talk; if it thinks (I suppose modern computers can think) that the words require interpretation or some such, it scans its databases and acts accordingly. It can do this because it knows the fifteen thousand or so words and phrases I use regularly and recognises, with very little hesitation, oddities that are not within my usual patterns of speech. The textual correction that my computer gave on this occasion was, as so often, a frivolous and largely useless piece of information, though I suppose I may use it one day for one of the electronic games of general knowledge that I play with my grandchildren. For future reference and the sake of simplicity, footnotes are derived spontaneously from the computer – not, as it were, from the horse’s mouth.

Anyway, let me return to the progerontogin story. The original drug had been discovered and manufactured by one of the huge international (for international, read American, as most of the work was done over there, most of the shares were held there and most of the profits went there as well) pharmaceutical conglomerates with the name of Millennium. The drug was hideously expensive. Research costs had to be recouped. Manufacturing costs were exorbitant, even though the company attempted to minimize costs and maximize profits by manufacturing the drug in Papua New Guinea, where wages were even now appallingly low, despite the inclusion of that wretched country within the Australasian Free Trade Area. Marketing costs, that is, the costs of advertising the substance and then persuading, by a variety of means, the health professionals to write prescriptions for the drug, took over twenty-five percent of the total corporate income.

Then there were the shareholders. In that industry, these avaricious leeches were never satisfied unless a return of at least twenty-five per cent on their investments was forthcoming. Fortunately for those with Alzheimer’s, a couple of enterprising chemists in India, owners of a small manufacturing pharmaceutical company called SPUDLA that had always had an interest in drugs that affected the mind, found a different way to make the drug and to make it substantially cheaper. Patent laws went down the gurgler and the demented started to recover. Millennium tried to sue, but gave up when the international trade court ruled them out of order. The Indian drug was still expensive, but substantially cheaper than the original. We are fortunate to be ruled by a benevolent government, or so they tell us, that appears to be prepared, for the moment at least, to pick up the tab for this particular drug. As a result of its generosity, the elderly improved.

Back to Smiley, whose visit to my house he must have found, despite my deliberate obfuscation, quite productive. He learned that my old father was alive, was living in a nursing home and was taking progerontogin. As my father still voted at all elections, and was therefore on the electoral rolls, it would not take an enterprising man long to discover his whereabouts.

“Smiley,” I went on, “I insist that you tell me what this is all about. If you persist in playing the poor investigator, I will have no option but to ask the police to come and remove you.”

“I only wanted to enquire about the whereabouts of your father,” Smiley whined, an unpleasant sound in such a masculine character,” I don’t have the permission of my superiors to talk to you, but if you like, I’ll get their go-ahead, and we’ll deal with your old man through you. Would that be more satisfactory?”

“Much,” I said. “Now, if you will excuse me, I must dress. Any more delays and I will be late for my meeting. You know where to find me. Come with more authority next time, and not on a Monday morning. Good morning.” I unlocked the recently locked door, opened it and politely ushered the man out. I then firmly closed the door before going upstairs to dress. Though quite pleased with the way I had conducted myself, I was more than a little perturbed to discover that my knees were shaking and my scrotum had tightened yet again.

s
 


 

[1] Spy character created by Ian Fleming, English author, 1908-1964

 

[2] Carcarhinas leucas, noted for unpredictable and aggressive behaviour.

[3] Originally system of mostly government relief against conditions associated with social deprivation.

[4] Central Intelligence Agency: American counter-intelligence organization, founded in 1947 from the wartime Office of Strategic Services.

[5] ‘A hit, a very palpable hit’, a line from Hamlet by English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

 

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