Jim Mannell is a retired high school deputy principal and
graduate teacher of French, English and German with sub-majors in Italian,
Psychology and Anthropology.
He is the author of A Chalkie of the State and
Dropping the Sausage, two humorous memoir books.
The Time Before is his only work of fiction, first
written in 1986 and subsequently revised and submitted for publication in 2013.
In memory of Christa Brady
1940 - 2014
Teacher and colleague
Mosman High School 1993 – 1995
Thursday, 12th June 1980 – 7:00 pm
Even though he was obviously too drunk to work, he
stumbled from the kitchen into the study. Just like a moth to a flame. He paused
for a moment to contemplate the framed photos, prints and documents on the walls
and the neatly labelled albums on the shelves. He was reeling, almost losing his
legs, so he flopped ungracefully into the chair. On the desk was Volume 7,
the only album not in its place on the shelf. He opened it to no page in
The bold type of the year heading was the only print
he could read at first. Even the half-century-old photos were a blur, but he
finally forced his eyes to penetrate the alcoholic haze and focus, albeit
feebly, on the first photo on the page.
It was a grainy black and white snap of uniformed
Sturmabteilung troopers in a beer hall, proud young members of Adolf
Hitler’s SA, which would eventually spawn the dreaded SS. Michael Hilgard had
studied the photo many times before. It was one of thousands that had been
painstakingly introduced into his academic study. He stared at the circle he’d
drawn around the head of one of the SA troopers, a man who would quickly rise
through the ranks to become the Reichsführer’s choice to lead the elite SA. But
this time it was a different face that caught Mike’s bleary-eyed attention. He
squinted at the hitherto unnoticed figure, trying to bring the face into focus,
but the effort merely aggravated the pain behind his left eyeball. He’d drunk
enough to be unconscious, which had been the whole idea, but for a moment he was
drawn to the face of the young German. He opened his desk drawer and fumbled
around till he found his magnifying glass and then held it to the subject of his
interest. The face of the young trooper jumped up at him. Unlike the others in
the photo, this young man was unsmiling, his eyes expressionless. He seemed to
be a reluctant participant. Maybe he was just bored.
Mike peered at the face, then sucked in his breath.
He refocused the magnifying glass.
“Jesus,” he murmured drunkenly, “that could be me.”
It was the same nose, the same jutting eyebrow ridge,
even that ear looked the same. And the eyes! He’d seen those eyes before and
then he realised where. They were looking out at him from the Hilgard family
album, from years ago it seemed, before he started uni. He shook his head at the
notion, which set his temples throbbing even more. He was clearly off the rails.
He put the glass down because he couldn’t maintain
the concentration on the magnified face, and his head was now roaring with pain.
He grimaced at his latest little excursion into Germanic history. He returned
the lens to the drawer and closed the volume with a slap that seemed to spear
into his brain. He struggled to his feet yet again and lurched towards the door,
which he closed behind him as he always did and then swung unsteadily along the
hall to the bedroom. Maybe now he was numb enough to sleep at last… Sleep...
“Baby, you look so sexy. I think
we’re going to end up being late for the party...”
She adroitly evaded his lunge for her.
“Mike, no!” she exclaimed, laughing. “Let me finish
doing my make-up!”
She closed the bathroom door behind her. Mike pushed
it open so he could watch her – long legs, clinging dress, no bra. He felt the
butterflies in the pit of his stomach as his eyes dropped to her perfectly
rounded arse. Leigh paused in her eye make-up and naively asked if something was
Her husband stepped into the bathroom behind her.
“Not sure,” he said with a frown.
He rested his hands on her firm buttocks and
squeezed. She smiled and resumed her eye make-up. Now he was lifting up the back
of her flimsy dress.
“There’s definitely something wrong here...” he
“What are you doing?” she yelped, but her panties
were already being peeled down to her knees. At almost the same moment she heard
his zipper and her eyes widened involuntarily. It was only when she felt his
erection brush her thighs that she realised he wasn’t kidding around.
“Mike...” she scolded, “we can’t…”
But it was without conviction; she was already
bending forward and spreading her feet in spite of herself.
She felt him beginning to penetrate.
“How did you get so big so fast?” she gasped. “That’s
not your style, Hilgard. Ooh, don’t… hon’... I’ll get all sweaty.”
It was a token protest. She gave in and made it
easier for him by bending over the basin and spreading her legs even more.
“I’m not going to come,” she declared.
“Right,” he said simply, and as he eased his erection
into her as far as it would go, he watched her in the mirror. She flinched
momentarily but she was so ready. He began to grind slowly into her, barely
controlling the urge to hurt her. When she caught that look in the mirror, she
rolled her eyes and listened to his voice, low and menacing.
“Baby… I feel like ripping you apart.”
She moaned and could hardly stay on her feet. She
fumbled for a firmer grip as his thrusting became more frenzied.
“Okay… you can do me,” she snarled at him, “but don’t
you make me come… Don’t you…”
Then she heard the snarl from down in his belly and
when it reached his throat and he exploded, she was swept away with him.
Slumped on the floor in the doorway, Mike finally
found some words.
“You said you weren’t going to come,” he remarked, in
“I loved that,” she sighed, hauling herself to her
She gave him that incredible smile and obviously
enjoyed seeing him sprawled uselessly on the floor at her feet.
“Now I have to finish getting ready... Dismissed!”
Mike laughed as she shut the door in his face again.
Then, happily sated, he fell backwards onto the bed. He closed his eyes and
sighed and smiled and felt deliciously enervated.
His face changed and became
contorted as the tears sprang from his eyes. She didn’t hear him. She couldn’t…
He sat up with the shock of realisation. The room
would’ve been in almost total darkness but for the dim light coming from down
the hall. He slumped. He knew at once where he really was and he groaned in
pain. Again he fought the emotional turmoil.
He was sick of it. Sick of the recurring dream. Sick
of his own pathetic fragility. Piss weak. Be a man.
He didn’t know how long he’d slept but it hadn’t been
long. He burst from the bedroom and stumbled towards the light. He needed a
drink. And then he needed the asylum of the study. His head was still pounding
as he drifted through the living room to his tiny kitchen, telling himself,
absurdly, that he needed some ice in his next shot of bourbon because of the
pain behind his eyes, but then he somehow forgot the ice. He carried the double
bourbon carefully back to the study, closed the door behind him and slid in
behind his desk. He began to tidy it up, shuffling and sorting notes and photos,
and put them into boxes and then into the drawers. He felt almost immediately
more serene. He began to flip through his notepad, re-reading his observations
and conclusions. That triggered a thought and he hauled himself to his feet,
lurched over to the bookshelf and took down one of several heavy albums. He
sipped his bourbon as he checked some of his entries. Then he took a folder from
the bottom desk drawer, opened it and took out the photo that was at the top.
Minutes went by as he stared at the large print, before he roused himself to
take a sip of Old Crow.
He continued to scrutinise the old photograph, one of
the many photos he’d decided not to frame and hang on the wall of the tiny
bedroom that had now become his study. The old snapshot would remain consigned
to his growing archival material.
As it occurred so often, he was transfixed by the
scene, by the unspeakable horror of one incident in history, frozen by a camera
more than three decades ago…
A cigarette hanging from his
lips, an almost bored expression on his face, the bareheaded young SS man was
leaning against a doorframe, the barrel of his machine gun pointing to the
ground. It was obvious that the executioner had nothing to say at the moment the
photo was snapped. Facing the SS officer, the young Jewish woman was certainly
saying something to him, but her deep dark eyes were just as expressionless as
his were. No. Not expressionless like his. Hers was an expression of
hopelessness, but the gesture she was making with her left hand was somehow
defiant, as if she were having the last word. The last words...
Mike reached for his glass and
grimaced slightly as he took his next sip. He used to prefer his bourbon with
dry ginger and ice, but was getting used to taking it neat after months of
steady hopeless imbibing.
He looked back at the photo. The black-eyed young
woman was naked. Her breasts were small but perfect and her hips were
curvaceous, but the rest of her body was painfully thin and you could see her
ribs. In the background were other naked women, trying to cover their nakedness.
One was an old woman with a look of resignation and futility in her eyes. Behind
her a middle-aged female was using the older woman to conceal some of her own
nakedness. The look on her face betrayed her fear and shame.
The young woman showed neither. She was pointing at
the middle of her chest and was saying something to the man who was about to
wave her to the edge of the pit. Today, Mike mused, the bored young officer,
with his cigarette and his close-cropped hair and his facial scars could have
been one of the white supremacists that he was researching for his doctorate, a
Neo-Nazi skinhead. In this wartime photo, he was a member of an Einsatzgruppe,
one of the many so-called action groups, a euphemism for death squads.
Not long after this, Mike ruefully observed, the executioner would’ve been out
of a job. Shooting people would soon be declared a waste of bullets. Gassing was
far more efficient. As Mike contemplated this youthful, dispassionate
Einsatzkommando following his orders, he figured that in all
likelihood the young man would’ve been killed on the Eastern Front.
He looked back at the girl, her delicate hand with
the long pointing finger.
“Dreissig Jahre alt…” Mike said aloud.
That was what she might’ve been saying, he imagined.
He absentmindedly brought his glass to his lips but
it was of course empty, so he struggled to his feet and walked less than
steadily out through the living room towards the ice. But his bladder was
bursting, so he made a clumsy turn back into the hall and headed for the
bathroom. Instead of standing at the bowl, he sat down heavily and was dozing
almost at once. After he’d finished pissing and napping he lurched almost
drunkenly back into the hallway, on his way to another bourbon, but suddenly
changed direction, broke into a kind of jerky stumbling run and threw himself
onto his bed. Then for no good reason, he rolled off it again, lunged at the TV
and punched it on with a blundering finger, before flinging himself back onto
A wet clod of earth followed the
coffin into the yawning grave, landing on it with an obscene, irreverent plop.
The cloying, clayey sod clung to the polished lid, refusing to be dislodged as
the casket completed its slow descent. Reddish-pink liquid oozed from the clod
and began to trickle down the side of the coffin. He dropped to his knees and
reached out to try to knock away the offending lump of earth, and felt the mud
soaking through the knees of his trousers. But the coffin was well out of reach
and even though it had settled at the bottom of the grave, it seemed to him to
be moving still further away from his outstretched hand. It was being swallowed
by the earth. She was being swallowed. He turned his head to speak to the
funeral director’s assistants. They weren’t there. No one was there. He was the
only mourner. The other mourners must’ve gone. He got to his feet and saw with
some distaste that his trousers were caked with the sticky red mud.
It was raining again. As he made his way down the
track to the car park, fine, misting, icy rain swept down from a leaden sky
unlike any sky he’d ever seen. The uneven ground caused him to lurch forward and
stumble. When he looked down at his feet he was astonished to see that he was
wearing army boots and gaiters. They looked absurd with his best suit. He
wondered why he’d dressed himself in such an inappropriate, outlandish way. Then
he noticed he was being watched and when he looked up, he saw, standing on the
gravel track only 10 yards or so away, silently staring, an old man wearing a
hat with a feather in it and a pair of Lederhosen. His piercing pale blue
eyes looked out from behind steel-rimmed spectacles and his teeth were clamped
down on a long-stemmed pipe that didn’t appear to be alight. Why was he dressed
like that? This was a solemn occasion. And wasn’t the old fool cold?
Then he noticed the others. They were standing in the
car park, watching him impassively as he made his way to the car. They were all
men, and all older than he. Where were the women, the women who could console
him with their gentleness? Some of the men were wearing old-fashioned suits with
upturned collars. Others were wearing military uniforms, but of varying kinds.
Black and white, brown, grey. Their faces wore identical expressions, grim, but
unsympathetic, as if they didn’t even know why he was mourning. He wanted these
strangers to go away because they had no business here. He took a step towards
them, but as he did so, the ground tilted and he lurched forward and began to
blunder down the narrow zigzagging track. As the gradient became steeper and
steeper, his ill-fitting boots slipped and skidded in the gravel and mud and he
broke into a stuttering, stumbling run, until finally he couldn’t keep to the
path at all and careened down the wet hillside. Just as he was about to fall, he
crashed into the side of a car. It was a black vintage Benz. He didn’t recognise
it, but then he looked through the car window and he knew it was her car,
because there on the front seat was her favourite shawl and next to it his cap.
But he couldn’t remember wearing a cap like that, with a badge on it...
For a while he sprawled breathless across the bonnet
of the sleek black car. But he could feel their eyes on him, and when he
straightened up and looked around they were all still there, standing near a
fleet of black vintage cars, watching him in silence as before. Mere discomfort
turned to fear and his heart was beating so violently that his chest hurt. He
tried to get into the car. There were no door handles. The key was lying on the
driver’s seat. It was attached to a red plastic nameplate. He had to wipe the
rain away from the window before he could make out the name.