“Let me answer your question another way.”
His voice had the plodding clarity of an Australian who learned elocution in his tiny bush school eighty years before.
“Kingfishers are smart. They nest high, and you won’t often see their young. But back when my sight was sharp, I watched a fight I’ll never forget.
“I was working the forests, north of Taree, early fifties.
“I’d seen air fights in the war, you see. Now, one afternoon, when a mob of kingfishers all started squealing and swooping high up in a grandfather tallowood, it was just like an air fight. They were furious. Sure enough, when I looked up I could see a goanna, a six-footer, that had made its way up the trunk.
“You wouldn’t believe how they fought him, going for his eyes, and also his claws so he’d lose his grip. They had him bothered, but a goanna is tough. What else can climb through the spikes of a bunya pine like it’s a spongy paper bark?
“He’d swipe at the birds a couple of times, to give himself a moment to go a little higher. As soon as his claws were busy climbing, they’d swoop again. I don’t know how long it lasted. Probably not as long as it seemed.
“Finally, he got to the top of the trunk where there was a tight crack, and stuck head and shoulders into that crack. The kingfishers got madder and madder. I remember wondering if some kookaburras might join in. They’re just big kingfishers. But nature doesn’t work that way, does it? Still, I can tell you that it’s not just the mother that will defend a kingfishers’ nest. These little birds were a large and organised squadron. I wonder if that’s in the books?
“Anyway, they staged a full air raid once he got his snout in that crack. But, one by one, he started drawing out nestlings, and chewing them up. You could see their little legs going in last.
“And he ate every one, nice and slow, like goannas do most things, like it was a banquet. And those little birds were fluttering, squealing, crashing into him, like they didn’t care what happened to themselves. But he was having the best feed of his life now, and it was like he didn’t feel anything.
“Then it all stopped, in a moment.
“You knew he’d taken the last baby, because the whole attack just stopped. How did the birds know? Did they count? Straight away, they flew off to their other business, as if nothing had happened. The goanna headed down the trunk to digest his meal.
“It was over. The birds had other business. They didn’t go about that business after five more minutes – or five seconds – of pecking or swooping. They went about their business straight away. No, not just straight away – but suddenly!
“Does that answer your question?”
We said nothing, just looked a little puzzled.
Then old Clarrie, one of the last survivors of Changi prison, sat upright to take a swig of the small “pony” of beer, as he still called it. The medals on his old brown double-breaster gave a little chiming rattle.
“You asked me how I feel now about the Japs. I’ve given my best answer. A bush answer.”