HER Jim is in her laugh and in clear eyes straining to see past the fading years.
A small wooden corner table and walls packed tight with photos. Jim’s to her right and to her left, up there with his younger brother, John. Looking more like father and son.
Boys in uniform — eight years apart — off to war, solemnly staring out from joined frames iced with a fine slither of dust.
Jim is everywhere; by her side, with their son and daughter, on their wedding day.
The lounge room of her modest red-brick East Albury house tells a small part of their story.
Jim’s widow makes a cheerful sorry for the clutter on the table, for the boxes and the bibs and bobs on the olive green couch and below walls that have long given up the gloss from times as a chaotic family home.
It’s just the 82-year-old’s busy life, the flotsam and jetsam from helping the Border’s other war widows.
Long after he returned from New Guinea, his first wife dead from cancer, he took a punt on asking her out on a date. Then he tried three times more. She was shocked but Jim was a gentleman, “a really nice chap”, so she finally gave him a yes.
Her Jim is now gone 14 years.
“It was the second of March,” she says, her face shining bright, trying all she can to pull him back into the matching velvet lounge chair beside her’s.
For decades he didn’t speak about the war, then the mortality that so long ago swallowed up more than a few of his mates in the Pacific war started to reel him in.
In those last three years the stories trickled out, but he spared her the horrors and the unfathomable day-to-day of living with death sitting on their exhausted shoulders.
“When he was getting sick I suppose he just started talking about it."VAL EVANS
Val Evans laughs again, embarrassed she cannot throw in a few yarns. “You’ve got me there. I’m not even on the map.”
Val worked in accounts at Dalgety’s in Albury. Jim, like the branch managers checking on people’s accounts, dropped in regularly.
“He was a very good auctioneer. You name it, he did it. And if anyone used to give him a bit of cheek he wasn’t backward in answering it.”
The 19-year age gap made no difference.
Val and Jim took no notice. They were married and raised their children, now both in their 40s and long out of home.
Last Christmas, Val visited him at a small cemetery in the King Valley, where he grew up. His ashes are there on that land donated by his family, his great-grandfather having settled in the valley after migrating from Wales.
Jim used to say his World War II years were “the past, and you don’t keep bringing up the past”.
He was a bren gunner with the second anti-tank regiment seventh division and, on coming home, marched every Anzac Day. But he avoided other commemorations.
“When he was getting sick I suppose he just started talking about it. I don’t know why because I never really asked him,” she says.
One story that makes her roar with delight, throwing her back and forth in her chair — even with telling it many times before — was from when Jim helped unravel coils of barbed wire in the waters off New Guinea.
They were easily spooked, thinking every noise was a Japanese boat coming up from behind. The threat instead came out of the sky.
“The Japs were flying over and dropping bombs on them,” Val says, laughing yet again, throwing about her bright red-painted nails, then curling them back under her chin.
“He dived under a jeep and pushed a sergeant-major out on the other side. He didn’t know he was under there.”
Now Val’s days are taken up looking out for fellow war widows. For six years she has been president of the Albury and District War Widows Guild, before then, five years as treasurer.
“Somehow or another I seemed to get into that pretty quickly after Jim died.”
It’s often just about simple gestures — visiting someone sick, sending cards or a catch-up after church on a Sunday.
Every year there’s also the satisfying job of helping the RSL organise the annual Field of Remembrance, a small field of wooden crosses usually placed near the Cenotaph in Albury’s QEII Square. It happens a couple of weeks before Anzac Day.
This year, as with last, the crosses have gone indoors at St Matthew’s as work continues on the city’s multi-million dollar art gallery redevelopment. Small wooden crosses made, engraved with a loved one’s name and placed in a bed of sand in the 2/23rd Battalion chapel. Later, the crosses accompany the next cremation of an ex-serviceman or woman.
Individual stories are often not shared among the older widows. Val says it’s probably in the makeup of a different generation, more focused on caring and simply getting on with it than dredging up painful memories.
Almost surprised by the question, she leans forward to say why the guild is so important.
“I’d just be so lost without it.”
And it’s just like why she still looks for her Jim.
“I miss the companionship. I just wish he was still here with me.”
It was also important to Jim. When he fell sick — Val can’t recall what it was, but he always complained about a piercing pain in the one spot — he ended up in the old Albury hospital, opposite the botanic gardens.
It wasn’t going too well, so he was flown down to Melbourne and picked up by an ambulance at Essendon airport. Val was offered a lift from Albury, said thanks but pointed out the obvious — if she hitched a ride, how could she then drive back home a few days later without her car?
Eventually she got to that city hospital, got into a large lift “packed with probably 30 people” with her overnight bag and some extra pyjamas for Jim. A stranger’s voice piped up. “Oh, he’ll be pleased to see you.”
“I turned around,” she recalls, “and thought ‘there’s nobody here I know’. And this voice said ‘well, you are Mrs Evans aren’t you?’”
The feeling she was a dignitary from the bush continued as she entered the ward. “He’ll be pleased to see you,” a nurse said.
“He had everybody looking for me. I told him: What are you doing that for? You know I can’t get to Melbourne in under three hours.”
And then her Jim explained something she already knew, from their many years of marriage, from their simple life at home, from working together in their real estate business.
“Yes,” he said gently.
“But you’ve always been here.”
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