Fiction

Four shots at silence

1

HIGH STREET, PRAHRAN. An ageing Toyota Corolla heads through drizzle for Punt Road. Once past Chapel Street the driver hesitantly encroaches on the tram tracks – signalling his intention to swing right into St Edmonds Road at the Zaks Gymnasium corner – and comes to a halt. A tram glides up behind, waiting for him to complete the turn. Cars join the queue. Nothing out of the ordinary. But when the lights change to green the Corolla doesn't move, although there is no oncoming traffic and the way is clear. Peremptorily the tram bell clangs three times. Without effect. The Corolla seems stuck, yet its motor has not stalled.

Bystanders, interested as always, crane to see the driver. Through rain-streaked glass he appears to be heavy-shouldered with, perhaps, ginger hair. A youngish man. Several cars begin creeping forward alongside the tram, checking first that no passengers are about to risk descending, but they can't get past the Corolla. The trammie repeatedly clangs her bell. The lights go red. The stationary tram utters electric chuckles. The Corolla's windows begin fogging up on the inside. The occupant, now a blurred silhouette, head thrown back, clutches his temples.

Coffee tipplers at a pavement café watch the trammie climb down to assess the problem with the patience of her kind. She approaches the offending vehicle and knocks on the window. They watch. A minute or two later she shrugs, returns to her cab and sprawls in her seat. Someone suggests she might need to borrow a mobile phone for contacting the depot or alerting the police, but nobody offers. Up above them – at a first-floor casement of the nineteenth-century schoolhouse converted into a gymnasium – a bodybuilder of Asian appearance leans out to assess the full extent of a traffic jam already longer than a city block. But while he remains up there his interest is purely academic.

Two women sharing one umbrella cross the street, discussing the advisability or otherwise of offering the motorist their assistance. ‘But what if it sets him off,' one of them worries publicly enough to be heard by the coffee crowd, ‘and what if he goes crazy?' ‘What if he's, like, another Martin Bryant,' her friend agrees, ‘and us the first victims!' But when a hand smudges the glass to reveal the driver's flushed face he is just staring in distress at a road he cannot, apparently, take: this is no Martin Bryant. Perhaps, having navigated the life allotted him – having come this far and reached this point of time in this comfortable, frumpy city at this particular road junction – he can go no farther. Simple as that.

The lights go red. Despite the rain more bystanders gather to witness the crisis of some poor fool trapped by silence. The lights go green. Red. Green. Red. Helpless motorists stick enquiring heads out of car windows. Only the bellicose owner of a Mercedes four-wheel drive risks swinging across to the wrong side of the road, around the tram, a law to himself, to roar glitteringly away, causing an oncoming taxi to swerve just in time.

The bodybuilder, having satisfied himself with a nonchalant display of his anatomy, withdraws in the certainty that, whatever the cause, the crisis will have cleared without trace before he finishes his workout. The coffee shop picks up trade. The traffic lights continue changing, to no effect. On the side of the tram the National Gallery of Victoria advertises: This is your heritage.

2

THOUGH SLEEPLESS AND cramped in his berth, the constant creaking of the vessel soothed his nerves. The thrum of rigging overhead. The rumble of canvas. Even the night itself thudded against the hull. And he was grateful. So, every routine thump and bump on the busy night-time deck above confirmed his relief and, punctuated by the snores of the crew suspended in hammocks on either side, helped crowd out a dreadful memory. But no, not really. Memory could not so easily be escaped. Even his anonymity – or at least the false name he went under – made little difference. His real name called to him, as a fledgling bird may rehearse the song it must master in times of danger in its dreams, and the least fleeting hiccup of silence drew him with fatal magnetism into the abyss of his identity.

Useless to murmur in his waking nightmare, ‘I got away with it!'

And bad as the nights were, the days were worse. Every so often, on duty, he lapsed into the careless manner of a gentleman, needing to pull himself up short and shout, ‘Aye, aye, sir,' while biting back his pride and grasping the canvas with blistered hands. He promised himself that once ashore – regardless of danger and in whatever port – he would jump ship. Disappear for good. Then and then only, safe from the law, would he feel free to sink himself in private torment. The risk itself was of no account. He had never been afraid of risk.

Such was his life as a fugitive back in 1838, when he was young.

And once ashore he put his plan into effect. The ship sailed without him. He found work as an overseer on a plantation where natives planted rubber trees for a Malacca-based company. But his new companions soon sensed a secret crime. He came to be known as The Man with a Hole for a Head. He was obliged to escape this place too.

Stepping out, next, along the quay at Cochin he ran into a Kathakali dancer with rolling eyes who cupped a globe of silence in elongated fingernails, causing him to reel as if from a blow. He fled. He hid. Again he worked as a deckhand and again jumped ship. He joined a band of pilgrims. He travelled far inland. In his flight from silence he reached the Silk Road. Mounted on a camel and with the clash of little cymbals still in his ears, he headed west from Kashgar to cross the Tarim Basin, that stony wilderness, a landlocked corner between Kashmir and Turkestan. And here his camel died and the silence caught up with him. Once in possession, it perched on his shoulder and clapped both hands over his ears.

That's how it was all the way to the Bosphorus and right across Europe. And, indeed, long after he settled back in Gloucestershire among the comforts of clean linen, cups of tea and almshouse duties, having reassumed his family name and been welcomed with subdued kindness by cousins. Silence had him in its deadly grip. These cousins had the delicacy to accept that he was a man with a secret. Fearful lest the least probe into the what or when of it might trigger a fit of madness, indeed the snarls and screeches of some horrid tale of colonial isolation and hardship, they behaved as if nothing was amiss and wrote each Christmas to his parents back in New South Wales to assure them he was safe and well. Meanwhile they humoured him with superfluous duties. Popular with children, especially the noisy ones, he grew middle-aged and fat.

Still, nightly, he stared into the moon's blind eye, hearing again the startled cries of Aboriginal women. Saw himself rein in his horse. Saw himself turn triumphantly to face the men he led: men who had agreed ‘to teach these savages a lesson they would not forget'. Well, the tribe turned out to be a harmless few. Twenty-eight people sat there around little campfires. Night after sleepless night he relived the horror, spurring ahead while his fellows with cutlasses followed. Night after sleepless night he heard again the whisk of his own service sword. Blood guttered in an old man's throat. A heartbroken female tenderly murmured to a bleeding child, for all the world like a mother. The victims' shrieks burrowed in his brain. Night after night his followers, convict labourers from neighbouring properties (one black African among them), hacked away at their work, while their horses breathed great dreadful breaths. Boots and hooves stumbled among sticky stones. Daggers flashed in the firelight. And long after everything else fell quiet, the chunks of corpses, hands and heads chopped off, sizzled in the flames. He had trusted fire to obliterate all memory that they ever lived, identity impossible to reconstruct from charred lumps and smashed bones of assorted sizes, the evidence reduced to a stench, airborne and swirling away as greasy smoke...all gone by the time Governor Gipps's investigator arrived at the scene. But even while the embers died down and the ash of safety settled among the leaves his ears still rang with yells of terror. So began his unthinkable flight – a gentleman on the run – being hidden in a neighbour's cupboard, then beneath a hay shed farther downstream. In a boat paddling down the Gwydir River. Sleeping out, the gift of gold coins in his socks. But already the chatter of betrayals crept to every corner of the colony. He knew. Fear rushed his way as wind, huddling him to the fringes of Sydney Town. Grubby and unshaven, he scoured the quay for a skipper disreputable enough to sign him on (no pay, in return for no questions asked) but the silence rang in every crevice of his skull. His ship cleared the heads, at last, on an evening tide. But it was futile to congratulate himself that his mother's prayers had been answered. God could not now possibly exist.

So, he dedicated himself to creating a constant tapestry of noise to shut out the silence: he had a kettle perpetually sizzling on the hob, kept twittering birds in uncovered cages, set clocks to different times so they would chime continually and erratically through every hour, deep chimes and treble bells to still his heart. With the energy of a dervish he equipped the garden with strident contraptions which constantly screeched and knocked. A windmill's off-set vanes clattered ceaselessly whenever there was wind. And wires strung among the trees whined with Aeolian persistence. At all hours a creek roared through the millrace he constructed. And he trained his dogs to bark at the slightest provocation.

Even so, for dreadful moments at a time, silence survived this assault and his memories of Myall Creek leapt to life. Yes. Heart crying out at the pain. Reminded, too, that seven of his companions had been hanged – the first Englishmen to die by English law for murdering the blacks – and four others led away in chains, even while he, John Fleming, the only freeborn murderer among them, protected by his class, got off, got out. Young still. Free still. Free.

 

3

WHATEVER ELSE I may have expected on arrival at that detention camp in the far north of South Australia I did not expect Babak. Babak was thirteen years old. He was from Afghanistan, an asylum seeker with his lips sewn together. Crude thread zigzagged from needle hole to bloodied needle hole. He sat, listening to what I had to say, slumped in the dust among sixteen others, enduring a temperature upwards of forty degrees. All of them had inflamed lips bruised around the stitches. Politely they listened. Once I had finished I was told none spoke English.

An Afghan doctor, also incarcerated there, volunteered to be my interpreter.

Babak wrote down his first question for the doctor to translate: ‘Do you have towns and cities in your desert?' ‘Yes,' I told him, ‘but not exactly in the desert.' ‘Do you live in one of these cities?' ‘Yes.' And then, of course, I came up against the impossibility of explaining Sydney – the heart-stopping beauty of the harbour on a sparkling day. So I invited the next question instead. And it was: ‘Who put us here?'

By association I thought of the Prime Minister's harbourside mansion. Men and women edged closer to hear, despite the guards in the employ of the private company administering the camp. In place of an answer I invited these others to tell me stories on behalf of the hunger-strikers who could not speak. The doctor did his best, listening, nodding, translating, finding the right words in hesitant English, bringing life to fragments of what had happened during the desperate journey to reach safety: stories of humble gatherers of wild pistachio nuts who had found the courage to defy the insurgents and set out on the journey, stories of horror and repression, torture and murder, a gruelling struggle across the mountains and a long, long journey by train, stories of the first terrifying sight of the ocean, stories of hunger and heroism and sinking vessels and men in uniform coming to the rescue – angels, for sure.

My interpreter produced a tattered newspaper clipping from his pocket and unfolded it with a surgeon's fingers. He gave it to me to read. John Howard was quoted as saying: ‘Children in the proper, positive care of their parents don't sew their lips together, do they?' He asked me what was meant by this and pointed to the words: ‘They are trying to morally intimidate Australians.'

I had no way of explaining. Shame overcame any attempt. My own country, out there beyond the razor wire, unendingly flat, struck me as a strange barren place I didn't recognise. Because Howard was not alone. An inescapable disgrace was embedded in the complicit tone of the article.

Meanwhile Babak's father, with one arm across his son's shoulders, constantly dabbed some antiseptic on the boy's lips and hummed a chant. His own lips sewn and sore. Not hard to see the grief in his exhausted eyes. The doctor explained that Babak volunteered to take part in the hunger strike because he knew he would need courage when he grew to be a man with his own children to protect and feed.

From there I moved around the compound under a blazing weight of sunshine. My guard informed me that each detainee had been allocated a number and must be addressed by that number. He supported this requirement by explaining that it assured them of equality. Failure to comply? He illustrated the consequences by telling me about a nursing sister there who had refused to use the numbers and set about learning her patients' names. Of course the manager had carpeted her and dismissed her. He sniffed, ‘And anyway, she could never say them right.'

I insisted on keeping the doctor with me till we completed the circuit. Then I said goodbye to Babak. In the interim he had written a message for me: ‘My mother says,' the doctor translated, ‘we must be proud of our beautiful Pashto language.' I assured Babak that I had no doubt of it and that Pashto would be beautiful again on his own lips when next he was free to speak.

‘Makes you wonder,' said the guard supervising my departure, ‘who they think gives a damn.'

 

4

ROUND BY THE pharmacy. A boy. Boy grins. Boy walks past bus stop where young tripper is begging coins. Tripper's shoes don't match. Boy walks on right past the Japanese restaurant. Sushi sign. Past antique shop with convict manacles trapped under glass display dome. Walks up to fat Aboriginal transvestite. Transvestite opens mouth. Cigarette hanging from lip. Boy, not noticing a thing, walks on air. Can't spare a scrap of attention for anything. Just his empty goldfish bowl. Boy clutches bowl against chest. A glass bowl filled with light and silence.

 

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