FROM THE TIME Kurt Talker disappeared, presumed drowned, people began to claim him. They named his parents, his extended family, even whose Old People’s blood ran through his veins. Some swore they knew the very words whispered to him when he was a child, but only when he was gone did people realise Kurt Talker carried Original knowledge that is now – except (ahem) for a very special one or two of us – lost.
Kurt never claimed to speak for no one. Quiet, even shy, he tried to speak truth best he could.
Kurt would say he was old school, mission-and-primary-back-in-the-day school. All his life he held onto a favourite teacher’s routine of daily free writing and drawing, but he kept quiet about it. He carried a briefcase in which he kept a large notebook, pencils and sharpener. Plenty of space remained, and so there was also very small Bible – a hangover from the mission days, he’d agree – and a dictionary.
‘In the beginning was the word,’ he’d say if pressed. ‘Lotta stories in the Bible, lot more in the dictionary.’ The briefcase also held keys, wallet and a simple phone (though the battery was most often flat, and he never went online). Also, a folding knife with a long and very sharp blade.
Kurt mostly used that on hunting trips and stuff.
Kurt was diligent about keeping his pencils sharpened, and the necessary insertion and twist gesture became so habitual that people would sometimes step back as he approached. He wrote with pencils and a script that had evolved from the International Phonetic Alphabet the dictionary had revealed to him, and that allowed him to balance the sound and appearance of things, to create ciphers that somehow managed to carry, to merge and meld, sounds, colour and shape to produce a less arbitrary connection to the very pattern of speech and meaning. Each vowel had its own colour, and Kurt arranged consonants accordingly. He drew, rather than wrote, language, and not only the sounds of words, but the sounds associated with them. A lifetime of this had created a habit of drawing daily affirmations, of sounding them out, marking and tapping the rhythm to produce artefacts on the page that, even if not completely translatable, were more precise and experiential than any orthodox rendering of words could ever be. Recently, this private obsession had suddenly blossomed into small pictographs – or poems, or cartoons, or songs; it was difficult to find the correct term but they were primarily visual, at least in the beginning. At the time of his disappearance, Kurt’s little artefacts were about to appear on social media and in public transport stations, and on vehicles. They would be hovering in every commuter’s vision.
His nephew, Dr AleX Afta, had always encouraged Kurt’s private, obsessive practice. AleX had even put forward Kurt’s name along with examples of his work to various organisations and bodies. AleX’s suggestions carried weight; successful in his own right and a masterful promoter, he was also Chair of the Government-Originals Treaty Negotiation Team. Kurt’s pictographs would be part of ongoing Treaty celebrations occurring at King George Town, UnUstralia, NeverNever Country.
KING GEORGE TOWN was a fine place with fine people and a fine aspect and a fine history, too. Today was Treaty Signing, an especially sunny day in that history.
The town itself nestled between two hills on the southernmost coast of NeverNever Country. It was a cold site for a town. The prevailing southerly wind blew across the water and most buildings received only a half day’s sun – morning or afternoon depending upon which flank of Mount Collie or Mount Mokare they sat. The main street ran straight downhill before splitting and turning sharply in both directions at the very edge of the water to become two smooth roads running around the harbour edge in both directions but, because of the channel at the eastern end of the harbour, they never quite met. Thus preventing enclosure, the channel opened into the great blue expanse of King George Sound, one defining headland of which was in the distant left, the other at the end of the same tall isthmus that formed the southern side of the harbour and, along with Heartbreak Island, mostly sheltered the great bay from the worst of winter’s south-westerly swells.
Heartbreak Island was a favoured destination for honeymooners, holiday-makers, families and children. One of a number of islands off the coast, this was the one most focused on tourism. Accommodation was mostly still tents and crude cabins, but recent years had seen an upgrade of sorts, and the motel was now catering for conferences and more upscale accommodation.
In the early days of the colony, Original people were imprisoned on islands off this part of UnUstralia’s coast. Heartbreak Island was no exception, and recent reports complained its hotel and resort retained too much of their earlier function.
Part of the original jail remained, forming a decorative corner of the resort’s central courtyard, which featured the photograph of a slouching man chained to a wall. The cell had been preserved in part, and what could well be the very same chain and shackle hung from the very same wall that was in the photograph. Visitors could try the shackle for size.
There were plans for a memorial to the many Original people who’d been incarcerated and died on the island.
Most days of the week a passenger ferry went out in the morning and returned late in the day. The ferry was sometimes obliged to take a very circuitous route because Heartbreak Island was not quite completely in the lee of the isthmus, but on a calm day the island could be easily reached in a small dinghy.
In short, both history and tourism had selected Heartbreak Island as the site of the Most Momentous Historical Occasion in the history of UnUstralia: Treaty Signing.
As one of Kurt’s pictographs said, in its own inimitable way: We are our own history, and we remake it all the time. With goodwill and a robust democracy, the great spirit of the place and its people had come to the fore.
HEARTBREAK ISLAND WAS ubiquitous in colonial artwork. There were countless renderings of waves, of the swell launching against the rocks on the south-west side of the isthmus and against the stone buttress of the island.
On calm days you could hear voices calling across the water, but other days the regular boom of explosions of water against rock and the tumult of swell rebounding and jostling between island and isthmus unsettled and humbled most people.
From many of the lookouts and beaches of King George Town you could see foam bloom white at the end of Heartbreak Island. It would remain there for one long beat before falling.
Kurt had tried for the sound and rhythm of this in his drawings; the relentless, insistent lines of swell marching, and then the booming explosion of foam. The way it hung in the sky. It was like a few bars of a waltz in the middle of a marching song; it caught and lifted you so that you could barely wait to fall and resume with the water running away to rejoin the ocean.
The island’s name initially came from the way the south-west swell broke against it: Break-Sea. But on a map – and it took a rare sense of aerial perspective to otherwise appreciate this – it looked like a heart. Thus, Heart-Break-Sea became its name. A growing appreciation of the fissure that led from a narrow opening beside the landing jetty and almost – the actuality of this was disputed – separated the two parts of the island, led to a new name. The fissure was sometimes a swirling torrent of ocean twenty metres wide, and the sound of the many small rocks trapped in its crevice accompanied the other sounds of storm at sea; but other times it was mostly dry sand and you could walk across it as if there was no fissure at all. The island became known as Heartbreak.
Kurt drew the island as an emoji, one clearly fractured organ.
But that is enough of Heartbreak.
Today was Treaty Signing, and Treaty would heal, would herald new cultural forms, would provide for a palpable voice and a dynamic, hybrid spirit. It would ease colonial anxiety and diminish Original oppression so that a postcolonial energy, a drive for social justice, a brave new collective sense of identity would emerge. Treaty might even permanently heal Heartbreak Island.
Kurt’s cartoons certainly said so.
At the same time as Treaty documents were being delivered for signing, and as government officials and the Negotiation Team and community members were boarding the ferry to Heartbreak Island, the Office of Communication and Entertainment was about to launch its program to ensure Kurt’s cartoons, his pictographs, would be seen throughout King George Town, across UnUstralia, and perhaps the entirety of NeverNever Country. Market research with numerous and diverse focus groups had indicated the artwork would be vital to the promotion of Treaty and the rallying of further community support.
KURT PARKED AT the town port, choosing an isolated spot beside a small brick warehouse at one edge of a plain of shipping containers. Not only was it free to park there, but it was also concealed from the protestors who had gathered near the moored ferry. Their voices rose and fell with the gusting wind. Kurt listened to them and to the wind whining among the towers of shipping containers. Not far away the same wind swooped on huge mounds of woodchips, scattering them incrementally. A crane, turning this way and that, included Kurt in its high survey.
He stepped from the car. The wind clutched at his thin city clothes and his jacket billowed and snapped as if it were still strung out on a clothesline.
And Kurt too was strung-out. All the members of the NeverNever Negotiation Team were. The stakes were high, and there had been bitter disagreement even within teams, especially among those beholden to a faction-ridden community rather than the apparatus of government. Kurt had been invited to join the team after the success of meetings instigated by AleX to share his artworks. Kurt had thought it a great honour, and really believed his art could bring people together and heal the rancour.
He was an ageing man, but Kurt strode out, wanting to exert himself a little, to get the blood moving. The echoing patter of his footsteps abruptly softened as he exited the lee of the last building and as the sun shone upon his face, the breeze lifted his thin hair and his spirit too. For a moment he might have kept walking up into the bright, clean sky; the mission had prepared him for such an ascension. But then the voices:
Always was always will be,
Our Original Land…
Which brought him quickly back to Earth once more. He agreed with the sentiments, and thought that he and the protestors basically wanted the same thing but had different ways of going about it.
More than a noisy few, these protestors represented around half the local Original population, most of whom, historically long disenfranchised and schooled by decades of official discrimination, were sceptical and disengaged from institutional processes. Understandably, they saw Treaty as just another sellout and, held behind a line of police officers, they shook placards, shouted, waved flags.
Original flags rippled in the breeze above the protesters and above Kurt’s destination, the ferry. Same flags, same breeze.
Like most of the negotiation team, Kurt had plenty of family among the protestors. A niece gave a low, finger-rippling wave. Kurt nodded to a nephew, who turned away and spat. Nice of him to turn away, thought Kurt.
‘You can’t sell your mother.’
He wondered about waiting for a couple of the other Negotiation Team members who were about sixty metres away and walking quickly. Was it worth bearing the attention of this unhappy crowd? No, it was not.
‘Arse-lickers that way.’
This was said very softly. Another nephew glanced down, managing to nod a greeting as they did so. A man looked sideways, cursed quietly.
Ahead of him, Dessie and Crow were about to board the ferry. Crow half-turned and gestured. Want us wait for youse?
Kurt waved them on.
Dessie’s and Crow’s hair and coats shone. Their step was light, their clothes crisp, and they lifted their feet as if about to dance aboard the ferry.
The TV camera’s attention moves from the protestors, lingers briefly on Kurt before moving onto another small group, one of whom mockingly waves at the protestors. The little crowd ripples and rises with retaliatory insults, and the camera bobs towards this breaking news.
Kurt imagined himself on screen. He did not want anyone to see an old man scurrying for the ferry, but... He was in a hurry.
Glancing down as he stepped from jetty to boat, Kurt saw that the gap between jetty and vessel was narrower than a grave. The deep water there glinted and winked. He suddenly swayed like a tightrope walker fighting for his balance…
And recovered the moment his foot struck the deck.
‘Unc. Thought we were gunna lose you for a moment there.’ Dessie touched Kurt’s arm gently, to reassure yet not upset him. He knew Kurt didn’t like to be touched. For a moment it was as if the people around them were trees, and Kurt and Dessie in a forest. The two men held one another’s gaze, and then Crow had his big arms around both of them.
Even though the ferry was moored, heaved to, docked, Kurt stumbled once more when he was released.
He was being warned, see? All morning he was being warned. He was just too damn silly and trusting to see, too preoccupied to think properly.
There was none of this in the songs and media releases that later praised him.
PATTING PEOPLE’S SHOULDERS, shaking more hands, more than he might, Kurt made his unsteady way among the grins and fuss. A humble man, he was nevertheless proud of what they’d achieved and proud to play even a minor part. Hands patted and clung, and the comforting mesh of solidarity settled around him. He nodded, smiled, didn’t really listen to familiar talk of:
The years it has taken, the frustration…
The Elders lost along the way…
A firm hand on his shoulder. Kurt turned. Peter Herron, Chair of the Negotiation Team.
‘Well done, Kurt. Congratulations to us all. Thank you for being there, for your support.’ Characteristically, he gently pinched the tendon at Kurt’s neck and shoulder then moved on, white hair bobbing above the crowd.
The bubbling anecdotes, the laughter, the talk of how Tomorrow, at the Signing, We Will Remember those who died before they could see this Agreement reached. He should have been uplifted, but Kurt felt he was drowning.
He must have known something was wrong, even then. Felt it yet turned away. Was so focused on Treaty Signing, which – after so many years and with the dead pressing from behind – was just one ferry ride, one day away.
THE MOTORS RUMBLED. Ropes fell away from the wharf and were snatched by busy hands and coiled.
A limousine pulled up between the protestors and police. First to emerge? His nephew, AleX. Mentally, Kurt drew a little image on another TV screen – with captions: Dr X (Chair of the Government Original Negotiation Team) and Commissioner of Police Peter Dawson.
AleX had taken to wearing a thick red band around his skull. Shrugging a kangaroo skin cloak over his shoulders, he nodded curtly to the police commissioner and walked to the protestors. The police commissioner followed.
‘Who the real boss?’
‘Commissioner too polite.’
‘No didj at least. Not our instrument, I told him. Not our way.’
Kurt let such talk pass him by. He thought it gossipy and undignified, inappropriate to the context of the occasion and his people’s collective ambition. Was thinking of a cartoon he might draw: a hand reaching for a dagger.
The protestors were quiet. AleX might have been a prophet delivering messages, a god returned to acknowledge his flaws and agree that he has been away too long and wants only to make amends and restore himself in the eyes of his people. His reassured flock seemed ready to hand him whatever he needed.
Ferry motor rumbled, ropes were coiled. Only minutes had passed since AleX’s arrival.
Kurt leaned over the rail into the breeze and bright sunlight and looked into the water. The sun glittered there, and when he looked up the same sun shone upon the Original flag fluttering against the dark brick of the old woolshed and on the ferry.
‘We need him. Someone like him,’ said Kurt. Kurt often felt obliged to defend AleX. He didn’t necessarily always believe what he was saying, but he’d had a hand in bringing him up and remembered the wary and damaged boy who had first come to his home.
Crow joined them again, his long, glossy hair a mobile frame for his face. ‘You’re right. We haven’t had the resources to properly communicate Treaty to community. Doc knows this, he knows people, knows how to talk to them. Government tried to sabotage and weaken it last minute but he was onto them. We need all our people on board. Doc can do that.’
Dessie indicated the protestors. ‘We all want the same thing, just got a different way of going about it.’
‘Need to build our trust in one another.’
‘Yeah, that too.’
Dr X and the protestors were leaning into one another.
Dessie continued. ‘Yeah, we need him, but same time we know the only person Doc looks after is himself – trying to win for his biological family, not you who brought him up. And they already got land, farms, houses… Most of them already consultants. Set up ready to go, got the business lined up. Geordie (RIP) reckoned they used to stack meetings, send a carload through your house with hammers.’
Kurt knew, but he’d never had that trouble. Respect, see.
Crow spat into the ocean. ‘Mad, early days. Real violence, not just lateral shit.’
‘That’s his family, not him,’ Kurt said. ‘Long time ago now. Scuttlebutt, lot of what you hear.’
‘You can’t say he doesn’t know community but,’ said Dessie. ‘We gotta leave all the old feuds and jealousies behind. No future if poison and mistrust is all we share.’
No one spoke for a time.
‘He’s slick alright,’ said Dessie. ‘A salesman. Always performing.’
‘This mob’ – Crow indicated the crowd of protestors – ‘only know one way. Say No. Be angry. Knee-jerk reaction to any change, to any collaboration with government or authority. Only power they know. It’s the legacy of history, of trauma... We need to heal.’
‘You taking a public-speaking course or what?’
Dr X was striding towards the ferry gangway, which had again been extended to the wharf, presumably for him. He gestured, ‘Wait a moment.’ A few passengers had come to the railing.
Someone shouted, ‘C’mon Doc, jump aboard. Leave ’em. It’s done.’
Peter Herron had moved to the gangway. The crew helped him step from the boat and he and AleX briefly conferred before separating with much handshaking and shoulder-patting. Herron gave a further ‘thumbs up’ as he skipped back onto the ferry.
Once again the gangplank was folded aboard, once again the ropes were stowed. Over the roar of the motors and churning propellers as the ferry began to turn from the wharf, it was difficult to hear one another. Dr X held up one hand in farewell and the cameras followed him back to the protestors and into the centre of the little crowd. The police remaining at a distance.
Remembering the rumble of the ferry’s motor, the shrieking wind, the frantic and fluttering flags, Kurt would see himself standing among mannequins and statues, the life even then gone from family, friends, community. The words on the protestors’ placards – ‘Shame’, ‘Sell-Out’ – contradicted the now apparently celebratory cheers that rose from the protestors as the boat turned away from them, and soon the words on the posters and banners were shrinking, and so too the cheering.
White birds hung in the blue sky. There were bubbles at the prow, bubbles in the wake, bubbles in sparkling glasses and popping champagne bottles. Even surrounded by all that effervescence, Kurt Talker felt flat.
ONCE OUTSIDE THE harbour the ferry began to rise and fall with the swell. Passengers moved from the deck and crammed into the wide cabin. They stood or sat with legs and arms braced best they could, they stumbled and swayed with the boat’s passage. The din of conversation fell away. The champagne seemed flat and warm. People began to discreetly vomit into small plastic bags. They slumped and turned wan faces away from companions, eyes drawn to the TV screen, where the image of the newsreader was interspersed with shots of the protestors. The cabin’s large windows were opaque with spray and no one remained on the deck outside.
‘Weather trying to tell us something?’
‘Great spirit’s angry with us you mean?’
‘Telling us to go back.’
‘What? To that mob? We’ll be right soon enough.’
‘What we are doing is momentous.’
‘Even the ocean is excited…’
‘Not far now.’
‘Against the tide and swell of history…’
It was worth a toast, even with the many teetotallers among them, but with the rough sea, the rising scent of vomit – perhaps it would be best to wait...
The island, the signing, was only the first step. There will be time to pause, to celebrate and reflect. To toast success and remember Elders who did not live to see this day.
Elders on the boat that day said such things. Remember them. Remember that they too were fallible and human.
THE WIND TOSSED nonchalant gulls, and dolphins rolled a greeting at the bow or perhaps – as Kurt later came to believe – were attempting to herd the boat back to shore. He later drew variations of this idea: that animals are wiser than us, if we listen.
The wind tore the ocean’s surface, and the island was a vague though solid presence glimpsed through spray. Against the mist and spray-smeared window the TV screen was brighter than a slice of rainbow.
Kurt felt a hand on his arm.
On the screen a limousine and a number of police vehicles were pulling up before the protestors.
The President of UnUstralia emerged from the limousine. Cameras flashed.
Dr AleX, Director of the Original Land Council, shook hands with the President of UnUstralia. Hands clasped, the two men turned smiling faces to the camera and the little crowd behind them broke into cheers.
Then the police closed in on the protestors.
Static. The TV images broke up, and then there was just a grey screen. No background music. Voices died away, and in the relative silence everyone listened to the faint rumbling of motors, the thud of waves against the hull. The restless water, the shrieking wind.
The boat crested a wave, plummeted, crashed.
Then voices all at once, like birds bursting from trees.
Did you see…?
What was that?
I missed it.
Nah, don’t be stupid.
People poked, swiped, glared at their phones. Looked around at one another, tried to look to the horizon, perhaps because it represented some distance to which they might escape, but the rearing waves got in the way.
From the speakers, a voice:
Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking. I’m afraid we have what appears to be an electrical fault. As you may have noticed, it is interfering with both TV and phone reception. We are grateful for your patience and apologise for the inconvenience.
Nevertheless, everything else is working fine and we’ll have you safe and sound at Heartbreak Island in around fifteen minutes, only a fraction behind schedule. Soon we will celebrate with you the new relationship between UnUstralia and its Original people.
Meantime – at least for those of you not too troubled by seasickness – please collect a ticket from one of our stewards for a complimentary drink from the bar as our way of apology and also to celebrate Treaty!
Dessie tried to smile reassurance.
‘It’s nothing,’ said Crow.
Chairperson Herron joined them. ‘Let’s meet, soon as we disembark. Just the team.’ He assumed consent. ‘Bit rough just now, unna? Ceremony and signing be a few hours yet. Plenty of time before the formalities and we can all celebrate properly. One or two things to tidy up first.’
The ferry moved into the island’s wind shadow and the motor suddenly died. In the relative silence the passengers heard the lap of the sea against the hull and the repeated and fitful sound of the starter motor. There was little swell here, and the ocean was brushed and bristled in various directions by straying zephyrs. Then the anchor chain splashed and continued clanking for a short time. The ferry swung slowly around until it faced the island’s one ephemeral beach and tall jetty.
On the speakers:
Good day once again, ladies and gentlemen. It seems we are having one of those days! It seems the motor has given up on us. An electrical fault I’m told.
No need to worry, we’re all perfectly safe. We’re anchored and out of the swell – at last – and there’ll be boats arriving very soon to take us to shore.
The speaker paused, and the listeners heard an indistinct voice relaying a message:
The boats are on the way. May I remind you, ladies and gentlemen, of an old sea-going tradition that we’d like you to respect: women and children first.
Herron pointed to four boats leaving the shore and said: ‘Forget the old-salt rule – that’s whitefella stuff. You’re in charge now. Negotiation Team first – ladies and gentlemen – we’ll go together in the same boat.’
Someone said something about family.
‘Don’t worry, you’ll see them again in a few minutes. On shore.’
People were slumped all around the vessel, most clutching plastic bags against their chests. Now, the smell of vomit was everywhere.
Shepherded by Herron and squinting in the sunlight, the Negotiation Team moved to the boat. There was a ladder to deal with.
Low in the water, the boat turned and surged to shore.
THE MEETING ROOM seemed designed not to be noticed, and in this was successful – it was furnished for business only, comfortable and with only the blandest of artwork so as to prevent distraction.
The twenty or so men and women of the Negotiation Team took their seats, opened laptops, shuffled papers and grumpily glared and poked at their phones.
Still no service.
Herron tapped a spoon against his cup and brought the meeting to order. He nodded repeatedly as silence fell, then looked around the group without necessarily catching anyone’s eye.
‘Firstly, there’s men and women’s business to deal with. May I suggest that we separate for this update and then reconvene. Belinda, you said you’re happy to chair the women, yes? We’ll get back together in half an hour or so.’
Belinda nodded, rose to her feet and others moved with her, earnestly gathering laptops and cases. They were so quickly gone that papers were still eddying in the room as the door closed.
Herron looked at the papers on the desk before him for a long moment, something he often did to signal a meeting was about to formally begin. He lifted his gaze, then rose to his feet. ‘Secondly…’ He paused, looked up. ‘Secondly,’ he repeated, ‘there is a final submission from the government.’ He stepped to the door and opened it.
A number of men entered the room in single file. Big men. Young men. Many of Doc’s close family among them, Kurt realised. They gave no greeting. There were enough of them to occupy the entire perimeter of the room, their backs touching the walls. Herron and a couple of others slipped from the room. The door closed once more. Kurt looked to Dessie, who was rising from his chair.
Kurt felt a hand from behind clamp his shoulder as another man grabbed Dessie.
A flurry, which Kurt later relived many times. He remembered Dessie cursing, falling. Crow pushing a table across the room, flailing. Curses, yelps, the clicking of tasers.
A man each side of Kurt, a firm hand on each of his shoulders.
He felt a confused sense of relief, and shame.
KURT IN A room. Door closed. More prison than resort, the room had one high window. Kurt could not see outside. A shackle – like the one in the museum – was attached to the bathroom wall. A single bed. Small wardrobe. Desk. His briefcase seemed intact. Contents: exercise book, sharpener, his few pencils and pens. No knife. Phone, no service.
He looked to the upper corner of the room.
Kurt looks at the camera.
Kurt goes to the door in one wall, opens it. He turns his head, looks back at the camera.
Inside the bathroom. Again, he looks straight at the camera, at us. He returns to the room. Kurt goes to the main door. Tries to turn the handle. Slings his weight against the door.
There is no escape.
Kurt sits on the bed, points the remote control at a screen on the wall. He presses buttons on the remote. Nothing. Then the following text appears: