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Edition 18

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Fiction

Gulag

Selected for Best Australian Stories 2007

IN THE MORNING we woke and it was like all the mornings we'd imagined. The sun brushed the edges of the heavy, dark drapes of your bedroom and the air held us softly on the bed. I looked at you in the moments before you woke and I saw you then as I always wanted to see you, as I've always imagined you in my mind. The perfect you – asleep, and free.

Our clothes lay in a pile on the floor – a dirty collaboration of grey and black. The khaki hat that you bought me sat on the low bench underneath the window and as the sun came upon it, it looked proud. I felt the back of your hand rub my shoulder, and I knew that you were awake, but I waited a little longer, looking at the room. You let your finger run down my shoulder, across the long scar on my back and onto the tattoo on my arm, tracing its outline.

I turned to you, and saw you in the half-light, and we smiled. I remember we smiled like children.

There we were on that first day. After the work was over, and our bodies felt tired. But that didn't matter, because we were, after all this time, where we wanted to be.

It was like all the mornings we'd imagined. Exactly like it.

 

WE HELD HANDS as we walked together across the plaza in front of your building. The streets were smoky and the planes flew overhead from time to time. Explosions echoed from the distance, perhaps from the hills. There were rifle shots that sometimes seemed close to us and sometimes far away, but we were safe with each other. In the plaza the air was heartening; warm, but with an undertone of winter passed. It felt like soft hands upon us, holding us, pushing us forward.

We kissed on the corner of George and Ann Streets. Drunken soldiers sat on the stairs of an office building and they jeered at us good naturedly. I waved to them and you smiled and gave them a curtsy, which made them jeer louder and laugh and slap each other.

You turned and looked at me and I could see you felt something that couldn't be said. I knew what it was. I always knew what you were thinking. You reached up and opened a tear on the shoulder of my uniform. I took your hand in mine and looked at you.

We said goodbye, until that evening, back in your room. We both stopped then, because we could make those plans and they would be true plans and we would have a place to meet and be, and it would be the same place night after night. You laughed at me and told me to stop looking at you so. There was much to be done, you said, and I love you. You turned to walk down Ann Street, to the railway station, where the soldiers were coming in. You had your backpack over your shoulders and your head held high. And though it was stained, your uniform made you look magnificent. As the soldiers spied the bright red badge on the shoulder of your black shirt, they became quiet and looked down at their boots.

 

I FELT CERTAIN that I would see you in the evening. I would bring home bread wrapped in a newspaper, and you would have found some fruit, perhaps a pear. We would eat and listen to the radio and kiss and fall into your bed. And I would get up and draw the heavy drapes before I undressed.

I heard the noise of the crowds coming up from King George Square, and the burbling of a loudspeaker. There were speeches, punctuated by cheers from the crowd. It was early, but the speeches would last all day and into the night.

I continued on past Queen Street, where hundreds of people pressed in from the Victoria Bridge. I jostled with them as I tried to get across the mall. Some were dancing and drinking. An old man had an accordion out on the steps of a building and I smiled and wondered how long all this would go on for.

As I crossed the street, I was caught in the swirl of the crowd and became lost for a minute, until a guard came over from where he'd been standing and led me out by the arm. I thanked him, but he returned to his place against the wall, saying nothing. I could see from his eyes how life would be for him now. Too many were affected this way.

A group of soldiers had broken into a pub on George Street and were handing out bottles of beer to all who passed by from cartons stacked on the sidewalk – it was the day for this sort of thing – everything was acceptable.

 

A FEW HUNDRED metres from Old Parliament House, the guards had placed a roadblock and were checking papers. I dug into my pocket and showed them my card and my orders and they let me pass. Beyond the roadblock, the streets were quieter, industrious. Some of the rubble had been cleared from the road and men and women bustled along the street, stepping into doorways and office buildings. Soldiers and black-shirted guards stood on every corner and in every doorway. Suddenly I had the feeling that there were things of consequence yet to do. What a feeling. To be there at that time and to have believed in it all.

Our offices were in an old building beside the square. I saw Connor as he walked up Alice Street and went to him. We hugged and smiled. I hadn't seen him in six months. Then suddenly there was Hughes and Boyle, and even Luxford had come, though he leaned heavily on a stick. We stood in a group and smoked our cigarettes on the footpath and told our stories. We were dishevelled, unkempt, rough, but we were happy to be alive. If someone had told us all even a month before that we would be here we would have marvelled, I'm sure, like a child marvels at the sun.

An old truck pulled up on the corner and unloaded some of the accused. More accused were standing in lines in the square. A perimeter of guards paraded the edges, walking up and down the lines, pushing and hitting. We all tried not to look. Luxford told a joke, and I laughed nervously. Then a guard came and told us that it was safe to enter the building.

Do you remember, in the early days, when we would all meet in wooden lounge rooms dotted around the city? Of course you do. Someone would put music on, and there would be wine and dancing. Or we'd sit around a kitchen table, a small group of us, and lean in and look deep into each other's eyes as weespoused.

I remember we met that night at O'Neill's place in St Lucia. We'd all come back from a march where we'd taken on the police and everyone was happy but exhausted. You were new. You'd come with that dullard Jaco (he was shot quite early on, wasn't he?). I knew that I had to get you away from him, if only for your own good. Jaco was aiding O'Neill in boring people in a corner with some speech or other. Someone had taken their shirt off and was dancing in the middle of the room with a beer bottle balancing on their forehead. I don't know from where I received the courage (I had not been drinking) but I crossed the room to the small group and took your hand and led you onto the front veranda. There was something about your hair, about the way your eyes looked strong. You told me for the first time in your life you felt alive, really alive and I believed you.

There was much talk in those days about who should go and who should stay. We'd make a game of who we'd send away: this politician, this lackey, this union leader, this celebrity. 'To the gulag!' we'd say, drunk, and point outwards, beyond the room we occupied, to somewhere out there, to our imaginary gulag. We didn't know what a gulag was. For us it was a way of saying 'rubbish bin' or 'place of no return' or 'place where we don't have to think about you anymore' or 'place of the righteously punished'. It felt like a weapon in our arsenal.

 

EVERYTHING ON THAT first day was makeshift except our anger; that was solid, well practised and refreshed. There was some uncertainty about procedural matters and an amount of chaos: overcrowding; people being sent to the wrong tribunals; paperwork. There was tonnes of paperwork. Where had it all come from? And we, in our torn uniforms, hardly looked the part.

I was assigned as sub-commissioner on one of the smaller tribunals. The commissioner was Hallewell. We were placed in a small room on the fourth floor. We sat behind tables facing the accused, who sat on a chair in the centre of the room. Clerks filed in and out of the room all day, with papers, files and photographs. There was a projection screen behind us where slides and film could be shown.

From inside the tribunal room we could hear the rifle shots clearly. At that time they performed the shootings by the river bank, so the bodies would float away downstream on the tide out to sea. Later, they stopped when they found the bodies getting caught in the mangroves around Kangaroo Point and New Farm. They started using cattle trucks and ditches on the outskirts of the city soon after.

The main trials were downstairs in the Great Hall; the big cases – the decadent politicians and generals. Ourtransgressors had less profile, but were no less dangerous.

The procedure was always the same. Guards would drag the accused in and sit them down. The tribunal clerk would pass us the file and we would review the evidence, as it was. The intelligence officer would make his case. There was not much in the way of deliberation. We weren't great legal minds, that was true. I remember it was my job to stamp the verdict papers with the seal of the commission. Hallewell would make a little speech. The accused would be led away, and the next case brought in.

I don't remember many of the cases of that day. The faces have blurred with the hundreds that followed in the weeks and months afterwards. I do remember one fellow, however. His name was Strange. Believe it or not, he was a few years ahead of me at school. The guards brought him in and sat him on the chair. He was thin, with glasses and a fresh cut on his forehead; a dirty bandage wrapped around his foot. I'm not sure he recognised me.

He was a writer, a minor intellectual who'd come out against us. The evidence was clear, undeniable. As the intelligence officer made his case, I looked up from my papers to find Strange staring at me. His eyes didn't move. Rivulets of spittle hung off his shabby beard. His eyes were dark behind his glasses.

Hallewell began his little speech: 'Your life is over. You shall never be free again. You are condemned to die. The only point of contention is whether it is now, or later. Later, we think, will be harder. So, the sooner the better, would you agree?'

'So I shall be shot,' Strange said without emotion.

With this Hallewell gave a wistful smile and gestured to the guards and they led Strange away. I brought the stamp down on his papers.

Later that day I snuck down to see O'Neill being convicted. Hughes came up to me while I smoked in the courtyard. He'd heard that they were building a gulag on the edge of the desert, near the coal mines and gas fields. When they cleared out the hills, they would send the enemy combatants there. 'Good,' I said.

That evening I came back to you. You were asleep on the chair in the living room, but you stirred as soon as I entered. The radio was on. I had only managed to get half a loaf of bread, but you had brought home a bowl of tomatoes and two apples. And from your backpack you produced half a bottle of gin, a packet of cigarettes and some chocolate. The soldiers, you said, are good and generous.

I came over and we kissed. We ate and drank and went to bed. You stood behind me and unbuttoned my torn shirt and I felt your hand run smooth down my back. And as I drew the heavy drapes across your window, I looked out across the city and in the darkness it was like a quiet world, filled with silence and unspoken promise.


From Griffith Review Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review