Let The Stars Keep On Turning
Sydney, January 2064
Jack is pulled along in a surge of people on the footpath, hand in hand with his father, intermittently trotting, running and leaping to keep up. Pitt Street runs through the heart of Sydney's CBD, on a slight downhill slope to Circular Quay and the grand blue harbour. Big old buildings line the street, their glass windows reflecting blue sky and sun glare. At street level their windows are tinted dark behind thick metal bars. The footpaths are a mass of men surging toward the quay. The January sun shines hot and white and the street smells of sweat, smoke and gas. It's mid morning but the temperature is already high. Jack struggles to keep a sweaty grip on his red leather cricket ball in one hand while his father fairly crushes his other hand to keep him from falling behind and into the throng.
As they near the quay Jack bounces along in a sea of baggy shorts, bare legs and stamping feet. Somewhere close a man curses. A police siren wails and a muffled voice over a loudspeaker urges the crowd to back off. They spill onto the street and the crowd entirely fills it in seconds. Buses halt and passengers press their faces to the windows to try and see the commotion.
Jack's father hoists him above the crowd. He juggles the red ball but grabs it with both hands and clutches it to his chest as he settles on his father's shoulders. Above the crowd Jack can hear the voices of men growing louder and more urgent. The mob has gathered in front of a hire wire fence. Uniformed guards patrol the other side of the fence, their faces shadowed under blue baseball caps. Beyond them a great ship sits steadily against the wharf of the passenger terminal. Jack squints against the hard sun and sees the shimmer of blue water in the harbour. Beyond the ship is the high arc of the Harbour Bridge and to the east the graceful white sails of the Opera House. The ship is white and navy blue and the ropes holding it to the wharf looked as thick as the tree branches that held up Jack's treehouse. The front of the ship looked as tall as a building and the length of the hull was dotted with little round windows.
A glass bottle sails over the wire fence, past a guard and crashes harmlessly on the forecourt. The crowd cheer at the sound of it and a chant starts up near the fence. The crowd picks it up and soon hundreds of voices shout in unison;
No American cons!
No American cons!
No American cons!
On the wharf near the ship, Jack can see movement. There is a platform on the wharf and men with cameras and bright lights scramble about. Other men, and some women, are dressed in suits, grinning widely and shaking hands. One of them, a silver haired man with a red tie steps up to a microphone, raises his arms and looks very pleased. Jack wondered if maybe the ship was his.
"Bloody bastard," his father said to no one but loud enough for Jack to hear. "Can't believe I voted for him."
From the deck of the ship a gangway tilts down to the dock. A long line of people move along it, across the wharf, behind the platform with all the happy people, and on toward the broken bottle on the forecourt in front of them. All around the quay the crowd press up against the wire fence. Thousands of them now. People yell and spit. More bottles, fruit and rocks fly over the fence.
The shuffling line of people come closer. Brown faces, black faces, white faces. All bony with dark rings under big white eyeballs. Jack thinks they look like the sea mullet he and his father catch in the river. They would flap hard in the boat, twisting against the hook in their mouth. Their eyes clear and round and kind of surprised to be suddenly out of the water and dropped head-first into a plastic bucket.
Closer now, the people in the line look dirty, like they had been playing with ash from a fireplace. Some hold tightly to small bags and parcels. Most have nothing in their hands at all. They are all different sizes - tall, short, wide, thin. Jack looks for some kids but sees none. One woman nurses a baby in her arms, wrapped in a stained blanket.
Jack sniffs at the air and the convicts smell like wet towels that have stayed too long in a pile on the floor.
Policemen in blue uniforms, guns slung over shoulders walk beside the line with one eye on the new arrivals and the other on the crowd behind the fence.
From the crowd a shirtless man with wild long hair jumps up on the fence and a security guard swipes at him with a baton. Further along the fence two more men launch at the fence and security run at them and bang at the wire. The crowd cry out and Jack holds tightly to his father.
"Hold on mate" his father says. "I think it's time to go".
More men jump on the fence and as security move to knock them down, others take their place. The crowd surges forward and Jack's father turns to push against them. Jack's ears fill with the angry shouts and curses of the baying mob and he almost loses his grip on his father.
"Piggyback Jack" his father yells. Jack slides down off his shoulders and grips tightly around his neck. His father pushes through the crowd and Jack is squeezed and jolted from all sides. He loses a shoe in the crush.
A gunshot cracks behind them and the crowd roars with outrage.
As his father pushes his way up Pitt Street like a man losing a battle with a flooded river, Jack gives up his grip on the cricket ball, holds onto his father with both hands and buries his face in the old man's neck.
Hacking (south of Sydney), January 2104.
Jack walked down the road, leaning back against the steep downward slope. He rounded a switchback and looked out over the valley below. The river was covered with a light morning mist already dispersing in the dawn light. White cockatoos wheeled above the ridge lines, seeking a vantage point in the high branches of the eucalyptus trees. The hills remained heavily wooded, blessedly, and down on the flats the grassy banks had given way to veggies, herbs and fruits. Smoke from the pickers camp fires hung blue in the valley. Jack hoped they douse them properly when their coffee and porridge were done – it was going to be another scorching day. A currawong sang its slightly mournful trill and it stirred something in him to pick up his pace and get into the day.
Jack crossed the river, more a wide creek in these upper reaches, over a weir. Dark blue swamp hens fussed about in the reeds on the fresh water side and mullet schooled up on the sandy bottom of the salt water side. Further downriver Bluey stood is his little dinghy with some lines out. The sky turned pastel blue and ahead five or six of his pickers entered the farm gates.
Jack followed then into the yard. Old demountable buildings lined the loading area. Squat metal containers fitted out with tables, chairs, lockers, running water. Some were hooked up to the solar generator in the back. His workers got about their morning routines. In the toilet block, Jack ran some water into a basin and washed his hands. The face in the mirror was deeply tanned and lined and he reckoned he looked older at forty five than his father did at sixty. Funny, looking into his own eyes he can still see that young fella with the world at his feet. But the callouses on his hands, silver stubble on his chin and receding sun bleached hair betray the years of work, weather and worry. He walked back into the yard.
"Mornin' Jack," a boy chirped bouncing up alongside him. Jack felt the little quiver in his gut every time the kid spoke. He was a couple years younger than his own boy, but about the same age as his son the last time Jack saw him. The skinny arms, matted light hair, sunburned shoulders. The quiver threatened to turn into an ache.
"Mornin' Kanga. You ready for some real work?"
"Yeah," Kanga managed to squeeze two syllables and an octave change into his reply.
Jack chuckled "Alright. We start with the corn, see what we can pick today. What time is school?"
"Ok, we've got a couple of hours. Let's get our gear."
The heads of a pair of swamp wallabies bobbed up above the high grass by the river bank. Their ears up, heads swiveling slightly, both sniffing at the breeze. Jack saw they were upwind of him and stopped. He held out his arm, palm turned back toward Kanga. The boy was swaying along the narrow path, chewing a bean pod. He took a couple of steps before seeing Jack's signal and froze a couple of metres behind.
Jack watched the wallabies and tracked their gaze to a knot of trees and privet beyond the pumpkin field. The wallabies were usually calm around Jack and the pickers on the farm. They were regarded as quasi-pets and by unanimous agreement were off the menu. Their alertness could mean they had seen wild dogs. Jack hadn't see a pack in months, but recent reports of mangled deer carcasses out in the bush were evidence they were still about.
The dogs were mongrel blends, plenty of Pit Bull, Alsatian and Rottweiler and bits and pieces of almost everything else. The dogs took up residence in the old National Park more than 50 years ago and despite local hunters shooting them on sight, some packs survived still. They had killed some people over the years. They ranged in coastal health, along the sandstone cliffs, down into valleys of dense fern and palms, along the rocky creeks to sandy beaches. As suburbia encroached into the old Park, kids were attacked, a pair of twins famously mauled to death, livestock regularly killed. When hunting teams started going after feral deer in the old Park the wild dog population was reduced through opportunistic kills.
Jack could see movement in among the tangle of green-grey trunks, leaves, branches and undergrowth. Shifting shadows, a bend in a branch, a murmur in the leaves. Dragonflies hovered over the river, the water beneath them flowing gently in spirals and eddies. Bees bobbed into dew dampened pumpkin flowers. The swamp wallabies relaxed back onto their tails, took another look at the bush and bowed their heads to pull at the reeds along the water’s edge.
"Dogs?" asked Kanga.
"Nah mate. Nothing." Jack watched the bush for a minute more before continuing on his rounds.
"People are sayin’ Hank Weller wants to take your head off." Kanga was probing him again. Jack pulled out some corn stalks that had been attacked by earworm.
"People like to talk."
"You gonna face him?" Kanga bundled up the stalks from the ground and dumped them in a wheelbarrow.
"Don't think so champ. Young Hank is too scary for me"
"You're scared of him? People say you was the business twenty year ago."
Jack smiled but felt a twitch in his face. He was faking it. The 'people sayin' were doing it a lot lately and didn't mind him hearing it. He could easily have taken on a wild flinger like Hank Weller in his prime, but now the sharpness was gone, the spring is his feet, the strength in his forearms. A man could get hurt. And a man is Jack's position couldn't afford to get hurt.
The day was heating up quickly. Jack's shirt clung to his skin and sweat stung his eyes. The pickers were hard at it, trying to get their work done before the sun was high in the sky. He had to get moving.
"Hey, you going to school kid?"
Kanga made a face like he'd sucked a lemon. He needed tuition, no doubt about it. His vocabulary was stunted and Jack was pretty sure the kid couldn't read a word. Still, a day like today. The teachers would spend most of it spritzing the kids’ faces with water and giving them turns under the one ceiling fan in the room.
"Alright, you can come with me."
Kanga yelped with glee and danced about on the spot.
The bitumen road out to Bluey's Cove was buckled and splintered. Jack and Kanga kept to the gravel on the shoulder. On their right was the unruly bushland of the old Park. Sturdy banksias rising out of thick undergrowth. Wrens darted in and out of the dense foliage and small lizards baked in the sun.
On their left, they passed entry roads to residential estates, their names etched in tall sandstone blocks still visible through high grass and weeds - "Water’s Edge", "Oasis", "Eagle’s Nest".
Jack still marveled at the achievement. One of the oldest National Parks in the world, de-listed and handed to developers over one Christmas season. The bulldozers rolled over hastily constructed barricades in the early hours of New Year’s Day. A combination of corporate efficiency, government money and convict labour erected the new suburbs in months. The first residents moved in mid-year.
The homes were at the cutting edge of self sufficiency - solar panels, rainwater tanks, composting toilets, built in veggie plots, a community garden on every street, a fruit orchard in every estate. The developers pushed the self sufficiency angle so hard they didn't bother to run mains power or even sewer lines. The new suburbs filled with tens of thousands of new residents within a couple of years, seeking to be the pioneers of the 'new suburbia'.
As newly emancipated convicts filled the suburbs closer to the City the locals shifted to the fringes, to estates like these. The new suburbs were supposed to reclaim the Aussie dream. A bulwark against the rolling tide of change. They chased the freedom of space. A backyard for the kids. Chickens in the coup. Games of cricket and footy in the park. Lazy summer afternoons on the veranda.
Jack remembered the optimism well. He and his young family lived nearby and while he didn't buy in the new estates he was close enough to be swept up in the euphoria. At the time, it was a welcome shift in preoccupation. Worries evaporated and hope sprung forth. It was intoxicating. It felt like childhood as new horizons came into sight, undreamed opportunity opened up and beckoned. The world was fresh and new and young again. As the estates sprung to life, there was talk of the convict trade ending. Someone in Washington had a change of heart, as the push for depopulation shifted to re-population. The darkness was ending. Dawn had finally arrived.
Jack shook his head at the memory. He and Kanga picked their way along the road, avoiding chunks of upturned bitumen and keeping an eye out for snakes.
"Jack?" Kanga turned his name into a note from a slide whistle
"Do you think my mum will come looking for me one day?" Jack ached for the kid. Kanga would never ask about his past until they were out on their own somewhere. He wouldn't risk betraying the story they had set up for him.
"She might Kanga. I'd want to come back for you." The kid contemplated that for a while.
"Have you heard back from the guv'ment about where she is?"
"No mate, I haven't heard anything yet."
"Do you reckon she ended up in a coal mine?"
"I doubt it. Maybe in a camp for the miners somewhere but they don't send women into the mines."
"Do you think she's been freed yet?"
Jack swallowed. It was a good question and he didn't have the courage to level with the kid. Most of the convicts were emancipated when Washington scrapped transportation. The worst of them were categorized as a "danger to society" on some charge or another and kept in the mines. But Kanga's mother was not likely to be one of them. She should have been free by now. But no word from her. Jack feared she had perished. He remembered well how much she loved the kid. When she handed Kanga to him through the wire of the prison camp, Jack witnessed raw, selfless love. The memory still brought tears, every time.
"I don't think she has buddy. Soon I hope. Soon."
“Do you think about your son?”
Jack kicked some pebbles. Damn, should have taken the kid to school. He swallowed away the lump in his throat. “Yeah, sure I do.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“In one of the high rises in the City. With his mum. At school today I would guess.”
Kanga kicked some pebbles along. “Is it true they have elevators in the high rises?”
“So I’ve heard Kanga. Some of those buildings are too high to take the stairs.”
“Have you ever been in there? Past the Fence?”
“Not since they built the Fence, no. My dad would take me into the City before that though. It was a beautiful place in its day”.
Kanga looked up at him “It’s not beautiful anymore?”
“Not for us.”
They continued along the road for a while then turned onto a dirt track that dropped down into a valley and lead to Bluey's Cove.
When they emerged from the cool of the shaded track the sun enveloped them with physical force. Kanga swayed backward and Jack dipped his wide brimmed hat to shield his eyes from the white glare. The little sandy beach in front of them radiated the heat back up into his face.
Halfway down the beach Bluey bent over into his dinghy, his bum crack poking out above his shorts. Jack and Kanga stepped onto the beach and dried pipi shells crunched underfoot. Bluey turned around and his sunburned face broke into a toothy smile.
"G'day boys," Bluey called, his large belly jiggled about.
"Hi Mister Bluey, " Kanga called back. Bluey reached in to the dinghy and pulled out a ball of tangled fishing line.
"Here you go Kanga. See if you can make some sense of this." Kanga beamed, took the ball of line and climbed into the dinghy to get to work on unwinding it.
Jack and Bluey hauled some rods and nets off the beach and sat under a tree on the edge of the sand.
"How did you go today?" Jack asked, stretching his legs out in the shade.
"Got a bagfull of mullet. I've got them smoking, they'll be ready tonight," Bluey nodded to the end of the beach where white smoke crept out of a clay hut. "Got some fresh whiting for you to take now though. You going to market?"
"Yeah, I'll get up there today. Got some corn to shift, cucumber, melons. It's worth the trip."
"Any word on grain deliveries?"
"They're coming back on. The strike is over. Just in time too, people were getting agitated. I can bring some flour down tomorrow if you need it."
"No worries mate, still got half a bag left. You sort out your pickers first. I'll get some next week."
Jack smiled and tracked his finger through the gritty sand. No worries. Bluey held on to the old words like a man overboard clinging to a life ring. Nobody said "no worries" anymore. It went out of fashion decades ago when the mountain of worries became too big to ignore. But not Bluey. The old Australia was not for resurrecting. It lived on. All it needed were keepers of the flame. Blokes like Bluey calling out "g'day" and "no worries".
Over the smoking hut an old flag hung limp from a short pole. Jack could see the red of the union jack and the white of one of the stars. Bluey would talk all day and night of a country that existed only before he was born. He would retell stories told to him by his father and grandfather. Of heroic deeds on the battlefields of Western Australia; impassioned speeches in Parliament before the first shiploads of convicts arrived; epic matches between Australia and England on the Sydney Cricket Ground before that sacred turf was finally turned over to baseball.
"I hear Hank Weller has called you out," Bluey was grinning mischievously.
"What about it?"
"People on the other side of the river are saying you are dodging him."
Jack straightened "Dodging him? How am I dodging him? I haven't said a word".
He startled himself with the anger in his voice. Bluey laughed. Jack slapped his hand into the sand. Ok, so he cared. It had been years; but he still cared.
"How do you know what they are sayin’ on the other side of the river anyway?" Jack asked
"I've got me sources." They sat in silence for a while.
"You know, it would mean a lot," Bluey nodded in the direction of the farm and communities beyond "It would mean a lot to our mob."
Jack drew more tracks in the sand. Kept his head down, didn't like where this was going.
"It would break the drudgery, give people something to focus on"
"Geez, ease up Bluey. I'm not a rainmaker."
"It would be like a good rain, you know. Seeing you out there swingin' again. Give people something to be proud of, lining up against Hank's mob."
"But is it worth reopening those old wounds Blue," Jack could hear the pleading in his own voice. "We left those old battles behind years ago."
"Those battles are over Jack. Transportation is over. The Americans that are here now, that's all there are going to be. They are Aussie now. Look at Kanga over there. It doesn't take much to localize 'em. One generation at the most. That mob over the river, they are looking to the City for salvation. They work inside the Fence during the day and dream about living inside the Fence when they go to bed. They guard the fence, they work at the checkpoints. They unload the trains, they load up the ships. They support the centre. But they hate us. We hate them. And that is just the way the City want it. Divide and conquer. They pit all us against each other so there is no unified front to take on the City itself. This isn't about opening old wounds. It's about bringing the mobs together. Ours and there’s."
"Blue, do you really believe one event like this will bring us together? After all these years? You're dreaming."
"No Jack, not one event. But it's a start. A small start. We need to build a wave, but it starts with a ripple."
Christ, in this mood the man was poetic. Jack could feel the blood chugging in his head.
"I don't have it anymore. I'm forty five for god's sake. It's alright for Hank Weller to be calling me out, he’s got twenty five years on me."
"He's calling you out because you've got the name. You represented. You were big time."
"He probably will take my head off. And for what?"
Bluey eyed him, all mirth set aside. "For all our sakes. We need unity. The convict trade might be finished but the City still holds all the power. If we don't balance the scales we will end up like all those people who didn't push back in Europe. In Japan. In America. Bringing our mob and there mob together is worth it."
Jack looked across the beach to Kanga sitting in the dinghy, singing to himself.
Jack stood still in the middle of the field, his cap pulled low to shield his eyes from a high hot sun. The grass all around was straw coloured and crunchy underfoot. Jack tightened his glove straps and waited.
The people had come. Bluey was right about that. Maybe a couple of thousand. A general murmur of voices drifted across the field. Kanga was out there somewhere.
A hot westerly was blowing, leaving him parched and panting. Jack’s legs shook a little.
Thirty meters away Hank Weller was scratching at the ground with his studded boots, doing a pretty fair impression of a bull getting ready to charge. The kid was big, with wide shoulders and barrel chest. He was staring at Jack, giving him the full evil eye. Jack chewed some gum and surveyed the crowd.
The two mobs were keeping clear of each other. There were plenty of young people on both sides. He recognized most of the locals in wide brimmed hats, cotton shirts and short shorts. The other mob wore caps, black sleeveless tops and baggy shorts. The locals smoked spliffs, the others drank from bottles.
Hank was ready to run in. Jack pushed each hand deeper into its glove. The crowd murmur turned to excited chatter and Hank took his first steps forward. Jack took his stance and watched Hank jog with head down, bending forward at the hips. The kid’s hair was long and waved behind him as he ran. The crowd noise picked up and people called out. Hank was bounding in now. Jack stood dead still, watching Hank's right hand. The westerly blew in Jack's face, his throat dry. He felt a great tingle from his toes to his head and his mouth cracked into a small smile.