‘The Happy Land’ – The Life and Times of John Winston Coward – Part 11 – The Unveiling of the Scotch Thistle
THE HAPPY LAND: Part 11
Was John Howard's Australia the place admirers like Tony Abbott promote? 'The Happy Land' is Graham Jackson's satirical alternative reality. This challenging work, illustrated by Gee, consists of thirteen Papers written by the major players in a dark period in Australia's short history. In this paper, John Winston Coward records being recognised by the local council in his Wimmera hometown.
The Life and Times of John Winston Coward
The Prime Minister who pushed Children Overboard in His Pursuit of Electoral Victory: A Reconstruction
1: ‘His Scottish Ancestors’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
2: ‘His Love of Cricket’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
3:‘My Mum and Dad’ – John Winston Coward
4: ‘The Happy Land’ – Extracts from an Interview with ‘Opening Batsman’
5: ‘The Coming of the Iraqis, Afghans and Fins’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
6: ‘The Martyrdom of Minister Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
7: ‘My Dream’ – a Transcript of ‘Sea Captain’s’ Evidence before a Select Committee
8: ‘An Address to the Australian People’ – John Winston Coward
9: ‘Ruddock Replaces Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
10: ‘His Favourite Sayings’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
11: ‘The Unveiling of the Scottish Thistle’ – John Winston Coward
12: ‘The Death of a Conservative Leader’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
13: ‘Postscript’ – ‘Wicketkeeper’
Paper 11: ‘The Unveiling of the Scotch Thistle’ – John Winston Coward
I returned to the Wimmera, my birthplace, to receive its accolades. Dad was dead, but Mum was still alive and living in town. Their farm had long since been blown away in a northerly wind, but although the house was standing I hadn’t seen it for years. My children and wife had never shown an interest. They were city born and bred.
Nevertheless I was curious, since I had travelled so far, to take one last look at the place where my brothers and sisters had given me the incentive to escape our emotional father, to go out in the world and succeed. Was there anything left of him, apart from his grave?
We stopped briefly at the hillside cemetery on our way in to town. The gate was overgrown with weeds and had to be forced open before we could look around for the grave. Despite Dad’s prominence in the district, his memorial was modest. My daughter stumbled on it when my bodyguard, a man known as the Abbot, was startled by the sudden movement of a goanna and shot it between the eyes. She rushed over to retrieve the reptile’s body and fell on her grandfather’s grave. The goanna lay beside it.
“She gets upset too easily,” I remarked to my wife.
I was beginning to feel irritated. The stopover at the cemetery, two or three miles short of the township, had been a mistake. I should have listened to the Abbot’s advice.
At that moment, another shot rang out and a crow fell out of a gumtree. Small bits of leaf and bark fluttered down after it. I’d never liked crows. There was a loneliness in their cry that left me feeling empty.
“If you see another one,” I instructed the Abbot, “let me have a crack at it.”
My wife smiled, but our daughter rushed off to the dying bird.
“Do something!” she cried. “Poor thing!”
My bodyguard shot the crow between the eyes. It disintegrated, saving our daughter the trouble of a second burial. Black feathers floated away on the Wimmera wind.
It was late in the year. Beyond the cemetery fence, paddocks of golden wheat shimmered in the sun. The graves were on the only visible elevation. Barely more than a slight rise in the ground, in time the droppings of mice might make something of it, as the droppings of birds had put Nauru on the map.
“Good site for a detention centre,” the Abbot observed.
I nodded, although the housing of illegal immigrants had recently become less urgent. Australia had always been the most enviable country on earth. From the dawn of time, from my Scottish ancestors down, foreigners had attempted to make landings on its shores. But in the years of my government, they were a serious menace. Only the sternest measures, for which I was being honoured that day, had got the situation in hand.
“You could build a watchtower here.”
My bodyguard had a keen pair of eyes. Serve my father right if he had a sentry posted on top of his skull. As monuments go, it had a lot to recommend it.
“Make a note,” I told him. “I’ll follow it up.”
My son, as impatient as ever, stood over me.
“When are we moving out?” he demanded. “Is this the end of the earth, or what?”
I placed a restraining hand on the Abbot, who was reaching for his weapon.
“He wanted to stay home,” I explained. “I can’t say I blame him.”
Leaving my father to care for the souls of goanna and crow, we left the cemetery and moved on towards town. We were accompanied by two or three curious onlookers — farmers with time on their hands, waiting for the wheat crop to ripen. On the outskirts of town, they were joined by one or two more, so we pulled up outside the Commercial Hotel as a procession. There might even have been one or two horses. We were far west in the Wimmera, close to the desert.
My son sniffed the air.
“What’s the stink?”
“Mice,” I told him.
He looked at me questioningly.
“They have plagues of them here,” I explained. “Like illegal immigrants.”
“You ought to do something about it.”
I used to, once. The image of a corrugated iron bunker invaded my mind — of a boy defying God. So much for the omnipotence of the Almighty. Here in the Wimmera, my people were raising statues to me, their leader! Yet I found I had become curious about those forgotten days. When the moment was right, I had a word to my personal chauffeur and borrowed his cap. The Abbot needed more convincing, but once he realised there was no nearby ocean in which I could sink, he let me drive off alone. My family stayed in the hotel to get ready for the ceremony.
The old farm was a few minutes north and west of the township, on the desert side, where the northerlies rose and gathered heat from fierce reflections off sand and stone. This had been a good year, however. In such a year, my father would have made little war dances around the house, whooping his delight. My brothers would have joined him. Sons of the soil! Bastards! For a long time I loathed them, before denying myself the pleasure of such useless negativity. They were worthless creatures best left to their oblivion in history, where my own achievements would receive their reward.
The road out of town was narrow, but sealed and straight, arrowing through the wheat. On either side of the bitumen, almost up to its crumbling edges, mallee scrub bordered the fenced paddocks. Here and there the shining bronzed trunk of a tree rose out of the foliage and obscured the view of the sea of grain waving away to the horizon. On such a sea no immigrant ship – legal or otherwise – had ever been allowed to float. This was God’s country; or had been, before the advent of a conservative Prime minister made it his own.
Red sandy tracks branched off the road to the homesteads hidden in the dunes of wheat. In a bad season, they were oases in the parched paddocks, their dusty green trees sustained by the dwindling water in nearby dams. The position of a dam might be marked by a windmill, creaking in a northerly.
The desert had stolen in on the old farm. The windmill pumped sand and dust. Not even the rains of a good season had been able to save the abandoned acres. They stretched away from the house, its broken windows and doors, wasted and barren.
“So, it came to this,” I murmured.
“Yes, John Winston,” my father replied.
I drove the limousine off the road and along the eroded track to the house. Mice squeaked under the tyres, seeking shade. Their guts churned with the red sand, into which their blood soaked invisibly. Through the tinted windscreen the colours were dark and dead.
Outside, they came to life. And so did the smells, with a characteristic fragrance. The bodies of the mice had become instantly dry and hard in the heat, tiny hides shifting in the wind blowing over the ripples of sand on the track. In front of me, the old house was only just standing. Its wooden fence had long gone, rotted, eaten by white ants or burnt by a swagman.
“Not what it used to be,” my father mourned.
“Silly old bastard. Why did you bother?”
“To raise you, John Winston.”
To raise me in Wimmera dust, in barren paddocks and mice plagues.
“You’ve reached such heights,” he continued.
“Go back to the cemetery where you belong…”
“I didn’t imagine you’d rise so high…”
His voice trailed away in the sigh of the wind, but returned from another direction.
“Have you seen your memorial in town?”
“You’ll be pleased.”
The stink of the farm was less pleasing. Where was it coming from? Walking through the open front door, I sniffed into the gloom, and the smell seemed to lose some of its pungency. I looked around curiously. In what had been the room we called best, dusty cobwebs hung from the ceiling like curtains. There was no other furnishing. As my eyes adjusted, I could make out a nest in the fireplace, of animal or bird — but not of mice or rat. Light filtered through the room’s single window, the only unbroken glass in the house. I could remember Dad nailing and puttying a new pane after the old one was smashed by a cricket ball.
“And now we see through a glass, darkly,” he intoned.
My brothers sniggered.
“And yet face to face,” I completed.
I cleaned my glasses and squinted through the dirty window, but could see no more than the hazy line of the horizon. Turning back into the room, the peak of my chauffeur’s cap caught in the cobwebs and I had to take it off. I was conscious of how I must have appeared, had there been anyone there to observe me.
“Like a man of the People,” my father laughed.
“Are you still there?”
“It’s true, cap or no cap, my People see me as they want to see themselves…”
“You’ve become a cynic…”
“I was always a realist.”
But it brought me no closer to the source of the stench. It seemed to come in waves, blown through the door. I went outside. Already the limousine was coated in dust, as if the desert were trying to reclaim it. Mice panted in its shade. A scurrying line of the rodents, each seeming fearful of the one behind, made its way from the back of the house. I followed the trail round, noticing for the first time how the darkness under the house – glimpsed through the dead weeds bordering the stumps – was alive with mice, each struggling to maintain its place in the shade.
The trail led down to the remains of the bag shed, where I found the sheet of corrugated iron that once covered my bunker. The mice were issuing from its depths. Annoyed by their invasion of my realm, I strode towards the entrance, kicking the horrors out of the way. One or two I ground under my heel, feeling the crunch of their bones between leather and bare, baked earth. The stench grew stronger as I approached the hole and I held my handkerchief to my nose and mouth. With my free hand, I picked up a rusted star picket and speared it down on the darting mice. There were so many, I could hardly miss, and my trouser cuffs became spotted with blood and fur. At the entrance to the bunker, I stamped and speared in a frenzy of anger, fighting back the invading, pestilential horde. Illegal bastards! But spewing from the hell-hole, my bunker, they came on, tumbling over each other in their anxiety to get to the surface. Queues of the horrors seemed to be lining up at the bunker’s mouth. Others tried to get over them. Queue jumpers! Back where you belong! I shrieked, star picketing them, kicking them senseless, stamping them to bloody, mangled pulps. Back to the stink-holes you came from!
I dropped to my knees, exhausted. I, too, had come out of the bunker. Strange tears welled up in my eyes. Not for my father and his death, or for the death of his farm — but for myself, for the fact that I once shared the hole with an earlier immigrant wave.
With the smell of them still in my nostrils, I kicked my way back to the limousine. It was mid-afternoon. The fierce heat of the sun beat down on the farm and its invasion of mice. Flicking twitching bodies from my clothes, I sank into the leather upholstery with a sigh of relief.
“Where are you now, Dad?”
“Still here, John Winston, still here…”
Starting to feel better, I drove back to town and rejoined my family in the Commercial Hotel. As he escorted me up the stairs at the rear of the building, the Abbot was shaken by my appearance. His hand wandered towards his shoulder holster, as if undecided about what he should do — put the Leader out of his misery, or blaze away at a less obvious enemy. In the end, he knocked on the door of my suite.
“John Winston!” my wife exclaimed.
My son sniffed.
“Are you on the nose, or what?”
I could even smell myself. But a shower and a change of clothes soon put things right and I was ready to get on with the day. With glasses wiped clean of dust, I saw things in their proper perspective again. I saw my wife and two children, my bodyguard, and the peaked cap back in place on my chauffeur’s head. What had possessed me to risk everything and go out to the farm? The ghost of my father?
Then, for the first time, I remembered my mother, but had no time to visit her in the local bush hospital. The town and its ceremony were waiting. As it happened, the shire council had wheeled Mum out of her room and placed her in a position of honour on the stage, with the rest of the family. They were all in line behind me, the Prime Minister. There was no one in front of me, human or divine, but a concrete spire reaching up to Heaven. Thin and elegant, painted white, it was surmounted by a Scotch Thistle, symbol of my ancestors. So far above us, it was hard to say what the symbol was, until one of the town’s dignitaries mentioned it in his speech. As at all political gatherings, one or two voices heckled in protest, and said the thistle looked more like a mouse, but they were silenced by the steadfast, silent majority, my People, who didn’t need words to quieten those who might spoil the occasion. The Abbot was there to assist.
I confess, I was moved. As I made my speech of acceptance I almost felt a tear in my eye. I was also conscious of my mother beaming up at me from her chair. Her wrinkled face was framed by my children’s shoulders, although my son seemed to be leaning away. It was time to groom him for government, I reflected, as I nodded around at the small, admiring crowd. I couldn’t go on forever. Or could I?
I looked up at the towering obelisk again, up to the thistle of my ancestors. What would the chieftains have me do?
Whatever it was my duty to do.
And that was when I knew I must remain in office, whatever my personal inclinations might be, and go on and on ad infinitum, forever, as conservative leaders do.
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