THE HAPPY LAND: Part 12Was 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 penultimate paper in the series, emeritus professor P. Costello recalls the last journey of John Winston Coward.
The Life and Times of John Winston Coward
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 12: ‘The Death of a Conservative Leader’ - Emeritus Professor P. Costello
When his time had come, John Winston Coward was led to a boat by his bodyguard. The Abbot frowned down at the fragile craft.
“I told them to fix the leaks,” he said.
“The bastards,” Coward echoed.
But his heart wasn’t in it. It had finally come to this — the voyage to the other side. And what would await him there? He already had the tributes of his People. Would God also approve?
Coward looked around. His surroundings were familiar, yet unknown, like a landscape in a dream. He recognised the old parliament house behind him, and the drifts of sand beneath his feet. But the shallow water in which the boat lapped was strange to him — unless it was Lake Hindmarsh, where the Wimmera ended far out in the west. He dipped in a finger and tasted salt, but that told him nothing.
More strange were the mountains rising behind parliament, where no mountains had ever been seen. Was he looking at the Australian Alps? But these mountains seemed to be treeless — high, jagged peaks, snow-capped. The pale golden light of a summer’s night softened the outlines of the country he was leaving, but in some way added to its menace. It was almost, Coward thought, as if the light had been altered to hide the dangers in his situation. Look! There! Surely something had moved beneath that sheet of corrugated iron? Some hidden enemy? Some terror? Quick now, Coward, a voice within him urged, it’s time to leave. His bodyguard also seemed to be pushing him.
“It’s time, old man,” the Abbot insisted.
He was rarely so familiar.
“I suppose so,” Coward agreed.
He didn’t feel old. It was just that his various parts were beginning to weaken and wear out. As he took one last look behind him, parliament house seemed to contort and rise up like a black snake, preparing to strike. Coward shrank back from the fading red belly. His vision had always been poor, but had never been a hindrance to his political fortunes. Neither had his stature. Indeed his insignificant height had helped him slip out of sight when crises arose in his government, so that when the People forgot his broken promises he could reappear with his reputation intact. As he stood on the Lake Hindmarsh foreshore, he was comforted by the thought that he was taking an unsinkable reputation to the other side.
The light changed from gold to sunset red, although there was no sun in the sky. Crimson in places, it glinted from the forbidding peaks at his back and urged him forward to the frail craft in the shallows.
“You have to go,” the Abbot insisted.
He pushed hard at the stern of the boat, freeing the keel from the sand, as the old man clambered aboard.
“Not coming, too?” Coward asked.
Ahead, the red light reflected from the waves. Lake Hindmarsh was more like a vast inland sea. The Conservative Leader looked around for the rudder.
“How do I steer?”
“You have to trust in fate,” the Abbot told him.
“At least there’ll be no overcrowding.”
“I have voices in my head.”
Already Coward seemed to be listening to them. His brow was furrowed, after staring so intently into the gloom. The red light had darkened. At first the waves had taken on a deep maroon, then bronze. Now they were losing their colour completely. Far ahead, on the horizon, lay the darkness of night.
“Goodbye!” the Abbot called. “Hope all goes well!”
His voice was always sincere.
“See you in Hell!” Coward growled.
It was the Leader’s final curtain, his swansong, although in truth he looked more like an ugly duckling crouched in the stern of the boat. No bigger than a child with an overly large head, he clutched a blanket around his shoulders as he felt the air turn chilly. He glanced back once to see if the Abbot had decided to wade out and rescue him.
His final view of his homeland was of those high jagged mountains, black against the darkening sky. He couldn’t recall ever seeing anything in his country so high. Australia was such a level playing field, such a flat pitch. It reminded him more of the reports he once received of Afghanistan, of turbaned men dashing through the Khyber Pass.
Occasionally he thought he heard seagulls. There had always been salt lakes and sea birds in the Wimmera. Was it possible he was near an ocean? John Winston Coward was in a suggestible frame of mind, alone with his thoughts and memories, adrift. The only certainty, if anything could be certain on that bobbing boat, was that he was heading in the general direction of Heaven and that he would be greeted there with the great kindness accorded all those seeking asylum on unknown, difficult seas. Unless he was the vanguard of an invasion force… He chuckled grimly. Imagine attempting to invade Heaven, as an illegal immigrant!
He dozed. It was hard to stay asleep long, his position was so cramped. Then there was his hunger, which was really a memory of hunger, since he no longer needed food. Oddly enough he had a thermos with him, provided by his wife. Or had the Abbot given it to him, as a final gesture?
“How’s it going out there?” he heard the bodyguard call.
The question died in the still, cold air. Would there ever be an end to that uncertain night?
He must have slept deeply at last, because by morning he was aground on a rocky beach. The boat had sprung a leak with the impact. Ankle-deep in water, Coward stood up to stretch and look around, to get his first view of Heaven. He seemed to be on a barren stretch of coast that ended some way to his right, where mangroves grew into the sea. Next to them, canoes were drawn up on the beach. A knot of people stood nearby, gesticulating. Finally they set off down the beach towards him, before coming to a halt after a dozen or so paces and retracing their steps.
Coward decided to take the initiative. Shaking off his blanket, he waved his arms about, in case they thought he was carrying a weapon. Then he walked half the distance between boat and canoes, and stopped.
“I’m journeying to the other side!” he called. “Have I arrived?”
The knot huddled more closely, conferring, before an individual detached himself and came forward.
“You’re on an island, Sir,” he said.
His tone was neither friendly nor rude. He didn’t smile, but seemed curious. Coward tried to look enthusiastic, but his facial muscles had forgotten what they had to do. Instead he grimaced, at which the reception party took a step backwards.
“You must forgive me,” he said. “I’ve come a long way without food or water, and my boat has a leak.”
There was a collective sigh from the distant group, which edged towards their spokesman.
“May we look, Sir?” he inquired.
Without waiting for the shipwreck to reply, they strode on to the boat, and swarmed over it, examining it closely.
The spokesman returned.
“We can have it fixed for you, Sir,” he told Coward. “We might even be able to make some improvements.”
The Conservative Leader was unused to events unfolding without his control. He felt impatient, but in the circumstances wasn’t sure how to proceed. If these were God’s minions, he might have to be cautious.
“Improvements?” he asked. “Hasn’t my boat brought me to the end of my journey?”
The other laughed.
“You’re only halfway, Sir.”
There was laughter in the group as well, when they were informed of Coward’s mistake.
“Halfway?” he queried. “Is this Purgatory?”
“We know of no island of that name, Sir.”
He was shown up from the beach and led a short distance inland along a narrow path. The vegetation was tropical and here and there he had to brush by bunches of green bananas. Remarking on them, he received no reply, and thereafter kept his thoughts to himself. He was taken into an overcrowded, ramshackle hut. As he settled down with his back to a wall, rubbing shoulders with a dark neighbour, Coward thought he was in Hell. Proximity to other people was his special fear, as others feared mice, or spiders. Some even feared rejection by their fellow human beings, which the Prime Minister had never understood at all. But it took all kinds. One only had to look at the diversity of his former People. Fortunately, one didn’t have to actually like them. One didn’t have to like anyone, really. He fell into a reverie, considering whom he’d liked in his life, but apart from the Queen and the American President – and his wife, he supposed – no one sprang immediately to mind. He hadn’t even liked the Bishop.
Time passed slowly in Purgatory. It was a test of patience, he realised. Fortunately he wasn’t inconvenienced by toileting necessities, or food or drink, although he still seemed to be sensitive to heat and cold. That would be to make sense of the fires of Hell, he guessed. Despite the warmth of the tropical climate, and despite huddling with so many others in the hut, Coward found he liked to keep the blanket wrapped around his shoulders. It gave him some protection from his companions.
They seemed to wait a very long time. Occasionally, one or two would be invited outside – once, an entire family made their departure – but their places were taken by new arrivals, and the room was always crowded. But he retained his sense of smell – again, no doubt, to appreciate the odour of Hell – and it was a sickening ordeal.
It eventually came to an end, as all things must, if only to begin again. Blinded by the unaccustomed light, Coward and two others were led back along the path and down to the beach, where his boat was waiting. It seemed to have sprouted wings. On closer inspection, they turned out to be additional seats, like sidecars on motorcycles, balancing each other on either side of the vessel. Once Coward and his two fellow voyagers were aboard, there was an unseemly scramble to fill the rest of the seats. Eventually things settled down and the boat rocked unsteadily in the shallows. How would it fare on the open sea?
Of course, it was understandable people were prepared to take such a risk. The prospect of a future on the other side was so alluring they would risk anything to make the journey. But had they been guaranteed their places in Heaven, Coward wondered, as he had? Would they be disappointed?
The voyage now took an unlikely turn, not so much in its direction – it was one way traffic to the other side – but in the expectations of the seafarers. Coward had imagined everyone would be pleased to be on their way to perpetual bliss, but some openly regretted leaving their lives behind, despite fighting so hard for a berth on the boat. It was a paradox. Were they fearful, perhaps? Misinformed? Had unscrupulous religious leaders got into their ears and created distrust, and doubt? Had someone taken a leaf from his own book of political life and toyed with the truth?
The small boat wallowed in the heavy sea. Sometimes it was hailed by voices through the mist, but it plunged on regardless. Its captain might not even have heard. A young man on one of the sidecars had assumed command, although there was no steering to be done, or any course to set. His only function seemed to be to humour his fellow passengers. Then as they drew closer to Heaven and were hailed by a loud voice, the fellow jumped overboard. At least, that was what Coward imagined had happened when he noticed the empty seat.
The other passengers became even more despondent. Wild lamentations rent the salty air, as Coward tried to calm them.
“My People!” he called.
He might have been speaking a foreign language.
“My fellow passengers!” he tried again. “Please calm yourselves! We’re all in this together!”
He was sick as he spoke and Heaven’s other asylum-seekers turned away from him in fear and disgust.
“We seem to have landed,” he said, recovering, “but can this really be Heaven?”
Their immediate surroundings looked more like a wheat farm in drought. The paddocks were bare – dry as mice bones – and eddies of warm air blew sandy loam into the air. Here and there a thistle flourished, spikily green, where nothing else could grow. Coward felt the painful prick of a four-cornered jack in his foot as he was taken over to a bag shed. Beyond the shed, the house paddock fence had been sharpened with razor wire. His guide patted his arm reassuringly. He wouldn’t be detained long. Only certain formalities had to be observed before he was given the freedom of Heaven. In the meantime, the guide was sure the Conservative Leader would find the bag shed dry and comfortable. The drought was so bad, he laughed, not even the mice had survived. Coward could see for himself that his old bunker was deserted. Wondering what had happened to the corrugated iron, he went over and saw dry rodent droppings. That much, at least, hadn’t changed. Coming closer he heard a sound grating out of the earth, followed by a head with a lot of grey hair. It rose slowly, until the figure of a small man in white robes stood revealed on a sheet of corrugated iron — like the ghost in Don Giovanni.
“Is this God or the Devil?” he wondered.
The ghost laughed.
“A poorly kept secret,” he explained. “They’re one and the same. As for me and my function,” he went on after clearing his throat, “I have no particular title, but I suppose I’m a kind of leader, as you were, and have to make hard decisions.”
The Conservative Leader was suspicious.
The ghost cleared his throat again, looked Coward up and down and assessed his value, and the distance between them.
“Just this,” he pronounced.
He spat in the dust at the asylum-seeker’s feet.
“There’s no place for you here.”
“You mean I have to go back?”
The ghost laughed.
“You’re a dead man back there! No, no, we just forget about you here.”
“Forget about me?”
But there was no one to answer the Leader. He looked around for signs of life. Beyond the razor wire, he could only see waste land. The bag shed had shimmered out of existence, the corrugated iron rusted to dust. The Leader was already imprisoned and forgotten, the key thrown away without a moment’s regret, like a child off a sinking boat.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License