‘The Happy Land’ – The Life and Times of John Winston Coward – Part 7 – The Sea Captain

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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. Here the Sea Captain tells of a perilous sea journey and a returning hero.
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 7: ‘My Dream’ – a Transcript of ‘Sea Captain’s’ Evidence before a Select Committee
Don’t expect any favours from me, Coward. Thought you’d hang Reith’s martyrdom on me? Take a look at this, you devious bastard, if Kings can have dreams so can Sea Captains. This is going to cost you.

Drunk, was I, couldn’t see what was going on? Just because you don’t like the sound of my voice you’ve made the mistake of underestimating me. Don’t like the smell of the upper crust, do you, Coward. At least Reith could handle his champagne and caviar. Cookie didn’t like it, but Cookie can kiss my arse.

Think you can clear Reith by hanging the cock-up on me? You know what the funny thing is? I know where the Fins come from! I had a dream, Coward. You’ll need me on this one, matey. You’ll have to stand in line behind Cookie and kiss my arse.

Yes, I had a dream. I was the Captain of a battleship with a brief to blow everything out of the water north and west of Uluru. At first there was an altercation with the Indigenous people, who questioned my activities within their jurisdiction, but the matter was resolved over a beer. You should have a drink more often yourself, Coward, and get a taste of the life of the people.

But my demolition activities were only a smokescreen for my real mission, which was to measure the Australian coastline. I received my instructions in a brown paper bag from your office, Coward.

Told to duplicate Reith’s work, we began to glue string to the coast as we pursued our course and fleeing Iraqis, Afghans and Fins. Their boats were old and often broke up in the rush of our shots across their bows. Rescue work was undertaken and all surviving men, women and children were detained in adjacent desert areas, behind razor wire fences. I tested their strength by climbing one, to spy out the lie of the land and ocean and plot my next course. By this time we’d been joined by a flotilla of small local craft, keen to help with the work. There was more string floating on the surface than you could poke a stick at, but not as many asylum-seekers, who were being scuttled by the vessels accompanying the battleship. I shook off the last of them at the Cape of Good Hope.

We measured Christmas Island in passing. Or it might have been Easter Island: religious festivals and public holidays come and go at sea, like misty dreams. It was a small place, Coward – as small as you are in the world of men – but its people were cheerful. You could learn a lot from them, you dour bastard. They threw a party for us before we left and invited a group of Iraqis, Afghans and Fins, their guests, to join in the fun. Never had so much fun with a Fin in my life. They drink like fish. Whatever their origin – and they were keeping quiet about it – they would make good immigrants. There was even some life in the other refugees, who were Moslem abstainers. The Christmas Islanders didn’t seem to hold it against them.

Rounding the Cape or the Horn, Cookie fell overboard in foul weather and had to be rescued. It might have been another suicide attempt. At this point, I was commanding the fleet from the wheelhouse of a barge, after my battleship was requisitioned by someone high up in government. No names were mentioned, which leads me to suspect you, Coward.

There was no doubt now that our mission was to track down the Fins, one of whom had stowed away on the barge and come out of hiding when the bell rang for dinner. He asked for roast lamb, which might have given us a clue to his origins if Cookie hadn’t become violent. We locked him in the toilet, while we contemplated the meal he’d prepared, baked beans and fried eggs. Surprisingly, the Fin didn’t turn a hair – and he had plenty of it, curly and brown – and tucked in along with the rest of us. There was only the engineer and his mate, of course, and a young fellow assisting me at the wheel. He was extraordinarily handsome. Even as the barge reared on the waves and thumped in the troughs and we chased our baked beans from one side of the table to the other, I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.

“Can I make up your bunk, Sir?” he asked after dinner.

“You can make my bunk any night you like, lad.”

Gills turning green, Coward? Your mate Reith couldn’t get enough of it, I mean the food. Cookie turned it on for him, the best leftovers the fleet had to offer. And he threw it all away. Couldn’t stand the pace. Jumped ship. Fell on his sword, I’m told. Got your own sharpened, Coward?

North of Rio, running up the South American coast towards the equator, we enjoyed the best weather of the voyage thus far. The Fin was sleeping out in the open, on top of the wheelhouse, making use of a mouldy mattress. I wondered if this was another clue and tried to engage him in conversation, but he was a reticent man and his eyes seemed to stare into vast distances, the way sailors’ eyes do. But I knew he wasn’t a sailor – he had no sea legs – and I guessed he came from treeless plains somewhere.

He had no time for women either. The engineer and his mate had picked up several at Rio, including a young Australian called Emma Hamilton – or was it Emmylou Harris? – abandoned in the embassy there. That was her story, at any rate. They all bunked below with the twin diesel engines. When the Fin refused several invitations to their parties, I wondered if he preferred men, and watched him closely when he passed the young helmsman. But he never gave him a second look. He was beginning to worry me.

Just as you always worried me, Coward, you humourless bastard. They should have given you proper training, sent you to a naval academy or whatever they call them these days. We know how to belly-laugh out here on the deep.

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with the Cape Verde Islands coming up to starboard, my young helmsman began to look like Bob Dylan. He asked for permission to sing a duet with Emmylou Harris. They sang more or less continuously for the rest of the voyage, although we quickly adjusted to the sound and after a few days noticed it no more than the sound of the engines, those reliable Rolls Royce twins.

Fancy a ride in a Roller, Coward? Like the idea of royalty, do you? Want to create your own little dynasty?

As the Canary and Madeira Islands slipped away behind us on the starboard side and the Azores to port, I began to feel a strange kind of elation, which had nothing to do with the fact that one of the Rio girls had decided to come up from below to share my bunk. She was a dark-haired creature, as lissom as an eel: I couldn’t get enough of her, particularly when I realised she looked nothing like Dylan or the young helmsman. No, the reason for my excitement was the nearness of the Old Country, about which I’d heard a lot from my mother, but never visited.

Alas, I wasn’t destined to go ashore on this trip either. Cookie and the Fin, who had conceived a strong dislike of each other, got into an argument over the best way to cook lamb. While Cookie said it had to be basted with garlic and herbs and roasted over water, the Fin insisted it should go in the oven ungarnished.

“Otherwise you lose the flavour of the mutton,” he argued.

“But that’s what we’re trying to do, you idiot!”

The Fin raised his hand. He was a big man, his fist the size of a small leg of lamb. Cookie backed away.

“But I’ll try anything once,” the Fin offered.

“Even coming to bloody Australia?”

The asylum-seeker smiled.

In the heat of the debate, we passed the United Kingdom and approached the east coast of Iceland. The barge skimmed the surface of the waves and the engines appeared to have closed down. Where were we bound? Far to the east, I thought I could see the faint peaks of the Kjolen Mountains above the horizon, but it might have been a deteriorating cataract condition. Beyond Norway and Sweden, of course, lay Finland. It had crossed my mind more than once that this was the home of the Fin, but although I watched him closely, I could detect no sign of recognition. If anything, he seemed to grow more uncomfortable in the icy conditions, and came down from his mattress on top of the wheelhouse to bunk with us in the warmth of the galley. He still refused to have anything to do with the Rio girls, who were now backing Bob Dylan as a harmonious trio, although at other times they gave the impression of fighting amongst themselves in order to attract his attention.

All in all, not a great deal different from your government, Coward, although why anyone would want to attract your attention is beyond my comprehension.

The barge planed monotonously on to the Arctic Circle while we huddled together for warmth, even the Fin. Once or twice Cookie left the galley to take pot shots at walrus, polar bear and seal, but had no luck.

We were down to our last baked bean when we reached the Tundra in the far eastern reaches of the old USSR. There we were able to take aboard fresh supplies – as fresh as they get in that desolate region – before we resumed our flight south. At what point the mission had been taken out of my hands, I can’t really say; perhaps when north had turned south, and the Rio trio had been momentarily silenced by the jolt we all felt in our guts as we flew over the hump of the Earth. I thought of Minister Reith at that moment, of his entrails dangling from his ceremonial sword. And I thought of you, Prime Minister, although by then it had occurred to me you mightn’t be in control at all, that it might all be sleight of hand — like pretending to see children in the Timor Sea. Is that what it’s about, Coward? Are the Fins a necessary enemy? On the whole, I think not. I think the Fins have you worried.

We sailed south along the 150 degree longitudinal line on a map I no longer had to consult. We passed Japan, skirted the Northern Marianas and split the Caroline Islands wide open. Above the Mariana Trench I thought of you again, Coward, plumbing depths of deviousness no one else could imagine. At the equator I got drunk in the traditional manner. Dylan and his girlie group sang powerful songs of loss and sorrow, which should have been depressing but were curiously uplifting. The twin Rolls Royce engines resumed their dull, aching throb at about the same time, responding to the music.

When we reached New Guinea everyone aboard was infected with melancholy, with the possible exception of the Fin. For some days we seemed to be lost, with the barge turning in circles. We came close to the shore of one small island in the Bismarck Archipelago twice in the space of one hour and were shot at with arrows, but it was only a diversionary tactic to shake off anyone foolish enough to be following us. What an epic voyage it had become!

We were nearing the business end of the trip. Once again in Australian territory, or close enough to it, the Fin knelt down and kissed the bilge water. With hindsight, this explained everything. At the time, it looked most unpleasant, and Cookie – as hardened as he was – retched over the railings. The young helmsman, or Bob Dylan, or whoever he was, evaporated in a sudden sea mist over the Coral Sea as we ate up sea mile after sea mile on the ocean side of the Great Barrier Reef.

I thought of you, Coward, as a barrier to Australia ever being able to progress, and for a conservative sea captain to entertain a notion like this, you devious bastard, speaks volumes for the parlous state of the nation.

The Rio girls were also lost in the Coral Sea.

The barge and its depleted crew flew onward through the night. That we were sailing, or at any rate travelling at significant speeds, was made clear by the state of the national flag. Flying at half-mast – because of the condition of the country under you, Coward, as you bow to the American President – it was shredding at the ends, whipped about by cyclonic winds. We could see it by the light of the moon, which occasionally showed through the cloud mass scudding across the continent.

We almost collided with Tasmania and would have done but for the Fin, who had resumed his position on top of the wheelhouse. His mattress had disappeared, no one knew where, but he was comfortable enough in his sleeping bag. Or so he said. He was a close one and no mistake, and with his imposing size and curly hair could have been mistaken for a bronzed Anzac as he lay outstretched in the sun on our run past Cape Nelson. I ordered him to his feet. Thereafter he seemed to assume command of the vessel as we pushed north towards South Australia, then across the sand bars at the Coorong and on towards Murray Bridge.

Had the barge been blessed with a bow, I would have sat there and wept. The best I could do was stand on the running board on the port side and gulp in the eucalypt air. I remembered the days of the riverboat captains, of the paddle-steamers and their crazy cargoes dodging the snags, as the barge slowly made its way up the Murray. The Fin was on the starboard side, directing traffic. There was a look of animation on his face we hadn’t seen before. What manner of Fin was this, I wondered, who looked so much at ease in a foreign land? His jaw was lantern – I hadn’t noticed it before – and the hairs on his arms had been bleached by the sun. But of course, he was at home, and I’d known it for some time. I’d pushed it to the back of my mind, as the implications were so peculiar.

Are you listening, Coward?

A real Australian was coming back to reclaim his land, to reclaim it from you, Coward. He was even prepared to come in with Iraqis and Afghans. Although I bear them no malice, they might be better off staying at home now their own half-baked leaders have been given the push. You’re on notice, Coward. Are you in the picture? The Fins are returning to their homeland.

It could be the start of a tidal wave. The floodgates could open. Imagine the Indigenous Australians, Coward, every original man Jack of them, paddling out to international waters in their bark canoes, then turning around and heading for home. Imagine them asking for asylum in their native land. What would you do with them, Coward? Call them illegal immigrants? Put them behind razor wire in the desert? Lie to the People? Fob them off on New Zealand? Tasmania?

Feeling more cheerful than I had for years, at least since the last intake of naval recruits, I took a keen interest in the scenery as the barge laboured up against the current, north and east, and finally left South Australia. Indigenous Australians lined the banks, not exactly happy with the situation, yet somehow approving the symbolism of the Fin’s return home. Where that was precisely would be revealed in due course.

Even Cookie seemed more relaxed on the mainland and I wondered if his seafaring days were over. Sometimes I caught him smiling. He and the Fin had almost become friendly as they swapped recipes and held a joint cooking session with a bucket of yabbies. The results weren’t encouraging, but it was the spirit of the collaboration that counted. Perhaps the fact that they drank several bottles of warm climate chardonnay, from the Riverine vineyards, contributed to their poor results in the galley.

Both engineers were close to exhaustion, but whether it was the result of the arduous voyage, or their cohabitation with three young women picked up in Mildura, I couldn’t say. They were a fun-loving trio, hitchhiking upstream to the Australian Alps and another snow season, but they left us when the barge nosed out of the Murray and into the Wakool River.

Our progress slowed in the narrow tributary and we lost the radio mast in a tangle of overhanging gums. The Fin had become anxious again, constantly on lookout from the top of the wheelhouse, where he dodged the branches with footwork that told of uncounted hours dancing in country halls. It was that kind of country beyond the line of the river – now called the Edward – long stretches of flat, bare earth reaching out to the treeless horizon. Only here and there one could spot the derelict wooden halls, against which sandy loam was piled in drifts, and hear the ghostly strains of fox trot and waltz.

So we came to Moulamein, where I gave the locals a blast from the horn. The river was low and we were grateful for the shallow draught of the barge as we looked up at the waving townspeople. I thought I heard one shout and point at the Fin, but I might have been mistaken. The hubbub was general and continuous until we rounded the next bend and chugged on our way. We wouldn’t stop until we reached Deniliquin.

I almost wished we still had Dylan on board to comfort us with his country songs. The river was everlastingly tortuous, so that for every mile forward we turned half a mile back before resuming in the right direction. I let the barge steer itself and played games of five hundred with Cookie and the engineers, who were confident the diesels would throb on by themselves forever. And all the while the Fin remained aloft, staring ahead. So he was the first to spot the township of Deniliquin, where with all hands exhausted we finally left the water after so many months afloat. Or weeks, or days. Or was it merely a matter of minutes, Coward? What is the duration of a dream? What is the respite allowed your unhappy People, Coward, away from the reality of your deceit?

Cranes waited at the Deniliquin wharf to lift the barge out of the river and onto the back of a semi-trailer. The old red gum wharf had seen better days, but was sound enough to see the job done and creak a final farewell as we drove out onto the Riverina Highway for the final leg of the journey. The road, forty odd miles of it, was straight and true. There were no deviations. There were no small villages to slow us down. There was a locality called Blighty and I admit it gave my heart a tug, Coward, but I urged the driver on, knowing that I, too, was going home to Finley. The Fin and I were side by side in the cabin of the semi, craning forward, barely able to contain the tumult of our emotions. The moment had come at last. Up there around the only bend in the road lay the heart of the Riverina, heart of the conservative homeland, Coward, where our brothers and sisters, the Finley Fins, awaited our return.

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