Six Australian flags hang rich and solemn, three each side of the doorway. The doors stand open. Beyond them is a corridor in gloom; before them, an empty lectern. The light of Canberra winter throws cold geometrics on the high walls: triangular shadows, blades of light. Closer, an overcoated herd circles on the damp flagstones. Breath suspended over busy phones, footfalls making darker patches on the frosted lawn as the dew works its way into open footwear. Cables snake forward between the huddles to microphones laid gently, like floral tributes. The walls spear high above the cluster. The crowd on the lawn, seen from a currawong’s eye, make dark specks on a green square. The day slowly dawning over the mountains sweeps sunlight, warm and generous, over the city; but it will reach this little enclave last of all.
Three figures stride through the doorway, arranged in formation with the tallest in the centre. As they emerge the light strikes them. Two flanking acolytes a step behind the man at the apex: a tall man, lean and angular in a pale grey suit. The triangle of white between his lapels so bright that the shirt has surely never been worn before. Hair slightly receding but still a youthful brown, the bones of his face making a robust frame for his easy smile. An open face, for a politician. One of the two advisors is a woman in her twenties. She leans in towards the lectern, leaving her shoes securely planted to its left: she is not the focus here.
‘Morning ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming out. The minister is ready. Thanks for your patience.’
He squints once at the light from above and begins. ‘Unauthorised boat arrivals have been a scourge on our society
for many years, and for many years we have fought them vigorously with a range of policies: mandatory detention, excision of territorial islands and tow-backs to name a few. The Bali Process has been in place for twenty years now.
‘The countermeasures adopted by people smugglers have been brazen and ruthless. The destruction of personal documents, assaults upon the hardworking men and women of our Border Integrity Unit; even setting fire to their own vessels. January’s incident, in which a young Border Integrity officer was tragically killed while lawfully boarding such a vessel, is only the latest in the long series of outrages perpetrated by these people.
‘Plainly, a new way forward is required. Which is why, at the recent Jakarta Summit, I signed the diplomatic communiqué between Indonesia and Australia that transfers to our Indonesian friends the responsibility for all maritime departures from their territorial waters into Australian waters. All of them. All checking of registrations, of passengers and of cargo, and the communication of that information to us, will be the responsibility of the Indonesian navy. In return, Australian government vessels have undertaken not to cross into Indonesian waters at any time.’
He pauses, looks up from his notes, chin high with defiance. The cameras start crunching, as he knew they would.
‘It follows that any vessel entering our territorial waters from the north, which has not been specifically cleared by the Indonesian navy, has breached our borders illegally. This much you already know.’
He stops again, scans the press pack, knowing his eyes are filling screens across the nation. Behind him the staffers are nodding furiously.
‘I want to make this very clear: I will not have our personnel endangered by the reckless conduct of criminal people smugglers. So today I am proud to announce a significant new border security measure ahead of next week’s federal election.’
He waits just long enough, settles the cold breath in his lungs. ‘From this point forward, no unidentified vessels in Australian
territorial waters will be offered any form of maritime assistance. None. No contact will be made with these vessels on the open sea, either by the Border Integrity Unit or, indeed, the navy. Any future incursions into territorial waters will be met with remote measures by our private sector partners, Core Resolve.
‘I want to repeat that for absolute clarity: there will be no further boarding parties, no rescues. Advertisements will be placed on Indonesian television, in print media and online. It will be made absolutely clear that unauthorised boat journeys into Australian waters are the sole responsibility of those who organise them.’
He pauses weightily once more. The experienced correspondents brace themselves for a new campaign talking point.
‘No Australian will be placed in danger.’
The brief silence that meets these last words is suddenly strafed by a volley of shouted questions.
‘What if the people on board are seeking asylum and mean us no harm?’
‘Recent experience has shown we can never make that assumption. But in any case, the question doesn’t arise. Indonesian personnel will already have prevented their entry.’
‘Well, what if they’re fishermen?’
The minister’s face reveals the faintest trace of impatience. ‘Indonesian personnel will have prevented their entry.’ His eyes shift right: the ABC. ‘Yes?’
‘What exactly are “remote measures”?’
‘Obviously I’m not at liberty to discuss the on-water methodologies that Core Resolve may choose to employ. That is a matter for them. Suffice to say, there will be no Australians placed in danger.’
A rush of questions begins and he raises his hand to silence them. ‘Make no mistake: you are either on the side of these criminal gangs, cynical traffickers in human misery, or you are on our side. Some in the media already have hundreds—hundreds of deaths at sea on their consciences. I won’t allow them to add Australian citizens to that number.’
The shouted demands resume. One question cuts through the noise and heads turn. The questioner is a respected press gallery veteran.
‘What about the caretaker conventions? ’ she asks. ‘It’s highly unusual to announce a measure like this so close to an election.’
‘The caretaker conventions are exactly that: conventions, born of easier times. Let me say again, I will take robust action to protect our borders whenever the need arises—during parliamentary sittings or otherwise—and to ensure that no Australians are placed in danger. That’s what I was appointed to do.’ A purposeful nod. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me…’
A shadow crosses the minister’s face—he touches his temple gently. The young advisor appears again, a deferential hand not quite touching the flank of his suit jacket. The minister taps his notes into a neat pile and turns from the lectern.
Parliament House, Canberra
The Honourable Cassius Calvert MP, federal Minister for Border Integrity, swept past his executive assistant’s desk. He was already through the door into his own office as he called to her.
‘Hey Stell, did you watch?’
Of course she’d watched. Stella never missed anything. Until he met her, Cassius had assumed that people who make a lot of noise are incapable of observing the world, but somehow she did both.
Big and loud, maybe twenty-five, Stella Mullins was the one condition Cassius had set for taking the job. She’d known nothing about how to be the executive assistant to a federal minister and not much about his political portfolio but she was a ferocious learner. Anyway, he had a departmental head and a chief of staff for that: the twin ogres of policy and politics. What he needed was a buffer between them—a fighter in his corner—and he knew Stella had the mongrel for it. He’d known that since they met, him on a post-retirement contract with the Olympic chef de mission, Stella an economics student and corner- stone of the rugby sevens squad.
‘What’s this shit about “remote measures”?’ she yelled back.
A man on a stepladder in the far corner of Cassius’s room jerked his cordless drill out of the plasterboard and recoiled. Stella’s voice could do that.
On a table inside his door a bottle of Grange lay like the infant Jesus in a straw-filled presentation box. Cassius picked up the card.
Cass—Congratulations on a groundbreaking policy. We look
forward to many years of service to you and the Australian people— With kind regards, the Board and Staff of Core Resolve.
Bloody Grange—how imaginative. Stella was standing at the door now, crisp in executive-tier tailoring but still wearing the sneakers in which she’d walked to work.
‘You seen the Core Resolve share price? Just gone up nearly two bucks. That’s…’ she looked at the ceiling while she did the numbers, ‘about four million their CEO just made.’
Cassius nodded. ‘Put that wine in the register of interests, will you Stell?’ he said. ‘Then go drink it with a friend.’
He reached the desk and unlocked his screen to reveal a column of unanswered emails. ‘Have you been filtering these? Holy shit, there’s…’ he scrolled down. ‘Nearly four hundred! I cleared this last night.’
Stella folded her arms. ‘I got rid of another three-fifty. Hey, you want to ask me why there’s a guy on a ladder in your room?’ The tradesman stopped the drill again; looked around uncertainly.
Cassius sighed and started tapping the down arrow. ‘Stella, why is there a man on a ladder in my room?’
‘He’s putting in the video-conferencing. Two cameras up there, microphones on the table, secure links within Cabinet. I can control it all from my desk for you.’
The ladder guy finished what he was doing to the ceiling and took himself off with a nod to Stella.
‘Hey seriously,’ she said, ‘what’s all this remote measures crap?’ ‘We…ah…’ He didn’t look up. ‘We needed something vague so the company’s got room to run their own show. And no, it wasn’t in the draft you typed last night. Came from the PM’s office this morning. Needed plausible deniability.’
‘Hah! Deniability…get that from those crooks I s’pose. Anyway, I better give the FOI desk a heads-up.’
‘They’ll be using the exemptions pro forma, referencing the new commercial-in-confidence provisions. Ron Smedley’s all over it.’
‘Okay. You want coffee?’ She clumped out of the room, humming loudly. He took the briefing notes that had arrived on the desk and sorted them on the side table—department, electorate, miscellaneous—with the ones marked urgent at the top of each pile. His eyes roved over the shelves behind the desk. The flag, the trophies and plaques. The Olympic gold in its heavy glass case. Framed pictures: him with Kofi Annan, him with Schwarzenegger, the Dalai Lama, Blair, Susan Kiefel.
He spoke loudly again in the direction of Stella’s doorway. ‘Can you get the electorate office to run the numbers on that announcement? I want to know how it played.’
‘Already on it,’ Stella called from her desk. ‘The guy from Pollwise said he’s tracking it live.’ Then, moments later, ‘You’ll be fine, I’m sure. The nine per cent haven’t gone anywhere.’
‘I want you…’ He was sick of yelling. He got up and marched to her cubicle outside the door. ‘I want you to put together some follow-up quotes for online.’ His eyes roved over her workspace; the functional stuff, the personal shrines to family, team-mates, assorted dogs and cats. He plucked a large sticky note off the wall: Mikey and Mel Make My Morning.
‘Who are Mikey and Mel?’
‘You don’t listen to breakfast radio, do you? They’re giving away five thousand bucks. Gonna call someone Saturday morning, and if you answer and you say that, you win the five grand. So it’s just a, y’know, a reminder. In case I’m in here.’
She set up a blank page on her screen and her fingers hovered over the keys, waiting for him to start. He spoke slowly, staring into the middle distance.
‘I am aware that today’s policy announcement will have created disquiet in some quarters. I do not pretend that this is a kind policy. It is a firm and necessary one, and it will help to bring an end at last to this pernicious trade. I expect to hear commentary from the usual quarters about our human rights obligations. To them I say—Australia does not have an obligation to assist criminals in profiting from human misery. Quite the opposite.’
She nodded. ‘That all?’
‘Can you boil that down to a tweet as well?’ ‘Yep.’
‘Get it around to the PMO to top and tail it with some approving stuff from the PM, then through to media for a final once-over. Thanks Stell.’
He checked the time on her screen. If he was quick he could change and get through a gym session before the party-room meeting. It took work to be in such great shape for a man of his age.
Makassar City, Sulawesi
Roya knew when her mother had had enough. The tilt of her head, her tendency to look away. The past few months had been enough to teach her the limits. Before, she had thought her mother inexhaustible, as nine-year-olds do. She’d thought her impervious to pain, even to mere irritation. But that was before.
When her madar was herself, lit up with joy and tenderness, she would look deep into Roya’s eyes. But it had been cities and nights and long empty roads since she’d done that, and the baby’s time was drawing nearer. And now they’d been sitting in the main room of this hotel for hours and hours. Tiled walls, an uneven cement floor. Rugs and a whimpering dog.
The man had told them to wait here after the car trip. Someone would be along to collect them, he said. They were not to leave, nor talk to anybody, not even to answer the door. He’d left abruptly and she watched the lock turn over with a small click. Went back to study- ing the streaky walls.
An old Pashtun man was reading the Qur’an, cross-legged with his back straight against a doorway. His face was creased like the flesh of a walnut; his eyes dark slits in the wrinkled skin, neither lashes nor even eyelids to be seen. His nose seemed to be growing towards the Qur’an, and his hennaed beard quivered above his throat, moving slightly as he murmured the words. Two younger Pashtun men sat beside him. She guessed they were his sons. Their dress traditional like his, their eyes a bright, vigilant green. She looked away quickly before either pair of eyes could find her.
There was a fat man dressed in a Shinwari kurta shalwar, with a delicate pair of silver-framed glasses perched on his nose. She thought he would have been a trader. All these people were something else at home. Pious or clever or strong; fathers, aunts, students. Here they were just people in a room.
Nobody looked like they would want to talk to her, though she would have liked to know how they felt. Excited to be going on the boat? Scared, maybe? Some of them would have probably seen the ocean before, some might even be able to swim. The mother in the big green shawl, holding the fat baby: had she seen the sea? The baby nuzzled discreetly in the folds of her clothing. She had turned her shoulder away from the men, but the impertinence quivered in the air. It was now deep in the night. Roya had thought they’d arrived—
this was Indonesia, the word they’d been hearing and repeating for weeks. But people were now talking about Australia. She’d tried asking other children what they knew about Australia—she didn’t dare ask the adults—but it was clear they had no answers for her and would only make up silly stories. She would save the questions she had for all these interesting people. She was sure there would be time later on
She dreamed of home.
She was no longer in the tiled room. The smells were no longer those of close bodies, but of familiar foods and the adult fragrances reserved for particular times. Thursday nights, eating and listening to the women’s stories, her inclusion part of the gradual process of ushering her into their world. Treats like this were the incentives to put an end to childish ways.
Women on cushions around the walls of a pocked and chipped room, the heavy floor mat on the floor between them. Cups and saucers tilting on someone’s laughing belly, spilt tea, the crockery riding a storm. And when they could collect themselves, the racket would subside and they’d go back to their murmured gossip.
As the remembered world turned to sorrow, Roya unsettled herself into waking. Footsteps now, and low voices. In the dim light she looked at her mother, whose head was nodding on drifts of wretched half-sleep.
‘Wake up, Madar. Someone coming.’
Her mother clutched at Roya instinctively and struggled to con- sciousness, reflexively checking her head-covering.
The lock tumbled and two men entered: Indonesians, but younger and wearing surf shorts and rubber sandals, T-shirts. Peering through various windows over the long hours, Roya had come to realise that much of the world dressed this way.
Their faces reminded her of her brother Anwar, though they weren’t smiling like he did. Friend or enemy, she and her mother had no control over who came through the door or what they did. Their best hope lay in remaining quiet and small, a way of being that came hard to her. Among her friends she was strong and confident.
The men gestured. The people in the room rose wearily to their feet and began to shuffle out.
Outside the streets were quiet, unhurried in the darkness. The smell of baked concrete and dirty water was still there, but the cooking smells of the previous night were gone. A white van waited by the door, unmarked aside from some torn surfing stickers, the windows blacked out. The driver wore sunglasses, the lights of the city swirling over their big lenses. They were hurried into the back of the van, and found it already contained two other women and a boy who looked slightly older than Roya. By the time all of them had climbed in, there were no seats left and she had to curl onto her mother’s lap, squirming to tuck herself beside the dome of her belly.
The door slid shut with a bang and the van moved off. New smells: the chemical tang of a car deodoriser. One of the men leaned over the front seat and looked over the group. He spoke to Roya’s mother, repeating a single word as his head jerked about with the gear changes and the bumps. She knew the word from her book.
‘Documents, Madar. He is saying “documents”.’
Her mother dug in her bag and produced their two identity cards with the grainy photographs. Taken by the police chief the first time they’d been arrested. They’d had to hand over their taskera to get them, along with cash. She remembered the Taliban fighter behind the desk, his stained teeth and his pale eyes. His pale, pitiless eyes.
The man in the front looked at her and grinned, comparing the identity card. ‘Roy…ya Say…ghan.’ He paused, thinking. ‘You,’ he pointed. ‘Nine!’ He counted out nine fingers.
She nodded and formed a tiny smile to be polite. He studied the card again.
She nodded again. ‘You Hazara?’
Another nod. He looked at her mother. ‘Shafiqa. Shah-fee-kah.
Okay. Madar?’ ‘Yes.’
‘Where you bobo?’
She shrugged. She could say Hezbe-wahdat, but he would not understand. She wasn’t sure she did, really: the Wahdat were her father’s friends, but then some of them weren’t. He’d long since left the Wahdat behind: he worked as an interpreter for the aid people. But she knew something profound had shifted the day she mentioned the Wahdat friends to her father and he scolded her with unusual ferocity, jabbing a finger in her face. They were never to be spoken of again, he warned her. So nobody ever did.
She could say he was taken in the night, along with Anwar. But she didn’t know if she had the English for it and she was unsure whether she could bring herself to explain anyway. Discussing it was painful, and best avoided.
That unbearably hot summer night: Roya and her brother shifting on their mats, whispering fragments of conversation into the restless dark. The hammering on the door, her father’s sleepy movements then his polite salaam alaikum in the doorway. The sudden urgency of his voice as he tried to reason with the three men there, awake and fierce. Them coming in despite him, bandits in the robes of authority. Picking up objects and weighing them in their big hands, their greed and disdain. A moment later they were officials, too, reading something formal from a piece of paper while her father protested how ridiculous it was.
Then time bucked like a horse they’d kicked. Angry words, the crash of a rifle butt. Her father dropped near her feet, bright blood from his nose separating like rivers over his cheek. His cheek, how dare they? She knew it to rub her nose over it.
They cursed and hauled him out like a sack of meat. Her baba and all his love and stories, his jokes and his calm authority.
They were shouting at her mother, and she was screaming back at them, unafraid. One of them slapped her. Bas, they roared at her. Bas! The screaming didn’t worry the Talibs: none of the neighbours would be coming to their aid. But Anwar, propped on his elbows on the toshak beside her: he needed to move. He needed to go but he was lying there silently, too afraid to do anything. One of them saw him and leapt onto him: she could hear Anwar whimpering as the man tore down the front of his perahan tunban. He examined Anwar’s chest, found the strands of dark hair that had appeared the previous summer. The Talib roared with delight, slapped him hard across the face.
‘No more basket for you, little dog!’
And so he was marched out, a muzzle pointed into his ribs. Roya’s mother wailed at the closed door and it was over. A burst of violence in the fractured light from the windows and their family had been halved. The man in the front seat turned back to face the windscreen.
He rummaged on the seat beside him and shoved a cassette into the stereo. Pakistani pop music. Roya thought the man had probably chosen it to put them at ease. She wondered if they would get their identity cards back. The night went past outside: an occasional motor- cycle, a dog, a yellow streetlight.
Then the van was moving out through scatters of older housing. People moving about on their motorcycles, on foot under the bright moon. Roya had a sense, stronger than the day before, of how foreign they were. Or no…the people in this van—Roya, her mother and the rest of them—they were the foreigners. Hazaras might be different among Afghans, but all of them were different here.
They stopped among containers and nets and crates on a wide concrete apron. Last stop! Last stop! the man in the front was saying. She’d dozed a little and couldn’t tell how long they’d been driving. The man reached in among the bumping hips and lifted her down, then took her mother’s hand as she stepped out. He crouched to bring his eyes level with Roya’s and smiled.
‘Be good for you madar.’ His gappy teeth shone under his dark hair. Then he was in the van and gone and Roya realised there were crowds of people hidden by the darkness: women with their children, old people; but mostly men. Men laughing and placing their hands on one another; men standing forlorn and broken by themselves; men in secretive huddles.
She could pick the Afghans by their clothes and beards; some- times the drift of a word or two in Dari. She could pick the Hazaras from the Pashtuns and the Tajiks, of course; and, she found, the Pakistanis from the Iraqis. She knew that other people had fled from Herat: from the bombed and charred countryside around it. She hadn’t known that people in other countries were doing likewise, even drifting in the same direction.
A smell closed in around her, unlike anything she had ever smelled before. Both dirty and clean; something like a food smell but also like the desert sand. She concentrated. The smell was the sea.
And now she made out the ripple and gleam of the water in the middle distance. It shone where the lights caught it, as it would at home. A puddle under a streetlight or a washing dish in a gloomy courtyard, reflecting the stars. The map in her mind told her they would be companions from now on.
Afghans were good at waiting, Roya’s father sometimes said. They could queue for a ride on a truck, for a loaf of bread, for some sort of official questioning. They could outlast the sky’s pale stare for a few drops of rain. They’d waited out the Soviets, he’d said, then the mujahideen, then the Talibs and the Americans. Afghans were a patient people, he told her, and they would wait out the Talibs again. But it was the Talibs who lost their patience with him.
There were police standing around in their grand uniforms, Roya saw. Casually, not because anyone was in trouble, and they were smiling and shaking hands with other men. The police in Herat wore robes, and they certainly didn’t smile. These police had gold stars and badges and all sorts of decorations on their tight shirts. They looked like American police. Cowboy, she mouthed silently. Sheriff.
She watched them smoking, turning their backs discreetly to shuffle wads of money. One of the men was older than the others, dressed like a businessman. He laughed like he’d heard a rude joke. Something sparkled among his teeth. He clapped his hands sharply now and everyone turned to face him. He barked some orders and the crowd began to drift towards the edge where the concrete ended abruptly over the water.
A crush developed near the edge. Roya and Shafiqa found them- selves in the centre of it, careless elbows knocking sharply into Roya’s head. Her mother kept her close, arms linked protectively against the shouting and pushing. This only irritated Roya; it should be her protecting her mother, not the other way around. A boy fell and someone stepped on him so that he squealed in pain before his father hauled him up again.
She’d seen pictures of boats in books, but this—it was so tall! The bow, a dirty timber wall sweeping upwards in a great curve from her right to her left. The cabins were stacked on top of each other like cigar boxes, and atop the front deck a small red and white flag hung motionless in the lazy night air. The Indonesian flag, Roya knew: her English book had a page devoted to the flags of the world—Union Jack, Hammer and Sickle, Maltese Cross—and the one that filled her with such mixed feelings: the mosque, the golden leaves and sacred words. Afghanistan.
The boat was a thing of wonder: its dark bulk, its subtle movement against the wharf, bumping lightly on the slimy tyres that were slung as fenders. She could feel its enormous weight suspended by the water, an immensely powerful animal testing its leash. Greeny-blue paint, flaking now; dark spills of rust weeping under the metal fittings. A little tired; but perhaps this was the way of all boats. It had been important to people, she thought, but was forgotten now. Forgotten people on a forgotten boat.
Shafiqa gripped her hand tightly as they approached the edge. One of the men had moved closer, pushing people onto the gangway plank. Roya placed her feet carefully on each of the small steps that had been nailed across for traction, the heads of the nails pressing through the thin soles of her sandals. Cigarette smoke made clouds overhead; voices hurried them.
Her mother guided her to a space behind the high sides of the boat. Roya sat cross-legged on the deck, feeling the alien swaying for the first time: they were no longer of the land, but now of the sea. A man came past, handing out bright orange jackets with reflectors on them, clips and buckles. Roya sniffed the clumsy object, as she often did with things that aroused her curiosity: plastics and mould, and old diesel like the generator at the library.
She checked her treasures, the things from which she would never be parted: her father’s ring, heavy and scrolled, tumbling like a snail in the pocket her mother had sewn into her dress; and her English book—a worn copy of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, between the pages of which she kept the photograph she loved.
Her mother. The ring. The book and the photograph. Between them she strung the globes of her hope.
She checked over her mother once more and received a smile in return. Satisfied, she curled up and turned her face back to the orange jacket. A single word had been written across it in heavy black capitals. She rolled the new word around in her mouth several times: