The sea raced past the window. The train clack-clacked on the post-flood bridge we were passing over. I imagined the original tracks below us, probably covered in coral now and supporting a nice little ecosystem.
“The next station is . . . Sarina.”
My phone buzzed: ten new messages. I was thinking about the assignment I had to write for school, the one that was I was supposed to finish by the end of the week and send in. Our topic was “To what extent was the Northern War caused by the Antarctic Collapse?” All they wanted was a cut-paste-‘n’-rephrase from the textbook, and I’d done that this morning during the first part of the trip, but hadn’t written the conclusion yet.
I checked the messages: mostly ads from the dining car (they were selling those new marshmallow chrysanthemum drinks), but my mother had sent two.
Hey little chicken, this is bad news for your work experience. They won’t let you out there. No one can go out or in. I’m sorry, I know you’ll be terribly disappointed. You’ll have to stay up in Mackay and come back tomorrow, or as soon as they let you.
Keigha-girl, it’s Mum. some news here in the office, the cities are going to be closed, including Mackay, Rockhampton, Gladstone, as well as Ip-Bris. This is not public yet. Don’t worry, it won’t happen until tonight, so you will get in okay.
I read the messages twice, then felt the disappointment hit me. It was visceral, a hollowness in the stomach, an urge to swallow.
I pressed reply. The cursor blinked at me.
What do you mean being closed? Are you sure I won’t be able to get out to Eungella?
Her reply came almost instantly.
Well, from midnight tonight there will be roadblocks around the cities, and people will need permits to enter or leave. I think they’re going to keep trains running between cities, but heavily guarded, so you will be able to get home no trouble.
Maybe the three of us can do something nice on the weekend.
I shut the message, and sat very still for a long time. Roadblocks. Permits. Could this be true?
For a few moments I was in disbelief, and then I felt furious. Why did this have to happen now? A week later and I would have been home from Eungella National Park. Even a few days later, and I would have at least been able to get out there.
I checked the news to see if anything had come up yet, but found nothing. Give it an hour, maybe. I wondered if the train people knew yet.
So it’d be hostel for me, then back home to Mt. Coot-tha, where I’d spend the week improving my essay and getting another 95. (The note on my last assignment said: Your ideas are way out, Keigha. But very well done, as usual. I’d like to see you stretch yourself and explore the other side of the debate next time.) Getting good marks was beginning to be a problem; they were just more supporting evidence for Peng’s argument that I had potential to succeed, potential which was going to waste.
Peng was my Mum’s new wife, and we’d argued about it just last night, while I was in my room packing. I’d opened my wardrobe to get out my army disposal shirts (all emblems and insignia carefully removed) and she’d lifted out my job interview suit and looked at it speculatively.
“You know, you could have a brilliant career,” she said, “in whatever you wanted. I just thought maybe no one’s ever told you that. It would be a terrible thing if no one ever said that to you, and you didn’t have the confidence to really go for it.”
“Believe me,” I said, “I’ve got the confidence.” I laid the shirts out on the bed with everything else, ready to go into the hybrid pack.
“I think you’re going to be bored to death out there in the bush,” she said, as if it had only just occurred to her.
“Thank you, Peng, I appreciate your input. But I can make my own decisions.”
“I know you can. There’s nothing we can do to stop you.”
I stuffed the shirts into the pack.
“Do you know that when my grandmother was nineteen,” I said, “she was travelling in Europe, alone?”
“Yes, your mother showed me the album. All those beautiful places.” Her mouth gave a little wistful quirk. “Not such a good idea now, though.”
“Ha ha. That’s not the point.”
“I know, dear. I know that it’s not. It’s just that I’ve been thinking.” She sat down on the bed in the space where the shirts had been. “You’re at a particular stage of life, Keigha. At your age, everyone has exciting ideas about what they’re going to do with their life, but you don’t really know that much. Now, don’t look at me like that, it’s true. You can only think ahead to the next five years, or so, to your exciting freedom from school, your new experiences, all that. And generally that’s okay for five or ten years, but then you start thinking that you want children, a partner, that you want to build something of your life. And then you have to go back to university, except you’ve only just begun to pay off the debt you got the first time round. It’s a disaster. That’s why grumpy old women like me say these things to you children.”
“You’re not that old, Peng.”
“I’m a lot older than you.”
Just then Mum finished in the kitchen and came in and sat on my desk.
“Won’t you worry about her?” Peng asked her. “It’s so dangerous out there now.”
Mum just sighed. “It is an official national park.”
“I don’t believe that for a second,” Peng said. “The whole of Parks and Wildlife has been infiltrated by bushies. They’re all sympathisers.”
“Well, what’s the big deal with that?” I asked.
“Keigha, those people are misguided. And they’re not as harmless as everyone says. Soon as the government cracks down, it’s all going to hell. Those refugee communities are almost lawless, you know. One of my colleagues has been out there and told me all about it.”
I shoved my floppy hat down along the side of the pack, submerging my arm up to the elbow. I wanted to tell her she was wrong. The bushies were well-organised, even if they were divided into little pockets. They were a positive, constructive resistance; they were the ones sheltering the dissidents who fled from the cities, and accepting the refugees who still continued to come from the north, when the government would have left them to starve.
“What I’m really worried about is this, Keigha. That because of all these trips to national parks, all these essays you’ve written for school, you’ll become marked as a sympathiser. And when you eventually decide that you want a real job, all the doors will be closed to you.”
For some reason, that made me frightened, and angry at being frightened, so I argued with her for some time, insisted that things were not that bad.
But today I thought perhaps they were.
The network in the train’s economy carriages was too narrow to do much real investigating, so I took my phone, my pack, and my daypack down to the dining car. I squeezed myself and my stuff into the booth seat closest to the door at the far end, where I could pick up the business class network.
I buzzed for one of the marshmallow chrysanthemum drinks, then got down to some serious searching. It was difficult to get out of the mainstream net. I hadn’t known how to do it until my friend Ike had shown me. It wasn’t as if they prevented you from doing it, they just had various ways of making it difficult.
By the time I’d finished my drink, I’d got onto one of the bushies’ news logs, writing out of “a permaculture village somewhere in Central Queensland.”
We are all on alert here, as we have just received intelligence to the effect that the govt are going to send a bombing raid from Amberley. We’re not worried about ourselves, as we have plenty of room in our shelter for all of us, but we’re a little bit worried about our gardens.
There is a feeling among us that battle lines are being drawn. Perhaps the time when we can be complacent is over. But if anything, I think this will unite us, strengthen our resolve.
This has not appeared yet on the gov-corp news sites, probably because they don’t want to tip us off. Too late! We saw a recon plane about an hour ago and are ready to go into the shelters at a moment’s notice.
I stared at the screen of my phone for some time. Then I remembered to look around the dining car. No one was watching me. Nothing had changed. The aircon was still cool on my neck; the man in the corner still frowned at his Happy Snak.
I felt dizzy, and wondered if I was coming down with something, or if I was about to cry.
I pulled my collar closer around my neck.
Through all my early adolescence I’d been wishing, in some unexpressed way, for something decisive to happen, for this confusing state of mixed loyalties and partial convictions to resolve, to collapse into right and wrong. I wanted it to make sense, all of it, even the things that were too big to make sense.
But I didn’t want this.
When Mum and Peng had got married, they’d sent me on a trip to Washpool National Park, to a tiny environment camp run by people who probably would have gone bush if New South Wales had been as repressive as Queensland, but had managed to remain legitimate taxpaying citizens of the Republic.
They took me bushwalking, and let me wander around on my own, far more, I’m sure, than Mum would have liked. And that was how I met Ike, because he was wandering, too. At first he wouldn’t tell me anything about himself; he said his name was Kino and that he was on holidays from Parramatta. That whole Ippy Grammar thing must have put him off, I guess, but after a while he figured out where my sympathies lay and let me in on the secret: he was passing messages from the bushies up north to their sympathisers in northern NSW.
It was all very romantic. He told me about what was going on, in between the bits where we were pashing off. I waited and waited and waited for him to ask me to join him, to run away to the resistance. But he didn’t. Maybe it was a policy or something. I had this feeling he felt sorry for my mother and Peng, and didn’t want them to lose me, or vice versa (his relationship with his folks was not that great, you see, so I think he idealised mine). I’d showed him the cutest picture from their wedding, where they stood in their red dresses with their arms around each other’s waists like schoolgirls, Peng slightly off-balance and almost falling against Mum.
What he didn’t understand, though, was that Mum didn’t really need me any more. She had Peng, now, and she would be okay.
I was never going to see Ike again, this was something I had accepted. It wasn’t the greatest tragedy of my life or anything. In fact, we had kind of grown sick of each other, like the way you do when you’re ten years old and you stay over at your best friend’s house two nights in a row, and run out of games to play.
I wanted to have my own stories about near misses with the authorities, to spend my days digging garden beds and talking about soil quality, instead of about Educational Outcome Scores; I didn’t love him, I wanted to be him.
“Now arriving at Sarina. The train will depart in five minutes.”
I pulled up a map of the area on my phone. Sarina was only about 35k south of Mackay, and Eungella lay to the northwest, a bit over 100k. Perhaps five or six days’ walk, depending on the terrain.
I pulled up a map of the area pre-flood, as was my habit. Sarina had been a little way inland, and there had been coastal towns: Hector, Halftide, Grasstree Beach, Zelma, Campwin Beach. All gone now.
I liked looking at pre-flood maps, knowing what had been there. I’d stuck on my wall a page of an old Refidex I’d found at Grandma’s house, showing inner-city Brisbane, with the blue river snaking across the page. Peng thought I was being morbid, or sentimental.
“I don’t see what we can learn from the flood,” she had said last night, when she’d seen the map above my desk. “It happened, and we had to live with it. We adapted and changed.”
“Millions of people died,” I said. “That’s not what I’d call a successful adaptation.”
“But the problem was self-correcting. Global emissions are low enough, now.”
“That’s because of the war, and I wouldn’t call that a successful adaptation either.”
“But it was self-correcting. You get warming and then you get cooling. Maybe we’re not in control of these things, Keigha. I just don’t see what it means now. It was just something that happened.”
“But it has to mean something. If it doesn’t mean anything. . . .”
I hadn’t been able to answer that question.
I put my phone down on the table, and hefted both packs. Out on the platform the sun made my eyes water and the heat made me sneeze.
Sarina was one of those tiny stations that had a ticket and baggage label machine, a kiosk, and not much else.
I looked out at the town, a small grid of streets, shiny rooves, jacarandas in bloom, surrounded by watermelon and cane farms, and beyond those the low mass of mountains, solid and green, just as I had seen on the map.
The station had a block of toilets, of the old and grubby kind. I took my time, washed my hands slowly, pack leaning against the cracked tile wall.
“Come on!” said a woman to a little girl, who was standing at the basin next to me. “You don’t want the train to leave without you, do you?”
The girl wiped her hands on her dress and the woman led her out the door. She didn’t even notice me.
I untied my hair and combed it slowly. My face stared back at me through the spotty mirror.
The train went through its noises of departure, electronic whistles, odd mechanical grunts and squeals, the announcement, which I heard very clearly, but only the sounds, not the words.
When the dull roar of it had died down, I shouldered my pack and went back out to the platform. Across the tracks I could see the shore, and the glittering sea. I stared at it for a while, then walked down the steps and onto solid ground.