Before the End of Their World
Tully is standing in line with the other girls. Since signing up she’d been told she would be relocated at the next community meeting. New relocatees got bamboo cotton tote bags and insulated water bottles. Sometimes there were recycled rubber wristbands in tote bags, the red, black and yellow wristbands were imprinted with the words: “hope.gov.au/article10.” A few days ago she had travelled to the station with a group she didn’t recognise, headphones in, eyes unfocussed, hoods up.
On the short bus ride they passed new demolished suburbs, busy with hazard uniforms. Biodegradable plastic plant guards flapped around dying seedlings in neatly fenced off lots. Hope Station was built on a narrow strip of land where the back opened to the Merri Merri. The front of the station welcomed visitors to a solid pine community hall, and it made Tully think of environmentally sustainable retreat advertisements and primary school camps. All the buildings tucked in behind the station were flimsy airless demountables.
That morning Tully walked out of her dorm to see policy officers wondering around the station. She could tell someone had told them to dress casual. They were all wearing polo shirts with various department slogans like ‘Decolonise Now’ and ‘Article 10’. Finally, doors moved and a frowning customer service worker let them in the hall. A registration desk with more polo shirts fills the front space. Tully waits until she gets waved over. She gives her customer registration number and watches while an assistant taps her details into the screen.
“I see you signed up to the Work for Restoration program last week.”
“Yeh I suppose. They told me I had to sign up to get my payments.”
“Thank you for your commitment. You are our future,” he says flatly. “Here are your relocation papers.” Handing over a stack of forms he quickly turns over pages showing her all the different places where she has to sign. Tully starts reading and the officer becomes agitated. Cold air con shrinks the room. Tully tries to concentrate as restless bodies keep inching the line closer.
“You can read the papers over there,” he snaps, pointing to some cardboard booths lined up against the wall. The assistant avoids looking at her, nods to next in line.
“I don’t understand. It says that I am relocating to Wurundjeri country, but my mob is from NSW.”
“You have been relocated according to the Article 10 Agreement.”
Tully reads the disclaimer at the bottom of the forms. I understand that by agreeing to the terms and conditions of my relocation I waive the right to any other forms of future compensation under Article 10 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A few rows up Tully sees a girl crying and refusing to sign the forms. Two protection officers move in and everyone watches with heavy silence as the girl is pulled towards the emergency exit. It reminds Tully of the time a ginger coppa pulled out pepper spray and called her a cunt while other gungies bounced her friend’s head off the ground. She was stuck to the bitumen for ages after the red and blue lights were gone. Tully hears the girl yelling now. She sinks into the square patches of grey government carpet and signs. The assistant smiles for the first time and stamps her papers. He tells Tully to line up again and wait for the welcome. She stands with the rest of the newly relocated women. A video link starts loading on a projected screen.
An older man is sitting behind a large desk staring directly at the camera. He’s wearing a business shirt but Tully can tell he’d be the type to wear RM Williams boots. There are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags displayed on gold flagpoles behind him. Congratulations on your relocation. I am Assistant Protector Williams. I am honoured to welcome you to your new home, Hope Station. Through your dedication to country we have hope. Hope for a future. Hope to slow the devastating ecological impact of our species. After the landmark Agreement for Article 10 was signed we have been working hard to implement the new policy.
“What the fuck is this gub talking about?” someone yells, chucking a dirty reusable coffee cup at the screen. The video feed continues.
The right to just and fair compensation for land, enshrined within the Declaration, was legislated by all levels of state, territory and federal governments. In good faith, after extensive community consultation with your leaders, the standard of free prior and informed consent for relocation has finally been achieved. You are now among the first Aboriginal people to return. You are our future.
The cup thrower protests to no one in particular, “I’m only here cause they stopped my payments and signed me up to this poxy fucking card.” The audio cut off and the room hums as the video loop loads and starts again.
Congratulations on your relocation…
It’s grey and hot under the bridge. Tully knows he is gonna be late. She scratches the letter ‘T’ into the base of the wide concrete arch. Things were different at the creek lately. No plastic bottles and wrappers caught in sprawling rotten branches now. Just clean water. Last time she was rotated on the collection team the discoloured filmy water was low. The station suspended collections after that, said it was contamination. She only returned to the creek cause she started breaking out at night. That’s how she met him.
Rubber tyres crunch over gravel. Tully watches him drop his bike and swing his backpack off one shoulder. He is real neat, Tully thinks. He is wearing black air max 95s and poppers. He grins at her showing his crooked front teeth.
“Protectors on the lookout tonight or what?” he asks.
“Nah big day planting kangaroo grass out on the new demo burbs. Everyone is resting up for sure.”
“Alright then.” He unzips his backpack and pulls out a Gatorade bottle complete with a cut off piece of hose sticking out. “Just cleaned her out today too.” He points at the murky bottom.
“You know we not allowed plastic, anyone sees it they’ll be more mad about rubbish than the yandi.”
He coughs out smoke and grins again handing her the bong, generously offering the rest of his bowl.
“Go on then.” Tully grabs the lighter.
She didn’t much like the feeling but it was worth sneaking out of the station. Getting around fences, talking however she wanted. That’s why she met up with him.
“Ay. Look at my eyes, are my eyes ok?” His speech drawls. She flicks the lighter and gets real close to his face. Tully nods and laughs through her nose. She moves her hand over his and passes back the Gatorade bottle. Pushes up against him, moves his hand down between her stomach and the top of her jeans. His lips taste like smoke and gum.
Bursts of static noise travels over the water. Tully looks towards the bend in the creek bed. Lights move up and down in the distance: a spotter is sweeping the area.
“Come on.” He lifts his bike, one foot resting on the pedal. Tully steps on the stunt pegs and grabs him around the shoulders. He takes off skidding towards the creek trail.
They ride until they reach the edge of the grasslands. Tully squeezes his shoulder and he slows down. Coming around the bottleneck they stop at high fences and security gates. Solar LED light bounces off yellow flowering seedlings.
“I’m not staying,” he says.
“Alright.” Tully jumps off the bike, and he rides away with one last crooked smile. She walks up to the gates and looks through wire. Only protection officers can access the murnong. Freshly demolished suburban plots had been turned into mandatory murnong restoration areas. Tully hated Hope. The girls have to work on restoration fields all day.
She steps back and takes a running jump at the fence climbing upwards. Not so gracefully she flops her leg over the top, tummy squished against wire as she rolls her body over and climbs down the other side. She walks over to the shed and grabs a digging stick. She starts attacking the fields turning out tubers and throwing them over the fence. Tully can see spotter lights in the distance again. She doesn’t stop. She doesn’t care anymore. She wants it to end.
Two protection officers had already reached the security gates.
“Stop what you are doing,” one yells, drawing out his stun gun.
“I’m stealing ya murnong ya dawgs.”