Backing his car cautiously out of the driveway, Jak checked both left and right. Nothing coming, nothing parked. Nothing in the rear-view mirror or the door mirrors. He twisted round in his seat; no movement. Left and right again, still clear. Safe to make the wide sweep to the far side of the road. This was, Jak thought, perhaps illegal. It was a long time since he had passed the driving test, with the aid of a helpful interpreter. He had thought of backing into the drive instead, but of course only remembered when it was too late. Next time. Still no traffic, passing or parked. Safe.
Such a wonderful quiet suburb. All the roads connected in repeating patterns. It was easy to get lost, thinking you knew where you were until the moment came to turn in and it was the wrong house. The newer developments had swirling curves called “drives” and “boulevards”, but the original estates, like this one, were grids of “streets” and “avenues”. The old houses were smaller, but the blocks were bigger, and had sprouted pools, tennis courts, and second storey extensions. What with the trees and vine-hung pergolas you could no longer tell that the houses had also been built to a pattern.
Driving through the sequence of cross-roads leading to the highway, Jak always noted the familiar and the un-familiar. In the years he had lived here much had changed. This suburb had always attracted migrant families. At first they had been overwhelmingly Italian, but now it was hard to keep track. The newsagent had a wall of papers in more languages and scripts than Jak had ever realised existed, and at the shopping centre there were three distinctly different delicatessens. Yet there was never any overt sign of ethnicity — no clubs, none of the ostentatious religious structures Jak had seen elsewhere. The Italian Community Centre, built with such pride and dedication, had been sold to a private school, the remaining members relocated to an inconspicuous, planning-blighted house behind what used to be the council offices.
Jak had always felt a little exposed amongst the Italians, who knew he was not Italian, yet still a fellow foreigner. Now, in the miasma of anonymous ethnicities, he felt almost invisible. Even the deli staff had no idea of the history of the wrinkled sausage he bought every Saturday. Only the proprietor knew anything about the stock, or about Jak, and he was not going to talk. Their eyes never met, no hint of recognition.
After Helen left him Jak had thought of moving. The girls had already made their own lives, he could do what he liked, move to another city, perhaps another state. But it was all too complicated. He had looked at other suburbs, even flown to the far end of the country where houses were cheaper and the air smelt strange. It was no good. Whenever he walked into a shop, or sat in a park, he felt again as he had felt in those days before they got out. Vulnerable. Hunted. Things he preferred not to think about. But when you live alone the thoughts come to you unbidden. A year and a half of desperate debate against unwelcome voices that would drift across his mind like wisps of smoke, whispering quiet poisons. Oh what winds he had conjured up to scatter them! What storms, tempests of the will! Yet when all was calm again, into his tranquillity they would seep, again and yet again, like the dragon that calmly grows back ten heads for every one you cut off.
The company headquarters was a short drive down the highway. Smart, modern, set back behind bushes, the car park dotted with trees and sunken so that to the passing motorist it appeared like an elegant garden. Jak parked in his usual spot. He arrived earlier than most, not through any love of his work, but as a habit from when the girls were at school. Helen would drive them there in the morning, before going on to her plant nursery, and Jak would collect them in the afternoon. There had often been some sporting practice or a band rehearsal, so he had taken to visiting the public library, haunting the history shelves, reading book reviews, just in case.
He kept up with the news. Television was useless, the regional broadcast absurdly parochial. The Internet was for him a many-paned window, some panes coloured, some distorted. Some were only mirrors. But overall it was a giddying panorama that Jak found compulsive. He felt a little safer, knowing more of what was going on in the world than did all those people who knew only what Australian television and newspapers thought they should know.
His employers seemed to like him, or like what he did for them. He was an attentive and observant listener, a methodical planner, content to apply whatever methodology was mandated. Experience had taught him that all methodologies are flawed and that one must invent one’s own unique parallel approach to every problem, so that the forms could be filled and the boxes ticked while ensuring that the job was actually done to everyone’s satisfaction. It meant more work, but it brought praise, promotion, and respect. Jak liked respect.
By the time Jak walked back to the car park in the afternoon, the sun had dropped down behind the screen of trees by the highway, setting them black against the clear pale sky. It was like home, he thought, in autumn. The low light, that cold incandescence burning in the black haze of branches. Behind them lay the highway that would take him home; home now, not then. In the car he put on a tape of folk songs he had found at a school fete, years ago, in a job lot, five dollars the box. Brave, poignant, evocative; he might sing them as he drove but he would be noticed.
Jak slowed down for the speed hump as he turned into his street. People around here mostly parked in their drives, or sometimes on the wide grass verges, but today there was a van by the kerb, two houses down from his own. He had not seen it before, but it was parked in the same spot a car had been last week. An old car with tinted windows. Today it was a white, unmarked van with silver windows. Instead of turning into his drive, Jak drove on, past the van, and tried to see if there was anyone inside. The cab seemed empty. He drove on. What should he do? If it was just a van it would not matter if he went round the block again to his home. But if someone were watching they might guess he was suspicious. So he decided to do some shopping, he would need milk tomorrow anyway.
The supermarket was thronged with people in their work clothes, men with their ties defiantly loosened, women in drab sagging black suits and colourful trainers on their feet. He bought milk and bread, oil, cling-wrap, a few jars he would need soon enough. Coffee he always bought from the small delicatessen as the supermarket did not stock any brand he liked. As Jak walked away from the counter he felt that the proprietor, who never served him, had looked at him, had “shot him a glance” as they say, though it was hard to tell behind the thick lenses. Had someone been asking about him? He turned quickly, as if having forgotten some purchase, but nobody stopped, swerved aside or even paused. Jak looked in his bag as if checking it, then resumed his course back to the car.
You are paranoid, he told himself. Not without cause, he responded. But it had been so long, he was safe here, just another vaguely foreign face in a world of strangers looking for a home. He drove back. Yes, the van was still there, but at this time of day whoever it was might just be visiting or dropping off children from school.
The house was quiet. Jak put on the television, but although it made the place less empty, less desolate, he turned it off. He would rather be able to hear what was really going on, even if it was nothing. He made dinner, earlier than usual, and turned on his computer while it cooked, sifting the news. BBC, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Le Monde, Die Welt.
The timer rang, Jak ate, no wine tonight, he felt too much on edge to enjoy it. He had never been psychic, when Helen nearly died giving birth to Sofia he had been completely oblivious, sitting outside the operating theatre reading a book. It must be the van. Perhaps he could phone Sofia. Annette, on the other side of the world, might still be asleep. Sofia might be at home, or she might have gone out. And he had no excuse to call, just hello how are you I miss you have you heard from your mother there is a van outside I am afraid there is nowhere left to hide I am sorry please forgive me it is hard to explain but you must understand how things were back then.
What would she remember of their escape from the final collapse of the republic? So long ago, so far away, and she had been a child playing with her little sister in the orchard. He had come back in the middle of the night. He and Helen had talked for hours. Argued, perhaps, he could not be sure. Cried, certainly. Then the hurried and secretive packing, and a day spent pretending he was not there and nothing had changed. The next night he had unhooked the loose fence panel, prepared long since, and they had driven off across a field, with no lights, to a track, and then a road, and down to the holiday cove, not much more than half an hour of winding through the moonlit hills to the estuary.
They had bought that house back in the days when the old regime had seemed to be maturing into something that might possibly be able to adapt and survive. But they had felt it was safer for the children to live in the country at a time that was sure to bring its share of turmoil. Also the house was quite near the little shack on the sea’s edge that they had treasured all their married life. The coast was wonderful in the summer. Spring, too, but it was then late autumn and cold mists hung over the water. He had hidden the car in a barn and they had waited in the shack, shivering. At last came a brief blink of light from out at sea. He answered with another, the blink again, then left his torch lit as a guide. The black rubber dinghy needed three trips to get them and their luggage to the ship. The girls by then were wet with spray, frozen, whimpering softly, holding tight to Helen.
Jak recalled, almost fondly, standing on the bridge of the ship as it crept out beyond the islands and into deep water. International water. It had taken a great deal of organising. Jak and his family were not refugees, they had papers, passports, visas, new identities. And money; gold sovereigns. Helen knew about the sovereigns, but not about the uncut diamonds, or about anything else. He had known even then that this was to be the high point of his life, that the future would be one of anonymity and carefully nurtured obscurity.
They had moved erratically from continent to continent for half a year, collecting the proceeds of various semi-legal commercial arrangements, until they were able to qualify to enter Australia as business migrants. There had been something agreeable, heady, about being a citizen of the world. Jak would happily have kept moving; he had enough contacts and expertise to make a decent living out of humanity’s troubles. But the girls needed to go to school, and Helen wanted to put down roots, quite literally to grow things. She had not liked the cosmopolitan life.
After dinner Jak slipped out of the back door, round the side of the house, and across the front lawn. The van had gone. It was, perhaps, just a van after all. But if not, then what was it? Surely the government, finally aware of who he had been, what he had done. But why would they watch him? They would tap his phone, open his mail, hide a camera in the power pole across the road, not send a white van with mirror windows and watchers; that cost money. But these days of course they had money, for the War on Terror. Did they think he was a terrorist? What he had done had been done openly, in uniform, on direct, if unspecific, orders from people you kept on good terms with if you wanted to see your children grow up. There always have to be sacrifices for the good of … whatever. Jak quietly closed the back door, went through to the lounge and sat in silence.
They had called it a republic but it was no more than a criminal conspiracy taking advantage of an inflamed and self-deluding military ethos. Everyone had gone along with it, no-one dared oppose it. There were flags, marching bands, speeches, praise, promotion, respect for authority. Jak liked respect. They had given him a medal. He had kept it, until the day Helen left him. He had gone down to the beach, spent the day getting drunk, and in the moonlight walked to the point, whirled the heavy, jagged thing by its bloody ribbon, sent it spinning and fluttering far out into the grinding surf.
If not the government, then it could be the old republic. What might they want; his money, his support, his life? But everybody had grabbed what they could and got out, just like him, to seek some quiet refuge, a pretend life. Maybe not all. Some of them could never see a good thing and let it be. They might be trying to stage a comeback.
In some ways the idea was attractive. Action again after so many years of docility. Power, vengeance, the chance to tidy up loose ends. Get it right this time and erase the errors of the past. But it did not work like that, in the office up the highway, yes, but not in real life. Too many people knew too much, he could never reach them all, and by now the story would be an accepted part of history, written down, there would be a monument and a day of remembrance with flowers and processions of children. Anyhow, it would never work, the republic had been so monstrous that only monsters would dream of its resurrection.
Am I a monster? Jak pondered. What was it that drove Helen away? Was it the clinging scent of evil? She said he had become cold, lifeless, boring, and not the man she had married. Which was true. At work his nickname was “Grey”. His hair was grey, he seemed to choose grey clothes as a matter of course. His car was grey, too, come to think of it. Looking around the room, there was no colour in it, he had taken down the pictures and put away the vases. There was an old black and white photo of himself in uniform. And one each of the girls from their school days. He had put them in silver frames, and set them on the mantelpiece.
The fireplace had been boarded up long before they had moved in. With ducted heating it was not needed. But the hearth was still there, well proportioned and tiled in warm red, with a sort of fleur de lys pattern here and there. Jak remembered the fireplaces of his life. Childhood and woodfires in the country with his English grandmother. The novelty of crumpets and honey, his sister playing the piano by lamplight. The dancing shadows on the Christmas tree. Christmas had been his grandmother’s special creation, a day of good will and trust. Warmth and security in the midst of cold and darkness. An illusion, as it turned out. Next came university and the city; coal fires in narrow grates. Earnest discussions of politics and religion with cold coffee and stale biscuits. Then family life, the country again and big log fires in that fairytale mansion looking down the valley towards the sunset. After that for a while came the campfires in draughty ruins where one burnt anything that came to hand, often doused in diesel to drive out the damp. And the last two nights at home. In spite of the tension somehow idyllic. They had built up the fire and sat by it until the last minute, then left it burning to keep smoke rising from the chimney.
Jak stood up and examined the fireplace. The cladding was thin, probably masonite, and seemed to be fastened with eight nails. Jak went out to the shed and selected a few tools. He had not so much as hung a picture in a decade, yet now he was about to make a significant, maybe symbolic, change to the room he spent most of his time in. Drill, hole saw, claw hammer. He was armed again. He felt good, strong, real.
He drilled a hole near the top left corner of the cladding and sawed out enough to get one hand and the hammer through. Knocking from the inside, he loosened the nails, and levered the cladding away. Surprisingly, the grate was still there.
Jak returned the tools to the shed, and poked around in the corner. There had been some old fire irons under the house when they had moved in. He had cleaned and stored them. Still there. Now for wood. There was a brick barbecue in the garden. It had not been used since Helen left, but it was still stocked up for that summer that had died stillborn.
What if the chimney were blocked? Jak lit a sheet of newspaper, the smoke shot straight up the flue. Good. He knew how to build a fire. Paper and small stuff, a cone-shaped stack, fire begat fire. Pine cones would help. There were some, somewhere. Years ago Sofia had painted them with silver paint and glitter for Christmas. They had sat in a bowl on the mantelpiece until he put them away with the vases.
Had it been a Christmas as Christmas should be, as his grandmother had shown him? Had any Christmas approached that ideal since they had escaped? Jak could remember the laughter, the presents, the hugs, candles, cakes and puddings. And the tree, naturally. The girls decorated the tree.
How many fathers kill themselves at Christmas, unable to bear the torment of guilt and loathing; unable to repress the scream building up inside? Why do people need to desecrate the holiest temples of the soul? No, it could not be avoided, guilt did not spread like butter. Why had he desecrated the holiest temples of his own soul? In the midst of horror he would sit and watch the days of joy unfold as if behind a screen of armoured silence. Helen and the girls worked together to make the festival complete. Jak knew that they were doing it in part for him, to bring back some of the life that seemed to be seeping away from him. He did what he could to make it work, he bought surprise presents, like sacrifices to a vengeful god, and sang them the songs his grandmother had sung. He sang them well, brought out the warmth and happiness in them, even he felt free again for a while. Every year he survived, every year on the twelfth day he cut up and burnt the tree. Why? the girls asked. For luck, he told them. For absolution, he told himself.
The fire took well enough without pine cones. Jak turned out the centre light, and with only a table lamp by the window he drew his chair near the hearth. It was almost like company. He imagined a dog, stretched out at his feet, or a cat lying on the back of the chair behind his head, purring. Trusting. It would be an undeserved trust. On winter nights long ago, too many times, he remembered the splintering of door frames, the warm air spilling out, screams, shots. Dogs barking, children crying. How he had hated those nameless children crying, as if in reproach, as if he, and not they, were at fault. As if they knew him. Criminal subversives, traitors, it had to be done, to clean and purify the land, for the security of the republic. In fact for nothing. The republic was a fantasy played out with the lives of the innocent.
Jak had joined the militia when the police fled and law broke down. Someone had to take control, and for a while it worked, while it was run by men of good will. But there were others, charismatic, visionary, ruthless. Probably quite mad. They would not have prospered in a proper army. From the republic protecting the people, to protecting the republic from the people, it had not taken long. There was no turning back, traitors were all around. It had seemed so real, the treason so palpable, so pervasive. Delirium.
Inevitably it unravelled, each militia band became a little dukedom. Wars broke out, raids, invasions, massacres. History re-enacted on a small scale. Why? Nothing had been learnt. Without the rule of law chaos will prevail and the world spirals into the abyss.
Jak had been a loyal captain to his duke, hoping that order might be restored, law re-established. He had hoped, as a lawyer, to be able to influence whatever new regime arose, to build a new and better legal system, free of the inequities and corruption that had so fatally undermined the old.
But his commander, his duke, was content to rule by decree and arbitrary judgement. He saw law as the servant of power, gave his military officers the rights of prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner. Unlike some others, Jak had not abused this power. No need to make more enemies.
With the passing of the years dreams and memories had compounded and confused the facts and the rumours. And the fantasies, too. Jak had hated the people his duke had sent him to rule over. Hated them for not appreciating the beneficence of his firm hand, his attempts to restrain the thugs under his command. Hated both for their lack of respect. Jak had worked hard as a lawyer to deserve respect, had indeed been respected by colleagues and clients alike. The people were different. They despised him. They were incapable of loyalty to himself, his duke, or the republic. They were loyal only to each other and their outmoded, half pagan culture.
Perhaps he had been ill. Certainly he was tired, stressed, at his wits’ end as to how to cope with both these impossible people and his incompetent and repellent troops. He could almost convince himself that it was their fault, those devious psychopaths in uniform; that what he had ordered done was a demonstration of the consequences of their own grotesque logic, a properly organised and public version of what they did when they kicked in cottage doors at night. Or was it the people, their defiance, their determination to ignore his authority and go about their lives as if he and the republic did not exist? He would make them pay attention. As it was Christmas, he would hold a feast, he would make them come. There would be a roasting ox, and beer. And a tree. Can a gift given in anger bring anything but sorrow?
Jak did not want to remember, or imagine, any further. He was used to blotting out sections of the past. Alcohol did not help, apart from the few minutes before he passed out, when he could barely think at all. No, better to fill the mind with something else, pass by with eyes averted, pretend not to have noticed. Don’t look back. You might turn into a pillar of salt. And have to look back for ever.
If there were candles or an oil lamp in the house he would light them and turn off the electricity. Stop the humming of the fridge. Sheep instead of the lawnmower. An old horse and a little cart. A spade, a rake and a hoe. Nights of true silence, when you can hear your ears creak. On such nights the past does not exist.
The phone rang. Jak ran to the study, turned on the light, and, blinking in the glare, picked up the handset.
‘Dad? It’s Annette!’
‘Wonderful! Wonderful! How are you? How is the job? Do you like London? It must have changed since I was there.’
‘I’m sure it has, Dad, but I’m in The Hague now, someone got pregnant and resigned would you believe, didn’t even take maternity leave first — there’s probity for you — so I’ve been busy moving in and setting up. This is the first chance I’ve had to phone you.’
Jak knew only one thing about The Hague. Annette, without prompting, had seized upon Law in Year Eleven and had pursued it vigourously ever since. She had her mother’s persistence and his logicality. He was proud of her, but found her intellect daunting. Much as he adored Annette he was more relaxed talking with Sofia, who was like him, an impractical romantic, and would forgive him any sin.
‘I should not be telling you this, it is all confidential, but you are my dad and there is not much to tell. I spotted your name, your old name, that is, on a list of people who might be investigated one day.’
‘My old name?’
‘Yes. Remember how I always brought your letters from the letterbox? I know that name well, and many of the senders’ names on the backs of the envelopes. They fascinated me, those stamps and seals, names, ranks, titles. It made you, and us, seem so important.’
‘I was, in a way. For a while.’
‘Anyhow, there was an incident, a month or so before we left, as the republic was failing. The name and rank fit, it happened quite close to our home and I know you were responsible for that region — you and Mum used to talk about it. I don’t know what the incident was, that is filed elsewhere and I don’t have the authority to see it. You are just ‘of interest’, not on an arrest list. I don’t want you to worry, but I thought you would like to know anyway.’
Jak felt cold and numb. Only long practice held him back from confessing to everything, anything, real or imagined.
‘Many bad things happened then. Things that should not have happened. It was so long ago, but it seems to get closer every day.’
‘Don’t worry too much, Dad, that whole era is so foggy, from a legal perspective, so Cold War, that I think the pollies won’t want it dug over. How’s Mum?’
‘She doesn’t phone. Still has her trees and shrubs up on the mountain. When I last saw her she was brown and wind-blown and her eyes twinkled like they used to. She is better off without me, I am too depressing, too dull. Empty. Sofia rang the other day. I still don’t understand what she does, market research or analysis or something. She is in love again. Are you in love, Annette?’
‘I haven’t time, Dad, and anyhow lawyers are so stuffy! Actually I know a really sweet policeman but I wouldn’t call it love, not yet. You should find someone to hug, Dad. It really helps.’
‘Or get a cat.’
‘Oh Dad! You’re allergic to cats! I must go, give my love to whoever. Bye!’
Jak slowly replaced the handset. Yes, he was allergic to cats. One memory buried at least. He turned out the light and returned to the lounge. The fire was low, he would need more wood from the barbecue if he was to sit up any longer.
As he reached the back door, Jak felt apprehensive. Someone might be waiting for him. With a silenced pistol, or a club. Or maybe chloroform. They might want him to talk. First. If the Cold War powers were content to bury his tale, there were others who might want to exercise their own idea of justice. As he had himself.
He opened the door and stepped into the darkness.