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There are five of them crammed into a white council ute, speeding through the waking city. Jackhammers and shovels rattle in the tray. The young guys in the back are knee-to-knee in work pants and steel-capped boots. One of them slugs at a Farmers Union iced coffee. It’s Monday morning in Melbourne and just past dawn. The sun ripples bronze across the high-rises above, licks out from laneways like a golden tongue.
Big Toff’s driving. He’s a reassuring bulk up there in the front, not even forty but big and dark and weathered. His massive shoulders protrude from either side of his seat. Next to him, Archie looks tiny. The old man’s barely five foot and all sinew, wired tight like an old-time bantamweight boxer. His scowl is cast-iron with concentration. He rifles the paperwork with tattooed hands, one last time.
Relax, Uncle, Toff says. He speaks with the sharp, tumbling cadences of the Western Desert. You can’t beat ’em?
Archie looks up and cracks a grin. He puts the papers back in the glove box.
Past the CBD, Toff swings the ute off St Kilda Road into the cool green of Kings Domain. They crawl along the Triumphal Avenue with their hazard lights winking, and on up to the Shrine of Remembrance. The blunt stone monument squats above the city like a misplaced Greek temple.
Toff parks on the forecourt next to three other council utes. One’s got a small excavator on the back. The Shrine’s sober grey stone is a colourful confusion of workers in high-vis vests. They’re setting up a safety perimeter. A hard-case woman in mirror shades hammers a white planning sign into the grass.
Archie climbs from the cab and jams his foreman’s hardhat over short, wiry grey hair. He looks out over the sharp glass spires of the city skyline, as if appraising their value. Then he looks up at the Shrine.
All right you mob, Archie calls. Let’s get to work!
By the time the police arrive, the paved forecourt and wide granite steps are a mess of smashed rock. The excavator has piled the debris to one side, where a team sift the dirt with wire-mesh pans. A small crowd has gathered at the safety perimeter. A police cruiser pulls in beside the utes. Archie’s shoulders hunch tight. Toff drops his sledgehammer and walks quickly over.
Let me, he says.
A sergeant and a constable step from the cruiser. Both have heavy rings under their eyes, like they’re on the end of a long night shift.
You with the council? the sergeant shouts. The percussion of jackhammers is unrelenting.
Yeah, Toff yells.
You the boss?
I’m the spokesman.
The policeman cups a hand to his ear. What?
You’ve got a nice tan! Toff yells.
White man master plan! Hang on. Toff signals the others to stop work, and soon a dusty silence settles over the Domain. What’s the problem?
We had reports of someone vandalising the war memorial. But you’re council, right?
Right, Toff says.
What are you doing? Maintenance?
Not quite, Toff says. Here. He gestures to the white planning sign, then folds his thick arms across his chest. He waits with a half-smile.
The sergeant leans down and reads. His businesslike expression ruptures with surprise. He looks up at Toff. Serious?
Mineral Exploration Licence?
Mineral Exploration Licence. G280. Eight weeks, eighty metres down, mining lease if we hit paydirt.
Paydirt? You mean you’re digging for – ?
Gold. We’re digging for gold.
Right, the sergeant says. He runs a hand along his stubble-rough jaw. Gold. This is kind of unusual. You got any paperwork?
Sure, Toff says. I got a 27F, all the back checks, an ECB and two double oh fours. Want them all?
The sergeant shrugs. Toff ducks his bulk under the safety tape and retrieves the papers from the ute. The sergeant reads in silence.
Hang on a minute, he says. Land Council? You’re from the Aboriginal Land Council? He looks sharply up at Toff and the work gang behind him. Is this some kind of stunt?
A mostly elderly crowd has drifted up behind them. In the front is an unusually tall old man in a blue blazer with a red poppy pinned to his lapel. He hovers behind the sergeant, radiating distress like an old-fashioned bar heater.
Activists, moans the old man. They’re activists.
Toff’s black eyes are trenched deep in his fleshy face, but they’re shining. He’s been waiting for this. He laughs. Were activists, he says. We were activists. Now we’re the Aboriginal Land Council – of Minerals.
The sergeant shakes his head. What’s your point, he says. What are your demands?
No demands, Toff says. This ain’t a protest action. You know what they say. If you can’t beat ’em. He smiles and shrugs. Now we’re a real-deal mining company. This is totally legit.
The sergeant stares at him like he doesn’t believe a word. For the first time in his life, Toff feels the righteousness of bureaucracy rising up in him. Call the Department of Crown Lands, he says. The number’s on the forms.
The sergeant looks sceptical, but he pulls out his phone and dials the number. He is put on hold. After a long wait a bored operator comes on the line. The sergeant paces while he talks, one hand shading his eyes from the glare.
Who signed off on this? Sure. Yes. Sorry. 27F? Yes. Two double oh fours. Two of them, right. And how much? Jesus. Where’d they get that kind of money? No, it’s not a set of GPS coordinates, it’s a war memorial. No, that is not fascinating. It’s – what? A typo? A fucking typo? What? Online complaint form? Wait –
The sergeant stares at his phone in frustration. The rings under his eyes have deepened.
See, Archie calls, a challenge in his voice. The old man walks towards the group, his orange vest flapping round his shoulders like a modern possum-skin cloak. All paid up, he says. We’ve got a permit to do this. Your laws, mate, so you’re with us on this one.
Permits can be revoked, the sergeant says. Who are you?
Archie Ryan. I’m the CEO.
I know you, the sergeant says. You’re a serial protester. You’re at everything. Any cause that’ll have you.
Toff puts a restraining hand on Archie’s shoulder, and when the old man speaks, his voice is weary and tight.
We’re done protesting. No-one gives a shit about land rights in this country any more. This is a commercial mining operation. You need an injunction to stop us. C240, Federal, with under-written DCBs. Takes weeks to get, and easy as piss to overturn. While you’re waiting you could keep that mob under control. They’ve been threatening my crew.
Damn right we have, says the tall old man. He steps forward and grips the thin safety cordon. His anger seems equal to that of Archie. Why do you have to dig here? he says. Men fought and died for this country. Why the bloody hell would you mine this?
Mate, Archie says with a sour grin, we’re hardly going to fuck with our own land.
The city explodes. Television crews and photographers scramble. The airwaves flood with outraged confusion. Conservative blogs are spotted plagiarising Wilderness Society press releases, and vice-versa. Rio Tinto and Fortescue come out in support, and the internet is soon awash with rumours of a joint venture to open-cut mine the MCG. Only Tony Abbott distinguishes himself, giving an apparently incoherent, but tactically brilliant speech wherein he coins the phrase ‘support all the Diggers, all the time, whatever they’re digging.’
At Kings Domain, the crowd swells. While lawyers work through a nightmare of paperwork, and the workers douse the Sacred Flame with a Kmart fire extinguisher, gleaming charter buses roll up at the foot of the Domain. Toff and Archie stand behind the police line and watch them disgorge a flow of pensioners, ferried into the city from suburban RSLs. The elderly protesters carry hand-scrawled placards and bags of knitting and glad-wrapped sandwiches. They surge up the hill in a grey-haired wave.
Mixed with the elderly crowd is a steady flow of sympathetic locals, students and activists. Away to the east, the youth wing of Socialist Alliance is digging a solidarity hole in the lawn. A nuggety man with tattooed arms pushes to the front of the crowd. He’s wearing a sticker-covered hard-hat and carrying an enormous red flag.
Orrite lads, he calls in a broad Scottish accent. We come to show solidarity. This is a bloody good action.
Piss off, mate, Archie says. This isn’t an action.
Ha, the man says. Good line. That’ll confuse the hell out the bosses.
I’m serious, you little cunt, Archie says. This is a commercial mining operation. You can’t co-opt this. Piss off.
The man’s face darkens. We took a vote, he says. The rank and file unanimously voted t’ support your action. Why’d you turn that down?
Sorry mate, Toff says. If you don’t mind, us bosses got a press conference to do.
News crews have been allowed inside the cordon. A PA has been set up so the crowd can hear. Toff gives Archie the thumbs up.
Go for it Uncle, he says. Stick to the script, don’t lose your cool, eh?
All right you bastards, Archie mutters. Let’s do this.
After years of speaking to polite but indifferent crowds at other people’s rallies, the old man’s restless, wary features take on a cast of authority. He seats himself before the bank of cameras, takes out his notes, and leans into the microphones. Over the gunfire rattle of jackhammers, his nasal voice echoes across the Domain.
Afternoon. I’m Archie Ryan. I’m a Wurundjeri man, and CEO of the Aboriginal Land Council – of Minerals. Today is the first day of work at the Kings Domain mine. We have every confidence this mine will yield significant quantities of gold.
There are cries of shame. Signs reading STOP KINGS DOMAIN bob above the crowd. The tall, elderly veteran has made it past the police line, claiming he is feeling faint. He sits against Toff’s ute as if resting, then reaches a bony arm under the chassis and handcuffs himself to the vehicle. There are angry shouts, and he is swarmed by police.
It is clear, Archie continues, that local people will support this mine, because it brings money and jobs to the local economy. Stand back a minute, would you.
The work crew has chipped out the base of the cenotaph with a jackhammer, as if notching a tree for felling. There is a cry of Timbeeeerrrrrrrrrr and the twelve-metre high stone column tips slowly forward, then thunders to the ground. The now-huge crowd shrinks back in fright. You’re dead! You’re fucking dead, screams a voice from somewhere in the crush.
Now, Archie says, we understand there are concerns from old soldiers. We have consulted and listened to their concerns. Watching TV and visiting RSLs has taught me the fundamental value of respect for old soldiers. Listen.
A prerecorded clip of an RSL consultation meeting booms across the Domain. Over the insane chirping of pokies comes a scrum of ragged, angry voices, the thump and raw squeal of feedback as someone tries to grab the mic, shouting, the splintering sound of dentures underfoot.
I deeply respect old soldiers, Archie continues. There is no ripping off here. The more time I spend with them, the more I consider myself their true friend. We recognise they have a long history and a rich culture.
The police line tightens as the crowd surges forward in anger. The police superintendent watches the mob’s every move, radio at the ready. Archie pushes on. He’s enjoying himself now.
We recognise veterans have a long history, but the sad reality is that the memorial was built to commemorate soldiers who are almost all dead. None of them actually use the Shrine. Young people rarely come here. It is a dying culture, and we want to help preserve it. We will donate fragments of rock to the state museum. We will plant a tree to commemorate the diggers’ sacrifice, at our own expense. We also offer work in the mine to any able-bodied veteran. As we have learned, it is better to work for, rather than against, the industry.
The crowd roars its disapproval over the grunt and wheeze of the excavator. In the background, Archie’s crew works on. From time to time one of them rises from the fast-expanding mine shaft, nervously scans the crowd, then bobs out of sight.
Archie’s hard-edged, nasal accent booms out over the PA. We also offer compensation to veterans. We offer point zero six per cent of turnover, shared among veterans with an unbroken link to this hillock since 1756. This will be a total of about a dollar, and will rise further once gold is found. We hope this generous offer will be looked upon with gratitude.
This time the bellow of anger from the crowd is a physical force. The police have drawn their batons and fixed their visors. The light is beginning to fade. Shadows pool in the shaft where the workers tunnel beneath the Shrine. Up the front, a TV technician switches on a bank of halogens. Archie’s tense form is a sudden, brilliant island of light amongst the seething mass of protesters. He begins to wind up his speech.
We look forward to working with the old soldiers of Victoria, and contributing to the wealth of the city, and making a meaningful living, like you’ve always wanted for us. Thanks, and if you don’t mind me saying, go fuck yourselves.
The crowd erupts. The noise is catastrophic. The police line stumbles back under the onslaught. Two dozen police horses thunder into action, charging the crowd from either side. There are screams as pensioners go down beneath the hooves.
Toff moves to Archie’s side, and it is just the two of them standing in the light, the focus of the crowd’s rage.
Shit, Toff says. This is getting out of hand. We have to call this off. Look.
To their right, a mass of burly men with crew-cuts shoulder charge the police line. They look like off-duty soldiers. Old-timers beat the police back with their crutches and walking frames. A catheter bag slices the air above Toff’s head.
Toff looks back, afraid for the work gang’s safety. They have emerged from the mouth of the diggings in a tight, high-vis huddle, and are shouting to him. He can’t hear them over the noise. They move slowly towards Toff and Archie and the brilliant halogen lights. From the opposite direction the soldiers lead the charge, bellowing and pushing at the cops. Somewhere in the back a furious martial drumming starts up. The police line disintegrates. The crowd is upon them.
They all reach the spotlight at the same instant. But as the work gang enters the light, the halogens’ fierce rays catch their reflective vests as if catching a huge mirror-ball, and the enraged crowd rears back. Toff sees that the phalanx of workers is huddled tight because they are carrying something enormous. They lower it carefully to the ground at Archie’s feet, then stand and peel away. There is a hot, sharp intake of breath: first from the old man, then the cops, and the soldiers and pensioners, and those watching live on TV across the world.
It is a huge gleaming slab of crystalline white quartz, prised from the earth beneath the Shrine. And running through it, like a bolt of lightning frozen into the rock, is a massive seam of gold. As thick as Toff’s enormous thigh. Half a million dollars worth, at least. For just a moment the crowd stands in silent awe, and in that glittering pause, a microsecond before the Melbourne Rush truly begins, each of them feels the ripe slink of blood in their veins, and something else too, something huge and fierce, welling up inside.
Nic Low is a writer, artist and arts organiser of Ngai Tahu Maori and European descent. He writes fiction, essays and criticism for various Australian publications, and runs Asialink’s international writing program. His first book, Arms Race, is a collection of stories, including this one, and is available in bookstores or from this website through Text Publishing. ‘Rush’ was originally published in Overland 213.