A Plastic Paradise

by D.W. Walker

(Boris Books, vi + 170 pp, $14.50 Australian, ISBN 0 646 14053 1)

In Canberra, the planners have gone berserk. Infill development has taken over parks, backyards, median strips. Real money has been replaced by plastic, controlled by the Funds Transfer Authority, whose all-pervasive computer system even monitors childrens' spending of their pocket money.

Now the planners are eyeing off the toilet blocks and gas barbeques at the picnic grounds for new outfill developments. But they meet some unexpectedly effective opposition from the people already there ...

Here is Chapter 1

More stories and poetry by this author can be found at www.dwalker.id.au .

Chapter 1

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1

Andrew Yarborough peered at the screen, blinking his eyes. The patterns on the map, the road alignments and the trial subdivisions, were beginning to blur. He clutched the mouse in his right hand and moved it across the desk. The cross-hairs on the screen moved. He clicked the button on the mouse and moved it downwards. A line appeared on the screen. He drew a second line, then put a circular blob on top. He erased another line. Five minutes' furious work, drawing, moving, erasing, more drawing. He sat back, admiring his handiwork. He'd finished. He'd fitted it in. It did work, after all.

He looked up at the clock. Nearly eight. Better go home. Kerry won't be there, but maybe that was just as well. He hoped she wouldn't be too drunk when she did make it. Maybe he should go down to the pub, too. He pictured Paddy's, with its dark woodwork, subdued lighting and fake pump handles. An Olde Englishe pub in the heart of Canberra, just like half the other suburban bars. Kerry's image intruded, sitting at a table in a group, laughing. He'd go to the Football Club — she'd be less likely to be there.

He looked at the screen again, at the green lines of the subdivision overlaying the white grid and the faint brown of the contour lines. He looked again, stomach sinking.

"Damn."

He looked at the photographs beside the machine, lining them up with the features on the map: the official map, produced from the official Lands Data Base, which showed trees, a creek, and a couple of fences. Tomorrow, he'd try again, and this time he would stay on the far side of the ridge and miss the cluster of houses and the three caravans and the Riverside Inn. Particularly the Riverside, which didn't exist and was the best pub for miles. If only he could put them on to the map, even as another layer, just for him: it'd make life so much easier. But the nightly software inventory would pick it up for sure. Maybe he could draw it on the screen.

It was a stupid exercise anyway: an Infill development miles from town. Des had got it through the Planning Committee because there were five gas barbeques and a toilet block, and that constituted "urban services not being used to their full capacity", but Andrew had his doubts, except about Des's megalomania.

He hit the SAVE button as viciously as he could, waited for the red light on the disk to go out, and switched the machine off.

The club was only three streets away, but getting there was like threading a maze. There were pictures on the wall at work of broad, tree-lined streets and spacious quarter-acre blocks with houses that occupied less than half the available land. Not these days, not since Infill. If there weren't at least four houses on your block — tasteful, brick houses, of course, nothing substandard — or "evidence of progress", then there were penalties on everything from rates to dog food.

As Andrew entered the double doors of the club, he glanced back at the multi-storey office block and flats opposite, a massive fortress of a building whose occupants rarely saw daylight. He'd been up to the roof once, to watch a football match on the magnificent new oval, and endured the wait when a massive kick for goal had sailed over the stands and into the street below.

The club was a vast cavern too, with purple carpets and glaring lights and the endless "clunk, clunk, rattle, rattle, rattle, clunk" of the poker machines. Andrew looked around at the empty tables, but could see nobody he knew. He pushed his plastic card across the bar. "Middy of new, thanks."

A bearded hulk in jeans pushed in beside him. "How's it going?"

"Okay."

"Kerry here?"

Andrew recognised him now. He was a maths teacher from Kerry's school. He shook his head. "She's at home."

"Her turn to mind the cat, is it?"

"Something like that."

"Just as well. She's been pissed as a parrot the last few nights down at the Riverside."

"Has she?" Andrew had a momentary image of his plan, housing blocks bisecting the pub. Maybe I should leave it, he thought. Bulldozers moved in, walls crashed, patrons flew, screaming. He could see Kerry, dust on her face, a long glass still clutched in her hand. No, that wasn't her, that was her face, under the beam, still and silent. No, better do the plan again. "I've been having to work late," he said. Why the hell he should be explaining to this guy, he didn't know. "I think school's getting to her a bit."

"It's getting to all of us. Kerry's got it good. Year seven's angels compared to year ten."

"She's got year nine, too."

"Only for English. I've got to teach the little bastards something. You'd reckon they could add one and one, even to buy comics."

"Why? It they haven't got enough, their little placcy card beeps at them."

"Bullshit. Even three year olds buy black market chewing gum."

"And get ripped off."

"That's why they ought to shut up and listen when I tell them all about Integral Calculus."

"Why not teach them how to add one and one?"

"Because it's not in the bloody syllabus, and if we don't teach the effing syllabus, then that poisonous little git of a headmaster starts crawling round the corridors and standing outside so as you can see his shadow, listening and making notes, until you bloody well do teach it. Maintaining standards is what he calls it. The three R's: ranting, raving and rat's piss. Like this beer." He looked across the room. "Better go. Some old biddy's making eyes at my pokie." He grabbed his glass and his stack of tokens and weaved through the tables towards the crowd by the machines.

Andrew finished his beer and turned to go. If Kerry was at the Riverside then she wasn't at Paddy's, so he could finish his session there.

The house wasn't dark when he got home. Instead, it had that Christmas Tree look that attempts to convince burglars that you really are at home, stranded and carless. The note on the kitchen table said: "Conan has been fed. Pizza in the oven." Conan sat bolt upright, front paws on the note, looking hungry. Andrew fished in the oven and brought out a greasy cardboard box. He broke off a chunk of lukewarm pizza and chewed at it. Conan's eyes followed every motion. The grease mingled with the beer made him feel sick. He broke off a piece of pizza and put it in Conan's dish. Conan jumped down, sniffed at it, and walked away.

Andrew glanced down the hall, at the computer terminal beside the telephone. He thought for a moment of looking up Kerry's account. It might tell him where she was tonight. He decided against it. It would be like reading her mail. Not that she didn't show him most of that anyway. Besides, if she was at the Riverside, there was no point --there'd be no record of any transactions.

Andrew picked up the paper, read a few paragraphs, and then crawled into bed.

He felt Kerry come in, when she plonked down on her side of the bed, but when he woke up, there were just some rumpled bedclothes and a warmish patch.

2

He found her in the kitchen, bags beneath her eyes, brewing coffee. She looked sort of ordinary: wispy, blonde, lined, the big grey eyes standing out in the thin face. Familiar, but somehow not. Like an old lounge suite that has suddenly sprouted claws. He felt a little scared.

"Want some?" she asked, not looking up.

"Please. If there's enough," he added.

"There's loads."

"Have a good time?" He kicked himself. Thou shalt not ask thy wife where she's been. It means that you don't trust her, that you're getting jealous, or worried, or something. Worse, you're letting it show.

"Okay. Just a few of us from work. Jane's got next term off, so we had to celebrate."

"I had to work late. I'm still trying to finish that subdivision."

"So that's why you were snoring. I thought it was the beer."

Andrew kicked himself again. He shouldn't have left an opening. "Or the pizza." he said.

"You're buying trouble with that subdivision. You should hear what they're saying down at the Riverside."

"Des claims that there's no room anywhere else. We've infilled everywhere. There isn't a bloody park or a median strip or a swimming pool in the place that hasn't had a medium density development dumped all over it."

"Why the hell can't you use the Majura bombing range. Just because there's planes over it at fifty feet, that shouldn't worry them. Or the bloody airport itself. If the pollies want to fly, they can catch the train to Sydney. It's a stupid bloody subdivision anyway. It's miles from anywhere and you'd want pitons to walk up the front path. If I want to be a sherpa, I'll go where there's real mountains."

"I've told Des all that, a hundred times."

"And you still slave your guts out over it, knowing that its wrong."

"If I don't do it, someone else will."

"That's what the Commandant at Auschwitz used to say."

Kerry had already left for work, and Andrew was about to leave when he saw a lanky, stooping figure in a torn pair of jeans and a crocodile T-shirt coming up the front path. He pulled back from the window, hoping that it would go straight round the back. Kerry said that Clyde was a good gardener, but Andrew didn't like him. He liked having a garden of course, for which he blessed the people on the Third Floor, who ensured that his Development Permit application remained permanently "Under Consideration", but he sometimes wondered whether Clyde wasn't too much of a price to pay.

Clyde banged on the front door.

Andrew opened it.

Clyde's face was long and thin, with vertical creases that made him look like a dog with hanging jowls. "Anything special you want done?" he asked.

Andrew looked around the yard. "Just the lawn, and the weeds. The vegie garden's getting a bit wild."

"Sure. No worries. You got the air filter?"

"Air filter?"

"I asked your missus to get it for me last week."

"I'll have a look."

Andrew looked around, then saw a shapeless bundle on the hall stand. A note in Kerry's handwriting said "Clyde's Pay."

He picked up the parcel and gave it to Clyde. "Here you are."

"Thanks mate. This week, can you get me a bottle of Bundy?"

Andrew did a quick calculation. "Okay," he said.

3

By the time he got to work, Andrew had to chase the tea trolley almost to the far end of the floor in order to get his morning fix.

He found a piece of clear plastic and a pen, and shaded in the area where the houses and the pub were. It wasn't too good, because it wouldn't follow the image on the screen when it moved, but if he lined up the grid lines, at least he could see what he was doing. Alex grinned at him, a strand of red hair across her cheek, as she saw him taping it to the screen. He made a face at her.

"What's the problem?" she asked.

"The stupid map doesn't show the Settlement."

"Why should it? That would mean that it exists."

"They could at least hatch it yellow and mark it Highly Polluted, Unfit for Human Habitation."

"Someone would find a billion dollars to clean it up. We prefer you to think of it as an unspoilt wilderness."

"Except that I keep encroaching on it, because I can't see the edges."

"Just keep behind the ridge. Where you've got it marked. We don't like it, but we'll lump it."

Andrew frowned. "I'd heard that the whole of the Riverside was about to hoe into us with machetes and lawnmowers."

"If you step over that ridge we will."

"I thought you wanted us to use the old bombing range."

"True." She laughed. "But if there's placcy money going through the railway station, then you bastards will have to maintain it. And build the roads. We'll just supply the booze and the lawn mowing, as befits our position in society."

"There's not enough room. There's no way I can get ten thousand houses onto a collection of rocks a couple of kilometres long and a kilometre deep."

"We can."

"Cardboard shacks, perhaps."

Alex laughed, her whole face glowing. "Black plastic and chickenwire, please. Cardboard is strictly for the wall linings."

She pointed to the screen. "You need to decide how far you want to go down into the creek beds. Do you want the houses to flood every year, or only every second year?"

"I don't want them to flood at all."

She laughed again. "Then you'll need to build them on big, big stilts."

Andrew peered at the contour lines. "That's all supposed to be above the once in a hundred year flood level."

"They've only got thirty years' of records."

"But the Weather Bureau's great at extrapolation. They told me so."

Alex frowned, though her lips still smiled. "How close a look have you had?"

Andrew pointed to the photographs. "I got these a couple of weeks ago."

Alex peered at each one in turn.

"You've missed the worst bits," she said.

"Where are they?"

Alex pointed to the map.

"I suppose I'll have to go out and have another look," Andrew said.

"I can show you, if you like."

"That'd be good," Andrew thought for a moment. "I'll have to check it out with Des."

"If you must. I'll get us a car with civvy plates." She turned to go, and then paused. "Do you want to have lunch at the pub first?"

Andrew nodded. "That'd be nice."

Andrew walked slowly down to the far end of the floor, where the partitions reached the ceiling and the offices had doors that closed. The one labelled D.Hill, Manager, Infill Planning, was open, guarded by a personal assistant called Charlene.

"Is Des in?" Andrew asked.

She glanced up quickly from her computer and nodded. Andrew hesitated for a second, waiting for the usual ritual of the telephone call to announce him. Then he moved towards the door, turning to glance at her screen as he did so. The official planning map of Canberra was slowly being engulfed in purple ooze as she fruitlessly erected barriers and sprayed deoozant on the growing tentacles. A purple flood swept towards the last access road. Charlene was busy.

Andrew tapped gently on the office door and came in two paces. Des looked up, his black moustache soggy with coffee. On first impression, Des is a production-line macho male. Craggy face, lush black hair, big broad shoulders, bit of a beer gut. The sort who makes you feel honoured when he pinches your best girl. Caught half way through a late play-lunch, his desk littered with crumbs from a cream bun, he raises issues about quality control at the factory.

"I want to have another look at the Cotter Outfill development site," Andrew said. "I'm a bit worried about flood levels."

"When do you want to go?"

"This afternoon. I want to take Alex. She can show me the problem areas."

Des would look knowing if you said that you were going to lunch with your grandmother, so the slight smirk was no real surprise.

Andrew still felt he had to explain himself. "She knows the area. I know we've got good maps. And I've been over most of it myself. But she seems to know a few things about the creeks that aren't on the weather reports."

"About them or up them?" Des glanced down at the report he was writing. Andrew turned to go. Des looked up again. "Have a good lunch."

4

To Andrew and Kerry, the Riverside Inn had been a "find". Not long after they'd arrived in Canberra, they'd gone for a drive one Saturday, to explore along the Murrumbidgee, where the map showed a few tracks winding among forested hills. For the first few miles, their expectation had built steadily as they got clear of the suburbs and followed the dirt road past paddocks and run-down barns. Andrew knew why the barns were run-down. Anything that was even slightly flat, had even the potential to turn green, and was this side of the New South Wales border was on the Canberra Planning Commission's list for development, and their idea of compensation for improvements was "Think yourself lucky we didn't turf you off years ago". Still, the grass was green after recent rains, and it was nice to look at while it lasted.

The river valley came closer, a deep shadowy cleft in the expanse of greenish brown that ran back to the ring of hills not far away. A curve of the road, and the whole valley opened up: a panoramic view up the river, over bare earth, and tin roofs, and washing lines. Kerry gasped. Andrew grabbed at the map.

"What the hell's this?"

"I think it's called The Settlement," Kerry said, tight-lipped. "Clyde lives here. He said it was over the river, but I hadn't realised."

The scene had gone again, and they were left with grass and a few trees. The road started to drop, winding down the hillside into the river bed.

Shadows flicked across Andrew's face as he studied the map. "The map says nothing," he said, "except `Barbeques'".

They caught another glimpse of the Settlement on the next turn, and then they came to the river. It was grey, running swiftly over slime covered rocks and past beds of bright green weeds, and banking up so that it was less than a foot below the road where it crossed on a stained concrete causeway.

Andrew heard the rumble of a train, and above the trees on the far side of the river caught a glimpse of a slug moving slowly into a scar on the hill. He knew about the train. One of the Canberra Planning Commission's few defeats, foisted on it through pressure from the builders of the Brindabella Urban Village, but even that defeat had become a victory when the CPC forced a circuitous route via Belconnen that made the railway seem part of the planned inter-town transport corridor.

At the top of the hill was an enormous castellated corrugated iron shed. He found it on the map. "That's the Uriarra Crossing Football Club," he said to Kerry.

Over the crossing, the road forked. The signs were just little wooden signposts, with peeling white paint. The one to the right said YASS 55, and led to the football club. The one to the left said COTTER 13 and led into The Settlement.

They turned left, because that was the way that they had planned to go. The road climbed out of the river valley and ran though grassland close to the lip. A side road led off, back down into the valley. The official sign said PICNIC AREA, the name board, nailed to a tree, said THE SETTLEMENT.

"Shall we go down and have a look?" Kerry said.

"Is it safe?"

"I haven't heard of any murders out here."

"They may not report them," Andrew said, "if they don't want to admit that the place exists."

They turned left anyway. The road became muddy and potholed almost instantly, but there were piles of road metal to one side and the marks of a grader. Within a few hundred metres the houses began: a mix to incur the wrath of any of Canberra's planning authorities, past or present. Little fibro boxes jammed against two storey brick-veneers with triple garage and billiard room underneath. Caravans with lean-tos surrounded by chicken runs cheek by jowl with respectable suburban gardens. There was even a genuine cardboard shack, with a fading TO LET sign out the front. And every one had a front fence: chicken wire, iron railings, brick walls with glass on top. Side streets ran off, lined with house upon house, scaling the river bank until only superglue would keep a house in place, and running down until water lapped into the potholes.

Kerry jammed on the brakes as three kids on brand new bikes came screaming out of a side-street, slid around a giant pot-hole, one foot on the ground, in a racing turn and headed back the way they had come.

They drove on, silently. The town went on and on, sometimes closing in on the road, so only a ribbon of houses separated them from a frowning ridge, then expanding upwards along a side valley until the last houses were only specks. At times the road climbed, to avoid a swampy patch or a creek crossing, and ran perched on the valley wall. They passed a supermarket, with a professionally painted sign saying "Settlement Co-op", a couple of petrol stations bearing remarkably familiar signs, and a couple of groups of shops. A satellite dish formed a traffic island outside a hole-in-the-wall pub. It seemed lived in, familiar --definitely not Canberra.

The hills closed in, and the town finally began to thin out, into empty paddocks jammed between the hillside and the line of trees along the river. The road curved around the end of a ridge, and below them was the Riverside Inn: an enormous weatherboard barn, on stilts by the river, framed by the bush on the further bank. The tin roof, behind a facade of signs from every brewery in Australia, was rusty and the chimneys smoked. The car park had space, but not much.

Kerry pulled into the road down to the car-park. "I need a drink," she said. She smiled at him. "And it's your turn to drive home."

They walked up the verandah steps and into the pub.

A long bar ran down the left hand wall and across the back. Knots of people stood at intervals along its length. Other groups sat at the motley collection of tables scattered around the room: wood, laminex, even plastic garden furniture.

Andrew caught sight of Alex playing pool with another girl. Andrew waved to her, and she smiled back. "One of the people from work," he explained to Kerry. "She lives here, too."

Andrew pushed his plastic card across.

The barman looked at it as if it were a slug. "Don't take that here, mate."

"Don't take it?"

"Ya got any money?"

Andrew looked dazed.

"Tin stuff. Paper stuff. Remember?"

Andrew fished in his wallet, futilely, with sweaty hands. This wallet had certainly never seen money, nor the one before, or the one before that. This one wouldn't even fit it, not if he remembered those half acre orange and blue engravings all right. But if he kept his eyes down, some might appear by magic. He could hear Kerry scrabbling in her bag.

Alex appeared at his shoulder.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

Andrew flushed. "They won't take the card."

"Of course not. Would you, in a non-existent pub?" She paused. "Do you need some money?"

Kerry dredged a crumpled orange note from the bottom of her bag with a triumphant flourish. "It's okay. I got some from Clyde." She showed it to Alex. "This'll be enough, won't it?"

Alex nodded.

Kerry pushed it across the bar to the waiting barman, and then turned to be introduced.

Alex took them across to a table close to the far wall. It was an impressive table --polished cedar with thick legs and high backed upholstered chairs. Kerry admired it all the way across.

"Where did they get it from?" she asked.

Alex shrugged. "One of the more up-market tips, probably." She waved an arm over the group at the table. "I want you to meet the gang." She introduced them around: to Tony, a lean, sunburned man who stood up and shook hands; to Mandy, a slim, dark girl with a T-shirt with money printed on it; to Judy, thin, mousy and freckled, still holding her pool queue; and to Martin, dark, thickset, intense, who sat there and stared.

Alex smiled a special smile at Tony, and then went to play her next shot.

Tony asked Andrew what he did.

"I'm a planner," he said.

He sensed a coldness from Mandy, but Tony said lightly "That's interesting. You must find this place rather different."

Andrew shook his head. "Not really. It's Canberra that's different."

Martin asked Kerry what she did.

"I'm a teacher," Kerry said.

"Do you enjoy it?"

"Where I'm now, I hate it," she said. "It was wrong from the moment I walked in the door. It's a child minding service. There's one or two of the kids, if you got them on their own, they'd be good, but with the others ..."

"Why don't you try something else?"

"What the hell can I do? I teach English and history. No skills for the technological society. I'm lucky to have a job at all."

"We need teachers out here."

Kerry looked at him and laughed. "You've got schools? Somehow, it doesn't fit. Next you'll be saying you've got a hospital."

Martin looked hurt.

"Sorry," Kerry said. "I didn't mean to be rude."

"They're not schools like you mean. Prison camps for kids." Martin's voice had a messianic edge. "Ours are proper schools. Where kids learn," Martin said.

He paused. "There's no formal system, but there's so many kids here, the parents get together and run something in a house or somewhere they can get space. There's not much equipment, but the kids are good."

"Don't their parents force them to be there?"

"Some do. But if a kid doesn't behave, or is screwing up the other kids, then out it goes."

"It doesn't seem quite fair. The kid could have some problem."

"That's the parents' worry, not yours."

Kerry sighed. "Sounds like heaven."

"As I said, we need teachers."

"What's the pay like?"

"Not marvellous, but okay. The parents put in so much per kid per week." He looked at her. "Come out during the day sometime, and I'll show you round."

Kerry had thought about Martin on the way home. Nice, but very earnest. Still, it would be interesting to see the school, sometime.

5

This was a different trip for Andrew, travelling incognito with a beautiful woman. They'd be sprung the moment he walked out and gazed on the paddocks with an acquisitive eye, but in the meantime an unmarked car with no sign of government on the number plates and the company of a genuine inhabitant should guarantee a pleasant lunch. Alex took him the quick way, via Cotter. She navigated, but wouldn't drive. "Too much risk in an unmarked car," she said.

It was just as well, because there was a police roadblock just near the bridge over the Murrumbidgee. They watched as the driver of the car in front was hustled off into the waiting black maria. Two police walked back to his car and pushed it off the road into the ditch.

"Bastards," Alex said.

The police waved the car forward. One of them leaned in the window. "Can I check your licence, please, sir?"

Andrew handed him his plastic card, a sinking feeling in his stomach. Of course his licence was okay. Wasn't it? The policeman slotted it into a little machine. A green light went on. The policeman handed the card back. "Thank you, sir."

Andrew said "Thank you" and moved off slowly.

He glanced at Alex. "Is the train any safer?" he asked.

Alex nodded, the laugh back in her eyes. "There's more of us than them. If they get stroppy, we chuck them out of the doors. They learned that years ago."

They rattled over the bridge, up the hill, and did a sharp left turn. In another couple of minutes they were there.

Alex conducted him across to the same massive cedar table. The three people at the table watched them across. Andrew recognised Tony, and the girl. He wondered if the T-shirt with money on it was her only one. The third was an small man with greying hair. He looked like an organiser. All three sat upright, as if at a meeting.

"What is this?" Andrew whispered. "The Settlement City Council?"

Alex laughed. "Not quite. We don't have one. I suppose you'd call it the Riverside Concerned Drinkers' Cabal."

Andrew stopped for a second and looked hard at her. "This is a business lunch, then?"

"My word it is."

Tony introduced Andrew to the second man. "This is Karl," he said. He was polite, but there was no enthusiasm in his voice.

Karl shook hands with Andrew, firmly and formally. "Pleased to meet you," he said, with no warmth in his voice.

"Clyde sends his apologies," Tony said. "He's working."

Andrew frowned.

"He's doing your garden, or so he says."

There was a pause.

"Alex says that you've come to see the swamp," Tony said.

"If you're referring to the Outfill Development Site, yes."

Tony grinned. "I am."

After lunch, all five of them went squelching up the river. Andrew felt a bit groggy with all the beer, and the long discussion on Settlement land tenure hadn't helped.

"How do you find a block of land to build on?" he had asked.

"No problem," Tony had said. "You have a look round, find a clear area, and ask the neighbours if anyone's using it. If they say no, then you build."

"What happens if some jumps you before you start building."

"That's bad luck."

"Don't people try to hog land? Try to stop you building by saying someone's already put in a bid?"

Alex grinned. "All the time. But they get caught out eventually, and they usually end up with shittier neighbours than if they'd done the right thing."

They trekked for two hours through long grass and mud and gum trees. Tony pointed out debris in the branches of the trees, and Mandy showed him broken rock and scree slopes that moved when you stepped on them. Karl said nothing, walking along to one side, watching, and casting an aura of coldness. By the time they returned to the car, Andrew was pretty depressed. "I should have seen all that," he said. "I'm sure it wasn't this bad when I came out before."

"It wouldn't have been," Alex said. "This is the first rain we've had for weeks."

They approached the Canberra Planning Commission building along Canberra's last remaining section of tree-lined main road, carefully preserved as a memorial to Canberra's past, and parked in its last remaining officially sanctioned ground level car park. As they went through the glass double doors into the carpeted foyer, Andrew looked guiltily at the mud flaking from his shoes.

He said "I think we'd better tell Des now. There's no point messing around."

Alex stopped, then moved towards the staircase leading down into the basement. "I'll have to desert you," she said. "I've got to collect my pay."

"Can't it wait?"

She shook her head. "They get panicky about holding cash. If you're not in there on the dot, they rush it back to the vault. I think they're worried about losing the last of the real money."

"Can't they print more?"

"Not legally. They do, of course. They pretend it's as souvenirs for the tourists. But they don't like doing it too often."

Andrew thought for a moment. "I'll wait for you."

Alex shook her head. "Keep me out of it. Des will assume that I persuaded you to can the scheme."

"He knows that already."

"But you know what I mean."

Andrew got the full treatment from Charlene this time, though how much was due to his witnessing her annihilation by the purple ooze he wasn't sure. By the sheer slowness with which she picked up the phone and pressed the button for Des's extension she told him that he had already had his quota of Des's time for the day, and the very phrasing of her "Have you time to see Mr Yarborough" was asking Des to grunt "I'm busy." To Andrew's surprise, he was sent in.

Helpless under Des's "busy executive" glare, he plunged straight in. "Des. This development. I'm not sure that it's really a goer."

"Why not?"

"It's too low-lying."

"Rubbish." Des walked across to the map on the wall. "If you keep it above the 480 metre line, you'll have no worries."

"The river valley's very narrow, so the creeks back up a long way."

"So what? A mud carpet never did anybody any harm."

"The 480 line won't leave much room, unless the houses go right up the ridges."

"What's wrong with that. That's how we're done the inner suburbs." Des showed his teeth in glee. "That, and building on the parks."

"It doesn't look nice."

"That went out with the ark."

"I'm still not sure that there will be enough room."

Des shrugged. "If that's how you see it. Can you prepare me a memo to that effect for Planning Committee."

"By when?"

"Tonight. For tomorrow's meeting."

Andrew felt cold inside. When Des gave in this easily, there was usually a sting in the tail.

6

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Kerry spent that evening sitting at the polished cedar table at the Riverside, watching Alex and Tony play pool against a couple of guys she didn't know, and talking to Martin. She wasn't sure what had brought her back here last week. Boredom? The need for something different? She was glad she'd come, because everyone was so friendly.

What she'd talked about with Martin, she couldn't quite remember. Ordinary things, she thought. Martin was nice, she decided. A bit earnest, sometimes, if you got him onto teaching, but then ...

It was late, and the place was emptying out.

"Would you like a lift home?" Kerry asked.

"If it's not too much trouble."

They turned right out of the pub, into The Settlement. They passed some darkened shops and a couple of side streets before Martin said, "Turn left here."

They crawled up a bumpy track, past the dark shapes of houses and huts, their headlights virtually the sole illumination. They turned left again, up a road that curved away up the hill. The headlamps caught a tent: a big tent, striped orange and white, sitting between two pairs of concrete pillars which showed up dark against the sky like the pylons of a suspension bridge.

"What on earth's that?" Kerry asked.

"My house," Martin said. He sounded offended.

"It's interesting," Kerry said, trying to make amends as she pulled up outside.

"It's architect designed," Martin said. "Come in and have a look."

Martin knelt down and undid a lock, then lifted a plastic flap. The plastic was light and flexible, and very strong. It took Martin a few minutes' fiddling to get the lamps alight, apologising profusely for not having electricity, but then Kerry stood in the centre of the house drinking it in. It was just a huge tent, spacious, with dark shadows lurking in the corner. Mostly it was a large living area --low tables, cushions, free-standing cabinets and bookshelves. At one end was a kitchen, with a gas stove and a sink and a fridge and a big bench to work at facing out into the living area. Martin pulled back curtains in the corners to show a shower recess and two bedrooms, both small but pleasant. One had an unused air.

"My flatmate left," Martin said. "He got a girl. I'll have to find someone soon."

He made coffee, and they sat talking for a while. As she left, he said again, "You must come out and see the school."

Kerry smiled and said she'd try.

 

Copyright D.W. Walker, 1993


Boris Books, P.O. Box 1388, Woden, A.C.T. 2606, Australia

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