I glance into his eyes and I see nothing, which scares me. All of a sudden, I feel ill. My fate is in the hands of a young Officer, just struggling out of his teenage years, who has messy writing and wiry hair. In my peripheral vision, I see his eyes continually dart from my passport photo to my face. I think they are dark, but I can’t tell because we aren’t allowed to meet the Officer’s eyes. That would be a sign of equality, and we are far from equal.
Ahead of me, on the other side of the barrier, I can feel my mother’s unease, but I force my own face to stay blank. Just one wrong expression, even the hint of a reassuring smile, could result in the two of us being thrown into the nearest detention centre. It wouldn’t take long to reach one. They’re all over the place. Thousands have been built in the forty-eight years since the Population Boom was declared an international crisis.
Since I can’t look the Officer in the face, I concentrate on his attire. He’s dressed in the usual pressed uniform – light blue shirt, black trousers, polished leather shoes, navy blue jacket. There are badges on his lapel. I count them all. The usual badge of an Officer of the State; four Belts, one for each year of service; the Golden Heart, for an act of great compassion … There are fifteen in total, shining like the merit stickers that Educators once awarded to ‘good’ students. Among them is the Star of the State. I wonder what this young Officer could have done to attain such an honour.
He looks at my photo once more and I feel his eyes run over my face, scrutinising me. I realise that he’s waiting for me to buckle, to let slip some miniscule act that could be passed as defiance. He needn’t bother. My mother has taught me well, and I’ve always been a model student.
He sighs, hands me my passport and motions for the two Guards to allow me to pass. They push the Gate open just enough for me to slip through. With a thick stream of people behind me, they can’t risk opening Gates any more than that. For most people, they needn’t worry. But there are still those who try to push through, to run for it. Not that there is anywhere to run. On the other side of the Checkpoint is the Customs Terminal, as well as seven Guards with snipers, ready to shoot you down.
As I pass through the Gate, I hazard a glance at it. They shouldn’t call them Gates, these access points between states. “Gate” connotes “harmless”, a small and easy-to-conquer obstacle. In reality, the Gates are barriers of mesh and intertwined razor wire that appear every so often in the massive, thickset, reinforced steel Wall. Guards patrol the Wall, standing only several metres from one another, their heavy machine guns strapped across their hearts. The major cities are built around the Gates. Or is it that the Gates were built as transects to the major cities? Either way, the fact remains that the Gates were erected by the State at the beginning of the Boom, at the same time that the Walls were. They’re meant to dissuade us from moving, to keep us in the one spot so that they can control the amount of people in each city. When I was seven, I asked my mother about the Gates and Walls.
“They’re to protect us,” she had said, giving me that gentle smile that never touched her eyes. “The Head ordered for them to be built at the beginning of the Boom. There are too many people in the world right now, and there isn’t enough food or water or space for them all. The Walls keep us from going to other places and using all of their resources, and they stop people from coming in and using ours.”
Even at that young age, I knew that she was only regurgitating the words, that she was telling me what I was supposed to be told. I could tell by her eyes. They glow bright when she’s passionate, the flecks of amber coming alight like a dozen candles in a dim room. But when she’s resigned herself to something, her eyes are dull, as though all the light has been drained from her soul.
My mother and I move away, heads bowed and struggling to walk slowly in an attempt to appear unsuspicious. No one has ever been able to explain to me exactly what ‘unsuspicious’ means. It is like a new disease, something that people can easily recognise as being inconsistent with the norm, without knowing how it came to be different in the first place. They know it when they see it, but they can’t describe what it is exactly. Somehow anything and everything has become ‘suspicious behaviour’, unless authorised by the State. I wonder what their guidelines are, or if there are guidelines at all.
We’re about twenty metres away from the Gate, at the end of the nearest Customs Terminal, when the shouting reaches us. Everyone around us turns, and I turn with them. My mother nudges me, but I ignore her.
On top of the Wall, I can see a lean man, his scraggly brown hair brushing against his shoulders. He is dressed in khaki trousers and an orange tunic, with a thin vest over the top. I can’t tell what colour it is, because the the sun is behind him, but it looks dark. The man is definitely what the State would deem ‘suspicious’, I think. No one dresses in clothes like his anymore. They are clothes from before the Boom, when there were such things as ‘hippies’. I know all about ‘hippies’, because we learnt about them at school, before the earthquake destroyed the buildings and we had nowhere else to learn.
“They were poisoners of innocent minds!” the Educator had said, striding around the room as she always did when seized by a fit of passion. Her long-nailed hands balled into fists of fury and she came to a halt in front of the class, surveying them with the eyes of a hawk. “They encouraged other people – good, law-abiding people – to challenge their government! The hippies were a dangerous race, and we should all thank the State that they were exterminated in the Reformation after the Boom.”
A boy at the back of the class had said loudly, “That’s not what my father said.”
All eyes had cut across the room to stare at him, that overweight boy with the mousy brown hair and squashed nose. Curtis, his name was. Curtis Long.
“My father said that hippies believed in everyone being equal and that they wanted world peace,” he said haltingly, his confidence evaporating under the blazing eyes of the Educator.
The Educator glared at him, her nostrils flaring like a horse. Her face was red, bright red, and her knuckles were white from clenching her fists so hard. When she spoke, her voice shook like thunder, and the floor beneath our feet rumbled with the strength of it. “Your father is a liar!” she screamed. “A liar! Who does he think he is, to contradict an Educator? It is people like your father that are a danger to the State!”
Curtis Long had been in the school house after school hours, when the earthquake hit. No one knew why. His father had disappeared a week later.
The man on the Wall is bellowing furiously now, shaking his fists in the air. Obscenities spew from his mouth and even at a distance, I can see his eyes flashing with pent-up rage. I wonder at the fact that he managed to reach the top of the Wall without being intercepted by the dozens of Guards that patrol it.
“Look at you! Look at you all!” he yells at the Officers and Guards below him. “You’re disgusting! Oppress enough people and you’ll be safe from the State, is that it?”
Several Guards patrolling the Wall approach him, swinging their machine guns into a more comfortable position. One of the Guards speaks sharply to the man.
“We live in fear and oppression! Our free will is gone! We have no choices, because you refuse to give us even one!” the protestor roars, ignoring the Guard completely and waving both fists above his head. His eyes flash again with anger, and hatred and courage.
My mother pulls me close to her as the round of gunshots sounds, tearing gaping holes in the atmosphere. I shrink backwards, and she wraps her arms around me, burying my face in her jacket.
But not before I see the flash of bullets in the sun, from left, from right, from below. Not before I see the protesting man stagger backward, blood surging from the dozen holes in his chest.
I peek from under my mother’s arm as he loses balance and slips on his own blood, his body somersaulting over the edge of the Wall. It seems that the entire queue of people at the Gate, as well as those of us at the Customs Terminal, pause to watch in silent horror as he screams, falling faster and faster until he crashes to the ground with the sickening sound of cracked bones and the slap of soft flesh on an unforgiving surface.
All hell breaks loose. On our side of the Wall, the six organised queues, one at each of the Customs Terminals, suddenly converge in a heat of panic. On the other side, people surge forward towards the Gate, screaming and yelling as the Guards struggle to keep people back. Gunshots ring out once more, but it only adds to the confusion and fear.
However, in this moment, nothing is substantial to me. Not my mother’s hands tight on my back. Not the jostling of people surging past. Not the terrified screams that will later haunt me in my sleeping hours. Nothing matters to me except the crumpled body, and I find myself on my hands and knees, my stomach heaving constantly until I’ve thrown up so many times that there’s nothing left and all I can do is splutter and cough on the ground.
Later that night, I sit in the packed waiting room of the Customs Terminal, my head on my mother’s shoulder. I think about the Gates, how odd it is that they’re made of wire, while the Wall is thick steel. I think it’s to tempt us. Perhaps the State thinks that if we can see the other side, we might try to escape. We’re the mice in the maze and they’re the scientists who have hidden the cheese somewhere we can’t reach, tempting and punishing us.
I can’t help but wonder about the protestor, despite having spent the rest of the day shoving the image of his broken body into the deepest recesses of my memory. What if he managed to get up on the Wall because the Guards let him? What if they wanted him to speak out, so that they could use him as a demonstration, to show everybody else what happens to those who question the authority and integrity of the State?
As I have that last thought, I realise that I’m considering ideas that are exactly what the State most desires to eliminate. My skin tingles all over and I suddenly feel exposed, as though the walls have eyes and every other person in this cramped room has been placed there just in case I say something that I shouldn’t.
I want to look up at my mother’s face to find reassurance there, but I know that I won’t and that the fear I’ll see instead will frighten me too. So I curl up tighter and bury my face in her shoulder. She stirs and pats the top of my head absentmindedly.
That night I dream of rows of shining badges and never-ending lengths of razor wire and bleeding men falling from the sky.
The Australian Literature Review