The Minister was dying and the public knew. He had lain pale and desiccated in the large wood-panelled corner room on the seventh floor of the hospital for several weeks. The corner window overlooked most of Canberra—the Syringe, the flag on Parliament House, the National Library. The Captain Cook Memorial jet in Lake Burley Griffin shot up into the corner of the Minister's vision every morning when it started up. It was a clean and warm room with tall pot plants in the corners and whenever he felt like it they brought him whatever he felt like to eat—baked salmon, banoffee pie, vegemite and cheese on toast.
It was evening and the nurse had closed the curtains for the night, blocking off the landscape. The Minister's son Nathan, a professor of International Studies at ANU, sat up with him and the two of them watched the interview he had given to Australian Story, conducted from that same hospital bed the previous week.
Could you imagine at that point how much Bathurst would change?
Yes, we imagined it, we were prepared, we knew what we were doing, but it was bloody marvellous that it actually worked.
“Do you really want to see this, Dad?”
“No not really. But I don't know how to turn it off.”
The development of the so-called regional strategy for migration and the growth of Bathurst, Bowen and Wagga Wagga into high-rise cities with Asian-Australian or Hindu-Australian majorities was a major achievement of Burton's time in office, but it was not without controversy...
With a loud crunch of the door handle, Nathan's two children Timothy and Charlotte entered the room. Charlotte climbed on to her father while Timothy stood silently gripping the bed rail and staring at his grandfather.
“G'day son, tell your old grandpa what you did to day.” He spoke slowly and with a wheeze on every word.
The boy remained silent, gawping at the shrunken figure.
“Timmy.” his Dad said firmly.
But the boy just shook his head.
“Charlotte, tell Grandpa what you learned in school today.”
“We learned about the Aborigines.”
“What did you learn?”
“Well, about how we killed them all.”
“Well not really all of them, dear.”
“I guess not.”
“I love both of you.”
“I love you too Grandpa” they both said.
“Go on,” said Nathan. “Give your Grandpa a big hug and go wait by the television in the waiting room.”
And what about after death?
Well I expect we live on in some sense, through family, nation, but none of this eternity nonsense.
“You know I should have been a bank clerk or something. All this media nonsense. The whole country knows I'm dying.”
“You did wonderful things for this country.”
“They should go home.”
“They will when they're done with their shifts.”
“That's not what I mean. They should go home.”
“Do you need anything else Dad? We are going to leave. We'll be back tomorrow.”
“No, I want to tell you something, just for you. Now, you've brought the recorder?”
“Yes Dad. It's built into the phone.”
“Ok. Here we go. You don't know any of this, but you know I'm dying so that's why I'm telling you. Ah, how to put this. It doesn't matter now to me, but it matters more than ever. Do you love me?”
“Yes of course.”
“Will you always love me?”
“Unfair, you're right. Well here it is. I am a...no, how can I put it? We always raised you to be loving, did we not?”
“Yes you did. What is it, Dad?”
“Do you know who you are? I mean really know.”
“You know everything about me already Dad “
“It's very important to me that you know who you are and that you raise Timothy and Charlotte to know who they are.”
“They're very bright kids, they'll be fine.”
“That's not what I mean.”
Just then the nurse, a large Indian woman, came in to the little room, squeezed past Nathan, who scrunched his legs aside for her, then set down a plastic dish and a glass of water for Mr. Burton. The plastic dish contained three pills for Mr. Burton to take before sleep.
“Mr. Burton, here is your evening medication.”
“Go away. Go home.”
“Ok thank you Mr. Burton, I'm leaving now.”
“No, go back to where you came from. Pakistan.”
“Ok, I'm leaving now. Make sure he takes those.”
“I'm not taking those things, they'll kill me.”
“Dad, you told the nurse to leave the country.”
“Yes, we never should have let them in.”
“Ok, it's the drugs.”
“Son, I was wrong...about everything...and I don't...give...a fuck anymore...who knows.”
Bowen with its vibrant Hindu community, well majority, now, seems like a uniquely Australian success story. Are you proud of that, of really making that happen?
Well, it's just progress you know.
“I can say this to you now I'm dying. Don't let them marry outside of us. Australians. Move to Tasmania if you have to. I was wrong. Don't forget what belongs to you.”
The nurse re-entered the room. “Dr. Senaviratne is here to see you.”
“I hate this prick.”
The Doctor rolled into the room on a stool with wheels.
“David how are you feeling tonight?”
“Fuck right off.”
“How do you feel that people in India can't get medical care because you're here instead?”
“As usual, then. Where is the pain?”
The Minister waved his hand slowly over his tired body.
...and of course in your retirement you became known as a poet. Was that satisfying to you?
Yes, it's the universal art form. There are things that can's be said any other way.
Dr. Senaviratne cocked his head to indicate that Nathan should join him outside the room.
“We're going to increase the Fentanyl. It should help him sleep better, without pain.”
“Ok. Sorry about that, how he is?”
“Oh no, it's just fine, I've seen much worse.”
Dr. Senaviratne left and the Minister began to tell his son what he really thought, about Bowen and the country, and the recording light on Nathan's phone blinked below his father's sunken chest. And Nathan was amazed by what he heard.
“Never lose sight of what we are, my son. Love every one of our people.”
The Minister fell slowly into an open-mouthed sleep. Nathan stopped by the nurse's station on his way out.
“Don't mind what he says,” Nathan said to the nurse on duty.
“Don't worry we've seen it all, much worse in fact. He doesn't mean it.”
He lay a week in and out of consciousness. Nathan came every day and held his hand for hours. He rubbed his father's shoulders, helped the nurses ease him out of bed to swap out the bedpans. Lying there, the Minister was organising a fishing trip for Timothy, up to that pool on the Thredbo. He was giving a speech at Charlotte's wedding. He was teaching Nathan to surf at Cape Paterson. He was hiding under the house from his father, Dr. Burton, who had brought inoculations home for his children. He was reassuring Bonnie, his dear darling Bonnie, don't worry dear the funeral is all paid for. He was screaming, Dr. Burton, get in here right now! Nathan! Nathan! I won't talk to anyone except Dr. Burton!
On the final morning the nurse came in as usual. The Minister stirred briefly, stared at her then fell back and heaved and gurgled, and as he heaved and gurgled, he was dragged down and his thoughts flashed back over Australia, the ragged half-nation. As if he was in a film he stood in the midst of the cleanup after Tracy, Black Saturday, the Royal Flying Doctors, argued with Bob Santamaria, the relentlessness logic of Parkes, the resourcefulness of Philip, sat with the convicts belowdecks on the long and dirty voyage, felt the gentle rocking of the hulk in Southampton, saw with a bird's eye view the convicts, deserving and undeserving, committing their offences, appearing in court and trickling from the flats and lanes of Britain and Ireland into the hulks and ships, and before them all the drama of England, Shakespeare, Elizabeth, Chaucer, Lincoln Cathedral, the Anglo-Saxon kings, the Venerable Bede, Julius Caesar, and beyond physical ruins and written history the primordial migration of the Steppe peoples into Europe, Lascaux, herds of aurochs, starry skies and sacred trees...and in his last fight before oblivion, he saw Timothy and Charlotte scrolling through their phones...
“We love you, Dad.” Nathan whispered into his ear as the Minister rattled and raised his arched back.
Nathan announced his father's death to the nation on the front steps of their house in Red Hill.
“My father was a courageous man until the end. He died as he lived, staring down his fears. He has left his stamp on this country and all its people. We ask if everyone could respect our privacy during this difficult time.”
That night after his wife had fallen asleep beside him, Nathan put in his earphones and played back the ten minutes of his father's final recording, barely pausing to glance at the messages and emails as they poured into his device from all over Australia and the world. When he had finished listening he knew he would never forget a single word. He deleted the recording, switched off his phone but could not fall asleep.