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Apropos the John Howard Walk of Wonder, some short fiction of mine from 2007.
With three weeks to go until the election, John Howard made the mistake of allowing himself to unwind in public.
He set out well enough, striding from Kirribilli in the early hours of the day resplendent in green and gold. Here, it seemed, was a man to lead the nation, a go-getter, one who had well and truly carped the diem. Here was Howard, the early bird set to wrest the worm of high office from a Labor party prone to parroting the PM on matters of policy. The sun had risen on a glorious Saturday and interest rates were yet to, so Howard had every reason to be happy. The latest polls had him just twelve percent behind on a two-party preferred basis, so he was claiming that as a victory as well. The new day held promise. His cheerful mood trickled down through his entourage of minders and media, like some benevolent pyramid scheme of happiness and good humour.
But as he barrelled past the solitary protester stationed outside his property, bleating plaintively for a halt to the live export trade, it was clear to some of the senior journalists that all was not well with the Prime Minister. Later in the pub they would agree that it was hardly up to the Prime Minister's usual barrelling standards. Some suggested that it was hardly barrelling at all, and was perhaps more accurately kegging, or indeed aluminium canning. Not more than three steps past the sheepish figure the PM halted, seemingly lost in thought. The protester, her fleece by this stage of the campaign a matted and grimy grey, took this as an invitation to reel off her list of crimes against animality committed in the name of commerce. Yet the anticipated prime ministerial brushoff - the raised hand and averted gaze offered so often to the overeager news-hound or latest Chaser stunt - did not come. The Prime Minister remained motionless, showing no response as the small woman burbled the sorry statistics of the animal export industry at him. Several serious men in charcoal suits - the ministerial minders - exchanged glances from behind their dark glasses. Each wore neat Peter Jackson pinstripes and wraparound Ray-Bans, the latter almost completely concealing any expression of concern at Howard's erratic behaviour. Two of these sombre chaperones made to flank the inert PM, but in a rush Howard was off again, trailing starving sheep and dying cow statistics in his wake. He resumed his morning constitutional with the vigour of a man two thirds his age. The much-relieved retinue once more fell into step with him, a few paces behind.
On rounding the corner of yet another beblossomed byway, the Howard entourage were again pulled up short as the leader came to a standstill. And stand still he did - to those gathered about it seemed he had simply petrified, as though to save the masons the trouble of immortalising him in stone at the end of his years in office. Having waited a good minute, maintaining a respectful distance from the motionless PM, it seemed that something more was required of the amassed onlookers. The prevailing mood of the mob at this point was one of alertness, rather than alarm - a testament to the effectiveness of the government's anti-terrorism campaign in preventing hysteria in such unusual situations. One forward-thinking journalist ventured that perhaps they might check for a pulse, to which some wag replied that you'd have been hard pressed to find one beforehand, let alone now. There were titters, but the gravity of the situation was starting to sink in. The forward-thinking journalist (from the ABC, and soon to be retrenched) made her way over to the PM, taking him gently by the wrist. There seemed to be no warmth in his flesh, and no obvious signs of life. She let go his rigid limb, and fumbled in her bag for her mobile phone.
The men in suits, meanwhile, had been engaged for some time in a coded communication consisting of obscure (and, thanks to the Ray-Bans, obscured) facial gestures. By means of raised brows and cocked heads they had organised themselves into a rough perimeter around Howard and his followers. One man, distinguished only by a maroon tie and slight stubble, stood facing back along the road they had come from, one hand held up to his ear. Presently there came a distant buzz, a throttled engine whine cutting through the early morning quiet. Closer it came, until hurtling around the corner roared a black Statesman, tinted and plateless. It swung around and stopped metres from the stubbled man, who was already marching across to open the rear door. Out climbed yet another of the suited men, this one clean-shaven with a navy tie. In his right hand he carried a briefcase, black but metallic. Handing this to the maroon-tied man, the pair marched through the increasingly anxious crowd towards where the PM still stood, still utterly still. By his side, the forward-thinking journalist was speaking urgently into her mobile, but stopped as the pair approached. Forward-thinking as she was, she dropped the phone, backing away around the two towering figures to rejoin the rest of the group. The man in the navy tie raised a hand, and once all eyes were firmly fixed upon him, he spoke:
"Uh, thanks for your patience, guys. It's been a pretty tough campaign, we've been under a bit of pressure - you must've seen the polls. I mean, you write 'em!"
Despite himself, one of the journalists snorted at that. He would later put it down to stress, as it wasn't a terribly funny remark in the first place. Undeterred, the man in the navy tie went on:
"Sorry to worry you all. I guess it just slipped our minds this morning. We're usually pretty good with keeping him wound up, especially around election time."
As he was speaking, his partner laid the briefcase down and removed from it a something large and made of metal, a dull flat figure eight with a cylinder sticking out where the two circles met. Hefting this object in one hand, he lifted the back of the Prime Minister's tracksuit top up just far enough to reveal a dark orifice, situated at the base of his spine. With a grunt the man in the maroon tie drove the cylinder into this hole.
"Won't be a moment..." said navy tie.
The two men stood either side of John Howard and with some effort turned the key, once, twice. With each turn there was a faint sound, mechanical - a ratchet? Gears?
"Almost there..." puffed maroon tie.
Seven turns, eight, nine... after the tenth and final twist the man in maroon took a firm grip of each handle and tugged. With the sound of grating metal the key came free... and Howard was off! He sprinted away, breaking through the loose cordon of minders and disappearing off into the distance.
Navy tie swore under his breath. Maroon chuckled to himself, returning the key to the briefcase and closing the lid. Together the pair walked back to where the Statesman was waiting.
"I swear, we've got to get him looked at again. He goes off like that, but he'll be unwound before bedtime."
Maroon tie's eyebrows waggled beneath his Ray-Bans. "Might have to crank him up 'specially, then!"
"It's just getting ridiculous!"
Navy tie sighed.
The man in the maroon tie opened the rear door of the car. "Tell ya what, I 'll be glad when we get the new one put in..."
"Yeah, won't we all?"
They got in the car, and drove away.
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