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What the people don't know

  • 16 December 2008

The Department Knows

The department knows everything and promises nothing in triplicate. Atop a mountain of documents, the minister for all that lives and dies surveys his kingdom with an eagle's eye and an artichoke's heart. Absently, he twirls the ends of an equation: those desperadoes in their plywood boats, the public with their mortgages. He is too quick to wait for those comparisons that journalists and soppy, half-wit do-gooders will try to hang him with. The human costs are hidden beneath a million backyard pools, forgotten over beer and blackened snags. Suppose the numbers don't add up? He can live with that. He has friends or people who owe him, which is even better. If the curtain falls (and surely it must one day) he will slip away with barely a nod, sinking into an obscurity reserved for those no-longer famous but merely well-to-do. For now though, matters await decision, machines of power whir and tick beneath his hands. Far from here, small, round faces stare unblinking, cans and bottles spread like sacraments. Who watches? Who sees? The department sees everything, counts the fists that land wherever pain blossoms. Only a little blood, perhaps, but marks and bruises can last a lifetime. In parts like this, forgetting is a life-long task; elsewhere it's a blessing bestowed on those most guilty, evidence melting like chalk marks in the rain. It's just as well there is no God. If there were, who'd dare to pray? Each morning before the dirty work, we humbly beseech His grace and wisdom. Forgive us our sins, we pray, today and again tomorrow. Our hands make signs we neither mean nor understand, then we turn back to the business that never ends as long as money moves, as long as we dare tread the carpet of burning coals, keep our nerve, balance the government's will and the party's folly. The minister knows what the people don't know can't hurt him, makes him strong. The people don't ask, but pay their bills, complain and vote, have no choice, are overworked and entertained remorselessly. Boats sink, but only strangers drown; the banks are kept at bay another month; pink petrol haze clouds all regret; the minster makes a speech, the department plans.

Jeff Klooger’s work has appeared in a number of Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland and Westerly. He has a PhD in social theory and philosophy from La Trobe University.