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Fear in a time of drought

1 December 2002

I had idled my way through a dearth of paying work when suddenly I was rung by the cops. They were seriously overstretched. Would I like some contract surveillance work in the Great Terror Alert? Why not, I thought.

“How did the subjects come to your notice?”, I asked Inspector ‘Shag’ Pile when he called me in for a briefing.

The aircon wasn’t coping and sweat trickled out from under his cheap toupee.

“Alert neighbours. The subjects are Lebanese Muslims. Possibly a family. They live in an old Federation-style cottage and they’ve done it up in the approved Federation style”.

I waited for some evidence, but Pile just cast me a significant look and thrust a picture of a house under my nose. Nice little brick cottage tastefully trimmed in cream, brick red and Brunswick green with a new picket fence and rambling pink roses.

“You mean that’s it? You’re putting them under surveillance because they painted their home in heritage colours?”

“When did you ever see a bunch of Lebs do that?” Pile asked. “They always replace the original windows with aluminium frames and put in an extruded brick fence and a cheap wrought-iron gate. No, these people are trying to blend in, pass unnoticed.”

“To ‘integrate’, in a word?”

“Yep, that’s it. Spies and bombers always try to look like the people they’re moving amongst.”

“Oh come on, I’ll take your money if you want me to, but do you seriously believe these people are a threat?”

“Dunno, dunno, but the government has called on the citizenry to be alert,”

“Yeah, I know, the country needs more lerts. But now Howard’s changed his mind. Reckons we’re probably not a serious target after all. He’s flogged the media for exaggeration.”

“He had to say that. The tourism industry got to him. Anyway, he’ll change his tune soon enough. Now, we just need the surveillance report from you. We’ll do any other investigation.”

And so I found myself holed up in a police surveillance vehicle, a battered L300 van with mirror-finish windows in the back and “Wombat Geotechnical Services” emblazoned on the side. Outside it was a murderous 32 degrees. Inside it was worse. Far worse.

The little Federation cottage was at the junction of two streets, so I’d parked facing it, about 50 metres back, outside a nondescript 1950s bungalow. Everything about it spoke of genteel poverty. Its buffalo grass lawn was nearly dead, brutally trimmed and burned brown by the drought. The only concession to gardening, a badly pruned hydrangea, was on its last legs.

It’d been there a couple of hours when an ancient Anglo lady shuffled down the cracked concrete driveway of the bungalow holding a spray pack of weedkiller. She must have been ninety. She stopped on the pavement and inspected the van malevolently, then she peered down the street towards the Federation cottage. Was she, perhaps, the informant? Bent nearly double, she shuffled a few more steps and stopping where a tiny green shoot thrust its way through a crack in the concrete, she triumphantly sprayed the offending life-form and shuffled back inside.

I looked again at the Federation cottage. I had to admit, this wasn’t the sort of suburb where you saw lots of Muslims and not many Lebanese migrants were au fait with Federation colour schemes. Might there, perhaps, be an innocent explanation? I rang my old mate Graham at the National Trust, who knows everything about Federation houses and asked him about the address.

“Yeah, I know that cottage, That’s the Ayoub place, he’s an architect. Nice bloke. He’s a member of the Trust. Why the interest?”

No drama. I happened to be surveilling a place down the road and I was vaguely interested in investment properties I told him, and hung up.

I said nothing of this to Inspector Pile when I reported back the next day, after all, he’d told me I was just to do surveillance. Stay on the job, he said. I could see I was on a nice little earner which might last right to the next election.