If you have ever walked into a musty room, a room shut up against a long cold winter that is now finally drawing to a close, and caught the sweet perfume of a bunch of flowers, the first flowers of spring, you might have some idea of the air of freshness that the three visitors carried with them into ur that day and why we responded to them so amiably. We’d had no forewarning, they simply turned up at the gate. The one in the suit and tie, Loch, called out to Vito picking sprouts in the Square from the few miserable stems that remained; the other two, dressed in blue uniforms and caps, stood with their hands behind their backs a little off to one side. Loch asked to be allowed in, he was from the city and had business to discuss. The news swept through ur and within minutes everyone had gathered at the gate. It was an overcast day after a week of rain, muddy puddles lay everywhere around, and I remember gazing at their shoes which looked so clean and shiny, thinking: We must not let them get dirty. Loch’s first concern was to see Layland, once that was done there was nothing that couldn’t be discussed. We opened the gate and escorted them across the Square. Though the two in uniform averted their eyes officiously towards the ground, I could see Loch’s gaze wandering over the scene of destruction around him. Our little village, our sweet little piece of suburban paradise, had become an inglorious shambles. Rabbits hopped about everywhere and their droppings littered the ground, weeds cascaded from the gutters of the houses and moss covered the roofs, rubbish from parcels that had shattered on impact lay scattered about everywhere; tin cans, cardboard packaging, plastic wrappers, broken bottles; on rooftops, in driveways, frontyards and backyards and in the barren patch of wasteland that had once been the Square. I hung my head, in shame I suppose, not daring to catch the visitors’ eyes, and followed the group to Michael’s house lagging deliberately behind.
    Layland’s gangrenous leg was gone, Marie-Claire had performed the operation with a carving knife and hacksaw and Layland had suffered it uncomplainingly, knowing death to be the only alternative. He sat in his usual armchair in the darkened room with a blanket over his lap. Little could be offered to the visitors by way of refreshments but a fire was hastily lit, a weak pot of tea was made and someone ran back to Dave’s to get the packet of chocolate biscuits we’d saved, perhaps without fully realising it for just such an occasion as this. Loch carried a letter from Layland’s wife and there was a deep respectful silence in the room as Layland opened and read it. He placed it delicately in his lap, bowed his head and quietly wept. The tea was poured, the biscuits handed around; the clink of cup on saucer was the only sound for a while as we all drifted off into our own private thoughts. We still had no idea what the visit was about but we had become so used to bad news that I suppose we were all taking this moment to prepare ourselves for the worst. It was a chance to reflect also, and I reflected back on many things during that seemingly interminable silence, leaning in the doorway, my head sunk on my chest. I looked up for a moment and caught Jodie’s eye, the briefest glance; there was no sympathy, no forgiveness in it. She remembered well enough my talk of high ideals, grand hopes and new beginnings; her look impaled me for an instant to those hollow words then burst them like an arrow to a hot air balloon.
    Loch introduced himself and his two companions, Alan and Geoff, and apologised for making his visit unannounced; there had been no way of getting a letter to us, and besides, he’d preferred to approach us personally. If we’d been silent up till then, the next fifteen minutes held us so speechless that I wondered as it drew to an end whether any of us would be capable of uttering an articulate sound again. Loch had come to offer his apologies, we had been inexcusably forgotten, various shake-ups in the Department for which he now worked had meant that attention had sadly been diverted to other projects and if various and apparently unrelated things had not brought our case to his attention we may well have been forgotten altogether and forever. The first was a letter from Layland’s wife; as Layland himself was now fully aware she had for some time been living with another man but with all the best will in the world she couldn’t completely discard him from her memory. After a series of phone calls had gone unanswered she became concerned and wrote to the Department in the hope of having his whereabouts clarified. This letter should have been acted on immediately, unfortunately it wasn’t, and he, Loch, had only just come across it last week. Around the same time a new employee joined the Department, a former Real Estate Agent whose expertise was to be used in a couple of other housing projects that were currently on the drawing board. Over lunch one day, and purely by chance, this new employee, Robinson by name, had asked how the old Outer Suburban Village Development Complex was going and had the plans for its destruction been carried out? You may remember him, he lived here for a time. (Dave’s jaw had dropped and his eyes had glazed over; I raised my head and looked towards him, suddenly realising who Loch was talking about.) Well, continued Loch, it was a strange collusion of events; I went back to the office and looked through the file. Now correct me if I’m wrong but my understanding of the situation is this: you have all lived here for just over eleven  years now and as far as I can see your reason for staying has been based on a promise which our Department had originally made to build a freeway out here in order to reduce commuting time and expand your job opportunities; an indispensable promise, to my way of thinking, given the distances involved. However, for reasons which still escape me at this stage this freeway was delayed, all the other residents left, you stayed, but not without making your disappointment known. You were consequently offered some form of compensation (I’m still not sure of the details) which you duly accepted and which has apparently been deposited into a joint bank account on a monthly basis and has been your main source of income since. All very well, I don’t think any of us have a problem with that. But at this point the story seems to take what I can only describe as a bizarre turn. According to my records—and they are somewhat sketchy and erratic here, I grant you—some fifteen months ago, over the course of six months, some hundred or so houses were suddenly destroyed by a group of as yet unidentified vandals who had stolen the bulldozer from the tip overnight (and I’ll get around to the tip in a moment) in order to wreak their havoc. Fortunately all of these houses were unoccupied and no injuries were suffered but the damage, as I imagine it, must have been substantial. To give you my personal view of things here, I find this entire scenario totally incomprehensible and cannot find words sufficient to express my outrage at the fact that the situation was allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that vandalism on such a massive scale as this could even be possible. We are talking about Government property here after all—as you know, when the freeway was delayed, all the houses except your own were bought back by the Government and as a Government employee the wilful destruction of these houses must be my chief concern. But I am also aware that lives too were at stake. Our neglect in this regard was indefensible, and the fact that you subsequently took matters into your own hands causes no problem with me. However, I will need to have one or two things clarified here, this is partly the reason for my visit, for it appears that immediately following this wide-scale vandalism a collective decision was made to protect yourself from any further incursions. It also appears that this decision resulted—rightly or wrongly—in the building of a wall. Well and good. But I don’t think anyone could stand outside this wall and look in at us gathered here in this house today without feeling that there is something decidedly wrong with a system that has driven a group of otherwise ordinary citizens to this end. I am shamed by it, speaking personally, ashamed to be a part of this system and an instrument of it. It’s a remarkable wall, don’t get me wrong, more amazing by far than even rumour had suggested and its construction is perfectly understandable under the circumstances; but it does raise serious questions. How could this be allowed to happen?—is the first question, of course, but more than that, now that it has happened: What are its implications and where do we go from here? Well, my Department’s response, as you well know, and to be blunt, was callous in the extreme. Your monthly compensation payments were stopped, precisely at a time when they were most needed, and your bank account summarily closed. It is enough that we shirked our responsibilities in this time of crisis, by any bureaucratic standard it is deplorable that Government property was allowed to be destroyed without any action being taken to prosecute the offenders or prevent it happening again, but it is simply beyond me to understand how this order could have gone out to abandon you to the dogs so to speak precisely at a time when our assistance was most desperately needed. I am looking into the matter, you can rest assured on that. And what of Layland here? I make no excuses for him. I hold him accountable as I do all those involved in this matter, but there is the old saying about shooting the messenger and I can’t help feeling some sympathy for him. The fact is he was following orders—an age-old excuse for all manner of evil, I agree—and though I understand the dilemma he was placed in it is still a disappointment to me, knowing what I know now, that he couldn’t see fit to follow his conscience instead. He was the first outsider to visit here in years, he more than anyone should have seen how misguided the Department’s decision had become concerning matters of which they quite obviously had little first-hand knowledge. You have paid a heavy price, Peter, but I feel compelled to say it is a price you had to pay. Of course his message is absurd in the extreme, I have no doubt that you recognised it as such straight away; I am yet to lay my hands on the perpetrator but when I do he’d better have a good story ready. There was never any plan for a satellite town, much less a plan to build a one hundred kilometre stretch of freeway, the cost of which, by my calculations, would consume two and a half times the Department’s current budget. Quite the contrary in fact: since the failure of the OSVDC—you don’t mind me calling it a failure, I’m sure; we’re speaking not as enemies here but as friends—the Department’s thinking has shifted so far away from such types of planning as to make them seem almost a joke. (Yes, it was a joke, I might as well say it now.) We simply cannot afford to think along these lines any more: expansion and more expansion, a continual ‘looking out’, the idea that every inch of empty space should be considered useless unless filled has lost all popularity now and rightly so. The OSVDC, of course, was seen at the time as some sort of compromise between the two alternatives, expansion on the one hand and contraction on the other, but like all compromises it was doomed to failure from the start. Set it over fifty kilometres out of the city, in the emptiest space you can find on the map, give it meticulously calculated proportions and for want of a better word call it a village, but know that the instinct for expansion is irrepressible and that in time this village itself will expand to fill the empty spaces around it. I wonder where the planners’ heads were at when they devised such an intellectually satisfying but completely impractical plan. They believed in it of course, I don’t deny them that, they bought up all the land around the OSVDC at the time on the strength of their belief and honestly expected that within the year, buffered by a narrow green-belt, new suburbs would grow as if by magic on the outskirts of their village. Well, you all know how that ended up. Within two years they were trying to sell the land back to the farmers from whom they’d bought it but the farmers, quite understandably I think, seeing the land so radically devalued by having a housing complex slap-bang in the middle of it, would have nothing to do with the idea. The Shire stepped in as you know, acquired a ridiculously good bargain, used a portion for the new rubbish tip they’d been planning and leased back the remainder to any interested farmers they could find for a hefty profit. So that’s what became of these ‘innovative’ planning ideas; back then when such ideas seemed to my horror to pass into legislation unquestioned a satellite town such as Layland here obediently carried news of might indeed have been put forward as a valid proposal and, God forbid, might even have been built. But I can assure you such wild suggestions would not pass unquestioned now. Contraction, I’ll stake my reputation on it, contraction is what will save this country from its woes. Who wants to walk three blocks to visit a neighbour any more when you could talk to them from a balcony across the way? Yes, I’m of a European cast of mind myself, and it’s to that continent and to their sense of space and proportion, their refinement of the notion of contraction into a way of life, that I turn for my inspiration. The OSVDC was an experiment, well and good, and I’m not denying that it had something of the European in it, the village I mean, but it was a compromise and no experiment based on compromise can hope to yield useful results. The city is where we must now concentrate our attention, the city is the centre and no matter what science or art or other intellectual discipline you are working in the centre must always be your starting point and the source of all your thinking. Very well, you say, but where does that leave us? In a precarious position, I grant you. These are the new planning ideas—I’ve explained them briefly, and perhaps too cursorily—and whether we like it or not they have made the old ones redundant. However, as you may or may not have gathered, I am not about to hoist the Department on the petard of pure theory, we have a practical responsibility too, and it is to this—over the past week and in the light I’ve what I’ve heard, read and seen here today—that I wish to now turn my mind before advancing our charter of high-density living any further. The short-term problems are now the most pressing. I understand that a group of farmers, sympathetic to your plight, have been supplying you with food but a quick glance around convinces me that, for all their good intentions, these supplies have been inadequate. Letters have already been sent to them, individually, thanking them for their efforts but insisting that this duty will now fall again to us, as it most certainly should. I’ve already spoken to your bank manager in town and upon the chief signatory—who is that?—upon the chief signatory filling in the necessary forms a new account will be opened and immediately credited with, well, a not insubstantial sum. In the meantime I have with me in my car a number of items, food, medicine and the like, that may be of some use—Alan will get them in a moment. So much for the short term—if there’s anything else, please let me know before I leave today—but I’m afraid we must now turn to matters of a more delicate nature. Certainly, two sugars. I have laid my cards on the table and perhaps in a roundabout way offered my apologies on behalf of the Department for the way these matters have been dealt with. But while I hold a superior position in the Department I am not able to operate outside its normal democratic processes. So far as I am concerned the wall can stay; it is yours, you built it, and I don’t doubt it cost you a good deal of labour. But I’m afraid many others in the Department take a less tolerant view than this. They don’t doubt it was built for a purpose and as a consequence of our own neglect but they now believe its purpose has been served and that it should come down. Further to that—please understand these are the views of others, not mine—and without making too big a thing out of it, there is a generally held view that, in a free and democratic country such as ours, a barbed-wire topped wall in any context must be seen as an inappropriate thing. If we are to resume our support and I sincerely hope we can, then I can only say that in my opinion greater sympathy will be given to a housing complex without a wall than one with. It’s a delicate matter, I agree; I don’t broach the subject lightly. You must understand that one sees things differently from the outside; to you the wall is protection and perhaps even aesthetic improvement, to the majority of those in the Department it is both an easily misread symbol and an eyesore. I have taken this matter in hand myself and will give you certain assurances now: firstly, the wall can come down in your own time and at your leisure providing it be within twelve months of your agreement to do so; secondly, you need have absolutely no reason to fear the vandals again, the two gentlemen with me here, Alan and Geoff, are employees of a reliable security firm contracted to us and will stand guard as of today on a rotating shift and, bolstered further when the wall comes down, will continue to stand guard until such time as we all, in agreement, have satisfied ourselves that the threat has subsided; thirdly, if and when the wall comes down, we will guarantee to remove all the remaining building rubble at no cost to yourselves and have, indeed, a sub-contractor on standby at this very moment for the purpose. I don’t expect an answer straight away, Alan and Geoff will stand guard at the gate tonight and will be ready to relay your decision to me by mobile phone the moment it is made. And now, if you don’t mind, I’d like a quick word with Layland. His position needs to be clarified and I believe he would prefer that it be done in private. Thankyou all for your attention, and again, on behalf of the Department, I offer my heartfelt apologies. The future is in your hands; we will offer what assistance we can but the rest is up to you. I hope the Estate can survive, it goes against my theories, obviously, but if the ultimate test of any idea is its persistent continuation in the face of overwhelming odds then I believe you have already and  decisively proved this small circle of earth to be worthy of a bright happy future.
    We left Loch and Layland alone and filed out of the loungeroom onto the front porch where we all stood, stunned and silent. The sky had darkened; night was falling. We stood there without speaking for a long time. Eventually Loch came outside; Layland had decided to go back to the city with him. We didn’t object. The two security guards carried him out, his arms around their necks. He gave us a wincing smile as he passed, asked the bearers to stop for a moment and gave Marie-Claire a kiss on each cheek then waved them on again. They carried him across the Square through the open gate to the car before returning  in a series of relayed trips with our boxes of supplies which they stacked on Michael’s front porch.
    As Loch prepared to leave, shaking everyone’s hand in turn, I saw Michael  furtively thrust an old dog-eared notepad in front of him—he’d taken notes of everything Loch had said—and ask him to put his signature to it. Loch flinched, momentarily, then took the pen from Michael and hastily scribbled on the final page. Michael put the notepad in his pocket.  Loch walked down the driveway, smiling forcedly back at us all and offering a few final assurances before stepping quickly across the Square. A few of us strolled over to the corner of East Street and watched the two guards close the gate from the outside, lock it, and position themselves on either side. Loch’s car started up and began reversing up the access road with  Layland in the passenger seat, staring blankly back at us through the windscreen.
    We’d forgotten to ask him about the power and water. Someone tried the porch light at Michael’s but it didn’t work, Jodie called from the darkened kitchen that the water was still off too. Perhaps tomorrow, someone said. A couple of lamps were brought and we began opening the boxes on the front porch. They were empty, save for some cardboard packing material, half a dozen bricks to weight them and some old moth-eaten second-hand clothes. A fire was lit in the pit outside Dave’s and three rabbits and two cans of beans were cooked. The gate had been left open earlier and some dogs had wandered in off the tip, they sniffed around the glowing bed of coals and cracked the discarded rabbit bones noisily with their teeth. Later that evening  I walked with Jodie back across the Square to Michael’s house where we found him still sitting on the front porch, gazing vacantly up at the stars. He hadn’t eaten. ‘There’s some leftovers in the kitchen,’ Jodie said. ‘I’m going to bed.’ And she disappeared inside.
    ‘Look up there,’ said Michael. ‘Look up there at that.’ I lifted my gaze to the star. ‘He talks of contraction; look up there and tell me if he isn’t talking shit.’ A smile  broadened across his face. ‘We’ll be spreading out, expanding, until the end of time. And we won’t rest happy till we’ve filled all that up too. They could build a ghetto for us, stack us one on top of the other, but the fact is you either get on with your neighbours or you don’t. And if you don’t, and that’s usually the case, you’ll do whatever you can to get as far away from them as possible. There’ll be estates, suburbs, towns like this sprouting up like mushrooms across the universe for the next ten billion years.’ ‘I’m more concerned about tomorrow,’ I said. ‘Tomorrow?’ Michael laughed. ‘Ha! What’s that?’
    Jodie called from inside for her father to get in out of the cold. I made my way back across the Square. The two guards stood smoking and chatting outside the gate, the calm broken intermittently by a burst of static from their two-way radios.  They nodded to me as I passed. I heard a voice raised in one of the houses behind me in South Street; it sounded like Craig’s, but I couldn’t be sure. I had saved a small bar of chocolate at home and ate it sitting up in bed by the greasy light of my bedside lamp. Later that night I heard a helicopter flying overhead and saw the glow of its searchlight passing by the window. The dogs started barking and continued long after the thump-thump of the rotor blades had faded into the distance. Much later again I thought I heard someone knocking at my door; I went to answer it but there was no-one there. All was strangeness that night in ur. I pulled the blankets up tight around me and finally slept a sleep full of dreams that would come back to haunt me again and again long after that strange night had passed.