So, this is the final of the stories from the original Grand Guignol. I should have probably posted it earlier, when Eddie Obeid was facing court, especially as the papers used the same ‘he who must be Obeid’ gag. I like to think that came from a journo who saw my show.
For those from further afield, ‘The Faceless Men’ is a conspiracy theory thrown around a lot by the main opposition party to the government (including their leader, Tony Abbott), that the Labor party is secretly controlled by a shadowy group that we never see. I just extended that metaphor a little and stuck them under former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson’s house.
You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, not that you’d ever look at me now, but I was once full of youth and ambition. I had an impressive CV in state labor politics, the camera savvy smile, and a fine coat of abdominal fat already threatening to bloom into a proper parliamentary beer-gut.
This was late October, 2004. The nation had been power-walked within an inch of its life by the well-toned arse of John Howard. And I had just been invited to a barbecue at the house of NSW Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, or as he was known back then, “he who must be Eddie Obeid”.
I admit, I was pretty bloody excited: Eddie was one of the so-called ‘faceless men’, the powerbrokers of the ALP that could make governments or tear them apart with naught but a well-placed telephone call. So while the ladies gathered in the kitchen, to gossip about “gay marriage” and “the environment”, we blokes withdrew to the poolside barbie, to talk about the real issues like … who should run for PM.
“That bloody Mark Latham, he is pissing in the party sink”, said Graham Richardson, scratching obsessively at his semi-exposed stomach, his jowls trembling like a pair of lazy hamsters making angry hamster love to his teeth.
I really wanted to make a good impression, so I stammered along in sympathy: “Bloooodyy Mark Latham …“.
Richo turned to look at me, expecting me to finish that sentence. It wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped.
“Bloody … pissing …”
“What the hell are you talking about, Noel?”
To be honest, I wasn’t talking about anything. But in my desperation, I started rambling about the test results I’d just got back from the vet about the family dog.
“Bloody … pissing”, I stammered, “blood in the urine. it’s a symptom of pancreatitis. In humans, it’s could be alcoholism, gallstones. Or in some cases, poisoning”
There was an awkward silence, and then a slow clap that built in momentum.
Richo handed me another beer. “That, son, is bloody brilliant.”
One year and seventeen BBQs later, after Mark Latham had “retired” due to a bad case of pancreatitis, I was moved to the national office. I wasn’t my own man, but it was good pay, and the wine flowed like money from a mining rep’s backside.
I was at another ALP BBQ when Richo took me aside. “Listen, Noel” he said, “Kim Beazley isn’t quite working out as we planned.
Now, I really liked Big Kimbo. He was a jolly, friendly bloke always keen to lend a hand or play Santa in the parliamentary Xmas party. Besides he made a mean curry, and I was happily tucking in to the chicken tikka masala he’d brought along to the party.
“Oh, come on Richo!” I said, in what I hoped was blokey camaraderie, “I’m not worried about the Beaz. So long as he takes care of the tikka”.
“You’re bloody right, Noel. He DOES have a heart condition. You’re a bloody prodigy”.
Richo put down the chicken drumstick and sized me up with the same level of intensity I’d seen him use on Kevin Rudd’s potato salad.
“I’ve been following your career, son. Youngest regional union head spokesman …”
“Bit of a surprise, actually,” I piped up. “I had no intention of running, but all the other union reps gradually dropped out of the race and I guess I just had to … bit weird now I think about it.”
“Your unsuccessful bid for Senate.”
“Yeah,” I said again, “things were going really well in the lead-up, then the local chapter of the ALP suddenly lost confidence in me as a candidate and the premier sent me here”.
“Like I said, I’ve been following your career. Noel”. He looked me straight in the eye, “where do you see your career in the party? Are you a leader? Could you be the next Prime Minister?
“To be honest, when I first moved to Federal, I felt like I was whoring myself”.
“Too bloody right, Noel. Too bloody right. A good prime minister is like a teenage boy in a brothel. They come and go every five minutes, but the whore gets paid, and nobody asks for an invoice”.
“… I suppose so, Richo. I mean, why bother getting elected when you could do the electing.”
“Very true”, agreed Richo, “Come to my place my place tomorrow night. 8pm. Alone. Bring a plate”.
I arrived at Richo’s house, a humble neo-classical one story villa. The air was dry with a late summer heat, and the sound of locusts was deafening. I pulled back the heavy knocker and banged seven times, as instructed. Richo opened the door, wearing nothing but a loose-fitting robe, like a chubby white haired monk, which was … strange.
“Noel!” he boomed, and embraced me like an old mate, all warm smiles and ruddy cheeks. The hamsters in his face seemed happier now. Relaxed even. He saw off my driver with a wave. “You won’t be needing him”, he said. I’ve made up a spare room.
I was a little nervous. To be honest, I was starting to regret the prostitute analogy.
He walked me through the massive entrance hall, marble statues and original Ken Done artworks guiding our passage. Once we passed by a dining room, and I glimpsed 8 or 10 more men in brown cassocks, their hoods drawn over their faces, sipping red wine through metal straws.
“Christian democrats”? I asked, a little nervously.
Noel snorted and smiled. And we walked on.
We continued to the library. Two more monks straddled the doorway, faces completely obscured by the heavy brown fabric. They nodded silently, and Graham Richardson nodded back.
“Don’t worry about them”, laughed Richo, “they won’t hurt you. They’re not the ones you need to fear”.
“Too bloody right”, I replied, “That’d be the pinkos in left faction, amIright?”.
Richo snorted again and we walked through into his study, where he plonked himself down behind a large oak desk lined in green leather, and gestured for me to take a seat as well. In front of him was a bust of his own head.
“I’m taking a risk bringing you here, Noel. But I think you’ve got what it takes to be one of us. If you want to back out now, no-one’s going to think less of you. But if you don’t, you’ll be one of us forever, like it or not. You’re a bright lad with a bright future, and the secrets of the faceless men are never, never to be leaked.”
“I know what’s going on here, Richo, and I want in. This is where I belong. This is what I believe in.”
“Bloody oath” he nodded, and flicked up his hood, shrouding his face. He took a long, slow breath, and then his hands followed, into the darkness.
I could hear his hands scrabbling at the edges of his head. A wet sucking sound followed and with agonising slowness, Richo drew out from under his hood a length of pink, leathery material and flopped it on the bust of his head. I realised in horror that it was his face: fleshy, formless and blank. So, pretty much Graham Richardson.
“Who are you, really?” I whispered hoarsely. Richo opened a drawer and took out a small hand-held device like a phone, or an electric razor. He placed it under the hood, about where his throat would be.
“It’s still me, Noel.” The electronic voicebox spat, “It’s still Graham Bloody Richardson”.
The icy twist in my stomach gave way to a dawning comprehension. Of course! I thought! No wonder the so-called ‘faceless men’ were so secretive. They were getting funding from tobacco.
“I’m in”. I said, slamming my hand on the green leather surface. “Whatever it is, I’m in. I want to be one of the faceless men. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I am loyal and ready to shape the nation”.
The lock behind me clicked shut and I realised the two hooded sentries had taken their place by my side. Richo drew back his hood, and what lay beneath was a ruddy ruin of the man I knew. Where his eyes should have been were two angry welts, blistered over by fire. His ears and nose, eaten away, as if by disease, and his mouth sewn up with black cord. There was no face, just a horrid suggestion of one, like a puddle of chunder on the footpath “suggests” a five course meal washed down with red wine.
“You’ve proven yourself, boy” he said, his electronic larynx whirring and crackling. “Now take your place amongst the faceless men”, as those two hooded men gripped my arms and lifted, their fingers digging into my elbows, my shoulders cramping, my legs kicking limply at the air.
“Now, Richo”, I said, feeling my pulse getting louder, thumping in my ears, my guts turning loose and liquid. “Graham?” Swift as a spoiled policy leak, Richo drew a small metal tube out of his sleeve and held it up in his fist, like a sacrificial dagger. “Graham?” I said again, a little weaker and higher pitched than I would have liked, “You can trust me. I won’t tell.”
“I … know”
And then he thrust forward, and punched me below the throat. There was no pain at first, just the shock of impact, a sudden rush of air, and a rasping, metallic roar that, with a shock, I realised was me, breathing through my neck, the air bypassing my larynx.
Taking a poker from the glowing, red embers, he walked towards me, the smell of smoke and meat and charcoal oppressive and heavy, the radiant heat pricking at my cheekbones, and unable to make a sound, I screamed and screamed and screamed.