On the steps of Parliament House it feels like the inside of a church. Trams clang past as always but knots of people stand still and silent, caught up in their own thoughts or prayers. Some read messages on the 2000-odd bouquets laid in memory of those lost in Bali.
“I didn’t even know you but I’m sorry,” wrote Carlie Nally of Frankston, who is six. The children of Heathmont Baptist Preschool made a big card “For those who feel sad” and signed it with their fingerprints in bright, splashy paints. A banner of white paper carries photos of the dead and missing and the line, “I am, you are, we are Australian.”
On Wednesday one woman stood on the steps and wept for hours beside an Australian flag she had posted herself. No one intruded on her to ask why. And no one approached the two women dressed all in black who laid their flowers yesterday, walking heavily with the burden of their grief. Melbourne mourns respectfully.
The Diana-like outpouring of flowers began after a caller to radio talkback host Neil Mitchell suggested flowers at the Shrine. A second caller, Mike Collins, suggested Parliament House was more central. “And if you look up Bourke Street, it’s a natural terrace,” he said yesterday. “I think people wanted to do something, and they didn’t know what to do.”
People do what they can. For media magnate Kerry Stokes, owner of Channel Seven, that meant offering his Falcon 900 jet to help fly the injured from Denpasar.
It made two trips, bringing back nine burns victims on Sunday and the remaining members of the Kingsley football club on Tuesday. “The surviving members of the team wanted to travel back together as a group,” a spokesman for Mr Stokes said yesterday.
At Parliament House the condolence books have been signed by more than 2000 people. There are wreaths from the Freemasons and the ACTU, from Indonesian language teachers and the plumbers and electricians union. The US consulate-general sent one with pink paper hearts; Garuda Airlines, a pot of fruit and flowers.
There are some from those closely hit: “To my beautiful cousin, Anthony Stewart. I love you so much and I am devastated that I may not see you ever again.” “To my Festa, may you rest in peace. I love you and miss you, but thank God for bringing you into my life.”
Many were laid by young people and some talk about holidays in Bali. But, while Australians feel for the Balinese, most are not willing to risk danger for them. According to travel agent Richard Ruskin, managing director of Bali Bound Holidays, cancellations are running at 80 to 90 per cent.
For him, the aftermath involves worry about the Balinese who will lose work and about trauma counselling for his staff. His reservation manager was in Bali the night of the blast and is badly shaken, he says, while his two local tour operators volunteered at the hospital. “Some of the things they have seen are atrocious; not being able to tell if a burns victim is Australian or Balinese, being there when they die from their wounds.”
Jeanette McCluskey is one of the 20 per cent who will fly regardless. The tragedy has made her even more determined to visit Bali with her 12-year-old daughter next month. Miss McCluskey, of Nunawading, has been four times in the past two years. “All the people are our friends there. We’re not deserting the Balinese, they need us now – and it’s not their fault.”
The most arresting tribute on the steps is a wooden statue. The man has Balinese features and Balinese markings on his clothes but he wears board shorts and carries a surfboard, a symbol of two cultures that might never again mesh in quite the same way.
As another card says in Indonesian, “Tidak bagus (not good).”
First published in The Age.