Three years ago my partner dropped me at Southern Cross uni in Lismore, agreeing to text in a couple of hours. My latest novel had just won Australia’s biggest literary prize, and the Bundjalung mob on campus had invited me down to give a talk. Reader, as I headed into the Indigenous Centre that September afternoon, I was walking on air. Even when our preliminary cuppas were interrupted by the misfunctioning emergency siren, my mood didn’t falter. Everyone groaned, then laughed. We waited for technicians to stop the damn thing. Conversation was impossible, drowned out every 60 seconds by a screeching siren, followed in turn by: Attention! Attention! An emergency situation has been declared!
This racket went on for five, 10, 20 minutes. Happens all the time, I was assured. I began to think I’d driven a very long way just to listen to its endless blaring. It’s funny how the worst news sometimes gets blanked out. I can’t remember who discovered the alarm was working perfectly. But whoever got that first call or text, very soon we all knew: there was a gunman roaming around on campus. The warning wasn’t an annoying mistake after all. The emergency was real.
Samuel Johnson wrote that ‘when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully’. Clustered in what had until then been the comforting haven of the Indigenous Centre, we suddenly had neither the certainty nor the timeline of Johnson’s prisoner. What we had was each other, confusion, and for me at least – as the minutes passed – a rising edge of panic.
We were in a space the size of three surburban loungerooms. One wall was floor-to-ceiling glass, looking on to a lawn. I can’t have been the only one who imagined the shooter appearing there, and aiming in. A nondescript door at the far end of the glass suddenly took on terrible significance. Was it locked? Who would go the exposed length of the room to find out? (One of the Goorie men bravely did, a couple of minutes after the question arose.)
Everything felt wrong. Indigenous student centres are meant to be refuges: places to learn and grow, free from racist intrusion. Now into one such sanctuary came: this. At first we joked that the biggest worry was getting to the kettle, inconveniently placed in full view of the windows. This was Lismore after all, known for hippies and protesters, not homicidal maniacs. Possibly because they knew the university far better than me, the others seemed less worried (one or two cuppas did in fact get made). Or maybe they were putting on a brave front. As a relative stranger on campus, I worried what complacency might mean. I remembered accounts of people in the twin towers who dismissed the first warning sirens on 9/11, or alternatively, obeyed instructions to stay put at their desks, and perished.
A few minutes later, we’d begun to reassess. Twenty of us, including an Elder in a wheelchair, huddled together in a narrow corridor joining the glassed-in room to the foyer of the Indigenous Centre. Accessible on both ends, the hallway at least meant we were invisible to anyone not already inside. And there we waited.
Nobody’s phone rang. Everyone had switched instantly to silent mode, for fear of drawing the gunman’s attention. But texts trickled in. The entire campus was in lockdown. So were surrounding streets, and schools. The Tactical Response Unit was coming. We heard sirens and helicopters, but good information was scarce. With my battery fading, I refreshed news sites I normally wouldn’t spit on. But all we had was rumours that the shooter was in the library. Hearing this brought relief – the library was a few buildings distant – quickly followed by worry for those in worse peril. We texted our families, desperate for information.
Pretty soon, things changed again. Cops with machine guns had been spotted near the library. Machine guns?! But this is Lismore. And then there was more astounding news, of not one gunman now, but two, working together. This was terrifying, as though a single shooter was somehow manageable but two turned us into helpless prey.
Being clustered in the hall made no sense when there were windowless offices nearby. I pushed a heavy filing cabinet and table up against the door of one, then lay beneath the table in the only position that allowed me to both hide and plug my phone in. Once more I texted my partner, who by now was arguing ferociously with police to be allowed across the blockades to join us. Three times they said: you’ve got to be joking.
Lying contorted there on the floor, the irony was palpable. We were revisiting Lismore literally for one day, and spending it in an Indigenous place, designed to nurture Goorie people. Now, like so many Bundjalung ancestors, we were in actual danger of being shot dead by a white man with a rifle.
You’ve got to be joking.
But here’s the thing. It turns out that hiding from an assassin beneath a heavy office table concentrates the mind wonderfully. And what I realised as I hid that afternoon is this: if I did have to die, I’d left nothing much left undone. And then – furious at the way male violence presumes to rule the world and everyone in it – I made a loose decision. If the gunmen did come – if the door of the room did splinter from gunfire – I’d try my best to rush out and knock the killers down. The pricks would no doubt shoot everyone in the head anyway, so there wasn’t a lot to lose. It sounds like bravado, but at the time it made perfect sense. Maybe it still does.
Those early texts to my partner had been brief. There’s supposed to be a gunman. I’m with the mob. Don’t tell the kids yet. But after barricading the door, my messages changed. There were detailed instructions about divvying up assets. Last loving texts to the kids, trying to strike the impossible balance between “I love you, goodbye” and “but don’t stress”. There was one we’ve saved in our phones, revealing what I was unexpectedly gifted on the hard floor of that tiny office. Knowledge I couldn’t have possibly gotten without believing I might be about to die. I’m all right. I’ve been a lot of places, and done a lot of things in my life. My only regret is not swimming in the ocean more.
After another hour or so, the cops came. The biggest man I have ever seen stood at the entrance of the centre, with his flak jacket, black helmet and TRG weapon, ushering us to a debrief. It turned out that although the threat had been real, no gunmen had actually been on campus while we worried, and hid, and texted our goodbyes to our children. While I was paradoxically in a situation with zero control over what was going to happen, and in the process realised: I’ve had a pretty great life, all told. And discovered the most valuable thing of all: the realisation that I could die happy.
Melissa Lucashenko is the author of the novels Hard Yards, Mullumbimby, and Too Much Lip