Published 4 November 20234 November 2023 · Main Posts Coal stains AZ Pascoe Metal screeches, our tin coffin shuddering around us; rubber squeals as wheels meet the tarmac. Finally. ‘Saddle up lads, cavalry’s in town,’ someone behind me drawls, words heavy with sarcasm. After all, cavalry comes to save the day. We step out of the shitty little company-commissioned rust bucket into hot, dry air. The world above the blacktop shimmers. Waiting bus, tin-shack terminal, distant straggly clumps of bush – all ripple in the heat and I think about how these places look different yet the same. I struggle to keep the curl from my upper lip. you wear that sneer like it’s a designer handbag, you snooty bitch Barbed-wire voice in the back of my mind, the one from the past, the one that never leaves. Where does that voice end and my own begin? I wonder how much it overlaps with the venom waiting for us here: a Venn diagram of contrasting worlds, shaded hatred where they overlap. Nothing divides us like mining. Even things that rip your heart outta your chest and grind it into a bloody pulp – that woman, her kids, burning in their car – we spend a bit of time with our knickers twisted, get distracted and let it go again. But coal mining? The fissures of it run through us like ley lines. We need it; it’s destroying the planet. We love it. We hate it. But these lines don’t carry power and rejuvenation or ancient magics like in fantasy books, just division and anger. Our presence convulses already-tenuous bonds, driving ravines into the earth we alight on. Tonight, perhaps, the lads’ll have a bartender pulling the beers who’s glad they’re there, grateful for the mid-week business. Tomorrow, it might be someone who sees us as a plague of locusts but tolerates us because they must. Could be the same bloke. I hate these small towns. Even if we’re not standing in one, I can smell it. It’s like – ‘Fucking move it, Sienna!’ I start, curse under my breath, and trot after Jacko, who’s standing at the door of the bus with his bag and a face as dark as if he’d already done a full day’s work. always looking, aren’t you, slut? always gagging for it, can’t keep it in your pants, can you? I shove my shoulders down and back, a reflex crafted to counter collapse, and I try not to breathe deeply as I board the bus. We don’t really stink yet but we will soon. Once, I lived in a glass and iron cage under bright white office lights, the rhythmic tick-tick-tick of keyboards a robotic heartbeat to my days and all my air recycled and conditioned, scented with hot paper and new-wet ink. Here, there’s that open country smell of manure and horsehair and dust and the stench of what I am and what I do sits underneath it, twines through it, and I’d rather avoid that. I don’t look too closely at people as the bus wends through town to the site, either. They don’t need to be real for me to get the job done. Ten days, then – I skive away from the word ‘home’ like it’s a two-metre king brown. Back to the city. To the river and the glass, the inescapable whir of life. Not like out here. It’s always too quiet in these towns, like they’re dead, like your own thoughts might claw their way out of your brain and choke the life out of you with ghostly hands. The money. It’s all that keeps me going some days. Last year some young girl who smelt of cheap perfume, sweat and anger passed too close. ‘Get the hell out of our town,’ she said and I wasn’t supposed to hear it but I did. It took everything I had not to turn around and smack her one, not to point out that it’s not her town either. As much as we might like to push it down deep, where it turns cancerous, we all know what’s been razed to make way for these towns, to sink the yawning mouths of the mines where I disappear. There are ghosts here, of a different kind, and long, dark memories of blood that linger in the soil and in the sand. Her town. The memory makes my teeth clench so hard that pain spears through my jaw. As if we should spend the whole time here locked away like we’re criminals, not supposed to duck into town for food or booze. always thirsty, aren’t you, you stupid lush? just like your whole dirtbag family. The way they look at us… like the black dust we’ve tried to scrub off our skin is a tattoo and we’re bringing the darkness with us. Some days I scrub until my skin is raw, angry red rather than pasty white, but mostly I don’t bother. Why? It’s just for ten shitty days – and the money, the money. Money is an escape route surer than anything else, and for the last six years I’ve watched the influx into my bank account every month like the world has been squeezing the life out of me and that money has reinforced the steel cocoon keeping me breathing. I needed to escape. I fell into it. Seek promised ‘experience desirable, not mandatory’ and a traineeship. If it tasted sour that I’d always been seen as a diversity hire, and maybe I am, swapping East coast for West soothed the sting. It was a way to disappear, one cage for another. But people don’t care. They just see the surge: in housing prices and the cost of white goods, in hookers and in booze. I don’t even fucking drink, not anymore, not after – always got something to say, don’t you? mouthy little bitch. The donga shakes as I let the door slam shut behind me, as much as those flimsy doors can slam, and I throw my bag onto the bed. Finally, alone. I follow my bag, barely flinching as a runaway spring stabs beneath my shoulder blade, right into that tender, fleshy bit hidden behind the bone. It’s been worse, you’ve had worse, I remind myself, the old chant, the one that runs through my bones like the steady huff and chug of an old coal train. It’s been worse. I should get up, check the bathroom. On my last swing I had to scrub it for an hour with bleach, it was so black with mould. But I just can’t be bothered, not yet. lazy whore, aren’t you? when’s the last damn time you did anything fucking useful around here? what the hell is the point of you anyway? It was easy to listen. To crumple and cry, then paint myself a beautiful mask and apply for a receptionist’s job in an iron-glass high-rise; to crawl into the cage as he held the door ajar. My undergrad enrolment simply lapsed. Not even a whimper, let alone a bang. You get a lot of time to think about that kind of shit, driving in the mines. My stomach cramps. The idea of forcing down the mess’s raw vegetables and leathery steaks makes me sick. The money. I know the numbers in my bank account are just that, numbers, and all the world’s money is ethereal. But I still imagine holding those notes in my hands, building myself a castle out of them where I’m invisible and invincible, unable to be seen or touched. Beyond hurt. sorry, Sie, I’m sorry, it was an accident, you just made me mad, I’m sorry, why’d you do it love? ‘C’mon Sienna,’ Jacko bawls through the door, following it with the thump of one meaty fist. ‘What?’ I don’t move, staring without seeing at the grimy ceiling. It’s just like all the others in all the other dongas and the moment’s familiarity makes my skin crawl. lying awake but gone, eyes open but mind drifting, as overhead someone rages ‘We’re going to the pub,’ Jacko says, apparently not giving two shits that I’m ignoring him. rude cow I think some of them expect it from me. There are few enough other women around; last year I spent three months on the same job, on the same swing, and I was the only woman in my pod of dongas the whole time. Some of the guys still eye me suspiciously, like I’m hiding a pointed hat and wand under my shirt, and I’ll hex their balls off. The rest are just hanging around, hoping for a screw. just like you are, admit it, you’d spread them for any guy with a good set of shoulders and dreamy blue eyes, no matter the tackle between his – Nah, that’s not fair. Some of ‘em have a girlfriend or a missus they’re actually faithful to. It’s one reason I like ending up in the same crew as Jacko. Probably the most normal bloke I’ve ever met, which I guess would make him abnormal, wouldn’t it? Figures he’s married. not like that’d stop you though, would it? Irrelevant. Last thing in the world I want is a man. Or a woman. I told Ma that last time I forced myself to dial her number. ‘I’m busy, Ma, just lay off, will you?’ And she sighed that heavy, disappointed sound that’s supposed to rip your guts out but just makes every inch of me burr up like a cranky echidna. ‘Sienna?’ Shit. ‘Nah, I’m good, mate.’ A long silence. I wonder if he’s weighing up whether to push a little harder. Part of me wants him to. Instead, I can almost see his shrug through the walls: well, she’s not my problem, is she? ‘Orright, we’ll see you in the a.m.’ I don’t answer. No doubt he’s already gone. I nudge my bag until it falls off the bed, then I toe off my boots, managing not to flinch away from the crash of them on the worn old lino floor. I tug the doona over me, glad that despite the crushing heat outside, it’s cool in the throat-drying, snot-hardening aircon of my room. Tiny streamers flutter from the outlet in torrents of recycled air. Coal dust swirls above me; even when I can’t see it, I know it’s there. Billions of particles drift like the soiled remnants of a nightmare, waiting to settle onto any possible surface. When you touch it, it smears. Depending on the surface, coal dust stains. Image: CSIRO AZ Pascoe AZ Pascoe is an Australian writer, working on Gadigal land in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Passionate about language in all forms, she is aided (or hindered) by two cheeky little cat-muses in her creative pursuits. Her work is inspired by the fragility of relationships, everything uniquely Australian, and those subtle moments in life that are so vital, but so easily missed. Her story ‘Three China Cups’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Lip Magazine Rachel Funari Prize while other stories have been published by Stringybark Stories and Mary River Press Services. She recently published her first book, Reg Pascoe: The Vet They Called God. More by AZ Pascoe › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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