Published in Overland Issue 247 Winter 2022 Teaser / Fiction Fiction | Australians at work Alex Cothren Dirk Champion RFL Talent Scout Refugee Football League trial match at Linkbelt Oval, Nauru. Young men in official RFL Draft guernseys play with ferocious intensity, a cloud of phosphate dust billowing from the grassless surface. Leaning on the rusted boundary fence, Dirk is just one of the dozens of talent scouts closely watching the action. Number Seventeen’s got something about him. I’ve been on that one ever since he rocked up in camp. He isn’t much to look at when you first cop him. Barely got a frame on him at all. Skinnier than a Buddhist at a BBQ. Skills aren’t the sharpest, either. Struggles to sniff the pill out. Can’t kick it more than a few metres when he does. Pancakes basically every ball he tries to mark. And his handballing. Jesus. He looks like he’s trying to rub lotion on a sunburned baby’s arse. Not quite the complete package, I guess you’d say. The thought of someone like him playing professional footy would have been laughable a few years back. But mark my words, he will. He’ll go top ten in the draft, at least. Maybe top three. He’s got that special sauce clubs are looking for these days. Look. Here he goes. Watch him now. He’s got Number Eighty-six in his crosshairs. Oof. That’s a hit and a half. Chicken-winged him right down onto his temple. Right onto the pressure point. Bloke thinks he’s on Hollywood Boulevard, there’s so many stars. Game’ll be long over by the time he remembers his name. Absolute textbook technique, that tackle. And he’s doing this all day long, Number Seventeen. He’s a predator. Mark my words. Top ten, at least. See, this right here is why I love coming out to the camps. Manus, PNG, Christmas, the ’ru, I love ’em all. It’s like taking a time machine back to the golden days. Back to when footy was still footy, you know what I mean? The AFL may have only officially croaked it three years ago, but if you ask me, it was palliative a long time before that. Got the blood sucked out of it by all those young bucks stressing over getting fuzzy in the head when they’re ninety. All that carrying on, it murdered the game. Once you get tribunals handing out season-long suspensions for a bit of high contact, you ain’t playing footy anymore, you know what I mean? Then the cancer spreads all the way to the grassroots. You end up with under-13s basically playing pass the parcel because Mum’s scared of them getting their knees dirty. All the best athletes migrate to other sports. Basketball, cricket, [spits] soccer. Before you know it, AFL is a product no one wants to watch, and no one wants to play. It’s a death spiral. But even then, even with all that, I didn’t think it would actually shut down for good. Still can’t believe it, if I’m honest. A hundred and fifty years of competition come to zip because they couldn’t find anyone to insure them. General liability and head trauma. That’s how the greatest game the world’s ever known comes to an end. Boggles the mind. We’d lost our soul. That’s genuinely how I felt at the time. Oof. And we’re off. Look at them go at each other. Sight for sore eyes, that. Guess the Manus boys realised they weren’t getting it done with their legs and decided to start knocking a few heads together. That’s one of the greatest rule changes the RFL’s brought in, if you ask me. Six points for knocking a bloke unconscious. Levels the playing field. Case in point, Number Seventeen’s gonna have a bagful before this skirmish is over. He’s like a fly swatter in an outhouse. There’s not a scout here who isn’t circling his number right now. Hindsight’s always twenty-twenty, I guess, but the answer to fixing footy was pretty obvious when you think about it. Who’s desperate enough to throw their bodies around without insurance? Who wouldn’t even qualify for insurance if they wanted it? The real stroke of genius, though, is the prize. Winners of the RFL grand final get citizenship. Both for them and their families. So simple but so effective. All these years of watching footy, we’d convinced ourselves the game was life or death for the players. It wasn’t. Now we’ve seen what life or death footy looks like. Not that it’s easy for scouts like me, mind you. All the old criteria for judging talent’s gone out the window. Most of them have never played footy in their life. If they’ve ever played anything, it’s [spits] soccer. So, you have to do your homework. How motivated are they? What, or who, are they playing for? Take Number Seventeen, for example. Turns out his three-year-old daughter’s got some weird blood disease. She’ll be dead within a year or two if she doesn’t get some proper healthcare. Once I learned that, everything clicked into place. I understood how he can be five foot nothing and still tackle like that. And that, that right there, my friend, is why we’re picking him number one. Desiree Marley Coral Restoration Artist Motorboat anchored just off the coast of Lizard Island, Queensland. Desiree is seated among stacks of large plastic buckets, paint-splattered palettes and her discarded scuba tank. The water around us is still and clear as glass and one can see the clusters of staghorn coral a few metres below. The coral is, aside from one burst of hot pink, a dull, ghostly white. Dude, it’s so heavy when you get started on a new location like this, hey. Super heavy vibes down there. Like, graveyard vibes. Morgue vibes. I always get super bad nightmares at the start of a new contract. Creeps my girlfriend right out. I’ll wake her up in the middle of the night screaming about bone monsters. She’s learned to stay away for a while when that’s going on. She can see people’s auras and she says mine goes tar-black. It usually takes a few days at least for me to get over that funk. Eventually, though, something clicks. On like day three or four, I’ll look back over what I’ve done and I’ll suddenly get the buzz, like the artist part of my brain finally kicks into gear. Like, I finally start seeing canvas, not corpse. From then on, I’m totally in my happy place. If I had gills, I’d probably never surface. [Laughs] Nah, it’s not regular paint. We have to use this special epoxy stuff that works underwater. It’s trippy, hey. Like, you can for real paint underwater with it and it doesn’t dissolve or anything. When someone first showed me a video, I was like, yeah, nah, fuck off, that’s doctored. But it’s legit. Same stuff they use on jetties or on ships they don’t want to dock. Fuck knows the science behind it but it’s dope. I guess because it was originally designed for industrial use or whatever, the colours used to be super limited. Like, when I started taking on these contracts a few years back, there were only a dozen or so colours to choose from. But it’s all good now. Ever since the government started putting their weight behind the project, the paint comes in basically any colour you could ever want. And it needs to, hey. Like, for us to do a proper job and that. Because coral before was an absolute trip. It came in colours we don’t even have names for. Dude, just looking at it makes you feel like you’ve popped tabs. [Laughs. Laughter trails off] I mean, I’ve only seen photos. It was all pretty much bleached out by the time I came along. But I know a few oldies who were lucky enough to check it out back when it was in its prime. And the way their eyes get all misty when they talk about it, you know it had to be something special. So, I guess I’m just out here trying to honour that as best I can. And if that means spending hours mixing paint until I get just the right shade of fuchsia or whatever, then, yeah, nah, fuck it, I’ll do it. I’ve got that fire in me to get it right. I’ve always been an artist. I actually come from a hella hippy family, hey. [Laughs] Mum and Dad and I kind of lived between a few different houses on this big block of land. Just moved from house to house depending on where the party was. It was pretty wild. And in these houses, they’d let you make art right there on the walls. Just pick up a brush or texta or crayon or whatever and have at it. I was doing that before I could even walk. They’d just plop me in front of a wall and go off and do their thing. If the walls got too cluttered, someone would come along and roll a bit of white paint over and I’d just start again. Absolute heaven. This was up Nimbin way. I still got a lot of people up there, but I dunno. I don’t get back there much anymore. The vibe isn’t always that chill when I do. A lot of the oldheads up that way are ex-Sea Shepherd. The word murderer gets bandied about a fair bit. I’ve been spat on. The thing is, as much as I respect how hard those guys fought back in the day, I just don’t see it the same. Like, the coral they remember isn’t coming back, you know? This water’s not getting any cooler. You could legit chuck your Maggi’s in there most days and be ready to eat in less than two minutes. We’re way past conservation mode at this point. Harsh, I know. This is more like the stuffing-animals-and-chucking-them-in-a-museum stage. Not ideal, for sure, but it’s the best future generations are going to get. And on top of that, personally speaking, being a CRA is just a super rare opportunity. Like, good luck making it any other way as an artist in this country. But this, this is years of work. At least. I mean, what are we talking, two-fifty K plus kilometres of reef still to restore? And there’s no way you can rush a job like this either. Like, I’m sure the government would paint-bomb the whole fucking thing at once if they could but it’s just too delicate. I tell people it’s like painting sandcastles. Anything more than a feather touch and it crumbles under your brush. It’s seriously slow and tedious work. Enough to drive you mental sometimes. But the end result makes it all worthwhile. Like, it’s got to be better than photos, right? I remember people laughing at the government when the project was announced. All those memes of dog turds covered in glitter. I was pretty dubious myself. But now the only people laughing are the tour operators. In spots where the reefs are 100% restored, they can’t build the hotels fast enough. My girlfriend and I went up to the Whitsundays for our anniversary last year, and they were renting hammocks up there for $500 a night. Hammocks. The absolute fucking grift of it. You get in the water, though, and it’s easy to see why people are so desperate to get amongst it. Between the coral popping off and those animatronic fish they got flying around, you’d swear it’s 1991 or whatever. People are just so happy down there. And I always get super buzzed, thinking about how I’m playing my small part in bringing them joy. Like, art really can change the world, hey. Mark Tavern Quantum Custody Officer Quantum custody facility in Ceduna, South Australia. It’s an enormous steel structure with the feel of an airplane hangar, except there are no airplanes. Instead, there are rows and rows of concrete blocks, each roughly the size of a minibus. Maybe a hundred in total. Mark slaps the side of one with his open palm. It’s funny, you know, that Schrödinger bloke never mentions the issue of sound. Not once. And I’ve read everything there is to know about his little experiment. Read everything I could when I got this job. Figured I ought to do my homework. Most of it went right over my head, of course. They start talking about superposition this and Copenhagen that, well, I just kind of check out. But I saw the problem with their set-up right away. Diagnosed that fucker real quick. See, they make a show of sealing the box up. Yeah. They’re real staunch on the condition of no-one seeing the cat. Which is all well and good, I guess, but what about hearing the fucking thing? Have they not ever heard how loud a hungry cat gets? Seriously? You’re telling me not one person ever thought about soundproofing that box before they got going? Bunch of geniuses standing around frothing over particles and then [makes meowing sound]. Whoops. Reckon ya cat might be alive, mate. How’s your paradox now? [Laughs. Slaps concrete again] Not that that’s a mistake you’ll catch the Australian Government making, mind you. They’ve soundproofed these fuckers to within an inch of their life. Real professional job. Got concrete slabs four-feet-thick on the outside, a decoupled inner cell to reduce vibrations, and then acoustic foam packed in between the two. Basically, we’ve got Buckley’s of hearing a peep. Doesn’t matter how loud they get in there. They could be screaming their lungs raw. No joke. They could be screaming blue murder at us right now and we wouldn’t have a clue. Nothing. Which is the point, of course. The inner cell’s actually a shipping container. Six by nine. Standard solitary confinement dimensions. They truck them in here already tucked up snug. I never lock eyes on them myself. The second they get into police custody and it’s confirmed that, yes, they are a person eligible for the QC program, then it’s into the container they go, and it’s off to here or whichever QC facility is closest. The speed of the whole operation is incredible. They get them in here and knock up the outer shell in a couple of hours. Amazing thing to witness. Of course, they have to knock out the protectee before this all happens. Couple mgs of Flunitrazepam does the trick. Otherwise, they’re going ballistic against the sides of the container and that’s off-putting for the workers. Now, regrettably, with the pace of all that, there’s often not much chance for family or loved ones to see them off. Which is a shame. We do hear complaints about that a lot. And look, I empathise. I really do. You’d have to have a crater in your chest not to. It can’t be nice getting that phone call saying Dad or Mum or brother or sister or kid or whatever has been admitted into QC and that’s that. All you’ve got left are the Polaroids, so to speak. Seems cruel. Probably is cruel, to be honest. But if it is, it’s one of them cruel-to-be-kind type situations, you know? Because the reality is that every second spent in regular police custody is a dodgy one for this mob. Real life or death shit. And that’s not just my opinion. That’s a statistical fact. History shows us this. No joke. What were we up to before the QC program started? Nine hundred odd dead? And not much sign of it slowing down either. Bashed by prison guards. Shot in the back by police. Chucked in transport vans in the middle of summer. Dying of heart attack, asthma, head injuries, septicaemia and not a doctor in sight. Just left to die in their cells like fucking dogs. Absolute tyre fire, how we used to care for some people in this country. But that’s all changed now for the better. Not a single confirmed death since QC kicked into gear, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment in my book. And you’ve got to hope that that offers a fair bit of consolation to the families. Peace of mind and all. No news being good news sometimes, know what I mean? Shit, they may even get a bit jealous. No joke. This mob in here? Doesn’t have to work another day in their life. No six a.m. alarms going off in QC. Morning commutes not bad either. [Laughs. Laughter dies off. Long pause] I mean, not that it’s the Ritz Carlton. I’m not saying that. Some aspects would be a bit bleak, I imagine. Take the food, for example. I say food. Nutritional maximisation solution. Gets pumped up from an underground tank in the basement twice a day. [Visibly shudders] It splotches up into this little basin they got in there. They can’t have a spoon, for obvious safety reasons, so they’d have to lean down and lap it up like a cat. Then there’s another little basin for their waste. And no, the food pipe and waste pipe don’t operate out of the same tank. That’s a conspiracy theory I’ve heard going round the traps. One reason a lot of us in this profession keep mum. You tell someone you work QC at a BBQ and next thing you know your ear is getting chewed off by some truther who thinks there’s a mass grave beneath Parliament House. Or worse, some SJW arcs up. Yeah. Nothing says good times like going eleven rounds with Karen on the UN Charter of blah blah blah. So, to save the trouble, a lot of us just say something like Corrections and avoid eye contact. But not me. Fuck no. I refuse to act ashamed of my job. Because I’m not ashamed. Not one bit. I genuinely believe we’re doing some good here. But most people are no hassle. Honestly? Most are just curious. They don’t quite understand what it is I do all day. Yeah. You were wondering the same? Well, it sounds a bit fruity, to be honest, but basically I spend my nine-to-five imagining. No joke. It’s pretty simple really. I clock on and then I go one by one to each cell and I just ask myself: could they be alive in there? Like, is there anything that would suggest otherwise? I try to spend about five to ten minutes on each. Important not to cut corners, I reckon. Give each their due. Shows respect. Besides, it takes at least a few minutes of real hard concentration before the magic happens. You’ve seen those drawings of Schrödie’s cat, yeah? The way it like splits in two. One cat’s lying there carked it but the other’s upright and feeling good. Well, it’s dead set like that. No joke. Brings a smile to my face every time. Just thinking about how they could be thriving in there. Maybe even giving me a wave at that exact moment, like, no stress, mate, I’m good. Don’t worry about us. [Waves dreamily at block]. Then when that’s done, I tick this possibly alive box here and that gets sent off for their official figures and that’s it. Like I said, not a single confirmed death since we started. Not to clap meself on the back or nothing. Alex Cothren Alexander Cothren was born in Washington State, USA, and now lives in Adelaide, Australia. 'Discomfort example' is his third published work. On Twitter he is @cothren_alex More by Alex Cothren Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. 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