Published in Overland Issue 201 Summer 2010 · Main Posts / Writing Minerals are not nomads Frank Boyce There is always rubbish at the South Point landfill. I’ve pushed it around for months now but it never goes anywhere. My boss simply says, ‘make sure the rubbish is gone by next week’. But the next week he doesn’t show up and the rubbish is still there. The next time I see him, I say that it is different rubbish; we cleared everything and now we have new rubbish. He does not know the difference. ‘Good,’ he says, ‘good work.’ Some days he turns up and others he doesn’t. He must oversee a selection of landfills in the area – it is a thriving business now. I used to be a miner when work was available, but now people are interested in piling things on top of the land instead of pulling it from underneath. They still call it a landfill but the holes were filled a long time ago. There are at least five famous men in South Point doing the same thing. Everybody calls them ‘landlords’ but this is obviously confusing when considering the other landlords in the area. Some of them own apartment blocks, and some of them own landfills, and some of them own both. No-one is ever clear about who owns both. It is possible that I am directly paying back my boss most of my wage the day after he has given it to me. If this is the case, it would make sense for him to tell me. Then he could simply deduct my pay. But this might involve a contract and he dislikes contracts. In fact, he made me sign an agreement that I would never ask for a contract. This might have been a mistake. I asked Jack, who has been working at South Point for five years. He said, ‘Yes, it was a mistake. You should have gotten a contract.’ Every morning he picks me up in an old brown Commodore before the garbage collectors arrive. Sometimes people get the two jobs confused. They think I collect garbage but I do not collect garbage. I move rubbish at the landfill. There have been occasions where I’ve put out my garbage in the morning and seen it later at work. Often it will be clothing or a brightly coloured mug or furniture. A sudden affection comes over me when this happens and I have to pick them up and take them back home. Each day Jack picks me up for work. I stand at the front window and watch him back into the driveway. The brake lights on his Commodore float in the mist like drops of blood in a glass of milk. The streets are always empty. I get in the car and me and Jack both light cigarettes with the windows up. Jack likes to listen to AM radio but his hearing is bad so he sticks the volume on full. It is just like having another person in the car. The announcer always talks about sport or immigration or the healthcare system but as far as I know none of these things exist in South Point. At least, I have seen no evidence of them. Jack yells at the radio as if he understands. ‘How about that,’ he says, ‘did you hear that?’ I don’t reply. He nervously shifts the gears even though it is an automatic car. ‘What?’ He yells. ‘Sure’ I say, ‘that’s terrible.’ He looks over waiting for another response. There is only one route to the landfill and there is so much smoke and mist all the time – Jack doesn’t pay much attention to the road. We can hardly see where we are going. We know only when we arrive. 2 There are men with megaphones at the front gate again. ‘Fucking recyclers,’ Jack says as we drive through. He spits his cigarette at them. It bounces off the window then falls in a side compartment with his cassettes. ‘Bastards are gonna take our jobs. All they do is turn rubbish into more rubbish.’ He hacks. ‘Useless.’ I look at the mounds of waste we push around and consider saying something. The men who work at the recycling plant have been picketing the landfill for months. They say we are destroying the earth but it is not my fault. I am only doing my job. It would be helpful if the boss were around; perhaps there would be a better chance of sorting out the problem. He usually sends someone in his place. Someone named Geoff or Simon who I do not know. They just stand there picking their suits or sniffing the air with what seems like confidence. ‘It’s not our problem,’ one usually says. Megaphones are also a problem. The first time the recyclers came to protest, everyone had megaphones. I estimate that there were at least thirty. There is only one hardware store that sells megaphones in South Point and when I went to buy one myself, they were out of stock. So the next day, no-one could hear me shouting. By the end, all you could hear was noise. Just distorted words like Jack’s radio – like all their voices were being kicked through a tin can. I don’t want to listen to the protesters today so I start the bulldozer. There are only two. Jack hops in the other one and lights another cigarette. After a few minutes I can hardly see him in there. The boss has not left instructions for us so we do what we usually do, and move the rubbish. I estimate there are about four square kilometres of it at South Point, maybe more. The landfill only seems to get bigger. I call it the plastic beach because the only thing you can see from here past the mounds and the seagulls is the sea. I’ve read somewhere that everything comes from the earth – but minerals are not nomads. It’s strange to think now that so much of it is rejected: tyres, plastics, metals, all turned away from their original home, destined to be combed along the surface by machines until they blow into the water or get swallowed by some dumb animal. Actually, I do not blame the animals: they do not know any better. Like everything else it just gets discarded. It is not long before I spot a fire in one of the mounds. I see Jack off in the distance and cannot call him over for help. There are people that live in the landfill. Out in the back corners closer to the shoreline, they build small houses from scrap wood and metal, or take shelter in old cars. They also burn things. I am not sure why they burn – though the smell, so far, has not made its way into the cabin of my machine. It is probably a ritual for people indigenous to the landfill but I do not know whether to put the fires out. The boss does not like them but he does not say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when I ask him whether they should be put out. He just says that he does not like them. I imagine it would be a difficult thing to do. I slow down as I approach the fire – it is a furniture fire – that is churning black smoke into the air. Three boys and a girl sit staring into the blaze. They sit in the dirt and I wonder why they are burning furniture. The boys are a bit older, lanky, not yet men. The girl must be about ten. They have not noticed my machine approaching them. Jack says to be careful with it. It is very powerful. I rev the engine to get their attention. It is my job to put the fire out and they must move out of the way. My seat feels hot; I’m sticking to it. There are no instructions on how to remove people from the landfill. Diesel fumes begin to fill the cabin as I continue to rev the machine. The fire slowly spreads, and still, they watch it. Minutes pass, maybe ten, while the engine idles. I decide that the children are like children. They will often ignore you until things get serious. I creep forward in first gear, still able to see them. But it is not long before their bodies dip below my view. They are now in front of the mouth of the bulldozer. Surely they will move out of the way. I have to put out the fire. Black smoke fills the cabin and I cough from the diesel. My hands are clamped to the wheel. The dozer jolts and I look down, but my foot is not on the brake. There is a crack and a scream. Something churns under the wheels. I see the three boys running through the flames. 3 Linda has never approved of my job so I do not tell her exactly what happened. It’s for her protection and she will not mind. I don’t like it when she asks me if the girl was dead. I don’t know, there was smoke from the fire in the cabin. ‘Jack said he took care of it,’ I say. ‘After he ran over her he got out of the machine and helped her out, okay? Now did you buy coffee today?’ ‘What the hell does that mean?’ she says, banging the grill shut. ‘It means did you go to the supermarket today and get a tin of instant coffee so we can drink it. There is a letter from your mother here, by the way,’ I say. She dislikes her mother. It will take her mind off the girl. She always makes things more complicated than they need to be. ‘No, what do you mean about the girl? “He took care of it”: what does that mean?’ She looks in the cupboards for something, opening them up one by one. ‘That’s a human being,’ she says, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ ‘She’s only your mother, Linda. Did she decide not to send that money? We don’t need it anyway. Tell her we are doing fine and that we don’t need to be taken care of.’ Her cupboard searching becomes more frantic. ‘Are you looking for the coffee?’ I say. ‘It’s not going to be there if you didn’t buy it.’ ‘No, Rick’ she says, ‘I didn’t buy the fucking coffee. I told you that. You have to stop drinking it anyway. It’s not good for you.’ She leans back against the counter. She looks good. I would like to fuck her but I am angry about the coffee. She sighs and tries to look out the kitchen window. I know it is too dark outside for her to see anything but her reflection. She sips tea from our only mug. I picked it up from the landfill. It is all red, even the inside, with a pair of white lips on the rim. I find it ugly but she clings to it. She sets it down slowly to make sure it makes no sound on the counter. ‘I want you to quit,’ she says. ‘We could get out of here and go somewhere along the coast – just like James and Louise did last year. I’m sure there are plenty of places.’ ‘We don’t need to be taken care of by your mother,’ I say. It is annoying that she keeps insisting on this. ‘No-one has even heard from those two since they left South Point. Jack told me they got carjacked on the way out. Said a whole group of men stopped them in the middle of the night. They’d set up roadblocks or something.’ She scoffs. ‘They took James and Louise out of the car, stripped it for parts, and then burnt the rest of it. They were lost; you’d be mad to drive out on those roads. No-one knows what’s out there. I don’t even know if they’re alive. But Jack was pretty sure he saw their car at the tip. He said it was a black shell.’ Linda didn’t look frightened at my story and I was disappointed. I thought that I might tell her that most of our possessions come from the landfill, that her birthday gifts and clothing were found in near perfect condition. It would make her angry. Then she would leave and I wouldn’t have to worry about her. ‘We don’t have anywhere else to go,’ I say. And this is true. South Point is one of the only places left where you can work as an unskilled labourer. ‘What about the recycling plant?’ She says. I scratch my chin and jut it outwards, as if I am thinking. ‘No, well, I’m not sure,’ I say. I had seen this done before, and knew that it would seem like I was considering it. ‘Well I just don’t think it’s the right time. We have most of the things we want here. And there’s opportunity here.’ ‘Where?’ ‘At the landfill. You know, I might even make assistant manager next year. And I really don’t like you sending letters off to your mother to tell her to take care of us. You think it will be different somewhere else? It won’t be.’ It is strange. I feel like I am behind the wheel of the kitchen table. ‘What about that girl?’ she asks again. Smoke begins to fill the kitchen. Her toast is burning. 4 I can now see the landfill from my kitchen window. I start to understand the term ‘too close to home’ but it is not the fault of the rubbish for being there. I joke with Linda and say, ‘it looks like the sea has come to us,’ but she never laughs, because it is not really like the sea at all. It is like a cancer. Jack says it is more like fungus. I tell him my mother had cancer and I would know, then he says no, look, it’s more like fungus, and shows me his infected foot. Maybe it is more like fungus. 5 All of the rubbish piles have formed into one big pile that runs along the street. In fact it covers most surfaces but you can’t see how far it stretches. Technically we are now in the landfill and I am working all of the time so I try to be serious about things. I think Linda is impressed that I am working hard because she does not forget to supply the coffee and we have had sex quickly a few times in the mornings. I have not seen the boss yet but when he comes I will tell him that Jack and I cannot reach our machines due to the amount of rubbish so when the rubbish is cleared we can get to the machines to clear it again – but the good news is the recyclers can’t reach us from here. I rub Linda’s back when we look out the kitchen window because I have seen other people do it to offer someone sympathy. She seems to be sceptical of intimacy, as if my hand weren’t really my hand, and she moves out from under my touch. Maybe she knows that I am really excited by the idea of being in the landfill. But I can taste it in the water now so we drink bottled water. And the smell clings to our fresh food so we eat frozen food. And the fires burn all day on the coast and there is nobody to put them out. The road me and Jack used to take is now barely visible. Someone has erected a sign there that says, Wrong way. There is nothing about the going back part. I am not so sure about Jack but I still have a desire to move the rubbish. ‘Fucking hell,’ says Jack, spitting next to the sign. He looks back down what used to be the road with his hands in his pockets. ‘You know whose fault this is?’ he sounds rhetorical so I don’t say anything. Seagulls circle in the sky. The laughing noise they make is unbearable. Children play in the landfill. Their parents stand inside behind the cover of their homes and fiddle hopelessly with the radio and television trying to get reception but most of their products are cheap and have broken down. They take fog lamps and headlights from their vehicles and power them from their homes. They keep their faces pinned to their windows so they can watch their children develop from a safe distance. It is lucky Linda and I do not have children and do not have to worry but I am glad I have a set of golf clubs. 6 Soon enough the children become a part of the landfill and it is impossible to tell whether they are indigenous to it or not. They are black with grime and shit and stare when we walk past as if they are accusing us of something. They have learned to light fires that frequently burn on the front lawn. Jack and I still walk out every morning to stand in front of the sign to discuss what we are going to do about moving the rubbish but most of the time we end up watching children in their homes they have built out of old car chassis and panels. The largest shelter they have set up is in the container of an old delivery truck. It could be some sort of defined meeting place where the laws of the landfill are discussed but I think it might be where they slaughter each other for food. While we are standing at the sign I pretend to pay attention to Jack, who is still discussing the tired issues bought up on AM radio that aren’t even relevant to South Point, while I take a look inside the container. I look over at the front porch where Linda is in her underwear, clasping her elbows in her palms. She does that most mornings to see how far the rubbish has come in. The children stare at her with genuine amusement and sometimes bewilderment. They seem fascinated with her breasts and draw outlines on their chests in a white paint made from bird shit. When the ritual becomes more serious and the children begin carving and burning the circular marks into their bodies I tell Linda not to go out there any more for her own protection. But she continues to stand on the porch. I guess she likes the routine. 7 We discuss the possibility of communicating with the children through megaphones. But then they might not understand us or pretend not to. Jack says that we should ring the boss and find out what to do but we do not have his phone number. Jack asks me his name so we can look him up but we realise we have just called him ‘boss’ and never addressed him directly. ‘Anyway,’ says Jack, ‘it is not our problem. We aren’t the ones with kids – not our fucking responsibility.’ Linda stares deeply into the white lips of her coffee mug and seems unhappy with the way things are going. She does not go out of the house anymore except in the mornings. The ritual has become a great source of enjoyment for the children. As soon as they hear the front door shut they pile out of the truck and come to sit on the lawn while Linda stands very still and exposes her breasts. When she becomes more comfortable she moves into the lawn and the children form a close circle around her. She is very dedicated to her work and returns to the house smiling and empowered. It helps everyone forget about the rubbish, and it is only after she leaves that the children become agitated and begin the cutting ceremonies. It is possible in future that we may strike a deal with them regarding exposure times and freedoms allowed to us in the landfill. But it seems now that she wants something to be done. She picks at her clothes; she is uncomfortable. She sits up at night writing letters to her mother. Since the rituals began she has not wanted to touch me. Since the rituals began she has left the bed at night and not returned until the morning, smelling of smoke and incense and raw meat. I will show her that she does not need to worry. 8 It seems like my boss is in. From the top of the mounds we can see his trailer light is on. It goes in and out of view as we carefully trudge through the canyons of the rubbish. When we rise up again I look out to where I think the sea might be. I wish we had bought a torch. I can hear the children following us but their footsteps sound as if they were leading us. I am worried I am stepping on invisible bodies and flesh. The noises are human; crunches and squeals and clicks and gurgles. I figure it would not matter if we caved in a head or a chest. If it was the body of anyone caught for doing something wrong, the injuries would have been far worse and it is better that we don’t have to see them. Dark shapes disperse from around the trailer as we approach. I am not sure whether they are recyclers or children. I look at Jack to see if he is worried. I wonder what he is planning, if we will kill the boss. I can feel the grip of the golf club in my hand. We walk up to the door and I almost knock. Jack steps back and is ready to kick the door but stumbles under his bad foot. So I take a deep breath and drive the sole of my boot into the flimsy door, sending it to the floor inside the trailer. We had not even checked if it was locked. Linda is sitting in the empty trailer surrounded by the children. They are filthy and I cannot tell them apart. I want to ask Linda what she is doing here and I squeeze the club, ready to swing. But Jack puts his arm across my chest as if he had sensed the worst of my intentions, and I obey him because Jack has been at South Point longer than I have and would have a better understanding of how these situations should be handled. The light in the trailer hums and the fires crackle in the distance. A stack of letters sits next to Linda and a child grabs two of them and hands them to Jack and me. A notice from the Landlady, All workers of the South Point Landfill are to report for duty at 9 am each day. All rubbish must be removed the week following its arrival. All rent must be paid on time and in full. Failure to abide will result in immediate termination. There is a line underneath where I can sign my name. I remember Jack telling me that I should always sign a contract so I scribble my initial. We leave the trailer and find hundreds of men from the waste disposal sector lining up. They stand in silence waiting to be called into the trailer. They smoke their cigarettes and listen to the radio. They watch the fires on the horizon. Jack’s foot looks pretty bad. He takes off his boot and shows it to me. There is a lot of pus. A health and safety inspector approaches us from the line of men. He has been ticking things off and referring to a list in his hand. He tells Jack that he must get the foot amputated. They cannot risk the infection spreading. Frank Boyce Frank Boyce is a writer and student living in Melbourne. More by Frank Boyce 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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