Another mouthful of flies. Jesus, I am going mad.
Having worked all night, Tanya slept soundly in the donga as I lit another smoke outside. It was only seven a.m. and already the mercury nudged the thirty-five Celsius mark. The red horizon shimmered. Soon I’d be clocking on, the site only a quarter hour away. Twelve hours ahead of me then, which was about eleven hours more than I could stomach of driving a dump truck forwards and backwards in pretty much a straight line.
The Pilbara. The minerals boom had returned me to where it all started. I was born in Port Hedland, a town where the only green is the glint of an empty Victoria Bitter beer can by the side of the road. The family soon migrated south to Perth when I was only three. There wasn’t much going on here then. Well, not like now anyway. Today the country’s richest people were here. Everywhere I looked, wallets were bursting with lobsters and pineapples. Exactly why I was back.
But I’m not like most of the blokes here. To use mining slang, the locals say my kind ‘drill for Vegemite’. I doubt any phrase could be more vulgar (or, for that matter, more Australian) and to say I despised it would be an understatement. But I’d heard it so much here, it barely made an impact anymore. It’s only the path I’d chosen. For now. I just had to keep telling myself that.
Tanya was my cover, and I hers. Internal conflict combined with a double life tends to shatter your confidence, and you live in the shadows out of necessity. Without Tanya, it would’ve been absolutely unbearable. Isolation within isolation.
Barmaids had the run of these towns as the clientele was loyal to an almost unhealthy degree. The publicans knew this: lose the girl and all the drinkers and their thirsty goodwill went with her. And it was this the girls exploited by continuously playing bar owners against one another to ensure the best deal.
We made sure we were seen together as often as possible, and usually in the mornings. See, they didn’t know it was platonic, and a price couldn’t be put on the level of protection the public image afforded us. More flirting by Tanya meant more tips, but the locals knew we were together so she was off limits for anything more. It’s almost as if they were proud of us: the two young ‘uns who’d found love in the most unlikely of places where relationships usually only lasted according to the hourly rate. Sacred. So Tanya was everyone’s innocent younger sister, the eternally cheerful sprite who was easy on the eye in a harsh world of the blackest grime and driest sweat. Tanya was by no means a nun though, but she was very discreet with whomever she was with, and the threat of impending doom delivered by the heartbroken masses was enough to ensure all encounters were quickly forgotten by both sides. Oh, she told me of course, if only to give me the chance to make the bloke in question squirm just that little bit every time he saw me.
And me? I was Tanya’s only confidant. You try finding a bloke in The Interior with more on his mind than the drink, the money, and a soft body. The yobbos were usually pretty harmless. Usually. And the black fellas were the same, it’s just when you saw them defecating in the street or dragging a bloody ‘roo carcass into town and then skinning it in the park which was a bit much to bear.
‘I knew it, I just knew it,’ Tanya said to me the night after we recognised one another at Newman Airport. ‘In college. I could tell you weren’t like the other boys.’
‘Little things you did. Like, in class we stared at the same kids. We had the same look, you know.’
She was referring to Mrs Feeney’s Year 12 art class. It was around that time that family life changed and my course to here was set.
Poor Mum’s maternal instincts only went so far. Smothering – now that she could do. But you could hardly blame her though; my older brother Scott was killed by a road train on a school excursion a year after we got to the city. Mum changed from that day on. Dad too, but while Mum wrapped me cotton wool, he never stopped emphasising the importance of becoming a man. And that meant experiences and lots of them. But Dad didn’t see raising me as his place; that was for Mum. He was Provider.
When she was eighteen, Mum fell pregnant to and married a divorcee more than twice her age. She never had the chance to learn much from her own mother, a dedicated alcoholic who died well before her time. Both Dad and I had to work hard to keep Mum’s cooking down. I would complain constantly but he never uttered a word; for Dad it was a case of either arguing every night, learning to cook himself, starving, or eating every last tasteless morsel with quiet dignity. Thinking back, the best thing Mum probably ever did for me was to take me down to the beach at Scarborough and dunk me in the water whenever I’d scraped knees, legs, arms or elbows. For that, the accompanying lecture was worth it.
Aunt Marie first noticed the change during my late teens and she encouraged me to be open about things. ‘What if something happened and your parents died not actually knowing their son?’ She was right. It was one of my biggest fears.
Unfortunately, her brother wasn’t quite as progressive. ‘No son of mine…’ etcetera. Privately, Mum was less nineteenth century in her thinking, but publicly she had no choice but to side with her husband, and her Church. I never cried so hard.
I left soon after and crossed the Swan to the wrong side of the tracks. Dodgy group houses in Maddington, Gosnells and Armadale. Clandestine encounters, out-of-body experiences. Fear. Guilt. Stress. Growing up I’d been determined to remain chaste until I married. A cleaning job at Casuarina Prison finally took me east for two weeks when one of my fellow shitkickers got married. I found I could breathe there like nowhere else. Melbourne, Sydney, even Canberra. Freedom. But not Brisbane which I found too much like Perth: self-obsessed, shallow, parochial, intolerant. Cashed-up redneck bogans with no taste; it was all the personalised car number plates which gave it away, the utes covered in small Australian flags manufactured in China with stickers in the shape of the country with the slogan ‘Fuck off we’re full’ written inside the borders. No, my utopia was in the cooler southern parts and to get there I needed a plan. Better than that: currency. And for that there was one obvious place to go.
But it wasn’t easy. In fact, it was downright perilous. The mine owners offered the drones extra cash in hand to do the most dangerous jobs; it was still cheaper than ensuring all the safety requirements were in place. Rocky, the big dumb Maori with the truthful brown eyes, lost half his hearing and had three of his stubby fingers blown off after hurriedly unloading the sausages we used to unblock a nickel ore pass. Short cuts were like that: they had a habit of reminding you why they were called ‘short cuts’. And just the other month another bloke had his head crushed like a walnut in between a building being erected and a boom lift cage. He got wedged in but also pinned down over the lift controls so the other men in the cage couldn’t get to the controls to take it down and release him. There was an override switch on the ground but the three blokes down there were fresh off the boat from Thailand and couldn’t speak English nor operate the switch. With the exception of the random drug and alcohol tests (gone was the time you could blow 0.10 when punching in), it was just like the old days at the other end of Western Australia’s rainbow, Kalgoorlie’s goldfields. ‘Garrys’ (the WA Police’s codeword: ‘Garry the Gook’) worked for chicken feed since it was still more than they could possibly earn in the Orient. They were also desperate enough to do the most hazardous jobs, and didn’t understand what a union was. A veritable mine owner’s dream.
But I liked what we called ‘rice’ for other reasons. The mines were full of young, fit men. And I knew statistically there’d be at least one like-minded fella here. Dat was from a small town near Hanoi (I forget which one) and, over the course of two months, saw me the happiest I’d ever been. Being with him was a million times harder than with Tanya but Datty was an insurance policy in himself since I knew no one would ever believe any accusation he may’ve levelled if our time ever soured. A mistimed detonator conveniently meant it never came to that.
There’s talk of robots one day replacing humans here. The poor bastard even had three kids.
My watch said a quarter past seven. The guys would be coming off shift soon. Better have some crib and get moving, try not to wake sweet Tanya…
One o’clock, lunch break and I checked my phone. Tanya’s dirty text messages made me smile. But three missed calls from Marie. I waited till the end of the day before ringing back. By then she’d tried calling twice more.
‘Benji! How are you, my dear boy?’
‘Good, good. Are you OK? You called five times today.’
‘Yes I’m fine but… it’s your dad, he’s sick.’
‘What? Well, how sick?’
‘Well…’ I heard her exhale deeply. ‘He’s been very sick a while actually.’
‘Yes. Ben, listen, we quickly realised your dad had dementia soon after your mum died. Now it’s full-blown Alzheimer’s and he had a stroke over the weekend. The doctors aren’t giving him much longer. It would be great if you could come see him.’
Silence. Full moon tonight. The spinifex was blowing around wildly.
‘Ben? Benjamin, are you there?’
‘Look Benji, I know it’s asking the world but I honestly think this will be good for you. And for your dad too, perhaps his final chance. People are different when they’re this close to the end. I know you’re on a FIFO roster but I’ll cover your airfare. What do you say?’
Mum passed away from breast cancer not long after I arrived here. I just couldn’t make it back in time, and – in spite of all that was said and done – I now dragged the remorse around like an iron ball chained to my ankle. But Dad… Dad was an even less compelling case.
And still, I missed my family. Like crazy.
‘Ben? Love, is that OK?! Can you get on the first flight to the city?’
My eyes were moistening. Dammit, no time to think.
‘Uh… uh…’ I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes tight. ‘OK.’
‘Oh thank you, thank you, sweet boy! We’re at the QEII. Call me when you touch down and I’ll give you more details.’
By the glow of a single dull bulb on cold aluminium walls, I filled a backpack and then drove Rocky’s primal Hilux through the night to Karratha. Around Wittenoom the star-strewn sky gave way to a sudden violent electrical storm which further illuminated the heavens. Lightning was always more intense in remote desert locations and positively fearsome over a ghost town. In fact, everything was amplified here. The drinking. The violence. The money. The risks. Even with Tanya beside me, I still felt every single pair of eyes. I only finally called her from the airport as the sun was rising.
Every time I flew south (or north), it was fascinating. No need for a book. On takeoff we’re over the desert and all you can see is burnt orange sand, a spattering of hardy little trees and colourful wildflowers, and long black roads. Flat, straight roads where you could drive for hours without seeing another soul. Cars were rare but there’s plenty of caterpillar road trains hauling fuel and supplies to the sites. The pits were another thing. Under a vast nothingness once disregarded by Dutch sailors as useless, an enormous wealth now fueled our country’s biggest boom. A place that once only supported a few indigenous nomads now bolstered hundreds of thousands of peoples’ livelihoods by moving millions of tonnes of earth to generate billions of dollars of revenue. Viewed from above, the giant trucks and earthmovers resembled nothing more than cheap children’s toys.
The Gascoyne and Midwest soon became the Wheatbelt and a richness you could see. Acres of food that fed the collective appetite of an insatiable economy. These were the real resident workers; miners flew back and forth each week but farmers needed to be one with the land. And off the coast not far from here, metal leviathans tapped the oil that fueled all these industries. As we closed in on the capital, lush green forests emerged. Compared to the Wheatbelt they appeared insignificant, but the ageless Karri trees didn’t have a thing to prove.
Sand, metals, food, oil, and forests finally give way to the populace that is Isolationville, Perth. The most millionaires per capita in the entire world. All safe and sound in their waterfront mansions behind high white fences sporting a shit brown veneer from overuse of underground bore water for irrigation. Christ, was there nothing we didn’t access with a shovel?
Rocky had an interesting take on it all. He reckoned that if we didn’t all quickly become tree huggers, it was only a matter of time before the environment told us to get stuffed and the only place we’d have left to go would be subterranean. Like moles. He’s optimistic though: we’re a resilient species and have adapted to so many different places over time, we’ll manage underground too.
The rapidly morphing scenery below meant I thought less of what likely lay ahead. Physically drained, sleep was still no chance; I was buzzing. We landed with a thud.
Transported in a flash from a hot ochre pit to a cool white hospital ward, a wayward nephew was greeted with a warm embrace and a kiss on the cheek.
‘So lovely you’re here.’
‘Good to see you too, Marie. How’s Dad?’
‘Sleeping. Come in.’
Dad lay in bed, his breathing aided with oxygen. He looked frail, so much so that it was hard to picture the bull of a man who once stood fifty feet tall over me in judgment. And, for me too, it was tough to gaze upon a man who was once so proud and strong now at the mercy of such a debilitating and degenerative disease. And how to reconcile the sight of him in a hospital bed with a condition that wasn’t a sign of medical failure but of success: success in simply living long enough to see the disease expressed. What a contrast he cut to his own father who had died on his feet, well into his sixties, after a life toiling the land. Pop’s sudden demise in a tractor accident was tragic, but this was no way for a man to go out, minus his marbles… not even one riddled with such prejudice. I knew Dad would be hating it.
Dad stirred, and his eyes gradually opened. He looked around the room and finally settled on me. Marie nudged me forward.
Dad’s lips were dry and he tried to moisten them with a sandpaper tongue. Marie pulled away the oxygen mask.
‘Ben… Ben… Great swim today, son. You did your ol’ man proud.’
My mind scanned and scanned itself again. Jesus, was he referring to when I became backstroke champion in Year 8? Dad longed to be a swimmer but lacked the coordination. He always admired them though, said they were the perfect athletes with the most impressive bodies. I agreed, but with a different motivation. That day when I was fourteen was also the first time I really noticed my teammate Davey Robbins. Davey was tall, lean, strikingly handsome and ruggedly masculine for one still so young. And in stark contrast to me whose sporting career ended six months later after shoulder surgery, Davey went on to become state swimming champion the following year. Remembering Davey so suddenly crystallised my last few years. Most people had good reasons to stay in Perth: friends, family, aspirations. School never really interested me so after I did my shoulder, my sporting dreams were shot. The family and friends soon followed, and from there life became really straightforward.
Marie finally broke my reverie.
‘He’s been in and out of consciousness and babbling all week, stuff from years ago,’ she whispered. ‘He thought I was your grandma at one point, and another time your mum. At least he recognised you. But his heart’s very weak, he needs rest. The doctors aren’t optimistic, they’ve done all they can.’
I stayed at my aunt’s house the remainder of the week. Each day, Dad’s vocalising became less and less regular and his unconscious spells more frequent, until he finally slipped away late on Sunday night. After that initial single recognition and remark about swimming, he didn’t mention me again.
That night I had a series of confusing dreams. Places, people, scenarios. Right at the end I was sparring with Dad in a gym pungent with the smell of old sweat mixed with diesel fuel. He was training me for something but I couldn’t lift the boxing gloves to swing any strong punches – they were too heavy, as if filled with or made of lead.
An opportunity, I knew, had forever passed. And it made a difference having witnessed it. Dad’s last cognizant thought of his son was as a religious and moral wrongdoer on the road to self-destruction. I finally had to let go of a vision of a happy, reunited and accepting family, and friends. Perhaps I’d brought this on myself by not having the courage to be honest from the start. By staring at everyone in the room through a keyhole when all they could see was an eye peeping back, I’d hurt too many. Justifiably, they felt deceived. But it was all I could do to protect myself. And I was still doing it; a survival instinct. I couldn’t change who I was and how I’d done things. But for those I actually cared about, I’d burnt my last gutless bridge. And, for me too, there was a better place.
I didn’t stay for the service; Marie said there was no need, and it was still too raw with my extended family.
‘You’ve already given him the greatest gift in coming back: the son he wanted,’ she said. ‘It may not be the man you are today, but it takes a lot to put that to one side. Thank you.’
My aunt wished me luck. That night as the sun set over the Indian Ocean and the plane powered north, I watched as the horizon blazed redder than I’d ever seen. It was as if the entire world outside had been painted over with four simple brush strokes: black for the land, a thick layer of crimson for the horizon, a thin strip of gold atop the red, and a cobalt blue for the sky. Within a half hour, the cosmic palette had been mixed and the colours faded, only to be replaced with a billion of the brightest stars. It was 10 p.m. as we made our final descent and taxied along the airstrip and I knew Tanya’s shift was just entering its busiest hour.
Peter Papathanasiou was born in a small village in northern Greece and adopted as a baby to an Australian family. His writing has been published by Fairfax Media, News Corporation, The Pigeonhole, Caught by the River, 3:AM Magazine, and Going Down Swinging, and reviewed by The Times Literary Supplement. He has been profiled as a feature writer in Neos Kosmos and is represented by Rogers, Coleridge & White literary agency in London. He divides his time between Australia, London, and a small village in northern Greece. [@peteplastic]