It was just another night here in the camp – fires were burning in rubbish bins, the flames holding back some of the darkness and adding more heat to the already hot air; people sat in the streets and crowded the footpaths, killing time and waiting for the dry day to drain away; the lucky ones who had been allocated actual houses huddled inside behind locked doors. Do-gooders wandered through the throngs, doling out food and water and patronising advice; gangs roved and threatened; guards blackmailed and coerced; gunshots and screams occasionally rang out.
Like I said, it was just another night here in the camp.
Your old man and I were sitting right here where we’re sitting now, at the same wonky table, in the same rickety chairs. You were swaddled despite the heat, wrapped in a torn sheet and lying in a cardboard box. You were bloody quiet, just like you are now. It’s funny how some things don’t change.
We’d been talking shit for a while, something that we did most nights. We talked about life before the camp, about who we’d been and what we’d done. We never talked about your mum, though. She disappeared before I met your old man, and I didn’t want to pry.
After a while, he’d starting talking about you, airing his worries about the life you’d have to live.
I was used to this change of direction; hell, I worried about you as well. As it always did, this worry-talk eventually shifted to his work out in the graveyard, and his hope that someday he’d find enough scrap to get you out of this shithole.
“You sure you don’t want to come along?” your old man asked me at some point, something that he ended up asking every time. “One more trip and, with a bit of luck, I’ll find enough to bribe a guard and get transferred. It’d be an easier job with the two of us, and if it all works out I can tell them that you’re her big brother.”
He gestured at you, a tiny nod of his head. You smiled blankly and gurgled and then let out a little laugh.
“Nah, it’s alright,” I said. “I’ve got better things to…”
A gunshot, somewhere close, drowned me out. Your old man and I flinched, but you didn’t make a sound. Another gunshot rang out, and then another. Your old man and I flinched again; this time, you screwed up your face and started crying. Your old man got to his feet and scooped you up and gave you a cuddle. You eventually calmed down, and so he put you back in your box and tucked you in tight. You reached out, your tiny hands clutching at the air, and he passed you that crude figurine he’d carved from a lump of wood.
I reckon that’s what changed my mind – you deserved a better life than what the camp could offer, but if you couldn’t have that you at least deserved an actual toy.
“Alright, I’m in.”
We sat there for a moment, staring at each other without saying a word.
“Well, I guess we’d better haul arse,” your old man finally said. “It’s a fair way to the depot, and even further to the graveyard.”
“What about her?” I asked, gesturing at you.
You were chewing on the wooden figurine and drooling and cooing contentedly, and I smiled wide.
“She’ll be right – I’ve got an arrangement with the old bird next door, she babysits in
exchange for a bit of salvage.”
Your old man kissed you on the forehead and then hollered at the woman next door, and then we took off, winding through the junkyard maze of the camp, through the sprawl of crumbling buildings, patched tents and corrugated-iron shacks. We didn’t stop to talk to anyone. You know what it’s like – you don’t know who’s a banger or a snitch or a crazy, and anyone could be desperate enough to knock you down for the shirt on your back or the shoes on your feet.
We walked for an hour or so, sometimes making small talk and sometimes trudging along in silence. He mostly talked about you, airing more of his worries and then telling me about your latest ‘first’- that day you’d taken your first steps, a clumsy shuffle that he swore was the cutest thing he’d ever seen.
The moon slowly arced through the sky, a great shining sphere more pure than anything here on God’s grey earth.
Eventually, the lights of the depot appeared in the distance.
“Here we go,” your old man said.
We kept on and the lights of the depot steadily grew brighter. Before too long, the washed-out blur of them resolved into a high steel fence and a towering set of gates, beyond which lay a bare expanse of ground that ended at a row of squat brick buildings. A concrete guardhouse sat on the camp side of the gates, and a mob of fellow reffos had already started gathering. As we drew closer, I saw guards patting them down before opening the gates and waving them through.
A few of the reffos were turned away. I had no idea why; I guess the guards just didn’t like the look of them. Most of those denied entry simply started walking back to the camp without complaint, but some put up a fuss.
I saw a guard pistol-whip an old man who refused to step out of line and head back. I saw another guard push and shove a young blackfella, goading him and egging him on until he took a swing and was inevitably beaten down. I saw another guard wrestle a young woman to the ground, and then saw a couple of other guards give her a bit of a kicking before dragging her into the guardhouse.
I tensed up.
“Take it easy,” your old man said, “there’s nothing you can do. If you step in, you’ll just end up like those poor bastards.”
“There are no buts. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.”
The guards sickened me, but I got over it. Our lives make us hard…
We walked on and joined the queue. Your old man said ‘g’day’ to a couple of the reffos ahead of us; they shook hands and shot the shit a bit and I figured that he must have regularly worked with them.
“This is Billy,” he said to them, waving at me. “We go back a while, he’s a good bloke.”
They introduced themselves, and then it was their turn to be frisked.
“They’re a good bunch,” your old man said. “Follow my lead, and if we get separated follow theirs.”
The guards waved your old man’s mates through the gates, and then it was our turn to be frisked. I tried to keep my face blank; I didn’t want my anger to shine through, didn’t want to give the guards an excuse to send me back. Your old man, though, he cracked jokes and asked after them and acted as if they were just like the rest of us.
When we were through the gates, he turned to me and smiled.
“You’ve gotta play the game,” he said. “You play it well enough, and maybe they’ll do you some favours. For a price, of course – nothing comes for free nowadays.”
I just nodded, and we joined the other reffos that filled that bare patch of earth inside the gates. Your old man talked to his mates and we snacked on ration bars and filled our water bottles while more reffos shuffled in. Your old man’s mates all asked how you were, and your old man told them about your first steps, smiling wide the whole time.
After a while, our mob become a sizeable crowd. I looked back at the camp and saw that the queue had disappeared. The guards manning the gate swung it shut; at the same time, a different group of guards opened the heavy doors sealing one of the squat brick buildings facing us.
An engine roar echoed around us. The stink of diesel fumes filled the air. An old bus inched out of the building and then sat there idling. A guard hopped out and faced us.
When we were settled, one of the guards took the wheel and revved the accelerator and then steered us away from the camp. With the windows covered by metal grills, I couldn’t really see which direction we took or where we were headed.
“What’s next?” I asked your old man.
“Well, they’ll give you the spiel,” he said, pointing at a couple of guards watching us with barely-disguised contempt. “And we’ll hit the graveyard a couple of hours after that.”
“What are we supposed to do while we’re waiting?”
He looked at me as if I’d asked how long a piece of string was; he looked at me as if I was as dumb as a box of bricks.
“Sorry,” I said.
And then he lay his head back and shut his eyes. Within a minute, he was either asleep or doing a pretty good job of looking that way. I smiled to myself, and that’s when one of the guards started giving us the spiel.
“This is for you newbies, so listen up. When we get to the graveyard, you’ll be split into teams and ferried to the hulks, one team to a hulk. Your job is to go from room and room collecting anything useful.”
“Like what?” I asked, somewhat stupidly.
The guard glowered at me.
“For the sake of you newbies, I’m talking about stuff like jewellery, make up, electronic equipment that hasn’t been badly damaged, clothes, blankets, metal knick-knacks that can be melted down and recycled, cash, canned food, drugs and cigarettes and alcohol, medicine and first-aid kits – anything that looks useful or valuable and can be stuffed into a backpack. Everything else can be left for the heavy-duty crews.”
“What’s in it for us?” someone asked.
One of the guards smiled.
“Extra rations. If you’re lucky, you might get shifted out of the hovel you call a home and transferred to a real house. And if you’re real lucky, maybe a couple of days R&R in the city.”
“What if we find toys and trinkets and shit like that?” your old man asked.
I turned to him; he hadn’t opened his eyes and still looked like he was asleep.
“I’ve told you before, mate,” the guard said. “If you find something that isn’t on the list and isn’t made of metal, then you can help yourself.”
Your old man didn’t reply; I guess that he’d asked for my benefit.
“So, any more stupid questions?”
No one spoke.
“Good. Now get some shut-eye, people – it’s gonna be a long day.”
At that, your old man started snoring, the kind of rattling wheeze that couldn’t be faked. I turned away and looked out the window. Everything beyond the metal grill was just a dark blur.
We drove on. Time passed. Your old man occasionally muttered your name, twitching and dreaming. The muffled and monotonous roar of the engine lulled me into a half-sleep.
At some point, I realised that the sun had come up. I straightened in my seat and looked harder. Through the grill, the world was now a streaky smudge that twinkled and blinked.
“Bright lights, big city,” your old man said.
I looked at him. He still hadn’t opened his eyes. I looked back out the window.
“How did you know?” I asked.
“Years of experience. Just out there, folks are going about their business like nothing’s changed.”
I didn’t know what else to say. Of course some part of me knew that the city existed, that it was full of people doing everyday things. But being locked up in this shithole we call home tends to make all that seem like some kind of dream.
“You ever been…”
“Nope,” he said, cutting me off. “And as far as I know, their talk of R&R is just that: talk. Unless you’ve got some skill they need, you shouldn’t even hope. There isn’t much demand for desperate bastards like us.”
“No, it’s not fair enough. It’s just how it is.”
There was anger in his voice, something that I’d rarely heard. I decided to leave him alone, and leaned across so I could see out the windscreen.
I saw houses, shops, cars, pedestrians, footpaths, streets. I saw lampposts, letterboxes, fire hydrants, bike racks, bus stops, traffic lights. I saw people on their way to work, people out walking their dogs, people jogging and cycling, people leisurely wandering around, people driving children to school, people leaning on picket fences and talking to their neighbours. I saw garbos collecting rubbish, posties delivering mail, tradies bent over their tools, gardeners wielding their shears, couriers dropping off parcels, council workers standing around doing nothing.
I saw order and cleanliness and all the symbols of ordinary life. It was like a snapshot of a bygone time, apart from the roving packs of military troops.
As I watched, one pack of troops confronted someone who promptly turned and ran. I saw the troops shoot him down without a warning, saw them drag his unmoving body to a waiting van, saw them unceremoniously throw him in the back and then drive away.
It sickened me once again, but I got over it as always.
And then, in the sudden empty space where the van had been, I saw my first glimpse of the ocean, and of the towering hulks of half-submerged buildings.
“Welcome to the graveyard,” your old man said.
The waterfront was nothing like the picket-fence suburbia we’d just passed through – that beautiful ordinariness had slowly become more derelict as we drew closer to the water, until we were eventually driving through what was effectively a slum. A high steel-mesh fence ran parallel to the shore, hugging its twists and turns; gates were built into the fence at widely-spaced intervals, each one topped with barbed wire; the water beyond the fence shimmered with a dirty-silver slickness; half-submerged office buildings and apartment blocks rose from the depths, crumbling island-shrines to forgotten gods.
I’d never seen the ocean before, and felt a strange excitement – the water seemed to be drowning the whole world, vast and endless and all consuming.
The bus shuddered suddenly as the driver killed the engine. Through the windscreen, I saw that we’d pulled up alongside a guardhouse and stopped before a gate. Military troops were milling around; one of them was talking to the driver through the open door of the bus.
This troop passed a clipboard to the driver. As if this was some predefined signal, one of the guards who had accompanied us from camp stood up and turned to look at us.
“Time to get to work,” he said.
The other reffos started shuffling around and I awkwardly half-stood to shoulder my way into the queue that was already jamming the narrow aisle.
“There’s no rush,” your old man said, “the graveyard isn’t going anywhere.”
I thought about it, realised that he was right, and sat back down. A few other people were still sitting as well; most of them were your old man’s mates, a couple of them weren’t. They all looked lean and hard…
In fact, they pretty-much looked just like your old man.
“These guys aren’t friends of yours?” I asked, nodding at the reffos I hadn’t met.
“Loners and freaks, there are always some. And who can blame them? I mean, we’ve all seen some shit, but some of us have seen some real shit.”
“No, it’s not fair enough,” your old man said once again, and I realised that maybe this little mantra was his way of coping. “It’s just how it…”
“You lot, it’s your turn,” a troop yelled at us, cutting off your old man
“Right, right,” someone said.
“Just stick with me.”
That last was from your old man, and he and I joined the end of the queue, walked down the aisle, and started clambering down the steps. The driver ticked us off, signing whatever bureaucratic bullshit was attached to the clipboard the troop had passed him. I looked at the guards, who I guess were headed back to camp. They scowled at me for wasting their time. I smiled back, as polite as can be, playing the game.
Your old man and I stepped outside.
“Jesus, what’s that stink?”
“You’ll get used to it,” your old man said. “In fact, I don’t even notice it anymore.”
He smiled at me, and I believed him. No one could smile that wide in the face of that rotting-fish-mouldering-linen-raw-sewerage-decaying-vegetable stench.
I gagged, and it took a bit of effort to get myself under control. Your old man laughed; there was a bit of cruelty in it. But then, I guess I was carrying on a bit.
“Yeah, thanks mate,” I said.
I looked at the water. I looked at it properly, now that I could see it as a whole rather than just as a tiny part framed by a windscreen.
I drew the phrase out, filling it with incredulity.
“Fitter words have never been spoken…” Your old man doffed an imaginary cap and saluted the graveyard. “Isn’t she a beauty?”
It was awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure, and not just because that was the first time I’d seen it. The water was flat and still, more like a lake than an ocean; it stretched to the horizon in every direction but landward, so sprawling as to be almost unbelievable. It was mottled and streaked like a clumsy-fisted oil painting, sometimes blue-grey and sometimes dark-red and sometimes lime-green. Slowly drowning office buildings and apartment blocks towered above the overwhelming stillness of it; every single one of them looked out at the water with smashed-window eyes, with collapsed-balcony eyes, with holed-wall eyes.
I heard a faint splash, what I guess was the exact moment a piece of ruin finally rotted through and fell away. A buzzing-drone followed the splash, and slowly grew louder.
I felt tiny.
The buzzing-drone soon became identifiable: four speedboats were coming towards us, lightweight things that easily coped with the debris-strewn waters of the graveyard and effortlessly weaved between the half-submerged buildings.
Without even addressing us newbies, one of the troops flung the gate open and started waving us through.
“Move it or lose it,” your old man said.
At that, he strode ahead. It took me a moment to realise that his demeanour had suddenly changed – he didn’t look back to see if I was keeping pace, but instead walked with the troop leading us.
I sped up.
“What’s the rush?”
“First team at the dock gets the closest building. You get the closest building, you get more time to search. You get more time to search, maybe you find more stuff.”
“No more stupid questions.”
I expected him to smile or wink and undercut his seriousness, but he didn’t. And so I just shut my mouth.
Soon, we found ourselves at the dock, which was actually just a flimsy wooden pier that had obviously been hastily erected. The water gently lapped only a foot or so beneath it. At the far end, a speedboat had tied-off and a troop and a captain were waiting. Your old man and the troop leading us on walked faster. I did my best to keep up. Before I really knew it, we’d stopped at the far end of the pier and the troop leading us was waving us on.
That’s when I realised that I couldn’t move.
I know it sounds stupid, but I literally couldn’t take another step. If you ever see it, I reckon you’ll feel the same. It was all that water, you see – I felt like it was waiting for me, and that if I tripped or slipped and fell in, I might simply disappear.
Your old man put his hand on my shoulder.
I didn’t move.
“It’s just one step.”
I didn’t move.
“For fuck’s sake…”
He didn’t give me time to respond, he just shoved me.
I flopped and tottered and almost ended up in the dirty drink, but at the last moment your old man grabbed my shoulder. I took a stumbling step, abruptly squatted-fell-crouched, and ended up on my arse at the back of the speedboat.
Your old man rolled his eyes. He took an easy step off the pier and gracefully sat down next to me. I smiled stupidly, embarrassed, ever-so-slightly ashamed of myself. He caught my eye, and then chided himself for his impatience.
“You’ll get your legs,” he said.
And then we were off in a drenching spray, the speedboat fishtailing madly one minute and then spinning in circles the next.
I saw your old man catch the captain’s eye and wink, and I knew the display was for my benefit.
That was the last thing I saw for a while – I closed my eyes as the speedboat began rocking that little bit harder. Over the din of the engine, I heard your old man talking to the troop. I didn’t catch much of what they said, just odd words and broken-phrases that occasionally drifted by:
“G’day, how’s it…”
“…what it is.”
“…mate of mine…”
“…right to show your mate?”
“Yep. You just…”
“…yeah, I know that…”
The engine died abruptly; the silence seemed to actually hum. I opened my eyes.
“I’ll say it again – fitter words have never been spoken.”
We had stopped at one of the half-submerged buildings, at a gaping hole that must have once been a balcony. In the sudden quiet, the building groaned as if protesting the water incessantly lapping against it, water that it knew would eventually consume it.
The building soared into the sky; I couldn’t see the top floor no matter how hard I craned my neck.
It was cold in its shadow.
Up close, I saw that it was pockmarked with holes; holes the size of windows and doors, the size of rockets and mortars, the size of bullets. It was slowly rotting, a film of green sludge-slime climbing its face. Splintered wood and twisted steel erupted from it like so many engineered pimples and warts. It stank, but your old man was right – it was more bearable than the waterfront.
Beyond the holes there was only gloom.
“We’ll catch you later,” the speedboat captain said to your old man.
Your old man turned and looked at me.
“After you,” he said. “And don’t worry, it’s as easy as falling off a bike.”
“Great, thanks, you’re such a help.”
He laughed off my sarcasm, and so I got my head together and managed to step off the speedboat without embarrassing myself too much. It wasn’t that I wanted to impress your old man; I just wanted him to lose his smirk.
I stood on something that squished, something hidden by knee-deep dirty water.
“Suck it up,” your old man said, “we’re wasting daylight.”
He didn’t reply; looking back, I saw that he was talking to the captain and the troop. They passed him two backpacks, and he reached into his pocket and slipped something into the captain’s palm.
I left them to their game, and walked on into what must have once been a lounge-room.
The bulky shapes of rotting furniture rose from the dreck-water like manmade rocks. Everything was covered in fuzz and slime; mould crawled over the walls like hieroglyphs describing some unknowable alien place; tiny buzzing-clicking-shrieking-chittering insects clustered in swarms no more substantial than smoke; the air was damp and dripping.
“Right, best get to it,” your old man said, catching up to me.
I cracked it, and looked at him for a moment without speaking.
“You okay?” I finally asked.
Coward that I am, I couldn’t bring myself to confront him.
“You’ve been a weird since we hit the waterfront, that’s all.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry, just playing the game,” your old man said. “I’ll explain later, when it’s smoko time.”
Without even really thinking about it, I decided not to push him any further. It wasn’t a big thing, after all, and we did have the building to deal with.
“Thanks,” he said.
And then he was all business again.
“So, here’s the plan – we start at the top-floor and work our way down, the best stuff’s always found where the rich people used to live. As well, if any pirates or looters have been by, they probably only made it up the first few floors before chucking it in.”
He pointed at the door leading into the guts of the building.
“Once we’re inside, we keep our mouths shut until we’re nearer the top – we don’t want to attract any attention. It’ll be a long climb, eighteen floors they said. So pace yourself.”
I shook my head. He was the one who’d been out to the graveyard before; he knew what he was doing, and knew how to do it safely. He passed me one of the backpacks he was carrying. He pulled out his water bottle and took a long drink. He pulled a torch from a pocket of his backpack, and then flung the pack over his shoulder.
It was hard work climbing all those stairs, but somehow we managed. It took a couple of hours or so; in that gloomy stairwell there was no way of telling the time by tracking the sun. We walked in silence, the straining of our breath joining the building’s baritone moan. We rested occasionally and had a drink and something to eat and then kept on. My legs began to ache. At every single floor, your old man stopped at a silver alcove built into the wall beside the entry door, which must have once been the elevator. He would knock on both the elevator and the door, wait for a moment, and then swing the entry door open carefully and shine his torch around quickly.
The corridors of the first few floors were stripped completely, the work of looters or pirates. After that, we saw more and more abandoned stuff – bits of this and that from ordinary lives that had been left behind in the rush to evacuate. Your old man dismissed most of it with a cursory and practised glance, but every now and then we had a quick rummage.
The higher we climbed, the less rotten and mouldering this stuff became.
“A-ha,” your old man said as he swung open the door to a floor that I hoped was near the top.
To me, this particular batch of stuff looked just like any other: papers and documents, pieces of clothing, blankets, photos, mementoes and trinkets that were odd and absurd now that there were devoid of context.
But your old man’s eyes were sharper than mine.
“It’s about bloody time,” he said.
He walked into the corridor and thrust his hand into one of the piles of stuff. I had no idea what he’d seen, but it was obviously something important, something precious, maybe even priceless.
He pulled out a teddy bear.
“She’ll love this,” he said with a big goofy smile.
And that’s when I remembered why we were out there. That’s when I remembered you. I suddenly felt a bit ashamed of myself for getting caught up in the excitement, but your old man’s smile soon drove that away.
“Nice one,” I said.
I felt truly happy for you both.
“Thanks. It’s perfect, it’s just what I’ve been looking for.”
He suddenly shook his head as if he was clearing it. Keeping a firm grip on the teddy, he quickly dismissed the rest of the stuff and led us back to the stairwell. He looked at the stairs leading up to the next floor, and then he did something weird – he leaned against the stairwell wall, against the elevator door built into it, and started spinning the teddy in his hands.
His head dropped.
He didn’t answer. I waited. He started crying, almost silently. I couldn’t help shining the torch at him. Somehow, he was crying and smiling at the same time.
“It’s just…” His crying became audible and he couldn’t go on. “Sorry,” he said after he’d gotten himself under control. “Sorry that you had to see that. It’s just been such a long time, and she’s had to make do for so long…”
“It’s alright, I get it. Hell, I’m happy for you, mate – I think it’s great.”
The brief silence that fell was almost beautiful. And then it was broken by a sharp, electronic ‘ding.’ Without warning, the elevator door behind your old man split apart vertically. It happened fast, with a shudder and a jolt, as if some last surge of power had finally been set free. Your old man’s eyes widened.
“Shit,” he said, and then fell backward into the sudden gap.
I froze for just a second, shocked still. Somehow I knew that I’d missed the moment, but I reached forward anyway. Instead of what I’d hoped to feel – skin or hair or the rough material of your old man’s jacket – all I felt was the plush softness of the teddy, the plush softness of that teddy right there.
(Originally published in The Fifth Di… March 2018)