First published in The Sleepers Almanac 2005
‘Over here!’ Ant yells. ‘Some help!’ He’s wearing thick plastic waders and is waist deep in murky water, trying to pull a trolley from the mud.
Paul finishes tying the trolleys onto the trailer, jumps in the ute and drives to Ant. ‘Stop fucking about,’ he says as he jumps from the cabin, flicks his cigarette butt away and lights another. ‘Come on. It’s time to knock off.’ He smokes.
‘It’s stuck.’ Ant’s muscles ache from his shivering, because even though it’s summer, Lake Ginninderra is painfully cold — even through the waders. ‘Give us a hand.’ His teeth chatter. ‘I can’t feel my feet.’
Ant pulls the trolley, but only moves a bit before being sucked back into the mud. ‘We’ll never get it out if you don’t help.’
‘For fuck’s sake. It can’t be that hard.’ Paul wades into the water. ‘Jesus Christ this water’s fucking cold.’ His cigarette bobs up and down in the corner of his mouth when he speaks. ‘It’s supposed to be summer.’
‘I know.’ Ant grabs the side of the trolley. ‘You take that.’
Paul grabs the end and sets himself. ‘Ok. One two three.’ He heaves and it comes out so easily that he falls backwards into a splash of water. ‘What the fuck!’
Ant laughs. ‘You’ve been in the ute all arvo while I’ve been freezing my balls off.’
‘You prick!’ He splashes water at Ant, then wades from the lake. ‘Get it on the trailer yourself.’
‘It was so worth it,’ Ant says.
He lost his cigarette in the kerfuffle, so he leans on the ute and lights another. He’s blood freezing and now all his T-shirt’s wet and shit.
‘The look on your face.’ Ant gets the trolley on the trailer, then Paul drives back to Belconnen Mall’s basement car park, where they drop all the trolleys off at the workshop. Max runs that, he’s the maintenance bloke. He’s good value. Jim, their boss, is a bit of a bastard.
Unfortunately Jim’s talking to Max when they drive in. He’s usually watching porn in his office: a drafty ex-storeroom just down the way. ‘You’re late,’ he says as soon as they’re out of the ute.
Paul gives Jim their clipboard. ‘Had a big area to cover and a lot of trolleys to collect today.’
‘I’m not paying overtime,’ Jim says.
‘Sure, we love our job, don’t we Ant; we do it for the fun, not the money.’
‘Smartarse.’ Jim put the clipboard under his arm and heads back towards his office. ‘Don’t be late in the morning.’
Next morning Ant and Paul are sitting talking with everyone else in the cramped staffroom — anther ex-storeroom that’s boiling in summer and freezing in winter — when Jim brings five new employees in. ‘Ok everybody!’ Jim yells over the conversation buzz in the room. ‘Shut up!’ The buzz gurgles to a halt. ‘As you can see we’ve got new people—’
‘About time!’ Chook interrupts.
Jim continues. ‘Even though the five teams will be working in threes now, I’m not paying you to slack off. You can all introduce yourselves.’ He looks at his clipboard. ‘First, Gungahlin team, where are you.’ He looks around the room.
‘Here.’ Chook puts his hand up.
‘You’re taking—’ Jim points at the first newcomer.
‘Rog,’ he says.
‘You’ve now got Rog, you two. Get going.’ Jim hands Rog a clipboard.
Chook and Josh stand and wind their way to the door. Rog follows them out.
‘Ginninderra team,’ Jim says.
Ant and Paul stand. They try and sit close to the door every morning for a quick getaway because Jim really likes the sound of his own voice.
‘You’re taking—’ Jim points at the second newcomer.
‘Shane,’ Shane says.
Ant grabs the clipboard from Jim.
‘Get going. Introduce yourself in the car. no point wasting time. Right. Inner North team…’
They leave Jim to it. As they cross the car park Paul lights a cigarette.
‘You new or did you transfer?’ Ant asks.
‘Transfer,’ Shane says.
‘Which team?’ Paul asks.
‘Tuggers,’ Shane says.
‘You from out that way, then?’ Paul asks.
‘Kambah,’ Shane says.
Ant laughs. ‘Dodgy. Wouldn’t walk around there at night.’
‘Not as dodgy as Charnwood.’ Paul digs at Ant.
‘You leave Charney out of it.’ Ant pushes him.
‘Bit touchy about your suburb there, hey.’
‘At least I don’t fuck my mother every night like all you poofs in Gungahlin.’
‘That doesn’t make any sense,’ Paul says. ‘Anyway, she loves it.’
‘Gunnars Gays. That’s what we used to call you at school.’
‘Charny Cunts, that’s what we still call you.’
‘What can I say, Gunnars is a great place to live.’
‘I hate Kambah,’ Shane says. ‘I have to get out.’
‘Leave, then,’ Paul says.
‘I need money first. It was either this or Maccas. Fuck that for a joke.’
‘Yeah.’ Ant says.
At the ute, a double cab Holden, Ant takes the driver’s seat; Shane, the front passenger seat; and Paul, the back seat.
Ant starts the engine. ‘Fuck, this motor sounds pissweak.’ He revs it. ‘Jim and his ‘Buy Australian’ kick. Won’t buy a fucking Toyota, even though they last longer.’
Shane opens a Mars bar and starts eating, while in the back Paul winds the window down and continues smoking.
‘Ok,’ Paul says, then opens the clipboard and reads out their instructions: ‘Righto boys, the list says “Search the immediate areas (incl. parkland) around Belconnen Mall, all car parks and parkland around Lake Ginninderra Foreshore, the Town Centre, Emu Ridge, and Florey, McKeller, Kaleen, Giralang and Bruce”.’ He throws it on the floor at Shane’s feet. ‘Arsehole expanded our area.’ Ant shakes his head. ‘He even highlighted the map.’
Ant takes the ute out and they head for the furthest park from the mall on the Lake Ginninderra foreshore.
‘We always start at the furthest point,’ Paul tells Shane, ‘and then work our way back to base.’
‘We try and do the water stuff first, don’t always pan out’ Ant says, ‘then come back to base for lunch with a full load. Then have a shower, dry off, lake water stinks, and then we collect all the other trolleys that are dumped up trees and on ovals and stuff.’
‘Sounds about right,’ Shane says.
‘Fuck it stinks.’ Paul wades into the lake just behind Shane. ‘I’ll spew up lunch if I smell this for too long.’ The water’s freezing. ‘This should help.’ He takes the cigarette from behind his ear and lights up.
‘Yeah,’ Shane says. He’s wearing Ant’s waders. Ant is in the ute searching the foreshore. ‘Wouldn’t mind coming down with a rod; looks like there’d be some good fish ‘round here.’
‘Because the hospital dumps body parts,’ Paul says.
‘That’s only Canberra Hospital in Burley Griffin,’ Shane says.
‘Nar. Calvary Hospital dumps in here. The fish eat ‘em.’
‘Seriously.’ He takes a long drag. ‘It’s true.’
‘You’re shitting me.’
Paul shakes his head. ‘No shit. Ant and I found an arm once just over there.’ He smokes. ‘Up to our arses trying to get a trolley. When we got it out there was this fucking arm sitting in it like someone had picked it off a supermarket shelf. It stunk. Fucking disgusting.’
‘What’d you do with it?’
‘Threw it back in. too much paperwork.’
‘Why are we looking here then.’ Shane hurries from the water. ‘I’m looking on land, you do the water.’
Paul laughs. ‘Dude.’
Five minutes later they come across 15 or 20 dumped trolleys in a small gravel car park. Some are burned, others bent out of shape, others thrown up into trees. There’s garbage all around, and a car has been trashed.
‘Fuck.’ Paul kicks a bit of gravel across the car park and it dings into a trolley.
‘What?’ Shane asks.
‘We have to tell the cops when we find dumped cars.’
‘We’ll be here all day now.’ He gets out his walkie talkie. ‘Ant, come down to Diddams Park… Yeah, near where we found the arm… There’s about 20. And call the cops. There’s a dumped car.’ He flicks the butt away and lights another cigarette.
‘What a mess.’ Ant climbs from the ute. ‘I told Jim and the cops. We gotta wait.’
‘Did the cops say how long?’ Paul asks.
‘Fucking useless…’ Paul scans the place. ‘They could be hours yet…’ He points to a large tree, beyond the kids playground, near the water. ‘I need a spliff.’
They head to the tree and sit down.
Paul takes out a tobacco tin. ‘I know Ant will. You want some, Shane?’
He rolls a big joint. ‘Bunda Buds, from this guy in Narrabundah. Only grows hydroponic.’ He lights up, inhales, then hands the joint to Ant.
‘He really lives in Griffith,’ Ant says; ‘but “Bunda Buds” sounds better.’ He laughs, takes a drag, then hands it to Shane.
‘You could call it “Griffith Green”,’ Shane says, inhales, then hands it to Paul.
Paul doesn’t take it. ‘You’d better have two tokes,’ he says; ‘being new and all.’
‘And “Bunda Buds” sounds like “Wonder Buds”,’ Ant says.
Shane takes long drag, and the drug starts messing with his brain.
While Shane is passed out under the tarp in the ute’s tray, Paul and Ant speak with the police.
‘Now, you came across this mess how long ago?’ the sergeant asks.
‘One-and-a-half, maybe two hours.’ Paul hazards a guess. They’ve dealt with Sergeant Leigh and his partner before.
The sergeant looks at his watch. ‘It’s five-thirty now.’
‘Well…’ Paul says slowly, ‘… Maybe it was two-and-a-half … maybe… three hours… I’m not too good with time… It always seems longer when waiting for you cops… to turn up.’ He’s happy with his answer, reckons he doesn’t sound stoned.
Ant’s glad Paul’s doing the talking. He can’t really focus on what the cop’s saying.
The sergeant sighs and doesn’t even try to hide his annoyance. ‘Get your trolleys, but if I ever catch you two high on the job again I’ll throw you in Belco Remand for a week and have you both sacked. Now give me the pot.’
Ant stands motionless, but feels like he’s swaying wildly. He doesn’t know what else to do. He thought they’d been holding it together so well.
Paul swallows hard, squeezes out an ‘Ok’ and gives his marijuana to the sergeant.
Opening the tin he grabs some, rubs it between his fingers and smells it. ‘This it?’
Ant and Paul walk quickly to the far end of the car park and start gathering trolleys. The two officers lean against the police car and the sergeant rolls a joint.
After the delay with the police they don’t make it back until late. Max is getting the boat ready for the next day: fine-tuning the motor, inspecting the crane’s pulley system, and checking and replacing the sonar and GPS batteries. When they get out of the ute he comes over, swigging from his hip flask. ‘You boys get caught up with the cops, huh?’ His voice is raspy.
‘Yep.’ Paul says.
‘Bastards. Speaking of which, Jim wants to see you in his office.’ His blue overalls are covered in grease and his silver-grey hair has metal shavings all through it.
‘Ok. Shane, you help Max unload the trolleys,’ Paul says as he lights up. ‘We’ll deal with Jim. This isn’t the sort of thing you need to see on your first day.’
Shane nods groggily.
‘What’s up with him?’ Max asks, then swigs from the flask.
‘Hates early mornings.’
‘Got ya.’ When he smiles the lines on his old face reveal a youthful cheekiness.
‘Ant, grab the clipboard.’
‘Sure.’ He fishes it out from under pizza boxes, soft drink bottles and potato chip packets on the ute’s floor.
‘You’re late, again,’ Jim says as they enter his office; ‘you know there’s no overtime.’
‘We know.’ Paul rolls his eyes. ‘We told you. We do it for the fun and the girls.’
‘Here.’ Ant hands him the clipboard. ‘We marked down where we covered today.’
Jim dumps it on the pile of clipboards on the floor. ‘Three more people went down sick today, so you guys get the boat tomorrow.’
‘What happened?’ Ant asks.
‘George cut his foot searching Mount Rogers up the back of Spence. Chook and Josh picked up some stomach bug from one of the creeks around Gungahlin Pond. I dunno. Probably just hungover and skiving off.’
‘We need better equipment,’ Ant says.
‘We’re decking the boat out with new sonars and cranes in a few weeks.’
‘I mean protective clothing — you know, face masks, thicker waders, gloves, hats… that sort of shit. It’s summer. You should provide sun cream or something.’
Jim shrugs. ‘No money for all that. I don’t control the budget. Take it up with the bosses. Or better yet, go work for the Cancer Council.’
‘The bosses never listen.’
‘Then get a union.’
‘Maybe I wi—’
‘Righto,’ Paul sighs, he’s heard it all before. He grabs Ant’s shirt and pulls him away. ‘Come on.’
‘Be here at 5.00 am tomorrow!’ Jim calls after them. ‘I want you in that north-east section.’
The morning twilight is just beginning when Ant and Paul get to work. Shane is waiting — can of coke in hand, and fishing rod leaning against the ute.
‘Don’t you sleep?’ Ant says.
Shane holds up the can. ‘Coke is for the strong, sleep is for the weak.’
‘I hate mornings,’ Paul says, yawning, as he lights a cigarette.
They get into the ute: Paul drives, Ant sits next to him and after lying his rod in the back tray, Shane sits in the back seat drinking coke and eating a Mars bar. They are all so tired that no one talks for the entire time it takes to drive to the boat ramp and put the boat in the water.
‘I reckon I should steer the boat,’ Ant says, ‘last time you almost tipped us over.’
‘You drive like a wet week.’ Paul starts the motor and turns the instruments on. They start to slowly pull away from the ramp.
‘Use a life jacket, Shane. He’s dangerous.’ Ant grabs a jacket from under the seat.
Shane nods. ‘I’m good. I can swim.’ He’s already cast his spinner lure out into the water, close to the bank and is retrieving it.
‘It’s not that bad, ya girl.’ Paul revs the motor. ‘Just hold on and shut up!’
In no time they are at a deep hole. The temperature always drops right before sunrise, and the light is an indefinable grey that renders distances indistinct. Paul slows the motor, flicks a butt into the water, lights up and takes a drag. ‘We’ll start here and work our way over there.’ He points towards the opposite shore.
‘You know, they shouldn’t be allowed to build shopping centres near lakes. It should just be skate parks, pubs, trees, playgrounds and pool halls,’ Shane says.
‘And swimming pools,’ Paul says. ‘Can’t swim in this shit.’
‘Yeah, but what are you going to do?’ Ant says. ‘You know what they say: “No matter who you vote for, the Government always wins”.’
‘I don’t vote,’ Paul says, ‘No point.’ He points at the sonar. ‘Shane, watch that viewfinder. When you see a trolley, yell and I’ll stop.’
Shane casts to the back and the side of the boat, and puts the rod in one of the holders.
‘Is that what they’re for,’ Ant says as he takes up position at the back near the crane and anchor.
‘Can’t hurt to do a bit of trolling while we’re on the water,’ Shane says. he looks at the sonar. ‘I’ve never done this before— looked for trolleys and shit.’
‘You’ll know when you see a trolley. Here, look.’ He points at the viewfinder — half steering, half watching the screen as the boat chugs forward. ‘That’s a log, there’s a rock, that’s a little fish. You might catch it as we go past. Another log. Yeah?’
‘Got it,’ Shane answers.
‘Are we there yet!?’ Ant laughs.
The boat chugs along.
‘It drops off pretty quick doesn’t it,’ Shane says. ‘I didn’t know the lake got so deep so quic — Stop!’
Paul cuts the engine and Ant throws the anchor overboard.
‘Are we secure?’ Paul flicks the butt overboard and scampers to the crane.
‘Not yet,’ Ant says.
‘Well, fuck. Get it to the bottom. We’re floating away from them.’
‘Hang on!’ Shane says. ‘Look.’
They pass over a deep trough, an even larger pile of trolleys shows up on the view screen. It looks like a solid blob.
‘Fuck. Ant! Fix the anchor, quick!’
Ant leans over the side and works the anchor line until it digs into the mud.
‘Shane, help get that crane ready.’
The trolleys are stuck hard. The crane motor starts squealing and pluming smoke, and the boat tips on an angle. Shane grabs on tight, but Ant and Paul scramble around like it’s still flat.
‘Isn’t that dangerous?’ Shane points out the smoke.
‘These cranes are used to it,’ Paul answers. ‘Max’s a genius.’
‘What if it catches fire?’
He shrugs. ‘We’re surrounded by water.’
When the trolleys release and then surface, the boat rights itself and Shane breathes easier.
‘We’ll never get ‘em on board like that.’ Paul says as he shuts the crane’s motor down and locks the cable in. ‘Shane, get the anchor up. We’ll tow ‘em to the bank and pick ‘em up later in the ute.’ He jumps behind the steering wheel and arcs the boat towards shore. When they’re close to the bank he steers the boat to the right — so the trolleys’ momentum shoots them forwards up onto the shore — and beaches it. The crane line, umbilical-like, snakes between trolleys and boat.
Shane jumps into the shallows and heads towards the trolleys.
He sees them first and throws up coke and Mars bar.
Paul smells them before he sees them.
Ant is transfixed.
Trolleys: fused, mangled, compressed — rusted metal, broken wheels, twisted wire. It looks like it’s been crushed in a broken down compactor that couldn’t finish the job. Among the wire and metal are half eaten arms and legs, hands and feet. There are faces too: bloated and squashed with fish-eaten lips and toothless gums. Some of the bodies are naked; some, clothed. The faces look out at the three of them through the grey morning — as if searching for help in the pre-dawn. The bodies, what’s left of them, have become part of the metal, almost indistinguishable from it. Rods go in through a shoulder — which is all that’s left of an arm — and rise up through a neck, so one rod pokes out through an ear, another a mouth, another an eye socket.
Shane, white-faced with fear, stumbles back towards the boat and vomits again.
Ant jumps into the water and walks towards them.
Paul’s mind races. He pulls his t-shirt over his nose and mouth. It doesn’t help. He gags at the stench and his heart beats loud in his ears. Then, in the half-light, he sees movement.
It was slight — unless you looked at the trolleys at that exact moment you wouldn’t have seen the movement — but he was looking and he saw… something. Something like breathing. He saw it.
Ant edges closer and stretches his hand towards it.
‘Ant! Don’t!’ Paul’s voice gives away his fear. ‘Get away from it, now!’
Ant ignores him.
Shane leans on the boat, looks at the water and desperately tries not to throw up.
‘Shane. Get In The Fucking Boat.’
‘I can’t.’ He throws up.
‘Ant! Get here now!’ Paul hauls Shane into the boat, then, seeing Ant hasn’t moved, jumps into the water, runs to him — splashing water over the both of them — and drags him back into the boat. Ant flops onto the deck like a dead fish.
Paul pushes out from the bank.
Starts the motor.
Hammers it until they’re in the middle of Lake Ginninderra.
Unhooks it from the crane line so it drops back to the bottom.