There were accidents.
There’s five of us in a grey industrial yard on the very edge of Alice Springs. The final footprint of humanity before the red desert, which shimmers all around. The flies fizz off my face like they’re popping in the heat.
Shane’s face is bleeding. He jammed the brake on too late and reversed the CAT into a telegraph pole. How do you miss a telegraph pole? How do you hit a telegraph pole? To be fair to him, how do you drive a CAT? Shane’s been learning the past week. Now he’s embedded in the control deck.
“Mark! Do not phone the ambulance! We’ll take ‘im ourself!” Snarls Bob, the fat embodiment of Yorkshire, and for now, our boss.
“But his head’s bleeding.” I say. There’s a crimson stream exiting his temple.
“Yeah I can see that!” Bob’s rummaging through the trailer for a clean rag to stem the flow. They’re all filthy but needs must so he starts smearing Shane’s face with degreaser and oil. The two Aboriginal guys are leaning on their rakes and shovels, taking it all in. Poor Shane looks at them through a sheet of black and red, which is now dribbling on to his overalls.
The real boss turns up, his Audi braking too sharply on the new gravel. He looks a lot like Bob, but older.
“Aw, we’ll have to make that level again.” Moans Monti, leaning on the rake.
The real boss is trying not to lose his temper. Another accident. More wasted time. “Well boys, don’t just bloody stand there, Shane needs bloody ‘elp!”
“He needs an ambulance,” says Dural, leaning on the shovel.
“Do not phone a ruddy ambulance!” Yells the real boss, getting out his car.
“I know that dad, I already told ‘em!” Yells Bob back, helping the bulk of Shane out the CAT. Never has such a large man looked so unsteady on his feet, I’m sure he’s concussed.
“Right, dad – “ Bob’s motioning at the key’s in his father’s hand – “start the Audi, we need to get him moving!”
“You must be jokin’ me son!” The keys are popped back in his pocket authoritatively. “Just got it valeted at the garage at a great expense! Bloody rip off! Get the Scottish lad to drive the Toyota.”
I dramatically pat the numerous pockets on my own work shirt. “Who’s got the keys?” I ask.
Dural and Monti shrug passively. Bob checks his shorts with his free hand. He’s got Shane’s blood on him now.
“Where are they? Aren’t they in the ignition?”
We all turn and realise the Toyota’s at the other end of the yard, a good hundred metres away. Behind it, the yawning desert.
“Just get me… To a fuckin’ hospital!” Screams Shane maniacally, spraying the gravel with blood. Dural and Monti move aside and Bob chaperones Shane into the back of the sparkling Audi. The boss fixes the Aborigines with a pitch-black scowl and gets behind the wheel. They turn sharply, kicking up more stones and fire off through the industrial estate towards A & E.
Monti saunters over to the CAT and turns off the engine. Without speaking the two of them start smoothing over the indented tyre tracks, concealing the chaos in a few strokes. The truth is, we didn’t put enough tar down in the first place so the gravel won’t stick anyway. All 1200 square metres of it will be lumpy and exposed at the first sign of a large truck, God forbid a road train.
“Hey Mark, how much you getting paid for this shit?” Asks Dural, looking up from the raking.
I go for half. “A hundred and twenty a day I think.”
“We knew it.” They both stop immediately.
“Those old white men ripping us off G.” Dural says. “We been here a week longer than you and we only on a hundred.” Guilt rises in me like steam.
“Yeah, but they’re putting you up.” I reason.
“In the campsite? Yeah, it’s better than the bush, but it’s not the Hilton.”
My mind casts back to our first job together, a whole two weeks before, laying a new drive for the Alice Springs Hilton Hotel. We didn’t charge them so Bob and his dad Robert could get free bed and board for a month. Who names their son Bob when they’re called Robert? We laid enough tar that time.
“Were you in the bush before?” I ask. I’ve been desperate to know, just didn’t know how to ask.
“Nah G, in Tennant Creek.”
I knew this much already. Bob had shown me the article in the Tennant & District Times commemorating the day these two Aboriginal teenagers had been given an opportunity to work ‘for the notable Yorkshire construction firm, B&R Construction.’
“But we have to share the campsite with Shane, and he’s always pissed off his face.” I’m sure Shane was pissed when he crashed the CAT into his face.
“Maybe not anymore.” I say, raking over the last of his blood. The poor drunk had come all the way from Brisbane for this.
“Yeah, about that.” Monti, the darker of the two sidles closer, Dural on his shoulder. “That was us.”
I stop too. “What do you mean?” Images of severed brake cables or nefarious engine tampering come to mind. The two teenagers are close now, I can smell their sweat.
“We dreamt it. And then we made it happen.”
I look them both over. Neither of them blink. “What about me?” I say.
They both laugh.
The next morning is just like the previous twelve. It’s dark and below freezing and I’m cycling from the hostel through Alice Springs suburbia towards the campsite. High fences and walls crowned with glass stop the frenzied dogs behind them from tearing me to strips. Trucks scream down the 87 so I stick to the pavement, work my way to Todd Mall and rattle by the smiling Dutch waitress opening up the cafe for breakfast. Alternating my hands from warm pocket to handlebar, I eventually pass through The Gap, an ancient split in the MacDonnell Range and a natural entrance to the town that has become Alice. Monti told me the plateaued mountains either side were giant caterpillars. Indigenous tribes used to battle over The Gap. Now, The Stuart Highway makes a beeline through it, an unrelenting 1700 mile stripe of tarmac from Darwin to Port Augusta. I cycle along it until I swing left and down towards the campsite.
Monti and Dural are up for a change. They’re reversing the Toyota towards the trailer with the steam roller on it. Bob is sitting in the cabin of the Tar Truck, checking his phone. The headlights are on but the sun is rising to meet them. The bull dust is never redder than at dawn. The gum trees pepper the green and orange tents with shocks of white bark, even whiter than the gallery of campervans by the toilet block. I’m definitely in Australia.
“How’s Shane?” I ask.
“He’ll live.” Bob swings his phone round to show me a photo of Shane giving a goofy thumbs up, his head swaddled in bandages.
I wonder who will drive the CAT now, and Bob seems to read me.
“And so we’ve got a new start today me lad.” He lowers his voice. “Another bloody Abo. It’s Monti’s old man would you believe, got in touch last night. Been working the mines but he’s out now, prob’ly drunk on the job!” He pops Shane back in his pocket.
After the usual half hour of jostling trailers into place we form a convoy of sorts. A circus train of dented trucks, welded tanks and lazily secured machinery. Mad Max made by Yorkshiremen. We are a merry band of cowboys. Who are we going to rip off today?
“I’ve heard of you boys.” The creased farmer has his hands on his waist.
“Oh. Really?” Bob hops down out the truck and reaches out his hand.
“You boys laid the tarmac on the KFC last week no?”
“Er, yeah, a night job that was. Pissed Abo’s everywhere, it was a tough one.” Bob looks round to make sure Monti and Dural are out of earshot.
The famer spits in the dust. It sits, like a blob of wax. He kicks more dust over it and turns. “Well do a better job on this will ya?”
Robert is out now, holding a clipboard. “What he say son?”
“Nothin’ dad. Mark, get the water tank round ‘ere, we got to soak this dust. Boys! Dural! Monti! Where are you?”
The two teens slouch round the back of the trailer. There’s a heavy set guy in a baseball cap with them. His frown seems carved into his face.
“You met Roy yet Mark?” I shake his hand. The frown inverts slowly to reveal a vast grin. I immediately see the resemblance. “Hiya fella. I’m their dad.”
“Right boys,” Bob seems tetchy, “let’s do a good job today.”
We spend the morning watering dust.
The cold snap of dawn becomes a fierce bake by 10 am. Blue sky. Red ground. White trees. A green hose splurging a precious, finite, underground water source into the unquenchable dust. Roy rolls the CAT slowly over the wet dirt, leveling dips with excess muck and clumsily leveling humps with the bucket on front. We hose and rake, brush and scoop. Bob tells Roy where to drive and Robert holds a clipboard.
“Guess what we were dreaming last night?” Monti says. His face is so dark it’s tricky to make out his expression from afar.
“You gonna tell him G?” Says Dural.
“Yeah. Mark is black, aren’t ya G?”
I don’t really know what to say to that. I’m not. If anything I’m pink.
“Well you’re black to us, ‘cos you listen G.” I feel accepted. Privy to a world these other white men will never enter.
“We dreamt Bob and Robert were gonna be gone too.”
“Yeah. Gone. Like Shane. But worse.”
“Worse than Shane?” Poor swaddled Shane.
“Yeah. We dream a lot. One time we were sleeping and a bad spirit came through the window and paralysed us G. We were both awake but couldn’t move. It stuck us good, we were stiff. Dad says its ‘cos we left the family.”
Monti and Duval share a sideways glance. Who’s going to speak next?
Duval takes his cue. “And now we working for white dicks who don’t treat with us with any respect. They don’t give a shit about us. So we gonna pass on the bad spirit to them, just like we did to Shane.”
I suddenly have the urge to tell them what I’m earning. I must look worried.
“Oh, don’t worry G, like we said – you’re one of us. We won’t harm ya. Even Roy knows you’re good, he got no beef with you.”
I look over at Roy, who is methodically ploughing the bull dust different shades of wet.
Once the drive way is flat and dark the tar truck is edged in from the road. But there’s a problem. Bob and Robert can’t get the tar to flow through the pipes and into the dispenser which hangs precariously out the back.
“How bloody cold was it last night?” Asks Bob. Robert’s looking at his clip board for answers.
“It’s midday and the tar’s still solid. Scottie get the blow torch.”
He has me fix up a gas canister to some rubber tubing and a blow torch. As he turns the gas on I notice all three Aboriginals hiding behind the CAT.
“Look at them bloody Abos!” Laughs Bob. “First sign of gas and they think there’s gonna be an explosion!” This really tickles Bob. Robert doesn’t seem to find as hilarious. He’s just checking his watch. The blow torch is attached precariously to a nozzle on the tar tank, blasting an arrow of blue flame inside. “Right, someone go and check if it’s bubbling yet,” directs Robert, looking round at the cowering Aboriginals. “Scottie, you’re up it seems.”
I clamber up on the roof and struggle to twist the lid off the top of the tank. After a few knocks with a wrench the handle budges slightly and I start turning it anti-clockwise. Two rotations in, there’s a sharp whoosh and the lid rockets off and into the sky, under a vast projection of warm tar. I stumble into the gravel-filled tipper behind the tank and take cover as the black geyser erupts spectacularly on to the cab roof, windscreen, windows and most grievously, the inside of the driver-side door. Someone had left if open.
“Jesus bloody Nora!” Screams Robert. “Fuckin’ hell!” Screams Bob.
“You alright chief?” Asks Roy. My hands and legs are clotted black but I’m fine. Oddly, it really isn’t that hot. Just viscous and unnatural. I get up and shuffle back to the ground, speckles of gravel from the tipper clinging to me.
“Yeah, someone get me some degreaser and I’ll scrub this off.” I say.
“Never mind ‘bout your legs Scottie!” Yells Robert. “Get scrubbing the truck now before it sets!” It’s so hot that by the time Monti and Dural are at the stained door with rags, they’re too late. It is truly set. Neither of them seems too fussed. “We’ll need a lot more degreaser to get this off G,” Dural points out succinctly.
Robert looks at Bob. Bob looks at Robert. They appear disproportionately angry. We’ve been hosing dirt in the desert for 4 hours and they’re furious about some tar on their truck. “Alright!” Yells Bob, clearly aimed at his father, “I’ll go and get some more degreaser!”
And with that he clambers aboard the dirtied truck, jams it into reverse and hurls it back up the driveway towards the open road. The blow torch, which had thankfully been turned off, falls loose out of the socket with the motion. It bounces into a drainage ditch. The black and white truck is a cloud of bull dust as it hammers back towards the Gap.
“Gee,” Monti rubs his head, “these white boys really need degreaser.”
Robert swivels. “Yes we do Monti. These white boys like to have things done proper! These white boys like a clean engine and a job done proper!” He jams his finger into Monti’s chest. “You lot wouldn’t understand!” He realises he’s outnumbered. As the tar hardens, I find myself standing in solidarity with Monti, Dural and Roy.
“Now get to work!” Robert shouts a little less convincingly.
Roy steps forward. His shoulders loom ominously. “We’re done.” He says simply.
“What do you mean?” Robert asks, his voice unusually high.
“We’ve hosed the dirt down, I’ve pushed the stone round. We need the tar and gravel to work. We’re done for now.”
“Well.” Robert exhales and looks around for something to do. “Clean then. Young Bob’ll be back shortly like and we can finish the job.”
On cue, his phone rings. Robert glances at the screen and he takes one solitary, long blink. It rings again. The Aborigines are in a row, one on a rake, one on a shovel, one on a brush. I can feel the tar tighten on my legs, the hair matted and stretched.
“What’s up son?” Asks Robert. Pause. “What do you mean police!” Pause. “A weigh station! Why’d you stop you pillock?” A shorter pause. “OK, OK calm down son. They wave you down you have to stop. What’d they say?” Long pause. A clearly significant pause for all concerned. Robert hangs up, poking his phone slightly less gently than he poked Monti’s chest.
He knows he has to give an explanation. He owes us that much. And it’s too hot to lie. “Turns out the truck was overweight. By quite a lot actually. And the tar tank was open. And it wasn’t welded correctly to the frame. We’re in a bit of trouble.” He lists off and focuses on the horizon where the cloud of bull dust once was. We follow his gaze. The Gap is barely visible through the shimmering heat.
“And Shane blabbed in the hospital the silly drunk. Good God it’s like Dubai all over again.”
He turns back to us. “You boys. Get in the Toyota and head back to the campsite. We’ll call it a day for now. I’ll go speak to the farmer.”
Monti and Dural look to Roy. He shrugs those ancient shoulders of his and they jump in. I’ve not seen them move this quickly. I hop in the rear and we set off back to Alice and back to the Gap. I spot Robert in the rear view mirror bending slowly to pick up the shovels, rakes and brushes. On our way we pass Bob at the weigh station. There’s a police car and a couple of men in needless luminous outfits taking notes, the neon redundant against the red MacDonnell Range. Bob swivels meekly to watch us fly by. No looking back. We get to the campsite, I wave good bye and set off on my bike, back home to wash the tar off.
The next morning is even colder. My breath hangs like bull dust as I puff my way back to the campsite.
No Robert and Bob. No trucks. No Dural, no Monti, no Roy. I imagine even Shane has been seconded out of hospital. None of the tourists in the campervans are up yet. It’s too cold to rise. It’s just me. Not even a goodbye. All that’s left is the KFC carpark and a few lumpy industrial yards.
I ride back to town, back through The Gap for the last time and pull up next to the Dutch waitress heaving out tables in front of the café.
“Any jobs going?” I ask in my most exotic Scottish brogue.
She laughs. “It’s Alice Springs. There’s always jobs for backpackers.”