TOM PULLS OFF his respirator.
'Know what it really stands for?'
He is washing down his boots. They are fucked already, caustic soda having eaten away most of the soles. He draws in the unfiltered air – tangy, but safe enough.
'What what stands for?'
Josh is weary. Has had enough. He can't read Tom tonight. For hours they have battled this spill, dumping soil and alumina in the path of the overflow, watching the flood of caustic hit the seawater channel and streak long milky tears into the bay. Usually they would talk some shit, crack a few gags, but tonight…
'Fifo. What Fifo really stands for?'
Tom holds the hose out for Josh to take and wash down his own wrecked boots. Josh takes hold but Tom doesn't let go. Josh thinks maybe the silly bastard wants a tug-of-war and smiles, but then meets the older man's eyes. Not a joke.
Tom pushes the hose into the trainee's chest.
'Fit in, or fuck off.'
ALICE SHAVES HER pubes and checks herself out in the mirror. Reflected behind her is the heated towel-rail she spent days obsessing over online. Ceramic. Low energy. German made. It has come away from the wall, threatening to throw itself to the ground. Waiting for Tom, she thinks.
Everything had changed at once. They had been in Rockingham, checking out spec homes in an estate with streets named after Olympic swimmers. They had nodded appreciatively as the customer service representative detailed the features and benefits of the master chef kitchen, had expressed excitement at the prospect of using the laundry's generous stainless steel tub, had agreed that the outdoor room's Balinese inspired reed fence would be fantastic to come home to – the three of them making talk about goosenecks and grout and pretending not to notice how completely beyond-shit lot 57, the Beckham, and the fence that separated it from the freeway really was.
Alice sweeps the soft auburn hair into a pile with her right foot. Tom had lost his shit, had started his 'The slaves had a better deal than this bullshit' rant as soon as they had got back to their car. 'I mean fuck!' he had said. 'I mean fuck. Yeah?'
By the time they had navigated their escape from Dawn Fraser Circuit, he had reached the part about spending his entire life in a box – working to pay back the banks, and Alice had decided that this time she would say yes. Tom would ask 'What are we supposed to do?' She would say nothing, and he would fill the void with 'Maybe I should get a job up north.'
This time she would not say 'The twins need their father'. This time she would not say 'Fifo wrecks marriages'. This time she would not ask 'What about us?'
She turned her head and looked through the passenger side glass. Beyond and above the shitty timber fence, a sea of same-brown roofs bobbed and banged in parallax, chasing after them, threatening to leap the fence and pin them to the ground.
'Five years,' she had said. 'Let's give it five years.' It was the most common advice Alice had received from the Fifo wives. Long enough to get ahead, not long enough to destroy a family. The second most common advice was 'Keep yourself busy'. The third – 'Make sure he gets laid the night he gets home, even if you don't really feel like it.'
TOM IS EXHAUSTED, needs to sleep, but at the same time is wired. The caffeine that has kept his body moving for twelve hours isn't ready to quit, and he knows that if he lies down, it will push from his limbs to his mind and swim thought loops. Tom sticks carefully to the concrete between the dongas. When the notice went out asking people not to take shortcuts through the rows it was ignored. Security cameras and reminder signs were installed: Path adherence. Walking the talk.
The outside of the donga reminds Tom of a shipping container. Precious cargo, he thinks, as he steps inside. An air-conditioner and TV are mounted side-by-side on the far wall, allowing him to dial in the cold air and mindlessness needed to survive his swing.
A bedside table and lamp. A desk and a chair. A wardrobe and a small ensuite bathroom. Beech veneer and extruded plastic. Tom is not to personalise the space, can be fined if he does. When he flies out, the donga becomes somebody else's. When he flies in, somebody else's becomes his.
Tom can tell Security have been through the donga in his absence; searches and random urine checks a part of his contract –- the company meaning to make a show of testing for alcohol and dope, but creating a spectacular as the stoners moved across to crystal meth and coke.
The balls of foil Tom had crumpled and thrown in his waste bin have been peeled open and left about. Stupid bastards, he thinks. He opens his bedside draw and takes out a roll of foil. He tears off a couple of fresh strips and lays them on the floor. He sprays the foil with water from a plastic spray bottle then sticks each sheet to the grimy glass of the window near his bed. It is 8 am and 34 degrees. The donga curtains alone won't keep the room dark enough for sleep. Tom turns the air conditioner on and steps back outside.
He will head to the mess – knock over bacon, sausages, eggs, toast, beans, hash browns, mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes – have a couple of juices, maybe another coffee. He will talk some shit, grab the paper and head back to the donga. He will read a bit, then call Alice – listen for clues on what to do in her tone.
He will fall asleep with CNN playing. Later, he will wake up freezing in the middle of UN peace talks and reach for a blanket instead of turning down the air conditioning. Eventually, he will get back up and spend the night opening and closing valves with Josh – two germs in the bowels of a beast – digesting bauxite and shitting alumina.
ALICE IDLES THROUGH the undercover car park, searching for a space. She hears a motor start and looks in her mirror. A few spaces behind, reversing lights flash on. Alice indicates and puts her own car into reverse. She watches in the mirror as a woman in her late fifties backs out in a weathered Magna station wagon. The car stalls halfway out. Alice averts her eyes so as not to embarrass the woman. They fall across the woodgrain inserts in her dashboard – down across the soft beige of the empty leather passenger seat. Alice takes a short breath in and out.
When she looks back in the mirror, Alice sees a white Toyota Prado, identical to hers, positioning to claim the space. As the weathered Magna withdraws, Alice swings back quickly – filling the void – blocking the Magna from moving on and ensuring her space cannot be stolen. The woman in the identical Prado lays on her horn – flashes her lights. When the woman passes she yells at Alice, calls her a stupid fuck biscuit. Alice smiles and blows the woman a kiss. She has a clear vision of what the place should look like when Tom walks through the door and she won't be distracted. She locks her car and heads inside the complex.
Alice meets her sister in the food court. She had called her last night, told her she needed help to get everything done in time. Alice pays for their lunches and pretends to listens as her sister uses the occasion to unload, to tell her exactly what is wrong with Tom and Fifo and anything within six degrees. Her sister speaks through a small, tight mouth, her lips wrinkled from bitterness and Horizon fifties. Signature fucking bogan, thinks Alice, smiling. Her sister asks her what she is smiling at. 'Nothing', says Alice.
Her sister tells her she should eat more yellow food to nourish her third chakra. Alice says 'Good idea,' then adds 'Lets go.' She stands up, too fast, and feels herself travel in and out for a moment. She wonders what would happen if she sat down. Just forgot about getting everything done in time and sat back down. If maybe she just took herself and her sister shopping for clothes, maybe swung by the Clinique counter at Myer, got her sister some decent moisturiser.
TOM WAKES AT 3 pm. Maybe if he goes into town for a bit he can clear his head, think on what to do. He jumps on board one of the minibuses that loop between the workers' camp and the town. A couple of young blokes sit up back, freshly showered, stinking of deodorant. As the bus winds past the refinery, Tom watches a bulk carrier take on alumina at the wharf. A silver-white cloud covers the ship as the sea breeze lifts the powder from the open conveyor belt and throws it across the bay. The fifty thousand tonnes of alumina the ship carts to China will come back as mobile phones and paint and lolly wrappers. Two per cent of it – a thousand tonnes – will blow into the bay while the ship is being loaded. Tom's attention moves to a couple of Aboriginal boys throwing a cast-net downwind of the cloud, targeting the baitfish that congregate near the shallows on the point.
When he gets home, Tom will gun out past the heads and target snapper. He will push a gang of hooks through the spine of a slimy mackerel and drop it over the side, letting the sinker drag it to the bottom. When he feels a determined and committed run, he will pull back hard, driving the hooks into the snapper's mouth. He will quickly work the fish onboard, racing to beat the sharks. He will pin the snapper to the floor of the boat with his foot, then drive a spike through its brain. The crunch will travel through him as the fish's skull is pierced, and he will hold firm until the arc of pain passes then falls still beneath him.
Tom can only bear this moment by facing its truth. He burns with shame when he cannot offer a quick death – when he fucks it up and has to stab repeatedly, the fish staring at him, its eyes intelligent and terrified – both of them stuck with no other way out. At these times, Tom sees himself from space – a small man sitting on a vast ocean. Alone and killing. Nowhere to hide. For a long time it troubled him, but then he found it. Sitting in his boat, covered in blood – the truth. The act spoke for itself. He killed the fish. He ate the fish.
Tom and the two young guys get off at town stop one. The young guys head to the bottle shop. They will buy a case of Vodka Cruisers and swap these and crystal meth for sex with two fourteen-year-old Aboriginal girls. Later, they will put on their reflective gear and operate heavy machinery while still off their nuts. Josh is a good kid, thinks Tom, just asks too many questions about the shit going into the bay.
Tom heads to the takeaway. A local shoots him a look – the one that accuses him of fucking up the town, of pushing up the price of housing and food and filling the streets at night with strangers full of piss and attitude. Tom pays $22 for a burger, some chips and a Red Bull. He listens in as a couple of suits order fifteen serves of fish and chips for their team bonding exercise. Kill your own fish, thinks Tom. He watches as they pay with a government credit card. So far in debt, he thinks. I am so far in debt. He laughs as one of the suits takes a Fanta from the fridge. He has no choice. He has to renew his contract.
ALICE UNPACKS THE groceries – Tom's beer, Tom's wine, Tom's pistachio nuts – the good licorice not the shit one. She takes a cloth and wipes down the kitchen bench, wipes the watermarks from the chrome tap handles.
She walks through her home, pretending to be invisible, trying to see through someone else's eyes – through her sister's eyes, through Tom's eyes. Every space is perfect. Everything is how it should be, like in a magazine, like on TV. The house flows organically, like the breath of conversation. She looks again for something that exposes her fraud. Something to show the hand of deliberation, reveal the exhaustion of creating something effortless.
The second day was the hardest. It always felt surreal. She would stop being a single mother and become a wife. The energy and passion of the first night home would dissipate with morning, and Tom would spend the day on the lounge, sleeping and watching TV, recovering from his swing. Alice found the best way to handle this was to give him space and she would do stuff – -no longer alone, still alone.
On his third day home, Tom would take himself fishing, and on his return, Alice would notice the change. His energy would lift. He would be part of them.They would talk and make plans. She and the twins would have his full attention, and she would often catch him looking in on the three of them with wonder. They would go places. They would do things. Drive to Perth. Go shopping. Buy a car or a lounge or a coffee pod machine. See movies and shows. Eat in. Eat out. Get lost in the minutiae. He had told her that it felt like he had to unplug from work before he could plug back in at home – that he couldn't switch from one mode to another instantaneously. She didn't like being something he plugged into. She didn't like being a mode. She forgave it though. They had warned her about it – the Fifo wives. Even if you don't feel like it, she thought.
It was just at these times, when she had her husband, and the children had their father, that she would see him begin to untether again, ready to fly back out. He would get drunk and obnoxious at dinner. Pick at her for spending too much money. Accuse the kids of being spoilt brats or start a rant about her sister. He would become angry or depressed and spend his last day on the lounge, or fishing, or out in the shed on a pretence of fixing something, but really, just not wanting to be near them.
TOM RADIOS THE control room and tells them they are ready to commence the pump swap. He tells them to make a cup of tea, that Josh is going to do it. The control room operator confirms the pump coming online is showing a ready light, and that maybe he might read a novel as well.
Tom stands back and lets Josh take the lead. Above them, the massive slurry tank digests bauxite and caustic soda in its guts. They need to swap pumps 406A and 406B, the B pump blowing its gland packing again, him and Josh having spent half the shift already hosing out the bunded area. Josh bangs open the suction valve to the A pump with his copper faced hammer, letting concentrated sodium alumina gravity-feed in and prime the pump. He radios the control room, requesting the pump be started.
Tom feels the pump come on – a vibration added to the din through his feet and earplugs. He and Josh stand silent, avoiding eye contact, riding with the pump as they feel the control room push up the flow rate as a test, then knock it back a peg or two. The control room confirms the flow rate and amps are okay. The din and vibration shift again, the control room confirming the old pump has been switched off. Josh bashes closed the valves in and out of the old pump. He opens the drains and drains down. He radios the control room and confirms the pump change is complete. Tom turns on the hose – starts hosing down. Josh will be all right, he thinks. He feels bad for being a prick yesterday – tells Josh he hopes he aligned the valves properly – that it's a decent sprint to the nearest emergency wash station.
Josh doesn't react.
'Can't wait to get home, hey.'
Josh looks up at him. Smiles. Says, 'Yeah, reckon.'
Tom knows that the single sentence has patched things, that he could leave it at that. Knows what is about to follow is not for Josh, but for himself.
'Just take the money while you can mate, then get out.'
Josh watches the mix from Tom's hose disappear into the drain. He thinks about yesterday's spill. He had panicked when the light and noise and vibration had suddenly fallen out from under them, when Tom had told him that they needed to move fast – that if the power didn't come back on the whole big chemistry set would cascade into a series of spills. Josh pictures the milky jizz shooting into the bay – spat into the mouth of the pristine waters – dissolving the shells of crabs and burning out the guts of the fish. He decides not to give a shit.
Tom will tell her as soon as he gets in the car. She will be upset. They will argue. They will nut it out in the car on the drive home. By the time they get home, everything will be okay.
ALICE WALKS THROUGH the house again, wondering if it is right, wondering if anything is ever right. As she takes her keys from an antique sideboard in the entryway, she catches her own eyes looking back at her.
There is a portrait of the four of them taken in a studio. Alice had paid a lot for the shots, wanting to ensure Tom had decent photos to take with him – wanting to know he wouldn't – don't forget us. The photographer had arranged them on a green velvet divan, a kid on each lap. These were good times. They had just bought the acreage and the future was wide open. Alice had thought she was happy then, is surprised to see the pain showing that far back. She arranges the other frames on the sideboard into a chronology. She follows the timeline of images, looking into her own eyes.
The four of them at Disneyland, their reward for taking the decision to roll those first five years into ten. The acreage was almost paid off, but Tom had argued they should set themselves up with an investment property. It would give them more than a home, it would give them financial security, he had said. She remembers the strange wave of excitement that washed over her as they went back to the Rockingham estate – where this time the same-brown tiled roofs seemed to bow at her feet, and where Tom had got back into the car and laughed and said 'Now look who owns the fucking cotton farm!' And in that moment she thought she had been okay with it, had come to terms with it, but again her eyes betrayed her. Tom and the twins beaming, but Magic Mountain unable to shadow the prospect of spending another five years alone.
The twins' high school graduation – where ten years had become fifteen. Where Tom had argued for a second investment property – a unit in Perth for the twins while they studied at university. Tom's eyes shine out at her, 'not bad for a bloke who didn't finish Year Ten', he had announced, wrapping his big arms around the three of them. She looks into her own eyes. She can see them sinking, abandoning ship, as Tom pulls her in.
Last year. Where the twins had made her and Tom a picnic on the balcony of the new unit as a thank you. Where she had sat on a cushioned milk crate and drunk Yellowglen and taken a tiny toke on a joint. Where Tom had accidently captured a glorious image of his three women on his phone. Had asked Alice to get it framed – told her that he didn't know what, but that there was something about it. Alice knew what.
Loosened by sunshine and champagne, the undergrad dope had quietly picked her up and flipped her. She had been watching Tom, could tell by his body language that he expected to get laid that night, was thinking how sex on his first night back felt like sex with a stranger, when she heard herself think 'but how the stranger stays.'
The stranger treated the house like a hotel. The stranger treated the kitchen like a café. The stranger treated the bedroom like a brothel – expecting Alice to plug in, plug out of being a single mother – fly in, fly out of being a wife, a whore, a cleaner, a cook, a mother, a cook, a cleaner, a whore. The stranger laid claim to things he didn't own or understand, knocked over things she had built. The stranger destroyed routines and alienated friends and family. Sometimes in passing the stranger, she would meet Tom, but this happened less and less. And Alice realised that by the end of his week off, she just wanted Tom to fit in or fuck off.
As she had floated upside down, watching Tom take out his phone and corral a daughter either side of her, the thought of him signing on for a few more years pushed hard on the lump of coal wedged in her first vertebra. It transformed it to diamond and reflected sparkles of light from her eyes.
Alice places the photos back in their original order.
TOM SITS ON the steps of his donga, his packed bag on the bed inside. He calls Alice to confirm the flight details. When Alice answers, Tom can hear his sister-in-law in the background, laughing. 'Bitchface drinking my wine', he thinks. He can't stand her – would bend her over and fuck her into the middle of next Friday – but can't stand her.
Tom knows she considers him a cashed-up bogan. He knows she thinks he has abandoned Alice and the twins and seems to get off on holding him personally accountable for the evils of the mining industry. In their inevitable boozy antagonisms, Tom tolerates her for a while, but eventually her argument moves from the reality of experience, to quoting some New Age bullshit, and she will set out to dig a hole deeper than any mine and attempt to bury him in his own slurry.
She went off on him about the cuts to her single parent payments as if he had done it himself. Asked him how it felt knowing money was coming out of his nieces' and nephews' mouths so mining bosses could indulge their titanic fantasies. She demanded to know why blokes like him earned so much digging up and destroying the planet, while single mothers like her couldn't afford electricity. Tom had told her she wouldn't have electricity if blokes like him didn't dig up coal. She didn't like that.
She sat at his table and drank his red wine and leaned across at him and told him that evil flourished when good men did nothing.
He and Alice had given her thousands of dollars over the years. Paid bills and bought school shoes and lent money that never came back. And Tom knew he didn't know the half of it. He had given her his old Ford when he bought his new Hilux – had put on new tyres and brakes so she would be able to safely bring the kids up from Albany to visit them. He hadn't made a big deal when he found out she hadn't transferred the ownership – that Alice had been paying the registration and insurance for six years.
Tom had sipped his wine, smiled at her and excused himself. He had gone into his study and typed 'evil good men nothing' into Google, knowing the net would supply dirt on whichever famous wanker had said it. Google took him to a page on Edmund Burke, and Tom found something better, another quote: 'Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises – for never intending to go beyond promises – it costs nothing.'
That was her and all the smart cunts like her. Mouthing off – like somehow they weren't part of it. He thought of her out there, sitting at his table and drinking his Barwang and eating the snapper he had caught that morning. The fish he had killed by driving a spike through its brain. Her chattering and twittering and on her smart phone – only possible because evil pricks like him stood soaked in caustic soda every night. She was part of it. He was part of it. He killed it. She ate it. Brain spike. Pollution. Fish. Aluminium. The reason pricks like him got paid so much was because they did the dirty work for twats like her.
Tom read the over the quote a few more times. 'Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises – for never intending to go beyond promises – it costs nothing.' He walked back into the dining room, replaying it in his mind, trying not to let the wine wash through and dilute it.
'Magnificent hypocrite!' he had yelled at her.
Tom looks along the row of tightly packed dongas. In the background a high wire fence marks the camp perimeter – the regularly spaced security cameras aimed in and out. It reminds him of the first time they had gone to look at houses at Rockingham – where Alice had lost her shit and begged him to go Fifo, had told him she wasn't going to spend the next twenty years trapped in a box.
ALICE SHOULD HAVE left earlier, won't be able to relax until she is out on the highway. She heads along Osmington Road, past a series of home-stays and bed and breakfasts, vineyards and Alpaca farms. That had been their original plan – something like that. Within a month of Tom signing his first contract they had the mortgage on the acreage. Alice had spent five days moving them from Kwinana to Margaret River, ferrying crapola back and forth in her clapped-out Subaru, the twins strapped in the back, the three of them sustained on toddler tunes and Happy Meals. It had felt like the start of something.
She passes the pony farm. Tom had arranged a surprise for them – excited like a kid, he had bundled them into the car and driven up here – pulled up in the car park and announced Daddy was taking his girls for their first pony ride. When Alice told Tom she and her sister had taken them there already, he had driven off and left them standing in the gravel car park. That night he had come home pissed, demanding to know why they had stolen it from him. Why they had stolen it from him. Why they had stolen that moment from him and his daughters.
Alice had wanted to tell him that that was the price he paid.
TOM LOOKS OUT his window and watches the ground crew. He had managed to dodge talking to anybody during the flight by putting on headphones and watching a film. He keeps his eyes outside the plane, not wanting to engage – just wanting to get home and be with Alice. He thinks on how when he gets in the car and sees her, he will see a stranger looking back at him. Not just her: the twins, the dog, the house, his at-home life. It all looks alien to him that first day back, as if it belongs to another man – as if the bloke now sleeping in his donga has stepped away and Tom is rostered on. He will find himself sitting on his back deck, drinking beer with his feet up on a chair. He will find himself looking in through the sliding glass doors, watching Alice and the twins, and a Talking Heads song will start up in his mind.
And you may ask yourself, 'How do I work this?' And you may ask yourself, 'Where is that large automobile?' And you may tell yourself, 'This is not my beautiful house!' And you may tell yourself, 'This is not my beautiful wife!'
And David Byrne will sing about water flowing underground, and Tom will be back at the refinery, hosing caustic soda into drains, hammering valves until the ache across his shoulders spreads down his back and meets the pain shooting up from his feet, until the sweat pouring down his face blinds him – turns his snot to alkaline and drowns him – until the noise of the pumps and the crushers and processes and the static mashed chatter of the radio mike deafen him, until one more second trapped among the stinking pipes, rusted tanks, screaming pumps and grinding conveyor makes him want to pick up his hammer and smash his own motherfucking head in.
ALICE WAITS AT the intersection with the Bussell Highway. Perth Airport is three hours north and Tom will land soon. The West Australian sun plays a beat through the windscreen and falls across her stomach and legs. She finds herself back on the apartment balcony, sitting on a milk crate, looking at the world upside down. The warmth from her jeans spreads to the newly etched nakedness between her legs, sparking a frisson. Even if you don't feel like it, she thinks.
But she does feel like it. Alice turns off her phone. She looks in the rear-view mirror, a glance along the road she has ferried him in and out on for eighteen years. Her view is framed by the boxes her sister helped pack. She waits for a B-double to clear the intersection, then heads south, away from Perth.
TOM STANDS AT the passenger pick-up zone and searches the line of approaching vehicles for Alice. He can't shake the film he watched on the flight. He had chosen it as it featured Terry Pratchett. Was hoping for something funny but ended up watching a documentary on assisted suicide. Toward the end, Pratchett sits with a man and his wife in their home while the man drinks lethal poison. As the man dies, he asks for water. The nurse says no. The man asks again, his voice trailing off dryly as he slides in and out. Terry Pratchett says the man died a dignified death. Tom's not sure.
He thinks on what it is like when he wakes up in his donga in the middle of the day. When he has sat on his bed to pull off his socks and fallen asleep without turning on the air-conditioning. Waking up dry and caked from the front of his lips to the bottom of his lungs – feeling as if his throat has been slashed and rammed with filtrate – caustic sand punched tight into the backs of his eyes, unable to swallow, dreaming of the ensuite tap but fucked over by the exhaustion pinning him to his bed. He wonders how it would be to die that way, grasping at something forever out of reach. Flying in. Flying out.
He won't renew the contract. He will get in the car and tell her he won't renew the contract. She will throw her arms around him and weep with joy. They will be okay. They will sell the investment property. They can set up some tourist cabins, or put in some vines, or run some alpacas.