Bird thou never wert
I tell him, My name is Ghost. And at that very moment a kookaburra laughs. I find myself thinking that no-one owns the laugh of a kookaburra, not even the kookaburra. It’s not copyright. And kookaburras have only been over here, here in the West, for a hundred or so years. People from t’other side often don’t realise that, thinking their way is the normal way. Maybe lyrebirds can mimic a kookaburra’s call where they come from. Wouldn’t know—have to look it up. I can see from the blood in his cheeks, his scrunched eyes, the mild tremor taking hold of his limbs, that he thinks I am laughing at him. I’m not. I am simply saying, My name is Ghost.
See that gully, he says—yelling and grinding grit with yellow teeth, all incisors—if you don’t shut your mouth, your bloody lippy always goin’ on about shit mouth, I’ll stuff you in it and cover you with dirt and no-one will ever find you. He says this with his boots pinning my boots to the ground, his face so close to mine that the spit arcs across, and he means it. I stare at him, and in the mirror of his eyes see the vague outline of myself, the ghost I am, the ghost I will become.
I am not dead, but I sometimes feel like I am. I say to him, I am already dead, mate, not really taking the piss, but he thinks I am. Having a go at him, diminishing him in some way—he can’t tolerate this. I glance around at our surroundings. The jagged eucalypts, smoother ones on higher ground, the razor-wire clusters of parrot bush, birds chattering and processing the fibres in the air. Like dandelions—capeweed flowers transforming to seed—introduced, then dispersed. It’s all fibres dispersing, spreading, working their way in. Taking root. I notice the beauty and the joy and the perverse balancing of the equation. I do people’s taxes and know how to balance the books. This book cannot be balanced.
And so you ask, how has it got to this? Well, I’ll tell you, just for the hell of it—no real reason, because it will have no effect. Nothing will change. Nothing will happen. Entropy. A stultified rebirth. A working-down to fibres … one day, atoms. My name is Ghost. I am fibres and atoms. I am cold. Asbestos keeps out the heat. Bushfire, soaring temperatures … and I remain chilled to the bone.
It came about when Seve started to knock down his old asbestos house with a front-end loader. He’d moved his girlfriend out, deposited her in the shed along with the contents of the house, and just started smashing the place down, lifting what he could with the loader into the back of his tip truck, which he then drove to a bush block a few k’s down the road and dumped. I was witness to all this, and with a T-shirt wrapped around my mouth and nose, I went up to his place and told him what I thought. That was when he was about to dump his first load. He told me to get fucked, so I followed him in my car, suspecting that an illegal demolition would be followed by illegal disposal. Not hard to predict with Seve—it was the way he’d always done things, and anyone who opposed him got a thumping or a bullet in their water-tank. Even the cops and rangers were scared of him and his old biker mates, who every now and again took a run up from the city for a keg and sheep-on-a-spit rage. Seve even put on a live rock band sometimes, bikies and locals sitting together on hay bales arranged around the band, with electrics powered by a portable generator giving static and sibilance to the performance. At such times all wildlife bolted to my place, or further afield.
The remorseless beep beep beep as the loader reversed before charging straight into the mess of the fallen house. You could hear it across the valley. I waited for the asbestos removal people to arrive but they didn’t—they weren’t invited—this was a one-man show that followed its own anti-rules. The shire wouldn’t take it on unless someone who had got under their skin in the past tried to do something outside guideless—these things were sorted in the sports bar. An eye for an eye. And every good turn deserves a favour. No room or time to listen to whingers and moaners. Just get on with it and people will forget. Bugger the fibres.
Another load of broken asbestos sheeting scrunched into the tip truck. No masks, just a loud stereo and beep beep beep. The grinding machinery, nerves on edge, through every muscle, rattling bones and making teeth chatter. Rrrr-r … Rrrr-r … crunch … beep beep beep. How can anyone sit there in a smudged glass box watching stuff crumple and snap and tear and shatter, and then back up and do it over again. As if there are no costs, as if there are no consequences. Dividends. But what sort of dividends? Compounding interest. Beep beep fucking beep. I have to repeat it just to remain stable, to block the sound out with the words that represent those sounds. Separate myself by degrees of illusion.
So I go into the sports bar and Seve and the shire president are having a beer in their crisp open-collar shirts, watching the Friday night footy on a television over the bar. They are both mauling peanuts out of an old ashtray—no smoking in pubs now. But both of them stink more of cigarettes than beer, and I know they’ll break off at quarter time to nip out into the beer garden for a smoke. Seve has two rollies behind his ear ready to go—I suspect they might have a little hydro dope in there as well. Everyone knows Seve grows hydro in his shed but no-one rips him off because they know what will happen, that he will find them. The kookaburras are on his side—they’re the only creatures that are. Now he and his girlfriend are sunning themselves under the grow lights while his redecoration project is going through its workout. I stand behind them and say, Seve, it’s bloody criminal what you’re doing. First wrecking that house without a care for your safety or anyone else around the area, and second for dumping your waste in the bush. Not just any waste, mate, but bloody broken and crushed and powdered asbestos. It’s a jailing offence.
In hindsight, it’d taken me all the courage I had. I expected a fist in the guts—I was standing and Seve was sitting. But all Seve did, through a mush of peanuts and beer, was say to the president, They reckon this pub is haunted. Think I just heard the ghost of a loser who must have drowned in his own piss. The president laughed, lifted one bum cheek, and let out a cracker of a fart. The barman, who was leaning at an awkward angle back over the bar counter the better to watch the television, gave a brief burst of laughter, then stopped as abruptly. I walked out. I could hear that someone kicked a goal and the president cheered and Seve yelled, Fuck off—that grazed the fucking post!
Other than attending school, the kids have been inside for days. And even then I’ve driven them in rather than let them walk up the hill to where the bus stops. The air is full of fibres. We are under siege. I have rung authorities everywhere and they’ve said they’ll get onto it. Seve has finished knocking down the old house and scooping the shit up and is now messing in a bed of particles, sorting the foundations. Where the old house was, he is excavating and installing sub-drains and yellow sand compacting and preparing to lay the new concrete pad. He is building a monument to himself. This is to be his legacy to the valley, the region. His girlfriend (I have no idea of her name), stands outside the shed with hands on hips watching him.
I worry about the shit dumped in the bush. I really worry. The animals … roos, echidnas … they could get asbestosis. I worry about children playing in the bush, walking to and from the bus, way out here, isolated, no-one noticing if they get a cloud of fibres, mess around in the rubble. I will broach the subject with him again. I am not just being a picky dickhead. It’s not because of my own health, honestly, it’s not. I care about Seve’s health as well. And his girlfriend’s. And the president’s. That doesn’t make me noble or a hero, I can hear them now … it just eats at me, bothers me. You can’t stay silent when something is so strong, so visceral, can you? The Australian Taxation Office says of capital gains tax: ‘A capital gain or capital loss on an asset is the difference between what it cost you and what you receive when you dispose of it.’ Seve picked up that place for a song, he’s always bragging about it, and he will claim a bundle for the demolition. It’s all topsy-turvy—he’s profited from my misery, from putting fibres in the air. He enjoys the knowledge. He knows.
I’ll offer him a bottle of Jacks. No, two bottles of Jacks. Even three. Meet him halfway. Bribe him. Pander to his better side—he has a girlfriend, she must care for him. I’ll speak to her. Fuck off, ya poofter, she says when I see her in in town. I know you two haven’t been together long, I say, but I go way back with Seve, known him for years—used to do his tax. But no, just a craning-back as if to spit, hair lassoing in the wind, and a Fuck off, ya poofter, didn’t ya hear the first time? A carton of bottles of Jacks, Seve. Just clean it up. And then he sizes me up and laughs a sickly sort of death laugh: Fuck off, mate, not going near that—it’s asbestos, don’t ya know! Need to get a specialist in there to clean that shit up. Bastard who dumped it there should be shot. Then he cacked himself laughing and as suddenly—it’s always abrupt—pulled a steel-straight face and said, If you don’t fuck off my land, I’ll shoot you, ya liddle retard.
Maybe I should have put up the white flag there and then. Cut my losses and put our place on the market and moved out, away from the fibres, from Seve, the president. But my wife would have had none of that. She’s part of my ghosting as well.
When I was a kid I was surrounded by asbestos. My bedroom was asbestos, and I slept pressed against a rough, dimpled grey wall. A sheet of bitter cold and extreme heat—no matter which, I pressed my face against it. I didn’t like the sensation, but was compelled. The fence between us and our neighbours on both sides was asbestos covered in a green growth. It had set root though it probably had no roots. It had connected with the fibres of the asbestos, which look as if they follow the same lines but when viewed through a magnifying glass are crazed and shooting off in all directions. Every now and again sheets of asbestos appeared in the deepest part of the back yard, stacked like football cards. On one occasion my brother and I drew one off the pack and smashed it to pieces with a hammer and then, covered in the disintegration, panicked and buried the bits in sand. We never got into trouble for that, dusting ourselves off before going in for tea. I have a relative who died of mesothelioma. A slow and terrible death. I grew up in a world of fibres and their consequences. I tell you this to ensure you understand my sanity, my caution, my caring. Even for Seve himself.
But Seve is of a ‘breed’ (prime bull) of Aussie men who will always call the likes of me Ghost or Poof or Jerk or Cunt, if they bother speaking at all. I know I will do the leaving, the moving, going elsewhere. And I know it won’t be selling and upping sticks, it’ll just be me leaving the place to my wife—and I admit it’s 50 per cent hers. She has as much right, and she’d be happier there without me. There, I’ve said it crystal clear. But it’s all I’ve ever wanted, this place in the bush. I’d be leaving the songbirds to the knife-beaks of kookaburras, the kangaroos to the shooters. It’s always that way. And between us, and again I am not bragging, some of us will always pay more tax than others on the same income, even when we know the tricks of paying less.
And Seve will stay for maybe a year or two after he finishes his new place in its silent, invisible—if you don’t know how to hear and see—aura of fibres, then sell up and move on to the next opportunity or the next downfall. Whatever it is, he won’t think any further of me unless I turn up as a witness against him in a court case. If I have the balls to see it all the way through. He’s betting I haven’t. And even with the photographs I’ve taken, authorities will cite a lack of evidence to prosecute or dish out a $2000 fine, which will have made it worth it. The rubble will stay in the bush for years and maybe for good. Sounds like I am vengeful, as if I want a draconian legal system, punishment. But it’s not that. It’s the air, the air we breathe and that all of us, ghostly or chunky and material, move through.
I mean, we’re not that different. I like the footy, a beer, and will listen to Keith Urban if not quiet as loudly as Seve does in his truck. I don’t mind looking at a pretty woman … Seve is renowned for going on and on about the town’s pretty women. He fancies himself. He succeeds on occasion. He gets girlfriends. Always new girlfriends. And then they vanish. We’re not that different, but now there’s only room for one of us: him or me. I will go now …
Or I can choose to lay me down—be laid down and covered and not found until long after. A cold case. Be here for eternity—there’d be no getting rid of me and my permanence would be by Seve’s own hand, with the acquiescence of the president and his folk. Like the kookaburra, I’d be here to the end. My children thinking I’ve deserted them, my wife … one of the town’s pretty women, a woman who has—strayed from me.
I said to her, my wife, once: Seve shoots cats wild or domestic if they stray onto his property. Why would any cat want to hang around that revolting brick-clad place of his? It’s an insult to the eye, to the atmosphere of the district.
Who do you think you are? she demanded. He’s a working man and is proud of his house. She defended him tooth and nail. Whoo! I said. So-rr-eee!
A working man? So am I, running my small business from home. I work and work and don’t leave my rubbish lying around.
What did she say to him about me? What rubbish did she go and fill his head with? The empty Seve head. Did I get under her skin, into her lungs to nestle among the residues of teenage smoking, second-hand smoke of her friends, the air of betrayal? After all, she was with me because I have … taste. I listen to my music at a reasonable volume, I know the difference between right and wrong, I don’t want anyone to suffer from asbestosis.Did she say to him, alongside the three-bar radiator, drinking wine from the cask and listening to Slim Dusty, You’re a glorious fuck, Seve, but you live in a slum? It’s in her, you know. As the shire president and the bank manager and … pure class, indoors. My wife, thinking I’ve finally moved on—freed her from me. She could have left anytime. But then there are the kids. She’ll look after them enough. Truth be told, we’ve probably both depreciated. Seve will always think of himself as top shelf, as being blue-chip stock. It’s unbecoming of me to point out the ironies—I think you’ve already got it. No point gilding the lily. Like that mining entrepreneur who sprinkled asbestos on his Weeties to show how harmless it is. To prove to us. To let all the realities vanish into the shade of this one quotidian public gesture. I wonder what Keith Urban said to Nicole Kidman when she first broached her Scientologist past? Maybe she never brought it up. And us—me and my family—living out here, isolated. Red rag to a bull. Not a ghost of a chance.
My wife just won’t believe … she wouldn’t believe … that I am no more ‘wimpy’ than him. He just wimps around when no-one’s looking. I can tell by the way his girlfriend stands out the front of the shed, glaring at him. He puts on his tough face. Even at those do-or-die moments, he needs to see a reflection of his power in someone else’s eyes. He’s a vampire. His wimpiness is hidden in his coffin, sleeping on his dirt and fibres when his lovers and mates have long gone, have been pushed aside. But this is no study of him. He’s not worth it.
It was so petty—my wife telling him, I’m sure she did, I can sense the whispers still hanging around, impaled and transfixed by the fibres, Did you know he has a rellie who died of asbestos, the stuff your house is made of … he’s fucking paranoid about the stuff!
Ha! Seve would have revelled. Ha! And then he would have ranted to her, probably making her go down on him while the new girlfriend was performing some other rite on his hairy, filthy body, It was your old man’s bloody fault I got audited! He would have said this again and again, even early on when he was poking her by the light of the television, a cop show flickering across their eyes, teeth, nails … saliva.
I’d like to think she’d have replied, No, he’s a good accountant, whatever else I think of him I’ve gotta give him that. Audit is just chance, as he says—as Ghost says (and they laugh a churning juicy guttural laugh from deep inside the septic tank), An audit is just fate …
Or I can choose to be laid down and covered by earth and night, fibres of my existence working their way to the surface, aestivating. There, in the gully, by the rubble of the house that wasn’t quite up to scratch. If you scratch old asbestos walls and fences you should have them properly sealed. There are businesses dedicated to sealing and removing, spreading the love around. Relocating. James Hardie went offshore. There are laws, ways of enforcing them. But out here the threads are thin if fibrous. The kookaburras are laughing and my name is Ghost, and I am made of a tough, fibrous, dangerous and immutable material.