I watch the two boys dismember the marquee. Their bodies look stretched and wrong in the dark. Wrapped in layers to keep out the chill, they move awkwardly, reflective vests shimmering in the grey light – fish in a muddy river. I’ve given them responsibility for the whole row. Twenty tents. Eighty weights. Against the brightness of the floodlights and the high beams of the trucks, they drift into the dark spaces – pushed on by adrenaline, their shadows shift against the backdrop of the fairground. One of the boys, the taller one, talks loudly about a girl he’s rooting. The shorter one manoeuvres around him, unclipping extendable posts, tearing down plastic walls. He dismantles the structure with speed, he’s a worker that one.
Leaning against the wall of the stage, I watch them. I’m close enough to hear the murmur of their voices, it’s always the same shit: girls, booze and sport. They’re green these two, earning their first calluses of the season. My hands shake as I light a ciggie. It’s been a fucked up 48 hours. If only they knew. This is number nineteen – I’ve had six coffees and fuck all food. You’ve always got to be hard on them for their first few jobs. When we pulled up in the truck I gave them a talking to, ‘it’s your third shift — you’ve gotta start pulling your weight.’
I should have just stuck with the speed.
The stage rigging is cold on my back. I crush the butt into a crevice already packed with stubs and watch the two young blokes, but my mind’s not on the job. There’s something about working through the night that fucks with you, it brings the devils out. I can’t help but feel like I’m just another smudge in the darkness. Maybe tonight I rocked up for my shift and got my skull smashed in by a falling tent pole. Wouldn’t that be a waste? No kids to worry about when you’re dead. No one to pay for. An eternity stuck in yesterday’s stubble and my dirty work clothes.
In daylight, it’s easy to forget how many men it takes. The white tents, perfectly spaced apart. Each of them weighted down in case the wind picks up and ruins everyone’s day. That’s labour right there. From the lockers that you can hire for an hour’s wage so you don’t lose your car keys, the bright lights, the bars, the rides and the stages. Someone sets that shit up so the punters can enjoy it. Working through the night, sweating, swearing and disappearing when the sun rises. It’s a fairground alright – the happiest place on earth. When the sun rises over Flemington it bleaches away the guilt and the people stream in, stoked to be here. In summer it’s all blue skies and booze-soaked Festival days. Just another space to see your favourite band, munch a few pills and put your hand up someone’s skirt.
I wonder if Sam will be here this summer, maybe at one of the concerts. My only daughter and she can’t be bothered to pick up the phone when I call. At least her boyfriend is a decent guy, at sixteen she’s already got more sense than her mother. Her mother. I don’t doubt she’s been in her ear. I tell myself she’ll call me when she’s ready, but she’s my kid – that might take years. She’s mad about the dog. She brought home a bloody French bulldog without telling me. It was a statement of course. It always is with Sam. The dog was cute as hell and dumb as dog-shit. Maisey hated her. Maisey’s my girl. She’s has been with me longer than Sam’s been alive. I say it all the time, that dog has saved my life more times than I can count. I was angry all right. What kind of idiot buys a puppy when there’s a territorial Doberman in the house? Sam was furious, slammed the door so hard the window smashed. Told me she hated me. That she’d never forgive me. That it proves I love Maisey more than anyone else. I’d never tell her, but it cuts me up. She used to ride on my shoulders. My little girl. It didn’t change the fact that we can’t afford another dog. She’s her mother through and through, once she get’s her mind on something she never lets it go. Jesus Christ. But the temper? She gets that from me. I told her to suck it up and it’s true, I don’t regret taking the bulldog back. Maisey would have killed the stupid little thing.
I don’t like the idea of Sam coming to the races, it’s a bad crowd. It doesn’t matter how much money they have, they’re all the same. Women knock back glasses of sparkling, heels puncturing the grass as they lurch from one tent to the next. They wear bright dresses and ludicrous things on their heads. Feathers and lace, I just don’t get it. Give me a good arse in a pair of tight track pants any day. These women, the more they drink, the louder they screech and squawk at each other. A bloody pack of galahs my dad would have said. The men, they’re in suits. Puffed up on coke and cash, walking around like roosters. I hate the idea of one of them with my Sam. I watch them crowing into each other’s faces year after year and I say to the boys, ‘take a good look, these are the fuckwits running our country.’
I’m always arriving as their day at the track ends. They never stay long enough to see the breakdown. The bags of trash piled high against the shitty temporary fencing. The stink of the porta-loos, that’s for us to deal with. The night workers. The shit kickers. Tired old guys with wives that hate them and young guys who need cash jobs. Even the losers only need to remember the win.
The all-nighters are getting to me. The cleaner I get, the worse it is. There’s a metallic smell on the wind that tastes of dried blood and scorched railway tracks. It reminds me of being a kid. Of my old man’s mate, Jim. They’d go finishing down by the Maribyrnong on a Sunday, bringing back nothing but a bottle of scotch. Jim scared the shit out of me – he was a true storyteller, always ragged and crazy looking. It’s been 40 years and it still gives me the willies to hear his voice in my head. ‘Bad things taint the land. Evil taints the land.’
You can’t really feel it when you’re high but sober – there’s a wrongness in the air that coats your tongue. Even the bookies feel it and they worship this place and the money it brings. But they always leave before the sun goes down. It’s not the money that brings the ghosts. It’s the loss. The dirty stinking loss.
In the distance another truck reverses, the sound sets my teeth on edge. I promised. I always promise. I can feel the shakes starting up again. It’s been a few days and I’m not sure I’ll last this time. Man this place gets to me. This fucking place. If I was lucky, I’d ask for something to change but there’s no such thing as luck.
The boys are still there, they’re up to number four. It’s too much for just two of them, I’ve fucked them over and they don’t even know it. I should be out there, but I can’t lift the weights tonight. The pain is in my back like a fist. I wonder if Sam would answer if I called tonight? I could ask her how school’s going or if she’s forgiven me about the bulldog. I wish it was easy, like when she was a kid. I was a hero to her then.
I’ve already tried to explain to the boys why they should be wary of working too many nights here. Finish Uni, get a real job. They think I’m nuts. I never seem to get the words right. Maybe the younger guys don’t feel it like I do. The animal aggression of those pricks in suits bellowing after a flayed horse. The misery the people who come here are running from. It sticks to the soles of their shoes and they walk it in, rubbing it into the grass with their cigarettes and their trash. Doesn’t matter if they’re high as fucking kites dancing to shitty electro, everything they’re running from clings. I watch them through the adrenaline of lifting and tearing a festival apart, there’s something in the way they work that makes me think – it’s come for them too. Running around in a fluoro vest at 3am we all feel it. There’s a chill down here on the racecourse that doesn’t touch the heart of Melbourne.
I can’t get her face out of my head. 25 years of marriage and you’d think I’d get used to the look of disappointment on her face. She’s started speaking to me again in the last week, but it feels wrong like we’re rusted over. We’re trying to remember that we fit together. She won’t tell me what Sam’s been up to, but I trust that she knows. Doesn’t matter how much she hates me, she’s a good mum. Always has been. She didn’t know about the puppy either, the fact that she’s speaking to me means I did the right thing. For a while, I thought that if I stopped working nights, things would go back to how they had been.
The boys are far enough down the line now that they won’t hear me on the phone. The wind makes the white plastic sheeting flap. My mouth is dry again, I grip the side of the stage as the shakes pass. Jim used to say ‘you’re only ever one bad choice away from a dead end’ it’s like he’s standing right beside me tonight. When you feel like you’re at the end of the world, it’s hard to give a shit. Maybe Sam would pick up if she knew. I pull out my phone and scroll to her number. I listen as it rings out and clicks over to message-bank. Her voice is clear and friendly ‘It’s Sam, you know what to do’. I cup the phone in my hand and crouch down, out of the wind. I tell her I’m proud of her. That I’m sorry about the puppy. I’m sorry about a lot of things. The tone sounds and I contemplate calling her back. I was rambling. She’ll probably think I’m on something anyway.
My fingers waver and I scroll to Work (Old Number). I’ve always had my little jokes. Press, press, ring. ‘He-lo’ Katie’s voice is groggy with sleep and I picture her pushing herself upright on the battered couch, rubbing the drool from her left cheek. ‘Hey’. We’ve known each other a long time. My tongue is heavy, we both know why I call on nights like tonight. She doesn’t judge me. Doesn’t even comment on how long it’s been since I last called.
‘One or two?’
It’s not really a question, she knows what I need, we both do.
‘Call me when you’re out the front.’ She hangs up and it’s just me, the shakes and a dial tone. I turn back to the field and watch the trucks driving in the distance, the white peaks of the pagodas are like tombstones sticking out of the grass and overhead there are no stars.