Ash Rehn (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia)
“Thirty years old,” said my mother. “I know that because I bought it for your nappies. I couldn’t get them properly dry in the winter.”
“Thirty-three years.” I corrected.
“That’s right, thirty-three.”
I looked at the thing, this huge white metal box, rusting around the edges. I remembered all those times I needed a shirt to wear to school the next day or when I wanted some fresh jeans before I went out clubbing.
“It still works, you know,” said my mother. “Just not all the time. And since your father won the new one at the club there’s not much sense hanging on to it, is there?”
“No,” I said.
“No,” said my father, “that’s the end of it. Motor’s going. On the way out.”
In this house that had seen so many arguments, so much criticism, we were finally all in agreement.
We didn’t talk much on the drive to the tip. Although I visit my parents regularly, I never know what to say to my father. We can talk about how the car is running, or when the lawn needs to be cut, or the weather. But we have no intimacies, no common philosophies on the world.
“I thought you said you knew the way,” said my father. “You were meant to turn there, that’s why I told you to get into the left lane.”
“Can’t I just turn up ahead here?”
“Well that’s not the short cut.”
“You’re going the long way this way,” he said.
“Sorry about that. Look, it’s starting to rain.”
“Doesn’t matter,” said my father. “It’s all undercover now. All inside a big shed.”
We drove past the old seminary. The tree studded lawns had disappeared and survey pegs marked out levelled earth. A sign indicated construction works for a new private university.
“More changes,” said my father.
When I was a kid, visiting the tip was a family ritual. I’d offer to go along with Dad and help him unload our rubbish because I wanted to scout around for discarded treasure. Occasionally I might be allowed to bring something home. Once I found a birdcage in perfect condition. Another time, an old pram we used to push the dog around.
My parents didn’t like me returning with throwaways, but sometimes conceded when reminded of the portable turntable my uncle had given me for my ninth birthday. He had found the device at his local council rubbish tip, taken it home, and overhauled it to working condition. This act reflected both the family’s allegiance to thrift and my uncle’s skill with his hands. These were qualities to be encouraged in sons.
“It’s not all junk,” I would plead. “What about the record player?”
With time, however, my parents’ forbearance grew thin. They refused to let me return from the tip with any more stuff. My mother hated the hoarding of the broken bits and pieces that were accumulating in the garage. More to the point, they both had an understandable fear of disease.
But our trips to the tip continued. We would go there at least once a month in a kind of family purge. Nothing excited my parents more than the prospect of loading our station wagon to capacity with whatever they could find and taking it away forever. These occasions evoke strong memories: the dunes of garbage; the gulls and scavenging birds; the backing of trailers and cars avoiding the ruts and muddy potholes; the grubby supervisor directing traffic, keeping an eye on anyone who looked like they might be pinching things. Above all the stench of the place: this fetid, rotting odour that would dry out our throats and force us to hold our breath. And then, the relief as we drove out, winding down the windows and exhaling the putrid air.
I had not visited the tip since the transfer station had been built. As we approached I realised that the whole atmosphere had changed. Like shopping, entertainment and other functions catering to modern city dwellers, the dumping of garbage had moved indoors. From the landscaped entrance a driveway took us across a weighbridge and by a sentry box (we now had to pay to part with our garbage) through the gaping entry of a colossal shed. A man wearing a uniform directed us to a marked bay. We parked and got out of the car.
A deep concrete-sided pit extended through the middle of the shed. In this pit, a bulldozer pushed, rolled over and flattened the refuse while a backhoe scooped whatever was left into a deeper abyss. The stench, familiar, was still there but it wasn’t so over-powering. Dad and I both stood for a minute looking into the cavern.
Here, exposed in their worst state, were the remnants of people’s lives. The manifestation of what they no longer needed, or wanted, or even perhaps were ashamed of. I watched with fascination as the machines worked over the waste, crushing and compacting it into less significant mounds, making already broken and damaged objects unrecognisable.
My father turned around and opened the tailgate. He began to pull the clothes dryer from the back of the car. I watched him struggling under the weight. He was once a strong man, stronger than I will ever be. Now he was aged and weak, almost feeble. I remembered how he thrashed me as a kid and I remembered times when I hated him and wished I could beat him back.
I went to help him and took the heavy end. Together we dragged and lifted the dryer out of the car then pushed it over the edge into the pit.
“Well there it goes,” he said. “Thirty-three years.”
“Nothing lasts forever,” I said.
“That’s right,” said my father.
As we drove out I noticed the rain had stopped. Sunlight was parting clouds to reveal a blue sky.
“They’re predicting a fine weekend,” my father said.
“I hope so,” I replied.
Ash grew up in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast. Since the age of 25 he has lived in Sydney and various parts of the UK. He currently resides in Sydney where he works as a counsellor and therapist and is undertaking an MA in Creative Writing. Ash is interested the way individual’s identities are shaped by the stories of their lives. He has won a number of awards for short stories and enjoys exploring social issues through fictional narrative. His writing can be found at: www.ashrehn.com