Joseph, who earned his Journalism MA in New York, drives with one hand on the wheel, the other trailing out the window like a dog’s head catching the breeze. Streetlights strobe across his face as we cruise away from the bones’ erstwhile graveyard, now a construction site. I envy his resurrectionist calm, smelling of cheap cologne and unassailable confidence. Sam, a recent graduate with a BA in Communications shares the back seat with the rustling bag, leaning hard against the door but grinning with fixed concentration. My hands ache from the digging, blisters pushing up out of the skin, some burst already from the rough wooden haft. Joseph’s hands aren’t even that dirty. Maybe he does this all the time.
“The thing is, right, it’s the popular novel that’s in real trouble,” says Joseph, breaking the silence. “When was the last time you saw someone reading a book?”
Jesus. He even talks like we don’t have the clinching evidence in a fifteen-year-old missing persons case playing a clattering game of corners in the back every time he makes a turn.
“Yesterday,” I tell him. “I saw a girl on the train reading House of Leaves.”
He snorts. “I said popular novels. The market for challenging, high-brow lit-fic remains the same pool of self-congratulatory academics and purple-haired undergrads seeking approval from strangers on public transport.”
He makes another turn, a careful kilometre below the limit, and merges onto the highway, heading for Tweed. Best to get the bones across the border, he said. Conventional wisdom. In my capacity as a criminal, I write press releases for an organization of ardent motorcycle enthusiasts. I copy-edit official communications and internal newsletters, and liaise with others like myself. Sam runs the group’s website and online store. Joseph brought us in. There are certainly plenty of us, now. While Joseph wasn’t the first graduate to look out at a groaning job market and withering traditional media, and despair of ever finding work in his field, he was the most successful at integrating himself into the chaotic structure of dedicated criminal enterprise. There are thousands of us, hyper-educated with no marketable skills, no trade, no experience. Bewildered, we stumble out of University and squint against the harsh light of student debt, a housing crisis and no work, never any work. Then, if we’re lucky, we meet someone like Joseph.
There are few enough cars on the road. Red lights like robot eyes in the hazy darkness ahead, outside the lancing beams of the Hyundai’s headlamps. White flashes in the rear-view as others weave through the midnight lanes.
“We’re losing the need for them,” says Joseph, as if there’d been no break in conversation. “We don’t have railway novels or airport reads. We have bus tweets and laundromat statuses.”
I can feel a snide comment about newspapers bubbling up my oesophagus but I choke it down. Instead, I say, “We’re not losing the need for stories, though. We’re intimately connected to these human stories, and able to tell our own at the same time.” I glance over my shoulder at Sam. I can’t help it.
“I love social media,” he says, leaning forward between us and resting his arms on either seat, dirty hands brushing our shoulders. “I’ve been on tinder my whole life.”
“That so,” says Joseph, who never even had a MySpace account. “What have you learned from that?”
Sam pauses for a moment, then says, “Girls frig in public, man.” He takes a breath in and I lean away. He’s got a mouth on him, and I brace myself for the speech. The words come tumbling, a cascade. You can’t have a conversation with Sam, you attend his monologues.
“I’ve heard so many late-night confessions that I’m starting to think there isn’t a girl alive who hasn’t masturbated in the toilets at work. That offices and shopping malls and clinics across the world are all lined with rows of women diddling away in cubicles. One of those little facts that just accretes with experience.” He leans back in the seat, lacing his fingers behind his head. “I’ve never jerked it in a toilet. I’ve heard that some guys do – not from guys, we don’t talk about that shit – but it strikes me that wanking in public would require more planning. At the very least, more caution. Say you step away from your desk to blow off a little steam, duck into the toilet and pound away. You get lost in the moment, your eyes roll back and then suddenly you’re blasting yourself right in the pocket protector. You are fucked, sonny Jim. Fucked.”
“Fucked,” murmurs Joseph, and takes a turn off the highway a little harder than he needs to. The bag slides into Sam and he yelps, voice cracking like a teenager’s.
Organized crime, whatever your flavour of villain, is quick to smell opportunity. Now near enough every gang, triad, family, club has a legal team of post-grads who never got to be more than interns, narcotic think-tanks staffed with unemployed researchers and their own in-house PR firms, like me and Joseph. They don’t make us fight anyone, not yet anyway, but they like to keep us dirty, keep us deep enough in that we have to keep their secrets so they keep ours. Thus, the bones, a fifteen-year cold case about to be heated right back up by a housing development. Crisis averted.
“Facebook. These intimate human stories you’re talking about. They’re just that, fictional, or at least creative interpretations of the lives of your friends, or shit, people you hardly know at all.”
Sets me on edge the way Joseph will jump back onto a train of thought after the conversation has gone cold.
“These filtered narratives you engage with, and generate yourself, they’re just discontinuous autobiographies, and inaccurate ones at that. You’ve democratised fiction, made the novel into a reality TV show.” He continues along this line as we peel off the road and along a dirt track through lightless trees, heading deep enough into the bush that he’s satisfied we won’t be observed.
Joseph carries the torch, I carry the bag of bones over my shoulder like a nightmare Santa Claus and Sam huffs along behind, the shovels tucked up under his arms like ski poles. This is how it always is. Young folks with no prospects and a desire for more than the ceaseless treadmill of effort and exhaustion until an early grave. Men and women ready to take risks, make sacrifices to carve out a little place in the world for ourselves.
Sam and I dig the grave and he complains ceaselessly that this is very deep for a bunch of old bones. Joseph leans against a tree and keeps the torch on us so we don’t hack each other’s feet off while we dig. Sam’s problem is that he hasn’t integrated well into the new structure. He’s still operating on the basis that this is all a lot of fun, that it’s safe, it’s not for keeps. He likes to talk, to impress people in bars with his connections and his gangster life. He’s not done it yet, hasn’t brought any real heat or said more than he really should, but Joseph and his employers know the type. Joseph tosses me the bag and I scatter the bones on the damp earth floor of the grave.
“Boost me out,” I tell Sam. He cups his hands and I step in, pushing up on the side of the grave and scrambling out. He calls after me to pull him up but Joseph shoots him in the back of the neck from the other side of the grave. He slaps his hand there like he was trying to kill a mosquito and sways around to look up at Joseph, who shoots him again in the head. He stumbles, falls on his ass in the bone-strewn mud. Joseph raises the pistol but Sam gradually lies back against the earth wall, eyes closing, his rapid breath slowing and stopping.
We bury the bodies, cold case and hot. They don’t ask us to fight, no. But they do like to keep us dirty.
“Shit, man,” says Joseph. “When was the last time you even read a paperback?”
Benjamin Brown is a Gold Coast-based writer and sometime poet. He is genre agnostic, enjoying nearly everything in equal measure. He has performed his work at the Melbourne Emerging Writers Festival, and worked at the Ubud Readers & Writers Festival in Bali. He is currently completing the Honours portion of his Creative Writing and Literature Degree at Griffith University.
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Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Creative Works Editor: Anthony Lawrence