We Had Stayed Up All Night
“Anyway, we died,”
We sang, and laughed.
We had stayed up all night my friends and I, after finishing work that day; another shift spent landfill-mining that we fitted around school or sport or band practice. In trainers bought to degrade rather than practice we’d headed out early in hooded tops, cowled against the chill of a sky that had been cloudless for days; beautiful at night, chilly in the mornings, baking in the afternoon and blissful in the evenings.
These tops were soon tied around our waists then slung onto trolleys with our cargo: Plastics peeled from beneath the flotsam and jetsam of generations, the grime stuck beneath our fingernails, making the creases in our hands profound.
When I returned home my sister would screw her nose up, raising her owlish glasses a centimetre higher at the smell that enrobed me. A peculiarly putrid scent that had evolved as stubbornly as the plastic had refused decay.
The money I waved at her ‘pee-yew’ face was fresh though, and what other jobs could I do whilst still at school, regular but without routine. We simply need turn up and Gerrard the supervisor would point us toward whichever swell of detritus we would be scavenging that day. We carried the sieves and spades off the barrow we left at the foot of the heap. Our trainers found traction on the foothills of the rubbish and we set off across them, dozy with the morning.
The air was a particularly heavy as it was such a hot day, the smell rising to meet the sun. We’d ignore it, put it out of minds, until bursting,
One of us would shout. T-shirts pinned over mouth and nostrils. If you weren’t careful the smell could catch the back of your throat and you’d gag, that hollow gasp, the click as your throat contracts.
It was still fun.
We’d tried getting work in police line-ups, but it wasn’t regular enough and I’d never get chosen, laughed out by defendant’s solicitors at the disparity between me and their clients,
“You’re just too fucking nice Mike, that’s why you can’t get a girlfriend,”
Martin would say.
My mum, sorting my washing, the jeans and t-shirts I wore for work, band prints washed into lines, said I’d never get a girlfriend working the landfill,
“Smelling like flies in husk.”
‘Then how come Martin’s got one?”
I’d reply and she’d laugh inconclusively, not letting my logic deny her the pleasure of teasing me.
Bas too had had girlfriends, though they weren’t as keen on him as Catherine was on Martin, she’d meet us outside the ‘fill. Kiss him, press her blonde bob into his chest, the crown of her head finding comfort in his armpit. Her ardour embarrassed me. She had soft-looking lips and a laugh that surprised me with the fullness of its sound, as whole and hearty as an apple. Bas had kissed her before she’d started seeing Martin but it was nothing serious. Drunk, weed-smoking kissing of inconsequence and inebriation. Now though it was impossible to think of her as anything but Martin’s.
I longed for an inconsequential kiss but couldn’t conceive of a gesture without consequence.
We liked the work because it provided us with things, merchandise we’d called it. I found things to make art with or about, Bas found bits for bikes. Martin found tokens, artefacts, treasure, and stuff to muck around with.
He’d call as a hubcap was frisbeed toward us, skimming along the shoals of rubbish, kicking up stink and sending creatures scampering. As the weather warmed up we’d share our workplace with more and more wildlife, seagulls, foxes, insects. Rats we’d feel rather than see, rippling beneath us.
When we’d complain about the heat or the smell, one of us would remark we were lucky. That in bigger cities people queued to do work like this.
It was so hot my sweat smelt like off-milk that day.
“The three bin men of the apocalypse,” my dad called us, “harbour, pestilence and fart.”
It was so hot some of the metal would burn when we’d grab it, onto the fingerprint of my fingertip a grid pattern was seared so that as it healed it looked like the weave of a basket unpicked.
Once when setting aside some billboards that I’d take to school to paint on, I’d met a man who said he was an artist there, collecting for his own work, he’d talked to me for a long time of the tradition of working with waste, of Garbology. He’d talked in short sentences and non sequiturs of work scavenged by artists from the street. He’d travelled, he said, and told me of producing this work on residencies,
“I know that we started in spring,” he said, “because it was warm enough to wheel an amplifier through the streets of New York.”
He talked about using the particular waste of particular places to produce portraits of countries. We are what we refuse, we are our refuse.
In the evening we threw frisbee and drank beer, lit garden flares in Bas’s garden. He showed us the bike he was building, he’d found all the bits in the landfill, walking into the garage he took a cap from a hook and pulled it onto his head in one motion. The hat, once red, was the whitest pink, oil and paint stained,
“It was my Grandad’s,” he had told us,
We looked at a frame in the middle of the garage, freshly sprayed black and shadowed by black lines on the cement floor.
He was building one for me. But I was particular and waiting for him to find just the right parts.
Martin talked about the way Catherine tasted. That he just fucking loved it. Bas grinned knowingly, appreciating the candour and veracity of our friend. They talked about girls they’d had, I talked about girls I liked. I didn’t have these stories, it was a way of thinking that I did not yet feel part of, a topology I had not yet learnt. At a lull I changed the subject, pointed to the dawn and told them how I’d read my favourite line in a book from the beginning of the twentieth century,
“strange how a shudder always passes through the air just before sunrise.