Read Part 2 Here
The keys tap beneath my fingers with a constant rhythm. Data appears in the spreadsheet. I don’t have to think while I’m doing it, I just let my fingers walk across the keyboard and enter the figures.
Downstairs I can hear the roar of machinery clanging through the factory, metal beating on metal. The joints clicking. The conveyer belt humming. It all works together, building, each sound coming into being at exactly the right moment.
I stop and look down from the computer.
My eyes sting as I blink away the brightness of the screen and the numbers blinking from their columns.
‘Lunch time?’ asks Sharon.
‘Guess so,’ I reply.
I meet Owen outside for lunch. He sits on a milk crate as we eat our 2-minute noodles from Styrofoam cups, the Mee goreng flavouring floating on top in an oily film.
‘This is living, ain’t it?’ I say to break the silence.
‘Nah,’ he replies. He pauses for a long time before adding, ‘It’s just a slow way to die.’
I laugh, but he doesn’t.
His eyes look down, through the ground into some unseen place. His expression reminds me of a ghost.
It’s like he’s already gone.
He doesn’t smile, and barely talks. The corners of his mouth don’t move from their downturned position. They haven’t in weeks. Everywhere he looks, his eyes look at some point beyond the object, never quite focusing on what’s in front of him.
We share a couple of cigarettes before he wheels me back inside into the elevator. Back in the office upstairs, slumped in my wheelchair in front of the computer screen, I can see Owen through the windows that look down into the factory. He moves mechanically as he works.
On constant autopilot.
He drives the forklift from one side of the room to the other over and over, moving pellets, stacking crates. Only to do the same exact thing tomorrow.
It reminds me of a story I heard years ago.
Not a true story or anything, but still. It was about a man who had angered the gods and was cursed to roll a heavy boulder to the top of a hill every day, knowing it would roll straight back down to the bottom as soon as he reached the pinnacle.
Was he on autopilot too?
Rain patters on the windscreen in a swift 2/4 time signature. The windscreen wipers slide over the glass. Once. Twice. Two beeps from the car behind us as the traffic light turns green. Twice the engine stalls before he gets his ute moving through the intersection, down the road and onto the freeway.
I turn on the cd player and music fills the car. It’s the Hilltop Hoods again, their words running through my brain with them.
I see the ground rushing at us
And when we hit the ground will we be running or crushed?
But that’s life, courage gotta summon it up
And no matter if we still matter, sun will come up
I can feel each word as sharp as a knife. It’s beautiful. I’ve never read poetry, but I think this is what it might be like. I light a cigarette, pass it to him and light one for myself. Smoke seeps out the crack in the window, immediately washed away by the rain.
‘Rachel called this morning,’ I say.
‘You mean Nurse Ratched?’ his brow furrows, ‘Is everything alright?’
‘Yeah. It wasn’t a medical thing. She invited me out for a drink,’ I grin.
A ghost of a smile crosses Owen’s face. ‘When?’
‘Well, don’t forget to bring protection,’ the corners of his mouth lift a little. ‘Safety is everyone’s responsibility.’
‘Shut the hell up.’
The rain fades and the glistening road starts to steam under the sun. He turns off the road into a gravelly car park and we finish our cigarettes before he unloads my wheelchair.
He stands on the ledge of the bridge, looking down at the jagged rocks and foaming surf below. Each wave crashes against the rocks, like a heaving sigh.
His breath comes in sharp and fast.
His hands are clenched.
I sit there, watching in terror, my heart hammering in my chest as he teeters on the edge, the fractured sky racing around him. He just stands there for a long time.
And then he drops away from view.
For a moment I stare at the empty space that he had occupied only a moment earlier. And then the cord suddenly recoils, pulling him back up so that he soars through the air in an upwards freefall. There’s a huge grin on his face as he hovers for a split second and falls again.
His girlfriend watches beside me, the corner of her mouth lifted in a smirk.
‘Want me to wheel you closer?’ she asks.
‘Nah, I’m good.’
Watching him, I suddenly feel like it’s me. I race downwards, surrounded by the rhythmic sound of the crashing waves and the air which is very much alive around me, and I feel free.
I think we both do.
I imagine how I’d look, leaping from the bridge and diving down instead of sitting here in my wheelchair, thin as a rake with muscles slowly rotting away. And even though I know I’ll never be able to do it, for now it’s enough just to see him grin in defiance at the world as he falls towards it.
Her dark eyes follow him and I can’t tell what she’s thinking.
But suddenly she smiles.
So do I.
A steady beat rises from the ashes and fills my ears as I watch from the bridge. It’s the sound of my own heartbeat, strong and steady, and I wonder how I had gone so long without hearing it.