Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Days Off

This story recently appeared in Issue 85 of Shift Miner Magazine. I hope you get something out of it. Please, leave a comment.

Hal loved his family.  He carried a photo of them with him, all the time.  It was because he loved them that he agreed to his wife Jody's pleas to move them all to Mackay.  Emerald had been a great place to live, as far as Hal was concerned. He'd made some great mates there.  But Jody's friends and family were in Mackay, and she really wanted the kids to go to school there.

"Besides," said Jody, "with twelve hour shifts you're not really at home when you're working.  You could just drive out from Mackay, work your tour, and then come home after your last shift."

It made a lot of sense.  He really only did sleep and eat at home during his tour.  Lots of others did the drive-in drive-out thing.  Anyway, he liked the coast.  So, they moved.

Hal found his tours to be more lonely then he'd thought he would.  It was that hour or so when he got to the apartment and wound down before falling asleep.  He missed the quick catch-ups with Jody, and looking in on the kids in their beds.  He still fell asleep soon enough, and when Hal fell asleep, he was dead to the world.  He missed them all when he woke up, too.  It was like a dull ache; a longing to be somewhere else.  It didn't really make much sense.  When they were all in the same house he'd only ever got up and dressed in the dark anyway.  Still, he'd known that they were there, at home.

On day-shifts, the drive out to the mine in the pre-dawn darkness always helped Hal to clear his head.  It was his favourite time of the day.  Sometimes he'd think about the work ahead, preparing himself for the day.  Sometimes he'd think about his family.  Sometimes, fishing.

The end of each tour ended with two or three night shifts, depending on where he was in the roster.  He had a kind of feeling of expectation, driving out to the mine in the evenings for his night shifts.  It was almost time for his days off; almost time to go back home.

 It wasn't the night shifts themselves that Hal liked.  In fact, Hal hated working nights.  What he liked was knowing that he would soon be going home to his family.  What he didn't like was the effort it took to stay awake.  He loathed that time from about three to four in the morning, when his body craved a warm bed; but instead he was two hundred and fifty metres underground, putting up roof-bolts or driving a shuttle-car.

For Hal, the next hardest part of night shift was the drive home.  The drives back to Emerald wasn't too bad.  While some blokes felt better the more night shifts they did in a row, it only seemed to get worse for Hal.  By the last shift of his tour, he seemed to be runing on adrenaline and willpower.

It was willpower that made Hal drive straight home to Mackay after his last shift.  He didn't want to have another daytime sleep by himself in his Emerald apartment.  He just wanted to get home.  The mine was half an hour in the right direction anyway.  As the great philosopher Meatloaf once said, "Like a bat out of hell, I'll be gone when the morning comes."

Hal worked out ways to stay awake and stay on the road on that long, tired trip home.  He'd turn the radio on or played a CD, loud.  He'd turn the air-conditioner onto freezing, or sometimes open a window.  He would stop at the servo outside Moranbah, scratching his scalp and rubbing his face.  He'd get an iced coffee from the fridge packed full of them, and then hit the road again.  Next stop: Nebo.  If he found himself drifting off, he'd pull over for a minute and run around the car.  Hal had it worked out.

After six months, the car pretty much drove itself home.  Hal cut out the Nebo stop, and sometimes Moranbah too.  He got better at pushing himself through those sleepy moments.  He'd focus.  He'd talk to himself.  He'd think about Jody and the kids.  He'd keep going, going, going.  Home.

An elderly couple towing their caravan with an old Landcruiser were the first on the scene where Hal's ute had been split in half by a huge gum tree about twenty metres from the road.  The ambulance officers weren't able to revive him.  There were no skid marks, and tests showed his brakes were working fine.

After six years, his family still miss him very much.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Early Starts

Following is a piece of flash fiction called Early Starts, recently published in Issue 84 of Shift Miner Magazine. The idea is based on two eerily similar stories I've heard from fellow mine workers. Anyone who has to get to work for early starts in the morning should be able to relate to this.

Harry woke to the sound of a bump and a scream, and sat straight up in bed. In a moment he was staggering down the hall to his daughter's room. He wondered how his wife Judy had slept through it; but then, it had been a rough night for both of them. He found their daughter lying on the ground beside her bed, crying, still half asleep. He picked her up, rubbed her back and made hushing sounds. After a minute it started to work, and before too long he had her tucked back into bed.

Harry wandered back down the hall and went to the toilet. He was about to go back to bed when he decided that it wasn't worth it. He'd have to be up again soon to go to work anyway. The only thing worse than waking up this early was just getting back to sleep and doing it all over again. If there was a single thing that Harry hated about working in the mining industry, it was the early starts. He liked small towns; he preferred them to cities, and enjoyed the fact that despite this he got paid a remote area living allowance. He liked the work, and he liked the people. At least, he didn't dislike the people any more than those in other industries. But Harry was not a morning person. He would set his alarm for the latest possible time he could, without being late for the shift bus. He had his lunch packed the night before; Judy did that for him, mostly. He would lay his clothes, wallet, keys and phone in the bathroom the night before. Harry did his mornings sleepwalking in remote control.

He would usually just throw his clothes on in the dark and leave, but with a bit of extra time today, he treated himself to a shower. The hot water felt good on his neck and back, and he felt his mind clearing as he prepared to face the day. He still ranted in his mind about the ridiculously early start time. He did this almost every day, slowly building up enough anger to get himself moving. Why does the shift have to start at six? he asked himself. Why not eight? Once he got over that, he thought about what he might do with the rest of this extra time. He ruled TV out as a waste. I hardly ever read he thought, as he towelled himself down. I'll start one of those novels I bought, getting dusty on the shelf.

With years of practice he slipped into his clothes, and loaded up his pockets. He turned off the bathroom light and began to sneak down the hall.

Judy appeared in the doorway of their bedroom, scaring him silly. He said one of those words he'd promised to stop saying now that he was a father.

"What on earth are you doing?" said Judy. She said the words slowly, with little pauses between them. It was like she was talking to a child, and he hated it.

Harry kept up the slow talking thing and said, "I'm going to work."

"Harry," said Judy, "It's one o'clock in the morning."

He paused. "Oh," he said. "Well, I thought I might sit down and read one of my novels first."