Prose

Census Material

19 July 2016

Listen to Linus read “Census Material”.

The sweet smell of burnt rubber and stale coffee fades while body odour breaks over my face. It comes with a puff of red smog, similar to the sun’s naked orange floodlight. I force my shovel into a wedge between the body and the tram, and she unsticks. Mid-40s, bald, poor, perhaps homeless – my first impression. The burnt rubber and stale coffee both ease back in. The smell sort of reminds me of a leg of ham I once bought for Christmas but left out overnight by mistake. It stunk out the whole house, not that there’s much house to stink out. I cooked and ate it anyway, though this was probably a mistake on my part. I didn’t throw up or anything, but the awful cramps took weeks to subside. I always feel cramps when I smell that burnt-rubber-Christmas-ham smell. That familiar smell. That street smell.

“Ya mind giving it a quick wipe?” the tram driver says to me. “Just with ya sleeve – then I’ll be out of ya hair.”

I wipe the windshield with my wiper and finish the job with my sleeve. Now my sleeve will smell all day, which annoys me, but at least the company offers free laundromat coupons for our uniform.

I roll the body into a bag and carry it to my car. The tram is gone before I dump the body inside and turn around. That doesn’t bother me. I don’t usually get thanked for my work.

I load myself into the front seat of my warm car and retrieve a pen from my shirt pocket, before reaching into the glove compartment for a set of two forms and a Wellbeing Quiz. I start to fill them out. I fill out a lot of forms in my vocation. I mean a lot of forms. They always have these weird questions, like What brand of shoes was the deceased wearing? or Could you make out the dominating colour of the deceased’s outfit? If so, please place a tick beside the most similar shade below.

I don’t know why they ask these questions but the company once told me it was something to do with censuses. I emailed them asking and they sent back “census material.” No capitals, barely a full stop. But that’s how it is. I mean, I’m just a maintenance guy really. Barely a groove in a cog of the machine. Barely a pamphlet of information in the system. And that’s being generous.

They do provide the shovel, mind you, and the wiper. And every Christmas I get a pair of slippers in the mail. One year they sent me a pair of runners with the disclaimer:

OUR WEARERS HAVE BEEN INDICATED AS THE LEAST LIKELY TO COMMIT SUICIDE

Nike – we walk in your shoes so that you can walk in ours.

I thought it was polite of them to also write a nice message on the box so that I didn’t have a card to feel guilty about throwing out. But it made me feel guilty about getting rid of the box. Even though the message was probably written by a computer, or a guy who’s never met me and doesn’t really have the opinion that I am an “invaluable member of the company”. If he did know me he certainly wouldn’t wish my family well, seeing as I live alone. Or perhaps he does know me but it just slipped his mind; though this is doubtful.

I sent in a suggestion of a choose-your-own-adventure card. For example, “If you have a family, please refer to page seven. Alternatively, if everyone you know is compelled to distance themselves from you as much as possible, please refer to page Go-Fuck-Yourself.” I didn’t include that in the letter of course, they wouldn’t get the joke. Either way, they didn’t send a response to that one. I guess they’d probably heard it before. Or maybe it’s the fact that all my job entails is scraping suicide victims from the fronts of the company’s trams. In the forms they never refer to them as victims and they never mention suicide. It’s always “the deceased”. Occasionally you get spelling errors and I think to myself, Wouldn’t it be funny if they said the diseased” rather than the deceased”. But they never misspell “deceased”. Especially not as “diseased”. Of course I have to wonder if it would be funny if it really did happen. Probably not. Nothing is.

My mobile buzzes. “Baxter St/Sydney Rd corner Coburg 3058”. Directions. I haven’t even finished filling out forms on this woman in Tullamarine. I mean, how is Tullamarine in the Moreland district anyway? Usually they get the guys in Brimbank or Hume to sort Tullamarine, but they must be swamped even more than me. Ten years ago, I – and everyone else – were only called in every couple of weeks. But now, before I’ve even finished the forms – up to Question 22 of the second form: Based on the deceased’s choice of clothing, would you guess that they were a Liberal supporter, a Labor supporter, a Greens supporter or indistinguishable? (circle one) – they need me all the way back in Coburg. It’s just so incredible getting two suicides in the one district in the one hour. Normally it’s a couple a day per district, but never so close together.

Traffic isn’t too bad and because my vocation permits speeding it takes me half an hour to drive there.

When I get out of my car I fit some gloves over my hands and sling the shovel over my shoulder.

“Took your time,” the tram driver says. “I was meant to be at Flinders Street Station ten minutes ago.”

I apologise and walk to the scene. It is even hotter here than in Tullamarine, which makes me sweat. I find this ironic because it is the dryness that is making me sweat the most. How can dryness create moisture? Why don’t I sweat in my mouth where I need that moisture? Is this a design flaw in humans or would the sweat taste bitter in any case? I wipe my forehead with my sleeve, getting the sweat, forgetting about the gore I got on it earlier. This makes me self-conscious of getting blood on my forehead, though I’m certain my sleeve is dry by now and probably didn’t leave a mark.

Standing around the tram and the body are several commuters. I can barely see them through the sun’s cellophane glare. “Haven’t got all fucking day,” one of them says, while another taps his watch looking at me.

“Yeah, yeah,” I sigh. “Won’t be a moment.”

Thankfully the body’s on the road and I only have to scrape a few facial particulars from the tram. I scrape it all to the ground, heaped on the body, before retrieving a bag from my pocket. I open the bag. I lie it beside the body. I roll the body in.

Because the tram is not too messy, I just give it a quick wipe with my sleeve.

“There, good as new.”

“Took your time,” the tram driver repeats and re-enters the tram. Everybody follows, one old lady spitting at my feet before clambering aboard.

I wave to the driver before turning around and carrying the bag like a bride to my car.

Could you make out the deceased’s sex? If so, which sex?

Female.

Could you estimate the deceased’s approximate height? (Circle one)

  • Dwarf
  • Well below average
  • Below average
  • Average
  • Above average
  • Well above average

I circle Average and then I continue to fill out the forms.

The final question is a new question:

Did you recognise the deceased? If so, what was your relationship to them? (Circle one)

  • Immediate family
  • Distant family
  • Friend
  • Neighbour
  • Colleague
  • Sports partner
  • Other (please specify below)

I did not recognise either of the bodies today. I leave this question blank.

 

The next morning I report to the company office in Coburg North. It is air conditioned. I often bring a jumper from the car into the office because of how cool it is inside. I do not today. Even if it is a bit cool, the chilly office is a nice change from the outside heat, as are the different shades of pastel blue on the walls, desks, pin-up board and ceiling. I quite like Coburg North, but I preferred it when the office was in Brunswick West. Brunswick West had better coffee, even though I stopped drinking coffee, but places with better coffee are just about always nicer anyway. I haven’t come to dislike coffee or anything, but I read somewhere that the likelihood of heart problems is increased by coffee consumption. I may have read this in a dream, I can’t remember, but I’d like to stay on the safe side. But I can smell coffee, as always in the Coburg North office. It smells fresh and mixed with Kleenex wipes. It smells clean. And productive.

“Hey, Dwayne,” says Tomas Grelm. He doesn’t even know my name.

“Hey, Tom.”

“Here to hand in some forms?”

“Yes, Tom.”

“Wouldja like me to take them for you?”

I nod. Tom works in administration. He used to give Performance Evaluations but is now in charge of the sorting of forms and proofreading them.

“Didja notice the new question, Dwayne?” he asks me.

“Yes, Tom. The one about recognising the deceased.”

“Yeah, that one.” He sits on the office couch, which I personally avoid sitting on because it affects my posture. “D’ya know why we decided to add that question in, Dwayne?”

I really ought to tell him that my name is not Dwayne. That kinda name is reserved for rock stars, which I am not, and former wrestlers-cum-actors with the surname Johnson. I am also not that.

“No,” I say. “Why did you decide to add that question in?”

Tom leans in, grins and says quietly, “We’re extending the census material.”

“Wow,” I say. “How exciting.”

“Isn’t it!” Tom exclaims right into my face. “Isn’t it just! And y’know, it was my idea. Mm-hm, uh-huh, my idea. And d’y’know where I got the idea?”

“No I most certainly do not.”

He leans back into the couch. “You may remember about two weeks ago, that guy Clive had to scrape his fiancé from a tram.”

I remember this. It was Ivan, not Clive, who did that.

“Old Clive got to the office with the forms and did you see the look on his face? It was priceless!” Tom laughs right into my face. “Anyway, we at the office thought it’d be a fun incentive for you guys to work if you had to try and identify the body. You never know who you could be cleaning up! That’s the beauty of it!”

“Sure sounds fun, Tom.”

“Doesn’t it!” he sprays right into my face. “Doesn’t it just. And we were thinking we might even develop a points system. Y’know, one point for a stranger, two points for a neighbour, all the way up to five points for a loved one. I’d give Clive five points! And whoever collated the most points for the month would win a small token, a prize. Like a raise, or something. Nah, screw a raise, who can afford that? Maybe a voucher, or a gift basket. Y’know. Something.”

I nod, grazing over the goosebumps on my cold arms; I should have worn my jumper.

“You’ve really got this worked out, Tom.”

“Haven’t I! Haven’t I just!” His wide grin slides into a dazed grimace, before snapping back. “Anyway, Clive–”

“Dwayne,” I say, correcting the wrong name.

“Ah yes, Dwayne,” he stands and shakes my hand, grabbing my forms with the other hand, “it’s been good seeing you. I had better let you get back to work.”

It’s my day off but I don’t tell him that. He wouldn’t keep me any longer but he might want me to cover someone else’s shift. So I don’t tell him.

“Thank you, Tom.”

I turn and leave, re-entering the orange glare of the street.

 

I arrive home to a mess. All of my drawers have been removed from their chests, desks and a small filing cabinet. “Oh, dear,” I say, “burgled.” At least they closed the front door on their way out so that my house doesn’t smell like burnt rubber. Even the thought gives me a slight cramp. I pull the faded blue drapes. They have a pattern made up of green birds almost flying into each other. This will keep the house cool and stop the glare from coming in the window at 5pm.

Before long, I have returned the drawers to their rooms in their rightful slots and the house returns to looking liveable. Not cosy – it never was – but liveable. Which is all I ask for. A roof and some room for me to walk around in. Like exercising in a prison yard. Not a cosy prison yard. But a liveable prison yard.

The only thing that has been stolen is my bed frame, which seems an odd choice to me, but I understand that I am probably much less qualified as a burglar than whoever took it and it is not my place to comment. It is inconvenient though. And I know all about inconvenience.

As I prepare my meal for the evening, I wonder if I’ve always had this little amount of cutlery or if half of it was stolen. “Oh, well; two spoons and a fork is enough for me anyway.” I proceed to my microwaved fish fillet and peas. I may not have a bed frame nor an entire set of cutlery, but this dinner goes to show I do enjoy a few luxuries in my life.

I switch on the TV. For the last week only SBS 3 has been working. So I watch some Czechoslovakian news. Times like these make me wish my TV had subtitle settings that weren’t half cut-off at the bottom of the screen. But I’m not complaining, the Czechs have what I would call very motivational accents – very fast-paced, a little bit aggressive, frightening even to a non-speaker like me. All news is like that to me, come to think of it. Either way, I’m always inspired to give the house a vacuum after the programme’s done. Very motivational.

 

I wake to my mobile going off. This is common. I have come to use my mobile as an alarm, leaving it on the ground beside my mattress with the volume all the way up. Someone just about always kills themselves at dawn. That you can count on. This is one of many clichés in the business. For example, when will people learn that one word suicide notes are not original? “Bye” and “Sorry” are not short and sweet, but vague and hollow.

I never used to be a cynic about this, but I can’t count how many times I’ve been into the office and walked past the pin-up board of suicide notes and seen that most of them are a lone word. Sometimes a phrase. Generally just a word. If I were to kill myself, I probably couldn’t muster up the effort to write a note, much less keep breathing long enough to care. In which case one word would be ideal I suppose.

“Ash Ct/Widford St one stop down Glenroy 3046”. Not too far away. I grab some cold soup in a thermos from the fridge on my way out the door and try not to spill it as I sip and drive for about five minutes. The sun is not yet high enough to encase the street, and a damp fog gives off a blue tinge.

“Morning,” the waiting tram driver says to me. I recognise him. He’s always pleasant to me. “I think this one was an accident.”

I peer over with my shovel in one hand and portable wiper in the other. Glasses, a sweater vest, a cane.

“We think he’s from one of the aged care places nearby. Maybe Morisone. Must’ve fallen right as I was passing. Even if I’d seen him earlier, I wouldn’t’ve braked until his face flattened over my windscreen,” the driver chuckles, “like a pancake, eyes like balloons.”

I smile. “Thanks for letting me know.”

I walk ahead of the driver and yawn loudly. I think about the smell of the street in the morning. Is it less intense while it’s cool out and sunless, or are my senses still in the process of waking? I also think about how now I will have to fill out a different set of forms, specifically for accident cases. This doesn’t bother me, even though the questions are unfamiliar to me. There are fewer questions though. Which is good.

I scrape his face off the screen and it topples to the ground. I’m able to grab the remaining body by the shoulders and give it a short tug, sending it to the ground also. This is a messy one and I return to my car to grab an all-purpose cleaning spray. As I knock the red and pink chunks to the ground and start cleaning the excess blood, I’m thankful that the guy was not driven over, as accident cases often are driven over, caught under the tram, and they’re always harder to clean in through the wheels. Also, cleaning the wheels requires a rod with a brush attached to the end that I usually leave at home. Today I have left it at home. So I am thankful for him being hit and made into a pancake rather than being run over.

I am soon finished with this job and pile the body into my car. I don’t say goodbye to the tram driver as he has ducked into the public toilet. I sit and drink from my thermos as I complete the forms. These forms have a greater emphasis on me than the deceased.

How many accidental deaths have you handled this year so far not including this one?

Zero.

Was the deceased hit by the tram or driven over or a combination of the two?

Hit.

Approximately how many minutes would you say you spent cleaning the tram?

Twelve minutes.

These questions continue until I reach the final question:

Did you recognise the deceased? If so, what was your relationship to them? (Circle one)

  • Immediate family
  • Distant family
  • Friend
  • Neighbour
  • Colleague
  • Sports partner
  • Other (please specify below)

I briefly consider circling Immediate family so that I am in the draw to win the gift bag or voucher. I’m sure they’d have ways to confirm these claims but it is tempting nonetheless.

But I do not recognise the body. So I leave this question blank.

The tram driver emerges from the strangely futuristic concrete cube, sun coming over and finally hitting the pavement at the same time. I wave as the tram pulls away, though I cannot see through the tram’s tinted glass, and I start driving.

As the temperature gauge starts rumbling to life, I open the car vents and crack both front windows. That burnt-rubber-Christmas-ham smell spills into the car as I do this but I am too preoccupied by my thoughts to notice any stomach cramps.

I think that it would be a clever idea to employ us cleaners as the tram drivers. Or train the drivers to scrape and clean trams. I think that it would be much more efficient for both time and money. There would be fewer jobs, sure, but the ones who kept their jobs would get a raise.

I consider sending this suggestion to the company but decide against it.

They know more than I do anyway and have probably already considered this.

The sun stretches over my steering wheel like a dead cat and spits in my eyes. I wince. You’re certainly doing your job today, Mr Sun.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *