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Spearman's workaday camouflage is ubiquitous.

Iced Tea

part 24 of Common People

'Did you know diarrhoea's genetic?'


'Cos it runs in your jeans.'

'That's a shit joke.'

Grins flare more at his comeback than the joke. Grit-smeared faces, teeth white only by comparison. Conversations, so to speak, shouted over clashing steel and get-out-of-the-way buzzers.

They all like him for reasons unknown. He's very good at making himself likeable. Genuine. Never stands too close, never asks pointed questions, listens to everything. He never cracks the first joke, only ever the comeback, a beta male with a witty tongue. Fifteen new workplaces in seventeen years, always with oversized men, the labouring hulks of the south-east corridor, too proud or smart to be unemployed, too proud or stubborn to get a trade. He makes himself fit in.

Ask around. They'll all say it. He's a good bloke. Yeah. Have you seen his missus? What the hell happened there, hey? Must've crossed the railway tracks for a pint, come home with a Langford boy instead.

If he'd been a Langford boy, it would've been easier. In this city, this strange pretend planned city, too young to have evolved, divided into halves by the river, quarters by the train line, each corridor known for its type, class, moral, ethic, religion, income, ethnicity. North never moves south; south-easters and south-westers survive across an average salary gap of eighty thousand kay at a bare minimum. The Mediterranean repatriots of the north-east market garden arm puzzle at the strictly British north-west and their inexplicable fascination with the scrubby, sparse, sandy and desolate terrain of the West Australian coast. But why not stake their territories so distinctly, when the easiest way to hasten a sense of belonging is claim rightful ownership from the outset.

As for him and his sense of belonging, well. He's never felt the right to claim anything. At negative one-month of age, his father fleeing from a prison sentence in Adelaide in a combi-van with his pregnant wife, two kids, and a dog. (The dog died: heatstroke.) So Spearman started life in City Beach in government housing, and from that auspicious coastally oriented beginning, went from good suburb to worse and worse and worse, each time kilometers inland. From the edge of the Australian coast, where European exports could cling to their semblance of urbanity, kilometers inland each time, closer to the threat of desert, of the vast weight of sunburned sand. Simply moving house wasn't enough for his dad, shiftless at heart, literally living in spite of or to spite everything: each move was a chance to start again, but only distance could grant the semblance of such.

Yeah, Spearman's good at being inoffensive. Until he's drunk.

But by the time he gets drunk with his new work colleagues the first time, they all know him well enough that the turning point, that sixth-drink, no-turning-back zone of personality change, when the ghosts of brothers and fathers and a history he'd much rather forget and future pretensions he'd like to eradicate all rise to possess him, they're willing enough to forgive him his insanity. Can't hold his drink. But a good bloke. Have you seen his missus?

They think he looks younger than all of them. He does, but isn't. A trick of the grey-blue eyes, the earnest attentiveness, baby-face atop a broadshouldered body of wire and indigestion and steady slow heartbeat, soft hair on his chest and a belly so pale the veins show through and Beloved, in warmth and silence, will follow the map with her tongue. He's heard it all before.

His hands hurt. Beloved holds them between her own, thumbs rubbing hard along the line of new yellow callous and cramping muscle. The forefingers on his right are swollen; oxy-cutters weren't meant to be held for eight hours running.

He's grinning and wincing as he talks, skin seaming at the corners of his eyes. She's listening, intent, cheeks sucked in slightly and caught between her teeth; her cheekbones are pronounced, alien-looking, elegant. Oddly, it's an expression which makes her look masculine, the girlish baby curves of cheek and chin lost against stark bone.

He tells her: 'Coke Mother V Red Bull. Mansized bottles: 600ml or greater. The company subsidises it, it's like a drug, everything at $2. Cos they want us off our heads. Working working working. Might as well inject caffeine for breakfast, yanno? Then they come up at about two when all the drinks stack up and you're buzzing like a battery-operated thing, and they ask if you'll do the nights as well. I mean, the overtime's fantastic, but nights? I want to come home. S'not like I've got some two hundred stone wife and a bunch of kids I'm trying to avoid, is it? If I'd wanted that much money, I would've gone to the mines. If I could've got in. But I stick to only two cans a day. And the rest of the time—'

Lipton Iced Tea. In peach flavour.

It's at the bottom of the vending machine. The very bottom. He notices on his first day, but there's such an overload of energy drinks in man-sized servings he wonders why they even bother with the Lipton Iced Tea. In peach flavour. The bottles are visibly dusty, even within supposed airtight refrigeration.

But, goddamn it, he likes Lipton Iced Tea! Especially in peach!

'Hey.' A nod at his peer, who handles the other end of the steel when the sheets are too long for one man but not long enough for the forklift. '"m going for morning tea.'

A blink and a stare. 'Oh, what?'

'Huh? Morning tea. M'break?'

'Fuxsake! Morning tea, eh? Oh, ladidah! The rest of us blokes go for smokos!' Laughter: not cruel, but raucous. 'Morning fucking tea!'

Spearman flexes his hand, hissing in pain. 'I've got to get used to this sometime, hey? Rub it harder?'

'I still think you should go to a physio. For goddsake, you earn that much money in a white-trash job, you don't drink, don't smoke, don't gamble, the least you can do is spend a little on taking care of yourself, right?'

Spearman is very still, the air around him suddenly prickling with tension.

Beloved sighs. 'Oh, what now? It's not like it's unmanly to go to a physio. They're never going to know, at work.'

'That's a very mean thing you said.'

'What's a very mean thing?'

'A white-trash job. It's not a white trash job. It's a good job. It actually pays well. For the first time in my life, I'm actually working in a job that pays well. So you - stop being a snob.'

'Fine. It's a blue collar job, you happy? White Langford trash don't even bother with jobs, is that what you wanted me to say? Anyway, it's not snobbery to call something what it is. It's unskilled labour! The only reason it pays more is because you work stupid overtime and get danger money.'

'Look, just shut up, ok? This is a good job.'

'You had to get life insurance. Injury insurance. You come home and every pore on your back is black with steel grit, and I hate to tell you, but on your colour skin that sticks out like the pox, man. My mum, my mum, calls me up every second day to make sure you're not injured. Your arms are covered with burns, you can't even make a fist, and you're mainlining energy drinks. And this is a good job, how?'

'Because it's the best one I can get! At least it's not on the mines! I'm here, with you. I could be making well over the hundred kay if I went FIFO—'

'Unskilled? Fuck off you could. If you could even get an interview. I could make that out there, I have a qualification. But you'd be a, a what, a janitor? Serving barrel duty on Wednesdays?'

He says, very quietly, 'You're such a fucking snob. Like your whole family are snobs. They started at ground level too, you know.'

'Yeah, and I appreciate what they did. Appreciate it enough not to fuck up my life by working as less than what I can be. No point grovelling in poverty when they had to live through all the sacrifices for me. You— you're smart. I know you're smart. I don't know why you can't just try.'

'Yeah, well. You don't know a lot of things.'

Beloved pauses, looks away. When she looks back her mouth is pursed, the cheekbones sharp again, aggressive, and in some ways he prefers this look to the other, the vague androgyny in lieu of the round-cheeked, bland, reproachful mother. When she's pissed off, that roundness is emphasised, her cheeks flushed and plump and ever so smug.

She exhales, hard. 'But I act like I do, right?'

He nods, solemn.

'Yeah.' A flicker of a smile; she looks at the ceiling, rolls her shoulders, but the tension's already gone. They're getting better at defusing each other, when provocation, the full screaming fight used to be the only way to be. 'I don't know why you're calling me a snob like it's an insult. You're a snob too, you know. When we went to that new bar on the strip last week, you were all, 'er, sprinkle a bit of yuppie dust on the furniture and all the yuppies miraculously appear.' Reverse snobbery, that is. Glorification of your peasant origin; the only work is physical labour, so on. You should be French.'

'You really should shut up.'

'Yeah ok. Give us your hand, I'll rub it some more.'

He cedes his palm. Her fingers melt the pain away, only for as long as she's touching.

'You might apologise, too,' he adds. 'For being mean.'

'Can't.' She's grinning. 'I'm shutting up, remember?'

'Oi. Smoko.'

Spearman blinks, hesitates. 'Nah, thanks. I'm all right.'

First looks at him, puzzled. 'Union regs, mate. You have to break.'

'Oh, yeah, ok. You meant morning tea.'

Much like the day before, First roars, 'Morning fucking tea! It's a smoko. A smoko!' The type of ruddy blonde that matches hair to eyes to skin, made all the more the same by the fine layer of grit over everything, First prances, a gloved hand on one hip, his other held out like the beginnings of the teapot dance. 'Don't mind me, cheps, I'm jest going for me morning tea!'

'Fuck you too,' Spearman says, amiable. 'You can go out for a fag if you want. I'm going for tea and the fancy scones and pies and gourmet fucking satay sticks my missus handcooked and packed me for lunch. What've you got? Stale sandwich from the jiffy van? Yeah, yeah I thought so. Mmm, satay...'

'Oh, you never did.'

'So I go into the lunchroom and did the whole,' Spearman bends at the hip, waggling his arse high, 'oh, I think I might just bend over here and pick myself out a lovely refreshing bottle of Lipton Iced Tea, mmm, peach flavour. Oh tsk, tsk, dear, dear, it seems to be stuck, hmm, I'll just have to stay bent over a little longer while I tug it out, uh, uh, uh—'

Beloved grins, bemused.

Even here, when he's faking it, playing up, he bends with a sight twist to his torso, keeping an eye out behind him; she's seen this before when they shower together, when the soap is dropped, and he mocks out with great ceremony the picking up of the bar, somewhere between punctuation and invitation, never saying a word except maybe 'more soap' or just plain 'more' if she actually makes a move, her hand, her thigh, the texture of wet hairy skin and muscle and warm.

'Oh, you never. Did you? Did you?'

He's smiling, complacent. 'What do you reckon?'

'I reckon I can't believe a word out of your mouth.'

'I love you.'

She simpers. 'Charming.'

July 2011

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