We began the beach clean-up at ten. It was a public holiday, after all. The beach was idyllic: palm trees and warm breeze. Not as hot as Canberra where everyone had just baked in a run of 39 degree days.
It didn’t really make sense for people to concentrate on particular kinds of rubbish: we just spread out and worked a little patch each. There was more rubbish in the dunes so most of us were up there. Kate and Sue were by the shore; the tide moved slowly in, like a child, soft and timid.
A couple of the old blokes had a metal claw and picked up cigarette butts and scraps, but I just kept bending, swiping a few bits each time, mostly empty water bottles, takeaway wrappers and polystyrene burger boxes, not Maccas at least.
Everyone said it at least once: ‘It just stuns me that people will come all the way here, to this paradise, and leave shit behind.’
I wondered where the locals figured in it but didn’t say that. Maybe they were right anyway, maybe it was the tourists.
Sue straightened up, wiped sweat from her forehead and pushed her hips forward, stretching out her back. She looked different out of her ranger uniform. Older. ‘And these are not stupid people: they’re people with money. You’d think they’d know better.’
Bob clicked his tongue. ‘Sometimes they’re the worst.’
They went quiet for a minute and I wondered if they thought they’d offended me.
The radio was on Triple J and we were all comforting ourselves that the clean-up came with some good old Australia Day benefits: the Hottest 100 would begin soon, at which point we would throw down our rubbish bags and Bob would light the barbie.
I swept up another water bottle and slung it into the bin bag. We’d been at it about an hour and I was beginning to flag.
‘If it aint trash it’s bloody cats, or rats,’ sighed Bob and everyone muttered the standard, glum assents. No-one offered anything further: it had been said up and down, backward and forward. The rangers spent their time fighting the weeds, baiting rats and mangy feral cats, and bait-bombing the ants that attacked the red crabs. I waited for someone to say something more about Canberra, but everyone bent back to work.
We were drinking beers when I noticed the boat. It was right in at the dock. I hadn’t seen it sail in. Too busy leaning back with my eyes closed, enjoying the sun, I suppose. I was soaking up the last day of the trip ’cause it would be back on the plane to the office in the morning. The day before I’d been out on the water, caught a sooty grunter, silver-red in the sun.
‘Is that?’ I began, hesitated, feeling like the naïve, the outsider.
‘Yuh,’ Bob nodded and drank from his stubby.
‘God, that’s weird,’ I said.
I looked at Sue, Kate, Kenny and Reg. They looked back at me: they made ‘what can you do?’ faces, mugging their mouths into toothless smiles and raising their eyebrows.
‘You get used to it,’ Reg said, with a cock of his head. ‘Just glad they made it in.’
Bob fished another beer from the esky, passed it to Kate, and pulled one out for himself. ‘Reckon we’ll go round to Dolly tomorrow, and fill a few bags there, eh?’
Kate nodded. ‘Sure.’
I looked out at the jetty and, though I’d already had two sausages, I reached for another, folding a piece of bread over it. I knew the others were looking at me but I couldn’t look away. I bit into the sausage sandwich and watched, straining my eyes to see what would happen at the end of the pier.
Customs officers approached the boat and spoke with the crew.
A Hilltop Hoods song played on the countdown.
People began to inch off the boat: crouched, wrapped in dark clothes, scarves, holding themselves about the middle for comfort. Some carried children. From here they would be led to a prison.
The next song on the chart began with a raucous, itchy guitar intro before melting into an up-tempo indie rock thing. I didn’t recognise it.
I saw a woman emerge from the dark door of the boat. She was tiny, little more than an outline, but I saw her stop, pause. And then I saw her shoulders, her body, begin to shake, shake, shake.
‘Happy Australia Day,’ Kate was saying to Sue, clinking her stubby against Sue’s can of Diet Coke.
I wiped my eyes.