Many years ago, there was a local character who spent most of his days collecting rubbish and carrying it about on his ancient bike. Not being a local, I had no idea what his story was, but I always thought that there was a quiet dignified sense of purpose about him.
At some point, he disappeared, presumably he died. I never forgot him. Eventually, this story came out. it owes more than a little to that quiet dignified old man. I thought it was pretty good at the time and rushed it off to the Holy Grail of Speculative Fiction in Australia -Aurealis. They rejected it on the basis that it breached their guidelines of putting children in danger
That sucked and dented my ego quite significantly. I still think it’s one of my best pieces. What do you think?
The Tin Can Man lugged his half-full shopping trolley up the hill, with his head bowed, partly to defend his face from the wind and partly as a defence against the prying eyes of any fellow pedestrians.
Technically Jane could charge him with any number of misdemeanours, but as yet, there was no point in doing that. He was part of the fabric of the town; a wandering old fool who harmed no one and kept to himself while he collected his assortment of rubbish. What he did with it, God alone knew, but that was not her affair. She waited until he was almost level with her patrol car before she got out. “How’re you doing old man?” she asked.
His body tensed and he drew to an abrupt halt. Jane wondered how much abuse he copped on an average day. “It’s OK old fellah. I’m Jane Hilton, the Police lady. We talked the other day, remember?”
He looked up and a ghost of a smile crossed his craggy features. He nodded – a sharp, bird-like gesture that betrayed a mind not used to dialogue with others. Some of the tenseness ebbed out of him, but Jane doubted that she would gain his complete trust.
“We spoke the other day about a lost child. Do you remember that?’
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen anything like I’d asked you about.”
He tried to look her in the eye. “No,” he said in a voice that reminded Jane of breathing tubes and hospital wards, and then his gaze returned to the ground.
Jane felt out of her depth, but blind instinct insisted that she persist. “So how’s it going today?” she asked lamely.
He shrugged. “OK. Nothing bad here,” he said pointing at his trolley.
A feeling of hopelessness washed over Jane. She swallowed hard and tried one more time. “Do you need anything? Cigarettes maybe?” she asked, sure that he would jump at a packet of fags.
He smiled, revealing precisely three teeth. “Don’t smoke – never smoked, Miss. Don’t drink neither.” He watched her reaction with obvious delight.
“Sorry,” she said, “my mistake.” She raised her hands in a gesture of helplessness and frustration.
His grin got even broader. “Chocolate,” he said.
This time Jane actually laughed, not at the old boy, but at herself and her preconceptions. The Tin Can Man watched, seemingly sharing the joke with her. She hesitated and then touched his shoulder. “OK,” she said, “next time I see you, I’ll have a bar of chocolate. Will you keep an eye out for anything strange?”
He patted her hand. “Sure,” he rasped in that aqualung voice of his. “You’re a good one.”
She patted him on the arm and replied, “I hope so, old man,” and turned back to the patrol car. Her partner, Larry sat behind the wheel impassively. “Well?” he asked.
“Nothing yet,” said Jane, “but I think we’ve broken the ice.”
“You always did prefer the older guys.”
With a feeling of helplessness, the Tin Can Man watched the patrol car cruise away. In their world, there was no room for shadows and mystery – just the law. What he had to say was not credible.
He looked down at his trolley, carefully stacked with litter. Each little rough pile designated a street. Hopefully, he would be able to narrow his search down a little with what he had gathered He sensed that his quarry lived in the rich side of town – they almost inevitably did, or so he had been told. So, he had concentrated his efforts there this morning and it had been hard yakka. The rich had a way of dirtying everyone else’s backyard and complaining when there was the slightest whiff of garbage in theirs. But he had found enough soft drink cans, cigarette packets and fast-food wrappers to keep him busy well into the afternoon.
Jane found her mind returning to the puzzle of the old man. Nobody that she knew even knew as much as his name. He was simply the Tin Can Man. Where he had come from and what he had been before were mysteries that Jane imagined would go with him to his grave. She shook her head. “The way some people live,” she muttered.
Close to the Industrial Estate were a group of former railway houses, technically still owned by the Government, but largely deserted vermin havens that were used as squats by the town’s underclass. It was one of these houses that the Tin Can Man called home.
He trundled his trolley through a yard overgrown with weeds and onto the porch. The door, as usual, was ajar and the Tin Can Man pushed his way through into the living room. It was cluttered with junk, sorted into several loosely grouped piles. In one corner crushed aluminium cans were piled in a crazy jumble several feet high. A nest of crumpled, torn and shredded paper sat in the centre of the room, its purpose largely unclear. In the far corner sitting next to a jumble of plastic cartons, was an armchair salvaged from the local tip with an upturned wooden crate placed before it. On the crate was a mixing bowl, filled to the brim with water. The Tin Can Man trundled his trolley over to the crate and after careful consideration, pulled a small clump of junk from the trolley and placed it on the crate beside the bowl. He pulled the chair up to the table, took several deep breaths and then focused all his attention on the bowl of water. After a full five minutes, his hands reached unerringly for the pile of litter, plucked a cigarette packet from the pile, and drew it to his nostrils. He inhaled deeply. There was no trace of the scent that he was searching for. He dropped the packet and reached for the next piece of junk. This time, it was a crushed drink can. Again, he drew it to his nose and inhaled. Again, there was no scent. He dropped the can and reached again.
The search for the lost child was in danger of disappearing up its own arse according to Larry and Jane found that she could not help but agree with him. The trouble with a town the size of Tallarung Flat was that there weren’t a lot of usual suspects, and the police usually were able to keep close tabs on them anyway. Once you got past that assortment of sleaze bags, the town was unlikely to come up with any other odd happenings. People trusted each other implicitly; it was part of belonging to the community. An act that might arouse some suspicion in a larger community would be dismissed in a close-knit one because Fred or Mary was OK. They were on the little league committee or belonged to Rotary – whatever. The point was that they were above suspicion. Unless of course, Fred or Mary was a known sleaze bag and then every possible crime would be laid at their doorstep. Or, alternatively, if Fred was considered odd; given enough time and the appropriate stimulus a small community would seek him out and punish him for their fears. An outsider was much easier to blame than one of your own. This small-town attitude was creating a brick wall and she was not sure how they were going to break through. For some reason, she had hoped that the Tin Can Man might provide a breakthrough, but after her conversation with him, she had to admit that her chances were slim. The shift was nearly over, and Larry was just running the clock down. Jane suggested that they cruise by the old man’s squat and see if he was about. Larry shrugged and looked at his watch. “That should just about do it.”
The Tin Can Man had sorted through three small piles of litter and had not found anything of interest. He felt the beginning of a headache buzzing around his temples and was tempted to give it a rest. Then he thought of the young policewoman and the concern written on her face. One more, he decided and plucked another pile of rubbish from his trolley. Again, he concentrated on the bowl of water and entered his trance. When he was ready his hands reached unerringly for the pile and plucked another cigarette butt from it.
“Stop the car,” demanded Jane as they crawled past the Tin Can Man’s place.
Larry braked without question and shot her a look that said, “I want to go home in a minute.”
Jane ignored him. “He said there was nothing bad in the trolley – let’s go ask him what he meant.” Larry mumbled something about a waste of time but followed, albeit slowly, nevertheless. Men – they were so predictable really. Interfere with their beer-drinking time and all hell was likely to break loose. She stepped onto the rotting verandah and knocked at the door.
The Tin Can Man reached again for the pile of litter. His hand closed around a paper bag that might have once held a pie. He raised it to his nostrils and was at once assaulted by a vile stench. Visions of pain, fear, panic, and confusion swamped him, and he had not been prepared for their vividness. He cried out in fear as his mind recoiled from the images. His arms flailed against the chair and pushed the crate away, but the paper bag seemed to have stuck to his face. He clawed at it frantically, gouging a mark down one cheek as he crashed backwards onto the floor.
Jane heard the old man’s cry and did not hesitate. She pushed her way into the house and towards the source of the scream. The old man screamed again, and Jane veered into his “living room”. Momentarily, her eyes could not find him amidst the mess, then they caught sight of his legs kicking madly in the air and she rushed over to him.
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