There’s not much you can count on in our town. Parents split up, friends move away, and factories spring in and out of existence like whack-a-moles. The only thing that never seems to change is the rubbish dump at the end of Rigger Road.
The rusted chicken wire gate still slumps on its hinges. It’s slightly open even with the chain padlocking it to the post, a mouth with no teeth, sighing. Nightshade clumps like plaque in the dirt around it. Beyond the gate the dump rises in dark mounds. Splashes of colour among the bin bags promise hidden secrets, while beyond each pile of rubbish another two loom, an eternally undulating landscape of other people’s junk.
When we were kids we were obsessed with the trails that seemed to wind their way between the piles. We were convinced that these trails were not just random low points in the topography of the dump – they connected somewhere, somehow. There was a haven lurking here, a secret place behind the next hill. A house full of food and toys and soft couches, where we could live forever and never have to go to bed hungry again.
Every moment we didn’t spend at school or asleep we spent at the dump, exploring the trails. Ed had a hardcover maths notebook, its pages stamped with green grids that we used as bases for map after map. Eventually we used up all the spare pages at the back of the book and the maps started creeping into the front. Hills hidden behind division signs, tucked between numbers.
When Ed’s mum found out she beat him about the head with the book for wasting paper. We knew this because the next day Ed fell over during PE. He didn’t trip, he just collapsed like a dropped slinky as we walked out of the changing rooms. We didn’t see him for a few days after that.
No matter what happened though, we always came back to each other. Me, Lisa and Ed. The rubbish dump explorers. Sometimes other kids came around after school, wandered around a bit, but they all drifted away in the end. Called us crazy, threw empty bottles at us. We didn’t care. We only needed us three.
Ed’s mum took away his book, and all the maps in it. We tried to start again in the back of my battered blue English notebook. My mum wouldn’t care, if she even bothered looking. The problem was that none of us could remember exactly what any of the maps were supposed to look like. After an argument that ended with Lisa threatening to throw my book into a full tin of white lead paint, we gave up. We turned our back on the secret house. That stuff was for babies anyway. Instead, we started looking at what was inside the hummocks themselves.
Ed found an old fridge. Rusted orange with white paint specks, nestled against the fence on the side farthest from the gate. We kept our stuff there. If we took it home we’d be accused of stealing. I never understood that. How could you steal something that nobody owned in the first place? When I was six I had come to school with a transformer toy that was missing its batteries. Mrs Mackenzie demanded to know who it belonged to, and when I said I didn’t know she made me go round all the kids in the class and apologise individually to them. The toy wound up slumped on the pale wooden shelf behind her desk, next to the confiscated lighters and non-uniform caps. It was still there when I left primary school.
Sometimes at the dump, when the others had gone home already and I was waiting, reluctant to go back to my own empty house, I took the things – our things – out of the fridge and looked at them. Held them. Pretended they were mine.
Dolls with the stitching on their faces unravelling in red yarn tears. A typewriter with no ink ribbon that still made a good sound when you hit the keys, like the rattle of gunshots in an old war movie. A bottle of vodka shaped like a skull, the glass tempered black with dirt. A red and white chess set in a cracked wooden box, most of the pieces missing. A faded pink toddler’s sunhat. I would go home with oil smeared black along the sleeves of my white school shirt, and the stench of urine and rot in my nostrils. Every night I stood under the shower until the water ran cold. Shivering but clean, I crawled between my bed covers and waited in the dark for the sound of Mum’s keys in the front door to shake me from my half-doze.
We had our first beer in the dump. Lisa stole them from a crate of her dad’s when he was watching the footy. He didn’t notice, so she kept doing it, and we kept spending our evenings watching the stars with heads that spun like galaxies. We never had to bother about hiding the evidence. Every can we finished was lobbed away behind a mound of rubbish, never to be seen again. We made a game of seeing who could toss theirs the furthest, but it was always too dark to tell who won.
One time, when Ed wasn’t there, Lisa took my hands and put them on her chest while her lips groped at mine. My fingers, tingling and dense with alcohol, could barely even feel her boobs. Her kiss tasted like yeast.
She didn’t look at me the next day at school. At least, I don’t think she did, but I didn’t know because I wasn’t looking at her either. I caught her making out with Charlie Bridges a couple of days later. He was crushing her against the stalls in the boy’s toilets, the back of her legs scraping off the chipped blue paint as she ate away at his spotty face. I didn’t feel jealous at all. Just an immense sense of relief. We shared a beer can together that weekend, just me, her and Ed, and it was like nothing had ever happened.
A few months later, when Lisa was at home cleaning her dad’s vomit off the bathroom walls, Ed took my hands in his and kissed me. He tasted like Tesco-brand soap. When I tried to kiss him again the next day he punched me in the mouth. It tasted like iron. It blossomed into a violet stain across the whole right side of my jaw. When it was fading to yellow-green, Mum saw me and asked what had happened. I told her it was a sports accident. She asked me if I had a girlfriend yet, but before I could think of an answer she had picked up her handbag and walked out of the room. I drove my own hand into the still-tender flesh on my face, grinned against the pain that flared, and imagined that the skin touching me was Ed’s fingers.
Ed started bringing his books to the dump. He perched on an old sofa with the stuffing vomiting out and held the pages right up to his nose, digging for words like a badger rooting for insects in dirt. His mother had snapped his glasses in half when he was fifteen and late for dinner. She never got him a new pair. I tried to read over his shoulder, but the words were long and boring, like ‘dissertation’ and ‘excommunication’. It didn’t make much more sense when I asked him to explain, but I liked how his voice echoed, all soft, around the stacks of old tyres. He waved his hands around when he talked and it hypnotised me, so when he left for home I would sit alone on the couch and stare for hours into space. The image of his face melted like cheese onto the surface on my brain.
Lisa started going out with a guy named Brian, who was 25 and drove a car that had racing stripes made of key scratches. Lisa rolled up her sleeves and we saw needle marks down the insides of her arms like columns of marching ants. Lisa got tetanus from the rusty scraps of barbed wire she threw at Ed and me when we suggested she might have a problem. Lisa stole money from Ed’s backpack when he wasn’t looking. Lisa pointed a knife at me, an old one we had found when we were thirteen, and made me turn out my pockets. Lint, a library card, my keys, sixty-five pence, three cigarettes. Lisa stopped showing up.
On the day Ed left for university, I lined up every beer bottle I could find along a chipped green faux-marble counter. I smashed them with a cricket bat, one by one by one. My arms looking like minced strawberries, I went home. With a pair of tweezers, I plucked the shards of green and brown glass out. I passed out on the bare white tiles between the washbasin and the bathtub.
Nobody came in to check on me.
Ed didn’t visit home for three months. I only got one bar of service down at the dump but it didn’t matter, because he only texted me at midnight. The throb of my phone’s vibration on my bedside woke me every night, to messages like im so drunk lol xx and you should come down sometime! meet the lads!
I watched the money I earned from frying chips pile up in my bank account. There was enough for a return train ticket, to go partying every night in a student town. I told Ed I was broke.
He came back to visit on the last day of autumn, on a day where the sky was cast-iron and a bitter wind tossed faded leaves through the doors of the train as they opened. He had a scraggly black beard that poked out of his chin like children’s fingers digging into pudding. I opened my mouth to call to him, and shut it. A girl had followed him out of the train. Her hair was the colour of Mum’s geriatric ginger cat and the lips she planted on Ed were smeared in a shade like pasta sauce. My gut twisted.
‘Hi, Tom!’ Ed called to me. I pretended I hadn’t been about to turn and walk right out of the station. ‘This is my girlfriend, Mikayla.’
She waved a gloved hand at me. The other hand was on Ed’s narrow waist. He blinked shyly at me and I realised he’d gotten new glasses.
‘Hi,’ I mumbled. ‘Hey, Ed. How’s uni?’
‘Oh, that’s – that’s great. I’m so happy for you.’
We stood there for a moment, while the wind whistled around us. Mikayla clapped her hands.
‘So, Edward said you would take us to your dump! I know it’s so special to you and all.’
‘Oh, did Edward?’
Ed shuffled his feet.
‘Nobody calls me Ed anymore,’ he mumbled.
Edward and Mikayla tossed their rucksacks into the boot of my car and sprawled on the back seat. I glared at them in the rear-view mirror as I drove us along the winding, tree-lined gravel of Rigger Road. Mikayla put her hands on his chest and whispered something into his ear. His chuckle was a low rumble that shook my stomach. The brakes shrieked as I stomped the pedal down in front of the rusted dump gate.
‘It looks smaller,’ Ed said. He didn’t get out but leaned his head out the open window. Mikayla didn’t bother, just peered through the dirty glass. She sniffed.
‘Yeah,’ Ed agreed. His head popped back into the car. ‘Do you come here much anymore?’
‘Never,’ I snapped, and turned the engine back on. As I drove off, the rusted brown netting of the gate loomed in my mirror, lurked in the corner of my eye, until the whole thing was hidden by a bend in the road.
Scott Melchert is the owner of a BSc who has some pretty controversial opinions about science, like ‘this was a stupid thing to study for three years’ and ‘I should have just stuck to English’. He lives in Hamilton but is doing his best not to.