ANDY STRAIGHTENS HIS HAT and listens to the carriage song. Long metallic E’s and F-sharps, grumble rumbles and a shack, shack, shack. A pause and a shack, shack, shack.
Ochre light holds the interior still and suggests the great brown world outside. Andy shifts tackily on the caramel seating. Everything exchanges the super-rich heat. Everyone is imperfectly still.
The train scutters over a long bridge that might have been an aqueduct in a country with water. Andy looks rightwards and out at the blue concrete towers that many people live in. The windows seem concrete too, but they cannot be. The train rises to the height of the pyramid roofs, corrugated iron with verandas where people store boxes.
On one of the verandas Andy sees a young man. A very young man with a beard. He is leaning backwards. He is in a harness and the harness is roped upwards and the man lifts his feet and he starts to rise. Andy realises that the man is being lifted into the air by a bale of hay. An ordinary cuboid bale of hay. The man is rising slowly, keeping his rope clear and his harness steady and looking down. Always looking down but not noticing that the rope is stroking the rough edge of the iron eaves, and that he will surely collide with the roof if he does not kick against the wall or the post.
Andy looks away and leftwards to the packs of houses that lie under a different sky; dark blue, rippling. People look out of the windows at the passing train, but they are small and Andy cannot see their faces. No one is talking in the carriage. Andy looks away to his own hands.
Looking rightwards again the plain is clear except for a dotting of stunted farmhouses and the white sky-searching arms of the gum trees. Far ahead is an enormous tower block. No. It is a mountain-high stack of hay bales shifting from side to side slightly, slowly. The tower looms, it susurrates. Andy feels threatened. He goes to sleep.
Andy wakes up and the hay tower is exactly where it was, shouldering its mass in one place almost as if it has followed him. There is a station in a town ahead where he is meeting a man about a job. The train slows and slows and the song ends. Andy squeezes out of the narrow carriage door with his carpetbag and steps soundlessly onto the platform. The train is gone.
The sun is flat and white. The colour alone could make the world hot, even without its fire. Andy walks to the main street, walks past the tiled walls of the hotel and stops outside the café. A hand-painted sign outside reads: Chew and Spew. He steps inside. The café smells good.
‘Long black, please.’
‘I’ll bring her over.’
Andy sits down on a detonated sofa in the shade. A blue apron shifts by. A man dips, shows his shiny head and wispy hair, and places the coffee on a low table.
The man nods, smiles to himself, and walks back behind the counter. He starts to polish a glass with his rubber.
‘Aren’t you hot in that suit?’
‘I suppose I am.’
‘Did you need that waistcoat?’
‘It goes with the suit.’
‘How’s the coffee?’
‘What brings you here?’
‘Do you mind the questions?’
Andy drinks two thirds of the coffee hot, waits, and drinks the last third cold.
‘Andy. Thank you.’
Andy crosses the street in the shadow of the hay tower. The mining office is opposite the tower behind a steel door. The office is air conditioned. Cool. Cold. The receptionist sits still behind her counter, not even pretending to type. She looks at Andy.
‘Good afternoon,’ says Andy. ‘I’m here to see Krasczek.’
‘Krychek. He’s expecting you. What’s your name?’
‘Andy, he’s expecting you. Take the stairs.’
‘Why? Is the lift broken?’
‘No. It’s better for you if you take the stairs.’
Andy runs up the stairs and opens the door at the top. He looks out. There is a simple fall to the street. Andy runs down the steps, finds another door and opens it to find a mostly empty room with a man sitting on a large green leather chair with a stool at his feet. In the corner is a tough-looking yard brush.
‘Krasczek, yes. You must be Andy.’
‘Yes, I must be.
Andy steps forward and crouches on the stool.
‘The mine is flooded.’
‘Flooded? But the world is so dry in these parts.’
‘Not in the mine it isn’t. So the job is to make it dry again.’
‘So do you have any hydraulic equipment. Shinsky pumps? Outflow piping with secure attachments? Diggers for a run-off reservoir?’
‘No, nothing like that, none of it is necessary. You just have to make them stop.’
‘Make who stop what?’
‘Make the miners stop crying.’
‘But I’m an engineer. I don’t do… psychology.’
‘How you stop them is not my concern. Stop the flooding is all.’
Andy replies silently.
‘I’ll pay you to try.’
‘I’ve never done this kind of work before.’
‘Where’s the mine?’
‘I’ll drive you. It’s not far.’
A snow-like rush of dust and dried grass sweeps around the bubble curves of the car. Scraps of hay and empty golden chocolate wrappers litter the floor. A sweet smell of coconut perfumes the air. Krasczek brakes suddenly and opens the door. Andy hears a faint tremor of moaning and steps out of the car. Krasczek is already most of the way to a large shack. Tiny pieces of hay shoot and swirl around in the air, forcing Andy to shield his eyes, purse his lips, and breathe through his nose. He begins running and reaches Krasczek as he passes through the shack’s screen door. Krasczek shakes himself down and takes off a pair of protective glasses and a mouth mask that Andy had not noticed. Andy wipes his eyes and looks around.
The rise, rise and fall, fall of men sobbing has found a shape, each shudder mounting on the others. One man stands in the middle of the room, water planing down his cheeks onto his twisting, outstretched hands. His fingers shine clean in the bare bulb light of the shack. Another weeper stands in a corner leaning dutifully over a large tub that holds a flourishing bamboo plant. Dozens of men sit on benches at long tables eating identical meat pies with tomato sauce on top, buckets scattered at their feet. More sit at barstools gripping tubes of beer, the floor beneath them slippery with tears. A solitary tearless woman moves up and down the room with a mop and bucket.
‘It gets worse.’
‘How did it start?’
‘It just did.’
‘Have you called a doctor?’
‘He just said it was idiopathic and started crying.’
‘Are the women crying?’
‘Why don’t you hire more women?’
‘It’s too late for that.’
‘How come you’re not crying?’
‘I can’t cry. I have to use tear drops if I want to cry.’ Krasczek takes a golden envelope out of his pocket, slips out the rough, brown candy disc and pops it whole into his mouth. It looks uncomfortably large. Andy waits for him to swallow.
‘How long does it take for new miners to start crying?’
‘Varies—usually about two weeks.’
‘How long does it take for them to stop when they’re off the job?’
‘About four weeks.’
‘Why don’t you run a shift system? Two weeks on and four weeks off.’
‘That’d triple my wage bill.’
‘I can afford it. I’m already paying time-and-a-half tear money.’
‘Why don’t you do it?’
‘Because you’ve only just thought of it.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Well, I can handle the recruitment and the scheduling. I’d like you to survey the mine, see if there’s any damage, and get it back to work.’
‘I’ll do that.’
Andy walks through the hay storm to the mine head, climbs into the cage, and descends. The hot soupy air shudders with sobs and low blubbing. The cage falls rapidly and rapidly slows before stopping. Andy rattles the gate open, presses the signal buzzer twice and steps out. A man with a long wet beard appears out of the gloom carrying a lamp and silently leads Andy down a narrow passage. The walls glitter cheaply. The sound of men crying comes from every direction, growing louder as they half-run along with their necks craned down to avoid scraping their heads on the ceiling.
Nearly an hour’s walk later Andy sees an orange light up ahead. They are soon standing at the entrance of a vast chamber. Nearly a thousand men are sitting or standing, alone or in groups, all weeping in their own ways, their silvery issue sluicing across the floor; a great self-syncopating orchestra.
Andy quickly works out that standard pumping equipment will deal with the flooding without any problem.
‘Is any work getting done?’
‘Why haven’t you got pumping?’
The man wipes his beard and shrugs his shoulders.
‘How can you stand the noise?’
‘After a while it’s like it was always here.’
‘Why don’t the men quit?’
Within two weeks Andy has a pumping rig fully operational. A month later the new shifts are working. There are so many men on the recovery shift that a large camp is built on the edge of town. At night the men go out into the desert to cry and drink beer. Dazzling flowers begin to rise up through the abandoned beer cans and soon the bloom is spreading outwards for miles around. Farmers move in and sow the reclaimed desert with maize and wheat. Many acres are planted with spinach, zucchini, pak choi and peppers. The growers come to an agreement with the mine owners to allow its workers to become shift weepers after spending periods of time underground. During the night they water the orchards of oranges, lemons, and mangoes with their tears.
Eventually the men dessicate and have to return to the city to rehydrate but there are always enough people to take their place.
Andy returns some years later and stays at the new resort hotel. He stands on the balcony and looks out at the gently shifting tower of hay. The sound of discreet crying merges soothingly with the odour of ripening fruit, and silhouetted against the high, fat, yellow moon is a solitary man held aloft by a bale of hay