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The Straw

the straw


Estimated reading time — 6 minutes

I remember the last thing Brian said to me. He said it in such a nonchalant way that none of us thought anything of it. We’d just finished another one of the interminable lectures on sexual harassment, diversity or whatever the lastest bullshit was that the mining industry was trying to pretend it cared about when Brian stood up and said with a slight smile.“Well, that’s it. I’m done”. With that simple statement, he got up and walked into his office, tidied up his desk and went out for the day. Later when we talked about what had happened that day. Rob, mentioned that he’d thought it a bit odd that when he’d gone into the office after Brian had left, he’d found that Brians usually chaotic desk had been cleaned up.

Jimmy, one of the track gang boys, reckoned that he’d seen Brian that morning washing his ute. He remembered later that he’d thought it odd that someone would wash a ute just prior to heading “down-track”. He figured that Brian just had a quiet day and was looking to kill some time. As this was hardly an uncommon occurrence in the railways, he’d put it out of his mind until the discovery that night had brought it back into unforgiving focus.

Now, as those of us who were close to him knew, Brian had been going through some pretty rough times in the proceeding months. His marriage had fallen apart, and by all accounts, his estranged wife had been playing hardball with the kids. He’d told me a few weeks before in passing as if it was nothing major that he had been served with a restraining order by his wife and could no longer see his kids. I’d not really known what to say, so I asked a few polite questions, offered a few empty platitudes, and he’d gone on his way.

Hell, he seemed fine. I mean, I wanted to help, but what could I do? I asked him if he was doing “ok” each day, but that seemed, if anything, to irritate him, so I gave up. I wanted to care, but you know, I also didn’t really want to get involved. Looking back, I realise now that we all were doing the same thing. None of us really cared about his troubles, but equally, none of us wanted to show that we didn’t care. It must have been obvious to Brian, just as it has been obvious to me in the last few weeks. I didn’t realise then what I know all too well now. When people pretend to care, it is worse than if they are just upfront about it.

We’ve all heard the saying about the straw that broke the camels back. But how many of us have really stopped and considered if our selfish actions have been heaping straws up on our friends and coworkers. Over the last few weeks that I knew Brian, he seemed mostly ok. Sure he was a bit cranker than usual, and maybe a couple of times, I noticed how the smile he was wearing would melt off his face when he thought nobody was watching. But I mean, he was “ok”, right?

Things continued on as usual, and by usual, I mean as always in the industry. I was looking to snag a promotion, so I was busy trying to show off for the managers. Brian had put an improvement idea in a while back to get the offices repainted. He was hoping to replace the grey paint that had been flaking off the walks with something a bit more light and cheerful. Well, I jumped on the idea and painted half the office bright pink and the other half bright blue. I was pretty chuffed, thinking how it would look on the virtual meetings with management; How I could give a spiel about how we stood for men and women’s health and equality and all that good stuff.

When Brian saw what I’d done, he was pissed. He took one look at the walls before passing his judgement. “It’s shit” he’d said. The next day, I’d had to tell him that the promotion he’d been offered the previous swing had vanished. He was a high performer in the team, but management was looking for more diversity, so they’d decided to pass him by again. I tried to soften the blow by offering him a secondment to help train the new leaders we’d hired and set up the systems for them. But, to my surprise, he turned it down. He’d been angry after that for a couple of days. But then, as always, he’d just seemed to get over it.

Again I pretended I cared; I asked him if he was doing “ok”, and I tried to emphasise with him. But, He wasn’t interested. He just changed the subject and moved on. So, all in all, I was not concerned when, after the meeting that Sunday, he went down track and I didn’t hear from him all day. When at 3 pm I tried to call him on the radio, and I didn’t get an answer, I wasn’t worried. It was only when 5 pm rolled around, and I still couldn’t get through to him on the phone or the radio I began to be a bit uneasy.

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My sense of unease began to grow when nobody could remember seeing him or his car down track all that day. “Oh fuck” I’d thought “If he’s cracked it and fucked off to Newman to fly home. I’m going to look like an arsehole”. I should have reported him missing then. But instead, as I was more concerned about the administrative repercussions than anything else, I decided to keep it quiet and go out for a look instead.

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I sent Rob to Newman to scout our the airport, and I set off down marble bar road to check the track. I don’t know what caused me to look, but as I crossed over one of the little rivers that crossed the road before we hit the rail service track, I suddenly felt the urge to look down the river. It was near the end of the wet season, and there was still a fair bit of water sitting in the usually dry river bed, so I was a bit surprised to notice that the right bank of the shallow river had been gouged by the passage of a utes tire. I was unwilling to risk getting my car bogged, so I parked up and started carefully to follow the tracks on foot.

The tracks were pretty fresh, and I had no problem following them, even with the slowly setting sun half-blinding me. After maybe 15 minutes of walking, as I rounded a fork, I spotted Brian’s ute parked in the middle of the stream under a giant ghost gum. By the time I had made my way close enough to make out the Silhouette of Brian kneeling on the canopy, the sun was almost at the line of the horizon, and the world had taken on the otherworldly hue of the magic hour so beloved by photographers.

I called out his name. Brian half turned his head towards me, his figure black against the golden setting sun.“Are you ok?” I asked, wincing slightly as the cool water filled my boots. Brian only response was to sigh deeply as if in a final expression of disappointment or, perhaps, disgust at the pathetic shallowness and impotence of my question and turn back to the golden sun.

His judgement against me and all humanity seemingly made, he suddenly gasped and arched his back. With a jerk, his arms spasmed downwards, he stumbled uneasily to his feet and, with a sure and final motion, threw himself off the edge. As he fell, I suddenly noticed that he was connected to the sky by a black tether. His fall stopped as suddenly as it had started with a wet cracking noise followed moments later by a wet splash. I scrambled forward, aware suddenly of a metallic grassy smell filling the air. The next instant the sun dipped below the horizon, suddenly removing the golden backdrop from the world. Brian hung there in stark relief against the pale rocks and light green of the leaves.

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He had hung himself, but if that was not terrible enough, he had also committed a form of seppuku, driving a long knife into his stomach and slicing downwards just before he’d jumped. This had caused his intestines to spill out when the rope had stopped his fall. Mercifully the noose had done its job and snapped his neck, but his corpse still tremored and spasmed as I stood there in horror.

It’s been months since that day. But I can’t forget it. Of course, the company pretended to care and offered me counselling, and everyone asked me if I was “ok”. But you know what? It is not ok, and I’ve realised now what Brian knew then. People’s fake care and feigned sympathy are worse than them not caring at all. All in all, it was just another straw on my back, and you know what, “I’m done”…

Credit : Andrew Stadtmauer

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