Alice Thompson's wonderful Hard Rubbish appeared in the "Stellar" issue of The Suburban Review. I talked to her about rubbish, people and writing.

ANNA: What was your inspiration for this piece?

ALICE: This piece is actually all true, give or take a few lines tinged with over-exaggerated creative license, so I suppose I have to give the inspirational credit to my mother for her hoarding tendencies and my sister, Phoebe, for her long-suffering support. Really the actual inspiration for this piece came one afternoon when Phoebe came over to my house after school. We were walking around Fitzroy and found an incredible mess of things. Skulking around in that empty block of land made me reflect on a lot of things, not least Mum's love of hard rubbish and my own apparently lacking standards of hygiene and decorum.

ANNA: Are you a hard rubbish trawler? What's the best thing you've seen on the side of the road? Have you seen those people who go to more affluent suburbs to find TVs?

ALICE: I am a tragic hard rubbish fiend. My spirits lift and I become reckless if I even so much as spot a looming pile of trash on the footpath ahead. I often find myself sitting smugly on my bed surveying the glorious street finds around me in my room. My own mother who I assuredly inherited this behaviour from, saw me struggling with a giant mirror last week and actually said, "What do you want that for, it's crap!” Hard rubbish is a really interesting thing. There is the luck and joy in finding a brilliant item and the jolly/arduous quest in manoeuvring said brilliance from street to house (with all the furtive looks and carrying breathers in between). But hard rubbish can also be bewildering and incredibly sad. Recently a woman died in my parents' street and whoever cleared out her house just dumped everything on the nature strip without bothering to sort it. There were photographs, books, and even a container of nutri-grain.

Some people even make a living from hard rubbish by selling metal or repurposing furniture, there's a whole intricate community connected to it.

(Speaking of TVs, we actually have an enormous hard rubbish plasma TV - our most prized possession!)

ANNA: What do you love about writing short stories? What makes a great short story?

ALICE: I like writing poems as well as stories, but short stories lend a certain sense of achievement in their crafting and completing that poems often don't. Writing makes me feel productive and proud of myself for wanting to, and being able to, create something. I also find writing, especially personal non-fiction pieces such as this one, to be incredibly cathartic and rewarding (though it pains me to admit that I simply don't write enough - does anyone?)

I really enjoy reading and writing stories with vivid imagery. Short stories can be powerfully potent and I love writing that creates an urgent sense or image of a time, a place or a person.


Hard Rubbish

Phoebe says, ‘We’re already seventy percent like Mum’. She says this as we contemplate the empty block of land along Kerr St through its temporary wire fencing. ‘The transformation is basically inevitable.’

‘Is that a shirt?’

There is a mound of rubbish heaped just beyond the fence, the overgrown grass of the lot flattened around it. An inexplicable semi-circular sort of structure built from wooden pallets sits stuffed with junk in its centre.

‘There’s a guitar?’

It’s not rubbish really, not refuse, more like the remnants of domesticity, things someone has left behind. Phoebe and I stand on the footpath. We wait for a car to pass.

‘Imagine watching this,’ I say to Phoebe, as we pause then crawl through a hole in the fence. We contort ourselves through the wire, hindered by our stupidly oversized jackets. It is a freezing afternoon. Phoebe crunches over pieces of broken glass and split canvas frames and tugs on the piece of brightly coloured material caught under wood and wire. It’s not a shirt—just some kind of decorative curtain with a Japanese print, sodden with last night’s rain.

We stand baffled by the disarray. There are new, empty Chinese style takeaway boxes. There are picture frames and glass, none of them whole. There are art supplies and tin cans and honey. None of it makes sense. Not the Why or the Who or the How. We pick at the pile, hopeful. We are hunched over, expertly nudging things with our toes to uncover the potential treasures underneath.

Phoebe wears her school uniform and an oversized grey diving coat lined with red faux fur. We pride ourselves on being semi-stylish, yet somehow see fit to walk around the so-called hippest parts of Melbourne in the laziest outfits imaginable. It reminds me of Mum, who wears vintage dresses, patterned shirts and skirts, yet was also a front-running pioneer of the skirt over jeans on runners look. With a dogged determination, and a distinct don’t-care attitude, she’ll wear unknotted ribbons loose in her hair.

 

There is a hoarder gene, I think. A hereditary disposition towards scavenging hard rubbish that evolves with age and income and share house desperation. In primary school we used to fold our bodies in half, holding our breath in the brace position, twisting out of view of passing cars, as Mum screeched to a halt in a suburban street. She would peer over the passenger seat, scanning piles of televisions, chairs, kitchenettes. Almost any item you could imagine.

Phoebe and I and our long suffering brothers came to recognise the telltale signs of hard rubbish week in our area. It would take us at least twice as long to get anywhere. Mum would drive in her usual haphazard manner, all abrupt acceleration and anxious braking. Yet, there would be intermittent stops beginning with a seemingly casual slowing. Then, oblivious to any cars behind us, Mum would edge minutely towards the kerb. We would all groan and yell and complain, then dutifully assume our positions, hiding from our silent shame. Mum would dart out and pick up the desired item. Then we would continue onwards, slightly squashed, with chair legs blocking our view.

 

There were times throughout the week when Mum would congregate all of us in the back room. She’d stand at the kitchen table with a small pile of varying debris.

‘Right,’ she would say while holding up a lone loose button. ‘Help me for five minutes! Where is this from?’

We usually pleaded with her to discard all of it, the singular shoelace, two chess pieces, the cracked plastic lid. But then the next week one of our shoelaces would snap and we’d lament our wastefulness.

Chairs were Mum’s favourite. At one point we counted 53 places to sit in our family home, giving each Thompson a personal option of almost nine chairs. In a strange way, 53 chairs are a lot less than you may imagine.

 

It used to exasperate me, the constant stops and the exaggerated shame my siblings and I shared. Now I feel a thrill when I walk down the street and see a large obstacle on the footpath, especially if it’s close to home. I have become adept at balancing large cumbersome objects on the handlebars of my bike, over short distances. There have only been a few minor crash incidents.

At the empty lot on Kerr St we find antique silver forks, speed dealer sunglasses, chipped ceramic crockery, a weird plastic container filled with tobacco, a hand-painted psychedelic pillow case. There are ancient empty boxes, an Arnott’s tin lid from the turn of the century, half-dried tubes of paint, balding brushes, and the splintered head of a cello. We deliberate over this last one.

‘What will you do with it?’ Phoebe questions me. She resists hoarding, fighting the nagging pull. I am reluctant to leave even remnants of a musical instrument to be ground into the dirt of a future construction site.

 ‘Put it on the wall?’ is my only idea as I brandish the mangled wood. I am the victor, though Phoebe needs little persuading. We lug our findings home, trailing the tangled fibres of the ragged cello bow that’s having a particularly bad hair day. The transformation into our mother is almost complete. Except that she’d potentially find more useful things.

At home my housemates are bemused, then disgusted. Particularly by the cello head. We laugh and I wash the forks and put the mystery tobacco in the bin. Later, I untangle the cello’s bow from the tuning pegs. They’re both still sitting on the kitchen bench.


Alice Thompson recently completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne majoring in History and Literature. Her writing has appeared in Voiceworks and The Suburban Review and she has previously written for AdamNotEve. This summer she hopes to write and read more, learn to sew, and travel to Sri Lanka and Thailand. (This biography entry has now become a binding contract to fulfil these plans). Find her on Twitter or read her music reviews.

The latest issue of The Suburban Review (Vol. 5: Family) is available to buy on their website. Ten bucks delivered! Support local writers, and get some words in your face.


One of my favourite things about Bloc Features is the chance to revisit pieces from the near and far past. Australian journals are putting out wonderful writing year-round, and there are so many gems to uncover. Every month we'll feature a story from an Australian journal, past or present.

If you've read something you think should have a second run, I'd love to hear from you! Please email your suggestions to features@thewritersbloc.net - Anna Spargo-Ryan, Bloc Features Editor

annaspargoryan's picture

annaspargoryan

A blurb about you