The Shirt

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

Way out in the remote outback of Australia's Northern Territory, a seemingly harmless prank takes on a different dimension ...

Bernie was an arsehole.

He was a bully. He was built like a brick shithouse, tall, wide, massive, with bright red hair, fairy skin full of freckles with a predilection to skin cancer, and no neck. In his younger days he had played rugby, and had enjoyed smashing people down, grinding them into the ground and just generically hurting them.

A serious knee injury put an end to his playing days. He'd learned the trade of diesel mechanic, and after a punch-up on a Saturday night at his local that left a bloke in a coma with brain damage, he'd pulled the pin on living in town, or at least anywhere within reach of coppers, and he'd gone bush. He'd poked around for a while here, there and everywhere, plying his trade. The one thing there is always a need for out the back of woop-woop is a diesel mechanic. People didn't ask too many questions, or even none at all, as long as he could get the engines going and fix the gear boxes on the fourwheel drives, tractors, graders and bores that pumped up the water from miles underground.

He made the rounds down the dusty tracks, staying a few years in one place, a few months in another. His habit of only talking to people in barked insults, snapping and shouting, and revelling in humiliating others made him few friends over the years. As he got older he got fatter and fatter, till all of his bulk was made of lard, concentrated in a huge gut that stuck out the front of him. He stopped getting into fights because he was too slow now, and kept getting hit by people who could actually move, or, come to that, see their own dick. It had been years since he'd last caught sight of his own.

Eventually he drifted over The Line, separating The Stone Country from the Land of Red Dirt, and he found himself a spot as a mechanic on a cattle station four hours from the nearest town, in Red Dirt Heartland. This town itself was made up of a roadhouse, a shop and a campground for bright-eyed and bushy-tailed backpackers doing the rounds and soaking up the views of The Great Unknown Country. Occasionally Bernie would venture into town, drink himself stupid and try to get a leg-over with some of the more impressionable female travellers, which very rarely worked. If ever. After these unsuccessful attempts at getting laid he'd drive back for four hours, blind drunk, down the long dusty road back to his workshop, where he'd pass out in his room wallpapered top to bottom with pictures of naked women with big tits.

It was during one of those drives back from town that he noticed the new craze that was spreading through the area. Driving through a haze of alcohol he became dimly aware of something different about the side of the road. He pulled over and stumbled out of his ute, hanging onto the mudguard, and looked out over a smattering of anthills. These are found everywhere throughout that country. They're solid, tall and narrow structures of mud, water and formic acid, built painstakingly by white ants, termites, who can't stand the sun due to their delicate peachy skin and tender disposition and therefore build these huge things to keep themselves cool, shady and out of the sun. They then use it as a base to go and eat and destroy anything within cooee that they can get their hands on. Despite not having anything resembling a brain that can be detected by any scientific method, they nevertheless, in unison and with mindboggling collaborative effort, build these things aligned perfectly on a north-south axis, exposing only a thin leading edge to the hot midday sun, and facing the wide eastern and western faces to the cooler points of sunrise and sunset. These mounds frequently rise to more than three or four metres high.

Bernie looked out at them and rubbed his eyes, not quite believing what he saw. He blinked and looked again. Nothing had changed. There in front of him was a whole heap of these anthills. And stacks of them had been dressed up. Some were wearing stockmen's hats at jaunty angles. Others had truckers' caps turned back to front, with the peak facing backwards, in another lamentable expression of some fool trying to imitate what passes for American culture. Over there someone had tied a pair of trousers to one of them; and over this way there was a mob of them with shirts draped over their shoulders, looking for all the world like scarecrows, if, that is, scarecrows were made of three metre tall towers of bleached-white mud as hard as concrete.

Bernie stared. His mouth dropped wide open. Flies flew in, not wasting such an opportunity. He shut his mouth and spat them back out again, swearing. Then he started grinning.

He turned back to his ute, opened the door and started burrowing around in the space behind the seat in the cab. Eventually he pulled out an old shirt he'd stopped wearing after the back of it had ripped a while ago. He'd chucked it in the back of the cab, and used it occasionally as an all-purpose go-to rag. He held it out in front of him, eyed it appraisingly and shook it a few times. Cockroaches and grasshoppers fell out of it and crawled and hopped away. He nodded to himself, grabbed his phone with his other hand, and waddled through the long dry grass to the nearest anthill. He draped it over the top of it, smoothened out the sleeves just like so, stood next to it and snapped away at a few selfies. He now vaguely remembered hearing about this down the pub. People were doing this and posting the shots online. It was A Thing. It was all over Social Media, apparently. Bernie snorted. He'd get in on that one quick-smart. Might even get a root out of it, half his luck.

Job done he turned around, and, leaving the shirt covering the termite mound, got back in his ute and carried on down the road.

He got home and passed out in the habitual way.


Bernie woke up with a hangover. Nothing new about that. He shook his head in boar fashion and went to work.

During the day he felt a bit woozy. The hangover, he thought, was a particularly vicious one. He couldn't remember drinking any more – or less – than any other time, or having done anything different from usual. He shrugged it off and got on with the day.

By night time he still felt off, and couldn't muster an appetite, any more than he had been able to all day. He didn't bother to turn up at the dinner table, shared with all the other station hands, and hit the sack early.

The next morning he was light headed when he got up. Feeling queasy he skipped breakfast again, and took himself off to his workshop. He poked around listlessly all day, couldn't get his head quite right, and dropped his tools several times, once, with great accuracy, right on the bit of his workboot just outside of the steel cap area. It hurt. A lot. He marvelled at the robustness of his hangover, and idly wondered if there had been something in the pub-grub he'd had. Probably that filthy Asian backpacker chick from behind the bar had stuck something in it just to spite him, after he'd asked her to come out and fuck him, and she'd told him to go fuck himself. His pasty face reddened down to the deepest reaches of his non-existent neck with anger. All the blokes at the bar had laughed at that, hard, and he was made to look like an idiot. He ground his teeth. He'd sort her out that one, if she was still there next time. There was nothing a few good slaps around the head wouldn't fix. Jumped-up smartarse bitch.

He couldn't stomach the idea of food all day, and went to bed again without having eaten anything at all.

On the third day he woke up groggy. He hadn't slept well, and had spent all night tossing and turning to and fro on his camp bed, with weird dreams and nightmares running through his head. He stood up, pulled on his pants and buttoned them up. He took one step forwards, and his pants dropped around his knees. Bernie gaped at them. He pulled them back up again and notched them in the same old hole as he always did. The last one, obviously. He let go and took another step forwards. They fell down to his knees again. Bernie looked down in stunned disbelief. Seemed he'd lost a bit of weight recently. He grinned smugly to himself. It looked like his efforts to lose weight were finally paying off, although, come to think of it, he hadn't actually made any efforts to do so. He shrugged. That wasn't the point. He hitched up his pants again and ratcheted up his belt a few extra notches. Several notches, he noticed absentmindedly.

He moved through that day like in a haze. People around him gave him funny sideways looks, but he barked abuse at them in his usual way, and they turned away. No one said anything. Not where he could hear it, anyway. He sniffed and pinched his mouth into an ugly line. Let anyone pipe up, and he'd smash their brains in.

By lunchtime he felt zonked. He had to sit down and catch his breath. Strange, he thought, he hadn't really done anything out of the ordinary. Nothing he didn't do any other day. Must be the weather, he figured, it had been unseasonally hot later into the year than usual. He struggled to focus on the job all afternoon, and towards the end, when fitting a particularly troublesome gearbox, he felt forced to ask his apprentice to give him a hand, because it kept slipping away from him. He frowned. That had never happened before, not in thirty years of being a mechanic. So he bellowed at the other bloke, abused the shit out of him, and fetched him a good one around the ears for being smart. That made him feel a bit better.

But not for long. He knocked off early, much against his long-held work practices, and went back to his room. No point in going to the dining room, he wasn't hungry. In fact, the very notion of eating made him feel like throwing up. Come to think of it, the very thought of throwing up made him want to ...

He made it to the toilet just in time.

A thin streak of yellowish brown projectile vomit hit the inside of the bowl and squirted back up into his face, hitting him squarely between the eyes. He heaved his guts out, and dropped to his knees, shaking. He retched over and over again, until there was nothing left coming out. He stayed down on his knees for a good long while after he'd finished spewing up, trying to muster the strength to get to his feet. His heart was racing, and his breathing was laboured. He felt like shit. He dizzily thought back to the chick serving him the pub-grub. He was gonna kill her, that one.

He staggered back to his room, crawled into his bed, and lay on his back staring up at the naked women plastered all over his walls and ceiling. They looked down on him disdainfully. He glared at them. They laughed at him in return.

The fourth day he woke up feeling like he'd eaten a feral cat raw, and without skinning it first. His tongue felt thick and swollen in his mouth. He dragged himself over to the bathroom sink, and looked up into the mirror. He blinked, hard, twice.

The face looking back at him from the mirror reminded him of something, but he couldn't quite bring to mind what it was. He scanned it. Big bags under the eyes, black lines; yes, well, no surprise there. He'd had food poisoning for the last three days. Four, including this day, judging by how shithouse he felt. But, that aside, his face looked weird. His third chin was gone. So was the second one. There was a weird, concave sloping thing underneath his one remaining chin that he'd never seen there before. Distant memories vied for the attention of the limited amount of brain cells that were available for consultation, or just available at all. A little bell went "ting!" in the back of his aching mind.

It was a neck. Swaddled in loose flaps of skin, and none too pretty, but a neck nevertheless.

He stared at it speechlessly.

He hadn't seen one of those for at least thirty years, or at least not on himself. He'd had his hands around plenty of them in the intervening years, and had often relished the feeling of lifting the poor bastard in his hands up off the ground by his neck alone, and squeezing him hard. But his own? He shook his head. It hurt. He stopped shaking it.

A dark brown suspicious thought sneaked into what passed for his brain. He stared straight into the mirror. He blinked. He started counting to ten under his breath, then couldn't remember what came after eight, gave up and looked down.

And clutched at the bathroom sink.

His gut was just about gone.

What had once been a proud beer barrel of a belly was now sadly reduced to a pathetic little pot, a flabby little roll of lard, a spare tyre only fit for a pushbike.

He looked further down. And further. His mouth fell open. He could see his own dick. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen it. Or that anyone else had seen it, let alone touch it, said a nasty little voice at the back of his head. He looked again, and shut his mouth with a snap. He could still see it. Now he wished he couldn't. It seemed like the years of hiding hadn't been kind to it.

He dragged himself away from the bathroom mirror, and buttoned up his pants. Tightened his belt. All the way, right down to the smallest hole in the belt. He shook his head. It defied belief.

He managed to get to work, but found himself hanging on to, variously, the work bench, the hoist, or a vehicle just to stay upright. He pretended to be taking it easy, and pottering around, but at smoko his apprentice came over to him.

'Hey boss, are you all right?' The bloke looked at him with concern.

Bernie turned a look of pure hatred on him. 'Fuck off. Mind your own fucking business, you cunt.' He weakly wiped off a bit of spit drooling out of the corner of his mouth.

The apprentice flinched, but didn't give up. 'Mate, you look like shit. You got a problem.'

Bernie leaned forward and pushed his red blotchy face into the other bloke's face. 'No, I don't have a problem, you do. You know what your problem is? Me. And it's gonna get a lot worse if you don't fuck off and get back to work.'

The apprentice stared back at him, and blinked. He shook his head slowly. 'Nah boss,' he said, 'I reckon you got some serious problem here ...'

'I said fuck o–'

'... and I reckon you need help from the Country Man,' finished the apprentice. 'My uncle, he can help you him that one. Mebbe,' he added.

Bernie stared at him in disbelief. Here before him stood a representative of what he firmly held to be the least accomplished people on earth. Bernie didn't believe in anything, and, apart from diesel mechanics, rugby and alcohol didn't know anything about anything. But he knew, from the deepest darkest dungeons of the very core of his being, with a rock-solid, unshakeable conviction you could have cut diamonds with, that, whatever it was that he didn't believe in and didn't know anything about, it was far, far superior, by definition, than anything these people could possibly know or believe in.

Bernie bunched his fist, pulled it back and swung at his apprentice's head with what he thought was a mighty blow. The apprentice stepped back and dodged it easily. The blow went wide and fizzled out impotently and limply against the windscreen of the fourwheel drive Bernie had been pretending to work on. Bernie grimaced and shook his hand.

That night he spent a long hard while on his knees in front of the dunny bowl heaving out his guts. Driving the porcelain bus, he thought wryly. Who woulda bloody thought.

It was all he could do to drag himself off to bed. The merest thought of food brought on more spewing spasms and cramps.

That night he pissed and shat himself.

On the morning of the fifth day Bernie felt barely alive. It was only the thought of lying there in his own piss and shit that motivated him to drag himself out of bed, and, with huge effort, into the shower. He let the hot water run over him and shivered uncontrollably. He lost control of his bladder and bowels again.

He made it out, got his pants on, hands shaking. The belt was too big now, even done up at the very first hole. He ferreted around nervously, found a bit of old blue-and-yellow rope lying around, tied that around his waist. It held up his pants, barely.

Holding onto the walls he made it into the workshop. He stopped at the door, swaying, trembling. Sweat ran down his face. He could feel things rumbling in his gut, and squeezed his sphincter shut with all his might. He clenched his fists and breathed heavily.

He looked across the workshop floor.

There, across the space, stood his apprentice, feet wide, hands in his pockets. The apprentice stared at Bernie and said nothing.

Bernie stared back.

He opened up his mouth to say something, then shut it again. He shook his head, opened it again, shut it again. He took a deep breath, opened his mouth for the third time, and finally managed to speak.

'How ya goin?' he managed.

The apprentice nodded solemnly. 'Not too shabby. Yourself?'

Bernie swallowed. Sweat dripped down his forehead. 'Not too bad.' Even Bernie frowned at this obvious lie. 'Uh ...'


'Your uncle, the Country Man ...'

'What about him?'

'You reckon ...' Bernie swallowed hard, with humiliation as much as whatever his affliction was, 'you reckon you could ask him to come and see me?' His eyes looked glassy.

'Hmmm,' said the apprentice. He nodded thoughtfully. 'Yeah, mebbe, ey.' Then he looked Bernie in what was left of his face, hard. 'What's the magic word?'

Bernie flinched. Since he had been in first grade in primary school he had beaten up any bastard who had dared ask him what the magic word was, including all of his teachers. He swallowed again, this time swallowing his pride. It tasted bitter.

'Uh ...' Bernie dug deep down to long buried and oppressed memories, '... uh ... please?' His knees buckled, he struck out in panic and managed to collapse on an old plastic chair nearby. 'Pretty please? With sugar on it?' He began to cry, with deep, harsh sobs coming up from his throat. Tears leaked out of his eyes.

The apprentice nodded again, mollified. 'No worries, I'll go get him. You stop here, ey. Don't go anywhere.' He eyed Bernie up and down. 'Not that you're likely to do that anyway, ey.'

He came back five minutes later, followed by an old man. The old man stood in front of Bernie. He was dressed in a threadbare pair of shorts, and a ragged shirt. His feet were bare on the concrete floor of the workshop. He had a thick white beard, and wiry grey-white hair.

Bernie looked up into his eyes. They were as dark as the armpit of the night, bottomless holes into another dimension. Bernie shivered.

'Ey mate, you crook, ey?' asked the old man.

Bernie nodded wordlessly.

'You been crook five days, ey?' The old man scrutinised him.

Bernie nodded again.

'And you went to town, ey?' the old man said.

Bernie sniffed and bobbed his head up and down.

'So,' the old man said, and rubbed his beard, 'did you stop at that place with all those anthills?'

Bernie looked up, speechless. How did he know? ...

'Just nod, mate, I know you have,' said the old bloke. 'And,' he added, 'you seem to be very good at nodding.'

Bernie stared at him in profound confusion. Then he nodded.

'Fancy that,' muttered the old fella. 'And, correct me if I'm wrong, but, did you leave anything behind there at all? Like, for instance,' here the old bloke rolled his eyes in exasperation, 'some clothes? Or a hat? Or something like that?'

Bernie found his voice. 'Uh ... yeah, I did. A shirt.' He looked at the old fella. 'Why?'

'Never you mind mate, I'm asking the questions here,' said the Country Man sharply. 'And what did you do with it exactly?'

Bernie looked into the old face in front of him. Then, inexplicably, he found himself looking down and away. 'Uh ... I put it on an anthill,' he mumbled.

'Of course you did.' The Country Man sighed. 'And then you took a selfie, didn't you.' It wasn't a question.

Bernie nodded again, lost for words.

'Right, well, that figures.' The old man straightened up and stretched out his back. 'All right, this is what's happening.' The old bloke looked Bernie in the eye. 'That shirt is killing you. The ants are eating it and covering it over with their mud, and that's what's eating you.'

A faint flicker of the old arrogance burst into flame in Bernie's fevered skull. 'What? That's bullshit! That's impossible!'

' Suit yourself.' The Country Man sniffed.

'That's ridiculous superstitio–'

'In two days you'll be dead. Have it your way.' The Country Man turned around.

Bernie's big mouth snapped shut. The flame of arrogance died. 'No! No! Please don't go! I'm sorry, I ... what am I supposed to do?' His chin started trembling.

The old man turned back to him. He fixed Bernie with two eyes so black they had no pupils. 'You get back in your car ...'

'All right ...'

'you drive back to that anthill ...'

'Okay ...'

'you bring him back that shirt ...'

'Yes ...'

'... and you wash it, clean it and burn it.' The old man looked down on Bernie, shivering in his chair. 'You do that before the end of the next two days, and you'll live. If you don't you're dead meat.'

Bernie stared up at the old man, mouth wide open, lost for words. The crotch of his pants developed a dark patch, which rapidly spread down his legs. A trickle of piss dripped out from one trouser leg and snaked its way across the concrete floor.

Bernie flew to his ute like a man possessed. He flogged it all the way back down the red dirt road, to the place with the anthills. When he got to his shirt, he found it was three quarters integrated into the mound, with thick layers of rock-hard, grey mud covering it like concrete. If he had bothered to calculate these things precisely, he might well have found that the exact area of the shirt that was covered over and sucked into the anthill was, as a matter of fact, five-sevenths.

He didn't bother. He grabbed his axe from the back of the ute, swung it with all the strength he could muster, and took off the top of the tower of mud that held his shirt. Crying and sobbing like a baby, clutching his shirt to his chest the whole way, he zigzagged erratically back to the station. Once there he soaked the shirt, cleaned it, washed it, washed it again, and hung it out to dry in the hot breeze blowing in from the Great Desert. Then, when it was finally dry enough, he made a little fire on the red ground and burned it, feeding the last of the unburnt scraps back into it until there was not a cinder of it left.

By the end of the day he was able to eat something.

He slept properly that night.

The next day he started to put weight back on again.

By the end of the seventh day a little colour had returned to his face.

On the morning of the eighth day, at the crack of dawn, Bernie threw his swag into the back of his ute, and disappeared down the road in a cloud of red dust. The door of his room was left swinging in the breeze, the pictures of the naked women curling at the corners.

Bernie made a beeline for The Line on the other side of which lay The Stone Country where he had come from.

He was never seen in The Red Dirt Land again.


Submitted: June 13, 2022

© Copyright 2023 Steve Hansen. All rights reserved.

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