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  • The Bulldozer
  • Tony Birch (bio)

In the year after the arrival of the bulldozers, our street had managed to remain standing. Each day the crash of the machines grew louder as they moved in on us. Women could no longer hang clothing on the line during the day unless they were willing to come home from the factory to find the wash covered in plaster dust.

Some of us came home from school or work to discover that a neighbouring house was suddenly gone. The air of the streets was full of the odour of plaster dust and ancient rising damp, and the smell of burning furniture and timber. Entire streets were being bulldozed, sifted, and organised into three distinct mountains. One consisted of rubble waiting to be picked up by a bobcat and carted away. Another was a twist of scrap iron and copper waiting to be sold off (if it wasn't stolen first), while the third was a bonfire of wooden furniture and bug-infested timber floorboards and framing. The funeral pyre burned day and night, and could be seen across the suburb.

While most people either gave up on or lost almost everything they had when their homes were knocked over, some were happy to make money out of the destruction. Scavengers combed through an increasing number of empty houses, salvaging whatever they could before the dozers moved in. The competition for scrap metal was intense. The professional junk men ran a closed shop, coveting the scrap. They did not hesitate to threaten others away from a recently vacated house that they claimed as their own.

The widespread demolition of the suburb presented the kids from the streets with a new adventure. As soon as a house was vacated, we would wander through it and inspect what had been left behind. In some houses the furniture remained in the rooms, as if a family continued to live there. Clothing was left hanging in wardrobes, and occasionally even family photographs were left nailed to a lounge-room wall.

Other finds were more unusual, or even bizarre, such as a pickled snake that George Carter found in a cupboard at the back of a shop on Brunswick Street. George unscrewed the jar and took the snake out so that he could [End Page 33] terrorise some of the younger children up and down the street for the afternoon.

I would sometimes pick up small ornaments and take them home to my mother, although I suspect that she threw most of the stuff away, except for the odd cup or vase. I also asked her about the things that people left in the houses they were forced to abandon.

"Why would they leave all that stuff behind, Mum?"

"Well, most of it is no good, I suppose. Some of these people are going into brand-new government places. They don't want to take that junk with them. Clothes are the same. Moth-eaten and no good. The smell of this place, some don't want to take it with them when they leave."

"And the photos, why would they leave the photos behind?"

It took her some time to answer me. "I don't know, love, I don't know. But I would think that once people leave here, there will be a lot that some would rather forget. Some things are best left behind."

Each night, as I walked home from school, yet another cavity would reveal itself where a house had stood only the day before. I always walked home the same way, across Gertrude Street and Young Street. Each week more and more of Young Street disappeared from the landscape. And we knew that as soon as it was gone, the bulldozers would move on to our street.

The machines had worked one side of Young Street until everything was destroyed. They had now crossed the road and were making their way down the other side. Our date with the demolition teams was looming.

Coming home from the street one Saturday morning, I saw two workers unloading a bulldozer from the back of a truck. It slid off the back and crashed onto the...