On his morning commute in a small town, Ray encounters traffic caused by construction at the town’s main railroad crossing. The track upgrade, in which “Thousands of dollars [are] being spent every minute,” is a construction project outsourced to a non-local company. Remembering this causes Ray to wish he could have found contract work on the project.
Like many other residents of the town, Ray could not find work on the construction project even though there are thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars involved and the project is negatively affecting their commutes during rush hour.
As he pulls up to a road worker directing traffic to a detour, Ray remembers waiting similarly at a construction site with his then-girlfriend Sharon. She had spoken condescendingly about the road crew then, knowing that he had previously worked as a road flagger. At the time, looking at Sharon in the passenger seat, Ray had felt “Something creeping over him like a slow anaesthetic.” Ray’s memory shifts to their breakup and being forced to move out of their shared house, with Sharon continuing to address him in a patronizing way, “like he was the thickest kid in the class.”
Even though Ray wishes he had found work on a construction or road crew for the project, he remembers that Sharon does not consider these to be worthwhile jobs. Their relationship was characterized by her impatience with his apathy and total lack of ambition, which is a thread that runs throughout the story.
Ray’s focus returns to the present, where the detour points him past a boarded-up hotel and old livestock markets. Yawning, Ray realizes he will be late to his part-time job at a warehouse—which he is “lucky” to have—but he's not too worried since “everyone would be late today” and the manager never supervises them. As Ray drives past an expressionless road worker wearing sunglasses, the two of them do the “bare minimum” of gestures to acknowledge each other’s presence and the shared pretense of “doing a job of work” while “bored shitless.”
Despite the money flowing into the construction project, other businesses in town are shutting down or not doing well. The available jobs for locals consist of part-time positions consisting of meaningless, uninspired work. The road worker, like Ray and his manager, is also apathetic towards his work and gives no more than the bare minimum of effort. That the roadworker is expressionless suggests that he’s anonymous and generic, just a cog in the capitalist machine.
In the late afternoon, Ray is at the pub with his friends Frank and Vince when he first hears about the old railroad sleepers that are being removed by the construction crew. According to Frank, who has been unemployed for over a year, the sleepers are being sorted by quality, indicating they will be sold to a subcontractor. Vince interjects to angrily complain that a local contractor would have left the sleepers for residents to take for their personal use.
The contractors behind the project intend to sell the sleepers because they are not local and have no interest in the town besides generating profit—to them, leaving the sleepers behind for the community to share would be a waste of money and resources. This narrow focus on maximizing profits angers the local residents, for whom the project is providing neither work nor material resources.
On their way home, Ray and Vince drive past a construction site and see piles of sleepers with only a token perimeter of flags to protect them. Vince predicts that the locals will soon start stealing the sleepers for landscaping and firewood. He justifies this by pointing out that there will be “millions” of sleepers pulled up, so the construction company won’t even notice the ones that are taken. This prompts Ray to think of Sharon again, this time remembering an argument they had over landscaping their garden. At the time, Ray saw no point in fixing up the garden since they were “just renting,” while she expressed more patronizing frustration toward him.
The sheer number of sleepers is both what allows the thefts and makes them useless as an act of protest against the contractors’ profiteering. On another note, Ray’s past refusal to landscape the garden for Sharon reflects his general apathy and lack of ambition, foreshadowing his reluctance to join the competition to steal sleepers. His flashbacks also begin to reveal his continued obsession with Sharon, even though it’s clear that they’re no longer together. That he’s so hung up on his ex-girlfriend suggest that Ray has little else in his life.
Over the next two weeks, it seems everyone Ray encounters expresses interest in the sleepers and “a sudden professed desire to landscape.” At work, Ray’s coworker Bernie boasts about grabbing a truckload of them for his backyard pool. Another person at the pub achieves infamy for “liberating thirty sleepers in broad daylight.” Bernie advises Ray in how to successfully steal some for himself—“Just do it discreetly, and […] Don’t get greedy”—but Ray is hesitant.
Although Bernie and Ray work in the same warehouse, Bernie is enthusiastic to join the race for sleepers and has a pool area to landscape, suggesting Ray’s job is not necessarily what traps him in apathy. Other stories of bold and successful thefts highlight how easy it is to steal the sleepers, which, in turn, highlights just how terribly apathetic and lifeless Ray is. Bernie’s comment that stealing the sleepers isn’t about being “greedy” positions it as an act of protest against the construction project and capitalism as a whole. While capitalism centers around maximizing profits, which can read as greed, the residents only steal what they will actually use and aren’t interested in making a profit.
Meanwhile, Ray cuts open a shrink-wrapped pallet containing Buddha statues and reflects that it looks like “a submerged shipwreck, crammed full of calmly waiting monks,” noticing the smell of chemicals that the Chinese-manufactured statues emanate. He suddenly recalls waking up that morning with his dinner plate from the night before still sitting on his chest, having fallen asleep with it balanced there. The white plate looked as “round and innocuous as a moon.”
The Buddha statues from China, physically and culturally far from Australia, where the story is set, are another representation of a connected economy encroaching on a small community and otherwise insular community. Ray’s description of the statues as doomed monks waiting for their fates is a metaphor for the town’s residents experiencing the same helplessness and quiet complacency. He is ultimately too “round and innocuous” to make sense of these rapid changes to his small town.
That night, Ray attends a barbecue at his friend Steve’s home. The backyard is freshly paved and landscaped with sleepers and clumps of flowers, an arrangement that Ray likens to a hair transplant but tells Steve “looks great.” He experiences a “sapped, exhausted feeling” while watching Steve grill steaks and listening to him describe with “focus and purpose” his plans to remodel the backyard. Ray thinks to himself that he should visit a doctor and get a blood test.
Steve is the opposite of Ray, acting with energy and purpose in contrast to Ray’s apathy and exhaustion. The landscaping reminds Ray of a hair transplant in its representation of rejuvenation and vitality that he has not found. Upon encountering someone with so much energy, Ray’s own poor health and lethargy flare up, emphasizing the difference between the two men.
As Ray gets up to fill his plate with food, he thinks about the “heavy squeezing [sensation] under his sternum” that he’s been feeling for a few months and wonders if he should drink less beer. He “feel[s] the eyes of women on him,” including Steve’s wife, and realizes he is the only single man at the barbecue. Earlier that night, he saw an unfamiliar car in the driveway when passing Sharon’s house. Assuming it to be evidence that she has a new partner, Ray briefly considers chatting with the women at the barbecue to advertise himself as “a catch” and “let word get back to Sharon.” However, he decides conversation would be too much effort and sits back down with his heaping plate of food, telling himself everyone knows he is just “a 35-year-old man who live[s] in a Colorbond shed at a mate’s place” and is therefore “not a catch.”
Ray’s disclosure of his age, romantic status, and housing arrangement reveals how pitiful his life has become. The contrast with Steve’s well-appointed home is heightened by this new knowledge. Meanwhile, Sharon has (presumably) moved on to a new partner and continues to live at the same house (which implies that she’s capable of paying the rent), which provides another contrast to Ray’s downward spiral. Even faced with an ideal situation for improving his romantic prospects, Ray’s apathy prevents him from taking action.
Ray thinks about how this temporary home in his friend’s shed, where he was going to live only until he could find a more suitable place, has become permanent—he’s put in carpeting, furniture, and a TV. He keeps telling himself that he’s saving money, “Waiting for things to go from shit to good.”
Throughout the story, Ray often turns to deferral or procrastination as a way to cope with his bleak circumstances—but this behavior is unproductive because it only prolongs his bleak circumstances. Here, Ray thinks about how he intended to live in the shed only for a short time, until he could find a proper place to live, but his apathy and procrastination meant that he never did search for another place and instead resigned himself to living in the shed in the longer term.
Steve’s son Sean calls Ray over to look at Mars through a telescope. Despite the fact that Ray has been on a fishing trip with Steven and Sean, he does not remember the boy’s name until Steve addresses Sean, telling him to wait until the sky is darker. Ray looks through the telescope and tries fruitlessly to make out Mars but only sees his own eye reflected, noticing the wrinkles and lines that surround it. Ray calculates that if he were to have a son now, he would be 50 by the time his son was 15. He concludes that being childless is “probably all for the best” at this point and lies to Sean about seeing Mars.
To further emphasize the gap between Ray and Steve, Sean enters the story to show that Steve’s successful life includes not only a wife but also a son. Although Ray attempts to act as a father or uncle figure for Sean since Steve is busy with the grill, he cannot use the telescope properly or even remember the boy’s name, while Steve is able to correctly instruct Sean anyway. Ray’s resignation to being childless is the final and most irreversible result of his apathy. Even if he manages to marry and buy a home, he cannot change his age.
Later, Ray gets in his car and thinks about driving past Sharon’s home again and pulling into “the driveway that he used to pull in to every night.” Ray thinks—or perhaps dreams—about getting out of his car to peer into the house, only to see Sharon with another person before she dismisses him as “just Ray” (“seeing him for exactly what he was”) and then retreats into the house.
After revealing how his apathy has taken away his hopes for employment, home ownership, romance, and fatherhood, Ray subconsciously reduces himself to “just Ray,” someone who has no identity, no ambition, and no hopes. Having exhausted his options, Ray turns to heavy drinking to cope—yet another unproductive coping mechanism that keeps Ray rooted to his lowly position in life.
When Ray opens his eyes again, he realizes that he’s still in his car parked outside of Steve’s place. He struggles to remember how many beers he had that night. Suddenly, he has the “crap idea” to steal some sleepers and surprise Sharon with them the next day. His mind skips over the logistics of showing up unannounced directly to landscaping her garden and making it “ready for some seedlings.” Although he considers asking Vince for help, he knows his friend will be have already started smoking marijuana heavily by this time of night.
Like the description of Steve’s backyard as a hair transplant, landscaping is a loose metaphor throughout the story for vitality, energy, and romantic or sexual desirability. In making Sharon’s yard “ready for some seedlings,” Ray intends to grow and make himself desirable to her again.
When Ray arrives at the construction site, his plan changes from winning Sharon back with the sleepers to keeping them for himself to chop up for firewood and landscape a vegetable garden outside his shed. Looking at the piles of sleepers, he understands “the ire, the harmless, face-saving looting” of the discarded wood, and resents how he often finds himself lacking energy or a will to move. He begins to load some sleepers into his truck and starts feeling good from “working up a sweat,” the “cold oxygen in his lungs […] clearing his fogged head finally.”
Ray finally suppresses his apathy and begins to perform work that is meaningful to him. By freeing himself of obsessing over Sharon—at least for the time being—he develops a plan to improve his home and life in small but tangible ways. His thoughts about landscaping a garden and stoking a fire in the winter inspire him to make further plans of growing vegetables. It’s significant that the work Ray is doing in this passage is not capitalistic work. Though he’s motivated by self-interest, stealing the sleepers is an act of resistance against the capitalistic system. This is in part why the work is so invigorating and refreshing for him.
While Ray is in the middle of loading sleepers, a police car silently shines its lights on him. He turns around and suddenly feels “his chest squeezing” again, imagining the police viewing him as “just Ray,” an easily caught scapegoat. Defeated, Ray waits for the police to arrive instead of running. He remarks that the sleepers are “discarded but with so much life in [them]”, and that it is a shame “to see [them] go to waste.”
Ray’s sickliness and apathy resurface when the police car’s headlights overwhelm him, just as he started feeling poorly when Steve’s energetic personality overwhelmed him at the barbeque. Like Ray, the sleepers are being discarded and used for someone else’s gain despite having plenty of life left.