The titular sleepers, which are wooden supports under the rails of railroad tracks, symbolize the invasion of capitalism—and the aggressive competition capitalism creates—into Ray’s sleepy, small town. When a large construction project on railroad tracks commences, the contractors start piling up the discarded sleepers, thus creating a competition to seize and make use of them. The project’s contractors, who are from out of town, view the sleepers as a potential source of more profit, while the local residents see them as a resource that ought to be shared freely. Ray’s friend Vince laments that “if that contractor was a local […] anyone could go and help themselves to some of them for firewood. Anyone at all.” Frank, a local resident who has been unemployed for over a year, adds, “Not these bastards. They’ll be selling [the sleepers] on to some other subcontractor, any money. […] They tender for these jobs and they screw the last cent out of ‘em. That’s the way they do business.”
By treating the sleepers as a source of profit, the contractors influence the town to begin doing the same. The financially and romantically successful residents, such as Steve and Sharon, have either managed to steal some of the sleepers or have ambitions to do so, using them to further improve their homes and lives (using the sleepers as firewood, fencing around gardens, etc.). Meanwhile, marginalized and unemployed residents like Ray do not successfully obtain any sleepers, deepening the apparent inequality between the two groups. Even though Ray eventually makes an attempt to join the rat race and steal a few sleepers for himself, he is too late to the competition and is caught by the police, emphasizing the need to be opportunistic and aggressive in the town’s increasingly capitalistic environment. And although many residents have succeeded in stealing a great number of sleepers, this is hardly a loss for the contractors—any profit from the discarded sleepers is only a bonus for the contractors, who are already backed by millions of dollars. This small-scale competition for the sleepers is representative of the larger competition for all resources under a capitalist economy, where those with more resources usually win the important competitions while the rest fight over trivial ones.
Sleepers Quotes in Sleepers
“See, if that contractor was a local,” said Vince, “anyone could go and help themselves to some of them for firewood. Anyone at all.”
“Not these bastards. They'll be selling them on to some other subcontractor, any money. That's why they've got that barrier round them. They tender for these jobs and they screw the last cent out of 'em. That's the way they do business.” Frank, who hadn't worked for fourteen months.
Ray nodded. He'd seen gardens himself, of course, edged with old redgum sleepers. It was just the kind of thing Sharon had always been on his back to do, landscaping the garden.
“Why do it,” he'd argued, “when we're just renting?”
“Ray,” she'd said, exhaling a breath of resigned frustration. He'd waited for an answer, but she'd only repeated it as she'd turned away. “Ray, Ray, Ray.” Almost tenderly.
And him standing there, stranded, never knowing what she was going to want next.
At Steve's barbeque that night, he walked up and down the brand-new paved barbeque area, bordered by lines of sleepers. Set at intervals in the freshly shovelled topsoil were small clumps of perennials, which reminded Ray somehow of a hair transplant.
“It looks great,” he called, feeling Steve's eyes on him.
There must have been something wrong with him, some bug he had—how else to explain that bottomed-out energy, the sapped, exhausted feeling as he watched Steve turning steaks on the grill? He'd go and have a check-up. A blood test.
“A rustic border,” Steve was saying. Full of focus and purpose, pressing here and there on the meat with the tongs. “That's going to grow in no time.”
Ray swatted a mosquito in the dusk, racking his brain for something to respond with. Nothing.
“We'll have a pool in here next,” Steve added. “Get rid of the lawn altogether. Just an outdoor entertainment area. You right there, Ray?”
Ray stretched as he stood, his spine cracking. In the back he found himself a pair of gloves, let down the tailgate, and here came the moon, sailing out from behind a cloud, ready to help him. Sean, if he was still up, would be able to see every crater on that surface, it was so clear. Ray ducked under the orange flags and tugged at a sleeper, pushed and pulled it free, dragged it over to the ute and heaved it in with a grunt. Easy. Another one. Another. He'd only need ten. Some people he knew had taken dozens of the things. It felt good, even though it was the middle of the night, to be working up a sweat. Cold oxygen in his lungs prickling like stars, clearing his fogged head finally.
And as he turned, squinting in their sudden highbeam, his chest squeezing, all that false warmth descending into his boots, he knew that they wouldn't bother with their siren, because they could see that it was just him. Just Ray. They knew he'd turn around like this, and take what was coming to him. Because they need an example, he thought wearily as he peeled off his gloves, the realisation flaring like a little chunk of burning rock, a tiny meteor.
What was the word? An escape-goat? Nowhere to put the gloves, so Ray threw them onto the ute tray, and missed. The cops' headlights casting big crooked shadows.
He waited there for them, next to the sleepers, lowering his bare hands for comfort onto weathered, solid old redgum, hauled up and discarded but with so much life in it, still, it just broke your heart to see it go to waste.