Authors: Judy Nunn
To the members of the Otto Bin Empire â the homeless men and women who gather around the plastic bins near the docks â Clive is an enigmatic addition to their ranks. Intelligent, healthy and always well presented, even Clive struggles to understand why he finds himself at the bottom of the barrel. How did it happen?
âI'm just a bloke going through a period of adjustment,' he tells himself. âI'll be back on my feet soon.'
But as the weeks turn into months Clive slowly adjusts to his circumstances. He finds tolerance, acceptance and friendship and slowly begins to see humanity in its purest light. He finally realises that dignity, self-respect and honour are to be found in abundance in the Otto Bin Empire â¦ and who knows? Perhaps even love.
The Otto Bin Empire
is a tellingly poignant short story from bestselling author Judy Nunn. Also includes an extract from her new novel,
Spirits of the Ghan
It was Madge who came up with the term. The site had always been referred to among the locals as simply âThe Corner', although it wasn't really a corner at all, just a dozen or so big plastic rubbish bins, the collective property of the old suburb's tiny and impoverished terrace houses that sat under the flyover down near the docks. But one day when Clive, who'd only recently joined the eclectic group that gathered there, had inquired why they'd chosen this particular spot, Madge had waved a hand about airily, referring to the manufacturer of the wheelie bins.
âNo reason at all,' she'd said. âThis is just one place among hundreds in the Otto Bin Empire.' Then she'd dragged heavily on her roll-your-own and given one of her chesty chortles, and Clive had laughed along with her. The fact that he'd âgot the joke' had forged an instant bond between the two for Madge was proud of her wit, and justifiably so â she was a clever woman.
The term had been steadily passed along the grapevine of the inner-city homeless after that. Even those who didn't understand the reference to the Ottoman Empire, and to be truthful most didn't, approved of the title. They were now part of an empire, and
they liked that fact. The pools of wheelie bins that littered the city's pokier suburbs and cluttered the lanes behind high-rise apartment blocks had always been popular gathering places, forming practical leaning posts and tabletops as they did, but there was a subtle difference now. The humble Otto Bin had taken on a new form of dignity.
For Clive, Madge's term came to register something more significant than the amusing remark he'd initially taken it to be. As more and more he found himself drawn to âThe Corner', firstly for Madge's company, then for the companionship offered by some of the others, he realised for the first time that he was actually one of them. He was one of the homeless and therefore a member of the Otto Bin Empire.
He'd known for two months that he was a person without a home. A pathetic figure perhaps, a forty-five-year-old whose worldly possessions were housed in a mothy backpack and who roamed the city's streets and parks seeking out nooks and crannies, sleeping in the bedroll he carried slung over one shoulder. But he'd never thought of himself as officially âhomeless'. He was not one of those displaying a cardboard sign declaiming a state of homelessness and begging on street corners; he was not one of those openly scrounging through the contents of public litter bins and gathering cigarette butts that had been ground into the pavement. Nor, thank God, was he one of those lost souls talking gibberish and guzzling who-knows-what, possibly methylated spirits, from a bottle in a brown paper bag.
were the homeless â the lost, the mentally ill, the alcoholics and junkies, the all-round seriously discombobulated.
I'm not one of them
I'm just a bloke going through a period of adjustment, I'll be back on my feet soon
He didn't know exactly when that would be because he didn't give the matter a great deal of thought. For the moment he earned enough to scrape by doing odd gardening jobs and a bit of handyman work now and then. Some days he'd walk for miles into the leafier outer suburbs where houses boasted gardens â he enjoyed walking â and other days he'd stick to the ritzier city suburbs, choosing the wealthy homes whose once-meticulous landscaping appeared in need of a little attention. He rarely asked for work outright, he found he didn't need to â most opportunities presented themselves through casual conversation. That's the way things had started out anyway.
âYou want to be careful doing that,' he'd said as he'd watched her through the ornate iron railings of the house's front fence. She was ten metres or so away, a matronly woman focused upon her task, kneeling on the grass methodically trimming the dead flowers from a plant that took up quite an area of the sizeable garden bed.
She'd turned and looked over to him where he stood in the street, surprised but not annoyed by the comment, for he'd been polite. In fact, she seemed to be waiting for him to go on.
âYou really should be wearing gloves,' he'd said.
âWhy?' she'd asked.
âBecause the latex from the Euphorbia is toxic,' he'd explained. âThat white sap on your hands,' she'd obediently looked down at the milky fluid on her fingers, âif you inadvertently get that in your eyes, you'll be poisoned. Very painful.'
That's all it had taken to initiate conversation about gardening, and conversation had led to casual employment. Mrs Cookson, for that was the woman's name, had even become a semi-regular client. He called around about once a fortnight these days, and she always had a morning or afternoon's work for him.
The conversational tactic as a form of introduction had proved so effective that Clive adopted it as his modus operandi. He always chose women, aware that he made a favourable impression upon them, even in his currently reduced state.
âHave you tried Epsom salts for your gardenias?'
âI beg your pardon?' Seated in her wicker armchair on her front verandah enjoying the mild spring weather, seventy-three-year-old Florence McPherson had looked up from the book she was reading.
âEpsom salts,' he'd called once again, âhave you tried them on your gardenias?'
âNo,' she'd called back, âwhy on earth should I?' Florence had been mystified not only by the comment but the appearance of the man who stood on the other side of the low stone wall. He was pleasant enough and quite well spoken, but he was dressed like a vagrant. And Epsom salts? What could he possibly mean?
âThe leaves on your gardenias are turning yellow,' he'd said, no longer raising his voice. Now that contact had been established there seemed no need. The street â a cul-de-sac in a pleasant, middle-class neighbourhood â was silent, deserted, and they could hear each other perfectly.
âYes, they are rather, aren't they,' she'd replied, looking down at the gardenias that lined the path to the front gate. She hadn't noticed their yellowing before. She enjoyed the garden, but the upkeep had always been Cyril's domain. She didn't know anything about plants, nor was she particularly interested in finding out.
âA magnesium deficiency,' he'd explained. âEpsom salts should do the trick. Add it to the soil, one teaspoon to one gallon of water every two to four weeks.'
âWhat a good idea,' she'd said, deciding that she certainly preferred the gardenia leaves green. âI'll tell the boy the next time he comes to mow the lawn.' Since Cyril's death the âboy', who was really a young man in his mid-twenties, called in once a month to cut the grass and do the weeding.
âIf you have some Epsom salts in the house,' Clive had offered, âI could do it for you now.'
She had and he did.
After that Florence became another of Clive's semi-regular clients. When there was nothing in the garden demanding attention she would make sure she had some handyman job at the ready. She enjoyed chatting with Clive. He was far more interesting
than the boy who mowed the lawn or the cleaner who visited weekly. He never talked about himself though. They occasionally discussed life in general â current affairs, perhaps politics â but for the most part the topic was books. Florence loved reading and so apparently did Clive Whoever-he-was. She never discovered his surname. He never offered it so she never asked. When she'd inquired how he came to know so much about plants, he'd simply said that he'd once had a gardening business, and then he'd changed the subject. She'd decided the pursuit of any further information might be risky. She had no wish to deprive herself of his company.
Clive had been selling himself short. The âgardening business' to which he'd referred had been, and still was, a highly successful enterprise. Barnett Creative Landscape Design & Maintenance was now managed by his wife (soon to be âex') and their accountant, who'd been running the business side of things for years. In fact, Clive rather doubted his skills were being missed at all. Rosemary was an expert landscape designer and the company, which the two of them had created close to twenty-five years ago, employed any number of skilled gardeners. Barnett Landscaping was indeed well-known in many circles, and during the months since his fall from grace Clive had assiduously avoided those properties whose lavish gardens had been the result of his personal labours.
Florence McPherson was not the only one intrigued by the mystery of Clive. Madge often wondered about her new friend's background.
, she thought,
good-looking, clean-shaven, keeps himself presentable, obviously visits public
toilet blocks for his daily ablutions
What's he doing on the streets?
But she didn't ask of course. She never did. Some of those who gathered at The Corner liked telling their story to any who would listen, but for the most part a person's past life was their own business, and this was respected. Besides, she'd known others like Clive. Men, women too for that matter, from respectable middle-class backgrounds who, for reasons financial or personal, were forced to a life on the streets. Some even led a homeless existence by choice. Funny that. She had the faintest suspicion Clive might be one of those.
, she thought wryly,
every member of the Otto Bin Empire has a story. We're a diverse set. You've got to give us that.
homeless, but she considered herself one of the Otto Bin Empire nonetheless, and no-one would have contested the fact. Approaching sixty, a tough, burly, good-hearted woman and mother-figure to many, she lived in one of the tiny bed-sitters nearby that were rented out to people on the poverty line. Many a cold winter's night had seen Madge's floor space on offer to someone in need, but for those new to the art of survival on the streets, of even greater importance was Madge's advice.
Madge knew the location of every soup kitchen and emergency shelter in the city, and she had contacts everywhere. There was DOCS for the runaway abused kids, the Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul for clothing and supplies, the Wesley Mission,
The Big Issue
and many other charitable organisations that could, in their varying ways, be of assistance. Everyone knew, or they were quickly told, that Madge could point them in the right direction, but no-one knew a thing about Madge's personal background. They
would have been surprised if they had, for it included a stint in prison where she'd served three years of a seven-year manslaughter sentence. But that was another story, one which, like Clive, Madge was not prepared to share.
Once Clive had accepted the fact that he was homeless, he fitted in rather well at The Corner. Madge was without doubt the principal attraction; they never seemed to run out of conversation. Occasionally he'd arrive with a book he'd bought for her during his regular forays around the second-hand bookshops, or he'd accept her offer of a hearty lunchtime soup from the latest batch she'd cooked. But as time passed Clive discovered others at The Corner whose company he enjoyed. There was Oskar, propped at the end wheelie bin each morning, but never there during the afternoons. Middle-aged, of dark and brooding appearance with a beard peppered grey, Oskar was always referred to by the locals as âthe Pole', but not without affection. Getting to know Oskar took some time, however, as he rarely initiated conversation, his head buried in the newspapers he spent his life collecting from rubbish bins and park benches. He'd wheel them about in a shopping trolley along with the rest of his belongings.
Clive came to the conclusion that Oskar was inherently shy, which made it all the more amazing that Oskar was the one who provided the habituÃ©s of The Corner their major form of entertainment. An afternoon in the park, gathered at the sidelines of the giant chessboard supplied by the city council for the general public's amusement, was a favourite pastime for those who knew Oskar. They would watch as the Pole walked the
squares of the board with great deliberation, placing his waist-high pieces unhesitatingly where they belonged. It was magical. The Pole won every time.
Then there was Benny, who sold
The Big Issue
outside Woollies six days a week. Tall, scrawny, minus several front teeth and always sporting a scruffy Tigers football cap, Benny was an ex-junky with a mental disorder of which he seemed rather proud. âI'm bipolar,' he'd happily announce. Benny loved to chat. He'd never been diagnosed bipolar, but he'd heard the term bandied about and had decided to label himself as such. Madge was very protective of Benny who, although well into his forties, was endearingly child-like.
âI'm not sure whether he was born that way,' she confided to Clive, âor whether years of substance abuse has addled his brain, but I admire the way he's got his act together. He's been clean for four years now, and all because of
The Big Issue
â that's something to be proud of.'
Clive always bought a copy of
The Big Issue
from Benny, and on Sundays they'd sit on one of the two benches in the nearby pocket-sized park and do the crossword together â the quick clues of course, never the cryptic. Clive would invariably come up with the word, but on many occasions he'd manage to contrive things so that Benny thought
âIt's on the tip of my tongue,' he'd say, clicking his fingers and feigning frustration. âSounds like â¦' He'd all but spell the word out for Benny, who would bellow the answer and bounce up and down on the bench, grinning with gap-toothed delight.
Then of course there was Madge's personal favourite, Sal. Sal was eighteen, a runaway with a drug habit she refused to see as a problem and which she supported through prostitution. Madge had taken Sal under her wing from the outset, doing everything she could to get the girl off the streets. But Sal had rebelled. She was having a damn good life, she'd said, better than she'd ever had living under the same roof with that prick of a father, a comment that had led Madge to draw her own conclusions. Now, a year down the track, she'd given up any attempt to reform the girl for fear of frightening her off. Madge was all too aware she could be of far greater assistance if she remained an ally, offering Sal what she needed above all else: friendship and genuine affection.