On a steamy summer’s night, Parramatta river is alive. The air is heavy with mosquitoes and flies. From bushes no one sees, crickets mock at passers by. And the ever watchful ibis stalks its banks looking for a cigarette butt, a garbage bag, or a stray Big Mac under its bridges. Amidst all this is the main attraction of Parramatta river — humans. Like the air, the river walk is teeming with people. Couples lie on the grassy banks smoking shisha and feeding one another, making out and embracing, arguing and cursing, oblivious to the spectacle they are, in the zoo that is Parramatta river. An elderly man sits by the wharf. His fishing line is as lonely as he is. It lays completely still and vanishes at the surface of the river, swallowed by its murky depths.
A young Asian man walks along the river after dinner. What strikes him as bizarre is what lies submerged in the middle of the river. To everyone else, it is simply the end of the normal day in Parramatta. They walk past without batting an eye. But the man is riveted. For in the middle of the river, perched on by ibises, guarded by paddling pelicans, is a shopping cart, sticking out at all the wrong angles. Is it front to back or back to front or upside down? Shaking his head, he curses and blames the neighborhood drunks. He limps on.
Soon after midnight, the river is still. Traces of shisha and cigarette smoke linger on the park benches. But there are no other memories of its night life under the orange glow of its lamps. Every now and then, the silent darkness is broken by the occasional car overhead, some party goers returning to whence they came. From near the wharf comes a melody that strangely resembles the Woolworths’ theme song… “We are the fresh food people”.
At first there is no response. But slowly silhouettes emerge from the bushes and trees and stairs along the river. Boys of all ages and ethnicities emerge from the dark. Black, brown, red, straw, blond and hazel; their hair stand out like constellations in the night sky. The last boy to step out is playing the song on a flute. He stops only when every boy from Parramatta has come forth to await him. They have been summoned. It is time for Kart club.
Every weeknight, when the moon has fully risen and glowers at the concrete zoo over Parramatta and it’s adults have grown weary of staving off their age and retired for the night, young boys from all over Parramatta and its suburbs gather around the river. They have kissed their parents good night. They have placed enough pillows under their blankets to fool the most astute dad. And they have slipped out through their windowed houses and apartment elevators to escape into the night. Dragging shopping carts they find on the sidewalks and around Westfield and from the home of any lazy adult, they ride it to the river and park it near the bushes. They wait and hope with bated breath to hear that melodious tune once more; “We are the fresh food people…”
The number one rule of Kart club is that you don’t talk about Kart club. And this is how it was formed. Between 2010-2020, Parramatta experienced unprecedented development. It became an urban hub where every developer who had money wanted to build an apartment there and every bank with a name would relocate their employees. Roads and light rail tracks and train lines would criss cross each other in a dizzying array of construction. It was like Thomas the tank engine married Sim City and gave birth to Lego. Parramatta council were too busy with their adult games to notice that they had made Parramatta somewhere with nothing to do. Children were stuck between digital screens and parents telling them to go outside… to what I’m still not sure about. For all the children could see was an ugly concrete zoo awaiting them. It was a drab and gray world outside.
But Kart club is Parramatta’s never land where boys will remain boys. And so every night, they gladly follow the fresh food summons to meet their mysterious leader; a boy who has come from and is going nowhere. They only know him as Piper. But for them, even when they are 80, he will always remain Piper as they know him, a 15 year old phantom playing that haunting tune by Parramatta river.
They find whatever objects they can and load their carts. And then they all go racing around the river walk which extends from Parramatta all the way to Rhodes. But most of the time they remain in the vicinity of Ermington. Like Mario Kart, they throw whatever they can find from their carts in order to slow or take others out. Banana peels, cigarette butts, and half drunk strawberry milkshakes are all fair game. Sometimes a lucky boy will find a creatine bar near the entrance of some gym to give him the energy to last the whole night.
This is how it ended. On a winter’s night the streets were wet with dew. An orange fog hung in the air illuminated by the broken street lamps. The races had been wet and wild. It remained for two boys to cross the finish line under the Church St bridge. Some had already gone home. But no matter. Piper skipped and flourished his flute. Suddenly the tune was changed. It was no longer “the fresh food people” but Die Walkure by Wagner. And then they heard the boys. Coming round the bend near George St, their carts skidded past the wharf. One boy saw his chance. When the carts were close enough to collide, he stretched his leg out and tapped the left wheel of the other boy’s cart.
The cart of the boy on the right skidded. Then it caught on a leftover banana peel planted by one of the other racers. And then it toppled right into the river. The cart was upended and began to sink slowly into Parramatta’s watery grave. At first the boy was fine if not wet. He didn’t know how to swim. But he knew Piper and some of the boys were nearby. So it was just a matter of time before he was rescued.
Unfortunately, the ibises got excited. They had never had such an opportunity for live entertainment whilst eating. Squawking and flapping their wings, all the ibises around the river gathered around the upended shopping cart. Some looked for actual fish that may have been stirred up around the spot. Others perched on the cart to watch. And still others flapped around the boy, probing him and teasing him out. The collective weight around his head proceeded to slowly but surely push him under. He was being held down by the ibises.
At first he laughed. Then he began to call out for help. But all he saw was the hooded silhouette of Piper who looked at him and continued to play his flute. The boy started to cry. The water was up to his nose and he was scared now. Ripples of water spread out from him. And he began to choke. The water sputtered. Still Piper played on. His notes blending one into the other into a continuous night song. He played furiously, faster and faster, missing notes but making up for them with his own harmony. Eventually his flute drowned out the boy’s cries. And then he was no more. All that remained of the night’s races was an upside down shopping cart and a flock of ibises.
In the morning, a boy in Parramatta was reported missing. His picture was printed in the Parramatta Advertiser by two worn parents who had woken up to discover only blankets and plushies where their son was meant to be. An investigation was opened into his disappearance by police and anxious parents alike. Many of the parents had already harbored concerns at how tired their boys had looked in the morning. And now it all leaked out. A frantic search took place along Parramatta river. They traced the boy’s last known whereabouts to the wharf. But all that they found was an upended shopping cart and a handful of ibises.
The body was never found. The homeless were blamed and rounded up for interrogation. And shopping carts were banned in order to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. A strict curfew of 8 pm was imposed on every boy under the age of sixteen. If the adults had looked closely enough at the ibises by the wharf, they would have been able to see tiny finger or an ear protruding out past an ibis’ beak. As for Piper, nothing seemed to remain of him. The boys of Parramatta would often wonder where he was now. But it is said that every now and then, through the heavy summer night’s air, the playful sound of a flute can be heard to the tune of… “We are the fresh food people.”