I am the black silhouetted man on the signs in your town. I didn’t plan for life to pan out this way. But life just happens, doesn’t it, and before you know it, you’re at the mercy of a higher power.
The first signs were simple enough. I was desperate for cash and responded to a vague ad in the newspaper looking for “Signage representatives. No experience required”. I entered through an unmarked door in a nondescript office building in the city, and I was soon being asked to pose for a series of images.
“You’re a real pro at this,” said the moustachioed manager, his otherwise dour face lighting up as I did what I was told and the humming machine immortalised me into flat black shapes.
I was paid a hundred bucks, which seemed like a lot at the time, and then farewelled. My girlfriend told me it sounded like a scam. “Why can’t you get a normal job like everyone else?” she said.
The signs began appearing around town a week later. The meta one where I’m holding a round sign, warning of roadworks ahead. Another where I’m throwing a piece of trash into a metal bin. My favourite was the one alongside pedestrian crossings where I’m featured mid-stride, my legs strong and resolute, along the zebra stripes.
It was a thrill to think mine had been deemed the ideal male body to convey such authoritative civic messages in what the pencil-pushers at my girlfriend’s office would’ve called “the built environment”.
But I became self-conscious, wondering whether my real head was as bulbous as that of the man on the signs. Whether my limbs and torso were as uniformly devoid of definition.
I was also disturbed by the way the signs could elicit annoyance and even rage from the populace. My likeness was being used to enforce, dictate, exclude and deter. While I knew some of the signs would save lives, I feared my legacy would be one of frustration and impatience.
One afternoon, while waiting in line at the bakery, I slipped on some spilled drink and landed hard on the concrete. “Oh yeah,” the doctor told me, grinning in the light of the X-ray screen. “Classic coccyx fracture.”
I had to rest for 10 weeks, which forced my wife to find work at a laundromat on top of her receptionist role while still doing most of the chores at home. All while eight months pregnant. Anger radiated from her like steam.
I began noticing new signs around town, alongside freshly mopped floors and spills. They featured a silhouetted falling man, his arse about to strike the yellow ground. I had no way of confirming it, but I was sure it was me.
Life moved on, as it does. Our beautiful daughter turned three. I didn’t have any real qualifications, so I picked up menial work – demolition, labouring, factory lines. A new roadworks sign appeared in town featuring a man shovelling what looked like a pile of horseshit. I could tell by the way the figure was gingerly bending over that it was me.
I wondered whether the company had ways of doctoring the images they’d taken of me, or if they’d been secretly capturing new ones as I bumbled through life. I met with a lawyer to see whether I could claim royalties, or at least get them to stop using me on the signs, but there was nothing he could do because there’d never been a contract. His pity followed me down the street like a cloud.
By the time my wife left me, my mind and body were leaden. To others, I’d become the living embodiment of trouble ahead but when I needed forewarning so I could make the right decisions to become happy and successful, there was nothing.
I took a walk along the foreshore one day after work, as the sun began its descent. I stopped at the apex of a cliff and was looking at the swirling ocean and rocks below. I wasn’t thinking about ending things, but I was entranced, my stomach doing backflips as I considered the distance between the surface and me, imagining the rush of air and the cold slap. Without warning, my heel slipped on loose rocks and I began sliding down the cliff face.
The ambulance ride was a drug-induced blur of pain and sirens. Shopfronts and street trees flashed past my eyes. I saw a sign I hadn’t spotted before, alongside the school I’d attended as a boy. It featured a silhouetted young girl with a familiar dress, crossing a road with a briefcase-carrying man – a man, I realised, that wasn’t me.
I felt a presence beside the hospital bed when I awoke. His face had aged terribly but had somehow grown warmer. His moustache looked the same, only grey.
“What are you doing here?”
“We wanted to make sure you were okay. We thought we’d lost you. I’ve gotta say though, it’s some of your best work yet. Just incredible! I’m thinking ‘Beware! Cliff edge’ or ‘Keep out! Unstable cliff’.”
“You need to look after me now,” I said.
“We will. I’ve brought something for you to sign.”
My eyes went straight to the bottom of the page where there was a handsome dollar figure in bold black type.
“Rest up. Then it’s time to get back to work,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, and I thought of all the things I could do now.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Signs".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription