IF YA HEADING up north anyway, why don't ya try and get a job with the meat works up in Broome? Them buggers earn a fortune.'
‘He won't get on without a ticket, Jack. It's all union in the slaughterhouses.'
Jack set his schooner back on the bar, scratched at his grey, three-day-old bristle, and was about to answer his small, worn mate who was gasping for another wheezing breath when the barmaid leant over the bar in front of him and wiped distractedly at spilled beer with a damp cloth. The stale-smelling liquid spread until the bar polished into a high wet sheen.
As she swabbed back and forth, her nipples pressed into the bar and skated in an erratic rhythm. When she straightened, their colour had changed to crimson, but quickly bled back into a dark, dangerous shade.
‘Shouldn't let sheilas serve topless,' Jack said in a rusty voice, but fell quiet when the barmaid, whose name I learned was Suzie, held both her breasts in her hands and tossed them as if comparing the weight of two sacks of gold. When she turned and walked further down the bar towards another customer, wiggling her bottom through her cut-off jeans, Jack's eyes never left her, reminding me of a dog waiting to be fed.
‘You ever been in a union?' Jack finally asked, turning away from the girls and leaning back, setting both elbows on the bar to balance himself.
The noise made by the Sunday pub crowd forced me to ask him to repeat the question, but it was Snow, between fits of wet coughing, who answered.
‘You ever been in a union, Macca?' He drew deeply on the butt of a hand-rolled smoke, dropped and crushed the remains violently under the heel of his boot, staining the floor tiles black, before picking strands of tobacco out of his brittle teeth.
‘I was born in a union town,' I answered. ‘A coal mining town. There were 14,000 people, 6,000 union members, the rest were home cooking, cleaning, bringing up us kids.'
‘But were you in a union?'
‘No, I've never been in one,' I finally answered.
‘But you're a union man?' Jack asked.
Sweat trickled along my temples. Outside, violent light flooded the pub windows, but it was only when someone pushed through the doors, or another staggered outside, that the light could rush in.
On the street, it was in the high nineties, cloudless, windless, the sun menacing – capable of baking and peeling away any piece of skin if you allowed it a moment. Inside the pub, where men stood elbow to elbow, it was only marginally cooler.
‘All my family were coalminers, Jack. Some cousins and a lot of mates still are. They were all union men. My Nana once told me that if I didn't vote Labor, she wouldn't let me back in the house. So really, even the women were union men.'
‘Tough job, mining.'
‘I went down a mine to have a look once, Jack. They fitted me out with rubber boots, a belt, battery, hard hat and light, made me sign a paper, and then shunted me into a cage of wall-to-wall men. We dropped half a mile into the earth.
‘There was water seeping from the roof, the floor was covered in a foot of mud, it was narrow, hot and you couldn't hear yourself speak because of the noise the shearer was making as it gouged chunks of coal from the seam. All I was thinking about was that any minute the whole place could come down on top of me, or explode around me. And the blokes down there were laughing and joking like it was the most natural place in the world to put in a day's work. Not for me, mate.'
‘One thing's for sure, though. This whole country was fuelled on their backs and buggered lungs, and that's something to be proud of.'
‘Have a beer,' Snow said, handing me a fresh schooner, puffing away at a newly rolled smoke that hung from his bottom lip like a small train building up steam.
‘In the '20s there were more than a hundred blokes killed in our pits,' I continued, working into the subject, the beer helping. ‘Lost more than twenty in one pit alone.'
‘When the miners struck for more safety measures, there were lockouts, and when they tried to stop scabs from taking their jobs, the pit owners called the police in and they shot and bashed the pickets. The bastards charged them on horseback. Our blokes didn't have a chance.
‘It wasn't even until the 1940s that the pit owners started supplying safety gear, that the unions managed to negotiate a forty-four-hour working week, that widows got compo and child endowment was paid. Now if any bugger has to work forty hours he reckons he's being victimised. Mate, miners would have been buggered without their unions!'
‘So you're a union man?'
‘No mate, wouldn't give you two bob for most of them.'
JACK AND SNOW looked at each other and I thought I heard Jack whisper ‘the bastard's pissed', but I couldn't be sure amongst the noise of the crowd that was humming with the pleasure of sipping ice-cold beer served by topless women on a broiling summer's day.
‘The buggers would call a strike for an extra Sao biscuit in their crib box. Every Christmas the breweries, the builder's labourers or the bloody airlines are on strike for one worthless or bloody unreasonable thing or another. Never considering how it was affecting the next bloke.'
My voice was rising, but I wasn't angry – just drunk, and that can be liberating.
‘I reckon it's an insult to the men who formed the unions, and to the reasons they were formed. Union leaders almost brought this country to its knees a few years ago, but we were lucky. You know why?'
Jack and Snow gave each other a despairing look, the type you cast when you know it doesn't matter what answer you give.
‘Because it was a rich time for the world. Plenty of markets, plenty of money, cheap oil. Even the communists had it good.'
‘You seem to know a fair bit about it?' Jack said cautiously, as if the question might prompt another outburst.
‘Tommy taught me a lot.'
‘Who?' Jack asked, looking bewildered.
‘My old boxing trainer, Tommy Shakespeare,' I answered, suddenly realising that Jack and Snow couldn't know who Tommy was.
I hadn't thought about Tommy in a long while, I reflected. Inexplicable, unforgivable because he meant a lot to me – to all us kids he taught to fight a bit. Death and time are terrible enemies of gratitude.
‘Tommy worked all his life in the pit, and in his last years he was a pit secretary. He knew!'
‘You were a boxer?' Snow asked, seemingly happy to change the subject.
‘Yeah, didn't do much good though. Had a go, I suppose.'
‘How many blokes can say the same?'
‘There were plenty having a go in those days,' I answered, as Jack turned, trying to get a barmaid's attention. ‘It was just after Rose and Famechon won their world titles. All of a sudden, thousands of blokes thought they could do the same. A lot of us could put on a fair show, but when we got in with the real good ones ... well. I copped a fair few hidings. Not sorry though,' I added almost whispering, because that was my business.
Jack nodded seriously, sipped his beer, and said, ‘You'll still need a ticket if you want to get a job in the meat works.'
‘Fuck it then, I'm a union man.'
Two more barmaids wandered by, searching for customers: the slight, dark one with small, tight breasts, and the redhead with a tattoo pricked into her arm just above the bicep, and tits even larger than Suzie's. ‘Rosie' I read when she moved closer.
When I turned back to say something to C, who I had unwittingly been ignoring, she was talking animatedly to another of Jack's mates, a countryman of hers. I smiled when I noticed her hands moving like an Italian's, keeping time with the honey pitch and guttural sounds that represented her language. She hadn't spoken Dutch in months, and was speaking louder than necessary – loud enough to be heard by other drinkers.
Jack's mate, who they called Dutchy, looked embarrassed, even nervous, and tried countless times to turn the conversation back to English.
‘What are you, a wog or something, mate?'
‘He's Dutch,' I answered, turning to a man wearing a blue work singlet and a pair of those small shorts Australians call stubbies that crawl up your arse and split your balls so definitely they resemble two small bags of marbles. ‘And so am I,' I lied, ‘so shut your fucking mouth.'
Even though the man turned muttering back to his mates, Dutchy switched to his laboured, heavily accented English and refused to continue in his mother tongue. He knew there were more like this bloke around; the place was full of them.
‘What's going on?' C asked.
‘Australian egalitarianism,' I answered. ‘We like everybody to be the same as us.'
WHEN TWO DIFFERENT cultures mate up, swords cross. It's unavoidable. It can be as simple as coffee or tea in the mornings, a word used in a blunter than normal fashion, the way potatoes are cooked, where you are going to live.
We had lived for a time in Amsterdam, and this trip was my ace in the deck. C had agreed to give Australia a chance, but I wasn't confident. We should go west, I thought, have a look. I knew it wouldn't work around my home town.
Australia was a society of convicts. These hard and unruly men were shunted forth from the seashore to cower a treacherous hinterland. They needed each other, came to depend on each other more than lovers. Women were few and considered, for the most part, a burdensome comfort ... sugar for the tea.
Men developed a knowledge of the language of winks, nods and hand movements, and thus evolved a perceptive understanding of each other's needs and wants. Mateship, through necessity, had become stronger than male-female bonding.
Australian women had to make their own track on the periphery of this hard life. Start their own mob. They did so, and as time passed and Australia civilised almost to the point of boredom, they took on much of man's wearisome responsibility, at the same time chipping away at his myth and taking some of his power back until two tribes of equal strength were left.
But men maintained their strong kinship long after it was essential for survival, and this was the problem. It made them bad marriage partners. The solution was to keep men apart: stop them from sneaking away too often to the pub or escaping for weekends of fishing or shooting – anything that took them away from their married responsibilities.
My mates back home were like an extra limb to me. C wouldn't have stood a chance. She hadn't developed the Australian women's wiles, cunning or abrasive defence needed to protect their union and household, to stop desertion.
Our small, orange Ford scuttled along the highway like a startled beach crab. It was an inappropriate vehicle to take on the mocking vastness of the Nullarbor, but it had been cheap, and in those days our lack of money influenced all the decisions of our lives.
When we left the last of the modest hills behind us, just outside Port Augusta, and drove into the desert that stretched west, I thought C would despise the flat sweep of sand, scrub and mulga, that she would yearn for a tree, a field of green, but she was roused by the emptiness that makes most people tremble, and vitalised by the clear nights under brilliant, uncountable stars, the strange noises in the darkness at the edge of the firelight, the steaming black tea that we drank in the mornings before packing our camp. We made detours and it took us a week and a half to motor to the outskirts of Perth.
WE HAD MET Jack while filling up with petrol on the edge of Perth. He had walked over to our car and run his large hand over its dust-covered roof, cocked his aging head and drawled, ‘You didn't drive this heap of shit across the Nullarbor, did you?'
When I nodded, he gave us a grin, scratched an itch on his belly, and making the ‘are' sound insubstantial, asked, ‘Where are you heading?'
Jack was just one of those people who liked to lend a hand. There are fewer of them these days, a mark of the suspicion people have of one another. When Jack told us to follow him back to his red brick suburban home and stay a bit, his wife Roselyn was unsurprised and unconcerned.
Their house, kept almost lightless by small windows and a wide eave covering a north-facing porch, was cool – a welcome luxury after our blistering crossing – but its darkness was melancholic and in the shortest time I was missing the light.
Roselyn was frail, with brittle, milky skin and bleached, sunken eyes. Her dark thin hair was too long, and it fell about her face like a worn mop. She seemed older than she should be.
Surprisingly, she had retained a deftness. We had barely sat down before tea and biscuits were placed on a table between our chairs.
‘Where are you from?' she asked, pushing a plate of Iced Vo-Vos toward us.
Jack sat down reluctantly, suddenly uncomfortable, like a dog allowed into the house only on special occasions.
‘Holland,' C answered.
Roselyn's eyes seemed to suddenly fill her sockets. She brushed at her unruly hair, trying to give it a form. Her pallor grew rosier.
‘I always wanted to see the tulips,' she said, almost animatedly.
‘She don't get out much,' Jack told us a little later, as we sat at the bar of his local pub gratefully drinking cold schooners of beer. ‘Won't come to the pub, doesn't like my mates, doesn't have any herself.'
‘Why not?' C asked.
‘Well, we came down here five years ago from up north in Carnarvon when I got this job, and she never got used to the move.'
‘All right up there, is it?' I asked, trying to stop C from digging further than ‘the Australian norm' into Roselyn's unhappiness.
‘Yeah, Carnarvon's a bonzer place. Bananas, cattle, sheep, great fishing. Weather's always warm. Geez, it can get cold down here, mate. They even got a river that runs underground up there.'
Each time C walked outside the house and looked around at the other houses that resembled one another, at the unloved yards, the cars that received unproportional devotion, how it all crept away into the distance, heat dancing and springing from one roof to the next, hardly changing, she seemed to feel Roselyn's emptiness.
‘If you ever bring me to a place like this to live,' she said to me, ‘I'm off the next day.'
‘It's a new suburb. It'll look alright in a few years,' I answered once, but I knew it was more than the physical nakedness. There was nothing holding it together, except the bare dark roads and low rents. It was a heartless community, with seemingly no creativity or any of the better qualities of humanity apparent. Considering the unbound beauty of Perth, it must have been like living on the frayed hem of a party frock.
C talked with Roselyn about Europe, her travels through China and Central America, intensely describing worlds Roselyn had barely imagined, leaving her unreasonably grateful as if C were the proof that life could offer so much more.
The first evening we played an Edith Piaf tape that we carried with us, and Roselyn insisted on playing the French songbird each night. When C made a simple tomato salad, drenching the tomatoes in olive oil, salt and finely sliced pieces of garlic, Roselyn relished it as if it were table grapes out of season. Jack refused to eat it.
The new worlds C introduced to Roselyn changed her demeanour, made her appear younger, more confident, capable, Jack more confused. But C's social habits fitted Jack's more than Roselyn's, and she wasn't about to be left home chipping away at Roselyn's depression when we snuck away to the pub.
On Monday evening, the day after our visit to the topless pub, I got out the telephone book and found the address I wanted. On Tuesday I knocked on the door of a small office in downtown Perth and convinced two men that I was an ex-butcher who had let his membership in their union slip because of overseas travel. It was a time before computers, a time of trust. The following day we drove out of Perth, heading north towards Broome, more than 2,000 kilometres away.
Jack woke us before light. He always left home in the dark – garbage collectors start early.
‘Now,' he said, as he made us up some sandwiches and tea, ‘take plenty of water for yourself and the car, and carry some extra petrol. You got enough tools?'
I nodded. ‘Not much good with them, though.'
‘That's alright, you'll always find somebody who is. And take some stockings in case your fan belt breaks, and spare plugs and gaskets and oil. Be buggered if you start using oil and you don't have any replacement. How's your spare?'
‘Good,' I nodded.
‘Right, and if that car makes it, I'd buy a lottery ticket, because you'd be the luckiest bugger alive.'
‘See youse! Have a good trip,' he called out as he drove away into the sooty light.
When we were finally ready to leave, the sun had risen, the heat was intense, a little later it would become blistering.
‘Did he put you right about the trip?'
‘Yeah, Roselyn, he gave us a bit of advice.'
‘That's Jack alright, putting everybody right. It's only because he worries so much about people.'
‘Thanks for everything, Roselyn.' When she waved us goodbye, she seemed frailer than ever, bloodless, beaten.
THE ROAD IS endless, but then you reach Carnarvon, 900 kilometres north of Perth, cross the bridge that passes over the underground river clearly identifiable by a swathe of treeless, red dirt meandering into the distance, look at your map. You understand the trip has barely begun.
Road trains charged incessantly towards us, growing bigger and more menacing by the second, roaring by in a sweep of arrogant wind, dust and stone. Kangaroos – bent, buckled, and stiff as dried pine – lay butchered and reeking in their wake.
Once we came upon a mule with a twisted spine, the crows already picking at his eyes and neck. I thought I saw his head lift as I swung around his body, but I couldn't be sure. All that was certain was the sun rotted the road kill disrespectfully, wind the temperature of heated water rushed through our open windows, the light was as sharp as tin.
We filled up with petrol at insignificant pumps, humbly constructed between distant settlements on paddocks of red sand. Friendly, unscoured men met us as we drove in.
‘How ya' going, mate, hot ain't it?'
‘Strewth, not wrong about that. Top her up, thanks, mate.'
‘How ya' going, mate?'
‘Good thanks, a hamburger with the works.' C always took a salad sandwich, because it was the closest Australian road food got to healthy. Seemed it was always a couple working the business. The women, pale as paper, melted next to their stoves.
As we came around a bend and over a slight hill, a small man rose slowly, almost disinterestedly, from the dirt. He knew nobody would be left stranded in the bush.
He ran his fingers through his matted and bleached beard, before asking whether we had any petrol to sell. Only then did I notice the tiny helicopter parked inappropriately a few metres back from the road like a prodigious dragonfly.
We watched him fill up and lift away, sucking up sand and weed, following low over brown shimmering contours, before dropping behind another hill and disappearing in his search for cattle.
C and I raced through the port town of Dampier as quick as the car could manage, and slept in the dust shaded by a tarpaulin outside of Port Headland before making the last run into Broome.
It was late when we drove into the little town. Tepid street lighting and the inky tropical blackness left us disorientated. We could smell the sea, taste it on the breeze, but where it was we were not sure. It was only when we were driven from our tent by morning heat that we understood we were camped only a hundred metres from the Indian Ocean.
The campground was full. I walked around making acquaintances, discovering that most people had set up residence. Two august men sat on logs around a camp stove boiling vegetables into a soggy pulp. Old guitars leaned comfortably against their tent ... Maoris.
‘Waiting for the killing to start, bro?' I nodded, accepting a mug of tea. ‘Me too! Name's Jake.'
‘Jimmy,' the other said, extending a hand as big and fleshy as a ham hock. ‘I'm doorman at the Roebuck Bay Hotel – won't get me slicing up meat.'
I saw plenty of mung beans, the local name for the travellers who wandered up the west coast of Australia living off unemployment benefits and the odd job, spoke to a meat boner from Tasmania who had just arrived for the season, and to a small, timid man who told me he had spent the last five years locked up in his house in Perth, diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder. The campground was the home to unusual itinerants.
THE SLAUGHTERING STARTED in a week, but I got a tip that the meatworks had to be mucked out and got ready. I talked my way into the last place on the cleaning crew.
That evening, C and I wandered into town. There were two pubs on the waterfront. An old Aboriginal man lay on the footpath in front of the first, sleeping fitfully. He had wet himself, the stain showing at the crutch of his outstretched legs. I looked inside the pub and a tumultuous noise exploded towards us. It was the Aboriginal bar, standing space only, control of the revellers' voices and limbs already wagered and lost to the euphoria of a good drink with mates. There might have been another bar inside but I couldn't see it from the street.
In those days, there were boundaries. We didn't drink in Aboriginal pubs and they had to be careful if they drank in ours. The thresholds were set by both sides, but more so by the Aborigines who had, otherwise, few notable cultural castles to defend. They made their pubs inviolable.
‘Let's have a look at the next one,' I said to C.
The pub had a main bar and beer garden with a barbecue area. Coloured lights were strung around, giving it a clownish, carnival spirit. There were Aborigines, but they were in the minority, and their usual animated drinking character was stifled by a pressure to conform.
Jake was in the main bar playing pool. He was darker than the men around him, but more noticeable because of his neat, clean appearance, his solid shoulders and lack of beer gut. When he sank the black ball, almost disinterestedly, cash was handed to him.
‘How much you win?' I asked
‘Eighty-five,' he answered. ‘Fridays and Saturdays I can pick up around a hundred and fifty. Depends.'
‘You ever lose?'
‘You don't have to work?'
He smiled and threw up both shoulders. ‘Come over and get some tea in the morning, have some boil up, good Maori tucker.' And then he said, ‘You know Jimmy works here?'
I'd forgotten, I answered. ‘Working tonight?'
‘Nope, Friday and Saturday when they got music.'
I ordered a beer, and when I discovered who the manager was, I asked for a job. ‘You worked the bar before?' I handed the owner a reference from the manager of a working man's club that I always carried. It had been written seven years earlier, but he didn't notice or care.
‘It gets busy around here on the weekends, so you can start on Friday if you want.'
‘I'll be here,' I answered. ‘Thanks mate.'
The next morning, bright and early, I was at the meatworks to start my first job. My boss, a solid sympathetic man, put our five-man crew straight to work, hosing out, scraping and then scrubbing with soap, brush and broom. Not an inch of the cavernous shed was left untouched. Then we moved on to the barracks. The boss worked alongside of us, as hard as our best man.
Outside in the yards, we could hear gears shifting downwards and the swoosh of airbrakes as the first cattle trucks pulled up to the yards. The prodding of their cargo down the wooden shoots and into their holding yards. The animals bellowing in protest at their change of circumstances.
‘That crying means the poor bastards are done for.'
‘Be buggered! It means we can eat steak three times a day if we want.'
‘It means both,' the boss said, ‘now a bit more work and a bit less yabber.'
When I got back to camp, C told me she had found a job cleaning hotel rooms.
JAKE WAS THERE, a pool cue resting over his shoulder when I got to work on Friday night. I only had time to nod as the boss shunted me out to the beer garden ... ‘You work this bar.'
There was a band playing. Jimmy sat on a high stool at the entrance to the garden, his big arms folded, almost asleep.
On the following night, they sent me to cook hamburgers on the other side of the garden.
‘I can't,' I protested.
‘You'll be right, mate.'
Most likely they'd asked me because I was a man, and in Australia the barbecue was thought of as a man's job. They'd chosen the wrong bloke.
‘You forgot the egg, mate!'
‘Where's the bloody onions?'
‘Geez, this meat's still mooing.' The crowd's nature inexplicably remained positive.
At a certain time, they stopped complaining and started giving me advice. Warning me when something was burning, when to put the bread on, how to cut and mix the salad. ‘Timing mate, that's your biggest problem.'
An Aborigine stood beside the barbecue drinking with three other Aboriginal men. He was smallish, knotty, lighter and much younger than his drinking mates. His eyes, the colour of old milk, rolled at times in his head like a migg marble. He was drunk, but mostly mean. You saw it in the way he twisted his body looking for charging tigers as he sipped his beer, fastening a stare on another drinker until the man withered.
It was a warm night, but the three bikers who ordered hamburgers still had on their leather jackets. All had long, unwashed hair, and hadn't shaved in days. They wore their colours and stood in a way that took up too much room. The young Aborigine, without saying a word, swung a vicious, loping right and left at the nearest biker, missing with both. It was an unprovoked attack, but really it wasn't.
The biker put up his hand to ward off the punches and babbled something about not wanting to fight. His mates shuffled uncomfortably and said nothing. One of them flicked his head, and they moved away leaving their hamburgers frying on the stove.
‘What am I going to do with these?' I yelled after them.
‘I'll take 'em,' somebody said before the bikers turned to answer.
One of the older Aborigines leaned over, said something to the boy and was smacked wickedly in the face. Jimmy finally appeared, took the boy roughly by the back of the neck with one mighty hand and shoved him towards the door. When I next looked, Jimmy was back on his stool, arms folded, almost asleep.
THE LOCAL MEAT worker's union leader came around to inspect the cleaning job on Monday. He was a neat, courteous man with a fleshy face bright from sun, and thin pale hair that he combed straight back. An unremarkable man until he spoke.
‘John Davison,' he said. ‘Dave tells me you've got a ticket.' I nodded and smiled, shuffling in the way you do sometimes when speaking to people with more power than you.
I had read The Jungle, a book by Upton Sinclair, a socialist writer who dealt with the inhuman working conditions in a Chicago meat packing plant. An image came to mind of workers falling into tanks and being ground up with animal parts. Words like ‘grunt' and ‘groan', passages like ‘rivers of blood'. It was a non-union site. I mentioned it with the purpose of ingratiating myself with John Davison.
‘That will never happen again,' John said neutrally, seemingly unaware of my corrupting intent.
‘We know that bosses are not to be trusted. We know if they can beat you down, they will. Our only consideration is to the workers. High wages, fair hours. Safety, good housing, the best food, lifetime contracts.'
He paused, and I suspected theatrics, but it was only to marshal serious thoughts into words.
‘We want to know that our jobs are waiting for us every year, and they had better have an insoluble case before they try to dismiss anybody. We can destroy them if we want and they know it. We're not militant, but they'd better watch out.' His voice was low, dispassionate. I nodded dishonestly, thinking only that he sounded like all union leaders.
‘Goodbye brother,' he said as he left.
We finished cleaning the site on Wednesday, and on Thursday morning, along with twenty other men, I was milling in front of the closed front gate. A large humourless foreman, sleeves rolled over his biceps and holding a clapboard, stood behind the wire gate and yelled that he was looking for two workers. We all straightened, trying to be noticed.
‘You two,' he said, choosing from among the raised hands. The rest of us wandered off. On the second morning, the man with the clapboard pointed at me.
THE YARDS WERE full. At first I listened to the cattle's loud tragic cacophony of distress, but after the shortest time I dismissed it as something inconsequential. When they came through the rubber curtains into the cooled chamber of macabre vivisection, they had been killed by a metal rod shot just below their eye, shackled by the back legs, hoisted to a running rail, throat cut, hide and head removed, disembowelled, carcass split. They were soulless things that had never breathed, chewed their cud, snorted, mooed or bellowed, leaving your conscience at peace, your sentimentalities encased in ignorance.
Each meat boner was tasked with a job of cutting away pieces as an animal passed on the running rail that circled the boning area like a kiddies' carnival ride.
The boners, finished with their dissections, threw their joints on to a steel table for the slicers to refine like a gourmet chef preparing cuts for the pan. The beef was then boxed, weighed and thrown on to a moving rail that encircled the boners and slicers. It was my job to transfer the boxes to pallets ready for freezing and trucking. Blood scented the air so heavily that you could taste its sweetness. Only the fat left a rancid lingering odour.
Jake was working only a few metres away, using his knife like a surgeon, slicing skilfully, turning his joints to improve his angle, nipping off fat as if it were cancerous growth. At times he would stop, flick up the steel hanging from a chain belt and run his knife across and back, and then he would begin with renewed facility.
Jake was dressed in a white shirt and pants, smeared across the chest and belly with dried and drying blood. Layer upon layer.
A siren sounded and the rails stopped moving. The carcasses hung, stiff and ignored. The boners and slicers laid down their knives and left their posts punctiliously, lifting the rails that the boxers rolled along, and marched purposefully to the crib room. Steaks, chops, sausage, potatoes, vegetables, hills of bread, whatever they fancied, awaited them ... awaited us.
I sat in the wrong place. ‘This is the boners and slicers table, mate.' I didn't understand. ‘Labourers over there!'
I lifted my plate of steak and vegetables and moved. I made the same mistake the next day at a different table. ‘I'll move when I'm finished,' I answered, but I was almost finished. It was my luck that the table was filled with mostly reasonable men. I never sat among them after that day.
I quit my job in the pub. I was too spoiled by my nine hundred dollar a week pay packet, and too buggered at the end of the week to serve beer to drunks.
‘I like the job at the meatworks,' I told C when she asked. ‘It's good work, and the pay's amazing.' I had started thinking that if I could get the job every season, we'd do alright in Australia.
‘It's too repetitive for you,' she said. ‘I know you, you'll get bored, and besides, you told me you don't like the hierarchy. What did you say? it's not fuckin' right.'
When we sat in the crib room, it was each with his own, but conversation drifted, borderless and overbearing.
‘The fuckin' cockies just sit on their arses drinking tea and watch their cattle multiply.'
‘They give us jobs.'
‘Stuck-up cunts they are. Never worked a decent day in their lives.'
‘Fuckin' drunk blackfellas everywhere. Sitting in the middle of a fuckin' desert. Be glad to get home.'
‘What will you do there?' I asked the boner who had just spoken, thinking he must have another job.
‘Nothing,' and then he added optimistically, ‘I'll drink.'
‘Sick of bloody meat. Wish we had some fish,' another said.
IT WAS THE middle of the '80s, but most of the workers had come of age in the '60s and '70s, and kept their hair untidily long, their sideburns thick. They came for the season from places as far away as Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart. The barracks living that they had to endure made some coarse in their habits, others surly.
For some – especially the old timers – there was an air of inevitability about it all, as if it were prison time, but all carried the discomfort of being kept away from their homes, families, luxuries. Not many had anything nice to say about Broome. Jake, who stayed living at the campground, told me he was earning more than $2,000 per week.
‘That's a bloody fortune,' I said, astonished.
‘Yeah bro, but the way the union sees it that should support us for the whole year. Most of these blokes just sit on their arses after this is finished, so they need the big money.'
‘What about you?'
‘Going shearing, mate. Me and Jimmy.'
How could the industry support these wages? I wondered, but since I was also earning more than I deserved, I didn't let it bother me.
The German who weighed the boxes was as thick as a packing carton. His spiky black hair, broad, unlovely face and bulbous nose were fearful. His smile was cherubic. Because he was neither a boner nor a slicer, he would sit at my crib table.
‘You worked here long?' I asked him the first or second day.
‘For a few years now, mate, but I was in the Foreign Legion most of me life. Fought in North Africa, and Dien Bien Phu.'
I heard frightful stories. ‘You're lucky to be alive!'
But he knew that, and was a most content man.
Over the months, my workmates proved themselves friendly enough when time allowed, when the pressure wasn't on to butcher as if famine were at the door. But they were here for a purpose, and there was little inclination for anything else. Fortunately only a minority had any real hierarchical impulses. But those who did were a blight on us all.
It's a disgrace when working men try to stand over one another because one has learned the simple task of directing a knife in short, deft strokes, while another has to depend on the strength of his shoulders. When one is paid nine hundred dollars and the other two thousand.
The meat slicer kept leaving the rails that circumvented the work area raised when he left to eat or to use the toilet, forcing me to stop my work, walk over and lower them, repeating it when he returned. He did it consistently, cognitively. I let it go for longer than I should have.
When I spoke to him, he was not afraid of me, but fighting was one of the few indiscretions not tolerated by the bosses or the unions, and he knew I had had enough. From that time on, he closed the gates.
The German, whose name was Otto, invited me to his home to meet his Aboriginal wife, his innumerable children ... the rest. His house was one of many that seemed no different from the others, all set on barren acres outside the centre of town.
His neighbour's yard was a playground of debris. Kids raced about naked, things lay broken. Dust, heat and flies thrived in the disregard. Otto's yard was militarily manicured. Inside the house, it was a paradise of well-ordered amenities. Spotless.
Others besides the immediate family sat about the living room floor, the small veranda, or played wildly and loudly outside, cluttering the place with their peculiarly enduring human qualities. Cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces. ‘I don't know who they all are,' he told me one time.
It was the court of a benevolent king. One whose Germanic and military sensibilities had made a covenant with Aboriginal custom, so that you had order as well as warmth, as well as many extra mouths to feed.
Otto was bathed in affection and luxuriated in it. After the brutality and odyssey of his life, he had found a mundane heaven. I left after six beers, completely assured that had it been his wife who earned the fortune he was paid, he would have been no less loved.
‘I'm never leaving here,' he told me.
I STARTED TEACHING twice a week at the boxing club: amateurs, all Aboriginal. Young boys talented beyond expectation who relished the attention and direction, and returned it with euphoric enthusiasm.
A professional fighter, a bouncer at one of the town clubs, an Islander with a shaved head and shoulders like camel humps, started training with us. I was only thirty-one, still young enough to spar three or four rounds with him at a pace that would have some benefit to his training.
It was only when word got out that I could hold my own with the Islander that something close to acceptance came to me at work. I had become more than the man who lifted boxes. I had become good enough for the boners and slicers. For a short while I had stopped noticing any inequality in the workplace. That sometimes happens when nothing is directed against you personally.
Two new men were employed, both approaching early middle age. They shuffled amongst the boners and the slicers, sweeping away the scraps that fell like foul droppings, greasing the floor to a consistency of face cream. They worked inconsistently, slowly, often leaning on their brooms like soldiers with leg wounds.
They were yelled at, scraps were thrown on to areas that had already cleaned, they were the butt of tricks and absurdities. They rarely lifted their heads and never reacted to the insults. They were drinkers ... drunks, and should have been fired, not abused. I felt insulted on their behalf, but ignored their plight. They were union men, let the union take care of it. But I knew it wouldn't.
I have always worked hard. I had the luck that it was my nature because it was my father's nature. The bosses offered me a contract ... a job for life. I had visions of becoming a boner or slicer.
C had already decided. She saw no future for us in the desert, and I didn't want to lose her. Years later I realised we had no choice. I was drifting back towards my tribe, and she hadn't the will to become part of the female one. Eventually I would have crushed her with my Australian male insecurities and unreasonable doctrines. I had already started influencing the way she dressed, where she could go without me, who she might befriend.
We drove north before the season ended, climbing towards Fitzroy Crossing and further to the Kimberley.
In 1994, and after many lean years and layoffs, the meatworks closed down. Perhaps if the unions had been more reasonable, the wages just a little lower, men might still be at work.