On Sunday morning I went into the bar to look for some work. Someone I knew introduced me to a real beaut, a young bloke called Kenny Calton. We got on well together right from the word go.
“Where ya working, Yorky?” he asked.
“Nowhere yet Kenny. I’ve just finished tractor driving out at Roger Toms’ place.”
“Why don’t ya git a job roustabouting in the shearing sheds?”
“I’d love that but I don’t know how to go about it.”
“It’s easy, mate. I’ll introduce ya to a few of the local contractors and ya can take it from there.”
“How did you learn to shear, Mate?”
“Mi old man’s a shearer, he taught me. I’ve been going out in the sheds with him since I was a kid.”
“Is it hard work?”
“Well, it’s not easy but once ya git the blows down and git fit, then it depends on how hard ya wanna work.”
“What’s the money like?”
“If ya git in good sheep ya can make a good, few bob.”
“What’s the going rate?”
“Eighteen bucks a hundred.”
“How many can you shear a day, Kenny.”
“Oh about 120-130.”
“Shit! That’s big money.”
“Yeah”, he said. If ya can keep ya self in work it is.”
I left the bar for a while to go for a feed and when I came back Kenny was still sat on the same stool, a few middies worse for wear.
Kenny was a short nuggety bloke, clean-cut and well-dressed. He had short, straight hair and a somewhat chubby face. His arms were quite big from dragging sheep. The knuckles on both his hands were big and swollen as most shearers hands are. I noticed his arms were covered in scratches and burr marks from the saffron thistles that were all over the sheeps' fleece. When I walked over to him, he said in a somewhat slurred voice, “ya see that bloke over the other side of the bar, Yorky?”
“His name’s Don Freeman. Go and see him, mate. Tell him ya looking for a job roust-abouting.”
When I went over to where he was sitting, I waited for him to finish talking to his mate.
“G’day.”, I said.
“G’day mate, what can I do for ya?”
“I’m looking for some work in the sheds. Kenny Calton said ya might have some.”
“Kenny sent ya over did he?”
“Yeah.”, I said.
“I haven’t got anything going for a couple of days but I can give ya some work down at mi house till we start, if ya like.”
“That sounds great!”
“Hang on a minute till I finish mi beer.”
Don Freeman was a tall, lanky bloke. He had wavy hair, a gaunt face and a husky, muffled voice which came from a broken nose.
He downed his 7 ounce and said, “What’s ya name?”
“A chummy, eh? Can ya work, mate? Ya don’t look too fucking big to me!”
“Don’t let the size fool ya.”, I said.
“Alright mate, let’s go.”
“Where we off to?” I asked, as we walked out of Twitcheys, down the main street towards the Lake.
“Down to my joint. It’s just down at the end of the street.”
When we got inside of his backyard he said, “I want to put a big septic tank over here so I need a hole digging. D’ya think ya can do that?”
“How big a hole d’ya want?”
“I’ll show ya.”
He walked over to a wheel barrow and took out a string line and two pegs. He stuck one peg in the ground and then unraveled the string. When the string was straight, he tied the steel peg on and then walked around with the peg scratching the hard ground as he went. Once the circle was complete he said, “That’s about nine foot across and it’s gotta be seven foot deep. Ya think ya can dig it by hand?”
“No worries, mate.”
“How long will it take ya?”
“Probably all day.”
“One day?”,he said. “That’s all? That’s a fucking big hole mate! There’s a lot of digging there!”
“Yeah! About one days’ worth.”
“Shit! I doubt whether an Aussie could dig that in two days, let alone a chummy in one!”
“One day, mate.”, I said.
“Alright chummy, the job’s yours! How much is it gonna cost me?”
“Tell ya what, Don. You don’t think I can do it in one day and ya said it would take an Aussie two days. At a dollar an hour, that’s 16 bucks for two eight hour days. I’ll make ya a deal. If you promise to give me a job as a roustabout as soon as you’ve got work, I’ll dig the hole for ten bucks and I’ll finish it within the day.”
“You’re on chummy!”, he said with a smile. “Ya can start in the sheds with me on Wednesday, that’s if ya finish the septic hole in time. I won’t be here tomorrow so I’ll leave the pick, shovel and the crowbar in that wheelbarrow over there. Alright chummy?”
“Alright Donny.”, I said, with a big smile. “Be careful ya don’t fall in it if ya come home full!”, I joked.
“I’ll believe it when I see it!”
I was up the next morning, bright and early. I had a bit of breakfast at the Hotel before I set off. As I walked down the empty street towards Dons’ place, I was thinking what it would be like to work in the shearing sheds. I’d always wanted to learn shearing ever since I had a go at it at old Burts’ place.
When I walked through the small gate and down the dirt path, I decided to put everything out of my mind except the big job that was ahead of me!
It was still pretty cool as the sun was not yet above the horizon. I stood in the rough, untidy side-yard contemplating what was the best and easiest way to go about digging the septic tank hole. After a few minutes it became obvious to me that there was no easy way to dig it. The only way it was going to get done was to start digging! The steel peg and string line that Donny had used to mark the large circle was still in the same place so I remarked the circle making the line deeper as I walked around.
Once this task was complete I grabbed hold of the shovel, put the end of it on the ground where the center hole was and stomped on the edge with mi old work-boot. The shovel sank into the ground all of two inches.
‘Oh shit!’ I thought. ‘This is going to be a lot tougher going than I thought it would be!’
Then I picked up the long, fat crowbar. The end of it was in not too bad a shape, so I decided to start loosening the ground in a small circular motion, starting from the middle again. The crowbar sank in the hard ground about four inches each time I raised it above my shoulders and drove it downwards with great force. Very consistently, I enlarged the shallow hole until I reached the outer line of the nine foot circle. I took a few minutes breather, then shoveled the loose dirt and shale rock out of the hole. Once this was done I surveyed the work, still wondering if there was an easier way to do it.
Pictures of jackhammers kept floating across the minds’ eye but there was no chance of aquiring one so I dismissed them as soon as they arose. Next, I decided to have a go with the pick that Donny had left. I started in the middle again and applied the same principle. I made a small hole, then enlarged it as I moved around. Sometimes the pick would hit a hard rock and the vibration of the blow would send the corresponding vibration shattering up my arms.
Once I reached the outside circle again I cleaned out the loose dirt and surveyed the now, little bit deeper hole. A minutes rest and I started from the center again. No easier way of digging would come to mind so once that became clear to me I threw myself into the job with a great deal of determination!
As the morning wore on, the large hole got slowly deeper. The hot sun was now beginning to rise in the sky. Sweat was starting to pour out of my forehead and a gentle breeze blew the fine red dust over my face. By noontime, I was halfway there! The large hole was three and a half feet deep and the sides were perfectly straight.
I took a rest for half an hour to eat a couple of sandwiches I’d got from the Hotel kitchen. After a smoke, I jumped down into the hole to start the afternoons’ session. It was much harder now as the sun was really hot! It must have been 115 degrees down in the hole.
The ground was not getting any softer and the dirt had to be thrown up in the air and over the side so it didn’t roll back in on top of me. By 7 O’clock that evening, the hole was seven feet deep and nine feet wide. The sides were as straight as a die!
“G’day.”, said Donny as he peered down into the hole. “Grand streuth chummy, ya finished it mate!”
“Right on seven feet!”, I said as I looked up at him from down in the hole.
“You’re a bloody little beauty chummy! I didn’t think ya stood a mongrel dogs’ chance of finishing that today!”
“I told ya I could do it. Good-looking hole, mate eh?”
“Not bad chummy. It’s a pity we’re gonna fill it with shit! How ya gonna git out ‘a the hole?”, he said, with a big grin.
“Give us a pull up mate or I’ll be here all night.”
Once I got out of the hole, I said to him “So I’ve got a job in the sheds with ya now, mate?”
“Tell ya what, Chummy, ya can work in the sheds with me anytime I’ve got work. Any man who can dig a hole that big and deep in one day is good enough for me, sport. You’re a better man than most of those lazy bastards that sit around the bar all day. They ask me for a job and I take ‘em out and they’re too crook from the grog to do any good!”
“Will ya teach me to shear, mate?”
“If I get time I will and if not one of the other blokes will!”
Although I was knackered from the days work, the thought of working in the sheds and learning to shear put a shit-eating grin on my face for the rest of the evening.
A couple of days later I saw Don in Twitcheys bar.
“Ya got a start tomorrow if ya want it, chummy!”
“ ‘Course I want it! What time will ya pick me up?”
“Be ready at six. I’ll pick ya up on mi way past.”
“How many days will ya have for me?”
“Two days this week then we’ll start on a new shed next week. It should go for three weeks.”
The following morning I was sat on the curb outside Twitcheys at a quarter to six waiting for the contractor. As I was sat there wondering what shed life would be like, a cars' horn beeped and Don Freeman pulled into the curb.
"G'day Don." I said, as I jumped up.
"G'day Chummy. Hop in mate, we've gotta pick up the other blokes."
As I got in the front of the Falcon Sedan, he said, "I hope old Gundy's sober this morning. He was pissed as a chook yesterday. It took him a couple of hours to sober up. He only shore 15 sheep the first run."
"Isn't 15 sheep a lot to shear in one run?, I asked.
"That's nothing for a shearer of Gundys' capabilities Chummy. When Gundy's sober and he feels like working, I've seen him shear a couple of hundred a day and not break out in a sweat. 'Course, he's very rarely sober."
We drove around Chamens Corner where the blackfellas' hung out. There was a couple of 'em sitting on the bench swigging on a half-gallon flagon of plonk.
"I don't know how those blokes do it.", said Don. "I've seen 'em sat there in the hot sun all day getting full on plonk."
"Where do they git the money from?", I asked.
"They get a government check every week and most of 'em spend the whole lot on cheap plonk."
We pulled into the curb again and a young bloke about my age hopped in the front beside me.
"G'day Freeman, how ya going mate?", he said.
"G'day Boney, how ya going mate? D'ya know Chummy?", said Don.
"I've heard of ya mate. Mi brother Kenny told me about ya."
"Good to meet ya Boney.", I said as we shook hands.
"How's Kenny doing?, said don.
Boney, who was a small, thin bloke with jet black hair and a cheeky smile said, with a laugh,
"He's fast asleep in the front seat of his car. He got full as a boot again last night. He drove home from Twitcheys but was too drunk to make it from the car to our front door."
"Jesus", said Donny, "What does his new missus think about that?"
"She ain't too pleased about it.", said Boney between laughs and giggles. "They've been married for two months now and he's only slept with her about half a dozen times. The rest of the time he's been drunk in his car."
"How long till she has the kid?", asked Don.
"About a month, I think. I asked Kenny the same question the other day and he said 'what kid?"
Boney had a real good laugh over this little joke.
"This is gonna be Chummys first day in the shed Boney so teach him the ropes, alright mate?"
"Ya haven't worked in the sheds before Chummy?"
" Only for half a day out at old Burt Booths' place."
"They tell me old Burt's a bit of a hard man to work with.", said Don.
"That's an understatement.", I said.
Everyone had a real good laugh at that.
Shearers and roustabouts are always trying to take the piss out of each other, probably cause it makes the day go by easier and relieves the tension from the hard work.
The car pulled up in front of a cream-colored weather-board house and Donny Freeman honked the horn. After a few minutes a bloke appeared at the door and called out, "Be right with you."
"Jesus", said Don. "Old Gundy doesn't look too good to me this morning. I heard he was as full as a boot up at Giltraps' bar last night."
"He doesn't mind a drop now and then.", said Boney, with a giggle.
"Ya not wrong there.", said Don. "It's a bit hard to say anything about it though cause he's such a good shearer. Even when he's crook from the grog he's cleaner and faster than a lot a' blokes."
The front door of Gundys' house re-opened and Gundy walked out. He looked a bit sick and was a little unsteady on his feet as he walked over the dead and patchy grass of his front lawn. Just before he got to the car, his old lady came running after him with a packet of fags in her hand. He took the fags from her and never said a word. As Gundy neared the back door of Don Freemans car, he tripped over a crack in the cement and nearly crashed into the glass.
"Open the back door for him Chummy before he hurts himself.", said Don.
Leaning mi arm over the back seat, I pulled up on the handle and pushed on the door. The door almost knocked Gundy over and he took a couple of steps backwards. Very carefully he maneuvered round the open door and slowly got in the back of the Sedan.
"Ya tryin' to knock me arse over head?", said Gundy as he made himself comfortable.
"No", I said. "It was my fault for shoving the door so hard."
"What's your name?", he said with a drunken grin on his face.
"Yorky.", I said.
"What kinda' fucking name is that?", he said with slurry speech.
"It's a knickname 'cause I come from Yorkshire."
"Fucking hell.", said Gundy "A pommy fucking bastard! What are ya doing in the sheds?"
"It's Chummys first day.", said Don. "We're gonna teach him to Roust-a-bout."
"Chummy eh?", said Gundy. "That's not a bad fucking name. I think I'll call ya Chummy from now on."
"D'ya have a hard night at Giltraps Gundy?", asked Boney.
"I sure fucking did mate. I never got home till 1 O'clock this morning and the missus was as cranky as hell with me. She made me sleep on the couch all night. She was still cranky this morning."
"Oh shit, mi head's not too good either. Hey Freeman."
"What d'ya want Gundy?", said Don.
"Can ya go a bit easier on those fucking corners mate, mi brain's slopping around in last nights grog."
"How many are ya gonna' shear today if I slow down?", said Don, in a joking way.
"How many did I shear yesterday?
"102.", said Don.
"Alright, "I'll shear 103 today. How's that?"
"Could ya do 150 please.", said Don taking the piss out of Gundy.
"You fucking contractors are never satisfied.", said Gundy as he pulled a fag out of his packet.
"Give us a light Boney.", He said.
"I haven't got one Gundy.", said Boney.
"Here ya go Gundy.", I said as I flicked the lighter.
"Good on ya Chummy, ya pommy bastard! Me and you are gonna git on real well mate."
Gundy was a very funny character. He was about 5 foot 10 with dry, wavy hair. He had a bald spot in the middle of his head and the hair was starting to thin at the front. His eyes were blue and his broken nose shot off to the side at a very acute angle. He was dressed in the usual shearers garb which was a cardigan, blue singlet with a reinforced patch on the front-left side, double-legged heavy-duty blue denim shearers dungarees which helped slightly to keep the thistles out, wooly socks and shearers boots. The trousers were help up with an elastic belt made out of good-quality surgical elastic.
"Where's that fucking Athel Cook this morning Freeman?", said Gundy.
"We're gonna pick him up now. Suppose he was with ya at Giltraps last night was he?", said Don.
"Yeah.", said Gundy. "The bastard tried to miss out on buying a round before he left. He can be as tight as a fishes asshole."
The car ground to a halt at the far end of town and another shearer was sat on the curb smoking a home-made.
He was a thick-set bloke with a whiskery face. Not a very good-looking bloke at all. His thick wavy hair was plastered down on his large head and he had a sweat towel around his neck like a scarf.
"G'day ya fucking bastards.", Athel said as he got in the back besides Gundy.
"G'day.", said Don. "This is Chummy, Athel. He's roust-a-bouting for us today."
"G'day Athel.", I said as I leaned over to shake his hand.
"A fucking pommy bastard eh?" I've never seen a good one yet."
"This one is a fucking beaut, so go easy on him today Athel cause it's his first day.", said Don.
Don let the clutch out and the sedan sped off out of town onto the dirt road heading for the cockies shearing shed.