Saturday, October 18, 2008
INTO THE SHEARING SHED ©
I was sat on the curb outside Twitcheys' at quarter to six, in the morning, waiting for the contractor. As I sat there wondering what shed life would be like, a car horn beeped and Don Freeman pulled into the curb.
"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 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 nothin' 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 in a day and not break out in a sweat. 'Course he's very rarely sober!"
We drove around Chamans corner where all the blackfellas hang out. There was a couple of them sitting on a 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. 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. D'ya know chummy?"
"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?" asked 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. We drove home from Twitcheys' but he was too drunk to make it from the car to our front door.
"How long till she has the kid?", asked Donny.
"About a month, I think. I asked Kenny the same question 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 all the ropes, eh mate."
"Ya haven't worked in the sheds before Chummy?"
"Only for half-a-day at old Burt Booths' place."
"They tell me old Burt's a bit of a hard man to work with.", said Donny.
"That's an understatement!", I said.
Everyone had a 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 weatherboard house and Donny Freeman honked on the horn. After a few minutes a bloke appeared at the door and called out, "Be right with ya!"
"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. It's a bit hard to say anything about it 'cause he's such a good shearer. Even when he's crook from the grog he's cleaner and faster than a lot of blokes."
The front door of Gundys' house opened and Gundy walked out. He looked a bit sick and unsteady on his feet as he walked over the dead, 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 reached the back door of the car, he tripped over a crack in the cement and nearly crashed into the window.
"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, it was my fault for shoving the door so hard.", I said.
"What's your name?"
"What kind'a fucking name is that?", he said, with slurred speech.
"It's a nickname, 'cause I come from Yorkshire."
"Fucking hell!", said Gundy. "A pommy fucking bastard! What ya doin' in the sheds?"
"It's Chummys' first day. We're gonna teach him to roustabout.", said Don.
"Chummy eh! That's not a bad fuckin' name. I think I'll call ya Chummy from now on."
"Did'ya have a hard night at Giltraps, Gundy?", asked Boney.
"I sure fuckin' 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 when she woke me up this morning. Oh shit, mi head's not too good either.
"What d'ya want Gundy?"
"Can ya go a bit easier on those fucking corner mate? Mi brain's sloshing 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?"
"A hundred and two."
"Alright, I'll shear 140 today. How's that?"
"Could you 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."
"I haven't got one Gundy."
"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 5'10" 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 left front side, double-legged, heavy duty blue denim shearers dungarees which helped, slightly, to keep the thistles out, woolly socks and shearers boots. The trousers were held up with an elastic belt made out of good-quality surgical elastic.
"Where's that fuckin' Athel Cook this morning, Freeman?" asked Gundy.
"We're gonna pick him up now. Suppose he was with ya at Giltraps' last night, was he?"
"Yeah. The bastard tried to miss out on buying a round before he left. He can be as tight as a fishes arse sometimes."
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 fuckin' bastards.", he said as he got in the back beside Gundy.
"G'day.", said Don. "This is Chummy, Athel. He's roust-aboutin' 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's a fucking beaut, so go easy on him today Athel. It's his first day."
Don let the clutch out and the Sedan sped off out of town onto the dirt road heading for the Cockys' shearing shed.
"Have ya ever had ya balls tarred Chummy?" asked Athel as were were driving along.
"No. Why d'ya ask?"
" 'Cause that's what we do with first-time Rousies!"
"Not this time Athel.", said Don. "I told ya already, leave him alone mate!"
Athel Cook was not a pleasant character. He seemed to take an instant dislike to me. As we were driving along, Boney leaned across and whispered, "Take no notice of Athel. He's a fucking yabo."
He must have had quite good ears 'cause he said to Boney,
"What's that ya fuckin' say Boney?"
"Nothing mate.", said Boney with a giggle.
Athel leaned over and twisted Boneys' ear and Boney, small as he was, got really pissed at him.
"Keep ya fuckin' hands to ya self Athel or I'll fucking job ya one mate!"
"You and whose fucking army?", said Athel.
"Just try it again, ya fucking yabo and I'll show ya!"
"Come on you blokes.", said Freeman. "Ya worse than a pack of mongrel shed dogs!"
"Yeah, that's right. You tell 'em Freeman.." said Gundy. "Give us another light Chummy.", he said with a twisted grin.
The rest of the drive to the shed was done in silence as we sped along the dirt track road at 70 miles an hour. Half an hour later we pulled off the main Rankin Springs road and turned into the Cockys' property. Boney jumped out and opened the gate, Once it was closed again, we drove up a narrow, winding bush track and stopped in front of a big, old, somewhat dilapidated shearing shed. There was another two shearers cars parked out front and the yards were chock-a-block full of unshorn sheep. When we got inside the shed Don introduced me to all the other shearers and rousies and Boney filled me in on the 'board-boys' job.
Gundy was a really fair-dinkum bloke, even though he was a chronic drunk. I stood around and talked and joked with him as we waited for the bell to ring at 7:30.
In a four-stand shearing shed there are usually 4 shearers and one board-boy, a wool-classer, a rousie to help skirt the fleeces, a wool-presser whose job it is to press the wool into large bales and sometimes a 'penner-uppa'. His job is to keep the shed pens full. The contractors job is to grind up the combs and cutters, count the sheep out of each shearers outside the pen at the end of the run, which is 2 hours and make sure everything runs smoothly between the shed-hands and the farm-hands.
"Will ya teach me to shear, Gundy?", I asked.
"Oh, I might do Chummy. Lets see how you go at roustabouting' first mate. Maybe you won't like the shearing sheds!"
"I already like 'em and when I can shear I'll be working for miself. That's what I want to do."
"Alright Chummy. Look out mate, the bells about to go!"
The bell rang right on 7:30. All the 4 shearers went through the pen gate to grab their first sheep. Gundy was the last to finish and when he let his sheep go down the chute, he straightened up and I noticed the look of pain on his face.
"Jesus, Chummy, It's going to be another hard day for me."
The board-boys job, which I was doing, could be pretty hard at times. I had to pick up the fleeces from 4 shearers and keep the shearing board swept clean of dags and loose pieces of wool. At the end of my first day I was pretty tired of running about so much but I knew, more than ever, I was going to learn shearing no matter what it took.
The shearers were always in a good mood on the way home from the sheds. They laugh and joked about the days work and talked about the first cold beer they were going to have at Giltraps Hotel when we hit town.
All the blokes from the shed drank at George Giltraps Hotel that evening. George Giltrap was a big man. He had shortish hair that was combed straight back with a touch of oil on it. His face was always pain-ridden from the amount of beer he drank. It was easy for him to drink 'cause he owned the Hotel. Sometimes he would start drinking at 5 in the morning and at 12 O'clock at night he would be still going strong. Although he was a heavy drinker he was not lazy. He always did his job behind the bar. He was a tall man with wide shoulders who always had a fag hanging out of the corner of his mouth, as he pulled the beer. When he ash on the fag got too long he would simply turn to the side and blow down the cigarette. The ash would fly forwards and land on the tile floor.
The barroom at Giltraps was an L-shaped room with a pool table in the far corner. The bar was always stocked with shorts and liquors of all types.
Giltraps was commonly known around town as the Blood House. It got it's name from the amount of fights that took place in the bar. The fights at Giltraps were usually conducted by the Abbos or in a lot of cases, a feud between the white fellas' and the black fellas'. There were many stories floating around town about those brawls. A lot of the local people were not too keen on drinking at Giltraps in case they got sucked into one of the evenings fights.
"Isn't Giltraps a rough house Gundy?", I asked as we walked up the front steps.
"She sure is Chummy but it's not as boring as those as those other two places mate."
Giltraps was packed as we entered.
"Who's buying the first round?", said Gundy, as we pushed our way to the bar.
"The first one's are on me.", said Don Freeman. "What'll you have men?"
Once the orders were taken by Don, he called Giltrap over, who was busy drinking in three different schools.
"What'll ya have Freeman?", asked Giltrap.
Don gave the order, including a 5-ounce beer for me.
"How old's the young bloke?", said Giltrap as he looked at me.
"Oh, that's Chummy.", said Don. "He's old enough. He's working out in the sheds with me now."
"Whatever you say Freeman but if he isn't and the old Sarg comes in, tell him to hide his beer or I'll git in the shit!"
Drinking grog was a part of the shearers world. It seemed to go with the job. Shearers lose gallons of sweat every day so they put it back in, of an evening, as fast as they can. We all sat or stood around for the next three hours bull-shitting and making jokes, taking the piss out of each other and generally having a good old time.
The wool-presser at our shed was Roy James. Roy James was a big rough bloke who no one put shit on. He was about 6'4" and weighed about 280 pounds and not an ounce of fat anywhere on his body. Roy was a good bloke who had a big heart although he was not overburdened with brains. His hair was swept straight back and covered in lanolin from picking up big armfuls of wool. He usually wore a blue singlet, stubby shorts and a pair of elastic-sided Williams riding boots, the flat-heeled type. He had a big cauliflower ear and a nose that had been broken too numerous a time. His good ear had a lobe missing. The jagged line that was left resembled a half-moon.
As the evening progressed and everyone got drunker, I found myself wondering what had happened to Roys' ear.
"Hey Roy, what happened to your ear-lobe mate?"
A few people standing around must have heard me ask the question because our end of the bar suddenly went very quiet. Roy casually downed his beer. The glass was not too visible in his huge calloused hand.
"What did you say, Chummy?"
He sort of turned side ways to glare at me.
"I was just wonderin' what happened to ya ear-lobe, Roy."
As he stared down at me, he said, "I've killed bigger men than you for askin' much less than that!"
"Alright Roy.", I said. "I didn't mean to be disrespectful to ya but what did happen to your ear-lobe?"
"I was in a fight at the Hotel in Bourke and a little bloke was takin' the piss out 'a me and as we struggled on the bar-room floor, he bit the end off mi ear and then spit it out."
"Why didn't you git it sewn back on?", I asked, with great interest.
" 'Cause when the bloke spit out on the floor, the publicans' Jack Russell ran over and grabbed it and then swallowed it."
"Fuckin' hell Roy, did that hurt?"
"I was too drunk to feel a thing but I felt it next morning after I'd sobered up! Whose round is it?", he asked as the tension in the room started to dissipate.
Roy walked out to go to the toilet and while he was out, Freeman said,
"I never knew that's what happened to his ear."
Gundy said, "You've got more guts than anyone else in this barroom Chummy. There isn't a man alive in Lake Cargelligo who's had the balls to ask Big Roy about his ear and he's been comin' to the Lake each shearing season, for years now."
Everyone started to laugh as they joked with me.
"It's not that I've got guts.", I said to Gundy. "I knew there must have been a story behind his ear 'cause it caught my attention. So much so that I couldn't help but ask."
George Giltrap came around the bar to where we were all in a group and he said,
"Here Chummy, have a middy. It's on the house, mate."