I see you there, old woman, in the grey shade of the veranda. I hear your sleepy breath. I’m curious as to what it would take to wake you – a prod or a word. I’ll roll a quick durry while I’m here in the cool.
That rattan chair fits you like a second skin, do you sit there often? I don’t get to sit much in my working day. What’s it like to passively while away the time?
The bush flies are biting the skin on me face and arms. I’ve rolled me worn-thin flanno sleeves tight on me biceps to protect me upper arms. They’re stiff and strong from yakka hard and long.
Flies’re buzzin’ around your face old woman. I can hardly stand to listen to the sawing sound that hits me ears with such discomfort. The hearing is sensitive. I think it’s damaged from the drumming of the shears and the rousties yelling over each other as they muster the mob in the catching pens and shed. Kelpie dogs bark all day, showing their excitement as they herd and climb on the backs of the soon-to-be-shorn sheep. All of ‘em doin’ what they love best has a negative effect.
When I’m away from that, it hurts to hear even a quiet sound. Insects – blowfly; mozzie; mud wasps; for their tiny size, bother me more than anything. Yeah, they annoy the buggery out of me. But you old woman, you don’t seem to mind.
I wonder what I taste like to a bushfly right now, covered as I am in the stink of the fresh-cut wool clip; sheep shit and piss; and the blood from the merino’s folds that even my well trained shears couldn’t avoid. I’ve swiped a thick stained strip down the sides of me baggy jeans, wiping off the blood and the sweat and the lanolin residue sticky with heat.
The boots are heavy and hot. At night they stay outside the shearer’s dorm – a bloke couldn’t breathe with ‘em in the room. Lined up outside the fly-screened doors on the long veranda, the reek from ten pairs of shearer’s boots would be enough to kill a squadron of soldiers. We always have a spare pair, one day on, one day off. We many-booted shearers visit here just once a year and always move along to another shearer’s dorm, another long veranda and another stinking shed.
Under me arms the sweat has dried on me shirt to a stiff, stinking crust. I, and the other blokes, change flanno’s twice in a shearing day that lasts from dawn til dusk. Sometimes I carry on with the job shirtless but for a bluey. It gets bloody hot in the sheds – you’re wiping sweat from yer brow all day. Sometimes I just toss a shirt in the garbage when you know it’ll never wash up clean again.
I can’t smell meself at all by the end of the day. The smells from others, stinking even more than me, fill and stuff me nose and throat. No use complaining, we all have to rub along, pong or no pong.
The wool fat is smooth on me hands and I rub it into me arms and elbows – skin scaly thin and bones pointy with age. It sure does keep your skin supple even as yer thighs burn and yer back breaks from bending over the clippers.
At least the combs and cutters are electric now. But I learned the trade on the blades, and there was a lot more blood and tar in them days. Now it’s a squirt of brown anti-septic and away the ewes go. The hot tar was cruel, even as we knew it stopped the rot of fresh-cut flesh, we still hated to use it.
A crying sheep is a sad, sad thing and while you might not think it, we respect their right to a safe, kind life.
Unless it’s dinner time and anyone of us would do the necessary. In a kind way, a quick, deep cut to a stretched out neck. The beast hangs upside down, life drains away.
The kelpies love the offal, you’d hear ‘em barking satisfaction at dusk. The camp cook stews the mutton, corns a leg or roasts a joint. Ten blokes like me can get through a powerful amount of mutton in a meal.
I’d long been called the Ringer, gunning 300 and more head a day; but I’m not first out of the shed today – I’m last. Instead they called me the Loser. They know I’m passed it. I’m too old for this game.
I’m here for me pay. I have to decide – to wake the Cockies mother or not. Or go look for the Cockie’s office.
I’ll spend most of me pay in the pub. We all do. Makes you real thirsty, does shearing. This life encourages great bursts of excess, food and grog and forty rollies a day. Women used and left bruised by promises never meant to be kept. Not the life for a married man, not the life if you have kids to support. Although some of us, not me mind, some of us have a left a stork’s parcel and moved on to a new girl, leaving the poor girl alone to bring up the left over offspring.
I’ll finish me walk to the Cockie’s office. As I walk I stretch to relieve the tight spasms across me shoulders. This’ll be me last year shearing. I’m old and broken and it’s too hard to keep up. Me youthful exuberance and physical stamina are gone. I missed the chance at a family, I wouldn’t have made a good job of it anyway. I’m too set in me ways to share and live with give and take. I’ll miss me mates, that’s for sure.
You do look lonely, old woman.
I see you there, old man, in the dappled shade of the wisteria vine.
I hear your ragged whistling breath, emphysemic from your White Ox rollies. Just like my Malcolm smoked. The pungent tobacco smoke hovers with a life of its own, stirring memories I’d rather bury than relive.
My hands have rubbed my cane chair arms smooth over time. For sixty years, longer than you’ve been alive, I’ve sat here. Every single day. Childhood, adolescence, and young married and now …
Days anxiously watching the bush fire on the horizon, wondering will the wind turn and burn us out.
Days smelling the rain on its way, the air crisp to breathe and bright with lightening flashes, waiting for the first heavy drops to ping on the red iron-rich dirt of the home yard and release the mineral tainted tang.
Or, counting the days of the big dry, coughing dust from willy-willies dancing by.
Waiting for the long drove to be over, will he come home safe?
A pregnancy long overdue, will this baby ever come?
The children playing away from the house, will they toy with danger?
How long will it take for my husband to die?
Yes, this chair is the repository of my life story. Here I’m reminded of the fearful times; the angry times; the loving and the sad.
This cane chair has soaked up all the stories of my life, yet it holds me now, close and comforting. Every memory brighter as I age, the early days so poignant, even as I reminisce I fight back tears. I had so much, and I lost so much.
The flies and insects don’t bother me. The droning is mostly in the background. Living to be eighty in the bush you hear a lot of buzzing, sawing, zipping noises, and you learn to live with them.
The creatures probably followed your scent trail from the shearing shed to the veranda. I smell the sheep on you old man. The astringent stench is so pungent I can taste the sharpness on my tongue. You really stink old man – of work and hasty smokoes, and tannin from tea drunk strong and sweet to keep you focused.
The sweat on your hat brim will never stop stinking, every man pongs in his own way. My husband stank, his hat and his clothes, but it changed with the lung cancer. Then his body smelled of the drugs he was given, of the poison in his body.
But I sure do miss the smell of him now. If I try and recall it I cry, silently at night, so as not to wake my son. Grief is a life time of waiting for the pain to go away. I think of the smell of him, more than the sound of him, more than the look of him and I cry.
I don’t want to talk to you. Hurry and pass on by. Since the Parkinson’s the tremor makes my body shake and my mouth changes the sound of the words I want to say. When my words fall on familiar ears I am understood, but oh, it’s so embarrassing with strangers. Even my face has changed shape.
My Malcolm would never recognise me now. He used to hold my face in his hands and gently kiss each feature.
‘My Love,’ he’d say – he always called me ‘Love.’ He’d say ‘My Love, your eyes are like sapphires, your nose like a button, and your lips like a rose.’
Oh, he spoke with such a broad outback accent, yet his poetry was most private and only for me, a contradiction for sure. The other blokes would have had a go at him if they knew he had such a tender side. Malcolm said I was his light, his beacon. Ah, I wish he was here. He was my light, too. I didn’t know that until he was gone. I should have thanked him.
Poor Malcolm, hands so hard and calluses rough, they’d break my thin, sun-abused skin on his touch. His hands with cuts and bruises, thumbnails black from blows from miss-timed farming tools. Ah, his farm-hard hands. So strong, despite the injuries, always there to pick me up, to hold me tight. The last touch of his hand on my face is seared like a hot white brand into my memory. I feel it now.
Where you stand old man, hundreds have stood before. This cool dark place is not just for you. Children played on rainy days, and winter days when frost crackled underfoot while their mothers scrubbed my floors. Work hands, cooks, classers and even the dogs have made that space their own from time to time.
My nose twitches and I want to rub my nostrils to make the itchy sensation go away, but then you’ll see I’m awake and aware that you’re standing there. I don’t want to be rude, but can you move along please.
My son isn’t here, can’t you tell by now. Are you going to stay there all day? Get round to the office and collect your pay, that’s what you came for, alright?
Feel that? I know from years of sitting here that he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. It causes a pressure wave that moves along the old tongue and groove floor.
Hear that? Creaking, the rotting wood strains from the tension. It seems to take the longest time, but eventually he moves off with a scuffle and a clunk and then all is silent.
My last thought as I feel real deep sleep take my mind and my body: Is he lonely? As lonely as me?