Wednesday, September 14, 2016

FROM THE FRYING PAN INTO THE FIRE

Off in the distance, the small cloud of red dust was now beginning to get bigger and bigger and after 10 minutes or so I could see a small white dot in front of the cloud of red dust. A few minutes later I recognized the white dot as a pickup truck. Ten minutes later the pickup ground to a halt in front of me in a cloud of red dust that got up my nose and made me cough a bit. In the back of the truck were 2 black dogs with pricked ears and yellow eyes. They stared straight at me and as soon as I moved they started to bark. "Sit down ya bastards!" roared a broad Australian voice from inside the cab. The drivers' side opened and a rough-looking Bushman climbed out from behind the dusty steering wheel. "G'day." He said, "My name's Burt Booth. You must be Richard, are ya?" 'Yes, that's right." "Throw your ports in the back of the Ute mate and we'll git moving." "What about the dogs?" "They won't hurt ya mate. They're chained up to the front." The dogs lunged and growled at me as I lifted both mi suitcases and stacked them in the back. "Sit down, ya fucking bastards!" yelled Burt Booth at the 2 mean-looking black dogs. "Come on mate, git a move on!" said old Burt Booth as I arranged mi two cases so the dogs wouldn't chew 'em. "Hop in the other side." He said, so I walked around the Ute and opened the passenger door. "Christ, she's a warm one today." He said as he put the Ute into first gear.

Burt Booth was about 5'10". On his head he wore an old 'diggers' slouch hat which was covered in oil and sweat stains. The crown of the hat had two large holes in the top front crease from years of taking it on and off. His face was creased and weather-worn brown. It had long, deep lines all over it from years of working in the Sun and heat. He had a large hooked nose, just like an eagle. At each side of the nose were two small slits that I guessed were his eyes. Above the eyes were big, bushy eyebrows that grew in all directions except straight. He had dirty gray whiskers also. His clothes were old, ex-army dark karkhi. The pants were woolly and the shirts was cotton and over that he wore the karkhi battle-dress jerkhin. On his feet were a pair of big rubber-soled work boots that were covered in red dust.

Before I sat down, I dusted the seat with mi hand and when I looked at it, mi hand was a dirty red color.
"Git in mate, a bit of fucking dust won't hurt 'ya. Slam the door 'cause it'll fly open if ya don't.
Burt Booth was not a pleasant looking character and already I could feel he was mean-spirited, not at all like Bill Defoe, so I just sat there looking out of the window.
The old Ute picked up speed as it went along the bush dirt road. Red dust flew up behind the Ute as we drove along. The dirt road was covered in pot-holes and corrugation. The old Ute banged and rattled so much I thought it was going to fly to pieces before we arrived at the farm!
At long last old Burt spoke, "Ya see all this Mali country? Well, we're in the process of clearing it all so we've got some more country to sow the wheat and oats down."
"That's great.", I said, as I sat there looking at him. Then I started to think about clearing Mali country. 'Maybe I'll learn to drive big bulldozers and crawlers. That will be great!'
As we drove along in silence a few kangaroos hopped across the road in front of us.
"O look, there's some kangaroos!", "I said.
"Plenty of those bastards out here. They're a bloody nuisance those roos. One roo will as much crop as 10 sheep in one night."
"How do you stop 'em doing that?"
"Lead! We shoot the bastards with shotguns. We wait till it's dark, then we go out in the Ute with a good spotlight. Soon as we pick 'em up in the spot we let the bastards have it! Hop out and open that gate and don't forget to chain it back up. I don't want these sheep to get mixed up with the others 'cause I've just finished drafting 'em."

After a long drive through his paddocks we finally came to his place.
"This is the house paddock and over there behind those pines is the house."
The old white Ute pulled up in the red, dusty yard in front of his one-story house. The house had a chain-link fence around it which kept the stock out of the vegetable garden. Next to the house was a couple of large water tanks that sat on 2 tall wooden platforms.
The front door of his house opened and a porky, middle-aged woman came out.
"This is the missus.", said Burt.
"Pleased to meet you.", I said.
"I'm so glad you're here. You'll be a lot of help for Burt. We've been waiting for a new boy for about 6 months now."
"You'll be staying over in that shed. Take ya gear over there and lunch will be served in half an hour. The missus will ring the cow-bell when it's ready."

Burts' wife was at least 50 years old. Even she was ex-army, like his clothes. She used to be a nurse in England and when the second World War started she was sent to Australia to look after the wounded troops. Burt had met her after the war and once married he brought her out to the Bush. She had straight gray hair which was chopped
off above her shoulders. Her face was lined just like Burts. Under her nose and on her chin she had almost as much hair as Burt did. She also had a small dark mole on her face, out of which grew 5 or 6 long gray hairs. She had a bust like a Jersey milking cow which hung down to her waist, just about. Her waist was long gone and her arse was about 1 and 1/2 axe-handles wide. her legs were covered in dark stockings and she still wore her nurse-type shoes.

I picked up mi 2 cases and headed over to the shed where Burt had pointed. From the outside, the shed was made up of corrugated iron just like the locked shed at Burgooney Station. The door was a very faded blue with paint peeling and flaking off all over it. I put mi cases down and turned the warm, round handle. The door creaked open on its own revealing a small room about 9 feet by 7 feet. In one corner was an old rusty bed frame with an old, stained, flock mattress on it. Next to that was an ancient cupboard with three horizontal drawers in it and in another corner was a small wardrobe with a long stained mirror on the door. The floor was covered in cheap oil cloth that had been patched together. There were still large torn holes in it, as if someone had run out of patches. The small window as almost impossible to open and a faded curtain hung down each side of the frame. The walls of the hut were not lined so already I was noticing the heat as I stood there.
'This place is nothing but a dump.', I thought. 'Maybe everyone lives like this in the bush.'
I put mi thin bush coat over the back of the only broken chair in the place and then put mi 2 cases under the bed and sat on the edge of the rickety chair surveying the stained mattress.
'I hope no one pissed on that.', I thought as I stared at it in disbelief. I decided to turn it over to see how the other side was but it looked like it had been turned on many previous occasions. I pulled out one of mi cases and found a couple of clean linen sheets which I promptly covered the mattress with. Then I knocked all the dust out of the pillow and dropped into a brand new pillowcase. The foisty smell still emenated out of the pillow so I gave it a couple more whacks with mi flat hand and threw it into place. The corners of the small room had large cobwebs growing across them but I decided I'd knock 'em down later. I kicked off mi good shoes which were now covered in red dust and very carefully lay on mi back on the rickety old iron-framed bed.
I lay there staring at the corrugated iron roof until I heard the sound of the cowbell ringing. When the cowbell stopped ringing I made mi way across the dusty yard to the main house. Old Burt was standing under the tank stand at a small homemade table with an old aluminum dish full of brown water washing his face and neck. After he finished he threw the dirty water over the fence into the vegetable patch.
"After ya washed up, throw the water in the veggie garden. You'll have to learn to conserve water out here mate. She's been a real dry summer this year. We've only had a few points of rain over the last 7 months. Use the tap over there, that's the washing water. It's pumped up from the dam by that big windmill next to it. When you've finished, come on inside for a bite to eat. The missus has got the tucker out on the table already so hurry up before the flies carry it away!"
I put the battered old dish under the tap and turned the tap with a pair of old pliers that were sat on a stone next to it. The water came out a dirty reddish brown color and it was quite warm. the square, rough block of soap that was sitting on the old wooden table was as hard and scratchy as hell. I found out later that old Burt made it himself. No matter how hard I rubbed with the soap no lather seemed to appear. After I finished I put mi shoes where Burt had left his and walked inside.
To my surprise, Burt and Kays' house was very clean and tidy inside and the furnishings, although not new, were in really good shape. Three large pieces of cold mutton were waiting for me at the table as I sat down. Next to the mutton was a couple of medium-sized tomatoes and alongside those were 3 cold potatoes.
Old Burt was already eating as I sat down. "Dig in mate and if I was you I'd put a heap of salt on that mutton 'cause if ya don't eat a lot of salt out here in the Bush you'll end up as sick as a mangy dog."
I put some more salt on mi meat and reached for a thick piece of hand cut bread. I put the normal amount of butter on it and before I could finish old Burt said, "Christ mate, go easy on the butter. That's gotta last a few days before I make another batch!"
After lunch, Kay Booth asked me a few questions about my life so I told her about Yorkshire, mi dads' farm and the Ellan Silver Prize Band. As I finished talking old Burt said, "I'm off back up the paddock. Ya can start work tomorrow morning. Have a look around the place this arvo and don't leave the house paddock 'cause I don't have time to look for a new chum who's got himself bushed in the first afternoon!"
Back outside, old Burt hopped in his decrepit Ute and drove away out of sight. I decided to investigate the house paddock so I took off in the direction of the big windmill. There were burrs and saffron thistles all over the place and the ends of the thistles were so sharp that they went straight through my thin work jeans and stuck in mi legs.
The dam was quite large and as soon as I got close to it a group of wild-wood ducks flew off up into the air. I walked up the small dam banks and stood there looking at the brownish murky water. Just then, a mob of wild, sulphur-crested Cockatoos landed in a big gum tree and started to squawk. They were the largest parrots I had ever seen. They had jet black eyes and a big yellowish plume on top of their heads. A few of them flew out of the gum tree and landed at the waters edge to take a drink. They did not seem to mind me standing there as they stuck their beaks in the muddy water, then put their heads to swallow it. A few moments later a large flock of Budgerigars landed next to the Sulphur-crested cockeys and took up their drinking positions. When they had drunk their full they all flew up into the pine and gum trees which held plenty of shade for them.
I noticed some old sheds at the bottom end of the house paddock so I slowly walked in that direction. The Sun was already hot now and the bush flies were a real nuisance. The more I swished them away from my eyes the more it seemed to encourage them to come. There was broken-down rusty old machinery lying all over the place. Most of it, I guess, was left over from the old horse-drawn days. Some of the old sheds housed bags of seed wheat and the others were tractors and combine sheds. At the far end of the paddock was what smelled to me like a sheep-shearing shed. I also saw a few half-full bales of wool laying open in one corner.
I spent most of the afternoon walking around to familiarize myself with the place. When I got back to my tin hut I noticed, just across the way, a couple of large logs so I went over to check it out. When I got closer, I saw what it was. Old Burt had split a large log straight down the center and the white ants had eaten the whole middle of the log away. Burt had dug a small hollow in the ground and placed the half-hollow log over the top of the hole. At the back of the log was a square piece of corrugated tin that he'd hashed into the hard ground. The tin sealed up the back. At the front was a 2-foot metal stake with a dog chain welded to it.
'What an ingenious idea.' I thought. 'The dogs can go down inside the hole into the cool earth during the day when it's hot. The dog kennel looked like a natural den which would have made them feel real comfortable.'
I spent the rest of the day putting a few work clothes I would need into the old cupboard of mi tin shed and after another meal at Old Burt's house, I went to bed early so I'd be raring to go in the morning.
I was up before the hot sun next morning waiting for old Burt to come out of the house. He was up bright and early and walked across the dusty yard to where I was sitting on the small step of mi shed.
"G'day. We've got a big day ahead of us today so we'd best git crackin'. There's a couple of bikes in that shed over there. Grab the old black one and peddle down the road to that bottom paddock. You'll see the milking cows down there and we'll get started on 'em."
I found the old, dirty bike leaning against the shed wall right where he said it would be. The bike was in worse condition than my old bike in England. I turned it around and blew the red dust off of the seat and pushed it outside.
Old Burt was nowhere to be seen now so I threw mi leg over the bike and peddled down a dirt track to where he said the cows were. It was very difficult to peddle the bicycle on the dirt track 'cause as soon as the front wheel hit a hole, which was filled up with bull dust, the bike came to an abrupt halt. At one hole the front wheel stopped dead and I shot off the seat and nearly ruptured misen on the cross bar and swearing in mi newfound Aussie language, I peddled on down the dirt road. When I reached the gate that old Burt had described to me, I got off mi bike and undid the chain. The Large tubular steel gate opened back on its own. I pushed mi bike through and stood there looking for the cows. They were really hard to spot because they were grazing way off in the middle of a 500-acre paddock.
The paddock was thickly overgrown with 4-foot high saffron thistles so I just sat on the bike wondering how I was going to reach them. There was no other way that I could see except to ride through the thistles. Twenty feet into the paddock I was cursing and yelling as the hard, dry thistles stuck through mi thin work jeans and into my soft white legs.
'Fuck this for a joke!' I thought. 'At this rate it will take me all day!' I turned the bike around and peddled back to the side of the fence. When I got off the bike I pulled mi jeans down and saw 10 to 15 small, sharp barbs sticking out of mi legs. After I'd removed them I pulled the rest out of mi jeans. When I pulled mi jeans back up there was still a couple of places where I'd missed getting the thorns out but I tried to forget about it and peddled back up towards the house. A couple of thorns scratched at mi soft, white legs the hole way back.
When I eventually got back to the yard, old Burt said to me,
"What happened to the cows?"
"There right out in the middle of a thistle paddock!", I said.
"So ya just left 'em there?"
" 'course I did. What else was I supposed to do?"
Now he got really angry and I could see his meaness come up to the surface.
"Ya useless fucking, stupid pommy bastard!", he yelled at me. "Go and git my fucking bike out of the shed!"
After I came back with his bike, he jumped on it and started to peddle real fast down the same dirt track.
"Come on, you useless pommy bastard! What the fucking hell do you think I'm paying you 3 quid a week for if I've got to get mi own cows?"
I was really quite scared by now so I kept mi mouth shut and tried to keep up with him as best I could. When we got down to the paddock gate old Burt rode straight through the gate and headlong into the thistles he peddled. After a few yards I stopped mi bike 'cause by this time mi legs were burning with thistle stings again.
"Get back on that fucking bike, ya useless bastard!", he roared.
"They're pricking mi legs!"
"Ya fucking useless! You're as soft as fucking shit ya little bastard. If ya don't get back on that bike, I'll have ya deported back to England where ya bloody well came from!"
"It's alright for you, you've got real thick pants on. These blue jeans of mine are paper thin."
"Ya nothing but a winging, pommy bastard!", he roared again as he peddled off across the thistle paddock.
By this time I could take no more. The shock of the tin shed and the lack of human warmth was too much for a 15 year old boy from Yorkshire to take. I broke into tears and peddled the bike back up the dirt track. When I reached the house yard Kay Booth was throwing some feed to the chooks. I dropped the bike to the ground and headed straight for the tin shed where I lay on mi bed and cried mi eyes out.
After a while Kay came over and knocked on the door.
"Are you alright Richard?"
"Go away, I don't want to talk to you."
"Let me in Richard."
"Go away and leave me alone!", I said, between sobs.
Half an hour later I heard Burt coming up the track with the milking cows. A few minutes later I heard Kay talking to Burt and 5 minutes after that she was knocking on my door again.
"Open the door Richard."
The tears had dried up by now so I got off the bed and slid the wooden bolt back to open the door. She came in the room with a rather worried look on her face.
"You'll have to forgive Burt. He's lived and worked in the Bush his whole life and sometimes he forgets that you're only a boy."
"He's a real mean old man."
"It's not that he's mean Richard. I know he really likes you like a son but he's not got a lot of patience."
"If he likes me like a son, I'm glad I'm not his son."
Go over to the milking shed. I've had a word him so he'll be alright now."
There was not much choice in the matter and I was scared he'd have me deported so I walked over to where he was milking the cows. As I walked past the pigpens I saw a dead, skinned fox laying half-eaten in the mud and all the small piglets had all lost their curly little tails. When I climbed over the wooden fence Burt said, "Ah, there you are. Can you milk a cow?"
"Yes, mi dad showed me how to do it."
"Good. At least ya can do something. Come over here and milk this one and be careful 'cause she's a kicker. Make sure her leg is tied back like that or she'll put her foot in the bucket of milk."
The teats on the cows' bag were really small and it make milking her very difficult but as soon as he could see I'd done it before he said, "Your job's to bring the cows in and milk 'em 6 days a week. I'll do it on ya day off which is Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday."