Monday, December 30, 2019

Toilet Paper is Expensive by Frank Beyer

Frank Beyer gives us a glimpse into the harsh life of seasonal labourers in southeastern Australia.

How's it going? I asked a guy sitting outside a tent reading Harry Potter. Do you know where to get work round here?

Yea, cotton chipping is the go, I work with Clive - he's got a full gang at the moment, but Bert is always looking for people. You should be able to sign up at the campground reception.

Cheers mate, I'll do that!

I went straight over to the reception signed up. I told Ross about it and he resentfully came out of his tent and went over to sign too. I had teamed up with my mate Ross in Sydney, he'd been doing some bar work there, but found nothing steady. Now we were in the middle of NSW, a one hill town, where Ross reckoned it'd be easy to find work. A pretty enough place, from the top of that one hill you could see orchards and vineyards stretching towards the horizon. Ross left looking for work to me, he stuck to reading in his tent, no Harry Potter though, more likely Che Guevara.

The next morning at five thirty, sitting in a stationary van, I got my first impression of Bert, our new boss. He circled the vehicle tapping the windows to count those inside, he would have liked to have poked out a few eyes - a man with built up anger. It was an hour's ride to the cotton fields, some slept, others looked apprehensive about the day ahead. Once there, we were given a tool much like a garden hoe, but with a longer, narrower blade. With these we walked up and down the rows of cotton plants chopping out weeds. The work was easy enough, but by ten in the morning it was close to forty degrees and the sweatier you got the more the flies bugged you. Bert played missed-weed-spotter following behind the team of twelve. Better do a good job when he was in your row, any weeds left behind and he'd give you a raspy foul-mouthed serve. Bert was about five feet tall and wore a jacket under the blazing sun. He wasn't young but he could take you for sure. Not perhaps helpful in his position, he wasn't one to warm to newcomers. His gang was made up mostly of harsh looking locals who'd been seasonal labourers too long for their own good.

Near the end of the day we stood in line at the edge of the cotton field taking a breather. Ross, in a sweaty yellow polo-shirt, broke ranks, climbed the muddy bank behind us and bent down to tie his shoelaces. Why he had to climb the bank to do this was a mystery to me.

What are you fucking doing? Bert screamed at him.

Tying my shoelaces...

You stay in line with the rest of us, we're a team.

I was tying my fucking shoelaces.

Don't talk back to me you bastard, I'm the ganger here. Go on fuck off you're finished!

To top it all off, Ross had to make other arrangements to get back to the campsite, he was no longer welcome in Bert's van. I told him I'd walk back with him, but he said no, that might annoy Bert too. Don't think I'm being generous mate, who am I going to borrow money off if you don't have a job either?

I'm going to shit in Bert's tent, Ross told me when he finally arrived back at the campsite. He said it with a laugh, but I could see he was still fuming. He had very few options for getting his own back, this was one that would have impact without much chance of the police getting involved. It was childish, it was vulgar, but I admired his outrage and his desire for sweet revenge. Ross didn't even know where Bert stayed. Maybe he sleeps in his van, I suggested.

I decided against getting up to work with Bert's gang the next morning. I stocked up at the supermarket and paid a week ahead at the campsite. Something better would come up. Most people I spoke to said there was heaps of work around. I went to town and splashed out on a pie and cappuccino, then spent the afternoon in the library. After that day of rest, Ross and I went to check out other gigs. We tried watermelon picking, it wasn't too hard, but you didn't make much in a day. You couldn't throw the melons faster than the person loading the tractor wanted to catch them. The ganger or leader, a Turkish guy, invited us around to his caravan in the evening. He used some of our earnings to buy tons of KFC for dinner. We weren't impressed, not being huge fans of the colonel's greasy chicken. I warned you the Turks were dodgy! A woman at the campsite reminded me when I told her about it. Poor woman had been there fifteen bloody years, working at the watermelon factory - where, from what I understood, all day long they washed melons with some chemical mixture. Then again, maybe she didn't find it too bad.

We moved on to pumpkin picking with some Dutch girls we met at the campsite who had a car. The Aussie farmer didn't give a shit how hard we worked, he was thrilled to have those girls around, and of course he only paid per pumpkin. On the way back to the campsite we found an irrigation stream and jumped in... it was like a waterslide. Listening to the car stereo in wet clothes was good fun, but painful when you suspected it was only for a day. As we thought they might, the girls drove off somewhere 'less boring' the next morning. Only cotton chipping paid an hourly wage that would allow us to save. I considered working for Bert again, Ross didn't have that option.

I ran into the guy who'd been reading Harry Potter again, I could hardly not, his tent was right next to mine. I wouldn't work for Bert either, he said. He was older than I was and staunch, but did tell me about himself, glad that his stories could shock. He'd been a member of Black Power and once accepted fifty dollars for baseball-batting somebody, the key thing is to get them from behind in the back of the knee so they go down fast. I had no clue if he was making this up or not. After being repeatedly in trouble with the law he was given the choice of jail or the army. Not surprisingly he chose the army, but didn't like it much, amongst other things they didn't give you enough toilet paper to wipe your arse properly.

Only three or four sheets.

Why was that? I asked innocently.

Why do you think, because toilet paper is expensive? No, shit for brains, to toughen you up!

I felt that I had overexposed myself with such a stupid question.

He claimed that he ended up shooting his commanding officer in the bum during a training exercise... he didn't explain the exact fall out of it all, but here he was on that campsite in the middle of NSW. He seemed happy with how things had turned out. My question about the toilet paper drew scorn, but also gave a laugh and served to warm him up a bit. One evening he told me something which changed my summer. A couple of workers have left bro, Clive should have some space now, come along tomorrow and see how you go.

So the next day I was on Clive's team. I got Ross along too. Clive, a small muscular guy, watched us like a hawk and threatened to fire us several times for missing weeds. The rest of his team consisted of the toilet paper sage, a bunch of rodeo cowboys (Clive's mates) and two young Pommie couples who often looked like they were going to collapse from sunstroke. It's unbelievable to me they can't take a couple of hours of heat, Clive said... He warmed to Ross and me when we looked pretty fresh at the end of our first day - there was some hope for us.

Ross was dead keen about saving money for a beach holiday in Thailand. He tried to sell me on going with him, but two thousand five hundred dollars was a lot to spend on a holiday. Clive, eavesdropping, told us he was tired of tourists talking about their travel plans, he didn't want to go overseas, still so many places in Aussie he hadn't seen. The one place he could do without was Sydney, he'd kill someone if he had to live there.

After several productive weeks there were no more cotton fields to be chipped in the area. Clive got us a gig in another town doing the same thing with sunflowers. We camped out in a park. Some took their tents along, others didn't bother, just a sleeping bag was enough. Our first night we tried the local pub for a laugh. It featured some ruinous looking locals none too impressed by our presence. The park, with its long drop toilet and billabong you could swim in, was the better place to hang out and have a few beers. One evening a girl showed up to see Clive and he took her into his van. She certainly wasn't a looker, Clive himself said so - but, he said, sometimes you've got to get one away. After a game of 'water-rugby' in the billabong we built a fire and Clive told us stories, mostly to do with him breaking bones rodeo riding or patrolling the Northern Territory coastline when he was in the army. He suggested some jobs we could do up north once the chipping season ended, like rounding up and driving cattle if we could ride a motorbike. He remembered once driving cattle towards a gleaming water reservoir that seemed not more than a few kilometres away. This was a trick of the mirage - in fact it took all day to get to the reservoir. He was good at telling stories.

Another option was travelling on a cattle boat to Indonesia and hosing down the shit (something Clive hadn't actually lowered himself to do). I mentally noted down all this twenty-six-year-old wise-man suggested, although I couldn't ride a motorbike and wasn't too sure about the boat to Indonesia. Probably you had to sign for the shit cleaning return journey, so wouldn't get to stay there long. Clive was unafraid of the world and free from job interviews and the need to show fake enthusiasm. Sure he got sick of chipping, but there was always the change of seasons and something different to do.

After ten days on the sunflowers the job was done. On the drive back to the campsite one guy wanted Clive to stop so he could take a pee, Clive swore and shouted no! several times, but finally in response to continuing requests said, sure! Clive stopped, let the guy out and sped off while he was doing the business. The pisser hurriedly did his fly up and sprinted after us, only to get a face full of dust for his efforts. His girlfriend screamed at Clive, who told her she could get out too if she wanted. We were about fifteen kilometres from the campsite at that stage. She wisely refused his offer. That was Clive's kind of humour. Ross laughed his arse off too, rather unsympathetic I felt, especially considering what he'd gone through with Bert. The aggrieved party in this case was more forgiving and never plotted vengeance against Clive as far as I know.

Done it yet? I asked Ross for the fiftieth time. He'd showed up to check what I was putting on the campsite BBQ - he was terrible at buying his own food. It was our second idle day after finishing the sunflowers.

Yea I have - finally got the bastard.

Jeez you found where Bert stays!

Yep, in a tent at that small campsite on the way to those cotton fields. He has the nicest set up I've seen... quality air mattress... his tent is pitched right by the swimming pool.

Good for Bert. So, how does it feel?

OK, not bad.

You don't sound too happy. What went wrong?

Nothing - next time I'll do the shit first and take it along in a bag - or take toilet paper, my arse was stuck to my undies all the way back.

Next time? Why didn't you wipe your arse at the campground toilet?

I didn't see one... and not like I wanted to hang around and ask.

Surely some skid marks were a small price to pay for such sweet revenge but some of us are perfectionists.

7 comments:

  1. Humor in the workplace, no matter where.
    Remember...BOSS spelled backwards is Sorry Son Of a Bitch.

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  2. Definitely reads authentic, like a series of journal entries with a healthy smattering of detail.

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  3. Unique tale, funny ending. Potty humor mixed with revenge is a winning combo in any setting.

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  4. has the ring of truth to it, credible characters and dialogue, great story
    MMc

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  5. Authentic, nicely written and probably describes the sad plight of day-laborers around the world.

    Interesting ending. No pun intended.

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  6. Thanks for comments guys, appreciated.

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  7. Pretty much par for the course for day labourers. Amusing anecdotes.

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