In a few dozen pages, Luke Johnson demolishes the romantic Australian idea of the shearing shed. A former shearer, Luke describes a bleak, harsh world with glorious poetic certainty. Caroline Hunter’s cover is fitting complement.
Here’s a small taste from the opening chapter of ‘Ringbark’, a novella of nauseating tautness, for Going Down Swinging’s Longbox – out now.
“Get out of that.”
The dog licked its nose and looked up at him.
“Dirty black bastard,” he said, and he flicked at her with the thing in his hand. A thin line leapt from it and through the air and landed on her back. Droplets beaded off her coat and rolled about unbroken in the bulldust. “Piss right on you, if you like the smell so damn much,” he said, and he flicked it at her again.
She trotted away and found a spot alongside the fence where no nettles were growing and she sat down.
She was a good dog and the boy knew it. He was not proud about it but he knew he had himself a good one. He fed her and kicked her often enough that she ought to have known it too. He would not have kicked or fed a useless dog, much as he would not have done any of the things that can ruin a good dog. Good dog can be a funny thing, his father had told him, and he was not wrong about that. The boy had seen more than one that had gone funny and needed shooting.
“Best thing for a shiny coat. Didn’t you know?” He cocked his hips forward and squeezed the lazy last dribbles from the end with his fingers. The early sunlight made each drip look like a drip of sap until it hit either the ground or his boot and left a corrugated ring-mark the way piss does and sap does not.
When there was nothing left he tucked his shirt into the front of his trousers and told her to get over and she did. She flexed in the shoulders and was over the fence like that, barely the powdery slap of her landing on the other side before the cold dry smell of dust. He watched her stalk down the yard with her head hung like a fox, those two shoulder blades twitching back and forth against each other as she went.
“Wayback. Wayback,” he shouted after her, and she lengthened her stride.
When she had found the far end of the yard he yelled something else at her and she understood what he meant and began working the sheep toward the shearing shed. One tried to stand its ground and she bit at its hocks. The taste of lanolin did not excite her, as it can with a young pup, but sat soberly in her mouth, and the boy knew by the way she held it there and went limp-jawed that it was the same as the taste she got from licking the back of his hand. It was the taste of his skin in the afternoons when he had patted her on the chest and told her she had done all right.
Afternoon is the best time of the day, the boy often thought. Morning is the best time of day for dogs, but afternoon is the best time of day for everything else. In the afternoon you know the day is beat and it feels good to think about all the work you got done. Only a dog likes to think about all the work that is yet to be done. Dogs can be stupid. He knew that. So can sheep, though. Sheep can be a hell of a lot stupider than dogs. Dogs do what you tell them to do, at least. But then, a dog will go funny unless you treat it just so.
He picked up a length of poly-pipe that was lying in the bulldust. It was a good length for mustering sheep, about a metre and a half long, and the roughened edges and bowed middle were testament to its use over the years by all the other rouseabouts who had worked the shed and shouted their dogs around the yards outside.
“Come on, move them up,” the boy said, leaning over the fence panel and swinging the piece of pipe at the sheep. The dew on the top rail made a straight dirty line across the belly of his flannelette shirt. “Come on, come on. Push up, you bastard.” He brought the pipe down against the hindquarters of an animal too slow to get out of its way.
They were a craggy old mob in the yards that day. Slow and stubborn with age, heavy with fleece and udder. They had the same dim grey reflection in the eyeball that sheep being loaded onto a truck for the abattoir will have and the same perceptive unwillingness to cooperate. Amongst them there was more than one that was all slack and hollowed-out with cancer, and when they moved past him the boy could smell it sweet and thick and it smelt something like the way rum does.
“Chrissakes,” he said, spitting it back out against the corrugated shed wall.
Cancers were worth double to the shearers. So were fly-blowns and ones with prolapsed ring-holes. None of them went much in the way of shearing, but a double over the board was a double over the bar and the boy’s father did not need anyone teaching him that lesson. If the old man drank like an abo it was because he thought he was one. That was what they all reckoned. They told the boy that he was black in the guts and black in the nuts, and the boy knew enough about alcohol and enough about himself to understand this was meant as an insult to him.
The old man and the boy lived alone now and it had been that way for a while. The last one had packed her stuff into a garbage bag four years earlier. And because the old man was not one of these types who finds it impossible to forget about a thing once they no longer have it, she was not missed now that she was gone. That was just how it was with women. With him too.
Some nights when the boy had been lying in bed for a long time but had not yet fallen asleep, he would hear the old man talking to himself in the kitchen. If he had had a skinful he would be mumbling about what a bitch that so-and-so was and then he would be getting his boxes of bullets out of the pantry and counting them onto the kitchen table. Fifteen of them in the big box and another eight in the small faded box, which he kept in the bottom of an empty coffee tin. The sound one of those little bronze-coloured bullets made when it rolled off the table in the middle of the night and hit the floorboards was a sudden crack of laughter, the sound of an unexpected cackle that startled the boy and made his nose tingle on the inside no matter how awake he was. When his ears and nose had stopped fizzing, he would hear the old man on his knees clumsily fisting the floor right in front of his face – because when he was drunk it was easier for him to remember with his hands than see with his eyes. The boy fell asleep many nights listening to the old man laughing at his own drunkenness on that kitchen floor.
The old man was a rum man. A devout practitioner all year round. He knew how much was needed for getting himself religious and how much more after that for riding the mattress right through into a half-decent sleep. The boy had tried doing the same once and had been spun out of his bed and made sick all over the carpet. He promised himself it was only because he had drunk it too quickly and had gone to bed too soon. The old man told him that he was a damn idiot for drinking in the first place if he could not handle the taste. The boy agreed with the old man in principle and decided that he would practise enjoying the taste in secret until it was real enough that he did not have to practise at it.
When the dog had wheeled the mob through the gateway and past the boy, he told her to get right up. He got his fingers under her collar, his four knuckles ribbed across the back of her neck, and hoisted her over into the middle somewhere.
“Come on, get them moving,” he said. “You haven’t got bludging rights yet. Get at them, you black bastard.”
She worked at the mob from the inside, turning the sheep over on themselves and up along the edges of the ramp. It was the newest thing about the shed, that ramp. It was all metal and concrete and had been put there as a replacement for the old wooden one, which the white ants had got into. Beneath the galvanised grating an eaten-away piece of the old railing reminded the boy of a hip bone or a pelvis bone or whatever that one with the hole in it is. The white ants had chewed it smooth the way cork is smooth and left it there misshapen and useless.
“Look what happened to the last rousey,” the boy said. He turned to the dog. “No sign of his dog, though.”
At the top of the ramp the dog stopped and barked the last of the sheep into the shed. When they were right through and out of the boy’s sight, she swung her head across the tan of her chest to show him that she had been victorious and that none of the sheep had been a match for her and that all angles had been covered. The boy spat against the side of the shed and climbed up to close the gate behind them.
“All but,” he said to her, feeding the chain between the rails on the gate. “You’d be a specialty dog if you knew this one. I tell you what.”
She put her nose against the leg of his pants and sat.
Apart from the occasional dam bank, the country around Bribbaree was flat and you could see a long way from the top of the ramp. The paddocks were full of dirt and burrs, the burrs as peeled-up and sharp as paint coming off the outside of a house and the dirt as eroded as the weatherboards underneath. Along the fence line, trees crowded and arm-wrestled each other for root space and who had rights to the drain and spillway. On the entire property there was only one that did not look hard done by and disgusted with the general state and lack of water, and that was the peppercorn growing against the side of the shearing shed. She was feeding her way through by sucking at some vein the others did not know about: a cracked pipe between the shed and outhouse, or rust-hole in the bottom of the rainwater tank perhaps. Some secret spring that was giving her a warped, unnatural-looking health.
During the summer the peppercorn was a good tree to have growing there as it kept the sun off the shed until mid-morning and made the inside cooler than it would otherwise have been. In the winter, though, when the main shear was on, the whole place stayed cold and dark until lunchtime. It had been cut back many times, the peppercorn, and leaked sap like blood from everywhere the chainsaw had touched it. But the damn thing always grew back faster and thicker than previously. Somebody should have ringbarked it. Done it in the proper way.
The boy stood for a moment and watched as if he expected the peppercorn to do something. For all its ugliness and contemptuousness it was just a tree and did not do anything no matter how he looked at it. His dog watched it too and she barked at it for measure and he told her to sit. The tree was full of spite. He could see it. Spite for each and every bastard who had tried to cut her down. Spite for the gums in the paddock with their roots that knotted the ground around them. Spite for the broken water pipe that was keeping her alive one drip at a time. A tree can be ugly and contemptuous and spiteful, the boy decided.
“It’s not going to shut itself.”
The boy turned and looked down the ramp to the far corner of the shed.
“And make sure you shut it properly or there’ll be sheep everywhere, for chrissakes.” When he had finished speaking the old man rolled his lips over the cigarette in his mouth so that it bobbed up and down like a piece of straw being chewed on. He had lips that were yellow and callused like his knuckles that were yellow and callused from shearing and his voice was a closed dry suck: the colour and fragrance of a fireplace that has just been swept.
The boy pretended not to hear him. He put the chain over the bolt as he would have done anyway and leaned back on the gate to check the certainty of the latch. It did not come open. He checked it again and when it did not come open again he eased his weight off and let go.
“That proper enough?” he said quietly to his dog. She had no answer. “I’ll teach you how one day. Then you’ll be a specialty dog.” She looked at him. “Over,” he said, rubbing his hands against the front of his trousers. And she got over.
Inside the shed the smells were more physical than fragrant. Broken skylights in the roof tugged at them and mixed them with fumes lifting off the animals and floor as thick and languid as a warm milk skin. It was a rinse that stung the eyes and made them squint, caused the tendons in the forearm to ache and seized all the finger and carpal joints. If you bent over you felt it threatening to snap in the tops of your legs, otherwise it pushed like a knee in the middle of your back. The shearers did not notice it as much because they had ignored it for so long. The boy, though, was young and still able to see it and touch it and inhale it, and he enjoyed the stiffness it put in him. It was a recognisable stiffness.
At twenty-five past seven the first catching pen was full and the boy had started pushing sheep into the next. Along the board the shearers were greasing the down-tubes and checking the cutter-throw on their handpieces.
“Listen to that, would you?” Nick Cant said.
“Listen to what?” Ray said. Ray was the classer and overseer. He wrote the payslips and signed the wool book and organised the men.
“To this.” Nick Cant played the cutter back and forth, making a serrated key of it against the comb teeth. “Singing like an absolute bastard.”
“That don’t mean anything,” Ray said.
“Bullshit. Fifty a run without breaking a sweat. That’s how sharp I’ve got the bastard.”
“Who? You or the sheep?”
“Breaking a sweat.”
“I said, without breaking a sweat, you dumb bastard.”
“Yeah, you or the sheep?”
“Well, if it’s not breaking a sweat, what do you mean, me or the sheep? Neither of us. Without breaking a sweat means without breaking a sweat.”
Nick Cant was a shearer from out west somewhere. He was short in stature and had been bred for the sheds and sheared naturally with the sort of ease they try their hardest to teach in learning schools. He never told anyone where exactly he had come from, but it must have been some place where they still knew how to breed shearers the proper way. Shearing will do that. It will propagate its way right into a family’s bloodline so that after two or three generations, young flat-chested mothers start dropping knock-kneed, pigeon-toed sons, and daughters with sharp elbows and sharper tongues. Nick Cant had not brought a family east with him, only a 1979 Kingswood which he reckoned was not all too different from a wife anyhow: if it has tits or a motor, it will wind up costing you money.
Nick Cant was tough too. He could shear quicker than most blokes, drink more and could take a punch as well, and that was what made you tough when you were working in the sheds. Fearlessness was the only other measure and Nick Cant did not fear much of anything. He had stories about picking fights with abos and ones about outrunning the coppers in his car and one about jumping into the wheat dump from the top of the Milvale silos. The boy had heard them all.
In his fourteen years, the boy had never tried picking a fight with any abos and no copper had ever bothered chasing him down the laneway in the old man’s Land Cruiser either. The only claim he had was getting head-butted between the eyes by a crossbred ram on his first day of work and not being knocked out. As they told him, though, that was not any sign of toughness, that was just the colour coming out. The boy knew enough about colour and about himself to understand what they meant. Nick Cant had told him that abos had heads like garden shovels and had shown him his hands to prove it.
At twenty-nine minutes past seven a tin door opened at the front of the shed and the old man came inside. He was wearing a pair of leather-felt moccasins with the shoelaces chewed out of them and a singlet that hung baggily over his shoulders. As he walked he scuffed the floorboards with his feet and the toes of his moccasins were polished smooth and black. He was a lean man all over, tall, with the type of tired, drawn face a priest might have and two thin grey arms that softened in colour as they neared the tabernacle of each pit.
“Where’d you grow up?” Nick Cant said to him.
“Wherever you say, Nick,” the old man said back.
“Then shut the door, you old bastard.”
“Not that cold, Nick.”
“Bullshit it’s not. Me piece is shrivelled up inside me like a second arsehole.”
Ray laughed. It was easy to make Ray laugh. Ray was supposed to be in charge of everything that went on in the shed, but getting him to laugh was never difficult.
“Put your jumper back on if you’re so damn cold,” the old man said.
“Jumper ain’t a busted condom, mate. Once it’s off, it’s off.”
Ray kept with the laughing.
“If that’s what you say,” the old man said.
“You should know,” Nick Cant said back.
The old man did not say anything then. He only tightened his eyes a little and shook his head to one side and locked his handpiece onto the end of the down-tube. Nick Cant circled around in front of him like a cocky young boxer who had just slipped one through. He kept his eye square on the old man but tilted his head so that it was his corner rather than his opponent that he was really playing up to.
“Don’t worry about it,” he went on. “I’m sure none of them old gins was worth wasting two new ones on anyways.”
By now the boy was working hard to fill the last catching pen. He could feel the hollow curve of his back livening with sweat and the tickle behind his knees where the denim was beginning to cling.
“Isn’t a woman alive worth two,” was all the old man said and he did not look up to say it.
Nick Cant grinned some more. He had a whiskery grin.
“My oath,” he agreed. “I don’t doubt that. But then again, I’ve never stuck me piece in any gins to find out, neither, I gotta say.”
“I’m sure you haven’t,” the old man said.
“I’ve had it in plenty of other places, don’t worry about that. I can’t figure out what’s so special about one of them outback ginnies anyway?”
“Go ask your hand.”
“Me hand hasn’t been up no outback ginnie. It isn’t going to know the answer.”
“I’m sure it hasn’t.”
The way the old man spoke when he was sober amused Nick Cant, and his amusement was all air and spit, like he was trying to sip something off his top lip.
“Well, tell us, then,” he slurped, “what desires a decent bloke such as yourself to want to go and stick his wire in the dirtiest rotten blackest holes he can find?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, Nick.”
“You don’t? It sounds like some sort of competition to me.”
“So it is, is it?”
“Christ, you’re a hard old bastard,” Nick Cant said to the old man.
“Aren’t I?” the old man said.
“He’s a hard old bastard, isn’t he, Ray?” Nick Cant said.
“He’s hard, all right,” Ray agreed. “But he ain’t that old.”
“Bullshit he ain’t,” Nick Cant said. “He’s a hard bastard and an old bastard. Aren’t you?”
“And you,” the old man said, pulling the drive into gear to calibrate the handpiece’s tension.
“Nah, I’m not a hard bastard,” Nick Cant raised his voice over the sound of the machine. “Too small to be a hard bastard like you. Just how hard are you anyway?”
“Just as hard as you say, Nick.”
“He’s a hard old bastard, all right, isn’t he?” Nick Cant said. “You going to teach the boy how to be a hard old bastard?”
Behind the chutes the boy was using his knees now to force a last sheep down the race and into the pen. Above him the broken skylights were sucking the fumes and voices out into the paddock and he could feel the updraft against all the places he was wet. It made the skin around his Adam’s apple dry and tight.
“Don’t need teaching,” the old man said.
“In the blood then, is it?” Nick Cant asked him.
“Just don’t need teaching, that’s all.”
“What else don’t need teaching?”
“Why don’t you ask your hand?”
“Why don’t I ask your hand? Why don’t I ask both your hands, old man?”
“Why don’t you ask both your own hands?” the old man said.
“Why don’t we ask both the boy’s hands, old man? He’s got nice-little, soft-little, black-little hands, doesn’t he?”
The boy grabbed the last sheep by the snout. He twisted its head back over its body and drove it forward bluntly and blindly and neck-first.
“Which one’s softer, old man? Boy’s nice-little black-little hands, or the nice-little, black-little hole he came out of?”
The old man sniffed and looked up. He spat into the bottom of the chute and sniffed again. He was smiling in spite of himself and Nick Cant was smiling also, and Ray was smiling and looking back and forth between the two smiling and smiling shearers.
“If you like, old man, I can shear the arsehole out of one of these poor old sheep?” Nick Cant suggested. “See if that’s softer than a dirty old gin hole. Less trouble. Surely.”
“I’ll do it,” Ray said. “I’ll shear the arsehole out for you. You’ll like the way I do it. I do it the Kiwi way.” He stepped toward the old man and tried to grab hold of his handpiece. The old man pushed Ray’s arm away and the live handpiece jumped up. The whole down-tube came with it and recoiled just as awkwardly when the extension ran out at Ray’s forehead. Ray did not baulk or jerk back – it was too slow to baulk or jerk at. He put his hand on his brow and opened his mouth. There was a small amount of blood, nine or ten prick holes, each with its own thin red tail.
“What does that remind you of?” Nick Cant said.
In the pens, the boy stopped pushing and swallowed hard and looked at his father. The old man did not look back, he just took an oil pot off the shelf and re-oiled his handpiece. It was a tin pot and when he pressed on the base of it with his callused yellow thumb it hiccupped oil over the nine or ten blooded comb points.
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