This is a Bus, not a Bathroom

Alright, I admit it:  I have been led astray, like a little lost sheep, like a veritable lamb to the slaughter. I just can’t seem to keep off the streets at night.  Who is to blame?

You may have seen a white bus emblazened with blue flying angel decals cruising around town in the evenings.  You may have wondered about the bus.  The bus belongs to the Dampier Seafarers Centre, which administers physical and spiritual welfare to the thousands of international seafarers visiting our ports every year.

As a volunteer bus driver, I am on the roads, the mine sites, the ports, and the wharves, transporting crews from ship to shore to ship (sometimes to shop) about one evening per week, depending on my shift work roster.  My driving commitment takes me to some very interesting places, at some very interesting times, in some very interesting times.  Rapid industrial expansion doesn’t happen every day, or indeed, every decade.  The current wave of professional seafarers has been visiting the Pilbara coast since the first shipment of iron ore was loaded in August 1966.  The Centre, as part of the worldwide Mission to Seafarers established in Britain in 1835, has been operating since 1969, and is run by dedicated staff and volunteers.

We collect the seafarers from their vessels berthed at the numerous local ports, including the cargo wharf, bulk liquids berth, and the two iron ore loading facilities, late in the afternoon.  The seafarers usually return to their ships by 9.30pm.  We come from a variety of occupational backgrounds – public servants, miners, franna crane operators, security officers, shipping agents and pilots, train drivers, entrepreneurs, clergy and laity – mostly residential, some fly-in, fly-out (FIFO), regularly investing our time to enrich our community and ourselves.

Hello Sailor.

On arrival at the Centre the seafarers – hailing from Asian and European nations including the Philippines, China, Myanmar, India, Greece, Poland and Russia – are free to make the most of their precious few hours ashore.  There is a shop, a chapel and a library.  Seafarers exchange currency to purchase basic supplies and souvenirs, telephone their families and friends, log onto Wi-Fi, shop at the supermarket (located in the building formerly known as the Dampier Shopping Centre), patronise the Mermaid Hotel, play table tennis and billiards, chat in the lounge area, and enjoy a cold beer or espresso outside in the shade overlooking the hills and the harbour. 

Many seafarers spend months away at sea.  Time spent in the pleasant industrial port of Dampier (also known as the ‘Fishing Village’ and the ‘Cottesloe of the Pilbara’) is a welcome respite from the disciplined rigours of maritime life.  Some ships have limited facilities, so the internet connection at the Centre is a big attraction.  Earlier this year one vessel sustained damage at sea during Cyclones Iggie and Heidi, highlighting the hazards faced by our international seafarers.  The polite crew certainly appreciated being able to skype their family and friends.  They rely on the amiable, site-inducted bus drivers to transport them from ship to shore to ship.  Captains use the incentive of shore leave as a reward for productivity and peace on-board. 

The Centre doubles as a formal tourist information centre, assisting visitors to our region, including Pilbara locals, interstate and intrastate grey nomads, overseas backpackers, exchange students, and the independent seafarers plying the Western Australian coast.  Enterprising ‘yachties’ cross the Indian Ocean to reach our shores, sailing the sea-lanes to South-East Asia and beyond.  Located on The Esplanade, at the top of the hill next to the popular Road Runner Café, between Hampton Harbour Boat and Sailing Club and Hampton Oval, the Centre also offers fantastic public views of archipelago sunsets. 

Driving for the seafarers takes me to places that are otherwise inaccessible.  At night the Pilbara ports light up like an extended industrial theme park.  The cargo wharf at the Dampier Port Authority provides a spectacular panoramic view of the mining complexes lacing the mangrove shorelines.  The vista encompasses Karratha Gas Plant, Pluto Gas Plant, King Bay Supply Base, the liquid ammonia fertiliser plant, Coastal Operations and Dampier Salt.  Overhead, helicopters intersect the coast as they fly in from the offshore rigs on the North West Shelf.  The last-light fires the rocky outcrops, accenting their inscrutable petroglyph galleries. In stormy weather, lightning illuminates the thunderheads brooding over the mineralised Chichester range, like flickering filaments in transparent lightshades. 

Volunteer bus drivers are rewarded with a casual meal ticket to Peninsula Palms mess, which is an enlightening place to visit, if you are game.  The FIFO workers are well fed and watered and don’t stray very far from camp, hobbled to non-union collective agreements.  Despite the bad-rap, they don’t bite.  They rise early each morning to pass random drug and alcohol tests.  It’s important to understand FIFO culture, for it’s here to stay, in one form or another.  Bus driving forces me out of my comfort zone, smashing stereotypes.

Hampton Oval seasonally attracts euros (a species of kangaroo) and the odd shrieking curlew or two.  If the crew has behaved and time permits we check out the local fauna.  Roadside kangaroo sightings are common from dusk to dawn, which adds to the driving drama.  The buses have bull bars and I drive carefully, mindful of the wildlife.  Halting the bus to let a ranging bungarra (monitor lizard) or single-minded echidna cross the bitumen is another one of those priceless Pilbara road moments.  Wild euros frequent select residential yards and the primary school oval, bearing close inspection.  Australian citizens living in urban sprawl and densely-settled rural districts lack the chance to view candid kangaroos in situ, so the seafarers are privy to an atypical ‘Down Under’ experience. 

One fine day at the East Intercourse Island loading wharf, fourteen seafarers casually board the mud-flecked Coaster bus resembling a dappled Appaloosa pony.  (Thanks water cart operator for spraying your loads of non-potable water all over the mine sites.  Thanks wash-down crew for hosing the stray ore into runny mud that randomly dumps onto vehicles passing underneath the conveyors.  One wet sloppy visit to Parker Point can bespoil a perfectly pristine bus.  There is money in mud).  Back on the bus a precious European princess beseechingly bares her ore-stained open palms, demanding that I provide an instant solution to her woeful problem.  I raise my eyebrows and doubtfully scan the cab.  All I can offer are a few battered hard hats, some grotty safety glasses, a first aid kit, two scrunched-up hi-viz fluoro safety vests and a fire extinguisher.  There is no hot running water.  There is no scented soap or Dead Sea salt scrub.  There are no warm fluffy towels. There is no on-board colon cleansing or complimentary massage.  What does she expect:  a day spa on wheels; the Pilbara Hilton?  Toughen up, coconut.

This is a bus, not a bathroom.

Her imperious male escort rifles through his backpack to retrieve a sealed alcohol wipe.  Precious cleans her delicate little pinkies with the fumy-fibrous tissue.  After completing her toilette she stands up in the aisle to photograph the Filipino crew, who insist on calling me either ‘Miss’ or ‘Ma’am’, but not their equal.  Blessed with sensitive ears, Mister Imperious reaches for the dial on the radio, tuned to Spirit FM’s innocuous 1960s hit parade, bluntly requesting that I lower the volume.  I wonder who is posing for the photo:  the photographer or the crew.  I wonder who is calling the shots.  As the bus driver, I call the shots.  Once Precious and her three male cohorts arrive safely in town they ring a taxi and head off for a hearty meal at ‘Pearlers Rest’ in Karratha.  I am off the hook for the night.  The laconic contractor at the gatehouse once drawled:  ‘Not my dad’s tractor.’  The laconic feminist counters:  ‘Not my auntie’s haul pack/tool box/lab coat/investment portfolio.’

I heed Seafaring Lesson #3:  ‘Not all seafarers are male.’ This leads to Seafaring Lesson #17:  ‘To avoid stains, stay clear of the ship’s railings.’  Not forgetting Seafaring Lesson # 24:  ‘Treat all seafarers equally:  you never quite know who the captain might be.’  Closely followed by Seafaring Lesson #25:  ‘Treat all seafarers equally:  you never quite know who the captain might be sleeping with.’

I know that I am a very small, semi-skilled part of something massive, something momentous, and something monumental.  I also know that I have something original to offer.  Mining, despite its operational reliance on an hierarchical chain-of-command mentality bordering on the mindlessly militaristic, needs creative thinking.  In the rollicking pub scene in the ‘Red Dog’ movie, the big boozy miners sing ‘At last I get the feeling that I’m really alive.’  Less than one per cent of Australian workers are employed in the resources sector.  Women constitute around sixteen percent of the mining industry workforce.  Volunteering at the Dampier Seafarers Centre is therefore an uncommon opportunity.  Doors are opening up to my first mining job.  A Melburnian friend, stuck in staid-safe suburbia, wistfully remarks ‘I’d love to do what you’re doing.’

WA, once dismissed as a mendicant ‘Cinderella State’, is currently a deprecating acronym for ‘Wait-A-While’.  Western Australians, in fact, often wait a long, long while: the wheel turns slowly in the West, even more so in the North-West.  Parochial born-and-bred sandgropers avoid telling the wise men and women from the East about their (dumb) luck, defensively arguing that there are enough Victorians here already.  Roving real estate investment gurus draw a simplistic line in the red sand along the 26th parallel, labelling northern Australia as ‘Booming’, and poor southern cousins as merely ‘Surviving’.   The Pilbara region, an understated centre for innovation, can sell itself, with or without ‘Red Dog’, described by some locals as a mangy, ill-tempered, troublemaking mutt who bit people, or visiting high-profile VIPs impersonating raptured courtesans.

There are many benefits and rewards from assisting the seafarers, such as meeting culturally-diverse people from overseas, obtaining mine site and port inductions (including the very useful Maritime Security Induction Card, valid Australia-wide), gaining safe driving skills, serving on a committee, practising persuasion and diplomacy, and finding that rarest of beasts in purpose-built company towns privileging transient youth: non-mining seniors.  Not to mention listening to priceless yarns spun by born storytellers. 

Donner und Blitzen!  What shall we do with the drunken sailor?

The meek and mild-mannered lamb morphs into a rousing shepherd by 8.25pm when it’s time for the first load of seafarers to return to their vessel.  Tonight, several thirsty seamen are adrift at the Mermaid Hotel.  Just as I prepare to drive up to the pub to round them up, the jovial fellows walk through the door, right on time.  Hallelujah, brothers.   Australian beer has a justifiably ambassadorial reputation overseas to which many a well-travelled seafarer attests.  A certain social confidence flows from the rousing part of the bus-driving role.  See it stunningly manifest in the courageous lion as she boldly strides into the FIFO-infested public bar, unabashed.  Thankfully the lion sleeps most nights, but she can roar and rage with the best of them when stirred.

All nine crew members are accounted for.  We head back to the loading wharf at the end of the long narrow causeway bordered by dead-straight conveyers and big rugged boulders. Later, back at the Centre the awaiting crew of sixteen men reluctantly straggle onto the bus, dragging on their final landlubber cigarettes.  The lion insists that a stubbed butt be retrieved from the ground, where it has been wilfully discarded.  We drive back to the wharf, coasting at 50kph along the dark winding road to view the bulk ore carriers berthed in the sheltered harbour.  The crew shipping scrap iron to Indonesia, via Port Hedland, Dampier and Fremantle, pour off the bus at the cargo wharf.  They thank me sincerely for driving, which is the best reward in anyone’s language. 

Have a good time in Fremantle. 

I hope we come back. 

On the return to Route 351, I have the quiet undulating road that dissects the Burrup Peninsula all to myself, apart from a stray 4WD utility bound for the industrial estate, and a B-double trailer laden with metal from the towering scrap yard located in the Light Industrial Area.  I give way to the truck, which cuts the corner at the T-intersection on the Dampier Highway upgrade.  To my left, the arterial road narrows to 40kph with formwork-cement barricades.  The heavy mobile machines excavating virgin red dirt high up on the rise are silent-still for the night.  Suicidal insects fly across the road, light-blinded by the high beams.  The nightshift euros are safely inland, taking advantage of the abundant ground water and herbage from the recent cyclonic storms.  Following the colossal La Niña year that brought devastating floods to regional Australia, the West Pilbara remains exceptionally lush.  After good rains the country starts singing again.  A waning half-moon glows orange over the coastal mudflats, backlighting translucent silver-rimmed clouds in the East; they resemble dim, haunted mirrors.  I comprehend, at a basic level, the logistical supply chains supporting modern global industry.

On two occasions I’ve been offered cash for my driving efforts.  The unsolicited greenbacks, by the way, were lodged directly into the safety deposit box at the front door, along with the bus keys at the end of the night.  I am representing the Centre, not myself.  Where else could I accept US dollars from hot foreign seamen while remaining fully-clothed in personal protective equipment?   Skimpy barmaids, eat your skimpy little hearts out. 

You can leave your (hard) hat on.

I have been tempted to host libertine seafaring pool parties during palatial housesitting gigs, but it just wouldn’t be right.  Dampier is a working town, not a party town.  I am an aspiring professional, in the dirt-digging game for the long haul.  Domestic lights fade at 8pm, but the industrial lights beam 24/7, every day of the year.

It is possible to travel the world without straying too far from home, wherever ‘home’ may be in this rarefied mining-boom-bubble life.  Just ask me:  the lamb, the shepherd, the lion.

Cold Turkey

It’s Christmas Eve on the mine site. Daisy, Nigel and Bernard, three dedicated security officers, are on mobile patrol.  Santa Claus is delivering presents to all the good boys and girls.  Miners certainly like their toys.  The entire state is lit up like a Christmas tree, with an extensive network of mining complexes, which makes his job a lot easier.  He reaches the Pilbara coast, illuminated by the spectacular flare tower at the recently-commissioned gas plant.  Is this Perth, capital of Western Australia, he wonders?  Canberra?  Surely it’s not London?  He double-checks his GPS.  No, this is Karratha.  Close.  Santa activates the beacon light installed on his mine-equipped sleigh,  expertly fitted-out by his FIFO elves.  Safety first, he remembers, as he prepares to descend….. 

Daisy:  Hey, I think I just saw Santa and his reindeer flying over the port. Or maybe it was a helicopter from the oil rigs.

Nigel: I saw him too, and he wasn’t wearing PPE. He was speeding, as well. What are we going to do?

Bernard: Safety Interactions.  Shoot Rudolf to slow him down. No name, no blame.

Nigel: Mmm…..venison. Who’s cooking Christmas dinner? Is there plum pudding?

Bernard: ‘Big Dirt’ is cooking for everyone, guys. And yes, there is plum pudding, with custard and brandy butter. By the way, how many turkeys can you fit on an iron ore train?

Daisy: Look at that!

Bernard: What?

Daisy: It’s Santa. He’s doing a U-turn. He’s coming back to review his Take Five.  Santa  says that there are enough turkeys here already, without wishing for any more.

Journey

Those who’ve walked this road before me

Those who travel parallel

Those unseen, unheard and unbecome

Are as spirits keen

On each and every stage and page

In all of space and kindly face

Waiting for the Mining Boom

I am not learning anything!

The cool executive chef stands on the cool, tiled floor, slightly taken-aback.  Its 10.30am:  two tedious hours away from a clear sink and a clear mind.  My ambitions swirl anti-clockwise down the drain, along with the sloppy detritus  of yet another morning, (another week, another month, another year, another lifetime?) working in a commercial kitchen.  Plus, there is gunk in the plughole again from the previous shift. 

The dedicated waitress blows in from the windswept street – the Antarctic air tunnelling through King’s Domain – on her way to organise mise en place at the bar.  She patiently serves in the silver-service dining room, where exclusive traditions have been carefully preserved for generations. 

‘Good morning’, she cheers, dressed professionally in the industry standard black and whites.  The glass is almost always half full for this bright young Masters graduate.  One third of the nation’s writers live in her adopted ‘City of Literature’, and for many, hospitality is a holding yard, where they clear their hefty HECS debts and elevate good food, good wine and good service into a creative art form.

The kitchen brigade preps the fresh, fresh produce:  plump South Australian oysters, opaque whiting fillets, spicy rocket, tender-hearted artichokes, phallic asparagus, wholesome Toolangi Delight spuds sourced from the fertile foothills of the Great Dividing Range.  In the afternoons we tune into eclectic world music recordings on Radio National.  During cricket season I endure dead-boring radio broadcasts, under sufferance. 

After the morning’s 3LO talk-back (whinge-radio) session ends, select songs pour through the speakers next to the electric mixer that whips out magnificent chocolate soufflés.  Chris Isaak, Cesaria Evora, Bob Marley, Paul Kelly are some of our kind companions.

From little things big things grow.

The resounding didgeridoo vibrates through my receptive body, even though the volume is lowered to avoid offending political sensibilities.  There is power in the poetry, strength in the storytelling, insistence in the history.  This is a song from the desert, from the people, from the past, and it is pulling me away from the sprawling southern city.

I know how to wait.

Go West Now

I stride away from the inner-city office, almost tasting the job offer in my mouth.  Sweet, so tantalisingly sweet.  My right hand tingles from the manager’s parting handshake.  My left hand holds her sharp business card.  ‘Good luck’, she promises, looking me straight in the eye.  On edgy Sydney Road (the best thing to come out of Melbourne?), I raise my right arm to shoulder-height, and turn my open hand to face the miserable mid-winter sky.  The whole world sits in the palm of my hand.

Three days later a crisp rejection letter lands in the solid brick mailbox.  I glory in self-indulgent despondency for five minutes and promptly move on.  HR has done me a big favour.

we were most impressed by the way you presented at interview, however we regret to advise that unfortunately on this occasion you have not been successful…..there were others whose backgrounds were more relevant to the particular needs of the position..…please accept our best wishes in your future endeavours

Then an email lands in my inbox.

Sorry to hear the job thing didn’t happen.  Have you ever thought about going to a mining area?  Qld and WA are crying out for people with some skills and willingness to work….. If you go to the Pilbara it’s very, very, very, very, very hot, did I say very hot!!!  If you like hot then it’s a great place….My medium-term option would be to get skilled as a heavy machinery training and safety officer after doing the time as a machine operator.  Do some research, give me a call, don’t go off half-cocked, ok, have a plan, it’s important.

A vivid childhood nightmare disrupts my easy equanimity.  I am frantically running down a dark and lonesome limestone road, away from the farm house.  Monstrous, motorised agricultural machinery convoy menacingly behind me.  Massive tractors, trucks, harvesters and implements angrily grind and grate and groan.   I escape the looming machines, and live to drive another day.  Children know, much better that their parents, who have forgotten.  Fears waste years.

One day in September, on the eve of the 2006 AFL grand final, the WA Premier Alan Carpenter strategically launches his government’s carefully-crafted ‘www.gowestnow.com’ campaign in Melbourne.  Skilled workers from around the nation and beyond are urged to join the burgeoning mining boom, like new recruits enlisting in a global military operation.  My blood is poisoned by the bold yellow arrows that pierce and penetrate Australia’s western third.  The full-paged advertisements outlining Australia’s continental limits plaster the prominent pages in the press.  They are at odds with colonial cartography which marks the West as empty, remote and unknown.  I am hooked by the lure of endless opportunity in green and brown fields. 

The game at the MCG is tightly contested, which is unusual for a grand final.  The West Coast Eagles pip the Sydney Swans by one agonising point.  A win is a win, regardless of the margin.  Carpenter scores a symbolic victory for his resources-centric constituency.

Five months later I arrive in Perth and check into the busy YHA in Wellington Street.   I land the first job that I apply for, in a warehouse south of the river in industrial Welshpool.  Fifteen months later I arrive in Karratha (AKA ‘Karachi’) and check into the busy backpacker hostel in Wellard Way.  I land the first job that I apply for, detailing cars at the airport, situated on the coastal mudflats abutting the embattled Burrup Peninsula.  On day five in the Pilbara an enterprising dentist drives up to me on the street.  He offers me work in his new surgery.  I politely decline.  I am here to help extract ore, not teeth.  ‘We have to look after our good workers’, he confides.

Cognisant overseas backpackers flock to pre-GFC K-town like migratory birds, chasing the best money Down Under.  They repeat a punishing cycle of work, burnout, retreat, return; work, burnout, retreat, return.  Frankie, a clownish extrovert from continental Europe, picks up a twenty dollar note lying loose on the street.  He concedes that Karratha is not an ordinary place.  The ubiquitous Toyota rentals – Corollas, Camries, Hiluxes and Prados- are metal money boxes on wheels.  The thrifty backpackers toss the coins and notes mislaid by cashed-up contractors into their collective money jar.  They marvel at the novel concept of ‘an all-day drinking session.’  They note that the ugly-but-functional cyclone rated houses would suitably shed livestock in Europe.  After late 2008 the arrogance of rapid expansion plans and proud labour diminishes.  Companies take the opportunity to cut dead wood.  The spare change disappears from the crevices and compartments in the thrashed vehicles, along with many FIFO regulars who have been flying north for years.  ‘It’s tough’ a veteran general manager tersely advises.

The purpose built mining-service town at the epicentre of the current boom features skewed demographics favouring FIFOs and aspirational young families.  The local mining-service sector depends on cheap, transient labour, but Karratha is not very backpacker-friendly.  The travellers’ working visas eventually expire and they depart with mixed feelings: gratitude for the remote North-West experience, dismay at complacent Australia’s ‘dumb luck’, relief at escaping a hot, hostile place where there is no nightlife.  Opportunities are limited in many regions, even within the Asia-Pacific.  A new starter Kiwi chef sitting beside me on a flight from Perth wisely anticipates the culture shock from delivering personalised service in touristy Queensland to pumping out bulk meals in a regimented FIFO camp.  ‘Once were warriors, now we’re scaffolders.’  New Zealanders ring Auckland and jokingly inquire:  ‘Is there anyone left there?’  Daniel, an industrious businessman when he is not backpacking, wistfully admits that ‘Anywhere is better than Germany.’

What if the next potential Nobel Laureate is born in the Shire of Roebourne?  ‘Karachi’, the much-lauded regional City of the North is apparently ‘destined to become a world-class city.’  Presently, the town cannot provide a public library for its residents.  A veteran mining superintendent with a natural talent for theatre metaphorically opines that ‘we are living in a bubble’ in the Pilbara.  Iron ore, LNG and coal are the current darlings of the market, but other commodities are struggling.  Take a short tour of the towns, communities and camps in the Shire of Roebourne, including Dampier, Karratha, Roebourne, Cossack, Wickham, and Point Sampson.  Within two hours you will pass through at least six different countries.  Note Roebourne Regional Prison – located opposite the waste transfer station, just down the road from the cemetery – with its disproportionate indigenous population recording high levels of chronic disease and (wasted) creative talent.  Visit the spectacular ‘sound and light’ show on the Burrup Industrial Estate at night.  International seafarers from the bulk carriers and cargo vessels berthed at the wharves in the Port of Dampier are struck by the buoyant Australian dollar.  Some seriously consider exiting their profession.  Loyal local seniors are forced to shift house in the name of municipal progress. 

At the airport I gaze into the industrialised hills of Murujuga like I gaze into the Melbourne Town Hall, an enduring civic legacy built on bountiful 1850s gold rush blood and money.

I finally get the feeling that I am learning. 

The Pilbara is a great teacher.

Red Dog Dream

After the crash the stray came back,
scratching at the door,
haunting us like a phantom.

Mum rang the ranger.
They took him away.
We were afraid.

He viciously nipped us kids
as if was his right:
his right to fight, his right to bite.

Four Seasons in One Day

Mid-morning drizzle gives welcome way to lunchtime sunshine.  Melbourne switches her light off and on and off and on like a big tease, casting the fickle spring weather into an unpredictable burlesque routine.  She is stacked and packed with meticulously-planned incidentals: delightful laneways, places, squares, steps, cafés, bars, commissioned public art, more cafés, graffiti galleries, gardens, glances, yet more cafés.  Suits routinely lunch their staff in the same restaurants where they dine their wives.

Two personal assistants quickly clip up Collins Street, eyes trained on the traffic lights ahead at the intersection, lost in dead-set-serious wardrobe talk.

There’s no way I’m gonna wear heels today.  I’m gonna have to wear flats.

They slip into a polished shop to buy glossy, pastel macaroons, pumped with air, sugar and artificial dye.

Three mining corporates converge on the corner of Collins and William.  Two plus one makes three.   C1 and C2 glance at each other conspiratorially, turning in unison to inspect C3 from tip to toe to tip.  C3 looks good. He knows it.  They know it.  He modestly sports a natural tan from jogging Birrarung Marr and weekends sailing on the bay, rain, hail or shine.  Grey hair.  He is distinctive and disciplined, without even having to try.

Is that a new suit, Tony?

A pause; then silence. 

Tony always thinks before he opens his mouth, even before kissing his wife.  He is deep, too deep, especially for this duplicitous boardroom duo, waiting in vain for the main chance.

Mmm………Peter Jackson.

C1 raises his right eyebrow, lifts up his chin and frowns, blinking blind into the stratified sky.  The lights turn green.  They cross the streaming street together and apart.  The sensitive muscles around Tony’s right eye suddenly twitch, like fraught, fragile butterflies fluttering under a mesh net.  They can see where they want to be, but they can’t get there, blocked.  He walks tall and sure and confident, but still feels unresolved conflict.  It’s as if he’s not fully present:  forever passing through life as a detached observer, engaged, but not immersed.  He has been head hunted for his diplomatic impartiality.  Teams initially hate a leader who won’t play favourites, who actively and openly seeks solutions.

His involuntary tic, unseen by resentful colleagues avoiding direct eye contact, betrays anxiety, and he knows it.  He does not need counselling.  He does not need drugs, legal or illegal.  He does not need yoga.  He does not need a holiday.  He does not need to trek up a mountain to write pilgrim poetry.

Tony knows what he has to do, and he will do it, sooner or later.  He needs to go remote – just for a while – to connect again.  He needs to get red dirt on his steel capped work boots.  He needs to breathe fresh, clean, arid air.  He needs to hear the hum of the country, in the heart of the country.  He needs to go to where they call a spade a fucking shovel.

He also needs to flare up like a wild tiger when these entrenched pretenders least expects it, to affirm his sure, pure, understated power.

C1 and C2 break away, heading down for their weekly lap dancing session at the club in King Street.    The sun breaks through the clouds, but they have their heads so far up their arses they never see daylight.

Gatehouse Blues

The dusking coastal sky glows blood-orange and indigo over the port.  A discordant industrial symphony trips 24/7 – except when cyclones and incidents halt production – shattering the original hum of the country.  Trains shunt like viciously-whipped xylophones; conveyor alarms suddenly scream; substations drone infernal; percussive plate metal clashes; airborne dust churns and turns into chaotic red clouds. 

 A busload of work-weary contractors prepares to exit site, driving back to camp after 12 hours under a punishing sun.  Up ahead at the gatehouse they sight Daisy, the cute new static security guard, kept busy ensuring compliance.  She is firm but fair, and – inadvertently – a serial heartbreaker.  She routinely suffers these restless men in the communal mess, where they surreptitiously appraise her, sniffing the pheromone-filled air, too timid to make a direct move. 

 Fresh meat.

 Mick is the designated driver and serial smart arse.  He’s the leader of the pack, informally elected to push buttons and boundaries.  He loves taking the piss.  The transported crew are engaged in personal pursuits:  texting, dozing, reading stick mags, sucking on phallic cans of ‘Mother’, which is their ill-advised excuse for a fatigue-management plan.

 Mmm…that’s a big Mother…

 Mick delicately arranges the numerous swipe cards into a flared fan, and deftly registers them at the electronic card reader.  He greets Daisy with a carefully-crafted question that he has been savouring all week, saving it up just for her.  He moves it around in his mouth like a therapeutic lozenge.  Maybe it quenches his thirst.  Maybe it pacifies him. He finally spits it out, cathartic.

Was that you in that biker magazine?                                                    

Which one?  I’ve been in a few.  

The Christian one.         

No.  That was my look-alike lesbian lover.

I didn’t think you’d be in a Christian magazine.

 The bus speeds offsite, raising the red dust that infiltrates everything:  their eyes, their lungs, their hair, their skin, their clothes, their tools, their dreams.  She stirs their latent male desire for kinky threesomes. 

 You want me to do what?

 The next lucky busload of dusty miners delights in her melodious laughter.

Her Latest Trick

She walks between the florist and the panel-beating workshop
with self-assured intent.  Long shirt sleeves rolled up to her elbows
show strong lean forearms, made for labour.  Bare tanned skin
openly faces the bright sun.  There’s something
about the fluid movement in her broad shoulders that spells freedom.
She is ready for (almost) anything.
Dry season living is easy but not cheap.

Harden the fuck up.  You’re in the Pilbara now.

He crawls curb side, safely contained in his battered old Corolla,
front bumper bar half hanging slack.
A soft snail encased in a hard shell.
He leans across the seat, winds down the window and beckons her
like a hopeful FIFO desperado.
Spindly grey whiskers sprout from a full face
flaccid from T-bone and bourbon.

Alone:  he always travels alone.
Walk away or stay and fight?

In that momentary space – one-eighth of an inbreathe,
a heel grazing the pavement – between ignoring or acknowledging
a presence, she pivots left, turning to face him.
Common courtesy prevails.

What about the electricity bill you left without paying?
I know nothing about it.
That’d be right.

An idle mechanic drags happy on his cigarette,
taking a break from late afternoon service.
He pictures an ice-cold ‘Pure Blonde’ cracked open
by a hot skimpy at the nearby sports bar within the hour.

Mmm…..mother’s (breast) milk.

Calm composure evaporates in the arid air,
rising up to the clear blue desert sky.
Later it will fall soft-stealth-silent as dew:
condensation dripping liquid from the eaves.

She spins swift invective over her left shoulder.
The atmosphere gets wet and heavy with angry language.

this place will make you
this place will break you
only if you let it
only if you let it

‘Pure Blonde’ fields her unexpected delivery
on the full, taken aback,
abandoning his amber-ale-reverie.

What the…..?

Sticky Pages

At the back of the transport depot two grease monkeys drain sumps, tune engines and install
light bars complete with buggy whips, hazard lights and flags for vehicles destined for local mine
sites.

One of the workers is built like a pregnant gorilla, encumbered by a massive beer gut.
The gestation period is ongoing, like his fly in-fly out contract. His weedy side-kick is a
short, slight chimp, malnourished by alcohol, and weathered brown by harsh sun and
tobacco smoke.

I confidently stride into their diesel and dust domain, buoyed by blue sky and work
purpose, searching for a spare tyre for a Land Cruiser. ‘AT/20 Desert Dueler’ –
rubber and steel engineered into combative precision – eludes me. I stop abruptly in
my tracks. The two puerile (pri)mates are engaged in a clandestine moment of
straight male porn mag bonding.

‘Ducks are on the pond’.

I diplomatically announce my unexpected presence, appropriating a coded male
phrase used in the shearing industry when a woman enters the shed. She may
temporarily transform the surface tension, like a transient ripple upon deep, dark,
stagnant waters.

The magazine, scored from an off-hire 4WD, instantly disappears. Shwheeeet. It is a base
publication, with graphic pages alternating between naked young women, all
air-brushed-arse-and-impossible-tits, and gory close-ups of visceral disembodied
wounds.

excess flesh…..ooh
flick
mutilated flesh….aah
flick
excess flesh…..ooh
flick
mutilated flesh…..aah
flick
excess flesh…..ooh
flick

‘I haven’t heard that since my army days’, the chimp diverts, eyeing me with sprung
surprise.

‘Chloe’ with long, languid green legs tapering way up to her neck, winks slyly.

‘Good on you, sister!’ she murmurs in solidarity.

She is etched onto his left arm, below crudely-rendered military service
dog-tag numbers. Rank, but bearing a pitiful dignity.

I turn to locate Desert Dueler, and wheel it out of the workshop with sure
metronymic strokes from my open down-turned hand, leaving the basic apes to their
mechanising ways.

Designed and Delivered by FORM

FORM is an independent, not for profit organisation dedicated to advocating for and developing creativity in Western Australia.