Friday, August 8, 2008

So-Long to a Shearer

I don't understand how this could happen. I can't comprehend it. How? How? How?
He was only middle-aged. He was only in his forties. He was healthy. He was fit. He didn't drink. He didn't smoke. He was strong, incredibly strong.
How could this happen?

"I've got some bad news" Dad said on the phone yesterday morning. I thought I would choke on my own breath as I held it, waiting for the next words.
"You know how Grant had looked crook last time we saw him?"
No. No. No. No!
"Pauline just rang me."
"He's passed away."
I don't remember what I said. I dropped to my knees on the kitchen floor as I heard something about 'heart valve' and 'fucked'.
I started to weep. "How could this happen?"
He had seven kids below the age of 16 years old. His youngest was born last year. With another two girls back in New Zealand.
Dad said something about Pauline coping, being financially sound. Having just sold their fat lambs, having their farm debt paid off. "She's coping" He said. "She's coping"
"He worked himself to death." He said. "He was never going to make it past 50"

Grant the work horse. That's what we always called him. The best shearer in Western Victoria, possibly all of Victoria. Shearing 220 a day on average, 250 on a good day; solo; without a word of complaint.
In Southern Queensland I'd peer over at each of the shearer's counters at the end of the day. None would read above 200. Even the fittest, the youngest, the strongest of them didn't make Grant's numbers.
"What do you reckon of Queensland shearers?" I was asked over smoko with a smirk one day. I shrugged. "You oughta come down to Victoria one day and see how it's really done."

Since 1988, before I was even born he was out shearing at our place. I don't remember when I first met him. Probably a tot, maybe even a baby. Wandering into the shed amongst the burr of the handpiece, the pong of the lanolin and the clatter of hooves upon metal grid to see the big shearer with sweat pouring from his brow weaving his handpiece over the wool, shedding it as easily as peeling a banana.
When Dad finally let me in the shed to start rousing I'd never tire of watching Grant work. Into the pen, flip a sheep, pull him out, position between legs, yank cord and the handpiece would buzz into life, start on foot, shear belly, legs, butt, head, neck, work down back, first side, second side, finish on tail, push through legs and down the chute, yank handpiece off, wipe sweat off on towel and back into the pen for the next one. It was like the perfect steps of a dance. Never changing, always the same. He'd rarely nick them either. They'd be white as snow, rarely a slick of red would intrude on such perfection in his work.

Sometimes when he couldn't come out he'd send a replacement. Some leering pisspot who'd cut the sheep half way to their grave, whack the handpiece over their jaw every time they kicked and could never, ever reach Grant's numbers. 170, 180 or 190 a day.
As their battered, dirty vehicles would disappear in a cloud of dust up the drive way, Dad would spit into the dust and grumble, "Gonna tell Grant to not send me out anymore of these fuckin' ferals. Full of shit."
He wasn't a gossiper or a pryer either unlike most, but he'd look up occasionally when Dad would be giving me a hard time. I'd rouse, pen-up, do the bellies then skip smoko to go drench and brand the sheep in the yards, all with Dad breathing down my neck, hollering out insults; taking out on me the lice in the sheep, the fly-blown, the failed crops, the lambs coming too early, the rain that drenched the sheep a day before shearing, the rain that didn't come, the broken-down machinery, the flat tyre, the plummet in wool prices, the sheep getting in and ruining the hay, you name it.
One day, while I slogged it out in the heat and the flies, trying to drench old ewes that knew the routine and knew how to jump at just the right angle to knock your teeth out, with Dad as usual screaming from the doorway of the wool shed while I lost concentration and got trampled by a ewe and scratched my arm on the corrugated iron sheet lining the race, Grant said something.
It wasn't much, it wasn't forceful, it was in his usual soft but seemingly indifferent way- "She's a good girl".
Dad didn't say anything else for the rest of the day.
Maybe a year later when I was 16 years old and working on the cattle station in North-West New South Wales, not coping with the abuse, falling apart, Mum told me over the phone what Grant had said, what Dad had told her but not me.
My jaw dropped, "He said that?". Words could not express how much those four little words meant, the strength they gave me to carry on, knowing that the toughest, strongest man I had ever known thought I, despite all the cruel, hurtful things Dad pelted at me in front of him, was a good worker, a good girl.
They empowered me to hold my head high, to let the cowboys' and manager's harassment and cruelty slide off my back, not affect me as much as it should, knowing that back home, a true man, a true worker, a truly good person thought highly of me, in his own way of course. If he could recognise my worth then so could I.

And now he's gone. Never again will I walk into the shed early in the morning still munching on piece of toast to see him squatting on his haunches, in his usual, quiet but dignified way setting up his equipment for the day.
Never again will I be able to giggle at my dog's expression and cautious snarl at his snoring as he naps upon the board at smoko time.
Never again will I be able to watch such true shearing talent and expertise, all from such an incredibly quiet, un-boastful, commanding and proud bloke.

The last time I saw him, only a month or two back, for the first time I had ever known him, he couldn't shear. He said something about gastro, something about eating a Kiwi-dog at his son's footy match the day before that didn't agree with him. He was pale and hunched, but as he sat out quietly on the wool shed step he peered off into the distance and as usual gave little away on his worn face as he softly spoke, "That a lama out there?"
I started laughing, "It's an alpaca. Dad's latest hair-brain scheme and complete waste of money."
He just nodded and continued to stare into the distance.

Last night, or rather early this morning working in the nightclub, a sad song caught me off-guard, rendered me vulnerable from the Dirty Bar-Maid front and I disappeared out the back to the silent toilets, to a cubicle where I sat down on the toilet seat and wept. Wept for my lost mate.


Ms Smack said...

This post about your friend Grant was written so beautifully.

Thanks for visiting my site. You write really well, you know.

Did you know that?

Lana said...

Cheers mate.