Bob Croker: “Working Boy”

I was waiting for my fifteenth birthday, March 1945 to start work. It was the year the war finished, in two stages actually V.E. day in Europe 18th May and V.P. day in the Pacific 15th August. They are days I remember well as will anyone who experienced those moments, each in their very own way.

As I approached that time in my life when I would cease to be a school boy and was ready to grow up, it had never been suggested to me that I would be other than an apprentice to a trade, and that preferably in the building industry. My father had been a plumber in rural Victoria working for his father who had a Tinsmiths business in Charlton.

Their work took them on many travels across the country installing water tanks, windmills and general metal works on just about every farm they visited.

With this line of thinking I walked and rode my bike all over our locality knocking on the doors of every registered builder I could find. At that early time in 1945 Australia was still active in wars in the Middle East, Europe and the Pacific. There was little local building work available and no opportunity for an apprenticeship.

Our thinking then turned to the field of Mechanical Services, Engineering or associated trades. It was commonplace thinking in those days for families like ours when kids turned fifteen, get a job, start work. That was it !

We learned of an opportunity in a good sized workshop in South Melbourne needing a Coppersmith apprentice. That was me. There was no discussion what was involved or any explanation where it would lead to, just a rush to buy me a pair of overalls and work boots and instructions where I had to turn up at 8.00 am the following morning.

I pumped up my bike tyres and went to bed early in readiness for the ‘morrow.

With a cut lunch comprising two sandwiches, an apple and a brand new navy blue boiler suit in my bag I wheeled my bike through the big double doors of the factory in Park Street and asked for Mr … the supervisor. When I got to know him a bit better, after about one day, I understood why everyone referred to him as ‘ Nuts.’

In my first five minutes ‘ Nuts ‘ walked me down to the back of the workshop where an old bloke was standing next to the forge, with another bloke standing nearby, a large sledge hammer in his hand, ‘Nuts’ said ” Mick this is Bob, Bob this is Mick “. He then turned his back and walked away. That was my total introduction to five years of apprenticeship with Mick.

Mick was an older man about sixty plus I guess, all of the younger tradesmen were away in the services, and without children of his own he was not quite sure how to handle a fifteen year old. His uncertainty didn’t last for long however deciding if I was there to work with the men I would be treated as one.

Mick turned to the other bloke who was holding the sledge hammer and said ” go and do something else, give the ….ing hammer to the kid, he may as well start learning now.” Although that is more than seventy years ago today, I still recall that moment clearly in my mind. We were constructing a large ventilator funnel for a ship, the forge beside us and a chain block and tackle hanging from above.

Suspended on the lower end of the chain was a large piece of sheet metal cut roughly to the shape of a circle, about one and a half metres in diameter and 3mm thick. This piece, suspended by a hook on the chain allowed Mick to heat the metal to red hot over the forge then by holding it with long tongs swing it back over a large hollow circular base frame fixed just above floor level.

This was my moment of introduction to ‘work’ as Mick then pointed with the finger of his free hand to a spot on this circle of hot metal, now over the hollow base, and roared at me to swing the sledge, hit that spot and to keep hitting until he told me to stop. If I got too slow or did not hit hard enough he’d throw in a few adjectives I’d not heard of (at that time ) saying to myself if he doesn’t ease off me a bit soon I’ll hit his finger and he’ll really have something to yell about. I resisted that temptation.

This process went on for about three days until the section finally curved to shape and was ready to be joined up by riveting it to another section which had been done before I arrived on the scene.The riveting process was slow, matching, drilling and needing hand finishing until it formed as a funnel. Electric welding was not commonly used in those days as it is today.

We were knocked off at 9.50 am every day for a ten minute smoko, but I was that hungry after my first mornings sledging I ate my two sandwiches and apple then and had nothing left for lunch. Mum straight away next day loaded up my lunch box considerably.

What I remember vividly however on that first day was when I went to eat my evening meal at home finding my fingers had locked, curled into the shape of a sledge hammer handle and I could not open them to use a knife and fork. Mum had to feed me with a spoon. After completing my five year apprenticeship as a Coppersmith my fingers toughened up naturally but when I think back to that moment, I never forget the day I became a Working Boy.

Peter Thorne: “Kosta’s Music Box”

Jayden sidled up to the back door of the factory and jemmied open the door. Inside, he passed a door that was propped open and found himself facing an inner door with the usual intercom keyboard beside it.

Once again raised his trusty tyre lever. At that moment there was a click and the door behind him swung closed. He was trapped between the two doors.

The intercom box was labelled KMB. A voice came from it, it said:

“Your visit is important to us. This call is being recorded for security and training purposes. We already have you on video, please continue to breath heavily so that we can gather your DNA sample from the air.
Please select from the following options:
• To call the police press 1
• to call our armed security guards press 2
• to make a payment press 3
• to hear these options again press 4
meanwhile listen to the music”.

The music was loud and totally gross. Trying not to breath too heavily, Jayden pressed “4”.

The voice said:

• To call the police press 1
• to call our armed security guards press 2
• to make a payment press 3
• to hear these options again press 4

In desperation, Jayden pressed 3. The voice said:

“The charge is $200.00, Press 8 when you are ready to pay. You will need to state your credit card number and expiry date. If you do not have a credit card you may phone a friend and use theirs”.
The music started again. It was unbearable.

Jayden pressed 8 and made the payment. The voice said:

“Please wait while we verify your payment. This may take a few minutes.”

Jayden waited.

After a while the voice said:

“Thank you for your payment. Please call again”

The door behind him opened. Jayden fled.

I first met Kosta in primary school. He was a bit of a nerd, but street-wise. We both caught the computer bug. Following secondary school, I went on to university and Kosta opened a computer and phone shop in the local market. He was always popular and pretty honest – he didn’t sell dodgy software and he helped people with the mysteries of PC software, problems with mobile phones and installed a few home security systems.

Now I sat in his flat sharing a drink or two and listening as he took down Jayden’s details, checked the credit card and recorded the payment.

“That’s the third one tonight – not bad for a cold winter Saturday.”

“How does it work?” I said.

Kosta settled back with a look of satisfaction. “I copied the telephone and utility companies” he said – “Nothing upsets people more than automated response systems. Once they have encountered them they will do anything to avoid them. So, I came up with the idea of Kosta’s Music Boxes. The overheads are low. I fit an extra security door and one of my boxes inside local factories and offices. The boxes look like a normal access intercom and I fit them out with a mobile phone. The door shuts behind them when the intruder steps on the mat. It’s all off-the-shelf stuff from Bunnings or Jaycar or from ebay”

“But what about the DNA testing?” I said.

Kosta grinned. “That’s just a bluff. It stops them going feral – its hard to wreck the place when you are trying to hold your breath.”

“What happens if they press 1 for the police or 2 for the armed guards?” I asked.

“No one ever has.” said Kosta. “If they did, I suppose I could call triple 0 and send the police around there if I had to”.

“What about charges of false imprisonment or blackmail?”

“Nobody has complained. The local cops are happy. Breaking and entering round here has dropped to an all-time low. In fact, I am going to have to change the business plan. It seems that some of the younger lads are swearing off a life of crime altogether after one session in my music box.

“I think the music has a lot to do with it. I tried play them 50s pops, they hated it. Greensleeves was pretty good too: I think there is a race hatred of Greensleeves as a result of all the music on hold. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is much the same, but best of all is classical chamber music. No young lout has held out for more than three minutes since I started using chamber music. My son, who’s at the College of the Arts, says I should try Stockhausen. He reckons that they’ll crack in record time. I did try the Brandenburg Concertos but some of them seemed to cope with it- I think it might be the regular beat and all the variations, so I went off Bach. However, chamber music seems to leave them with a lasting memory that they never want to repeat.”

“How are you going to change the business model?” I said.

“Well” said Kosta, “I have been reading up on marketing and aversion therapy and watching Gruen on ABC TV. I reckon that if I keep badging my boxes with the KMB logo I will develop brand recognition among the target audience. Then I can market a whole range of security devices, all with a KMB box. If I make the logo prominent the lads will run a mile from any property that displays one, even if it’s not connected to anything. A conditioned reflex they call it.

“I think they named it after some Russian ballerina’s pet dog. Pavlova or somebody wasn’t it?”

Brenda Richards: “Bulrushes and Black Ducks”

Poldi decided to emigrate when he was nine years old. America would be a good place to go, and it was far enough away. He just didn’t know how to get there.

Poldi’s mother died when he was a baby. A family friend saw her picture and told him she was a beautiful woman and that now she was an angel in heaven. With the logic of childhood, he thought if she really was an angel, she would have stayed alive and looked after him. His father remarried. His stepmother wasn’t that pleased that her husband came complete with a small boy. She proceeded to provide him with eight siblings, seven of them girls. They were all delivered at home by a mid-wife.

“I knew there was another one coming when the old lady walked up the mountain with her bag,” he explained. “One more for me to look after.”

But he thought it would be nice to have a little brother. Unfortunately, when at last one arrived, the boy was the mother’s favourite. In contrast, everything Poldi did was wrong.

The family lived in the mountains, near the Yugoslav border. The war started when he was small.

“I didn’t know much about it until it was over, but I knew wars were not good things for anyone. It was not a happy time for me, except when I was going to school. The teachers were good to me. I liked Maths, and every year I topped the class. The school only went to Grade eight and the family could not afford higher education, as they still had to raise the other children. At 14, it was time for me to support myself, so Dad got me a live-in job on a nearby farm. The work was not very interesting. Although there were lots of animals, there was not much social life. I thought there had to be more to life than talking to the chooks, much as I liked the little fellows. My life was going nowhere.”

Poldi asked his Dad for help finding something else.

“I think he really did love me because he found me a job as an apprentice carpenter, which paid a small wage, but at least I was learning something. I returned home to live while I finished my apprenticeship. After the war, different parts of Austria were occupied by four different countries. We were in the British section. They were decent people who treated us well. Emigrating was still in the back of my mind. I thought I might go to England if I couldn’t get to America.”

Where did Poldi end up going? Just to the other end of the globe. The nearest sea port was Trieste in Italy. He managed to get a berth on the Tuscana. Austria means Eastern Land. The first opportunity to keep faith with his nine year old plans, led Poldi to Australia, the Great Southern Land, which he didn’t know much about. The trip took him nearly two months. He was just 22 years old when he arrived at Station Pier on Australia Day in 1955.

“I didn’t learn much English on the ship as the crew were Italian. It was really hot when we arrived. I had made friends with a fellow passenger. We had not enjoyed the food on the ship and decided that when we got off, the first thing we would do, would be to buy an ice cream. We couldn’t work out how to pronounce it. Was it an ‘eecy’ cream or an ‘eyecy’ cream? Whatever we decided, we managed to buy one in the little shop on Station Pier. It was delicious.”

Poldi was initially placed in Bonegilla, which consisted of a number of Nissan huts that had been converted from an old army camp to a migrant one. From there, he went grape picking up in Red Cliffs. When the season finished, he came to Melbourne and worked as a porter on the railways. As his English got better, he started work as a carpenter. Eventually he worked for himself, building houses all over Victoria.

He married an Englishwoman and had a number of children. They visited the wife’s relatives in England and Ireland, but always returned to Australia. They separated when the children had grown up. Poldi still thought of himself as Austrian, but for a long time he didn’t make any contact with his family.

“I went home for a visit after a 15 year gap. I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out well. It was good to see them all again and meet their new families. Austria will always be a part of me, but it’s getting smaller. Over the years, my Aussie family has grown. I have children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Australia is now the major part of who I am.”

Poldi entered into another union and settled in St. Kilda.

“We made a number of short trips to various countries overseas, as our children all had their own families by now, and while I love travelling, the best destination is home.”

Poldi described his last return, when a small grandson visited him.

“I missed you Grandad,” Danny said, then pointed to a small marble bust on my mantelpiece.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“I heard about him. They found him in the bullrushes.” I couldn’t help smiling. “Can we go to the beach today?” he added.

“Of course. And we’ll go through Albert Park on the way. We can watch the black ducks waltzing on the lake,” I joked.

“You’re funny Grandad. They’re black swans, not ducks.”

The little fellow held my hand and looked up. “And can we have an ice cream?”

Poldi knew he was really home.

Jan Harper: “Letter Home to Scotland from Canvas City”

Canvas City

November, 1852

Dear Father,

I was glad to hear that you are keeping well, thanks be to God for giving you that blessing, and may you ever continue to be so.

I am now biding temporarily on the outskirts of Melbourne Town in Australia. Our ship from California entered Port Phillip last week and sailed to Hobson’s Bay, which was crowded with possibly 100 ships at anchor and smaller boats taking passengers to shore. Being crew, we were the last from our ship to be ferried to the pier at Sandridge Beach, then made our way towards Melbourne Town for about 3 miles through marshy scrub.

With so many goldminers arriving from all over the world, there was too little accommodation in Melbourne Town, so I took up the offer of a tent in what is called “Canvas City” on Emerald Hill, the other side of the River. I cannot tell you how many tents there are here, but it could be thousands. My tent has a wooden frame with calico over, is poorly constructed and not secure, yet is costing me 5 shillings a week. I also have to pay 3 shillings for a barrel of water, which is brought from up river. The tents are arranged along makeshift streets, with names like “The Strand” or “Regent Street”, so fairly easy to find my way around. Some of the tent-dwellers provide services such as barbers, restaurants and food stores. Canvas City is surrounded by dried swamp lands, has poor sanitation, rubbish is piled around, and swarms of flies pester me. However at night the candle-lit tents make quite a pretty picture and there are many sounds of merriment, to which I have contributed.

The behaviour of many of the men here is rough, with much drunkenness and not a little petty theft. But do not worry for me, as I mix only with the more upright characters, and keep the Lord’s commandments, thanks be to you for your teaching. I am more used than some to the crude behaviour, as I already experienced it at the diggings in California. There I was disgusted with the wild ways and uncouth talk of the diggers, with gambling and drinking saloons abounding and much lawlessness and corruption. I had hoped to find a better class of men at the diggings in Victoria, but I expect that conditions will be similar, as men who are greedy for wealth and have no families by them are apt to take no account of God’s directions.

Biding in Canvas City has allowed me the opportunity of meeting other men who may act as companions on the walk to the diggings. Wheeling barrows with our belongings, we must walk over 70 miles to Ballarat. This is a longer, but I understand a much easier, route than the 50 miles I walked across the Isthmus of Panama on my way to the Californian goldfields. I would like to form a partnership with another digger in the gold-mining enterprise, as I learnt from my experience in California that a good mate is essential for success. I met somebody who may suit this morning, outside the Emerald Hotel, where a more respectable class of digger tends to congregate. This man is a Gaelic speaker like myself, and seemingly an honest-enough fellow.

You will be interested to hear about my voyage here from California. I was fortunate to utilise my trade, and gained a position as ship’s Baker. All went well until we were becalmed about half way across the Pacific just north of the equator, where the prevailing trade winds from the north and south collided. We were in the doldrums for many days, supplies of flour began to get low, the ship was over-crowded and we had to ration the bread. Hunger made some of the men vicious and they started to riot and tried to break down the galley door, the other cooks and myself locked inside. Fortunately they were brought under control and we managed to keep our victuals safe throughout the remainder of the voyage.

I am spending this time in Canvas City selecting the requisites I need for the goldfields. I am stocking up on tools for mining, and am at a considerable advantage in this on account of my involvement in California. I will also take some provisions, as experience tells me that these will be much more costly once I am at the goldfields. I am finding what I need but, the tent not being secure, I am either storing things at the Immigrants’ Aid Society or keeping them about my person.

I was able to purchase a few necessary baker’s tools in California, and am supplementing these in Melbourne Town. My plan is to spend a short period trying my luck seeking gold, and after amassing a modest amount, to establish a Bakery on the goldfields to supply what I hear are much needed biscuits and bread to the diggers.

I did have some luck finding a certain amount of gold in California, so I am able to send you the enclosed 10 Pounds. You will have much need of it, as you wrote that the harvest was unfavourable last summer on account of the wetness of the weather, with corn and hay not secured sufficiently, and that the herring fishing was not so successful in Loch Eil as it has been in years past.

Please send my compliments to my sister Ann, who has found it in her heart to bide with you in the croft since my mother’s death. And also send compliments to my brother John in Fort William, who taught me the baker’s trade, which has stood me in good stead. I trust his wife and children are healthy and that his children are being taught to read and write, just as you provided schooling for him and your other children.

I remain your affectionate son,

Sandy McPhee

Mary Powell: “Out For a Walk With the Dogs”

Walking the dogs is a pastime that often involves me although I don’t own a dog.

A friend believes it is mean to have only one dog; they need a mate so she has two.

On Easter Monday she and I joined another friend who is perfectly happy with one gentle and loving dog called Fleur who is somehow related to a King Charles spaniel.

I’m sure I’m invited to join these walks because of my wit and charm but I’m not unaware of the fact that a third dog-handler is pretty much essential.

That day I arrived early at the meeting spot and was in time to watch my friend with the two dogs get them out of her car.  One is a very bouncy gregarious small, black, pooch called Bob who like children with ADHD finds it hard to keep still.  He caused his lead and Charlie’s to become entangled.  I watched while Joy struggled to untangle the mess and get them out of the car.  I could’ve helped but it was more fun leaning against a concrete bollard watching.

As they neared me Joy started talking,

“These two are driving me mad.  Bob has barked most of the way here and Charlie didn’t want to get out of the car.  Then I found his lead was hooked up and he couldn’t get out even if he’d wanted to.  Here!”  She hands me a lead.  I found it was Bob’s lead when he sprang towards a couple of passing dogs. I congratulated myself on having a firm grasp on it.

We waited for Nicky.  We didn’t chat because Bob was fully occupied with yapping and charging at the passing four legged traffic and taking all my attention.  Charlie had decided that this was a chance for a toilet break and dragged Joy around while he looked for a spot to suit him.

Nicky and Fleur arrived, Joy managed to find a bag for the pooh and we headed along the path to the dog beach.  Joy told us how many times Charlie has poohed that day and how often yesterday.

It was busy along the path and there was a queue at the water station.  While we waited for Fleur to drink, Joy who was still holding a green plastic bag, explained the problem to a couple of people in the queue.  One of them helpfully suggested boiled rice.

Fleur queue jumped and had her face in the water before a few larger dogs who were ahead of her managed to get their snouts in the bowl.  A discussion about this got underway with a suggestion that we should have been watching what was happening. Several people pointed out that there was a queue in case we hadn’t noticed. Fleur slurped up her full of water and we moved on leaving the queue to sort its self out.

Bob leaped around on the end of the lead rather like some mechanical toy that barks a lot.  Joy shouted, “Shut up Bob,” over and over again.  Bob appeared to take these words as part of the background noise and continued to do what he was doing.

Nicky and Joy discussed the latest inoculation their dogs were booked in for. They think the injection should not be a yearly event and the vets do it every 12 months for money.  They wondered if they should defer for another year and save the money.

No decision was reached by the time we arrived at the gate to the dog beach.  We struggled through with the leads and dogs getting confused.  We unclipped them and let the dogs have their heads.

Charlie, Bob and Fleur race off to sniff the dogs that arrived before us while we strolled across the sand.

Dog owners stood around and talked dogs.  One topic was the breed of their dog.

Charlie is a Chinese Crested and this draws attention to us. We’re popular as hairless-Charlie is an oddity.

Bob’s breed is harder to determine. He arrived in the Lost Dogs’ home with no history.

The conversations don’t flow freely as we are constantly interrupted.

“Charlie. Charles! Where the hell has Charlie gone?”

“Can you see Fleur? I hate the way she hides in those sand dunes. Fleur! Fleur!”

“There she is right behind you!”

“Oh. Right!”

And so it went on.

There was no wind, the sea was like glass and the sun came out. It was a perfect day for taking the dog to the beach.

Charlie, who wears a coat over his hairless hide, managed to get it soaking wet so he had to have it removed.  He was back in the sea again immediately and Joy hoped, out loud to anyone that was listening, that the salt water would be good for his skin but now there was a problem of him getting sunburned. She wished she had brought some sun cream.  The sun was hot for mid-April.

Later, when we were at a local cafe a young girl about six or seven came up to ask if she could pat our dogs.  The dogs were lying on the warm concrete dozing. Bob and his voice were zoned out.

The girl stroked them and finally with Joy’s permission sat with Bob on her knee.  He curled up and breathed deeply. He’s didn’t drop off though because he was able to rouse himself to say a few words to a poodle that passed too close but he was half hearted about it.

I took Bob back to his car.  He had lost any urge to bounce.  I like Bob better when he’s exhausted with sand and sea.

My face had caught some sun and the corn fritters with egg and bacon at the cafe were delicious.  It was worth the trip. I lifted Bob into Joy’s car, gave him a pat and said goodbye until next time.

Roderick Waller: “Haycarting”

In 1956, eager, carefree, innocence in flush of evening dusk, joy of haying the summer rye, raking, tying sheaves, stacking into stooks. The Clydesdale clopped, pulled the dray-cart, crossed the stream to the hidden ley of laughing kids and folk The pitchfork taller than the boy, though he mastered it, broke it to his will pitching the sheaves to the stacker boys, the cart filled twelve feet deep.

The old grey stood, stubborn, careless, her face deep in the nosebag, giant ribs puffing in and out, a few glad snorts, a clear mist of breath. The reinsman under the elm, his tea a cheese and pickle sandwich his dear old mother made ‘This, the last load’, he sighed ‘been a long, hot, dusty day’

The dray-cart stacked high, not one more sheaf could be pitched, ‘all done!’ he cried Then the pitchers and stackers climbed on, hay-stalks between their lips, the dray-master whistled his going home tune The boy played, mother sang soft songs, sun’s shadow closed in. Mites and insects buzzed aloft, a pheasant screeched, a pigeon cooed, a blackbird sang it’s evening song, the entourage clipped on, old grey nodded rhythmically, knew this her last walk of the day Her dinner awaited in the stable, a hose down, fresh water then gulped down from the sweat of work, these thoughts picked up her gait.

Passed over the tadpole stream, the painted caravans stood long-side; the gypsy woman waved as she washed her pots and pans, and the brown moustached, gold-ringed men looked idly on. Passed by Bluebell Wood, the boy fell silent, heard of the mad witch lived there.

Passed the stocks, not so long ago, a punishment for theft, the guilty arms and legs locked in where decent folk threw insults and rotten fruit at the thug or tart condemned And just by there the old tramp stayed in his cobbled-up hut, a strange old rascal, some people said a wizard, and mother warned the boy stay away’ on pain of ‘off to bed without your dinner’.

Excitement peaked as they entered the gate, at the great hay barn they stared. Old grey made a vigorous stamp, quickening her hooves, saw the end of the work-a-day Then eerily quiet went the kids and mums as the dray-master backed up the dray Brass tackle and leather, and harness, undone, clattered to the ground; old grey shook her frame, saliva dripped, she gave a short sharp neigh, then led away to her dinner and a fresh straw bed.

Mums and kids and men pitched the sheaves to the stackers, right up into the corners of rafters, pushed, sweated, screwed up faces in this last burst of work The little ones sat in the corners, gradually filled up the barn with sweet hay sheaves for the milking cows through the 2 long harsh winter nights and days Then all is done, the moon a soft white rose, chatter died down as they wandered home, the boss waved ‘cheerio, see you all upon the morrow’.

Scratched limbs, hair full of hayseed, happy kids felt joy for the day, not seen as work, just another form of play, and the prospect of a shilling to spend in the lolly shop down in the village square. Tired Mums gone home, knew their husbands waited their tea, kids home from school, homework hidden, watched the newest black and white TV.

She shrugs, it’s her lot, ‘never mind I’m tired, I’m young and strong’, knows it’ll be midnight before her work is done. ‘Never mind, thank God, we’ve a roof and good food and a husband no drunk, and kids that pretend to be good’.

As she knelt to pray, her husband snored in secret dreams, she thanked God for a day of sunshine and fresh air, and wage at the end of the week, which she’d already spent on the Saturday market and bags of sweets for the kids. ‘Give me strength Lord, so tired, my bones ache to sleep’

She slid in to her side of the roughhewn bed, glanced once at the black curly head of her mate, Smiled. Her soul surrendered; her eyelids dropped to dreamless sleep.

Major Award – Port Phillip Writes 2020

Sheila Quairney: “Me And My Fitbit”

This time last year, I lived in a happy bubble. I believed I was an active person who slept
the recommended 8 hours a night and burned a respectable number of calories every day.
I now know better. The painful truth of my sluggish, piggish, insomniac lifestyle is revealed
relentlessly to me every waking minute.

And the reason? I have bought a Fitbit. And I am its slave.

The device almost never leaves my wrist. It is my constant companion, closer to me than
my partner.

The communication is remorseless. It’s always sending me messages – sometimes
positive, sometimes gently admonitory.

Such as: “Well done! You’ve walked the length of the London Underground”, or:
“Congratulations! You’ve climbed the height of the Eiffel Tower”. I feel an absurd sense of
achievement and award myself a double chocolate Tim Tam with my coffee.

Or more sinisterly: “You haven’t moved in the past hour. Get on with it!” So I rush down
Cruikshank Street and out onto Lagoon Pier and back – phew! Another 3000 steps
clocked up for the day.

It knows my every move and how many calories I’ve burned off – but luckily in these days
of the waist-expanding Covid diet, not how many I have consumed.

It’s the first thing I consult when I wake up. The Fitbit’s assessment of my night’s sleep can
plunge me into gloom, or catapult me into gleeful smugness.

Oh no! I thought I had a good night’s sleep – but alas, I only scored a Fair, and was
apparently awake for 1 hour 13 minutes in the night. I am distraught and immediately start
to feel exhausted.

Or – I feel really groggy – but lo! I had 58 minutes deep sleep and was rated Good! And
got a star! I should feel refreshed….I’m starting to feel better already. Especially when my
partner finds out that yet again, he’s slept 3 minutes longer than me and only got rated Fair
(that’s life, I tell him smugly).

I reluctantly tear it off my wrist to plunge into the shower, then quickly strap it on again,
anxious to have every move recorded. I wait until I’m slumped in front of the TV or laptop
to recharge it so that it won’t miss anything.

Only 9000 steps and it’s nearly 10 pm? Quick, run up those stairs a few times again to
reach the magic 10,000 step total. But oh dear! that’s raised my resting heart beat to
dangerous levels. Time to sit down again and do some calming deep breathing.

And the joy of the exploding rocket throbbing gently on my wrist as I reach that magic five
figure number…….ecstasy. I glow with pride, knowing that it’s happy with me and I can
rest easy for the rest of the day. Until it all starts again at midnight.

Truly, you’re never alone with a Fitbit.

Major Award – Port Phillip Writes 2020

Wendy Butler: “Groote Island 1970, A Memoir”

It’s hot, stinking hot – she can feel the sweat pouring in rivulets between her boobs and down her legs. Her rubber boots are so sweaty she might as well be standing in water. If only she could take her daks off – but then she there’d be no protection from the sandflies. She imagines she can still feel them biting her through the rubber of her boots. She can’t stop itching – needs to scratch – can’t do that. They’ll get infected.

And the smell. It’s getting to her- it’s so fishy. Oh No! More prawns. Ken staggers in with another box. “Here let me,” says Nadia and she grabs the box and empties in one fluid motion. She’s a big girl; built like a wharfie and stronger than most of the men, but still very feminine. Her sister Sue works beside her, a more compact version with neat plaits, but equally as strong.

Summer time and the living is easy.
Fish are biting and the cotton is high.”

Nadia’s voice rises in an effortless soprano as the prawns spill over the trough. An octopus and several large shells spill as well and are flipped over the side onto the floor.

“Don’t just stand there,” roars the overseer to Wendy. She starts sorting – tiger prawns left tube; king prawns right. Down the tubes to their separate troughs to be sorted again into big, small and medium by Phyllis and Barbara. At the end of the line Loha and Bev are packing them into bricks to be frozen.

They’ve been working since two in the morning. Ten hours without a break. She’d thought that nothing could be worse than three days on stand-by. Now she knows better.

Well thank God for small mercies. A truck stops and out spills a group of aboriginal girls, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old, laughing and chattering. They shiver despite the heat and won’t start work till jumpers have been provided. As they wait they glance shyly between their fingers at the group of white men. One bolder than the others runs up to Dennis and pulls at a lock of his hair.

Now the work is going faster. The young girls are nimble fingered and sort the prawns effortlessly. We’ll soon be finished at this rate she thinks. But one by one the aboriginal girls slip out. Carol is there with her note-book noting who has left and when so that her wages can be adjusted.

Finally lunch-time comes; an hour late, because the cook is drunk again. After lunch more prawns arrive. Never ending, but now the pace has quickened up. One by one the aboriginal girls have slipped back in. Nimbly, nimbly sorting, heading, tailing prawns.

“Why don’t we sing along to pass the time?” says Nadia. “We can teach the Abos* new songs.” And she starts

“My Grandfather’s c!#*k was too long for himself
So it lay forty feet on the floor
It was taller by far than the old man himself
And it weighed but a hundredweight more.”

 We all join in lustily. The aboriginal girls look perplexed. “C!#*k?”

“Yes,” says  Nadia. “You know C!#*k.” They giggle behind their fingers. The bold girl runs up to Dennis. “C!#*k?” She points. “Yes,” says Dennis trying to place her hand on the appropriate piece of his anatomy. She runs off giggling.

“ENUFF,” roars the overseer, “No fraternising with the Abos.*”

Finally the last prawn is packed and they clean the shed. As they stagger out to their huts a young girl of about fourteen or fifteen comes up. “How’s the baby?” asks Carol. The girl looks at her, tears welling up, “Him gone. Man come. Take him away. Say him too white for Abo.”*

*Colloquial language of 1970s

Margo Anderson: “So He Killed Him”

The day was drawing to its end, the sun had already started its last fall to the West and people were moving from their coffee to wine, beer or spirits, and the mood was changing along with it.
People were at the old convent in the inner city, all there for their own reasons, some to meet others, some to wander, and others for therapies of some sort; she was there to meditate with “like minded people”. It was nearing the end of break time in their programme and those she had taken some refreshments with were finding their way back to the meditation room.

She stayed awhile by herself, watching the groups form and disperse as they do; greeting and farewelling, laughing, reminding each other of future meetings, calling kids in etc. This pleased her sense of belonging.

The property was large and dour; perhaps it’s past looming still. The wider community having reclaimed the space and giving it back a life driven by love and kindness; so they say. She had never liked the place; it was always dull to her, grey and cavernous. She knew some of its history and had long ago stopped wondering why the church behaved as they did and still do. Power is power and it can and will corrupt.

The first she noticed was the noise, a man’s voice demanding attention from someone, not a warm “happy to see you” call out, rather a threat and call to arms!

People were alerted and starting to gather themselves and kids and move to a safe distance when she noticed a tall lanky older man, enraged, red faced and intent. She reckoned he could not be stopped, even by his own account. A shorter fatter man stood up to him and yelled back in defiance and equalled rage.

A couple of bulls squaring off, this was not going to end easily, no agreement to differ here, one would fall and one would steam on.

People had now moved well away but she was frozen to her seat. Her hips were not going to kick into any sort fast action to lift her from her place, her ankles would crumble and her knees seemed to be already screaming in pain and resistance. She could not move and she did not move; she sat there, now the closest audience to this rutting.

A knife was pulled and plunged deep into shorter fatter man’s belly, in and out several time in a frenzy such that counting was impossible. Blood everywhere, piercing screams and abusive accusations continuing.

Knife work complete, the perpetrator paused and with ballet like balance, threw back his right leg and landed his boot fair and square into the downed man’s face. Was this in some way how it was within these walls one hundred or so years ago?

The shorter fatter man lay on the ground, slumped and still, never to move again, the lanky older man standing over him, visually calmer then when he arrived, his breathing was settling and his hunch relaxing.

He looked around and saw her sitting so still and their eyes met; she knew him, recognised him, damn she said to herself. Perhaps he had the same going though his head if there was any space left.

What now she thought as he moved towards her, was it now her time to slump and never to move again. He quietly sat at her table and she noticed his tear filled eyes, silence brought them together and surprisingly she felt safe.

He put the knife on the table, huge, bloodied and vile. “Can you take this?” he asked. “Sure Jack” she said surprised she remembered his name. His eyes widened and his back straightened; she fumbled in her handbag for her fold away shopping bag, she was not going to touch that knife!

“Who are you” he asked, “I know you, damned if I know why but I do”.

The knife bagged and quietly dropped under the table, she turned to him and reminded him that she had worked at a community programme 35 years ago and his family had been regulars there. She offered to get him a cup of tea; strong white with four sugars! “How did you know that” he gasped; how is it that we recall some seemingly useless information she thought?

The conversation gently rolled on; the murdered man deserved it he declared, he had been Jack’s son in law and had belted the daylights out of his daughter for just too long. He was old now, 57 years, and life was hard; he said he would be O.K. in gaol; he was familiar with it and not afraid. Furthermore he had given up the smokes so “this new poncy ban on smoking in the slammer would not bother him” he declared.

“You gunna call the cops?”

“No, someone else will have done that” she said and the telling sounds could just be heard speeding on their way. He drank his tea, looked upon her from a sweet place she recognised, glanced at shorter fatter man still lying still on the ground and waited; his work complete.

When the cops arrived, he told her to stay put, got up and walked towards them with his hands raised. They swarmed, yelling their demands to get down, and she wondered how it is that the gentle elements of this man could not prevail in his life; she also marvelled that it could not be killed off either.

She remembered his daughter and there was an ache in her heart that abuse had been such a constant part of her life; although 35 years ago an end like this was somewhat predictable.

Margo Anderson: “The Pumpkin Grower and the Uncle”

She was cruising through the town, slowly and observantly; up and down streets never driven by her before, seeing how gardens grow, how fences divide and keep worlds within and without. It was enjoyable and calming to where she had been as she farewelled a treasured family member as he gasped toward that long and welcome goodnight.

There on the roadside under an old peppercorn tree snuggled a flat barrow full of pumpkins; large Queensland Blues, a price on each and seven in total. She was a counter.

As she draw to a halt with nothing more than a pie, roast and soup in mind, the smallest one called to her. She examined them all; so that she was sure she was right to want the smallest. Of course, it was not so small in a worldly context – just small on this barrow, her mind flashed to how her now frail family elder had tendered pumpkins and other garden delectables so many years ago.

Soon enough a gruff and dishevelled presence was at her side, “Best pumpkins this side of the Murray” he wheezed with a manic ratty little Jack Russell at his foot fall. “Bugger off- opps sorry– clearout you mongrel”, he pointlessly commanded. It was clear the trade would need to carry on over the din.

“These look great” she said knocking her particular one with the thud of her index knuckle, “Sounds great too. Your handiwork I take it, grown here?”

“Sure are. Right out the back. Want to come and see the patch”?

She was extremely reluctant to move past the front gate but was taken aback by the invitation and admonished herself for forgetting the affable and open nature so prevalent and innate in the country. She accepted and she went in, the pumpkin grower and the ratty dog leading the way.

He ushered her around the side of the house- a place long in need of a lick of paint, a decent tidy up, the replacement of number of cracked windows and all the fascia boards.

Unlike the front yard, which was bare of growth, charm or life, the rear side of this house was an abundance of life, charm and growth. Vegetable beds were crammed to the fence line with varieties and colours unimagined, and all in differing stages of maturation. It took her breath away.

She noticed ratty dog had gone quiet. Relief, sheer relief; how she loathed small yappy dogs. The pumpkin grower had also changed. No longer gruff and wheezy, now rather puffed up and proud. His eyes glistened as he explained the varieties and tastes; the meals to be had and the trade at the front gate, he had his regulars. He also claimed he used a special soil conditioner to get this taste and this abundance and he said he would not be telling anyone, although many had asked.

She was anchored amongst these natural simple vegetables, beautifully grown and the source of all that was needed for basic sustainment. And she was also thrust back to times of her own family’s ideology of self sufficiency and the accompanying generosity; she thought of the much loved vegetable man in her family whom she had just left and was nearing his end. Her heritage was of primary producers.

She noticed the quiet in the garden and the shiver of love rippling through pumpkin man who simply said “This was my wife’s garden, I keep it going for her- she passed – 15 years and 3 months ago last Tuesday”, he too was a counter.

It was 5:15 in the evening, the gloaming had arrived and after exchanging $6.00, she took her pumpkin and her leave. As she drove off, she noticed a pump and hose system surreptitiously connected to the neighbour’s dam; was this the special soil conditioner?

Uncle passed that evening and as she reflected on his life, she counted the years she had with him. Baked some pumpkin wept and felt sustained.

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