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

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