Girls will be girls

I’ve just come back from little Jenny Thompson’s christening and I can tell you she’s as cute a baby as you’re ever likely to see. The whole affair went off very well too, she hardly cried at all and the proud parents, Teri and Pat, were just so pleased and happy they were smiling fit to crack their jaws all afternoon. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer couple, and to top it off, who do you think they got to be godfather? Yours truly.

When they asked me I was only too happy to oblige because in a way, I’m partly responsible for bringing the pair of them together. In a roundabout way, you could say, I was the matchmaker.

Those of you who know me will also know that matchmaking isn’t much in my style. There’s not much scope for it out here as ganger with a fettling gang along the Nullarbor railway. You don’t get too many good-looking sorts out this way, that’s for sure, and those you do are never on the loose. Men keep a close eye on their women out here

On some level having no women is a blessing, it helps to keep the blokes’ mind on the job, and it’s a bastard of a job mainly, dirty, sweaty under a blazing sun in a landscape I reckon God tossed off on a Monday morning. The money’s not bad, better than shearing or your average factory work in a suburb and it’s the kind of job where blokes can drop out of sight for a while, as many a good bloke has occasion to do once or twice in his life.

You get all sorts on a fettling gang; good, bad and some you wouldn’t feed to dingoes. Which is why the young bloke stood out like dogs when he dropped off the train. He was a real kid, slightly built, fair hair, with a shy reserved manner. He kept his eyes on the ground, apart from a quick glance when he handed over his papers, but not shifty, just a shy, timid, bloke.

I wasn’t too pleased with him. The bloke he was replacing had been a good worker, an Italian who’d gone and burst his appendix and nearly died before we got him airlifted out of here. Great big guy he was who could put in some tough yakka, could work all day in the heat and never complain.

And it gets hot out here in summer, by Jingo. I’ve seen giant red lizards, big buggers, go heat crazy and attack a man if he steps outside his tent with a cold beer in his hand. They’ll take your arm off for a tinnie. It’s as if they know the alcohol will cool them down. Bloody carnivorous, alcoholic giant lizards, they’re a menace out here.

I’ve always believed in giving a bloke a fair go, so I put the young fellow, Terry, into a tent by himself, as that’s his option and next day he took his place on the gang. He wasn’t the best grafter I’ve seen, being so slightly built, but he was game, willing to have a go and not shirk the work. He set to with a will, lofting, tapping, ramming and shovelling without any to do.

The blokes had a go at him, of course, always do with a newie but there was no trouble and the little fella gave back as good as he got. Quick with the comeback, but in good humour, just the way I like the gang to work. After the first day it was clear he wasn’t going to be any trouble.

He had some funny ways about him though, kept himself to himself and even in the heat of the day he’d never take off his shirt. Said it was dumb to work without covering, said it gave you skin cancer, and besides it was cooler with it on. The blokes said, ‘bullshit!’ But I noticed after a few days most of them were keeping on their singlets. That’s the way it works with a gang, work practices can change overnight. He also wore zinc cream on his face and pretty soon the gang looked like a mob of punks with warpaint.

You’ve got to realise that while most blokes on a gang are fair dinkum, there’s always some you’d rather not have too much to do with. We had two of them. One was a little bloke called Spano, on account of his liking for sardines and the other was Trevor, a bloke from somewhere down around Nowra on the east coast. The two of them were as thick as thieves, worked together, shared a tent and were always side-by-side.

They were the most foul-mouthed pair I’ve ever heard, dirty talk just poured out of them and on more than one occasion some of the other blokes took exception and told them to bag it. More than once I came down on them but there’s a limit to what you can do. It was always sex talk, and to hear the pair of them you’d think they were the greatest pantsmen this side of Kalgoorlie.

They gave young Terry heaps, kept at him and funny thing he was not so quick with the comeback when it had to do with sex stuff. The two of them were going on about brothels and whores and what they did and what they intended to do on the next leave. You could tell he was nice young sort of bloke and he’d stare at the ground, tongue-tied. When they’d start in at night around the fire the young bloke would colour up, and soon get up and head back to his tent. They reckoned he was a virgin and to hear them you’d think he was the first since Adam. But a fettling gang isn’t a kindergarten and it wasn’t up to me to protect anyone’s sensitive nature.

The young bloke had been with us about two months when the powers in Port Augusta called us in for a complete re-fit. Most of the blokes were happy to take their holidays and those that weren’t found work in the marshalling yards. On the first weekend, a few of us, Jock, Murray, young Terry, along with Spano and Trevor shared a minibus into Adelaide. We loaded a few cartons for the trip and by the time we got dropped near Arundle Mall there were not many left. Even young Terry had taken a few, which was most unusual. None of us had seen him drink before. It seemed like he wanted to prove he was one of the gang.

We decided we’d have a tracker before going our separate ways, so Spano dragged us down to this bar in Hindmarsh Street. It wasn’t the kind of place I’d pick myself, a bit noisy and dark and some of the sheilas looked a bit suss. I’ve always made it a point not to become too fuddy duddy just because I spend time out here on the Nullarbor away from the bright lights. A man must keep himself open for new experiences.

We propped at the bar and Trevor ordered a round. I could see himself and Spano whispering together and grinning behind young Terry’s back.

“Hello,” I thought. “What’s these two bastards up to?”

Sure enough Spano disappears and Trevor comes over to leaning my ear.

“Be in this. We’re going to fix up young angel face here with his first root. C’mon.”

“No way, get outta here,” I said.

Just then Spano comes through the crowd with the loveliest piece of crumpet you’ve ever seen. Black hair, blue eyes, red lips and a dress that could have been sprayed on. I have to say she didn’t look all that enthusiastic but Spano had her by the arm and brought her over. With one thing and another we all wound up wedged around a table in the corner with Terry and the good-looking sheila squashed in side by side. You never saw a more uncomfortable pair, their attention everywhere but on each other.

Even in the dim light you could see the young bloke was deep red under his tan while the girl tried to make the best of it, chatting and laughing with everyone else. It got to the stage that Jock, drunk as he was, began to take an interest, leaning over in front of Terry to chat her up. But Spano wouldn’t have a bar of it and insisted Terry asks her up for a dance. It was a reluctant bloke they shoved onto the dance floor after the girl.

It took a while but things improved after that. You could see then exchanging the occasional word and pretty soon she took him by the hand and led him to a table on the far side, away from his drunken mates.

“Looks like young Terry’s cracked it,” said Spano, and he and Trevor double up laughing like a pair of kookaburras.

“Well, good luck to him,” said I, which sends the pair of them howling again.

“He’ll bloody well need it tonight,” said Trevor, cackling away.

Jock looks at me and shakes his head.

The night wears on, the beers keep coming and the last I saw of young Terry was when Spano grabs me by the arm points them out leaving the bar, arm in arm. He was killing himself.

“What’s so bloody funny,” I ask. “So the young fella’s got himself a bit of alright. You should be pleased, you set it up for him.”

“Too right we did,” said Trevor. “He’ll loose his cherry tonight, that’s for sure, but maybe not the way he reckons.”

I can take a joke as good as the next bloke but I don’t like to be made a dill of, and these two were starting to get on my wick.

“All right, spit it out, what’s so bloody hilarious?” I said

“Aye, what’s the flaming joke?” Jock tips in. “’Cause you’re beginning to get up my nose.”

“It’s a bleeding bloke, that’s all, a bloody fella he’s gone off with. We set him up and he’ll never know until its’ too late,” says Spano cracking up again.

Jock and I looked at one another. You could have floored us with a feather but as soon as it was said you knew it had to be true.

“What, a lovely looking sort like that is a bloke?” asked Jock incredulously.

“Yeah and didn’t you half fancy him yourself,” says Trevor.

That was a mistake, a bad mistake. Jock’s across the table at him like a striking snake and it’s on for young and old. Bouncers come through the screaming crowd and get stuck into the two of them rolling around the floor. Spano jumps in and, well, after four months on the track and a night on the beer, what could I do but help out my mates? We fought them to a standstill and if it wasn’t for the cops we’d have levelled the bloody place.

It was a night in the cells, $200 and expenses and six months good behaviour all around, except for Spano who put in a plea of not guilty. He got $400.

I went to stay with my sister in Melbourne and by the time I got back to the yards in Port Augusta the gang was nearly ready to leave. But we were missing young Terry. The clerk said he’d phoned in his notice. I gave Spano and Trevor a right bollocking for losing us a good bloke. He was obviously too embarrassed to face the crew and cop months of taking the piss.

The day before we left I heard he was coming in at four to collect his holiday pay, so I thought I’d go along and see him, tell him his place was still open on the gang anytime he wanted to come back and apologise for the other two. I didn’t want him to think I was mixed up in it in any way.

I’m at the pay office that arvo when in walks this sheila, a stunner, blonde hair, blue eyes, tight jeans. I was thinking, ‘she’s a bit of alright,’ when she walks over and holds out her hand.

“You don’t recognise me?” she asks with the sweetest smile.

It struck me and my jaw dropped.

“Terry? It’s you? What …?”

Oh, I was really articulate. I knew just what to say. Some blokes are occasionally lost for words, but not me.

“You’re a girl,” I said, quick as a dead dog.

Turns out she was the adventurous type, always wanted to work in the outback and reckoned a fettling gang was just the go. Found out the company didn’t hire women so signed on as a bloke and there you are.

“But things have changed. There’s this bloke I met and we’re going to get married. Come out and meet him.”

The bloke in the ute was well set, with black hair and a friendly smile. We shook hands and I told him he’d a girl in a million. You could see they were very happy together but after I waved them off I reckoned that was the last I’d see of either of them. However a year later I got letter asking me to be godfather of their first child, so it just goes to show.

You’ll be wondering what happened that night in Adelaide when Terry, sorry Teri, went off with the bloke in drag. Well I don’t know all the details and I’m no expert on people’s sexuality but it seems the two of them sussed out the situation early on in the piece. It must have come as a shock but they got over that and the more they talked the deeper they got and soon they were at each other like rabbits.

Don’t ask me how it all works. To my way of thinking there’s nothing strange between people. Maybe clothes make the man and the woman. Maybe it’s true what they say about the love of a good woman.

Or maybe it’s simply the choices you make, and the tracks you get to follow.

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