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The Shearers Lament

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Early one Saturday morning, a cloud of dust appeared on the track to Burts’ house

yard. At the front of the dust cloud was a green Ute. Towed behind it was a 25 ft.


This site caught my attention because a visitor was a rare happening at old Burts

place. The big caravan rolled up the track and stopped right outside the chain-link fence.

As the dust settled, I saw the sign on the side of the Ute.


Bill Spence blew the Utes’ horn loudly. Before long, Burt appeared at the back door.

When he saw who it was, he pushed the fly-screen door open and stepped off the

verandah to make his way to the back gate.

‘G’day!”, he called out to the visitors. “Haven’t seen ya’s around for a while. Where’ve ya


Burt leaned on the drivers’ side door as he spoke. After a few minutes he motioned,

with his hand, to a clump of Pine trees that always offered a shady spot, out of the hot


The Ute and its’ caravan pulled over to the shade trees. The door of the Ute opened

and out got a short, fat, balding man. He looked to be in his 50s’. He had a fat face which

was sun-browned, a fat, round nose and a thick neck which supported a double-chin and

the huge head. He had a fat-barreled body and short, stocky legs which ended up in a

pair of work-socks and boots. He wore a pair of short shorts which are known in the

Bush as ‘Stubbies. Bill Spences’ large belly hung over the stubbies. He had on a decent-

looking bush shirt.

The passengers side door opened as I rested mi boot on the cow-yard rail. I leaned mi

head on mi hands and mi arms on the top rail.

A gray-haired woman got out of the passenger side of the Ute. She was about the

same age as the man. Her face was not as fat as his. I wouldn’t say it was a beauty, by

any means. She had a large, pointy nose and somewhat rosy cheeks which were not

small. She sported 3 extra chins under the original one. Her shoulders were bigger than

mine and her upper arms were 3 times as fat as mine were. An enormous set of udders

hung from her chest.

She wore a dark blue work singlet on her top end. On her bottom end She wore a

large pair of Bombay Bloomers, which hung down to her fat knees. The back of the

bloomers where pulled up so high that the crack of her huge arse was plainly visible

from my point of view, which was about 50 feet away. At the bottom of her fat ankles,

she wore a pair of thongs.

“G’day Kay!”, she yelled, as she made her way round the front of the Ute which had a

large roo-bar on it.

“G’day Madge.”, answered Kay, who had just walked out in her dressing gown to see

who the visitors were.

Madge gave old Kay a hearty hug and pattered her on the back. Bill stood and talked

to Burt, as he awaited his turn for a hug.

“G’day Kay.”, he said, when his turn came. “Nice to see ya again. “How’s life been

treating ya then?”

“Oh, can’t complain.”, said Kay, as old Bill let her go.

“Thought we’d stop in and see ya this time around.”, said Bill. “We missed ya last trip.

We took another route and ended up getting a few new cutomers out of it, so it was

worth the trouble.”

“Come inside and have a cuppa’.”, said Kay to Madge.

“We’ve got all we need in the caravan.”, said Madge.

“Don’t matter. Come in and have a cuppa’ anyway!”

“Alright.”, said Madge.

They all walked through the small, steel gate, up the side of the house to the back

door and disappeared inside the house.

‘I wonder who those two characters are?”‘, I thought, as I finished off milking the old

cow, who was now running out of patience. She tried to kick the half-bucket of milk out

of mi knees.

After milking was over, I took the milk across to the butter-shed. The butter shed was

a small, well-built shed about 6-foot square. It was covered in, at each side, by mosquito

wire. Sometimes Burt used to hang a freshly-butchered wether in the butter-shed while it

set. That way the blowflies couldn’t get at it.

I poured the milk through a strainer and then put the milk into the stainless-steel

churn. I started to crank the high-geared handle. After a while, the skimmed milk came

out of a spout and the fresh butter stayed inside the churn.

I always fed the skim milk to Burts’ ‘children’, as I called them. They were actually

small, black piglets. Even the piglets had a hard time in the Bush. If the old sow gave

birth to them outside, the crows would come sweeping down for the afterbirth and

many-a-time the crows were not content with that so they’d peck off a newborn pigs’ tail

which left the piglet with a small, upturned stump.

As the piglets grew so did the level of torture because now the pig had no tail to swish

so the bush and blowflies could sit on his arse all day with no interruption. Every now

and again old Burt would douse their arses with sheep-dip. The sheep-dip kept the

maggots at bay, which in turn made the pigs life a bit more tolerable. If anyone in the

Bush tells you they’re ‘living a pigs life’, you know for sure he’s got flies around his

arse. Hence the old Bush saying, ‘There’s no flies on me, mate!’ ‘Yeah, but ya can see

where the bastards have been.’

When I took the plate of raw butter into Kays’ kitchen, everyone was sat around the

table, laughing and joking. This surprised me a bit ‘cause there was not usually too many

jokes in old Burt. Kay took the butter from me and said,

“This is Bill and Madge Spence, Richard. They’ll be staying on the property for a


“Nice to meet ya.” I said in mi new Aussie accent I was just starting to develop.

“G’day.” They said, as they looked me over, staring for too long at the tattoos on mi now

brown arms.

“Where d’ya git those tattoos?” said Bill.

“From Rex Stoker in Bradford.”

“Oh, I know Bradford.” Said fat Madge, as she crammed a piece of fresh toast into her

face. “My sister lives there. She’s been there for years. Me and Bill are from South

Hampton. We’ve been out here for 17 years now.”

“18!” said Bill, as he sucked, disgustingly, on the bone of a lamb chop.

“Jesus!” said Burt. “I’m outnumbered here. I’m the only ‘fair-dinkum’ Aussie in mi own

house. I’m surrounded by a bunch of bloody pommies.”

“You’re not a black fellow.” said Bill. “They’re the only fair-dinkum Aussies in

Australia, Burt.”

“Suppose you’re right, technically speaking, Bill, but I was born and raised in the Bush

and I work hard for a living, not like those ‘lazy bastards. As far as I’m concerned, I’m

a fair-dinkum Aussie and it’s my land now!”

They all had a good laugh at that. Then Kay said to me,

“Sit yourself down Richard and have some breakfast.”

“Yeh”, said Burt. “You’d better have a good breakfast this morning ‘cause after breakfast

we’re going up the paddock to bring the sheep in. I noticed the other day a few fly-

blown weathers in ‘em, so we’ll have to shear ‘em and stick a bit of tar on ‘em.”

“Oh great!”, I said. “I’ve only ever seen sheep-shearing on the telly in England. Maybe I

can have a go at it, Burt?”

“Ya can have a go but it’s the hardest job in Australia, mate. I doubt whether you’d even

be able to git the belly wool off a’ one.”

“Can you shear Burt?”, I said.

“Yeh, but I’m not real fast at it ‘cause I don’t get enough practice. You’ve gotta have a

heart as big as a football and a brain the size of a split pea to make a good shearer.”

“Do ya wanna’ hand today Burt?”, said Bill, whose plate now held 3 naked bones. They

had been sucked dry by old Bill, who was now sat back slurping down another cuppa of

hot, black billy tea.

‘The dogs will not be too pleased when they get those bones’, I thought. ‘He’s eaten

the grisel as well!’

“Yeh, if ya like Bill. ‘Course I can’t pay ya mate but I can always use another hand.”

“She’ll be right Burt. It’ll give me a chance to work off a bit of a’ weight. I seem to pile

it on these days, probably ‘cause I sit around so much, driving all over the Bush. Maybe

Madge here might like to give us a hand, eh Madge?”, said Bill, as he gave her a bit of a

dig in her spare tires with his elbow.

“Don’t you worry about me Bill Spence, just look after ya own spare tires and I’ll look

after mine, alright?” she said in mock anger.

“Streuth you two, no need to fight over who’s gonna work with me.”, said Burt, having a

bit of a laugh to himself ‘cause he’d cracked one of his little jokes.

‘Maybe he knows he’s hard to work with.’ I thought, as I stared at his bushy eyebrows

and his slit eyes.

“I’m pretty easy to git along with at work.”, said Burt. “So, if ya likes’ ya can both work

with me. We’ll git the job done faster.”

“No thanks.”, said fat Madge. I don’t mind eating sheep but that’s as far as it goes.”

They all had a good laugh over this. Maybe I’m missing the joke here ‘cause I can’t

see anything to laugh about, working with hard old Burt.

After breakfast, me and Burt took off up the paddock with his two black-barb dogs to

muster up the sheep. The sheep were scattered all over one of his Bush paddocks and it

took the dogs quite a while to round up the rough, woolly wethers.

Once the dogs had rounded up as many sheep as they could find, we started on our

way back to the house-paddock where the shearing-shed stood. On the way back Burts’

old dogs saw a mob of Roos and decided to chase them. Old Burt had a shit-fit when the

dogs ran off and left us to look after the mob of sheep.

“Come here, ya black bastards!” roared Burt. “Git over here ya useless fucking


The dogs paid no attention to Burt, whatsoever, so we had to wait for them to come

back before we could move on.

“That’s what fucking happens when I let ‘em go Roo hunting! The bastards git lazy.

They’d sooner chase Roos than work sheep!”

When the dogs got back, old Burt gave ‘em a real good hiding with a stick.

“Look at the black bastards!, said Burt. “They’re not worth a portion of urine now!

They’re rooted from chasing bloody Roos in the hot sun!”

The two dogs were now laid under a shady tree with their tongues hanging out,

having a breather and catching a new breath.

“I’ll shoot ya next time!” yelled Burt at his two dogs who still lay there, panting and


We waited in the shade of a Gum tree for a while. Then old Burt roared, “Alright you

pair a’ bastards, go back! Go back Rover, you black, lazy bastard! Fetch ‘em up Darkie,

ya useless, stupid bastard! I could do a better job myself if I had a couple more legs!”

Then, he turned, and had a piece of me, “And you, ya useless pommy bastard, don’t

just stand there lookin’, open the fucking gate! What d’ya expect ‘em to do, jump over?”

‘Fuck you Burt!’, I said under mi breath.

“What did you you say?” he roared, as he came towards me.

“Nothing Burt.”, I said, as I ran for the gate.

“Open both sides!”, he roared. “That’s why there’s 2 gates! You’re as dumb as those two

fucking dogs, ya pommy bastard!”

At long last and a lot of cursing later, the sheep were now in the yards and old Burt

started to settle back down again.

“Let’s go and have a quick cuppa’. We’ll fetch Bill back down to the yards. He can give

us a hand. It’ll make it a lot easier.”

When we got back to the house, old Burt was as cool-as-a-cucumber again.

After smoko, the three of us went down to the shearing shed. We filled the shed up

with the big, rough, woolly mongrel-bred wethers. As soon as everything was ready,

Burt started the Briggs and Stratton motor. He pressed the governor down and swung the

handle on the large fly wheel. The engine popped and backfired a few times, then spit

out a cloud of blue smoke from the exhaust pipe and slowly came to life. After the

engine was warmed up, Burt put the wide, long belt over the shiny pulley, which drove

the long overhead shaft and the shearing shed rattled into life. The rotten floorboards

vibrated and the tin on the side of the shed shook as the engine cranked away.

Burt now stood at one of the shearing stands. He stripped down to his pants and

singlet and tied some string just below the knees of his thick ex-army pants for a bo-

yang. Then he picked up one of the ancient hand-pieces which were aptly named ‘hot

boxes’. (Some shearers call them ‘bog-eyes’ because they resemble a bog-eyed lizard.)

He put a 3-pronged cutter in place and after that he screwed a comb down on top,

screwed down the tension knob, put a good squirt of black sump oil over the comb and

cutter, then pushed the ferule on the down pipe and pulled the bog-eye into gear for a

test run. CLUNK! ZZZZZZZZZZZ. The counterweight swung over when Burt pulled

the string and the hand-piece was now running. He screwed down the tension knob a

couple more clicks before he was satisfied it would cut. He pulled it out of gear and said

to me,

“Go grab me a sheep, we’d best git started!”

I opened the pen gate which was held on by some fencing wire and went inside to

grab one of the wethers. As soon as I tried to turn it over, the saffron thistles stuck in mi

finger ends. I pulled my hand back quickly and removed the long thistle.

“What’s the matter with ya now?” said Burt.

“The wool’s full of thistles!”

” ‘course it fuckin’ is! They’ve been running in a thistle paddock for a couple of months.

You’ll get used to it in a few days. Anyways, how are ya gonna learn to shear ‘em if ya

can’t stand a few burrs in ya hands!”

Fat Bill, who was lazily leaning on a broom, started to laugh at me when I tried to get

another wether over on its back.

“What are ya doing mate?” he said. “Trying to fuck it? Ya need a good strong pair of

gum boots for that and I just happen to have your size in the back of mi Ute”

“Fuck you Bill!”, I said, as I dragged the old wether out of the pen.

Old Bill nearly fell over with laughter at my comment. “Oh that was a good laugh

mate. I’ve never heard an accent like that for years. Say it again Richard!”

“Fuck you Bill!” I said as Burt took the front legs of the sheep.

Bill roared with laughter again as Burt pulled the string and the bog-eye jumped into

gear. It took Burt about 10 minutes to shear the flyblown wether. As he was shearing it, I

was thinking to miself, ‘I could do that and I could probably do a better job than Burt.

When I get off his place, one day I’m going to shear sheep for a living.’

After the sheep was shorn, old Burt straightened his black and then shoved the sheep

out the porthole into the ‘counting-out’ pen. He showed me how to grab the fleece and

throw it on the skirting table where Bill was waiting to skirt it.

“After you’ve thrown it on the table, sweep up the board and get me another sheep”, said


After he had shorn about 15 sheep, I said to him,

“Hey Burt, can I have a go at shearing?”

“Ya can finish this one off for me when I get on the last side.”

As soon as Burt had shorn the sheep to the last shoulder just below the leg, he pulled

the string and the bug-eye stopped running.

“Here ya go mate.”, he said as he handed me the handpiece. “Ya stick him between ya

legs like that, bend over him and push down hard on the shoulder with ya left hand. Start

from there and run the handpiece on the skin down to his flank. The next blow is

supposed to start from here and run it down out to his toe and be careful not to hock him

’cause if ya hamstring him he’s dog tucker! Are ya ready?

“Ready!” I said.

The bog-eye hand-piece was red hot when old Burt handed it to me. I was determined

not to complain. Burt pulled the string and the hand-piece flew into gear. The dirt in the

wool had blunted the comb and cutter and the tension on the hand-piece was so tight it

made it want to twist and spin out of mi hand. I put the comb on the skin and slowly

pushed it forwards. The down-tube swung around and the comb dug into the skin as I

pushed it down towards the flank.

“Keep it in the wool!”

By now there was blue oil smoke bellowing out of the comb and cutter.

“Keep it on the skin and cutting wool, then it will stay cool!”, said Burt, as I struggled to

control the bog-eye.

The rough-looking wether had worked it out that this was my first go at shearing so

just to make it interesting for me, he complicated matters worse than they already were

by trying to kick my head off.

“Sit down, ya bastard!” I said, as I tried to keep the hot machine down on the skin but

the sheep never took any notice, he kept right on kicking.

“Ya gotta keep the bottom tooth on the skin, mate, if ya wanna make a good, clean


It took me, at least, 15 minutes to finish off the wether. The sweat was now pouring

out of me as I bent over him. When I eventually finished shearing him, he looked like a

lawnmower had attacked him. There were nicks and cuts all over his back leg and pieces

of half-cut wool stuck out all over him. My hand was burned to a blister from the hot

bog-eye and my back already had a sharp, crampy pain just above mi bum.

“Is that good enough Burt?”

“Gawd streuth mate! It looks as though ya plucked him! Give ‘im to me and I’ll clean

him up for ya.”

Burt took the sheep and the bog-eye from me and finished cleaning up the wrinkly,

old wether. He pulled the string out of gear and the bog-eye stopped. Then he kicked the

sheep down the chute and said to me,

“Stop the engine. That’ll do us for today. We’ll make an early start on ‘em tomorrow.”

“That job is a lot harder than it looks!” I said to Burt.

“Sure is mate. I’m not much of a shearer but ya should see some of those blokes who live

in town. There’s one bloke – Johnny Burt. He shore 250 one day out at Merri

Merrigal. He’s a real fair-dinkum gun shearer. The only problem is he likes his grog too

much. They tell me, in town, that he shore over 200 a day for 2 weeks and at the end of

the shed he was in debt to the contractor for 50 quid.”

“What did he do with all that money?”

“He pissed it up against the wall, mate and blew the rest on the horses and cards.”

“One day, I’m going to be a gun shearer.”

“It takes a lot of balls to be a gun shearer and yours are no way big enough to take on

that job yet.”

“Don’t you worry. One day I’ll be twice as fast as you are.”

“That’ll be the fucking day a pommy bastard like you can run rings around me!” Burt

said, as fat Bill laughed his head off.

It was a sunny morning. Burt and Kay walked to Bill and Madges’ caravan.

“G’day.”, said Burt to Bill. who was straightening out the back of his canvas covered

Ute. “Ya got any axe handles for sale this time round Bill?

“Yeh Burt, I picked up a few good-quality hickory sticks on the last trip to Sydney. They

even come with their own little wedge. I got ‘em at a real good price.”

“They look pretty good Bill.”, said Burt, as he inspected the grain in the wood to make

sure it was running straight down the handle. “These two are a couple of real beauts Bill.

I’ll take ‘em.”

“How ya off for working shirts Burt? I’ve got some real strong King Gees in the

Caravan. Madge is in the van with Kay, give her a knock mate. She’ll show ya some of

the new stuff we picked up.”

“Have ya got any light rubber-soled work boots.” I asked him.

“Sure have mate. These are the longest wearing work boot you’ll find. All the cockys are

wearing these boots now-a-days. Ya can’t repair ‘em but the leather uppers usually wear

out before the soles do.”

“Have ya got a size 7 Bill?”

“I sure have mate. Just give me a minute while I go through this pile.”

Bill found a pair of work boots for me. I bought ‘em because the hob-nailed boots mi

step-dad had bought for me were so heavy, they tired mi legs out wearing them around

in the Mali country. I also bought misen a pair of King Gee green overalls, the one-piece

boiler type. They stopped mi arms getting so burned when I walked from fire to fire with

the long-handled shovel, re-starting and stoking up the big piles of stumps and limbs.

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