General Fiction posted March 21, 2015


Exceptional
This work has reached the exceptional level
a young woman takes on a man's world

Sheila in the Sheds

by mfowler

Story of the Month Contest Winner 

'No bloody sheila's comin' in this shed, or I'm out of here,' moans Snowy Corstens. 'Bad luck. That's all they bring. Besides she's not big enough to handle a fully grown ewe.'
 
Snowy is old school, and a gun shearer in the western districts. I'm prepared for some tough times in my new job, but I'm not expecting to be rejected before I'd taken off my first fleece in the place.
 
'Put a sock in it, Snowy,' says Pete Drummond, owner of Narumbah Station, 'Give the lass a go. She's a learner. But, she's trained. We need everyone pulling together for the next few weeks before the rain comes in.'
 
Snowy's face is bright red and he flashes an angry look in my direction. I smile discreetly but realise friends may be hard to find in this place where I stand out like a black sheep.
 
'Ya can use the locker on the bottom left,' says a man whose arms looked thicker than my thighs. 'Dave Wallace, Miss. I'm the contractor. You'll bunk in the last room of the dorms. I suggest you hit the showers later than the others. The men might feel a bit uncomfortable havin' a female sharing with them.'
 
He's only taken a few seconds to underscore the adjustments I'd expected to make, but I wasn't expecting to be the one making others uncomfortable.
 
'Thanks, Dave. Where do I start in the shed?'
 
'Boss, Miss. Always Boss. You'll be next to Snowy for now.'
 
'Thanks, Boss. I'm Alex.'
 
'Yes,' he mumbles. 'Better get ready. We hit the boards in ten minutes.'
 
I stow my gear in the locker. Someone's left me a welcoming present; a dag from a sheep's bum. I'll see worse than sheep shit in wool before I'm done. There's a cackle of laughter from the floor as I turn around with my gift.
 
The men seem satisfied with my acceptance as I hold it high and say, 'Thanks fellas. I feel at home already.'
 
<><><> 
 
The bell clangs!
 
The boss releases the sheep and a mid-sized ewe comes through the chute.  I flip it quickly and tuck it onto the inside of my left leg. The handpiece whirrs into action and the wool falls away from the belly with ease. My confidence soars momentarily.
 
I move down to the hocks and the sheep begins to screw about. The pressure to control it rises. As I begin the first long strike, the ewe becomes skittish, swinging about, kicking. It takes all my strength to contain it.
 
'Take it easy,' says a friendly voice to the right. A young, swarthy looking shearer grins at me. He has a firm grip on a large Merino. 'Get your feet right first. Make sure the sheep's comfortable and you'll have your balance. Do all your work in front of the body.'
 
He tells me no more than the instructors at the Shearing Academy, but he's here, reminding me in the heat of the battle. I listen and watch him briefly, before applying what he's offered. The fleece comes off well and I'm stoked.
 
'That's it, Alex,' encourages my new friend, but Snowy looks away grunting.
 
The men soon have half a dozen fleeces off as I finish number two. I try to tell myself that I can only improve.
 
<><><> 
 
At first smoko, Gino, my new best friend, offers sugar for my tea.
 
'Nah, sweet enough,' I joke.
 
'You did well, Alex,' he encourages, but my tally is so low that I know he's being nice. 'What got you into shearing?'
 
'I've always been around the sheds. My Dad was a shearer and when I was old enough, he got me gigs as rouseabout on the properties he worked. I fell in the love with the idea of being a shearer.'
 
'You're taking on more than the job, you realise.'
 
'Oh, yeah, that's becoming obvious.'
 
Snowy Corstens butts in. 'Gino, I gave ya the benefit of the doubt 'bout bein' a wog, mate, but now you're fraternising with the enemy, I might 'ave to change me mind.'
 
With that said, he stumps off to keep his own company.
 
'Take no notice. He's a bit of dinosaur. He likes everyone to be called Bluey, Jack or Slim. Change is hard for him. Give him time.'
 
Me. I'm the one who needs time.
 
<><><> 
 
Under the corrugated iron roof of the woolshed, temperatures soar to near 45°C. I'm geared up in dungas, boots and tee-shirt. The sweat builds round my neck and stains my top.
 
A wolf-whistle emerges from somewhere. 'Nice tits,' I hear from up the line. I suddenly become aware of my cleavage as I lean over the sheep.
 
'Shut the hell up, Ed,' says Boss, 'focus on the job.'
 
Snowy looks my way, snarls, and returns to shearing. This mix of hostility, sexism and friendliness has me confused, but at least I have the measure of the challenges that face me.
 
When the knock-off bell clangs, my body aches all over, and I struggle to my room. Fifty three is my tally, only one hundred and thirty-four behind Gino. Not bad, I tell myself.
 
After dinner, I sit on the veranda outside my room, feeling the cool of the evening. The smells from the shed are all over me, but the satisfied bleating of the sheep in their pens gives me a sense of being at home.
 
'Not bad for a sheila,' says Ed, leering at me as he passes.
 
'Thanks, mate,' I offer tentatively.
 
'Yeah, yer arse isn't half bad at all.' I have words about arseholes to offer in return but restrain myself. The creep will just have to get used to having me around.
 
<><><> 
 
The weeks that follow are tough. My body tightens with each session. Each night I collapse in bed. No need for counting sheep.
 
Gino's been a real mate and he's helped smooth out my technique remarkably. The tally's up to one hundred and twelve, and even Boss begrudgingly admits I may make a shearer in a few seasons.
 
Snowy still spits and grunts but seems less bothered by my presence. It's like living next door to a pit bull, and so long as the invisible fence is up, we respect each other's space.
 
Ed remains problematic, continuing to watch me with sleazy intent and dropping sexual hints at every opportunity. I shut my mouth. I'm way too unsure of myself with the crew to be making complaints.
 
<><><> 
 
After dusk each night, and the men have cleared the showers, I take the opportunity to clean up, feel the relaxing touch of the soap and warm water on rough skin.
 
Tonight, I decide to wash my hair. A new work week starts in the morning. Want to smell good for the sheep. The foam flows across my face with sweet delight.
 
A hand suddenly cups my mouth and I'm dragged backwards onto the tiles. My eyes are filled with conditioner and I can't see my assailant. Screaming isn't an option. He's strong and he climbs onto my stomach while covering my mouth. I taste a smelly rag as he stuffs it in my mouth.
 
A familiar and excited voice says,' Time to play, Alex. You've been gaggin' for a shaggin' long enough.' I'm confused, frightened out of my wits. I try to squirm, but his freed arm presses deeply into my chest. I sense him struggling to remove his jeans.
 
'Damned buckle,' he curses. I try to squirm and he smacks my face hard so hard I feel my cheek slap the wet tiles. I can't even cry, as the conditioner is burning my eyes.
 
Suddenly, I hear a commotion. The man's weight is released from my body. Someone else is here. 'Get off her, you mongrel,' shouts the new man.
 
I scramble to get my towel as the Boss lays into my attacker. The fight brings the other shearers on the scene. They pull the two apart and Gino stands bloodied and defiant in the grip of Ed and Snowy.
 
'Ya, alright?' says Boss looking toward my huddled body. 'Lock him in the shed boys. Get the cops, Gerry.'
 
I'm totally shaken. I've always been able to handle men who get frisky, but Gino wasn't after a grope in the backseat; this was real violence.
 
<><><> 
 
After the police come and statements are taken, I lie on my bed sobbing like a kid. Being strong in this man's world has taken all  I have. The assault has stolen my confidence. I simply can't reconcile the fact that it was Gino, the one person who'd treated me as an equal.
 
In the morning, I visit Mr Drummond.
 
'I'm sorry to lose you, Alex. But, after the attack, I can understand. Boss says you're going to make a good shearer.' I'm pleasantly surprised. Boss gives few compliments.
 
Unexpectedly, Boss walks into the room. 'I saw you coming here, Alex. Doesn't take a genius to figure out why. Fact is, we're down one shearer with Gino in jail. We need you in the shed.'
 
'She's had a hard time, Dave,' interjects Mr Drummond.
 
'I know. I saw. But, she's a hard worker, and she learns quick. I reckon she'd do better getting back on the horse before she can't get back on at all.'
 
I'm still there, bemused by the discussion taking place.
 
'Give me a day, Boss, and I'll see you on the boards,' I say without thinking it through.
 
'Settled,' says Boss and leaves. Mr Drummond and I smile, both aware of why he is the boss.
 
<><><> 
 
On Tuesday, I resume duties, very nervous, but glad to change the reel of images running in my head. Ed has taken the spot alongside me.
 
He leans over. 'I'm sorry.' he says. 'You won't get any more crap from me.' With that said, he returns to work.
 
At lunch, Snowy walks up to me. 'Hmm.' he says. 'Got guts comin' in. But, like I said all along, sheilas don't belong in the shed. Bad luck. We're one shearer down. Bad luck; that's all you are.'
 
'You know women are in sheds all over Australia, don't you? One in Queensland does over two hundred and twenty a day.'
 
He spits.
 
'Must be real ball-tearer,' he comments.
 
<><><> 
 
The pressure's on. Two thousand head to clear and rain's forecast two days away. Once the flock gets wet, we can't touch them. The air's humid and the heat is building under the tin. Even I'm clearing up to one hundred and thirty sheep a day, but we appear to be losing the race against the elements.
 
'Lunch will be twenty minutes, smokos fifteen,' declares Boss, 'We'll get there.'
 
Today, Snowy is showing signs of slowing. He's sweating profusely and cursing more than usual.
 
After lunch, I hear a clatter and a groan from the boards behind me. A ewe races past me in a frenzy. Snowy's hit the floor like a full bale and is splayed out next to his whirring comb.
 
I check his pulse which is very weak, and listen for breathing. I roll him onto his back, clear his mouth and begin CPR.  My reaction is instinctive. Having worked with Dad as volunteer crew on the ambulance up at Dugong where he retired, I've trained hard for this role.
 
'Stay clear,' I say to the men as I apply chest compressions. Alf steps up to help me rotate the mouth to mouth with compressions. Twenty minutes pass before old Snowy splutters back to life.
 
<><><> 
 
'Hello, Snowy,' I say.
 
The old gun sits up in bed in his ward room. 'Aw, g'day mates,' he answers.
 
Boss, Mr Drummond, Alf and I have come to visit him now that he's on the road to recovery. The shearing's just finished and it's almost time to move on to the next job.
 
'Ticker's not too good,' he says.' Doc says I might have to slow down.'
 
'You might have to give away the shearing,' says Mr Drummond.
 
'I knew it might 'appen sooner or later. Bought meself a few acres near the Murray two years ago. I might run a few sheep and cows. The fishin's good.'
 
I say, 'I'm sorry about this, Mr Corstens. You were lucky to survive.'
 
He looks at me with a serious face. 'Lucky. Hmmh! Bad luck I had the heart attack,' he says sternly. 'Ya know what I say about sheilas.'
 
'Go easy,' chips in Boss.
 
I knew I shouldn't have come. I didn't expect acknowledgement for saving his life, but Boss insisted I should make peace with the man. I turn to leave.
 
'Where ya goin', girlie?' calls Snowy. 'It was lucky that a real shearer was there to save me life. Thanks.'
 
Real shearer. It takes me a moment, but I finally get the impact of what he's just said.
 

 


 


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Glossary:

sheila: colloquialism for woman

Snowy: colloquial nick-name for blondes

gun shearer: top shearer (high shearing counts per day)

contractor: the person who organises the shearing gangs, negotiates contacts, ensures the shed works smoothly throughout the shearing period

boards: the area on which the shearers work

handpiece: shearing end of the mechanical shears

hocks: leg area on sheep

long strike: long sweeping movement such as along the side of the sheep

Shearing Academy: many places around the country now offer courses in shearing for prospective participants in the industry

smoko: traditional time for a break, so called because people often have a cigarette or two at this time

rouseabout: a role in the shed often taken by girls, youngsters, beginning shearers. They remove the fleece to the wool-classing areas, sweep up and do general chores to assist in the running of the shed.

Bluey: colloquial nick-name for redheads

merino: favoured wool sheep for Australian conditions

dungas: clothes especially worn to protect the shearer and keep the grease from the wool off them

CPR: cardio pulmonary resuscitation; mouth to mouth, chest compressions etc.



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