Joining the pack
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 28: Still the Lucky Country?
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Helena Pastor
We sit around the kitchen table like Jesus and his disciples, except there are only six of us and Jesus is drinking too much red wine and swearing a lot. There’s Jayne, Simmo, Sally, Geraldine, Flinty and me. And Bernie, of course: our Jesus. We’re the BackTrack Crew and I’m the latest ring-in to this gang of youth workers.
Bernie’s eyes burn bright but look troubled all the same. For the past week he’s been busy talking to the media about his most recent youth-work initiative, the Iron Man Welders. Now he’s going through a moral dilemma about being seen as the ‘boss man’ of BackTrack, the spokesperson with all the answers.
He takes a swig of wine. ‘It’s hard for me when people ask, “What is it?” Fuck, I don’t know.’
At the head of the table, Simmo shifts his half-moon glasses down his nose and moves his chair in closer. His black beanie makes him look like he’s about to organise a bank heist. ‘BackTrack’s a group of people doing shit for youth. I’m here because I like the idea of helping you out,’ he says. ‘Are you worried it’s too Bernie-focused?’
Simmo shrugs. ‘But I see BackTrack as being Bernie. Some bastard’s got to be the leader.’
Bernie runs his fingers through his wavy hair. Although he spent much of his youth as a stockman in Central Australia, his skin is clear and unlined, his face boyishly handsome though he’s approaching forty.
He glances around the table. ‘Most of you have known me long enough to know that I’m great at flying off on tangents and having all this passion, but if you lot weren’t writing the grant applications or helping out where you can, then it would be nothing – just someone with a lot of passion running around chasing his fuckin’ tail.’
Maybe so. But he’s the one with all the ideas, the ones that work.
‘Can I ask a question?’ Sally, his sister-in-law, looks like she wants more order in this meeting. ‘Don’t we have a mission statement or vision or something?’
Bernie gives her a wry smile. ‘We do that every time we get together, every time we get pissed.’
Sally laughs, shakes her head like she should have known better.
Then Bernie’s wife, Jayne, has her say, elbows on the table. A poncho flares over her arms like dark wings and I notice, not for the first time, her robust beauty; she’s a clear-eyed, straight-talking earth mother. ‘I’m sure we’ve answered all these questions before, Bernie. Just keep talking about BackTrack exactly as you have. It’s fairly definable – it’s us here, in this room. It has been since the beginning.’
Bernie stands, stretches, and goes out to the cold night air, ducking his head as he walks through the back door for a smoke.
THE IRON MAN Welders meet on Sundays in an old council depot on the edge of Armidale, a university town on the northern tablelands of New South Wales. About a year ago, Bernie had a vision of a welding project that would build on the strengths of a group of young men who had dropped out of high school but weren’t ready for work. He asked the Armidale community to help out. The local council offered him the depot, which was once a welding workshop and was lying empty, as if waiting for Bernie and the boys to come along and claim it.
There was nothing in the huge shed, not even a power lead. The boys, recruited from a school welding program that Bernie ran the previous year, turned up each weekend and worked hard to clean and create their own workplace. They borrowed nearly everything, from brooms to welding equipment, and started collecting recycled steel for the first batch of products they planned to make and then sell at the monthly markets. Local businesses gave scrap metal; people lent grinders, extension cords and old work boots.
Then the money started coming in. A local builder forked out the first five hundred dollars. The bowling club gave a thousand and a steel-manufacturing business donated a MIG welder. The credit union offered to draw up a business and marketing plan, organised insurance, and contributed a thousand dollars for equipment. Armidale Family Support agreed to keep track of the finances. Hillgrove Mine donated a thousand and raised the possibility of apprenticeships, and the NSW Premier’s Department handed over a grant worth five thousand dollars. It seemed like every week Bernie and the boys were in the local paper, celebrating some new success.
A few months ago, I saw a photo of Bernie in the newspaper, surrounded by a group of teenage boys, faces beaming with happiness and pride, and something stirred inside me. I wanted to be part of it: the Iron Man Welders.
The next day I heard Bernie on the radio, seeking community support for the project. ‘We’ll take any positive contribution,’ he said. His words sounded clipped and tight, like he wasn’t one for mucking around. ‘Whether you’ve got a pile of old steel or timber in your backyard, or if you’ve got an idea, or if you like working with young people and you’re prepared to come down to the shed and work one-on-one with some of these kids…’
On impulse I rang. I’d never used power tools, let alone done any welding. I liked bushwalking, baking cakes. I enjoyed order, cleanliness, silence. What was I thinking?
Over the past months, though, I’ve come to feel at home in the shed. Right from the start the boys were gracious in accepting a 42-year-old woman into their grimy world. They find easy jobs for me to do – like filing washers for candleholders or scrubbing rust off horseshoes. I sweep the floor, watch what’s going on, listen to what they want to tell me. The fellas who come along are the sort of misfits you see wandering the streets of any country town with nothing to do, nowhere to go. Once, I might have crossed the street to avoid them.
Most of the Iron Man Welders didn’t ‘engage positively’ with the education system. None has finished Year 12; some barely made it through Year 10. One was expelled in Year 11 for ‘kissing his missus’ in the schoolyard, another told a teacher to ‘fuck off’ on a ski trip because the teacher wouldn’t stop hassling him, and another finished Year 10 at TAFE because he was about to be kicked out of school and reckoned the teachers didn’t like him anyway. The welding shed is a different story. They love it. Bernie gives them the chance to take responsibility for their life, to engage on their own terms with the community.
The first Sunday I joined them it was the middle of winter. I walked in carrying a tray of freshly baked brownies. Conspicuous in my new blue King Gee work clothes, I huddled from the cold in the open-sided tin shed. Music blared from an old radio, and thumping and grinding noises came from the machines. Sparks flashed; everyone dragged on rollies, littering every sentence with ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself not to panic.
Thommo, a stocky bloke in his late teens, took me on a tour. His voice rumbled softly, and I could barely hear what he was saying as he showed me the kitchen area, the main workspace and a forge he’d built in a dark side room that brought to mind a scene from the Middle Ages: flickering fire, hammers and anvil, dirt floor, open drain, a rusty tap jutting out from the wall.
He led me towards a shelf at one end of the shed to show me the objects on display, things they were hoping to sell at the markets: a range of candleholders, nutcrackers, penholders, ashtrays and coat hooks made from horseshoes. There was a smartly presented copy of the Iron Man Welders’ business plan, and several glass-framed photos: Thommo bent over the anvil, hammering a piece of glowing-red metal; three boys dressed in work gear, looking into the distance like soldiers on the hill at Gallipoli; Bernie and about eight boys slouched in front of his yellow ute; and a young bloke with curly hair using a grinder, a halo of sparks around his head.
Bernie doesn’t actually seem to know much about welding. Every now and then I hear him say, ‘No point asking me questions about welding shit’ – but that could be his way of throwing the decision-making back onto the boys. He knows the basics, like what processes are involved for different jobs, but most of the fellas have the edge on him. Some are doing TAFE certificates in engineering, following on from their school studies.
Along with understanding the welding and power tools, I’m also keen to learn more about boys. You’d think I’d know enough, as I have four of my own. But lately the eldest, Joey, has been giving me plenty to worry about. He left school before finishing Year 10, even though he’s more than bright enough. I don’t like the way he’s drifting through life these days – no job, no direction, living off Centrelink payments, sleeping in till midday. If only he was coming to the shed each week, slowly ‘getting his shit together’ like the others. ‘I’m a lone wolf,’ Joey says whenever I pester him about coming down. I think it’s time he joined the rest of the pack.
BERNIE SLIDES OPEN the screen door at Simmo’s and a cold gust of night air and cigarette smoke blows in with him. He takes his place at the table, ready to carry on with the BackTrack meeting. The crew falls silent when they see his expression. He tells us he’s tired of waiting on a funding application that’ll secure him a part-time wage for the next two years. He wants to make a roster and call in some other blokes to help ease the load: ‘Otherwise it’s just relying on me and…’
‘It gets real old,’ offers Geraldine, with a knowing look.
‘Yep,’ Bernie says. ‘Real old, real quick. And the pressure’s on me the whole time. I’m the worst time-manager in Australia, and when we get down to the shed I go righto, I’ll get those three started on that, and then I’ve got to go and pick up Tye or someone else, and I skip up there, and then I get back and Simmo’s there and I go oh, great, Simmo must be working with them on that, and then they’ve drifted off and started fifteen other fuckin’ projects, and I go right, Tye, you go and see Simmo and he’ll tell you what to do – I’ve got to go and pick up blah blah blah…I’m a frazzled chook and by the time the day’s over I just go what the fuck – we haven’t finished anything and we started another thirty things…’
It’s true. I’ve seen how some Sundays are messy and nothing much seems to get finished, but I still reckon Bernie is making great leaps with these boys. And besides, as he often tells me, ‘It’s not about the fuckin’ welding.’ ♦
‘Wedding Coat’, ISLAND Magazine, Issue 113, Winter 2008, pp. 102-108.
Nell snuggled in against the long green coat that hung on the coat stand, stroking a velvet ridge that ran over the wool. She followed a line that started from the first wrinkled leather button near the collar and ran her fingertip over to the side where it curved around the soft fold of the sleeve, around the back, another sleeve, and then straight over again to the buttonhole. Her finger dropped to the next velvet ridge. Like furry black caterpillars they circled their way around the coat.
Nell never managed to trace them all. She always started at the top, standing on her six year-old tippy-toes to reach up for the first one that crawled from underneath the back of the collar. Nell shivered, thinking about touching real caterpillars. Her tongue poked out as she wound her way down, concentrating hard to keep her finger on the line, breathing in the musty scent of patchouli oil that her sister Johanna used. Hippy perfume, her mother called it. Nell had dabbed some of the dark oil on her wrists once but the smell gave her a headache.
The pocket crinkled as Nell slid her finger over it. She knew what was hidden in there: Johanna’s packet of tobacco and a box of matches. When they went for their night walks with the dog, Johanna wore the green coat and always rolled a cigarette, the tobacco hanging out the ends like a secret moustache hidden inside the white paper. Even though Johanna twisted and pinched the extra bits away, strands of tobacco would still hang off her lips. Nell wasn’t allowed to tell anyone that Johanna smoked. It was lucky that their mother didn’t wear her wedding coat any more.
The coat hung in the dark hallway for years, waiting, ready for anyone. Then one cold night last winter, Johanna slipped her arms into the sleeves and it was hers.
Nell often looked at the black and white wedding photos of her Dutch parents. Her father wore a suit, his face lean and high-cheeked, smiling eyes looking straight at the camera, handsome. Her mother stood proudly beside him wearing the wedding coat, a small handbag tucked under her arm, her wavy hair parted on the side. And lipstick. Nell couldn’t remember the last time her mother wore lipstick.
They always seemed so different to the parents of her school friends. Nell thought of the weddings she’d seen coming out of the Methodist church in Broughton, all the fancy dresses and confetti. Half the town turned up to see the bride and groom walk down the steps together. Then the wedding couple would drive away in a shiny white car filled with flowers and sometimes even a pair of wedding dolls tied on the bonnet. Nell once asked her mother why she didn’t wear a long white dress and a veil like everyone else. She’d laughed and swiped Nell under the nose with the back of her hand. ‘Acch! It was the middle of winter, Nelltje, and we just wanted a plain wedding. Your father bought that coat for me because my family were so poor.’ There was no honeymoon either. They’d only had one day off and were both back at work in the factory the next day.
It was still like that. Her mother and father worked in the bakery seven days a week. Except for Good Friday and Christmas Day there were never any days off. No family holidays either. About the only place Nell ever went was Eight Mile Beach in the afternoons.
‘Het eten is klaar! The food is ready!’
Nell stopped, her finger resting on the velvet. Dinner. And she’d nearly made it to the bottom of the coat. There was no point complaining though. Her father would be angry if she wasn’t at the table on time. She went into the kitchen, just as her brother Rudi came in through the back screen door. Dinnertime was never much fun. Everyone seemed to be angry these days.
‘Not red cabbage again!’ said Rudi, taking his seat at the table, still dressed in his high school clothes.
‘How op met je gedonderen! Stop with your complaining!’ Her mother banged a plate of food down in front of him. ‘You should be happy that your father cooks a meal for you after working the whole day in the bakery!’
Nell’s tummy felt tight, like it was closing up inside her. She wondered how she’d push the food down if there was going to be another loud argument. At the other end of the table her father hung over his plate, his face set hard and serious.
‘Alright, alright,’ said Rudi. ‘Keep your shirt on.’
Then Johanna came in, a black felt hat pushed down low over her blonde waves of hair. ‘Hi. Sorry I’m late,’ she said in a careful way, like she was feeling the mood in the kitchen.
‘Ja, we needed you to peel the potatoes!’ Her mother slammed another plate down on the table.
‘I’ve been up at Heather and Mick’s,’ Johanna told her.
‘Acch! The hippy house? What do you do there all the time?’
‘They’re not just hippies, mum. Heather’s a high school teacher and Mick’s an artist.’
‘Well, he should get a decent job like every one else,’ said her father.
Johanna sighed and sat down next to Rudi. Nell looked at them there together, the twins, with their curly hair, gapped teeth, and blue-green eyes. The same but different. The chair next to Nell was for her older brother Gerrit, but he was having dinner at his girlfriend’s house. Lucky him, he wouldn’t be having red cabbage. He wouldn’t have to sit there waiting for the angry voices.
The family ate. After checking that no one was looking, Nell slid the last pieces of meat from her plate onto the floor for Yogi, the corgi, who sat under her chair.
‘I’m finished,’ Nell said, taking the last bite of potato from her plate.
‘Opgeruimt staat netjes, tidied up is good,’ her mother said, grabbing the plate and quickly wiping the table with a damp cloth. She saw the dog under the table, snuffling around for the last of the meat. ‘Weg, hond! Away, dog! Nell, take Yogi outside and give him some food. He should not be in here when we are eating. And put the empty can in the garbage bin on the street.’
‘Come on, Yogi,’ Nell called, happily taking a can of Pal out of the cupboard. They’d made it through dinner without fighting. ‘Come on, boy.’
But on the way back to the kitchen she could hear Johanna shouting, ‘Why do I always have to do everything? Why don’t you ever ask Rudi to do the washing up?’
Then her father’s voice, loud and stern. ‘This is the way we do it here, Johanna. You don’t want to listen to anything! Just do as you are told!’
Nell’s heart beat fast as she walked down the hallway, past the living room where Rudi was stretched out on the lounge watching F-Troop, and into the kitchen. They were spoiling everything again. Johanna was right. It wasn’t fair. Gerrit and Rudi never did the washing up or cleaned the table after dinner. They never had to help her father peel the potatoes. Nell’s friends laughed when she told them about her father cooking dinner. He’d been a cook in the Dutch navy. It was easy for him and besides, her mother needed to close up the cake shop at the end of the day. But Nell hated the way he treated her sister, always picking on her, making her do all the jobs.
‘Stop shouting!’ she screamed at her father who was standing near the sink with Johanna. ‘Stop bloody shouting!’ The kitchen door banged behind her as she ran out the back and crawled inside Yogi’s kennel, sobbing as the dog licked the tears from her face.
She could still hear her father’s voice. ‘You are the reason Nell uses such words. You are always complaining … arguing … never happy.’
‘Yeah, well I hate this house and I hate this bloody bakery too!’
It was quiet for a while. Nell sat shivering in the kennel with Yogi’s head in her lap until Johanna came out wearing the wedding coat, the dog’s lead in her hand. ‘Come on Nell, we’ll take Yogi for a walk.’
Most nights they took the dog along the main street, stopping in the vacant lot next door so he could do his business. But tonight Johanna turned towards the post office on the corner. It was so cold that Nell puffed steam. She should have worn a jumper.
Halfway up the street Johanna said, ‘Here, hold the lead while I roll a cigarette.’
Her sister lit the match with shaking hands and in its yellow light Nell saw tears on Johanna’s cheeks. She didn’t know what to say. Johanna never cried.
‘I can’t stand it any more, Nell,’ she said, wiping the tears away with her sleeve, ‘I have to get away from them … leave home.’
‘Leave home?’ cried Nell. ‘But where would you live?’ She couldn’t imagine the bakery house without her sister. She’d always been there, making Nell eggnog and apple flaps after school, taking her to the pool on the weekend, going shopping together on Saturday mornings. Nell’s mother worked every day in the bakery so Johanna, who was ten years older, had looked after her. Always. People used to even think Johanna was her mother. Nell had hated that and would scream at her, ‘You’re not my mother!’ Now she felt like she was being orphaned.
‘I don’t want you to leave,’ she cried. ‘I’ll help with the washing up, Johanna. You don’t have to go!’
‘It’s not just the washing up, Nell,’ Johanna said, picking tobacco off her lip, her voice wavering. She took back the dog’s lead and started walking again.
Her sister was quiet as Yogi pulled ahead, wanting to sniff at the grass around every street pole.
Nell’s stomach churned and she took deep breaths to force the crying feeling away. When they reached the corner she asked Johanna for a poem. Poems and songs always put her in a good mood.
‘Okay,’ Johanna said, drawing in hard on the rollie. ‘Let me think of one.’ She breathed the smoke out in a rush and, in her strong voice, began:
I walked a mile with Pleasure
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she
But oh the things I learnt from her
When Sorrow walked with me.
Nell shivered and her sister pulled her in close, stubbing out the cigarette with her foot as she wrapped the soft folds of the wedding coat around the two of them.
‘What does that poem mean?’ asked Nell.
‘You’ll understand one day.’
Johanna seemed very far away but at least she wasn’t crying any more. Nell should have asked for a song. Ging gang gooli gooli, or that one about that frog who went courting. Something that would have made Johanna smile.
Her mother and father were quiet on the day Johanna left. After giving Nell a quick hug Johanna threw an old army backpack filled with clothes and books into the car. Nell had helped her pack earlier. Gerrit drove Johanna to the ‘hippy house’ on the edge of town where Heather and Mick had a spare room.
‘Opgeruimt staat netjes,’ her mother said, as the car pulled out of the driveway. Tidied up is good.
‘How can you say that!’ Nell cried. ‘I don’t want Johanna to go!’
During the week, when Nell cried from loneliness and asked when Johanna would be coming back, all her mother said was, ‘She wanted to live with the hippies. She didn’t want to have any discipline. Your father and me can’t stop her.’
On Saturday Gerrit drove Nell over to the old timber house on the Valley Road. Johanna waved from the front verandah and walked down to the car. ‘Hi!’
Nell wrapped her arms around Johanna’s legs and breathed in the smell of her. She’d missed her so much. ‘Mum wants Nell back home in an hour,’ said Gerrit out the car window. He drove away without saying goodbye.
Nell kept hold of her sister’s hand as they went inside. She never wanted to let go. In the loungeroom a man with long hair was sitting on a lounge chair, reading a huge newspaper. A guitar leaned against the wall. ‘Hey Mick, this is my little sister, Nell,’ said Johanna, squeezing her hand.
‘G’day, Nell,’ he said with a friendly smile, laying the paper down. Nell noticed one of his teeth was missing. A white cat slinked its way past his chair and he reached down to pat it. ‘You like cats?’
‘Yes,’ she said, shyly. Nell had always wanted a kitten but her mother said one animal was enough in the bakery. She knelt down and put her hand out for the cat to smell. ‘Here, puss puss.’
It felt so different here. So quiet. The bakery house was always busy with people – bakery boys charging up and down the dark hallway with trays of cakes and pies, the shop full of customers, Yogi barking, her mother rushing around making coffee and lunch for everyone. Here the sun came through the window.
Johanna took her into the kitchen and boiled water in a kettle that whistled over the flames. Nell sat at a wooden table, the white cat in her lap, and looked around. There was a candle holder on the bench and a shelf made with bricks and planks of wood, crammed with cooking books. A leafy vine trailed down the side of the fridge, growing out of a wine bottle filled with murky water, and on the wall hung a poster of big yellow and orange sunflowers in a vase. The floorboards were bare. Johanna made sweet milky tea to dunk biscuits in. Tea! No one ever drank tea in the bakery. Nell felt so grown-up.
Johanna walked her home, dressed in her old felt hat and a long grey army coat that Mick had given her. Nell didn’t like the coat. The wool felt rough and hard and smelt of someone else, not her sister. Gerrit and Rudi had been complaining all week about Johanna wearing the army coat to high school. How embarrassing she was.
‘Why didn’t you take the green coat?’ Nell asked.
Johanna smiled sadly. ‘It’s yours now, Nell. For your night walks.’
‘But it’s too big for me. And Mum won’t let me walk at night by myself anyway. Rudi takes Yogi out now and he doesn’t want me to come. You should have the coat.’
‘No, I don’t need it. You look after it, Nell. Keep the coat there for me. It’ll be something to come home to.’
They were quiet then. Johanna took her as far as the vacant lot. ‘See you, Nell,’ she said, ruffling her hair. ‘Give Yogi a kiss for me!’
Pushing back the tears and swallowing hard, Nell stood on tip toes to give her sister a proper grown-up kiss goodbye. ‘Can I visit again next week?’
‘Sure,’ Johanna laughed. ‘Come and visit whenever you like.’ She turned away, the grey army coat flapping behind her.
Nell walked inside and down the hallway to the coat stand. The wedding coat hung on one of the hooks, waiting. She stood on the telephone stool to take the coat down and tried it on. The sleeves hung loose over her hands, the hem touched the floor. She wrapped herself deep into the soft green woollen folds, breathing in Johanna’s smell of patchouli oil and tobacco, and stroked the velvet ridges with her fingertips, over and over and over.