Thursday, December 08, 2011

Outback Soundscape

I think it was Miles Franklin who said that if there were one sound which could define her life, it’d be that of a tin can rattling along a street (or something along those lines). If I had to pick one at the moment I write this, it’d be the sound of one hand slapping March Flies to death on my legs...or maybe the piercing repetitive clanking of Nev breaking the bead on yet another tyre...or perhaps the distant, constant hum of the community generator.

OK, so I can’t pick just one: there are yapping dogs; locals yelling at the dogs, at each other, at the world (depending on the time of day and substances consumed); screeching cockatoos; the old-fashioned ringing of the doorbell at the shop next door; a lawn mower somewhere nearby; 4WDs and trucks rolling into our yard or just whizzing past; River (Nev’s dog) panting in the heat; and the slapping of March Flies continues the whole way through. And then some days, there’s almost nothing but birds making the only kind of tweets we need in our life.

As well as single sounds, there are soundtracks to parts of my life. When I hear these songs, they can recreate the camaraderie of a particular workplace or the solitary sense of cold winters past. The song of the season at Mt Elizabeth was, without a doubt, Zac Brown Band’s ‘Chicken Fried’ (courtesy of our cook Sharron), the chorus of which we belted out nightly as we washed the dishes after dinner, with little regard for the remaining diners...

“... a little bit of chicken fried,
cold beer on a Friday night,
a pair of jeans that fit just right,
and the radioooh-aaooh-aaoooh”

A song or album can often bring to mind a particular event, like the way my mobile ring tone (which I rarely hear these days, living out of range as I do) reminds me of being on the rooftop bar at the Union Club with a great bunch of friends, Hadass and I shouting along every time the phone rang...

“The best things in life are free
but you can save them for the birds and the bees
I want MONEY
that’s what I want.”

I also tend to associate particular songs with specific people in my life. For me, listening to Lowrider’s ‘What Are You Looking For?’ (“What...IF...I. Don’t. Know?”), will always remind me of living with Meisy in Parkville – two handsome and entertaining Germs in our flat and more wordly and wonderful friends just a crack in the floorboards away.

For me the combination of single sounds in my life as well as my soundtrack of the moment has drastically changed along with the environment in which I live – from the urban soundscape of Melbourne, to the outback soundscape of the Kimberley.

I’m sure that along with the physical change, I’ve become more open to new and different sounds, including music I never thought I’d listen to by choice...

When Nev and I started courting (the lingo here is another story altogether!), he’d pick me up from Mt Liz and take me places in his car. These were Nev’s pre-iPod days (since rectified), and his source of music was a handful of terrifically scratched CDs – if ever there was a technology not made for the outback, that’s gotta be it – and a USB stick that a friend had put together for him, featuring songs from Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

So, not only did I get to enjoy the likes of ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Nothing Compares To You’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Oh, What a Night’ as we drove to and camped in beautiful places, but we also listened to albums by such great 70s rockers as The Police, whose lyrics Nev changed from “So Lonely”, to “Leooooonie”, and howled it out as loud as he could far too often. I have to admit, even if it might have driven his neighbours crazy, I liked it then and I like it now, much more than I would have imagined.

Less impressed was I, when I discovered the source of one of Nev’s sweet sentiments was actually appropriated from the lyrics of a Deborah Conway song. And, you know, things are pretty great between Nev and I, but the other day Whispering Jack nearly brought that all undone. The good thing is, I could probably delete it from Nev’s iTunes and he’d be hard pressed to get it back. Ahhhhhh technology; I like it when it’s on my side.

It’s also a little strange to realise that I don’t often want to listen to the albums and songs that used to be my absolute faves and that’s at least partly because my outlook has changed so [Achtung! Confession approaching] where heartsick and lonesome used to form the underlying narrative of many of my cherished albums, now I’m altogether more positive and, lacking the music library to support this change, well, let’s just say that Nev’s iPod is a welcome addition (Whispering Jack notwithstanding).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

We don’t hire vegetarians

On my first morning at Mt Elizabeth, I sat at the breakfast table with
my new boss, Pat Lacy. Pat's husband Peter was the boss too, but I
reported to Pat. Everyone else had started work and while I had some
breakfast, Pat asked me how I'd slept. In her abrupt manner, pretty
well the next thing she said was, "I hear you're vegetarian," promptly
followed by "...wouldn't have hired you if known that." I was a
little worried, but assured Pat that it wouldn't be a problem, and in
truth, it never was. And not once more did I have to pick the meat
out of my dinner.

Depending on the number of staff and the number of guests dining
(sometimes up to 30), Sharran might cook for everyone or Pat or Peter
might cook for 'the house' or, in what always reminded me of mafia
movies, 'the family' – an all-encompassing term which included the
ever-changing staff. If there were vegetarian guests there would be a
vegetarian dish such as a pasta bake, vegie fritters (my all-time
fave) or a quiche. In time, Sharran expanded her repertoire into
vegie lasagne and mexican-esque bean dishes and even Pat on the odd
occasions she cooked for guests worried that there wouldn't be enough
for me to eat. I can assure you, I did not go hungry!

When I arrived there were seven staff, which along with me included
three backpacker girls from the UK, Ireland and Denmark, Johnny the
New South Welshman and man-of-few-words who was a mechanic and general
station hand, Sam the Pommy station hand and Sharran, the
aforementioned cook. In the time I worked at Mt Liz, about five other
staff passed through with only Johnny and Sharran staying through till
the end of the season in October.

The five family members who were also workers included Peter and Pat,
their niece Kymmie, their daughter-in-law Emily and their grandson
Blake (who at only 16 months didn't have too many official duties).

Kymmie was Pat's 2nd-in-Charge, who knew the answer to everything,
could solve almost every issue and was responsible for teaching me the
ropes and for holding fort if Pat was elsewhere. One of the most
competent 19-year-olds I reckon I've ever come across, Kymmie was
great to work with and work for and came to be a good friend to me
In the first days I learnt the basics of my job, which wasn't hard,
but was constant. Starting at about 6.30 or 7am each day, we girls
helped set up and serve breakfast, cleaned up afterwards and then
started on the rooms.

With 11 mostly twin rooms in the homestead, a further 7 beds in the
cottage and a well-used campground, there was plenty of bed-making,
laundry, sweeping & mopping and bathroom cleaning to be done. This
work usually carried us through to lunch time, but with a decent break
for smoko (even though nobody smoked) it wasn't too taxing as long as
we had enough staff and it wasn't too hot. In the times when there
were only two girls working and there were multiple busloads of
tourists, it got to be hectic.

After a good-sized lunch of leftovers, there was plenty more cleaning,
washing and re-stocking to be done in the afternoon as well as new
guests to meet, greet and deliver tea and bikkies, and campers to
check-in and surprisingly recognise. But we also had a two hour break
which was long enough for a walk and a dip in the creek, if you wanted
to, or a nap and laze about, or if you were John, Shaz or Kymmie a
quick horse ride. In July and some of August it was still cool enough
to do the 45min Homestead Walk, which Sharran did most days, but it
wasn't long before we had to switch to mornings due to the escalating

At around 4 or 5 in the afternoon the dining room had to be cleaned
and set up for dinner. It was a big room, with four or five tables,
which could and did seat 30 or more diners and could and did provide a
nice spot for Mt Elizabeth's dogs and tame wallabies to while away the
afternoons – the wallabies in particular not bothering to find
somewhere else to poo. Thus, cleaning this room was very good
exercise! Exercise which was often rewarded by a warm slice of Pat's
(or Kymmie's) freshly baked bread. If there was a busload of guests,
this pre-dinner time could prove pretty busy, but often there was a
nice lull of serviette folding, or some other relaxed activity.

Perhaps partly because we didn't have a liquor license, it wasn't a
rowdy place. The guests usually went off to their rooms straight
after dinner and we'd watch a bit of TV, or have a fire and a couple
of drinks. Bedtime was usually around 9 or 10pm for me. Nice n