In some gap in school time – I can’t recall –
I was rouseabout to the shearers taking the wool off our Border Leicester flock.
They were over-large – the sheep, I mean; (the shearers weren’t happy).
And they were wily, alert, not sleepy and dull like the poor Merino
curled coif styled backward to block the eyes
so that they feel their way, bouncing against one another
like dodgem cars
or moving in one surge
fluid, a formless motion only
with no directing will.
The Border Leicester, though, is the urban skinhead of sheep breeds,
Head shaven, bullet-like and hard,
Ready to force himself, brutish, through the smallest gap.
He stands in the pen with head poised, eyes hunting
For an opening.
Before the machines start the shed is quiet with breathing
The clicking of cloven hooves on wooden floors
The staccato of little hard beads of shit falling through the grating
Once or twice a low guttural complaint.
In those twilight moments between work and work
The iron corrugations high above
let little pinpricks of light through to beam on the dusty floor
spent holes once fixing the tin to some other shed
barn house haystack
dog kennel –
Iron reincarnated over years and years
And now a temple for the flock.
In that silence, there is smell;
that sweet-bitter incense calm of lanolin piss shit sweat
and Lister oil
That by the end of the day clings to my shirt my jeans my shoes my arms
Me and the floor and the air around.
But on the clock the motors buzz and silence is the echoing memory of thought.
Union rules – every sheep is counted and marked up in chalk on the wall
and every moment is money.
Each shearer keeps his own tally – an adult task, it seemed
outside my experience
to me, a child, that the boss would also keep a tally
and the pens outside would be cross-checked
ancient and robust accounting, but also entirely now.
Then it is scooping the fleece, unwieldy, prickly with burrs or maybe heavy with dags,
in the same way I would pick up a sheet
before throwing it over the bed.
When I throw the fleece it isn’t a pretty sight; not the smooth reverse quilt of wool but a ragged
patchwork, perhaps half missing the table.
Am I not tall enough?
Was it the shearer/did the comb cut up the fleece/did the sheep writhe and struggle and tear
the clean lines of the run?
I’ve never known/never been told.
The broom I can do but best do it quickly. Don’t want that short, sharp ‘broom!’
like a slap
if you’re an over-careful girl.
Best of all, for me, was pushing the fleece into the press and, finally, pressing it down
in our old, manual press
with its cables carefully untangled then
threaded through and turning the lever with the ratchet clicking until
it can’t reach the next gear
then letting it up again, a third of its size.
As far as I can tell
It’s all a matter of timing; above all, never leave a shearer without a sheep.
The holding pen, forcing pen, catching pen – all are full before the start of the day,
and throughout the day.
There is no excuse for the shearer to be chasing around the pen for a single sheep.
And I feel years of unionised labour curse harshly at my cluelessness
if I am sweeping throwing skirting packing pressing anything
other than filling the pen.
As if the 1891 strikers are glowering through the lean years
propped on the fence, cigarette drooping from tired lips
eyes disappointed or hostile
because I, stupid, don’t know my job.
Sheep aren’t really our thing; they’re just the clean-up crew
Brought in to level the stubble,
To balance the crops and the cows.
Sheep aren’t really my thing, and the deep magic of the shearing shed
Wasn’t passed to me through my mother’s milk
Or any of the other meals I cadged along the way.
Now that shed is ruinous
not gone – maybe that would be better – but left to fall apart.
I see it from the road – the owner doesn’t live there or anywhere near here
but calls by phone or occasionally visits from the city
if the animals need water.
The oiled floor is open to the rain, and that ancient iron lies
high windows fallen in
doors broken and now only open
to the wind.
Listen to Francine reading ‘Rouseabout’ (5:09)
Francine Rochford lives and works in rural Victoria.
© 2020, text and audio