Years ago

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
or hungry

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

strewn around
yards derelict
high windows fallen in
doors broken and now only open

to the wind.

Francine Rochford


Listen to Francine reading ‘Rouseabout’ (5:09)


Francine Rochford lives and works in rural Victoria.

© 2020, text and audio