It’s a scorcher and if the mercury rises above 113 in the shed we’ll flicker. I’ll be rousaboutin’, pickin’ up the fleeces, sweepin’ the board, keepin’ the sheep up in the catchin’ pens and probably pressin’ a few bales by the end of the day. The cricket broadcast will kick off at about 9 so we’ve got possibly the oldest HMV wireless you’ll ever see perched just so to catch a signal and woe befall you should you bump it with the broom.
The sheerers, two brothers, Ken and Ian Rook are guns, surgeons, pranksters, smokers, drinkers, friends, and competitors. They’ll have their eye on gettin’ through 120 each today as they’re sheering first cross ewes with not too many skin folds. It’ll be my job or one of my brothers to keep the tally for my oldman when we count 'em out at smoko.
It’s still early in the morning but the yards are dry and a kind of green dust infused with the dried shit of generations of sheep floats above the restlessness of the ewes as Sam, one of our dogs, wanders by making her way up into the shed to camp in the locks under the classing table. It’s soft and cool amongst the wool.
There’s a northerly blowing, and it’s a bad fire day. Nobody told the weatherman though and a total fire ban hasn’t been declared. That raises the tension and we’ll be on lookout all day for smoke on the horizon or worse, much worse, the smell of it.
The shed is made of corregated iron so you’d think it would be pretty hot inside already, but the roof is high and gabled and the air circulation is good and its dark. It’s got windows and a single skylight to help my oldman class the wool, but the only direct sunlight is two squares at the the shoots where the sheep are released after being shorn. The sun glistens here on the grease stained sheering boards and it’d be already too hot to stand there in bare feet.
We don’t have a bell to kick off the sheering which starts at 7:30 on the dot and goes through to 9:30 smoko. Ian and Ken have already fitted their combs and cutters into their hand pieces that are now rumbling in idle on the sheering boards. They’re ready to go and though it’ll be a test of physical endurance in the hardest job known to man both are puffing on their roll-your-owns lookin’ into the catchin’ pen. Then right on 7:30 my oldman gives them the, “Righto boys” and they flick their smokes down though the grates at the floor of the pen and push through the catchin’ pen doors that swing like those on a Western saloon.
The machines roar into life and there is a flurry of kicking feet as the sheerers get the sheep into position, sticking the head and forelegs of the ewe under arm pits that have never known the luxury of a deodorant. It hasn’t even been invented yet. The bellies are the first part to come off and I have to be on my guard ready to move in and take it out of the way of the sheerer, remove any stains and then practice my fleece thowing technique as I launch it from a distance into the belly bale. The wrest of the fleece comes off easy and the sheep is almost sedated by the smooth rhythm of the combs and cutters sweeping along it’s flanks and quite possibly the gas from the sheerer’s underarm. Then the sheerer tips the ewe back between his legs and it scrambles to find grip from its hooves on the glistening boards before hurtling down the shoot and giving a jump for joy. Now I must move fast as the sheerer swings past to catch another ewe, I have to pick up and the fleece and throw it on to the table. It’s a hallowed skill and not easy for a 10 year old to master, but I’ve so honed it by this stage in the season, I can land it perfectly spread out on the table from a yard and a half away then swing round to fetch the broom and sweep the locks under the table just as the sheerer muscles backwards out of the catching pen with another for his tally and a wink of appreciation for getting the job done and not holding him up a second. And so goes the day 'til smoko as I work on perfecting my every move around the boards as sheerer and rousabout dance to the tune of the first session of play in Sydney.