By 7 am when the shift starts, the temperature outside the canning shed has already hit 28 degrees. Inside, it’s even hotter as the women make their way in to stand all day, scaling and filleting fish.
Before the sun has a chance to heat the corrugated iron roof, warm air already oozes from one end of the shed, where the fish are cooked. Steam belches through the floor at the other end, where filled and sealed cans are cooked at temperatures over 100 degrees Centigrade.
Sweat runs down the inside of rubber aprons, pools in the toes of rubber boots and fills the fingers of rubber gloves.
One morning the women sense, at first, rather than see, something unusual is afoot. A dark, weird creature lopes into view, breathing through a snorkel and looking through fogged-up goggles; lifting its legs high in an ungainly effort to walk in flippers.
On the mezzanine floors above, there is a stir as overseers and managers pass their greedy little eyes over what is happening below. One rushes to a walkie-talkie, barking at a floor-walker to deal with the distraction.
“You cannot work in that outfit, Nora,” Mary, the Green-Hat from hell leaps into action. “It’s against Health Department Regulations!”
Nora about-faces with her flippers, a sign on her back reading WET SUIT FOR HIRE.
Elsie Tanner is there for her fourth season. She strives, as much as possible, to live a self-sufficient lifestyle at Skink Corner, some 40 kilometres inland.
After three years of court battles, the Council finally forced her to install a septic tank on her farm. Including legal costs, it’s the most expensive septic tank in the country, and Elsie’s never used it. “I’ve got a hundred deserving trees; it would be a waste of good waste,” she has said a hundred times.
“Sure is hot today,” Nora says when she comes back sweating in her regular rubbers and takes up her place next to Elsie.
“Wadda you do when you gotta go on a day like today, Else? I think I’d just do it inside and fling it out the window, meself.”
As a rule Elsie keeps to herself. She’s not here to socialise. Now that she’s paid for her septic tank, she’s saving up to buy a new cow. Her old cow, Moosli, broke its neck one night when it fell into a giant hole – a hole big enough for a septic tank.
Elsie is often the butt of cannery jokes but is neither vulnerable nor the victim of bullying; no one could hold such extreme views of the world if they cared what others think. If the women stir her mercilessly it might be, in part, because they admire her conviction. Besides, she never takes out her earplugs and can’t hear a thing.
Nora never takes off her pink plastic shower cap. She wouldn’t be caught dead in one of the caps the factory provides; she likes pink. Someone once asked her “Why pink?” She replied “Because surveys show more women prefer pink rest rooms than any other colour.”
The pink shower cap hides Nora’s ear-rings which, according to health regulations, must not be worn in the shed, as they might fall into the fillets of fish. Of course, it’s also against regulations to wear her shower cap everywhere, but Nora doesn’t care – she is as convinced as Elsie that most bureaucrats are up themselves.
The bandaids first aiders provide are blue. Blue bandaids are easier to spot if they fall into product. Nora religiously buries a clean blue bandaid in the food every Thursday afternoon, just after she gets her pay-slip.
“It’s quite stupid, really,” she reckons, “usin’ a blue bandaid after you’ve already cut your finger off. By the time you fill out all the forms, your finger’s already on its way to the supermarket. It’s too late then, isn’t it?”
And okay, someone’s gonna open their can of fish and think they got sausages and vegies by mistake, but a blue bandaid still ain’t gonna help.”
When the lunch siren sounds, the women spend five minutes taking off and hosing wetgear, five queuing for the loo, and five queuing for hot water to make tea or coffee. It will take five more minutes to put their gear back on at the end of the break.
For die-hard smokers, this leaves five minutes for food and five for one fag. If time management is an art, Nora is Picassa. She’s the only one who squeezes two fags into her lunch break – three if she smokes instead of talking while she eats.
The tiny lunch room is airless, so most sit outside under a giant oak for lunch.
Nora stuffs a whole quarter of a sandwich into her mouth, crusts and all, and poses a question.
“Families are everything, ripe? I mean, if you card turn to your own pamply for help, who cad ya turd to?”
“Friends?” someone suggests. “My friends are my family, not the other way around”.
“You can’t rely on friends,” reckons Nora, swallowing. “If you ask anyone for help that’ll kill a friendship, that will”. She sucks on her fag, then sucks at her teeth to dislodge some tomato seeds. “But a bit like family; a bit like bein’ married, really. Oh stuff it, I guess yer on yer own when push comes to shove.”
Nora ducks inside for a minute, coming back with a cup of tea. “You know what I dreamt last night?”
No one knows yet, but everyone except Elsie is all ears.
“I dreamt I saw Doug in this really old outback motel we once stayed in. It’s all hot and muggy outside, with mossies hovering near my ears while I spy on him through the louvre windows. It’s quite bright inside the room, cos there’s a full moon. He’s on this bed, see, and I know he’s fast asleep cos he’s snoring. And don’t ask me how but I know it’s a single bed.”
She waits a beat, knowing someone will ask what he was doing there.
“Well I couldn’t see if he was alone, cos there’s this little clothesline strung across the room, blockin' me view. It's got all these freshly laundered condoms hung up to dry, pegged out like socks.
They were all different colours, too; red, blue, yellow, purple, green, pink.”
“Some of the condoms were all out of shape, and some were bigger than others. That made me wonder; all them different sizes. Maybe he wasn’t alone in that room.”
But isn’t it funny how practical you are when yer dreaming?” Nora takes up the thread again. “I remember thinking Jeez he’s stupid, they’re not gonna dry properly like that, they’re all pegged up by the neck insteada the bottom!”
Mavis, feeding the last of her peanuts to a magpie, imagines Nora in that room with her Doug. Maybe Nora wears her pink shower cap to bed. Doug might snore, but Nora probably talks in her sleep. She could certainly talk under water. Maybe she smokes in her sleep as well.
Nora suddenly asks “What would make anyone have such a stupid bloody dream?”
“It’s that condom machine!” June slaps Nora on the arm, then leans back in her chair. She laughs, embarrassed, behind her hand.
The cannery management has recently installed a condom machine in the women’s toilets. Rainbow Condoms, the dispenser says. Try one of every colour – six exciting colours in all.
“What I wanna know” Nora asked when she first saw it, “is do you find six blokes for one night, one bloke for six nights, or is there some bloke around here who can use them all one after the other?”
Lunch break nearly over, the women pass through the heavy, plastic strips at the packing shed door. Nora calls out to Mary, the Green-Hat from hell, “Can you get me a cuppla bandaids, love? Cut myself real bad gettin Doug’s breakfast. Dunno what happened to the one I put on this morning.”
Nora pulls her shower cap down as she steps back up to the work bench. “Think the elastic in this thing’s startin’ to go. Might look for a new one on the weekend. Wonder if I can find a rainbow one; one with six colours on it?”