Kamikaze Kangaroos! is my third and most recent book. It follows directly on from the end of ‘Don’t need The Whole Dog!’. It can also be read on its own however, as I kept the references to the first two books fairly minimal. It follows my adventures in… can you guess! Yeah, Australia, quite obviously – with a sneaky side-trip to New Zealand in there too… You can download the same sample for your Kindle HERE.
by Tony James Slater
This edition published 2014 by Various Things (ADT)
Copyright © Tony James Slater 2014
Tony James Slater has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, or licensed in any way except when specifically permitted in writing by the publishers. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights.
When I first came to Australia, it was for pretty much the same reason that everyone comes to Australia; I was flat broke, and I had no choice.
Okay, so maybe that’s not the most common reason…
Can I get away with just saying ‘it’s a long story’, and leaving it at that?
Okay then; here’s the short-short version.
My name is Tony, and I like to travel.
I’ve been doing it for years…
I’m just not very good at it.
I left England in search of adventure – and on a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand, I found it.
I’d been volunteering in an animal clinic, which is a notoriously poor way of making money. On the one hand it had allowed me to work with kittens and puppies and the occasional monkey; on the other hand I’d been bitten and shot at, had run-ins with the police and the mafia, visited hospital several times, and on one memorable occasion had been dangled from a tree by an enraged water buffalo.
Around the time I was sitting on a ferry with the decapitated head of a dog in a polystyrene box, I started to wonder – just what was going on with my life? Where was I headed? Apart from, you know, to have a dog’s brain autopsied?
My love life had stalled.
Possibly because I spent most days covered in blood and poo.
As for my career… well. Did I mention that I was sitting on a ferry with a dog’s head in a box?
To any normal person, these would be considered warning signs; a not-so-subtle hint along the lines of: ‘Get out NOW, while you still can!’.
I was rather enjoying myself.
At least until my money ran out.
I’d had to sell my body to medical science to get this far (told you it was a long story!), and as anyone who’s seen my body can attest, it’s not worth much.
Owing to a slight, ah, administrative error, I’d missed my flight home to England – by about six months – and I couldn’t afford to buy another ticket.
And I didn’t really want to go home anyway, because I didn’t want my grand adventure to end. And also because I was still technically AWOL from the British Army. I felt sure this would all blow over, but it seemed like a good idea to stay out of the country for a while – you know, just in case.
So I emailed my sister, who was visiting a friend in Perth, Western Australia. They offered me a space on their couch, and a seat in the van they were fixing up – for an epic, year-long trip around the entire country! That sounded pretty good, so I told them I’d be there straight away – and then spent the next three months diving instead. Thailand is a very difficult country to leave, you see, and diving there is a whole load of fun. Still, it’s not renown as a quick path to riches – and anyway, I was rubbish at it.
When I stepped off the plane, this is what I had with me:
One pair of jeans, ripped badly (and not in an ‘artistic’ way); worryingly, they were also starting to fray somewhat around the groin area. I had three pairs of loose, cotton ‘fisherman’s trousers’ – mostly blood-stained. A couple of t-shirts with the sleeves cut off, and several others branded ‘LidStone’, with dubious comedy slogans printed on the front. Two pairs of shorts, impregnated with sea-salt to the point where they could no longer be folded in half – and a tiny Sony Vaio laptop, on which the embryonic story of a bear was taking shape.
At least I have shoes, I reminded myself (which is a surprisingly common first reaction to landing in Australia).
I could tell the other passengers were thinking the same.
“Thank God that bloke has shoes,” they were saying to themselves, “judging by the state of what’s hanging out of his jeans! Now if only he could afford some underwear…”
And that is what I was here to do: afford some underwear. And, ideally, one or two other niceties, like food, shelter, and onward travel.
At the baggage carousel I picked up an enormous holdall, crammed with every piece of diving gear imaginable – most of which I had inadvertently defrauded Lloyds bank out of.
My gaze lingered on an Italian-style espresso bar, but there was no way my bank balance would stretch to the price of a cup of coffee. That’s hardly surprising though, since airport coffee costs two, or even three times as much as underwear.
Financial misfortune was preying heavily on my mind – at least until I saw the delighted faces of my sister Gillian, and her best friend Roo, waiting for me just beyond the sliding glass doors. They looked like a comedy double act, capering about in excitement; Gill, having inherited her genetic legacy from our mum, is rather gnomic in stature, whereas Roo’s (apparently Dutch) ancestry meant she was so tall and slender that she daren’t go outside in a stiff breeze. Gill still sported a healthy tan from visiting me in paradise three months previously, whereas Roo, despite being born Australian, was so pale she could warn ships away from the coast. After joyful hugs all round, the girls practically dragged me out of the airport, and frog-marched me over to the far corner of the car park. There, Gill introduced me to the van that would be carrying the three of us all around Australia.
“This is Rusty!” she announced, proudly.
“No shit,” I said.
The door, when I opened it, came off in my hand, which was perhaps not the most auspicious start to our relationship.
“Don’t worry,” Gill said, “sometimes that happens.” She shoved her glasses back up her nose and reached out to steady the door. “But Rusty’s a good boy. I think he likes you!”
Little did I realize then, but over the next few months Rusty was to be both my salvation and my nemesis, in roughly equal measures. One thing was bothering me already, though; “He? Aren’t we supposed to refer to vehicles as ‘she’? You know, like they do with boats?”
“Don’t be stupid Tony, look at him! Of course he’s a boy.”
I had looked at him. In fact I hadn’t been able to look away, since first clapping eyes on him from halfway across the car park. It was kind of like watching a horror movie, when you know for sure somebody is mere seconds away from being eviscerated in a particularly savage manner, but for some reason your eyes won’t leave the screen – won’t even blink. And so I’d stared at Rusty as I approached, and part of me wanted to do my best Princess Leia impression and say “You came in that?”
Because… Hm. How to put this politely?
The girls had painted ‘him’. They had cleaned him thoroughly, and very carefully masked off his windows, and then covered him from brake shoes to sunroof in bursts of yellow, green, purple and red spray paint. It was very pretty. He looked like a unicorn had thrown up all over him. Inside each spray-painted circle was a white hand print; the girls had worn gloves, and had used them as stencils to create a van that was striving to give you a high-five with every square centimetre of its being.
Credit where credit’s due though – the girls had done a very professional job.
Rusty looked fabulous.
And as I climbed into the back (and Gill replaced the sliding door behind me), I couldn’t help but notice – they’d tailor-made curtains for all the windows. With psychedelic, multi-coloured dolphins on them.
I had to say something.
“You know, if Rusty is a boy, I think he might be batting for the other team.”
Roo looked at me in the rear-view mirror, her eyes wide in mock horror. “Are you saying our van is gay?”
“Almost definitely. But don’t worry – lots of my friends’ vans are gay.”
“Don’t listen to him, Rusty,” she said, patting his dashboard.
Then she changed gears, and Rusty groaned in pain.
“Also, I think he’s dying,” I added, “possibly of extreme old age.”
“Nonsense,” said Gill, “he’s fine! I think of him like a young lad, really – he’s trying to give us his best, only his best isn’t quite good enough.”
Riiight. So Rusty had not only a gender, but an appropriate character defect.
I had a horrible feeling he was being modelled on me.
But Rusty’s life had been very different from my own, for which I was profoundly grateful. Roo and Gill took turns in relating this sorry tale to me, as we clunked and clonked down the highway towards Roo’s home, in the hills south of Perth.
Rusty had started life as a young, brilliant-white work-van, but his innocence had only lasted until a gang of burly builders started putting their tools in him. Since then, every gruff, hairy-backed council labourer in the shire had taken a ride; he’d been used, and used hard. For more than two decades he’d been passed around the motor pool, and every tradesman they have a name for had been inside him. And most of them weren’t too careful about it either.
His days as a working boy were over. And so was his healthy prime, those middle years of taking a constant pounding with no outward signs of strain. Now, Rusty was entering his golden years – that time of life when, if he’d been an animal, he’d either get adopted by an appropriate sanctuary, or get taken out to the field and shot for dog food.
After spotting him sitting forlorn and broken by the side of the road, Gill and Roo had wanted to rescue him immediately.
In a fit of compassion they’d paid well over the odds to liberate the old van, and then they’d lavished their attention on him. Their attention, and their cash, as it turned out – Rusty had needed a fair bit more than a good clean and a few pairs of curtains. Dragging him unwillingly out of retirement had required replacing almost everything that could be replaced – from the gear box to the window latches. For anyone who is interested, here are the cold, hard facts: Rusty was bought for $2,000 – and he cost a whopping $2,500 to be made driveable!
If the girls had known this at the time, he’d have been dog food for sure.
And this eccentric, decrepit, borderline road-worthy vehicle was the trusty steed that was supposed to be carrying the three of us all around Australia. Or at least (as I became fond of saying) until it exploded in a rather garish fireball, killing the lot of us.
But that wasn’t terribly likely, now was it?
Meeting The Locals
The late-afternoon drive through Perth’s suburbs was an eye-opener.
Everything looked so clean and modern; so new, as though it had all been built yesterday, and to a plan made by someone who actually knew how roads should work. There were wide, tree-lined boulevards, uncluttered by parked cars. Junctions were spacious, and the traffic seemed suspiciously light, given how close we were to the city centre.
The only time we ever queued was at traffic lights.
Most of the other cars on the road were either huge four-wheel-drives, or something that looked like a saloon car cut in half, with a pick-up truck’s tray glued on where the back seats ought to be.
“It’s called a Ute,” Roo explained, “short for Utility Vehicle.”
“How odd. Can you sit in the back?”
“No, of course not!”
“Then… what’s the point?”
“Tradies – sorry, tradespeople – use them for work. So they can carry their tools around.”
As she said this, the ute sitting next to us roared, its driver flooring the gas and screeching the tyres, then it blasted off from the lights at terminal velocity.
Rusty was left trembling in its turbo-charged wake.
“That happens quite a lot,” Roo noted, as our van puttered up to speed. “Maybe there’s a certain kind of person that feels, I don’t know, threatened by being close to Rusty? And they always seem to be young guys in shiny new utes…”
“Well, you’re right about one thing,” I said, “they seem like the perfect car for tools.”
All the houses we passed were detached, on their own little plots of land. Most were single-storey affairs, the only exceptions being miniature mansions complete with Grecian columns and electronic security gates. There were enough of these, scattered around the various districts we drove through, to suggest a certain affluence; obviously someone was doing quite well here.
And then the van laboured up a series of increasingly steep hills, through scrubland and forest, right to the very edge of the famous Australian Outback. This is where Roo lived with her family, in a sprawling, split-level bungalow that clung precariously to the top of its hillside plot.
“Welcome home!” the girls chorused, as Roo guided Rusty down a driveway that was more than half precipice.
My first contacts in Australia were to be Roo’s immediate family – and there were millions of them! Okay, not literally, but Roo did have two parents, Gerrit and Frieda (both Dutch), and three sisters – one of whom was her identical twin, Sonja. The two of them looked… well, identical. To the untrained observer. The same wavy, mousey brown hair, the same pale, slender frame. Even my sister had trouble telling them apart, and she’d been living with them for three months already…
Which was partially my fault.
Unless you ask Gill; she would tell you it’s entirely my fault.
Personally, I blame Thailand.
The two younger girls could have been twins too; both tall, pale and incredibly slim, Wendy and Vicky differed from Roo and Sonja only in their hair colour (they were both proudly ginger).
Roo’s family gave me a very encouraging welcome, considering I was the second member of the Slater Clan to wash up on their doorstep.
After warm hugs and handshakes all round, Gill went straight to the kitchen to put the kettle on, and straight away I felt relaxed and at home. I’d been introduced as ‘Gill’s brother’ – so I had to wonder how much further into our family their enthusiasm would extend. Next week: ‘And these are all Gill’s cousins…’
Eventually they were bound to run out of sofas. Even in a house this size.
And it was huge, at least by English standards. The living room was as long as a tennis court, and lined completely on one side with glass; from there, and from the open-plan kitchen next to it, I looked out across a wide, raised decking, and down into a sloping, garden teeming with life. All of which was alien to me, apart from the butterflies, of which there were hundreds. The myriad snuffling, scurrying and hopping creatures were harder to glimpse as they darted between the trees, but Roo, a volunteer at several local wildlife centres, could identify all of them.
But it was getting late. I’d come a long way, from the penniless vagrant that left Thailand, to… well, the penniless vagrant that turned up in Oz. It was the emotional miles, I reminded myself, that made me feel so suddenly old.
I’d left all my friends in Thailand, along with a way of life I’d been enjoying for almost a year. From here on, it was the great unknown. Which was exciting and terrifying in equal measure – and, consequently, quite draining.
Roo loaned me a sleeping bag and led me back up to the landing.
“I hope you don’t mind, Tony, you’re sleeping in the Games Room.”
I’d never been in a house with a dedicated Games Room before.
Most people I know are lucky if they’ve got space for a Games Cupboard.
I followed Gill, as she was also sleeping in there, and I was seriously impressed.
Roo’s games room was of a size that, had it been in an English house, would have been called the Grand Banqueting Hall. It was massive, with chunky wooden beams supporting a pitched ceiling, and the same wall-of-glass effect that characterised the lounge. Cousins? Hell, my entire family tree would fit in there!
Probably best not to mention that, I thought, in case they get scared.
And so I passed my first night in Australia, surrounded and comforted by all the sounds of nocturnal life. Rustling leaves and humming insects, the constant drone of cicadas; and every so often, a clatter on the roof that sounded like a hippo had fallen off his unicycle onto it.
“SHIT!” I sat bolt upright, the first time I heard it. “Gill, was that you?”
Gill was sleeping on the sofa opposite me, dead to the world as usual.
So I lay back down, and listened to the drumming of feet on the roof. After a while I was pretty sure that something way too heavy to tap dance, was tap dancing up there.
But the big things in Oz aren’t dangerous, I remembered as I drifted off to sleep. It’s the little things you’ve got to watch out for…
Changing countries so abruptly can be very disorientating.
I woke up in a sleeping bag on a strange sofa, looking up at white-painted roof beams, and thought where the hell am I?
I’ve had this experience quite a few times, and normally a quick glance around the room reveals enough clues to jog my memory.
So I turned my head to the side, and there was a big lizard looking at me.
Oh, that’s right! Australia.
The lizard was about two-feet long, about three feet away, and covered in sleek black scales. It looked slightly disappointed, as though it had been intending to suck my brains out through my nose while I slept, and its dinner plans had just been cancelled.
“Hey, don’t be sad,” I said to it, by way of an apology.
The lizard froze for a second, then skittered off under a bookcase, moving faster than something that size has any right to.
I blinked for a few seconds, and thought maybe I’d been hallucinating. But I decided to mention it to Roo, because sometimes people like to know if the cast of Jurassic Park takes up residence in their guest bedroom.
I broached the topic over breakfast, as we stood in the kitchen drinking tea and eating toast.
I couldn’t really think of a polite way to bring it up, so I just waited for a natural break in the conversation and blurted, “Is there a giant lizard living in your games room?”
“I dunno,” Roo replied. “Maybe.”
“Oh, alright then. Because I thought my mind was playing tricks on me.”
Apparently the weirdness of my mind was no match for the weirdness of reality in Australia.
Roo was quite nonchalant on the matter. “I was wondering about him. I think I’ve spotted him a couple of times, but he’s too quick to get a good look at.”
“Well I saw him pretty good. He’s about this big,” I held up my hands, shoulder-width apart, “and he’s black all over. Looks kind of evil, actually.”
“Ah! It might be a blue-tongued skink.”
“A what? Blue-tongued? That doesn’t sound real!”
“So, is that him making all those noises on the roof then?”
“No, that’ll be the possum.”
“Possums, eh? Those little hopping guys from the garden?”
“No, those are bandicoots.”
“Okay, you are SO making this up now.”
“No! Not at all. If I was making it up, I’d tell you about the drop bears.”
“Drop bears. It’s a story we invented to tell foreigners who are freaking out about the wildlife here. Basically, drop bears are like the evil, carnivorous twin of koalas – they hang around in trees looking innocent, but when a person walks underneath they drop down onto them and bite their faces off!”
“Woah. But you do have koala bears…”
“Koalas,” she said flatly. “They are not bears.”
“Riiight. But drop bears are…?”
“Okay. I think I’ve got it. Possums and skinks and bandicoots. Man, the animals in this country are bizarre! But you have kangaroos, at least?”
“Not personally! But yes, we have kangaroos.”
“And you have all the world’s deadliest spiders here, don’t you?”
“Oh yes, spiders! That reminds me… hang on.” Roo led me back into the games room, which was a little disconcerting.
She took me over to the farthest corner and pointed into it. “There! See that one?”
“OH FUCK ME!” The spider was as big as the palm of my hand. I could see every hair on its long, spindly legs. “This is just inside?”
“Yeah, this one’s fine. These aren’t dangerous. This is a huntsman. It’s harmless.”
“What, so it doesn’t bite?”
“Of course it bites, but it doesn’t hurt. Not much. It’s not poisonous. And it eats all the mosquitoes and flies.”
“But, it bites?”
“Yes, but you don’t need to worry about it. That one, down there – that’s the one you have to be careful of.”
“What? Where… Oh.”
Tucked further back into the same corner was a tiny little cobweb, with a tiny little black spider clinging to it.
“See the red stripe on its back?”
I shoved my head in for a closer look. “Yup, I think so.”
“That means it’s a ‘red-back’. They’re pretty bad.”
“Like, deadly. But no-one really dies from them these days, because there’s anti-venom in all the hospitals.”
“Well, that is comforting. I feel much better about having one in my bedroom now.”
“Don’t worry, I’m going to kill that one. They shouldn’t be inside, really, but when you live out here…” she trailed off with the kind of shrug that says ‘what can you do, really?’ Which was considerably less comforting.
“How do you kill them?”
“Oh, I’ll just squish it. With my thong.”
This seemed like an embarrassingly intimate revelation, so I decided to be all manly and offer my services instead. “No need to stain your knickers! I’ll do it with this shoe.”
She looked slightly puzzled*, but was happy enough to relinquish spider-bashing duties to me.
“Don’t get too close though!” she warned.
I froze. “Why? They don’t spit at you, do they?”
“No, but you’re getting close to the huntsman. And they jump.”
“Oh Jesus! So, jumping, biting spiders the size of my hand?”
“Yup! Welcome to Australia! Bet you’re glad you’ve got a lizard in your bedroom now, eh?”
*Roo was destined to remain confused on this occasion, because there is no good way to apologise for telling a girl not to stain her panties. It’s notoriously difficult to pass that shit off as a cultural misunderstanding.
All right you lot, it’s time to admit it: ninety-five percent of everything you know about Australia comes from watching old episodes of Neighbours.
Okay, then. Home and Away.
Don’t worry – same here! Only it was more embarrassing for me, because I was actually in Australia.
So on my first morning in the country, I was forced to re-evaluate my knowledge.
For example, as far as I knew, it was always summer in Australia. I knew that all the blokes loved beer, and all the women were called Sheila. And I knew that Bondi Beach was the spiritual home of the nation, and that as a direct result of this, the whole population spend their entire lives in swimwear.
I’d arrived in mid-winter. In the hills around Perth it was freezing; shivering, ball-achingly cold, particularly at night and in the mornings. Wearing a bikini outdoors was inviting death by hypothermia – as well as earning me quite a few strange looks.
It didn’t matter how good the beer was, as I couldn’t afford to drink it – alcohol turns out to be eye-wateringly expensive in Australia.
I was 2,498 miles from Bondi Beach.
And if you call enough women ‘Sheila’, sooner or later one of them will punch you in the face.
I was now living with six women of different age groups, and not a single one of them was called Sheila. I didn’t have a clue what they were called – something I only realised when the phone rang halfway through that first morning. I picked it up without thinking.
“Hello!” I said, “This is… the house of… some Australians?”
One distinct downside of open-plan living is that when you make a gaffe like this, everyone can hear it, no matter where they are in the house. All of them shrieked with laughter, and by the time I’d handed the phone off to one of the girls, the caller must have thought they’d dialled an insane asylum by mistake.
I later learned that Roo’s family name was Reynen – adapted by her parents from the Dutch ‘Reijnen’.
That day involved a fairly steep learning curve. I imagine that most tourists visiting Australia come and go without ever having to learn certain things, but living where Roo did, on the edge of the Western Australian outback, survival lessons were disturbingly important. I think they get taught at pre-school.
First up, I learnt that a ‘thong’ is not actually a skimpy piece of underwear. It is in fact a multi-purpose item of footwear, which most sane individuals would refer to as a flip-flop. I say multi-purpose, because the primary use of a pair of thongs, in Roo’s house at least, was to kill things. They can also be used to fix certain parts of a car’s engine, are often thrown at people to get their attention, form a miniature floating table for something light, like a bag of crisps, in the swimming pool, and – in an emergency – can even be used to paddle a canoe (though I only found this out much later). Because all Australians wear them all the time (unless they’re working in heavy construction – and sometimes even then) – I was offered the use of a spare pair of thongs. They were to be worn generally outside, but I had to “be careful wearing them in the back yard, because of snakes.”
I had to love this aspect of Australian culture. Rather than chaining the back door shut, and nailing thick wooden planks across it topped off with a sign saying, “KEEP OUT, THERE’S FUCKING SNAKES IN THE GARDEN!”, instead they say things like “if you do go out there barefoot, try to be a bit careful.”
But at least the snakes weren’t on the inside. Often.
“So I don’t use a thong to try and kill snakes, then?” I joked.
“No,” said Roo, looking vaguely disgusted, “why would you want to kill snakes?”
Which was a fair point.
I just had to hope the feeling was mutual.
Because I’d arrived in the coldest part of the year, with no money and almost no clothing, I had to borrow a fleece from one of Roo’s slender sisters.
It had ‘Bush Ranger’ emblazoned across the front.
I was the only one who seemed to find this funny. It was hard to tell whether this was a language-barrier thing, or whether it was because my sense of humour stopped developing at age twelve.
Regardless, now that I was suitably equipped to handle the cold, I had a busy day ahead of me. The girls had planned an epic road trip around the whole of Western Australia, and had been waiting for me to arrive so that I could accompany them.
But not only had I arrived three months late, I’d also arrived penniless.
It’s okay though – we’re blaming Thailand, remember?
So before we could set out on our grand Australian adventure, there were a few little details I had to take care of.
Like earning enough money to pay for it.
Luckily, both the girls had been in this situation before…
About three months ago, as it happened.
They fired up Rusty and drove me to the nearest bank, where I braced myself for an orgy of form-filling, coupled with the high probability of being laughed out of the place.
I always feel self-conscious in banks, as though the staff can see right through me and know instantly that I’m a man of very dubious financial security.
The fact that I was wearing ripped, stained jeans and a girl’s jumper was also fairly poor indicator. I half expected alarms to blare, and a giant illuminated arrow to swing down from the roof with a warning sign on it blinking ‘CREDIT RISK! CREDIT RISK!’
But I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the bank’s customers were covered in concrete.
“Rich tradies,” Roo pointed out. “That’s who owns all those mansions! Builders and plumbers, and especially the miners. The guys on the big money.”
That was unexpected. Plumbers are expensive at home, but I didn’t know many miners that had earned their fortune. I distinctly remember being threatened with mining as a job, if I didn’t work hard at school and pass my exams. The cartoons were right, I thought, everything is upside-down here.
A very efficient lady typed in the details off my passport, and accepted Roo’s family address as mine.
“What funds would you like to open the account with?” she asked me.
“Yes, you need to deposit some money into the account to open it.”
“Ah. How much do I need to put in?”
“Anything you like! A dollar will do.”
“Um… guys? Anyone have a dollar they can lend me?”
Roo dug into the pocket of her jeans. “Here – have two.”
She handed me a small gold coin. Travellers are often confused by this (as are the natives) – but for some reason, their two-dollar coin is half the size of their one-dollar coin.
And just like that, I had a bank account.
Next, the girls took me to an employment agency called ‘Select’. They’d both got temp jobs through this agency, and they reckoned there was plenty of work going.
Now this did involve a lot of paperwork; I spent about two hours filling it all out, taking maths tests and English tests, and then I sat through the inevitable video about Health and Safety in the Workplace. It was delightfully lurid, with graphic re-enactments of accidents so improbable I had to applaud the scriptwriter. I mean, what are the odds of being decapitated by a step ladder? I was tempted to try it just to find out.
Finally, the lady marking my answer sheet came over to me.
“Okay, so, we have some labouring work for you. I’m afraid it’s minimum wage stuff though.”
“Ah well, that’s okay! What is the minimum wage by the way?”
“How old are you?”
“Okay, so it’s eighteen dollars thirty cents an hour.”
I had to sit and think about this for a few seconds. It was tough to calculate, because I don’t have eighteen fingers, and the exchange rate was a little better than one-and-a-half dollars to the pound, and I don’t have one-and-a-half of anything on my body (unless you count my nose). And when I’d done the sums, I still thought I’d made a mistake.
“Is that… it can’t be? Eighteen dollars is more than ten English pounds an hour? That’s double the minimum wage in the UK! That’s more than what my Mum earns, as a qualified nurse!”
“I know,” she said, “it’s not great, but we do get better stuff in. Only, you wanted to start straight away.”
“Hell, I’ll start right now! Where’s the job?”
She looked impressed by my enthusiasm. Probably because she hadn’t seen my bank account.
“You can start tomorrow, if you’d like.”
Tomorrow would be my second full day in the country.
To celebrate the breath-taking swiftness of my transition from unemployed bum to valued employee, we first headed to Woolies (supermarket) to buy a chook (chicken) and some snags (sausages) for the barbie (iconic doll from the 1970s).
I also grabbed some bread to make a sanga (sandwich), and nearly bought a kanga-banga (kangaroo sausage).
It was a like free lesson in Aussie slang.
Next we went to buy some goon.
“It’s wine in a box,” Roo explained, “or wine in a bag inside a box. It’s what all the kids drink, because it’s the cheapest thing they can get.”
But we couldn’t buy it there, because the supermarkets aren’t allowed to sell booze. For that we had to go to a separate liquor store, which Aussies, with their typical subtlety, call a ‘bottle shop’.
Three things about the bottle shop blew me away.
First up, it was massive; not far off the size of the supermarket we’d just come out of.
Secondly, it was unfeasibly expensive. The cheapest bottle of vodka on offer was $45 – that’s £30! Now I knew why the minimum wage was so high.
Oh, and the third thing that blew me away?
It was a drive-thru bottle shop!
I couldn’t help but think this sounded like a really, really bad idea. Almost like an accident waiting to happen. I mean, isn’t there some sort of thing about drinking and driving not going terribly well together? I was kind of surprised there wasn’t a police station next-door.
I’d love to have been at the meeting where they came up with the idea.
“How bad is it, having to park up and get out of the car every single time you need to buy a beer?”
“It’s a bloody disaster! If only there was something we could do about it…”
Talk about first-world problems.
Anyway, fully half of the cavernous building was devoted to wine. They had Dry, Medium, and… Lexia. It sounded more like a car than a beverage, but absolutely nothing in the whole shop was labelled ‘sweet’. After reading the labels on half an aisle’s worth of wine bottles, we discovered that Fruity Lexia is what everyone else in the world would call a sweet, white wine. Clearly some kind of award was in order for the most confusing labelling system in the world. But we couldn’t complain too much – once we’d identified Fruity Lexia as our poison of choice, we discovered why kids loved the stuff so much; a four-litre cardboard cask of it was only ten dollars.
We were the only people in the queue not buying at least two giant crates of beer. Supermarket trolleys were provided, presumably for those industrial-size purchases that wouldn’t fit through a car window. Alcohol buying in this country was obviously taken very seriously.
I felt rather inadequate, with my little box of goon, walking out of the bottle shop.
And the next morning, I started work – unloading container trucks of bog roll!
Alright, you can laugh now.
But it could have been worse.
Roo was working in a textile factory, categorizing towels.
And Gill was cleaning public toilets.
Oh, yes – we were living the Australian Dream all right…
End of Sample!
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