Melbourne: Mulan

I’ve started and deleted around a dozen articles since I published the last one. I dunno, I keep starting them super serious and prattling on about my personal growth/decay (delete as appropriate depending on the time of day, when I last got laid, and how many bottles of wine I’ve had). But I don’t really think anyone is too arsed about the inner workings of my burned-out mind. So instead I’ll just skip the self-reflecty mumbo jumbo and get to the point: here’s what’s happened recently!

I’m a labourer now. Yeah, a proper manly one, with calloused hands and blisters and mucky knees and deeply tanned forearms.  I quite like it, it turns out. Against all the odds, despite the fact that for the past four years I’ve been a desk-bound office bitch, I quite like it. Here is the deeply engaging and wittily scripted tale of how I came to be a muscular labourer in Melbourne.

It was, essentially, a very long string of bad decisions. I’m amazingly good at those. You see, Australia was never meant to be anything more than a quick pit-stop on my cheeky world tour; earn a few bob and flee was my intention.

But I could not simply save up and earn a birra cash and fly away because my visa was cocked up. I flew to Thailand and back to Australia to reset it, and in doing so spunked every last doubloon I had saved for my journey. Being absolutely void of Her Majesty’s freshly-minted guineas meant that I was trapped on a blueberry farm in the world’s most batshit bonkers hostel for four months, and during this quarter annum of slaving under a burning sun, I managed to save a grand total of… four hundred Australian dollars. Eeh.

Arriving in Melbourne with such a paltry sum was a problem, though my freelance scribblings saved me from starvation/sobriety. And then I found a job with a removals company. Simple enough work – lift shit, pack shit, lift shit, pack shit, repeat ad infinitum – and a decent wage with all the shifts I could handle. I did not take this job, however, as I was waiting to hear back from an SEO writing job that sounded promising.

I got the SEO copywriting job. I did not like the SEO copywriting job, mostly because it turned out not to be an SEO copywriting job. It was only 3 days a week, and was mostly cold calling – in five weeks I wrote one article and called hundreds of companies and was angrily hung up on dozens of times. As I sat in my sweaty little office phone booth for the umpteenth hour one long Friday afternoon, I found that I regretted not taking the removals job. Sure, it’d be more physically demanding, but at least I wouldn’t feel like a big fat sell-out.

So I quit the SEO job and felt a bit guilty about it, but everybody told me I made the right decision and that I was correct to strike out into the world with my bold visions of success and independence and taking-no-shite. There’s a Wiley lyric that goes like this:

‘I used to go and get what I’m given / Now I go and get what I’m worth’

That lyrical one-two resounded in my brain as I hit the streets of Melbourne looking for work and opportunity. I decided I would continue my freelance, pick up more writing jobs for magazines here and there, I’d write for online copywriting agencies, I’d pitch all over the place, I would be a witty and marvellous success.

Alas.

Here is another lyric for you, this one from that merry band of tumbling vampiric smackheads The Libertines – one that is far more suited to my plight than Wiley’s offering:

‘Cornered the boy kicked out at the world / The world kicked back – a lot fucking harder now’

Yeah, I tried to stand up for myself and demand respect and stride around Melbourne looking purposeful. I tried organise meetings and spread my literary tendrils across the metropolis, to broker deals and sculpt my very own freelance mega-life; I would stand up for myself, I would put my foot down with disagreeable businesspeople, I would grind through it all to better my station. Did it work?

It did not work.

Alas, Melbourne – and Australia in general, come to think about it – has kicked the gonads right up inside me. Honestly, me poor auld ballocks have suffered a right shoeing. I’ve sent out invoices that have been paid weeks later than they were due (and some that were never paid at all), I’ve had hundreds of increasingly frantic emails ignored by recruiters and managers and freelancers and agencies alike, and I’ve had impending meetings and bright opportunities disappear in a puff of smoke. It has been quite rubbish and frustrating. As a backpacker in Australia you are very easily taken advantage of; you are so completely replaceable that many employers barely bother to learn your name, and will promise you the world one day then ghost you without batting an eyelid the next.

Lovely Jeanne has sat through many an impassioned rant about the unfairness of it all and how shit it is being trapped on the far side of the world with no money (rants which usually transpire at 10pm while sat in my underwear on the end of the bed, head in hands, anxious and vexed; Jeanne beside me stroking my back, telling me in her wonderful husky French tones that every-sing will be okay). Everything was getting very in-your-face skint and up-your-bum desperate, and so I ditched my writing goals and signed up to three different construction agencies.

In Aus, work works differently. You sign up as a backpacker to an agency or ten, and when they get jobs in – you decree which kind of work you’d be interested in when you register – they text you. Usually it’s the night before, and so several times I’ve been out and half pissed with my mates when my phone has buzzed, its screen reading something like ‘ONE LABOURER NEEDED 6AM TOMORROW IN CARNEGIE, REPLY ASAP’. And I groan, think of the money, put my pint down and go home to get six hours sleep in before a shift.

My first shift was last week, and in a lovely turn of events it was to be on the hottest day Melbourne had experienced in five years, some 43C, or 109F if you are a wacky Yank. I donned my work boots and my high-vis polo and I headed down to the Docklands area of the city at the crack of dawn – by which time it was already around 31C – and found a bunch of men idling around several big piles of metal poles and several huge crates of breeze blocks, smoking cigarettes and pointing at things with girthy calloused fingers.

I asked if I was in the right place and the bossman said ‘yes, you are, now get those cones and set them up over there, then come back here and watch what he does with those poles, then copy him, then come over here and help me lift this’. And that was the next five hours or so, underneath that bastard burning sun. I made a few new mates – a couple of Glaswegians who were both called Jamie as far as I could understand, a Colombian dude named Juan, and a Kiwi guy who was very strong and never spoke a word, so I suppose upon reflection I can’t really class him as a mate – and we sweated it out over the day together.

In the peak of the heat at noon, a television news crew wondered over to us. They were asking for the boss for a quick interview for the evening news. The boss, clad in his bucket hat and the sunglasses he never ever removes, shook his head at the pretty anchorlady and slowly drove away on his forklift. Nobody else would do it either, but the lady and her cameraman weren’t leaving – so in the end ya boy stepped up. I ducked under the ‘men at work’ tape, whipped off my hat and gave my hair a ruffle, and spoke thusly:

Her – How does it feel to be working in this 43 degree heat?

Me – Warm.

Her – How do you feel knowing that all other construction crews in the city finished at 8am this morning?

Me – Jealous.

Her – What are you going to do when you get home tonight?

Me – Have a shower for three hours.

And then I giggled nervously and that was the end of that. Yes, I’d like to tell you I was witty and charismatic, but in truth I was knackered and shy and deathly dehydrated, and the above responses were all I could muster. I actually did appear on television, it turns out – I missed it myself but the next day multiple people told me they’d seen me on the tele that evening, with my floppy sweaty hair and my glistening red mug. It’s on Twitter – you can see it here if you care.

Since then I’ve lugged breeze blocks back and forth, dug trenches, laid piping, sawed branches, drilled, hammered, prised, torn, wrenched, smacked, slapped and tickled like naebody’s business. The skin on me hands is rough and cracked and covered in blisters, and my back aches and my arms are heavy and my bum inexplicably hurts, but it’s all actually… pretty great.

I dig it, working outdoors. Yeah work is hard, and I am constantly laughed at by the tough Australian builders for being a soft Pommie writer cunt (my inner monologue screaming ‘yeah well why don’t you FUCK OFF’ the entire time), but it’s a change of pace, and no two days are the same. You see a lot of the city, you get to ride around in big trucks, and you look like a fucking badman on the train home, covered head to toe in dust and muck and dried blood, sitting stinky and happy in the middle of a bunch of preened and pruned businessmen.

I might not ever fit in properly – I’m fifteen years too late to the party to ever be able to match the strength, endurance and practicality of the bosses – but it’s a nice, honest way to earn some money before I leave Australia in a couple of months. I like building shit. It’s the first job I’ve had in years where I haven’t felt like I was screwing people over in some way – usually by selling people something they don’t need. But with this job it’s simple – you go to work, you fix a roof or a leaky pipe, and at the end of the day you can actually see your efforts standing all shiny and new in front of you. You have built something, you have improved something, you have made the world a little bit better.

That’s pretty cool.

And this isn’t relevant but this is such a tune:

2 thoughts on “Melbourne: Mulan

  1. cool you were on TV! And it’s great you’ve found a way to make some money that you feel proud of. I will say… your work is good and valuable (and probably underpaid), but I’m pretty sure even in this industry, someone is being screwed over. But I guess you’re not the one doing it. So yay! Stay safe. Wear your helmet.

    • Haha yeah, I thought that too – it seems to be the case that someone somewhere always comes up short. But you’re right – at least I’m not the instigator! And thank you, I will 🙂

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