Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
In retrospect, we had been warned. Days before we arrived at Wooroolin’s Peanut Pullers and Backfatters Ball – an annual singles’ event in rural Queensland – I’d spoken to one of its organisers over the phone. “Bachelor and spinster balls used to be a big thing in rural areas,” Jodie Butcher told me, “so all the single farmers and farmers’ daughters could meet someone. It was a proper sit-down meal in a hall, then you’d have a dance.” When asked exactly how B&S balls have changed, Jodie laughed. “Over time,” she said, “I guess they’ve gotten a little bit … feral.”
As such, the invitation for “Backfatters” featured a sketch of a giant peanut happily having sex with a pig up the rear. I understood where the committee had got “peanut pullers” from: the entire region around Wooroolin, a township with a population of roughly 200 people, is known as Australia’s peanut capital. “Backfatters”, I discover, refers to the sows from the many local piggeries. Jodie tells me that a sow at the end of her breeding cycle will become so enormous that locals call them backfatters: “It’s the committee taking the piss – that all we’ve got out here are peanut pullers and backfatters.”
Parts of the region are so isolated that, according to one youth worker from nearby Kingaroy, it isn’t unusual for teenagers out here to have never seen the ocean. In the South Burnett region, councillors still lobby the Queensland government to reduce the legal driving age. For a 15-year-old, being able to drive means the difference between hanging out with mates and staring at a wall after school. It’s difficult to imagine meeting anyone new out here, let alone finding love.
Like me, my friend Michaela had never attended a B&S; she thought it would be a good source of material for an essay she is writing about dating. We arrived at Wooroolin pub on the afternoon of the ball and met Jason, 28, a local farmer who grows peanuts and corn. Jason, having just knocked off work, was somehow already drunk. He admitted it was difficult to find a girlfriend. After graduating from high school, most of the people he knew had either moved to Brisbane or the Sunshine Coast. When I said that sounded rough, Jason coughed: “It’s more than rough. It’s shit.” He’d already decided against going to the B&S, because, he said, men always outnumbered the women ten to one.
After paying our entrance fee for Backfatters at the sports-ground gates, Michaela steered her father’s ute to find a parking spot on the oval. An array of utes was already parked there, including a bright red one, with four flags hoisted up on its sides: the Australian flag, the Eureka flag, a Holden flag and a Bundaberg Rum flag. The ute that pulled up next to us had stickers that read “You want more grunt? Root a pig” and “Fuck off, we’re full”. As a Chinese–Australian homosexual, I started to feel conspicuous. Michaela said she already felt the prospects of finding a date were low.
We walked around the oval drinking beer and scotch, and were immediately singled out. “Konichiwa!” someone hollered at me, bursting out laughing. Like new inmates walking down a prison corridor, we tried to avoid eye contact. A male voice called out to us. “Come over here.” Then, more aggressively to me: “You. Come over here!” Stoney was 25 years old, red-eyed and dressed in a blue wife-beater. “I just want to show you something,” he said. Stoney led us through the crowd to an open patch where his mates were cracking leather whips. The one in the black Akubra was called Gravo. What Gravo would do, Stoney explained, was put a stick in my mouth and whip it off my face. Backing out slowly, we stumbled across a man sitting on the back of his ute. He had popped his scrotum through his shorts and was waving his right testicle tauntingly to Stoney. “Don’t trust that guy!” he told us, pointing at Stoney. “He’s trouble!”
By sundown, people were already covered in food dye. Jodie had mentioned this more recent B&S tradition to me: punters fill water pistols, or their mouths, full of the stuff, before staining each other red, blue and green. Stoney tracked us down to apologise for scaring us earlier; away from other “pullers”, he was warm and endearing. He said he wasn’t at Backfatters to hook up. Like half of those we spoke to, he already had a girlfriend. Carla, a woman in her twenties, said she’d left her husband and kids at home and come to Backfatters to “relax”.
Eighteen-year-old Parko was one of the single boys. Originally from Longreach, he is now working near Toowoomba as an apprentice boilermaker. Young, fresh-faced and joyously drunk, Parko showed us the nifty Bundy Rum stubby cooler he’d just won, which came with a velcro wrist strap. In one smooth manoeuvre, he gave Michaela a high five, dropped his prize, let it swing – his drink about to spill at any second – and then scooped it back up to his mouth, before sculling the entire can in one hit. Delighted, Michaela and I applauded.
“If there’s chicks listening to this,” Parko said, leaning into my voice recorder, “I’m single as.” He was disheartened by the turnout at the ball: roughly 200 people, most of them men. “Nah, this is shithouse,” he said. After Parko and I shared a rum and coke, he grinned at Michaela. “You look after him,” he said, pointing at me. “He’s Asian, but he’s a good bloke!” Everyone assumed I was Michaela’s boyfriend. As we watched him stumble away, I turned to Michaela. “What about him?” Michaela looked at me dryly.
Moments later, someone pulled me into a headlock. People started hooting. I knew what was coming. Cold liquid poured down my scalp and dripped all over my face. Running my fingers through my hair, my hand became blood-red, as though someone had cracked open my skull. Michaela put her hand to her mouth, half-laughing, half-horrified – unaware she’d be blue in only a few minutes.
By the end of the evening, everyone was soaked red and blue; on some people’s skin it had mixed to look like bruising. Stained blue, Michaela was ready for bed. Parko seemed to have given up the girl hunt and was dancing to Offspring covers. As was B&S tradition, the girls had gone among the guys, and were tearing off the pockets and sleeves of their once-white shirts to keep as trophies. For the rest of the evening, women screamed and laughed, waving the pockets above their heads – some red, the colour of love.