February 25, 2014

My brief and successful career as a landscape labourer

By Robert Skinner

I had a brief and successful career as a landscape labourer. We were building some big park for a new residential community. It was my job to dig trenches, lay pipes and trudge around while everyone else rode on the machines. It was 41 degrees in the shade, of which there was exactly none. I tried hiding in the Porta-potty one day but the thing was a sweatbox and worse even than working.

I had imagined the job would involve planting trees, saving rare orchids, that sort of thing. I’d imagined coming back there one day – a self-made man with a young son – and underneath the spreading branches of a red gum saying, “You see that tree? Your old man planted that tree,” and then explain to him the nature of hard work and so on. But there was none of that. Nothing you could hang your hat on.

Still, I made it through the first week. When your body’s tired like that, it sends these lovely messages to your brain, telling your brain what a good day it’s been. I was riding a wave of self-worth and success.

On Friday night I took my friend Danny out drinking with the paycheck. By 11pm most of it was gone celebrating the promise of more. By midnight, in the garden of The Grace Emily, companionable as soldiers, Danny and I tried sitting on the same side of the table to re-enact a scene from The Three Musketeers. It was one of those picnic tables with the seat attached to the table-top, and our combined weight toppled the whole thing. We went down swinging fake swords and landed on our backs. The table crashed down with us. An ashtray the size of a dinner plate upended on my chest.

We were lying on our backs with the ashtray, looking at the stars, when two older girls came over and said, “Hi! We’re two nurses from Sydney!” which goes to show that girls really can smell a winner – even covered in butts and stinking of ash – also that the smell of success can be misleading at times, because the next day I was fired for barking at a dog.

In the beer garden, the nurses sat down, we sat up. The nurses, for some reason, kept trying to convince us they were sisters. They were really trying to pile on the sexy I think. I was still gainfully employed at this point, a really decent human being. I said, Well, ok then, on the count of three tell me your father’s name – and one of them yells, Dave! And the other one yells, Neville! And they were just friends again after that.

The next day, after all the shenanigans, I called the big boss to ask about my roster. He used to sit and watch us work from his car, with the engine running and the air-conditioner on. He said he’d seen the incident with the dog. He said he’d seen me wandering around the work site like a lost duck. He said our relationship, such as it was, was over.

I went out drinking with Danny again – a slightly more somber and thrifty occasion. There were no girls at all that night. Funny what a day can do to your sex appeal.

Danny paid for the drinks.

He said, “What did happen with the dog?”

I said, “It was just that sort of neighbourhood, I suppose, where the pets are more interesting than their owners. A man and his dog walked past where I was digging, and I guess I struck up conversation with the wrong one.”


Robert Skinner

Robert Skinner was born and raised on the Adelaide Plains. He is now based in Melbourne.

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