Stuck in the middle with you – The Big Issue

The Swiss sailor eyed the backpackers. I watched him as I scrubbed the burnt cheese from the back of the microwave. He sized up a girl near the kettle, ‘Are you French?’ His voice was as smooth as chocolate, ‘I am headed that way.’

He then did his spiel: he was a sailor, he had a boat outside of Christmas Island and was going on a world voyage and needed deckhands. Join me?

Today he wore a Michael-Jackson-inspired jacket, not a great fashion choice but at least less strange than yesterday’s pirate hat covered in red dust. I wondered whether he really did have a boat.

The hostel was a magnet for weirdos. It was the location, Katherine, a crossroad town in the Northern Territory.

During the Dry Season every man and his caravan, or backpacker and their chugging Gumtree-bought van, passed the town on their travels. It was a place to stop overnight in between the long stretches of bitumen. After resting they might visit the gorge, but sooner rather than later they would refuel and get back on the highway – to the north, Darwin, to the west the WA border. Most who stick around do so for work, or, have some other agenda – such as looking for a deckhand – but then there are others who don’t know which direction to go. So, they stay.

My partner Dan and I stopped in Katherine for a short time as we were offered work and free accommodation at the hostel. Dan was working on building a spare room and my job was to clean after the foreign youth. Like most of the backpackers we slept in the backyard of the hostel, a slum-like tent community under a clothesline with prickly grass, which others paid $20 per person per night. Tiny South American chooks and their baby chicks happily clucked around our feet during the day. At night our neighbours chattered in French, Spanish and Hebrew and I shoved ear-plugs into my ears and grumbled. The ear-plugs helped with the four am rooster, that damn early riser, but it only dulled the sound of Gerald’s wracking coughs of thick phlegm at six am.

Gerald was known as ‘The Watchman’, he lived in a corrugated iron shack in the back of the property and got free accommodation in exchange for keeping an eye on the place. He was a man in his seventies, who watched the ABC News all day and only rose from his post to have his daily feed of microwaved sausage rolls and pies. You could monitor his movements based on the sound of his coughs, the hacking up of phlegm. A lifetime of heavy smoking had not been kind to his lungs. He kept to himself and watched the backpackers between sips of beer.

As my cleaning jobs were usually in the heart of the hostel, the kitchen, avoiding the weirdos was not always possible. In the mornings they wandered in, rubbing eyes, ready for their two minute noodles and cans of Red Bull for breakfast. I had learnt to be polite but not too friendly. Do not engage in conversation with the French guy Marcel who will follow you around all day, talking rapidly in French trying to offer you mandarins and wisdom. Nod and smile at the woman with frizzy hair who tells you her life story in snorts of laughter as you mop around her feet. Do not disagree with anyone, especially not Steve, the ex-Eagle Boy’s manager. Do not mention cheese to Steve. Callum, the British guy, nearly got smacked in the face from criticising Australian Cheese. Steve was very patriotic. It was best to remain quiet, put your head down and do your job.

But not all of the strange ones were up for a chat. Silent Stu got a free tent site in exchange for sweeping leaves. Day in and day out he swept the same small area of red dirt repeatedly. Sometimes he gave the dirt a hose down. He had worked at Eagle Boys too before it had closed down.

After a week of working we had had enough. It was time for us to move on and leave the crossroad town. We rolled up our tent and packed the car. We said our farewells, refuelled and sped off. While on the outskirts of the town heading north we saw a familiar-looking man standing with his thumb out, holding a sign ‘Darwin.’ He was wearing the Michael-Jackson- inspired-jacket again. Dan pressed his foot harder on the accelerator.

Published in The Big Issue, June.

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