Over half a century ago your correspondent, then a student, worked for a time in the steel town of Port Kembla. This vignette, which came to light recently during a clear-out of the family home in Melbourne, was penned at the time and originally appeared in “Cranks and Nuts” 1960, a publication of the Melbourne University Engineering Students Club.
The day shift draws to a close. Diesel hoots mingle in three-quarter tone harmony with boiler house sirens and the whine of overhead cranes. In the grit and smoky air a restlessness pervades the tired bodies. Boilermaker, rigger, staff man, all have their mind on a brown manila envelope. The works buses are more crowded than any other day yet the same number of men leave the plant. Perhaps they all feel bigger with notes at their hips.
On the footbridge across the railway a union organiser stands, his grimy coat flung carelessly over the handrail. A battered kitbag squats at his feet like a faithful dog. “Paid yer quarterly dues?” he asks of each bunch of men. They, unconcerned, pass him by. He has been there before, and will be there again.
Down by the canteen a huckster grinds out a tune on a barrel organ, his two-tone shirt shining like a gem among the coal-dirty buildings and be-whiskered faces. The faces toss loose coins onto a rug in front of the organ. They, rich for the day, feel a momentary thrill like a patron of the arts. Yet it is gone in a second and the faces turn to more important things: tobacco; newspapers. A fight it is too through the sweaty bodies to the tobacconist’s window, for today no man may ask his mate for the “makin’s”. Even the Vendolux is laying cigarette packets like a prize hen.
Along the main road two vans are parked, their rear doors open displaying a multicoloured array of cheap clothing. Where is it from? Nobody asks. Many finger the wares while a greasy faced man extols the virtues of this jacket or that pair of stovepipe trousers. Some buy. Necessities must be bought when the money is on hand.
There is another sight, one which is too common to bode well. Many wives come, squealing children coupled like carriages behind, to meet their men. To remove temptation. To remove doubts and fears they have of a blustering sot, blundering through the house before collapsing asleep and missing the next day’s shift.
A steady stream heads for the pubs where rows of empty, foam etched schooners line the puddled counter, relics of those who came and are gone already. A few play pinball or darts, but most concentrate on the glass in hand. The night is yet to come. There is time enough for games.
The evening traffic swells to a capital city rush as the workers head for the clubs. The men hurry as if eager to lose to lady luck, joining the queues waiting a chance for the monotonous excitement of the press-pull, press-pull action on the poker machines. Then a drink, and again to the machines. The drug possesses the mind, daemonic and horrifying till the last florin is gone.
All the joints are open. The proprietors know that tonight business will be good. And so it is, till ten o’clock when the stream is homewards, gutterwards, while the stench of beer breath fills the air, the sickly thought of tomorrow turns the mind and the stomach turns itself.
It’s a frightening thought, almost unbelievable: a fortnight’s wages blown in a night. But proof enough is the affluent ostentatiousness of the clubs, and the rings on the fat victuallers’ fingers. There is money in steel. It will be the same in a fortnight.