*contains some mildly offensive language*
Alex got to the woolshed while it was still dark. Her father and brothers had gone out even earlier, to be ready to begin the muster as soon as there was light for the ewes to see. It was her job to fill the indoor pens ready for the shearers to start, and they would be arriving by six in order to cut out the whole mob by the end of the day.
The covered yards were already filled with the small mob they had brought in last night. Alex could hear the occasional barking cough but there was no other sound from the sheep. The mournful ru-ru cry of a native owl in the bush below the yards only emphasised the silence, soon broken as Alex banged open the gates to the pens, and Bloke, her father's yard dog, began his stentorian boof-boof-boof, a refrain he would keep up all day except when briefly silenced with a shouted ‘that’ll-do-Bloke!’.
As the Mt Richards ewes streamed into the pens, the shearer’s van pulled up outside Huia’s house in town. It was going to be a long day. The boys were hyped up, looking forward to bragging about their tallies in the pub that night. ‘Hoo, Tane, you’ll have to keep your eyes on your sheep today bro, no chattin’ up the rousies!’
‘Don’t you worry 'bout me, Matiu my boy. You got enough to think about with tryin' to keep up! I reckon I’ll break four hundy, easy as.’
Huia would be one of the rousies today. What she really wanted was a place on the board. Shearing was where the money was, and she was learning, but it was hard for a beginner, and a girl, to get experience when the pressure was on like it would be today. Shearers who could consistently cut out the big tallies, like Tane, were first choice, she knew that. But that’s gonna be me one day, she thought.
Huia locked eyes with Alex as soon as she walked into the shed. Alex was looking over the pen door as the shearers strode in, all business, each setting up at a stand, plugging in their hand pieces, stretching, stripping down to singlets, pulling on moccasins. That bitch, thought Huia. She tossed her head in greeting and Alex acknowledged with a nod. Huia! I might have known she’d be here.
Marama, gang boss and wool classer, came in last. She had been coming to Mt Richards with the gang since she was in high school herself and had known Alex from when she first started appearing at the shed as a toddler, stomping and squealing among the dogs when work stopped at smoko or lunch. ‘I hoped you’d be here Alex, we’re short a rousie. Bloody Tania couldn’t get her arse outa bed. How ‘bout you go on a broom?’.
‘I can help while the pens are full,’ said Alex ‘but then there won’t be anyone to shed up until the others get back with the main mob.’
‘All good girl, help while you can but keep the sheep up to the boys, eh. Huia might have to do a bit o’ multi-tasking if you're penning up.’
Alex nodded and let the pen door bang behind her as she took a wool sweeper. Tane had plugged in the boom box and the playlist started up at ear-bashing volume. Pen doors slammed and soon the hum of four handpieces was added to the din.
Huia had already rolled the first fleece and tossed it expertly on to the classing table. The fleece rose into the air, unrolled into a gossamer blanket, and floated onto the table in the shape of an expanded sheepskin. Alex watched enviously. She could never get the fleece to come down perfectly like that. Huia was good at everything she did. ‘Most valuable player’ on every team she played on at school, a legend in the high school rugby sevens competition. Huia caught her eye again and Alex looked away. ‘Wake up Alex, Tane’s fleece is going to land on all that shitty wool you’ve left on the board.’ Huia had to shout to be heard. ’Gonna spoil Daddy’s clip,’ she added more quietly. Alex didn’t hear that but Marama, busy hands flickering over the fleece, did.
‘Shut you mouth, Huia, or you can do the sweepin’. She looked at Alex, now busy clearing the board with long strokes of the sweeper. ‘Sorry, girl, she musta got outa bed the wrong side today,’ she said.
‘She’s right though, I wasn’t concentrating. Sorry, Marama,’ Alex said. Huia gave her a hard stare and turned to roll the next fleece.
At smoko Alex took her mug and sat in the loading bay, legs dangling over the side, gazing at the folded hills in the distance. Bursts of laughter floated up from the wool table where the gang shared scones and shortbread. ‘Want a biscuit miss?’ She turned to see Matiu holding out a tupperware container of shortbread.
‘Hoo, Matiu, you go boy,’ teased Tane. Alex blushed and took a biscuit.
‘It’s Alex,’ she said. Matiu performed a mock bow.
‘Matiu Ratima, pleased to meet ya. You let me know if Huia's givin' you grief,' he said.
'Haawww, Matiu, shuddup ya face!' was Huia's response among hoots and hollers from the gang, and Matiu winked and shuffled back to the table.
Later in the morning, the others arrived from the hills with the main mob, and Alex’s brothers took over filling the pens. Alex fell into the rhythm of sweeping, keeping the board clear, staying out of Huia’s way. Tane dragged a ewe from a nearly empty pen, leaving just one behind, which panicked and leapt through the swinging pen door. Alex instinctively bounded forward and wrapped her arms around the ewe’s neck just as Huia turned with her arms full of fleece and nearly fell over the tangle of Alex and sheep on the floor in front of her. ‘Woooeee! Great tackle!’ Tane whistled. ‘Huia, you wanna get that girl on your rugby team.’
Huia placed the fleece on the floor, directing the wayward sheep back into the pen as Alex scrambled to her feet. This time when their eyes met Huia smiled, just a little. ‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘that was good work. I woulda worn that sheep if you hadn’t grabbed it.’ She jerked her head at Tane, bent over his sheep behind her. 'He might be right! Tackle like that, you could be a rugby player.' Alex smiled back with a sense of relief. She had been interested in playing rugby, back in year nine, but chickened out when she saw the other girls, who had mostly been playing together for a year, shouting and teasing and pushing each other about. Huia had been one of them. Alex remembered her sneer and ‘poor little rich girl’ jibes, as she showed off to her friends. I need some of that confidence and swagger, she thought.
At lunch time Alex sat in the loading bay eating her sandwich. Huia wandered over and plopped down beside her. ‘You’re getting the hang of the job,’ she said, ‘a bit more practice and you could come on the gang.’
‘You reckon?’, said Alex. ‘What would the others think about that?’
‘Matiu wouldn’t complain. He thinks you’re hot.’ Alex blushed again. They both stared at the hills.
‘You know, I mighta bin wrong about you,’ Huia began, after a long silence. ‘I thought you were a stuck-up rich bitch.’ Still Alex said nothing. ‘Truth, seemed like you had everything I didn’t-rich parents, older brothers, a big flash farm, looks, brains. And you always seemed so snooty.’
‘I don’t mean to be, Huia, honestly. If you want to know, I’ve always been a bit scared of you.’
'Time!' called Marama then. 'Let's get cracking.' Lunch was over.
As the afternoon wore on, Huia and Alex worked in a kind of dance where each knew where the other was and where she would move next. Huia bent and straightened, bent and straightened as she rolled, lifted and tossed the fleeces. Alex moved around her, sweeping and stepping, never in the way. Tane finished the last sheep and threw up his hands with a flourish. ‘Howzat! Four hundred and twenty-five, a new PB! I’m shouting the first round!’ The shed became quiet as the machines and the boom box were switched off. The sounds of sheep, dogs and bikes were suddenly loud outside as the ewes, naked and lively, saw the open gate and ran.
‘See you at school,’ said Huia, heading for the van. ‘Come to rugby practice if you’re keen.’
‘I’d like that,’ said Alex.