Nick Smart is fresh out of school, a wet-behind-the-ears jackaroo (agricultural trainee) on a gap year. But at Palmenter Station, nothing is what it seems. Nick is about to discover there’s a lot of gray between black and white, between legal and illegal, and between right and wrong.
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About the Author
Martin Chambers is a writer who has also worked as a biologist, a tour guide, a whitewater rafting guide, a lab assistant, a publican, a kayak designer, a ferry skipper, and in mineral exploration.
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How I Became the Mr Big of People Smuggling
By Martin Chambers
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2014 Martin Chambers
All rights reserved.
I picked up the gun. It was cold, heavy. I picked it up only as a way to break eye contact. To avoid looking at him I casually sighted across the yard, aiming at the first thing that stood out, the sign above the canteen door. Hotel California. I squeezed the trigger.
'Shit. I didn't think it would be loaded.'
'Fucking hell, Son. What the hell you doin', Son?'
'It's a goodun.' The shot was still deafening my ears, ringing in the silence. The wave of birds that I hadn't seen fly off settled back in the tamarisk and on the windmill. I gestured. 'Bullseye.'
In truth I didn't know if I had even hit the building, let alone the sign. I doubted his eyes were any better than mine, but he turned to see. He grunted.
In the nanoseconds after that first shot there was time to notice that the hole left by that shock of noise had not been filled, to realise that Cookie would be in the canteen unaware, doped up with Wagner at full volume as he conducted his dishes of ingredients around the stainless bench. Spanner was under one of his vans working to fix some part, and Margaret and the girls were sunbathing down at the waterhole. I could see myself and all of us from above: the camp, Cookie in the kitchen, Spanner's legs protruding; further out, the girls sprawled on the rocks and Margaret supervising from her canvas chair under a sun umbrella. While the world stood still I was flying away, up, and from higher I could see the lacework of roads, red-brown against the drab green scrub, then the pit, the pit, where the ground was redder, where time and the sound stopped forever.
He was turned away from me, pretending to look at the canteen door. His bull neck had small beads of sweat and rolls of fat and wispy hairs and I could see the pulse of blood in some veins that stood out. I remember seeing all this in great detail and slow motion and 'Hotel California' playing in my head.
You only get one chance and I took it. I shot him. I put the gun up close to the back of his turned head and in the white heat silence of an outback day there was a spray of blood and brains across the chair and onto the floor as his body flew backwards into the mess and fell with the chair — and the strange thing was I didn't even hear the shot and suddenly the world was going at double speed to make up for all the slow motion leading to the bullet in his brain.CHAPTER 2
The first person I met at Palmenter Station was Spanner. If it weren't for him I wouldn't have survived those first weeks. I remember how desolate the place looked as I drove along a few kilometres of hard dirt track to the station settlement. I saw two vans similar to mine parked outside a low prefabricated building and I was glad of that. These other vans might mean there were others like me here, school leavers or backpackers up for the season to earn a few dollars.
A sign on the door said 'Canteen', and handpainted above the door someone had written Hotel California. I parked next to the other vans and, like a sigh of relief, the engine rattled to a halt. Four thousand kilometres faultlessly and now, as if home, it shuddered.
Music was coming from inside the canteen. Muffled, it sounded out of place. As if the canteen were a spaceship that had landed in some alien world and inside the adventurers huddled in fear, playing loud music to keep their spirits up. It was midafternoon and the heat had gone from the day. The thought of a look around the deserted grounds was less intimidating than the idea of entering a crowded canteen full of strangers.
The canteen formed one side of a courtyard guarded in the centre by a solitary tree with a wire fence around it. Opposite was an older more conventional building with wide dark verandahs and a high-pitched tin roof. To the left was a row of seven prefabricated units. Each had five doors. That was a lot of rooms — if they were for accommodation perhaps this place was busier than it looked.
On the fourth side was a water tower — a skeletal pipe metal structure with an enormous fibreglass tank on top — and next to it and even higher was the largest windmill I had ever seen. On the other side of the water tank was a vegetable garden and beyond that was a large open-sided shed full of agricultural machinery. Some trees behind the shed looked enticingly shady but the overall impression was of desolation. I felt suddenly temporary, as if not only were this homestead a fleeting thing on a timeless landscape, but so too were I a momentary stranger in a world where I did not belong. How could anybody live here?
I could see a man working in the shed so I decided to go that way to allow my head to clear the echo of road noise. The man stood from where he was hunched over the bench, arching his back to straighten it, and walked to meet me.
'Saw you come in. How's the girl going?'
I didn't understand. He pointed.
'Betsy. The van.'
'Oh. Fine. They gave it to me to drive up here.'
'Yeah. It made a funny rattle just then when I turned it off. I'm Nick. Nick Smart.'
'Wayne. Everyone calls me Spanner. Anything 'round here broken, I fix it.' He looked me up and down. 'Mechanical, that is. I don't do hearts or paperwork or computers.'
'My advice: if you want those, you head right on back out of here.'
Had he assessed me with that single look, written me off? Was he serious I should leave? Dad had warned me the outback men were hard and rough and so I had been trying to look tougher than I felt.
The bloke led me back into the shed and continued tinkering with the engine part that lay dismantled on the bench. He had a beer open and took a swig but thankfully he didn't offer me one.
'I'm a jackaroo. They told me to drive the van up and I could start as soon as I got here.'
'Jackaroo. He does that.'
I wondered what he meant by that and who 'he' was. But the man stood up from bending over whatever part he was toying with.
'Fucked if I know what's wrong with it. C'mon. I'll introduce you to Cookie. No one else here. You can chill until Palmenter gets here. I don't know what he's got in store for you. Pick yourself one of the dongas over there. They're all empty. I live back of the shed. Cookie's donga is over there. The girls are put in the bedrooms in the homestead when they are here. Place fills up coming up to muster but most time it's pretty quiet. Good if it suits ya.'
He led me towards the canteen and as he walked past my van he patted it affectionately on the bullbar. 'Heya Betsy.'
There was no one in the canteen except the cook who was sitting smoking by the back door. The music was loud, classical, some sort of military march. Empire Strikes Back or something. I felt absurdly inspired.
'Cookie: new bloke.'
'Nick. Nick Smart.'
Cookie shook my hand. His grip was soft, his hand felt like pastry. He was smoking dope and I could see a substantial plantation thriving between the back of the canteen and another prefab building that must be Cookie's room. He saw me examining the plantation.
'Anytime, mate. Help yourself. It's a community garden.' And he gave a little laugh, as if that in itself was a helpless joke. It was not the meaningless giggle of a pot smoker. It was more forlorn. It was the antidote to the uplift of music.
They pointed me towards the prefabricated rooms that were called dongas and told me to pick one and settle in, dinner at six, ask if I needed anything. I was left to myself for the rest of the afternoon. I lay on the bed and turned on my phone but there was no reception.
The next morning a guy about my age arrived. Jason. He arrived in another campervan as I happened to be walking across towards the canteen. We confused each other for a while until we worked out that neither of us knew what was going on. He was a newbie too.
'Apparently the boss arrives tomorrow,' I said.
I showed him the rooms and the showers and introduced him to Spanner who I found again in his shed with a beer and an engine part. While I was showing Jason around I learned that he, like me, was taking a year off. Next year he would go back to study medicine. In the canteen when Cookie discovered that, he offered Jason some 'medicine' but Jason declined.
Palmenter arrived the next day with a bloke called Simms who turned out to be a third newbie. Simms didn't seem so bright, in a harmless sort of way, and Palmenter bossed him around no end. Fetch this, do that. Simms took a room opposite mine but that was it. In our spare time — and there was a lot of it early on — the three of us would sit around and talk. Simms did not say much and he rarely volunteered anything extra. When he answered a direct question he would look around anywhere but at you as he answered.
'You worked up here before?' Jason asked him.
'No, not really.'
'Did you work down south with Palmenter? He's got some business interests in Melbourne, hasn't he?' Jason probed. He didn't seem to pick up the vibe of the place.
'No. I don't think so. Don't know.'
Simms was older than us, and rake thin, and everything he did took too long. In the showers he would wander in and take forever to set out his kit on the bench, then shave, slowly like each scrape of the razor was a deliberate thing, then he'd pack that bit away and sort out things for a shower, get undressed and lay his clothes neatly on the bench. It was frustrating, because I was in and out, and to hang around and talk was as if I was hanging around in the changerooms and he was naked in the shower and you just don't know on these stations what people get up to. But it was frustration in a kindly way because I wanted to help him, partly because everything seemed such a difficulty for him and partly because Palmenter bullied him so.
At the station you kept to yourself and everything was fine. But somewhere under that layer of civility was something not said, as if, perhaps, everyone was on the run from the police. Or like Jason escaping from failed exams. Or me, running away from something I could not really explain. I wanted someone to talk to and Simms was the best I could do because Jason would have asked me too many questions.
Palmenter interviewed me the afternoon he arrived and it felt as if I didn't have a job at all, I felt I was reapplying and might be refused and sent home if I said the wrong thing. At that time I was keen to stay, prove myself, like when you are pushed you push back, so even if I didn't want to stay at that stage I would have tried like anything to be asked to stay, then say, 'No, I don't want to'. People are funny like that. You can get them to do all sorts of shit they don't want to by hinting that they are not allowed to.
Anyway, Palmenter took me into the office and grilled me about many things, asked me why I wanted the job. I knew I would be pretty hopeless around the place until I learned the job, and I said so, but he was more interested in my school results and that I was interested in studying business.
'Nick Smart. Smart eh?'
'We need someone smart 'round here, Son. Someone who can think for themselves. You could do accounts and take over some of the management for me. I have to spend a lot of time away, sorting out other parts of the business. If you're interested in commerce, you'll learn more here than in your classroom in the city. You stick with me, Son, and I'll turn you into a businessman.'
I nodded. I was wondering what limited business skills I might learn all the way out here in the middle of nowhere, but then I remembered Jason asking Simms about Palmenter's business interests in the city and I thought if I could do six months or a year here, maybe Palmenter might have a part-time position for me back in Melbourne while I studied.
'How old are you, Son?'
'You look older.'
'I get that a lot. Anyway, it won't affect how well I can do the job. I learn quick.'
He made a noise to acknowledge that I had spoken. I was about to add that I'd be keen to learn some of the accounting but realised it didn't matter what I said. Palmenter was someone who made up his own mind and he already had about me.
'Son, I don't want no fly-in fly-out. You work here, I look after you, pay you well, lots of bonuses and benefits. It's a great life out here, you just gotta want it, appreciate what we've got. But if you don't want this life, you leave now. Don't waste my time.'
'I've signed up for the year and I'll do the year.' I said. His gaze was challenging me. 'I believe in keeping commitments,' I added.
He kept looking at me and it made me uncomfortable. It was not that he was reading me or assessing me or considering me, it was that he had already done all that and I was irrelevant, I was nothing. I was signed up for the year and that was that. But he made no move to produce any paperwork or to end the interview.
'I was hoping to call my parents, tell them I've arrived safe and all that.'
'You're in the outback now, Son. No landline out here and the satellite phone is expensive, only for emergency. Write them a letter. I'll see it gets posted next time we do a run into town.'
Who these days does not have a landline? Why didn't I offer to pay for a satellite call? Why oh why didn't I walk out then and there? But like I said, it was early days and there was no way I was heading home with my tail between my legs. I did not, however, mention anything about paperwork or actually signing a contract.
I had done quite well at school, well enough to be offered a place at Melbourne University to study commerce. It was my brother who suggested it would be a good idea to defer for a year and work on the mines. Simon was working at a mining camp and loved it. He and a group of his friends had rented a house in Fitzroy and rotated through the house. Because they all worked some variation of weeks on and weeks off there was always a party happening there.
'Easy work, good money,' he said. 'Get some money together so you can pay your way through university. Fly-in fly-out is great because you don't miss out on anything, plus there is a real shortage of workers at the moment so it's easy to get.'
I found a recruitment agent that specialised in mining and outback jobs. After quite a long friendly talk the recruitment man told me that the problem with fly-in fly-out was although you earned big money you also spent big amounts during the time off and he suggested I was better off doing something like station work as a jackaroo. Well-paid, all food and board and no expenses and if I worked out a full year, great bonuses. I had never been to the Northern Territory and there would be days off with the freedom to explore so it sounded pretty good. He told me of a job on Wingate Station. That was what they called it. It was only when I arrived that I found out the current name.
I discussed it with my parents and they were not happy. Dad said it was a waste to take a year off and thought if I did, then I'd never go back to study. Mum didn't want me to leave home.
'What's your hurry? Plenty of kids nowadays stay at home while they study. You won't have to pay rent so you don't need a job.'
Graduating from school is such a confusing time. I can't really say what was the real reason I had set my mind on this year away but the more we argued, the more determined I became. I can say that I was not happy at school and that once the idea of a gap year had taken hold I could not forget it, and the more I thought of escaping to the north, the less I could explain why I had chosen to study commerce. I didn't even really know what commerce was.
Our argument simmered over the summer. Mum insisted that I stay home and enrol at university. I think Dad would have been okay with my moving out and renting a place closer to uni but he knew he had to side with Mum. One time when Mum was out shopping he told me, quietly, that if it made the difference he would increase my allowance but that I was not to tell Mum.
'But you must go to university, Nick. It is a great opportunity. Thousands of kids don't get in. Don't turn it down just because you want to have some time off. By the end of summer you'll be itching to get back to study.'
'Lots of kids take a year off, Dad. I'll defer for a year, that's all.'
But after Christmas I felt even less like going to university and that was when I arranged a second interview with the agent. When I told Dad I had taken the job he warned me about the hard-drinking hard men of the outback.
Excerpted from How I Became the Mr Big of People Smuggling by Martin Chambers. Copyright © 2014 Martin Chambers. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
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