Beware miners bearing gifts

So my shows in Mackay, Middlemount, Glenden, Dysart & Moranbah in Queensland are all run and done.

Thanks so much to the Anywhere Theatre Festival and all the wonderful people who came along.

Maybe, possibly and perhaps – see you next year?

Anyway I did promise four chapters of my book, and so far I’ve only published three. So here comes number four – the final of the freebies.


By the way, the sequel to my first book will be out in August, 2015. Called ‘Out of My Mine’ it’s blue and true stories from my second three months in the mining industry. Look out! Coming soon!

Mining My Own Business

Dispatch No 4 – days 7 to 8

Beware miners bearing gifts

This is chili beef jerky. Don’t eat it. I shouldn’t have.

This is chili beef jerky. Don’t eat it. I shouldn’t have.

We work three weeks on, one week off and Wednesday is changeover. A quarter of our crew flies out, and is replaced the next day by a quarter returning from their week away. This time the returning crew includes Dale, the assistant project manager. Big jolly gut, handlebar moustache and he doesn’t walk, he swaggers; and while Dale is never in a rush, he does get shit done.

And he tells it like it is. If you’re useless, he’ll say, ‘Mate, you’re fucking useless.’

If he’s unsure about what you’re doing or why, he’ll say, ‘Mate, what the fuck do you think you’re doing? You’re useless.’ If he thinks you should go for a beer with him after work, he’ll say, ‘Hey useless fuck. Beer when we’re done mate?’ Every conversation includes ‘useless’, ‘mate’ and ‘fuck’.

Depending on the situation they can be insults, compliments or greetings. It’s the same as the way Smurfs use the word ‘smurf ’, footballers use ‘obviously’ and Rugby League players just point at stuff.

Thursday morning at the main pre-work briefing, involving the usual hundred odd guys and eight over-ogled girls, when it’s Dale’s turn to explain what our crew will be doing, he says, ‘Yep, that.’

The overall project manager, Roy, who works for Nuscon, replies, ‘Dale, anything you want to add to that?’

‘Mate I just flew in. Right now my crew knows, I don’t, and they’re not useless. Fuck.’

At our crew’s private briefing, Dale says. ‘Right, who doesn’t know what they’re doing? Well get to it.’

The Guru pipes up. ‘Shouldn’t we at least go through it?’
‘So you don’t know?’ Dale asks.
The Guru glares at Dale. ‘No, that’s not what I’m saying.’
‘Sounds like it,’ Dale says and swaggers past him mumbling, ‘Useless fuck. Maaaaaate.’

The Guru is a specialist contractor here from another company to oversee the installation of a piece of kit that his company has designed and supplied. Our manager Jonno nicknamed him the Guru because he seems to have only the slightest clue what he’s doing.

On my first day Jonno told me, ‘Try not to ask that bloke anything. I reckon he’s only here because all the engineers are on holidays. Poor bloke’s probably just a storeman.’

Every time he’s called the Guru he walks a bit taller, and everyone else smiles, and then piles a bit more shit on him. Such as:

‘Hey Guru, which way does this screw turn?’

‘This fitting. Where does it fit?’

‘This stainless steel has a stain. Can we still use it?’

Back at the morning briefing, the crew are panicking. One of them yells, ‘You’ve got to say something Dale. We haven’t finished our smokes.’

‘Hey, the comedian should do a bit,’ someone else says. They can’t mean me. I haven’t told anyone I’m a comedian.

So why are they all looking at me? It feels like I’ve just been asked to lead the morning stretching, but much, much worse.

There are several things that make for a bad gig. Before getting on stage I always check for them. It’s become such a habit that now, around any group, I’m always subconsciously ticking them off, evaluating what sort of audience they’ll be, and how conducive the surroundings are to comedy.

The morning briefing is about as bad as it gets. No microphone or stage or alcohol. Everyone is in a rubbish mood, since there’s a full day of work ahead, and the temperature is predicted to reach forty degrees: a bonus negative, since they all know I’ll be sitting in air conditioning all day. I’ve been keeping to myself, so haven’t built up a rapport with anyone, and although I have

an engineering degree, I’ve been asking a few stupid questions because I’ve been away from it for a decade. So at the moment I probably have about the same amount of respect as the Guru.

And the biggest negative of this horrendous situation?

They’re all staring at me, expecting to laugh. The first laugh is always the hardest. The audience is looking at you, and they haven’t decided whether or not you’re funny, and you’re looking at them, wondering whether or not they’re a shit audience. To me, that first laugh often sounds more like a sigh of relief.

So these men are expecting to laugh, but they don’t trust me to make them laugh, so they aren’t ready to laugh. They’re primed for heckling and they’ve been working together for months, so whatever they yell out is going to get a bigger laugh than whatever I say, no matter how funny I am, and how unfunny they are.

My only option is to pick on someone. Take down a potential heckler, before anyone heckles, but don’t pick anyone quick-witted. Pick someone weak, who everyone else is already used to laughing at. In a normal comedy club situation, I’d never do this. It’s mean, and I don’t want to do it here. I look at the apprentices, there’s no easier target, and realise that while all these thoughts had been ricocheting around my head, I’ve now waited too long to say anything. Another comedy rule is that for something to be funny, it has to be said quickly. A pause is as bad as a stutter. A mediocre line or retort can get a huge laugh as long as it’s short and quick, while a long-winded bit delivered after a long pause, no matter how clever, is very rarely funny.

I’m staring at them, they’re still staring at me, and I’m actually staring at twelve months of hell, because I know that if the first thing that comes out of my mouth doesn’t get a laugh, and it likely won’t even if it’s hilarious, these men will never let me forget it.

From the conversations I’ve overheard, they look on comedians as magicians entrusted with the secret of the funny, like it’s an ancient language, and see themselves as tradies who didn’t get through school and, ‘Don’t know no good jokes.’

The problem is, they’re funny as hell. The back and forth that goes on during the day, the little throwaway lines, the practical jokes, it’s all hilarious. Remember that guy in high school who was medium smart but never did any work? Who was the first to get laid and always cracked the funniest jokes? Who either dropped out or was thrown out? That’s most tradesmen.

Since I’m the comedian they feel inferior to me, while secretly believing they’re superior and whatever I say, they’ll think, ‘I could’ve done better than that. I should be the comedian. Not this dickhead.’

All this time, they’re still staring.
‘Come on comedian. Give us a bit,’ someone says.
‘You’re a comedian?’ says someone else.
‘Yeah he is,’ comes the reply.
Then I see an escape: ‘And it’s obviously going well, which is why I’m here.’

Self-deprecation. Every comedian’s best friend. There’s a slight murmur that the most optimistic would call a giggle, and I diffuse the whole situation by going up to Dale and saying, ‘We really need to sort out this paperwork. There’s a bunch of timesheets that were supposed to go off yesterday, and a big stack of confined-space permits you need to sign…’ Many of these guys can’t go three seconds without some stimulation, and they’d been waiting for a joke for nearly thirty. So as soon as I start speaking to Dale, they go back

to picking on each other, and I realise another huge comedy problem: these men terrify me.

They’re the guys that picked on me at high school. Not the actual guys, they’re all dead, squashed by their huge overweight wives in their sleep, or dismembered by their feral, psychotic children. That’s the way it is in my head anyway… I’m still pretty angry about high school.

If you’re terrified of your audience, they can smell it. To be funny, you’ve got to be relaxed. That way, even if you’re not funny straight up, the audience stays with you, trusting that you’ll be funny soon. Otherwise, why are you so relaxed? Walk on stage and look even a tiny bit nervous and you can be as funny as you like, but the audience is expecting you not to be, so will react accordingly. Usually that’s by not laughing, sometimes it’s heckling, worst of all they just pity or ignore you until you go away.

I may’ve diffused the comedy bomb at the morning briefing, but I know it’ll come up again. And again. And again, until they get a joke out of me. Although I’ve decided not to tell anyone I’m a comedian, I’d resolved before arriving not to lie about it, so I’ve known it was going to come up sooner or later. I was just hoping it would be much later. Like when you know your hot girlfriend is going to dump you, it always happens much sooner than you wish it did. Well that’s what happens to me anyway.

Dale follows me into the office. ‘Mate,’ he says. ‘Can you handle chili, or are you a useless fuck?’

‘Don’t mind it.’

‘Try a bit of this then.’ He offeres me what I assume is food. It looks like a bit of bark that has been used to scoop up the shit of a dog with some serious intestinal issues.

‘What is it?’
‘Chili beef jerky. Try some.’

I know if I show any weakness, I’ll be mauled. I grab the strip, tear off a mouthful and chow down.

He smiles, ‘You’re only supposed to have a tiny bit.’

I didn’t know that, but I have a high tolerance for chili, and I know if I keep it down he’ll be impressed. I chew, and chew, and chew. It’s very chewy. He stares, and stares, and stares. I chew. He stares. I’ve never had beef jerky before, and this is tough. It doesn’t taste like anything, and I’m not completely convinced that it isn’t bark covered in dogshit.

I swallow and grin. ‘Not bad.’

He screws up his nose and walks out, obviously disappointed. It’s hot, but not too bad, and I sit down to work. Then I start sweating. Most people know, but often forget, that chili- heat takes a few moments to come on, and because of this, it’s a common trap to have a few mouthfuls more than you can handle.

Based on how I’m suddenly feeling, I shouldn’t have had any. My tongue is on fire. My mouth is on fire. I can’t feel my lips. My ear starts twitching, which has never happened before, and my leg starts trembling, which has, but only when I’m in extreme pain. I’m seeing two of everything, it feels like my insides are melting and I’m trapped in clothes that are too tight. I try going outside, then inside, then outside, but nothing helps.

I dash to the crib room (onsite dining area) for water. Which I drink. And drink. And drink. But it does nothing.

Back in the office and using my fingernails, I try scrapping the hot off my tongue, out of my mouth, off my lips. I need it out, but it’s pointless. Dale comes in.

‘How are you feeling?’

I don’t look up from the garbage I’m typing quickly into a word document. Rows and rows of adklf hajslf kjhasdkfljashlf ksahdjfl.

‘Fine,’ I say. ‘And you?’

My face is numb, and I hope I’m not slurring my words. He frowns and leaves. I’ve won and after half an hour of agony, the fire finally starts to subside. Then the real sickness begins. I’ve got a pretty strong stomach, but it’s doing backflips. Chili hasn’t done this to me before.

Now, if you’re offended by graphic bodily functions, stop reading right now.

I bend over, lean back, stand up and gingerly step around the office. Lie on the floor, cover my face, try stretching. I try my body in every position I can, but nothing stops the pain getting worse and worse. I go to the toilet and try to vomit and shit, something to get this devil substance out of me, but nothing. I burp and fart, and after each expulsion I think, ‘That’s fixed it,’ but it’s barely a moment of relief.

Recently in China I ate some dodgy corn. It quickly went through me and an hour later I was fine. This is so many times worse. I attempt some work but the screen is a blur, I start shaking and tears are pouring out of me. This. Really. Hurts. It feels like I’m about to explode outwards from the stomach, like a big overripe zit of blood and guts and bile.

What if this isn’t regular food poisoning but proper poisoning? Exactly how long has that jerky been sitting in his office, in a drawer, in the heat, fermenting and breeding killer bugs?

This is getting hospital bad and if it keeps getting worse, I’ll have to tell someone. Into the toilet, I try again, but nothing doing at either end. That morning we were informed that it has been 142 days since the last LTI. I really don’t want chili beef jerky to break that streak, that’d be even

more embarrassing than the snake handler who got bitten by a snake. I barely got away with all that sneezing, so there’s no way I’ll get away with this.

I place a double plastic bag next to me on the desk as I feel I’m constantly about to vomit, but the bile keeps retreating down my throat, only to rise again. All I can do is sip water and hope.

Dale returns, stares hard, and askes me a menial question. Drawing together every skerrick of my remaining composure I calmly say, ‘It’ll be done in a couple of hours.

Lunchtime at the latest. Got any more of that jerky?’

He laughs, shakes his head and leaves. I’m amazed he hasn’t noticed that I’m about to disintegrate.

Into the toilet again, and this time I vomit. All water and jerky. All mashed up, it looks like I’ve eaten a steak, or several dog turds. I throw up again and again and again. Then another new pain, as each time after vomiting, remnants of chili bile charges back down, lighting up my throat and nose with a scorching trail of pain. Think wasabi times heaps. Which brings on a sneezing fit. Seventeen to twenty sneezes, each one a blast of chili across sensitive sinus tissue, already battered by days of dust, and the tears become full-on weeping.

Vomiting, sneezing, coughing and weeping.

Then I feel a little better, and it occurs to me that the beef jerky had reacted so badly because there was nothing else in my stomach. I drink some milk. Twenty minutes later I very tentatively attempt some work. Tomorrow is an RDO (rostered day off). We get one every two weeks, so tomorrow I can rest. All I have to do is get through today. Two hours later more milk and biscuits, and for afternoon tea a two- day-old cinnamon donut. Maybe not the wisest choice, but microwaved cinnamon donuts are delicious, and I can’t bear to throw it out. It all stays down.

At the end of the day Dale says, ‘Hey useless fuck. Coming for a beer?’

I’m still feeling chili beef jerky queasy, but I have to go. Refusing to drink with these men is up there with screwing one of their sisters, and then not marrying her. After the sneezing and pressure to do some comedy, I don’t want any more attention.

Later that night I discover that on Dale’s first day back after his week off, he’d subjected three others to the chili beef jerky of death. One guy’s tongue swelled up and he was rendered speechless, another guy was still pale and trembling at the pub that night, and one girl was reduced to rocking in a corner for over an hour, while constantly sipping at two litres of milk.

With all the stringent occupational health and safety regulations, and the penalties for breaking them, I have to respect Dale for how he’s discovered a way to seriously injure people, all well within the rules.

This the toilet block. Even now, I’m still not sure if it’s safe to go in there.

This the toilet block. Even now, I’m still not sure if it’s safe to go in there.

Xavier Toby is a writer and comedian

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