It was around that time i had my eyebrows blown off in a bizarre mining accident.
There were too many of us. We were in the bush, and little by little, we went insane. We worked hard, pulling twelve hour shifts, drilling, sampling, putting in grid lines - but once we finished work there was really nothing much to do except drink, smoke, or blow things up. Or sometimes, all three. The Broad Arrow Tavern, the set of the 1971 Googie Withers film Nickel Queen, was 30 kilometres down the track, and we'd go there for Sunday sessions. The nurses would come up from Kalgoorlie. We'd drink, play pool. Then back to work.
We were out looking for gold. Camped at a place called Ora Banda in the Western Australian goldfields. Prospectors, like my grandfather, had been looking for gold around there since Paddy Hannan struck it rich in 1893. And there was plenty of it. But it was not all gold and glamour. Part of the job was running the camp, and keeping a tidy camp meant disposing of rubbish. So we would throw it down the old mine shafts, and every now and then, pour a gallon of petrol down there and burn it off. For entertainment value, we'd sometimes throw in a half-full, sealed drum of fuel as well, and sit back with our tinnies, and wait for it to explode dramatically into the night sky. One time, during a routine burning off operation, the burning rag i threw at the fuel-filled mine shaft didn't quite make it into the hole. So i wandered over to complete the job. Needless to say, the fuel vapour in the shaft exploded and knocked me onto my back.
I walked back into camp, and ran into one of the geologists, a fellow by the name of Swan. "What was that noise?" he asked. "Sounded like an explosion."
Oh, nothing, i said. Just burning off some trash.
Swan stared at me for a moment. "Sacre blurter," he said. "You've got no eyebrows."
I had no idea what 'sacre blurter' meant, but Swan was always saying it. He was always putting small rocks into his mouth too, sucking them, and then looking at them under a lupe.
I never really understood geology.
Every now and then, there would be something much more interesting to do, something that didn't involve rocks or garbage. Like the famous 1985 Nurses' Cocktail Party. The poor things. Posted out there in the sticks to serve a year in Kalgoorlie - they were almost as sexually frustrated as we were. Almost. They invited all the miners for miles around.
It was always going to be a messy affair. But it was elaborate. They hired a piano player, and filled the entire hall - which, interestingly, was downstairs from the nurses' dormitories - with tables, each table holding a different array of spirits and liqueurs, along with glassware and carefully hand-written recipes for an enormous range of cocktails. Little plastic graduated cylinders used for dispensing medicines were standing by for good measure. I turned up with Bernie, who set about showing the nurses how to really mix a cocktail, à la Tom Cruise, dispensing with the dispensers, twirling bottles through the air, pouring liquor from a great height, and creating knockout drinks.
The piano player's name was Swifty. He was 66 years old, bald, wrinkled, with huge bags under his eyes. A hand-rolled cigarette dangled perpetually from Swifty's lower lip, somehow defying gravity. Swifty could play anything. You could request any song, from the past, present or even future, and Swifty would nod sagely, ash dropping from his smoke, and continue playing his particular version of ragtime blues. I don't remember him stopping for more than half a beat the entire night.
Needless to say, i moved from one table to another, intent on working my way through each cocktail recipe, and i became somewhat inebriated. Well, this is what we were here for. It's not exactly sex and drugs and rock and roll, but this is the bush. Allowances have to be made.
One of the nurses zigzagged over to the table where i was trying to mix a Flaming Lamborghini.
"What happened to your eyebrows," she said. She was drunk. I was drunk.
"Lost them in a poker game," i said.
She seemed pretty. Tall, dark hair, dark eyes. I noticed she had legs.
"Let's get a drink," she said.
"Good idea." I knocked back the Lamborghini without setting fire to it. I'd decided to avoid playing with matches. We staggered across the hall to find Bernie, who made us his specialty: the Frontal Lobotomy. We had a few of these. Things were spiralling out of control. There were people dancing by the piano - no, there were people dancing on the piano - as Swifty continued in his inimitable style. A couple were making out on one of the tables, the liquor pushed off onto the floor. I suddenly realised i was having trouble standing up. I reached out to the nurse for stability. She mistook this for an act of intimacy, and kissed me wetly on the mouth. "Let's go upshtairs," she slurred.
"I very much doubt i can make it up even a single flight of stairs," i said. At least, that's what i imagined i was saying. It came out more like, "Mrrgh skkk dlb." Clinging to each other for mutual support, we perambulated like a dizzy quadruped towards the foyer, where a wide staircase curved upwards to the nurses' quarters, and, no doubt, carnal bliss.
We paused in the fluorescent-lit foyer to study the swaying staircase. This was going to be difficult. We kissed again, and she began to undo my belt. I tried to take off her dress, and got it part way over her head before we both fell over onto the floor.
When the police arrived, one of them prodded me gently with his boot. By this time, the nurse and i were entangled head to toe on the linoleum, where i was attempting, with no great success, to perform cunnilingus. I'm not sure how long we had been there, or whether we had fallen asleep at any point in the interim.
"Come on, mate," the police constable said. "Looks like you've had enough."
"Enough?" i mumbled. "We were just getting started."