If I am honest I never had a great feeling about Australia. Ian, on the other hand had a far more open mind. He viewed it as a place where he may find his future wife, settle down and find a job that would satisfy him. As it transpired he was to be gravely disappointed and would have flown back to England within six weeks.
That our flight was on Friday the 13th was never going to be a good sign. The date 13th November 1992. It had only been five months since I had left England but it already seemed a life time ago. This is testament to how much a person can cram into a life if they so desire.
Kingsford Smith airport (Sydney) could not have been less welcoming if it tried. It may as well have stuck a sign up saying "fuck off home you Pommie bastards" - not that it knew that we were Pommies. I just wanted to get this word out in the first few paragraphs of my Aussie memoirs. Pommie, I was to learn stood for prisoner of Mother England. Now correct me if I am wrong but the Australians themselves were the descendants of the convicts that landed at Bottany Bay only a few centuries earlier. Why then do they refer to us Brits as Pommies? I am sure the Aussies have an answer for this though they seem to have an answer for everything else. I mustn't digress, back to the story. As soon as the plane landed the flight attendants walked very quickly up the aisle and sprayed us with a chemical which I can only guess was some kind of insecticide. There were no warnings and no apologies just a indiscrete dowsing of chemicals. They could have least of said "welcome to Australia you disease ridden animals and enjoy your stay."
And where does any self respecting backpacker head for upon first arriving in Sydney? I'll tell you where, Kings Cross - a place where the abundance of awful hostels are only outnumbered by whores and crack addicts. Within an hour of our arrival we had booked into the most disgusting flea pit that I had ever encountered. It was all coming together now, that's why we had been saturated in insecticide it was to protect us from the inevitable Kings Cross hostel that we would end up in. I looked at Ian's face and I could see his dream crumbling before him. "Come on Ian lets get out of here before we're sick", I told him.
Fortunately for us my sister had lived in Australia the year before. She had ended up in Sydney for a year during a round the world trip with her mates. My mum had even been over to visit her there for three weeks. One of her mates Andrea had met an Aussie fella and had stayed on to do another year in Sydney. I knew that she worked in a cafe called Fancy Fillings which was located on Circular Quay, our first quest was to find her. Maybe she could offer us an escape from our Kings Cross hell.
We found Fancy Fillings in record time and luckily Andrea was in the middle of her shift. After the initial surprise she told us to go to an outside bar on the quay where she would come and find us when her shift was over. She even gave us some money for a beer. What a wonderful way to be welcomed to the city, maybe things were looking up after all! After her shift she came to join us for a beer and told us some rather good news. She had spoken to her fella, Carlo and he had agreed that we could come and stay with him in the pub that he was managing in the Surrey Hills area. The pub was called The Strawberry Hills hotel and was a live jazz venue. What I didn't tell her was that I hated jazz but apart from that this it was like a dream come true. We were going to live in a pub for free in the heart of Sydney. All that was left to do was return to Kings Cross to collect our bags from the hostel. We couldn't get there fast enough.
The next six weeks were spent living in the pub while searching for work. The living in the pub bit was great, the searching for work part not so much. I was back to the age old question of what can I actually do? It was suggested that I tried to get work in a bar but I feared that my attention span was too short. It seemed that every suggestion of employment was met with resistance from me. A mixture of lack of confidence and natural incompetence blending together beautifully to render me unemployable. But hey, the pub life was good. We'd spend many an hour talking to Carlo as he worked behind the bar and then later we'd get hammered with the locals until it was time to retire to our ample sized room upstairs. I have to say there is something quite wonderful about only having to stagger up a staircase after a night out. A few of the locals even had rooms up there to sleep off their drunkenness before going back to their houses the next day.
Ian got a job before me working in a fast food char grilled chicken joint with some Israeli guys. I went to see him in action and was immediately pleased that is was him and not me that had found gainful employment. In the back of my mind I knew that I needed the money but it was not yet essential to my daily well being. My savings were dwindling with every beer and I was jeopardising my future travel plans but on the plus side I was going to bed in the early hours of the morning, waking up at noon and generally having a good time. It became my routine to have a bacon butty (sandwich to non Brits) and a Coca Cola for brunch before heading off into the down town area to either to take in a film or just wander the streets to familiarise myself with the layout of the city.
During one of my little jaunts I found a peep show and decided to see what it was all about. Exchanging my notes for a hand full of coins I eagerly entered the cubicle. I threw my money in the slot and sat back to watch the show. I'd never seen anything like this before, this was way before I lived in Holland. I was shocked by what I saw, I've never looked at bananas in the same way since. The girl shot me seductive glance as she danced around the room to Roxy Music's - Come on let's stick together. And all was going great until the she decided to walk over to the cubicle window and yank it open (and there was me thinking that it was a private cubicle).
"You want head love?" she spat at me exhibiting as much sexuality as a fish mongers wife.
"No, I replied", as I wrestled to get my jeans from around my ankles.
"It's only $30 to completion babe", she encouraged as she watched me stumble around with zero grace.
As soon as my jeans were back on and belted up I shot off out of the cubicle and down the stairs in the direction of the main street. The exotic dancer watched me and appeared to be calling me back. There was no way that I was going back though I couldn't get out of the place fast enough. She'd totally taken me by surprise by sticking her head through my seemingly private window. Reaching the door to the main street I headed directly through it and tried to blend in with the afternoon shoppers. It was only when I got a few minutes down the road that I realised that I had left my camera in the place - shit so that's why she was beckoning me back! There was only one thing for it, I returned to the cubicle and retrieved it from the seat where I'd left it in my haste to exit the building. The dancer somehow spotted me and thought I'd come back for head. Once again I ran away.
I was supposed to be going into shops and cafes asking if anybody required my services but I couldn't think of any reason why they would so I'd walk past the place ten times before plucking up the courage. By the time I eventually entered the establishment the person working there thought that I was either a stalker or somebody casing the joint to rob it. Needless to say I found no work using this technique.
As with most opportunities in life my first job came with the help of some good old fashioned nepotism. Andrea had a word with the owner of Fancy Fillings and I was given the chance to go and prove my worth one lunch time. I wasn't sure that I was cut out for the job but I thought I'd give it a try. My sister had worked there the year before and I assumed that the owner thought that all Mittons came from good stock. How wrong they could be!
It all started off okay, that is until the customers decided to turn up in droves. If only I'd known in advance that Fancy Fillings was one of the key players on Circular Quay. I was to find out that the people in suits love a sandwich for their lunch. The problem was, well one of the problems anyway, that the first hour was extremely quiet and I got used to that. I'd have a nice chat with somebody over one side of the room and then sidle over to the other side of the room to have a chat with the only other customer. I liked this little set up a lot. When the customers started to pile through the door it was a different prospect altogether.
I fumbled through the next two hours taking orders wrong, losing the order dockets, knocking things over and generally infuriating the customers. The normally quiet, efficient and happy environment was turned into Billy Smart's circus. I couldn't have made a bigger hash of my first (and last) job as a waiter if I'd gone out of my way to do so. For my second time in Sydney I couldn't get out of the door fast enough. I was never asked to do another shift. On the train back to Surrey Hills I pulled at least three dockets from out of my underwear. So that's where I put them!
I decided to use my abundance of free time to visit my long lost cousins twice removed who lived in Campbelltown to the west of Sydney. I'd last seen them at Christmas 1985 when they visited Burnley. We'd all spent an enjoyable month driving around in the back of my dad's van taking in the sights of Lancashire. And an even more enjoyable time at my great aunty and uncles 50th wedding anniversary when my dad and I got drunk and inadvertently ended up in a game of strip musical chairs. The old folks in the family all left in disgust when my dad and I ended up in our underpants with young women from the party next door sat on our knees. My mum wasn't too happy either. I think that Aussies found it funny though.
It felt very strange to see my cousins in a totally different environment. They were only kids when I had last seen them and now they were in their mid to late teens. The family took me to the local RSL club (royal servicemen's league) which I was to find out was the hub of entertainment in rural Australia. Strangely enough this was the home to the the only virtually reality machine in Australia at the time. I donned a rather space age looking helmet and some gloves covered in sensors and attempted to play a game that was apparently so life like that I would shit my pants. It was a load of old rubbish, I gave up after five strung out minutes of frustration and went and had a beer instead. This was a far more cultural experience.
I won't go into the sights and feel of Sydney too much. Yes, it's a beautiful city with great beaches and a picturesque harbour. But to be honest I have never liked beaches that much and the stress of not having a job was bringing me down. I'd met some great people there but I wasn't really feeling the place. Ian felt the same, he'd got a new job at an office removal company but he hated it as much as the fast food restaurant. His Aussie dream was just not happening and he was start to feel a growing resentment towards the situation. Also we felt as though we should move out of the pub and find our own place.
With Carlo's help we found a place but it was not really what we were hoping for. I seem to recall that the address was 48 a Marlborough Street and it was only a few streets from the Srawberry Hills hotel. We paid $85 a week and for this Ian and I had to share a small studio with the added insult of bunk beds. You would hardly call it a bachelor pad that's for sure. The bathroom was in the backyard and we had to share the place with a shit ton of cockroaches. The cockroaches we were to find out also shared our kitchen. It wasn't much but at least it was furnished and a place that we could lay our heads.
Andrea found me another job (thank god for nepotism right?) this time as a general dogsbody in the kitchen of a gay restaurant called JBF. I never was quite sure if this stood for Just Been Fucked or Just Between Friends, I was given a different answer each time I asked. My shift began at 6 pm and I'd work right through to close -usually around 5 am. My tasks involved filling the dishwasher, cutting vegetables, handing stuff to the chef and generally running around like a sweaty fool. I absolutely detested the job but at least I could do it. The worst part of the job came at 4 am when I had wash all the enormous pans that they had used throughout the night. These pans were so big that I could actually stand in them. Which was good because I needed to stand in it to enable me to throw out all the bones that were in there. The only good part of the job was the free beer that I got each night at the end of my shift.
During my first night at the restaurant I caused turmoil. The other kitchen hand was a Thai guy who'd been there for ages. I was basically shadowing him to find out what I should be doing. The guy worked really hard and practically ran the kitchen. Halfway through the shift he turned to me and asked me the dreaded question "so, how much are you earning?". The idea of lying to him crossed my mind but I have never been good at lying so I told him the truth. I crossed my fingers and hoped that it was not more than him but I feared the worst. The Thai guy literally exploded with anger and started to throw cutlery all over the kitchen. When the boss came to see what was going on the Thai guy threw a punch at him. He then ripped of his apron, got his coat and left the building. On the way out he shouted to me "fuck you, you earn double me". Five minutes later the boss came down with an angry look on his face and asked me why I'd told him how much I was being paid. "Because I was asked" I replied, he had no answers to that, he looked at me, squeezed my arse and blew me a kiss as he was walking off.
Christmas was fast approaching and it couldn't have felt further away. The only thing that vaguely resembled Christmas was the big tree down on Pitt Street in the city centre. Although it didn't feel quite right set against a sunshiny back drop. By now Ian had become totally disillusioned and it was looking more and more like he was going to go home. He hated the job, the apartment was pretty rubbish and the he hadn't found a woman to divert him away from the misery of our situation. The final straw came when he told a guy at work that he thought the boss was a prick only to be confronted by the boss the next morning with the words "so you think that I'm a prick do you?" He decided that he would spend Christmas in Sydney before heading off back to England.
We spent Christmas at the Strawberry Hills hotel partying with a bunch of good people and it wasn't a bad substitute for home. Unfortunately for everyone else I had one beer too many and ended up in sexual embrace with a married woman who was equally as drunk as I was. This may have been okay if the encounter was not on the pool table floor when there was a game in full flow, and her husband wasn't stood two feet away. I was sent back to my cockroach infested apartment before I could inflict more damage.
Ian left on Boxing day (the day after Christmas) and I was left to fend for myself. I was beginning to hate the job more with each coming day and I was in desperate need of a change. I felt totally trapped by my situation and it felt like I had no life at all. I'd get home from my shift around 6 am and immediately fall into bed. By the time I'd woken up the next day and had a meal it was time to go to work again. What a pitiful existence! I even had to work on New Years Eve and saw 1993 in surrounded by dirty pans. Andrea and Carlo came to help me for a while which was a lovely gesture but the restaurant was so busy that I didn't even manage to catch a glimpse of the world famous Sydney harbour fireworks out of the restaurant window. As I walked home the next morning I had sweated so much that the top of my legs were extremely chafed and in agony. I made for a pretty sight as I limped along Bourke Street in my dirty clothes with tears in my eyes and stinking of sweat. It took me over an hour to walk home, a journey that normally took me 20 minutes. The one New Year's kiss that I got from an early morning reveller was scant consolation for the worst New Years eve of my life.
A few weeks later, one January morning at 8 am I was to get the surprise of my life. I was just going to bed after my long shift when there was a knock on the door. I had never had a visitor up until this point so I assumed that it was somebody banging on the wrong door. With this in mind I ignored it for as long as I possibly could. The banging continued so I gave in and answered it. When I opened the door I was confronted by Renata who I had last seen in Israel almost four years earlier. We'd kept in contact since our travels together but I had no idea that she was coming to Australia. She'd arrived a day earlier and gone to the Strawberry Hills hotel to make enquiries about my whereabouts. Andrea had given her my address and she'd tracked me down.
Over the next four days Renata and I walked all over the city, laughing a lot, playing a lot of pool and generally enjoying each others company. During my days off from my dreaded job we headed to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains and visited the Three Sisters rock formation. Whilst walking around Katoomba a young guy came running out of his house in an ecstactic manner, "I'm a father, I'm a father", he shouted at us before giving us both a kiss and running off in the direction of the hospital. I spent a few days walking around this area of outstanding natural beauty and the biggest memory I took from the place was the excited guy that had just had a baby. I guess that people play an important role in our lives.
When we returned to Sydney I was feeling refreshed from my trip to the Blue Mountains. I'd had a bit of time to think and thoughts of leaving Sydney had begun to circulate the carousel that is my mind. Renata said her goodbyes and headed off on a three month trip of Australia while I went back to work and planned my escape.
A few days later as I was getting ready for work when I was hit by ridiculously painful stomach pains. They came straight out of the blue and were far worse than any pain that I had ever previously felt. I dragged myself to the hospital and collapsed in a pile in reception. My dramatic entrance worked a treat. Before I knew it I was on a stretcher and being wheeled into a ward. "We're going to give you some pethidine sir", I was informed. I'd no idea what they were talking about but I agreed anyway, anything to take this pain away. A needle was promptly stuck into one of the veins in my arm and I was instantly perfectly content. I later found out that pethidine was an opiate. No wonder people get addicted to heroin this stuff was bloody marvellous.
Over the next week pethidine was to become my best friend. By day five the pain had all but gone away but I continued to act like it was still there. I'm sure that the staff were on to me but I think that they felt sorry for me because I was on nil by mouth. Nil by mouth is all good and well when you're in agony and have no appetite but when the pain has gone the knowledge that you can't have any food is mental torture. It makes you want to eat more than you normal would. I got all my visitors to smuggle me food in.
I was diagnosed as having irritable bowel syndrome which was probably brought on by the stress of my job. This was the final straw I knew that I was never going to return to JBF - in my mind they'd Just Been Fucked off. As soon as the decision to leave had been made it was as if an incredible weight had just been lifted off my shoulders. It was time to hit the road again, thankfully I only had to give a weeks notice on the apartment.
Of the few options that I could think of fruit picking seemed like the most appealing. I'd already done it in Israel so at least I sort of knew what I was getting myself into. Nobody needed to know that I wasn't actually very good at it. A quick read of the book Work Your Way Around The World told me that it was soon to be grape picking season in the Mildura area. There was even a number to ring of somebody that could help to find me a job. The name of the guy was Tim Nunan, I'll never forget his name he is the guy that helped me to escape from my Sydney employment hell. Although the book was already two years old I rang the number and was immediately offered a job picking grapes in a small outback settlement called Dareton. The job was going to start in two weeks time. Just enough time to hand in my notice, say goodbye to my friends in Sydney and terminate the lease on my cockroach infested apartment.
It struck me that I had been in Sydney for the best part of three months and during this time I had largely been surrounded by gay men. Before I came to Sydney the impression that I had of Australian men had largely been formed using Crocodile Dundee as my example. From my own experiences this could not have been further from the truth. Working in the gay area of Sydney I'd seen more guys in dresses and leather bondage gear than I'd seen in jeans and a t-shirt. My visits to the Albury and the Taxi club had opened my eyes wider than they had ever been opened before. It was time to head to the outback to see where all the real men were.