Wednesday, 10th September 1986
At 8pm I set off from Kings Cross on the train to Sydney Central. I changed there and got another train which was heading towards Campbeltown via Regent’s Park and Liverpool far into the western suburbs. I got off just before Liverpool at Warwick Farm Station and, following the instructions that Bronwyn had given me, I walked the short way to Homepride avenue. The bakery was at the end of the street. I found Gate 3 and went in.
It was a large modern factory bakery. It was very clean and well lit. There was a nice smell of baking bread and the whole place seemed quite pleasant. I introduced myself, signed on and began work at 10:30pm. My Australian work colleagues were very convivial. There was Guy, an ex-truck driver, Mary, a Yugolsavian-Australian lady saving up for a trip back home, and there was John who was the spitting image of Billy Conolly but without the accent.
The work was simple but tremendously boring. I had to take blue plastic bread crates from a pile that had obviously been returned from shops all over Sydney and feed them into a crate washer. I took crate after crate and placed them on a metal conveyer belt that fed into the crate washer. Mary would take them at the other end and stack them onto a pallet. Guy and Mike drove fork lift trucks and move the pallets back and forth into the bakery.
The crate washer was outside the main bakery. It was undercover but it was in the open air. It was quite cold outside but the steam and heat from the washer more than compensated for the coldness of the night.
Thursday, 11th September 1987
Time went quickly and we had a few breaks throughout the night. We paused for “lunch” at 3am and I had a meat pie in the canteen. It was the first time I had ever worked a night shift and I thought the idea of having “lunch” at 3am would take quite a bit of getting used to.
I finished my shift at 7am and caught a train, which was obviously a commuter train ferrying Liverpudlians into Sydney, back east. By 8:30am I was back in Kings Cross. I went to the bank, the bookshop and then back to the hostel and bed. I slept soundly until 4pm.
When I woke up I heard all about the events of the night before. Gary the New Zealander had annoyed a prostitute who had been standing outside the hostel window. He had got into a verbal fight with her and poured tomato ketchup onto her head from a first floor window of the hostel.
She had then tried to enter the hostel and had eventually broken the door. The police had been called and Gary had been arrested for minor assault. Mario, the Argentenian hostel cleaner, had sided with the prostitute. When the police had left Gary’s friend had threatened Mario with a knife. Wow, and I thought that crate washing was exciting !
I had dinner and then just after 8pm I headed out to Warwick Farm again to spend another night feeding the crate washer machine.
Friday, 12th September 1986
Just after midnight when I had returned from my first coffee break, Mike and Guy told me I would be replacing Guy on the fork lift. Guy wanted to do crate washing instead they explained. I protested that I didn’t have a fork lift licence but Mike assured me that no one else did either. I told him I had never even driven a fork lift truck before. He insisted it was just like driving a car. I told him that it didn’t look anything like the Mini that I had driven back home. He sighed and agreed to give me a quick lesson to prove me wrong.
We spent about 10 minutes with me reversing backwards and going forwards, picking up pallets and stacking them on top of each other. Mike then pronounced me fit to operate the truck. Guy, who had already taken over my old job feeding the crates into the washer, smiled and nodded in agreement.
I wasn’t really happy myself but I didn’t want to create a fuss. I spent the rest of the night driving the fork lift, gingerly picking up the pallets with the clean crates on them and taking them into the bakery and placing them at the head of the production line. I was scared I was going to lose control and run someone over but I made it through. I was glad when 7am came around. As I was clocking off I was told to come back on Sunday night and for the rest of the following week.
I fell asleep on the train and went to bed as soon as I got home. I probably dreamt of fork lifts doing wheelies on skid patches and overturning to crush buns.
When I awoke at 6pm I saw Canadian Steve standing before me in his holed jeans and reggae shirt. “Get up we are off to the pub” he announced. We went off to a pub nearby called the Rex. I had already heard that the Rex was the friendliest pub in the area and the one that the backpackers felt most comfortable visiting. Their steak sandwiches were the stuff of legend as well.
We stayed at the Rex till 1am drinking schooners of Fosters and Toohey’s Old. We were quite a cosmopolitan group that night; Steve, myself, an American lad, two Irish lads, an Indian, a South African, a Canadian girl and a Japanese girl.
Saturday, 13th September 1986
After breakfast Victor and I scanned the paper for rented accommodation. We went to Surrey Hills to look at a rather neat and tidy seven-room house. We went to the local estate agents about it. We told them were confident we could fill it but the estate agent was, probably understandably, sceptical about us, . “Come back on Monday, we may have something more suitable” he suggested.
We then went to another agent and had a look at a four-bedroom flat round the corner but we decided it was a shit hole. Finally we looked at a nicer place in Tudor Street but found it had just been let.
We gave up for the moment and went off to Paddy’s Market to look at the rotisserie chickens, kebabs and cheap shoddy shit they had on sale there instead. We did a bit of grocery shopping and then caught the train back to Kings Cross.
We sat chatting all evening at the hostel to two new arrivals. Josie was from Scotland, and Declan was from Northern Ireland. They had met each other on the Garuda flight from London and had just come straight from the airport.
I stayed up as long as I could until 5am. I knew I needed to get up as late as possible the next morning because I would then be awake until the end of my work shift on Monday morning.
Sunday, 14th September 1986
I got up at 1:30pm and walked around the neighbourhood. It was sunny and I noticed that the weather was certainly getting better. Sydney was now starting to grow on me. Now that I knew I had money coming in, I started to look at the place in a more confident and relaxed way. I decided that Kings Cross wasn’t all bad either.
It had its negative points: there were the hookers who constantly pestered you with their calls of “Hello darling, do you need a girl?”, there were the touts for the live sex shows who were a pain and worth crossing the road to avoid, there were drunks staggering around a lot of the time and there was often the smell of vomit on the streets.
On the other hand: there was always something going on, there was a constant supply of new travellers arriving from all over the world and meeting each other in the pubs and the hostels, There was also a interesting variety of shops and places to shop and eat.
There was a good fish and chip shop, lots of Thai Restaurants, a nice fruit and vegetable shop, a little book shop and a small bakery with its window filled with meat pies of all varieties, including my new favourites; the ones topped with mashed potato.
There was a rather expensive Ice Cream shop opposite the El Alamein fountain and it was surrounded by several souvenir shops and by the Commonwealth bank where I had just opened an account (and had now received the pin number for my cash card)
There were two big pubs, the Rex, which I knew well already, and the Goldfish Bowl. The Goldfish bowl was closer to the station but it was nowhere near as posh as the Rex. It was decorated heavily in the colours of its sponsor, Foster’s Lager, and was obviously named for its large glass window at the front.
There was a little shoe repairers at the station and they always played loud music which you could often hear as soon as you got off the train on the platforms below. Opposite the station was a modern shopping centre with a supermarket where I did my grocery shopping.
Kings Cross came to an end just after the station at the intersection of Darlighurst and Victoria streets. The sleazy Canberra Oriental Hotel was on the corner perched above the intersection.
Crossing that intersection you could see Sydney’s impressive skyline in the distance. If you went all the way across William Street, Victoria street re-emerged as Darlnghurst street on the other side. Just along from there was the Hare Krishna kitchen.
I walked around the whole area for more than an hour and ended up back at the little bookshop. Feeling in an Australian mood I bought a copy of “While the Billy Boils” a novel by Henry Lawson. I took it with me later when I got the train to Buttercup buns.
I had been asked to come earlier on Sunday night. The shift would be from 7:30pm all the way through to 5:30am.
I had been dreading the forklift driving but when I got there I found, to my pleasant surprise, that I was back feeding the crate washer.
Monday, 15th September 1986
I finished 10 hours of crate washing and caught the train back to Kings Cross. I slept until 6pm. Victor woke me and told me we still had had no luck finding a better place to live.
We went to Hare Krisna’s for dinner. Thankfully I was back on the regular 10:30pm to 7am shift for the rest of the week, so I didn’t need to leave Kings Cross until after 8pm.
Back at Buttercup I was still on crate washing. I wondered if the brief forklift driving episode had been down to Guy being somehow incapacitated on Thursday night. He seemed perfectly happy driving around now and showed no inclination to let me have a go again. Perhaps drugs or alcohol had been involved I wondered, but thought it better not to ask.
Tuesday, 16th September 1987
I went home on the train at 7am and slept again.
In the evening we went to the Rex and had their excellent steak sandwiches for $3.50.
Declan had already got a job as a nurse in an old people’s hospital. He been a nurse back at home and nurses were in short supply in Australia.
I could only have a Coke in the pub and at 8pm I had to leave them to their beers to go back to work.
Wednesday, 17th September 1986
After another night spent crate washing I went home and slept again
We all headed out to the pub and Declan amused us with his stories of his first days at work. In his lovely Ulster accent he told us all about the nasty jobs he had been given to do at the nursing home.
He had us all in hysterics with tales of old ladies who smashed glasses on the floor, people who had shat on his hands in the shower and how he had to wash the willy of an aborigine.
Sadly I had to leave the crew early again to catch the train back to Buttercup.
Sitting on the top deck of the train, I realised the downside of working nights. It meant that my social life would be curtailed. Although I could just catch the first two hours in the pub each night, I couldn’t drink and I would miss most of the banter.
Thursday, 18th September 1986
After another night spent crate washing I went home and tried to sleep.
There was a road mender outside drilling and hammering. When I asked him how long he would be doing the work, he told me a few days. He was nice enough and he said he was saving up to emigrate to Britain. I wondered if he was trying to dig a tunnel there.
At the hostel, Steve the Canadian in the room had found a flat and moved out. He left me with the address of a whorehouse, 20 Bayswater Road, and recommended I try it. I now had the bottom bunk. George was still on the bottom opposite me, whilst above him there was a new lad called Guy who was from Lambeth. He seemed quite posh and told us he went yacht racing.
That evening at the Rex we learned that Josie had spent three days trying to sell hair restorer on the streets of Sydney. She had found it too hard and had already given up and was now looking for work again.
Yet again, I had to leave them all to their fun and their drinking. I consoled myself with the fact that I was saving money and I knew the secret of why bread crates were so clean.
Friday, 19th September 1986
I spent a miserable night outside with the mind numbing job of crate washing. I even scratched and slightly burnt myself a few times as I got careless feeding the crates in to the washer. I was adamant this was it with Buttercup. I hoped they would terminate me that night.
As I was clocking off at 7am they asked if I could come back again on Sunday at 7:30pm. I readily accepted. I sat on the train back to Sydney thinking I was half glad to be still in work, half disappointed that my solitary nocturnal life would be continuing.
I did some laundry when I got back and then slept. I woke up too late, at 5pm, to go and collect my money from the Drake’s office at Martin Place.