Saturday night in the bush
It was mid-October, and while in most countries people start to open the windows to let in a refreshing breeze, be it the pinch of a cool wind in fall or the balmy aroma of spring, we kept our doors shut. Why? Flies. Annoying flies landing on your lips and eyes and inseminating maggots in all of your food. In the Top End, we are forced to remain in the confines of unnatural air conditioning, for health reasons.
Except on one Saturday night, we forgot to shut the back door. We must have left it open accidentally between runs to and from the freezers and cool rooms around the back of the building. We also forgot to lock the back gate, which is to keep dingoes away from the rubbish and avoid break-ins from locals, which no one will say out loud but it’s what they mean.
So on that sticky, mid-October Saturday night in the build-up it was 8:30pm, 30 minutes after we had finished serving dinner. Natalie was at the dishwashing station, Lionel was cleaning up the bain-maries and I was spraying the food prep station clean. We had Red Hot Chili Peppers “Californication” at full volume, making normal speech impossible.
All of a sudden, over the music, we heard a deep, forceful “HEEEEEEEEEEEEEY!” Natalie and I looked up at each other, a confused look on both of our faces. The noise came again. “I don’t think that’s Lionel!” she screamed me. Then we heard it again. This time it was more drawn out. “HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY!”
I walked closer to the back door and through the hallway saw the plumber, resting his right forearm on the top of the door and propping himself up.
“Hey, Mark, what are you doing here?” I laughed. He is a character. A character that belongs on Character Tuesday. He’s young, in his late 20s. The kind of person that sits at a barbecue and talk about the time he got the clap in high school. The one who always seems a bit disinterested but will then ask you questions. And, like many Aussies I’ve encountered, “loves his grog.” He’ll often sit at the rec room and smash four or five beers after work before he asks if someone with a car could drive him home.
“I’m so hungry!” he said. He did look hungry. And a bit tipsy. I could tell he had been at the local pub. Well, let’s get this man some food, I thought.
“Hey, Lionel!” I called out to the chef. I pointed to Mark. “Can he come in and eat?” I asked. “Sure,” Lionel said, “Just make sure he wears a hairnet.” And after Lionel brought him a hairnet he walked through the back of the kitchen towards the dining room in his flip flops and shorts. “What time do you guys get off?” he asked. I told him 10pm. He sat down at the table nearest to the kitchen doors and watched the news on the T.V. “So what time do you guys get off?” he asked again. “10:00,” I told him.
I brought him a plate of frittata and Mexican minced meat, the easiest thing I could grab from what was left over from dinner. I kept an eye on him while I finished cleaning up the dining room, wiping the food crumbs off the display cases and taking the soup warmers to the dishwashing station to be washed. “What time is it now?” he asked me. I pointed to the clock.
Natalie looked over at me and shook her head. “Now I have more dishes to do!” she sneered. I told her not to worry about it, that I would do his dishes because I let him in. After about ten minutes, he left to walk home and Natalie came up to me. “He is so weird,” she said.
We finished our shift as normal, and when 10:00pm came around, the security guard showed up to drive us from the kitchen back to camp. As soon as we were leaving, he came up to me.
“Allison,” he asked, “Did someone come up here after 8:00pm?”
“Yeah, I let him in and gave him some food,” I explained. I looked at Natalie. She must have told the security guard. How else would he have known?
“Well, that’s a huge breach of company policy and a huge liability. That’s a big no-no,” he said. Oh, shit. I had no idea. He went on to explain that letting someone in after 8:00pm gives us no protection. He could slip, he could fall, and he could have sexually assaulted us and could have stolen something. The security guard leaves at 8:00pm, so it would have just been us against the perpetrator.
“I have to write it in my end of the night report, but I won’t report it to the mining company…that way you won’t get in too big of trouble,” he said. Because something like that is grounds for immediate dismissal. It’s more complicated than it seems. The mining company contracts the service company (who I was hired by) to manage all the utilities (housekeeping, kitchen, grounds, maintenance and cleaning) of its properties. And there is always the looming fear of making a big mistake and losing the contract with the mining company.
He dropped us off back at camp and told me not to worry. Really, I shouldn’t have. I considered it my boss’s fault that I was completely unaware of a policy, especially if it was that serious. Even still, I felt sick to my stomach. I should have known. Now, thinking back to the situation, it was a no brainer.
The next morning, we all got to work and started as normal, as if nothing had happened. Lionel gave us a pep talk. “Just keep it between us that we let someone in,” he said, “Don’t talk about it. We’re a team and we’re going to get past this.”
Natalie looked me. “That’s the first time he’s ever said ‘we’re a team,’” she shook her head.
A few hours later as I was refilling the fruit refrigerator one of the refrigeration mechanics came in to take a look at something. He spoke for a second with Lionel on his way out.
As soon as he left Lionel called us together, a bit nervous.
“Everyone knows,” he said.
“How is that possible?”
“The fridgy just came up to me and said he heard Mark was here last night. Everyone knows. John [head boss of camp] sent out a mass email to all of maintenance.”
“Are we going to get fired?” I asked. I was starting to get nervous. I mean, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Yeah, I feel kind of stupid, but I’m a working holiday visa. This isn’t my career. I can easily find another job. And to make matters easier, I’m not even with this service company. I’m contracted through a temp agency.
“Well, I’m a bit nervous because I already have disciplinary actions against me,” he shook his head, “so my job is already on the line.” And actually, it is his fault. He is the one who knew about the “don’t let anyone in after 8:00pm policy.” He should have known. But something tug at me.
“I’ll take the blame, really, Lionel, this job isn’t anything for me and I would hate for you to get fired over this,” I said. Meanwhile, Natalie was there, slightly nervous but calm. She didn’t have much to worry about. Her uncle is the head chef, which gives her immunity. And after all, she is the one who told on us. If she hadn’t said something to the security guard, we wouldn’t be in this position.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” Lionel said, “We’re going to say that you, Allison, let him in, and I was in the office doing paperwork and I didn’t realize he was here. You’re alright that way, Allison, because you didn’t know the policy. That way we’re all in the clear. And you, Natalie, you were just at the dishwashing station and you didn’t know either.”
And like that we made a pact to lie about what happened and “save our own asses” like I had been encouraged to do since the day I arrived.
Monday morning, we all had to meet before our shift began to have a meeting with the head chef of the camp. He raked us over the coals again for doing something that would cause so much liability. Looking straight at me, he said, “No one comes in after 8:00pm. It doesn’t matter who they are. And especially not after having drunk alcohol. That is a huge problem.”
My fear of confrontation and fear of not being the outstanding, number one most responsible student were kicking in. I felt like I was back in high school, scared of facing a mistake I had made. It wasn’t a big deal to me, but given the stakes, a small thing like letting someone into the mess could jeopardize my safety and a multi-million dollar contract. I was replaying the event over and over again in my head, thinking of how it should have gone differently. I wanted to tell people, to talk about it with anyone I could until they confirmed that I had nothing to worry about, but I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell anyone. It was our “team’s” dark secret.
Make up some lies, will you
The day after that, I walked out of my donga before heading to work and ran into Mark and another plumber. The other plumber who was with him is a fan of “taking the piss out of me,” and as soon as I saw him I sighed and said “I don’t want to hear it.”
“No, don’t worry,” the other plumber said, “I’m not here to give you a hard time. We’re coming by later to apologize to the kitchen team. Mark doesn’t even remember going to the mess, he was that drunk. We came and woke him at his house Sunday morning because he wasn’t answer his phone.”
“Yeah, I started laughing—“
“And we told him to stop, that this wasn’t funny and it was serious. He’s lucky that the mining company didn’t find out because he would have lost his job,” he said, cutting Mark off.
“Well, I promise, I’m never letting you or anyone into the mess after 8:00pm again, I’ve learned my lesson.”
“I saw the head chef today and he shrugged and said, ‘apparently Allison let in another drunk person after 8:00pm again last night’”
“What?! Of course I didn’t let another person in, I’m not an idiot!”
“That’s all clearly coming from Natalie, she must be telling him things.”
Now, three days after the incident occurred, we’re still talking about it, replaying the incident and discussing what a big problem it was. I covered for Lionel, who clearly knew the rules, and everyone thinks I’m the dumb yank who lets people in. And the head chef’s niece is feeding him lies about me. Somehow humans figure out how to make everything dramatic.
That afternoon, I was refilling the meat pie refrigerator (yes, we have an entire fridge dedicated to feeding the miner’s love of meat pies) when the two plumbers walked in. The head chef called me, Lionel and Natalie to come sit down, and we sat there as Mark said he was sorry for causing trouble on Saturday night and that it wouldn’t happen again.
“I don’t remember coming here, actually,” Mark admitted out loud.
“Yeah, I was in the office doing paperwork,” Lionel added just for show, knowing the head chef was next to him.
“Well, I hope it was a good feed!” Natalie said with a big smile. Everyone laughed.
“That was,” I later told the head chef, “The only person I let in. That only happened once. I don’t know what you think but that was a onetime thing.” He stared at me for a second then changed the subject.
It comes to an end
Finally, after three days of endless talk about the incident, it was over. Things went back to normal and the closest we got to letting people in after 8:00pm was in jokes. I confronted Natalie, forcing her to admit to me that she had been the one to tell on us. I later went into the boss’s office to apologize to him. He didn’t even really seem to care that much.
But for Lionel, things went differently. After I came back from my week off, he was gone. The boss addressed us as a group.
“Lionel has been terminated. He didn’t fit in with our values,” he said. So really, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference if I covered for him or not.
Featured photo: A restaurant in Melbourne. Description of how I felt during those three days.