The building looked to be leaking some kind of wet grey smoke as we drove past, and trails of an airy spume funded the clear sky with a stink of old blood and long dead flesh.
Through the one open gateway that led inside and into the darker compounds we glimpsed a youth standing by a water trough plunging the steaming pink and grey entrails of slaughtered animal into a trough of slop, and despite the heat of the day he was wearing knee-high black rubber boots, a long black apron and black elbow length gloves. A tight black cap. An acolyte to the dark trades of this forbidding industry.
The car chatter stopped here for a moment, and all thoughts of a session off the pier were immediately seasoned by what was once just a hearsay knowledge, but now stood fully reinforced, and that was that all the bloody waste drained off the floor of this killing place was piped away into the ocean and off the same ancient wooden piles where we were hoping to loiter.
Jostling hordes of hungry sharks slipping through the bloodied water there, biting indiscriminately, ravenous, toothy, those quickened shadows.
Hundreds of beasts stood about the weedy lots surrounding the abattoir, bellowing in their week old hunger, and here and there a tame cow, calved into a family whose farm now lay listless and overgrown, sequestered by a bank unable to realize their loss.
Calm animals raised up with farm children now barracked up high in Fortitude Valley commission homes foraged the bare lots and wandered the lonely fence lines.
Byron Bay was not a home for itinerants in 1964, and as much as the Cape and its convected lines of breaking swell beckoned so many, the settlement price of a temporary home in the small town repulsed all but a few.
Sydney trains were often met by the bulky constabulary, and touring youths from cities north and south of the town were sometimes ungently sheared, then gently beaten before being sent back home.
Some of the frontier survivors however fronted up to Alby, the Works Foreman, and always well before dawn, all of them contracted to apply for work by the local dole office, and one by one were generally waved away and summarily dismissed as useless, not worth the waste of a day’s trial.
Squat little man was Alby, broad in shoulder and narrow in brow. A hat wearer in all weather, unsmiling and restlessly intolerant of Sydney surfers looking for a job in town, and all his interviews were timed to coincide with the morning smoko.
Alby had no interest in handshakes, introductions, or names or experience, his eye was for capable hands, thick arms and wide shoulders, and in these attributes most of us were well endowed, after six months of travel from Sydney and hundreds of hours in the water on the way up the coast.
New starters from out of town would wait in the yard, standing around, as the abattoir workers streamed out of the buildings on the morning’s first whistle, all of them heading for either the lunchroom or the kiosk across the road. Men and women from the boning rooms with their white overalls and caps lightly covered with animal grease, hooded men from the freezer rooms muffled up in layers of rags and old sacking, slaughtermen with their bare forearms and faces crusted with heavy sprays of blood, local toughs wearing scabbards full of razor edged knives. Cookermen, boilerkeepers, yardmen, and everywhere amongst them the rust colour of blood and the smell of its corruption.
Around and about us they hurried, without a glance, but their passing low murmurs and subdued laughter buried us in doubt. Townsmen.
The lunchroom was furnished with a dozen bare tables and benches, three large shining urns, and all around the walls were stacked bags and packs, lunch boxes and small leather suitcases. Everybody knew their seat, card players and newspaper readers, solitary old-timers and raw knuckled toughs. Foremen and leading hands ate elsewhere, union delegates conspired in the doorways, pay clerks loosened their ties on entry, and tightened them on exit. Everybody smoked. The back table was reserved for the card players; the walls were covered with union posters and football timetables.
A calendar of big-breasted women was tacked above fridge and it read January all year, nobody dared turn her over.
Young islanders lounged outside in the sunshine and for twenty minutes the killing business was forgotten. The animal pens too grew quiet, and a couple of bearded crows dropped down onto the scraps of flesh that had fallen from the offal carts.
A couple of younger men took their flasks across the road and around the back of the kiosk and settled themselves there on the sand and under the meagre shade of a leaning casuarina, where they watched the sea.
Alby lead the new starter into and through the main killing hall, a vast high ceilinged room littered with large stainless steel containers containing hooves and stripped heads, past the dozens of chain-hung cattle not ten minutes dead, past the wall-eyed beasts killed and skinned by the first shift and whose muscles still twitched and rippled under their cooling and marbled flesh.
Carcasses of skinned and discarded beasts were loaded into a small rail truck, as were the unborn calves, the slinks; sliced away and barely alive inside the transparent tents of their cows protective uteri, all dumped there together in a multicoloured gelatinous mass.
Down a corridor lined with wheelbarrows full of intestines, and into a room containing two large scalding baths open on one side to a couple of yellow painted pens, one scoured clean by steam hoses, the other crammed with noisome pigs. A yard of shuffling and grunting swine all rippled through by contagions of panic and lust.
The pens were separated by a low wooden gate and raceways rose from the concrete holding yards on the outside of the building where a hundred more pigs screamed their displeasure at being compacted into this narrow course.
A moving rail was built into the wall of the empty pen, and a deep gutter ran around the floor. A pair of wired up headtongs and a full butcher’s scabbard hung from a notch in the wall and the eastern suburbs boy was asked to sit and wait there for a spell. Not for long said Alby, just until Jimmy K finishes smoko, and by the way, you’ve got a job in the hide room later.
Alby left the lad and walked back through the vats where he stopped to talk to two large islanders, both of whom looked at the new starter over his shoulder during the conversation. Somebody said something amusing and even when they were laughing their hard gaze held firm on him.
The two roofless pens stood open to the north west and received the morning sunshine, and the eastern suburbs boy levered himself up onto the low wall that separated them and put his back into the warm sun. Behind him the pigs rubbed up and rumbled with eachother, grunting with a rancor, some males attempted futile mountings in the packed enclosure and had their exposed genitals attacked. They devoured each other’s excreta before it reached the floor and everywhere the new starter gazed down into that small room he saw Bedlam.
He looked over at the electric head tongs and saw that they were covered with a fine whiskery mass, and were all glued up with an opaque greasy substance, food enough for the dozen or so clusterflies that moved about the electrodes like a scrummaging scab.
Jimmy K was a young South Sea Islander, his great-grandparents a blackbirder’s profit and whose family had now lived in the town for generations, he had developed both a knockabout humour and a fearsomely efficient way with a killing knife.
Jimmy K was the leading pig-sticker in the plant, and he showed no surprise as he wandered into the pen after smoko and saw the eastern suburbs boy perched up there on the sunny wall.
Another new starter sent here for the testing, another little show for the old hands.
Jimmy nodded a brief hello and walked over to the power switch that governed the jolt that the head tongs delivered and flicked it on, then he lifted his scabbard of knives from their hook and fastened it around his waist, shrugging it down onto his hips. He took a small whetstone from a pocket in his rubber apron and spat onto it, then he began to sharpen his knives. They were all thin 15 cm stabbing blades and Jimmy carefully stroked them down the stone each in turn, until they were keen to his satisfaction.
That done, he retrieved a half smoked cigarette from a gap in the brickwork and lit it up, then wandered over to the gate separating the two pens where he looked down onto the restive animals that waited on him, pensively smoking the cigarette down before he flicked it away and into them. A large sow immediately snarfed the butt down.
He turned towards the new starter and smiled, showing a dazzling mouthful of white teeth in his pleasant brown face, then turned away and took the headtongs off the wall, leant over the gate and clamped them onto the head of the nearest pig – very quick now.
The electrocuted pig screamed in surprise, ejaculated, shat and fell rigid all in seconds and Jimmy slid the gatebolt down and drew the stunned beast into the killing pen before any frenzy gained momentum. He then bent over the stunned beast and cut a neat slit in its heel for the shackle end and flicked on the power for the moving rail, he attached the shacklechain to the rail and the convulsing pig was raised up and trundled over to a far corner, shivering all over.
He quickly moved back to the gate and buzzed out the next animal, dragged the beast into the blood pen and slit and shackled and hung it, then he moved back for another, another.
Jimmy stunned and shackled up another six and then another six, and within minutes the pen was three sides lined with flesh.
He laid up the electric headset back onto its notch and took a knife to the first pig, and he placed the point precisely in the centre of its neck, just in front of the breastbone.
He severed the carotid arteries and jugular veins in one quick movement but then blocked the wound tight with his knife-hand, which he jammed hard into the deep slit, blade uppermost.
Here the test.
The new starter, away and off the wall now and standing in the only bare corner of the pen, could only gape at the rapid development of the industrial slaughter as Jimmy K turned and bestowed upon him yet another flashing Islander smile, and removed his fist from the deep cut.
A rich pulsing spurt of arterial blood gouted into the room and the choking animal gave out with a bubbling scream straight from the depths of Hades. Awakened to an imminent death the pig scrabbled its cloven feet at the concrete pen wall and heaved about on its shackled foot with great spastic writhings.
Regular spurts of blood emptied out of the beast as Jimmy walked his walls and attended to each upended animal. Skilled and calm, knowing where the blood would come from, keeping clean, switching knives as they grew blunt, his black rubber apron and gloves opalescent with bloody sheen; he moved serenely through the great ponds of blood that gathered around him and seeped slowly off the floor and into the deep gutters and he killed them all.
And all the walls were red now, and one by one the great beasts bled to death and became still, double mouthed, both agape.
Two months later Jimmy K and the new starter would sometimes drive into the town for lunch, spattered as they were with the commercial gore of the abattoir, and both would lean against his ancient Mercedes outside the Great Northern in the warm sun, eating pies, and freaking out the tourists.