Being a student whose surname isn’t Trump, Gates or McDuck, means figuring out a way to indulge your nascent refinement of taste in food, drink, fashion, culture, travel and real estate for somewhere under thirty-five cents a week. And it is generally advisable to keep within at least a flailing arm’s length of the parental teat, in case the money dries up there.
Perhaps you wish to try for total independence. No handouts, no bailouts – and therefore no guilt. Fuck the Bank of Mum and Dad, right? Well, let me tell you this: all of the other banks are run by Satan and his rotten maw salivates pure evil at the prospect of giving some dumb kid a credit card.
About three minutes after receiving mine in the mail, I owed one of these banks ten thousand dollars. And that, friends, is how I came to drop out of university in order to go and work for a year at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, deep in the sweaty armpit of Australia, making curry for asylum seekers.
The Curtin Detention Centre is forty kilometres outside of Derby, one of the northernmost towns in Western Australia. Unlike Broome, which is two hours further south, and home to some of Australia’s most beautiful beaches, Derby is separated from the coast by great mudflats, which are home to Australia’s most voracious sand flies – the piranhas of the sky. Still, in their favour, they are all that stand between the townspeople and the horde of saltwater crocodiles plotting bloody murder beneath the murky ocean waters nearby.
The Christmas Island Detention Centre, which housed asylum seekers (euphemistically known as ‘clients’) from many nationalities, and all genders, had already confirmed the Department of Immigration’s suspicions that different ethnic groups don’t always get along. For this reason the Curtin centre, where I worked, was an experiment in homogeneity. All of the asylum seekers were Afghan males, mostly Hazara, with the odd Pashtun thrown into the mix.
Anybody who has eaten at an Afghan restaurant will know that their traditional cuisine is spicy grilled meat, served with rice – and they love biryani. Therefore, the powers that be at Curtin, in all of their great wisdom, determined that we serve the clients curry (close enough, right?) and Irish stew, bulked out with an assortment of vegetables. I don’t know who taught the clients the word ‘shit’, but it wasn’t long before we became used to receiving sardonic queries such as, “What is for dinner tonight, brother? I think, shit?” or “why is your food so shit?” The fact that the staff meals were comprised of their leftovers did little to assuage the clients’ chagrin.
The shifts in the kitchen were eleven hours long and we got just one day off every four weeks. Every day a team of five kitchen hands stood in one room for hours on end, chopping zucchini, potato, pumpkin, cauliflower, capsicum, carrot, parsley and eggplant. In that same unventilated room, somebody would feed giant bags of onions and chillies through a dicing machine, because apparently only the weak need functioning eyesight when using sharp knives. We were given a CD player, though, and a copy of The Best of Creedence Clearwater Revival, which holds up surprisingly well even after the forty-thousandth listen.
During service time it was all hands on deck. The clients approached the bain-maries in single file to receive two generous scoops of rice, a ladleful of slop from one of the three available options and a bit of salad. Dessert was a piece of fruit or a small square of Sara Lee’s finest packaged cake. After service, we would clean up and then go home.
Home was the Boab Inn, a motel on the ‘main drag’, which was also the local pub. Now, everybody that came to work at the detention centre, and most of the local population, had made their way to Derby to escape problems somewhere else – problems typically caused or exacerbated by alcoholism. So getting dog drunk was by far the most popular way to unwind after a hard day’s work. This was closely followed by shouting, fighting, breaking things, and, if there was any energy left, sex.
The owners of the Boab Inn had to pinch themselves every morning to confirm that they had indeed suddenly fallen ass backwards into a mountain of cash, despite the fact that they were eager to pretend they could take or leave all of the sweet government money that lined their pockets. The world of Derby revolved around that place. And because nothing pleased the catering managers at the detention centre more than telling staff just how easily replaceable we were – pissing off the Boab Inn was a fireable offence. Enter: my arch-nemesis, Janice, the head of housekeeping at the inn.
One awful morning after a punishing night of drinking, I stumbled into the shower, kicking over my dinner container from the night before which was by my bed, spilling gravy on the floor. I showered, tottered back to my bed and sat down, still soaking wet, to contemplate crawling into a hole to die. Then I got dressed and went to work. When I arrived at work I was summoned to the main office, where the boss handed me a letter from the Boab Inn to read in front of him. The letter of complaint said that I had taken a shit on the floor and pissed my bed. Poor old Janice had no choice but to charge an extra $100 to my room for her troubles. I managed to convince them that the shit was really gravy, the piss was just the wetness of my freshly showered butt and that I was at least a little bit housebroken. In any case, I was warned that if any more complaints from Janice were received, I would be shipped out.
As if to prove that God, if he exists, is a rotten bastard, a few weeks later I did actually piss the bed for the first time since childhood. I woke up early, in a puddle of what was definitely my own urine and froze in horror. I had only paid off half of my credit card debt at that point and losing my job would be a major disaster. I had an hour before I needed to be on the bus for work and although most people staying at the Boab were asleep, Janice would be up and at her post in the laundry, guarding the clean sheets.
Luckily, I still had not returned the key to my old room and the only hope of keeping my job was to get in there and get my hands on those wonderful unsoiled sheets. The was only one problem: the room was occupied by tourists. Still, I had to try. So I crept across the courtyard of the inn, unshod and still wet with piss, the Mission: Impossible theme playing in my head. If Tom Cruise could cable drop into a secure CIA facility and hack a computer, I thought, I could totally steal some clean sheets.
As I slid the key into the lock, I held my breath, crossed myself and then slowly opened the door to see what fate awaited me. Jackpot! The tourists had left early to go sightseeing. Suckers. I took their quilt, their sheets, their mattress protector and raced it all back to my room. Then I gathered my own piss-stained bedding and scurried back to the mercifully vacant room and remade their bed. I saved my job and probably ruined their holiday.
Initially I flew out of Derby every four weeks to visit Perth, my old stomping ground. I returned home as a ghost, observing the lives of people I knew but no longer had much of a place with. I spent most of the money I had earned on expensive liquor and drugs that I would then consume alone, in my bedroom. After the second depressing trip home, I decided to stay north until I had paid off my credit card and saved enough money to move to Melbourne.
While I worked at Curtin, I helped set up a new kitchen on an unsheltered concrete pad in the middle of summer. Temperatures were often in excess of fifty degrees and cyclones would rage through the region, signalling their approach by turning the sky from cheerful blue to violent red. I stood for weeks on end in an inch of putrid water, washing dishes with bloodied hands, until my feet began to rot.
I watched as the heat, the constant boozing, the misery of the environment, the long days and the horrid work conditions wore down many of the people around me. Eventually they cracked and were sent home involuntarily. I traded goods such as clothing and instant noodles with the clients, prison style, for cigarettes. I tried my best to reassure them that if they kept faith, at some point they would receive the good news they were waiting for. They would be accepted into the country as Australians.
Today, in Melbourne, I often see faces I recognise from the detention centre. Former clients, maybe waiting for trains. I feel some relief that they finally made it into the lucky country. Sometimes, I say hello.
My time working at Curtin wasn’t life changing. I had hoped that it might be, but it wasn’t. Someone once told me that people don’t change, they just become more so. So now I’m back at university, still a drunk and back in credit card debt. The moral of the story: don’t get a fucking credit card.