The chicken sheds were the size of Wembley Stadium.
It was cold, but when you are given a brush and told to start sweeping something that size, you know you’re not going stay cold for long.
For the best part of a week, six hours a day, we swept. And swept. And swept. The movement – swing out arms, pull arms in, step back, repeat – and the monotonous swish, swish, swish of the brushes scraping the hard concrete were hypnotic. It was impossible to hear the tinny radio way over in the far corner and we were spread too far out to chat. Not that it mattered as chatting would have involved opening our mouths; it was bad enough breathing the chicken poop in and feeling it settle in the back of your throat without having it take a direct route through your mouth.
The fine ammonia powder got everywhere. As we brushed it created a cloud of dust that got into every pore, into our hair and ears as well up our noses. The taste stayed for days afterwards. No matter how many drinks we drank or how much strongly-flavoured food we ate, that taste overpowered everything.
As the minutes merged into hours and the hours merged into days and our blisters merged into callouses, we’d blink and realise it was time for a break or for lunch, or even the end of the day. Time stood still, yet at the end of the day it seemed like no time had passed at all.
That blank time allowed the mind to wander. So many memories, thoughts, stories would flit and flicker their way through my mind. I’d forget where I was and be transported to places I’d been to years ago, to my childhood or my wild teenage years. And sometimes I’d be transported to the future, to places I wanted to visit and to places I had no idea I wanted to visit.
It struck me how quickly the human mind turns in on itself when it has no external stimulus. Would this be how I’d cope if I ever found myself in gaol? Or if I was stranded on a desert island? (If I ever have to choose between the two, I’ll have the desert island please.)
The breaks were always welcome. Time to stretch out stiffening limbs, then sit down with a cup of bad coffee and chat. Usually about the chicken sheds – we couldn’t get away from thinking about them even on a break. And we all found we were having the same experiences. A kind of multi-tasking meditation. Why sit and do nothing, when you could meditate and sweep a six inch deep pile of chicken shit off a floor the size of a football stadium at the same time?
As all things do, sweeping the chicken shed came to an end. We stretched, yahooed and got ready for our next task.
This time we were outside. Yes! Fresh air! But it was cold. And raining.
We had to clean all the metal tubing and piping that takes feed, drugs, water and who knows what else, into the sheds once a new batch of chickens are installed.
The small metal parts were freezing to hold and the taps we were washing them under only flowed with cold water. As icy raindrops pelted the back of my neck and cold drips ran from my hair down my face, and as my fingers slowly went numb and I worried about frostbite as I held cold metal under cold water, we talked (yes, we were close now) and actually found ourselves reminiscing about the good old days of sweeping and thinking. Yes, we decided. Eating chicken shit was preferable to this.
Finally the days of cleaning the chicken sheds came to an end. Stretching out on the veranda of the volunteer accommodation, sipping a well-deserved beer we watched as smoke curled upwards in the distance.
It was coming from the chicken sheds.
They were on fire.
They burnt completely to the ground.
Electrical fault they said.
I won’t repeat what we said.