The cane bins were frequently empty so we had time to nap, some nights we slept for 3 or 4 hours.

The night shift for some workers was ideal, it gave them a significant pay bonus and the chance to work in cooler conditions. However, I really disliked night work, I found sleeping during the daytime virtually impossible and quickly built up a sleep deficit. It left me feeling incredibly grubby and tetchy, unable to enjoy any free time during the day.

It had only been 4 weeks since we moved into our new home, a third part of an interesting stilted Queenslander home in Cairns. Already the cycling to and from the sugar mill had been replaced by a ride/share arrangement with a co-worker. Unfortunately our shifts swung out of sync as we both took any overtime available. This left me having to cadge a lift with others, use the infrequent bus service or hitch-hike. Some days as I got back to the house mid morning or lunch time I was beside myself with fatique and strung out on caffeine overload. It just wasn’t working for me.

To compound things the bedroom was incredibly stuffy during the daytime. I would open the front door and the small bedroom window to get some relief. The mattress was an old foam affair that made me sweat even more. When I got back from the mill I would shower, drink a load of fluid, cram some food in my mouth and crash. Sleep came instantly but was fleeting and fitful, my body against the foam mattress would sweat, sometimes my hair was soaked when I woke up. My only means of feeling better was to get out onto the verandah with a sleeping bag. The fresher air was helpful, but sleep was more difficult to achieve because of all the activity around me.

One third of the house was occupied by an unemployed couple who fought frequently. They had little money and were living on the edge. During the daytime it was more peaceful, but as the afternoon wore on their friends would turn up in utes with dogs barking. The noise level would surge as a turntable was filled with vinyl.

In the other third were the Aboriginal family we met when we moved in. Grandpa, Mum, Dad, his brother and three children. They were incredibly friendly and well organised. The kids went off to school with Mum each morning, the 2 young men were away working on a Tableland cattle station which left Grandpa in the house during the daytime. He would potter around the place from early morning, I don’t think that he did anything constructive, but he was always on the move. I could hear him plodding around, moving things and scraping chairs on the wooden floor. What was he doing?

Persistent activity during the daytime was tweaked to the max from mid-day onwards as Grandpa instigated his daily grogfest. Sometimes when I was sleeping out on the porch I would wake with an inexplicable eerie feeling and realise that he was sitting by me on the door step. He always had a stubbie in one hand, a smoke in the other and a ripped cardboard case beside him. As soon as I opened my eyes he would offer me a bottle. My sleep addled state only allowed me to smile inanely, shake my head and scream like a banshee deep down in my core. Eyes would swing in their sockets like scorched castanets. He would grin and take another swig as he lolled against the weatherboard. This was my cue to go inside and seek some solace there, back to the heat and sultry murk that was my depleted oxygen cell. By this stage my brain would be jiggling inside my skull, sleep, oh please let me have some sleep.

Dream after dream would be disturbed by Grandpa as he sculled the beer, or the young folk hooting raucously on the other side of the building. When the sun swung around to where Grandpa was sitting he would move under the house. His hammock set up so that he could still see things on the street. When the alcohol had stewed his senses he would begin to sing, it sounded like some dreary ancient warrior tune that young Aboriginals sang as they endured agonies of their teeth being smashed out with sticks during rite of passage! With his hand he would tap out a monotonous beat on a stilt that supported the house.

Eventually I struggled to differentiate between dream and reality, couldn’t tell if I was awake in Hell or slithering in and out of a nightmare. It had to stop, I was incapable of doing simple things such as going grocery shopping without feeling miserable and clumsy. On night shift week I would barely eat so I started to lose condition.

Temporary relief was provided by wearing wax earplugs. Being wax they were able to be molded into a perfect fit in my ear and excluded practically all external noise. Once the plugs were in place my body temperature seemed to go up which made the sweating worse. Perhaps the ears also act as body temperature regulators? In time the earplugs slid out and I would waken in a haze and have to jam them back in. I gave up with these after the second round of night shift because they were too much hassle in the intense humidity of Cairns.

Leonie was generally sympathetic, but understandably fed up of me being spaced out. We could do very little in our spare time when I was on night shift because I needed to put my head down and sleep whenever the opportunity arose. Our solution was genius. We decided to pool our money and buy a campervan, it didn’t matter about the condition as long as it drove, it would be somewhere for me to sleep after a nightshift. If I was struggling to sleep I could always get in a campervan and drive off to a quiet location for a few hours kip.

We scoured the local papers and found a VW campervan for sale in Edmonton at $550. The advert said it was driveable but needed some work, I could fix it. We had enough money so called from a nearby payphone and arranged to go over to Edmonton. It was an ancient split screen van with a crack across the passengers window. The tyres were worn down and the valences were rusted up but it started immediately. We were mobile. Score!

In a plume of black smoke we drove away like royalty. After dropping Leonie at the house I pushed a light blanket and pillow into the back and set off straight away to the mill for the next ration of night shift. In the car park I slept like a log for 2 hours. It was bliss. From then on the sleep issue ceased to be a problem for me and I was able to work as many hours as possible to build up some funds.

I have never worked a night shift since finishing at the sugar mill and have massive respect to anyone who does. You are made of much sterner stuff than me. Most creatures thrive by sleeping from sundown til dawn, I subscribe to that ethos entirely.