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WHEN A PRETTY SMILE STIFLES THE FIGHT Karen Thurgood, aged 20, and 5ft 7in. is a night-club bouncer. Bubbling with personality, she shrugs off any thought of danger. 'I just act nice and friendly, just like one of them. They respect me for doing a job.' Sandy-haired Karen, with the widest, friendliest grin in Toowoomba, south-east Queensland, was chosen to stand at the door of The Court House, a $1.1m. refurbished mecca for the rural ravers, when there were 16-stone footballers standing ready in line for the job. 'I put on my black pants, white shirt, jacket and black tie and realise that anybody intent on causing trouble is only trying to draw attention to himself. Once you understand that, it helps a lot when you're called on to the dance-floor.' The moment there is a disturbance in the boisterous crowd of 400-500 dancing to disco, Karen, from Newport Pagnell, knows she's got several male heavies to help sort it out. But her sweet reason always seems to work. Like the night a drunken female customer locked herself in the toilet. 'I got another guy to help me get her out, then I escorted her to the door to make sure she got into a cab safely. She went quietly. 'We are only there to keep the peace. As the boys come in some of them ask me if I can fight and what self-defence I use. The girls find it odd to see a female bouncer and want to know: "Aren't you worried you're going to get hurt?" ' She's not. 'It's mainly common sense and talking people out of being aggressive. I did a self-defence course when I was 18 and then security training where they taught us all the moves.' David Ash, her boss at the Court House club, says: 'She's always such a happy person she can change people's moods.' Toowoomba has been celebrating its annual carnival of flowers and Karen was runner-up in a Queen quest to raise money to help pay for the entertainment. Between her canteen work and nightclub bouncing she raised $1,510 through car washes, raffles and cosmetics parties. But there is a dark, underside to the rural city renowned for its gardens, its turn-of-the-century mansions once owned by a squattocracy who reigned over thousands of square miles of pasture; it has good seasons and gloomy spells, depending on rain. As grass turns tinder dry and farm incomes plummet, the effect is seen in doctors' waiting-rooms as despair brings on illness and psychological depression. Surveillance cameras have had to be mounted in the streets to help prevent an upsurge in crime. Fresh-faced Karen works by day at a hospital caring for the mentally ill, and sees the end result of the seasonal downturn. 'I serve in the canteen and every day I see the unstable, the mentally troubled, and the victims of drug and alcohol addiction. It's interesting to meet them to get a chance to chat with them and find out what is wrong with them. Sometimes it's hard to take, because they seem so normal. But they are sick people who are certifiable and have problems in their lives that handicap them. 'I give them a cup of coffee and get to know them. A lot of them just enjoy somebody saying "g'day, how are you?" You know, that somebody cares? It is,' she assures you, 'a very enjoyable job.' She gets to the canteen some mornings after only four hours' sleep. 'I am on the door from 10 pm until about 2.30 am.' Her long-distance coach driver father, who can be 2,000 kms away, is confident she can look after herself in her $11-an-hour job. But her mother, Moira Thurgood, admits: 'John, and I lie awake some nights waiting to hear Karen's car arrive. Toowoomba is not as bad as a lot of places, but nevertheless some disturbing things happen at night. A fortnight before my eldest daughter's wedding, her fiance was beaten up badly. Then Karen's car was broken into when she was raising money for her quest and lost a brief-case containing documents and money. She made up for the lost cash from her own pocket. 'She also had scratch lottery tickets stolen, but some English friends of ours living nearby kindly made up for that loss; their caravan had been broken into recently and they knew how she felt. The downturn in the rural industry has made so many people around here depressed and they see no way out of it. I took my youngest daughter to see where Karen works the other day and she found it hard to understand. I explained that it wasn't so long ago they locked up young mothers here for having a baby out of wedlock.' Karen's ambition? 'I want to get into the tourist industry. I am going to England next year to go on tour with a leading firm so I can learn the ropes and hopefully get a job with them. I have aunts and uncles all over the country and I'm going to see my 94-year-old grandfather in London.'