A Plague on You.

‘Rats!’ exclaimed Sue, the student vet. She was newly arrived in the bayside community and was attending her first function. It was an Arts Council affair at the heritage listed council library. The room had fallen quiet.

‘What sorts of people keep rats?’ she continued, as she looked at her boss. Ken was the local vet and the most eligible man in town. He was tall, heavily moustachioed, wore a designer shirt, gold jewellery and Levi 501s. He preferred buttons to zips.

Everybody knew the answer to her question.

‘People like us,’ responded Angel, looking Sue in the eye. She was matter of fact. Angel was a recognised local artist and her work hung in local restaurants and professional offices. People bought her paintings from those places. It meant a little extra income for her occasionally. Angel had been born in the town and was the mother of two little boys. She had dark rings under her eyes, and she often stifled a yawn. Her brown hair was unkempt. Trevor, her husband, was tall, but slight. He dressed in workmen’s jeans and $6 grandfather shirts. He was standing slightly behind his wife, and shuffled his steel capped boots occasionally. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He felt he had never really fitted in with his wife’s circle of arty friends.

‘Oh, I’m sorry?’

‘You’ve nothing to apologise for,’ Angel was soft. ‘Keeping rats isn’t common and our doing so caused an …’

‘Uproar,’ said Trevor, as his wife searched for a word. His look was wry.

‘I’ll tell the story,’ said Ken. ‘Trevor’s family had bred and kept rats for generations. The rats had ancestry reaching back to the boats which landed the first settlers on the bay. I visited the family on occasions, and I’d been their vet.’

‘You’re a rat vet!’ Sue giggled and flashed her eyes at Ken.

‘If you keep sipping that wine the way you are, in no time, you’ll be known as ‘The Rat Vet’s Vat,’ Ken retorted and continued, ‘Trevor and Angel here, had twins. The old timers reckoned they were a punishment for their pre-marital love crimes. They married and over time the rat’s ownership transferred to Trevor and Angel. The locals knew about the rats, there were now hundreds of them, but it was knowledge not shared with outsiders. There were no problems until the twins started school. The school has always had difficulty retaining teachers. They only ever stay a year or two. Down here we regard ourselves as distinct from the city, but we are close enough to be part of it. The teachers tend to live in the city and commute.

‘The twins were doing well at school, until a new teacher arrived. She wore petticoats, petite frilly dresses with odd little aprons, white socks and shiny black shoes with buckles. Her hair had pigtails and ribbons. She seemed detached from reality. Some thought her drug affected; others just shied away from her. The adults had immediately dubbed her Alice in, as in Alice in Wonderland. The kids followed the parents’ lead and initially called her, ‘Miss Alice In’.

‘They were much more respectful,’ said Trevor dryly.
‘Just as their mothers taught them to be!’ said Angel.
‘Yeah, and it spread like wild fire when she became known as just ‘Missin’.’
‘You, Trevor, and your drinking mates at the marina deck were the major instigators of that. Especially that local poet bloke.’
‘It wasn’t all his idea. We all had a bit to do with it. It was bloody funny though. Everybody in town, including the kids, saw the funny side.’

Ken continued, ‘She terrified the children with stories from history. This behaviour was forgiven because it gave parents a weapon in their battles with their kids. At night voices could be heard saying things like, I’ll get Missin’ to babysit! Or, I’ll tell Missin’ about you! One day I even heard a mother telling her kids Missin’ lived in Wendy’s, the ice cream shop.

‘Missin’ wore no rings and no one ever saw her with a partner. One of the local wags from the Manly and Women Poets even reckoned he heard John Donne’s bell tolling whenever Missin’ was around, but he was unsure for which one of them it tolled.

‘She was encouraged by the grandparents, because they knew the torment and mischief her stories would cause their adult children. The grandparents expressed an affinity with her endeavours and they were her advocates and mates. I met her once, and found we shared a love of literature. We both listed Nikolai Leskov among our favourite authors.

‘One day she taught the Year Two class about the plague and how it was spread by rats. She embellished the story with descriptions of gnashing teeth of rats, giant, disease-spreading fleas, horrendous deaths, sore-covered corpses, death carts and the morose chant of, Bring out your dead.

‘The twins became terrified. At little lunch they locked themselves in one of the school toilet blocks.

‘In an endeavour to get them to come out, Missin’ tried to frighten them by saying the toilet was a home for rats.’
‘That didn’t work; it only frightened them more,’ said Angel.
‘Yes, of course. She couldn’t get them out. She hurried to the Principal’s office. In her haste she tripped and fell head first against the metal handle of a classroom door. She had no serious injury, but had grazed her scalp. She bled profusely. She ran her fingers through her hair, but was oblivious to the blood. When she arrived in Administration, she told the Registrar there was an emergency with some children in one of the toilet blocks. Her arms were thrashing about in the air, her face was white and her eyes showed great fear. The Registrar became alarmed at the sight of the blood streaks running down Missin’s face and of her blood covered hands. She advised the Principal, Bert, of the incident in the main toilet block. Bert walked quickly into the main office. At the sight of Missin’, he started to half-run to the toilet block. She followed. When he arrived at the toilet block, he was relieved. It was not as he had anticipated. He told the twins, with much gravitas, that he was the Principal, was in charge of the school, and demanded they open the door for him. He failed to bluff them out. They were silent and wouldn’t budge. The school nurse arrived and tried a gentle approach. She offered sweets. They weren’t fooled and asked for their mum. Bert asked the Nurse to attend to Missin’ wounds. The cleaners arrived next. They tried the door key, but the boys had shot the bolt. Their first year teacher, who had been enlisted by Missin’ to help, tried to reason with them. They did not remember her, and again asked for their mum.

‘The Principal had not wanted to involve the parents just yet. He knew he would have to give explanations and he needed to ascertain why the twins were in the toilet. He needed time to think and prepare, but he now decided to call their mum and he returned to his office.

‘The Registrar had misunderstood the nature of the emergency. She had not only alerted the School Nurse and the cleaners in the interim, but also the police, ambulance, local doctor and the fire and emergency services.

‘When the Acting-Sergeant of the Wynnum Police arrived, he took charge… officially. Jumping the gun, Acting-Sergeant Graham sealed off the streets and locked down the school. He had no idea of his folly. He then sought out the Principal, but encountered Missin’. After learning the details of the situation from her, he rushed to the toilet, identified himself to the boys, and threatened that if they didn’t come out he would arrest them and lock them up.’

‘That really frightened them. They recognised the policeman’s name and they’d been told by Trevor, the local poet bloke and his mates, that Acting-Sergeant Graham was alcohol or drug affected, and to be wary of him. His behaviour reinforced the twin’s suspicions,’ said Angel.

’No it didn’t,’ said Trevor, ‘Graham’s just an uppity goose. His high pitched voice and drug-crazed eyes have always frightened the crap out of everyone. We’ve all been bailed up by him on his days off.’

‘Then the Ambulance, the Fire Brigade and the volunteer State Emergency Services arrived with sirens wailing. Two uniformed Ambulance Officers carrying their defibrillator and first aid bag marched up the school driveway. Three bulky men and one very small woman dressed in their uniforms of protective clothing and helmets, leapt from the slowing fire engine. The woman wore the Captain’s helmet. It sat very low on her head, hiding most of it and it wobbled from side to side. Still donning their high-visibility vests, the crew of four volunteer emergency workers stumbled from their four wheel drive half-cab utility onto the school grounds. They dragged their ‘Jaws of Life’ cutting equipment. All were knock-a-about local yokels.’
‘They’re my mates you’re talking about Ken! There’s nothing yokel about ’em,’ Trevor interjected.
‘The local Doctor, carrying his surgical bag, arrived at the same time. His rumpled grey suit matched his uncombed grey hair.

‘The Principal, on his return to the toilet block, became red faced when he saw the uniformed mass in the front of his school. His breathing became laboured; his jowls swelled, and if he were a caricature, smoke would have puffed from his nostrils and ears. It was his school. He took control. He was then approached by Acting-Sergeant Graham. The Principal asked him whether he had managed to bring the Armed Offenders Squad. The Acting-Sergeant pulled himself up to his full height of five foot nine and told the Principal that sarcasm was the lowest form of wit, asked him to be reasonable, and suggested they sort things out like gentlemen. The Principal, of similar height but much broader, faced up chest to chest and said he thought the policeman devoid of reason and no gentleman and that he should just fuck off.
‘The Principal strode toward the milling police, ambulance crew, fire crew and emergency rescuers and bellowed at them to shut up, to turn off the sirens, and to wait in the library for his explanation.

‘I had been passing by at the time and had arrived on the scene at the same time as quite a few parents. There was a huge commotion. I went to speak with Acting-Sergeant Graham. He was in deep conversation with Missin’. The Principal called to me. Bert was one of my customers, and we also knew each other socially. He had a corker pair of cocker spaniels and a much younger wife. We all sail on Bert and Johanna’s yacht at the R Q WAGS.’
‘The what?’
‘Sue, the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron Wednesday Afternoon Gentlemen’s Sailing.’
‘Are women included?’
‘Yes.’
‘Can I come?’
‘I’ll arrange it.’
‘When?’
‘As soon as I’ve finished the story, Sue. Anyway, Bert stuttered as he told me what had happened. His explanation wasn’t articulate and it took me some time to work out what was happening. He told me he had no idea what to do next. I suggested to him, as I knew the twins and their parents that the boys might respond to me. He shrugged his shoulders and as he turned away, he gestured to the toilet block. He trudged with bowed head and slumped shoulders toward the library to talk with Missin’ and to wait for Angel.
‘I identified myself to the boys and asked if they would let me in. After a few minutes I heard the bolt slide and the door opened a little. They peered out and allowed me into their fortress. Even though they knew and trusted me, they retreated and huddled in a corner. With coaxing, they opened up. Their voices were shrill and their lips quivered as they related Missin’s embellishments of the rats with fleas that would cause them and their parents to die horribly and be taken away in carts. They repeated the chants of Bring out your dead! Their skins were white and had goose bumps. Their eyes were wide with dilated pupils. They had the shakes, so I hugged them and they settled down. I promised I would treat their rats for fleas and would arrange to fumigate their home.

‘I called Angel on my mobile. She was on her way to the school and was relieved when I told her I was with the boys. She then contacted Trevor, and he arranged for his mate, Duck, to carry out the fumigation.’

‘Duck?’ Sue ‘s eyes sparkled and a smile appeared at the corners of her mouth.

‘Duck was Dan the Mower Man, Andy’s Aerials and also Fred the Fumigator. Once when he was fitting an aerial on the poet’s yacht, Sunshine, the poet invited him to join us on the deck for a beer or two. He would answer to Dan, Andy or Fred. It was bloody confusing. The poet once reckoned he’d drum up more business if he advertised himself as DAF for GAF. He did, and the poet immediately called him Duck. It was sensible and easier. He’s awright,’ said Trevor. Angel looked askance at him.

‘I told the boys their mum was on her way,’ continued Ken. ‘They cheered up with the reassurance. Holding their hands, I walked them to the library as their mum arrived at the school. When we met, there were tears, cuddles and giggles. Angel left with her boys.

‘Bert and I, with many of the teachers, other school staff, doctor, police, fire and emergency services volunteers, except for Missin’ and the Acting-Sergeant, had a coffee or a cup of tea and biscuits in the library.

‘Missin’ resigned and was never again seen in the district. It was rumoured she had partnered up with a policeman. It was also rumoured that it had ended badly. Bert, after discussions with the Education Department, suspended classes for the rest of the day. The office staff notified all parents by e-mail, text or telephone. They were allowed to collect their children. Those who were left at school were given supervised homework, library, art workshop or sports activities for the remainder of the school day.

‘Later, the Registrar received retraining and remedial counselling in emergency procedures. Bert was busy for weeks writing reports and responding to internal enquiries. The cleaners spent months removing the internal bolts from all doors in the school and replacing the sharp-edged metal handles with round knobs. That seemed an end to the matter.’

‘But something else happened,’ Sue stated.

Trevor guffawed, ‘Ya can be as sure of that as ya can be sure ya best pair of red undies’ll be skid marked after a fart.’ His remark startled everyone. Sniggers and laughs filled the hall. Many were the sorts of laugh you hear when a mouth full of beer or wine is involved.

Sue raised an eyebrow at Ken.

Angel noticed and said to Sue, ‘No children, except the twins, turned up for school the next day.’

Sue laughed aloud as laughter broke out in pockets around the room.

‘While you can appreciate the humour now, at the time it was no laughing matter. Bert and I sent out e-mails and letters to all the parents assuring them the fears of a plague were baseless,’ continued Ken. ‘It took a week before all the kids were back at school. The State Health Department, to scotch a spreading panic, embarked on a city-wide TV, radio and newspaper campaign.’

‘I remember that and couldn’t work out what had happened.’ Then Sue asked, ‘Do you still keep rats, Angel?’

‘No. We now keep and breed dogs.’ She glared menacingly at her neighbours and friends and raised her voice as she added, ‘Pit bulls.’

The room fell quiet. Looks were shared or darkly cast as is the way within closed communities.

Rylestone Railway Station

Henry and his dad were mates. Henry was in his late teens, tall and gaunt. He had straight dark hair, a wispy beard and the start of an impressive moustache. Had he worn a top hat and tailed coat instead of his bushman’s hat and oilskin, he would easily have been mistaken for an American President, named Abraham. Henry took after his mother and her family, as Peter, his dad, was short, stocky and fair. Peter was thirty years older than Henry and he was very fit and looked young, but age had accentuated his turned down mouth. It was a sad look. He had no beard and his almost pure blond hair was tousled. He, like Henry, had sharp blue eyes. Henry’s hearing had been fading since his early teens, he was now almost stone deaf. Peter was usually quietly spoken but when talking with Henry he raised his voice. There was a stark contrast. Peter’s voice could be booming.

‘Where’s Rylestone, Dad?’

‘Not far from Mount Victoria, son,’ Peter answered, ‘we’ll be able to stay here and go up and down each day. You can help me with the construction. I’ll employ Charlie Parker’s gang to do the plastering. I reckon you can then do the painting?’

The two men sat on logs opposite one another. Between them a dying fire still glowed and cast a little light that highlighted only some of their facial features. An observer would think them sketched cartoon characters. Their billy sat in the embers, slightly to one side. As the fire lost its light, the darkness of the bush surrounding their little campsite started to encroach upon them. It added to their melancholy natures. The moon had not yet risen. When it eventually rose, it turned their darkened bush into spindly, ghostly, leafless shapes. The scrub tops became their jagged, threatening, silhouetted horizon.

‘Yes, Dad,’ Henry replied with confidence.

‘Inside as well as out?’ asked Peter.

‘Yes, what colours are we using?’

‘The Government contract doesn’t stipulate inside, so I reckon cream, it’s cheapest. Outside has to be dark green with dark red trim. Will you be able to mix them?’ asked Peter.

‘No worries, Dad.’

‘Good, then we’ll make a start on the station tomorrow.’ Peter felt contented. Henry seemed to have put his time in Sydney to good use. He hoped he had learned how to work properly.

‘Do you want another cuppa? The billy is still hot,’ Henry said, hoping to get his father to sit longer and just talk.

‘No, it’s getting late. We’ve both had a long day and we’ve an early start. We need to move the boundary peg on the way over,’ Peter winked, ‘So, to bed, I think, for me. What about you?’

‘Why will we move the boundary peg?’

‘The station is to be built on Crick’s place. Charlie Parker told me, Perkin’s, Crick’s neighbour, would pay ten pounds if the station was built a mile inside his property.

 

At dawn, as they drove out of town they met Charlie Parker. He was riding into town. Peter and Charlie had shared many jobs around the district for the past few years, and they knew and liked each other well. Even though Peter was by far the older, they were mates. Charlie was shrewd, and looked shrewd. His manner was slow and deliberate. He had the air of a considered man. He was nattily dressed for a workman. His horse was finely kept. Charlie wore elastic sided boots and a checked bushman’s shirt and a huge hat. He was almost bald, and had bushy, fair eyebrows. They stood out in a crowd. Henry was a newcomer.

‘Who’s this, Niels?’ Charlie asked, indicating Henry.

‘I’d like you to meet my son, Henry.’ Peter introduced the pair, ‘This is Charlie Parker. He’s the leader of the ‘Mountain Push’.’

‘Why are you yelling Niels?

Henry’s almost deaf.’

‘How do you do, Henry? Niels has been boasting that he’s got a painter in his employ. Are you him?’ he asked, raising his voice, while the pair shook hands and assessed each other.

‘You don’t have to yell, I’m not deaf. I can read lips. Yes. I know more than most about paint, but I’m a coach builder by trade,’ Henry replied as honestly as he could. He hoped his father had not built up his reputation falsely.

‘What are you up to at this hour Charlie?’ Niels suspicions were aroused.

‘I’ve been out at Summer’s place. I spent the night with the gang. Summer’s shed is almost done and he made his final payment. I wanted to bank it and I’ve a few quotes to do. So I made an early start.’

To Niels this explanation was too detailed and unnecessary. He thought, Charlie’s up to something.

‘Where are you off to?’ asked Charlie.

‘Rylestone. Are you up for the plastering job for me?

‘Yes, of course.’

‘I’ll give you a week’s notice of when it’s ready. I’ll leave word with Papadolopus.’

 

The creaking sound of the loaded dray and its swaying motion on the rough mountain bush track were not new sensations to Henry, but as was their habit, his father and he spoke little while travelling. The rising sun had stirred them into loading the tools and barrows for the trip to the site of the new railway station. The timber had been purchased the previous day and was already loaded. The Rylestone Railway Station, Henry mused, I like the sounds of that.

Over the noise of the dray, Peter said, ‘The railway district engineer is to meet us on site at about nine this morning. We’ll have time to set up a bit of a camp, just in case, before we start the earthwork and foundations.’

‘Why don’t we move our permanent camp over here?’ Henry asked.

‘Well, this job will only take about a month. We’ve got more work coming up at the school and there are always new sheds wanted throughout the district and town, so it’s best we have a base in town so that people don’t forget we’re here,’ Peter replied.

‘So we won’t miss out on work,’ Henry guessed.

‘That’s right. While there is enough work to go around the gangs up here, there are always itinerant gangs coming into town.’

 

The engineer arrived on time, accompanied by a crew of motley-dressed, rough-voiced Iraqis.

‘Surfies,’ muttered Peter.

‘What?’ asked Henry.

‘Nothing,’ said Peter then added, ‘I’ll tell you later.’

‘Alright,’ accepted Henry, although he was still puzzled.

‘Hallo,’ called Peter as he waved and strode purposefully toward the engineer. ‘I am Niels Larsen,’ he said, momentarily adopting his native accent and stretching out his hand.

Henry noticed the change in his father, but concealed his surprise for fear of betraying him.

‘Oh! Good, Mr Larsen, I’m Manfred Kaiser, but most people call me Fred.’ He sat uneasily on his horse and his hat was ill-fitting and moved about on his head. He was tall and had dark, bushy eyebrows and was olive skinned.

‘Nice to meet you, Fred, I’m known as Peter or Niels, whatever you prefer, and this is my son, Henry.’ Peter reverted to his adopted accent. He assessed he easily had the engineer’s measure. Henry and Fred shook hands.

‘You’ll be inspecting the job as we go along?’ Peter asked.

‘Yes, but we have rather a big change to make, if it’s alright to negotiate with you here, Peter,’ said Fred. He scratched his stubble covered chin and removed his hat. Both Peter and Henry were surprised. The engineer was completely bald and seemed, in Peter’s estimation, to age and gain in stature in seconds.

‘What is it, Fred?’ asked Peter, now a little unsure of his ground and attempting to disguise his fears.

‘Well, Head Office has decided they need a platform, for loading livestock, not just passengers, so I’ve been commissioned to approach you for a price and to do all in my power to ensure you can oblige.’

‘What’s required, Fred?’ asked Peter straining to contain his curiosity and his slight impatience.

‘A rough-hewn hardwood wall, about 18 inches high for about 250 yards beside the track, with earth built up about 5 yards wide the full distance, sloping at either end and at the rear.’

‘Good lord! That’s specific, and a big job. Do you want the station built on the raised earthworks?’

‘Yes please. How much, Peter?’

‘Well it is just too big a job for me and Henry. We’d be here for months.’

‘Look, I’ve got the surface gang from Mount Victoria. They’re idle at present, and without disasters, will be for the next couple of weeks.’

‘They’re surfies, they’re always idle,’ Peter grinned.

‘I know,’ admitted an openly dejected Fred, ‘but perhaps you could use them and supervise them building the platform and earthworks?’

Surfies’ has a meaning other than a religious one, thought Henry, and he can’t get them to work–otherwise he’d build the wall himself. He attempted to catch his father’s eye. He succeeded.

‘I’ll just need a few minutes to check some calculations. Can you give me a moment?’ said Peter. They distanced themselves from Fred. Peter asked, ‘what are you thinking, Henry?’

‘I’m wondering why he doesn’t build the platform himself.’

‘So were I and I think it’s because he can’t get work out of his gang. Do you think the same?’

‘Yes, that’s what I thought.’

 

They surveyed the surface gang of Iraqis.

‘If we shout these blokes a jug or two each day, I reckon we’ll get work out of them. What do you think?’

‘I don’t know. They’re probably Muslims,’ Henry commented, not yet knowing the power of drink to a thirsty man after a hard day’s work.

‘That’s not stopped them before, and if it’s on top of the wages the government is paying them, I think it might work, especially if I also bribe their women at their camp in Mount Victoria,’ Peter spoke, as he thought out a scheme. ‘See if you can work out who’s their boss?’

‘Right,’ said Peter returning to Fred, ‘if I can supervise your gang to do the work, we’ll have it done in a week. The completion of the whole job will take a week longer than I originally quoted, barring bad weather. You pay their wages, lend us barrows, shovels and picks, and I’ll supply the logs. I’ll quote fifty pounds.’ He knew the price was excessive, but he tried his luck.

‘It’s a bit steep, but I reckon it should take two weeks longer, not one,’ countered Fred. He was seeking an excuse to justify the added expense to his head office.

Peter saw his relief and caught his hint, ‘We could stretch it out if your men stay in Mount Victoria instead of up here. It isn’t really suitable for camping here, as there’s no fresh water and most of the flat ground is mountain water run-off. No good in a storm.’

Fred smiled gratefully, ‘you are easy to deal with, Peter. I will give you written approval immediately. When will you start?’

‘Right now, but I’ll need to be part-paid in advance,’ he said, eyeing Fred. He wanted to confirm his estimation of the engineer’s weakness.

‘I’ll need to go up to Mount Victoria to get the money, Peter. I’ll get you thirty pounds in ten pound notes and return this afternoon.’

As the engineer mounted and rode off, Peter turned his attention to the surfies. He was looking for clues as to who had the most influence among them. Henry already knew.

Henry had already assessed the Iraqis. ‘It’s the squat unshaven one in the blue overalls, Dad.’

 

‘Peter is my name,’ he said, as he extended his hand to the ganger.

‘Mohammed,’ replied the ganger. They shook hands and assessed each other. Both were strong men. Both men smiled at the irony of their names. Both understood that, as the cause of their smiles.

‘What can I do to help, mate?’ asked Mohammed.

Peter and he separated from the surfies and Henry recognised two strong men in earnest discussion of a plan to ensure mutual benefit. After a few minutes, the two men shook hands and parted, laughing. Peter knew Henry would enjoy all the subtle cross currents involved in this negotiation. He looked forward to their conversation over dinner.
Later that evening, Henry asked, ‘What was your discussion with the head surfie about, Dad?’ Peter outlined the details of the deal he had made with Mohammed.

‘That was easy, Dad,’ said Henry.

‘It is always easy when you deal rationally with rational men,’ said Peter.

‘Why were you laughing together?’ asked Henry.

Peter’s head went down and came up with a grin, which transformed his mouth. ‘Mohammed told me he and his crew want none of the Irishman’s sly grog. You know the Irishman the one known as ‘Hail Caesar’. We all know the effect his grog had on the Iraqis when they first had a few gallons of his brew. None of us in the mountains is ever likely to forget. We both laughed, because Mohammad knew I’d know that.’

‘What happened?’ asked Henry.

‘That’s a story for another day. It’s too long,’ said Peter, laughing.

‘Okay, but how in the hell did the Irishman get the name ‘Hail Caesar’?’ asked Henry, ‘or is that a long story too?’ asked Henry. Peter laughed.

‘No,’ Peter said. ‘On his arrival in town one Sunday, the Irishman’s first place of call was the Frenchman, Jean-Michel Papadolopus’s, shanty. As he entered, he announced himself as “an Irishman, Paddy Persico,” and said that even though it was Sunday and that he was a Roman…, then he sneezed. One of the wags yelled, “He’s a Roman sneezer!” Another said, “No, no he’s a Roman Caesar.” At that point everybody, including the Iraqis, stood, gave the old Roman salute, and roared in unison, “Hail Caesar!” The name has stuck,’ said Peter. ‘For a while, it was really funny. Every time he appeared in public, the cries of “Hail Caesar” were heard,’ added Peter.

‘I heard that the other day. I wondered what it was all about. Now I understand,’ said Henry, laughing, ‘but what about his sly grog?’

‘Oh, the Irishman has a still up in the hills above the town and sells some of his grog to Papadolopus.’

‘The Frenchman?’ asked Henry. Peter looked up with a silly grin and both shared the idiocy of the unique Australian humour.

Two weeks later the construction neared completion. The earthworks were completed the previous week. Only Peter and Henry remained on the site.

‘Gidday Niels,’ called the horseman, removing his hat and wiping his brow. ‘Bloody hot, isn’t it?’

‘Yes but then we don’t want rain until we’ve finished painting the roof and that’ll be tomorrow. How are you, Charlie?’ Peter responded.

Peter started down the ladder to greet his friend as he dismounted. Henry appeared from the station’s rear.

‘Hello Henry. Why aren’t you painting?’

‘It’s alright, Henry, Charlie’s pulling your leg.’ Peter sensed Henry’s doubt and reassured him as they all squatted in the dust and the shade.

‘I knew that,’ Henry laconically falsely asserted and received a laugh from both men.

‘He’s typical bushman already Niels, but you’ll have to teach him to lie better’. ‘Charlie, his brother, and the Jones brothers are the biggest and fastest liars in the mountains, so be warned,’ Peter laughed.

‘Don’t forget O’Connor, our Irishman. And as for lying, what about you and how you put one over the German engineer? It’s all round the mountains that you conned him into giving you his gang, tools and fifty quid to do a thirty quid job that he should have done himself.’

‘I wouldn’t have done that, Charlie. That’s an obvious lie,’ Peter innocently protested. If Henry hadn’t known the truth, he would have believed him.

‘Do you want some water?’ Peter asked offering the bag, attempting to distract Charlie.

‘Thanks,’ Charlie said, taking the bag. He was thankful the distraction allowed him time to think as he drank. He put two and two together. Charlie reasoned Niels had asked him to undertake the plastering a week earlier than they had previously arranged because of changed circumstances. He said, ‘I now also know you used the gang to help build your station because you are way ahead of time.’

‘No, that’s not right, it’s just that Henry has been a huge help,’ Peter countered.

‘It’s also said that you bribed the surfies by supplying their women with stolen lamb and the men with grog to get them to work harder.’

‘I wouldn’t sink to bribery! And besides, they’d want halal meat,’ Peter protested with all the sincerity of a pious Sunday Christian publically professing faith.

‘Niels, the Frenchman told me his turnover doubled in a week, and the Serbian, Savo McDonald, the butcher, is wondering why you’d need so much butchered meat. I checked. I know you are fibbing,’ laughed Charlie.

Peter looked at Charlie and said with mock anger, ‘Those lying bastards promised me they’d tell no one.’

‘We’ll have to find a way to get square with them. Fancy betraying a mate like that, especially one who paid his bills with ten pound notes,’ Charlie added, smiling as he began to hatch another scheme. His last comment removed all doubt from Peter’s mind that Charlie knew most of the truth.

Seeing the game was up, Peter laughed, ‘A bloody man can’t do nothing’ in this bloody place without you buggers finding out. I think we’d better keep it to ourselves, eh Charlie?’ Peter had pleaded with mock concern, but his plea also carried a hint of seriousness. Peter worried about his future relationship with the engineer and the state railway. He didn’t want anyone taking away any future work from him, especially his mate, Charlie Parker.  ‘But I didn’t steal the meat! It was mutton, not lamb. I bought it from John Perkins, the hill farmer.’ Peter also cared about his reputation for honesty. He never saw himself as a petty thief.

Charlie liked the term ‘hill farmer’ and John Perkins would in future be known by the full title of ‘John Perkins, Hill Farmer’. He would see to that. ‘That would be the first time in a long time, the local railway people would have eaten, paid for, and professionally butchered meat,’ Charlie grinned and then continued, ‘Well, Niels, since you’ve set the rules with the surfies, the boys and I would like the same deal when we do the plastering,’ he demanded, laughing.

‘I bloody knew it! I suppose I’ll have to agree, but only to the grog–no mutton and it’ll have to come out of Henry’s share,’ Peter agreed, attempting to include Henry in the seriousness of the humour.

‘Alright, but since you don’t drink, he’ll have to have your share of the shout then,’ said Charlie, casting an enquiring look at Henry.

‘Do you drink, Henry?’ asked Peter.

‘I haven’t before but I suppose I could,’ Henry replied, thinking he had never been offered a drink while he was living and working in Sydney and Newcastle. He knew alcohol existed, but had never bothered with it. His grandfather had a bush shanty when Henry was a boy.

‘Good! The plastering starts Monday,’ Charlie prophetically addressed Henry, ‘You’ll meet the boys then and share a jug with us after work. Then the deal’s settled, Niels; normal mates’ rates for the work, and payment when the works are wholly complete,’ Charlie rose to depart.

‘Fine, see you next week,’ said Peter.

 

‘Yes, see ya,’ said Charlie as he mounted. ‘Oi, I see John Perkins, Hill Farmer, has got a new dam, just over the boundary fence, over there.’ He indicated the huge hole where the fill for the platform had come from. He added laconically. ‘I’d bet a year’s profit you didn’t pay for any mutton, either. I’d even go so far as to reckon you’ll have arranged a steady supply for yourself for quite a few months to come as well.’

All three men laughed heartily. While Henry and Peter both thought we get lamb not mutton, neither would tell Charlie. They preferred the superiority they felt in allowing him to think he knew the truth, when they knew he didn’t.

‘That bastard’s not so clever,’ Peter spoke directly to Henry, without changing the smile on his face, ‘he’s missed the tree clearing we had the surfies do for Perkins. ‘

‘For the logs for the wall the surfies also built. If it was Charlie, he’d have accepted only the mutton as payment, too,’ Henry added, also still smiling.

‘But, while I think he knows we’ve moved the pegs for Perkins, he doesn’t know I haven’t been paid for that yet. He knows the station is now opposite Perkins’ and not Obie Crick’s place.’ said Peter.

‘You think so?’ asked Henry, ‘Thank god the engineer didn’t inspect the work while it was in progress.’

‘I know Charlie Parker,’ said Peter. He looked at Henry and said dismissively of the engineer, ‘Fred wouldn’t even have noticed, and his gang would never tell him because they know he thinks he’s cleverer than them.’

 

It was a big day in the mountains. The new Rylestone Railway station was about to be opened. The government minister in charge, Obie Crick, was attending. There was a huge party of dignitaries.

‘Who the hell are all those strangers?’ Peter asked Charlie. Charlie knew everyone … and their dodginesses.

‘The fat old guy with the sneaky smile is Obie Crick. Everyone knows him. The others are all his labour movement mates in the Government or are up and coming lackeys. I don’t know many of them. By all accounts, they’re involved in all sorts of shenanigans. They’re mostly crooks.

Henry scratched his head and then his balls. ‘I thought you said they were all from the labour movement? Most of them look shifty, and look how they are only mixing with the press and each other. No local is with them, except Perkins.’

‘Many are staying at Obie Crick’s family lodge,’ said Peter. ‘I helped built it. It is the most opulent place in the mountains. No working man could ever hope to afford to stay there, let alone own it.’

Mr Obie Crick was introduced to the crowd.

‘Let’s give a big welcome to the New South Wales Minister for Infrastructure and Lands. He’s a local landowner, a foundation member of the NSW Workers’ Union and a founding member and power broker in the NSW labour movement–Mr Obie Crick!’ intoned the co-ordinator. There was polite applause from most, rapturous applause from all of the official party, and enthusiastic support from the press gallery. It seemed everybody who knew anybody loved Obie Crick.

However, Crick was nonplussed and angry. ‘I declare the station open,’ was all he said.

‘That’s truly odd for a politician–something’s up,’ said Charlie.

 

To the engineer, afterwards, Crick was furious, and he yelled in front of the press and all the official party, ‘Why didn’t you build the station where you were instructed?’ he fumed within earshot of Charlie, Henry and Niels, ‘it should have been two miles further east.’

The engineer was confused, ‘But the survey pegs were over there, just past where the dam’s been built.’ The engineer pointed, but there were no pegs in view.

‘You stupid bastard, I’ve spent hundreds of pounds having the Lands Department accept the survey for the new town on my land down there …’ Too late Obie Crick realised his outburst was a mistake.

 

‘You cunning bastard, Niels,’ said Charlie, ‘you moved the pegs and after the job you moved them back.’

‘It was Henry’s idea,’ said Peter innocently, ‘he’s the imaginative one.’ Both Henry and Charlie almost believed him.

 

The engineer drew himself up, and he started, ‘I am an honourable and honest man …’

Obie Crick cut him off, ‘You’d be the only one in the whole of bloody New South Wales. I’ll see you sacked.’

‘You have more to fear than I have,’ the engineer said quietly.

Obie Crick slunk away; he was afraid. Men with integrity frightened him. While the opening of the Rylestone Railway Station was reported, nothing was ever reported of Obie Crick’s outburst or of how all the labour movement luminaries simply looked on. Everybody knew, and they did nothing.

 

‘Charlie, you don’t like Crick and his mates do you?’ Henry asked.

’They’re all socialists and a bunch of hypocrites. They think they know best, that we are all stupid, and that as the press are in their pockets, they can do whatever they bloody like. Yet they tell us to not behave like individuals.’

‘Why do you loathe the press?’ Henry asked.

‘Niels says both your mother and you write. Poets and writers define communities. Those that are closest to us define us best. That idiot mob can’t even recognise us.’

‘The press are trying to impose a view of us that isn’t real?’ Henry was intrigued. Publication of newspapers and magazines, like his mother’s, were spreading throughout the country. Henry made a decision and thought. I’m going to write about us.

Charlie was on his soap box. ‘People know there’s a stench surrounding these blokes, but from all that’s written about them you’d think they’re as pure as the driven snow. When you write Henry, just be honest.’

A small crowd had gathered. Charlie was listened to; he was respected in the mountains. None of the dignitaries of the official party or the press paid the slightest attention to Charlie’s spiel or to his audience. Charlie was embarrassed to have publicly shown his beliefs … he apologised, but not for his anger.

 

The hill farmer, John Perkins, after leaving the official party, approached Charlie, ‘I gave Lawson his payment for the tree clearing and the dam he dug. He seemed a bit vague, and he wanted me to pay him for moving the boundary peg. But Charlie, the station is two miles inside my boundary? And the boundary peg is now a mile inside the boundary. I checked. The station was supposed to be only one, so I know you both moved the pegs. I paid him for that so I won’t be paying you.’

Charlie ignored the question and walked off, chuckling to himself. He wasn’t disappointed. He had learned more about his mate than he had previously realised. Jesus, both Niels and I moved the pegs, and he got paid for it. (I’d bet he got paid for the bloody tree clearing too. Niels is a bloody sight cleverer than I thought. I’d better watch him in future.