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.