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The Scrivener: Hovering Over Holes

Brian Barratt, an author who appreciates real-life characters, pays tribute to one of his former neighbours, Alf Effing Priest, who, sadly, is no longer around to turn Australia’s air blue.

For more of Brian’s zestful, zingy words please click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page. For further exhilarating mental stimulation please visit Brian’s Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas

The ghost of Alfred Priest is again hovering around our little crescent in the leafy eastern suburbs. That's because there are trucks, utes, earth-movers, and sundry excavation engines in the street. Their combined purpose is to dig holes. In the past, whenever a hole was being dug the late Alf Effing Priest was there, to watch and to offer advice. The middle name is in honour of his rich vocabulary.

Over two years ago, when excavations were started on our wetlands behind my fence, you could almost see Alf doing his daily tour of inspection. Goodness me, there were 20-ton Japanese earth-movers, enormous Swedish trucks delivering rock, an American bulldozer with umpteen attachments, a huge compacter with a knobby roller, and Heaven only knows what else. Even little boys not long out of their prams got excited when they saw that cavalcade.

Before that, and soon after Alf's wife died, there was some hole-digging along the nature strip (for foreign readers, that's the grass verge). Narrow deep shafts and long straight trenches appeared. It was all something to do with mains water supply. Alf's expertise was in engineering, so he was always on hand to give advice. If they'd allowed it, he would probably have climbed into all the pits and trenches, too.
My own contributions to the effort were minor but significant. It seemed to me that the process of digging all those holes was time-consuming and labour-intensive. I suggested to Alf that it would be a lot easier if they brought ready-made holes, and just dropped them into the ground. After all, when fishermen make their nets they simply use string to knit small holes together, don't they?

My idea brought forth an effing response from Alf. My other contribution was taken up more gladly. The workmen were using a wondrous device called a Dingo. Not the dog, you understand — it is the trade name of a compact tractor thingy which has attachments for every job under the sun. Not only did it dig trenches but it also drilled holes for metres through the earth, horizontally, for the new water pipes. It can dig, fill, lift, shove, shift and carry. And it's very small.

At night, the workpersons needed to store it in a safe place off the road. I offered my front lawn. Lo and behold, for several nights the clever little engine was parked carefully on my lawn. How's that for one-up-neighbourship? I bet the lace curtains were twitching with envy.

Those utes in the street. "Ute" is an abbreviated form of "utility". That's an Australian invention. It's a pick-up, a small truck with an open body and low sides. The Dingo is also an Australian innovation. This country doesn't just supply the world with great opera singers, fine artists, medical breakthroughs, and Dame Edna Everage. It also adds magnificently to the world of engineering and mechanisation, starting with the stump-jump plough.

It also gave us Alf Effing Priest, and the world wouldn't be the same without him. At least, my world wouldn't. He had the finest collection of engineering tools you could imagine, all arranged in meticulous neatness in his huge shed. In the kitchen there was every type of cooking device known to humankind. His library probably exceeded mine in size, and I have about 5,000 books. When he discovered compact disks, a whole wall was devoted to storing his collection.

When he bought an astronomical telescope I pointed out that he would see a fat lot of stars from his tree-canopied garden. He grumbled, but accepted the fact when he realised it was true. His next venture was home videos, complete with editing equipment which filled the spaces in his sitting room where there weren't books, chairs and tropical fish tanks. His final venture into gadgetry was the acquisition of a computer. The air was blue with effing language when I tried to show him how it worked. He just didn't understand it.

But he understood holes in the ground. He also understood suffering. He told me things about his time as a prisoner-of-war, which very few other people knew about. I continued visiting him for cups of tea while he was fighting his final illness. A very deep-thinking man behind his rough façade, he drew strength and purpose from his profound disbelief in God. I dips me lid to his memory and in the presence of his ghost, even now inspecting the excavations for two home units being built next to his old house.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2006


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