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The Scrivener: Honest Alec

Brian Barratt meets the salt of the earth in laundromats.

For more of Brian’s invigorating words please click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page. And to enjoy a further abundace of mental fun visit his Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas

We sat on the hard wooden bench that ran along the rear wall of the coin laundry. This was many years ago, while I was on a bit of a tour through small towns in the bush. I had loaded two machines, one of which turned out to have no hot water and the other created a problem when the coin-slide jammed and fell off. The red light stayed on, the machine continued its work.

I reported the problem to the office, and a lad in grey overalls came out, peered into the metallic entrails, fiddled with the front of a screw and the back of a screw, and left the whole unit precariously sitting in its place.

‘The other machine isn’t giving hot water,’ I said.
‘No idea why,’ he replied, without a great deal of enthusiasm. ‘Nothing I can do about it.’

The man next to me on the bench took out a packet of tobacco, rolled himself a cigarette, and tried to make his ample body as comfortable as possible.

‘Not the best way to spend a day, is it?’ he asked.

‘Not really,’ I said, ‘especially when the weather is so beautiful.’

‘Could be out in me boat. Fishing. But y’got t’do yer washin’, ain’t yer?’

We agreed on that point.

‘That drier’s no good,’ he noted. ‘Put four coins in it once and it stopped after five minutes. Wasted me money.’

‘You’ve got to watch them, haven’t you?’ I responded.

‘I use three machines,’ he said. ‘One fer me shirts and towels and singlets, another fer me undies, socks and hankies, another for everything else.’

He got up and stomped over to the door, old trousers belted well beneath his beer paunch, and stubbed out his cigarette. I can’t remember how we moved from socks and hankies to trucks, but I soon learned that he used to be a truckie. He’d lost his job, and now lived in a caravan park, going off in his boat for a couple of weeks at a time to do a bit of fishing.
‘How do you manage to reverse those huge great trucks?’ I asked.

‘Nothing to it,’ he said proudly. ‘It’s easier backin’ a forty foot truck than a trailer behind a car. It’s the length. Y’don’t swing. Just practice. That’s what it is. Yer get used to it, and it’s easier than backin’ a trailer.’

I paused respectfully. I’ve never tried backing a trailer, but I accepted his word for it. I asked him if he had any good yarns from his truckie days. That’s when the conversation really got going.

He’d had a dog, a kelpie, named Kim, who went everywhere with him. Kim used to sleep on the passenger seat next to him as he drove through the night. ‘Believe me or believe me not, this really happened. Twice. It happened twice. I wus driving along, with all the noise of the engine, and the smell of diesel fumes in the cab. ’E couldn’t ’ave ’eard a thing outside. But ’e suddenly got up. ’is fur, on his back yer know, rose up. And ’e growled. A minute later, a wild pig ran out across the road. Out of the bush into the headlights. A wild pig. Now Kim couldn’t ’ave heard it, or smelt it. But somehow ’e knew it wus there. ’Appened twice, that did. They know, y’know. Don’t ask me ’ow.’

Kim had been trained not to accept food from strangers, in case someone tried to coax him away from the cab or even poison him, and steal from the truck. He’d also been trained not to accept food that hadn’t been paid for. ‘I used to say to ’im “It ’asn’t been paid for,” and held just sit and look at it, yer know. Then I’d say, “Okay, it’s been paid for,” and he’d eat it.’

But Alec — that was his name — Alec had been robbed a couple of times. He had given a lift to a well-dressed young man, and when they came to the customary stop for Alec’s one-hour nap, he had suggested that the young man borrow his bag, with a blanket and other things in it, climb up to one of the cars on the back — there was no sleeping compartment in the cab in those days — and take a snooze. An hour later, Alec woke up. The young man had gone, bag and all. Blanket, toothbrush, razor, the lot.

‘Can’t stand dishonesty,’ said Alec.

You meet the salt of the earth in laundromats.

© Copyright 2007 Brian Barratt


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