(This Story was published in the 2010 University of Ballarat Anthology “Montage”. I tried to publish it here before but technical issues meant it was never added. Now here it is. I hope you enjoy it. I am migrating all my content to a new look blog, and I now publish at Tumblr though the archives are not available there yet.
If you’ve ever had help and you just don’t know where it came from then you’ll understand The Angel of Berriwillock. This is creative non-fiction written from an anecdote told by Steve O’Donnell)
It began breathlessly. The kind of day when the tar is soft on the edge of the road by mid- morning. The sunrise was pomegranate seed red, raspberry, pink and orange; insects went to bed quickly after the golden orb rose from its bed or congregated in the shade. As he climbed into his 1961 Austin British-made Tip Truck, he adjusted the split windscreen to open in front of the driver’s seat. The still, warm night had done nothing to cool things off.
It’s going to be a stinker for sure.
He headed out west of the town and saw curtains of light that looked like rain running down a window rising from the road surface. The thought of rain made him smile cynically. The old sayings weren’t always true.
Red sky in the morning…rarely true
There had not even been a sign of rain for over a month and it was only November. He thought about the current demolition job he was working on, a Bessemer block house.
I’ll throw on the iron off the gable and the broken blocks today. Just take it a little easier ‘cos it’s gonna be the hottest day so far. I feel stuffed!
He could feel the sweat trickling down his spine. A fine layer of dust covered his face from the dusty lane that ran between the half-demolished house and the new one occupied by Cheryl and Tiger. That dust had settled on everything.
Suddenly the crack of a 12 gauge shotgun abruptly interrupted his thoughts. He turned as he stepped from the truck and looked in the direction of the house from which the sound had come. He saw Cheryl with the gun, now lowered, standing on the front verandah. He called out and she waved him over.
‘Look! The mongrel must be five foot long.’
Scaly dark bronze lengths split by crimson guts lay twitching on the ground.
‘I always check the yard before I let little Molly out to play. Glad I found him.’
‘Yeah, I think he’s the bugger I saw in the house a couple of days back but I couldn’t get him.’
As he turned away, he shivered. He’d killed a number of snakes in his time demolishing houses but it didn’t mean he relished the job. He didn’t usually have a shotgun handy. If a snake was aggressive he dispatched it in the ruthless manner of a man who works alone.
It’s them or me when it comes down to it. That one she got looks like the bugger that I saw the other day.
Two days before he’d been having lunch inside the old place. He was seated on the floor and dozing off when a sharp metallic clatter made him sit up straight; something had made his thermos fall from an adjacent plank; not a foot away he saw the dark sinuous length of an Eastern Brown Snake. It had been heading the other way and his pounding heart settled down. It was between him and any spade or crowbar he could have used. He had watched it and estimated it to be one and a half metres long as it moved through the half-wrecked wall into the derelict garden. He usually had a strong sense of loneliness and isolation in his job but sometimes you could get lucky.
Mid-afternoon heat haze hung over everything when he saw that he had a full load of roofing iron off-cuts and broken blocks.
Time to head to the tip in Berriwillock.
As he climbed into the truck he opened both sides of the windscreen. There was no breeze and the British-made Austins were called sweat boxes.
He thought about the money he would make out of the salvage from this job to try and keep his mind off the heat and the flies. He had taken a fee upfront because he knew he couldn’t salvage any blocks but the long lengths of iron, the hardwood timber beams and of course the Baltic Pine flooring would fetch good money.
The cockies are always looking for that stuff for sheds. Furniture makers pay well for Baltic.
As he drove away from the farm onto the gravel road, he reflected that at least he wouldn’t have to deal with a ‘Joe Blake’. In his job there was nothing worse than those sneaky creeps.
Berriwillock’s wheat silos rose like sentinels above the paddocks full of well-ripened but stunted wheat in the east. He headed north-west of the town’s fringe towards Tip Road. The unsealed road, long un-kempt, ended in an area of about an acre, fenced by a two-metre high cyclone wire fence; gathered along its inside perimeter were papers, empty soft-drink and beer cans. Gates stood open, seemingly inviting the public to dump their rubbish in the five metre deep trench running along the far-side fence. A rank odour, like mouldy wine rose in a cloud. A swig from his water bottle washed away a strange taste as he swung the wheel and backing to the edge of the trench. He jammed on the brakes as he felt the rear wheels lose traction. His hands and teeth clenched tight as he realised something was wrong, very wrong. This bull-dozed trench had rounded edges and he had misjudged the perimeter badly.
Possible solutions to his dilemma crowded into his mind. His hand trembled as he thought what might happen if he just took his foot from the brake.
I’d be sure to slide into the trench. The weight of the blocks would make me go straight backwards. I’d bash my head, for sure.
His thoughts veered away from worse ideas.
I’ll jump out and release the tailgate really quickly.
A quick check in the rear vision mirror revealed the swing gate latch was now two and a half metres above the ground.
‘I could try and get up on the back and open the tailgate from inside the tray of the truck.’ Now he was talking to himself.
His sweaty palms slipped on the wheel as he pictured himself going down with truck while being able to see exactly what was happening. His foot was stiff from the constant pressure on the brake. On the floor on the passenger side he spotted three long load flag sticks. He tried them all with shaking fists and finally jammed one between the brake and the frame of the driver’s seat. A spark of hope began in his brain as he marvelled at the stick being the perfect length.
‘How about that!’
Gingerly he opened the driver’s side door. The fear of the truck falling in the time he look to get out or that he would knock the stick from the brake tightened his throat. He heard a strange buzzing; his stomach heaved; time stopped. The man’s voice made him jump.
‘Steve, you’ll be right.’
He looked up to see a strange man, aged he guessed, about 70.An untidy white beard was the full stop of a friendly face. Thinning hair was overshadowed by a gum branch being waved to prevent the flies landing on his face. He wore a pair of denim bib and brace overalls and old shoes. He waved the branch more vigorously and leaves brushed over his white chest hair.
‘All you’ve got to do is put her in low first. You’ll be up in no time.’
He was afraid to depress the clutch and engage the low-ratio gears of the Austin’s split gear box. He feared the worst.
‘I’m not so sure,” said Steve, ‘What about the loose, dry clay under the rear duals?’
‘It’s not gonna be a worry-she’ll crawl outta there.’
Steve looked into the calm, pleasant face.
He felt reassured and said, ‘Ok. I’ll give it a go.’
The brake was still chocked with the flag stick and he depressed the clutch and put the truck in low-ratio gear. He opened up the choke, depressing the accelerator as hard as he could. As he accelerated he dropped the clutch in and the truck ‘walked’ up over the edge of the trench. His teeth were gritted as he feared slipping but soon he felt the drop onto the flat area and he drove past the old man and stopped.
He got out of the truck, smiling, ready with thanks, but the man was nowhere to be seen. he looked around in disbelief. The gate was 100 metres in front of him opening onto an unobstructed view of the road. Further along the trench, about another 100 metres, was a small shrub and the wire fence allowed a view of the surrounding land. There was literally nowhere to disappear to. He stood for a few minutes, stunned.
As Steve took the road home, a solitary figure caked with dust and sweat, the thought that someone had cared about him brought a tear to his eye. He wondered how on earth the stranger had even known his name. Tonight he would have a story to tell.