HALFWAY through a double shift at the plant, shoulders stooped, Bob walks wearily to the lunch room for smoko. Wiping the black grit from around his hard hat and visor before throwing them down, he watches young Darren as he lopes into the room. Its hard not to laugh at the boy. Wearing crisp grey overalls, still creased from the packaging, he rushes around with an enthusiasm the rest of them can barely remember. Six foot three, and built like an underfed greyhound, his nickname is Storky. Fits like a glove.
Bob knew proper names werent usually heard around the workshop, because if they were, it often denoted unwanted attention from someone higher up the food chain. He knows hes earned his own, Chippy, because of his occasional need to borrow tools for his DIY spare room project. Others, like Slim, weighing in at 20 stone, might have felt aggrieved but answer to it regardless, with good grace.
Bob cant help smiling when he thinks about the kid, who in fairness, was only weeks into his apprenticeship at the plant when Bob put him to the test, asking him to fetch a left-hand hammer and a long weight. The boy strode off eagerly, headed for the tool room almost got there too before he paused, turning back. Bob was relieved. The boy was green, but he wasnt stupid. Pull the other one Bob, he said with a wink.
Obviously the kids heart was good and he wasnt a smartarse, but Bob still feared for him because around here, ignorance could be fatal. Too often over his 20-year working life, hed had to help release injured mates from rogue machinery, sometimes leaving bits of them behind. Experience is a hard task master. At work its quick, not deep thinking that counts.
However he suspects that few of his mates would guess that when off shift, he devours books. Hes proud to be union rep now, but no one, not even his wife Peg, knew that when younger, hed closeted ambitions of becoming a real politician, like his hero Ben Chifley.
He scoffs at that tall poppy: thinking now. Hes a furnace operator.
Those grandiose ideas had leached from his mind in every swelling gob of sweat dropping from his brow year after year. His great ambition now his only one was to finish building the spare room. That was the only ambition he retained these days!
Heat from red molten steel, air so thick with grit you could taste it, and constant loud clashes of metals, could all dull a mans senses if you let it. But hes proud that though nearly deaf now, nature did compensate with fast reflexes; his bodys reactions a mix of both instinctive self-preservation and protectiveness of his co-workers. So rather than attempting to unravel the mysteries of the universe, hed learnt the lessons of work: turn up with your wits intact, make sure everyone comes safely off shift. That was the real glue of mateship.
Bobs penchant for introspection ends as he becomes absorbed in watching Darren.
Firstly hes had to literally fold his body in stages to get to his current sitting position; knees head height, bony coathanger shoulders bumping sharp against his own.
Bob smiles thinking what an endless source of interesting observation the boy provided.
Opening his own kit, shaking his head discovering only Saos glued with Vegemite. He tries not to let disappointment ruin his day, remembering Pegs former talent for home baking. Double-decker sponges and fresh coconut crusted lamingtons used to be a staple. Not now. Bob knows its not fair to feel resentful. Perhaps hed treat himself again and stop at Darbys on the way home.
Darren unwraps two thick, oatey crusted Anzac biscuits and a slice with creamy yellow custard sandwiched between pastry smothered with buttery passionfruit-speckled icing.
Hows that little fella of yours doing Bob? David isnt it, Darren asks.
Trying to swallow his envy induced saliva without the boy knowing, Bob battles to create a face-saving pause before he speaks. Its hard, because what Darren doesnt realise is how that question really strikes at Bobs soft underbelly. He knows it isnt fair to lay his disappointments at the boys feet though hes just a kid.
Bob sighs: Well, hes growing. Nothing wrong with his lungs either. His false laugh covers his silent tallying of all the organs that are wrong. Peg wants the spare room finished now!
Darren turns his head, pennies dropping, But isnt David still small?
Yeah, Bob deflects, but kids have lots of gear.
Bob pauses, gathering his wits, sensing the boys confusion.
Listen Storky, he says. How about I swap one of my extra special Saos for one of those Anzacs? Then, if they pass muster, I might tell you about: skyhooks, spanners for untying knots, buckets for catching sparks from grinders and how to make striped paint. He snorts, All that should make your time around here a bit easier. Smoko over; he slams on his hard hat, visor and gloves. Head down, he hopes the wetness around his eyes will be mistaken for sweat.
Ten years theyd waited. Reams of paper work and years of anxious anticipation later, theyd got their special child. Now, it was obvious David would need special schooling, special therapists too. Peg always looks so drained.
His love for David battles with a growing awareness of lifes brevity and the shifting goalposts of retirement. Damn that spare room! But he needs his sleep, especially with all the doublers. If only he didnt still fancy Peg, but shes always too tired now. She has David, and keeping him alive is her big ambition.