The Best in the West
Shiralee Morgen Crawley
I stood in front of a rusting corrugated iron shed, looking at a drunken sign that proudly announced Bluey’s Garage, Bus Terminal, Rent-a-Car Agency and Caltex Petrol Station, underneath which someone had scrawled, “The Best in the West.”
“What c’n I do fer ya luv?” asked a weather-beaten face with a smile as big as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
“G’day, I’m Shiralee Morgen – I believe my dad ordered a rental car for me.”
“Oh yeah,” he said, wiping his leathery brow on the back of a hairy arm.
He slapped a dilapidated hat onto wiry grey hair. “Nah, not really.”
Puzzled, I looked around the empty shed. “Listen, I’m going out past Fitzroy Crossing today and I need a vehicle.”
“Ah, well,” he said smoothing the red Kimberley dust with the toe of a battered riding boot. “It’s like this ya see…old Blue took the Rover two days ago an’ he ‘asn’t come back yet.”
“Off somewhere drunk I suppose?”
“Aw no! Well, yeah. Yeah, ya could say that.” He sheepishly swiped at the flies with a grungy rag.
“Well, I can’t walk to Indooroopilly station.”
“Indooroopilly,” he repeated absently. His cobalt eyes brightened. “Oh my Gawd you’re Gordon’s girl! Why didn’ ya say so luv, ya c’n take my old bus. Any ‘ow, I’m Stan.”
He held out a hand that felt like encrusted wet sandpaper. Stealing myself not to wipe the detritus from his hand shake onto my jeans, I asked, “um, how old, is old?”
“Ah well, she’s no Rolls Royce like, but she’ll getcha there. Mind you she gets a bit cranky when she gets hot…”
We had just walked through the back door of the shed when I caught sight of Stan’s ‘old bus.’
“That,” I choked, “that’s what you’re going to rent me?”
“Yeah, she’s a real beaut doncha think?” His gnarled old stockman’s hand caressed her bonnet.
“Where’s the doors?”
“Aw ‘strike me pink’ luv ya don’t need doors in this heat – Kimberly air conditioning an’ all that ya know…”
I shrugged, “Yes, well, how much?”
“Well, since you’re Gordon’s girl I’ll only charge ya half price.”
“A quarter!” I said. “With a full tank of petrol here and another at ‘The Crossing’.”
“Aw fair go luv,” he whined.
“An eighth and three tanks of petrol or I’ll wait for Dad to fetch me and you can explain things to him.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, trying to hide a tobacco stained smirk, “a quarter ‘n’ two tanks of petrol.”
“In writing please.”
“Gawd, you’re a tough one. Chip off the old block I reckon,” he muttered but not unkindly. As he walked away I wondered how many horses had been between those bowed legs.
I checked out Stan’s ‘old bus,’ while he was gone. At least it had seats, a windscreen and a top. It could be worse, I supposed. ‘Nah,’ a little voice inside my head countered, ‘it couldn’t be better Mate. She’s the best in the West.’
When the threshers came on a Monday morning we knew that they meant business. It was a glorious time for us kids because we knew we’d be around some folks that hadn’t been to our farm in a year. We also knew from years past that this meant we boys would sit at the table with the men at lunch time when my mother and grandma would cook up a feast for all the workers, and that included us. And boy, could we eat! It seems like a Thanksgiving feast before Thanksgiving. There was two of everything – pork and beef, white potatoes and sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, lots of bread with butter to lather on and then the pies. Oh, those pies! Not only apple pie but mince meat pie, and lemon meringue and at least six kinds of cookies. We even drank coffee to show everybody that we were like them. No one probably noticed how we screwed up the corners of our mouths before swallowing because at age eight it took some getting used to. Golly, we felt like big men on those days – the workers laughing and joking and eating heartily and we took it all in – even pretending that we understood everything that was discussed from politics and the weather to the price of milk and even how one of their cows managed a difficult birthing, with their expert help, of course!
I was born at a time when farmers relied on outside help to do the threshing of their grain crops. It would be unusual for a farmer to afford his own machinery to do this and thus there was a contingent of roaming threshers who would go from farm to farm, calculating in advance how many days were needed to finish the job there and move on to the next farm. To this day I sport a scar on my wrist where my exuberant brother accidentally slashed me while showing off his efficiency in dispatching the bundles of grain to the man feeding the hungry machine, one bundle at a time. We occasionally even got a reprieve from school for a day or two to help out. And that added to the sheer pleasure. Playing hooky probably came into being in exactly that way.
When we, a family of eight, moved some years later, threshing for us was to become part of our family’s memories. Modern advances in agriculture gave way to grain combines that roamed the fields like hungry vultures, spewing the golden grain onto trucks and then to the barn or the bakery. Those golden days like that golden grain shall always be part of my being. It makes me proud to have been raised in times where work was very physical and its results were so very tangible.
We tried to count the number of cars our family had since marriage and we seemed to lose track every time. First count it was 11; then someone did a recount and it turned out to be 13. Either way every car had its own temperament, its way of giving us pleasure or just pure aggravating one or the other of the three kids. With two girls into driving it was always anticipated to have one or the other to come home with a story or “that car is driving me nuts!”
While stopped at a signal a car ran into the side of mine – minus a driver! Seems the owner was at the gas station filling up, went inside to pay the bill, only to return and find his car gone! Meanwhile, I was waiting for him to complete his transaction to let him know my car was the victim of that “run and hit.” It sat at the curb and, dumbfounded he had to own up to the damage his car inflicted on mine.
But the weirdest experience our family, specifically, my son had was when he “lost” his VW Scirocco. It literally disappeared from the apron of the driveway where he always backed it into when coming home from work. Rob loved that sporty little vehicle. His life seemed to be identified by it – by how great the sound system was or how he could leave others “in the dust” when the light turned green on his way home from work. His world at that time was devastated when the car disappeared, no more than an hour after he parked it in the driveway. Scratching his head he did amateurish detective work. No Sherlock Holmes or Columbo, he did manage to see some tire tracks on the grass behind the car where the car stood. Weird? Aha! He followed them to the edge of the embankment by the driveway, scratched his head some more and then 100 or so feet toward the bushes he saw one headlight, the rest of the car entirely hidden in the thicket. No living person could have ever hidden that care more thoroughly!
And now, he had to retrieve it. Embarrassing as it was he had to ask the neighbor if he could drive it across his tennis court and his backyard and onto the street to drive it back home again. The neighbor had that puzzled look on his face but didn’t dare ask how that car got there in the first place but very nonchalantly gave his consent. Poor Rob had egg on his face because regardless of what he might have admitted, Jack our kindly neighbor, just had that knowing smirk and walked into the house.
Then there was the Sunday the girls came home from shopping, parked the car outside and came in. Ten minutes later the car alarm went off. We were confused; the girls were both inside our home and no one was out there. Upon opening the garage door I was horrified to see flames shooting up inside the car by the steering wheel. I kept my wits about me long enough to grab a fire extinguisher, rush out, open the driver’s door and empty the fire extinguisher onto the flames. My wife had already called the fire department and within 10 minutes they were there. Of course, being schooled to do their job thoroughly they trained their four inch hose onto the entire insides of the car. The interior was a melted mess, steering wheel, dashboard, seats and all the wiring. The firemen called in the arson squad. We found out later that the car had previously been in an accident and had not been repaired properly. The roof apparently had a leak near the sunroof and to prevent future drivers from getting wet feet the mechanics stuffed rags under the dashboard and thus setting up a perfect place for combustion. The girls had gotten home just in time! The insurance company wouldn’t total the car and sadly we spent months waiting for its repair. It was never the same after that. It developed a mind of its own. When one turned the directional for a left turn the interior lights came on and when you made a right turn the horn would blow. Finally, in despair, we traded it in for a pickup truck.